Monday, October 24, 2011

Troubled journey (11): Vendôme

Bonnevaux (Dauphiné), 25th August 1713 at dawn

"In Dei nomine. Amén. Sépase por esta pública carta como en la villa de Vinaroz del reyno de Valencia en España a los diez días del mes de junio del año mil setecientos y doce; yo Luis, duque de Vendôme, de Mercaoeur y de Estampes, conde de Drux, príncipe de Anet y de Martigues, par de Francia, general de las Galeras..."
    ["In Dei nomine. Amen. Be it known by this public letter as in the town of Vinaròs in the kingdom of Valencia in Spain, on the tenth day of June 1712, I Louis Duke of Vendôme & Étampes & Mercaoeur, Count of Drux, Prince of Anet & Martigues, Peer of France, Admiral of the Galleys... "]
Louis Joseph de Bourbon Duke of Vendôme, brilliant and stubborn rival to the Prince Eugène of Savoy in their Italian campaigns. Duke of Vendôme, the man comissioned to stabilize situation in Flanders after the Ramillies disaster... Vendôme, who voluntarily retired to his estates after Oudenaarde battle as a complaint about the responsibility of King Louis' grandson in the defeat; the very same man who decisively aborted at Brihuega & Villaviciosa the 1710 Allied offensive on the Spanish heartland... An arbitrary whim of Goddess Fortune had determined that 2 copies of the testament of such a notorious personage to fall into hands of Marquis de Vilana, thanks to the accurate inspection of Fra Dídac Serralta's humble belongings by Claire.

During their trip to Bonnevaux Abbey, Vilana had plunged once and once again at obsessively reading both copies... until reaching for the umpteenth time to the final paragraph:

"...Y su Alteza el Serenísimo Señor Luis, Duque de Vendôme, no firmó por no poder; porque haviendo tomado la pluma para ello y executándolo, no pudo escrivir ni formar letra por cau­sa de temblarle la mano por su gran flaqueza y enfermedad. Firmaron los nombrados testigos de que yo el esmentado doy fe..."
    ["... And his Most Serene Highness Lord Louis Duke of Vendôme, did not sign because he could not, for having taken the pen to perform it, could not write or give form to letters due to hand tremble because of its deep weakness and disease. Named witnesses signed on his behalf, as I the mentioned can attest... "]
At this stage after so many readings, Vilana was nearly able to recite by heart the whole text, including all the minutely detailed life annuities, donations and rewards Vendôme had granted in it, as well as their respective beneficiaries... in both versions of the testament.

...for these 2 copies of Vendôme's wills were not exactly the same. There was one difference between them, only one slight difference close to the wording's end. One small, negligible estate located inside Vinaròs town was listed in one of the versions, but omitted in the other.

Vilana was exhausted, after so many hours restlessly travelling by night. He was persuaded these two slightly differing documents were the key of the mystery Fra Dídac had died for... but he was plainly unable to even guess why.

-Ehem... Sire?

It was Josep who had spoken. Vilana sudenly came back to reality, while the young escort soldier held the stage coach door open for him. Outside, a monk leading a loaded donkey was watching the newcomers with open curiosity. Thay had finally arrived in Bonnevaux Abbey, the secret destination of the deceased Catalan Prior.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Troubled journey (10): Bitter decision

Comtat Venaissin border, night of 24th August 1713

They had the time to interrogate the prisoners and, to Vilana's surprise, Gérard de Beaujeu had shown an amazingly willing collaboration. Llinàs explained to the Marquis that, in exchange for such collaboration, the monk was waiting for some kind of deal -or mercy at least.

According to Gérard de Beaujeu's own words, he was a former soldier with an uncertain past, who joined the Order of Malta fifteen years ago and later became a confidant of the Grand Prior of Catalonia -the deceased Fra Dídac de Serralta. And for several months, he was also a traitor to him, tempted by the generous offerings of the Grand Master Ramon Perellós Rocafull.

Vilana recalled that, at first, the Order of Malta had strived to keep a strict neutrality in the War of Spanish Succession. But in such Nation of Nations as it was, each one's affinities or origin played a significant role hindering such neutrality. Vilana was aware the knights and monks belonging to the Grand Priory of Catalonia openly favoured Archduke Charles' cause, for instance. But interest of the Order itself also played a role against neutrality -not in vain, most estates and priories of the Order were located in France. Therefore, Grand Master Perellós most likely considered appropriate to tilt the balance sightly towards the Bourbon side -just a bit. However, the Empire fulminating reaction at confiscating all the Order estates in Imperial lands only exacerbated Grand Master Perellós position, who definitely chose to favor Philip d'Anjou's cause.

He had no evidence about Serralta activities (as a matter of fact, the Catalan Prior had managed to establish a discrete, permanent flow of significant amounts of money in Barcelona through Malta and Genoa, thanks to English intermediaries), but he finally decided to corrupt Beaujeu with the aim of being permanently informed on any suspicious activity of Serralta. This is how Perellós knew the Catalan Prior had recently been delivered a mystery letter from abroad that caused a deep impact on the old monk, who afterwards started preparing a secret, unauthorized trip in France. Beaujeu was secretly instructed by the Grand Master to offer himself for accompanying Serralta on the trip. Naively enough, Serralta trusted on him and, in spite of not revealing yet the ultimate objective of his trip, admitted it was an affair likely key to the future of Catalonia. When acknowledged in turn, Grand Master felt deeply unhappy.

A small party was then secretly formed by Perellós, with the mission of discretely following Serralta and spying his activities in France -and, if necessary, preventing him to harm the Order interest. Beaujeu would perform as their informer, acknowledging them about Serralta's next successive steps. The party would be formed by a small number of knights of the Order alongisde with a smaller retinue of mercenaries -who would perform as guides and informers to them. Five and three, respectively.

When the small retinue of Serralta met that one of Marquis de Vilana, the traitor became highly suspicious about his master's intentions of explaining to that unknown Monsieur Villars those same objectives he wouldn't unveal to Beaujeu himself. The day before, he had just been acknowledged that their actual destination was not Pontigny Abbey, but that of Bonnevaux, also belonging to the Cistercian Order. Doubtful about the actual relationship between that one Villars and Serralta, also afraid his betrayal might have been learnt by the Catalan Prior, Beaujeu finally took a radical, perhaps hasty decision and murdered Serralta. Some amount of money for the Militia captain would help to spread confusion and buy time for him to join the Maltese party -and who knows, it even would result in the incrimination of that mysterious Monsieur Villars...

Vilana started thoughtfully wandering away by the wet grass, under the watchful eye of Claire, who kept a prudent distance respecting the legate's obvious deliberations. To the Catalan legate, the overall situation was getting increasingly uncomfortable for, to his frustration, it seemed that all actors in the drama were only aware of the part each one had been assigned, and little else... Besides, they now had a new menace closing to them at an unknown rate, personified in 5 knights of Malta and 3 Marsellaise mercenaries. That meant 8 experienced gens d'armes. Bad news indeed.

What should they do next? Waiting for that party to arrive and ambushing them? It wasn't an option, for sure. Fleeing to Bonnevaux Abbey instead? They would spend not less than a whole day in such route, a wolkabout long enough to be caught en route by the Maltese party... if the stage coach wouldn't definitely damaged before, of course. Vilana asked Llinàs for his opinion, and he answered: -We've got now four supplementary horses, Sire. This should allow us to relieve our own coach team if necessary, so that we might keep a more or less constant speed...

Vilana finally took a decision. They would go Bonnevaux, taking advantage of the Maltese party temporary ignorance about themselves.

However, there still was a last, uncomfortable dilemma pending over his mind since the interrogatory very beginning. He had been willingly leaving such decision for later, hoping he'd finally find some alternate solution. But later was now, and he had no other chance than deciding.

Llinàs looked at him expectantly in silence -he knew. Exhausted, Vilana nodded discretely and went away. Lieutenant Llinàs promptly extracted his knife and proceeded with routinary efficiency. Imploring lamentations stopped as sharply as had arosen. Vilana threw himself heavily on the stage coach seat, followed by Claire's apparently impassive glance. "It's war, Sire", her beautiful eyes seemed to tell him; but nothing was said, however.

Only the ceaseless murmur of Rhone waters filled the air since.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Troubled journey (9): Shots in the dark

Comtat Venaissin border, night of 24th August 1713

Sous-Lieutenante Claire Baizanville tried to keep gaze to the clear line drawn by the gravel road amidst the darkness. At their departure from Les Tricastins inn, she and Guillem Llinàs had thrown their mounts at gallop southwards, hoping to catch the supposed murderers of Fra Dídac Serralta. She concentrated on distinguishing any silhouette in the dark, internally praying the sound of hooves got drowned by the murmur of river Rhone waters running by the road edge.

She then perceived a sudden pace change of Llinàs mount and instinctively forced her own horse to slow down too, gently pulling the reins. The Catalan military was intently watching forward, while extracting with parsimony one of his pistols. No more than a hundred paces ahead, two horsemen were riding at a slow pace. Darkness prevented them from discerning details, but they might well be the fugitives.

Claire and Llinàs increased slightly their horses speed. Their aim was to shorten distances as much as possible before being noticed. They were aware that, sooner or later, any of the riders would turn back and realize their presence. Minutes passed slowly while Claire pledged to control herself, seeking the least gesture in the pursued men indicating any change of behaviour.

Beaujeu's reaction took them by surprise, however. Showing no previous sign of having noticed them, the man suddenly turned back and, with a fast and fluid gesture, raised a pistol and shot them. He immediately afterwards threw his horse at full speed along the wet road. Claire cursed furiously. After skillfully managing to control her horse, that had got uneasy after the unexpected shot, she threw it into gallop side by side with that of Llinàs.

In short, Beaujeu's companion seemed not less surprised than themselves by the maneuver of the monk. His horse neighed and pranced in fright, waving its front hooves in the air. The man fell to the ground noisily. He got on his knees, panting and covered with mud, while hurriedly looked for something in his belt, perhaps a weapon. Too late, wen he just hold the handle of his sword, Claire's horse rolled him up.

The girl dismounted from a jump on the damp earth. Behind her, Llinàs and Beaujeu were still playing their own game road away, engaged in a frantic ride amidst the darkness. She got close to her victim, staring at him with curiousity. He a young man was still breathing, although with obvious difficulties. He had no illusions, had noticed well enough his bones crunching under hoof. She stroked the neck of her panting horse, trying to soothe it with a whisper: -Shhhhh ... quiet my friend... I know, I know. It was not very smart from us... but we're not going to tell anybody, shall we?... Shhh....

Beaujeu showed to be a consummate horseman, but a quick reaction of Llinàs in an unexpected curve allowed him to shorten distances to a minimum. Only four, maybe five paces. After briefly considering possibilities, the Catalan quickly pulled back the pistol lock and pressed the trigger. Beaujeu contracted on his saddle but, in spite of pain, drew out his sword and gave a thrust to Llinàs, who barely had time enough to drop the pistol and draw out his own sword to parry. Hurt as he was however, the next sponging of Beaujeu was devoid of nerve and Llinàs easily dodged it before thrusting in turn. Mortally wounded, Beaujeu dropped his weapon and relied heavily on the neck of his horse, who progerssively slowed down until stopping.

Sunday, October 09, 2011

Troubled journey (8): On pursue

Pierrelatte (Dauphiné), night of 24th August 1713

-Are you sure? Two horses? -Marquis of Vilana asked to his escort men while getting inside the stage coach.

-Sure, Sire. Two horses, and they faced south -Lieutenant Llinàs affirmed while loading the vehicle with their luggage.

So the murderer had an accomplice... The veteran legate was plainly doubtful. His mission implied facing northwards, towards Versailles. Would it be wise getting distracted from that high mission to investigate the death of a religious instead? However, Vilana was now certain about the identity of the deceased monk. His intuition was insistently telling him the old man had some information he considered highly valuable for what he had called "shared interests". Some information he seemingly had the aim to share before being killed.

-I guess it would be futile trying to pursue them in this stage coach... -Vilana probed Llinàs.

-We have two horses of the monks, Sire... Good animals. If they have taken the road southwards, we could catch them on these horses.

The inn sorroundings were bustling with activity while the militiamen scattered with torches at hand, shouting against the authors of the terrible crime taking the life of a faithful servant of God. Vilana's thoughts were then interrupted by the sound of galloping horses. Mounted soldiers coming from Pierrelatte town, alerted by the boy sent by the inn-keeper. He should take a decision -quickly. He then shouted:

-All right! Let's go south! Claire, you and Llinàs take those horses and fly after the fugitives! We shall be following you at the stage coach own pace. Take the weapons you believe necessary, but... please. We need at least one of them alive. We need answers.

Claire Baizanville eagerly agreed, excited at the prospective of man hunting. On his side, Llinàs obbeyed with professional indifference, as if being given orders by a higher rank military.

While the gallant couple put their horses at gallop southwards like avenger angels, Vilana plunged again in thought, lulled by the stage coach gentle swaying. According to his own assumptions, the inscription on the dead monk's Bible had been written by Brother Adrienne (sic) de Wignacourt, who had been Grandmaster of the Order of Malta between 1690 and 1697. The Order of Malta... A sovereign, solid state with dense economic, political and financial ramifications everywhere. A state built up of individuals from all across Europe, often influential lineages in their own native nations... a so large and complex network that had required to have it internally organized into geographical groups: the so-called Langues. This way, the true identity of the deceased monk, who had introduced himself as Brother Vincent, was actually that of Dídac de Serralta, appointed as Grand Prior of Catalonia by Brother Adrienne de Wignacourt in 1697. He asked for confirmation to young Brother Adrien, no longer hiding himself, for his words were in Catalan language from that moment on -He was the Grand Prior, wasn't he?

The boy nodded in silence, while still wiping his tears. Vilana tryed to guess his age. No more than twenty years old, certainly. Perhaps younger.

-But for God's sake, what were you doing in France?

The young monk couldn't tell him. He didn't know.

Monday, October 03, 2011

Good to be a nobleman, after all...

Troubled journey - chapter 7

Pierrelatte (Dauphiné), night of 24th August 1713

To the surprise of Claire Baizanville, the Marquis of Vilana who had coincidentally just left his room added his own voices of alarm to those of the militiaman. But a very different way. Having quickly grasped the situation, Vilana adopted the authoritative ways and voice of a nobleman: -No one enters the room! Prepare some torches, the murderer might already be outside! You man! -to the militiaman now: -what are you doing? A man of God has just been brutally murdered, and you're standing here dead still as a statue? Go tell your superior. Hurry up!

Claire instantly understood the risky bid Vilana had undertaken: relying on the others' perception of his own social high status and through authoritative ways, he was trying to reverse the situation and assume command on an eventual, more than likely reaction of militiamen! The bluff seemed to be successful, because the militiaman seemed to be quite intimidated. Claire deduced he had been told just to go upstairs and shout, and little else. The man started slowly to back toward the stairs. Quite ironically, the dead monk's room was still closed.

Meanwhile, Lieutenant Llinàs was the first one to get upstairs. One single glance was enough for him to react, he drew up his pistol as fast as a lightning and aimed it straightly against the militiaman face -Who told you to give the alarm? -Vilana sharply asked to him.

-It... it was my captain, Monsieur Bouvier... He had spoken with one of the newcomers ...

-Which one of them?

-A tall one... with a scar on cheek... I don't know anything else, monsieur; just was told to ...

-Your captain. Only you were told to come here and give the alarm, or anyone else too?

-Ju... just me, monsieur.

The militiaman was terrified. Unlike Llinàs, he was no more than a rookie and had never before had to face a loaded weapon. Worst of all, Llinàs grim glance showed clearly he'd shoot with no hesitation.

Always assuming the authoritative ways of a nobleman, Vilana stepped out of the militiaman's mates, who had also started coming. Leading them downstairs back, Vilana addressed to the inn's owner, ordering him to call for the authorities of His Majesty in town. Again, it was a calculated bid: if regular troops came and took care of the situation, they would prevent the militiamen to take the law into their own hands if someone happened to accuse them. Vilana then went to face the militia captain, realizing of the interrogative glance he was addressing to the stunned militiaman he had just sent upstairs.

-Monsieur Bouvier, your collaboration is essential -Vilana affirmed using his best authoritative voice-. Must find the murderer. Please organize your men for a raid around the surroundings. No one should access the upper floor, for it would be desirable not to alter the crime scene before the authorities arrive.

After a moment of hesitation, the officer resigned to contradict him. After all, Vilana thought, he would already have in bag the coins likely donated by the scary monk -the alleged murderer. A complete success. Safe again, although likely for not too long. They should take advantage of the confusion created by Vilana and flee from there.