He put his arms round her, her skin was pressed against his uniform, his sword belt, his ammunition pouch, and she clung to him and he stared at the dark bulk of the San Vincente and he swore that the enemy would never reach her, never, not while there was breath in his body or while his arm could lift the heavy sword whose hilt was cold on her flank. She hooked a leg round his, lifted herself up, and kissed him again and he forgot everything. The Company, the forts, Teresa; all were scoured away, whirled far off by this moment, by this promise, by this woman who fought her own lonely war against his enemies.
She lowered herself to the floor, took his hand, and her face was grave and innocent. “Come.”
He followed, obedient, in the dark Salamantine night.
Wednesday, June 24th to Wednesday, July 8th, 1812
Sharpe found himself resenting the progress of the trench that was being dug in the ravine. He knew that once the excavation reached the midpoint between the San Vincente and San Cayetano forts then the second assault was imminent. The second assault could hardly fail. The ammunition supply to the heavy guns had been restored, cart after cart came across the San Marta ford and screeched into the city and each cart was loaded with the huge roundshot. The guns fired incessantly, grinding at the defences, and to make it worse for the French the gunners heated the shot to a red heat so that the balls lodged in the old timbers of the convents and started fires that the French tried desperately to control.
For four nights Sharpe watched the bombardment, each night from the mirador, and the red-hot shot seared in the darkness and crashed into the crumbling forts. The fires blazed, were damped down, then blazed again and only the small hours of the morning brought a respite for the defenders. Some nights it seemed to Sharpe as if no one could live through the battering of the forts. The shot streaked over the wasteland while, high overhead, the fuses of the howitzer shells spun and smoked then plunged down to explode in flowering dark flame and thunder. The crackle of the flames rivalled the cracks of the Riflemen, creeping nearer, and each morning showed more damage; more embrasures opened wide, their guns unseated, smashed, useless. Wellington was in a hurry. He wanted the forts taken so that he could march north in pursuit of Marmont.
When the forts fell Sharpe knew he would go north. The Light Company would rejoin the regiment and he would leave Salamanca, leave La Marquesa, leave El Mirador, and each moment, marked by the slow extension of the attacker’s trench, was precious to him. He left the Palacio each morning, going out by the secret staircase that led into an alleyway beside the stables, and he went back each afternoon when the only disturbance of Salamanca’s siesta was the sound of the gunners crumbling at the forts.
The Light Company were puzzled, Patrick Harper most of all, but Sharpe said nothing and they could only speculate where their Captain disappeared each day and night. On the first morning he came back to them he had bathed, his uniform had been cleaned, mended and pressed, but he offered no explanation. Each morning he exercised the Company, marching them into the countryside and going through the evolutions of skirmishing. He drove them hard, not wanting them to become soft because of their stay in this soft city. Each afternoon he released them to their freedom while he went, secretly and cautiously, to the small door in the stable alley. Behind the door the stairs led to the private, top floor where only La Marquesa’s most trusted servants were allowed and where, almost to Sharpe’s disbelief, he found himself deep in a passionate affair.
He had lost his fear of her. She was no longer La Marquesa, now she was El Mirador, and though she was still a flawless woman she was also a person to whom he listened avidly. She spoke of her life, talking bitterly of the death of her parents. “They were not even French, but they took them. They killed them. The scum.” Her hatred of the revolution was total. Sharpe had worked out her age from the tales she told him. She had been ten when the mob came to take her parents, so now she was twenty eight, and in the years between she had studied the forces of a world that had taken her parents’ lives. She spoke to him of politics, of ambitions, and she showed him letters from Germany that spoke of Napoleon gathering a vast army that she said was destined for Russia. She had news too from across the Atlantic, news that spoke of an imminent American invasion of Canada, and Sharpe, sitting in the mirador, had the sense of watching a whole world drawn into a maelstrom of flame and shot like that which hammered, unceasing, below.