The first heavy, plangent drop of rain smashed onto the marble ledge that faced the river. It left a mark the size of a penny. He had dreamed once before of a final night in Salamanca, and that hope had ended in the death room. Now fate had given him the night again, though tinged with defeat. He knew he had become obsessed with her, and he had to abandon her, and that was too often the way of women and soldiers. Yet there was this one night.
He heard the footsteps on the grass and he did not turn round. He was suddenly superstitious. To turn round was to tempt fate, but he smiled as he heard the feet on the steps and then he heard the heavy click of a flint being pulled back on a mainspring.
“Good evening, Captain.” The voice was a man’s voice, and the man held a rifle, and the rifle was pointing straight at Sharpe’s stomach as the Rifleman wrenched himself about to face the door.
The first thunder racketed over the sky.
The Reverend Doctor Patrick Curtis, known as Don Patricio Cortes, Rector of the Irish College and Professor of Astronomy and Natural History at the University of Salamanca, held the rifle as though it were a poisonous snake that might, at any second, turn and bite him. Sharpe remembered how Leroux had run to this man’s room, how Spears had described Curtis volunteering to fight against the English, and now the tall priest faced Sharpe. The frizzen that covered the pan of the rifle was up and the elderly Irishman clicked it down into place. He smiled. “You see? It still works. It’s your rifle, Captain.”
The thunder echoed in the sky. It sounded like heavy siege shot being rolled on giant floor boards. The rain was hissing steadily on the river’s surface. Sharpe was five paces from the man. He thought of jumping at him, hoping that the priest would hesitate before pulling the trigger, but he knew that the wound would slow him down. He looked at Curtis’ right hand and raised his voice over the sound of the rain. “You have to have a finger on the trigger to make it work.”
The bushy eyebrows went up in surprise. “It’s not loaded, Captain. I’m merely returning it to you. Here.” He held it out. Sharpe did not move and the Irish priest just shrugged and propped the rifle against the wall.
Sharpe jerked his head towards the weapon. “It’s bad for them to stay cocked. It weakens the spring.”
“You learn something every day.” Curtis picked up the rifle, pulled the trigger, and flinched as the spark cracked on the empty pan. He put the weapon down again. “You don’t seem overjoyed to see me.”
“Should I be?”
“You could be grateful to me. I went out of my way to return your gun. I had to get your address from the Town Major and then smuggle it out under my cassock. It would be bad for my reputation if I were seen going fully armed about the streets.” Curtis gave a deprecating smile.
“You could have returned it earlier.” Sharpe kept his voice cold. He wanted this interfering priest gone. He wanted La Marquesa.
“I wish I could have returned it earlier. It was stolen by one of the College’s stonemasons. His wife told me and I retrieved it for you.” He pointed at the weapon. “And here it is, safely restored.” He waited for Sharpe to speak, but the Rifleman was morose. Curtis sighed, walked to the edge of the shelter and looked at the rain. “Dear oh dear. What weather!” The surface of the river was corruscated by the rain. The sun, perversely, still showed in the west beneath the great cloud bank. Curtis pulled up his cassock and sat down. He gave Sharpe a friendly smile. “Do you mind if I sit it out? There was a time when I rode in all weathers, but I’m seventy-two this year, Mr. Sharpe, and the good Lord may not look kindly on me getting a chill.”
Sharpe was not feeling polite. He wanted to be alone until La Marquesa came, he wanted to think of her, to wallow in the misery of the anticipation of their parting. This last night was precious to him, something to hold against the bad times, and now this damned priest was settling down for a cosy chat. Sharpe kept his voice harsh. “I’m expecting company.”
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