“You owe me twice that already.” La Marquesa had taken out a small, silver telescope that she trained on the two British Battalions. They were marching towards the crest. “Still, I’ll take you, Jack. Ten guineas.” She put the telescope in her lap and picked up a folding ivory fan with which she cooled her face. “Everyone ought to see a battle, Jack. It’s part of a woman’s education.”
“Quite right, my dear. Front row for the slaughter. Lord Spears’ Academy for Young Ladies, battles arranged, mutilations our speciality.”
The fan cracked shut. “What a bore you are, Jack, and just a tiny bit amusing. Oh look! Some of them are running! Do I cheer?”
Lord Spears was realising that he had just lost another ten guineas that he did not have, but he showed no regret. “Why not? Hip, hip…“
“Hooray!” said La Marquesa.
Sharpe blew his whistle that sent his men scattering into the loose skirmish chain. The other nine companies would fight in their ranks, held by discipline, but his men fought in pairs, picking their ground and being the first to meet the enemy. He was on the crest now, the grass long beneath his boots, and his skirmish line was going down towards the enemy. Once again he forgot Leroux, forgot Hogan’s concern, for now he was doing the job for which the army paid him. He was a skirmisher, a fighter of battles between the armies, and the love of combat was rising in him, that curious emotion that diluted fear and drove him to impose his will on the enemy. He was excited, eager, and he led his men at a swift pace down the hillside to where the enemy skirmishers, the Voltigeurs, were coming out to meet him. This was his world now, this small saddle of land between the escarpment and the knoll, a tiny piece of grassland that was warm in the sun and pretty with flowers. There he would meet his enemy and there he would win. “Spread out! Keep moving!” Sharpe was going to war.
Wellington did not want to attack. He saw little sense in sending his army down into the plain, but he was frustrated by the French reluctance to attack him. He had sent two Battalions against the two enemy Battalions on the knoll in the hope that he could provoke Marmont into a response. Wellington wanted to entice the French up onto the ridge, to force their infantry to climb the steep slope and face the guns and muskets that would suddenly appear to blast the tired enemy in chaos and horror back the way they had come.
Such thoughts were far from Richard Sharpe. His job was altogether more simple, merely to take on an enemy Light Company and defeat them. The British, unlike the French, attacked in line. The French had a taste for attacking in columns, great blocks of men driven like battering rams at the enemy line, columns propelled by the serried drummers in their midst, marching beneath the proud eagle standards that had conquered Europe, but that was not the way of Wellington’s army. The two red-coated Battalions made one line, two ranks deep, and it marched forward, its ranks wavering because of the uneven ground, marching towards the French defensive line, three ranks deep, broken only where the field guns waited to fire.
Sharpe’s Company was ahead of the British line.
His job was simple enough. His men had to weaken the enemy line before the British attack crashed home. They would do it by sniping a’t the officers, at the gunners, worrying the morale of the Frenchmen, and to stop them doing it, the French had sent out their own skirmishers. Sharpe could see them clearly, blue-jacketed men with white crossbelts and red shoulders, men who ran forward in pairs and waited for the Light Company. Sweat trickled down Sharpe’s spine.
His Light Company was outnumbered by enemy skirmishers, but he had an advantage denied the French. Most of Sharpe’s men, like the enemy, carried muskets that, though quick to load and fire, were inaccurate except at point blank range. Yet Sharpe also had his green-jacketed Riflemen, the killers at long range, whose slow-loading Baker Rifles would dominate this fight. The grass-stalks were thick, pulling at his boots, brushing against the metal scabbard heavy at his side. He looked to his right and saw Patrick Harper walking as easily as if he was strolling in the hills of his beloved Donegal. The Sergeant, far from looking at the French, was staring over their heads at a hawk. Harper was fascinated by birds.
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