The Spanish city of Lerida in the XVIIth Century.

We are on the banks of a river which weaves through an arid countryside.  It is early June, and the Segre, which irrigates Catalogna, already has only a little yellow, muddy water…  Everything is yellow in this austere province:  the burnt Dawn sky, the dried grass, the hill, the ramparts and the high walls of Lerida, which is today a beseiged city.  Again.  For a river of blood has not ceased flowing through this martyr city for centuries.  Since Pompey delivered it to Caesar, and the Moors and the Christians slit each others throats there, not to mention the French, who never march on Spain without occupying it…

The Prince de Conde commanded the troops that beseiged Lerida.

Once more it had been taken and pillaged.  And these French, whom the people of Lerida had fiercely fought and finally chased away, have come back again to attack them, innumerable, in this 1647 Spring.  The beseigers, whose tents and bivouac fires stretch over the horizon, are led by the Great Conde himself, the greatest war-chief of his century, the one who put an end to centuries of the Spanish Infantry’s invincibility, at the Battle of Rocroi…

Victory here too is assured.  Lerida, surrounded, lacks water, bread, powder and bullets.  So, inside the walls, they are getting ready for the final assault, and the men, but also the women, are trying not to think about the horrors which are about to befall them.

Of course, between army chiefs, there is a lot of bowing, politeness and posing.  But these magnificent courtesies change nothing about the fate of the poor people and the rank and file.  For them, “the war in laces” is accompanied by firing, mud, hunger.  And always massacres and rapes.

Before Lerida, the trench that is the most exposed to the Catalan fire is that of the Prince.  Precisely because of the dangers of being there, it is a supreme honour to command it.  It is Roger de Bussy, Count of Rabutin to whom this honour has fallen.  For his fantastic bravery, and also because he is in favour at Court.

Count Roger de Bussy-Rabutin.

On 2 June in the morning, he is on guard duty in this trap, exposed to the firing of the beseiged, and in particular, to their attempts to break out, which are still frequent and murderous.  Day has barely dawned when an emissary of the Chevalier de La Valliere presents himself before Bussy-Rabutin.  He is the bearer of a very pleasing message:  to break the monotony of the seige, La Valliere is organizing, that same day, a luncheon to which are also invited Barbantane, Lieutenant of Conde’s Guard, and Jumeaux his “Battle Marshal”, a title which sounds better than that of the staff officer that he would later become.

At the appointed time, Bussy-Rabutin, all joyous, clothes himself in full dress, with ribbons, laces and a hat with feathers, then, trotting on his horse, followed by all his footmen, sets off for Headquarters, which is installed out of reach of the couleuvrines [small cannons], inside the ruins of an old church.  When he appears, dashing and superb, cries of joy greet him.  With feathers fluttering, they embrace lengthily, as is the fashion.  Soon, without there being any need for questions, our cavalier knows everything and more, about the adulteries and the sexual scandals of Chantilly, Paris and Saint-Germain…

Gossiping makes them thirsty, and youth and all these gallantry rumours make them hungry.  Behind some bushes, a wide table has been set…  It is covered with bottles and food, everything that Enghien’s Guards had been able to swipe within a twenty-league radius…  The wines in particular are abundant.  Bubbly clarets from the South of France, but also deep burgundies and, so as not to neglect the local production, wines from Alicante, Cyprus and marsalas.  On the side-boards, away from the sun, spicy cakes and brioches, wafer biscuits and blancmanges.

A delicate attention,  Monsieur the Prince, Chief of the Armies, has sent his violinists…

A fifth good fellow, La Breteche, Second Lieutenant of Monsieur the Prince’s Guard, arrives.  Frankly greedy, fond of sword-play and loud-mouthed, always the first to break the peace and raise skirts, in other words, the most brazen of libertines.  Worse even than Bussy-Rabutin.

In the shade, they drain the bottles in one draught.  They ply each other with food.  They stuff themselves, and when their hunger is appeased, there is more wine, sun and singing to keep them awake.  All is perfect on this beautiful day, except…  there are no women.

Monsieur the Prince would do anything to oblige his officers.  But where can such game be found at this time?  There are not even any more girls to rape in the whole province.  It must be said that the last ones had to have daggers taken from their hands first…  Barbantane rises from the table.  He is swaying a bit and hurls his hunger for fresh flesh to the sky, begging it to rain girls down upon them.

Barbantane now runs to repeat his prayer inside the church… 

Our proud gentlemen take up his invocation in a drunken chant, and the amorous fever goes up a notch…  Suddenly Barbantane, from the depths of the church, calls out:

“Messieurs!  One pretty woman coming up!  God!  How cute she is!”

His companions rush in, hats in their hands, to rape in all urbanity.  They remain frozen in horror.

Barbantane has kicked open a coffin which was abandoned – how long ago? – in the depository, the “rotter” as they say in Catalogna.  Through the planks of the disjointed lid of the coffin, they can in fact see a woman.  Or rather what is left of a woman.  A yellowish face of boiled leather, empty eye-sockets, the grimace of teeth deprived of lips.

Barbantane, completely drunk, finishes breaking open the lid.  The cadaver appears in its entirety.  It is dressed in black velvet, with gold sequins, a Toledo necklace at its fleshless neck, rings on its joined hands, which look like bird claws…  some noble lady, without a doubt, who was embalmed, and that the extreme dryness of the air had mummified.

Bussy-Rabutin has been suddenly sobered by the horror of it.  He begs the others not to profane her…

La Valliere, whose alcohol abuse had not led him too far astray until now, is suddenly the craziest.  He accuses Bussy-Rabutin of being afraid of a dead body.  Bussy-Rabutin, insulted, is ready for a duel.  He declares that he fears neither the living nor the dead.

Completely occupied with his sacrilegious work, Barbantane now pulls the mummy out of the coffin.  He puts back into place a poor tuft of hair, straightens the cracked bodice, flirts with it.  Finally, he holds it amorously in his arms, places its head on his shoulder.  Its arms dangling, the body curves with a cracking sound.

The gentlemen roar with laughter and say:

“Not only you!  Give her to us too…”

“But she has to be amused, Messieurs!  Look at her face!  The pretty little thing is bored!”

Then they send for the violinists.  Who arrive.  Jumeaux orders them to play a dance in fashion.  They obey.  Barbantane, Jumeaux and La Valliere make the body dance.  Its stiffened members resist.  Its head nods and bobs.  All these men laugh until they cry…

All things come to an end.  They finally put the dead woman back in her coffin, like a doll that is no longer amusing.

What happens next?  They are all so drunk and out of it, that the memories become hazy, and Bussy, relating it in his Memoires, hesitates, remains vague…

They return to the table.  The sun is already declining on the horizon that is fuzzy with heat.  A superior officer, the Marquis de La Trousse, comes to find La Valliere for a question of service.  The two men walk a few steps.  La Valliere crumples, his head shattered by a musket shot.

No-one heard the detonation.  No-one saw the shooter.  This was the only shot fired throughout the whole day.

A few days later, Barbantane, Jumeaux and La Breteche die asphyxiated by convulsions and a mysterious fever.  Bussy-Rabutin himself suffers from it.  He only just survives.  Then a deadly epidemic strikes the French camp.  The ranks of the army melt away with terrifying rapidity.  Horrified, those who remain valid, desert, taking off into the mountains where the Spanish massacre them to the last man.

Behind its ochre ramparts, Lerida, this time, remains invincible.  Saved by a profaned dead woman.

The war in laces really existed.  As hideous as all the others.  And the end of this terrible story is even more cruel.  Here is what Michelet says about it:

“Desperate, Conde was obliged to leave.  And, to relieve his heart, he slit the throats of everyone in a little village which he took along the way.”

***

To be continued.

Advertisements