She looked at him. He half expected her to offer him a white-gloved hand, but she just smiled. “People never remember it.”
“La Marquesa de Casares el Grande y Melida Sadaba.” Sharpe marvelled that he had got the words out without stammering. He understood exactly what Curtis meant by jellification. She raised an eyebrow in mock surprise. Curtis was telling her, in Spanish, about Leroux. Sharpe heard the name mentioned, and saw her glance at him. Each glance was stupefying. Her beauty was like a physical force. Other women, Sharpe guessed, would hate her. Men would follow her like lap dogs. She had been born beautiful and every artifice that money could buy was enhancing that beauty. She was glorious, tantalising, and, he supposed, untouchable to anyone less than a full-blooded lord and, as he always did when he saw something that he wanted, but could not hope to have, he began to dislike it. Curtis stopped and she looked at Sharpe. Her voice sounded bored. “Leroux is in the forts?”
He wondered where she had learned English. “Yes, Ma’am.”
She nodded, dismissing him, and it seemed to Sharpe that his reassurances had not been wanted, nor welcomed. Then she turned back to him and raised her voice. “You do seem so much more soldierlike, Captain, than these pretty men on their horses.”
He was not supposed to reply. The remark had been made, he suspected, purely to annoy her gallant admirers. She did not even bother to see what effect it had on them, but merely drew a silver-tipped pencil from a small bag and began writing on a piece of paper. One man rose to the bait, a foppish cavalry officer whose English drawl spoke of aristocratic birth.
“Any brute can be brave, Ma’am, but a curry-comb always improves it.”
There was a moment’s silence. La Marquesa looked up at Sharpe and smiled. “Sir Robin Callard thinks you’re an uncombed brute.”
“Rather that than a lap dog, Ma’am.”
She had succeeded. She looked at Callard and raised an eyebrow. He was forced to be brave. He stared at Sharpe, his face furious. “You’re insolent, Sharpe.”
“Yes he is.” The voice was crisp. Wellington leaned forward. “He always has been.” The General knew what La Marquesa was doing, and he would stop it. He hated duelling among his officers. “It’s his strength. And weakness.” He touched his hat. “Good day, Captain Sharpe.”
“Sir.” He backed away from the carriage, ignored by La Marquesa who was folding her piece of paper. He had been dismissed, contemptuously even, and he knew that a tattered Captain with an old sword had no place among these scented, elegant people. Sharpe felt the resentment rise sour and thick within him. Wellington needed Sharpe when there was a breach to be taken at Badajoz, but not now! Not among his Lordship’s own kind. They thought Sharpe was a mere brute who needed a curry-comb, yet he was a brute who kicked, clawed and scratched to preserve their privileged, lavish world. Well damn them. Damn them to a stinking hell. Tonight he would drink with his men, not one of whom would dream of owning as much money as the worth of a single silver trace chain from La Marquesa’s coach. Yet they were his men. Damn the bitch and the men who sniffed about her. Sharpe would prove he did not care a damn for them.
He turned. A handsome cavalry officer, hair as gold as La Marquesa’s, uniform as elegant as Sir Robin Callard’s, stood smiling at him. The man’s left arm was in a sling that covered the blue and silver of his jacket, and for a second Sharpe thought this man must be Callard’s second come to offer a duel. Yet the cavalry officer’s smile was open and friendly, his voice warm. “I’m honoured to meet you, Sharpe! Jack Spears, Captain.” He grinned broadly. “I’m glad you twisted Robin’s nose. He’s a pompous little bastard. Here.” He held a folded piece of paper to Sharpe.
Sharpe took it reluctantly, not wanting anything to do with the glittering circle about the blue and silver barouche. He unfolded the pencil written note. “I am giving a small reception this evening at 10 o’clock. Lord Spears will direct you.” It was signed, simply, “H“.