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Captain Henry Willsen of His Majesty's Dirty Half Hundred, more formally the 50th Regiment of West Kent, parried his opponent's saber. He did it hurriedly. His right hand was low so that his saber's blade was raised in the position known to the fencing masters as the quarte basseand the knowledgeable spectators thought the parry was feeble. A surprised murmur sounded, for Willsen was good. Very good. He had been attacking, but it was apparent he had been slow to see his taller opponent's counter and now he was in disorganized retreat. The taller man pressed, swatting the quarte basse aside and lunging so that Willsen skittered backward, his slippers squeaking with a staccato judder on the wooden floor which was liberally scattered with French chalk. The very sound of the slippers on the chalked wood denoted panic. The sabers clashed harshly again, the taller man stamped forward, his blade flickering, clanging, reaching, and Willsen was countering in apparent desperation until, so fast that those watching could scarce follow his blade's quick movement, he stepped to one side and riposted at his opponent's cheek. There seemed little power in the riposte, for its force all came from Willsen's wrist rather than from his full arm, but the saber's edge still struck the taller man with such might that he lost his balance. He swayed, right arm flailing, and Willsen gently touched his weapon's point to his opponent's chest so that he toppled to the floor.
"Enough!" the Master-at-Arms called.
"God's teeth." The fallen man swept his blade at Willsen's ankles in a fit of pique. The blow was easily blocked and Willsen just walked away.
I said enough, my lord!" the Master-at-Arms shouted angrily.
"How the devil did you do that, Willsen?" Lord Marsden pulled off the padded leather helmet with its wire visor that had protected his face. I had you on your damned ass!"
Willsen, who had planned the whole passage of the fight from the moment he made a deliberately soft quarte basse, bowed. "Perhaps I was just fortunate, my lord?"
"Don't patronize me, man," Lord Marsden snapped as he climbed to his feet. "What was it?"
"Your disengagement from the sixte was slow, my lord."
"The devil it was," Lord Marsden growled. fie was proud of his ability with foil or saber, yet he knew Willsen had bested him easily by feigning a squeaking retreat. His lordship scowled, then realized he was being ungracious and so, tucking the saber under his arm, held out a hand. "You're quick, Willsen, damned quick."
The handful of spectators applauded the show of sportsmanship. They were in Horace Jackson's Hall of Arms, an establishment on London's Jermyn Street where wealthy men could learn the arts of pugilism, fencing and pistol shooting. The hall was a high bare room lined with racks of swords and sabers, smelling of tobacco and liniment, and decorated with prints of prize fighters, mastiffs and racehorses. The only women in the. place served drinks and food, or else worked in the small rooms above the hall where the beds were soft and the prices high.
Willsen pulled off his helmet and ran a hand through his long fair hair. He bowed to his beaten opponent, then carried both sabers to the weapon rack at the side of the hall where a tall, very thin and extraordinarily handsome captain in the red coat and blue facings of the 1st Regiment of Foot Guards was waiting. The guardsman, a stranger to Willsen, tossed away a half-smoked cigar as Willsen approached, "You fooled him," the Captain said cheerfully.
Willsen frowned at the stranger's impertinence, but he answered politely enough. Willsen, after all, was an employee in Horace Jackson's Hall and the Guards Captain, judging by the elegant cut of his expensive uniform, was a patron. The sort of patron, moreover, who could not wait to prove himself against the celebrated Henry Willsen. "I fooled him?" Willsen asked. "How?"
"The quarte basse," the guardsman said, "you made it soft, am I right?"
Willsen was impressed at the guardsman's acuity, but did not betray it. "Perhaps I was just fortunate?" he suggested. He was being modest, for he had the reputation of being the finest swordsman in the Dirty Half Hundred, probably in the whole army and maybe in the entire country, but he belittled his ability, just as he shrugged off those who reckoned he was the best pistol shot in Kent. A soldier, Willsen liked to say, should be a master of his arms and so he practiced assiduously and prayed that one day his skill would be useful in the service of his country. Until that time came he earned his captain's pay and, because that was not sufficient to support a wife, child and mess bill, he taught fencing and pistol-shooting in Horace Jackson's Hall of Arms. Jackson, an old pugilist with a mashed face, wanted Willsen to leave the army and join the establishment fulltime, but Willsen liked being a soldier. It gave him a position in British society. It might not be a high place, but it was honorable.
"There's no such thing as luck," the guardsman said, only now he spoke in Danish, "not when you're fighting."
Willsen had been turning away, but the change of language made him look back to the golden-haired Guards Captain. His first careless impression had been one of privileged youth, but he now saw that the guardsman was probably in his early thirties and had a cynical, knowing cast to his devil-may-care good looks. This was a man, Willsen thought, who would be at home in a palace or at a prizefight. A formidable man too, and one who was of peculiar importance to Willsen, who now offered the guardsman a half-bow. "You, sir," he said respectfully, "must be Major the Honorable John Lavisser . . .Sharpe's Prey
Excerpted from Sharpe's Prey: Richard Sharpe and the Expedition to Denmark 1807 by Bernard Cornwell
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