Authors: Bernard Cornwell
“I think he blinked,” a voice said.
Sharpe opened his eyes and the pain in his skull was like white-hot embers. “Sweet Jesus,” he hissed.
“No, it’s just me, sir, Patrick Harper, sir.” The sergeant loomed over him. There was a wooden ceiling partially lit by narrow shafts of sunlight that stabbed through a small grating. Sharpe closed his eyes. “Are you still there, sir?” Harper asked.
“Where am I?”
sir. A frigate, sir.”
“Jesus Christ,” Sharpe groaned.
“He’s had a few prayers this last day and a half, so he has.”
“Here,” another voice said and a hand went beneath Sharpe’s shoulders to lift him so that the pain stabbed into his skull and he gasped. “Drink this,” the voice said.
The liquid was bitter and Sharpe half choked on it, but whatever it was made him sleep and he dreamed again, and woke again, and this time it was night and a lantern in the passageway outside his diminutive cabin swung with the ship’s motion so that the shadows careered all over the canvas walls and dizzied him.
He slept again, half aware of the sounds of a ship, of the bare feet on the planking overhead, the creak of a thousand timbers, the rush of water, and the intermittent clangor of the bell. Soon after dawn he woke and discovered his head was swathed in thick bandages. The pain was still gouging his skull, but it was no longer intense and so he swung his feet out of the cot and was immediately dizzy. He sat on the cot’s swaying edge with his head in his hands. He wanted to vomit except there was nothing but bile in his stomach. His boots were on the floor, while his uniform, rifle, and sword were swaying from a wooden peg on the door. He closed his eyes. He remembered Colonel Vandal firing the musket. He thought of Jack Bullen, poor Jack Bullen.
The door opened. “What the hell are you doing?” Harper asked cheerfully.
“I want to go on deck.”
“The surgeon says you must rest.”
Sharpe told Harper what the surgeon could do. “Help me dress,” he said. He did not bother with boots or sword, just pulled on his French cavalry overalls and his ragged green coat, then held on to Harper’s strong arm as they walked out of the cabin. The sergeant then hauled Sharpe up a steep companionway to the frigate’s deck where he clung to the hammock netting.
A brisk wind was blowing and it felt good. Sharpe saw that the frigate was sliding past a low dull coast dotted with watchtowers. “I’ll get you a chair, sir,” Harper said.
“Don’t need a chair,” Sharpe said. “Where are the men?”
“We’re all snug up front, sir.”
“You’re improperly dressed, Sharpe.” A voice interrupted and Sharpe turned his head to see Brigadier Moon enthroned near the frigate’s wheel. He was sitting in a chair with his splinted leg propped on a cannon. “You haven’t got boots on,” the brigadier observed.
“Much better to go barefoot on deck,” a cheerful voice said, “and what are you doing on your bare feet anyway? I gave orders that you were to stay below.” A plump, cheerful man in civilian clothes smiled at Sharpe. “I’m Jethro McCann, surgeon to this scow.” He introduced himself and held up a closed fist. “How many fingers am I showing you?”
“The Sweeps can count,” McCann said. “I’m impressed.” The Sweeps were the Riflemen, so called because their dark green uniforms often looked black as a chimney sweep’s rags. “Can you walk?” McCann asked and Sharpe managed a few paces before a gust of wind lurched the frigate and drove him back to the hammock netting. “You’re walking well enough,” McCann said. “Are you in pain?”
“It’s getting better,” Sharpe lied.
“You’re a lucky bastard, Mister Sharpe, if you’ll forgive me. Lucky as hell. You were hit by a musket ball. Glancing shot, which is why you’re still here, but it depressed a piece of your skull. I fished it back into place.” McCann grinned proudly.
“Fished it back into place?” Sharpe asked.
“Oh, it’s not difficult,” the surgeon said airily, “no more difficult than scarfing a sliver of wood.” In truth it had been appallingly difficult. It had taken the doctor an hour and a half’s work under inadequate lantern light as he teased at the wedge of bone with probe and forceps. His fingers had kept slipping in blood and slime, and he had thought he would never manage to free the bone without tearing the brain tissue, but at last he had succeeded in gripping the splintered edge and pulling the sliver back into place. “And here you are,” McCann went on, “sprightly as a two-year-old. And the good news is that you’ve got a brain.” He saw Sharpe’s puzzlement and nodded vigorously. “You do! Honest! I saw it with my own eyes, thus disproving the navy’s stubborn contention that soldiers have nothing whatsoever inside their skulls. I shall write a paper for the
I’ll be famous! Brain discovered in a soldier.”
Sharpe tried to smile in the pretense that he was amused, but only succeeded in a grimace. He touched the bandage. “Will the pain go?”
“We know almost nothing about head wounds,” McCann said,
“except that they bleed a lot, but in my professional opinion, Mister Sharpe, you’ll either drop down dead or be right as rain.”
“That is a comfort,” Sharpe said. He perched on a cannon and stared at the distant land beneath the far clouds. “How long till we reach Lisbon?”
“Lisbon? We’re sailing to Cádiz!”
“That’s our station,” McCann said, “but you’ll find a boat going to Lisbon quick enough. Ah! Captain Pullifer’s on deck. Straighten up.”
The captain was a thin, narrow-faced, and grim-looking man, a scarecrow figure who, Sharpe noticed, was barefooted. Indeed, if it had not been for his coat with its salt-encrusted gilt, Sharpe might have mistaken Pullifer for an ordinary seaman. The captain spoke briefly with the brigadier, then strode down the deck and introduced himself to Sharpe. “Glad you’re on your feet,” he said morosely. He had a broad Devon accent.
“So am I, sir.”
“We’ll have you in Cádiz soon enough and a proper doctor can look at your skull. McCann, if you want to steal my coffee you’ll find it on the cabin table.”
“Aye aye, sir,” the doctor said. McCann was evidently amused by his captain’s insult, which suggested to Sharpe that Pullifer was not the grim beast he appeared to be. “Can you walk, Sharpe?” Captain Pullifer asked gruffly.
“I seem to be all right, sir,” Sharpe said, and Pullifer jerked his head, indicating that the rifleman should go with him to the stern rail. Moon watched Sharpe pass by.
“Had supper with your brigadier last night,” Pullifer said when he was alone with Sharpe beneath the great mizzen sail. He paused, but Sharpe said nothing. “And I spoke with your sergeant this morning,” Pullifer went on. “It’s strange, isn’t it, how stories differ?”
Pullifer, who had been staring at the
’s wake, turned to look at Sharpe. “Moon says it was all your fault.”
“He says what?” Sharpe was not certain he had heard right. His head was filled with a pulsing pain. He tried closing his eyes, but it did not help so he opened them again.
“He says you were ordered to blow a bridge, but you hid the powder under women’s luggage, which is against the rules of war, and then you dillydallied and the frogs took advantage, and he finishes up with a dead horse, a broken leg, and no saber. And the saber was Bennett’s best, he tells me.”
Sharpe said nothing, just stared at a white bird skimming the broken sea.
“You broke the rules of war,” Pullifer said sourly, “but as far as I know the only rule in bloody war is to win. You broke the bridge, didn’t you?”
“But you lost one of Bennett’s best sabers”—Pullifer sounded amused—“so your brigadier borrowed pen and paper off me this morning to write a report for Lord Wellington. It’s going to be poisonous about you. Do you wonder why I’m telling you?”
“I’m glad you’re telling me,” Sharpe said.
“Because you’re like me, Sharpe. You came up the hawse hole. I started as a pressed man. I was fifteen and had spent eight years catching mackerel off Dawlish. That was thirty years ago. I couldn’t read, couldn’t write, and didn’t know a sextant from an arsehole, but now I’m a captain.”
“Up the hawse hole,” Sharpe said, relishing the navy’s slang for a man promoted from the ranks into the officer’s mess. “But they never let you forget, do they?”
“It’s not so bad in the navy,” Pullifer said grudgingly. “They value seamanship more than gentle birth. But thirty years at sea teaches you a thing or two about men, and I have a notion that your sergeant was telling the truth.”
“He bloody was,” Sharpe said hotly.
“So I’m warning you, that’s all. If I were you I’d write my own report and muddy the water a little.” Pullifer glanced up at the sails, found nothing to criticize, and shrugged. “We’ll catch a few mortar rounds going into Cádiz, but they haven’t hit us yet.”
In the afternoon the west wind turned soft so that the
slowed and wallowed in the long Atlantic swells. Cádiz came slowly into sight, a city of gleaming white towers that seemed to float on the ocean. By dusk the wind had died to a whisper that did nothing except fret the frigate’s sails and Pullifer was content to wait till morning to make his approach. A big merchantman was much closer to land and she was ghosting into harbor on the last dying breaths of wind. Pullifer gazed at her through a big telescope. “She’s the
” he announced. “We saw her in the Azores a year ago.” He collapsed the glass. “I hope she’s getting more wind than we are. Otherwise she’ll never make the southern part of the harbor.”
“Does it matter?” Sharpe asked.
“The bloody frogs will use her for target practice.”
It seemed the captain was right for just after dark Sharpe heard the muffled sound of heavy guns like thunder far away. They were the French mortars firing from the mainland and Sharpe watched their monstrous flashes from the
’s forecastle. Each flash was like sheet lightning, silhouetting a mile of shoreline, gone in a heartbeat, the sudden brilliance confused by the lingering smoke beneath the stars. A sailor was playing a sad tune on a fiddle and a small wash of lantern light showed from the aft cabin’s companionway where the brigadier was dining again with Captain Pullifer. “Were you not invited, sir?” Harper asked. Sharpe’s riflemen and the Connaught Rangers were lounging around a long-barreled nine-pounder on the forecastle.
“I was invited,” Sharpe said, “but the captain reckoned I might be happier eating with the wardroom.”
“They made a plum duff up here,” Harper said.
“It was good,” Harris added, “really good.”
“We had the same.”
“I sometimes think I should have joined the navy,” Harper said.
“You do?” Sharpe was surprised.
“Plum duff and rum.”
“Not many women.”
“How’s your head, sir?” Daniel Hagman asked.
“Still there, Dan.”
“Is it hurting?”
“It hurts,” Sharpe admitted.
“Vinegar and brown paper, sir,” Hagman said earnestly. “It always works.”
“I had an uncle that was knocked on the head,” Harper said. The Ulsterman had an endless supply of relatives who had suffered various misfortunes. “He was butted by a nanny goat, so he was, and you could have filled Lough Crockatrillen with his blood! Jesus, it was everywhere. My auntie thought he was dead!”
Sharpe, like the Riflemen and Rangers, waited. “So was he?” he asked after a while.
“Good God, no! He was milking the cows again that night, but the poor goat was never the same. So what do we do in Cádiz, sir?”
Sharpe shrugged. “We’ll get a boat to Lisbon. There must be dozens of boats going to Lisbon.” He turned as two reports rumbled across the water, but there was nothing to see. The far flashes had already faded and the mortar shells gave no light when they landed. Intermittent lamplight glimmered across the city’s white walls, but otherwise the shoreline was dark. Black water lapped against the frigate’s flanks and the sails shivered in the small wind.
By dawn the wind had freshened and the
stood southwest toward the entrance to the Bay of Cádiz. The city was closer now and Sharpe could see the massive gray ramparts above which the houses glowed white, their walls studded with squat watchtowers and church belfries through which smoke drifted. Lights flashed from the towers and at first Sharpe was puzzled by the glints. Then he realized that they were the sun reflecting from the telescopes that watched the
’s approach. A pilot boat cut across the frigate’s course, her captain waving his arms to show he had a pilot who was available to come aboard the frigate, but Pullifer had run this treacherous approach often enough to need no guide. Gulls wheeled about the frigate’s masts and sails as she slid past the heave and wash of broken water that marked the Diamante Rock and then the bay opened before her bows. The
turned due south, heading into the bay and watched by a crowd on the city ramparts. It was evident now that the smoke above the city was not just from cooking fires, but mostly from a merchantman that burned in the harbor. It was the
her hull crammed with tobacco and sugar. A French mortar shell had plunged between her foremast and mainmast, pierced a hatch cover, and exploded a few feet below the deck. The crew had rigged a pump and poured water onto the fire. It seemed they must have mastered the blaze, but somewhere an ember had lodged deep among the bales and it grew sullenly. The hidden fire spread secretly, its smoke disguised by the steam from the pump’s water. Then, just aft of the mainmast, the deck burst into new flames, sudden and bright, and the blaze caught the tarred rigging so that the whole intricate web of halliards, masts, and sheets was outlined in fire. Smoke boiled across the city’s skyline above which the white gulls keened and the dark smoke drifted.
ran within a quarter mile of the burning merchantman. The rest of Cádiz harbor, placid under a gentle wind, seemed unconcerned with the burning ship. A whole fleet of British warships was moored to the south, and Pullifer ordered a salute fired to the admiral. The French mortars were firing at the
now, but the massive shells fell harmlessly on either side, each throwing up a fountain of spray. There were three French forts on the marshy mainland, all with mortars just capable of reaching the waterfront of Cádiz that sat on its isthmus like a clenched fist protecting the bay. Lieutenant Theobald, the
’s second lieutenant, was busy with a sextant, though instead of holding it vertically, as a man would when shooting the sun or trying to snare a star in the instrument’s mirrors, he was using it horizontally. He lowered the sextant and frowned. His lips moved as he made some half-articulated calculations, then he crossed to where Sharpe and Harper leaned on the midships rail. “From the burning ship to the fort,” Theobald announced, “is a distance of three thousand six hundred and forty yards.”