Mont St. Jean ~ 18th June, 1815
It hurt. That was the only thing he noticed as he lay on the grass, clueless as to how he had got there from Copenhagen’s saddle… until he saw the dark red patch spreading across his chest through the blue fabric of his coat.
“Oh God,” he whispered, a note of astonishment entering his voice. He gasped in pain, his lungs feeling as if they were on fire, yet he quelled the sense of panic that welled within his breast. “I cannot breathe.”
Those were the last words he spoke before the faces above him swam out of focus and into darkness. For a long while he lay in a dream-like state; not seeing, not hearing anything but snatches of sound, feeling as if he was being handled, lifted, carried – but to where or by whom he did not know.
When he came to he seemed to be lying in what looked like a cattle shed, the sound of groaning and the sharp smells of powder, sweat and blood mingling in the humid atmosphere. A field hospital. Above him he saw two faces; John Hume, his Chief Physician, hands and apron covered in blood, and Fitzroy Somerset.
“Somerset,” His voice sounded surprisingly weak. He licked his dry lips and shivered, for it seemed that he had been stripped of his coat and shirt, and now lay on a bed of straw, a blanket covering his waist downwards.
“Your Grace?” The staff officer’s face was pale, and Wellington could see that his arm itself was bandaged up.
“The Prussians,” The Duke was finding it difficult to organise his thoughts. “The Prussians came, didn’t they? I... I saw them…”
“Yes, sir,” Somerset took hold of his commander’s hand, his voice seemingly trembling with emotion. “Yes, sir, they came. It is a victory; an undeniable victory!”
He had done it. He had done it for a second time, and Wellington smiled in relief; only for his breath to catch, a strange bubbling sensation in his lungs as a series of coughs rattled up his throat. Hume was immediately by his side, pressing him down against the straw, taking his pulse.
“Please, Your Grace, you must not excite yourself. You must rest.”
“Why?” His whole chest inside and out was agony, his breathing laboured, as if his lungs did not possess the same capacity as before. “Why, what is the matter with me?”
Hume did not meet his gaze. Somerset opened his mouth as if to say something, but then faltered, closing it again and swallowing, tears apparently in his eyes. Wellington frowned at them, then tilted his head to look down at his heavily bandaged torso, and he saw the large, blossoming red patch that had seeped through, staining the thin strips of cloth. He recalled the musket ball striking him, carrying him clean off his horse and fainting…
“I am dying.”
At his words the tears began to run down Somerset’s face.
“A ball through the lung. The, the surgeons cannot reach it.”
Wellington gave a sad smile, even as a chill settled upon his heart.
“I had so thought I might live through it all,” he said softly. He would not let himself cry, would not let himself show the fear he was feeling now. “Then Bonaparte, damn him, has to start it all over again. Damn him. Damn him.”
He closed his eyes against the tears of the staff officer, fearing they would provoke his own.
“Damn him. Damn him.”
Now he would never live to see lasting Peace, never live to see his sons grow into men, would never live to try and make amends with Kitty for those years of distance… The sound of a commotion outside registered in his consciousness; of men’s voices shouting, of scuffling and one voice raised above them all.
“Let me through! I want to see him! Let me through, damn you!”
“You can’t see him!”
“I said let me through!”
“Damn it, sir, control yourself!”
“Richard?” Wellington tried to raise his head, but found he no longer had the strength.
“Get him out of here!”
“Richard!” he gasped, another cough bubbling up his throat, and this time he felt warm liquid trickle from the corner of his mouth. He grabbed hold of Somerset’s arm convulsively. “Let him in!” he whispered hoarsely. “Let him in! I want to see him!”
Somerset looked as if he would like to question the order; but he could not, in all conscience, deny a dying man his request. Moments later Sharpe was by the Duke’s side, his face filthy with powder stains and blood, trails of sweat cutting through the grime, his green eyes wide against the darkness of his skin.
“Arthur…” He gripped Wellington’s hand in his own, and was distressed to feel how cold was the skin, how weak the grip that returned his. Wellington forced a smile upon his face as he gazed up at the rifleman. He would not show fear.
“Of course I came, you stupid bugger!” Sharpe tried to affect a smile of his own, but could not bear to. His own voice was rough with grief, screaming and powder smoke. “Can’t let you go anywhere without me, can I?”
“It has proven impossible to be rid of you,” Wellington said flatly; a feeble attempt at his old humour. “But I fear that this time I am going where you cannot follow.”
“Why?” Sharpe looked fiercely up at Hume and Somerset. “What’s wrong with him?”
Hume, like he had for Wellington, turned away; his own grief too great to look the rifleman in the eye. Somerset merely shook his head, and Sharpe’s suspocions suddenly became a terrible reality.
The Duke once more nervously wet his strangely dry lips.
“I am dying,” he said again.
“No,” Sharpe shook his head forcefully. “No, you’re not. You can’t be, not after all you’ve been through. Bloody fools don’t know what they’re talking about.”
He had of course seen the red soaking through the bandages around Wellington’s chest, seen the all too familiar pallor that only preceded death, the thin trickle of blood that had started to run from the corner of his mouth – yet he had refused to believe, resisted giving into the truth for as long as he possibly could. Even now he struggled, willing to doctors to be wrong, Wellington be wrong, all his experience of the past fifteen years to be wrong… Yet as the conqueror of Napoleon gazed up at him sadly, the blue depths were bright and glassy, and deep down he knew there could only be one outcome. His guts knotted and turned to ice.
“Please,” he whispered. The first of the tears rolled down his battle-scarred countenance. “Please, you can’t –”
“You saved me once,” Wellington’s grip on Sharpe’s hand tightened, although he could no longer feel the rifleman there; nothing but a cold numbness. “You won my life for me when it should have ended. All through this war I have somehow… felt that… that I have been living on borrowed time…”
It was getting harder to speak, to even concentrate on forming the words in his head and he gasped at a sudden flash of pain through the growing numbness which he felt approaching his heart. It was clouding his thoughts and vision.
“…And now my time is up.”
“No!” Sharpe gripped his hand tighter, cupped his face in his hand. “No, you can’t! You can’t leave us!”
“I would not.” His voice was weak now, more warm liquid which did not feel like spittle oozing from his mouth down his chin. “I would not for the world leave you… but don’t you see? It is over.”
Silence fell upon the small group, a silence that seemed to blot out the myriad sounds of death and battle; a silence seemingly only punctuated by the laboured, shallow breathing of the dying Field Marshal.
“Please, Sharpe, tell Kitty. Tell her how I died and why… Let it be none other than you. Tell her I am sorry… and…”
But he found he could say no more, for the fog of confusion now overwhelmed him, numbing his mind and his body. As the blood rose in his throat and choked him he could no longer feel his limbs, and he thought he was dying. He stared up into those green eyes; clear eyes full of such love and sorrow.
Then the eyes merged with the green of the ocean; the wide, infinite sea which filled his horizon until he felt he was wrapped in it. Then green became white – a dazzling white – and it was brighter than any light he had seen in his life…
Sharpe kissed the cold, pale lips. No breath to counter his own.
Cineri gloria sera est;
De mortuis nil nisi bonum.