Sharpe’s sword. Bernard Cornwell

Auguste Marmont was thirty-six years old. He was Duke of Ragusa, which meant little to him compared with being the youngest Marshal of France, and he was impatient. The Englishman, Wellington, had beaten every French General who had opposed him, but he had not beaten Marmont, nor would he. Auguste Marmont, son of an ironmaster, had outmanoeuvred the Englishman, outmarched him, and all that had to be done now was to outrun him to Portugal. Yet now, as the morning came towards its end, he was uncertain.

He rode his horse to the rear of the Greater Arapile, dismounted, and climbed the steep slope on foot. He used the wheel of a cannon for his telescope rest and he stared long and hard at the Lesser Arapile, at the village, and at the farm buildings at the southern end of the ridge. Other officers were using their glasses and one of them, a staff officer, pointed at the farm on the ridge. “There, sir.”

Marmont squinted as the sun flashed off the brass of his telescope, trained it, and there, clear in the lens’ circle, was a man in a long blue coat, grey trousers, and a plain dark hat. Marmont grunted. Wellington was on the ridge. “So what’s he doing?”

“Lunch, sir?” The staffofficers laughed.

Marmont frowned at the hint. “Going or staying?”

No one answered. Marmont panned the telescope to his left and saw two British guns on the Lesser Arapile and then more guns, perhaps four, on the hill behind the village. That was not many guns and he did not fear them. He straightened up from his glass and stared westward. “How’s the ground?”

‘Dry, sir.“

The plain stretched invitingly to the west. It was empty; a great golden road that might take him ahead of Wellington. Marmont itched to be moving, to be outmarching the British so he could block the road and win the victory that would tell France, Europe, the world, that Auguste Marmont had destroyed Britain’s army. He could taste that victory already. He would choose the battlefield, he would force the red-jacketed infantry to attack up some impossible slope that he would have lined with his beloved artillery, and he could already see the roundshot and canister flailing at the hopeless British lines. Yet now, on the Greater Arapile, he could feel doubt in his mind. He could see redcoats in the village, guns on the hills, but were they just a rearguard, or something more? “Is he going or staying?”

No one answered. A Marshal of France was a fine fellow, second only to the Emperor, and he wore the dark blue uniform edged with golden leaves, and his collar and shoulders were heavy with gilt decorations. A Marshal of France was given privileges, riches, and honour, but they had to be earned by answering the difficult questions. Was he going or staying?

Marmont stumped about the top of the Greater Arapile. He was thinking. His boots were tight and that annoyed him, any man who took one hundred and fifty pairs of boots to war was entitled to find a pair that fitted. He pulled his mind back to the British. Surely they were marching? Wellington had not offered battle in a month, so why should he on this day? And why should Wellington wait? Marmont went back to the gun and peered again through the telescope. He could see the unadorned figure of his enemy talking to a tall man in the green jacket of a Rifleman. The Rifles. Britain’s light troops. Fast marchers, even faster than the French. Suppose Wellington had left his Light Division at this village? Suppose that the rest of the army was already on the road, marching west, escaping the vengeance of the French Gribeauval guns? Marmont put himself in his enemy’s place. He would want to steal this day’s march. He would want the French to stay here, thinking that the British army threatened them, and how would he do that? He would leave his finest troops at the village, stay himself, because if the General is present, then the enemy assumes the army is present, and still Marmont knew he had to make a decision. Damn these boots!

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