He tilted the canteen, shut his eyes, and let the raw wine scour his mouth. “Captain! Captain!”
He opened his eyes, but could not see who had shouted, and he presumed that it was not for him and then he saw the priest, Curtis, pushing his way out of the group of horsemen around Wellington. The damned Irishman was everywhere. Sharpe did not move except to cork his canteen.
Curtis walked towards him and stopped. “We meet again.”
“As you said we would.”
“You can always believe a man of God.” The elderly priest smiled. “I was hoping you might be here.”
Curtis gestured towards the mounted officers. “There’s someone who would be relieved, very relieved, to hear from you that Leroux is safely shut up in the fortresses. Would you be so kind as to confirm it?” He gestured again, inviting Sharpe to walk with him, but the tall Rifleman did not move.
“Don’t they believe you?”
The elderly priest smiled. “I’m a priest, Captain, a Professor of Astronomy and Natural History, and Rector of the Irish College here. Those aren’t suitable qualifications, I’m afraid, for these warlike matters. You, on the other hand, will be believed on this subject. Would you mind?”
“You’re what?” Sharpe had thought the man just an interfering priest.
Curtis smiled gently. “I’m eminent, dreadfully eminent, and I’m asking you to do me a kindness.”
Sharpe did not move, still unwilling to walk into the circle of elegant officers. “Who needs reassurance?”
“An acquaintance. I don’t think you’ll regret the experience. Are you married?”
Sharpe nodded, not understanding. “Yes.”
“By Mother Church, I hope?”
“As it happens, yes.”
“You surprise me, and please me.” Sharpe was not sure whether Curtis was teasing him. The priest’s bushy eyebrows went up. “It does help, you see.”
“Temptations of the flesh, Captain. I am sometimes very grateful to God that he has allowed me to grow old and immune to them. Please come.”
Sharpe followed him, curious, and Curtis stopped suddenly. “I don’t have the pleasure of your name, Captain.”
“Sharpe. Richard Sharpe.”
Curtis smiled. “Really? Sharpe? Well, well!” He did not give Sharpe any time to react to his apparent recognition. “Come on then, Sharpe! And don’t go all jellified!”
With that mysterious injunction Curtis found a way through the horses and Sharpe followed him. There must have been two dozen officers, at least, but they were not, as Sharpe had first thought, crowded around Wellington. They were looking at an open carriage, pointing away from Sharpe, and it was to the side of the carriage that Curtis led him.
Someone, Sharpe thought, was indecently rich. Four white horses stood patiently in the carriage traces, a powdered-wigged driver sat on the bench, a footman, in the same livery, on a platform behind. The horses’ traces were of silver chain. The carriage itself was polished to a sheen that would have satisfied the most meticulous Sergeant Major. The lines of the carriage, which Sharpe supposed was a new-fangled barouche, were picked out in silver paint on dark blue. A coat of arms decorated the door, a shield so often quartered that the small devices contained in its many compartments were indistinguishable except at very close inspection. The occupant, though, would have stunned at full rifle range.
She was fair haired, unusual in Spain, and fair skinned, and she wore a dress of dazzling whiteness so that she seemed to be the brightest, most luminous object in the whole of Salamanca’s golden square. She was leaning back on the cushions, one white arm negligently laid on the carriage side, and her eyes seemed languid and amused, bored even, as though she were used to such daily and lavish adulation. She held a small parasol against the evening sun, a parasol of white lace that threw a filmy shadow on her face, but the shadow did nothing to hide the rich, full mouth, the big, intelligent eyes, or the slim, long neck that seemed, after the tanned, brown skin of the army and its followers, to be made of a substance that was of heavenly origin. Sharpe had seen many beautiful women. Teresa was beautiful, Jane Gibbons, whose brother had tried to kill him at Talavera, was beautiful, but this woman was in another realm. Curtis rapped the carriage door. Sharpe was hardly aware of any other person, not even of Wellington himself, and he watched the eyes come to him as she listened to Curtis’ introduction. “Captain Richard Sharpe, I have the honour to name you La Marquesa de Casares el Grande y Melida Sadaba.“