“He sent His apologies.” Spears grinned at him. “Do you like it?”
“She married one of the richest devils in Spain, and the dullest.” Spears suddenly bowed to a middle-aged civilian. “My lord!”
The civilian nodded gravely to Spears. “My lord.” He was English, plump, with an angry face. He looked at Sharpe, quizzing him up and down with a raised monocle. Sharpe’s uniform was still wet with water and blood. “Who are you?”
Spears stepped in front of Sharpe. “It’s Callard, my lord. You remember him?”
His lordship waved Spears aside. “We have appearances to keep up, Callard, and you are a disgrace. Retire and change.”
Sharpe smiled. „I’ll rip your windpipe out of your fat throat if you don’t take your fat arse out of that door in two seconds.“ The smile had disguised a terrible anger that hammered at the man. For one second the plump man looked as if he would protest, and then he fled, rump going from side to side, leaving Sharpe angry and Lord Spears almost helpless with laughter.
“God, you’re precious, Sharpe. You know who that was?”
“I couldn’t give a damn.”
“So I see. Lord Benfleet. One of our politicians, come to put some spine into the Dagoes. His nickname, you’ll be pleased to know, is Lord Bumfleet. Come on.” He took Sharpe’s elbow and steered him to the top of the steps. “Who do we know here? Who else can you upset?”
An orchestra was playing on a raised dais that was set into a great arch topped by a gilded scallop. The musicians, wigged heads bowed, seemed to be scraping obsequiously for the circling mass on the floor. Among the people standing at the edges of the floor Sharpe saw the dark habits of sleek churchmen, their faces flushed with drink and good food. One face was not flushed. Sharpe saw the bushy eyebrows, and then the hand raised in recognition across the width of the room. Spears saw the gesture. “You know him?”
“Curtis. He’s a professor at the University here.”
“He’s a bloody traitor.”
“He’s what?” Sharpe was startled by the sudden severity in Spears’ voice. “Traitor?”
“Bloody Irishman. God knows, Richard, some of the Irish are all right, but some of them turn my stomach. That one does.”
“He fought against us, did you know that? When the Spanish were on the side of the French he was a chaplain on a naval ship. He volunteered as soon as he knew they would fight the English. He even boasts about it!”
“How do you know?”
“Because the Peer had a lot of so called eminent citizens to dinner one night, his Irish bloody eminence among them, and they sat and griped about the quality of the food. He should be bloody shot.”
Sharpe looked over the dancers to where Curtis was listening to a Spanish officer speak. The Irishman did seem to crop up at the most unexpected places. He had stopped the citizens firing at Leroux and only this evening he had said to Harper that he had known of the coming attack. An Irishman who had no love for the English. Sharpe pushed the thought away. He was seeing spies everywhere, when all that mattered was the utter defeat of Leroux.
Sharpe was not comfortable in this room. This was not his world. The musicians, who had taken a brief pause, started again and the men bowed to ladies, led them to the floor, and Lord Spears grinned at him. “D’you dance?”
“I somehow thought you’d say that. It’s very simple, Richard. You keep your feet moving, pretend you know what you’re doing, and pull their little waists firmly into your loins. One trip round the floor and you’ll know if you’re in luck. You should try it!” He dived into the crowd and Sharpe turned away, took a glass from a passing servant, and found a corner where he could stand and drink the wine.
He was out of place here. It was not just the clothes. Any man, he supposed, could get a tailor to dress him like a lord, but it was not just a question of money. How did a man learn which of a dozen knives and forks to pick up first? Or how to dance? Or how to make light conversation with a Marquesa, joke with a Bishop, or how, even, to give orders to a butler? They said it was in the blood of a man’s birth, ordained by God, yet upstarts like Napoleon Bonaparte had come from low birth to the glittering pinnacle of the richest country on earth. He had asked Major Leroy once, the loyalist American, if there was no social distinction in the fledgling United States, but the Major had laughed, spat out a shred of cheroot, and intoned solemnly to Sharpe. “‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.’ You know what that is?“