A Mystery Solved
Province of Aragon, Spain, 1774
The Huesca stagecoach was three hours late leaving Zaragoza. First, the military guard failed to show up and a boy had to be sent round the taverns to find him, then an elderly passenger decided not to make the journey and his box was damaged while being taken down. By far the most serious delay, however, was caused by the deplorable state of the horses. They were emaciated, knock-kneed nags that inspired little confidence in the passengers. After much deliberation, the driver decided that one was in fact lame and it had to be unharnessed and another procured, which proved no easy task on a Sunday. The lights in the Plaza del Pilar had long been ablaze by the time the carriage finally crossed the wooden bridge over the Ebro.
Once outside the city darkness engulfed the coach, and its lamps proved as ineffectual as candles to light the road ahead. In the night sky, which still retained an eerie luminosity, capes of black cloud made passes over a horned moon. It was mid-November and the roadside trees were skeletal, the ground as hard as iron. The military guard, still hot with drink, rode outside next to the driver and his foul-mouthed rantings were whipped away by the wind before they could reach the ears of the passengers.
There were five paying customers in the carriage – a young doctor on his way to visit a friend from university, a middle-aged glove manufacturer, who, judging by his girth, had spent a large percentage of his profits on fine dining, and two brothers in their early twenties who were going to France to purchase agricultural equipment. The fifth passenger was a French woman by the name of Madame Le Bon. Although there were still traces of her former beauty it had been blighted by some obscure suffering and she looked older than her thirty-five years; there were dark rings under her eyes and she habitually twisted a set of rosary beads in her hands. Before mounting the carriage, Madame Le Bon had approached the military guard in a state of some agitation and asked if they’d anything to fear from the bandit gangs she’d heard operated along their route. The guard, glassy-eyed and red-faced, had brandished his blunderbuss and drawled, ‘My stubby little friend here will look after us, Señora, don’t you worry about that.’
The passengers didn’t converse much together. The younger of the brothers tried, with a twinkle in his eye, to strike up a conversation with Madame Le Bon, but although her responses were civil, they were peppered with references to her husband – a seasoning not very much to the young man’s liking. He eventually fell silent and sat back in his seat, ignoring the smirk on his brother’s face. The merchant tried to talk to the doctor, but he seemed to have taken an instinctive dislike to his jowly companion and rebuffed every conversational gambit. To pre-empt any further attempts, he closed his eyes and pretended to sleep. It could only have been a pretence as the cold, the hardness of the seats, the jolting of the carriage and the rumbling of the wooden wheels made sleep all but impossible.
The coach had been travelling across the Aragon plain for some two hours when it suddenly slewed alarmingly and stopped with a brutal jolt. The doctor was thrown forwards into the merchant, the brothers into Madame Le Bon, who began screaming that they were under attack from bandits. They all listened, but the only voices they could make out were those of the driver and the military guard.
The doctor and the two brothers climbed out to investigate. They saw the driver by the side of the road looking shaken and sullenly rubbing his shoulder.
‘I got thrown out of my seat,’ he said. ‘I could’ve broken my neck.’
‘But what is it, driver?’ the doctor asked. ‘What’s happened?’
‘One of the horses has collapsed.’
‘Collapsed?’ the military guard exclaimed. ‘He’s stone fucking dead!’
The military guard was standing beside the right-hand leader which lay on its side, tangled in the straps of the harness. While the brothers tried to calm the other horses, the doctor joined him and stared silently down at the bulbous black eye of the dead animal.
The merchant and Madame Le Bon descended now and a heated discussion took place.
‘What are we going to do?’ Madame Le Bon asked, glancing at the night around her in panic.
‘We can’t go on with just three horses, lady,’ the driver replied.
‘The carriage won’t pull properly.’
The truth, however, as some of the passengers guessed, was that the nags were on their last legs. Three of them wouldn’t have had the strength to pull the coach on to the staging post at San Jorge.
It was eventually decided that the driver would take the strongest horse, ride on ahead and return with a fresh one.
Madame Le Bon was beside herself. ‘You can’t just leave us out here in the middle of nowhere! We’ll have our throats cut by bandits!’
‘You’ll have the military guard,’ the driver snapped, out of patience with her now.
The younger brother went over to the lady. ‘We’re five able-bodied men here, Señora. My brother and I are in the Zaragoza militia. We know how to use our weapons.’ He opened his coat to show a short sword. ‘There’s a shepherd’s hut,’ he said, pointing to an adjacent field, ‘we can shelter there. My brother and I will make a good fire. The hours until the driver returns will pass pleasantly and without incident, I assure you.’ And Madame Le Bon did seem somewhat reassured by his words.
The men untangled the dead horse and dragged the carcass into the nearest ditch. The driver unharnessed the left-hand leader, attached short reins to the bridle, and taking one of the carriage lamps from its bracket, set off for San Jorge. The military guard took the other lamp, and, by its light, led the passengers across the field to the shepherd’s hut. This turned out to be little more than a ruin with only one wall standing, but it served to protect them from the bitter wind. The brothers showed themselves to be extremely practical; in no time at all they’d prepared a roaring fire and arranged blocks of masonry around it to provide seats out of the mud. They went back and forth to the carriage for the passengers’ boxes and the unlucky travellers shared out the food they’d brought with them for the journey. In spite of the inauspicious circumstances, they enjoyed a tolerable supper, washed down by the glove merchant’s excellent wine, which, to his credit, he showed himself only too happy to pass around.
Although it was a topic they should have avoided, the conversation kept returning to the rapacity of Aragonese bandits. The military guard told a hair-raising story about the rape and murder of four women in the Pyrenees, the merchant recounted the narrow escape an acquaintance of his had had south of Jaca. The doctor, worried about the effect such talk would have on Madame Le Bon, tried several times to change the subject; to his surprise, however, the lady herself kept returning to it, and he could only conclude that she was like one of the many hypochondriacs he’d known, who, perverse as it seemed, enjoyed nothing more than a discussion of grisly and incurable diseases. Eventually, the food and the wine, the lateness of the hour and the fierce heat of the fire began to work on the passengers, the conversation dwindled and soon the only sound was the crackling of the flames. Bundling himself up in his coat, the doctor, convinced that the driver wouldn’t appear before morning, settled down to sleep.
The night was suddenly rent by a sharp cry. It was followed by the sound of something moving rapidly through the undergrowth in their direction.
Madame Le Bon screamed. The military guard jumped up and seized his blunderbuss. The two brothers stood and drew their swords as one.
They peered into the darkness and were gradually able to make out a pale shape. As it came closer they saw it was a man in a white shirt. He was running full pelt towards them.