Warning: Mature Adults only
PART II: ACRE
It was a week before Harper got his revenge. Finnigan had acquired a taste for Turkish steam baths. Harper stole his cloths from the dressing room, and then paid the attendants to shout "Fire! Fire!" in English. Finnigan had rushed into the dressing room, and not seeing his cloths, had dashed stark naked into the streets, to the scowls of the men and the shrieks of the women. Finnigan stole a birqua off one of them, and wrapping it around himself, ran back to the barracks, the woman's husband in hot pursuit. What Harper had always heard about vengeance was true. It was sweet.
So now that they were even, they both walked into Ali ibn Hadji's tavern for their night's glass of wine. This time though, Harper would watch how much he put away. They were inside the tavern that night, when unexpectedly, Ali placed a full bottle and two glasses on their table.
"A thousand pardons, effendis, but the gentleman at the bar sends you this wine with his compliments."
Harper and Finnigan looked in the direction that he pointed. Neither was particularly impressed with what they saw. The man was short, plump, and dressed, incongruously in a brown civilian jacket and breeches of an English cut, topped by a red tarboush. He had a brown, sweaty face, and a trim mustache. Harper had heard of oily smiles before, now he knew what they looked like. He turned to Finnigan, who had just finished pouring for one of them.
"He wants something."
Finnigan nodded. "Well, we may as well find out what it is. We can always boot him out later."
He beckoned to the man, who sauntered over and sat down. Harper greeted him in Arabic.
"Peace be upon you, brother."
The man replied in perfect English. "And upon you, my friends. You need not invite me to join you in a drink, my faith, as you doubtless know, prohibits my partaking of the fruits of the vine."
"Where'd you learn your English?" asked Finnigan, after a long drink.
"I had the privilege of attending your Eton College some fifteen years ago. I am remiss, allow me to introduce myself. My name is Mahmud Al-Shaqawri. I am what you might call the City Prefect of Cairo."
Harper tensed, ready to make a break for it. "Are we accused of breaking the law?"
"Oh no, my dear sirs, hardly. It is simply that I am in need of a pair of courageous, enterprising men such as yourself for a little job I have, a job that may well turn out to be quite profitable for all involved."
Finnigan's eyes narrowed suspiciously. "What sort of job? We'll not do anything treasonous, if that's what you've got in mind."
"Of course not, dear sirs. What I have in mind is a certain excavation."
Finnigan eyebrows rose. "Excy-vaction? You want us to dig a ditch? Get some of yer fellahin for that!"
"Hardly a ditch, good sirs. You know of course, that Egypt is the land of the Pharaohs?"
Harper looked at Finnigan, just daring him to smirk.
"It has been my great good fortune," continued Mahmud, "to pinpoint the location of a small tomb, in the very shadows of the Great Pyramid of Khefra. By some miracle, perhaps because of its small size, it has gone unnoticed all these years, until I stumbled across it by purest chance. I believe it is the tomb of Pacrotis, Tjaty, or prime minister, if you will, to the Pharaoh Khefra. Because of his lifetime of faithful service, he was given the exceptional privilege of being buried next to his master, that he might serve him in eternity. Although a small tomb, I expect that it will contain several priceless artifacts."
"Which brings me to you gentlemen, and the service for which I have it in mind to hire you. I, as you can see, am not a man accustomed to hard labor, a certain amount of which will be needed in clearing the sight. You two, and you in particular," he said, looking at Harper, "will provide it. Also, there is a certain danger from wandering Bedouins, and it will be well to have along two men capable men with firearms as you seem to be."
"Why don't you get some locals to help you?" said Harper, trying hard to conceal his intense interest."
"Ah, the average Egyptian is a superstitious peasant, afraid to even approach the great tombs. This job will require some men of the modern world, not tied down by such nonsense."
"And what's in it for us?" said Finnigan, showing his intense interest in spite of himself.
"Charmingly direct and to the point. When the artifacts are sold, we will divide the profits evenly. Half for me, half for you, divided between the two of you."
Finnigan shot a quick look at Harper. To Mahmud, he said "Would you be excusing us for a minute? I need to talk to my partner."
"But of course, good sir." Mahmud rose and walked over to the shabby bar, striking up a conversation with Ali. Finnigan leaned into Harper, his whisper intense.
"What do you think?"
"It could be on the level. What have we got to lose?"
"Aside from our blood, sweat, tears, and our virtue to the Bedouins, nothing. Are you game?"
"I'm in. But let's keep an eye on this one. He's a greasy bugger, and no mistake."
Finnigan beckoned to Mahmud, who came over to their table again, his smile oilier than ever.
"Mahmud, you have a deal."
"Excellent, good sirs. I have some final preparations to make, but we should be ready in no more than a week's time. I will leave word for you here at Ali's as to when I will be ready. It will be more discreet, I think, than a message sent to the Citadel."
"What if we need to get a hold of you?"
"Well, my office is just across the square from the Citadel. But only contact me in the most extreme need! We must not draw attention to our enterprise. The authorities would be only too happy to confiscate our findings as 'national treasures.'"
They shook hands, and, predictably, Mahmud had a grip like a dead fish. He smiled, salaamed, and left, and Finnigan and Harper looked at each other dubiously.
Both thought the same thing. They were dealing with a slippery character, but if he was telling the truth, their fortunes were made for life.
As he made his way home, Mahmud Al-Shaqawri smiled to himself. He had succeeded in finding two men brave enough and tough enough for this enterprise. And they had one more essential quality.
They were foolish enough to trust him.
"Is it true," asked Sulima, as they ended their session, "that in your country, woman can play a part in your society?"
"Yes," answered Harper, thinking of his mother. "our men folk couldn't get along without them. The husbands are not always faithful, but they only have one wife, and she is queen of the house. She sees to its running, cleaning, buying the food and cooking it. Some women even run their own businesses. England even had woman for their queen once or twice, or so I'm told."
Sulima reached across the table and seized his arm with a surprising passion, as the tears she had been holding back coursed down her cheeks.
"Then I beg you, kind sir, take me away from this loathsome country, where I am little more than a slave! Take me back with you to Ireland, should fate lead you there again!"
Harper was touched, and also strangely excited. What where these strange, hot flashes he seemed to get around Sulima? He put his big hand on her small one.
"I promise, I'll do everything I can to get you out of here."
His mind was whirling. He could have her follow the marines as a camp follower, then smuggle her aboard the Tigre, which already had several women on board. She'd have to work for her keep, but that would be small price to pay for her freedom. He wondered how she would adjust to Ireland; wet and green and as different from this hot, brown country as two places could possibly be. He had to start making preparations now. He stood up.
"If I'm going to get you to Ireland, there's a lot I have to take care of. I'd better get started."
As he stood, she stood to, and put her hand on his arm again.
"No Patrick. I do not wish you to go. Not yet."
He was about to ask her what she meant when she reached up and kissed him. Hard.
And Patrick soon found out what those strange feelings were all about.
When he left the merchant's shop several hours later, he was smiling. A very big smile. And it stayed on his face all the next day.
And thus did Sulima bind him to her in her bid for freedom. He continued to see her at the shop every time he was off duty. They would go into the side room and begin their lessons in English and mathematics. But when Aboulferu closed up his store and left them alone, going to the coffee shop to smoke and gossip, they would get down to more serious business.
General Kleber was in his office in the Citadel on the morning of 18th March, sitting at his desk, going over the latest tax returns from the Delta. A hussar hurried in, saluted, and handed him a sealed letter. He smiled as he saw the seal of the British Admiralty on it. The British had finally responded, and in a few days, he and his soldiers would begin the final steps of the process that would see them gone from this misbegotten pesthole of a country forever. Already, they had begun to act on the terms of the Convention, withdrawing the garrisons of frontier forts, dismounting the Citadel's guns, and marching in columns towards the coast. Eagerly, he broke the seal and began to read.
His roar of rage echoed through the Citadel. The Turkish staff commented that he sounded like an angry camel.
Captain Wright was informed that General Kleber required his immediate presence in his office. Obviously, thought the Captain, Whitehall's authorization of the Convention of El Arish had arrived, and they soon could start the final evacuation of the French. Accompanied by his two marine guards, he marched downstairs, where he was handed over to two French grenadiers who opened the double wooden doors for him.
Kleber had mastered his wrath by this time, and his anger was a cold fire in his eyes. Without a word, he handed Wright the letter. It was from Lord Keith, on board the HMS Queen Charlotte.
As Wright read it, his face grew pale.
Sir,Wright was stunned. Those fools, those stupid, blind fools in Whitehall had turned down a golden chance to end this without a single additional drop of bloodshed. He looked into the hard face of Kleber.
Having received positive instructions from His Majesty's government not to consent on His Majesty's behalf to any capitulation with the French army serving under your command in Egypt and Syria, except on the condition of their giving up of their arms, surrendering themselves as prisoners of war, and delivering up all the vessels and property of every description belonging to them in the port and city of Alexandria to the Allied Powers jointly; and in the event of such capitulation taking place, by no means to agree to the return of your troops to France until they have been regularly exchanged; I think it necessary to inform you thereof and to acquaint you that all vessels having French troops on board sailing from the country under the protection of papers signed by others than those lawfully authorized to grant them will be compelled by officers of H.M. ships under my command to return to Alexandria; but that all such as may be met with returning under protection of passes granted in consequence of a separate capitulation will be detained as Prizes and the people on board shall be considered as Prisoners of War.
I have Sir, the Honor of being your Servant,
George Keith, Admiral, R.N
"General Kleber, I don't know what to say."
"There is nothing further to be said, Monsieur. One only responds to such insolence with victory. It is now time for the cannon to speak."
In a softer voice, he continued.
"I do not blame you or Sir Sidney, you have always acted in good faith."
"Perhaps if I wrote back to the Admiralty -"
"There would be no point. Your government has made their position clear."
"And what of the Turks?"
"The Grand Vizier and his army have marched from El Arish and are now two days from Cairo. I expect that they have already received a copy of this letter and will insist on our evacuation as scheduled, regardless of the altered terms. The French army and I will make it clear to them, in as firm a manner as shall prove necessary, that we are going nowhere until we are guaranteed the full honors of war. You and your guard will remain in Cairo until matters with the Turks are concluded, whereupon I will provide you with an escort to Alexandria."
Word spread through the marine guard like wildfire. The peace had fallen through; they would soon be leaving for the coast! Finnigan wasted no time. Within the hour, Finnigan was in the office of Mahmud Al-Shaqawri. This definitely qualified as "extreme need."
"You heard the news?"
"What do we do?"
"This fits perfectly into my plan. Two days from now, every French soldier in the area will be mobilized to meet the Turks north of the city. We'll be able to do the job and get back with no one the wiser. Sit tight, and wait for my word."
At the same time, Harper had sent a boy with a written message for Sulima, and only for her, telling her to prepare to leave Cairo with him when the British headed for the coast. He would wait for her by the north gate as long as he could.
As Kleber had predicted, the Vizier would neither agree to an extension of the truce nor retreat back to El Arish. "The Devil!" cursed Kleber. "I will force him to retreat tomorrow, and quicker than he wishes!"
Ando so, the following day, on the plains of Heliopolis, just to the north of Cairo, ten thousand French soldiers were arrayed against forty thousand Turks. The French were massed in four squares, with artillery at their angles; the cavalry between the first and the second. From the rooftop of Ali ibn Hadji's tavern, Harper watched through a telescope he had borrowed from Lieutenant Bromley.
"What's happening?" Finnigan asked.
"The Frogs are winning - again."
And they were. The Turkish cavalry was once again hurling themselves in useless charges against the squares, and rebounding bloodied. Then, as if by a prearranged signal, they suddenly all broke off and began riding in the direction of Cairo. Meanwhile, the Turkish infantry faced off against the French, who they still outnumbered three to one. But it was no contest. Volleys of disciplined musketry and cannon fire sent the Turks in wild retreat, and the French pressed forward with the bayonet, giving them no chance to regroup. They pursued them back to their camp and beyond it. There would be much looting that day.
Harper observed the advancing Turkish cavalry uneasily as they poured into the north gate.
"We're going to have company soon. We need to move now!"
Mahmud Al-Shaqawri signaled to them from the street below. He had brought a donkey loaded with tools and with large saddlebags for carrying the loot. They made their way hastily through the narrow streets towards the west gate. Not too far away, they could hear the noise of shooting. The entrance of the Turkish cavalry into the city had encouraged the population to revolt once again. Harper sighed. These people really never learned.
A short distance from the west gate, they came upon an unexpected find, a limbered French three-inch howitzer, with two of its four-horse train tied up to it. Apparently, the other two had gone lame and been cut out of the traces. The French, eager to get to the battlefield as soon as possible, had left it behind. Harper examined it, saw that it was loaded and ready to fire, and decided that if they kept to a walk, it could make it to the tjaty's tomb. He decided to take it along.
"A blast of grapeshot will give those buggering nomads something to think about."
So, ignoring Mahmud's protests, they took the howitzer with them, its wheels rumbling along the streets as they walked alongside the horses.
They made their way towards the Great Pyramid of Khefra, smaller than Cheops' mound, but still awesomely massive. As they mounted the causeway that led to the ruins of Khefra's mortuary temple before the Pyramid, they came to a silent observer of their progress; the Sphinx. For thousands of years, this half-buried colossus, lion bodied and with the head of a pharaoh, had gazed placidly across the Egyptian desert. Mahmud Al-Shaqawri now did a curious thing. He stopped before the Sphinx, bowed from his saddle, and said mockingly, "Tell me, O Sphinx, how will I die?"
The stone lips made no answer, and Mahmud laughed and rode on. Finnigan, walking by the side of the donkey, was puzzled.
"What was that all about?"
Mahmud laughed again. "Years ago, when I was studying at Eton, I attended a countryside fair. On a whim, I stopped at the tent of a gypsy who claimed to be a fortune-teller. She surprised me by telling me I came from Egypt, but I guessed that she recognized my accent. She predicted the usual, health, wealth, and such. I then asked her how I would die. She got a queer look on her face and said 'The Sphinx knows.' So ever since, whenever I have had occasion to ride by the Sphinx, I ask him how I will die. He still has not told me." And Mahmud laughed uproariously. Obviously, he did not hold his country's ancient traditions in much esteem.
They continued around Khefra's southern base. Occasionally, when the wind was right, they could hear the sound of shooting from Cairo. Mahmud indicated a small, inconspicuous hillock.
They parked the howitzer, unhitching the horses. Harper and Finnigan both took pick axes off of the donkey and fell to with a will. They tore away at the dry, packed earth until, after only a few minutes, Harper's pick struck something more solid. Carefully now, they levered clods of dirt away from a sandstone slab, marked with the Sun of Amen-Ra and the Eye of Osiris. It was about five feet tall and three wide. Harper wedged the point of his pick into the crack and heaved. It slipped out a fraction of an inch. He quickly drove it in further before the slab could slip back, heaving again, and then driving in his pick's point, this time feeling no resistance. Then levering the point around, he hauled back a final time, and the thick block toppled to the ground, revealing an entrance that had not seen the light of day in over three thousand years. Eagerly, the three treasure hunters crowded inside. The stone sarcophagus was small, not much bigger than a coffin, and a crowbar soon levered its lid off. Inside was a richly painted, man-shaped coffin, which was likewise hastily pried open.
The Tjaty may not have been a pharaoh, but apparently the Pharaoh had thought a lot of him. His death mask seemed to be solid gold and jasper. He had gold bracelets that stretched half the length of his forearm, and a collar and apron of thin gold plates. He held a short staff of bronze with a gold head. Around the casket, Harper could notice some other items, a group of shabatis, a small prayer shrine to Hathor, and a ceremonial mouth opener. And among them, he saw the gleam of more gold. It wasn't a large tomb, but among three of them, it was a fortune.
They began to strip the items off the withered shape still swathed in the moldering remains of linen. Finnigan mumbled his apologies when a finger came off with the ring he wanted. Within minutes, all the loot they could see was loaded into the saddlebags. Harper was thinking of the fine new house he could buy his mother, to replace the one that the English had burned. Finnigan was thinking about buying the seat for County Kerry. But Mahmud had other things on his mind.
"Get the tools," he said.
They made their way to the back of the tomb, only realizing when they reached its back, some thirty feet in, that they had left the tools by the entrance. From outside, they heard a "Ha!" and the pounding of hooves. With a sudden, sinking feeling in their hearts, they ran to the entrance only to see Mahmud Al-Shaqawri riding furiously off in the direction of Cairo, the saddlebags full of treasure flapping behind him. He had of course, driven the other animals off.
"The low down dirty thieving bastard! " said Finnigan, along with other things less mentionable.
Harper watched in helpless frustration as his dreams of riches disappeared over the rise. He was over two hundred yards away by this time. And just to have to something to do to express that frustration, he seized the howitzer by its limber's handspike and swung it around until he was facing the fleeing figure on donkeyback, now about three hundred yards away. Using his tinderbox, he quickly struck a flame and got the slow match burning, then adjusted the barrel's elevation a little. He knew he didn't have a chance in hell of hitting a moving target with grape shot at this range, but there was nothing else he could do, and he had to let off his frustration somehow.
The touchhole flared as the match ignited the powder, and the howitzer leaped back as its projectile was launched. He saw that the howitzer had actually been loaded with round shot, making the chances of a hit even more impossible. Mahmud was now four hundred yards away, nearing the Sphinx.
Perhaps everyone in life deserves one miracle. If so, this was Harper's. The ball arched through the air, and would plainly go over the fleeing thief Mahmud. But it did not plow harmlessly into the sand.
Instead, it hit the Sphinx squarely on the face, at the bridge of the great aquiline nose. Fragments of stone fell from around the nose's edge, and a swiftly widening crack appeared, running from bridge to tip. And then, slowly, the nose, half a ton of sandstone, began to fall.
Mahmud Al-Shaqawri congratulated himself on his cleverness for the dozenth time since the journey had started. He had so cleverly played on the two infidels' greed, getting them to do the peasants' work he would not soil his hands with, then driving off their animals before he rode off with the treasure. As if he would ever share the ancient riches of his land with two unbelievers! And now it was his, all his! Within minutes, it would be hidden securely in his quarters, and his men would provide him with all the protection he needed until he could arrange the transactions with his buyers. What could the infidels do? Tell their superiors that their accomplice robbed them as they looted a nation's treasure? No, he had thought of everything.
A shadow falling across him was his first hint that he had not thought of everything. He was riding right beneath the Sphinx, directly under its head. He looked up. In the last moment of his life, he saw two enormous sandstone nostrils descending upon him. As he felt the nose's crushing impact, he had a final flash of lucidity and realized the fatal miscalculation he had made.
The gypsy fortune-teller of whom he had asked the manner of his death. She had not said, "The Sphinx knows." She had said, "The Sphinx's nose."
The donkey was still hurtling forward, and as the nose impacted upon Mahmud Al-Shaqawri, he was knocked from the saddle. The donkey rushed on, unhurt, the gold-filled saddlebags jingling on its flanks.
Harper and Finnigan sprinted to the nose, now lying at the foot of the great colossus, between its buried paws. He looked first at the arms and legs of the crushed Mahmud, still quivering in death, sticking out around the nose's edges. Then he looked up at the great, mutilated stone face, still placid and calm, even without a nose. It seemed to be looking at him accusingly.
"I didn't mean to do that. Do you think we might be able to put it back on?"
"Who cares?" said Finnigan. "You got him, didn't you? Let's get after that donkey."
The beast had gotten over its fright, and was now maintaining a steady trot towards the city. Harper and Finnigan were able to keep it in sight as it passed through the gate, and steadily gained on it as it ran through the streets. There was shooting and fires everywhere by now, but they allowed nothing to distract them from the fortune almost within their grasp.
It ran into the courtyard of a tall building, in better repair than average, near the Esbekiah Square. Harper and Finnigan put on a last burst of effort and plunged through the gates, to see the donkey standing by the buildings doors, its saddlebags empty!
With a snarl, Harper strode to the door and kicked it open. He saw inside a group of three French civilians, cowering at the windows, muskets in hand, while a fourth examined the golden tomb loot in ecstasy. He spoke in French.
"Such splendor! Such magnificence! I had not thought to find such fine specimens."
Finnigan, who had picked up more French from Lieutenant Bromley than Harper had, strode over to him.
"Who are you?" he asked in Irish-accented French.
"Gabriel Dupuis, head archaeologist of the Louvre. I've accompanied General Bonaparte for all these years in hopes of such a find. This in Justin Nouet, chief astronomer of Le Grande Observatorie in Paris, Etienne Saint-Hillarie, head of the zoological gardens of France, and Armand Dolomieu, mineralogist extraordinaire at the Department of Geology in the Sorbonne."
Each man nodded politely as they were introduced. Finnigan realized that they were the remaining French scholars who had not been chosen to depart Egypt with Bonaparte. He was about to tell them that the loot was his and his mate's, and they'd better hand it over if they knew what was good for them. But before he had a chance to say any of this, there was a flurry of shots outside, and a bullet came through the glassless window to crack against the far wall.
"The Egyptian mob!" said Saint-Hillarie. "The Turks have told them we've been defeated, and they've gone wild. They already broken into the Greek and Coptic quarters; massacred every Christian they could find. They've looted some of our armories and gotten muskets. Now they're rampaging through the streets. We're trapped!"
Finnigan risked a peek outside through the window's curtain. The streets were swarming with Egyptians, waving swords and knives. They were trapped. He turned to Harper.
"Better get comfortable, boyo. We're not going anywhere anytime soon."
Nouet held out his musket to Finnigan, who saw it was neither primed nor cocked.
"Can you show us how to use these things? I've never held a gun in my life."
They had held out for a week, keeping a low profile and doing nothing to provoke the mob, which had ignored them so far. They had to ration the store of lentils and bread they had, not to mention the water and wine. It might last two more days. In between watching the windows, Harper and Finnigan had tried to instill some sense of musket drill into the scholars. They were clueless beyond their own areas of specialty. One didn't know to hold the musket trigger side down; another always looked away and shut his eyes when he fired. The only reason the mob left them alone was because there were so many undefended buildings to loot. They'd had a few gun battles with the rioters, but mostly due to Harper and Finnigan, had managed to persuade them to look for easier victims. The whole town seemed to be on fire, though their building was in no apparent danger yet. And the golden treasures of the tomb sat on the floor just within Harper and Finnigan's reach, if they could just find a way to get to safety with it!
"Looks like we've attracted some attention, Finnigan." Harper said, as he peeked out the window. A large group of armed Egyptians were gathering in the street around their stronghold.
Shots suddenly crashed through the windows. Dried mud from the walls fell onto the floor, and the mob surged forward with a communal scream. In seconds, they would be crowding at the windows, shooting at them at point blank range from every angle. They would be dead in seconds, unless they could get to higher ground.
"Up to the second floor, now!" said Finnigan.
They rushed upstairs, even as they heard the door breaking behind them. Dupuis was of course, careful to scoop up the artifacts before he escaped, and Finnigan stayed behind to hustle him up to safety. He wasn't about to lose his gold!
They barricaded the head of the stairs with a wooden bureau. The staircase was narrow enough so that the rioters couldn't come up more than two abreast. Harper and Finnigan stationed themselves behind their makeshift bulwark; the first two rioters up the stairs fell back with musket balls in their heads, tripping up the mob that came behind them. A shot from the base of the stairs went between the two marine's heads and into Dolomieu's leg. He groaned and went to the ground. Two of his colleagues dragged him to the side and began to apply a tourniquet. Dupuis and Saint-Hillarie took the place of Harper and Finnigan while they reloaded; they had been impressed with the need to keep up a continuous wall of fire. But the rioters would not be stopped. They pushed up the stairs, and when the first two were shot, they pushed their bodies forward as shields and tried to push them over the bureau, coming hard after them. A hard boot in a dead man's chest from Harper and they all fell back down the stairs again. But still they came again, like ravening wolves which sense their prey is almost within reach.
The defenders had been able to conserve their ammunition until now, shooting only when the rioters had taken too much interest in their position. But at the beginning of it all, they only had a hundred rounds between them. Now they were down to half of that. And still the rioters surged up the stairs!
And from above, they heard some ominous thumps. Some rioters had leaped from adjoining buildings onto the flat roof, and were about to descend on them. Trapped between two forces, they wouldn't stand a chance. Finnigan and Harper exchanged looks, and Harper knew what to do. He headed for the ladder that lid to the ceiling's trap door, scrambled up to it even as it cracked open. With his musket butt, he smashed it up into the bearded face behind it, reversed the gun, and fired into the man's chest, hurling him back. With a roar, he plunged out of the square trap, and the six rioters on the roof gave back in shock at this terrifying giant's aspect. He unslung his volley gun, which he had wisely held back until the right moment. That moment was now. Leveling it from fifteen feet away, he blasted three of them off of the roof in a cloud of blood and viscera. The echo of the blast had not even stopped before he crashed into the remaining three, swinging the now empty gun. It caught a rioter in the throat and hurled him of the edge of the roof, where he tottered, struggling for balance and for breath, before he fell with a strangled cry that was cut short as he hit the ground. Harper felt a knife dig along his left ribs, reversed the swing and cracked the skull of his attacker. He barely felt the sting of the cut. He did feel the musket that cracked across his own head though, but his hat cushioned the worst of the blow. He whirled around as his opponent raised the empty gun for a second blow, dropped his volley gun and caught him in a bear hug. The man screamed, hammered ineffectively at Harper's back, and then screamed again as his ribs and spine were crushed in Harper's massive grasp.
Dropping the body, he looked around him to get his bearings. All around were burning buildings and dead people lying in the streets. But his attention was drawn to the north gate of the city, and what he could see coming through it. Columns of soldiers in blue. The French army! General Kleber was returning after having chased the Turkish army out of Egypt. They had to get word to him. But how? A noise from behind him made him turn around. Dupuis had just come out onto the ceiling, still hauling Harper's loot with him.
"They just keep on coming down there. We need you. Are you badly injured?"
Harper examined his wounds. There was a lot of blood, but they seemed shallow. Dupuis attention was fixed on the French columns in the distance.
"We must signal them, or we are lost!"
"How?" asked Harper.
Dupuis reached underneath his waistcoat and pulled out a crude tricolor.
"I have been stitching this together in my spare time, in hope of such a chance as this."
He bent, picked up one of the rioter's muskets, and fixed the flag to its bayonet.
"Go back down and help them. We have to hold out until help can get to us. I will signal them."
"You'll be a target for every rioter who can see you."
"That does not matter. Now go. And thank you for helping us."
They clasped hands, and for a moment, the educated French scholar and the Donegal blacksmith's son were comrades. Then Harper turned and began to descend the stairs, while Dupuis stood on the edge of the roof and began to wave his makeshift flag back and forth.
Even as Harper put foot to the ladder, the rioters broke through into the topmost room. Sainte-Hillarie had taken a cut to the head while manning the bureau-barricade, and given back for a moment. The rioters swarmed into the gap he left, and five of them were in the room, with more following. Harper hurled himself down on them with a battle bellow, bearing three of them to the floor, and then he and Finnigan were jabbing at them with the bayonet, driving the steel into gut and throat, then ripping it loose and driving it again. The three scholars who could still fight plunged into the fight at the marines side, inspired by their example, clubbing at heads and faces with their muskets, which they had not more time to load, and only a few cartridges left anyway. But in a moment, the five intruders were dead, and the barricade was pushed back into place. Harper turned to the scholars
"Get up on to the roof, wounded first!"
They nodded and began to haul Dolomieu up, and after him, Sainte-Hillarie. Harper and Finnigan took their places at the barricade. Each had two cartridges left. Finnigan fired, saw his man fall down the stairs, and jabbed his bayonet into the throat of the man to his left. Then Harper put his bullet into the head of the man behind him, even as he raised his sword. His bayonet skewered the eye of a rioter, who gripped it screaming and fell back, tearing the musket from Harper's hands. Finnigan, now reloaded, spared a glance behind, saw that the last scholar had made it up the ladder. He turned to Harper.
"The roof, now!"
Harper smashed his volley gun a last time into a rioters face, breaking his nose, most of his teeth, and throwing him back down the stairs onto his companions. He nodded and ran for the ladder. Behind him, he heard Finnigan fire off his last shot and come after him.
They were both up the ladder in seconds, and with a single great haul of his legs and back, Harper pulled the ladder up after them.
This was their last stand. There was no place else to go. Harper looked around him and saw the others gathered around Dupuis.
The archaeologist lay on the ground, a bullet through his heart. His flag had apparently fallen to the street below. If Harper's head hadn't hurt so much, he would have taken his hat off to the man's bravery.
Noises from below indicated that the room they had just quit was full of their enemy. It was fortunate that the mud roof was too thick to shoot through. He could hear shouts from below, and the sound of things moving. They were pushing some furniture up against the wall by the trap door so they could gain the roof and finish them off. He heard shots, one after the other, as a scholar discharged one of their last bullets at a rioter who tried to gain the roof. They had perhaps twelve shots. After that, it would be bayonets and musket butts. He picked up a rioters' Charville to replace his own. He had to give it to the scholars, at the last, they had put up a good fight. Apparently, the rioters were so blood-hungry that they had not thought of simply picking them off with muskets from the adjoining buildings. But even if they could hold them off up here, someone would think of it, sooner or later. It would end soon. Now it was just a question of taking as many of the enemy with them as they could. He had expected to get rich this day, not killed.
From below came a flurry of shots, screams, roars, curses, the sound of stomping feet and clashing steel. Then a voice called up in French.
"Up on the roof! Are you all right?"
Harper knew that voice. Captain Jean Calvet of the 18th demi-brigade de Ligne stuck his head through the trap door, saw Harper, and grinned.
"You have a rare talent for getting into trouble, Irishman."
Dupuis' desperate signal had been seen. He had died saving them. The French, of course, confiscated the loot.
When Kleber had returned to Cairo on 27th March, he had barely been able to make his way through the city to his headquarters. With the exception of the company of the 18th Demi-brigade he sent to save the scholars, he ordered his troops to draw a ring around the city, cutting it off from all food supply. He invited the Turks to surrender, which they would have been all too happy to do. But the mob was in control of Cairo now, and would not allow them. Kleber's offer of amnesty to them was replied by their sending back the head of his emissary.
So Kleber began to bombard and starve the city into submission. By mid-April, Cairo was starving. With starvation came more looting, more torture and murder, and more house-to-house fighting between different factions day by day, in addition to the incessant bombardment. The entire Esbekiah section of the city, with its palaces and gardens, was reduced to rubble. Fires burned throughout the city. Women and children ran in panicked terror, taking refuge under stone arches to protect themselves from the bombs. Every night, their screams could be heard. But despite all this, the city continued to resist; a handful of fanatics who had emerged from nowhere were threatening to kill anyone who spoke of surrender.
Harper was frantic with worry for Sulima. Surely, the mob would respect Aboulferu's shop, wouldn't they? He was a fellow Moslem.
Kleber had forbidden anyone, French or British, from going into the city until it surrendered. Needless to say, Harper snuck in the first night he was off duty. Finnigan was dubious, but knew better than to try to stop him.
"You're a bloody fool Harper, but I'll cover for you as long as I can. Just get back here before daybreak!"
Harper wandered through the shattered streets, in which so much seemed different, with buildings burned out piles of rubble, and nothing moving anywhere. But he found the street of the cloth merchant's. His heart sank to his boots.
Aboulferu's shop was a pile of cold ashes. There was no sign of him or Sulima. Except perhaps the faintest trace of her jasmine perfume.
He didn't have a clue of where even to begin to look for her. With a heavy heart, he headed back to camp, and was able to sneak back into his billet with no one noticing. Finnigan breathed a particularly heavy sigh of relief, but he noticed that Harper seemed downcast, and so asked no questions.
Finally, on 22nd of April, sanity prevailed. The mob, terrified and weary, allowed the Turks to accept Kleber's generous terms; full amnesty for the first, and an escort to the border with arms and baggage for the second. As the Turks left, Kleber requested that the Vizier convey his wish to the Sublime Porte to reopen negotiations for a French withdrawal under the terms previously agreed to.
And the next day, Captain Wright and his fifty marines, under the escort of the 75th Demi-Brigade, marched out of Cairo. As Harper approached the northern gate, his eyes widened; for he saw a figure in a plain birqua that he recognized. It was Miralla, Sulima's servant. He stepped out of line and ran to her, but she saw him and met him halfway. She was speaking before he got out his first question.
"Oh Harper effendi, thank the Prophet that I have found you."
Harper's heart was beating so hard that it threatened to break out of his chest. He had never been more afraid of an answer to a question than he was now.
"Where is Sulima?"
"Alas, good sir. Aboulferu learned of her plan to escape with you, and even as she prepared to join you, he had his men seize her. He said he would sooner see her dead than with an infidel. He has sent her to Baghdad, where she shall be forcibly wed to his cousin. They left the day the rebellion began, almost a month ago."
Harper felt as if his heart had just been torn out.
Sulima was lost to him. By this time, she would probably be at Damascus at least, well on her way to Baghdad, far to the north and east, beyond his reach. His army was pulling out. He could not desert them and go to a place where he knew no one and had no one to help him. Even if he did, by the time he got there, she would probably already be married. To a man she did not love. There was nothing he could do.
Nothing except hope and pray that Sulima would be one of the few lucky women in the Moslem world whose husbands treated them with kindness and love, and not as possessions. He had heard that there were occasionally such happy unions among the followers of Islam.
He would never forget Sulima. A man always remembers his first love. He turned his attention back to Miralla.
"What will you do now?"
"I am cast off, as being unworthy of my mistress. If I cannot find another, I must beg in the streets."
Harper shook his head vehemently.
"No! You'll come with us. We'll put you to work washing cloths or something. And I promise you, I'll get you back to Gibraltar."
Tears started in Miralla's eyes; she fell to her knees and began to kiss his feet. Embarrassed, he was quickly raising her to her feet when he heard Lieutenant Bromley's voice, gentle but firm, behind him.
"Harper, fall in, now."
He obeyed, running to recover his place in line, while Miralla moved to the rear of the column. And the marines marched back to the coast.
A few days later, General Kleber began the day by reviewing some troops on Rodah Island. Since he had restored peace to Cairo, he had been strengthening and consolidating the French position in Egypt, beginning the construction of new fortifications, simplifying the administration of finances and supplies, and recognizing the Divan of Cairo. And he imposed new taxes to feed and supply his troops. It was plain that his soldiers were still in for a long stay, and he wanted to make it plain to all that they would not leave unless the honors of war were unconditionally guaranteed them. He did not notice a young man named Soliman among the crowd. He also did not notice when Soliman followed him back to the house of General Damas, in Cairo, where he had lunch. It was a pleasant meal, and Kleber drew some laughs when he sketched a caricature of Bonaparte expelling the French Directory. Soliman loitered around Damas' front door until shooed away. Later that afternoon, Kleber left, accompanied by Captain Calvet, who wished to discuss his company's posting back to Rosetta. Kleber went to the house of the architect Citizen Protain, who was planning an addition to Elfi Bey's palace. It was a hot day, and Kleber and Protain strolled in the garden as they talked, clad only in breeches and shirts. Calvet was by the front door, chatting with the sentries.
A young Arab man, dressed like a laborer, approached the general. Kleber motioned for him to go away, and Protain went to get a sentry to escort him out. Soliman continued to advance, holding out his left hand to Kleber, as if to seize the General's hand and carry it to his lips, a gesture that usually preceded a request. Kleber gave him his hand.
Instantly, Soliman drew a jambiya dagger from beneath his robe and plunged it deep into Kleber's chest. As he withdrew his weapon, Kleber staggered and called out "Come to me, I am wounded!" Protain came running, but before he could intervene, Soliman stabbed Kleber three more times, in the stomach, through his left arm, and a last one into his right cheek as the general fell. Protain's only weapon was his walking stick, which he began to beat over the assassin's head. Soliman stabbed wildly six times at the architect, wounding him and leaving him unconscious.
Calvet ran up just as Soliman ran away through the garden. Protain was unconscious, but his life did not seem to be in any immediate danger. Kleber was lying in an ever-widening pool of his blood. Calvet knelt and cradled the General's head in his lap, futilely trying to staunch the bleeding with a handkerchief. Kleber was trying to say something, but blood was flowing from his mouth, and he choked on it, coughing. Calvet bellowed out desperately.
"Help! Get a surgeon, someone! Help, anyone, help!
But no help came, and Kleber died in Calvet's arms.
As he marched along with the marines towards the coast, Harper felt a sense of pride. These were his mates. He had realized that, after having seen them die at his side in Acre. And they were good mates, men worth fighting with and dying with. Stout lads he could serve alongside of with pride. He had resolved the torment of how to fight for a country that had killed his father and brother. He wasn't.
When it came down to it, he wasn't really fighting for King George III, still less for those politicians who had ordered the brutal repression of his country. He was fighting for his mates, and they for him. And that was enough. He no longer wanted to desert. He would stay a marine, for the sake of the marines, and see this thing through to the end. His heart, after so long, was at peace again.
And he had found that peace at the bloody siege of Acre.