Tired cavalry scouts came back to the city in the early Tuesday hours. Marmont’s army had gone north in the night. The French had abandoned the garrison of the forts in the city, they would bide their time now and hope that at some point in the summer they would catch Wellington flat-footed and fight a battle more on their own terms.
The fortresses served no purpose now for Wellington. They had failed to bring Marmont to battle for their rescue, and they stopped his supply trains using the long Roman bridge, so the fortresses would be destroyed. La Marquesa would get her battle, and Sharpe would have to seek Leroux among the prisoners.
If there were prisoners. It had seemed a light thing for the General to promise La Marquesa an assault of the three buildings, but Sharpe could see that the defenders would not easily give in. He had stared long and hard at the buildings, marooned in their waste ground, and the more he looked, the less he liked.
The waste ground was split by a deep gorge that ran southwards towards the river. On the right of the gorge was the largest of the French forts, the San Vincente, while to the left were the forts of La Merced and San Cayetano. An attack on any one of the three forts would be savaged by gunfire from the others.
The three buildings had been convents until the French evicted the nuns and turned this corner of the city into a stronghold. For nearly a week now the convents had been under fire from British guns, yet the artillery had done remarkably little damage. The French had prepared the buildings well.
Out of the levelled houses that had surrounded the convents they had made a crude glacis that bounced the round-shot up and over the defensive works. They had buttressed walls behind the deep ditch which surrounded each convent and over their gun emplacements and troop shelters they had made huge, thick roofs. Each roof was like a massive box filled with earth, designed to soak up the British howitzer shells that fell with fluttering smoke from the sky. The French garrisons were surrounded, trapped, but it would be hard for the British to break in.
Sharpe paraded his Company, not entirely by chance, outside the Palacio Casares. The huge gates stood open, revealing the central courtyard in the middle of which a fountain splashed into a raised pool. The courtyard was paved, filled with flowers in ornate tubs, and Sharpe stared through the shadows of the archway at the great door above the formal steps. The house seemed deserted. Thickly woven straw mats had been lowered over the windows, blotting the sun, and the water in the fountain was the only sign of movement in the great, rich house.
Above the gateway, on the tall, blank, outer wall, the coat of arms that decorated the barouche door was carved in pale gold stone. Above that, high above, Sharpe could see plants growing at the wall’s top, evidence perhaps of a balcony or even roof garden and it was there, he knew, that La Marquesa would get her view, above the rooftops, of the wasteland and the forts. Not that she would see much. The attack would be made at last light. Sharpe would have preferred a night attack, but Wellington distrusted them, remembering the closeness of disaster to success that the night had brought in Seringapatam so long ago.
He turned away from the house, to his Company, and he knew that he had become obsessed with this woman. It seemed to him to be ridiculous, to be an ambition of impossible proportions, but now he was snagged on it. His job was to kill Leroux, to protect the unknown figure of El Mirador, yet his mind stayed with La Marquesa.
“Sir?” Harper came to formal attention. “Company ready for inspection, sir!”
“Weapons, please.” Sharpe trusted his men. None would go into battle with unserviceable weapons. Price could look at them, tug at screwed flints, feel bayonet edges, but he would find nothing. Sharpe could hear the assault troops being paraded. They were all Light troops, the best of their Battalions, and they were assembling way back from the wasteland, hoping that the sudden eruption of the attack would take the French by surprise. The siege guns still fired. Four eighteen pounders had been dragged across the fords and brought to the city and the huge, iron guns hammered at the forts.