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Author: Sue Law
Visit : the author's website
Disclaimer: This short story is a not-for-profit work of fan fiction, a homage to the work of author Bernard Cornwell. The character of Richard Sharpe is the copyrighted property of Mr Bernard Cornwell and the story is based on the character as developed in Mr Cornwell's series of novels.
1805: Richard Sharpe has just returned to England from India on furlough. Unhappy with being an outsider in a clannish Scots regiment, he decides to try for a transfer to the 95th Rifles. This was the first "Sharpe" story I wrote and has been made obsolete by the release of "Sharpe's Trafalgar". I might rewrite it one day, but maybe not - I quite like some parts of this.
Sharpe did not feel comfortable in the Officer's Club. Many of the habitues openly despised him, and the remainder ignored him. He continued to frequent it though, a gaunt figure in a shabby uniform, drawn by the newspapers available for the clients' perusal, particularly the military gazette. With his rapidly improving reading skills he was able to follow the activities of the army and, despite the predictable absence of his name, the gazetting of promotions. He felt a certain vicarious pleasure at seeing the name of someone he knew, and the delight he felt when he read of Lawford's promotion to Major lasted many days.
He also read with great interest the reports on the recently formed 95th Rifle Regiment. In India he had heard nothing of the formation of the Experimental Corps of Riflemen except a comment by his Colonel (Wallace of the 74th) that he thought Sharpe would do well in them. Since returning, an article had caught his eye and he had read and re-read every report about them since. Unlike most regiments, it seemed as if they had to expend little effort at recruiting, the cream of other regiments begged for a transfer but the Rifles were choosy. They were even choosy about who they allowed to purchase commissions. One notoriously supercilious officer, a regular attendee at the coffee house, was most scathing of them, almost libellous in fact. Behind his back the other officers laughed; the Rifles had turned him down, even though he had offered three times the going rate for a major's commission. A regiment which apparently valued military skill rather than money or social status appealed to Sharpe.
In May, two months after his arrival home from India, he read a report that the Regiment was about to form a second battalion. It was then that he made his first career decision as a King's Officer, He would walk to Ashford and by hook or by crook obtain an interview with the new battalion's Colonel. A night's thinking found him next morning penning a note to his old officer, the now Major Lawford, asking for an interview. Lawford was delighted to hear from him, and immediately repaired to the Coffee House. Sharpe could not help the slightly spiteful feeling aroused when Lawford marched straight up to him, ignoring several other Lieutenants who tried to engage his attention.
In a private room, Sharpe nervously explained his plan to Lawford. He need not have worried. Lawford thought it an excellent move, and was delighted to supply a letter of recommendation. He was now on General Wellesley's staff, and he was sure that the General could be induced to supply a supporting recommendation. With exquisite tact, Lawford forbore to comment on Sharpe's gaunt appearance and shabby uniform, instead ordering a substantial lunch and then reminiscing about India until Sharpe found the luncheon served and himself partaking of the best meal he had had in months, without the necessity of being invited. A few of the younger officers also found themselves partaking, having been drawn, fascinated, to the tales of Sultans and tigers, Mahrattas and elephants, of searing heat and raging floods. In a couple of hours Lawford had done what Sharpe had not been able to do in the months he had been coming to the club: broken the ice and made Sharpe some friends.
The next morning he set out on foot for Ashford, in the county of Kent, where the new battalion was being formed. All appearances to the contrary, Sharpe was relatively wealthy. The poverty of his childhood had developed a habit of hoarding what wealth he had and spending only when necessary. This, added to the cynical belief that wealthier men would have no compunction about relieving him of his money if they knew of it, led Sharpe to maintain his poverty stricken appearance. The gauntness was deceptive. Sharpe was naturally thin and while he was still far from recovering the bronzed strength he had developed in India, his uniform covered a wiry toughness that would see him through a day's march with the best the British Army could muster. Despite this, Sharpe had still not been pronounced fit by the Army's doctors. If he wanted to join a new regiment, then he needed to be passed as soon as he could. A long walk in the spring sunshine should see him fit enough to pass his medical. Anyway, he was at best an ungainly rider and preferred to exercise on his own two feet.
At Ashford, a dusty Sharpe presented Lawford's letter to the Colonel's Aide. The Aide was supercilious. Ensign Sharpe must realise that many officers with far better credentials wished to join the Rifles. Colonel Wade was a most punctilious officer, Sharpe could be sure of an interview, but there was much competition for the commissions. If Ensign Sharpe could leave his direction? Sharpe bitterly resented the Aide's attitude, but had the sense to realise that it was not directed at him personally. The Aide was having fun and would spin the same line to a rich lordling with even greater enjoyment. Promising to give the Aide his direction as soon as he had one, Sharpe returned to the town for an hour to find a cheap lodging and clean himself up. When he returned, the Aide demanded to know where he had been! The Colonel wished to interview him immediately. Years of practice in the ranks enabled Sharpe to maintain his totally blank expression, whilst inside he laughed at the Aide's change of attitude.
Sharpe followed the Aide along the corridor to Colonel Wade's office. It was strange to see a British soldier in green rather than red, but Sharpe had to admit that with its black frogging and accoutrements, it looked smart. The aide paused at a door, looking round to make sure Sharpe was still with him, and knocked. At the muffled, "Enter!" he opened the door, announced Sharpe and then retired, closing the door behind him. Sharpe marched to the front of the desk, and came to attention. "Richard Sharpe, Ensign, 74th Highlanders, sir!"
"At ease, at ease." Sharpe relaxed and looked down at the Colonel who was, he found, studying him.
The first thing Wade noticed about Sharpe was his height. Sharpe, at 6'1", was taller than most men in the British army. The Rifles, elite light troops, tended to be shorter than average, but more agile and quick witted. Sharpe would tower head and shoulders over most of them. But while he was tall, he was not heavily built. At the moment, gaunt would be a good description, though Wade was willing to bet that Sharpe's uniform hid a wiry strength. His hair was not clubbed, but dark and cut roughly short. His face was pink, particularly the tip of the nose, and Wade had a feeling that the pink would peel off in a day or so. The green eyes looked directly at him, expressionless, but still gave Wade the impression of a calculating intelligence. Sharpe's blank eyes were contradicted by the sardonic twist to his mouth, an effect of the scar on his left cheek.
Sharpe saw a short wiry officer in green rifleman's jacket sitting behind a desk covered with a confusion of papers. There were powder stains on his right cheek, below a pair of piercing blue eyes. There were laughter lines surrounding those eyes, and a hint of a twinkle in their depth but still Sharpe could almost feel them cutting through his skin to peer into his soul. As Wade studied Sharpe, he leaned back in his chair and felt among the papers on his desk. Despite the apparent confusion, he found the papers he wanted without even looking.
"Sharpe," he murmured in his soft Irish brogue, "Richard Sharpe, Ensign 74th Highlanders, Ex-sergeant, 33rd West Riding." He spread out the three sheets of paper in front of him. One Sharpe recognised as the letter Lawford had written for him. One also looked new, though folded and battered. Sharpe thought he saw the marks made by the Royal Mail Service on it. The last paper was slightly yellowed with age, and showed some water stains. Sharpe frowned, and the scar on his cheek pulled the side of his mouth down even further.
"Most of the young officers applying for the 95th have just the one letter, from their commanding officer. You, Ensign Sharpe, have three, and one preceded you by more than a year?"
"I've only been back in England two month, Sir." offered Sharpe, burning with curiosity.
"Ah, yes, India, where you served under Colonel Wallace." Sharpe blinked, taken aback. Wade picked up the yellowed paper, and a memory came back, of Wallace, concerned both for Sharpe and for his battalion, suggesting that the Rifle Corps might be a suitable home for Sharpe. "This letter is actually addressed to the Honorable Sir William Stewart, of the Rifle Corps, but Will has left us, gone on to bigger and greater things, so this letter ended up in my files. And when this letter," he picked up the posted sheet, "arrived yesterday, your name rang a bell. And today you, and," he gently waved Lawson's letter back and forth.
Sharpe swallowed, his throat suddenly dry. A flush of embarrassment spread up from his neck. In desperation he called on tactics developed as a private in a brutalised company. He stood to attention.
"Sir." He heard the rustle of paper and lowered his eyes to see that Wade had picked up Wallace's letter.
"'My dear Will, I hope this letter finds you in your customary good health. I send my greetings to your lady,' and so on ... ah! Here we are. 'I have in my battalion a new ensign (I hesitate to call him young), whom Wellesley in his wisdom has raised from the ranks. Some act of excessive bravery I understand. His name is Richard Sharpe and he is as sharp by nature as he is by name. His origins are as undesirable as they come, but I am encouraged to believe that he may yet slough them off. At the moment he is not happy, and is finding the adjustments from his previous station difficult. He not being a Scot has aggravated the matter, but the only English battalion here is the 1/33 in which his background debars him from serving. The man is a quick thinker, and has a strong natural grasp of affairs military. Added to his extensive military experience, it occurred to me that he may suit your new Rifle Corps.' And so on.."
Wade looked up. Sharpe's slight sunburn was now hidden by a deep blush of acute embarrassment. "Stock too tight, Sharpe?"
Sharpe half grinned, and relaxed slightly.
"No sir." He paused to give Wade the chance to carry on, but Wade was looking at him expectantly. "I had ... have the deepest respect for Colonel Wallace. He was a good soldier and he was always fair with me." Wade nodded and picked up the second letter. "This is from Sir Arthur Wellesley."
"Wot?" Startled, Sharpe looked directly at Wade before recollecting himself and standing again at attention. "Beg pardon, Sir"
"Oh relax Mr Sharpe, relax. I tire of telling you to stand at ease. Get that chair and sit down, for pity's sake."
Sharpe pulled the chair up and sat uneasily on its edge. "Ah, yes," Wade continued, "'I owe my life to the bravery, quick thinking and fighting skills of the then Sergeant Sharpe' ... And how was that?"
"I don't remember much, sir. His horse was lanced, and I helped him get back to the line."
"Don't, or won't?" Wade looked down at the letter again. "'While a Sergeant, Sharpe spent some time under the command of the late Colonel McCandless, who had nothing but praise for the sergeant's quick wits and military abilities.'" Wade cocked an eyebrow at Sharpe, "a good few tales there, I don't doubt?" Sharpe refused to be drawn. "Now where was I? ... ah 'While Ensign Sharpe had difficulty settling in to a Scotch regiment, his actions whilst in independent positions lead me to believe he has the makings of a good light infantry officer.' What was your first battle, Mr Sharpe?"
"Wellesley was there," unsure whether it was a question or a statement, Sharpe kept his silence. "And what do you think of Wellesley?"
"A good officer, sir, straight, sir, and clever." Wade nodded, and looked back down to the letter, thinking. He spoke his thought out loud, "you've a good deal of experience for an Ensign?"
Carefully Wade placed Wellesley's letter on top of Colonel Wallace's and picked up Lawford's. "Major Lawford, not so eminent but much better known to you?"
Wade's eyes skimmed down the letter. "Mmmm ... 'steady as a private', 'flogged unjustly', 'special mission', 'showed initiative and loyalty', 'good sergeant', 'keen to further himself', 'has learnt to read and write'."
Sharpe was annoyed to feel himself blushing yet again, but Wade was nodding his approval. Then he started questioning Sharpe. The questions flew thick and fast, bouncing from subject to subject: Sharpe's experiences, how he would react in a given situation, what he knew of military history (very limited - he'd never heard of this Caesar fellow), what did he know of rifles, artillery, tactics against cavalry. After half an hour Sharpe's brain was reeling, and he nearly missed the rifle Wade suddenly threw at him. His reflexes saved the rifle, and himself since the weapon was Wade's personal favourite.
He hefted the weapon. The balance seemed strange, the barrel shorter than Brown Bess'. He remembered what else was different, and, having checked that the weapon was not loaded, looked down the spotless barrel at the rifling which gave the weapon its name. He noted the presence of a back sight, the cheek rest cut into the stock. Wade watched him, approving the professionalism. After a while he coughed to attract Sharpe's attention. "My rifle, Mr Sharpe." Sharpe smiled and tossed the weapon back to the Colonel.
"I think we can use you, Mr Sharpe. In fact I think we may be able to organise an exchange, simplify matters somewhat." Sharpe's face broke into a huge smile. Wade was amazed at the difference.
"Thank-you sir." Wade smiled back, "I look forward to when you join us. I shall write to your colonel immediately."