Callard gagged, threw himself forward, and Spears pushed his head down between his knees. Once he had him bent double he plucked the fur-trimmed cavalry pelisse from the shoulders, then tugged at the cravat. It was pinned. Callard’s head jerked and lolled, he made a drunken protest, but Spears banged the head down again, tugged harder, and the cravat came free. Spears came back to Sharpe. “Here. Wear these.”
“What about him?”
“He can roger the moon, for all I care. You wear ‘em, Richard, and throw them away tomorrow. If the little bastard wakes up and wants them back we’ll shove him head-first into the cess-pit. He’ll think he’s back home.”
Sharpe tucked the cravat into his collar, then draped the pelisse, dark red trimmed with black fur, so that the sleeve hung loose by his left side. Spears grinned at the effect, laughed as Sharpe slung the rifle over the decorative garment. “You look ravishing. Shall we go and find something to ravish?”
The hall was crowded with officers and people of the town and Spears pushed through them, shouting at friends, waving indiscriminately. He looked back at Sharpe. “Eaten?”
“There’s a trough in there! I should get your face in it!” Sharpe found himself in a vast room, lit by a thousand candles, and on the walls were great, dark oil paintings that showed men in solemn armour. A table ran the length of the room, beside one wall, and it was covered with a white cloth spread with heaped dishes. Half the foods he did not even recognise; small birds, brown from the ovens, dripping with clear, sticky sauce, and next to them a plate of strange fruits, fantastically decorated with palm leaves, and glistening with ice that sweating servants replenished as they dashed up and down the table’s length. Sharpe took a goose-breast, bit it, and discovered he was ravenous. He took one more to eat while he watched the strange throng.
Half were officers. There were British, German, Spanish and Portuguese, and the colours of their uniforms spanned the whole of a painter’s tray. The rest were civilians, richly and sombrely dressed, and the men, Sharpe guessed, outnumbered the women five to one. They outnumbered the pretty women a hundred to one. A group of British Dragoon officers had invented their own game at the far end of the room, lobbing bread rolls like howitzer shells high over the crowd so they fell indiscriminately amongst a sober group of Spaniards who were pretending that the bread cannonade. was merely a figment of their imaginations. Spears whooped at them as they fired, correcting their aim, calling the fall of iro shot and then, delighted with the game, tossed a whole roasted chicken to one of the group. They chanted the fire orders. “Sponge out! Load! Prime! Stand back! Fire!” The chicken sailed into the air, turning and dripping, then splatted down and scored a glancing blow on the high mantilla and carefully constructed hair of a Spanish matron. She rocked forward slightly, oblivious, apparently, of the Dragoons’ cheers, and her companions looked silently at the ruined, gaping, wire-threaded interior of her piled hair. It seemed to leak a little dust from its remains. One of the men stooped down and tore off a chicken wing and began to munch at it.
Spears waved at Sharpe. “God, Richard, isn’t this fun?” Sharpe pushed through the crowd. “Is the General here?”
“What do you think?” Spears gestured at the cavalry officers. “They wouldn’t dare if he was here. No, the word is he isn’t coming. Lickin‘ his wounds, so to speak.” He was shouting over the crowd’s noise.
Sharpe was introduced to the cavalry officers, a whirl of names, bonhomie, unmemorable faces, and then Spears pushed him through the doorway, back to the hall, and up a huge staircase that separated in two great curves either side of a statue. The statue, which was of a decorous maiden holding a pitcher of water, had been crowned with a British shako. Sharpe had thought that the room with the food must be the main room of the Palacio, but he was shown, at the stair’s top, through a door and into a hall that took his breath away. It was the size of a cavalry drill hall, lined with huge paintings, topped by a ceiling of intricate plaster, and lit by great chandeliers, each a universe of candles, and the crystal winked and dazzled, glittered and shook, above the uniforms of the officers, silver and gold, lace and chain, and above the dresses and jewels of the women. “Jesus!” The word was torn from him involuntarily.
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