The Headswoman
Category: Short Stories
Level 7.41 0:51 h
The Headwoman is the story of a daughter taking up the family occupation. In a town in Medieval France, the executioner passes away, leaving the role vacant. Despite not having any previous experience, his daughter takes over the role. Her time in this new role has some interesting effects on the people of the village. Read this fascinating tale written by Kenneth Grahame and published in 1898.

The Headswoman

Kenneth Grahame

“Now that we have been properly introduced allow me to apologise”“Now that we have been properly introduced allow me to apologise”

The Headswoman


It was a bland, sunny morning of a mediæval 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 Hôtel 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 considerable 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 in the room, indeed, 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, 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 friendship — 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 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 misdirected 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 qualified 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 motive, gentlemen, in demanding what is my due, is a simple and (I trust) an honest one, and I desire that there should be no misunderstanding. 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, by the accident of birth, 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 for any contingent remainder of possible cousinly favour!”

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 of this here town?”

“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.”

“You see I am familiar with the routine.Good-morning, Gentlemen!”“You see I am familiar with the routine. Good-morning, Gentlemen!”

“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 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.


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-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 allowing his expression to relax 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 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 account, Jeanne, and yours alone, that I ask you to consider whether the higher æsthetic 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 believe 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 profession 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, just as I expected all along, he was passed on to me for treatment in due 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 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.”


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 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 hard-working girl isn’t in the town, — and instead of sympathising 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 half-way, 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 May-time. 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 morning — 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 reflections, she had taken several turns up and down the grassy footway before she became aware that she was not alone. A youth, of richer dress and more elegant bearing than the general run of 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 execution!”

“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?”

“Au revoir, sir! If you should happen to be in the market-place any morning.”Au revoir, sir! If you should happen to be in the market-place any morning.”

“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 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.

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