Authors: Bernard Cornwell
Tags: #Historical Fiction, #Suspense
"So I do my duty," Sharpe said, "and land in the shit."
"You have at last seized the essence of soldiering," Hogan said happily, "and Marshal Masséna is landing in the same place."
"He is?" Sharpe asked. "I thought we were retreating and he was advancing?"
Hogan laughed. "There are three roads he could have chosen, Richard, two very good ones and one quite rotten one, and in his wisdom he chose this one, the bad one." It was indeed a bad road, merely two rutted wheel tracks either side of a strip of grass and weeds, and littered with rocks large enough to break a wagon or gun wheel. "And this bad road," Hogan went on, "leads straight to a place called Bussaco."
"Am I supposed to have heard of it?"
"A very bad place," Hogan went on, "for anyone attacking it. And the Peer is gathering troops there in hope of giving Monsieur Masséna a bloody nose. Something to look forward to, Richard, something to anticipate." He raised a hand, kicked back his heels and rode ahead, nodding to Major Forrest who came the other way.
"Two ovens in the next village, Sharpe," Forrest said, "and the Colonel would like your lads to deal with them."
The ovens were great brick caves in which the villagers had baked their bread. The light company used pickaxes to reduce them to rubble so the French could not use them. They left the precious ovens destroyed and then marched on.
To a place called Bussaco.
OBERT KNOWLES AND RICHARD SHARPE stood on the Bussaco ridge and stared at l'Armée de Portugal that, battalion by battalion, battery by battery and squadron by squadron, streamed from the eastern hills to fill the valley.
The British and Portuguese armies had occupied a great ridge that ran north and south and so blocked the road on which the French were advancing towards Lisbon. The ridge, Knowles guessed, was almost a thousand feet above the surrounding countryside, and its eastward flank, which faced the French, was precipitously steep. Two roads zigzagged their way up that slope, snaking between heather, gorse and rocks, the better road reaching the ridge's crest towards its northern end just above a small village perched on a ledge of the ridge. Down in the valley, beyond a glinting stream, lay a scatter of other small villages and the French were making their way along farm tracks to occupy those lower settlements.
The British and Portuguese had a bird's-eye view of the enemy who came from a wooded defile in the lower hills, then marched past a windmill before turning south to take up their positions. They, in turn, could look up the high, bare slope and see a handful of British and Portuguese officers watching them. The army itself, with most of its guns, was hidden from the French. The ridge was ten miles long, a natural rampart, and General Wellington had ordered that his men were to stay well back from its wide crest so that the arriving French would have no idea which part of the high ground was most heavily defended. "Quite a privilege," Knowles said reverently.
"A privilege?" Sharpe asked sourly.
"To see such a thing," Knowles explained, gesturing at the enemy, and it was, in truth, a fine sight to see so many thousands of men at one time. The infantry marched in loose formations, their blue uniforms pale against the green of the valley, while the horsemen, released from the discipline of the march, galloped beside the stream to leave plumes of dust. And still they came from the defile, the might of France. A band was playing close to the windmill and, though the music was too far away to be heard, Sharpe fancied he could hear the thump of the bass drum like a distant heartbeat. "A whole army!" Knowles enthused. "I should have brought my sketching pad. It would make a fine picture."
"What would make a fine picture," Sharpe said, "is to see the buggers march up this hill and get slaughtered."
"You think they won't?"
"I think they'd be mad to try," Sharpe said, then frowned at Knowles. "Do you like being Adjutant?" he asked abruptly.
Knowles hesitated, sensing that the conversation was approaching dangerous ground, but he had been Sharpe's Lieutenant before becoming Adjutant and he liked his old company commander. "Not excessively," he admitted.
"It's always been a captain's job," Sharpe said, "so why is he giving it to you?"
"The Colonel feels the experience will be advantageous to me," Knowles said stiffly.
"Advantageous," Sharpe said bitterly. "It ain't your advantage he wants, Robert. He wants that piece of gristle to take over my company. That's what he wants. He wants bloody Slingsby to be Captain of the light company." Sharpe had no evidence for that, the Colonel had never said as much, but it was the only explanation that made sense to him. "So he had to get you out of the way," Sharpe finished, knowing he had said too much, but the rancor was biting at him and Knowles was a friend who would be discreet about Sharpe's outburst.
Knowles frowned, then flapped at an insistent fly. "I truly believe," he said after thinking for a moment, "that the Colonel believes he's doing you a favor."
"Me! A favor? By giving me Slingsby!"
"Slingsby has experience, Richard," Knowles said, "much more than I do."
"But you're a good officer and he's a jack-pudding. Who the hell is he anyway?"
"He's the Colonel's brother-in-law," Knowles explained.
"I know that," Sharpe said impatiently, "but who is he?"
"The man who married Mrs. Lawford's sister," Knowles said, refusing to be drawn.
"That tells you everything you bloody need to know," Sharpe said grimly, "but he doesn't seem the kind of fellow Lawford would want as a brother-in-law. Not enough tone."
"We don't choose our relatives," Knowles said, "and I'm sure he's a gentleman."
"Bloody hell," Sharpe grumbled.
"And he must have been delighted to get out of the 55th," Knowles went on, ignoring Sharpe's moroseness. "God, most of that regiment died of the yellow fever in the West Indies. He's much safer here, even with those fellows threatening." Knowles nodded down at the French troops.
"Then why the hell didn't he purchase a captaincy?"
"Six months short of requirements," Knowles said. A lieutenant was not allowed to purchase a captaincy until he had served three years in the lower rank, a newly introduced rule that had caused much grumbling among wealthy officers who wanted swifter preferment.
"But why did he join up so late?" Sharpe asked. If Slingsby was thirty then he could not have become a lieutenant before he was twenty-seven, by which age some men were majors. Most officers, like young Iliffe, joined long before they were twenty and it was odd to find a man coming to the army so late.
"I believe…" Knowles said, then reddened and checked his words. "New troops," he said instead, pointing down the slope to where a French regiment, its blue coats unnaturally bright, marched past the windmill. "I hear the Emperor has sent reinforcements to Spain," Knowles went on. "The French have nowhere else to fight these days. Austrians out of the war, Prussians doing nothing, which means Boney only has us to beat."
Sharpe ignored Knowles's summation of the Emperor's strategy. "You believe what?" he asked.
"Nothing. I said too much."
"You didn't say a bloody thing," Sharpe protested and waited, but Knowles still remained silent. "You want me to slit your skinny throat, Robert," Sharpe asked, "with a very blunt knife?"
Knowles smiled. "You mustn't repeat this, Richard."
"You know me, Robert, I never tell anyone anything. Cross my heart and hope to die, so tell me before I cut your legs off."
"I believe Mrs. Lawford's sister was in trouble. She found herself with child, she wasn't married and the man concerned was apparently a rogue."
"Wasn't me," Sharpe said quickly.
"Of course it wasn't you," Knowles said. He could be pedantically obvious at times.
Sharpe grinned. "So Slingsby was recruited to make her respectable?"
"Exactly. He's not from the topmost drawer, of course, but his family is more than acceptable. His father's a rector somewhere on the Essex coast, I believe, but they're not wealthy, and so Lawford's family rewarded Slingsby with a commission in the 55th, with a promise to exchange into the South Essex as soon as there was a vacancy. Which there was when poor Herrold died."
"Number three company," Knowles said, "arrived on a Monday, caught fever on Tuesday and was dead by Friday."
"So the idea," Sharpe said, watching a French gun battery being dragged along the track by the stream below, "is that bloody Slingsby gets quick promotion so that he's a worthy husband for the woman what couldn't keep her knees together."
"I wouldn't say that," Knowles said indignantly, then thought for a second. "Well, yes, I would say that. But the Colonel wants him to do well. After all, Slingsby did the family a favor and now they're trying to do one back."
"By giving him my bloody job," Sharpe said.
"Don't be absurd, Richard."
"Why else is the bugger here? They move you out of the way, give the bastard a horse and hope to God the French kill me." He fell silent, not only because he had said too much, but because Patrick Harper was approaching.
The big Sergeant greeted Knowles cheerfully. "We miss you, sir, we do."
"I can say the same, Sergeant," Knowles responded with real pleasure. "You're well?"
"Still breathing, sir, and that's what counts." Harper turned to look down into the valley. "Look at those daft bastards. Just lining up to be murdered."
"They'll take one look at this hill," Sharpe said, "and find another road."
Yet there was no sign that the French would take that good advice for the blue-uniformed battalions still marched steadily from the east and French gun batteries, dust flying from their big wheels, continued to arrive at the lower villages. Some French officers rode to the top of a spur which jutted east from the ridge and gazed through their telescopes at the few British and Portuguese officers visible where the better road crossed the ridge top. That road, the farther north of the two, zigzagged up the slope, climbing at first between gorse and heather, then cutting through vineyards beneath the small village perched on the slope. That was the road which led to Lisbon and to the completion of the Emperor's orders, which were to hurl the British out of Portugal so that the whole coastline of continental Europe would belong to the French.
Lieutenant Slingsby, his red coat newly brushed and his badges polished, came to offer his opinion of the enemy, and Sharpe, unable to stand the man's company, walked away southwards. He watched the French cutting down trees to make fires or shelters. Some small streams fell from the far hills to join and make a larger stream that flowed south towards the Mondego River which touched the ridge's southern end, and the bigger stream's banks were being trampled by horses, some from the gun teams, some cavalry mounts and some the officers' horses, all being given a drink after their march.
The French were concentrating in two places. One tangle of battalions was around the village from which the better road climbed to the northern end of the ridge, while others were two miles to the south, gathering at another village from which a track, passable to packhorses or men on foot, twisted to the ridge's crest. It was not a proper road, there were no ruts from carts, and in places the track almost vanished into the heather, but it did show the French that there was a route up the steep slope, and French batteries were now deploying either side of the village so that the guns could rake the track ahead of their advancing troops.
The sound of axes and falling trees came from behind Sharpe. One company from each battalion had been detailed to make a road just behind the ridge's crest, a road that would let Lord Wellington shift his forces anywhere along the hill's ten-mile length. Trees were being felled, bushes uprooted, rocks being rolled away and the soil smoothed so that British or Portuguese guns could be pulled swiftly to any danger point. It was a huge piece of work and Sharpe suspected it would all be wasted for the French would surely not be mad enough to climb the hill.
Except some were already climbing. A score of mounted officers, wanting a closer view of the British and Portuguese position, had ridden their horses along the summit of the spur which jutted out from the long ridge. The spur was less than half the height of the ridge, but it provided a platform on which troops could gather for an assault and the British and Portuguese gunners had plainly marked it as a target for, as the French horsemen neared the place where the spur joined the ridge, a cannon fired. The sound was flat and hard, startling a thousand birds up from the trees which grew thick on the ridge's reverse slope. The gun's smoke roiled in a gray-white cloud that was carried east on the small wind. The shell left a trace of powder smoke from its burning fuse as it arced down to explode a few paces beyond the French horsemen. One of the horses panicked and bolted back the way it had come, but the others seemed unworried as their riders took out telescopes and stared at the enemy above them.
Then two more guns fired, their sound echoing back from the eastern hills. One was evidently a howitzer for the smoke of its burning fuse went high in the sky before dropping towards the French. This time a horse was flung sideways to leave a smear of blood on the dry, pale heather. Sharpe was watching through his telescope and saw the unsaddled and evidently unwounded Frenchman get to his feet. He brushed himself down, drew a pistol and put his twitching horse out of its misery, then struggled to release the precious saddle. He trudged back eastwards, carrying saddle, saddlecloth and bridle.
More French, some mounted and some on foot, were coming to the spur. It seemed a madness to go where the guns were aiming, but dozens of French were wading through the stream and then climbing the low hill to stare up at the British and Portuguese. The gunfire continued. It was not the staccato fire of battle, but desultory shots as the gunners experimented with powder loads and fuse lengths. Too much powder and a shot would scream over the spur to explode somewhere above the stream, while if the fuse was cut too long the shell would land, bounce and come to rest with the fuse still smoking, giving the French time to skip out of the way before the shell exploded. Each detonation was a puff of dirty smoke, surprisingly small, but Sharpe could not see the deadly scraps of broken shell casing hiss away from each blast.