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Richard Sharpe wanted to be a good officer. He truly did. He wanted it above all other things, but somehow it was just too difficult, like trying to light a tinderbox in a rain-filled wind. Either the men disliked him, or they ignored him, or they were overfamiliar and he was unsure how to cope with any of the three attitudes, while the battalion's other officers plain disapproved of him. You -can put a racing saddle on a carthorse, Captain Urquhart had said one night in the ragged tent which passed for the officers' mess, but that don't make the beast quick. He had not been talking about Sharpe, not directly, but all the other officers glanced at him.
The battalion had stopped in the middle of nowhere. It was hot as hell and no wind alleviated the sodden heat. They were surrounded by tall crops that hid everything except the sky. A cannon fired somewhere to the north, but Sharpe had no way of knowing whether it was a British gun or an enemy cannon.
A dry ditch ran through the tall crops and the men of the company sat on the ditch lip as they waited for orders. One or two lay back and slept with their mouths wide open while Sergeant Colquhoun leafed through his tattered Bible. The Sergeant was short-sighted, so had to hold the book very close to his nose from which drops of sweat fell onto the pages. Usually the Sergeant read quietly, mouthing the words and sometimes frowning when he came across a difficult name, but today he was just slowly turning the pages with a wetted finger.
"Looking for inspiration, Sergeant?" Sharpe asked.
"I am not, sir," Colquhoun answered respectfully, but somehow managed to convey that the questionwas still impertinent. He dabbed a finger on his tongue and carefully turned another page.
So much for that bloody conversation, Sharpe thought. Somewhere ahead, beyond the tall plants that grew higher than a man, another cannon fired. The discharge was muffled by the thick stems. A horse neighed, but Sharpe could not see the beast. He could see nothing through the high crops.
"Are you going to read us a story, Sergeant?" Corporal McCallum asked. He spoke in English instead of Gaelic, which meant that he wanted Sharpe to hear.
"I am not, John. I am not."
"Go on, Sergeant," McCallum said. "Read us one of those dirty tales about tits."
The men laughed, glancing at Sharpe to see if he was offended. One of the sleeping men jerked awake and looked about him, startled, then muttered a curse, slapped at a fly and lay back. The other soldiers of the company dangled their boots toward the ditch's crazed mud bed that was decorated with a filigree of dried green scum. A dead lizard lay in one of the dry fissures. Sharpe wondered how the carrion birds had missed it.
"The laughter of fools, John McCallum," Sergeant Colquhoun said, "is like the crackling of thorns under the pot."
"Away with you, Sergeant!" McCallum said. "I heard it in the kirk once, when I was a wee kid, all about a woman whose tits were like bunches of grapes." McCallum twisted to look at Sharpe. "Have you ever seen tits like grapes, Mr. Sharpe?"
"I never met your mother, Corporal," Sharpe said.
The men laughed again. McCallum scowled. Sergeant Colquhoun lowered his Bible and peered at the Corporal. "The Song of Solomon, John McCallum," Colquhoun said, "likens a woman's bosom to clusters of grapes, and I have no doubt it refers to the garments that modest women wore in the Holy Land. Perhaps their bodices possessed balls of knotted wool as decoration? I cannot see it is a matter for your merriment." Another cannon fired, and this time a round shot whipped through the tall plants close to the ditch. The stems twitched violently, discharging a cloud of dust and small birds into the cloudless sky. The birds flew about in panic for a few seconds, then returned to the swaying seedheads.
"I knew a woman who had lumpy tits," Private Hollister said. He was a dark-jawed, violent man who spoke rarely. "Lumpy like a coal sack, they were." He frowned at the memory, then shook his head. "She died."
"This conversation is not seemly," Colquhoun said quietly, and the men shrugged and fell silent.
Sharpe wanted to ask the Sergeant about the clusters of grapes, but he knew such an inquiry would only cause ribaldry among the men and, as an officer, Sharpe could not risk being made to look a fool. All the same, it sounded odd to him. Why would anyone say a woman had tits like a bunch of grapes? Grapes made him think of grapeshot and he wondered if the bastards up ahead were equipped with canister. Well, of course they were, but there was no point in wasting canister on a field of bulrushes. Were they bulrushes? It seemed a strange thing for a farmer to grow, but India was full of oddities. There were naked sods who claimed to be holy men, snake-charmers who whistled up hooded horrors, dancing bears draped in tinkling bells, and contortionists draped in bugger all, a right bloody circus. And the clowns ahead would have canister. They would wait till they saw the redcoats, then load up the tin cans that burst like duckshot from the gun barrels. For what we are about to receive among the bulrushes, Sharpe thought, may the Lord make us truly thankful.
"I've found it," Colquhoun said gravely.
"Found what?" Sharpe asked.
"I was fairly sure in my mind, sir, that the good book mentioned millet. And so it does. Ezekiel, the fourth chapter and the ninth verse." The Sergeant held the book close to his eyes, squinting at the text. He had a round face, afflicted with wens, like a suet pudding studded with currants. "'Take thou also unto thee wheat, and barley,"' he read laboriously, "'and beans, and lentils, and millet, and fitches, and put them in one vessel, and make thee bread thereof."' Colquhoun carefully closed his Bible, wrapped it in a scrap of tarred canvas and stowed it in his pouch. "It pleases me, sir," he explained, "if I can find everyday things in the scriptures. I like to see things, sir, and imagine my Lord and Savior seeing the selfsame things." Sharpe's Fortress. Copyright © by Bernard Cornwell. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.