Sharpe peeled off the green tunic and dumped it on the pile of jackets already there. He looked over his back but couldn't see properly. He untucked his shirt and pulled it off over his head, finding the blood on the back of it had tried to dry, but then been sweated in. He huffed, balling the shirt and wondering where his pack had got to. He'd have to start a new shirt, he realised.
"Sir!" Harper shouted, crossing to him, then tutting as he saw his back. "Dear me sir, you really should learn to duck, you know," he said, and Sharpe looked over his back as best he could.
"Stings like bloody hell," he admitted.
"Richard!" Marjorie called, running over, to the lusty jeers and cheers of the surrounding eavesdropping soldiers. Sharpe turned and looked at them, and the cheers turned into polite coughs and innocent whistling. He turned and looked at her.
"What you doing here?" he asked. She noticed he didn't smile.
"I got bored of James telling me stories," she admitted. "He's a good laugh though. I can see why you like him," she said slyly. He studied her face, then turned away to the bowl of water. "Bugger me! What happened this time?" she asked. Harper cleared his throat.
"That Pierre Caron, Miss," he said helpfully. Marjorie's face darkened.
"Oh," she said quietly. She took the wet cloth from Sharpe's hand and wrung it out. "Here, let me," she said, turning him round and pressing it to the wide cut across his shoulder blades. He hissed at the sudden stinging, but she didn't pause.
The men laughed and jeered again, and even Harper's stern face wasn't enough to quieten them.
"Got yourself a nurse-maid, sir?" one redcoat was brave enough to call out. Marjorie stopped and stepped round Sharpe, looking at him.
"And what's the matter wi' you, private? Stubbed yer toe? Sprained yer wrist? I can imagine how that happened, judging by yer complete charm wi' the ladies," she snapped sarcastically. The other men fell about laughing, slapping his shoulder, and she put her hands on her hips. "Go on, piss of the lot of you!" she called. "If yer injured, get yourself to the tent. If yer not, get the tea on!" she commanded.
The soldiers stood, most nodding respectfully to her before shuffling off, still pushing and jeering the poor private as he walked. She turned back to Sharpe, sniffing, and heard a wheezing sound. She pushed on his shoulder to make him turn, and found him chuckling.
"And what are you laughing at?" she asked indignantly. He took the cloth from her and dumped it in the bowl.
"Nothing," he said, grinning, "I wouldn't dare, would I?" he said.
"You do and you'll get a smacked bottom," she said defiantly.
"Oooh," he said quietly, raising an eyebrow, and she laughed suddenly. Harper cleared his throat and Sharpe looked at him, suddenly aware he was still there. "Have you summat to be getting on with, Sergeant?" he asked sheepishly. Harper grinned.
"I'm sure I could find something, sir," he said, nodding and then looking at Marjorie. "Miss," he said respectfully, and turned and walked off jauntily.
"He likes you," Sharpe said, looking back at the bowl of water. She folded her arms.
"Of course he does, I know where the rum and the tea is," she smiled. He snorted with amusement, fishing out the cloth and wringing it out, wiping his face and neck.
"Richard!" called a voice, and they turned to see Hardwick advancing on them. "Well, well, well, look at you," he said, then stopped suddenly, staring at Marjorie. "Oh, er… ma'am," he said graciously, his face turning a little red as he bowed his head to her. She swallowed, putting a nervous hand to her neck and not looking at him. Sharpe watched, his eyes narrowing, but he didn't say a word as he turned back to the bowl slowly.
"Not dead then, James?" he said over his shoulder.
"No, er, lucky, eh?" he answered, still looking at Marjorie. "I er, I came to tell you, Colonel Adams sends his complements, and asks if you'd see him in the library," he said. "I think he wants to apologise for his brutish behaviour," he grinned. Sharpe leaned over the bowl and thought about sticking his whole head in it. He resisted the temptation, instead picking up the towel and pressing it to his still dripping face and neck.
"He can wait," he said.
"Oh. More important things to do, Richard?" he asked eagerly. "I say, what happened to that Caron? And Miss Berry?" he asked excitedly. "I'm afraid I was in the courtyard – we had a siege to break, don't you know – so I missed all the fun!" he grinned. Sharpe looked at him, laughed suddenly, and then sobered, looking at Marjorie.
"Yeah well. I'll tell you later." He looked at him pointedly, and he nodded.
"I hope so, sounds ever so thrilling," he said. "Ma'am," he said politely, rather too politely, and then nodded to Sharpe before backing away. Sharpe looked at Marjorie, then to the uniform next to him. He picked up the tunic, sliding it on slowly, not bothering to button it up. She turned to him.
"Oh God, Richard, I was so worried," she breathed, letting her hand fall from her neck.
"About me? You should have known better," he said glibly. She smiled slightly and they looked at each other for a long moment.
"You know… There are those days when… when you know it can go two ways," she said quietly. "When it can go the way you want it to, or it can go the way you let it. I need to know… Oh look, Richard, I missed you," she said, bumping into him and putting her arms round him. He squeezed her to him tightly, gratefully. She pulled him away and looked at him. "Richard," she said carefully. "Now would be a good time to say… well, those… those three little words," she managed, her face red.
He eyed her, swallowing. Say it, his mind screamed. Say it! If you don't, she's gone. He looked over her head slightly to see Hardwick dragging his feet as he walked away slowly, shaking his head. He looked back at Marjorie.
"Bloody hell, woman?" he offered, and she stared at him. She let her face melt into a small smile and giggled, some unnamed tension eased.
"Steady on, lass?" he grinned, immeasurably relieved she wasn't offended.
"Get me tea?"
"Those are the ones!" she laughed, squeezing his arms briefly before turning and walking to the fire between the tents of the Chosen Men, currently sleeping. She bent over to the urn over the fire, testing the heat. Sharpe saw Hardwick talking to Harper apologetically, and Harper patting his shoulder. He swallowed and looked at his feet. It's not bloody fair. It's never bloody fair, he snorted. He looked over at Marjorie, then back down at his feet. He huffed, torn. He looked up, spying Ramona carrying little Patrick across the camp, and it came to him in a flash.
Is this what I want for her? Is this what I'll condemn her to? A woman like her?
He looked back over at Marjorie and studied her, really studied her, committing her to memory. Then he walked over toward her slowly.
Harris had been leaning against a tree, his ears on Harper and Hardwick's conversation, one eye on Sharpe and Marjorie, and one eye on his book. Now, watching with the foresight of Shakespeare, he snapped his book shut and pushed himself up from the tree quickly. He began to walk over toward Sharpe but Harper suddenly had a good grasp on his arm. Harris looked at him. Harper shook his head slowly, silently. Harris looked back at Sharpe plaintively, then back to Harper. He sighed and looked at his feet. Harris let his shoulders sag, and Harper released his arm slowly.
Sharpe stopped just behind Marjorie.
"What will you do now?" he asked her quietly. He took a deep breath. "Colonel Hardwick's leaving for England tomorrow."
"And? Why would that interest me?" she asked, her face away from him. He recognised, or thought he did, the forced calm in her voice.
"I… Look, I've seen the way he looks at you. He's a good man," he managed quietly. She appeared to ignore him, swilling the tea round the urn slowly.
"And?" she said eventually.
"Bloody 'ell Mar – he's going home rich and famous, he's got a title, a position, and he's a good, safe man. He's just what you need!"
"Oh, I see," she said stonily, turning to look at him. "So yer tired of me now, are you? Peter was right, God rest his soul, and yer moving on." She lifted the urn and filled a tin cup with hot, fresh tea carefully.
Sharpe wet his lips slowly. Bugger me – alright, forget it! he raged on the inside. Stay with me, always be here when I get back, bloodied and cleaved! Be here to wipe away the blood and dirt! Say you'll stay and never leave me! It ran through his head in a jumble, and he fought with himself to stop it tumbling out of his mouth. She turned, the cup in her hand, and watched him hesitate a long moment.
"We… We move out tonight. To the next battle, and the next. How long will you write me letters before the Postmaster tells you there's no-one to deliver to, cos I'm lying dead on some far-away field?" he challenged.
"Oh Richard," she said quietly, her face losing its stern gaze. "Don't say that."
"You want me to lie? You want me to say I'm not going to die in the very next fight?" he demanded. "And if I don't, what then? What do you expect to do? Live an army camp life, here with me? I'd never want this for you! This whole sorry escapade had you nearly killed, and all cos of me!" He paused, his face anguished. "Why would you stay? What is there for a woman like you, here?" he demanded angrily.
"What is there for me here, Richard? Tell me! If I had something to stay for, I'd stay." She paused, and they looked at each other in the cooling air. "Do I have a reason to stay?" Her eyes bored into his, searched his face for an answer, any answer, but he didn't speak.
Shit, she can see everything, he feared, and turned away quickly, making sure she couldn't see his face.
"Richard?" she dared, her voice just above a whisper.
"No. There's nothing for you here. You should go," he said coldly. There was a long, chilling silence, and he hoped she was thinking of storming off.
But suddenly she stepped up behind him and put her arms round him warmly, squeezing, being careful not to spill her tea. He closed his eyes, willing her to let go. But he just couldn't move to peel her off.
"Bloody hell, Richard, you're… Look, yer right," she breathed. She was silent for some moments. "I'll go tomorrow. Yer right. I'll go tomorrow, with Colonel Hardwick," she said quietly, "but I'll think of you."
He opened his eyes and turned around, putting his arms round her and holding her to him tightly. He smelt her hair, felt her arms under his, and squeezed his eyes shut.
She pulled him away, then put her hand to his face. She ran it over slowly, feeling the scratchy stubble over his jaw, then up to the scar over his left eye tenderly. She ran it back down, pulling his face toward hers. She kissed him by the mouth firmly, then let her hand drop sadly.
"When all this is over… come and see us, at Hardwick Hall. You may even meet a little lad running around the place. Happen I'll call him Richard," she smiled. He just looked at her, unable to speak or even nod. She nodded for him, pushing the tin cup into his hands and smoothing his hands round it gently. She turned and picked up her skirts, walking away quickly.
He watched her go, then huffed abruptly and looked at the tin cup of tea. He held it in his hands, remembering her touch, cursing himself for telling her to leave. You can still stop her, he told himself. But he forced himself to wait another second, then another, then another, until he knew it to be too late. He let out a long, agonised sigh, raising the tea and looking at it. But he couldn't drink.
He let his arm fall, not caring as the tea splashed out and over the grass. He heard the sound of movement behind him and ignored it.
"Sir," Harper said quietly. Sharpe closed his eyes, willing him to go away. He waited, but couldn't hear the Irishman move.
"Eavesdropping again, yer bastard?" he accused harshly.
He sniffed and found his nose strangely congested, lifting a hand to pinch at it briefly. He made sure he didn't turn to look at Harper behind him. Harper just pushed his hand into his cartridge box and took out the flask, unscrewing the lid slowly. He didn't walk around him, just offered it round his elbow. Sharpe looked at it for a long moment, before pushing the heel of his hand in his eye to clear its sudden unexplained blurriness. "I've told you before, there's more to life than drinking," he said, but it sounded like he was past caring.
"No, no, sir," Harper said warmly, "now maybe you'll understand – there's more to drinking than life. Especially one you don't like."
Sharpe put his right hand up and took the flask slowly, before upending it and draining every last drop of rum. He sniffed again, stoppering it and turning to him. He couldn't meet the Irishman's eyes. It was silent for a long few moments. Harper took the flask back off him slowly, and they stood in silence for a while.
"Got any more?" Sharpe asked timidly, looking up at him eventually. Harper was struck by his tone of voice.
"For you, sir? Always more in reserve, sir," he said kindly.
"Look! I found it, and it's in one piece!" Harris called enthusiastically, walking toward Harper hurriedly. Sharpe and Harper looked over at him as he neared them and stopped, oblivious of everything except the item in his hands.
"And what would that be, Harris?" Harper asked.
"My 'Marriage of Figaro'!" he cried, best pleased. "It's a good thing it didn't get burnt in your taper caper," he grinned impudently. Sharpe raised his eyebrows at him, looking over the cover of the book.
"Bloody 'ell," he said, putting a hand out and lifting the cover to see properly. "Not another Pierre," he said. "Do they have any other names in France?"
"Another Pierre?" Harris asked, confused.
"Aye – as in Pierre Caron," Sharpe tutted. Harris looked at him.
"I thought you didn't read, sir," he said. Sharpe glared at him. "For a hobby, I mean," he added hastily.
"I know what you meant," he said irritably, not in the mood to get into one of Harris' philosophical debates about some French book.
"So how did you know his name was Pierre Caron, sir?" Harris asked.
"Who?" Sharpe asked.
"Pierre de Beaumarchais, sir," Harris said, lifting the cover again to show the full name printed on the book. Sharpe and Harper looked at each other.
"You're saying the man who wrote that book – his actual name is Pierre Caron?" Harper asked carefully. Harris nodded.
"Yes. He was rumoured to be a French agent, but it was never proved. He died, I think," Harris added thoughtfully. Harper and Sharpe looked at each other for a long moment.
"Popular name, is that," Sharpe offered, unsure.
"Oh, I'm sure it is, sir," Harper said speciously, nodding to look more confident. "I'm sure there are hundreds of French men with just the same name, sir," he added hastily.
"Yeah. Must be," Sharpe said, pinching at his nose absently before clearing his throat and turning away. He walked away, hearing Harper and Harris argue about the book and sighed, walking past the tents and to the grass beyond. He stopped, turning and looking around.
He saw the tents, the small fires, the wounded soldiers, the linen being hung out to dry by faithful wives or opportunist girls, and smiled to himself. The light was fading, but he could make out the guns on the parapets of the village castle.
"God save Ireland! It's just a book, man!" Harper's frustrated voice carried over the camp, and Sharpe nodded to himself.
"That it was," he said quietly. The reason for his march here, the kidnap of a girl, the revenge of a sister, the orders of a General. But in the end, it had been burnt along with all the other precious volumes from some library in a far-flung village in a lost corner of beautiful Spain. He wondered if Wellington would be upset when he got word to him that he'd destroyed it.
The slight breeze ruffled his hair, pushed at his tunic, and reminded him he had Things To Do, one of them being to find a fresh shirt. The nights were indeed drawing in, and summer was fading. He looked at his bruised fingers, flexing them and shaking his head.
Well then, he thought, best get Harris to scribble a note for Wellington, tell him his book's lost. He paused. His book? he asked himself.
No – from the day the General had ordered him out, from the moment Charlotte Berry had demanded it in return for Marjorie, from the moment he'd ripped out the first page to create tapers for the guns, it hadn't been the General's book at all.
It had been Sharpe's book.
Richard and Pat will march again – in "Sharpe's Words"!