“Keep pulling,” the only officer in the group replied. “We must reach L’Orient before the British surround her and engage the entire fleet.”
The fleet in question was Napoleon’s grand Mediterranean armada, seventeen ships, including thirteen ships of the line. They returned English volleys with a series of thunderclaps all their own and the entire scene became rapidly shrouded in gun smoke even before dusk fell.
In the center of the longboat, fearing for his life, was a French civilian named Emile D’Campion.[email protected]@@@[email protected]@@@@=======
Had he not been expecting to die at any moment, D’Campion might have admired the raw beauty of the display. The artist in him—for he was a known painter—might have considered how best to craft such ferocity onto the stillness of a canvas. How to depict the flashes of silent light that lit up the battle. The terrifying whistle of the cannonballs screaming in toward their targets. The tall masts, huddled together like a thicket of trees awaiting the ax. He might have taken special care to contrast the cascades of white water with the last hint of pink and blue in the darkening sky. But D’Campion was shaking from head to toe, gripping the side of the boat to hold himself steady.
When a stray shot cratered the bay a hundred yards from where they were, he spoke. “Why in God’s name are they firing at us?”
“They’re not,” the officer replied.
“Then how do you explain the cannon shots hitting so close to us?”
“English marksmanship,” the officer said. “It is extrêmement pauvre. Very poor.”
The sailors laughed. A little too hard, D’Campion thought. They were also afraid. For months they’d known they were playing the fox to the British hounds. They’d missed each other at Malta by only a week and at Alexandria by no more than twenty-four hours. Now, after putting Napoleon’s army ashore and anchoring there at the mouth of the Nile, the English and their hunter of choice, Horatio Nelson, had finally caught the scent.
“I must have been born under a dark star,” D’Campion muttered to himself. “I say we turn back.”
The officer shook his head. “My orders are to deliver you and these trunks to Admiral Brueys aboard L’Orient.”
“I know your orders,” D’Campion replied, “I was there when Napoleon gave them to you. But if you intend to row this boat in between the guns of L’Orient and Nelson’s ships, you’ll only succeed in getting us all killed. We must turn back, either to shore or to one of the other ships.”
The officer turned from his men and gazed over his shoulder toward the center of battle. L’Orient was the largest, most powerful warship in the world. She was a fortress on the water, with a hundred and thirty cannon at her disposal, weighing five thousand tons and carrying over a thousand men. She was flanked by two other French ships of the line in what Admiral Brueys considered an unassailable defensive position. Except no one seemed to have informed the British of this, whose smaller ships were charging directly at her undaunted.
Broadsides were exchanged at close range between L’Orient and the British vessel Bellerophon. The smaller British vessel took the worst of it, as her starboard rail shattered to kindling and two of her three masts cracked and fell, smashing against her decks. Bellerophon drifted south, but even as she left the battle, other British ships charged into the gap. In the meantime, their smaller frigates swung around into the shallows and cut between the gaps in the French line.
D’Campion considered rowing into such a melee the equivalent of insanity and he made another suggestion. “Why not just deliver the trunks to Admiral Brueys once he’s dispatched the British fleet?”
At this, the officer nodded. “You see?” he said to his men. “This is why Le General calls him savant.”
The officer pointed to one of the ships in the French rear guard, which had yet to be engaged by the attacking British. “Make for the Guillaume Tell,” he said. “Rear Admiral Villeneuve is there. He’ll know what to do.”
The rowing resumed in earnest and the small boat turned away from the deadly battle with all due haste. Maneuvering through the darkness and the drifting smoke, the crew brought their boat toward the rear part of the French line where four ships waited, strangely quiet as the battle raged up ahead.
No sooner had the longboat bumped the thick timbers of the Guillaume Tell than ropes were lowered. They were rapidly secured and both men and cargo hauled aboard.
By the time D’Campion reached the deck, the ferocity and savagery of the battle had risen to a pitch he could scarcely have imagined. The British had achieved a huge tactical advantage despite being slightly outnumbered. Instead of taking on the entire French fleet broadside to broadside, they’d ignored the rear guard of French ships and doubled up their fire on the forward part of the French line. Each French vessel was now fighting two British ships, one on either side. The results were predictable: the glorious French armada was being battered to ruin.
“Admiral Villeneuve wishes to see you,” a staff officer told D’Campion.
He was ushered belowdecks and into the presence of Rear Admiral Pierre-Charles Villeneuve. The admiral had a full head of white hair, a narrow face marked by a high forehead and a long Roman nose. He wore an impeccable uniform, dark blue top, embroidered with gold and crossed with a red sash. To D’Campion he seemed more ready for a parade than a battle.
For a few moments Villeneuve toyed with the locks on the heavy trunk. “I understand you’re one of Napoleon’s savants.”
Savant was Bonaparte’s word, annoying to D’Campion and some of the others. They were scientists and scholars, brought together by General Napoleon and ushered to Egypt, where he insisted treasures would be found to satisfy both body and soul.
D’Campion was a budding expert in the new discipline of translating ancient languages and no place offered a greater mystery or potential in that regard than the Land of the Pyramids and the Sphinx.
And D’Campion was not just one of the savants. Napoleon had chosen him personally to seek the truth behind a mysterious legend. A great reward was promised, including wealth greater than D’Campion could earn in ten lifetimes and lands that would be given him by the new Republic. He would receive medals and glory and honor, but first he must find something rumored to exist in the Land of the Pharaohs—a way to die and then return to life once again.
For a month D’Campion and his little detachment had been removing all that they could carry from a place the Egyptians called the City of the Dead. They took papyrus writings, stone
tablets and carvings of every kind. What they couldn’t move they copied.
“I’m part of the Commission of Science and Art,” D’Campion said, using the official name he preferred.
Villeneuve seemed unimpressed. “And what have you brought aboard my ship, Commissioner?”