When Francoise is sentenced to be hung for stealing from her Mistress, she devises a scheme to seduce a fellow prisoner into falling in love with her and becoming a hangman so that he can petition for her release. Francoise is a fifteen-year old girl who helps her family earn a living by washing laundry. They do the laundry of the poor, the slatternly, and the bad housekeepers who are too lazy or cannot afford more high-end launderers. On her birthday, she receives a cracked but beautiful mirror from her father as a birthday gift. Despite the generous gift, her parents are both drunkards and even on Francoise's birthday, there is no food in the house. Francoise has to steal and beg to get enough food to feed herself and her siblings. One day, she gets into a fight with another red-haired boy which results in him getting a scar on his hand. That same day, she witnesses a hanging for the first time and is horrified by how animal-istic the crowd of peasants viewing the hanging become. A few days later, her mother gives birth to the first boy in her family. Her father is so proud that he decides he wants to change his life around. He decides to try to teach Francoise how to read. The little boy ends up dying as a baby, however, and her parents fall back into their drunken stupor.
After her parents succumb to a fever, Francois decides to become a maid to a wealthy woman whose husband is a fur trader in Montreal. Her new Madame is quite patient with her her, teaching her how to become a good maidservant. She moves in to live with her new Madame and her husband in their beautiful mansion. Her Madame confides to her that more than anything, she wants a son. She also tells her about how she used to be a wealthy Parisian but when she married her husband, she went against her parents' wishes. Despite the bouts of friendliness, her Madame still keeps reminding her she is only a servant and she should remember her station. Over the months, Francoise becomes more angry – not necessarily at her Madame but at the world that insists on keeping her in her place.
One day, Francoise steals a pair of her Madame's delicate lady's gloves. She only wanted to imagine herself as a lady for a few moments. She was planning on putting them back. But before she can return them, the other servants discover them and call her a thief. She is put in jail to await trial. While in jail, she trades her mother's brooch to ask the guard to bring her Madame to see her. The guard ends up swindling her as he takes her brooch but doesn't bother contacting her Madame. Her Madame does end up visiting her one night, but only to tell her that even if she has forgiven her, she cannot retract her accusation because it would compromise her family's reputation as well as set a precedent for the law in favor of thieves. Francoise ends up being sentenced to death by hanging.
Francoise's hanging is deferred because the hangman dies from a fever. While waiting for her doom, Francoise befriends a fellow prisoner who is a soldier named Jean Corolere. Jean had killed a man in a duel but he will be released after a brief imprisonment. Francoise tries to plot a way to escape her hanging. The only way she can think of is to marry the hangman which is a legal way for a woman to escape hanging. She decides to charm Jean into deciding to fill the post of the hangman so that she might have a chance to live.
Over the next few weeks, she and Jean get to know each other. Jean is impressed by her story-telling and Francoise thinks Jean is the same red-haired boy she had a fight with so many years ago when she was young. Jean seems sad that she is due to be hanged. She begins to truly wish Jean would fall in love with her not just because it would be useful for her scheme but because she has truly fallen in love with him. Jean begins to express an interest to see how she looks like. When she finally asks Jean if he can take up the post of hangman in order to save her life, he tells her he cannot as the job of killing people day after day is not for him. Francoise comforts Jean. Eventually, Jean asks her to marry him, even though she is going to die and she agrees.
Jean decides he will become a hangman after all. Francoise is overjoyed. The next day, Jean is released and he promises that after he has become the hangman he will come back to petition for her release. The story ends with the door to Francoise' cell being opened and Francoise nervous to meet Jean for the first time, face-to-face.
Best part of story, including ending:
I like the idea of a romance where the two lovers can't see each other and one of the lovers (Francoise) is almost too clever for her own good. I thought the story was very entertaining and also had many heart-wrenching moments when Francoise was caught between her strong sense of self-preservation and her desire to be genuine in her feelings towards Jean.
Best scene in story:
My favorite scene was a small scene that occurred while Jean and Francoise were still in prison. In this scene, Jean finally expresses a desire to see Francoise's face. Francoise has the broken mirror her father gave her when she was little and she offers to angle it such that Jean might be able to see her. At the last minute, Jean chickens out because he wants to continue focusing on being in love with her personality, not her looks. I thought it was a sweet sentiment.
Opinion about the main character:
I like that Francoise was clever and always hopeful. She is described as someone who seems to always have luck on her side, but I think it was only because she was so determined to live that things end up always working out for her.