With Wellington outnumbered, the bankrupt army's only hope of avoiding, collapse is a hidden cache of Portuguese gold. Only Captain Richard Sharpe is capable of stealing it-and it means turning against his own men.
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March 07, 2004
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Excerpt from Sharpe's Gold by Bernard Cornwell
The war was lost; not finished, but lost. Everyone knew it, from Generals of Division to the whores of Lisbon: that the British were trapped, trussed, ready for cooking, and all Europe waited for the master chef himself, Bonaparte, to cross the mountains and put his finishing touch to the roast. Then, to add insult to imminent defeat, it seemed that the small British army was not worthy of the great Bonaparte's attention. The war was lost.
Spain had fallen. The last Spanish armies had gone, butchered into the history books, and all that was left was the fortress harbour of Cadiz and the peasants who fought the guerrilla, the 'little war'. They fought with Spanish knives and British guns, with ambush and terror, till the French troops loathed and feared the Spanish people. But the little war was not the war, and that, everyone said, was lost.
Captain Richard Sharpe, once of His Majesty's 95th Rifles, now Captain of the Light Company of the South Essex Regiment, did not think that the war was lost, although, despite that, he was in a foul mood, morose and irritable. Rain had fallen since dawn and had turned the dust of the road's surface into slick, slippery mud and made his Rifleman's uniform clammy and uncomfortable. He marched in solitary silence, listening to his men chatter, and Lieutenant Robert Knowles and Sergeant Patrick Harper, who both would normally have sought his company, let him alone. Lieutenant Knowles had commented on Sharpe's mood, but the huge Irish Sergeant had shaken his head.
'There's no chance of cheering him up, sir. He likes being miserable, so he does, and the bastard will get over it.'
Knowles shrugged. He rather disapproved of a Sergeant calling a Captain a 'bastard', but there was no point in protesting. The Sergeant would look innocent and assure Knowles that the Captain's parents had never married, which was true, and anyway Patrick Harper had fought beside Sharpe for years and had a friendship with the Captain that Knowles rather envied. It had taken Knowles months to understand the friendship, which was not, as many officers thought, based on the fact that Sharpe had once been a private soldier, marching and fighting in the ranks, and now, elevated to the glories of the officers' mess, still sought out the company of the lower ranks. 'Once a peasant, always a peasant,' an officer had sneered, and Sharpe had heard, looked at the man, and Knowles had seen the fear come under the impact of those chilling, mocking eyes. Besides, Sharpe and Harper did not spend off-duty time together; the difference in rank made that impossible. But still, behind the formal relationship, Knowles saw the friendship. Both were big men, the Irishman hugely strong, and both confident in their abilities. Knowles could never imagine either out of uniform. It was as if they had been born to the job and it was on the battlefield, where most men thought nervously of their own survival, that Sharpe and Harper came together in an uncanny understanding. It was almost, Knowles thought, as if they were at home on a battlefield, and he envied them.
He looked up at the sky, at the low clouds touching the hilltops either side of the road. 'Bloody weather.'
'Back home, sir, we'd call this a fine day!' Harper grinned at Knowles, the rain dripping off his shako, and then turned to look at the Company, who followed the fast-marching figure of Sharpe. They were straggling a little, slipping on the road, and Harper raised his voice. 'Come on, you Protestant scum! The war's not waiting for you!'