DIE HARD – A VICTORIAN GHOST STORY

5 Jun

EDDY

           

Thunder cracked and lightning forked in the night sky as an incessant rain beat a diabolical tattoo off the leaded glass of Ye Olde Sheep Stealers Inn. Fog swirled among the gas lamps and, drifting slowly up from the river, muffled the cacophony and obscured the nocturnal iridescence of heavy industry; the occasional crash of the new iron-age, chorus to the rare abatements in the tempest raging overhead. The cobbles were awash and slick underfoot; the biting cold of December evident from the huddled, shrouded figures scurrying home to the warmth of hearth fires; the promise of brief respite from arduous factory shifts in decrepit tenements; the spasmodic covenant perhaps of pressed flesh.

            The Sheep Stealer was an ancient coaching inn that had stood sentinel since time immemorial. The auberge was replete with a rich and colorful history and the patrons that passed through its nail-studded doors never failed to be impressed by the tales of roundheads and cavaliers who’d plotted and planned around it wooden tables; of the highwaymen who’d escaped the hangman’s rope through its upstairs casements and of the great plot to kill King James when Guido Fawkes himself had spent a restless night underneath its dilapidated slate roof. Although a neighborhood landmark it wasn’t long for the modern world as with the new municipal transport system being ploughed through London there was little hope for its survival. In its place would come the necessary ephemera of tunnels and termini that would usher in the new age, transforming the ancient city of London into a Victorian Babylon. The modern era was expeditiously replacing all that had been familiar and in a world of a change, a beacon of nostalgia was a welcome sight to the weary traveler.

            The pot man looked up from his duties as the door swung upon. The candles guttered and the flames in the grate roared as the night air rushed into to fill the room. “Shut the bloody door before we all freeze damn you!” challenged the bar keep at the silhouette that had suddenly appeared from out of the night.

            A fire blazed in the hearth and the smell of roasting meat filled the ale house; spurious shadow creatures and shapes diabolical danced on the flaking plaster walls. The stranger rubbed his hands and gasped at the welcome warmth already beginning to drive out the aching cold that’d permeated his bones. Throwing the cloak from his shoulder and removing his hat he revealed the scarlet jacket of a soldier, the white piping that clutched at his collar and cuffs an odd contrast to the martial figure and saber slashed face that made its way to the bar.

            “A room and some food,” said the soldier throwing gold onto the counter, “and a pot of ale to wash it down with.” The innkeeper eyed the sovereign, nodded and, wiping his hands on his greasy apron, pulled a pewter mug from the rack above his head and proceeded to fill it. The soldier quickly drained it and it was immediately replaced with another.

             “Your food’ll be out in a little while Captain. Why don’t you take the weight off and go and sit by the fire and warm yourself? I’ll bring it over when it’s ready.”

            Two, worn high backed chairs stood in front of the hearth and as the soldier approached he noticed skeins of smoke rising above the leather head rest. As he came closer he saw that it was occupied by another man. Undaunted by the company he sat down.

            “Come far ‘ave you?” asked the stranger.

            “Far enough,” he replied noncommittally.

            The stranger stared at the soldier’s uniforms his eyes drinking in his insignia and the regimental crests on his silver buttons. “The 69th  Regiment of Foot. I was with them in Belgium at Quatre Bras back in ‘15. Bloody mess that was. Not many of us made it out of there.”

            The soldier looked up at his companion, disbelieving yet curious. “Who was your Colonel?” There were enough confidence men and tricksters on the streets and with a silver tongue and a few war stories it was easy to illicit money from drunken redcoats and so the pretense of having served the colors was an easy scam to pull.

             “McDonald . Colonel Jock McDonald. You ‘eard of him?”

            The soldier started. Who hadn’t?  Black Jock McDonald was a man of myth and legend and tales of the death-dealing mayhem he’d wrought on the Frogs that June afternoon were still told by the men of regiment. “Garn! Get out of it you old codger. You was with Black Jock?

             “Aye lad. Side by side in that field of burning corn outside of Waterloo. Shoulder to shoulder we stood, brothers to the end. Steeped in the blood of our comrades and the enemy alike we was.” The old man stared at nothing in particular and pulled on his clay pipe, the escaping smoke from his nostrils lending him an unearthly aspect as the light from the fire played upon his ancient face.

            The soldier put the tankard to his lips and drank in the rich warm taste of bitter beer, smacked his lips and contemplated the old man. Quatre Bras had been the most destructive day in the history of the regiment where nearly two hundred men had found their deaths in the space of an hour at the hands of the French. Despite the enormous body count the regimental colors had been saved and with the late arrival of the Prussians the French had eventually been repelled. June 17th 1815 was a symbol of regimental pride; a day of bloody infamy that lived on in the tales told by the new recruits and old sweats alike.

            “Quatre Bras,” mused the old man, “I remembers it like it was yesterday.” With that his eyes glazed over and he began to relate the events of that fateful summer day forty years ago.

*

            Bugles sounded and whistles shrilled as the sergeants berated the men into line abreast. The companies broke out of their columns and shook themselves into single file.

            “Move your arses.”

            “What you waiting for Jones, a bloody invitation?”

            “Look alive. The Frogs are over the hill.”

            Both the King’s and the Regimental silks whipped over their heads as the infantrymen efficiently came into line attack and proceeded to walk across the field. With bayonets fixed and muskets held at waist height they advanced to where they presumed the enemy was entrenched. Suddenly, out of nowhere, swarms of French cavalrymen appeared on their flanks. The leading scouts saw them immerge from the dead ground, screamed their alarm and, fearful of being caught in the open, sprinted back to the safety of the main body of soldiery. The French seizing the element of surprise spurred their horses, lowered their swords and, sensing victory, galloped towards the vulnerable open ranks of the British.

 

*

            “They was them armored Frogs with the blue uniforms and steel breast plates. Cuirassiers; heavy cavalry,” explained the old man. “Big men with faces full of moustache on monstrous ‘orses.” The old man became agitated, his face twitching, his hands shaking as he told his tale. “Evil bastards with long, wicked swords. Well, we was done for. Only defense against cavalry is square and we were stretched out from one ‘orizon to the next. We didn’t stand a bleeding chance.”

*

            The French crashed into the British line and turning like mackerel – their swords flashing and falling in air – swooped down on men who, although they didn’t know it yet, were already dead. Men screamed as blood drenched sabers thrust and plunged, the horses trampling the corpses and finishing the work of the men on their backs. The blood lusted cavalrymen yelled their challenges and stabbed and slashed as the madness of combat engulfed them rendering them automatons of death. The British could do nothing. Soldiers turned to face their enemy and holding up their arms in a pathetic attempt to ward of the attackers, fell to the ground; their life blood draining into a foreign soil that would be forever England.

*

            “Easy pickings we was for them Frogs. Riding field days ‘round us they were. Hundreds of the ‘orrible bastards grinning and screaming as they skewered man after man. It was McDonald who rallied us. Centre Company and the color platoon managed to square up we did, grounded our muskets and presented Sheffield‘s finest to the enemy. With our bayonets creating a steel hedge the nags wouldn’t come close and we began to fight back; shooting the riders down like ducks as they rode about us.”

             The soldier had heard the story a thousand times before but now, told by someone who’d actually fought the engagement, it took on a whole new life. He could hear the shouts and screams, taste the gun powder from the muskets and through the fog of war hear the cries and prayers of both the living and dying.

             The old man’s eyes clouded as he went on. “It was numbers game and seeings ‘ow there was more of them than there was of us we weren’t going to last long. Slowly but surely they wore us down till there were less than thirty men stood ‘round the colors. McDonald stood next to me in the front rank screaming like a bleeding banshee for the boys to hold, “Die hard 69th. Die hard.”

             The old man’s face grimaced as he remembered. “There was no chance for a man alone and the only ‘ope we had of getting off that field alive, at the rate Frogs was picking us off, was to stick together or stay until the last man fell. Any rate we was down to our last balls and if it hadn’t been for the arrival of the Prussians and old Black Jock we’d still be on that field. Say what you want about the Teutonics but on that particular day I was never gladder to see anybody.” The old man grinned and nodded. The soldier smiled back recognizing a brother in arms, one who’d endured and who’d been a part of a thin red line of heroes protecting king and country.

            The soldier lifted his tankard in salute, “Die hard 69th! Beer?”

            The old man smiled, “Aye lad I will.”

            The soldier got up and went to the bar keep. “Two ales.”

            “Two?”

            “Aye. One for me and the General over there,” he said pointing to his companion sitting by the fire.

            The bar keeper looked at him and then looked towards the fire. “You ‘aving a laugh soldier.”

            The soldier grimaced clenched his fist and brought it down hard on the wooden bar. It was bad enough that soldiering was a profession that commanded little respect, but to be disrespected to your face by some loathsome toad of a civilian went beyond the pale. “Two, he growled, “and shift your arse.”

            The man behind the counter stared at the soldier. “Think you’ve ‘ad enough lad. There aint nobody ‘ere but me an’ you, in fact there’s been nobody ‘ere all night what with this blasted weather.”

            The soldier looked back towards the two empty seats by the fire. Smoke curled in the air; the only indication that anyone, or anything, had ever been there at all.

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One Response to “DIE HARD – A VICTORIAN GHOST STORY”

  1. robyn June 10, 2015 at 9:26 pm #

    Incredible imagery! Could feel the shivering cold & hear the horrible screams

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