Sharpe’s sword. Bernard Cornwell

“You searched, sir?”

“Yes. Officers’ wards, surgery, the dead in the courtyard.”

“Other ranks’ wards?”

Hogan shrugged. “Sergeant Huckfield looked for you, he didn’t see Sharpe. Why should Sharpe be there?”

Harper screwed his face up with the pain of his head. “They didn’t treat an officer?”

Hogan felt sorry for Harper. At last the truth had sunk in. “I’m sorry, Patrick. They didn’t.”

“Like as not. The bugger wasn’t wearing his jacket, and doubtless they saw the scars on his back.”

“He what?” Hogan dodged round a water-seller who was waving his leather spout hoping the Major would buy.

Harper shrugged. “He left his jacket with the Lieutenant, didn’t he? It was so damned hot out there. Then the surgeons must have seen his back. Like mine.” Both Sharpe and Harper had been flogged and the scars never went.

Hogan swore at the absent Lieutenant Price who had never thought to mention Sharpe’s jacket. He began to run, the hope suddenly giddy inside him, and they took the steps of the college in two leaps. The hope stayed with him as they went into the mens’ wards. Hogan imagined Sharpe’s face when he saw them, the relief, the joking that he had been mistaken for a Private, even a Frenchman, but there was no Sharpe there. They searched each room, twice, and the faces on the floor stayed the same. Harper shrugged. “Perhaps he woke up, told them who he was?”

The orderlies said no. They had seen no officers, no patient complaining about being in the ward. There was no Sharpe. The hope went. Even Harper seemed to be resigned. “I can dig up the British, sir.”

“No, Patrick.”

One of the orderlies had become involved in their search. He still wandered, hopeful, among the crammed wounded. He looked at Hogan and seemed reluctant to speak. “Was he shot bad, sir?”

Hogan nodded. “Yes.”

“Connelley’s kingdom, sir?”

“What?” The orderly pointed out of the window to a small door at the far side of the courtyard. “The death room, sir. The cellar.”

They crossed the grass, beneath the awnings that were still rigged round the wellhead, and Harper pulled open the door. ;A stench came up into the sunlight, a stench of pus, blood, vomit, foulness and death. There was a light at the bottom of the steps, a feeble, flickering rushlight, and a great bulk of a man peered up in its illumination.

“Who’s that?”

“Friends. Who are you?”

“Connelley, your honour. Sergeant. Would you be relieving me, of your kindness?”

“We would not.” Harper went down the steps, treading carefully because they were slippery, and the stink of disease and death grew worse. The room was filled with moaning, with small cries, but the bodies lay utterly still as if, in the darkness, they were rehearsing for the grave. “We’re looking for a man with a scarred face, and scarred back. He was shot yesterday.”

Connelley swayed slightly, the drink rank on his breath. “Would you be Irish?”

“I would. Now do you know the man?”

“A scar, you say? They all have scars. They’re soldiers, not milkmaids.” Connelley groaned and sat heavily on his bench. He waved a hand towards the small barred window. “We had an Irish lad in yesterday, shot he was. Patrick he calls himself. He was alive an hour ago, but he won’t last. They never do.” Hogan had come down the stairs and the fat, drunken Sergeant peered at the officer’s uniform. “Oh, my God, and it’s an officer, to be sure.” He lumbered to his feet and his hand wavered to a salute. The salute turned into an expansive wave round the room. “Ah, and they’re all good lads. They know how to die like men, so they do, and there’s no call for you to be officering them, sir, they’re doing their duty.”

Harper pushed Connelley gently back onto his bench. He took the torch from its bracket and set off to search the room. Hogan watched him and felt the hope inside him shrivel to nothingness. The bodies were so still, so hopeless. The room was like a grave.

Harper crouched under the brick ceiling and held the torch over the bodies. He went left first, into the darkest part of the cellar, and the faces he saw were pale. Some slept, some were dead, and some watched the light go past and there was a terrible hope in their eyes that the torch presaged some help, some miracle. Many shivered beneath their blankets. Fever would kill them if their wounds did not.

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