Salamanca - June, 1812
The dinner had been a good one. Not a formal occasion, thank the Lord - he did not think he could have stood that tonight - but most of the staff officers and there had been an acceptable flow of pleasant conversation at the table, the cook managing to produce a fairly decent repast. No doubt Salamanca being a friendly city helped in securing a better class of fare than that which the army usually lived on.
Wellington was one of the last to leave the dining room, his mind buzzing with plans to bring Marmont to battle, as now the makeshift fortresses had fallen the army would certainly march north - there he would beat the French general completely, utterly. If he were to wait until Marmont made a mistake, wait until his guard was down or he over-stretched himself, he would have his victory. He stepped into the corridor and was surprised to see Hogan coming towards him from the entrance hall, his usually so cheerful face grim. The General halted and frowned. Such a demeanour did not promise good news.
Hogan made a sketchy salute, his eyes weary and distressed.
“Richard Sharpe’s dead, sir.”
It was a flat denial, no exclamation of surprise or protest, because it could not be. Sharpe could not be dead, the concept did not bear believing, but even as the word fell from his lips the engineer’s expression was proof enough that it could not be otherwise; open, absolute grief. Hogan nodded his head.
“I’m sorry, sir.”
A great empty void opened in the pit of Wellington’s stomach as he stood listening in silence to what Hogan could tell him. Some sort of numbness took him, all joy or contentment seeping out of him, tumbling down through the void into the cold, dank earth in which the rifleman had been laid to rest. Sharpe dead. Sharpe dead… He wanted to deny it, but could not. Wellington fought to keep his features from betraying his grief, fought to keep his eyes on Hogan as he came to the end of his sorry tale. They had not found his body, therefore assumed that he must have been buried with the common French soldiers. So even a hero’s grave had been denied to him. Wellington shook his head.
“I’m sorry, Hogan.” It was all he could say, all he could trust himself to say in such circumstances. “I’m sorry.”
After so many years, after so much fighting it seemed so anticlimatic, so wrong for it to have ended this way. After all Sharpe had done, after all the trials and tribulations they had shared together… but this was the end, and it was wrong.
“Yes, sir.” Hogan bowed his head and shook it sorrowfully. He too, it seemed, was unable to find the words to express his loss. “Good night, sir.”
Wellington turned away, leaving the major alone in the corridor, and made his way up the stairs. Everything around and within him was cold and dark as he strode back to his rooms and flung open the door, shutting it behind him with a slam. Richard Sharpe was dead. Richard Sharpe was dead…
His valet looked up in surprise at the sound of his entrance.
The man was worried, startled at his master’s sudden appearance and Wellington knew why. He could feel his composure cracking, knew his servant could see the pain coming through.
“It’s nothing,” he said quietly, a flatness to his voice. Empty. “Nothing. Go. Go, I shall not need anything tonight.”
Silently the man left, not daring to contradict the General whilst he was in this state, though his concern would ordinarily have made him stay. The door clicked shut and Wellington removed his coat, draping it over the back of a chair where his neck cloth soon followed before softly walking over to the window. He stopped and stared through the glass, out into the night across the city and to the winding river beyond. By rights it should have been raining, but there was nothing; nothing but cold, dark emptiness.
Yet there was wetness and warmth as he felt the first tear roll down his cheek. He let it fall. In the dark glass his face was reflected – pale and distraught, ghost-like. Silently he prayed that he might see the ghostly face of another, but the eyes that stared back at him resolutely stayed his own. Then even that face faded as the General slumped to his knees, burying his head in the curtain, and wept, the void opening up to swallow him whole.
Because Richard Sharpe was dead.