An Exploring Officer – a ghost story of the Peninsular War was written earlier this year but I thought I’d publish it again for anybody who missed it.
It was late afternoon when the storm hit, sudden and violent with a warm wind whipping up dust and sand in choking swirls and the sky becoming leaden and menacing as Giles Fenwick rode south towards Salamanca. His horse, a big rawboned grey was accustomed to long rides in the worst weather conditions, but even he seemed uncomfortable and restive under Giles’ hands. Looking up at the rapidly blackening skies, Giles made the decision to seek shelter for the night.
Since he had transferred to the Corps of Guides from his regiment a year earlier, Giles had become accustomed to sleeping out in all kinds of weather and was surprisingly good at keeping himself warm and dry wrapped in his army greatcoat, but he was sensitive to Boney’s moods. Riding alone for weeks and sometimes months at a time, his horse was his transport, his companion and more than once his lifeline and he was not prepared to risk a night in the open with Boney nervous and ready to bolt at a sudden clap of thunder. Better to make his way to a village and wait the storm out in the relative security of a barn or farmhouse.
Giles did not know the area particularly well. He had been in Ciudad Rodrigo enjoying a rare and all too brief few days of rest when his orders had come. Major Scovell had sounded apologetic in his short note, aware of how exhausting the life of an exploring officer could be and how necessary an occasional spell of respite was, but Lord Wellington was ordering all leave cancelled and Giles had called the commander-in-chief a variety of rude names under his breath, collected supplies and his Spanish guide, Antonio, and had ridden north as ordered, spending weeks dodging the French in the area around Valladolid while Lord Wellington’s Allied army marched on Salamanca. Whatever the result of Wellington’s latest sortie into Spain he wanted intelligence about French troops and defences towards Madrid and beyond out towards Burgos. If he succeeded in driving the French out of Salamanca he wanted to know everything he could about their dispositions to help him decide on his next move.
With his information gathered, Giles had made two coded copies of his notes and sent one off with Antonio via a different route. The risk of either of them being captured was always great. Antonio, a Spanish guide would be shot on sight. Giles was still wearing at least a semblance of British uniform but he was under no illusions that the French would treat him as anything other than a spy. It was a risk he was used to and had accepted when he had taken on the job.
Reaching into his coat, Giles pulled out a sketch map and studied it. If he veered off to the south-west, heading back towards the main road, there was a village marked. It was unlikely that French patrols would be found in this area and he could find shelter for himself and his horse and hopefully some food. When the storm settled he could resume his journey either to the Allied lines outside Salamanca or into the city if Wellington’s attack had been successful. Giles tucked the map away and set off, thinking of Antonio and hoping that he was safe.
The rain started about a mile out of the village, huge raindrops which drove into his eyes with the wind and made it difficult to see anything beyond Boney’s twitching ears. There was a flash across the sky and then a crash of thunder so loud that it made Giles jump. It sounded alarmingly close and Boney reared up in fright. Giles pulled him back and reached out, running his hand over the smooth neck.
“Calm down, boy,” he said gently. “I’m not so keen on it either. Let’s get moving.”
He guided the horse on through the downpour, trying not to react to the thunder claps or the white flashes of lightening which tore into the darkened sky with savage frequency. He could feel Boney’s terror under his hands and he no longer tried to move cautiously. If there was a French sentry at the edge of the village it was too dark to see him until Boney fell over him, but in this weather the enemy could hardly use firepower and Giles had a good deal of faith in his own ability to win in a one to one fight. His care now was for his horse. He could see, finally, a huddle of buildings looming up through the torrential rain, and he quickened his mount slightly and then swore as Boney suddenly skidded and let out a squeal of pain.
Giles reined him in and swung down from the saddle keeping a firm hold on the reins. He could see immediately what had caused the problem, a large rock, smooth and wet and slippery had caused Boney to stumble. The horse, already terrified, was trying to pull away from him and Giles could see that he was lame. There was no point trying to examine the damage here. Giles turned, tugging on the reins to bring Boney in close to him, hoping that his body against the horse’s might soothe him a little. One hand on the reins, the other on the shivering animal’s neck, he led Boney firmly into the village.
It was a small place, a huddle of stone cottages around a crossroads with a church at the centre. As he drew closer, Giles could see that the church had no roof and was damaged, one end of the building sagging dangerously. He wondered initially if the village was deserted. But several of the houses were in reasonable condition, and even had small walled gardens growing vegetables or fruit trees. Somebody was tending those and he ploughed on doggedly towards the largest house, a solid looking farmhouse beyond the church with shuttered windows and a big oak door.
As Giles approached, the door opened. He was relieved although wary. If the French were, for some unlikely reason, in this village miles from where they should be, they were nowhere in sight. But he had learned to be cautious. Most of the villagers in Spain were willing to be friendly enough to a lone English officer, and Giles spoke Spanish fluently; it was one of his qualifications for the job. But he was also aware that there was a considerable proportion of Spaniards who had supported Bonaparte and he was not taking any chances.
“Good evening, Señor. I’m in search of shelter for myself and my horse. Have you a barn or a shelter we can use until this blows over? And some fodder for my lad here, he’s exhausted. I can pay.”
The man held the door wider and in the light of a lamp from the room within, Giles could make out a stocky Spaniard, probably in his forties. He was almost bald although his beard was thick and dark with grey streaks and his eyes were dark. He turned and lifted the lantern, stepping out onto the steps and closing the door.
“This way. Around the back.”
Giles followed him and felt a rush of relief at the sight of a solid looking wooden building at the back of the house. The man unbarred the door, struggling to hold it in the force of the wind and Giles led Boney inside. When the door was closed the man came forward, hanging the lantern up on a hook clearly designed for the purpose and Giles looped Boney’s reins around a wooden rail on the wall and looked around him.
He was surprised at the air of prosperity about the place and was very sure that the French had not been near this place for a long time. The harvest had been brought in and there was hay for the horse. At the far end of the barn, two uninterested mules fed idly from a trough. The farmer moved past him and brought a leather bucket of water for Boney. Giles watched his horse drink and the farmer, without being asked, pulled over a wooden manger and filled it for the horse to eat.
“Thank you,” Giles said. “I’m very grateful. I should introduce myself, Señor. I’m…”
“In the house,” the Spaniard said. “See to your horse and then join me for supper. I can give you a bed for the night.”
“You don’t need to do that, I’ll be all right out here. Although food would be welcome.”
“Join me. We will talk.” The Spaniard surveyed him. “English?”
“You speak my language well. Join me soon.”
Left alone, Giles went to check Boney’s leg. There was a little swelling, but it was not bad and the horse did not seem particularly distressed now that he was warm and dry and out of the storm. As the wind howled and the rain lashed against the sturdy walls, Giles rubbed him down, fussed him and made sure he was securely tied, then left him to rest and ventured out again, running over to the house where he found his host waiting for him in a dark panelled dining room.
“This is very kind of you, Señor, and you don’t even know my name. Captain Giles Fenwick of the Corps of Guides. I’m travelling to Salamanca.”
The Spaniard bowed. “Matias Benitez, Captain, at your service. You are joining the army there?”
Giles nodded. “Either in or out of the city, I’ve no idea which yet.”
“Come closer to the fire, Captain, it will dry your clothes. If you will hand your coat to my servant he will see that his wife dries it and brushes it for you, and she will launder anything else you wish before you leave.”
Giles masked a grin. Given the condition of the few items of spare clothing he carried in his saddlebags he was not sure they would survive a thorough washing. “You’re very hospitable, Señor Benitez, I’m grateful. I hope to be able to move on tomorrow.”
“You should rest your horse for a day, Captain, he was limping. Stay two nights, you will be safe here and you will make it to Salamanca faster with a rested and fed mount.”
Giles knew he was right. He handed his coat to an elderly servant with a smile of thanks and sat down before the fire which was blazing in a stone fireplace set into the wall. The room looked old with little furniture, just a table and some chairs. There were no pictures hanging on the walls, no cushions and no ornaments. Giles looked back at his host and realised that he had noticed him looking.
“The French,” Benitez said in matter of fact tones. “They came through on their way to Portugal two years ago. Many houses were destroyed, but they found mine a convenient place for the officers to stay so it survived. When they left they took everything of value with them. Much of the furniture went for firewood but they left some.”
“I’m sorry. You’ve rebuilt to some degree, though, it looked as though some houses are occupied. Did the villagers get away?”
“A few did. Most not. There are a dozen or so houses occupied now. We have managed to plant crops this past year so we no longer starve.”
Giles wanted to ask what had happened to the villagers who had not made it away from the French army but two years out here had taught him better. He accepted a pewter cup of sherry and sipped it appreciatively, feeling it warm his chilled body. He was finally beginning to relax.
“How long were they here?” he asked.
“A few months only. They have not returned, thank God. We are not on the main road so there is little cause for them to march this way unless they are searching for food. Or women, but there are none left apart from Maria, my servant and one elderly woman in the village. Nothing to bring them here.”
The door opened and the servant entered with a tray. Giles was glad as it saved him from responding. He wondered about Benitez’ own family. Travelling as he did, he had seen too many such tragedies in both Portugal and Spain through these years of war, and he was very aware that although the English were fighting and dying in the fight against Bonaparte, they were not fighting at home, watching their houses burn and their wives and daughters raped.
It had been weeks since he had sat down to a proper cooked meal and he tried hard to remember to eat like the gentleman he was supposed to be rather than like a starving beggar. He suspected that his host realised how hungry he was as he called several times for another dish. They talked through the meal of the war and Spanish politics and Giles responded civilly to questions about his aristocratic family. He seldom talked of them, but a man who had given so generously of his hospitality was entitled to have his curiosity satisfied.
When they had shared brandy after the meal, Giles rose. “Will you excuse me, Señor? I would like to see that my horse is secure before I retire.”
“Maria has prepared a guest room for you, Enzo can show you the way. No need to venture out in this weather tonight, the barn is very secure. It was rebuilt from scratch when we returned to the village. In the morning…”
Giles smiled and shook his head. “I won’t sleep unless I go,” he said. “It will only take me a few minutes.”
“You should not go out there, Captain. Not this late. It is dark…”
The Spaniard’s voice was emphatic and Giles was faintly puzzled. “I’ve very good night vision, sir, and I’ll take a lantern if I may. It sounds as though the rain has eased.”
“Still, it is not wise when it is dark.”
“I will be fine,” Giles said, firmly but pleasantly, and his host studied him and then sighed and got up.
“If you insist. Take the lantern from the hall, it is covered. But don’t linger out there, Captain. You’ll be chilled.”
Giles bowed and left, grinning once he was away from the older man. He wondered what Benitez thought he usually did when caught out in bad weather. He was a little touched by his host’s concern for him, however excessive it seemed, and he wondered again about the man’s family. Had they died when the French invaded their village? Had there been a son, cut down for defending his home or a daughter defiled and murdered?
Outside the wind was still strong but the thunder and lightening had passed over, just an occasional rumble in the distance to show the direction of the storm. The driving rain had slowed to a fine drizzle, and Giles pulled his greatcoat around him and made his way by the dim light of the lantern to the barn. Inside it was warm and dry and he could see at once that his concern for Boney was misplaced. The horse had eaten and drunk and appeared to be dozing but as Giles closed the door against the wind, Boney gave a soft whicker of greeting. Giles went to him, rubbing his nose and stroking his neck and the horse nuzzled him affectionately.
The leg did not seem too bad but Giles was aware that Benitez was probably right about resting it. Another day and night would ensure that the rest of their journey did not cause any further injury to Boney and Giles needed his horse to be fit and well. He had no money to buy a new mount, besides which he loved the horse and was not prepared to cripple him by pushing him beyond his limits. Boney was essential to his work and if the strain needed longer to heal, he would have to find a temporary mount for a while. It was not likely to be a problem. Unlike most of the other exploring officers, Giles had maintained close ties with his old regiment and there were several officers of the 110th more wealthy than he who would lend him a spare horse and take care of Boney while he mended, but for that to work he had to get him there. Wondering how lame he was, Giles unlooped the reins and began to walk Boney the length of the barn. He was pleased to see that the limp was already less obvious. Before they reached the end, Boney turned and walked back and Giles went with him, watching the movement of his leg. They reached the two curious mules, and Giles turned and led him back down the barn. Boney stopped at the same point he had turned last time and Giles urged him forwards, concentrating on the fetlock. Boney took four or five reluctant steps towards the end of the barn and without warning stopped dead. Giles looked at him, startled. The big grey uttered a loud squeal and moved back, pulling hard on the reins. His ears were flicking back and forth and his lip had curled back from his teeth, his tail down. He was exhibiting all the signs of being terrified but Giles could see nothing which might have alarmed him.
He led the frightened horse back down the barn and stood fussing him, feeling Boney gradually calm down. When he was settled, Giles left him and went back to the other end of the barn. Any object could have spooked the horse simply by being unexpected, but as far as Giles could see there was nothing there. He looked around curiously. The only difference in this part of the barn was that it was significantly colder presumably caused by a loose board or a badly sealed joint. Giles shrugged and lifted the lantern. The flame flickered suddenly and went out leaving him in complete darkness.
Cursing fluently, Giles stood very still until his eyes became accustomed to the darkness. There was no point in trying to find his tinderbox to relight the lamp. It was not far to the house and once outside he should be able to see his way by the lights from the house. As his vision adjusted, he could see the solid bulk of Boney at the far end of the barn, and a gleam of eyes beyond him showed where the two mules stood. Cautiously, Giles moved forward to the wall of the barn and felt his way along. He had almost reached the door when something came towards him very fast and hit him so hard that he fell backwards, keeping his feet only because his hand was on the wall to steady himself. He stood motionless for a moment, his heart racing, and then a blast of cold air brought the explanation and Giles grinned as he realised that his attacker was the barn door which had swung open in the wind. How, he had no idea because he was sure he had closed it properly, but he was relieved and amused at how jumpy he was.
Outside he latched the door carefully and checked it to make sure it could not blow open again then turned to go back to the house. As he had hoped, there were several well lit windows to guide him and he was almost there when something caught his eye and he stopped and turned. It was coming from the ruined church; an orange flicker of fire. Giles stood staring for a moment and then a voice called and Señor Benitez was opening the door.
Giles hesitated and then went on to the house and his host closed the door firmly behind him. “Your lantern?”
“It blew out – I must have left the barn door open,” Giles said. “But Señor, is there somebody camping out in the old church? I’m pretty sure I just saw a fire there.”
The Spaniard’s eyes widened. “The church? No. No, there is nobody there.”
“I think there is, Señor. Let me get a light and I’ll go down and…”
“No!” Benitez said, and his response was so forceful that it startled Giles. Benitez seemed to realise it because he gave a somewhat forced smile. “I am sure you are wrong, but I will send Enzo to be sure.”
Giles regarded him thoughtfully. “I would if I were you, Señor. In this wind a spark could easily blow this far and the rain has almost stopped.”
He said nothing more. The servant showed him to a small room at the back of the house overlooking the barn and upon request, Giles handed over his shabby garments for laundering with an apologetic smile and went to bed. He was tired and a proper bed was a pleasure after weeks sleeping on the hard ground.
He awoke abruptly and sat up. It was still full dark and Giles had no idea what had awoken him but he was aware that his heart was pounding and all his senses, finely attuned from months of living on his wits behind enemy lines, screaming danger. It might just have been a dream, disturbed by an owl or some other night bird although it was unusual for him to dream. Giles sat still, listening. There was no sound from below, it must be the early hours of the morning and the household was asleep. But something had disturbed him.
He got up, dressed only in his underclothes and padded to the window, pushing open the shutter. It was too dark to make out more than vague shapes; he could see the dark bulk of the barn, and the outline of the little grove of orange trees which he had noticed earlier. The wind seemed to have died down finally and the trees were not moving. But something did, just at the corner of his vision and he turned his head sharply and saw a figure move at the far end of the barn. The surprise of it made him jump.
It was impossible to make out details in the darkness and Giles knew he would not even have seen the man if he had not moved. He peered through the inky night trying to see more. There was no reason why Señor Benitez should not walk in his own garden in the early hours, but Giles could also think of no reason why he would. He thought briefly about Boney, sleeping in the barn and then he turned and reached for his trousers, a pair of thick French overalls which he had stripped off a dead voltigeur months ago and which were far more sturdy than those issued by the British army. He was probably just being over suspicious, but there was a chronic shortage of good horses throughout Spain and he was not risking losing Boney to some passing opportunist.
Aware of how dark it was, he took time to find a lantern in the kitchen and check that it was topped up with oil. There was no sound anywhere in the house but Maria had left the fire banked for the night and his spare clothing was hanging before it to dry. Giles collected his coat and pulled it on, lit the lantern and made his way cautiously out of the back door, leaving it slightly open.
There was no sign of life as he made his way down towards the barn. The door was still barred as he had left it earlier and Giles opened it and went inside. He was immediately reassured. Boney had settled down for the night and barely stirred as he went to stroke him. One of the mules was snoring faintly, snuffling in it’s sleep. Everything was as it should be and Giles shook his head at his suspicious mind, barred the door behind him and turned to go back to the house.
He saw the man once again, just on the edge of his vision, and once again it made him jump. He was further over now, around the side of the house towards the ruined church. Giles stopped, his heart beating more quickly. The figure was not moving but stood outlined against a faint light, and once again Giles saw the flicker of fire from the church.
“Who goes there?” he called out in Spanish. “Come out, you’re safe, I’m not going to hurt you.”
There was no reply and the man did not move. Giles waited a moment and then set off towards the church. He was beginning to suspect that he was not the only traveller to have stopped to find shelter from yesterday’s storm in this isolated village. The war had left many people homeless and it was not unusual to find small groups of miserable refugees camped out in ruined buildings, surviving as best they could, wandering from place to place ahead of the marching armies. He had no quarrel with them sheltering in the old church; it was none of his business, but for his own peace of mind he needed to know.
Watching his footing in the darkness he took his eye off the figure, and when he looked again the man had gone, presumably back into the church. Giles approached the building, speeding up slightly. One end of the church was virtually intact, but the other was damaged, what was left of the tower broken and sagging dangerously. He was not sure that he would have chosen this particular building as a camp site but given the weather yesterday he could believe that a man might be desperate enough to take shelter here, risking the building coming down in the high wind. Cautiously he made his way along the stone wall, aware of the smell of the fire inside. It was very smoky and he coughed, wondering how the travellers were not choking in this. And then suddenly, as he reached the edge of the wall, the church exploded.
Giles was knocked off his feet, crashing to the damp earth, his ears ringing with the blast. He lay there for a moment, too shocked to move. The still of the night was torn apart by the crackle of flame and the crash of falling masonry and the screams of terror and agony and despair. He recognised the voices of women and the shrill high cry of a child and he could smell the smoke and feel the heat of the flames on his skin.
A woman screamed again, a scream of sheer, bloodcurdling terror. It roused Giles to action and he opened his eyes, scrambled to his feet and swung round to the church, steeling himself to run into the choking smoke to see if he could get anybody out before the already damaged walls came down and buried them all alive. Already his brain, used to the noise and chaos of battle, was thinking ahead, wondering about the safest way in, wondering how many there were and how many he could reach….
There was nothing there.
Giles froze in complete bewilderment as he realised that all he could see was darkness and all he could smell was the fresh, cold night air. The ruined church loomed before him, dark and ominous as before, but with no fire, no screaming people. The smoke had gone, the sounds had vanished, cut off as if they had never been. He was standing alone, staring at the silent building and there was no sign of anything out of the ordinary. And then, once again, he caught that movement out of the corner of his eye and he turned his head slowly with a sense of pure dread, knowing what he would see. The solitary figure was standing closer than Giles had seen him so far. It was clearly a man, and although Giles could not make out his face, the uniform was that of a French officer.
It took a long moment before his shocked brain assimilated what had just happened and then came the fear he ought to have felt before. He was sweating and shivering at the same time, his skin crawling with a sense of repulsion which nothing logical could explain. He had dropped the lantern when he fell and it had gone out, he could smell the oil spilling onto the ground. His eyes fixed on the solitary figure he backed up cautiously until his eyes could stay open no longer and he blinked. The figure was gone. Giles no longer wondered where, or how it could have moved without him seeing it. He turned and ran for the house, slamming the door behind him, and went through into the warmth of the kitchen, needing light and a sense of normality. There were several candles on the wooden table and he lit two from the fire with shaking hands and then stoked the fire into life and sat huddled in a wooden chair before it, waiting for his pounding heart to slow and the sense of horror to settle.
The voice made him jump. He stood and turned. Benitez was standing in the doorway, wearing some kind of robe, a candle held high. Giles studied him without speaking. After a moment, the Spaniard came forward, put the candleholder on the table, and went to the big wooden dresser. He returned with a bottle and two cups and poured for both of them. Giles took the brandy without thanks, sat down and drank. After a moment, he felt something around his shoulders and realised that his host had draped a worn woollen blanket around him. Only then did he realise that he was shivering violently. He set the cup down and Benitez refilled it and then pulled a stool close to the fire.
“Are you all right?” he asked quietly.
Giles raised his eyes from his contemplation of the blaze. “No,” he said. “Of course I’m not bloody all right and you know why! What the hell was that?”
“I am sorry, Captain. I did not wish you to see…”
“Well I saw, so start talking.”
“It was not real,” Benitez said and his voice was curiously gentle. “None of it was real.”
“Well I didn’t dream it, Señor. I was out there. I heard the explosion and I smelled the smoke and I heard…what did I hear? The villagers?”
Benitez nodded. “I was not here. I fought with a partisan band – most of the men did. We had ambushed a French patrol in a valley five miles from here. They were all killed. What we did not know was that there was a second patrol in the area. They came across the bodies and gave chase. We were outnumbered so we went up into the hills. They know better than to follow us there.”
“And they came here instead,” Giles said and he could hear the tremor in his own voice. He picked up the cup again and took another sip of brandy. “Your family.”
“All of them. My wife and two daughters, my tenants…we think they locked them in the church and set fire to it. What they probably did not know was that we were using the church to hide supplies…and ammunition, gunpowder…”
“Did anybody survive?”
“No. When the church blew up a few were able to escape but the French bayoneted them as they ran. They raped the women before they killed them. We found the bodies when we returned.”
Giles did not speak for a while. The story was tragic, but it was not new. He had ridden through villages devastated by war on many occasions and he could remember the campaign of 1811, his first in Portugal with the 110th when the light division had been able to follow the direction of the fleeing French armies by following the plumes of smoke as they burned towns and villages on the way. He found himself wondering if such things always left this violent impression on the land long after the tragedy was over and the armies had marched on.
“When did this start happening? When did you first see it?”
“Not straight away. Most of the men left. There was nothing for them here. A few of us stayed, tried to rebuild.”
“But you don’t go out of the house after dark.”
Giles drained the brandy glass. “Me? I’d do exactly what I plan to do tomorrow, Señor Benitez. I’d get the hell out of here.”
“I’ll take it slow, walk him part of the way if I need to. Our infantry don’t have the luxury of horseback, it won’t kill me. If necessary I’ll find somewhere else to rest him for a few nights. But not here. Thank you, you’ve been very hospitable. I’m sorry for what happened, and I know none of this was your fault. But I don’t know how you’ve lived with that out there every night since you came back. Knowing it’s there, I’m not staying another night.”
“I understand. Go back to bed, Captain. Nothing will disturb you in the house; it never does. Goodnight.”
Giles slept little, lying wakeful and tense until the first rosy light of dawn pushed it’s way between the wooden slats of the shutter. Enzo arrived soon after, bearing his clothing, dry and smelling slightly of woodsmoke from the kitchen fire. He said nothing to Giles of the night’s events although Giles was sure that he must know what had happened, he had made enough noise crashing back into the house to wake the dead. The analogy brought grim amusement as he dressed quickly in the early light and took his pack downstairs to find his host awaiting him.
“Maria has made breakfast, Captain. Eat something before you go.”
“Thank you,” Giles said. He joined Benitez at the dining table again and ate ham and bread warm from the oven and a spicy sausage and made no attempt at conversation since he could think of nothing to say. When the meal was over he got up.
“My thanks to you, Señor. You’ve been a generous host. I’m sorry that I need to leave like this.”
“I am sorry too, Captain.”
“You could have warned me.”
“Would you have believed me?” Benitez asked and Giles grinned in spite of himself, acknowledging the truth of it.
“No. I don’t believe in ghosts.”
“Ghosts are real, Captain. Like God, they do not require belief in them to exist.”
Giles did not reply. He did not want to think about what had happened until he was a long way from the village and the house, preferably in a smoky tavern with a bottle of good red on the table and a pretty barmaid on his lap. He tried to imagine telling any of his friends in the regiment this story and knew with complete certainty that he would not. They would laugh uproariously and accuse him of having been drunk.
Outside the air was chill although he suspected it would be hot by mid morning. Shrugging into his greatcoat he turned to Benitez who was standing on the steps. “Goodbye, Señor Benitez. Good luck. You’ve not asked for advice, but I’m giving it anyway. Leave. Move away. You shouldn’t be here with this. No house, no land is worth that.”
“You are a good man, Captain. Good luck.”
Giles shouldered his pack and picked up the saddlebags. He glanced briefly down at the ruined church, innocent in the early morning sunlight. “Was that the last time the French came here?” he asked curiously. “Did they ever come back?”
“No. I imagine they thought the village deserted. Only once. An officer, on his own. Like you, I suspect he was a courier or an intelligence officer.”
A slight chill touched Giles. He turned to look back at Benitez. “And did he ever see…what I saw?”
“I think not. It had not begun then. Only afterwards.”
Giles nodded and turned to walk over to the barn. He found Boney up and alert and he fed and watered him, leaving the barn door wide to let in light and air. As he saddled the horse, he talked quietly to him, then walked him a little and was delighted to see no sign of lameness. He would ride to start with, taking it slowly, and if Boney appeared to struggle he would dismount and walk him until he found shelter where he might stay a night or two to let the horse recover. Giles did not mind where it was as long as it was miles away from here.
He led Boney outside and looped the reins over a fence post, settled saddlebags and pack comfortably on the horse and checked the girth and saddle methodically. Benitez had gone back into the house. Giles turned back and went to close the big barn door. As he did so he heard a sound, and he stepped inside, wondering if one of the mules was loose. Both stood placidly eating hay; the sound, a creaking noise, was coming from the other end of the barn and Giles turned to look.
It was a rope, swinging lazily from a beam in the roof of the barn, creaking with the weight of the burden it carried. Giles stared in complete bewilderment for a moment and then understood what he was seeing.
The man hung upside down, tied by his feet. He was naked and his skin was striped with red. Blood dripped down both extended arms, pooling under him on the floor, and his body was writhing in agony, a weak sobbing noise accompanying what Giles knew in appalled comprehension must have been his death throes. God knew how long he had taken to die, swinging there from the beam, partially flayed and bleeding into the earth floor.
Giles backed out of the barn and slammed the door, barring it. Outside the sky was a clear blue with no sign of a cloud and Boney pushed his nose into Giles’ shoulder, comforting, seeming to sense his distress. Giles turned and hugged his neck hard, burying his face into the warm smooth coat, trying to shut out the horror, shaking with reaction.
“You bastard,” he whispered, into the horse’s neck. “You bloody bastard. It wasn’t him. He didn’t do it. He was your guest, just passing through. He was like me.”
After a long time, the shaking eased. He straightened, and wiped his face with both hands, surprised to find that he had been crying. He could not have said why he was so sure that the lone French officer who had died in the barn had not been a man who would have slaughtered a village and he did not try to examine his conviction, but he did not look back at the house to see if Benitez was watching him. He did not want to see the Spaniard again. Impossible to encompass the scale of the man’s loss. Giles wondered if the French officer who had been the object of his vengeance had also left family behind him to mourn.
Mounted and ready, he turned finally and looked back past house and barn to the church, knowing already what he would see. For the first time, the solitary figure in the blue coat did not cause him to jump. Nor did he feel any sense of fear. For the first time he saw the man’s face clearly, thin and dark, his stubbled jaw suggesting long days travelling without shaving. Giles ran his hand over his own jaw and it scraped his hand.
The figure stood motionless, the dark eyes appearing to look directly at him. Giles raised his hand and saluted. Then he turned and rode slowly out of the village, back towards the Salamanca road and Wellington’s army.
An Exploring Officer was written as a free gift for Halloween 2017. Oddly enough as a child, I didn’t really associate ghost stories with Halloween, they were a Christmas treat, allowed to stay up late, huddled on the sofa with my Mum and my sister watching the BBC’s ghost stories for Christmas. As it’s that time of year I thought I’d share this one again in case anybody missed it.
A bit of trivia for regular readers, Captain Giles Fenwick features in the Peninsular War Saga having come through the 110th before joining Wellington’s Corps of Guides. After the war, badly wounded at Waterloo, he returns to London when he unexpectedly inherits the title of Earl of Rockcliffe and features briefly in A Regrettable Reputation before getting a book of his own in The Reluctant Debutante.