Normandy - October 24, 1814.
Richard Sharpe looked at the notch in his blade and muttered a curse. His enemy who had done the damage stood in his path, unimpressed. Sharpe examined his foe, seeking an opening. His noble steed looked at him reproachfully.
The plow was expensive, and repairing it would cost money he could ill afford to spend. What had that rock been doing in the middle of his field, anyway?
Money. It always came down to money. Money that he didn't have. He'd had money once, a bloody fortune, now stolen by his whore of a wife Jane. Sharpe knew that he would have better odds of squeezing blood out of the rock his plow had just struck than getting a farthing out of her.
The mule brayed at him.
"Shut up, Josiah."
Sharpe straightened up, massaging his back. The sky overhead was gray, not yet cold, but with a hint of a coming chill. It would be a hard winter. He looked over the hundred-and-eighty-odd acres of the Lassan estate. He had only been a farmer for a few months, but had found something in it that he had never known in all his thirty-seven years, contentment.
He had known the camaraderie of the soldier, the joking and songs around campfires while they roasted whatever they had been able to forage that day, the roaring drunks that had left him smiling even through his throbbing head. But those had been islands in a sea of blood and horror, of thundering cannon and slashing swords, of battlefields strewn with the dead and those who pled for death. The friendship that he had shared with his fellow soldiers had been the only way to block out the starving, ravaged faces that war always leaves, the faces he had forced himself to look past every day, the faces that had haunted his dreams at night.
With Teresa, he had known happiness he had never dreamed of, infinitely far above the shallow, ultimately empty feeling that a night with a camp follower left in its wake. With her he knew the love of a woman he respected as an equal, given freely, received freely. But again, their love had been a shelter that too often they had to leave. Their duties, the killing of Frenchmen, pressed in upon their love with incessant demands, constantly driving them apart. Always, there would be another battle to fight, another officer to knife, another fortress to take, another ambush to set, before they could find in each other's arms a momentary relief from the endless killing, and killing, and killing. When Sharpe counted up the time they had actually spent together before Teresa was taken from him, it had come to less than a year. Less than one year out of the four they had been together.
But now, with Lucille, he had not only the love of a good woman, but a life style that every day, he came to love more and more. There was a genuine satisfaction in working the soil, in seeing things grow, in harvesting the fruits of hard work. It was a joy to see the farmhouse that was Lucille's ancestral home, bit by bit, becoming something of what it had once been. It was a welcome change from a life of killing and seeing death.
But the estate was in poor repair. So much needed to be done. Now that the harvest was in, he needed to get the fields furrowed, ready for the spring harvest, before the ground froze. Repairing the plow would slow him down. And it would take money.
Josiah was the only mule, and if he went lame, the plowing wouldn't happen. Getting a second mule would allow him to switch animals. But that would take money.
At least half the acreage was lying fallow, overgrown with rank weeds and saplings. The more ground he cleared, the bigger the crop he could bring in. With increased profits from a bigger harvest, he could hire workers from the village to help him clear still more acres. Perhaps he could even buy some adjoining land. But that would take money.
The stone fence that bordered the estate was fallen down in many places. To repair it proper, so it would last, would take a mason. But that would take money.
He'd like to increase the size of his flock of sheep, perhaps get some Merinos for the higher quality of their wool. And more sheep would mean more manure, which he could spread to fertilize the fields. And he would need a new wall to protect them from foxes. But that would take money.
Turnips were the best sheep-feed for good coats and firm meat. He would need to plant one field just for turnips for the sheep. But that would take money.
His hogs had been butchered; their hams were now curing in the smokehouse he had rebuilt. He'd like to get a better stock of boar, to produce more piglets that would live and grow fat. But that would take money.
More piglets would mean he needed more corn for their feed, so he would have to increase his cornfield, perhaps double it. But that would take money.
His apple crop had been good, but the plums had been blighted. He needed some tincture to protect the trees for the next crop. But that would take money.
Antoinette and Gabrielle, their two cows, provided enough milk, butter and cheese for them and for their child to come. But if he could get a few more cows, Lucille could sell the excess and bring in a few more francs. Perhaps he could get some Guernsey stock. But that would take money.
He wanted to re-stock the millstream, perhaps with brown trout. But that would take money.
The farmhouse's roof needed repair; it leaked in the heavy Normandy rains. But that would take money.
He was afraid he wouldn't even have enough extra money to get Lucille a gift for Christmas.
Money. It always came back to money. Money he needed to make money as a farmer. Money he didn't have. Money he was unlikely ever to have on his meager lieutenant's pension. If his brevet rank of major had been recognized by the Horse Guard's pension board, it would have helped, but they had declared that his promotions both to captain and major had been war-time appointments only. So the lieutenant's pension it was.
He cursed the Horse Guard, cursed his thief-whore wife who had his money, cursed the stone that had notched his plow, and then cursed Josiah the mule for good measure.
Then his dog Nosey, who had been taking a nap on the front doorstep, leaped to attention and started barking furiously. Sharpe scanned the farm again and froze. A man on horseback was passing through the castellated tower that was all that remained of the estate's original castle, and which now formed the gate to the farm.
The man wore a black bicorn hat cocked forward and aft, and beneath his gray cloak, the scarlet and gold of his uniform showed clearly. A British officer.
A British officer here could only mean one thing: They wanted him again. They wanted him to put his uniform back on and pick up his rifle and sword again.
But he was done with that.
He was a farmer.
As the officer walked his fine bay mare nearer, down the dressed stone path to the field where Sharpe stood waiting, Sharpe recognized him; Lieutenant Colonel Sir William De Lancey, aide-de-camp to the Duke of Wellington. He was a little younger than Sharpe, dark-haired and handsome. Though they had exchanged the odd word in Spain, Sharpe had not known him personally. De Lancey was of the gentry, and no matter how many acts of heroism Sharpe performed, he would never belong in the Colonel's circle of friends. From what Sharpe knew of him, though, he was a better than average officer.
But he had wasted his time in coming here. Sharpe was through with soldiering.
Sharpe bent to the ground and gripped the stone, rocking it back and forth to pry it from the earth. Then he tossed it behind him, gripped his plow, and clicked his tongue at Josiah. The mule began to plod along the field, pulling Sharpe and the plow behind him.
De Lancey stopped his mare at the edge of the field and waited, ignoring the scruffy dog that sniffed suspiciously at his horse and continued barking. He recognized the man pushing the plow, the tall, fit frame, the weathered face with the scar on the left cheek, the blue eyes, the hair, black with a streak of white. Even though he now wore brown homespun cloth instead of his green uniform, there was no mistake. It was Sharpe all right. When it became obvious that the ex-rifleman was not going to acknowledge his presence, he sighed and called out.
"The answer is no."
"I beg your pardon?"
"Whatever it is, the answer is no."
"You haven't even heard - "
"The answer is still no."
"The Duke assured me that you would hear me out. He said you owed him that much."
"He was wrong. I paid my debt to him many times over. You want to buy some wheat?"
"I've got wheat for five francs a bushel."
"The Duke - "
"Maybe some apples? We had a good crop, six sous for a dozen, three francs for a bushel."
"The Duke - "
"If you want a ham, you'll have to come back next month. They're still curing."
"The Duke - "
Sharpe sighed, stopped the plow, and finally straightened up to look at De Lancey with exaggerated patience.
"What I am saying, my lord, is that I'm a farmer. A farmer and nothing but a farmer. If you want something other than what a farmer can provide, then look somewhere else."
De Lancey grinned.
"The Duke anticipated that you might be reluctant. Therefore, he has authorized me to offer you the sum of one hundred guineas in gold if you will hear his proposal."
Sharpe looked at De Lancey incredulously. A hundred guineas? What could be so important to the Duke that he would offer Sharpe such a sum just to listen?
And what couldn't he do with a hundred guineas?
"A hundred guineas?"
"Just for listening?"
"Just for listening."
Sharpe looked at De Lancey suspiciously for a moment. Then he shrugged. What the hell? Listening never hurt anyone. He gestured towards the farmhouse.
"Come on up to the house, then."
Leaving Josiah hitched up to the plow, Sharpe walked across the field and led the way to the farmhouse. De Lancey dismounted and secured his horse to the hitching post.
First taking a moment to scrape the mud from his boots onto the rush mat before the door, Sharpe led the way in. He held the door for De Lancey. He removed his heavy coat and hung it in the closet by the door, indicating to De Lancey a hook for his cloak. A fire was blazing cheerily in the hearth, and the pungent smell of simmering vegetable soup came from the kitchen. Marie, the old maid, sat at the table chopping squash. Lucille stood by the stove, stirring the savory concoction in the big copper kettle. She was beginning to show her pregnancy. She spoke without turning.
"You are finished early. Supper will not be for another hour - "
She stopped as she heard the double footsteps behind her, and turned around. De Lancey stood next to her man, his hat doffed. When she saw the stranger in the British uniform, the smile froze on her face. She stood stock still, a large spoon poised in her hand. Sharpe, feeling awkward, gestured towards De Lancey.
"This is Colonel De Lancey, aide-de-camp to the Duke of Wellington. Colonel De Lancey, may I present Lucille, la Vicomtesse de Seleglise?"
De Lancey stepped forward, took Lucille's hand, bent, and gallantly touched his lips to it. He spoke in French.
"The honor is mine, Madame."
Lucille endured his attention, but looked at De Lancey with a mixture of apprehension and suspicion. Her voice, however, was both controlled and gracious.
"You are welcome in my house, Monsieur."
Lucille motioned to Marie, who cleared off the table. Lucille left and came back with a bottle of calvados. As Sharpe and De Lancey sat around the kitchen table, she set glasses before them and filled them. Then she took the soup off the fire, curtsied, and quietly left the room with Marie. Sharpe took a sip and looked at De Lancey.
"Well, I'm listening."
De Lancey leaned across the table and drew in a breath.
"The Duke wishes you to go to America."
If De Lancey had grown two heads, Sharpe could not have been more surprised. He gasped, and for several seconds could think of nothing to say.
"America? Are you daft? That's on the other side of the world! You may as well hand me the hundred guineas now and save yourself any further trouble."
"Our agreement was that you hear me out."
Sharpe sighed and leaned back again.
"So long as you understand that you're wasting your time."
"I will be the judge of that."
De Lancey's voice lowered, becoming deadly serious.
"Major Sharpe, someone in America is murdering civilians and blaming it on our army."
Sharpe's eyes narrowed, his interest was caught. De Lancey continued.
"As you know, we have been able to reinforce our forces fighting in America with many of the regiments freed by the end of the war in Spain. In August, we landed near the enemy's capital of Washington, defeated the American army, and burned the capital. Then we bombarded the port of Baltimore. Along the flanks, of our march, several villages, and several estates were burned, and the inhabitants butchered, men, women, and children, in the most beastly fashion imaginable. Evidence was found implicating the British army, cartridge boxes, shako plates, buttons. What few survivors there were claimed that British soldiers did the deed. As you know, the Duke is very particular that the army behave at all times in a civilized manner towards non-combatants."
Sharpe nodded; if there was one thing that had aroused the Duke's anger in Spain, it was looting by the army. More than one plunder-laden soldier had found himself dangling at the end of a rope for it. And if British soldiers were actually massacring civilians, the Duke might well be apoplectic. He was nothing if not jealous for his army's honor.
"You may be aware" continued De Lancey, "that we are holding peace talks with the American delegation in Ghent. They are at a very delicate stage. Incidents like this could bring negotiations grinding to a halt for God knows how long. Already, the Americans may be retaliating against our foraging parties or our prisoners of war. We could be bogged down in America for years. The Duke wishes you to go to America to investigate these incidents and any new ones before the situation flares beyond our control. Specifically, you will go to the Louisiana territory to participate in our campaign to capture New Orleans. We have reason to believe that whoever is committing the massacres will continue their crimes there. You will accompany General Pakenham, the Duke's brother-in-law, who is sailing to take up command there."
Sharpe remembered General Pakenham. A year and a half before, he had presided at Sharpe's court-martial on a trumped-up murder charge that had been engineered by Sharpe's enemy, Pierre Ducos. Sharpe had later cleared himself. Pakenham had tried to render a fair verdict based on the evidence, and had apparently given the guilty sentence with regret. Sharpe would give him that much. De Lancey was continuing.
"You will have full powers of investigation, to go where you wish, interview who you wish, and take whatever measures you deem necessary to get to the bottom of what is happening and bring those responsible to justice. Not even General Pakenham will be able to oppose you in this."
"You want me to become a bloody inspector?"
"In a word, yes."
"But why me? Sharpe asked. "What do I know of things like this? There must be officers already in America who can run an investigation far better than I ever could. Why dig me up from my farm and ship me to the ends of the earth?"
De Lancey held up his hand, counting off on his fingers as he named the reasons.
"First, the Duke was impressed with your performance in the matter of Napoleon's treasure. You showed that you know how to handle yourself off the battlefield as well as on. Secondly, a man is needed who has an officer's authority, and yet can move easily among the troops, and talk to them as one of them. Most of us can stand in front of the men and be the first to get shot; General Pakenham, for example, is a fine officer, but completely unsuited to this type of work. When it comes to finding out what is going on among the men, that requires a man with special talents."
It takes, thought Sharpe, a gutter-rat who rose up from the ranks to wear a major's uniform, but who can still talk to other gutter rats. He said nothing. De Lancey continued.
"Third, the Duke had a man on the scene, who was looking into the matter. He was one of the few officers that had the necessary rapport with the men to find something out. You knew General Robert Ross?"
Sharpe nodded. Ross was a true soldier's general; one of the most respected in the Peninsula, strict but fair, brave as a lion, loved by all who served under him.
"He was the one who first brought this matter to the Duke's attention. His dispatches indicated that he was conducting an investigation and hoped to prove the army's innocence. Then, on 11 September, just outside of Baltimore, he was shot and killed."
Sharpe leaned forward in spite of himself. De Lancey now had his full interest.
"He may have been killed by enemy fire, but there are indications in his final dispatch that he was getting too close to the truth, and had to be silenced. He was the only man there who had both the Duke's trust and the ability to pursue the matter effectively. This leads me to the last reason why the Duke wants you to go; your fighting ability. If you go up against whoever is responsible for this, you may well need it."
De Lancey waited for Sharpe's reply. Sharpe had heard enough. Let some one else sail to America on this mission. Sharpe had done his part already. He shook his head and opened his mouth to decline. De Lancey forestalled him by taking a hundred guineas out of his purse and putting it on the table.
"Well, you heard me out, the money is yours. But if you accept the mission, the Duke will have a draft for a further five hundred guineas sent to a person of your choice as soon as you take ship for America. Furthermore, he promises to use his now considerable influence with the Horse Guard to see that your rank of major is recognized and your pension increased accordingly."
Sharpe gasped. Five hundred guineas! That would be enough for him to make a real start on the farm, to put it on a profitable basis. And there would be enough for a Christmas gift for Lucille . . . And a major's pension! The extra money that would bring in month by month would be invaluable. Sharpe, to his surprise, found himself tempted. De Lancey put down his empty glass and rose.
"You'll stay for supper?" Sharpe asked, hoping that De Lancey would decline. The dapper colonel shook his head.
"I must catch a late coach for Vienna. The Duke is attending the Congress there, and he'll want to hear my report."
Putting on his hat, De Lancey took his cloak from the hook and fastened it about his throat.
"Give it some thought, Sharpe. If you decide to take the job, be in Portsmouth by the end of the month at the latest. General Pakenham will be leaving on the frigate Statira. Leave word as to where the money is to be sent."
Sharpe opened the door, and De Lancey stood framed in it for a moment.
"If you go, Sharpe, God go with you, and I must say I don't envy Him the job."
He stepped out, and Sharpe closed the door behind him. A few moments later, he heard the noise of the mare's hooves fading away in the distance. He didn't have to turn to know that Lucille stood behind him.
"That man, what did he want?"
"He wants me to do a job."
Sharpe sighed. There was no avoiding it.
Lucille gasped; her hand flew to her mouth.
"Sacre cour de la Mere! Amerique? That's on the other side of the world!"
Nodding, Sharpe told her briefly why they wanted him to go. Lucille spoke quietly when he finished.
"Are you going to go?"
"I don't know."
"Do you wish to go?"
"I don't know. We need the money."
"We've done without money before. What if I tell you that I do not want you to go?"
"It will make going harder."
"But you would go anyway."
"I have to think on it."
"Who will work the farm while you are gone?"
"He left money. You could hire some men from the village."
"You'll miss the birth of our child."
"Our child shouldn't grow up one bad harvest away from starving."
"Do you expect me to wait for you?"
"I want you to."
Dinner of soup and bread was an uncomfortable meal, with little said by either. Afterwards, Lucille silently cleaned up and went to bed.
Hours later, Sharpe sat before the dying fire, staring into the embers. Occasionally, his gaze strayed to the Baker rifle hung above the mantle piece.
America. It was as far away as India had been. He had never thought to even go to England again, but America?
Still, in spite of what he had said to De Lancey, he did owe the Duke a debt of gratitude. The story of his life should have begun in the gutter, been lived in the gutter, and ended in the gutter. The Duke had given him a chance to rise above that, to make something better of himself. He could never fully repay that.
But he was truly happy here, for the first time in his life, perhaps. By leaving, he risked losing it all.
But five hundred guineas! When would he ever again get his hands on that type of money? And a major's pension for life?
But Lucille didn't want him to go. What if he got back and she had taken up with someone else? How could he stand losing her, after Teresa and Jane?
Sharpe's thoughts were balanced almost perfectly between the reasons to go and the reasons to stay. It would take only a small thing, a single thought, to tip the balance one way or another.
Then the thought came to Sharpe. The thought had a name. A name that had often gone through his head.
Sweet William. Aside from Patrick Harper, Sharpe had had no closer friend among the Rifles. And a damned fine officer, too. He had eyes for Lucille once, and he and Sharpe had parted when she had chosen Sharpe over him. They had not parted as friends. Fredrickson had gone to America as adjutant to Major Harry Smith, himself a member of Ross' staff. Sharpe had stayed in Normandy with Lucille.
Fredrickson, with his ridiculous horsehair (or was it whore's hair?) wig, his eye-patch and his false teeth. He would almost certainly be in Louisiana.
The bitterness and rancor of their parting had often gnawed at Sharpe. They had known the type of friendship that only comes when men faced death together. It shouldn't have ended the way it did. But if he went to America, there might still be a chance to make his peace with Fredrickson, to make things right somehow. To undo a wrong Sharpe had never intended. He wouldn't go to America for just anyone. But Fredrickson wasn't just anyone.
And it was only one more campaign, and surely the last one. The war in Europe was over, Napoleon was exiled, and the war in America surely would be over soon as well. Sharpe had read in the papers in Caen that peace negotiations in Ghent were progressing steadily. If he went, he wouldn't go to fight, there might not even be a battle. The peace might be signed before another shot was fired. All Sharpe would have to do was ask the witnesses a few questions and write up a report for the Duke. Then he could go home and enjoy his enlarged pension, and never leave Lucille or the farm again.
Just one more mission, just one more job.
The balance tilted over.
Sharpe went into the darkened bedroom and undressed. When he got into bed, Lucille gripped him passionately. There was desperation in her lovemaking that surprised Sharpe. Perhaps Lucille was trying to tell him without words how much she wanted him to stay. But more likely, she made love to him with such passion because she knew it would be the last for a long, long, time.
Afterwards, they slept the sleep of exhaustion.
Lucille woke with the rising sun. The bed next to her was warm.
But Richard was not there.
She rose and put on her robe. She didn't bother to call his name. Nor did she look in the closet for his uniform, check the mantle piece for his rifle, or see if his sword still hung above her spice cabinet. She knew they would be gone.
And so was he.
She went into the kitchen. The fire was going, and there was a pot of café au lait on the stove. On the table was a note. She sat down and read it.
I'm so sorry.
I'll be back before the end of spring.
Please wait for me.
Beneath the note were ninety guineas. She put the note down and began to cry.
Why? Why did men have to love war so much?
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Last update 15/7/01