Sharpe 3-Book Collection 4: Sharpe's Escape, Sharpe's Fury, Sharpe's Battle, p.1Bernard Cornwell
Sharpe’s Fury and
About the Author
Also by Bernard Cornwell
Origin of Richard Sharpe
The Shape Appreciation Society
About the Publisher
and the Bussaco Campaign,
Sharpe’s Escape is for CeCe
Part Two - Coimbra
Part Three - The Lines of Torres Vedras
MISTER SHARPE WAS IN A BAD MOOD. A filthy mood. He was looking for trouble in Sergeant Harper’s opinion, and Harper was rarely wrong about Captain Sharpe, and Sergeant Harper knew well enough not to engage his Captain in conversation when Sharpe was in such a black temper, but on the other hand Harper liked to live dangerously. “I see your uniform’s been mended, sir,” he said cheerily.
Sharpe ignored the comment. He just marched on, climbing the bare Portuguese slope under the searing sun. It was September 1810, almost autumn, yet the heat of late summer hammered the landscape like a furnace. At the top of the hill, another mile or so ahead of Sharpe, stood a barn-like stone building next to a gaunt telegraph station. The station was a black timber scaffolding supporting a high mast from which signaling arms hung motionless in the afternoon’s heat.
“It’s a rare nice piece of stitching on that jacket,” Harper went on, sounding as though he did not have a care in the world, “and I can tell you didn’t do it yourself. It looks like a woman’s work, so it does?” He inflected the last three words as a question.
Sharpe still said nothing. His long, straight-bladed cavalry sword banged against his left thigh as he climbed. He had a rifle slung on his shoulder. An officer was not supposed to carry a longarm like his men, but Sharpe had once been a private and he was used to carrying a proper gun to war.
“Was it someone you met in Lisbon, now?” Harper persisted.
Sharpe simmered, but pretended he had not heard. His uniform jacket, decently mended as Harper had noticed, was rifle green. He had been a rifleman. No, he still thought of himself as a rifleman, one of the elite men who carried the Baker rifle and wore the dark green instead of the red, but the tides of war had stranded him and a few of his men in a redcoat regiment and now he commanded the light company of the South Essex who were following him up the hill. Most wore the red jackets of the British infantry and carried smoothbore muskets, but a handful, like Sergeant Harper, still kept their old green jackets and fought with the rifle.
“So who was she?” Harper finally asked.
“Sergeant Harper,” Sharpe was finally goaded into speaking, “if you want bloody trouble then keep bloody talking.”
“Yes, sir,” Harper said, grinning. He was an Ulsterman, a Catholic and a sergeant, and as such he was not supposed to be friends with an Englishman, a heathen and an officer, but he was. He liked Sharpe and knew Sharpe liked him, though he was wise enough not to say another word. Instead he whistled the opening bars of the song “I Would That the Wars Were All Done.”
Sharpe inevitably thought of the words that accompanied the tune; “In the meadow one morning, all pearly with dew, a fair pretty maiden plucked violets so blue,” and Harper’s delicate insolence forced him to laugh aloud. He then swore at the Sergeant, who was grinning with triumph. “It was Josefina,” Sharpe admitted.
“Miss Josefina now! How is she?”
“She’s well enough,” Sharpe said vaguely.
“I’m glad to hear that,” Harper said with genuine feeling. “So you took tea with her, did you, sir?”
“I took bloody tea with her, Sergeant, yes.”
“Of course you did, sir,” Harper said. He walked a few paces in silence, then decided to try his luck again. “And I thought you were sweet on Miss Teresa, sir?”
“Miss Teresa?” Sharpe said, as though the name were quite unknown to him, though in the last few weeks he had hardly stopped thinking about the hawk-faced girl who rode across the frontier in Spain with the partisan forces. He glanced at the Sergeant, who had a look of placid innocence on his broad face. “I like Teresa well enough,” Sharpe went on defensively, “but I don’t even know if I’ll ever see her again!”
“But you’d like to,” Harper pointed out.
“Of course I would! But so what? There are girls you’d like to see again, but you don’t behave like a bloody saint waiting for them, do you?”
“True enough,” Harper admitted. “And I can see why you didn’t want to come back to us, sir. There you were, drinking tea while Miss Josefina’s sewing, and a fine time the two of you must have been having.”
“I didn’t want to come back,” Sharpe said harshly, “because I was promised a month’s bloody leave. A month! And they gave me a week!”
Harper was not in the least sympathetic. The month’s leave was supposed to be Sharpe’s reward for bringing back a hoard of gold from behind enemy lines, but the whole of the light company had been on that jaunt and no one had suggested that the rest of them be given a month off. On the other hand Harper could well understand Sharpe’s moroseness, for the thought of losing a whole month in Josefina’s bed would make even a bishop hit the gin.
“One bloody week,” Sharpe snarled, “bastard bloody army!” He stepped aside from the path and waited for the company to close up. In truth his foul mood had little to do with his truncated leave, but he could not admit to Harper what was really causing it. He stared back down the column, seeking out the figure of Lieutenant Slingsby. That was the problem. Lieutenant bloody Cornelius bloody Slingsby.
As the company reached Sharpe they sat beside the path. Sharpe commanded fifty-four rank and file now, thanks to a draft from England, and those newly arrived men stood out because they had bright-red coats. The uniforms of the other men had paled under the sun and were so liberally patched with brown Portuguese cloth that, from a distance, they looked more like tramps than soldiers. Slingsby, of course, had objected to that. “New uniforms, Sharpe,” he had yapped enthusiastically, “some new uniforms will make the men look smarter. Fine new broadcloth will put some snap into them! We should indent for some.” Bloody fool, Sharpe had thought. The new uniforms would come in due time, probably in winter, and there was no point in asking for them sooner and, besides, the men liked their old, comfortable jackets just as they liked their French oxhide packs. The new men all had British packs, made by Trotters, that griped across the chest until, on a long march, it seemed that a red-hot band of iron was constricting the ribs. Trotters’ pains, that was called, and the French packs were far more comfortable.
Sharpe walked back down the company and ordered each of the new arrivals to give him their canteen and, a
“Sir?” Read, a redcoat and a Methodist, doubled to Sharpe.
“Make sure no one gives them water, Sergeant.”
“I’ll do that, sir, I’ll do that.”
The new men would be dry as dust by the time the afternoon was done. Their throats would be swollen and their breath rasping, but at least they would never be so stupid again. Sharpe walked on down the column to where Lieutenant Slingsby brought up the rearguard. “No stragglers, Sharpe,” Slingsby said with the eagerness of a terrier thinking it had deserved a reward. He was a short man, straight-backed, square-shouldered, bristling with efficiency. “Mister Iliffe and I coaxed them on.”
Sharpe said nothing. He had known Cornelius Slingsby for one week and in that week he had developed a loathing for the man that verged on being murderous. There was no reason for that hatred, unless disliking a man on sight was good reason, yet everything about Slingsby annoyed Sharpe, whether it was the back of the man’s head, which was as flat as a shovel blade, his protuberant eyes, his black mustache, the broken veins on his nose, the snort of his laughter or the strut of his gait. Sharpe had come back from Lisbon to discover that Slingsby had replaced his Lieutenant, the reliable Robert Knowles, who had been appointed Adjutant to the regiment. “Cornelius is by way of being a relation,” Lieutenant Colonel the Honorable William Lawford had told Sharpe vaguely, “and you’ll find him a very fine fellow.”
“I will, sir?”
“He joined the army late,” Lawford had continued, “which is why he’s still a lieutenant. Well, he was brevetted captain, of course, but he’s still a lieutenant.”
“I joined the army early, sir,” Sharpe had said, “and I’m still a lieutenant. Brevetted captain, of course, but still a lieutenant.”
“Oh, Sharpe.” Lawford had sounded exasperated. “There is no one more cognizant of your virtues than I. If there was a vacant captaincy…” He left that notion hanging, though Sharpe knew the answer. He had been made into a lieutenant, and that was something of a miracle for a man who had joined the army as an illiterate private, and he had been brevetted a captain, which meant he was paid as such even though his true rank remained lieutenant, but he could only get the real promotion if he either purchased a vacant captaincy or, much less likely, was promoted by Lawford. “I value you, Sharpe,” the Colonel had continued, “but I also have hopes for Cornelius. He’s thirty. Or maybe thirty-one. Old for a lieutenant, but he’s keen as mustard, Sharpe, and has experience. Lots of experience.” That was the trouble. Before joining the South Essex Slingsby had been in the 55th, a regiment serving in the West Indies, and the yellow fever had decimated the officers’ ranks and so Slingsby had been brevetted a captain, and captain, moreover, of the 55th’s light company, and as a result he reckoned he knew as much about soldiering as Sharpe. Which might have been true, but he did not know as much about fighting. “I want you to take him under your wing,” the Colonel had finished. “Bring him on, Sharpe, eh?”
Bring him to an early grave, Sharpe had thought sourly, but he had to hide his thoughts, and was still doing his best to conceal the hatred as Slingsby pointed up to the telegraph station. “Mister Iliffe and I saw men up there, Sharpe. A dozen of them, I think. And one looked as if he was wearing a blue uniform. Shouldn’t be anyone up there, should there?”
Sharpe doubted that Ensign Iliffe, an officer newly come from England, had seen a thing, while Sharpe himself had noticed the men and their horses fifteen minutes earlier and he had been wondering ever since what the strangers were doing on the hilltop, for officially the telegraph station had been abandoned. Normally it was manned by a handful of soldiers who guarded the naval Midshipman who operated the black bags which were hoisted up and down the tall mast to send messages from one end of Portugal to the other. But the French had already cut the chain further north and the British had retreated away from these hills, and somehow this one station had not been destroyed. There was no point in leaving it intact for the Frogs to use, and so Sharpe’s company had been detached from the battalion and given the simple job of burning the telegraph. “Could it be a Frenchman?” Slingsby asked, referring to the blue uniform. He sounded eager, as if he wanted to charge uphill. He was three inches over five feet, with an air of perpetual alertness.
“Doesn’t matter if it is a bloody Crapaud,” Sharpe said sourly, “there’s more of us than there are of them. I’ll send Mister Iliffe up there to shoot him.” Iliffe looked alarmed. He was seventeen and looked fourteen, a raw-boned youngster whose father had purchased him a commission because he did not know what else to do with the boy. “Show me your canteen,” Sharpe ordered Iliffe.
Iliffe looked scared now. “It’s empty, sir,” he confessed, and cringed as though he expected Sharpe to punish him.
“You know what I told the men with empty canteens?” Sharpe asked. “That they were idiots. But you’re not, because you’re an officer, and there aren’t any idiot officers.”
“Quite correct, sir,” Slingsby put in, then snorted. He always snorted when he laughed and Sharpe suppressed an urge to cut the bastard’s throat.
“Hoard your water,” Sharpe said, thrusting the canteen back at Iliffe. “Sergeant Harper! March on!”
It took another half-hour to reach the hilltop. The barn-like building was evidently a shrine, for a chipped statue of the Virgin Mary was mounted in a niche above its door. The telegraph tower had been built against the shrine’s eastern gable which helped support the lattice of thick timbers that carried the platform on which the Midshipman had worked his arcane skill. The tower was deserted now, its tethered signal ropes banging against the tarred mast in the brisk wind that blew around the summit. The black-painted bladders had been taken away, but the ropes used to hoist and lower them were still in place and from one of them hung a square of white cloth and Sharpe wondered if the strangers on the hilltop had raised the makeshift flag as a signal.
Those strangers, a dozen civilians, were standing beside the shrine’s door and with them was a Portuguese infantry officer, his blue coat faded to a color very close to the French blue. It was the officer who strode forward to meet Sharpe. “I am Major Ferreira,” he said in good English, “and you are?”
“And Captain Slingsby.” Lieutenant Slingsby had insisted on accompanying Sharpe to meet the Portuguese officer, just as he insisted on using his brevet rank even though he had no right to do so any longer.
“I command here,” Sharpe said laconically.
“And your purpose, Captain?” Ferreira demanded. He was a tall man, lean and dark, with a carefully trimmed mustache. He had the manners and bearing of privilege, but Sharpe detected an uneasiness in the Portuguese Major that Ferreira attempted to cover with a brusque manner that tempted Sharpe to insolence. He fought the temptation and told the truth instead.
“We’re ordered to burn the telegraph.”
Ferreira glanced at Sharpe’s men who were straggling onto the hill’s summit. He seemed taken aback by Sharpe’s words, but then smiled unconvincingly. “I shall do it for you, Captain. It will be my pleasure.”
“I carry out my own orders, sir,” Sharpe said.
Ferreira scented the insolence and gave Sharpe a quizzical look. For a second Sharpe thought the Portuguese Major intended to offer him a reprimand, but instead Ferreira nodded curtly. “If you insist,” he said, “but do it quickly.”
“Quickly, sir!” Slingsby intervened enthusiastically. “No point in waiting!” He turned on Harper. “Sergeant Harper! The combustibles, if you please. Quick, man, quick!”
Harper glanced at Sharpe for approval of the Lieutenant’s orders, but Sharpe betrayed nothing, and so the big Irishman shouted at the dozen men who were burdened with cavalry forage nets that were stuffed full of straw. Another six men carried jars of turpentine, and now the straw was heaped about the four legs
Slingsby did not even give Sharpe time to answer. “Let’s not dillydally, Sergeant!” he said briskly. “Fire it up!”
“Wait,” Sharpe snarled, making Slingsby blink at the harshness of his tone. Officers were expected to treat each other courteously in front of the men, but Sharpe had snapped angrily and the look he gave Slingsby made the Lieutenant step backwards in surprise. Slingsby frowned, but said nothing as Sharpe climbed the ladder to the mast’s platform that stood fifteen feet above the hilltop. Three pock marks in the boards showed where the Midshipman had placed his tripod so he could stare at the neighboring telegraph stations and read their messages. The station to the north had already been destroyed, but looking south Sharpe could just see the next tower somewhere beyond the River Criz and still behind British lines. It would not be behind the lines for long, he thought. Marshal Masséna’s army was flooding into central Portugal and the British would be retreating to their newly built defensive lines at Torres Vedras. The plan was to retreat to the new fortifications, let the French come, then either kill their futile attacks or watch them starve.
And to help them starve, the British and Portuguese were leaving them nothing. Every barn, every larder, every storehouse was being emptied. Crops were being burned in their fields, windmills were being destroyed and wells made foul with carcasses. The inhabitants of every town and village in central Portugal were being evicted, taking their livestock with them, ordered to go either behind the Lines of Torres Vedras or else up into the high hills where the French would be reluctant to follow. The intention was that the enemy would find a scorched land, bare of everything, even of telegraph ropes.
Sharpe 3-Book Collection 4: Sharpe's Escape, Sharpe's Fury, Sharpe's Battle by Bernard Cornwell / Actions & Adventure / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes