The Marquis of Bolibar

BOOK: The Marquis of Bolibar
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Leo Perutz

 

THE MARQUIS OF BOLIBAR

 

 

 

 

Translated from the
German
by John Brownjohn

 

 

Perutz, Leo [Der Marques de Bolibar,
English]
The marquis of
Bolibar. 1. Title II. Brownjohn (J. Maxwell), John Maxwell, ISBN 0-00-271095-1

Published
in
Austria by
Paul Zsolnay Verlag,
Vienna
under
the
title
Der Marques de Bolibar
Originally published
in
Great.Britain
1926 First
published by Collins Har.vill
1989

 

 

CONTENTS

FOREWORD

A MORNING WALK

THE TANNER'S TUB

THREE SIGNALS

SNOW ON THE ROOFS

CAPTAIN DE SALIGNAC

THE COMING OF GOD

GERMAN SERENADE

TROUNCED

WITH SAUL TO ENDOR

A FORGATHERING OF SAINTS

THE SONG OF TALAVERA

FIRE

A PRAYER

THE COURIER

INSURRECTION

THE BLUE BUTTERCUP

THE FINAL SIGNAL

CATASTROPHE

THE MARQUIS OF BOLIBAR

 

 

 

FOREWORD

The death of Eduard von Jochberg occurred at Dillenburg, a small town in the former Duchy of Nassau, not long before the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War. An eccentric and almost pathologically uncommunicative old gentleman, he spent most of each year on his country estate. It was only toward the end of his life, when his health began to fail, that he moved to the little market town for good.

None of Herr von Jochberg's few close acquaintances — horses and hounds were his principal companions - knew that he was an old soldier who had, in his youth, participated in some of Napoleon I's campaigns. No one had ever heard him allude to his experiences during this period of his life, far less describe them in detail. Those who had known him were all the more surprised, therefore, when his personal effects yielded a bundle of manuscript, neatly tied and sealed, which proved on closer scrutiny to be his recollections of the Peninsular War.

This unexpected find caused a considerable stir throughout the province of Nassau and in the adjoining Grand Duchy of Hesse. Articles on Herr von Jochberg's memoirs appeared in the local press, together with long excerpts therefrom; scholars of repute inspected them; and the dead man's heirs — his nephew Wilhelm von Jochberg, a lecturer at Bonn University, and an elderly lady from Aachen named Fräulein von Härtung — were bombarded with offers by publishers. In short, Herr von Jochberg's memoirs were on everyone's lips, and even the war, which broke out soon afterwards, proved insufficient to dispel all public interest in them.

Why? Because they dealt with an obscure and hitherto unexplained chapter in German military history: the annihilation by Spanish guerrillas of two local regiments, the Nassau and the Prince of Hesse's Own.

Little information about this episode in the Spanish campaign can be gleaned from the literature on the subject. August Scherbruch, a captain in the service of the Grand Duchy of Hesse and a noted military historian of the Napoleonic era, devotes only two-and-a-half lines to "the tragedy of La Bisbal" in
Der Kampf auf der Pyrenäischen Halbinsel, 1807-1813,
a six- volume work published by Langermann of Halle. Stranger still, Dr Hermann Schwartze, a Darmstadt historian who published an extremely painstaking account of the part played in Napoleon I's campaigns by Hessian troops, makes no reference whatever to the fact that two regiments belonging to the Confederation of the Rhine were wiped out to a man. It also escapes mention in the less comprehensive works by Kraus, Leistikov, and Fischer-Tübingen. A critical study entitled
Die
Rheinbundtruppen
in
Spanien. Ein Beitrag zur Strategie der Unvernunft
(Karlsruhe 1826) and published anonymously, doubtless by an officer discharged from the forces of Baden, is the only one to deal at length with "the catastrophe of La Bisbal", but without contributing any details of moment. It does, however, identify the officer commanding both regiments as Colonel von Leslie, a name that recurs in Lieutenant von Jochberg's memoirs.

Not unnaturally, somewhat fuller accounts are given by the opposing side. Among the major works available to me I would cite that by Don Silvio Gaeta, a colonel on the Spanish General Staff, who concludes that the defeat of the German troops at La Bisbal represented a definite turning point in the course of the campaign and crucially affected General Cuesta's further operations. Simon Ventura, an apothecary who, in addition to a life of Santa Maria de'Pazzi, a
Handbook for Amateurs of Fungi
and
The Tulip Festival,
a tragedy rather too turgid in style for the modern taste, wrote a history of his native La Bisbal, displays a largely accurate but purely superficial knowledge of the course of events. Pedro Orosco, too, mentions the destruction of the two regiments in
Los
jefers
de
la guerilla en las Asturias,
a work of which I possess one of the few extant copies, though his account teems with glaring errors and inaccuracies.

All in all, however, these and other Spanish historical works do little or nothing to explain the astonishing fact that both German regiments vanished without trace. Lieutenant von Jochberg's literary remains alone shed light on the strange events that ultimately conduced to the tragedy at La Bisbal.

If Jochberg's account is correct, it presents us with a phenomenon unique in the annals of military history:
the annihilation of the Nassau Regiment was directly occasioned - indeed, almost deliberately engineered
-
by its own officers!
Despite the modern tendency to enlist explanations of an occult and mystical nature, not to mention concepts such as the "death wish" or autosuggestion, one finds this hard to credit. Professional historians will doubtless take a sceptical view of Lieutenant von Jochberg's memoirs and dismiss them as unduly fanciful. Far be it from me to censure them on that account. After all, how great a critical faculty can one attribute to a man who became convinced that one of the persons he encountered in Spain was the legendary Wandering Jew?

Lieutenant von Jochberg's reminiscences have been abridged to some two-thirds of their original length. Many passages not directly relevant to the subject - an account of the fighting at Talavera and Torres Vedras, a description of the so-called "stick dance" at La Bisbal, sundry digressions and conversations of a political, philosophical and literary nature, an appreciation of the art treasures in La Bisbal's town hall, and a long-winded exposition of the genealogical ties between Jochberg's family and that of Captain Count Schenk zu Castel-Borckenstein - all these have fallen prey to the editor's pencil. While denying the reader much that is of historical interest, this has enhanced the narrative's impact and inherent suspense.

And now let Lieutenant von Jochberg himself recount the singular experiences he underwent at La Bisbal, a town in the Asturian highlands, during the winter of 1812.

 

 

A MORNING WALK

It was eight in the morning when we at last sighted the two white church towers of La Bisbal. We were soaked to the skin, I and my fifteen dragoons and Captain von Eglofstein, the regimental adjutant, who had come to negotiate with the
alcalde
, or mayor of the town.

Our regiment had, the previous day, survived a fierce encounter with the guerrillas under their Colonel Saracho, whom our men for some reason unknown to me - perhaps on account of his corpulent figure - called the "Tanner's Tub". Having succeeded toward nightfall in scattering the rebels, we pursued them into their forests and very nearly captured Saracho himself, for he suffered from gout and could move but slowly on foot.

Thereafter we bivouacked in open country, much to the chagrin of my dragoons, who cursed their inability even to obtain some dry straw on which to sleep after such a day's exertions. I jokingly promised each of them a feather bed with silken curtains once we reached La Bisbal, and they professed themselves content.

I myself spent a part of the night with Eglofstein and Donop in the colonel's quarters. We drank mulled wine and played faro, hoping to cheer him, but he so persisted in talking of his late wife that we had to put down our cards and listen — and it was all we could do not to give ourselves away, for there was no officer in the whole of the Nassau Regiment whose mistress Françoise-Marie had not at some time been.

I set out with Eglofstein and my dragoons at five in the morning. "
Prenez
garde
des
guerillas!"
the colonel called after me as I rode off. It was a task that properly belonged to the officer of the day, but, being the most junior subaltern in the regiment, I had no choice.

The road was clear and the insurgents gave us no trouble. A few dead mules lay in our path. Just outside the village of Figueras we came upon two dead Spaniards who had dragged themselves thus far in a moribund condition. One was a guerrilla belonging to Saracho's band, the other wore the uniform of the Numancia Regiment. They must have been hoping to reach the village under cover of darkness when death overtook them.

Figueras itself we found entirely deserted by its inhabitants, the peasants having fled into the mountains with their herds of sheep. Three or four Spaniards —
dispersas,
or stragglers cut off from Saracho's main force - were sitting in a tavern on the outskirts of the village, but they hurriedly made off at our approach. They yelled "
Muerte a
los
Franceses!"
like madmen as soon as they reached the edge of the forest, but none of them fired a shot. "For ever and ever, amen, you he-goats!" Such was the shouted response of one of my dragoons, Corporal Thiele, who thought — God alone knows why - that "
Muerte a
los
Franceses"
signified "Praise the Lord Jesus" in German.

On reaching our destination we found the alcalde awaiting us outside the town gate with the entire junta and several other citizens. He stepped forward as we dismounted and greeted us with the words that were customary on such occasions. La Bisbal, he assured us, was well-disposed toward the French because Colonel Saracho's guerrillas had done its citizens much harm, looted their property, and driven off the peasants' cattle. Such ill-disposed people as had settled in the town were very few. He begged us to be merciful, for he and his fellow citizens were eager to do all in their power to assist the gallant soldiers of the great Napoleon. Eglofstein curtly replied that he himself could promise nothing: the colonel's decision alone would determine what treatment the town could expect. He then accompanied the alcalde and his clerk to the town hall to have the billeting warrants made out. The townsfolk who had mutely and apprehensively witnessed this conversation, hat in hand, dispersed and hurried home to their wives.

Having posted some of my men at the gate, I repaired to a roadside
posada
or inn beyond the walls, there to await the arrival of the regiment over a cup of hot chocolate, which the landlord produced with alacrity.

After breakfast I went out into the garden, for the air in the cramped little tap-room stank of boiled fish and had made me queasy. The garden was neither large nor well-tended, the landlord having planted it at random with onions and garlic, pumpkins and broad beans, but the scent of the rain-sodden soil did me good. Moreover, the garden adjoined a spacious park in which grew fig trees, elms, and walnut trees. A narrow footpath flanked by yew hedges led between expanses of grass to a pool, and in the background stood a white-walled country house whose slate roof, wet with rain, I had earlier glimpsed from the road.

My corporal followed me out of the tap-room and into the garden. Exceedingly annoyed, he strode up to me with a reproachful air.

"Lieutenant!" he cried. "Musty flour in our breakfast gruel, soup at midday, and bread and garlic for supper — such has been our fare for weeks now, yet when one of us stopped a peasant on the road and requisitioned an egg or two, he was brought before a court martial. Tables laden with food, the best wine put to cool, and a goodly piece of bacon in every cook-pot — that was what you promised us when we reached La Bisbal, and now ..."

"Well? What did the landlord serve you?"

"Rotten little pincer-fish, twelve for a groschen!" the corporal cried angrily, and thrust his hand under my nose. On it reposed a small shrimp such as Spanish peasants steep in jugs of vinegar.

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