Harper could not imagine a man being in this room and living, but this was the death room and they were here to die. The big Sergeant, Connelley, seemed decent enough. Some death-room attendants simply stifled their charges, or slipped a dagger between their ribs, because they could not endure the endless crying, the moans, the helpless, childlike ways of the dying. Harper turned at the end wall and carried the torch down the far side. He stopped a few times and pulled damp blankets away from hidden faces, and he saw the fever and smelt their deaths. He went past the stairs where Hogan stood by Connelley’s bench. “Anything, Sergeant?” Hogan’s whisper was an expression of worry. Harper did not reply.
He stopped beside another man whose face was hidden, whose legs were drawn up, and Harper pulled back the blanket that lay right up to the dark hair. There was a second blanket beneath and the man was clutching it, hiding his face, and Harper had to prise the fingers open so he could pull it down.
The eyes were red. Already the cheeks seemed sunken. The face was pale, the hair soaking with sweat and water. Harper could not detect any breath, yet the fingers had not been cold, and the huge Irishman put a single finger onto the long scar. The eyes did not move. They were staring into blankness, into the space where the rats had been in the night. Harper’s voice was very soft. “You silly bugger. What are you doing here?”
Sharpe’s eyes moved, slowly, up to the face that flickered in the light of the torch. “Patrick?” There was no strength in the voice.
“Yes.” Harper looked round at Hogan. “He’s here, sir.”
“Alive?” Hogan’s voice was just above a whisper.
“Yes, sir.” But only just, Harper thought, by the thickness of the merest thread, but alive.
Marmont had marched north, away from the River Tonnes, forty miles to the valley of the River Douro. The dust of the French retreat spiralled high from the wheels, boots and hooves of the army; dust that plumed in the sun over the wheatfields. It was like the thin smoke trail of an unimaginably large grass fire. It faded, carried eastwards by a breeze from the far Atlantic, and the plains of Leon were left empty except for the hovering hawks, the lizards, and the poppies and cornflowers that smeared colour on a bleached land.
On Monday, June 29th, the feast of St. Peter and St. Paul, the British army was swallowed up in the haze of the immense plain. They went north, following Marmont, and all that came back were rumours. One day the people of Salamanca said that there had been a great battle, that the sky had lit up with the flashes of the great guns, but it wasjust a summer storm sheeting the dark horizon with silver and the next day there was another rumour. It was said Wellington was beaten, his head cut off, and then it was the French who had lost, who had soaked the Douro red with their blood, dammed it with their corpses. They were just rumours.
The Visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary came and went, then St. Martin’s Day, and a peasant girl in BarbadillO said an angel had appeared to her in a dream. The angel had been armoured in gold and carried a scarlet sword with two blades. The angel had said that the last battle would be fought in Salamanca, that the armies of the north would harrow the city, pour blood in its streets, desecrate the Cathedrals, trample the host, until, in desperation, the earth would open up and swallow the evil and righteous alike. Her village priest, a lazy and sensible man, had her locked away. There was trouble enough in the world without hysterical women, but the rumour spread, and the peasants looked at their young olives and wondered if they would live to see an autumn harvest.
In the north, beyond the Douro, beyond Galicia, across the Pyrenees and France itself, and still further north, a small man led a vast army into Russia. It was an army the like of which the world had not seen since the hooves of the Barbarians came out of the dawn. The war had become unimaginable, so vast that the dreams of a Barbadillo peasant girl were not so far removed from the fears of sober statesmen. Across the Atlantic, beyond the shredded wave crests, the Americans prepared their forces to invade British Canada. It was a world war now, fought from the Great Lakes to the Indian Ocean, from the Russian steppes to the plains of Leon.
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