Sharpe’s sword. Bernard Cornwell

There was no such elation on the British ridge. The waiting had made Wellington’s officers irritable. Sharpe had slept for a while, for he had had little rest the previous night, and now he stared at the great plain and it was empty beneath the hawks that slid against the steel-blue sky. There was no sign that Marmont had extended his left, that he had fallen into the trap, and Sharpe knew it must be past midday. He had been woken by the cannons firing on the French attack on the village. He had watched for a while as the British roundshot ploughed through the ranks of the enemy Battalions, as the skirmishers met for their private war in the wheat stalks, but the French attack was stopped at the village’s outskirts. Marmont did have one success. His guns on the Greater Arapile drove the British guns off the summit of the Lesser Arapile. Sharpe watched the gunners, helped by infantry, manhandle the great weapons down the steep slope. Round one to France.

The French attack was not heavy. About five thousand men had come from behind the Greater Arapile and advanced on the village. Sharpe could hear the sharper sound of the Baker Rifles from the plain and he knew that the French skirmishers would be cursing the British Riflemen, that Voltigeurs would be dying in the wheat, and it all seemed so far away, like a child’s battle with toy soldiers seen from an upstairs window. The blue uniforms came forward, stopped, and the white smoke rills showed where the musket volleys were fired, puffs showed where shrapnel burst over the enemy, and the sound would come seconds after the smoke appeared.

The attack stopped just outside the village. This was not a true battle, not yet. If the French had been serious, if they had really wanted to capture the miserable cottages, they could have marched in their great columns, the Eagles bright above, and the massed drums would have driven them on and the artillery would have blasted a path ahead of them, and the noise would have swelled to a great crescendo in the afternoon heat while the French wave swept over the village, up the small valley, and then there would be a battle. Sharpe dozed off again.

Hogan woke him with an offer of lunch; two legs of cold chicken and diluted wine. Sharpe ate in the shadow of the farmhouse wall and he listened to the small sounds of the skirmishers bickering by the village. Still the great plain was empty to the west, the French were not taking the bait, and Hogan had gloomily admitted that in a couple of hours the Peer would probably order a full scale retreat. Another day gone.

Wellington was pacing up and down in front of the farm. He had been down to the village once, seen that the defenders were in no trouble, and now he fretted as he ate cold chicken and waited for Marmont to show his hand. He had noticed Sharpe, welcomed him back ‘to the living’, but the Peer was in no mood for small talk. He paced, he watched, and he worried.

“Sir! Sir!” A horseman was spurring up the ridge, coming from the west, and his horse was lathered with sweat. He jumped from the saddle, saluted, and offered a scrap of paper to the General. He was an aide-de-camp to General Leith and he did not wait for Wellington to read the paper. “Sir! They’re extending their left!”

“The devil they are! Give me a glass! Quickly!”

There was dead ground on the rolling plain, hollows in the wheat that hid themselves from the ridge, and the French were in the hollows. General Leith, off to the west, had seen the movement first, but now the French could be seen, climbing a track from the dead ground, and Sharpe, his own telescope extended, saw that the enemy was marching. The sheep were on the wolf-ground. Wellington rammed his glass shut, threw the chicken leg he had been eating over his shoulder, and his face was jubilant. “By God! That will do.!”

His horse was ready, he mounted, and he spurred off to the west, outrunning his staffofficers, and the dust spurted from behind his horse. Sharpe kept staring to the south-west, at the great plain that stretched so invitingly in front of the French, and he saw the troops come out of the dead ground and into plain view. It was a beautiful sight. Battalion after enemy Battalion had turned themselves into the order of march and they were going westward in the blistering heat. The attack on the village was supposed to do no more than pin down the British rearguard while the French left, safe in the knowledge that their foes had already marched, were now eagerly trying to outmarch them. The heat simmered the air above the plain, yet the French were full of heart, full of ambition, and they swung along the dirt tracks between the thistles and the wheat, and their weapons were slung and their hopes high. They marched further and further west, stringing the French army finer and finer, and none of them could know that their enemy was waiting, ready for battle, hidden to their north.

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