Sharpe overtook his men and led them along beside the two Cathedrals and into streets that were crowded with people ready to celebrate the city’s release from the French. Blankets had been hung from the poorer balconies, flags from the richer, while women leaned over window ledges and balustrades. “Vive Ingles!”
Harper bellowed back at them. “Viva Irlandes!” Wine was pressed on them, flowers tossed to them, and the cheerful holiday crowd jostled the Riflemen as they moved towards the music and the city centre. Harper grinned at Sharpe. “The Lieutenant ought to be here!”
Sharpe’s Lieutenant, Harold Price, would have been inordinately jealous. The girls were beautiful, smiling, and Price would have been torn by indecision like a terrier not knowing which rat to take first. A woman, monstrously fat, jumped up and down to plant a kiss on Harper’s cheek and the Irishman swept her up in his arms, kissed her happily, and put her down. The crowd cheered, loving it, and a small child was handed to the Sergeant who took her, skinny legs flailing, and put her on his shoulders. She drummed on his shako top, beating with the band sound, and beamed at her friends. Today was holiday in Salamanca. The French were gone, either north with Marmont or else into their three cordoned fortresses, and Salamanca was free.
The street opened into a courtyard, gorgeously decorated with carvings, and Sharpe remembered the place from his last visit. Salamanca was a town like Oxford or Cambridge, a University town, and the courtyard was part of the University. The stones of the buildings had been carved as delicately as silver filigree, the workmanship of the masons breath-takingly skilled, and he saw his men staring in wonder at the riotous stone. There was nothing like this to be seen in England, perhaps anywhere in the world, yet Sharpe knew that the best of Salamanca was still to come.
Bells pealed from a dozen belfries, a cacophony of joy that clashed with the army band. Swallows in their hundreds were wheeling and swooping over the rooftops, the harbingers of evening, and he pushed on, nodding and smiling at the people, and he noticed in the next street how the doors still bore the chalk marks left by the French billeting officers. Tonight the Sixth Division would be in these houses, and welcomed more readily because the British paid for their rooms and for their food. The French had gone. And Sharpe smiled because Leroux was trapped in the forts, and then he wondered how it would be possible to arrange it so that he could be present when the Sixth Division assaulted the forts.
The street ended in a wide space and Sharpe saw the tips of bright bayonets bobbing rhythmically over the heads of the crowd towards an archway. Harper put the small girl down, releasing her to run and join the crowd lining the parade route, and the Light Company men followed Sharpe towards the archway. Like all the Riflemen in Sharpe’s Company, Harper had been here before, back in the winter of ’08, and he remembered the Plaza Mayor that lay beyond this archway. It was in the Plaza Mayor that the Sixth Division gathered for the formal parade to mark the British entry into Salamanca.
Sharpe stopped just sort of the archway and looked at Harper. “I’m going to find Major Hogan. Keep the lads together, and meet me here at ten o’clock.”
Sharpe looked at the men with Harper, rogues all of them. They were typical of the drunks, thieves, murderers and runaways who had somehow become the best infantry in the world. He grinned at them. “You can drink.” They gave ironic cheers and Sharpe held up a hand. “But no fights. We’re not supposed to be here and the bloody Provosts would love to beat the hell out of you. So stay out of trouble, and keep your mates out of trouble, understand? Stick together. You can drink, but I’m not carrying anyone home tonight, so stay on your feet.” Sharpe had reduced the army’s regulations to three simple rules. His men were expected to fight, as he did, with determination. They were not to steal, except from the enemy or unless they were starving. And they were never to get drunk without his permission. They grinned at him and held up wine that had been given them. They would have sore heads in the morning.
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