Authors: Bernard Cornwell
Tags: #Historical Fiction, #Suspense
Miss Savage was missing. And the French were coming.
The approach of the French was the more urgent crisis. The splintering noise of
sustained musket fire was sounding just outside the city and in the last ten minutes five or
six cannonballs had battered through the roofs of the houses high on the river’s northern
bank. The Savage house was a few yards down the slope and for the moment was protected from
errant French cannon fire, but already the warm spring air hummed with spent musket balls
that sometimes struck the thick roof tiles with a loud crack or else ripped through the dark
glossy pines to shower needles over the garden. It was a large house, built of white-painted
stone and with dark-green shutters closed over the windows. The front porch was crowned with a
wooden board on which were gilded letters spelling out the name House Beautiful in English.
It seemed an odd name for a building high on the steep hillside where the city of Oporto
overlooked the River Douro in northern Portugal, especially as the big square house was
not beautiful at all, but quite stark and ugly and angular, even if its harsh lines were
softened by dark cedars which would offer welcome shade in summer. A bird was making a nest
in one of the cedars and whenever a musket ball tore through the branches it would squawk in
alarm and fly a small loop before returning to its work. Scores of fugitives were fleeing
past the House Beautiful, running down the hill toward the ferries and the pontoon bridge
that would take them safe across the Douro. Some of the refugees drove pigs, goats and cattle,
others pushed handcarts precariously loaded with furniture, and more than one carried a
grandparent on his back.
Richard Sharpe, Lieutenant in the second battalion of His Majesty’s 95th Rifles,
unbuttoned his breeches and pissed on the narcissi in the House Beautiful’s front flower
bed. The ground was soaked because there had been a storm the previous night. Lightning had
flickered above the city, thunder had billowed across the sky and the heavens had opened so
that the flower beds now steamed gently as the hot sun drew out the night’s moisture. A
howitzer shell arched overhead, sounding like a ponderous barrel rolling swiftly over
attic floorboards. It left a small gray trace of smoke from its burning fuse. Sharpe looked up
at the smoke tendril, judging from its curve where the howitzer had to be emplaced. “They’re
getting too bloody close,” he said to no one in particular.
“You’ll be drowning those poor bloody flowers, so you will,” Sergeant Harper said, then
added a hasty “sir” when he saw Sharpe’s face.
The howitzer shell exploded somewhere above the tangle of alleys close to the river and
a heartbeat later the French cannonade rose to a sustained thunder, but the thunder had a
crisp, clear, staccato timbre, suggesting that some of the guns were very close. A new
battery, Sharpe thought. It must have unlimbered just outside the city, maybe half a mile
away from Sharpe, and was probably whacking the big northern redoubt in the flank, and the
musketry that had been sounding like the burning of a dry thorn bush now faded to an
intermittent crackle, suggesting that the defending infantry was retreating. Some,
indeed, were running and Sharpe could hardly blame them. A large and disorganized
Portuguese force, led by the Bishop of Oporto, was trying to stop Marshal Soult’s army from
capturing the city, the second largest in Portugal, and the French were winning. The
Portuguese road to safety led past the front garden of the House Beautiful and the bishop’s
blue-coated soldiers were skedaddling down the hill as fast as their legs could take them,
except that when they saw the green-jacketed British riflemen they slowed to a walk as if to
prove that they were not panicking. And that, Sharpe reckoned, was a good sign. The
Portuguese evidently had pride, and troops with pride would fight well given another
chance, though not all the Portuguese troops showed such spirit. The men from the ordenanqa
kept running, but that was hardly surprising. The ordenanqa was an enthusiastic but
unskilled army of volunteers raised to defend the homeland and the battle-hardened French
troops were tearing them to shreds.
Meanwhile Miss Savage was still missing.
Captain Hogan appeared on the front porch of the House Beautiful. He carefully closed
the door behind him and then looked up to heaven and swore fluently and impressively.
Sharpe buttoned his breeches and his two dozen riflemen inspected their weapons as though
they had never seen such things before. Captain Hogan added a few more carefully chosen
words, then spat as a French round shot trundled overhead. “What it is, Richard,” he said when
the cannon shot had passed, “is a shambles. A bloody, goddamned miserable poxed bollocks of
an agglomerated halfwitted shambles.” The round shot landed somewhere in the lower town
and precipitated the splintering crash of a collapsing roof. Captain Hogan took out his
snuffbox and inhaled a mighty pinch.
“Bless you,” Sergeant Harper said.
Captain Hogan sneezed and Harper smiled.
“Her name,” Hogan said, ignoring Harper, “is Catherine or, rather, Kate. Kate Savage,
nineteen years old and in need, my God, how she is in need, of a thrashing! A hiding! A damned
good smacking, that’s what she needs, Richard. A copper-sheathed, goddamned bloody good
“So where the hell is she?” Sharpe asked.
“Her mother thinks she might have gone to Vila Real de Zedes,” Captain Hogan said,
“wherever in God’s holy hell that might be. But the family has an estate there. A place where
they go to escape the summer heat.” He rolled his eyes in exasperation.
“So why would she go there, sir?” Sergeant Harper asked.
“Because she’s a fatherless nineteen-year-old girl,” Hogan said, “who insists on having
her own way. Because she’s fallen out with her mother. Because she’s a bloody idiot who
deserves a ruddy good hiding. Because, oh I don’t know why! Because she’s young and knows
everything, that’s why.” Hogan was a stocky, middle-aged Irishman, a Royal Engineer, with
a shrewd face, a soft brogue, graying hair and a charitable disposition. “Because she’s a
bloody halfwit, that’s why,” he finished.
“This Vila Real de whatever,” Sharpe said, “is it far? Why don’t we just fetch her?”
“Which is precisely what I’ve told the mother you will do, Richard. You will go to Vila
Real de Zedes, you will find the wretched girl and you will get her across the river. We’ll
wait for you in Vila Nova and if the damned French capture Vila Nova then we’ll wait for you
in Coimbra.” He paused as he penciled these instructions on a scrap of paper. “And if the
Frogs take Coimbra we’ll wait for you in Lisbon, and if the bastards take Lisbon we’ll be
pissing our breeches in London and you’ll be God knows where. Don’t fall in love with her,” he
went on, handing Sharpe the piece of paper, “don’t get the silly girl pregnant, don’t give
her the thrashing she bloody well deserves and don’t, for the love of Christ, lose her, and
don’t lose Colonel Christopher either. Am I plain?”
“Colonel Christopher is coming with us?” Sharpe asked, appalled.
“Didn’t I just tell you that?” Hogan inquired innocently, then turned as a clatter of
hooves announced the appearance of the widow Savage’s traveling coach from the stable
yard at the rear of the house. The coach was heaped with baggage and there was even some
furniture and two rolled carpets lashed onto the rear rack where a coachman, precariously
poised between a half-dozen gilded chairs, was leading Hogan’s black mare by the reins. The
Captain took the horse and used the coach’s mounting step to hoist himself into the saddle.
“You’ll be back with us in a couple of days,” he assured Sharpe. “Say six, seven hours to
Vila Real de Zedes? The same back to the ferry at Barca d’Avintas and then a quiet stroll
home. You know where Barca d’Avintas is?”
“That way.” Hogan pointed eastward. “Four country miles.” He pushed his right boot into
its stirrup, then lifted his body to flick out the tails of his blue coat. “With luck you may
even rejoin us tomorrow night.”
“What I don’t understand … “ Sharpe began, then paused because the front door of the house
had been thrown open and Mrs. Savage, widow and mother of the missing daughter, came into
the sunlight. She was a good-looking woman in her forties: dark-haired, tall and slender
with a pale face and high arched eyebrows. She hurried down the steps as a cannonball
rumbled overhead and then there was a smattering of musket fire alarmingly close, so close
that Sharpe climbed the porch steps to stare at the crest of the hill where the Braga road
disappeared between a large tavern and a handsome church. A Portuguese six-pounder gun had
just deployed by the church and was now firing at the invisible enemy. The bishop’s forces
had dug new redoubts on the crest and patched the old medieval wall with hastily erected
palisades and earthworks, but the sight of the small gun firing from its makeshift position
in the center of the road suggested that those defenses were crumbling fast.
Mrs. Savage sobbed that her baby daughter was lost, then Captain Hogan managed to
persuade the widow into the carriage. Two servants laden with bags stuffed with clothes
followed their mistress into the vehicle. “You will find Kate?” Mrs. Savage pushed open the
door and inquired of Captain Hogan.
“The precious darling will be with you very soon,” Hogan said reassuringly. “Mister
Sharpe will see to that,” he added, then used his foot to close the coach door on Mrs. Savage,
who was the widow of one of the many British wine merchants who lived and worked in the city of
Oporto. She was rich, Sharpe presumed, certainly rich enough to own a fine carriage and the
lavish House Beautiful, but she was also foolish for she should have left the city two or
three days before, but she had stayed because she had evidently believed the bishop’s
assurance that he could repel Marshal Soult’s army. Colonel Christopher, who had once lodged
m the strangely named House Beautiful, had appealed to the British forces south of the river
to send men to escort Mrs. Savage safely away and Captain Hogan had been the closest
officer and Sharpe, with his riflemen, had been protecting Hogan while the engineer
mapped northern Portugal, and so Sharpe had come north across the Douro with twenty-four of
his men to escort Mrs. Savage and any other threatened British inhabitants of Oporto to
safety. Which should have been a simple enough task, except that at dawn the widow Savage
had discovered that her daughter had fled from the house.
“What I don’t understand,” Sharpe persevered, “is why she ran away.”
“She’s probably in love,” Hogan explained airily. “Nineteen-year-old girls of respectable
families are dangerously susceptible to love because of all the novels they read. See
you in two days, Richard, or maybe even tomorrow? Just wait for Colonel Christopher, he’ll be
with you directly, and listen.” He bent down from the saddle and lowered his voice so that
no one but Sharpe could hear him. “Keep a close eye on the Colonel, Richard. I worry about him,
“You should worry about me, sir.”
“I do that too, Richard, I do indeed,” Hogan said, then straightened up, waved farewell and
spurred his horse after Mrs. Savage’s carriage which had swung out of the front gate and
joined the stream of fugitives going toward the Douro.
The sound of the carriage wheels faded. The sun came from behind a cloud just as a French
cannonball struck a tree on the hill’s crest and exploded a cloud of reddish blossoms which
drifted above the city’s steep slope. Daniel Hagman stared at the airborne blossoms. “Looks
like a wedding,” he said and then, glancing up as a musket ball ricocheted off a roof tile,
brought a pair of scissors from his pocket. “Finish your hair, sir?”
“Why not, Dan,” Sharpe said. He sat on the porch steps and took off his shako.
Sergeant Harper checked that the sentinels were watching the north. A troop of Portuguese
cavalry had appeared on the crest where the single cannon was firing bravely. A rattle of
musketry proved that some infantry was still fighting, but more and more troops were
retreating past the house and Sharpe knew it could only be a matter of minutes before the
city’s defenses collapsed entirely. Hagman began slicing away at Sharpe’s hair. “You
don’t like it over the ears, ain’t that right?”
“I like it short, Dan.”
“Short like a good sermon, sir,” Hagman said. “Now keep still, sir, just keep still.” There
was a sudden stab of pain as Hagman speared a louse with the scissors’ blade. He spat on the
drop of blood that showed on Sharpe’s scalp, then wiped it away. “So the Crapauds will get the
“Looks like it,” Sharpe said.
“And they’ll march on Lisbon next?” Hagman asked, cutting away.