© 1981 Bernard Cornwell
Napoleon triumphant! Spain is lost, defended only by partisans fighting a ‘little war’ — and Britain’s peninsular foothold in Portugal is teetering on the edge of an abyss: the army is right out of money. Desperate, Sir Arthur Wellington contracts the indomitable Captain Richard Sharpe for a little productive mischief: he’s to sneak behind French lines and ‘borrow’ a pile of gold stashed in a partisan-held held down. The plan is simple, and of course must go the way of all simple plans: right down the toilet. When a key member of Sharpe’s party disappears beneath the blades of French lancers, Sharpe is forced to improvise. Of course, improvisation is Mr. Sharpe’s specialty.
The plot has the usual staples of a Sharpe novel: adventure, betrayal, romance (for Sharpe), and a dramatic ending. Compared to some of Cornwell’s other dazzling plots, this one would not stand out were it not for what it reveals about the relationship between Sharpe and Wellington, and the character of Sharpe himself. According to Wikipedia, this was Cornwall’s second novel, but it establishes and drives home the fact that there is a special link between Wellington and Sharpe: the highborn general may not like Sharpe, but he knows the rifleman can accomplish the impossible. Wellington trusts Sharpe, and Sharpe’s refusal to court failure sees him make a staggering decision that shows how resolute a man he can be. This is a man who will take on a force of nearly a thousand with only 53 men — and that’s only the beginning of the story. At the same time part of Sharpe’s strength seems to derive from a faith in Wellington. Though not friends, they are titans, working hand in hand to defeat one of the greatest figures in western history. I for one am looking forward to seeing the rest of their journey.
Next time: Sharpe’s Escape.