Authors: Bernard Cornwell
Tags: #Historical Fiction, #Suspense
"We're being relieved at reveille?" Read asked anxiously.
"You can get a couple of hours' sleep after stand-to," Sharpe said. "But sharpen your bayonets before you put your heads down."
"You think…" Ensign Iliffe started the question, but did not finish it.
"I don't know what to expect," Sharpe answered him anyway, "but you don't face battle with a blunt blade, Mister Iliffe. Show me your saber."
Iliffe, as befitted an officer in a skirmishing company, wore a light cavalry saber. It was an old one, bought cheap back home, with a tarnished hilt and a worn leather grip. The Ensign gave the weapon to Sharpe who ran a thumb down its curved fore blade, then down the sharpened upper edge of the back blade. "Half a mile back," he told Iliffe, "there's a regiment of Portuguese dragoons, so when it's light go back there, find their smith, and give him a shilling to put an edge on that blade. You couldn't skin a cat with that saber." He gave the blade back, then half drew his own.
Sharpe, perversely, did not carry the light cavalry saber. Instead he wore a heavy cavalry sword, a long and straight-bladed weapon that was ill-balanced and too heavy, but a brutal instrument in a strong man's hands. It seemed sharp enough when he felt the fore blade, but he would still have a keener edge ground onto the sword. Money well spent, he reckoned.
He went back up to the ridge top and scrounged another mug of tea just a moment before the first bugle sounded. It was muffled, far off, for it came from the valley beneath, from the invisible French, but within a moment scores of bugles and trumpets were blasting the ridge with their clamor. "Stand to! Stand to!" Major Leroy shouted. He saw Sharpe through the mist. "Morning, Sharpe! Damned cold one, eh? What happened to summer?"
"I've told the picquets to empty their guns, sir."
"I won't be alarmed," Leroy said, then brightened. "Is that tea, Sharpe?"
"I thought Americans didn't drink tea, sir."
"The loyal Americans do, Sharpe." Leroy, the son of parents who had fled the rebel victory in the Thirteen Colonies, stole Sharpe's mug. "The rebellious sort feed their tea to the codfish." He drank and looked disgusted. "Don't you use sugar?"
Leroy took a sip and grimaced. "It tastes like warm horse piss," he said, but drained the mug nonetheless. "Good morning, lads! Time to shine! Fall in!"
Sergeant Harper had led the new picquet towards the rocks on the small spur where Sergeant Read ordered his men to shoot their guns out into the foggy void. Leroy called that the sound should be ignored. Lieutenant Slingsby, despite having been drunk the night before, now looked as fresh and smart as though he were mounting guard on Windsor Castle. He came from his tent, plucked his red coat straight, adjusted the angle of his saber scabbard, then marched after the picquet. "You should have waited for me, Sergeant!" he called to Harper.
"I told him to go," Sharpe said.
Slingsby swiveled around, his bulging eyes showing surprise at seeing Sharpe. "Morning, Sharpe!" The Lieutenant sounded indecently cheerful. "My word, but that's a rare black eye! You should have put a beefsteak on it last night. Beefsteak!" Slingsby, finding that advice funny, snorted with laughter. "How are you feeling? Better, I trust?"
"Dead," Sharpe said, and turned back to the ridge top where the battalion was forming into line. They would stay there through the dull moments of dawn, through the dangerous time when the enemy might make a surprise attack. Sharpe, standing ahead of the light company, looked down the line and felt an unexpected surge of affection for the battalion. It was nearly six hundred men strong, most from the small villages of southern Essex, but a good few from London and a lot from Ireland, and they were mostly thieves, drunks, murderers and fools, but they had been hammered into soldiers. They knew each other's weaknesses, liked each other's jokes, and reckoned no battalion in God's world was half as good as theirs. They might not be as wild as the Connaught Rangers, who were now moving up to take post to the left of the South Essex, and they were certainly not as fashionable as the Guards battalions farther north, but they were dependable, stubborn, proud and confident. A ripple of laughter went through number four company and Sharpe knew, even without hearing its cause, that Horace Pearce had just made a jest and he knew his men would want the joke passed down. "Silence in the ranks!" he called and wished he had kept silent because of the pain.
A Portuguese unit was formed to the battalion's right and beyond them was a battery of Portuguese six-pounders. Useless guns, Sharpe thought, but he had seen enough nine-pounders on the ridge to know that the cannons could do some slaughter this day. He reckoned the mist was clearing, for he could see the small six-pounders more clearly with every passing minute, and when he turned north and stared at the tops of the trees beyond the monastery's far wall he saw the whiteness thinning and shredding.
They waited the best part of an hour, but no French came. The mist drained from the ridge top, but still filled the valley like a great white river. Colonel Lawford, mounted on Lightning, rode down the battalion's front, touching his hat in answer to the companies' salutes. "We shall do well today," he told each company, "and add luster to our reputation. Do your duty, and let the Frenchmen know they've met better men!" He repeated this encouragement to the light company at the left of the line, ignored the man who asked what luster was, then smiled down at Sharpe. "Come and have breakfast with me, will you, Sharpe?"
"Good man." A bugle sounded from half a mile north and Lawford twisted in his saddle to find Major Forrest. "We can stand down, Major. Half and half, though, I think."
Half the men stayed in line, the others were released to make tea, to eat and relieve themselves, but none was permitted to go beyond the newly made road and so vanish from the battalion's sight. If the French came then the men were expected to be in line within half a minute. Two of the light company wives sat by a fire honing bayonets with sharpening stones and cackling with laughter at a joke told by Rifleman Hagman. Sergeant Read, off duty for the moment, was on one knee, a hand on his musket, praying. Rifleman Harris, who claimed to believe in none of the gods, was making certain that his lucky rabbit's foot was in his pouch, while Ensign Iliffe was trying to hide behind the Colonel's tent where he was being sick. Sharpe called to him. "Mister Iliffe!"
"Sir." Iliffe, strands of yellowish liquid straggling from his unshaven chin, came nervously to Sharpe, who drew his sword.
"Take that, Mister Iliffe," Sharpe said, pretending not to notice that the Ensign had been vomiting. "Find the Portuguese cavalry smith and have an edge put on it. A proper edge. One I can shave with." He gave the boy two shillings, realizing that his earlier advice, that Iliffe should pay a shilling himself, had been impractical because Iliffe probably did not have a penny to spare. "Go on with you. Bring it back to me as soon as you can."
Robert Knowles, stripped to his waist, was shaving outside Lawford's tent. The skin of his chest and back was milk white while his face was as dark as old wood. "You should grow a mustache, Robert," Sharpe said.
"What a ghastly notion," Knowles said, peering into the mirror that was propped against the water bowl. "I had an uncle with a mustache and he went bankrupt. How are you feeling?"
Knowles paused, face half lathered, razor poised by his cheek, and stared at Sharpe. "You look horrible. You're to go in, Richard, the Colonel's expecting you."
Sharpe thought of borrowing the razor, but his jaw was still tender where he had been kicked and he reckoned he could go a day without a shave, though at the end of it his chin would be black as powder. He ducked into the tent to find Lawford sitting at a trestle table covered with fine linen and expensive porcelain. "Boiled eggs," the Colonel greeted him warmly. "I do so relish a properly boiled egg. Sit yourself down, Sharpe. The bread's not too hard. How are your wounds?"
"Hardly notice them, sir," Sharpe lied.
"Good man." The Colonel spooned some runny egg into his mouth, then gestured through the canvas towards the east. "Fog's lifting. You think the French will come?"
"Major Hogan seemed sure of it, sir."
"Then we shall do our duty," Lawford said, "and it will be good practice for the battalion, eh? Real targets! That's coffee, very good coffee as well. Do help yourself."
It seemed that Sharpe was to be Lawford's only guest, for there were no plates or silverware for another man. He poured himself coffee, helped himself to an egg and a slice of bread, and ate in silence. He felt uncomfortable. He had known Lawford for over ten years, yet he could think of nothing to say. Some men, like Hogan or Major Forrest, were never short of conversation. Put them down among a group of strangers and they could chatter away like magpies, but Sharpe was always struck dumb except with those he knew really well. The Colonel did not seem to mind the silence. He ate steadily, reading a four-week-old copy of
. "Good Lord," he said at one point.
"What's that, sir?"
"Tom Dyton's dead. Poor old chap. Of an advanced age, it says here. He must have been seventy if he was a day!"
"I didn't know him, sir."
"Had land in Surrey. Fine old fellow, married a Calloway, which is always a sensible thing to do. Consols are holding steady, I see." He folded the paper and pushed it across the table. "Like to read it, Sharpe?"
"I would, sir."
"All yours, then."
Sharpe would not read it, but the paper would be useful anyway. He cracked the top off another egg and wondered what Consols were. He knew they had something to do with money, but just what he had no idea.
"So you think the French will come?" Lawford asked, forcing a heartiness into his voice and apparently unaware that he had voiced the identical question just minutes before.
Sharpe sensed a nervousness in the Colonel and wondered what caused it. "I think we have to assume they'll come, sir."
"Quite so, quite so. Prepare for the worst, eh, and hope for the best? Very wise that, Sharpe." Lawford buttered a slice of bread. "So let's assume there's going to be a scrap, shall we? Wellington and Masséna playing King of the Castle, eh? But it shouldn't be a difficult day, should it?"
Was Lawford nervous of a battle? It seemed unlikely, for the Colonel had been in enough actions to know what must be coming, but Sharpe attempted to reassure him anyway. "It never does to underestimate the Crapauds, sir," he said carefully, "and they'll keep coming whatever we chuck at them, but no, it shouldn't be difficult. That hill will slow them and we'll kill them."
"That's rather what I thought, Sharpe," Lawford said, offering a dazzling smile. "The hill will slow them and then we'll kill them. So, all in all, the fox is running, the scent's high, we're mounted on a damned fine horse and the going's firm."
"We should win, sir," Sharpe said, "if that's what you mean. And if the Portuguese fight well."
"Ah yes, the Portuguese. Hadn't thought of them, but they seem fine fellows. Do have that last egg."
"I'm full, sir."
"You're sure? Very kind. I never say no to a well-boiled egg. My father, God rest him, always believed he would be met at the gates of heaven by an angel carrying two decently boiled eggs on a silver salver. I do hope it turned out that way for him." Sharpe decided there was nothing to say to that so stayed silent as the Colonel sliced off the egg's top, sprinkled it with salt and dug in his spoon. "The thing is, Sharpe," Lawford went on, but hesitantly now, "if the going is firm and we don't need to be over-anxious, then I'd like to spread some experience through the battalion. Know what I mean?"
"The French do that, sir," Sharpe said.
"Do they?" Lawford seemed surprised.
"Every time they fight us, sir, they shovel experience all over us."
"Ah, I see your drift!" Lawford ate some egg, then dabbed his lips with a napkin. "I mean real experience, Sharpe, the kind that will serve the regiment well. Fellows don't learn their duties by watching, do they? But by doing. Don't you agree?"
"Of course, sir."
"So I've decided, Sharpe," Lawford was not looking at Sharpe any more, but concentrating on his egg, "that Cornelius ought to command the light company today. He's not taking it over, don't think that for a moment, but I do want him to stretch his wings. Want to see how he does, eh? And if it ain't going to be a tricky business, then today will blood him gently." He spooned more egg into his mouth and dared to give Sharpe aquizzical look. Sharpe said nothing. He was furious, humiliated and helpless. He wanted to protest, but to what end? Lawford had plainly made up his mind and to fight the decision would only make the Colonel dig in his heels. "And you, Sharpe," Lawford smiled now he felt the worst was over, "I think you probably need a rest. That tumble you took did some damage, eh? You look battered. So let Cornelius show us his stuff, eh? And you can use his horse and serve as my eyes. Advise me."
"My advice, sir," Sharpe could not help saying, "is to let your best man command the light company."
"And if I do that," Lawford said, "I'll never know what potential Cornelius has. No, Sharpe, let him have his canter, eh? You've already proved yourself." Lawford stared at Sharpe, wanting his approval of the suggestion, but again Sharpe said nothing. He felt as though the bottom had dropped from his world.
And just then a gun fired from the valley.
The shell screamed through the fog, burst into sunlight above the ridge where, showing as a black ball against a clear sky, it arched over the troops to fall close beside the newly made road which linked the British and Portuguese troops along the ridge. It exploded after its first bounce, doing no harm, but a scrap of shell casing, almost spent, rapped against Lawford's tent, making the taut gray canvas shudder. "Time to go, Sharpe," Lawford said, throwing down his egg-stained napkin.
Because the French were coming.
THIRTY-THREE FRENCH BATTALIONS formed into four columns were launched across the stream and up the far slope that was thickly obscured by fog. This was only the first attack. The second attack was still assembling, their twenty-two battalions forming into two more great columns which would advance on either side of the better road that led towards the northern end of the ridge while a third, smaller column would follow behind them to exploit their success. Together the two attacks made a hammer and an anvil. The first assault, the heaviest, would follow the lesser road up to the lowest part of the ridge, capture its wide summit, then turn north to drive in the defenders desperately fending off the second blow. Marshal Masséna, waiting close to the troops who would deliver that second thunderous strike, imagined the English and Portuguese troops reduced to panic; he saw them fleeing from the ridge, throwing down packs and weapons, discarding anything that would slow them, and then he would release his cavalry to sweep across the ridge's northern end and slaughter the fugitives. He drummed his fingers against his saddle's pommel in time to the fog-muffled rhythm of the drums that sounded to the south. Those drums were driving the first attack up the slope. "What's the time?" he asked an aide.