Sharpe 3 book collection.., p.1
Sharpe’s Regiment and
About the Author
Also by Bernard Cornwell
Origin of Richard Sharpe
The Sharpe Appreciation Society
About the Publisher
Richard Sharpe and
the Vitoria Campaign,
February to June 1813
Table of Contents
Jasper Partington and Shona Crawford Poole,
who marched from the very start.
We’ll search every room for to find rich treasure,
And when we have got it we’ll spend it at leisure.
We’ll card it, we’ll dice it, we’ll spend without measure,
And when it’s all gone, bid adieu to all pleasure.
From: The Grenadier’s March (Anon),
Quoted in THE RAMBLING SOLDIER, edited
by Roy Palmer, Penguin Books, 1977.
There was a secret that would win the war for France. Not a secret weapon, nor some surprise strategy that would send the enemies of France reeling in defeat, but a sleight of politics that would drive the British from Spain without a musket being fired. It was a secret that must be kept, and must be paid for.
To which end, on a pitiless winter’s day in 1813, two men climbed into the northern hills of Spain. Whenever the road forked they took the lesser path. They climbed by frost-hardened tracks, going ever higher into a place of rocks, eagles, wind, and cruelty, until at last, at a place where the far sea could be seen glittering beneath a February sun, they came to a hidden valley that smelt of blood.
There were sentries at the valley’s head; men wrapped in rags and pelts, men with muzzle-blackened muskets. They stopped the travellers, challenged them, then incongruously knelt to one of the horsemen, who, with a gloved hand, made a blessing over their heads. The two men rode on.
The smaller of the two travellers, the keeper of this secret of secrets, had a thin, sallow face that was pockmarked by the old scars of smallpox. He wore spectacles that chafed the skin behind his ears. He stopped his horse above a rock amphitheatre that had been made when this valley was mined for iron. He looked with his cold eyes at the scene below him. ‘I thought you didn’t fight the bulls in winter.’
It was a crude bullfight, nothing like the splendour of the entertainment provided in the barricaded plazas of the big cities to the south. Perhaps a hundred men cheered from the sides of the rock pit, while, beneath them, two men tormented a black, angry bull that was slick with the blood drawn from its weakened neck muscles. The animal was weak anyway, ill fed through the winter, and its charges were pitiful, easily evaded, and its end swift. It was not killed with the traditional sword, nor with the small knife plunged between its vertebrae, but by a poleaxe.
A huge man, clothed in leather beneath a cloak of wolf’s fur, performed the act. He swung the great axe, its blade glittering in the weak sun, and the animal tried to swerve from the blow, failed, and it bellowed one last useless challenge at the sky as the axe took its life and cut down, through bone and pipes and sinews and muscles, and the men about the rock pit cheered.
The small man, whose face showed distaste for what he saw, gestured at the axeman. ‘That’s him?’
‘That’s him, Major.’ The big priest watched the small, bespectacled man as if enjoying his reaction. ‘That’s El Matarife.’ The nickname meant “the Slaughterman”.
El Matarife was a frightening sight. He was big, he was strong, but it was his face that caused fear. He was bearded so thickly that his face seemed half man and half beast. The beard grew to his cheekbones, so that his eyes, small and cunning, appeared in a slit between beard and hair. It was a bestial face that now looked up, over the dead bull, to see the two horsemen above him. El Matarife bowed mockingly to them. The priest raised a hand in reply.
The men about the rock pit, Partisans who followed the Slaughterman, were calling for a prisoner. The carcass of the bull was being dragged up the rocks, going to join the three other dead animals that had left their blood on the white-frosted stone.
The small man frowned. ‘A prisoner?’
‘You can hardly expect El Matarife not to have a welcome for you, Major? After all it’s not every day that a Frenchman comes here.’ The priest was enjoying the small Frenchman’s discomfiture. ‘And it might be wise to watch, Major? To refuse would be seen as an insult to his hospitality.’
‘God damn his hospitality,’ the small man said, but he stayed nonetheless.
He was not impressive to look at, this small Frenchman whose glasses chafed his skin, yet the appearance was deceptive. Pierre Ducos was called Major, though whether that was his real rank, or whether he held any rank in the French army at all, no one knew. He called no man “sir”, unless it was the Emperor. He was part spy, part policeman, and wholly politician. It was Pierre Ducos who had suggested the secret to his Emperor, and it was Pierre Ducos who must make the secret come true and thus win the war for France.
A fair-headed man, dressed only in a shirt and trousers, was pushed past the bulls’ carcasses. His hands were tied behind his back. He was blinking as though he had been brought from a dark place into the sudden daylight.
‘Who is he?’ Ducos asked.
‘One of the men he took at Salinas.’
Ducos grunted. El Matarife was a Partisan leader, one of the many who infested the northern hills, and he had lately surprised a French convoy and taken a dozen prisoners. Ducos pushed at the earpiece of his spectacles. ‘He took two women.’
‘He did,’ the priest said.
‘What happened to them?’
‘You care very much, Major?’
‘No.’ Ducos’ voice was sour. ‘They were whores.’
‘But still whores.’ He said it with dislike. ‘What happened to them?’
‘They ply their trade, Major, but their payment is life instead of cash.’
The fair-headed man had been taken to the base of the rock pit and there his arms were cut free. He flexed his fingers in the raw, cold air, wondering what was to happen to him in this place that stank of blood. There was a mood of expectant enjoyment among the spectators. They were quiet, but they grinned because they knew what was to happen.
A chain was tossed to the pit’s floor.
It lay there, links of rusting iron in the
The Slaughterman, his huge beard flecked with the blood of the bull, picked up the other end of the chain. He looped it about his own left arm and laughed at the prisoner. ‘I shall count the ways of your death, Frenchman.’
The French prisoner did not understand the Spanish words. He did understand, though, the knife that was tossed to him; a long, wicked-bladed knife that was identical to the weapon in the hands of El Matarife. The chain that linked the two men was ten feet long.
The priest smiled. ‘You’ve seen such a fight?’
‘There is a skill to it.’
‘Undoubtedly,’ Ducos said drily.
The skill was all with the Slaughterman. He had fought the linked knife fight many times, and he feared no opponent. The Frenchman was brave, but desperate. His attacks were fierce, but clumsy. He was pulled off balance by the chain, he was tormented, he was cut, and with every slice of El Matarife’s knife the count was shouted out by the watching partisans. ‘Uno!’ greeted a slash that opened the Frenchman’s forehead to his skull. ‘Dos!’ saw his left hand slit between his fingers. The numbers mounted.
Ducos watched. ‘How long does it go on?’
‘Perhaps fifty cuts?’ The priest shrugged. ‘Maybe more.’
Ducos looked at the priest. ‘You enjoy it?’
‘I enjoy all manly pursuits, Major.’
‘Except one, priest,’ Ducos smiled.
Father Hacha looked back at the pit. The priest was a big man, as big as El Matarife himself. He showed no distress as the prisoner was slashed and cut and flayed. Father Hacha was, in many ways, an ideal partner to Major Pierre Ducos. Like the Frenchman he was part spy, part policeman, and wholly politician, except that his politics were those of the Church, and his skills were given to the Spanish Inquisition. Father Hacha was an Inquisitor.
‘Fourteen!’ the Partisans shouted, and Ducos, startled by the loudness of the shout, looked back at the pit.
El Matarife, who had not been touched by the prisoner’s knife, had, with exquisite skill, taken out his opponent’s left eye. El Matarife fastidiously wiped the tip of his blade on his leather sleeve. ‘Come, Frenchman!’
The prisoner had his left hand clapped over his ruined eye. The chain tightened, the links making a small noise in the pit, and the tension of the chain dragged his hand away from the blood and pain. He was shaking his head, half sobbing, knowing that the ways of his death would be long and painful. Such was always the death of the French when captured by the Partisans, and such were the deaths of the Partisans caught by the French.
The Frenchman pulled back on the chain, trying to resist the pressure, but he was powerless against the huge man. Suddenly the chain was thrashed, the Frenchman fell, and he was dragged about the floor of the pit like a landed fish. When the Spaniard paused, the Frenchman tried to get up, but a boot hammered into his left forearm, breaking the bones, and the pulling began again and the watching Partisans laughed at the squeals of pain as the chain pulled on the broken limb.
Ducos’ face showed nothing.
Father Hacha smiled. ‘You’re not upset, Major? He is your countryman.’
‘I hate all unnecessary cruelty.’ Ducos pushed again at the spectacles. These were new glasses, fetched from Paris. His old ones had been broken on Christmas Day by a British officer called Richard Sharpe. That insult still hurt Ducos, but be believed, with the Spanish, that revenge was a dish best eaten cold.
At the count of twenty, the Frenchman lost his right eye.
At the count of twenty-five, he was sobbing for mercy, unable to fight, his ragged, dirty trousers bright with new blood.
At the count of thirty, his breath misting as he sobbed, the prisoner was killed. El Matarife, disgusted with the lack of fight in the man, and bored with the entertainment, slit his throat, and went on cutting until the head came away in his hand. He threw the head to the dogs that had been beaten away from the dead bulls. He unwound the chain from his left forearm, sheathed the wet knife, and looked again at the two horsemen. He smiled at the priest. ‘Welcome, brother! What have you brought me?’
‘A guest.’ The priest said it forcibly.
El Matarife laughed. ‘Take him to the house, Tomas!’
Ducos followed the Inquisitor through rocks stained red by the iron ore to a house built of stone with blankets for windows and doors. Within the house, warmed by a fire that filled the damp walls with smoke, a meal waited. There was stew of gristle and grease, loaves, wine, and goat’s cheese. It was served by a scared, thin faced girl. El Matarife, bringing into the damp warmness of the small room the stink of fresh blood, joined them.
El Matarife clasped the priest in his arms. They were brothers, though it was hard to see how the same womb could have given birth to two such different men. They were alike in their size, but in nothing else. The Inquisitor was subtle, clever, and delicate where El Matarife was crude, boisterous, and savage. The Partisan leader was the kind of man despised by Pierre Ducos, who admired cleverness and hated brute strength, but the Inquisitor would not give the Frenchman his help unless his brother was taken into their confidence and used in their scheme.
El Matarife spooned the greasy stew into his mouth. Gravy dripped onto his huge beard. He looked with his small, red-rimmed eyes at Ducos. ‘You’re a brave man, coming here.’
‘I come with your brother’s protection.’ Ducos spoke Spanish perfectly, as he spoke a half dozen other languages.
El Matarife shook his head. ‘In this valley, Frenchman, you are under my protection.’
‘Then I am grateful.’
‘You enjoyed seeing your countryman die?’
Ducos kept his voice mild. ‘Who would not enjoy your skill?’
El Matarife laughed. ‘You’d like to see another die?’
‘Juan!’ The Inquisitor’s voice was loud. He was the elder brother, and his authority cowed El Matarife. ‘We have come for business, Juan, not pleasure.’ He gestured to the other men in the room. ‘And we will talk alone.’
It had not been easy for Pierre Ducos to come to this place, yet such was the state of the war that he had agreed to the Inquisitor’s demands.
Ducos had agreed to sit at this table with his enemy because the war had turned sour for France. The Emperor had invaded Russia with the greatest army of modern times, an army which, in one winter, had been destroyed. Now northern Europe threatened France. The armies of Russia, Prussia, and Austria scented victory. To fight them, Napoleon was taking troops from Spain, at the very time when the English General Wellington was increasing his forces. Only a fool was now confident of a French military victory in Spain, and Pierre Ducos was no fool. Yet if the army could not defeat the British, politics might.
The thin girl, shivering with fear of her master, poured raw wine into silver mounted horn cups. The silver was chased with the wreathed “N” of Napoleon, booty taken by the Slaughterman in one of his attacks on the French. Ducos waited until the girl had gone, then, in his quiet, deep voice, he spoke of politics.
In France, in the luxury of the chateau of Valençay, the Spanish King was a prisoner. To his people Ferdinand VII was a hero, the lost King, the rightful King, a symbol of their pride. They fought not just to expel the French invader, but to restore their King to his throne. Now Napoleon proposed to give them back their King.
El Matarife paused. He was slicing the goat’s cheese with the knife that had tormented and killed the prisoner. ‘Give him back?’ He sounded incredulous.
‘He will be restored to the throne,’ Ducos said.
Ferdinand VII, the Frenchman explained, would be sent back to Spain. He would be sent in majesty, but only if he signed the Treaty of Valençay. That was the secret; the Treaty, a treaty which, to Ducos’ clever mind, was an idea of genius. It declared that the sta
And in return Ferdinand had only to promise one thing; that he would end the alliance with Britain. The British army would be ordered to leave Spain, and if it hesitated then there would be no forage for its horses, food for its men, or ports for its supply ships. A starved army was no army. Without a shot being fired, Wellington would be forced from Spain and Napoleon could take every one of France’s quarter million soldiers in Spain and march them against the northern foes. It was a stroke of genius.
And, of necessity, a secret. If the British government even dreamed that such a treaty was being prepared then British gold would flow, bribes be offered, and the populace of Spain roused against the very thought of peace with France.
The Treaty, Ducos allowed, would not be popular in Spain. The common people, the peasants whose lands and women had been ravaged by the French, would not welcome a peace with their bitterest enemy. Only their beloved, absent King could persuade them to accept it, and their King hesitated.
Ferdinand VII wanted reassurance. Would the nobility of Spain support him? Would the Spanish Generals? What, most important of all, would the Church say? It was Ducos’ job to provide those answers for the King, and the man who would give Ducos those answers was the Inquisitor.
Father Hacha was clever. He had risen in the Inquisition by his cleverness, and he knew how to use the secret files that the Inquisition kept on all Spain’s eminent men. He could use his fellow Inquisitors in every part of Spain to collect letters from such men, letters that would be passed to the imprisoned Spanish King and assure him that a peace with France would be acceptable to enough nobles, churchmen, officers, and merchants to make the Treaty possible.