Authors: Bernard Cornwell
Richard Sharpe and the Winter Campaign, 1814
by Bernard Cornwell
Brenym McNight, Terry Farrand, Bryan Thorniley,
Diana Colbert, Ray Steele, and Stuart Wilkie;
It was ten days short of Candlemas, 1814, and an Atlantic wind carried shivers of cold rain that slapped on narrow cobbled alleys, spilt from the broken gutters of tangled roofs, and pitted the water of St Jean de Luz's inner harbour. It was a winter wind, cruel as a bared sabre, that whirled chimney smoke into the low January clouds shrouding the corner of south-western France where the British Army had its small lodgement.
A British soldier, his horse tired and mud-stained, rode down a cobbled street in St Jean de Luz. He ducked his head beneath a baker's wooden sign, edged his mare past a fish-cart, and dismounted at a corner where an iron bollard provided a tethering post for the horse. He patted the horse, then slung its saddle-bags over his shoulder. It was evident he had ridden a long way.
He walked into a narrow alley, searching for a house that he only knew by description; a house with a blue door and a line of cracked green tiles above the lintel. He shivered. At his left hip there hung a long, metal-scabbarded sword, and on his right shoulder was a rifle. He stepped aside for a woman, black-dressed and squat, who carried a basket of lobsters. She, grateful that this enemy soldier had shown her a small courtesy, smiled her thanks, but afterwards, when she was safely past him, she crossed herself. The soldier's face had been bleak and scarred; darkly handsome, but still a killer's face. She blessed her patron saint that her own son would not have to face such a man in battle, but had a secure, safe job in the French Customs service instead.
The soldier, oblivious of the effect his face had, found the blue door beneath the green tiles. The door, even though it was a cold day, stood ajar and, without knocking, he pushed his way into the front room. There he dropped his pack, rifle, and saddle-bags on to a threadbare carpet and found himself staring into the testy face of a British Army surgeon. “I know you,” the Army surgeon, his shirt-cuffs thick with dried blood, said.
“Sharpe, sir, Prince of Wales's Own.”
“I said I knew you,” the surgeon interrupted. “I took a musket-ball out of you after Fuentes d'Onoro. Had to truffle around for it, I remember.”
“Indeed, sir.” Sharpe could hardly forget. The surgeon had been half drunk, cursing, and digging into Sharpe's flesh by the light of a guttering candle. Now the two men had met in the outer room of Lieutenant Colonel Michael Hogan's lodgings.
“You can't go in there.” The surgeon's clothes were drenched in prophylactic vinegar, filling the small room with its acrid scent. “Unless you want to die.”
“Not that I care.” The surgeon wiped his bleeding-cup on the tail of his shirt then tossed it into his bag. “If you want the fever, Major, go inside.” He spat on his wide-bladed scarifying gouge, smeared the blood from it, and shrugged as Sharpe opened the inner door.
Hogan's room was heated by a huge fire that hissed where its flames met the rain coming down the chimney. Hogan himself was in a bed heaped with blankets. He shivered and sweated at the same time. His face was greyish, his skin slick with sweat, his eyes red-rimmed, and he was muttering about being purged with hyssop.
“His topsails are gone to the wind,” the surgeon spoke from behind Sharpe. “Feverish, you see. Did you have business with him?”
Sharpe stared at the sick man. “He's my particular friend.” He turned to look at the surgeon. “I've been on the Nive for the last month, I knew he was ill, but.” He ran out of words.
“Ah,” the surgeon seemed to soften somewhat. “I wish I could offer some hope, Major.”
“He might last two days. He might last a week.” The surgeon pulled on his jacket that he had shed before opening one of Hogan's veins. “He's wrapped in red flannel, bled regular, and we're feeding him gunpowder and brandy. Can't do more, Major, except pray for the Lord's tender mercies.”
The sickroom stank of vomit. The heat of the huge fire pricked sweat on Sharpe's face and steamed rain-water from his soaking uniform as he stepped closer to the bed, but it was obvious Hogan could not recognize him. The middle-aged Irishman, who was Wellington's Chief of Intelligence, shivered and sweated and shook and muttered nonsenses in a voice that had so often amused Sharpe with its dry wit.
“It's possible,” the surgeon spoke grudgingly from the outer room, “that the next convoy might bring some Jesuit's bark.”
“Jesuit's bark?” Sharpe turned towards the doorway.
“A South American tree-bark, Major, sometimes called quinine. Infuse it well and it can perform miracles. But it's a rare substance, Major, and cruelly expensive!”
Sharpe went closer to the bed. “Michael? Michael?”
Hogan said something in Gaelic. His eyes flickered past Sharpe, closed, then opened again.
“Ducos,” the sick man said distinctly, “Ducos.”
“He'll not make sense,” the surgeon said.
“He just did.” Sharpe had heard a name, a French name, the name of an enemy, but in what feverish context and from what secret compartment of Hogan's clever mind the name had come, Sharpe could not tell.
“The Field Marshal sent me,” the surgeon seemed eager to explain himself, “but I can't work miracles, Major. Only the Almighty's providence can do that.”
“Or Jesuit's bark.”
“Which I haven't seen in six months.” The surgeon still stood at the door. “Must I insist you leave, Major? God spare us a contagion.”
“Yes.” Sharpe knew he would never forgive himself if he did not give Hogan some gesture of friendship, however useless, so he stooped and took the sick man's hand and gave it a gentle squeeze.
“Maquereau,” Hogan said quite distinctly.
Sharpe obeyed the surgeon's voice. “Does maquereau mean anything to you?”
“It's a fish. The mackerel. It's also French slang for pimp, Major. I told you, his wits are wandering.” The surgeon closed the door on the sickroom. “And one other piece of advice, Major.”
“If you want your wife to live, then tell her she must stop visiting Colonel Hogan.”
Sharpe paused by his damp luggage. “Jane visits him?”
“A Mrs Sharpe visits daily/ the doctor said, ”but I have not the intimacy of her first name. Good day to you, Major."
It was winter in France.
The floor was a polished expanse of boxwood, the walls were cliffs of shining marble, and the ceiling a riot of ornate plasterwork and paint. In the very centre of the floor, beneath the dark, cobweb encrusted chandelier and dwarfed by the huge proportions of the vast room, was a malachite table. Six candles, their light too feeble to reach into the corners of the great room, illuminated maps spread on the green stone table.
A man walked from the table to a fire that burned in an intricately carved hearth. He stared at the flames and, when at last he spoke, the marble walls made his voice seem hollow with despair. “There are no reserves.”
“Is ordered south without delay.” The man turned from the fire to look at the table where the candle-glow illuminated two pale faces above dark uniforms. “The Emperor will not take it kindly if we.”
“The Emperor,” the smallest man at the table interrupted in a voice of surprising harshness, “rewards success.”
January rain spattered the tall, east-facing windows. The velvet curtains of this room had been pulled down twenty-one years before, trophies to a revolutionary mob that had stormed triumphant through the streets of Bordeaux, and there had never been the money nor the will to hang new curtains. The consequence, in winters like this, was a draught of malevolent force. The fire scarcely warmed the hearth, let alone the whole huge room, and the general standing before the feeble flames shivered. “East or north.”
It was a simple enough problem. The British had invaded a small corner of southern France, nothing but a toehold between the southern rivers and the Bay of Biscay, and these men expected the British to attack again. But would Field Marshal the Lord Wellington go east or north?
“We know it's north,” the smallest man said. “Why else are they collecting boats?”
“In that case, my dear Ducos,” the general paced back towards the table, “is it to be a bridge, or a landing?”
The third man, a colonel, dropped a smoked cigar on to the floor and ground it beneath his toe. “Perhaps the American can tell us?”
“The American,” Pierre Ducos said scathingly, “is a flea on the rump of a lion. An adventurer. I use him because no Frenchman can do the task, but I expect small help of him.”
“Then who can tell us?” The general came into the aureole of light made by the candles. “Isn't that your job, Ducos?”
It was rare for Major Pierre Ducos' competency to be so challenged, yet France was assailed and Ducos was almost helpless. When, with the rest of the French Army, he had been ejected from Spain, Ducos had lost his best agents. Now, peering into his enemy's mind, Ducos saw only a fog. “There is one man,” he spoke softly.
Ducos' round, thick spectacle lenses flashed candlelight as he stared at the map. He would have to send a message through the enemy lines, and he risked losing his last agent in British uniform, but perhaps the risk was justified if it brought the French the news they so desperately needed. East, north, a bridge, or a landing? Pierre Ducos nodded. “I shall try.”
Which was why, three days later, a French lieutenant stepped gingerly across a frosted plank bridge that spanned a tributary of the Nive. He shouted cheerfully to warn the enemy sentries that he approached.
Two British redcoats, faces swathed in rags against the bitter cold, called for their own officer. The French lieutenant, seeing he was safe, grinned at the picquet. “Cold, yes?”
“For you.” The French lieutenant gave the redcoats a cloth-wrapped bundle that contained a loaf of bread and a length of sausage, the usual gesture on occasions such as this, then greeted his British counterpart with a happy familiarity. “I've brought the calico for Captain Salmon.” The Frenchman unbuckled his pack. “But I can't find red silk in Bayonne. Can the colonel's wife wait?”
“She'll have to.” The British lieutenant paid silver for the calico and added a plug of dark tobacco as a reward for the Frenchman. “Can you buy coffee?”
“There's plenty. An American schooner slipped through your blockade.” The Frenchman opened his cartouche. “I also have three letters.” As usual the letters were unsealed as a token that they could be read. More than a few officers in the British Army had acquaintances, friends or relatives in the enemy ranks, and the opposing picquets had always acted as an unofficial postal system between the armies. The Frenchman refused a mug of British tea and promised to bring a four-pound sack of coffee, purchased in the market at Bayonne, the next day. “That's if you're still here tomorrow?”
“We'll be here.”
And thus, in a manner that was entirely normal and quite above suspicion, Pierre Ducos' message was safely delivered.
“Why ever shouldn't I visit Michael? It's eminently proper. After all, no one can expect a sick man to be ill-behaved.” “ Sharpe entirely missed Jane's pun. ”I don't want you catching the fever. Give the food to his servant."
“I've visited Michael every day,” Jane said, “and I'm in the most excellent health. Besides, you went to see him.”
“I should imagine,” Sharpe said, “that my constitution is more robust than yours.”
“It's certainly uglier,” Jane said.
“And I must insist,” Sharpe said with ponderous dignity, “that you avoid contagion.”
“I have every intention of avoiding it.” Jane sat quite still as her new French maid put combs into her hair. “But Michael is our friend and I won't see him neglected.” She paused, as if to let her husband counter her argument, but Sharpe was quickly learning that in the great skirmish of marriage, happiness was bought by frequent retreats. Jane smiled. “And if I can endure this weather, then I must be quite as robust as any Rifleman.” The sea-wind, howling off Biscay, rattled the casements of her lodgings. Across the roofs Sharpe could see the thicket of masts and spars made by the shipping crammed into the inner harbour. One of those ships had brought the new uniforms that were being issued to his men.
It was not before time. The veterans of the South Essex, that Sharpe now had to call the Prince of Wales's Own Volunteers, had not been issued with new uniforms in three years. Their coats were ragged, faded, and patched, but now those old jackets, that had fought across Spain, were being discarded for new, bright cloth. Some French Battalion, seeing those new coats, would think of them as belonging to a fresh, unblooded unit and would doubtless pay dear for the mistake.
The orders to refit had given Sharpe this chance to be with his new wife, as it had given all the married men of the Battalion a chance to be with their wives. The Battalion had been stationed on the line of the River Nive, close to French patrols, and Sharpe had ordered the wives to stay in St Jean de Luz. These few days were thus made precious to Sharpe, days snatched from the frost-hard river-line, days to be with Jane, and days spoilt only by the illness that threatened Hogan's life.
“I take him food from the Club,” Jane said.
“Where we're lunching, Richard.” She turned from the mirror with the expression of a woman well pleased with her own reflection. “Your good jacket, I think.”
In every town that the British occupied, and in which they spent more than a few days, one building became a club for officers. The building was never officially chosen, nor designated as such, but by some strange process and within a day of two of the Army's arrival, one particular house was generally agreed to be the place where elegant gentlemen could retire to read the London papers, drink mulled wine before a decently tended fire, or play a few hands of whist of an evening. In St Jean de Luz the chosen house faced the outer harbour.
Major Richard Sharpe, born in a common lodging-house and risen from the gutter-bred ranks of Britain's Army, had never used such temporary gentlemen's clubs before, but new and beautiful wives must be humoured. “I didn't suppose,” he spoke unhappily to Jane, “that women were allowed in gentlemens' clubs?” He was reluctantly buttoning his new green uniform jacket.