Bernard CornwellCollected Edition:
Sharpe’s Waterloo and
Richard Sharpe and
the Peace of 1814
Table of ContentsPROLOGUE
Major Richard Sharpe had made every preparation for his own death. His horse, Sycorax, and his fine French telescope would go to Captain William Frederickson, his weapons would become the property of Sergeant Patrick Harper, while everything else would belong to his wife Jane. Everything, that was, except for the uniform in which Sharpe always fought. That uniform consisted of knee-high riding boots, French cavalry overalls, and a faded green jacket of the 95
Rifles. Sharpe had asked to be buried in that uniform.
‘If you weren’t buried in those rags,’ Frederickson observed disdainfully, ‘they’d be burned anyway.’
It was true that the leather boots had been deeply scarred by knives, bayonets and sabres, and that the overalls were so patched with brown homespun that they looked more like a ploughman’s cast-off breeches than the plundered uniform of a Chasseur Colonel of Napoleon’s Imperial Guard, and that the green jacket was so faded and threadbare that even a moth could not have made a decent meal from it, but the clothes were still those in which Sharpe fought and were therefore dear to him. He might have looked like a scarecrow in the old uniform, but wearing it for battle was one of his obsessive superstitions, which was why, on a cold March morning in 1814, and despite being miles from any enemy soldier, Sharpe wore the old clothes.
‘You’ll have to take off the jacket,’ Frederickson, who understood Sharpe’s superstitious attachment to the uniform, warned his friend.
‘I know.’ There was no detail of this morning that Sharpe had not rehearsed again and again in his mind. What would happen this morning was called ‘grass before breakfast’. It sounded innocuous, but it could well mean death.
The two men stood on a low grassy bluff above a grey and sullen Atlantic. A long and heaving swell was running from the west to break against the rocks beneath. To the north of the bluff was the French port of St Jean de Luz that was crammed with merchant shipping and fishing boats, while in the harbour’s outer roads a small Royal Navy flotilla lay at anchor. The flotilla consisted of three sloops, two frigates, and a great chequer-sided battleship, the
It was a shivering dawn, yet spring was coming and with the spring would come a resurgence of battle. The Emperor Napoleon had refused the peace terms offered by his enemies, so now the French armies would have to fight to defend their homeland. Their enemies were now all Europe. Wellington’s army of Britons, Spaniards and Portuguese had captured the south-western corner of France and would soon strike yet further into the heartland, while, far to the north, the Prussians, Austrians and Russians skirmished across Napoleon’s northern frontiers.
None of which seemed immediately important to Major Richard Sharpe as he began to pace the frosted grass on the bluffs flat summit. A cold wind was gusting from the ocean and William Frederickson took shelter from it in the lee of some bent and stunted pines. Sharpe, pacing up and down, was oblivious of the wind, obsessed instead with the thought of his own death. The most important thing, he decided, was that Jane was well taken care of. She already had the piece of paper which gave her authority over Sharpe’s money; which money was the profit of the plunder he had taken from the French baggage after the battle at Vitoria. Many soldiers had become rich that day, but few as rich as Major Richard Sharpe or Sergeant Patrick Harper.
Sharpe paced close to Frederickson. ‘Time?’
Frederickson fumbled with gloved hands to open his watch’s lid. ‘Twenty minutes past six.’
Sharpe grunted and turned away. The dawn had made the grey clouds palely luminous, while the sea was so dark that it seemed to be made of a liquid and sluggish slate. A small, high-prowed fishing boat was perilously close to the rocks beneath Sharpe. The fishermen were heaving lobster-pots overboard. Perhaps, Sharpe thought, his enemy would be eating one of those lobsters this very night, while Sharpe would already be as cold as stone and lying six feet under French soil. Grass before breakfast.
‘God damn it,’ he said in sudden irritation, ‘why can’t we fight with swords?’
‘Because Bampfylde chose pistols.’ Frederickson had just lit a cheroot and the wind whirled its smoke quickly away.
‘God damn it.’ Sharpe turned away again. He was nervous, and he did not mind showing his nervousness to Frederickson. The Rifle Captain was one of Sharpe’s closest friends and a man who understood how nerves could make the belly into a tight cold knot before a fight. Frederickson, half English and half German, was a fearsome looking man who had given up most of his teeth and one of his eyes on Spanish battlefields. His men, with clumsy affection, called him after a homely flower, Sweet William, though on a battlefield he was anything but sweet. He was a soldier, as tough as any in the army, and tough enough to understand how a brave man could be almost paralysed by fear.
Sharpe understood that too, yet even so he was surprised by the fear he felt in this cold morning. He had been a soldier ever since he had joined the 33rd as a sixteen-year-old recruit. In the twenty-one years since, he had clawed his way through defended breaches, he had stood in the musket line and traded death with an enemy not forty paces away, he had shattered cavalry charges with volley fire, he had fought the lonely fight of a skirmisher ahead of the battle line, he had watched the enemy’s artillery tear his men to red ruin, and he had done all of those things more often than he could remember. He had fought in Flanders, India, Portugal, Spain and France. He had risen from the red-coated ranks to become one of His Majesty’s officers. He had taken an enemy standard, and been captured himself. He had been wounded. He had killed. Other men had spent their lives mastering the skills of peace, but Richard Sharpe had become a master of war. Few men had fought so often, few men had fought so well, and now, Sharpe thought, the lumpen memories of those many fights were gnawing at his confidence. He knew the luck of the long bloody years could not hold, or perhaps it was that now, better than most men, he understood the danger and therefore feared it. That a man who had fought across the foulest battlefields could be killed by grass before breakfast seemed an appropriate twist of fortune. ‘Why do they call it “grass before breakfast”?’ he demanded of Frederickson who, knowing that Sharpe already knew the answer and that the question had sprung only from his friend’s irritation, did not bother to answer.
‘It’s a ridiculous name,’ Jane had said two weeks before, ‘a stupid, stupid name.’ ‘Grass before breakfast’ simply meant a duel which, traditionally, was fought at dawn and usually on some sward of lawn which gave the pistols or swords room for their work. ‘If you insist on fighting this stupid duel,’ Jane had continued, ‘I shall return home. I won’t permit you to destroy yourself, Richard.’
‘Then you had better go home,’ Sharpe had said, ‘because I’m fighting it.’
The disagreement had started as a skirmish, but developed into a scaring, exhausting argument that had soured the last two weeks. Jane’s reasons for not wanting Sharpe to eat grass before breakfast were entirely good. For a start he might very well be killed, which would leave Jane a widow, but even if he won, he would still be a loser. Duelling had been banned in the army, and if Sharpe insisted on fighting, then his career could be undone in a single moment. Her husband’s career was precious to Jane and she did not want it risked; neither by a duel, nor even by the skirmishes of a war’s ending. Jane said it was time for Sharpe to go back to England and take the plaudits for his achievements. In England, she said, he would be a hero and he could take a hero’s reward. Had he not been given an audience by the Prince of Wales, and would not that Prince now make certain that Major Sharpe became Sir Richard? Jane wanted Sharpe to abandon the army, to forget the duel, and to sail home, but instead, like the stubborn fool he was, he would stay to eat grass before breakfast and Jane could see all that future eminence, and all those princely rewards, fading like pistol smoke in a wind. Thus she had tried her ultimatum: that if Sharpe insisted on fighting, she would publicly shame him by going home. Sharpe had successfully called her bluff, but at the price of a fortnight’s cold and silent misery.
Frederickson fumbled with his watch again. ‘Half past six.’
‘It’s cold.’ Sharpe seemed to notice the temperature for the first time.
‘In an hour,’ Frederickson said, ‘we’ll be breakfasting on chops and pease pudding.’
‘You might be.’
‘We will be,’ Frederickson insisted patiently, then turned to watch a small black carriage which appeared at the foot of the low hill. The coachman whipped the horses up the rutted earth track, then steered towards the bent pine trees where he stopped with a clatter of trace chains and squealing brake blocks. Sergeant Harper, looking indecently cheerful, unfolded himself from the cramped interior and offered Sharpe a confident grin. ‘Good morning, sir! A bit chilly.’
‘I’ve got the bugger, sir.’ Harper gestured at a black-dressed man who had shared the coach.
‘Good morning, Doctor,’ Sharpe said politely.
The doctor ignored the greeting. He was a thin elderly Frenchman who stayed inside the small carriage. He had a black bag which doubtless contained knives, bonesaws, gouges and clamps. The doctor had been reluctant to come to this dawn slaughter, which was why Frederickson had charged Harper with the duty of making sure the man was up and ready. No British doctor, either of the Navy or Army, had been willing to serve at this illegal ceremony which could well lead to courts-martial for everyone involved.