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Ex Libris

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There was a library. Malone had heard it from one of the girls who used to work in the kitchens of the house, and Malone had told Hagman, who in turn had told Harris.

“What sort of a library, Dan?” Harris had asked that morning as the old poacher sat cleaning his rifle outside their tent.

“Big,” Hagman had said with a shrug, blowing a few grains of spent black powder from the pan. “And with books in; lots of books. Expensive ones at that. Leastways, that’s what Malone said Lucilla told him.”

Barely five minutes later Harris had made up his mind, which was why he was now standing outside the modestly ornate door of the library on the second floor of the army’s temporary headquarters at half past one in the morning.

Harris’ eyes flickered from left to right along the empty corridor. He had bribed the sentries to let him in, but whether he got caught once inside was his own affair. It was dark as pitch, there being no windows, and there was barely enough light to see his hand in front of his face; however, he'd had enough years of skirmishing and picquet duty for that not to be much of a problem. Every breath that escaped his lips seemed unnaturally loud, every shuffle of his feet equal in volume to the sound of artillery on a battlefield; but he could hear nothing else, the rest of the house still. Carefully, he tried the door handle and found it unlocked. Excellent. He had borrowed a picklock off Cooper, just in case, but not being a very experienced house-breaker he was infinitely glad he did not have to use it. A few rudimentary skills he had picked up along the way, but… he wished he had even half of Mister Sharpe’s ability – perhaps then he would not be feeling so damned nervous. Turning the brass handle as noiselessly as he could, he pushed the door open a fraction, made a final check to see no one was watching, then slipped inside.

It was lighter in the room than out, the moon casting its ghostly pallor through the windows across the shelves and the floor. Three of the room’s four walls were covered floor to ceiling with bookcases; row upon row of rich leather-bound volumes bleached to varying shades of grey in the moonlight. The fourth wall was occupied by a large marble fireplace over which hung a dark, chaotic canvas depicting some ancient battle in a gilded frame; the dying embers of a fire still glowed in the grate. In front of the fireplace was an old high-backed leather armchair facing away from the door, and next to it a decanter half full of brandy and an empty glass stood on a small table. Someone had evidently been in here earlier, then. Having established thus much, Harris then moved to the wall opposite the windows and set to examining the myriad spines, squatting at the lowest bookshelf, reading gold-stamped titles. Lucilla had been right about one thing; it was an expensive library, judging by what was on display, and must have cost the previous owner a fortune to assemble. He dare not hope for anything that new – books did not travel well during war – but he may yet be lucky. Leafing through volume after volume, he soon became wholly absorbed in his task; so absorbed that the soft footsteps behind him did not register, and it was not until he heard the click of a flint being cocked and felt the muzzle of a pistol press gently into the back of his head that he froze in sudden terror.

“Turn around,” a stern voice said.

The book Harris held slid from his hands to land with a soft thump on the library carpet. Slowly, cursing his ill luck and carelessness, he turned to meet a pair of cold blue eyes. Wellington stood there in shirtsleeves and waistcoat, the grim expression on his face unreadable, the pistol pointing squarely at the rifleman’s forehead. Had Harris been more observant on entering the library and less impatient to complete his task he perhaps would not have missed the lone figure occupying the armchair, dozing peacefully, a book lying open on his chest and his heels warming in the hearth.

“Get up.”

Harris silently obeyed, rising unsteadily to his feet. The moonlight threw Wellington’s features into sharp relief catching his high cheek bones and long nose, making his disquieting eyes glitter malevolently and the rifleman visibly flinched under their chilling glare.

“I trust you have a good reason to be skulking in here?” The General’s tone had an edge of steel to it, suggesting that the private’s prospects were bleak whether he had a damned good excuse or not. Harris swallowed painfully.

“I… I was looking for a book, sir.”

“Whatever for?”

Harris considered his reply, cold sweat trickling down the back of his collar. What to say? Certainly not the truth; he was a private soldier, and any officer and educated gentleman would be outraged that he would presume to think enough of himself to seek out literature. Giving himself airs, they would say; needs to be taught a damned good lesson. He had once heard a rumour that the General was occasionally forgiving to a wit; but Wellington’s chilling manner made the possibility of answering flippantly unthinkable, nor would going to the trouble of breaking into army headquarters in search of toilet paper be well received either. Harris took a deep breath, willing his pounding heart to steady in his breast.

“To read, sir.”

Wellington raised a quizzical eyebrow, but this was the only change in his frosty demeanour and the pistol remained trained on the unfortunate rifleman’s heart.

“Go on.”

Harris took another steadying lungful of air, feeling any moment as if he might faint.

“It’s only books are hard to come by, sir. Well, legitimately anyway; people don’t set much value by them. If some of the other men find any… well, most the lads can’t read and they’re usually torn up for kindling or to wipe their ar… posteriors. Only the officers have decent books and they’d never in their right minds lend one to a private. When I heard there was a library here… I didn’t think anyone would miss one book...”

Here his explanation petered out, a lump rising in his throat which, had he not known better, Harris would have suspected was his heart. It was pathetic, really. Why was it always his lot that his learning should land him in trouble? But then, as he was contemplating a number of grizzly ends that might be in store for him, he was suddenly astonished to see a smile curling at the General’s lips.

“Pearls before swine,” he said, a trace of amusement in his voice, and to Harris’ bewilderment Wellington lowered the pistol and eased the spring.

“Sir?”

“Books,” the General said simply, placing the pistol on the small table beside the decanter. He looked Harris up and down. “95th Rifles, attached to the South Essex. Under Captain Sharpe, am I not correct?”

“Yes, sir.” Harris knew the General was perfectly aware that he was correct, and that he was merely being asked out of courtesy. Wellington gave an infinitesimal nod of his head.

“Well then, let us see if we can find you a book.”

He stepped over to one of the cases, and Harris gaped.

“I’m not to be hanged, sir?”

“Over a book?” Wellington snorted dismissively. “Hardly worth the rope. God help you if you had come to steal the silver; I would not have hesitated to hand you to the provosts. Have you read Rosa Matilda?”

“No, sir.” Harris shivered at the offhand manner in which the General talked of his execution and then blithely moved on to another subject. Seemingly oblivious to the rifleman’s discomfiture, Wellington ran the tip of a slim finger delicately along the spines, finally pausing to extract a middle-sized volume bound in dark read leather.

“Here,” he tossed the book lightly to Harris. “Not the most recent, but a most stimulating read. I am sure you will enjoy it.”

“Yes, sir. Thank you, sir.”

“Are you certain you would not like another? After all, as you quite correctly stated, it is so difficult to come across decent books.”

“No thank you, sir.” It was a warning, and Harris did not need to wonder what may happen should he ever choose to cross the General again; the image was all too vivid in his mind. “This will be enough.”

“Then do not let me detain you any further. You will be so good as to pass on my compliments to Captain Sharpe. I trust you know the way out.”

“Yes, sir. Thank you, sir.”

“Good day, private.”

“Good day, my lord.”

And somewhat dazed, Harris found himself back in the darkened corridor, the library door closing behind him with a quiet click. Unsteadily, he breathed out a sigh of relief, though he had been unaware that he had been holding his breath. His heart was still pounding furiously within his chest and he felt exceptionally light-headed. In all his years as a soldier, in all those battles, skirmishes and retreats he had never felt so close to death, so entirely possessed by fear as he had when Wellington had smiled at him. Harris had been so certain he was going to be hanged; but somehow he had not and he had escaped. He could not figure out how or why – apart from a sneaking suspicion that it may have something to do with Mister Sharpe. Had he not saved Wellington’s life once? – only that he was glad that he was out of that room.

Taking uncertain steps down towards the front door he suddenly thought to look at the title of the book the General had placed in his hands. Wellington could have given Harris the Bible and he would have taken it, so desperate he had been to escape that icy blue gaze. Squinting, he read the words “La Libertine” on the spine, and the text was in French. He frowned. An odd choice of book to be given by a general, he thought, if the title was anything to go by. A ‘most stimulating read’ he had called it… Whether it would prove so was yet to be seen but, Harris suspected as he flicked absently through the pages, whatever the contents Wellington would end up with the last laugh.