The Headswoman

The Headswoman

By

Kenneth Grahame

I

IT was a bland sunny morning of a mediaeval May—an old-style
May of the most typical quality ; and the Council of the little
town of St. Radegonde were assembled, as was their wont at that
hour, in the picturesque upper chamber of the Hotel de Ville, for
the dispatch of the usual municipal business. Though the date was
early sixteenth century, the members of this particular town-
council possessed some resemblance to those of similar assemblies
in the seventeenth, eighteenth, and even the nineteenth centuries,
in a general absence of any characteristic at all—unless a pervading
hopeless insignificance can be considered as such. All the character,
indeed, in the room seemed to be concentrated in the girl who
stood before the table, erect, yet at her ease, facing the members in
general and Mr. Mayor in particular ; a delicate-handed, handsome
girl of some eighteen summers, whose tall, supple figure was well set
off by the quiet, though tasteful mourning in which she was clad.

"Well, gentlemen," the Mayor was saying ; "this little business
appears to be—er—quite in order, and it only remains for me to—
er—review the facts. You are aware that the town has lately had
the misfortune to lose its executioner—a gentleman who, I may

say,

26 The Headswoman

say, performed the duties of his office with neatness and dispatch,
and gave the fullest satisfaction to all with whom he—er—came in
contact. But the Council has already, in a vote of condolence,
expressed its sense of the—er—striking qualities of the deceased.
You are doubtless also aware that the office is hereditary, being
secured to a particular family in this town, so long as any one of its
members is ready and willing to take it up. The deed lies before
me, and appears to be—er—quite in order. It is true that on this
occasion the Council might have been called upon to consider and
examine the title of the claimant, the late lamented official having
only left a daughter—she who now stands before you ; but I am
happy to say that Jeanne—the young lady in question—with what
I am bound to call great good-feeling on her part, has saved us all
trouble in that respect, by formally applying for the family post,
with all its—er—duties, privileges, and emoluments ; and her
application appears to be—er—quite in order. There is therefore,
under the circumstances, nothing left for us to do but to declare
the said applicant duly elected. I would wish, however, before I—
er—sit down, to make it quite clear to the—er—fair petitioner,
that if a laudable desire to save the Council trouble in the matter
has led her to a—er—hasty conclusion, it is quite open to her to
reconsider her position. Should she determine not to press her
claim, the succession to the post would then apparently devolve
upon her cousin Enguerrand, well known to you all as a practising
advocate in the courts of this town. Though the youth has not,
I admit, up to now proved a conspicuous success in the profession
he has chosen, still there is no reason why a bad lawyer should
not make an excellent executioner ; and in view of the close friend-
ship—may I even say attachment ?—existing between the cousins,
it is possible that this young lady may, in due course, practically
enjoy the solid emoluments of the position without the necessity

of

By Kenneth Grahame 27

of discharging its (to some girls) uncongenial duties. And so,
though not the rose herself, she would still be—er—near the
rose !" And the Mayor resumed his seat, chuckling over his little
pleasantry, which the keener wits of the Council proceeded to
explain at length to the more obtuse.

"Permit me, Mr. Mayor," said the girl, quietly, "first to thank
you for what was evidently the outcome of a kindly though mis-
directed feeling on your part ; and then to set you right as to the
grounds of my application for the post to which you admit my
hereditary claim. As to my cousin, your conjecture as to the
feeling between us is greatly exaggerated ; and I may further say
at once, from my knowledge of his character, that he is little quali-
fied either to adorn or to dignify an important position such as this.
A man who has achieved such indifferent success in a minor and
less exacting walk of life, is hardly likely to shine in an occupation
demanding punctuality, concentration, judgment—all the qualities,
in fine, that go to make a good business man. But this is beside
the question. My motives, gentlemen, in demanding what is my
due, are simple and (I trust) honest, and I desire that you should
know them. It is my wish to be dependent on no one. I am
both willing and able to work, and I only ask for what is the
common right of humanity—admission to the labour market.
How many poor toiling women would simply jump at a chance
like this which fortune lays open to me ! And shall I, from any
false deference to that conventional voice which proclaims this
thing as "nice," and that thing as "not nice," reject a handicraft
which promises me both artistic satisfaction and a competence ?
No, gentlemen ; my claim is a small one—only a fair day's wage
for a fair day's work. But I can accept nothing less, nor consent
to forgo my rights, even or any contingent remainder of possible
cousinly favour !"

There

28 The Headswoman

There was a touch of scorn in her fine contralto voice as she
finished speaking ; the Mayor himself beamed approval. He was
not wealthy, and had a large family of daughters ; so Jeanne's
sentiments seemed to him entirely right and laudable.

"Well, gentlemen," he began, briskly, "then all we've got to
do, is to——"

"Beg pardon, your worship," put in Master Robinet, the
tanner, who had been sitting with a petrified, Bill-the-Lizard sort
of expression during the speechifying ; "but are we to understand
as how this here young lady is going to be the public
executioner ?"

"Really, neighbour Robinet," said the Mayor somewhat
pettishly, "you've got ears like the rest of us, I suppose ; and
you know the contents of the deed ; and you ve had my assurance
that it's—er—quite in order ; and as it's getting towards lunch-
time——"

"But it's unheard-of," protested honest Robinet. "There
hasn't ever been no such thing—leastways not as I've heard
tell."

"Well, well, well," said the Mayor, "everything must have a
beginning, I suppose. Times are different now, you know.
There's the march of intellect, and—er—all that sort of thing.
We must advance with the times—don't you see, Robinet ?—
advance with the times !"

"Well I'm——" began the tanner.

But no one heard, on this occasion, the tanner's opinion as to
his condition, physical or spiritual ; for the clear contralto cut
short his obtestations.

"If there's really nothing more to be said, Mr. Mayor," she
remarked, "I need not trespass longer on your valuable time. I
propose to take up the duties of my office to-morrow morning, at

the

By Kenneth Grahame 29

the usual hour. The salary will, I assume, be reckoned from the
same date ; and I shall make the customary quarterly application
for such additional emoluments as may have accrued to me during
that period. You see I am familiar with the routine. Good
morning, gentlemen !" And as she passed from the Council
chamber, her small head held erect, even the tanner felt that she
took with her a large portion of the May sunshine which was
condescending that morning to gild their deliberations.

II

One evening, a few weeks later, Jeanne was taking a stroll on
the ramparts of the town, a favourite and customary walk of hers
when business cares were over. The pleasant expanse of country
that lay spread beneath her—the rich sunset, the gleaming sinuous
river, and the noble old château that dominated both town and
pasture from its adjacent height—all served to stir and bring out
in her those poetic impulses which had lain dormant during the
working day ; while the cool evening breeze smoothed out and
obliterated any little jars or worries which might have ensued
during the practice of a profession in which she was still something
of a novice. This evening she felt fairly happy and content.
True, business was rather brisk, and her days had been fully
occupied ; but this mattered little so long as her modest efforts
were appreciated, and she was now really beginning to feel that,
with practice, her work was creditably and artistically done. In
a satisfied, somewhat dreamy mood, she was drinking in the
various sweet influences of the evening, when she perceived her
cousin approaching.

"Good

30 The Headswoman

"Good evening, Enguerrand," cried Jeanne pleasantly ; she
was thinking that since she had begun to work for her living, she
had hardly seen him—and they used to be such good friends.
Could anything have occurred to offend him ?

Enguerrand drew near somewhat moodily, but could not help
relaxing his expression at sight of her fair young face, set in its
framework of rich brown hair, wherein the sunset seemed to have
tangled itself and to cling, reluctant to leave it.

"Sit down, Enguerrand," continued Jeanne, "and tell me what
you've been doing this long time. Been very busy, and winning
forensic fame and gold ? "

"Well, not exactly," said Enguerrand, moody once more.
"The fact is, there's so much interest required nowadays at
the courts, that unassisted talent never gets a chance. And you,
Jeanne ?"

"Oh, I don't complain," answered Jeanne, lightly. "Of course
it's fair-time just now, you know, and we're always busy then.
But work will be lighter soon, and then I'll get a day off, and
we'll have a delightful ramble and picnic in the woods, as we
used to do when we were children. What fun we had in
those old days, Enguerrand ! Do you remember when we
were quite little tots, and used to play at executions in the back-
garden, and you were a bandit and a buccaneer, and all sorts of
dreadful things, and I used to chop off your head with a paper-
knife ? How pleased dear father used to be !"

"Jeanne," said Enguerrand, with some hesitation, "you've
touched upon the very subject that I came to speak to you about.
Do you know, dear, I can't help feeling—it may be unreasonable,
but still the feeling is there—that the profession you have adopted
is not quite—is just a little——"

"Now, Enguerrand !" said Jeanne, an angry flash sparkling in

her

By Kenneth Grahame 31

her eyes. She was a little touchy on this subject, the word she
most affected to despise being also the one she most dreaded—the
adjective "unladylike."

"Don't misunderstand me, Jeanne," went on Enguerrand,
imploringly : "You may naturally think that, because I should
have succeeded to the post, with its income and perquisites, had
you relinquished your claim, there is therefore some personal
feeling in my remonstrances. Believe me, it is not so. My own
interests do not weigh with me for a moment. It is on your own
account, Jeanne, and yours alone, that I ask you to consider
whether the higher aesthetic qualities, which I know you possess,
may not become cramped and thwarted by 'the trivial round, the
common task,' which you have lightly undertaken. However
laudable a professional life may be, one always feels that with a
delicate organism such as woman, some of the bloom may possibly
get rubbed off the peach."

"Well, Enguerrand," said Jeanne, composing herself with an
effort, though her lips were set hard, "I will do you the justice
to belive that personal advantage does not influence you, and I will
try to reason calmly with you, and convince you that you are
simply hide-bound by old-world prejudice. Now, take yourself,
for instance, who come here to instruct me : what does your pro-
fession amount to, when all's said and done ? A mass of lies,
quibbles, dodges, and tricks, that would make any self-respecting
executioner blush ! And even with the dirty weapons at your
command, you make but a poor show of it. There was that
wretched fellow you defended only two days ago. (I was in
court during the trial professional interest, you know.) Well,
he had his regular alibi all ready, as clear as clear could be ; only
you must needs go and mess and bungle the thing up, so that, as I
expected all along, he was passed on to me for treatment in due

course.

32 The Headswoman

course. You may like to have his opinion—that of a shrewd,
though unlettered person. 'It's a real pleasure, miss,' he said,
'to be handled by you. You knows your work, and you does your
work—though p'raps I ses it as shouldn't. If that blooming fool
of a mouthpiece of mine'—he was referring to you, dear, in your
capacity of advocate—'had known his business half as well as you
do yours, I shouldn't a bin here now !' And you know,
Enguerrand, he was perfectly right."

"Well, perhaps he was," admitted Enguerrand. "You see, I
had been working at a sonnet the night before, and I couldn't get
the rhymes right, and they would keep coming into my head in
court and mixing themselves up with the alibi. But look here,
Jeanne, when you saw I was going off the track, you might have
given me a friendly hint, you know—for old times' sake, if not
for the prisoner's !"

"I daresay," replied Jeanne, calmly : "perhaps you'll tell me
why I should sacrifice my interests because you're unable to look
after yours. You forget that I receive a bonus, over and above
my salary, upon each exercise of my functions !"

"True," said Enguerrand, gloomily : "I did forget that. I
wish I had your business aptitudes, Jeanne."

"I daresay you do," remarked Jeanne. "But you see, dear,
how all your arguments fall to the ground. You mistake a
prepossession for a logical base. Now if I had gone, like that
Clairette you used to dangle after, and been waiting-woman to
some grand lady in a château—a thin-blooded compound of drudge
and sycophant—then, I suppose, you'd have been perfectly satisfied.
So feminine ! So genteel !"

"She's not a bad sort of girl, little Claire," said Enguerrand,
reflectively (thereby angering Jeanne afresh) : "but putting her
aside,—of course you could always beat me at argument, Jeanne ;

you'd

By Kenneth Grahame 33

you'd have made a much better lawyer than I. But you know,
dear, how much I care about you ; and I did hope that on that
account even a prejudice, however unreasonable, might have some
little weight. And I'm not alone, let me tell you, in my views.
There was a fellow in court only to-day, who was saying that
yours was only a succès d'estime and that woman, as a naturally
talkative and hopelessly unpunctual animal, could never be more
than a clever amateur in the profession you have chosen."

"That will do, Enguerrand," said Jeanne, proudly ; "it seems
that when argument fails, you can stoop so low as to insult me
through my sex. You men are all alike—steeped in brutish
masculine prejudice. Now go away, and don't mention the
subject to me again till you're quite reasonable and nice."

III

Jeanne passed a somewhat restless night after her small scene
with her cousin, waking depressed and unrefreshed. Though she
had carried matters with so high a hand, and had scored so
distinctly all around, she had been more agitated than she had
cared to show. She liked Enguerrand ; and more especially did
she like his admiration for her ; and that chance allusion to
Clairette contained possibilities that were alarming. In embracing
a professional career, she had never thought for a moment that it
could militate against that due share of admiration to which, as a
girl, she was justly entitled ; and Enguerrand's views seemed this
morning all the more narrow and inexcusable. She rose languidly,
and as soon as she was dressed sent off a little note to the Mayor,
saying that she had a nervous headache and felt out of sorts, and

begging

34 The Headswoman

begging to be excused from attendance on that day ; and the
missive reached the Mayor just as he was taking his usual place at
the head of the Board.

"Dear, dear," said the kind-hearted old man, as soon as he had
read the letter to his fellow-councilmen : "I'm very sorry. Poor
girl ! Here, one of you fellows, just run round and tell the gaoler
there won't be any business to-day. Jeanne's seedy. It's put off
till to-morrow. And now, gentlemen, the agenda——"

"Really, your worship," exploded Robinet, "this is simply
ridiculous !"

"Upon my word, Robinet," said the Mayor, "I don't know
what's the matter with you. Here's a poor girl unwell—and a
more hardworking girl isn't in the town—and instead of sym-
pathising with her, and saying you re sorry, you call it ridiculous !
Suppose you had a headache yourself! You wouldn't like——"

"But it is ridiculous," maintained the tanner stoutly. "Who
ever heard of an executioner having a nervous headache ? There's
no precedent for it. And 'out of sorts,' too! Suppose the
criminals said they were out of sorts, and didn't feel up to being
executed ?"

"Well, suppose they did," replied the Mayor, "we'd try and
meet them halfway, I daresay. They'd have to be executed
some time or other, you know. Why on earth are you so
captious about trifles ? The prisoners won't mind, and I don't
mind : nobody's inconvenienced, and everybody's happy !"

"You're right there, Mr. Mayor," put in another councilman.
"This executing business used to give the town a lot of trouble
and bother ; now it's all as easy as kiss-your-hand. Instead of
objecting, as they used to do, and wanting to argue the point and
kick up a row, the fellows as is told off for execution come
skipping along in the morning, like a lot of lambs in Maytime.

And

By Kenneth Grahame 35

And then the fun there is on the scaffold ! The jokes, the back-
answers, the repartees ! And never a word to shock a baby !
Why, my little girl, as goes through the market-place every morn-
ing—on her way to school, you know—she says to me only
yesterday, she says, 'Why, father,' she says, 'it's as good as the
play-actors,' she says."

"There again," persisted Robinet, "I object to that too.
They ought to show a properer feeling. Playing at mummers is
one thing, and being executed is another, and people ought to
keep 'em separate. In my father's time, that sort of thing wasn't
thought good taste, and I don't hold with new-fangled notions."

"Well, really, neighbour," said the Mayor, "I think you're out
of sorts yourself to-day. You must have got out of bed the
wrong side this morning. As for a little joke, more or less, we
all know a maiden loves a merry jest when she's certain of having
the last word ! But I'll tell you what I'll do, if it'll please you ;
I'll go round and see Jeanne myself on my way home, and tell
her—quite nicely, you know—that once in a way doesn't matter,
but that if she feels her health won't let her keep regular
business hours, she mustn't think of going on with anything that's
bad for her. Like that, don't you see ? And now, gentlemen,
let's read the minutes !"

Thus it came about that Jeanne took her usual walk that
evening with a ruffled brow and a swelling heart ; and her little
hand opened and shut angrily as she paced the ramparts. She
couldn't stand being found fault with. How could she help
having a headache ? Those clods of citizens didn't know what a
highly-strung sensitive organisation was. Absorbed in her re-
flections, she had taken several turns up and down the grassy foot-
way, before she became aware that she was not alone. A youth,
of richer dress and more elegant bearing than the general run of

the

36 The Headswoman

the Radegundians, was leaning in an embrasure, watching the
graceful figure with evident interest.

"Something has vexed you, fair maiden ?" he observed, coming
forward deferentially as soon as he perceived he was noticed ;
"and care sits but awkwardly on that smooth young brow."

"Nay, it is nothing, kind sir," replied Jeanne ; "we girls who
work for our living must not be too sensitive. My employers
have been somewhat exigent, that is all. I did wrong to take it
to heart."

"Tis the way of the bloated capitalist," rejoined the young
man lightly, as he turned to walk by her side. "They grind us,
they grind us ; perhaps some day they will come under your hands
in turn, and then you can pay them out. And so you toil and
spin, fair lily ! And yet methinks those delicate hands show little
trace of labour ?"

"You wrong me, indeed, sir," replied Jeanne merrily. "These
hands of mine, that you are so good as to admire, do great execu-
tion !"

"I can well believe that your victims are numerous," he
replied ; "may I be permitted to rank myself among the latest of
them ?"

"I wish you a better fortune, kind sir," answered Jeanne
demurely.

"I can imagine no more delightful one," he replied; "and
where do you ply your daily task, fair mistress ? Not entirely out
of sight and access, I trust ?"

"Nay, sir," laughed Jeanne, "I work in the market-place most
mornings, and there is no charge for admission ; and access is far
from difficult. Indeed, some complain—but that is no business
of mine. And now I must be wishing you a good evening.
Nay"—for he would have detained her—"it is not seemly for an

unprotected

By Kenneth Grahame 37

unprotected maiden to tarry in converse with a stranger at this
hour. Au revoir, sir ! If you should happen to be in the market-
place any morning"——And she tripped lightly away. The youth,
gazing after her retreating figure, confessed himself strangely
fascinated by this fair unknown, whose particular employment, by
the way, he had forgotten to ask ; while Jeanne, as she sped
homewards, could not help reflecting that for style and distinction,
this new acquaintance threw into the shade all the Enguerrands
and others she had met hitherto—even in the course of business.

IV

The next morning was bright and breezy, and Jeanne was early
at her post, feeling quite a different girl. The busy little market-
place was full of colour and movement, and the gay patches of
flowers and fruit, the strings of fluttering kerchiefs, and the piles
of red and yellow pottery, formed an artistic setting to the quiet
impressive scaffold which they framed. Jeanne was in short
sleeves, according to the etiquette of her office, and her round
graceful arms showed snowily against her dark blue skirt and
scarlet tight-fitting bodice. Her assistant looked at her with
admiration.

"Hope you're better, miss," he said respectfully. "It was just
as well you didn't put yourself out to come yesterday ; there was
nothing particular to do. Only one fellow, and he said he didn't
care ; anything to oblige a lady !"

"Well, I wish he'd hurry up now, to oblige a lady," said
Jeanne, swinging her axe carelessly to and fro : "ten minutes past
the hour ; I shall have to talk to the Mayor about this."

The Yellow Book—Vol. III.C

"It's

38 The Headswoman

"It's a pity there ain't a better show this morning," pursued
the assistant, as he leant over the rail of the scaffold and spat
meditatively into the busy throng below. "They do say as how
the young Seigneur arrived at the Château yesterday—him as has
been finishing his education in Paris, you know. He's as likely as
not to be in the market-place to-day ; and if he's disappointed, he
may go off to Paris again, which would be a pity, seeing the
Château's been empty so long. But he may go to Paris, or
anywheres else he's a mind to, he won t see better workmanship
than in this here little town !"

"Well, my good Raoul," said Jeanne, colouring slightly at the
obvious compliment, "quality, not quantity, is what we aim at
here, you know. If a Paris education has been properly assimi-
lated by the Seigneur, he will not fail to make all the necessary
allowances. But see, the prison-doors are opening at last !"

They both looked across the little square to the prison, which
fronted the scaffold ; and sure enough, a small body of men, the
Sheriff at their head, was issuing from the building, conveying, or
endeavouring to convey, the tardy prisoner to the scaffold. That
gentleman, however, seemed to be in a different and less obliging
frame of mind from that of the previous day ; and at every pace
one or other of the guards was shot violently into the middle of
the square, propelled by a vigorous kick or blow from the struggling
captive. The crowd, unaccustomed of late to such demonstrations
of feeling, and resenting the prisoner's want of taste, hooted
loudly ; but it was not until that ingenious mediaeval arrangement
known as la marche aux crapauds had been brought to bear
on him, that the reluctant convict could be prevailed upon
to present himself before the young lady he had already so
unwarrantably detained.

Jeanne's profession had both accustomed her to surprises

and

By Kenneth Grahame 39

and taught her the futility of considering her clients as drawn
from any one particular class : yet she could hardly hel
feeling some astonishment on recognising her new acquaintance
of the previous evening. That, with all his evident amiability of
character, he should come to this end, was not in itself a special
subject for wonder ; but that he should have been conversing with
her on the ramparts at the hour when—after courteously excusing
her attendance on the scaffold— he was cooling his heels in prison
for another day, seemed hardly to be accounted for, at first sight.
Jeanne, however, reflected that the reconciling of apparent contra-
dictions was not included in her official duties.

The Sheriff, wiping his heated brow, now read the formal
procѐs delivering over the prisoner to the executioner's hands ;
"and a nice job we've had to get him here," he added on
his own account. And the young man, who had remained
perfectly tractable since his arrival, stepped forward and bowed
politely.

"Now that we have been properly introduced," said he
courteously, "allow me to apologise for any inconvenience you
have been put to by my delay. The fault was entirely mine, and
these gentlemen are in no way to blame. Had I known whom I
was to have the pleasure of meeting, wings could not have con-
veyed me swiftly enough."

"Do not mention, I pray, the word inconvenience," replied
Jeanne with that timid grace which so well became her : "I only
trust that any slight discomfort it may be my duty to cause you
before we part, will be as easily pardoned. And now—for the
morning, alas ! advances—any little advice or assistance that I
can offer is quite at your service ; for the situation is possibly new,
and you may have had but little experience."

"Faith, none worth mentioning," said the prisoner, gaily.

"Treat

40 The Headswoman

"Treat me as a raw beginner. Though our acquaintance has been
but brief, I have the utmost confidence in you."

"Then, sir," said Jeanne, blushing, "suppose I were to assist
you in removing this gay doublet, so as to give both of us more
freedom and less responsibility ?"

"A perquisite of the office ?" queried the prisoner with a smile,
as he slipped one arm out of the sleeve.

A flush came over Jeanne's fair brow. "That was un-
generous," she said.

"Nay, pardon me, sweet one," said he, laughing : "twas but a
poor jest of mine—in bad taste, I willingly admit."

"I was sure you did not mean to hurt me," she replied kindly,
while her fingers were busy in turning back the collar of his shirt.
It was composed, she noticed, of the finest point lace ; and she
could not help a feeling of regret that some slight error—as must,
from what she knew, exist somewhere—should compel her to take
a course so at variance with her real feelings. Her only comfort
was that the youth himself seemed entirely satisfied with his
situation. He hummed the last air from Paris during her minis-
trations, and when she had quite finished, kissed the pretty fingers
with a metropolitan grace.

"And now, sir," said Jeanne, "if you will kindly come this
way : and please to mind the step—so. Now, if you will have
the goodness to kneel here—nay, the sawdust is perfectly clean ;
you are my first client this morning. On the other side of the
block you will find a nick, more or less adapted to the human chin,
though a perfect fit cannot of course be guaranteed in every case.
So ! Are you pretty comfortable ?"

"A bed of roses," replied the prisoner. "And what a really
admirable view one gets of the valley and the river, from just this
particular point !"

"Charming

By Kenneth Grahame 41

"Charming, is it not ?" replied Jeanne. " I'm so glad you do
justice to it. Some of your predecessors have really quite vexed
me by their inability to appreciate that view. It's worth coming
here to see it. And now, to return to business for one moment,
—would you prefer to give the word yourself ? Some people do ;
it's a mere matter of taste. Or will you leave yourself entirely
in my hands ?"

"Oh, in your fair hands," replied her client, "which I beg you
to consider respectfully kissed once more by your faithful servant
to command."

Jeanne, blushing rosily, stepped back a pace, moistening her
palms as she grasped her axe, when a puffing and blowing behind
caused her to turn her head, and she perceived the Mayor hastily
ascending the scaffold.

"Hold on a minute, Jeanne, my girl," he gasped. "Don't be
in a hurry. There's been some little mistake."

Jeanne drew herself up with dignity. "I'm afraid I don't
quite understand you, Mr. Mayor," she replied in freezing
accents. "There's been no little mistake on my part that I'm
aware of."

"No, no, no," said the Mayor, apologetically ; "but on some-
body else's there has. You see it happened in this way : this
here young fellow was going round the town last night ; and he'd
been dining, I should say, and he was carrying on rather free. I
will only say so much in your presence, that he was carrying on
decidedly free. So the town-guard happened to come across him,
and he was very high and very haughty, he was, and wouldn't
give his name nor yet his address—as a gentleman should, you
know, when he's been dining and carrying on free. So our
fellows just ran him in—and it took the pick of them all their
time to do it, too. Well, then, the other chap who was in prison—

the

42 The Headswoman

the gentleman who obliged you yesterday, you know—what does
he do but slip out and run away in the middle of all the row
and confusion ; and very inconsiderate and ungentlemanly it was
of him to take advantage of us in that mean way, just when we
wanted a little sympathy and forbearance. Well, the Sheriff
comes this morning to fetch out his man for execution, and he
knows there's only one man to execute, and he sees there's only
one man in prison, and it all seems as simple as A B C—he never
was much of a mathematician, you know—so he fetches our friend
here along, quite gaily. And—and that's how it came about, you
see ; hinc illae lachrymae as the Roman poet has it. So now I
shall just give this young fellow a good talking to, and discharge
him with a caution ; and we shan't require you any more to-day,
Jeanne, my girl."

"Now, look here, Mr. Mayor," said Jeanne severely, "you
utterly fail to grasp the situation in its true light. All these little
details may be interesting in themselves, and doubtless the press
will take note of them ; but they are entirely beside the point.
With the muddleheadedness of your officials (which I have
frequently remarked upon) I have nothing whatever to do. All I
know is, that this young gentleman has been formally handed over
to me for execution, with all the necessary legal requirements ; and
executed he has got to be. When my duty has been performed,
you are at liberty to re-open the case if you like ; and any 'little
mistake' that may have occurred through your stupidity you can
then rectify at your leisure. Meantime, you've no locus standi
here at all ; in fact, you've no business whatever lumbering up my
scaffold. So shut up and clear out."

"Now, Jeanne, do be reasonable," implored the Mayor. "You
women are so precise. You never will make any allowance for
the necessary margin of error in things."

"If

By Kenneth Grahame 43

"If I were to allow the necessary margin for all your errors,
Mayor," replied Jeanne, coolly, " the edition would have to be a
large-paper one, and even then the text would stand a poor chance.
And now, if you don t allow me the necessary margin to swing
my axe, there may be another 'little mistake'—"

But at this point a hubbub arose at the foot of the scaffold, and
Jeanne, leaning over, perceived sundry tall fellows, clad in the
livery of the Seigneur, engaged in dispersing the municipal guard
by the agency of well-directed kicks, applied with heartiness
and anatomical knowledge. A moment later, there strode on to the
scaffold, clad in black velvet, and adorned with his gold chain of
office, the stately old seneschal of the Château, evidently in a
towering passion.

"Now, mark my words, you miserable little bladder-o'-lard," he
roared at the Mayor (whose bald head certainly shone provokingly
in the morning sun), "see if I don't take this out of your skin
presently !" And he passed on to where the youth was still
kneeling, apparently quite absorbed in the view.

"My lord," he said, firmly though respectfully, "your hair-
brained folly really passes all bounds. Have you entirely lost your
head ?"

"Faith, nearly," said the young man, rising and stretching him-
self. "Is that you, old Thibault ? Ow, what a crick I've got
in my neck ! But that view of the valley was really de-
lightful !"

"Did you come here simply to admire the view, my lord ?"
inquired Thibault severely.

"I came because my horse would come," replied the young
Seigneur lightly : "that is, these gentlemen here were so pressing ;
they would not hear of any refusal ; and besides, they forgot to
mention what my attendance was required in such a hurry for.

And

44 The Headswoman

And when I got here, Thibault, old fellow, and saw that divine
creature—nay, a goddess, dea certé—so graceful, so modest, so
anxious to acquit herself with credit—— Well, you know my
weakness ; I never could bear to disappoint a woman. She had
evidently set her heart on taking my head ; and as she had my
heart already——"

"I think, my lord," said Thibault with some severity, "you
had better let me escort you back to the Château. This appears
to be hardly a safe place for light-headed and susceptible persons !"

Jeanne, as was natural, had the last word. "Understand me,
Mr. Mayor," said she, " these proceedings are entirely irregular.
I decline to recognise them, and when the quarter expires I shall
claim the usual bonus !"

V

When, an hour or two later, an invitation arrived—courteously
worded, but significantly backed by an escort of half-a-dozen tall
archers—for both Jeanne and the Mayor to attend at the Château
without delay, Jeanne for her part received it with neither sur-
prise nor reluctance. She had felt it especially hard that the only
two interviews fate had granted her with the one man who had
made some impression on her heart, should be hampered, the one
by considerations of propriety, the other by the conflicting claims
of her profession and its duties. On this occasion, now, she
would have an excellent chaperon in the Mayor ; and business
being over for the day, they could meet and unbend on a common
social footing. The Mayor was not at all surprised either, consider-
ing what had gone before ; but he was exceedingly terrified, and
sought some consolation from Jeanne as they proceeded together

to

By Kenneth Grahame 45

to the Château. That young lady's remarks, however, could
hardly be called exactly comforting.

"I always thought you'd put your foot in it some day, Mayor,"
she said. "You are so hopelessly wanting in system and method.
Really, under the present happy-go-lucky police arrangements, I
never know whom I may not be called upon to execute. Between
you and my cousin Enguerrand, life is hardly safe in this town.
And the worst of it is, that we other officials on the staff have to
share in the discredit."

"What do you think they'll do to me, Jeanne ?" whimpered
the Mayor, perspiring freely.

"Can't say, I'm sure," pursued the candid Jeanne. "Of course,
if it's anything in the rack line of business, I shall have to super-
intend the arrangements, and then you can feel sure you're in
capable hands. But probably they'll only fine you pretty smartly,
give you a month or two in the dungeons, and dismiss you from
your post ; and you will hardly grudge any slight personal incon-
venience resulting from an arrangement so much to the advantage
of the town."

This was hardly reassuring, but the Mayor's official reprimand
of the previous day still rankled in this unforgiving young person's
mind.

On their reaching the Château, the Mayor was conducted aside,
to be dealt with by Thibault ; and from the sounds of agonised
protestation and lament which shortly reached Jeanne's ears, it
was evident that he was having a mauvais quart d'heure. The
young lady was shown respectfully into a chamber apart, where
she had hardly had time to admire sufficiently the good taste of
the furniture and the magnificence of the tapestry with which the
walls were hung, when the Seigneur entered and welcomed her
with a cordial grace that put her entirely at her ease.

"Your

46 The Headswoman

"Your punctuality puts me to shame, fair mistress," he said,
"considering how unwarrantably I kept you waiting this morning,
and how I tested your patience by my ignorance and awkward-
ness."

He had changed his dress, and the lace round his neck was even
richer than before. Jeanne had always considered one of the
chief marks of a well-bred man to be a fine disregard for the
amount of his washing-bill ; and then with what good taste he
referred to recent events—putting himself in the wrong, as a
gentleman should !

"Indeed, my lord," she replied modestly, "I was only too
anxious to hear from your own lips that you bore me no ill-will
for the part forced on me by circumstances in our recent interview.
Your lordship has sufficient critical good sense, I feel sure, to
distinguish between the woman and the official."

"True, Jeanne," he replied, drawing nearer; "and while I
shrink from expressing, in their fulness, all the feelings that the
woman inspires in me, I have no hesitation—for I know it will
give you pleasure—in acquainting you with the entire artistic
satisfaction with which I watched you at your task !"

"But, indeed" said Jeanne, "you did not see me at my best.
In fact, I can't help wishing—it's ridiculous, I know, because the
thing is hardly practicable—but if I could only have carried my
performance quite through, and put the last finishing touches to
it, you would not have been judging me now by the mere
'blocking-in' of what promised to be a masterpiece !"

"Yes, I wish it could have been arranged somehow," said the
Seigneur reflectively; "but perhaps it's better as it is. I am con-
tent to let the artist remain for the present on trust, if I may only
take over, fully paid up, the woman I adore !"

Jeanne felt strangely weak. The official seemed oozing out at

her

By Kenneth Grahame 47

her fingers and toes, while the woman's heart beat even more dis-
tressingly.

"I have one little question to ask," he murmured (his arm
was about her now). "Do I understand that you still claim your
bonus ?"

Jeanne felt like water in his strong embrace ; but she nerved
herself to answer faintly but firmly : "Yes !"

"Then so do I," he replied, as his lips met hers.

*****

Executions continued to occur in St. Radegonde ; the Rade-
gundians being conservative and very human. But much of the
innocent enjoyment that formerly attended them departed after
the fair Chatelaine had ceased to officiate. Enguerrand, on suc-
ceeding to the post, wedded Clairette, she being (he was heard to
say) a more suitable match in mind and temper than others of
whom he would name no names. Rumour had it, that he found
his match and something over ; while as for temper—and mind
(which she gave him in bits)—— But the domestic trials of high-
placed officials have a right to be held sacred. The profession, in
spite of his best endeavours, languished nevertheless. Some said
that the scaffold lacked its old attraction for criminals of spirit ;
others, more unkindly, that the headsman was the innocent cause,
and that Enguerrand was less fatal in his new sphere than
formerly, when practising in the criminal court as advocate for
the defence.





MLA citation: Grahame, Kenneth. "The Headswoman." The Yellow Book 3 (Oct. 1894): 25-47. The Yellow Nineties Online. Ed. Dennis Denisoff and Lorraine Janzen Kooistra. Ryerson University, 2010. Web. [Date of access]. http://www.1890s.ca/HTML.aspx?s=YBV3_grahame_headswoman.html