Sharpe’s sword. Bernard Cornwell

Sharpe was alive. A message went north to the South Essex, and another went further north to La Aguja, “the needle‘, and it told of her husband’s injury and urged her to come south. Hogan was not hopeful that his messenger could reach Teresa; the journey was long and the Partisans used secret paths and hiding places.

Sharpe was moved upstairs. He had his own room, small and bare, and Harper and Isabella curtained offone half and lived with him. The doctors said Sharpe would die. The pain, they said, would stay with him, even increase, and the wound would abscess into constant blood and pus. Most of what they said came true. Hogan had ordered Harper to stay, an unnecessary order, but the big Irish Sergeant sometimes found it hard to endure the pain, the smell, the helplessness of his Captain. He and Isabella washed Sharpe, cleaned away the pus, dressed the wound, and listened to the rumours that came back to the small British force left in the city.

A letter came from the Battalion, written by Major Forrest and signed with scores of names. The Light Company wrote their own, penned by Lieutenant Price, decorated by the crosses and signatures of the men, and sometimes Sharpe was lucid and he was pleased with the letters.

Somehow he hung on. Each morning Harper expected to find his Captain dead, but he lived, and even the doctors shrugged and conceded that sometimes, very rarely, a man recovered from that wound. Then Sharpe took the fever. The wound was still abscessed, its dressing changed twice a day, but now Harper and Isabella had to wipe the sweat that poured from Sharpe and listen to the ravings that he muttered day and night.

Isabella found some Rifleman’s trousers, taken from a dead man who was as tall as Sharpe, and she hung them on the wall beneath the jacket and above Sharpe’s boots that Harper had found discarded in the small courtyard. The uniform waited for him, but the doctors had again given up hope. The fever would kill him. Harper wanted to know how they would treat a fever and the doctors tried to fob him off, but the Irishman had heard of some miracle cure, a new cure, something to do with the bark of a South American tree. The doctors had very little of the substance, but Harper frightened them and they yielded it up, grudgingly, and Harper gave it to Sharpe. It seemed to help, yet the doctors had very little of the precious substance. It had only reached them the previous year, it was expensive, and they made it go further by mixing the powdered quinine with black pepper. When the quinine ran out they gave Sharpe quassia bark instead, but still the fever raged, and even the Navy’s remedy, suggested by Lord Spears, which consisted of gunpowder mixed with brandy, did not work.

There was an army remedy and Harper decided on that.

He carried Sharpe downstairs one morning, stripped him naked, and laid him on the grass of the courtyard just beside the cloister. The Sergeant had already drawn bucket after bucket of well water and carried them to the top cloister where he had filled two rain barrels. He would have preferred to be higher, three floors at least, but the upper cloister was the best he could do. He looked down on the shivering naked body and poured the first barrel in a glittering cold shock that exploded on Sharpe. He cried out, jack-knifed, and the second barrel followed in a cascade that flattened Sharpe, choked him, and then Harper ran downstairs, wrapped Sharpe in a dry blanket, and carried the emaciated body back to the cot. The doctors said that Harper had certainly killed Sharpe with that treatment, yet that night the fever went down and Harper came back from the Cathedral to find Sharpe lucid again.

“How are you feeling, sir?”

“Bloody.” He looked it, too. His eyes were sunk in a pale face.

Harper grinned at him. “You’ll be up soon.”

Harper and Isabella took it in turns to pray. She used the chapel of the Irish College, close and beautiful, but Harper thought God might be nearer to the big Cathedral and he climbed the hill twice a day and he prayed with a childlike intensity. His broad, strong face would screw up in concentration as though the very force of his thoughts could drive the prayer up, past the statues, past the glorious ceiling, and up to a heaven where so many other prayers were clamouring for answers. He lit candles to St. Jude, the patron saint of hopeless causes, and he prayed to him, pleaded with him, and once again the doctors began to cautiously suggest that there was a chance; that sometimes men recovered from the wound, and Harper prayed on. Yet he knew something was nüssing. They gave Sharpe medicines when they could, prayers that they did not tell him about, and Harper knew there was something else; something that might persuade Sharpe to live. Something was missing.

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