The Opulent Cesspool


Benedict Mol arrived in Santiago, dressed in his Zahori attire, a short while before San Roque’s feast-day. The precise date is a matter of conjecture. If he really set out from Madrid on the same day that Borrow started for the Sagra, he must have climbed into his stagecoach on July 10th or 11th, and would have arrived in Coruña, after the long and arduous journey over the dry Castilian plains and the steep Galician mountains, some two weeks later, approximately on July 25th. There are, however, some reasons to think – reasons too long and dreary to repeat here – that Borrow applied some of his customary creative chronology when he described their last farewell; and that Mol only left Madrid a fortnight later, about July 28th, when Borrow himself set out on yet another trip. In that case Mol would have reached Coruña by the 8th of August, and Santiago by the 10th, pretty much at the time when the tension between town hall and Chapter was reaching its zenith.

Naturally Mol was in a hurry to start digging, but with a war on, martial law in force and civil strife reigning all around, he could barely march into San Roque with a pickaxe and start hauling up the pavement. He needed help and a formal permission. To that effect he probably first sought contact with the local officials of the Treasury, Mon’s men in Compostela, and put his case to them. One would just love to see the credentials which he showed them: his travelling passport, his recommendation from the Minister, the petitions he may have filed and the answers he received. Unfortunately all of those seem to have been lost or tucked away in files so secret that they never again re-emerged. The Treasury officials were obedient men, exemplary civil servants, so we may trust that they promised the Swiss all the help he might need. But, being cautious as well, they will have warned him that there was only one man from whom both manpower and permission could be obtained: Jerónimo Valdés, the Captain-General of Galicia, the highest civil, military and legal authority of the province, and consequently the only officeholder competent to take charge of such a delicate affair. As luck would have it, this all-important person, who usually resided in Coruña, was in Santiago at this time.

Valdés, an efficient administrator and fine general who had started his career as a guerrilla leader during the Peninsular War, was new to the job. He had only taken charge of Galicia in the first week of July, but he had done so with incomparable energy and initiative. The situation clearly demanded it. His predecessor, General José Manso – whose last name, ironically, means ‘tame’ – had left a mess behind. Too passive a personality for an emergency of the present order, Manso had been unable to face up to growing Carlist audacity while the army’s allocations grew thinner. The consequences were visible everywhere: Carlist guerrilleros were infesting nearly every corner of the countryside. Merchants and travellers were robbed, garrisons ambushed, towns assaulted, officials murdered in their very own homes at night. To restore confidence, Valdés needed a quick, resounding military success, and so, immediately upon assumption of office, he undertook a thorough reorganisation of the war effort and set out on major-scale military operations against his two worst enemies: one particularly unpleasant young brigand called Mateo Guillade, who ran his guerrilla band in the southern mountains; the other Ramón Ramos, the notorious head of the Carlist movement in Galicia, who operated east of Santiago, around Arzua.

Both of these dangers were much better dealt with from central Compostela than from Coruña on the distant coast. What is more, Valdés, who saw his troops starve and go unshod because Alejandro Mon had no money left to spend on provincial armies, had hit upon a plan to raise additional funds from the wealthy Santiago merchants. To be successful, to collect more than a few apologetic pennies, such a plea would have to be made in person. So somewhere in late July or early August, the Captain-General moved his headquarters, his bureaucracy and half his army to the city of Saint James, and began his arduous meetings and military preparations. And here, in the middle of all this momentous, pressing, time-consuming business, he was one day confronted by a delegation from the Treasury Department, with in their midst Don Benedicto Mol, official government Zahori, who explained the purpose of his visit as a search for a French treasure, buried thirty years ago by the troops of Ney, somewhere in the San Roque complex…

One can only guess what the Captain-General may have thought of this Swiss nutcase, dumped on him by the very same Minister of Finance who could spare no money to run the starving army… If he had any sense of humour left, Valdés may have smiled wryly. But it is just as likely he cursed the incompetent ministerial accountant under his breath and wished him to places better left unmentioned. Valdés was not a man to lose precious time over other people’s antics. His first impulse must have been to dismiss the lot and forbid all disturbances of the peace. But when push came to shove even the Captain-General was only an appointed official, who owed his job to the government of the day, and there must have been some heavy pressure from Madrid. So Valdés had to give in. He read the recommendation and studied the paperwork. He sounded out the local authorities and perhaps even sent someone to check out San Roque for himself. Then at last he cut the Gordian knot. The treasure hunt could go ahead, but it had to wait until after San Roque’s feast-day. Someone must have told Valdés of the running dispute between town council and cathedral; and given these tensions, it made sense to restrain the treasure hunter from entering San Roque until all that tricky business had blown over. Especially since Mol, for understandable reasons of secrecy, kept hinting, as he had always done, that he planned to dig in San Roque’s sacristy, or even in the chapel itself, and concealed the fact that his true object was the Hospital.

Consequently the search was postponed until after the celebrations. But not a single day longer! As such things go when people are let confidentially into secrets, the sensational news of buried treasure had immediately leaked out. There was no telling what might happen if some wild character got it into his head to go looking for the gold on his own account. A single man might start a riot; a riot would have to be suppressed; the violence might easily trigger an all-out rebellion in as Carlist a city as Saint James. The big day was therefore set at Friday the 17th of August – the day immediately following on the festivities – and preparations were made to ensure that everything would take place in an orderly fashion. A selection of prominent citizens was summoned to attend the search as official witnesses. A number of scribes – most probably Mon’s men from the Hacienda Publica – were directed to stand by, to count, register and seal the gold and silver which would be dug up. A large team of masons and porters were engaged to perform the necessary labour, and soldiers were allotted to guarantee peace and order during the work and the subsequent transport.

Lodged in luxury, fed like a prince, Mol waited for his dubious Finest Hour to arrive. He was now being kept at the cost of the taxpayer and no longer needed to sleep in cheap pigsties or eat grub from course clay bowls. Even so he must have been anxious for Friday morning to arrive. He had waited such a long time – nearly thirty years – and now, this close to his goal, the remaining week must have felt like a century. There were the persistant uncertainties, the gnawing fears… What if the Captain-General unexpectedly changed his mind? What if some unscrupulous rascal stole into San Roque on the sly? What if…. Oh, a hundred apprehensions must have tormented the poor fellow day and night. If he slept more than an hour all through that endless week it deserves to be called a miracle. He may even have lost some pounds from pure wrecked nerves, in spite of the rich, abundant fare which he now ate.

And then, at last, the great day dawned…