Authors: Bernard Cornwell
Sharpe's Fortress is
for Christine Clarke,
with many thanks
Richard Sharpe wanted to be a good officer. He truly did.
He wanted it above all other things, but somehow it was just too difficult, like trying
to light a tinderbox in a rain-filled wind. Either the men disliked him, or they ignored
him, or they were over-familiar and he was unsure how to cope with any of the three
attitudes, while the battalion's other officers plain disapproved of him. You can put
a racing saddle on a cart horse Captain Urquhart had said one night in the ragged tent which
passed for the officers' mess, but that don't make the beast quick. He had not been talking
about Sharpe, not directly, but all the other officers glanced at him.
The battalion had stopped in the middle of nowhere. It was hot as hell and no wind
alleviated the sodden heat. They were surrounded by tall crops that hid everything
except the sky. A cannon fired somewhere to the north, but Sharpe had no way of knowing
whether it was a British gun or an enemy cannon.
A dry ditch ran through the tall crops and the men of the company sat on the ditch lip as
they waited for orders. One or two lay back and slept with their mouths wide open while
Sergeant Colquhoun leafed though his tattered Bible. The Sergeant was short-sighted, so had
to hold the book very close to his nose from which drops of sweat fell onto the pages.
Usually the Sergeant read quietly, mouthing the words and sometimes frowning when he came
across a difficult name, but today he was just slowly turning the pages with a wetted
“Looking for inspiration, Sergeant?” Sharpe asked.
“I am not, sir,” Colquhoun answered respectfully, but somehow managed to convey that
the question was still impertinent. He dabbed a finger on his tongue and carefully
turned another page.
So much for that bloody conversation, Sharpe thought. Somewhere ahead, beyond the tall
plants that grew higher than a man, another cannon fired. The discharge was muffled by
the thick stems. A horse neighed, but Sharpe could not see the beast. He could see nothing
through the high crops.
“Are you going to read us a story, Sergeant?” Corporal McCallum asked. He spoke in
English instead of Gaelic, which meant that he wanted Sharpe to hear.
“I am not, John. I am not.”
“Go on, Sergeant,” McCallum said.
“Read us one of those dirty tales about tits.”
The men laughed, glancing at Sharpe to see if he was offended.
One of the sleeping men jerked awake and looked about him, startled, then muttered a
curse, slapped at a fly and lay back. The other soldiers of the company dangled their
boots towards the ditch's crazed mud bed that was decorated with a filigree of dried green
scum. A dead lizard lay in one of the dry fissures. Sharpe wondered how the carrion birds
had missed it.
“The laughter of fools, John McCallum,” Sergeant Colquhoun said, 'is like the crackling
of thorns under the pot."
“Away with you, Sergeant!” McCallum said.
“I heard it in the kirk once, when I was a wee kid, all about a woman whose tits were like
bunches of grapes.” McCallum twisted to look at Sharpe.
“Have you ever seen tits like grapes, Mister Sharpe?”
“I never met your mother, Corporal,” Sharpe said.
The men laughed again. McCallum scowled. Sergeant Colquhoun lowered his Bible and peered
at the Corporal.
“The Song of Solomon, John McCallum,” Colquhoun said, 'likens a woman's bosom to
clusters of grapes, and I have no doubt it refers to the garments that modest women wore in
the Holy Land. Perhaps their bodices possessed balls of knotted wool as decoration? I
cannot see it is a matter for your merriment." Another cannon fired, and this time a
round shot whipped through the tall plants close to the ditch. The stems twitched violently,
discharging a cloud of dust and small birds into the cloudless sky. The birds flew about in
panic for a few seconds, then returned to the swaying seed heads
“I knew a woman who had lumpy tits,” Private Hollister said. He was a dark-jawed,
violent man who spoke rarely.
“Lumpy like a coal sack, they were.” He frowned at the memory, then shook his head.
“This conversation is not seemly,” Colquhoun said quietly, and the men shrugged and
Sharpe wanted to ask the Sergeant about the clusters of grapes, but he knew such an
enquiry would only cause ribaldry among the men and, as an officer, Sharpe could not risk
being made to look a fool. All the same, it sounded odd to him. Why would anyone say a
woman had tits like a bunch of grapes? Grapes made him think of grapeshot and he wondered if
the bastards up ahead were equipped with canister. Well, of course they were, but there was
no point in wasting canister on a field of bulrushes. Were they bulrushes? It seemed a
strange thing for a farmer to grow, but India was full of oddities. There were naked sods who
claimed to be holy men, snake-charmers who whistled up hooded horrors, dancing bears
draped in tinkling bells, and contortionists draped in bugger all, a right bloody circus.
And the clowns ahead would have canister. They would wait till they saw the redcoats, then
load up the tin cans that burst like duck shot from the gun barrels. For what we are about to
receive among the bulrushes, Sharpe thought, may the Lord make us truly thankful.
“I've found it,” Colquhoun said gravely.
“Found what?” Sharpe asked.
“I was fairly sure in my mind, sir, that the good book mentioned millet. And so it does.
Ezekiel, the fourth chapter and the ninth verse.”
The Sergeant held the book close to his eyes, squinting at the text. He had a round face,
afflicted with wens, like a suet pudding studded with currants. '“Take thou also unto
thee wheat, and barley,” he read laboriously, '“and beans, and lentils, and millet, and
fitches, and put them in one vessel, and make thee bread thereof” Colquhoun carefully
closed his Bible, wrapped it in a scrap of tarred canvas and stowed it in his pouch.
“It pleases me, sir,” he explained, 'if I can find everyday things in the scriptures. I
like to see things, sir, and imagine my Lord and Saviour seeing the selfsame things."
“But why millet?” Sharpe asked.
“These crops, sir,” Colquhoun said, pointing to the tall stems that surrounded them, 'are
millet. The natives call itjowari, but our name is millet." He cuffed the sweat from his
face with his sleeve. The red dye of his coat had faded to a dull purple.
“This, of course,” he went on, 'is pearl millet, but I doubt the scriptures mention pearl
millet. Not specifically."
“Millet, eh?” Sharpe said. So the tall plants were not bulrushes, after all. They looked
like bulrushes, except they were taller. Nine or ten feet high.
“Must be a bastard to harvest,” he said, but got no response.
Sergeant Colquhoun always tried to ignore swear words.
“What are fitches?” McCallum asked.
“A crop grown in the Holy Land,” Colquhoun answered. He plainly did not know.
“Sounds like a disease, Sergeant,” McCallum said.
“A bad dose of the fitches. Leads to a course of mercury.” One or two men sniggered at
the reference to syphilis, but Colquhoun ignored the levity.
“Do you grow millet in Scotland?” Sharpe asked the Sergeant.
“Not that I am aware of, sir,” Colquhoun said ponderously, after reflecting on the
question for a few seconds, 'though I daresay it might be found in the Lowlands. They grow
strange things there. English things."
He turned pointedly away.
And sod you too, Sharpe thought. And where the hell was Captain Urquhart? Where the hell
was anybody for that matter? The battalion had marched long before dawn, and at midday
they had expected to make camp, but then came a rumour that the enemy was waiting ahead
and so General Sir Arthur Wellesley had ordered the baggage to be piled and the advance
to continue. The King's 74th had plunged into the millet, then ten minutes later the
battalion was ordered to halt beside the dry ditch while Captain Urquhart rode ahead to
speak with the battalion commander, and Sharpe had been left to sweat and wait with the
Where he had damn all to do except sweat. Damn all. It was a good company, and it did not
need Sharpe. Urquhart ran it well, Colquhoun was a magnificent sergeant, the men were as
content as soldiers ever were, and the last thing the company needed was a brand new
officer, an Englishman at that, who, just two months before, had been a sergeant.
The men were talking in Gaelic and Sharpe, as ever, wondered if they were discussing
him. Probably not. Most likely they were talking about the dancing girls in Ferdapoor,
where there had been no mere clusters of grapes, but bloody great naked melons. It had been
some sort of festival and the battalion had marched one way and the half-naked girls had
writhed in the opposite direction and Sergeant Colquhoun had blushed as scarlet as an
unfaded coat and shouted at the men to keep their eyes front. Which had been a pointless
order, when a score of undressed bibb is were hobbling down the highway with silver bells
tied to their wrists and even the officers were staring at them like starving men seeing a
plate of roast beef. And if the men were not discussing women, they were probably grumbling
about all the marching they had done in the last weeks, crisscrossing the Mahratta
countryside under a blazing sun without a sight or smell of the enemy. But whatever
they were talking about they were making damn sure that Ensign Richard Sharpe was left
Which was fair enough, Sharpe reckoned. He had marched in the ranks long enough to know
that you did not talk to officers, not unless you were spoken to or unless you were a
slick-bellied crawling bastard looking for favours. Officers were different, except
Sharpe did not feel different. He just felt excluded. I should have stayed a sergeant, he
thought. He had increasingly thought that in the last few weeks, wishing he was back in the
Seringapatam armoury with Major Stokes. That had been the life! And Simone Joubert, the
Frenchwoman who had clung to Sharpe after the battle at Assaye, had gone back to
Seringapatam to wait for him. Better to be there as a sergeant, he reckoned, than here as an
No guns had fired for a while. Perhaps the enemy had packed up and gone? Perhaps they had
hitched their painted cannon to their ox teams, stowed the canister in its limbers and
buggered off northwards? In which case it would be a quick about-turn, back to the village
where the baggage was stored, then another awkward evening in the officers' mess.
Lieutenant Cahill would watch Sharpe like a hawk, adding tuppence to Sharpe's mess bill
for every glass of wine, and Sharpe, as the junior officer, would have to propose the
loyal toast and pretend not to see when half the bastards wafted their mugs over their
canteens. King over the water. Toasting a dead Stuart pretender to the throne who had died
in Roman exile. Jacobites who pretended George III was not the proper King. Not that any
of them were truly disloyal, and the secret gesture of passing the wine over the water
was not even a real secret, but rather was intended to goad Sharpe into English
indignation. Except Sharpe did not give a fig. Old King Cole could have been King of
Britain for all Sharpe cared.
Colquhoun suddenly barked orders in Gaelic and the men picked up their muskets, jumped
into the irrigation ditch where they formed '3
into four ranks and began trudging northwards. Sharpe, taken by surprise, meekly
followed. He supposed he should have asked Colquhoun what was happening, but he did not
like to display ignorance, and then he saw that the rest of the battalion was also
marching, so plainly Colquhoun had decided number six company should advance as
The Sergeant had made no pretence of asking Sharpe for permission to move. Why should
he? Even if Sharpe did give an order the men automatically looked for Colquhoun's nod
before they obeyed. That was how the company worked; Urquhart commanded, Colquhoun came
next, and Ensign Sharpe tagged along like one of the scruffy dogs adopted by the men.
Captain Urquhart spurred his horse back down the ditch.
“Well done, Sergeant,” he told Colquhoun, who ignored the praise. The Captain turned the
horse, its hooves breaking through the ditch's crust to churn up clots of dried mud.
“The rascals are waiting ahead,” Urquhart told Sharpe.
“I thought they might have gone,” Sharpe said.
“They're formed and ready,” Urquhart said, 'formed and ready." ', The Captain was a
fine-looking man with a stern face, straight back | and steady nerve. The men trusted him.
In other days Sharpe would have been proud to serve a man like Urquhart, but the Captain
seemed irritated by Sharpe's presence.
“We'll be wheeling to the right soon,” Urquhart called to Colquhoun, 'forming line on the
right in two ranks."
Urquhart glanced up at the sky.
“Three hours of daylight left?” he guessed.
“Enough to do the job. You'll take the left files, Ensign.”
' “Yes, sir,” Sharpe said, and knew that he would have nothing to do there. The men
understood their duty, the corporals would close the files and Sharpe would simply walk
behind them like a dog tied to a cart.
" There was a sudden crash of guns as a whole battery of enemy cannon opened fire.
Sharpe heard the round shots whipping through the millet, but none of the missiles came near
the 74th. The battalion's pipers had started playing and the men picked up their feet and
hefted their muskets in preparation for the grim work ahead. Two more guns fired, and this
time Sharpe saw a wisp of smoke above the seed heads and he knew that a shell had gone
overhead. The smoke trail from the burning fuse wavered in the windless heat as Sharpe
waited for the explosion, but none sounded.
“Cut his fuse too long,” Urquhart said. His horse was nervous, or perhaps it disliked the
treacherous footing in the bottom of the ditch.
Urquhart spurred the horse up the bank where it trampled the millet.