Sharpe’s sword. Bernard Cornwell

“Indeed, Ma’am?”

“Well not quite like you. He’s much older, much fatter, and he dresses much better. He’s also a General, so perhaps he’s not quite like you.” She patted the leather seat of the barouche between herself and her perspiring chaperone. “I have some wine, Captain, won’t you join me?”

“I’m quite comfortable, Ma’am.”

“You don’t look it, but if you insist.” She smiled. She was, as he remembered, dazzlingly beautiful. She was a dream, something of exquisite fineness, someone of whom Sharpe was resentful for he found her beauty overwhelming. She still smiled at him. “Jack tells me you’re a true hero, Captain Sharpe.”

“Not at all, Ma’am.” He was wondering if he should go and fetch his Company, and make his excuses to Major Forrest who would be hugely unhappy at losing his Light troops.

Lord Spears guffawed with laughter. “Not a hero! Listen to him! I love it!”

Sharpe frowned, embarrassed, and looked to Hogan for help. The Irishman grinned at him. “You took an Eagle, Richard.”

“With Harper, sir.”

“Oh God! The modest hero!” Lord Spears was enjoying himself. He imitated Sharpe’s reluctant voice. “It was all an accident. Eagle just dropped off its staff, straight into my hands. I was picking wild flowers at the time. Then I lost my way at Badajoz. Thought I was going to church parade and just happened to climb this breach. Very awkward.” Spears laughed. “God damn it, Richard! You even saved the Peer’s life!”

“Arthur’s life?” La Marquesa asked. She looked with interest at Sharpe. “When? How?”

“The Battle of Assaye, Ma’am.”

“Battle of Assaye! What’s that? Where was it?”

“India, Ma’am.”

“So what happened?”

“His horse was piked, Ma’am. I happened to be there.”

“Oh, God help us!” Spears’ smile was friendly. “He only fought off thousands of bloody heathens and says he happened to be there.”

Sharpe’s embarrassment was acute. He looked at Hogan. “Should I fetch my Company, sir?”

“No, Richard, you should not. It can wait. I’m thirsty, you’re thirsty, and her Ladyship is kindly offering wine.” He bowed to La Marquesa. “With your permission, Ma’am?” He held his hand out for the bottle that the chaperone held.

“No, Major! Jack will do it. He has the manners of a servant, don’t you Jack?”

“I’m a slave to you, Helena.” Spears took the bottle happily, while Hogan brought Sharpe a glass. Sharpe’s horse had moved some feet away from the carriage in search of greener grass and Sharpe was glad to be out of La Marquesa’s earshot. He drank the wine quickly, finding himself to be parched, and discovered Hogan at his elbow. The Irishman smiled sympathetically.

“She’s got you in full retreat, Richard. What’s the matter?”

“It’s not my place, sir, is it? That’s my place.” He nodded down the hill to where the South Essex relaxed on their knoll. The French were not moving.

“She’s just a woman, trying to be friendly.”

“Yes.” Sharpe thought of his wife, the dark haired beauty who would despise this aristocratic luxury. He glanced at La Marquesa. “Why does she speak such good English?”

“Helena?” Even Hogan, Sharpe noted, seemed to know her well enough to use her Christian name. “She’s half English. Spanish father, English mother, and raised in France.” Hogan drank his own wine. “Her parents were killed in the Terror, very nasty, and Helena managed to escape to an Uncle in Spain, in Saragossa. Then she married the Marques de Casares el Grande y Melida Sadaba, and became as rich as the hills. Houses all over Spain, a couple of castles, and a very good friend to us, Richard.”

“What are you talking about?” Her voice carried to them and Hogan turned his horse.

“Business, Ma’am, just business.”

“This is a pique-nique, not an Officers’ Mess. Come here!”

She made Spears give Sharpe more wine that he drank just as fast as the first glass. The crystal goblet was ridiculously small.

“You’re thirsty, Captain?”

“No, Ma’am.”

“I have plenty of bottles. Some chicken?”

“No, Ma’am.”

She sighed. “You’re so hard to please, Captain. Ah! There’s Arthur!”

Wellington was, indeed, returning westward along the track behind the ridge.

Spears twisted in his saddle to look at the General. “Ten to one he comes up here to see you, Helena?”

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