Sharpe’s sword. Bernard Cornwell

Curtis told his story, what there was of it, of how he had opened the door and found a French officer. “Terribly wounded, he looked. Blood from top to toe. He pushed me in, turned and fired, and then he closed the door. He went out the window.” He gestured to the tall window that opened onto the back street. “There was a man there, with a spare horse, and a cloak.”

“So he’s gone.”

“Clean away.”

“And Sharpe?”

Curtis clasped his hands, then extended the fingers as if in prayer. “He screamed, screamed terribly. Then he stopped. I opened the door again.” He shrugged.

Hogan dared hardly use the word. “Dead?”

Curtis shrugged. “I don’t know.” There was not much hope in the old man’s voice.

Hogan insisted on going back over the story, harrying it, as if some detail might emerge that would somehow change the ending, but it was with a harsh expression that he left Curtis’ door and walked, slowly, down the curved staircase. He offered no explanations to Price, but just went back to the surgeons. He bullied them, ordered them, used all the weight of Headquarters, but still no news emerged. One of them had treated an officer with a bullet wound and the man had survived, a Lieutenant in the Portuguese Army, but they were quite sure they had seen no bullet-wounded British officers. “We had a few privates.”

“Ye Gods! A Rifle Officer! Captain Sharpe!”

“Him?” The last surgeon shrugged. “We’d have been told about him. What happened?”

“He was shot.” Hogan kept his patience.

The surgeon shook his head. His breath smelt of the wine he had been drinking through the long afternoon. “If he was shot here, sir, we’d have seen him. The only explanation is that he never got this far.” The man shrugged. “I’m sorry, sir.”

“You mean dead?”

The surgeon shrugged again. “You’ve looked in the wards? He’s not here?” Hogan shook his head. The surgeon gestured over the courtyard with his bloody knife. “Try the body-men.”

At the side of the college was a small yard where the servants had lived in the better times when the Irish College had been full of students training for the English-banned Irish priesthood. In the yard Hogan found the body-men. They were working, nailing up crude coffins, sewing rough shrouds for the French dead, and they did not remember Sharpe. The smell in the small courtyard was overpowering. Bodies lay where they had been dumped, the body-men seemed to live on a diet of rum and Hogan found the soberest man he could discover. “Tell me what you do here.”

“Sir?” The man had only one eye, part of a cheek missing, but he was understandable. He seemed proud that an officer should be interested. “We burys ‘em, sir.”

“I know. I want to know what happens.” If Hogan could at least find Sharpe’s body then the worst question would be answered.

The man sniffed. He had a needle and coarse thread in his hand. “We shrouds the frogs, sir, ’less they’re officers, of course, an‘ they get a coffin. Nice coffin, sir.“

“And the British?”

“Oh, a coffin, sir, of course, sir, if we got enough, if not they get sewn up like this. Unless we ain’t got shrouds, sir, then we just stick ‘em and bury ’em.”

“Stick them?”

The man winked with his good eye, he was warming to his explanation. By his knees was a French soldier, the face already waxen in death, and the shroud was half closed with big, crude stitches. The man took the needle and plunged it through the Frenchman’s nose. “See, sir? Don’t bleed. Means ‘is not alive, if you follow me, sir, and if he were then ’e’d like as not give a twitch. We ‘ad one four days ago.” He looked at one of his ghoulish mates. “Four days ago, Charlie? That Shropshire sat up an’ bloody puked?” He looked back at Hogan. “Not nice to be buried alive, sir.” He gestured at the needle. “Sort of comfort, really, to know we’re ‘ere, sir, looking after you and makin’ sure you’re really gone.”

Hogan’s gratitude seemed less than heartfelt. He pointed at a stack of rough-cut coffins. “Do you bury them?”

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