Sharpe’s sword. Bernard Cornwell

To do something was better than doing nothing. He turned to his staff officers and ordered an attack on the village itself. It was, he knew, a holding move. It would discourage the British rearguard from venturing onto the plain and it would form a screen behind which he could march west; yet he knew he still had to make the decision, the big choice, and he was frightened of it. His servant was spreading a linen tablecloth on the grass, setting it with the silver cutlery that travelled everywhere with the Marshal and his one hundred and fifty pairs of boots, and Marmont decided the war would have to wait till after an early lunch. He rubbed his hands together. “Cold duck! Excellent, excellent!”

A horseman rode down the southern slope of the escarpment, past the troops that waited for the orders that would send them west or keep them waiting for a day. His horse splashed through a shallow ford, past an ancient footbridge that spanned the stream with flat stone slabs, and then he spurred towards the strange Arapile hill where he had been told Marmont waited. He carried a letter in his sabretache. He put the horse at the slope, urged it as high as it could climb, and then he dismounted, threw the reins to an infantryman, and scrambled up the last few steep feet. He ran to the Marshal, saluted, and handed over the folded, sealed paper.

Marmont smiled when he saw the wax seal. He knew that seal, knew it could be trusted, and he tore the paper open and called for Major Berthon. “Decode it. Quick!”

He looked again at the enemy held hills. If only he could see what was on the far side! And maybe the letter would tell him, or maybe, his thoughts became pessimistic, it was merely some piece of political news, or a report on Wellington’s health, and he fretted while Berthon worked at the numbers written on the paper. Marmont pretended to be calm. He offered the cavalryman who had brought the message on the last lap of its journey some wine. He complimented him on his uniform, and then, at last, Berthon brought him the paper. “The British march west today. A single Division remains to persuade you that they plan to fight for Salamanca. They are in a great hurry and fear to be overtaken.”

He had known it! The message merely confirmed his instinct, but he had known it! And then, as if in confirmation of his sudden certainty, he saw the tell-tale plume of dust that was rising in the western sky. They were marching! And he would overtake them! He tore La Marquesa’s note into shreds of paper, finer and finer, and he scattered them on the hilltop and he grinned at his officers. “We’ve got him, gentlemen! At last, we’ve got him!”

Five miles away the British Third Division, which had been left to screen Salamanca on the north bank of the Tormes, marched through the city and across the Roman bridge. It was an uncomfortable march. The citizens of Salamanca jeered them, accused them of running away, and the officers and sergeants kept a tight rein on their men. They marched beneath the small fortress on the bridge and turned right onto the Ciudad Rodrigo road. Out of sight of the city they turned off the road, to their left, and went further south till they had reached a village called Aldea Tejada. They were close now to the great wheat plain that could yet become a killing ground.

It took the Third Division more than two hours to march past a single point on the road. The men were tired, dispirited at a further retreat, and ashamed that they were deserting the city. Some of them, in their tiredness, dragged their feet. The dust began to move. The road had dried and the dust rose, was stirred, and the air over the Ciudad Rodrigo road was misted with fine, white powder. The army’s baggage, sent ahead in case the British did have to retreat, added to the mist that smeared the western horizon.

Marmont had the message, had seen the dust, and now his tight boots were forgotten. He would have his victory!

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