SHARPE’S TRAFALGAR. Bernard Cornwell. Sharpe’s Trafalgar: Richard Sharpe and the Battle of Trafalgar, October 21, 1805


Bernard Cornwell

Sharpe’s Trafalgar: Richard Sharpe and the Battle of Trafalgar, October 21, 1805


Bernard Cornwell

Sharpe’s Trafalgar: Richard Sharpe and the Battle of Trafalgar, October 21, 1805


“A hundred and fifteen rupees,” Ensign Richard Sharpe said, counting the money onto the table.

Nana Rao hissed in disapproval, rattled some beads along the wire bars of his abacus and shook his head. “A hundred and thirty-eight rupees, sahib.”

“One hundred and bloody fifteen!” Sharpe insisted. “It were fourteen pounds, seven shillings and threepence ha’penny.”

Nana Rao examined his customer, gauging whether to continue the argument. He saw a young officer, a mere ensign of no importance, but this lowly Englishman had a very hard face, a scar on his right cheek and showed no apprehension of the two hulking bodyguards who protected Nana Rao and his warehouse. “A hundred and fifteen, as you say,” the merchant conceded, scooping the coins into a large black cash box. He offered Sharpe an apologetic shrug. “I get older, sahib, and find I cannot count!”

“You can count, all right,” Sharpe said, “but you reckon I can’t.”

“But you will be very happy with your purchases,” Nana Rao said, for Sharpe had just become the possessor of a hanging bed, two blankets, a teak traveling chest, a lantern and a box of candles, a hogshead of arrack, a wooden bucket, a box of soap, another of tobacco, and a brass and elm-wood filtering machine which he had been assured would render water from the filthiest barrels stored in the bottom-most part of a ship’s hold into the sweetest and most palatable liquid.

Nana Rao had demonstrated the filtering machine which he claimed had been brought out from London as part of the baggage of a director of the East India Company who had insisted on only the finest equipment. “You put the water here, see?” The merchant had poured a pint or so of turbid water into the brass upper chamber. “And then you allow the water to settle, Mister Sharpe. In five minutes it will be as clear as glass. You observe?” He lifted the upper container to show water dripping from the packed muslin layers of the filter. “I have myself cleaned the filter, Mister Sharpe, and I will warrant the item’s efficiency. It would be a miserable pity to die of mud blockage in the bowel because you would not buy this thing.”

So Sharpe had bought it. He had refused to purchase a chair, bookcase, sofa or washstand, all pieces of furniture that had been used by passengers outward bound from London to Bombay, but he had paid for the filtering machine and all the other goods because otherwise his voyage home would be excruciatingly uncomfortable. Passengers on the great merchantmen of the East India Company were expected to supply their own furniture. “Unless you would be liking to sleep on the deck, sahib? Very hard! Very hard!” Nana Rao had laughed. He was a plump and seemingly friendly man with a large black mustache and a quick smile. His business was to purchase the furniture of incoming passengers which he then sold to those folk who were going home. “You will leave the goods here,” he told Sharpe, “and on the day of your embarkation my cousin will deliver them to your ship. Which ship is that?”

“The Calliope,” Sharpe said.

“Ah! The Calliope! Captain Cromwell. Alas, the Calliope is anchored in the roads, so the goods will need to be carried out by boat, but my cousin charges very little for such a service, Mister Sharpe, very little, and when you are happily arrived in London you can sell the items for much profit!”

Which might or, more probably, might not have been true, but was irrelevant because that same night, just two days before Sharpe was to embark, Nana Rao’s godown was burned to the ground and all the goods: the beds, bookcases, lanterns, water filters, blankets, boxes, tables and chairs, the arrack, soap, tobacco, brandy and wine were supposedly consumed with the warehouse. In the morning there was nothing but ashes, smoke and a group of shrieking mourners who wailed that the kindly Nana Rao had died in the conflagration. Happily another godown, not three hundred yards from Nana Rao’s ruined business, was well supplied with all the necessities for the voyage, and that second warehouse did a fine trade as disgruntled passengers replaced their vanished goods at prices that were almost double those that Nana Rao had charged.

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