Authors: Bernard Cornwell
The French officer curbed his horse twenty paces away and Sharpe assumed this was the renowned Colonel Vandal, the 8th’s commanding officer, for he had two heavy gold epaulettes on his blue coat and his cocked hat was crowned with a white pom-pom, which seemed a frivolous decoration for a man who looked so baleful. He had a savagely unfriendly face with a narrow black moustache. He appeared to be about Sharpe’s age, in his middle thirties, and had a force that came from an arrogant confidence. He spoke good English in a clipped, harsh voice. “You will withdraw to the far bank,” he said without any preamble.
“And who the devil are you?” Moon demanded.
“Colonel Henri Vandal,” the Frenchman said, “and you will withdraw to the far bank and leave the bridge undamaged.” He took a watch from his coat pocket, clicked open the lid, and showed the face to the brigadier. “I shall give you one minute before I open fire.”
“This is no way to behave,” Moon said loftily. “If you wish to fight, Colonel, then you will have the courtesy to return my envoys first.”
“Your envoys?” Vandal seemed amused by the word. “I saw no flag of truce.”
“Your fellow didn’t carry one either!” Moon protested.
“And Captain Lecroix reports that you brought your gunpowder with our women. I could not stop you, of course, without killing women. You risked the women’s lives, I did not, so I assume you have abandoned the rules of civilized warfare. I shall, however, return your officers when you withdraw from the undamaged bridge. You have one minute,
” And with those words Vandal turned his horse and spurred it back up the track.
“Are you holding my men prisoners?” Moon shouted.
“I am!” Vandal called back carelessly.
“There are rules of warfare!” Moon shouted at the retreating colonel.
“Rules?” Vandal turned his horse, and his handsome, arrogant face showed disdain. “You think there are rules in war? You think it is like your English game of cricket?”
“Your fellow asked us to send an emissary,” Moon said hotly. “We did. There are rules governing such matters. Even you French should know that.”
“We French,” Vandal said, amused. “I shall tell you the rules, monsieur. I have orders to cross the bridge with a battery of artillery. If there is no bridge, I cannot cross the river. So my rule is that I shall preserve the bridge. In short, monsieur, there is only one rule in warfare, and that is to win. Other than that, monsieur, we French have no rules.” He turned his horse and spurred uphill. “You have one minute,” he called back carelessly.
“Good God incarnate,” Moon said, staring after the retreating Frenchman. The brigadier was plainly puzzled, even astonished by Vandal’s ruthlessness. “There are rules!” he protested into thin air.
“Blow the bridge, sir?” Sharpe asked stolidly.
Moon was still gazing after Vandal. “They invited us to talk! The bloody man invited us to talk! They can’t do this. There are rules!”
“You want us to blow the bridge, sir?” Sharpe asked again.
Moon appeared not to hear. “He has to return Gillespie and your lieutenant,” he said. “God damn it, there are rules!”
“He’s not going to return them, sir,” Sharpe said.
Moon frowned from the saddle. He appeared puzzled, as if he did not know how he was to deal with Vandal’s treachery. “He can’t keep them prisoner!” he protested.
“He’s going to keep them, sir, unless you tell me to leave the bridge intact.”
Moon hesitated, but then recalled that his future career, with all its dazzling rewards, depended on the bridge’s destruction. “Blow the bridge,” he said harshly.
“Back!” Sharpe turned and shouted at his men. “Get back! Mister Sturridge! Light the fuse!”
“Bloody hell!” The brigadier suddenly realized he was on the wrong side of a bridge that was crowded with men, and that in about half a minute the French planned to open fire. So he turned his horse and spurred it back along the roadway. The riflemen and redcoats were running and Sharpe followed them, walking backward, keeping his eye on the French, the rifle in his hands. He reckoned he was safe enough. The French company was a long musket shot away and so far they had made no attempt to close the range, but then Sharpe saw Vandal turn and wave to the fort.
“Bloody hell.” Sharpe echoed the brigadier, and then the world shook to the sound of six guns emptying their barrels of grapeshot. Dark smoke whipped the sky, the balls screamed around Sharpe, slapping onto the bridge and slashing into men and churning the river into foam. Sharpe heard a scream behind him, then saw the French company running toward the bridge. There was an odd silence after the guns fired. No muskets had been used yet. The river settled from the strike of the grapeshot and Sharpe heard another scream and snatched a look behind him to see Moon’s stallion rearing, blood seething from its neck, and then the brigadier fell into a knot of men.
Sturridge was dead. Sharpe found him some twenty paces beyond the powder barrels. The engineer, struck in the head by a piece of grapeshot, was lying beside the slow match that had not been lit and now the French were almost at the bridge and Sharpe snatched up Sturridge’s tinderbox and ran toward the powder barrels. He shortened the slow match by tearing it apart just a couple of paces from the charge, then struck the flint on the steel. The spark flew and died. He struck again, and this time a scrap of dried linen caught the spark and he blew on it gently and the tinder flared up and he put the flame to the fuse and saw the powder begin to spark and fizz. The first Frenchmen were obstructed by the women’s abandoned luggage, but they kicked it aside and ran onto the bridge where they knelt and aimed their muskets. Sharpe watched the fuse. It was burning so damn slowly! He heard rifles fire, their sound crisper than muskets, and a Frenchman slowly toppled with a look of indignation on his face and a bright stab of blood on his white crossbelt. Then the French pulled their triggers and the balls flew close around him. The damned fuse was slower than slow! The French were just yards away. Then Sharpe heard more rifles firing, heard a French officer screaming at his men, and Sharpe tore the fuse again, much closer to the powder barrels, and he used the burning end to light the new stub. That new stub was just inches from the barrel, and to make sure it burned fiercely, he blew on it, then turned and ran toward the western bank.
Moon was wounded, but a pair of men from the 88th had picked the brigadier off the roadway and were carrying him. “Come on, sir!” Harper shouted. Sharpe could hear the Frenchmen’s boots on the roadway. Then Harper was beside him and leveled the seven-barrel gun. It was a naval weapon, one that had never really worked well. It was supposed to be carried in the fighting tops where its seven bunched barrels could launch a small volley of half-inch balls at marksmen in the enemy rigging, but the recoil of the volley gun was so violent that few men were strong enough to wield it. Patrick Harper was strong enough. “Down, sir!” he shouted, and Sharpe dropped flat as the sergeant pulled the trigger. The noise deafened Sharpe, and the leading rank of Frenchmen was blown apart by the seven balls, but one sergeant survived and he ran to where the fizzing fuse sparked and smoked at the barrel’s top. Sharpe was still sprawled on the roadway, but he wrenched the rifle clear of his body. He had no time to aim, just point the muzzle and pull the trigger, and he saw, through the sudden powder smoke, the French sergeant’s face turn to a blossom of blood and red mist. The sergeant was hurled backward, the fuse still smoking, and then the world exploded.
Flame, smoke, and timbers erupted into the air, though the chief effect of the exploding powder was to drive the pontoon down into the river. The roadway buckled under the strain, planks snapping free. The French were thrown back, some dead, some burned, some stunned, and then the shattered pontoon violently reared up from the water and its anchor chains snapped from the recoil. The bridge jerked downstream, throwing Harper off his feet. He and Sharpe clung to the planks. The bridge was shuddering now, the river foaming and pushing at the broken gap as scraps of burning timber flamed on the roadway. Sharpe had been half dazed by the explosion and now found it hard to stand, but he staggered toward the British-held shore. The pontoon anchor chains began to snap, one after the other, and the more that parted, the more pressure was put on the remaining chains. The French cannon fired again and the air was filled with screaming grapeshot. One of the men carrying Brigadier Moon jerked forward with blood staining the back of his red coat. The man vomited blood and the brigadier bellowed in agony as he was dropped. The bridge began to shake like a bough in the wind and Sharpe had to fall to his knees and hold on to a plank to stop being thrown into the water. Musket balls were coming from the French company, but the range was too long for accuracy. The brigadier’s wounded horse was in the river, blood swirling as it struggled against the inevitable drowning.
A shell struck the bridge’s far end. Sharpe decided the French gunners were trying to hold the British fugitives on the breaking bridge where they could be flayed by grapeshot. The French infantry had retreated to the eastern bank from where they fired musket volleys. Smoke was filling the valley. Water splashed across the pontoon where Sharpe and Harper clung. Then it shook again and the roadway splintered. Sharpe feared the remnants of the bridge would overturn. A bullet slammed into a plank by his side. Another shell exploded at the bridge’s far end, leaving a puff of dirty smoke that drifted upstream where white birds flew in panic.
Then suddenly the bridge quivered and went still. The central portion of six pontoons had broken free and was drifting down the river. There was a tug as a last anchor chain snapped. Then the six pontoons were circling and floating as a barrel load of grapeshot churned the water just behind them. Sharpe could kneel now. He loaded the rifle, aimed at the French infantry, and fired. Harper slung his empty volley gun and shot with his rifle instead. Rifleman Slattery and Rifleman Harris came to join them and sent two more bullets, both aimed at the French officers on horseback, but when the rifle smoke cleared the officers were still mounted. The pontoons were traveling fast in the current, accompanied by broken and charred timbers. Brigadier Moon was lying on his back, trying to prop himself up on his elbows. “What happened?”
“We’re floating free, sir,” Sharpe said. There were six men of the 88th on the makeshift raft and five of Sharpe’s riflemen from the South Essex. The rest of his company had either escaped the bridge before it broke or else were in the river. So now, with Sharpe and the brigadier, there were thirteen men floating downstream and over a hundred Frenchmen running down the bank, keeping level with them. Sharpe hoped that thirteen was not unlucky.
“See if you can paddle to the western bank,” Moon ordered. Some British officers, using captured horses, were on that bank and were trying to catch up with the raft.
Sharpe had the men use their rifle and musket butts as paddles, but the pontoons were monstrously heavy and their efforts were futile. The raft drifted on southward. A last shell plunged harmlessly into the river, its fuse extinguished instantly by the water. “Paddle, for God’s sake!” Moon snapped.
“They’re doing their best, sir,” Sharpe said. “Broken leg, sir?”
“Calf bone,” Moon said, wincing. “Heard it snap when the horse fell.”
“We’ll straighten it up in a minute, sir,” Sharpe said soothingly.
“You’ll do no such bloody thing, man! You’ll get me to a doctor.”
Sharpe was not certain how he was going to get Moon anywhere except straight down the river, which was curving now about a great rock bluff on the Spanish bank. That bluff, at least, would check the French pursuit. He used his rifle as a paddle, but the raft defiantly took its own path. Once past the bluff the river widened, swung back to the west, and the current slowed a little.
The French pursuers were left behind and the British were finding the going hard on the Portuguese bank. The French cannon were still firing, but they could no longer see the raft so they had to be shooting at the British forces on that western bank. Sharpe tried to steer with a length of scorched, broken plank, not because he thought it would do any good, but to prevent Moon complaining. The makeshift rudder had no effect. The raft stubbornly stayed close to the Spanish bank. Sharpe thought about Bullen and felt a pulse of pure anger at the way in which the lieutenant had been taken prisoner. “I’m going to kill that bastard,” he said aloud.
“You’re going to do what?” Moon demanded.
“I’m going to kill that bastard Frenchman, sir. Colonel Vandal.”
“You’re going to get me to the other bank, Sharpe, that’s what you’re going to do, and you’re going to do it quickly.”
At which point, with a shudder and a lurch, the pontoons ran aground.
lay beneath the cathedral. It was a labyrinth hacked from the rock on which Cádiz defied the sea, and in deeper holes beneath the crypt’s flagged floor, the dead bishops of Cádiz waited for the resurrection.
Two flights of stone steps descended to the crypt, emerging into a large chapel that was a round chamber twice the height of a man and thirty paces wide. If a man stood in the chamber’s center and clapped his hands once, the noise would sound fifteen times. It was a crypt of echoes.
Five caverns opened from the chapel. One led to a smaller round chapel at the farthest end of the labyrinth, while the other four flanked the big chamber. The four were deep and dark, and they were connected to one another by a hidden passageway that circled the whole crypt. None of the caverns was decorated. The cathedral above might glitter with candlelight and shine with marble and have painted saints and monstrances of silver and candlesticks of gold, but the crypt was plain stone. Only the altars had color. In the smaller chapel a virgin gazed sadly down the long passage to where, across the wider chamber, her son hung on a silver cross in never-ending pain.
It was deep night. The cathedral was empty. The last priest had folded his scapular and gone home. The women who haunted the altars had been ushered out, the floor had been swept, and the doors locked. Candles still burned, and the red light of the eternal presence glowed under the scaffolding that ringed the crossing where the transept met the nave. The cathedral was unfinished. The sanctuary with its high altar had yet to be built, the dome was half made, and the bell towers not even started.