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Authors: Bernard Cornwell

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“Sharpe. Lieutenant Sharpe. 95th Rifles, sir.”

The Count of Mouromorto, having followed Sharpe in silence from the stairway, went to one of
the windows from which he could stare at the cathedral’s shadowed facade. He seemed to disdain
the proceedings, as though the fate of Spain was above such petty negotiations.

Yet Colonel Coursot’s opening struck Sharpe as anything but petty. The Frenchman took a watch
from his waistcoat pocket and touched the button which sprang open its lid. “You have one hour to
leave the city, Lieutenant.”

Sharpe was non-plussed. He had come expecting to deliver the ultimatum, but instead it was
this tall, grey-haired Frenchman who so confidently dictated terms. Coursot snapped the watch
shut. “You should know, Lieutenant, that an army corps is approaching this city from the north.
It will arrive here in a matter of hours.”

Sharpe hesitated, not knowing what to say. His mouth was dry and, to give himself time, he
uncorked his canteen, swilled the taste of salty gunpowder from his tongue, then spat into the
ashes of the grate. “I don’t believe you.” It was, and Sharpe knew it, a feeble response, but
probably a truthful one. If either Marshal Soult or Marshal Ney had left Corunna, then news would
have reached Vivar by now.

“Disbelief is your privilege, Lieutenant,” Coursot said, “but I assure you the army corps is
coming.”

“And I assure you,” Sharpe said, “that we shall defeat you before they arrive.”

“That assumption is also your privilege,” the Colonel said equably, “but it will not make me
surrender to you. I assume you have come here to seek my surrender?”

“Yes, sir.”

There was a tense silence. Sharpe wondered if some of the officers in this room had urged a
surrender on Coursot; these Frenchmen were vastly outnumbered, surrounded, and every moment of
continued fighting would make more casualties to join the wounded who lay in the corners of the
room. Tf you don’t surrender now,“ Sharpe pressed his case awkwardly, ”we shall give you no
further opportunity. You wish the palace to burn down around you?“

Coursot chuckled. “I assure you, Lieutenant, that a stone building does not catch fire easily.
You, I think, lack artillery? So what are you hoping for? That St James will send down heavenly
fire?”

Sharpe blushed. The Count of Mouromorto translated the jibe and the tension in the room
relaxed as the French officers laughed.

“Oh, I know all about your miracle,” Coursot said mock-ingly. “What astonishes me is to find
an English officer involved in such nonsense. Ah, the coffee!” He turned as an orderly entered
the room with a tray of cups. “Do you have time for coffee?” he asked Sharpe. “Or must you hurry
away to pray for a divine thunderbolt?”

Til tell you what I’ll do.“ Sharpe, stung out of his efforts at diplomacy, spoke with a biting
savagery. Til put my best Riflemen on those bell towers.” He pointed through the window at the
cathedral. “Your muskets aren’t accurate at that range, but my men can pick the eyes out of your
French skulls at twice that distance. They’ve got all day to do it, Colonel, and they’ll turn
these rooms into a charnel house. Frankly, I don’t give a bugger. I’d rather shoot Frenchmen than
talk to them.”

“I do believe you.” If the Colonel was rattled by Sharpe’s threat he did not betray it, but
nor did he press his own threat of an approaching army corps which Sharpe sensed had been made
purely as a formality. Instead he placed a cup of coffee on the table in front of the Rifleman.
“You can kill a lot of my men, Lieutenant, and I can make myself a considerable nuisance to your
miracle.” Coursot took a cup from the orderly, then looked with amusement at Sharpe. “The
gonfalon of Santiago? Isn’t that right? Don’t you think you’re clutching at straws if you need
such a nonsensical bauble for victory?”

Sharpe neither confirmed nor denied it.

The Colonel sipped coffee. “Of course I’m no expert, Lieutenant, but I would imagine miracles
are best performed in an atmosphere of reverent peace, wouldn’t you agree?” He waited for a
reply, but Sharpe kept silent. Coursot smiled. “I am suggesting a truce, Lieutenant.”

“A truce?” Sharpe could not keep the astonishment from his voice.

“A truce!” Coursot repeated the word as though he was explaining it to a child. “I assume you
do not think your occupation of Santiago de Compostela will be forever? I thought not. You have
come here to make your little miracle, then you wish to leave. Very well. I promise not to fire
on your men, nor on any other person in the city, not even upon St James himself, so long as you
promise not to fire on my men, nor make an attack on this building.”

The Count of Mouromorto made a sudden and impassioned protest against the suggestion, then,
when Cour-sot ignored it, turned away in disgust. As he drank his coffee, Sharpe thought he could
understand the Count’s displeasure. He had tried again and again to capture the gonfalon, now he
was supposed to stand idly by while it was unfurled in the cathedral. Yet would these Frenchmen
stand idle?

Coursot saw Sharpe’s hesitation. “Lieutenant. I have two hundred and thirty men in this
building; some of them wounded. What damage can I do to you? You wish to inspect the palace? You
may, indeed you should!”

“I can search it?” Sharpe asked suspiciously.

“From top to bottom! And you will see that I tell the truth. Two hundred and thirty men. There
are also some twenty Spaniards who, like the Count of Mouromorto, are friends of France. Do you
really think, Lieutenant, that I will surrender those men to the vengeance of their countrymen?
Come!” Almost angrily, Coursot threw open a door. “Search the palace, Lieutenant! See just what a
paucity of men frighten you!”

Sharpe did not move. “I’m in no position to accept your suggestion, sir.”

“But Major Vivar is?” The Colonel seemed annoyed that Sharpe had not greeted his offer of a
truce with immediate enthusiasm. “I assume Major Vivar is in command?” he persisted.

“Yes, sir.”

“So tell him!” Coursot waved his hand, as though the errand was negligible. “Finish your
coffee, and tell him! In the meantime, I want an assurance from you. I presume you have taken
some French prisoners today? Or have you slaughtered them all?”

Sharpe ignored the bitterness in the Frenchman’s tone. “I have prisoners, sir.”

“I want your word, as a British officer, that they will be treated properly.”

“They will be, sir.” Sharpe paused. “And you, sir, have a British family under your
protection?”

“We have one English girl in the palace.” Coursot still seemed nettled by Sharpe’s suspicions
of his truce. “A Miss Parker, I believe. Her family was sent to Corunna last week, but I assure
you Miss Parker is entirely safe. I assume she was sent here to mislead us?”

The calmness of the question did not indicate whether the deception had worked or failed,
though Sharpe, at that instant, was only concerned with Louisa’s fate. She was alive and in the
city, and thus his hopes were alive too. “I don’t know that she was sent to mislead you, sir,” he
said dutifully.

“Well, she did!” Coursot said testily. The Count of Mouro-morto scowled at Sharpe as though
the Rifleman was personally responsible.

“Miss Parker deceived you?” Sharpe tried to seek more information without betraying any
anxiety.

Coursot hesitated, then shrugged. “Colonel de l’Eclin left at three o’clock this morning,
Lieutenant, with a thousand men. He believes you have gone south, and that Major Vivar is at
Padron. I congratulate you on a successful ruse de guerre.”

Sharpe’s heart missed a beat. It had worked! He tried to keep his face expressionless, but he
was certain it must betray his delight.

Coursot grimaced. “But be assured, Lieutenant, that Colonel de l’Eclin will return by this
afternoon, and I advise you to finish your miracle before he does so. Now! Will you seek Major
Vivar’s consideration of my proposal?”

“Yes, sir.” Sharpe did not move. “And can I assume you will release Miss Parker to our
protection?”

Tf she so wishes, then I will release her to you when you return with Major Vivar’s answer.
Remember, Lieutenant! We will not fire on you, so long as you do not fire on us!“ With
ill-disguised impatience, the French Colonel conducted

Sharpe towards the doorway. “I give you half an hour to return with your answer, otherwise we
shall assume you have turned down our generous offer. Au revoir, Lieutenant.”

Once Sharpe had left the room, Coursot went to stand in one of the deep window bays. He opened
his watch again and stared with apparent incomprehension at its filigreed hands. He only looked
up when he heard the sound of Sharpe’s footsteps on the plaza’s flagstones. Coursot watched the
Rifleman walk away. “Bite, little fish, bite,” he spoke very softly.

“He’s stupid enough to bite,” the Count of Mouromorto had overheard the murmured words, “as is
my brother.”

“You mean they have a sense of honour?” Coursot asked with a surprising malevolence, then,
sensing he had spoken too sharply, smiled. “I think we need more coffee, gentlemen. More coffee
for our nerves.”

Bias Vivar was less astonished at Coursot’s suggestion than Sharpe expected. “It isn’t
unusual,” he said. “I can’t say that I’m delighted, but it isn’t such a bad idea.” The Spaniard
took advantage of the cease-fire to walk into the plaza and stare at the palace fagade. “Do you
think we can capture it?”

“Yes,” Sharpe said, “but we’ll lose fifty men killed and double that with bad wounds. And
they’ll be our best men. You can’t send half-trained volunteers against those
bastards.”

Vivar nodded agreement. “Colonel de l’Eclin’s gone south?”

“That’s what Coursot said. ”

Vivar turned and shouted towards the civilians who crowded the streets leading from the plaza.
A chorus of voices answered, all confirming that yes, French cavalry had left the town in the
middle of the night, going south. How many cavalry? he asked, and was told that hundreds and
hundreds of mounted men had filed through the city.

Vivar looked back at the palace, not seeing its severe beauty, but judging the thickness of
its stone walls. He shook his head. “That flag will have to come down,” he gestured at the
bullet-riddled tricolour that hung over the doorway, “and they’ll have to agree to close all the
window shutters. They can keep observers at a single window on each side of the building, but
nothing more.”

“Can you barricade the doors from the outside?” Sharpe asked.

“Why not?” Vivar looked at his watch. “And why don’t I tell them our terms? If I’m not back in
fifteen minutes, attack!”

Sharpe wanted to be the one to greet Louisa and draw her safe from the French Headquarters.
“Shouldn’t I go back?”

“I think I shall be safe,” Vivar said, “and I want to search the palace for myself. It isn’t
that I don’t trust you, Lieutenant, but that I think this responsibility is mine.”

Sharpe nodded his understanding. It was the French willingness to allow the palace to be
searched that had convinced him of. their good faith but, if he was Vivar, he would insist on
conducting that search himself. His reunion with Louisa would have to wait, and it would be no
less piquant because it was delayed.

Vivar did not set out at once; instead he clapped his hands with delight and danced two steps
of clumsy joy. “We’ve done it, my friend! We have truly done it!”

They had gained victory.

Victory brought work. Captured muskets and carbines were piled in the plaza south of the
cathedral, and the French prisoners were locked into the town jail where they were guarded by
greenjackets. The Riflemen’s packs and greatcoats were retrieved from the elm trees north of the
city. Corpses were dragged to the city ditch, and defences properly set up. Sharpe went from
guardpost to guardpost, ensuring that Vivar’s volunteers were in place. A few French fugitives
were still in sight to the south of the city, but a scatter of rifle shots drove them off. The
road south, Sharpe superstitious madness. The second, to rescue Louisa, was a personal whim of
Sharpe’s and irrelevant to the war. The third, to destroy Soult’s supplies, was the only
justification of true value, and it had largely failed.

Yet, if most of the supplies were safe inside the palace, Sharpe could still deny Marshal
Soult what was left. The nets of hay were taken for Vivar’s horses, while the flour was given
away to the townspeople. He ordered the wine to be thrown away.

“Throw it away?” Harper sounded appalled.

“You want the men drunk if de l’Eclin counterattacks?”

“It’s a sinful waste, sir, so it is.”

“Throw it away!” Sharpe suited action to his words by skewering a pile of wineskins with his
sword. The red liquid gushed onto the church flagstones and trickled through the gaps into the
crypt beneath. “And if any man does get drunk,” he raised his voice, “he’ll answer to me,
personally!”

“Very good, sir!” Harper waited till Sharpe was gone, then summoned Gataker. “Find a tavern
keeper, bring him here, and see what cash he offers. Quick now!”

Sharpe took a squad of Riflemen to search for any other French caches of grain or hay. They
found none. They did discover a store of French infantry packs, made from oxhide and much better
than the standard British ones. The packs were commandeered, as were three dozen pairs of riding
boots though, to Sharpe’s disgust, none of the boots was large enough for him. The Riflemen found
French cartridges to refill their cartouches; the French musket-ball, fractionally smaller than
its British equivalent, could be used in Baker rifles, though enemy ammunition was only used as a
last resort because the coarse French powder fouled the rifle barrels. They found greatcoats and
stockings, shirts and gloves, but no more grain or hay.

The townspeople were also seeking booty. The citizens of Santiago de Compostela did not care
that the bulk of the French forage was safe inside the palace, they cared only that, at least for
a day, they were free. They turned the winter’s day into a carnival, costumed by plunder, so that
it seemed as if the city was inhabited by a gleeful crowd of half-dressed enemy soldiers. Even
the women were dressed in French coats and shakos.

BOOK: Sharpe's Rifles
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