Warning: Mature Adults only
PART III: ALEXANDRIA
For the wounded who could not walk, help and treatment was a matter of chance. As late as the 24th March, when rain and squalls swept the field, several wounded Frenchmen were brought in to the General Hospital, after lying out on the battlefield for nearly three days without water, food, or treatment. A man could grow hardened to death, but not to the wounded. From the beginning of the battle, wounded men begging for help had surrounded the surgeons, and all through the hours of daylight they worked without cease dressing wounds, extracting musket balls, and amputating. By nine o'clock in the evening, when all the patients had been put to bed, they had dressed some four hundred wounded, working without rest or food amid horrible, distressing groans and cries. After grabbing a quick meal, they visited more patients, administering medicines and comforts for the night.
The fleet had expanded its hospital accommodation to cope with the growing list of sick and wounded. Only two hospital ships had sailed from Marmaris, but now additional transports were cleared of baggage and converted to that use. Ship's carpenters were sent ashore to erect hospital huts on the beach. Nearly five thousand men would be accommodated. Officers had the cramped comfort of a warship's cabin. Fortunately, the report from the surgeon was that Sir Ralph was resting comfortably and the doctors were hopeful.
During Abercromby's convalescence, command fell to his senior officer, Major General the Honorable John Hely-Hutchinson. He lacked Abercromby's charm and Moore's ability, and was prone to hesitate overlong before acting. Needless to say, he did not enjoy the army's confidence. His first act after the battle was to strengthen the front against any renewed French attack. Some twenty-four pounders were moved down to the Guards' sector, and the army was warned in General Orders to be ready for another night assault. The troops slept under blankets at their alarm positions, rather than in their tents to the rear. Flints were checked, and a new issue of sixty rounds per man was made, though the command was to not waste scarce ammunition, but rather rely on the bayonet. If an attack was repelled, the troops were not to give pursuit or be lured out of their defensive positions into the dark. They were reminded that the keys to a night battle were "silence, order, and regularity."
Pickets were strengthened that night, and after a second night lying in their alarm positions, the entire army continued stand-to an hour before daylight. Short, wakeful nights were followed by days of heavy toil dragging more guns into the forward positions, carrying up provisions, fuel, and vast quantities of ammunition to replenish the dumps emptied by the battle. They dug entrenchments covering the whole front, including the open valley to the left of the redoubt and Roman ruins. Nine new redoubts were under construction. The line had now become a formidable barrier.
Heavy duty by day and pickets to mount by night, life was far from agreeable on the isthmus. The land seemed infested with scorpions and vipers. The nights, with their frequent rotations of outpost duties, were bitterly cold; and the days were scorched by the hot sirocco winds and foul with the stench from shallow graves in the line and unburied men and horses beyond the outposts. Filth was accumulating in the rear of some regiments, and orders were given for butcher's offal to be buried at least three feet deep, or dumped far out in the lake. Officers fared little better than men. They were allowed no servants, had to carry their own kit, and were required to send their excess baggage back to the fleet.
Life was not all drudgery, however. For some, there was swimming in the clear Mediterranean from beaches strewn with beautiful shells. Harper still couldn't believe how warm it was, after the frigid waters off of Donegal. Now that the Arabs believed the British would win, local supplies flowed into the market to supplement their rations; sheep, poultry, pigeons, and excellent vegetables, spinach, lettuce, and onions. Soon, enough wood had been cut to set up ovens so the commissaries could begin baking fresh bread. There were also souvenirs to collect from the battlefield, hats, caps, and helmets, thoroughly cleansed of hair, blood, and brains of course. The tents were fairly comfortable, and relatively free of disease and vermin.
In this fashion, the soldiers passed their time after their brilliant victory, cooped up on the isthmus and grumbling at their new commander's inactivity. But what should his next step be? The French were still entrenched in Alexandria in strength, and were obviously determined to hold out. To starve the garrison was impossible, it was getting a constant flow of supplies from its western side. With the army's present strength, besieging and storming the fortified city was inconceivable. Defeat would be likely, and would mean the end of the campaign. All Hutchinson could think to do was hold the French in check.
Perhaps bluff would work; there was no harm in trying. There were signs of demoralization among the French; many of the soldiers who had attacked on the 21st had been fortified with brandy. Those taken prisoner seemed happy to be in British hands.
So on 23rd March, Sir Sidney Smith was sent across to the French outposts under a flag of truce, where he asked for the commandant of Alexandria. He was refused admission to the French lines, so he handed over a letter in the name of Keith and Abercromby. It proposed the evacuation of the garrison to France with the full honors of war, much as Kleber had negotiated, though they would have to leave their weapons and shipping to the British. General Friant, as commander of the garrison, signed the reply. He informed Sir Sidney that Menou was not in Alexandria, and flatly rejected the British offer, saying that the French would defend Egypt to the last man.
But while he waited for the reply, Smith had chatted with the French outposts, who in a friendly manner consoled the British over having to occupy this wretched land. They confessed that their army was in a miserable state and longed to go home. When Smith asked them if their officers had not forbidden them to talk to him, they shrugged and said, "Oh, we don't listen to our officers about such things." Apparently, the only Frenchman in Egypt who was not eager to return home was Menou, for whom they had some choice names.
On the 26th, they received an unexpected kind of reinforcement. The Turkish Captain Pasha appeared in the bay of Abuquir with three warships and four thousand troops. But these were not the rabble usually associated with the Turkish army. They were mostly Greeks or Albanians, trained and disciplined like European troops into two battalions under German officers. When Hutchinson met the Captain Pasha later that day, he found him far more vigorous and able than the average Turkish official. He was the only Turkish commander who had trained and disciplined his troops to any degree, and had already made significant improvements in the navy. He was enthusiastic about everything European, and viewed the Grand Vizier with undisguised contempt. He set up camp some three miles behind the British.
On the same day, news spread around the camp that Sir Ralph Abercromby had taken a turn for the worse. The musket ball was lodged in his hip joint and was impossible to remove. Infection had set in, and he was delirious and rarely conscious. Then, on the 29th March, they learned that the old gentleman had quietly died in his sleep, without further pain.
The whole army was stunned and stricken with grief. An almost palpable cloud of gloom spread over the camp. Abercromby had been loved by many and respected by all, especially for the way he had shared his men's hardships and dangers without complaint. He had given the army its first victory after eight years of defeat, and against the vaunted French. Harper had shed no tears since he received the news of his father's death, but he shed some now, for the army had lost its father. Harper might serve under a more skilled general some day, but never under any who were braver or more honorable.
Hutchinson had to do something. Admiral Keith had told him that the fleet could in no way stay at Abuquir past October, after that, it would have to find a more sheltered anchorage. In the meantime, rumors were flying of a five thousand man relief force for the French under Admiral Ganteaume; which had departed Toulon and was somewhere in the vicinity.
Since Alexandria was at present too tough a nut to crack, Hutchinson chose an alternate target, Rosetta. This had several advantages; it would open up the fertile delta to his hungry army, allow him to make contact with the Grand Vizier and his forces, and then proceed up the Nile, severing communications between Cairo and Alexandria.
To do the job, he sent two and a half battalions under Colonel Brent Spencer, the Queen's, the 58th, the flank companies of the 40th, thirty mounted dragoons, and three guns. With them he also sent the four thousand men of the Captain Pasha. The started out on 6th April, and made the thirty-five mile journey in two days. The city of Rosetta surrendered without a shot fired, but the Turkish fort of St. Julian would be another matter. There now followed a frustrating eight-day delay while the artillery was placed. Finally, seven twenty-four pound carronades were lined up on the fort's southwest angle. On 16th April, they opened fire with uncanny accuracy, and the fort's crumbly local stone were no match for them. On the 19th, the garrison of two hundred sixty-four French soldiers surrendered. Lieutenant Ducos was not among them. He'd had a small, fast ship ready, Le Serpent, and when news of the defeat on the 21st March reached him; he boarded it, slipped past the British blockade, and made his way to France.
While this was going on, Hutchinson was proceeding with his next project, the flooding of Lake Mareotis. All that was required was the cutting of the dykes that held back the waters of Lake Abuquir. This would vastly extend the range of the gunboats and supply ships; would cut off the French in Alexandria from supplies and reinforcements except by a long desert route; and would protect the left flank of the British lines. Accordingly, on 13th April, four cuts were made in the canal dyke, and the waters of Lake Abuquir rushed through in a violent, ten-foot cataract that carried away three hundred feet of the banks. All the soldiers raised a great cheer.
And now Hutchinson took the offensive on the Nile. He assembled six battalions of infantry at Rosetta with the 11th and 12th Light Dragoons. Leaving General Coote in charge at Alexandria, he rode south with them. Coote was well liked by the men, who thought the change in command an improvement.
In Hutchinson's absence, things in the British camp proceeded without change. The position was now thinly manned, with only seven thousand troops available. They continued to stand-to an hour before daylight every morning. Between the two forces, British and French vedettes exchanged polite good-mornings. The fortifying of the line under the direction of the engineers continued. Opthalmia was the scourge of the camp, at one time fully a third of Coote's men were afflicted with it. One hundred sixty were either blinded or had their vision permanently impaired. More serious, some cases of plague showed up in the beach hospitals at Abuquir. Coote enforced a strict quarantine until the plague died away in the hot weather.
Arabs continued to bring in fresh meat, fruit and vegetables to sell in the camp market place. Unfortunately, the army was eight months behind in paying its soldiers, and thus only officers could buy extra food from their personal funds. The French would have requisitioned the food; the British simply did without.
There was a moment of crisis when the French breached the canal bank of the new lake, which threatened to flood the camp. Coote acted swiftly. He mounted a strong picket of infantry supported by two three-pounders, and then mobilized a working party six hundred strong to start constructing a dam to contain the rising waters. As more men finished their duties, they joined in the labor. The work continued day and night until a new dyke, three hundred yards long, thirty feet wide and seven high was completed. Two twenty-four pounders in a redoubt at its rearward end covered it.
Although his forces in Egypt were still superior to the British, Menou steadfastly disregarded his generals who urged him once again to take the offensive. He was still pinning all his hopes on reinforcements from France. Instead, he had his ablest commander and harshest critic General Reynier arrested along with his supporters. They were deported back to France.
At the same time, the scholars of the French Commission of Science and the Arts arrived from Cairo, where the plague was raging. They also wanted to go home. Happy to get rid of these useless mouths, Menou put them on the brig L'Oiseau. This ship was promptly intercepted by the British and returned to Alexandria. Menou threatened to sink the ship with them on it if they did not put out to sea again, and had a frigate train her guns on them. They complied, and were quickly intercepted again. This time, Lord Keith said that if he caught them again, he would put them ashore in the desert and burn their ship. They were returned once again to Alexandria, and Menou grumblingly conscripted them into the militia.
General Menou detached four thousand men under General Lagrange to contain Hutchinson around the delta, and the French began to entrench a position at El Rahmanieh. On 4th May, Hutchinson began his southward advance up the river. On the 9th, he came in sight of the French position. Lagrange had put his back to the Nile, covering the depot at El Rahmanieh with both flanks resting on the river and his front protected by fifty field guns.
Hutchinson detached Colonel Stewart's force across the river to bring their rear under fire, while he advanced on their escape route to Alexandria. The next morning, he advanced, with the Captain Pasha's forces on his left flank. The French, skirmishing skillfully, slowed him up all day, and by darkness, withdrew south towards Cairo. Hutchinson came under harsh criticism from his brother officers, who felt that with a little more boldness, he might have captured Lagrange's entire force. But on the 10th May, the French lines were empty, and the British occupied El Rahmanieh.
News of this steady progress filtered back to the camp in Alexandria. The mood was upbeat and optimistic. Surely, the end was in sight. And then they could say goodbye to this wretched place. Harper's hopes had been rising along with everyone else's. He and Finnigan were digging for water at the base of a grove of date palms, as they had so many times before. He was so glad he had only signed on until the war was over. He wanted to see Ireland again, and to find out how his mother, brothers, and sisters were. And to help them, as much as he could. He threw another shovel full of earth over his shoulder.
"I tell you, Finnigan, I can almost smell the crisp Donegal air. You'll have to come visit when I have the family home fixed up again. My mother makes the best colconnon -"
"Be careful, boyo," Finnigan warned. "It's when you talk like that that something usually goes wrong."
Harper snorted derisively. "What could go wrong? The French are on the run everywhere. They just don't want to fight anymore. Why in a month, we'll -"
And that was when the dark, hooded shape rose up from its burrow at the base of the palms, hissing menacingly. As is well known, there are no snakes in Ireland. But Harper had been in this part of the world long enough to recognize an Egyptian cobra, and the threat it represented. His spade raised defensively, he started back in alarm, out of reach of the serpent's strike.
But the cobra didn't strike. It spat. A long jet of colorless venom darted from its mouth and struck Harper full in the eyes. He cried out, dropping his spade and grabbing his face. He was unaware of Finnigan bringing his own spade down, cutting off the cobra's head. Harper felt like live coals had been stuck in his eye sockets. He desperately pawed at his eyes, trying to wipe the poison out. He could hardly see anything beyond a blur. In a moment, he could feel Finnigan's arm around him, hear his voice.
"Don't rub your eyes, Patrick! You'll just work the poison in deeper! Here's some water."
Harper lowered his hands and allowed him to empty his canteen across his eyes. Harper's own canteen followed. "Now, let's get you to the surgeon's tent!"
Finnigan shouted out a quick explanation to the duty officer, who gave hasty consent. He half led, half pulled his mate to the surgeon's tent. Doctor Green's face was grave as he examined Harper's eyes. Already, they were nearly swollen shut, and the flesh around them was turning purple. He applied the ubiquitous "blue salve" that army surgeons used for everything, and then wrapped a linen bandage around his patient's eyes.
"I won't lie to you, private. It looks serious. The water you used to wash out your eyes was probably contaminated enough to give you opthalmia, which doesn't help matters. I have no experience treating cobra venom in the eyes, but I fear that blindness, either in whole or in part, is a real possibility. We'll need to move you to the main hospital in Rosetta for regular care."
Finnigan led Harper back to their tent, where he would wait until the transport was ready to take him to Rosetta. He tried to keep up a cheerful banter, but was unable to hide the anxiety in his voice.
"Ah, don't listen to that bilge, Patrick. What do surgeons know, anyway? They've had me dead more times than I can count, and I'm still breathing!"
Harper's expression was unreadable under his bandages. He said nothing. Finnigan left him lying down in the tent while he went to check on the wagon. Harper was left alone with his thoughts.
Blind. Mary, Mother of God, I'm going to go blind!
He had at times considered the possibility that he might die out here, or perhaps lose an arm or a leg. But such a man could still be useful, still have a trade. But blind! What could a blind man do, except sit by the roadside with his stick, begging for coins? Blind!
His heart was beating with a fear beyond anything that battle had ever stirred in him, and he almost couldn't breath. And the fear went on and on and on, growing greater and greater as time passed. Blind!
What would his mother think, when he came home blind? How she would cry! He would feel her cool hand on his face, know that her own was mere inches away, but he could never again see it. Blind! And then he would sit around the house, a great useless lug, unable to work and bring in money to help the family, just a great mouth who ate food he did no work for, taking it out of the mouths of his family. Blind!
To never see the mountains and glens and lakes of Donegal again. Or Donegal town and the smithy where he and his father worked. To never look down on the sea from the heights near Lough Eske. To never again stand on Barnesmore Gap, gazing on the whole of the county spread out before him like a great quilt of every shade of green under the sun. To never again watch birds fly. His mind was like a dark whirlpool, and whatever he thought of, his mother, food, home, birds, friends, it all was pulled down to that one terrible word.
Finnigan was back soon with the hospital wagon, hitched up to two oxen. Harper lay down in the straw in the back, and Finnigan climbed in and sat beside him. He had begged and pleaded, and his duty officer had allowed him temporary posting to the Rosetta garrison so he could be near his mate. They set off on the thirty-five miles to the hospital, which would take two days. All the way, Finnigan kept up his usual cheerful banter. He was distressed at Harper's total unresponsiveness, but he didn't give up. And so, from behind his bandages, Harper heard a steady stream of stories, jokes, anecdotes, and songs from Finnigan's considerable repertoire. They got to the hospital at Rosetta at noon on the second day, and Harper was promptly installed in a clean bed. His bandages were removed, that some fresh blue salve and bandages might be applied. His eyes looked terrible, completely swollen shut, the flesh around them so deep a purple it was almost black. Already, suppurating sores were appearing on the swelling.
Finnigan took up his duties at Fort Saint Julian, where he and Harper had been prisoners for a night three years before. Harper marked the passage of days by the heat of the sun on his bandages. His attendant told him he was facing towards the west, so he was only aware it was morning through a gradual warming of his room and the noise of patients and attendants stirring all around him. When he felt the sun's heat directly on his face, he knew it was going down and night was coming. The increasing cold told him that it had arrived. And so the days passed, one after another, boring and depressing. The only break in the monotony was when the orderlies brought him his meals, helped him to the latrine, and changed the salve and bandages over his eyes. From the sound of their indrawn breaths, he guessed there was no improvement in their condition. And every hour he was awake, the same terrible thoughts went through his mind.
But every day after his duties, Finnigan was at Harper's bedside, chatting and bringing any news.
"The French can't seem to surrender fast enough. Little outposts all over the delta are surrendering without a fight. Hutchinson is still moving south. It's rough, hot enough to roast an egg in the sand, and once we're away from the bend in the river, we'll be two days with only the water on the camels. But there's no French resistance."
Harper said nothing. Another day went by.
"Can you believe it? The Turks actually won for once! The Grand Vizier approached over they Syrian route, and was coming on Cairo from the east, and camped at Bilbeis. General Belliard marched out to smash him with four thousand men. They formed square like always. But the Turks have learned. They didn't charge the squares to be shot down. They rode around and around, just outside of musket range, sniping and then running. For the French, it was like trying to kill a fly with a hammer. After a day, they pulled back to Cairo, with at least three hundred casualties. The bloody Turks beat the French!"
Harper said nothing.
Another day went by.
"About a week ago, Hutchinson's column was waiting to link up with the Turks at El Khanka. We got a report from the Bedouins that a French convoy was crossing the desert not too far from us. We sent out almost all our horse, two hundred and fifty of them, with a brigade of infantry following. It was a huge caravan of camels, with an escort of about six hundred French infantry and cavalry, towing a four-pounder. They were a foraging party from Alexandria. They formed square with the cavalry in the middle, and set up the gun to keep us at a distance. Our own infantry was three or four miles away, it was as hot as hell, and we'd have to withdraw back to camp a long time before we broke the enemy. The dragoon commander, Major Wilson, decided on a bluff. He spread his horsemen out in a single line, so it looked like there were more of them. Then he rode up to the square under a flag of truce and proposed to the French commander that his men surrender and be sent home to France. They could keep their personal belongings, and officers their horses. The commander refused, and Wilson rode away. But the French had heard him say the word 'France,' and began shouting at the commander to let them go home. The commander sent a rider after Wilson, asking him to come back and repeat his offer. He did so, and the commander accepted. If he hadn't, his own men probably would have shot him. We gained two hundred good horses, which we can well use."
Harper said nothing. After a moment, Finnigan continued.
"I'll be going away for a time, Patrick. The 28th and 42nd have been called up to support Hutchinson; apparently, he needs a few more troops to surround Cairo right and proper. You hang tight, and I'll be back before you know it."
Harper said nothing. He felt Finnigan's hand on his, and then the sound of him leaving. He was alone.
Harper had come to a decision. He wasn't going back to Ireland blind. He would not hobble into his mother's house with a walking stick, feeling for her face. He would not live on whatever coins people deigned to toss his way. He would not live at all.
When the surgeon gave him his final word, he would find a musket, stick its barrel under his chin, and put an end to it right and proper. A clean end, instead of the years of darkness. If he couldn't find a musket, he'd just wander out into the desert with no water. They'd never find him in time, even if they bothered to look. He would leave a note asking Finnigan to tell his mother he had died fighting the French. It would be easier for her that way.
Finnigan was back within two weeks, about a week into July, this time occupying the bed next to Harper.
"Dysentery. Hit me just after our regiment got to Cairo. The Turks were there too, a great horde of them. We were just setting up our siege guns in redoubts around the city, and had set up vedettes on the Alexandria road. And can you believe it? Just before the show's due to start, the French fold! They surrendered without a fight! From what I've heard, no one believed that Bonaparte was sending any help, they'd heard nothing from Menou, and they couldn't get any more supplies beyond what they had. Plus, the city was on the verge of revolt; they'd have to fight outside and in. We offered them transport to France under the honors of war, and they jumped at it."
Harper said nothing.
Another day passed.
Finnigan was soon on his feet again, and continuing his daily visits, and any news he'd heard.
"We've been reinforced. Seven thousand troops from India, sent courtesy of General Wellesley. They landed on the Red Sea coast; well south of Cairo, at a place called Kosseir, and marched overland on a caravan route to Keneh on the Nile. Now they're heading north to lend us a hand. The French will be marching out of Cairo in a few days time, headed here at Rosetta first, then to the embarkation points along the coast. They're taking most of their plunder with them. Hutchinson thought about objecting, but since they still have their muskets and there are more of them than us, he decided to let it go. He found Menou's Egyptian wife in Cairo, and has her in protective custody. After we left, the Turks sacked the city. There was no help for it. I doubt we'll get any further help from them."
Harper said nothing. He just lay there, his body alive, but his spirit dead. It tore Finnigan up to see his friend like this. He got up and left. He felt so damned helpless. He didn't blame Harper for losing hope; he doubted he'd feel any different if their positions were reversed. But what could he do?
As he was leaving the hospital, one of the Arabs hired to dispose of soiled dressings approached him and bowed.
"Your pardon, effendi."
Finnigan had picked up enough Arabic to understand most of what he said.
"Your friend, he faces blindness, does he not?"
"What's it to you?"
"In the city, there is a doctor, highly skilled, who may be able to help."
Instantly, Finnigan had the man by the shoulders, excitement and renewed hope in his face.
"A doctor? What's his name?"
The orderly shrugged. "I am a poor man, effendi, and prone to forget such things."
Finnigan was tempted to beat the information out of him, but controlled himself, reached into his pack, and pulled out a ring. It was gold, shaped like a lion's head with two small sapphires for eyes. He put it in the orderly's hand, whose eyes widened. He bit it to ensure it was real, then smiled.
"I remember now, effendi. Go to the doctor's quarter of the city and ask for Yusef Ibrahim. Anyone will know him."
Yusef Ibrahim was an ancient Jew, bowed over with years. He had a long beard and hair, a yamakukh, and thick spectacles through which his eyes peered. His shop had shelves lined with bottles and jars. Dried herbs stood in the window, and preserved animals floated in large jars of fluid. When Finnigan addressed him in halting Arabic, he replied in fluent, though heavily accented English.
"What may I do for you, my good sir?"
"You speak English."
"That should be obvious. You pick up many things if you live as long as I have. Again, what may I do for you?"
"A man told me that you could help my friend. He ran into a spitting cobra about a month ago. We've given him the best treatment we can, but he's not getting any better. He can't go blind! Can you do anything for him?"
"Perhaps. I would have to see for myself. But medicine is expensive, especially this type. You can pay, I assume?"
"I have no money."
Yusef Ibrahim sighed. "Then I'm afraid -"
Finnigan took an object out of his pouch and set it down on the counter.
"But I have this."
Ibrahim's eyes widened as he picked the object up and examined it.
"This is real?"
"You know it's probably worth my entire shop and everything in it?"
"This must be quite a friend."
"Very well, I will come."
Pocketing the object, he took a small leather bag from behind the counter, placed several bottles and jars in it, and followed Finnigan out the door.
"Hmmmm. Bad. Very bad."
Finnigan's earnest pleas had stilled the surgeon's objections. Yusef Ibrahim had unwound Harper's bandages and was looking at the crusted, swollen, purple skin around his eyes.
"Can you help him?"
"Could be. First we have to take down this swelling."
From the bag, he produced a small sharp knife and a jar.
"Hold his head. I have to cut some slits in the skin so the salve can penetrate."
Finnigan gripped the side of Harper's head. "Be still now, Patrick. There's a good lad."
Holding the blade in a candle's flame for a moment, the old doctor cut two slits above and below the lids in each of Harper's eyes. He only flinched a little. The foul smell of infection rose. He unscrewed the jar. The salve inside was brown, and smelled even worse than the infection. "Pfew!" said Finnigan. "What's in that?"
"Frankincense, white oil, resin, bone marrow, balm tree sap, and a few other things you'll be happier not knowing about."
He worked the stuff into the swollen tissue around Harper's eyes, and then handed the jar to Finnigan.
"Once a day, with fresh bandages that have been boiled in clean water."
He then handed him a small vial. "Once the swelling goes down, put three drops of this in each eye, three times a day, for three days. Then more fresh bandages. Make sure the room is dark. I'll come back to remove his bandages for the last time. If it works, he'll see."
Finnigan held the vial up to the light. The fluid seemed colorless. "What is this?" The doctor shrugged. "So inquisitive, we are? A doctor's got to have some secrets, no?"
Finnigan obeyed the instructions to the letter. First thing after duty, he was there, rubbing in the salve, and then winding fresh, clean bandages around Harper's head. And steadily, the purple color faded, and the swelling receded. At the end of the week, the salve was gone. And so was the swelling. Harper was in such a depressed stupor that he barely knew what was happening.
Now came the eye drops. Morning, noon, and night, he applied them. He fixed his greatcoat over the curtainless window, so they would have darkness. Harper's eyes seemed cloudy, and he gave no indication he could see anything. On the third day, Yusef Ibrahim came for the moment of truth. In the shadowed ward, he began to slowly unwind the linen strips from around Harper's head. His eyes looked normal.
"What do you see?"
Harper's answer was a long time coming. His voice had a very tentative note of hope.
"It's dark, and blurry, but I can make out some shapes."
"Good, good." To Finnigan, " Lift up your coat a bit."
Finnigan raised the corner of his coat where it hung over the window.
"Ahhh!" Harper said. "That hurts."
"Also a good sign. Does it still hurt?"
"Not so much now."
Finnigan raised his coat higher; Harper squinted and raised his hands protectively.
"Pull the coat down."
Finnigan pulled away the coat, and Harper turned his face away. Ibrahim motioned for Finnigan to stand by the bed, while he withdrew to its foot. Harper squinted, and blinked several times as his eyes adjusted to the light. The first thing he saw was Finnigan's smiling face. It was the most beautiful sight he had ever seen. Harper's broad smile and the recognition in his eyes told Finnigan what he wanted to know. They hugged.
For a moment, Yusef Ibrahim watched them, smiling. Then, he reached into his robe, extracted something, and placed it on top of Finnigan's pack, where he had left it on a stool. It was the object with which Finnigan had paid for his service. He turned and left the hospital without another word.
Yusef Ibrahim was an old man; comfortably well off, and in no need of great riches. Besides, it was rare that he saw a friendship as pure and unselfish as this. That experience itself was reward enough.
It was the beginning of August, and Harper and Finnigan stood on the walls of Fort St. Julian, watching the French soldiers file past on their way to embarkation for home. There were quite a few more than expected, upwards of thirteen thousand. Since they still had their arms, it was a good thing they were homesick. They were bedraggled, their uniforms in tatters. A lot of them were in various stages of drunkenness, though marching well in spite of it. There had been a lot of cheerful fraternization between the two sides. The French had been selling the British their girls, their swords, and their horses, and the cavalry had gotten enough good mounts now for all of them.
In their midst, though, was a solemn procession, marching to the measured beat of a drum. Four grenadiers bore a coffin, draped in black. On its lid were a French general's sword and a French general's plumed bicorn hat. All soldiers stood at attention as it passed. General Jean-Baptiste Kleber was finally going back to France in the manner he had demanded. With the full honors of war.
Harper said nothing, he just watched. He had never imagined what a joy it could be to just watch, to see the subtle difference in color, texture, and shape that he had never noticed before, in the sky, the sun, the stars, the sand, the trees, people's faces, in everything.
Saints be praised, he could see!
He glanced at Finnigan besides him. No words were necessary. The drama was almost over. There was only one act left. At Alexandria, where General Menou commanded the last French outpost in Egypt.