Prologue

In early August of 1838, right in the middle of the First Carlist Civil War, an outlandish figure arrived with the weekly mail coach at Santiago de Compostela, the ancient pilgrimage town in the far north-western corner of Spain. He was a corpulent, burly old man of some sixty or seventy years of age, with hectic, livid blue eyes and the ruddy complexion of a blond Middle European. His dress, though expensive and well-made, was the oddest of possible outfits. It was entirely cut from bright green cloth, and topped by a large-brimmed, high-coned hat, while he wielded in his hand, as symbol of office, a long bamboo staff adorned with the stone image of a savage animal. In short: he looked much more like a clown or a cabaret magician than the thing he really was: a government agent on a highly delicate mission.

It would not be easy to classify this man correctly. Until only a few months earlier, one would simply have called him a tramp, since he used to beg his bread in the streets of Madrid and the hamlets of Castile. Yet it would be a little unfair to brush him aside so roughly, for his poverty was only recent, the plight that callous times visit upon the ageing poor who have outlived their utility. He had known better times in the past. Throughout a long and eventful life, he plied many a trade and earned his keep in a remarkable variety of ways. He had been a soap-boiler and a tailor, a cobbler and a horse-farrier; and before all that, he had been a soldier: a mercenary who had come to Spain many decades ago to fight for pay.

His roots were Swiss. He had been born in one of Switzerland’s German cantons as the son of the local hangman, and when still in his teens had joined, like many of his compatriots, the Papal Guard in Rome. Around the turn of the century he drifted to Spain, either to serve in the Spanish Royal Bodyguard or as a soldier in Napoleon’s invading armies. When the French war ended, he was demobilised, but he stayed on in the country, married to a Minorcan woman, doing odd jobs, raising some children, slowly growing old. His life had neither been remarkable nor particularly gratifying. But now, after so many decades of scraping the barrel of penury, good fortune had finally come his way. He had found himself a patron and a protector and was doing well for himself. It showed in his fabulous, extravagant costume. It showed also in his lavish manner of living. He travelled by the most expensive mail coach. He boarded in the best hotels. His pockets were filled with public money; and in his wallet he carried an official recommendation to the authorities of Santiago, which lent him considerable privileges. He had come to dig up a treasure, hidden thirty years previously by men now dead, in one of Santiago’s monumental buildings. And he came to do so on behalf of no one less than the Minister of Finance himself.

The Swiss was, in short, the only official government Zahori who was ever employed.