by Clio

Part 4

Captain Sharpe was in a foul mood. It had begun as soon as the rain
started to fall, and like the rain showed no signs of ending. The men of
his company avoided him, not even speaking to him except to acknowledge
an order.

His black and bitter mood had, however, nothing to do with the weather.
He had spent the last couple of days trying to find out what he could
about the colonel of the 86th Cornwall. For no accountable reason the
man rankled him. True, he was titled, he had all the advantages of
wealth and position to help him rise in the army, but there was more to
it than that. But what that more was, Sharpe could not say.

All he had found out was the man's name, and that he was an earl.
Colonel Lord Edrington! He scoffed every time he said the name to
himself. Another useless officer, marching his way through the war to
impress the folks back home, in the hope that they might be stupid enough
to elect him to Parliament. All parade ground polish and no substance.

So it was with no pleasure that he watched Sergeant Harper approach on
the first day with a glimmer of sunshine. The Irishman was grinning; a
sure sign that he had discovered something that he was eager to impart to
his captain. But on this day Sharpe was simply not in the mood for it.
He glowered at the sergeant, but that only made the other man's grin

"Make it quick." was how he greeted Harper when the other man arrived at
his side.

Harper sat on the stool alongside his captain, stretched out his long
legs and smiled.

Sharpe had to rein in his anger and wait until the sergeant was good and
ready to tell his tale. It was all a part of the game they occasionally

"Do ye remember that colonel? The 86th's commander?" Sharpe nodded
once, curtly. "Well, I've been askin' around some; just curious, you
know. And I've learned a few interesting things."

Sharpe sighed. "And?"

"It seems that the good colonel is not your average officer." Sharpe
raised his eyebrows and looked scathingly at the sergeant. "All right,
so he did purchase his commission, just like most of them, but I did find
out one interesting fact." He stopped talking and waited.

"Oh, for pity's sake!" Sharpe mumbled under his breath. "What? What one
interesting fact was so important that you had to come right to me with

"I was talking with some lads who knew him when he was a captain. He
commanded the Light Company of the 95th Foot. Seems that the boys liked
him so much that they were counting down the days until he would be able
to purchase his majority. They didn't want to lose him as their
commander, you see."

"So what happened?" Sharpe asked, interested in spite of himself.

"Well, the day arrived and passed, and still Captain Edrington stayed
with them." Harper's accent thickened as he warmed to his story. "He
never purchased his majority! He was a captain for nearly five years
before he was promoted. Now what do you say to that?"

Sharpe was silent, considering. It was truly unusual for a man with the
money to do so to not purchase his way as far as he could go. And while
the information did not lessen his unreasoning dislike of the man, it
made him more determined than ever to find out more.

He grunted once in acknowledgment of Harper's words. The Irishman took
that as a signal to continue.

"He was a lieutenant colonel for ten years. To the best of anyone's
knowledge he's never put himself forward and jockeyed for command. He
waited, bided his time, and let the job come to him." He paused a moment
for thought. "The lads of the 86th very nearly worship him. It took
them a while to adjust, but now..."

"And the officers?"


"The 86th's officers." Sharpe explained. "How do they feel about their
new commander?"

Harper sighed. "About how you'd expect. Seems one in particular, Major
Harlan, is carrying a full load of hate around. He probably expected to
be named commander, but he got passed over. He's had his claws more or
less in Colonel Edrington ever since."

Sharpe cast a quizzical glance at his sergeant. "What do you mean by

"He's always ready to take advantage of any weakness, is Major Harlan.
Not a very understanding or forgiving man. The lads hate him with a
passion, the ensigns only slightly less. An ideal candidate for an ugly
death in the heat of battle, if you get my meaning."

Sharpe got his meaning. Having come up from the ranks himself, he was
only too aware of the temptation to kill hated officers during a battle.
He had seen it done more times than he could possibly count; had even
done it himself on several occasions. So it came as no surprise that the
men of the 86th would be considering such a move against their major. It
was as natural to the army as rum and bad food.

Then one other word that Harper had used finally sunk in. "Weakness?
Why did you use that word?"

Harper settled himself more comfortably on the stool and smiled. "Well
now, that brings me to the second half of the tale. It seems that for
the last few days that something's been wrong with the colonel. The men
are starting to get scared, the officers are starting to openly cut him
down, and Major Harlan..."

Sharpe finished the sergeant's thought. "Major Harlan is only too
willing to step in and take care of things, right? All the while saying
that he always knew it was a mistake to make this man their commander,
and that he always said nothing good would come of it. How far off the
mark am I?"

"Got it on the first try." Harper said. "According to that one lad, the
orderly, Major Harlan has gotten very talkative in the last few days.
And his favorite topic seems to be Colonel Edrington's faults." He
plucked a blade of grass and chewed on it briefly before spitting it out.
"Nobody seems to know what's going on, except that young one, Andrews is
his name, and that Sergeant Owen. And the good colonel's brother, a
Captain William Edrington, has been about quite a bit of late, as well.
But nobody's talking."

"Is he sick?" Sharpe asked.

Harper shrugged. "Who knows?" he replied. "Those three watch and guard
him like a hawk. But, I did manage to wrest one piece of information
from young Andrews."

"Besides his name, do you mean?" Sharpe laughed for the first time in
days. "Very well, enlighten me."

"It seems that before Colonel Edrington fell sick, he was scouting out
what facts he could get about you." He paused a moment to let it sink
in. "What do you say to that?"

Sharpe sat, stunned. He couldn't imagine any circumstance that would
make an officer like Edrington interested in him. Men like that usually
gave him a wide berth; they appreciated his skill as a soldier, but would
prefer that he stayed in the background where he belonged. It was all
well and good to rely on him when they needed something done, but that
was about the limit of their tolerance. Even Wellington, who was
something of a patron to Sharpe, was more than happy to keep him
relegated to his place.

As he thought about it he felt his resentment rise, as it usually did.
No matter how useful he was, or how many times he risked his life, it
never mattered to them. It was, after all, his job. As long as he
continued to do his job well, there would be a place for him. One
failure, he knew, would bring the whole thing crashing down on his head.

Frustration made him get up and walk off. Harper followed, a step or two
behind, knowing that as soon as Sharpe got his emotions under control he
would want to talk more. They walked in silence for a while, the only
sound coming from the mud that squelched beneath their boots. When
Sharpe spun to confront Harper it was so sudden that the Irishman nearly
fell over, so fast did he halt.

"What the devil does he want to know about me?" Sharpe asked, obviously

"I suppose he wants to separate the man from the myth." Sharpe snorted.
Harper ignored him and continued with his thought. "Like it or not, sir,
you have quite a reputation in this army. Good or bad, it doesn't
matter. And that stuff gets around."

"Christ!" Sharpe breathed. He pushed a hand through his hair in
frustration, noticing that it was getting rather shaggy. He thought
about all the things he had done in this war; all the battles he had
fought; the struggle to be recognized as something more than "the scum of
the earth". All for nothing. He would always be simply as good as his
last battle. He would always be measured by his success in war. And
that unexpectedly hurt. Far more than he had ever thought it would.

He shook his head to clear it of those gloomy thoughts. The devil take
Colonel Lord Edrington, he told himself. If the man wants to know the
facts, maybe he should come straight to the source!

"Sir?" Harper asked, worried by the expression on his captain's face.


"I don't like the look on your face, beggin' your pardon, sir."

Sharpe laughed, but it was without humour. "What do you think I'm going
to do? Storm off to the 86th's camp, sit down at Colonel Edrington's
bedside and dump my life story on him?"

"Frankly, I wouldn't put it past you, sir." Harper said.

"Good God, Pat! If the man wasn't seriously ill that would put him over
the edge for sure!" He clapped the tall Irishman on the shoulder. "Have
no fear; if Edrington wants to learn more about me I intend to make him
work for it."

Harper let out a barely audible sigh of relief. "In that case, do you
think you could come back and spend some time with the lads? Not that
they'd ever say anything, but they've been worried about you lately."

Sharpe laughed again, this time genuinely amused. "They haven't said
anything because they've been scared spitless, you mean!" He was about
to say something more when he saw one of his rifleman approaching at a

Dan Hagman was an old poacher, and fifty years old if he was a day. By
the time he reached Sharpe and Harper he was out of breath from his
exertions. Rather than take a moment to regain his breath he immediately
spilled his story. It came out in bits and pieces, broken by gasps.

"Accident..." Hagman said, gulping for air. "Dobbs... injured. Surgeon
said..." - another deep breath - "...might not live."

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