Sharpe’s sword. Bernard Cornwell

He left them and pushed his way through the crowds that lined the archway. He knew just what to expect, but still it took his breath away as he stood for a moment and just stared at what he thought was the most beautiful place he had seen in his life; Salamanca’s Plaza Mayor, the Great Plaza. It had been finished just thirty years before and had taken seventy years to build, but the time had been well spent. The square was formed of continuous houses, each of three storeys above the arched colonnade and every room facing the Plaza opened onto a wrought iron balcony. The severity of the buildings’ design was softened by decorated scrollwork, carved coats of arms, and a spire studded balustrade that edged the sky. The houses met at the north side of the Plaza in a splendid Palacio, higher than the houses and more ornate, and on the eastern side, full in the rays of the descending sun, was the Royal Pavilion. The stone of the whole Plaza was golden in the late afternoon, traced with a thousand, thousand shadows cast by balconies, shutters, carvings and spires. Swallows laced the air of the huge space. The Plaza was of royal dimensions. It spoke of grandeur, pride and magnificence, yet it was a public place and belonged to the citizens of Salamanca. The meanest person could walk and linger in its glory and imagine himself in the residence of a King.

Thousands of people were now crammed into the Plaza’s immensity. They lined the triple balconies and waved scarves and flags, cheered, and tossed blossoms into the paved square. Crowds were thick in the shadowed arcade beneath the colonnade’s eighty-eight arches, and their cheering threatened to drown the band that played beneath the Palacio to whose music the Sixth Division made their solemn and formal entry.

This was a moment to savour, a moment of glory, the moment when the British took hold of this city. The Plaza Mayor had sensed this moment, was making a celebration of it, yet in the very centre of the noise and colour sat a quiet man who looked, on his tall horse, to be almost drab. He wore no uniform. A plain blue coat, grey trousers, and unadorned bicorne hat sufficed Wellington. Before the General marched his troops, the men who had followed him from Portugal through the savage horrors of Ciudad Rodrigo and Badajoz.

The first Battalion of the 89nth Regiment, their jacket facings as deep a green as the valleys of North Devon from whence they came, were followed by the Shropshires, red facings on red jackets, their officers’ coats laced in gold. The swords swept up to salute the plain, hook-nosed man who stood quiet in the riot of noise. The Gist were there, a long way from Gloucestershire, and the sight of them made Sharpe remember Windham’s scornful comparison of the two Cathedral cities. The Colonel would have loved this. He would have tapped his riding crop in time with the music, have criticised the faded jackets of the Queen’s Royals, blue on red, second infantry of the line behind the Royal Scots, but he would not have been in earnest. The Cornishmen of the 32nd marched in, the 36th of Hereford, and all of them marched with colours uncased, colours that stirred in the small wind and showed off the musket and cannon scars of the smoke-tinged flags. The colours were surrounded by Sergeants’ halberds, the wide blades burnished to a brilliant silver.

Hooves sounded by the archway where Sharpe had entered and Lossow, his uniform miraculously brushed, led the first troop of King’s German Legion Light Dragoons into the Plaza. Their sabres were drawn, slashing light, and the officers wore fur edged pelisses casually draped over the gold-laced blue jackets. The Plaza seemed crammed with troops, yet still more came. The brown jackets of the Portuguese Cacadores, Light troops, whose green shako plumes nodded to the music’s tempo. There were Greenjackets too, not Riflemen of the 95th, Sharpe’s old Regiment, but men of the Goth, the Royal American Rifles. He watched them enter the square and he felt a small burst of pride at the sight of their faded, patched uniforms and the battered look of their Baker Rifles. The Rifles were the first onto any battlefield, and the last to leave it. They were the best. Sharpe was proud of his green jacket.

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