Sharpe’s sword. Bernard Cornwell

Sharpe wondered if he heard the jangling of traces beyond the house. He cocked his head, listened, but he could hear only the rain in the garden, the wind in the trees. He looked at Curtis who had sat down again. “And when does the world end?”

“That’s God’s business. Men make battles. Wouldn’t you like a battle tomorrow?” Sharpe said nothing. He leaned against the wall. Curtis spread his hands in resignation. “You didn’t want to talk about your soul, so instead I talk about a battle, and still you won’t talk! So. I’ll talk to you.” The elderly priest looked down as if collecting his thoughts, and then the bushy eyebrows came back up to Sharpe, “Let’s suppose that the thunder tells the truth. Let’s suppose there’s a battle tomorrow and the English win. What happens?” He held up a hand to stop Sharpe speaking. “This is what happens. The French will have to retreat, this part of Spain will be free, and Colonel Leroux will be stuck here.” Now he had Sharpe’s attention. The Rifleman had sat up. “Colonel Leroux,” Curtis went on, “is almost certainly inside the city. He’s waiting for the British to leave. Once they do leave, Mr. Sharpe, then he will reappear and no doubt the killing and the torturing will go on. Am I right?”

“Yes.” Curtis had said nothing that anyone else could not have worked out. “So?”

“So if Leroux has to be stopped, if the killings have to be stopped, then you must fight and win a battle tomorrow.”

Sharpe leaned back again. Curtis was merely a living-room strategist. “Wellington has been waiting for a battle for a month. It’s hardly likely that he’ll get one tomorrow.”

“Why has he waited?”

Sharpe paused while thunder sounded. He looked out at the river and saw that the rain was still heavy. It was almost dark. He wished the rain would stop, he wished Curtis would go. He forced himself to make conversation. “He’s waited because he wants Marmont to make a mistake. He wants to catch the French wrong-footed.”

“Exactly!” Curtis nodded vigorously as though Sharpe was a pupil who had grasped a subtle point. “Now, bear with me, Mr. Sharpe. Tomorrow, am I right, Wellington will be south of the river and then he will turn west, to Portugal? Yes?” Sharpe nodded. Curtis was leaning forward, talking urgently. “Suppose he didn’t turn west. Suppose that he decided to hide his army at the turning place and then suppose the French did not know that. What would happen?”

It was very simple. Tomorrow both armies would cross the river and turn to their right. It was like the bend of a horse-racing course and the British were on the inside. If they wanted to get ahead of Marmont, to win the race to the Portuguese frontier, then they had to come off the bend fast and keep marching. Yet if Curtis was right, and if Wellington hid on the bend, then the French would march past him, their army strung out in a line of march, and it would be easy to trip him up. It would no longer be a race. It would be like a shepherd stringing his flock out in front of a pack of hungry wolves. But it was just conjecture. Sharpe shrugged. “The French get beaten. There’s just one thing wrong.”

“What’s that?”

Sharpe thought of Hogan’s letter. “Tomorrow we’re marching west, as fast as we can.”

“No you’re not, Mr. Sharpe.” Curtis’ voice was certain. “Your General is hiding his army at a village called Arapiles. He doesn’t want Marmont to know that. He wants the French to think that he’s simply leaving a rearguard at Arapiles and that the rest of the army is marching as fast as it can.”

Sharpe smiled. “With the greatest respect, Father, I doubt if the French will be fooled. After all, if you’ve heard of this deception, then so must a lot of others.”

“No.” Curtis smiled. The rain still crashed down outside, hidden now by the darkness. “I spent the afternoon at Arapiles. There is one problem only.”

Sharpe was sitting forward again, the rain forgotten. “Which is?”

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