Sharpe’s sword. Bernard Cornwell

A month after Sharpe’s wounding the bad news was all confirmed. The day had brought clouds of dust to the east and by the evening Sharpe knew that the armies had reached the Tormes, east of the city, and he knew that Salamanca must change hands again. Another letter came from Hogan, hand delivered by an irritated cavalryman who had gone first to the Irish College, then to the Town Major, and finally had found Sharpe. The letter was brief, its message grim. “Tonight we cross the river and tomorrow we will march westwards. The French outmarch us each day so we must hurry. I fear it will be a race to the Portuguese frontier and I am not certain we can win. You must leave. Pack now! If you have no horse then try to find Headquarters. I will lend you my remount. Say your farewells and go, no later than dawn tomorrow.” The ‘no later’ was underlined. “Next year, perhaps, we can twist Marmont’s tail, but not, alas, this. In haste, Michael Hogan.”

Sharpe had little to pack. He stood in the garden and stared over the river and saw the goats that lived on the far hills filing down to the low ground. It was a sure sign that heavy rain was coming, yet the sun still shone, but he looked overhead and sure enough there were clouds rolling in from the north. The river was silver, shot through with green.

He put his few things into his pack. Two spare shirts, two spare stockings, a mess tin, the telescope, his razor and he filled the oxhide pack to the top with food that he took from the kitchen. He wrapped two loaves, a cheese, and a big ham. The cook gave him wine bottles that he thrust into the pack and poured a third into his spare canteen. He had no rifle to carry, just the big sword on its short slings.

He went back into the garden again and the sky was darker, almost black, and he knew he would wait for the morning before leaving. He told himself that he had become lazy, that he was going soft because he wanted to spare himself a night in the open, but he knew that he waited for morning in the hope that La Marquesa would come this night. Perhaps their last night. He thought of walking to the city, of going to the Palacio Casares, but then he heard the sound of hooves, the opening of the gate, and he knew she was coming. He waited.

There was something curiously beautiful about the landscape. The sun still shone, slanting steeply beneath the clouds, and it gave the land a luminance that the sky had lost. Above was darkness, grey and black, beneath was a glowing scene of green hills, brilliant white buildings, and the river like oiled silk. The air was heavy. The clouds pressed down as if the weight of water was sinking them. He expected the rain to begin at any second, yet it held off; it was conserving its force. The goats, as ever, had been right. There would be a vast rainstorm this night. He walked to the pillared shelter, built, La Marquesa had told him, in imitation of a small Greek shrine, and he stood on the topmost step that led to the door, pulled himself up on the lintel and he could see over the high wall to the city. Perhaps it would be his last glimpse of Salamanca in the evening. The sun silhouetted the fine stone, edged the great Cathedral with red gold, and then he pushed the door open and waited for La Marquesa. The river was almost black, swirling, waiting for the hammering of the rain.

In the morning he would go. He would walk away from this city and the dust of the roads would have been driven and churned into mud. He had failed this summer. He had promised to take a man, and the man had almost killed him, yet Sharpe did not see that as his greatest regret. He had betrayed his wife, and that saddened him, but that was not his regret. He would miss La Marquesa. He would miss the golden hair, the mouth, the eyes, the laughter and the beauty, the magic world of a woman whom hehad glimpsed, wanted, and never thought he could possess. Tonight was the last night. She would stay, in danger, and he would go back to the army. He could recover his full strength in Ciudad Rodrigo and all the time he would wonder about her, remember her, and fear that his enemy had destroyed her.

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