Also translated as Juana
It is the time of the Peninsular War when France was fighting in Spain. Marshal Suchet commands a division in Taragona, which is a coastal town on the northeast coast of Spain. The town has been taken and sadly pillaged by Colonel Eugune’s regiment, which is made up of well born, but misfit, Italians. Two of this regiment’s members are the focus of the story. Captain Montefiore, the regiment’s clothing officer, is from Milan. He is a handsome libertine with an entailed income and a bit of a coward called “Captain of the Ravens” because he scurries out of range as soon as he smells powder. His friend is Quartermaster Diard, a collector of stolen art, a gambler, a talker, a man with some financial means.
As soon as Captain Montefiore enters Taragona, he sees a Spanish beauty quickly peeking out of the cloth merchant’s house. We later learn that the merchant is named Perez de Lagonnia. Montefiore briefly ponders burning the house down so he can have her, but, being only a little stupid, figures out quickly this is not a good idea. He therefore gets himself assigned to be quartered at the cloth merchant Lagonnia’s house. At first there is no sign of the beautiful young girl. The house has four floors and an attic with the shop in the front of the first floor and the kitchen and parlor behind it. The second floor has the warehouse for the store, and the third floor normally houses the merchant and his wife. But the merchant and his wife vacate the third floor to house Captain montefiore and sleep in the fifth floor, the attic. On the fourth floor the apprentice and maidservant sleep. But where is the young girl?
Montefiore is patient and works to get in the good graces of the merchant and his wife. He pretends to be anti-Napoleon. He praises the town, the merchant, etc. The Lagonnias grow to like Montefiore and don’t get too upset when the young woman is finally sighted. She has a secret room on the first floor. We learn that the young woman is not the merchant’s daughter but is the daughter of a courtesan. She has been handed over to the Lagonnias’ care in order that she may be raised in a righteous manner. The courtesan is La Marana, who has devoted her later life to the protection and betterment of her daughter Marie Juana Pepita. “And La Marana’s motherhood meant more for her than to other women. It was perhaps her hope of salvation, a plank to cling to in the shipwreck of her eternity.” She brought Juana to the Lagonnias with a dowry at age seven. Juana is now seventeen. La Marana goes away but can sense if her daughter is in trouble, and she once appeared when Juana was sick in order to nurse her back to health.
The Lagonnias have become prosperous and have doubled, through wise investment, Juana’s dowry. They were getting ready to find her a good husband – a merchant or even a noble – when the war interfered with their plans. All this the Lagonnias tell Montefiore. Now Montefiore understands his attraction – he saw the look of the courtesan in Juana’s glance at him from the merchant’s house, it is in her blood. He wants her, and now that he knows her history he is even more determined to take her any way he can.
Montefiore watches the door to her secret place at night, but he cannot talk with her because there is a floor (the warehouse) between him and her. Finally he sees her silhouette at the window reflected in the yard. He writes a note to her, weights it down with coins, and lowers it on a string. He can pull it up quickly if the shadows in the yard show there is more than one person in the room. But Juana is alone; she reads the note! Montefiore offers her his hand, his usual ploy in seducing vulnerable young women. She answers the note with one word, “Come”. With great trepidation because of all the inhabitants scattered throughout the house, Montefiore sneaks down to the secret room. She lets him in and the rest is history. There is a certain wantonness about Juana – she confesses she has been restless and bored with her life for the past three years – but there is a certain naivety too. She believes Montefiore is essentially her husband, he looks like St. Michael in the picture on her wall. They exchange rings – she gives him the precious ring her mother gave her when she departed. Montefiore, an experienced seducer who likes the chase, doesn’t try to seduce her immediately but courts her every night. He’s taking no chances in obtaining her, doesn’t want to scare her – and besides, he likes the tension of the quest. Finally the night of seduction arrives, and Montefiore again goes to Juana’s secret room.
Meanwhile Juana’s mother, La Marana, far away in Milan learns that Taragona has been taken by the French, and she has the strong feeling that her daughter needs protection. She speeds to Taragona, bursts in the merchant’s house, and demands to see her daughter. The Lagonnais look at La Marana in a startled manner and tell her Juana is just fine and is in her room. Then the merchant happens to look out in the yard and sees the silhouette of “the beast with two backs” reflecting from Juana’s room. Montefiore hides in Juana’s room and when Juana opens the door to the Lagonnias and her mother, she calmly tells them there is only her husband in the room. But of course by this time we all know Montefiore is no husband to Juana, he is a libertine well known to La Marana. The merchant and Montefiore fight. Montefiore calls out for his friend, Quartermaster Diard. Diard shows up as La Marana is about to stab Montefiore, takes one look at the beautiful Juana, and exclaims that he will be Juana’s husband to rescue her from being a fallen woman. La Marana agrees and lets Montefiore go.
Now Balzac tells us that this dramatic tale of Juana is not really the story, it’s just background! Juana doesn’t love Diard – he’s not the devilish handsome guy that Montefiore is. She thinks about not marrying him – maybe joining a convert, or maybe suicide would be a good option. No, she decides she will marry him. She realizes for the first time what she has done, she had a good future with the Lagonnias planning to find her a good husband and now it is too late. Diard does love Juana and tries to be good to her. He eventually leaves the military – he was wounded but didn’t get to become the decorated hero he was hoping to be. He tries to get on in society, but he simply doesn’t have what it takes. No connections, no natural instinct as to how to get ahead. Juana has two children, Juan and Francisco. Juan is the oldest, born seven months after their marriage, and is undoubtedly the child of Montefiore. Juana even develops some concern and compassion for her husband though she really cannot fully love him. Juana has given up happiness for herself but finds that devotion to the lives of her children is her mission and hope, just like her mother. Diard has figured out Juana loves Juan more than Franscisco but somehow he doesn’t seem to mind so much even though Juan is not his. Diard at last despairs of making it in society, and Juana suggests he just withdraw into the domesticity of his wife and children.
Diard stays withdrawn from society for awhile, but he is not happy. He resumes the gambling he used to do in the military. He’s a pretty good gambler and develops some reputation and popularity in certain questionable circles. Juana is not totally aware of what her husband is doing even when he moves out of the main house. She is occupied with her children and doesn’t really miss Diard that much. They half-heardedly quarrel from time to time. Eventually Diard’s gambling catches up with him, and he has lost most of his fortune. He begins a shady life as a speculator. “At length, Juana’s indifference changed to a feeling of dread. She felt that sooner or later her husband’s manner of life must affect the children’s future.”
One day Diard’s resources are gone. He’s heard they gamble for high stakes in the Pyrenees. He packs up Juana and the children (so his creditors cannot tell her what he has fallen to), and off they go. He leaves them with barely enough money in Bordeaux and heads for the gambling resorts. Juana is careful to trim her expenses and pay for almost everything in advance. Diard runs into Montefiore, whom he hasn’t seen since the night fifteen years ago at the Lagonnias. Montefiore is now wealthily married. He greets Diard stiffly, but they gamble together. Diard loses everything to Montefiore. He tells Montefiore that his purse is at Bordeaux and invites him home to collect his winnings. On the way, Montefiore tells him that he has quite a bit of money (besides Diard’s) on him. Diard leads him down a blind alley and stabs him to death. He flees with the whole neighborhood in pursuit, stashes the money he stole from Montefiore under some stones close to his house, and flings himself in the house to beg Juana to help him get away.
He asks Juana for money, but she has none. She gives him her one possession of value, a cross with gemstones from her mother, but it is too late, the house is surrounded. Diard again pleas for her help. Juana says, “I will save you.” She thursts one of Diard’s pistol in his hand. “For your children’s sake”, she says, and kills him. The public prosecutor and doctor who later arrive know that she has killed Diard – indeed, she admits it when asked – but they rule his death a suicide. Juana tells them where Montefiore’s money is hidden under the stones.
Two days later Juana sold her cross for the expenses to return to Spain. As she leaves, she meets her dying mother who is on the way to the hospital. They talk for the last time. Juana says, “Mother, die in peace; I have suffered for you all.”
Summary by Pamela, December 2006