“Dunno. French, I suppose.” Sharpe’s overalls were French.
“Don’t be stupid. French don’t flog their buggers.”
„They bloody don’t!“
“Doesn’t bloody matter. He’s dying. Give ‘im to Connelley. That’s what the doctor said. ”
Sergeant Harper could have told them that Sharpe was a British officer, but Sergeant Harper was unconscious in a ward, and Sharpe had borne no marks of rank, just the scars of a flogging that had been given him by Obadiah Hakeswill in an Indian village years before. He looked like a private, he was treated as a private, and he was carried down the damp steps to the cellar where the doctors left their hopeless cases to die. The death room.
Sergeant Michael Connelley, dying himself of alcoholic poisoning, heard the steps and turned his huge, fatty bulk round. “What you got?”
“Dunno, Sarge. Could be a frog, could be one of ours, but he ain’t saying.”
Connelley looked at the face, at the bandage, and tapped a quick sign of the cross on his chest. “Poor sod. At least he’s quiet. All right, boys, down the far end. We’ve some wee space left.” Connelley sat down on his bench, tipped the rum bottle to his face, and watched as the new man was carried into the darkness of the dank, bricked cellar. “Any money on him?”
“No, sarge. Poor as a bloody Irishman.”
“You watch yourself!” Connelley growled. He spat on the floor. They should have put me with the officers upstairs. There’s some rare money up there.“ He drank again.
They pushed Sharpe into the wall, laying him on a thin, lumpy straw palliasse, and his head was in the low space where the brick arch met the floor. There was a pile of dirty blankets under the single window, a small grating at the very top of the arch, and the orderly spread one on the naked body that had curled its legs into the foetal position. There you are, Sarge, all yours.“
“And in good hands he is, too.” Connelley was not an unkind man. Few would want his job, yet he did not mind. He tried to make the last hours of his dying charges as gentle as he could, yet even in death he expected men to have standards. Especially if there were Frenchmen dying in his room. Then he would lecture the wounded British, admonish them to die like men, not to disgrace themselves in front of the enemy. “You’ll be getting a proper funeral, will you not?” he would say, “with the whole regiment and reversed arms, the proper honours, and you’re making a noise like a wee girl. Shame on you, man, and will you not die well?”
He gestured to the other end of the room and spoke to the orderlies. “There is a dead one up there.”
It was cold in the death room. Connelley drank steadily. Some men breathed noisily, some moaned, and some talked. The big Sergeant prowled the central aisle from time to time, carrying a water bucket and ladle, and he would feel the feet of the patients to see if they had died. He came to Sharpe and crouched beside him. The breathing was shallow, moaning slightly in his throat, and Connelley put a hand on the naked shoulder and it was cold. “Ah, you poor man. You’ll catch your death!” He lumbered to the window, found another blanket, shook it as if he could free it of the lice that infested its seams, and spread it on top of the other blanket. A man at the far end cried out, caught in sudden pain, and Connelley screwed himself round. “Whoa there, lad! Whoa! Gentle now! Die well, die well.”
A Frenchman cried and Connelley squatted beside him, took the man’s hand, and talked of Ireland. He told the uncomprehending Frenchman of Connaught’s beauty, of its women, of fields so fat that a lamb was full grown in a week, of rivers so thick that the fish begged to be caught, and the Frenchman quieted and Connelley patted his hair and told him he was brave, and he was proud of him, and beyond the small grating the sky darkened into dusk and the orderlies came down again and dragged the Frenchman, who had died, head-bumping up the steps.