Read CHAPTER II - A BEDOUIN TRIBE. of At Aboukir and Acre A Story of Napoleon's Invasion of Egypt , free online book, by George Alfred Henty, on ReadCentral.com.

It was two hours before the sheik returned.

“We have been fortunate,” he said, as Mr. Blagrove and Edgar came out into the court-yard as he entered.  “The men have had their punishment.  The governor, after hearing my story, sent to the head of the police, and charged him to take four men down with him into the quarter where men of this sort are generally to be found.  When my son described the men to him, and said that he thought that one of them was a Maltese named Giaccamo, and the other was a Greek called Zeno, he spoke to some of his men, and they said they knew two fellows who generally went about together that answered to the description.  They were, he said, notorious ruffians, but except for rioting and wounding among their compatriots, with which the police did not concern themselves, they had been able to find nothing against them, though they strongly suspected that they were concerned in many crimes.  We went down with them to that quarter, and the police soon found out the place where they lived, but on enquiry were assured that both men were ill, the old woman who came to the door declaring that they had been in bed for some days.  However, the police insisted upon entering, and speedily brought them down.  Sidi recognized them at once, and indeed they had scarcely lied in saying that they were ill, for the eyelids of one were so swollen and blackened that he could not see out of them, while the other’s nose was well-nigh as big as the rest of his face.

“They were at once taken before the cadi.  He heard my son’s evidence, and then said that had it been proved they attempted to steal the horse, he would have had their heads smitten off, but that though this was doubtless their intention, they had not done so.  He sentenced them to a hundred blows with a stick, and to be expelled from the town and neighbourhood, warning them that should they be found near the town again, they would assuredly be punished with death.  I waited and saw the blows administered, and although I felt angry that the cadi had not ordered them to execution, I admit that the punishment was severe enough, and the wretches howled like whipped curs.  I trust that there will be no more trouble from them.  Still, I hope that this will not prevent your son coming to visit us.”

“Certainly not, sheik.  He is prepared and ready to go, and he is looking forward to his stay with you with so much pleasure that even did I wish it I could not now deprive him of the enjoyment of it.  Still, I am heartily glad that the two fellows have been expelled the town, for I should never have felt easy as to Edgar’s safety so long as they were here.”

A few minutes later the party set out.  Edgar’s valise was fastened to the saddle of one of the sheik’s followers.  The road ran along the sandy dunes that divided the low country, formerly covered by Lake Mareotis, from the sea, and as soon as they were well out from the town the horses were broke into a gallop.  While in point of actual speed even the best Arab horses cannot hold their own against a moderate English race-horse, whose greater height and longer stride gives him an advantage, they are greatly superior in last, and possess extraordinary endurance and stamina.  Brought up as if belonging to the family of their owners, their intelligence has been cultivated as has that of dogs.  They are exceedingly docile and affectionate.  Their pace is a very easy one, and Edgar was delighted indeed at the manner in which his new acquisition flew along without any apparent exertion, continuing the pace without a check until they reached the Arab encampment in an hour and twenty minutes from leaving Alexandria.

Here they leapt from their horses in front of a group of black tents.  The oasis was of small extent, extending but two hundred yards across.  In the centre was a group of thirty or forty palm-trees.  Near these the herbage was thick, gradually dwindling away until it became lost in the sand.  In the centre, near the tents, was a well, an irregularly-shaped pit some five-and-twenty feet deep, with a rough path down to it by which the women went to get water both for their own use and for that of the horses.  A score of these were tethered on the grass.

“You are welcome to our tents,” the sheik said; “may your visit be a fortunate one!  Mulick,” he called to one of the Arab boys, “take Beauty; but first,” he went on to Edgar, “it were best that you talked to him a little, and gave him some sweets.  He will soon get to love you, and it is well that he should hear your voice as often as possible.”

“I will lead him out myself,” Edgar replied, “and then Mulick can tether him.  I shall know another time how to do it myself.”

Then he patted the Arab’s glossy neck, rubbed its ears, and praised it, giving it a handful of sweets while he did so.  Beauty evidently appreciated the attentions, and replied to him by a low whinny.  Then he took off its saddle and led it to a spot Mulick pointed out, and then watched the boy tether it, and took off the bridle and carried it back to the tents.  A woman came out from the largest of these.  She was not veiled, for except when they go into the towns the Bedouin women seldom conceal their faces.

“Ayala,” the sheik said, “this is the young white lord who saved Sidi from those who attacked him; henceforth he is as one of our tribe.”

“May the blessings of Allah fall upon you!” the woman said.  “Sidi is our only child.  Had he been taken from us our lives would have been desolate indeed.”

“I am very glad that I happened to come along at the time,” Edgar said.  “It has been a most fortunate occurrence for me, as much indeed as for Sidi.  I have no friends of my own age, and it will be great pleasure to me to have him as a sort of brother.  I am sure that we shall get on capitally together.  Besides which, your husband has given me a grand horse, such as I could never have obtained for money.  Sidi will be able to teach me Arab ways, and I daresay I shall be able to show him something of our customs and life.”

Edgar was now shown a tent that had been newly erected for his use.  The furniture was simple, consisting only of a handsome Eastern carpet, which covered the ground, and a pile of rugs for sofa and bed.  Hanging from one of the sticks that supported the tent was a porous jar of water.  When he had hung up his rifle and pistols, powder-horn and bullet-pouch, its furnishing was complete.

“Is this all your tribe?” he asked Sidi, as he came out from his tent.

“Oh, no! our tribe dwells in a large oasis a hundred miles to the south, and fifty miles west of Cairo.  There are other portions of the tribe dwelling not far from the same spot, and we can ride five hundred strong when we go to fight the Berbers of Morocco.  But my father is only sheik of his section.  There are generally but six tents left here to keep possession, and we are often away for months.  We find that we can buy such goods as the tribe requires cheaper at Alexandria than at Cairo, where, indeed, we do not often go, for ill-blood exists between us and the authorities there, who ventured on some complaint to send out a party of Mamelukes against us.  We beat them back handsomely, but had to leave our oasis for a time, as we could not withstand the force they would be sure to send against us.  That was thirty years ago.  They filled up our wells and cut down our palm-trees.  The wells were soon cleared out again, and the palm groves have grown up.  They have not interfered with us again, but even now we care not to visit Cairo, though it may be that the matter is altogether forgotten there.”

Edgar remained a fortnight with his new friends, and enjoyed the life much.  He took lessons from Sidi in hurling a lance, and discovered that it would need a long practice indeed to enable him to do so with the accuracy shown by the Arabs.  He also practised with his rifles and pistols.  When he left he gave a warm invitation to Sidi to come and stay with him.  This, however, the Arab lad declined.

“I should not be comfortable in your European dwelling,” he said.  “I should be miserable, sitting on one of those chairs.  Your father is busy, and so are you; I should be altogether out of my element.”

“But I might have said the same thing here, Sidi?”

“Oh, no! it is easy to fling off restraint, to throw yourself on the sand, to ride and shoot and hurl the spear.  Those are sports that you can enjoy as much as I do.  I will come over often and see you, but do not ask me to stay.”

Edgar saw that it was better not to press the matter, at any rate for the present.  In time, when Sidi became more accustomed to European ways he might perhaps come to stay, but if he came now it would be a penance rather than a pleasure.  After that time the young Arab rode over frequently, leaving his camp at daybreak and arriving in time to spend a long day with Edgar.  Sometimes they rode together, sometimes walked along the sea-shore, and Sidi soon learned to enjoy as much as his friend a row or a sail on the water, which to him was at first altogether a novelty.  The merchant possessed several boats, which he used in his business, and a pretty gig which carried a sail, in which he himself went off to visit ships which brought goods for him.  This was at other times at Edgar’s service.  He had learned, even before going to school, to manage it, and it therefore was unnecessary to take anyone with them.

Sidi at first did not take kindly to an oar.  Trained to hard exercise on horseback and in the sports of the tribe, he had yet a great aversion to anything like steady labour, and was unable even to understand Edgar’s willingness to exert himself at an oar when he could have had men to row him about.  In time, however, when he had mastered the initial difficulties of the art, he took to the exercise, and they often spent the whole day in the boat, either coasting along Aboukir Bay, or, more often, shooting on the lakes.

The arrival of the British fleet had created quite an excitement in Alexandria, and the news they brought, that a large French fleet had left Toulon, carrying many thousands of troops, destined, it was believed, to operate in Egypt, had caused an intense feeling of dismay among the British merchants settled there, and a corresponding exultation among the French.

“Will the French fleet be stronger than this?” Sidi asked, as he and Edgar leant on the parapet and looked at the long line of British ships.

“There may be more of them-very likely there are,” Edgar said carelessly; “but that makes no matter, we are sure to thrash them.  In the first place, we always do so somehow; and in the next, as our fleet is commanded by one of the best admirals we have, there is no fear of their being beaten.  The only fear is that the fleet mayn’t fall in with the French until they have landed their troops.”

“The troops could not stand against our Mamelukes,” Sidi said scornfully.  “They would soon drive them into the sea.”

“I am not so sure of that,” Edgar said.  “No doubt the Mamelukes are splendid horsemen.  I suppose they are as good as any in the world; but horsemen cannot win a battle alone.  The French infantry are very fine, and I doubt whether any number of horsemen could break their squares.  Then their artillery is immensely superior to that of the Egyptians; that will give them a very great advantage.”

“But if your fleet meets theirs and beats it, how could they ever get back again?”

“I expect they mean to stay here and hold the country,” Edgar said.  “I don’t know what good it would do to them; still I suppose they think it would, or they would not take the trouble to come over.  But if they should take the country, it would be very bad for men like my father, for they would be sure to put all the English in prison, and it would be the ruin of their business.”

“Would they put you in prison?”

“I don’t know; I expect so.  They would hold all the English as prisoners.”

“You would come out to us.  You will be quite safe there.  If their soldiers came, they would never catch us; we could move about anywhere, we know all the places where water is to be found, and they would only die of thirst if they went after us into the desert.”

“Well, I hope that it is not going to be so, Sidi; but if the French should land here I should like it very much.  I suppose you would fight against the French.”

“If they came to take Egypt, of course we should, and then you could see it all, and fight with us against them.”

“It would be very jolly, Sidi, and I should like nothing better; but of course I shall have to do as my father tells me.  I expect he would shut up his place, and get all his goods on board a ship and go away till it was all over, if he was able.  No doubt he would want me to go with him.”

That evening Edgar learned that he had rightly guessed the steps that his father would take in case a French army landed.

“It is an awkward business, lad,” he said.  “Of course if Nelson comes up with the French fleet, we may hope that it will come out right; but if, before he catches it, they manage to land twenty or thirty thousand troops, our position here would be a most serious one.  I intend to charter the Petrel, which has just discharged the cargo she brought here.  I shall put all my most valuable goods on board at once, especially all the Egyptian carpets and other oriental work, so that within a few hours of hearing that their fleet was off the coast, I should be ready to sail for England.  Of course there would be an end to the business here, so long as the French remained in Egypt; and no doubt any British subjects they could lay their hands on would be thrown into prison, just as was the case when they occupied Holland.

“I should not, however, propose to shut up the house altogether, for although we, as English, would be seized, and thrown into prison, and the place closed, France is not at war with Germany, and Muller could carry on the shipping business without interruption, his own name being substituted for mine.  I should instruct him to do no trade with the interior; everything will be turned topsy-turvy, and all trade of that sort would be at an end.  On the other hand, with the French masters here, a considerable number of French and Italian ships will be coming in with stores of all kinds, these will often need supplies, repairs, and so on; and as we have men capable of doing anything in the way of refitting, Muller could keep things going, and carry on a business that should pay all expenses, and would probably leave a margin of profit.  At any rate, the house would not go to wreck and ruin, and the business be entirely lost.

“I don’t think the French occupation would be likely to last very many months.  You may be sure that there would be great efforts made at home.  A tremendous fleet would be sent out here, and the difficulties of bringing in stores and reinforcements for the army would be enormous.  Possibly we too may land an army.  Certainly we could nowhere fight the French so advantageously as here; it would be the case of India over again, as long as we are superior at sea, as we could bring troops here more safely and more expeditiously than they could.  However, that seems to me the best arrangement we can make if the French land.  To me it would make no great difference, for, as you know, I had arranged to sail in three weeks for England.

“The only alteration would be that you must accompany me instead of staying here.  Even putting aside the fact that you would be made a prisoner, you would, if you stayed here, be a hindrance rather than a help to the business.  Muller would carry it on as a purely German firm, while if you were here it would be evident that I had merely left temporarily, and that you were my representative.  That would be fatal to Muller doing business with the French.”

“I see that, father, although I must say that I would rather stop to see the fun.”

Mr. Blagrove smiled.

“I don’t suppose you would see much of it in any case, Edgar.  However, that is out of the question.  I daresay my correspondents in London will be able to take you into their office, or get you a situation of the same kind elsewhere, so that if you stop in England a year you will not be wasting your time.  However, the French have not come yet, and I can hardly think that they can intend to undertake an expedition, where, even if our fleet is not strong enough to do so at once, it will ere long certainly be raised to a point when it will completely cut them off from France.”

“But even if they come, father, they may not succeed in conquering Egypt.  Don’t you think that the Mamelukes will be able to make head against them?”

“We don’t know how strong the French are, but even if they come in great force, if the Mamelukes were well handled, Edgar, they ought to be able to prevent them from advancing far inland.  They ought to hang in clouds round them, driving in their cavalry whenever they ventured to leave the shelter of their infantry fire.  They ought to harass them night and day, and prevent them obtaining supplies of any sort.  I am afraid that nothing of that kind will be done.  The Mamelukes have been spoilt, and they are so puffed up that they believe themselves to be invincible, and that they have only to make a grand charge to sweep the French away.

“However, it will make no great difference to us when we are once fairly away, for of course I shall not think of returning here until matters have settled down again.  The French traders have had a bad time of it since the war began, and most of them left long ago, for it was so seldom that a vessel got through our cruisers that they could not rely upon any regular supplies of goods.  Of course, there are many small shopkeepers who take their goods of me, and retail them out to the natives, but all the importers left.  I am afraid it is going to be our turn now; that is, unless Nelson manages to intercept their fleet-no very easy matter, for they might land anywhere along the coast between this and Syria.  But I imagine that their descent will take place near this town, for from it they could follow the fresh-water canal to the point where it flows from the Nile, and so on to Cairo.

“They may, however, land at either the Damietta or Rosetta mouths of the river; still, I think that they are more likely to come here, seeing that the ships could more closely approach the shore.”

The British fleet remained but a few hours off Alexandria.  The short Peace of Campo-Formio had caused the greater portion of the British fleet to be recalled from the Mediterranean; and it was not until the French preparations were almost complete that the news reached England that a vast number of transports had been collected by the French at various ports, that provisions of all kinds were being put on board, and it was rumoured that an army was about to embark for some unknown destination.

Nelson was at once sent off with a fleet to blockade Toulon, from which port it was evident that the men-of-war intended to guard this great fleet of transports would start.  It arrived there on the first of June, only to learn that the French fleet had set out three days previously.  The idea that Egypt was its destination had not entered the minds of the British ministers, and although Nelson had been furnished with instructions as to the course to be taken in the case of almost every contingency, this had never been even discussed.

The French fleet consisted of 13 vessels of the line, 9 frigates, and 11 corvettes and despatch-boats.  All of these, with the exception of a few of the smaller vessels, were furnished by Toulon.  Here, too, 20,500 men had embarked in 106 transports.  They were to be joined by 30 transports from Marseilles, 20 from Corsica, 35 from Genoa, and 41 from Civita Vecchia, bringing up the total to 232 transports, carrying 32,300 men.

In one arm the army was extremely deficient, as only 680 horses could be put on board.  Of these 300 were for the cavalry,-all of whom, however, took with them saddles and bridles,-the rest were for the artillery and train.

Nelson started at once in search of the enemy, but having no clue to the direction they had taken he was able to obtain no news of their whereabouts until he heard that they had captured, without resistance, the island of Malta.  Then he returned with all speed, imagining for the first time that possibly Egypt was the object of attack, and made for Alexandria.  On his arrival there he heard that nothing was known of the French movements, although in fact their fleet was on that day lying at anchor off Cape Harzet, twenty leagues to the west.

Supposing, therefore, that they must after all have sailed for the coast of Syria or Constantinople, he steered for Alexandretta, and learning that, after having captured Malta, the French fleet had sailed to Candia, he left for Rhodes, searched everywhere through the islands of the Archipelago, and it was only when he anchored off Cape Matapan, the southern extremity of the Morea, that he first learned that the French army had landed in Egypt a month before.

The object of the French expedition was a vast one, but the means with which it was undertaken were insufficient for its execution, and the difficulties in the way were infinitely greater than had been supposed in Paris.  Bonaparte had been chosen for its command principally because the directory feared that the great popularity of the victorious general would render him formidable to themselves.  They knew already that he was by no means favourably disposed towards them, and they were therefore anxious to remove him from the public eye.

Napoleon, on his part, was perfectly aware of the reason for which he was appointed to the command, but he accepted it under the belief that a vast amount of glory was to be gained, and that, should the plans of the directory be entirely carried out, and India wrested from the English, his name would be placed by the side of Alexander in history.  Already negotiations had been carried on for some time with Tippoo Sahib.  Commissioners had been despatched to him, and an alliance proposed against the British.  His power had been greatly overrated by the French, and but a feeble idea was entertained of the enormous difficulties of the scheme they proposed, which was that, after completely subduing and organizing Egypt, they should march through Syria and Damascus, thence to the head of the Persian Gulf, and thence down through India.

No account had been taken of the enormous difficulties of the journey.  There was no thought of the powerful and warlike people of Northern India.  The only idea was to revenge the total overthrow of the French power in India by the British, to re-establish it on a firmer and wider base than ever, and so not only to humiliate the pride of England, but to obtain a monopoly of the trade of the East.

The news that possibly a French fleet might at any moment appear before the port spread the greatest dismay throughout Alexandria; the native population were furious, and foreigners scarcely dared to show themselves in the streets.  Mr. Blagrove and Edgar were busy from morning till night on the day after the British fleet had left, in transporting the goods from the store to the ship that had been chartered.

“It is quite possible that all this is needless,” the merchant said to Edgar when they sat down to a hasty meal late in the evening.  “I think myself that it is almost absurd, although I do not mean to leave anything to chance; but it is purely a surmise that the French expedition is intended to operate against Egypt.  It seems to me that either Greece or Syria is much more likely to be its destination.  I have just had a letter put into my hand, brought by the captain of a small Maltese trader.  It is from a correspondent in Malta.  He states that the French fleet has appeared off the island and summoned the knights to surrender, and that it is thought probable that the demand will be acceded to.  He said that he sent me a line by a little coaster that intended to sail late that evening, and was taking a cargo of grain for Alexandria.

“That certainly looks as if the expedition is intended to operate farther east, for Malta is altogether out of the way for a fleet coming from Toulon hither.  Still it is just as well to continue our work.  There is, naturally enough, a violent ferment among the native population, and this may not improbably find vent in a fanatical attack upon the Christians.  At any rate, we will get the rest of our goods of any value on board, and then await events.”

By the next evening their preparations were completed.  The ferment had now somewhat cooled down, and people were beginning to think that the excitement roused by a mere vague report was absurd.  The next morning at breakfast Mr. Blagrove said to his son: 

“I think, Edgar, that as things have quieted down, and we are all beginning to hope that the scare was altogether unfounded, it would be just as well that you should ride over to your friends in the desert, stay the night there, and come back to-morrow.  They would think it strange and discourteous if we were to leave suddenly without communicating with them; and as I hope our absence will be of short duration, I should be very sorry to give people so well-disposed towards you any ground for offence.  But return by to-morrow evening.  In the extremely remote possibility of a French fleet being made out before that time, I must embark at once, if only for your mother and sisters’ sake.  It would be madness to wait here-simple madness.  Even putting aside the certainty of captivity for a very long period, it is by no means improbable that there would be a sudden rising on the part of the population, and a massacre of foreigners.

“I consider the contingency so remote, that it is scarcely worth speaking of; but if the French fleet should arrive during the thirty-six hours that you will be away, and I am obliged to embark and sail off, you must stay with your Arab friends.  You see, I have some L8000 worth of goods on board the Petrel, and the loss would be an extremely heavy one for me; and I have besides L2000 in cash.  I shall leave L1000 in Muller’s hands, which will be ample for his needs, as there is a very heavy stock of ships’ stores in the warehouse.  I shall, of course, instruct him to supply you with any money that you may require.  You understand that I regard all this as extremely improbable, but it is just as well to make arrangements for every contingency.  And then, should the French fleet come in sight, I can embark on board the Petrel, and set sail without any great anxiety on your account.  More to relieve my mind than because I think there is any reasonable ground for thinking it necessary, here are fifty pounds in gold; you had best sew them up securely in the band of your trousers to-night; it will be no great trouble, and they will be safer there than if loose in your pocket.”

As Edgar rode away the next morning, he could not help thinking that it would be great fun if the French were to arrive before he returned.  The thought of a year or two passed in a stuffy office in London was not an agreeable one; while, were he to stay with the Bedouins, he might have a life of excitement and adventure.  No doubt they and the other tribes would all fight against the invaders; impelled in the first place by their intense love of independence, and in the second, because the invaders were Christians.  The thought of dashing charges, of skirmishing with the French cavalry, of pursuit, of flight, was very fascinating to a high-spirited lad of seventeen, and after indulging in these fancies for some time, he sighed, as he thought how small was the chance of their becoming reality.

He was heartily welcomed on his arrival at the oasis.  The news that Sidi had brought of the visit of the British fleet, and the fact that they were in search of a great French fleet carrying an army that might possibly be intended for the invasion of Egypt, had created great excitement in the camp.

“Do you think it can be true,” the sheik asked him, “that so wild an idea can have come to these people, as to think that they could conquer our country?”

“That I cannot say,” Edgar replied.  “If they did come, they would be very formidable opponents, for they have conquered many countries in Europe; their soldiers are well trained and disciplined, and they will have great numbers of guns; but my father thinks that they can hardly intend to come here, for if they landed we should soon have enough ships-of-war here to prevent their return, and they would be cut off from France altogether.  There is no news of their fleet, except that they have arrived at the island of Malta.  Whither they sailed thence we know not.  Our fleet has gone in search of them, and will fight them when they find them.  But if they should escape, and should really come hither, my father and I will embark on board a ship which he has loaded with his most valuable goods, and we shall at once sail for England.  It is for this reason that I have ridden over this morning.  If we should go, our departure will be very sudden, for we should get up anchor as soon as the French fleet was made out in the distance, or, at any rate, as soon as it became dark enough to hide our departure; and I should have been sorry indeed to go without saying good-bye to you.”

“But for how long will you go, brother?” Sidi asked.

“Until the trouble was over here, which might be only two or three months, but which might be as many years.”

“And will you be glad to go back to your own country?” the sheik asked.

“No, indeed.  There I should have to work in an office in London, which would be very dull, while here my work is light, I have amusements, and I have my friends here.”

“Why not stay behind with us until your father returns?  You know that you would be most welcome, and that it would gladden all our hearts to have you with us.”

“I should like it above all things, sheik,” Edgar said warmly, “and I thank you most heartily for the invitation, but of course I must do as my father wishes, and he thinks it best that we should go to England if the French come, for they would keep us both as prisoners, and would seize all our goods and merchandise.  However, it does not seem to him likely that the French will really come here, and it was only because he considered that it was just possible they might do so that he himself suggested that I should come over and stay here until to-morrow afternoon, lest, if we should have to leave suddenly, you might not think that we had forgotten you in our haste to be off.  For myself, I wish that I could stay here.  I suppose that if the French came you would fight, and I could fight with your tribe?”

“Assuredly we will fight,” the sheik said.  “Why should these Franks come here to molest us?  I love not the Turkish rule much, but we are in no way molested.  Assuredly every Arab through the desert will ride against them and aid the Mamelukes to drive them into the sea.  How great an army would they bring against us?”

“We hear from the officers of our fleet that the news received in England said that some 30,000 men were preparing to embark for some unknown destination.”

“Thirty thousand!” the sheik said scornfully; “why, there are 10,000 Mameluke cavalry and fully 20,000 infantry, janizaries, and spahis, besides the levy of the whole population, and the desert tribes can put 5000 horsemen into the field.  They will never dare to come against us unless with a force very much larger than you speak of.  No, it is not against Egypt that the expedition can have sailed.”

“That is what my father thinks,” Edgar said; “not because of the force you could bring against them, but because they would know that they might be cut off at any time from returning by our fleet, and their position would then become desperate.  We have long blockaded them in their own ports, and if they are not strong enough to get out of these, still less would they be able to leave Egypt.”

“Let us not talk more of them,” the sheik said contemptuously.  “They are dogs; if they come hither we shall know how to deal with them.”