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«Sharpe's Gold», Bernard Cornwell

For a soldier I listed, to grow great in fame. And be shot at for sixpence a day.

Charles Dibdin, 1745-1814

CHAPTER 1

The war was lost; not finished, but lost. Everyone knew it, from Generals of Division to the whores of Lisbon: that the British were trapped, trussed, ready for cooking, and all Europe waited for the master chef himself, Bonaparte, to cross the mountains and put his finishing touch to the roast. Then, to add insult to imminent defeat, it seemed that the small British army was not worthy of the great Bonaparte's attention. The war was lost.

Spain had fallen. The last Spanish armies had gone, butchered into the history books, and all that was left was the fortress harbour of Cadiz and the peasants who fought the guerrilla, the 'little war'. They fought with Spanish knives and British guns, with ambush and terror, till the French troops loathed and feared the Spanish people. But the little war was not the war, and that, everyone said, was lost.

Captain Richard Sharpe, once of His Majesty's 95th Rifles, now Captain of the Light Company of the South Essex Regiment, did not think that the war was lost, although, despite that, he was in a foul mood, morose and irritable. Rain had fallen since dawn and had turned the dust of the road's surface into slick, slippery mud and made his Rifleman's uniform clammy and uncomfortable. He marched in solitary silence, listening to his men chatter, and Lieutenant Robert Knowles and Sergeant Patrick Harper, who both would normally have sought his company, let him alone. Lieutenant Knowles had commented on Sharpe's mood, but the huge Irish Sergeant had shaken his head.

'There's no chance of cheering him up, sir. He likes being miserable, so he does, and the bastard will get over it.'

Knowles shrugged. He rather disapproved of a Sergeant calling a Captain a 'bastard', but there was no point in protesting. The Sergeant would look innocent and assure' Knowles that the Captain's parents had never married, which was true, and anyway Patrick Harper had fought beside Sharpe for years and had a friendship with the Captain that Knowles rather envied. It had taken Knowles months to understand the friendship, which was not, as many officers thought, based on the fact that Sharpe had once been a private soldier, marching and fighting in the ranks, and now, elevated to the glories of the officers' mess, still sought out the company of the lower ranks. 'Once a peasant, always a peasant,' an officer had sneered, and Sharpe had heard, looked at the man, and Knowles had seen the fear come under the impact of those chilling, mocking eyes. Besides, Sharpe and Harper did not spend off-duty time together; the difference in rank made that impossible. But still, behind the formal relationship, Knowles saw the friendship. Both were big men, the Irishman hugely strong, and both confident in their abilities. Knowles could never imagine either out of uniform. It was as if they had been born to the job and it was on the battlefield, where most men thought nervously of their own survival, that Sharpe and Harper came together in an uncanny understanding. It was almost, Knowles thought, as if they were at home on a battlefield, and he envied them.

He looked up at the sky, at the low clouds touching the hilltops either side of the road. 'Bloody weather.'

'Back home, sir, we'd call this a fine day!' Harper grinned at Knowles, the rain dripping off his shako, and then turned to look at the Company, who followed the fast-marching figure of Sharpe. They were straggling a little, slipping on the road, and Harper raised his voice. 'Come on, you Protestant scum! The war's not waiting for you!'

He grinned at them as he shouted, proud they had outmarched the rest of the Regiment, and happy that, at last, the South Essex was marching north to where the summer's battles would be fought. Patrick Harper had heard the rumours – everyone had – of the French armies and their new commander, but Patrick Harper did not intend to lose any sleep over the future even though the South Essex was pitifully under strength. Replacements had sailed from Portsmouth in March, but the convoy had been hit by a storm, arid, weeks later, rumours came of hundreds of bodies washed ashore on the southern Biscay beaches, and now the Regiment must fight with less than half its proper number. Harper did not mind. At Talavera the army had been outnumbered two to one, and tonight, in the town of Celorico, where the army was gathering, there would be women in the streets and wine in the shops. Life could be a lot worse for a lad from Donegal, and Patrick Harper began whistling.

Sharpe heard the whistling and checked his impulse to snap at the Sergeant, recognizing it as pure irritation, but he was annoyed by Harper's customary equanimity. Sharpe did not believe the rumours of defeat, because, to a soldier, defeat was unthinkable. It was something that happened to the enemy. Yet Sharpe despised himself because, like a walking nightmare, the remorseless logic of numbers was haunting him. Defeat was in the air, whether he believed it or not, and as the thought came to him again he marched even faster, as if the aching pace could obliterate the pessimism. But at least, at long last, they were doing something. Since Talavera the Regiment had patrolled the bleak southern border between Spain and Portugal, and it had been a long, boring winter. The sun had risen and set, the Regiment had trained, they had watched the empty hills, and there had been too much leisure, too much softness. The officers had found a discarded French cavalryman's breastplate and used it as a shaving bowl, and to his disgust Sharpe had found himself taking the luxury of hot water in a bowl as a normal daily occurrence! And weddings. Twenty alone in the last three months, so that, miles behind, the other nine companies of the South Essex were leading a motley procession of women and children, wives and whores, like a travelling fairground. But now, at last, in an unseasonably wet summer, they were marching north, to where the French attack would come, and where the doubts and fears would be banished in action.

The road reached a crest, revealing a shallow valley with a small village at its centre. There were cavalry in the village, presumably summoned north, like the South Essex, and as Sharpe saw the mass of horses, he let his irritation escape by spitting on the road. Bloody cavalry, with their airs and graces, their undisguised condescension to the infantry, but then he saw the uniforms of the dismounted riders and felt ashamed of his reaction. The men wore the blue of the King's German Legion, and Sharpe respected the Germans. They were fellow professionals, and Sharpe, above everything else, was a professional soldier. He had to be. He had no money to buy promotion, and his future lay only in his skill and experience. There was plenty of experience. He had been a soldier for seventeen of his thirty-three years, first as a Private, then a Sergeant, then the dizzy jump to officer's rank, and all the promotions had been earned on battlefields. He had fought in Flanders, in India, and now in the Peninsula, and he knew that should peace arrive the army would drop him like a red-hot bullet. It was only in war that they needed professionals like himself, like Harper, like the tough Germans who fought France in Britain's army.

He halted the Company in the village street under the curious gaze of the cavalrymen. One of them, an officer, hitched his curved sabre off the ground and walked over to Sharpe. 'Captain?' The cavalryman made it a question because Sharpe's only signs of rank were the faded scarlet sash and the sword.

Sharpe nodded. 'Captain Sharpe. South Essex.'

The German officer's eyebrows went up; his face split into a smile. 'Captain Sharpe! Talavera!' He pumped Sharpe's hand, clapped him on the shoulder, then turned to shout at his men. The blue-coated cavalry grinned at Sharpe, nodded at him. They had all heard of him: the man who had captured the French Eagle at Talavera.

Sharpe jerked his head towards Patrick Harper and the Company. 'Don't forget Sergeant Harper, and the Company. We were all there.'

The German beamed at the Light Company. 'It was well done!' He clicked his heels to Sharpe and gave the slightest nod. 'Lossow. Captain Lossow at your service. You going to Celorico?' The German's English was accented but good. His men, Sharpe knew, would probably speak no English.

Sharpe nodded again. 'And you?'


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