By Luis Gutierrez Poucel and Marie-Louise Oosthuysen
Quena flourished on the western bank of the river Nile. The arrival of Popescu and his fleet of enhanced feluccas did not raise alarm among the Egyptian populace. By contrast, the concoction of French and Malaysians arriving on camels caused quite a stir among the suspicious Egyptians. The locals have never seen French men riding camels and, even though the French were not dressed as soldiers, they had a martial air about them. The English spies were immediately aware of the French presence in Quena and started following them everywhere.
Marius and Popescu’s people set about acquiring the provisions needed to reach El Quseir on the Red Sea. Zahir negotiated the purchase of fifty camels and hired a dozen Egyptian helpers. The British spies, having heard the French talk among themselves, learned that the French were traveling to meet with a French supply ship carrying needed arms and provisions lost by the French Army in the attack of the British in Alexandria. The British soon responded by assembling a British fleet to lay in wait on the Mediterranean Sea to ambush all French supply ships sailing for Alexandria. Merde, putain d’anglais!
Well, that was the story they were spreading to hide their real reason for crossing the desert towards the Red Sea and Safaga which lay north of El Quseir.
A dozen Malaysians were left in Quena to guard the feluccas and manage the repairs to their sails and the enhancements made before, as well as to replenish the stocks needed for the return to Cairo. The feluccas needed to be ready for a fast and speedy departure. They were going to be loaded to the hilt and needed to be able to travel faster than the other boats on the Nile. Speed was of the essence.
On the fifth day, four days after arriving in Quena to gather the provisions to travel to El Quseir, the French and Malaysian contingent set off on camel in a southeasterly direction. The British spies concluded that the French plan was to transfer the supplies from the French ship to the camels, bring them back to Quena, transfer the cargo to the feluccas, and transport it all to Alexandria. Nelson had the French running scared. They didn’t dare to get their ships close to Alexandria given the threat of being sunk or captured by the British navy patrols. No matter, thought the English, those supplies will never reach Alexandria. They will soon be in our hands. Stupid French frogs, they should have stayed in their stinking homeland.
A couple of hours into the march, after making sure they were not being followed, the French caravan turned northeasterly towards Safaga.
The march across the desert was uneventful and they made a good time. Once they reached the hills around Safaga, they set up camp away from prying eyes. Bisyu dispatched a courier pigeon to Cairo with the following note: “The crocodile swims near its prey.”
During their march, they went over the plan to take over the fort and capture the English East Indian Trading Company’s merchandise. In terms of numbers, the British garrison would have more men than Marius. The British were protected by walls and cannons. The only advantage Marius had was stealth and surprise. Planning with Popescu, Jean Jacques, Bastién, Zahir, and Douglas they soon came to the agreement that they needed more detailed information about the defenses and layout of the British fort.
Marius, Popescu, Jean Jacques, Zahir, and Douglas, disguised as desert nomads, wearing the clothes of the Bedouins they had exterminated days before, left their camp and rode towards Safaga. Their objective was to pinpoint the exact location of the fort, study the British movements and explore the terrain around the fort. Being careful not to be discovered, they cautiously observed the fort through their spyglasses. The fort had two gates. The western gate faced the desert and the eastern one faced the Red Sea. The fort was protected by thirteen cannons, four protecting the Eastern wall from attacks from the sea. While the remaining walls had three cannons each. There were four towers, each manned by a guard. The walkways of each wall were constantly guarded by two guards regularly making the rounds.
Their first impression left them somewhat demoralized regarding the success of their enterprise. The fort looked impregnable and well defended.
Exploring the eastern side of the fort, they found a disturbing situation that had not been taken into account. Two British naval ships were moored in front of the fort. That meant at least a hundred more defenders than anticipated. Therefore, the only avenue of attack was from the desert, the western gate. An attack from the eastern gate would be impossible as they would be giving their backs to the British cannons on the ships.
After another exploratory round, they headed back disillusioned and in silence to their encampment.
Marius couldn’t sleep, despite being exhausted from the march and the exploration of the fort. He had to find a way to take the fort and capture the Company’s merchandise. He couldn’t go back to Napoleon defeated.
Marius knew he had to rest, so he employed a trick taught to him by his father, Joseph Antoine Poucel, sailor and merchant ship captain. Joseph Antoine recognized the same symptoms of his own preoccupied, obsessive mind in his son and taught the young Marius the technique he learned many years before from a Hindu yogi. “Lie in bed on your back, and force yourself to breathe slowly and deeply through your nose. Breathe in, then relax your body from head to toe with each exhalation. If your mind wanders, focus on breathing out twice as long as the time you took to breathe in. As your mind and body relax, your obsession falls away and that gives your mind the time to bring the solution to you in your dreams.”
His fatigue finally caught up with him and he fell into a deep sleep that lasted no more than a couple of hours. Marius woke up just before dawn with the solution he sought the night before. That often happened to him, going to sleep with a problem and waking up with the solution. He got dressed and sent for Popescu, Jean Jacques, Bastién, Zahir, and Douglas to come to his tent and have breakfast with him. He laid down his plan. After a two-hour discussion, they had fine-tuned their plan of attack.
Marius sent Zahir, Bisyu, and four Egyptians familiar with the region to the fort disguised as weary traveling Egyptians. Zahir being a Mamluk, born and raised in Egypt, did not have any trouble passing as an Egyptian, the only one that was a little out of place was the big Malaysian Bisyu. However, in the Middle East, there were all kinds of races, skin tones, and eye colors. The Middle East was the crossroads of the north, south, east, and west. So Bisyu wouldn’t raise any suspicion among the British. Zahir and his group would beg for water and food, and given the unwritten rules of the desert, hospitality demanded to provide support, within reason, to travelers. Once inside the fort, they would observe and inform back.
Zahir and his Egyptian companions approached the fort from the south at dusk, taking in all of their surroundings as they approached the fort. Previously, behind a little hill about 250 meters away from the fort, Douglas stationed himself with a Malaysian helper, providing support cover with his Kentuckee long rifle. Douglas was in for a long wait. He was the only expert enough to hit a target with his long rifle at those distances.
As Zahir’s little group reached the western gate. The British guards facing them from the walkway above the gate asked them their business. Zahir in broken English requested water and food since they were very tired, having been traveling for many days in the desert in the direction to Quena.
The British guards, after conferring with their superior, followed the hospitality rules of the desert and opened the gate, allowing the weary travelers to enter the compound. Once inside, Zahir and his companions dismounted their camels and led the animals to the water troughs.
The first stage of the plan had been set in motion.
Zahir, Bisyu, and the Egyptians started to gather the inside information required to take the fort. A British Corporal ordered food and drinking water for them as he led them to sit under a tree next to the soldiers’ mess hall.
As they waited for the food and drink, Zahir took a couple of gold coins out of the pouch he was carrying. These were the Roman coins from the Bedouin stash. He began to examine each of them against the light of the torches, one at a time. Zahir had his back to the British so he was “unaware” that the British corporal and two soldiers were walking towards them. The British noted the coins and hurried their steps in the direction of Zahir. The other Egyptians, noting the approach of the British, nervously tried to signal him of the soldiers’ approach. It was too late. The British had seen the gold coins. Zahir clumsily put the coins away and stood up, looking guiltily to the ground.
The British corporal demanded of Zahir to tell him what he had. Zahir and his Egyptian companions made a big show of mumbling without giving a direct answer. The British Corporal knew that there was something valuable about those coins and he sent a message to his superior.
The meager food and water arrived, however, the British corporal sent it back to the dismay of the hungry and thirsty travelers. He then asked for a platter of succulent dates, olives, and fresh fruit. The corporal was an old hand in dealing with easterners. The Egyptians mouths were watering of hunger.
The soldier informed his lieutenant and captain, who was having tea with the officers from the British ships, about the Egyptian travelers and their gold coins. The commanding officer of the fort, general Duncan Wright, a mean, selfish person who not only despised Easterners with a passion but also despised his own men for being from the lower classes, especially the Irish, the Indians, and Somalis who formed part of his soldiers. Having seen the arrival of the soldier, he asked the captain what the commotion was about.
General Wright, smelling something valuable, stood up and told his captain in a pleasant commanding voice, “It is all right Captain, I need to stretch my legs. I will go and see what this is all about.” Actually, he was bored by the captains of the naval ships who could only talk about naval matters, a subject he had little interest in. They had no sense nor sensibility for the finer aspects of life, the upper echelons of class, nor did they look up at him as they indeed should.
The platter of delectable dates, olives, and fruits arrived at the same time as the general. Thus, the food had to wait until the general said his piece. Wright, with a thunderous authoritarian voice, commanded the Egyptians, “Show me the gold coins”.
Zahir acting guiltily and bowing to the floor denied having gold coins. The general raised his horsewhip and gave Zahir a mighty lash. Zahir cried in pain as he reached inside his galabia bringing out his pouch with the cold coins and gave them to the general.
“Where did you get these coins?” asked the general pleasantly, while the platter with the delicious food was brought closer to the Egyptians. “Look man, don’t make me waste my time, tell me where you found these coins and I promise you more delectable food and mead and don’t worry, it does not have alcohol, it is just honey wine. I know you chaps will love it.” The general smiled pleasantly while hitting his boot impatiently with his horsewhip.
The Egyptians whispered furiously among themselves, while constantly darting their eyes to the delicious food waiting just outside their reach. Then a larger platter with meats and goat cheeses arrived along with a big jug of mead. This was too much for the hungry and thirsty travelers.
Zahir told the general in his broken English and thick middle Eastern accent how they found the coins at some old Roman ruins three days travel to the south. They collected the coins scattered near the surface, fearful of digging for the buried coins, because of the curse that befell all tomb robbers. “For everybody knows, that he who violates a tomb, dies a death a hundred times more horrible than the buried being defiled”.
The general with an arrogant smile turned to his corporal and whispered, “These savages with their primitive superstitious beliefs are so boring and gullible.”
Turning to Zahir, he said, “Our English god protects us from all curses. We will dig for the treasure and give you a part of what we find.”
Zahir looked at him in awe and uttered in reverence, “Who is this god? Where is his temple? We need to make an offering to him!”
“No, no this is a British god and his temple is very far away from here. It is in on the other side of the world, in Great Britain,” snorted the general impatiently. What a waste of time being forced to converse with this uncouth foolish savage. He added in a final voice of command, “Tomorrow I will take two of your men to guide my soldiers to the Roman ruins where you found the coins. You and the rest of your companions will wait here for their return.”
He turned to walk away and realized that he still had the bag of coins. “I’ll hang on to these for safekeeping,” he smirked at Zahir. The soldiers gave the Egyptians their platters of food and the jug of mead. The weary travelers attacked their offerings with brave determination.
Marius’s plan was set in motion. It rested on the greed and need for self-importance of the cruel, aristocratic Duncan Wright. His vanity and paramountcy led him to underestimate the Mid-easterners. He would pay dearly for his arrogance.
Once they had eaten their fill and quenched their thirst, an Egyptian helper cleared away the platters and cups. A British soldier passed by and Zahir said in his broken English, “I go piss!” The soldier waved him over to the fort wall. As soon as the guards’ backs were turned and no one was paying them any attention, Zahir threw a stone over the wall in the direction of were Douglas lay in wait. Douglas and his Malaysian companion heard the rock hit the ground. The Malaysian retrieved the rock and gave it to Douglas. The note around the rock told him that the hook had been swallowed.
Stage one of the plan was complete.
Early the next morning a dozen British soldiers, half a dozen local workers, and two of the Egyptian travelers left on camels heading south with enough provisions for ten days. Douglas sent his Malaysian companion back to camp to inform Marius and Popescu.
Marius’ plan was that during the midnight hours of the third day the travelers would sneak away and travel in a northwesterly direction back to Quena. The ruse was designed, not only to gather information about the fort and its defense but to also lower the number of defenders inside the fort.
Late in the afternoon of that same day, a group of Egyptian traders came to the British compound offering to sell six barrels of French wine. The Egyptian hawker addressed the British soldier on duty at the gate saying, “I can’t sell wine to my Egyptians and Arab customers, as many are forbidden to drink alcohol. The rest prefer mead, the sweet drink made of honey. The European wine is too sour for their taste. They call it ox piss. I will give you British a good price,” finished the hawker.
The British guard handed him a metal cup while saying, “Let me taste it.”
The hawker and his helpers struggled to break the seal on the vat of wine. “See how good this seal is? It’s tighter than a camel’s arse in a sandstorm,” said the hawker laughing.
Once the seal was broken, he poured wine up to the rim of the cup and handed it back. The guard took a tentative sip and as the wine swirled over his taste buds, his eyes widened at the realization of the magnificent quality of the wine. “Where did you get this?” asked the guard in wonder.
The Hawker shrugged his shoulders and responded, “My cousin’s nephew saw it fall off the back of a camel.”
The guard laughed, finished the wine in one big gulp, and after rinsing the cup, he asked the hawker to fill it again. “The general would have to authorize the purchase so he should taste the wine,” said the guard to a soldier passing him the filled cup to take to their commanding officer.
The guard gave the cup of wine to his captain who approached the general informing him of the group of Egyptian traders who were selling six caskets of French wine. “Would you like to try it, general Wright?”
With a displeased and disdainful look on his face, the general took a little sip of the wine. The guard was right, as the wine hit the palate of the general, his demeanor changed to one of contentment. He took a bigger sip and allowed the liquid to imbibe his taste buds. “This is a bloody magnificent wine,” said the general standing up. General Wright walked towards the gate with a posse of aides armed with cups to taste the wine. As he tasted the wine once more, he said happily, “Bloody marvelous stuff,” all the while smacking his lips in satisfaction. “Those frogs really know how to make good wine”, commented one of the officers.
They haggled back and forth about the price while sipping the wine. The hawker kept pushing for a higher price, but the general knew that they were the last resort to sell the caskets of wine, so he stood firm. At last, the hawker relented with a tortured expression on his face and turned to his companions saying in Egyptian, “His mother mated with a scorpion!” All the Egyptians laughed merrily at the hawker’s remark. This didn’t sit well with general Duncan Wright. With cold eyes, he ordered his soldiers to unload the caskets of wine, and then he drove the hawker and his men away without paying. He ordered his guards to shoot them if they refused to leave. The hawker and his companions raised their arms to the sky, uttering lamentations. The hawker explained that his comment referred to the astuteness of the general’s negotiation abilities, it was not an insult.
All of this was to no avail, the general and his officers had already turned and were walking away, chuckling to themselves. The general instructed his aides to order the troops to carry three of the caskets to the officers’ mess and the remaining three to the soldiers’ mess hall. Supper was about to be served and all congregated around the barrels of wine with glee. The wine was like manna from heaven, an oasis in the desert, and it was flowing freely! Their inebriated spirits soared in song and laughter. That night they toasted the British victory in Alexandria and welcomed the two British naval ships to the fort. Everyone was singing the general’s praises and he was basking in their adulation.
Stage two of the plan had been successfully implemented and executed.
Night had fallen in the desert. Marius and his men waited in the nearby hills giving the wine time to do its work. Once the jolliness and singing fizzled out, the Malaysian archers ran towards the western wall with their makeshift screens to shield the cauldrons of red-hot coals from the guards at the fort. Once they were in position, Popescu gave them the go-ahead. Fire arrows started to rain down into the compound.
Douglas with his Kentuckee long rifle took out the guards in the northwestern and southwestern towers. Inside the fort, Zahir heard the dry coughs of the rifle. That was their signal. He and Bisyu moved carefully and without being seen by the guards or drunken soldiers towards the eastern towers. They took care of the tower guards quickly and opened the eastern gate.
Meanwhile, their two Egyptian companions sneaked their way towards the western gate which was unguarded and opened it.
However, a guard was able to sound the alarm by blowing his bugle. This caused a bunch of drunken soldiers to run in search of their arms.
The attack on the fort had begun. The Malaysians ran into the fort shooting their last fiery arrows. They were soon counterattacked by disorganized musket fire. The Malaysians switched to their poisoned arrows and shot them in quick succession towards the smoke made by the muskets, cruelly wounding the British musketeers.
The British soldiers were disoriented, disorganized, and shot at anything that moved, many of these targets their own men. The poisoned arrows were much more effective than the musket bullets because the wounded soldier would suffer paralysis, then intense pain, followed by death. That was the iconography of the unequal battle.
The Malaysian archers took care of the guards on the walkways, and then took control of the walkways of the four walls.
The attention of the British redcoats was fixed on the western side of the fort. Marius and his French Exterminating Angels came into the compound from the eastern gate, taking the disorganized British defenders by surprise. Before the battle began there were more than two hundred British soldiers in the fort, including the marines from the two ships moored on the Red Sea.
With the general and most of his officers drunk and out of commission, the British defenders were in complete disarray. As the Exterminating Angels arrived, they first shot their pistols and then attacked with their swords. The British were completely overcome, not knowing what to do. They were being attacked from the front and the rear, while also being shot down with arrows from the walkways on the walls. Little by little the Exterminating Angels surrounded the redcoats pushing them into a compact circle with little mobility in the center.
There were more than a hundred British casualties dead or injured and more and more falling by the second to the superior organization and skills of the French attackers. Several defenders threw their weapons to the ground, raising their hands in surrender, while others fought valiantly until decimated by Marius and Popescu’s warriors.
Marius shouted to Popescu, “The general, let’s get the general!” They found him in the officers’ mess hall surrounded by several of his officers and one of the ship captains. General Duncan Wright came out of his drunken stupor confused and not knowing what was happening. The Malaysians bound their hands together and led them to the center of the compound.
The officers on duty on the two ships in front of the fort had seen and listened to the commotion in the fort. They sent two rowboats with the remaining marines to help the fort’s garrison. The Exterminating Angels were lying in wait for them. As soon as the British marines disembarked onshore, the French soldiers appeared out of nowhere and after a quick skirmish captured the British. Marius and Jean Jacques arrived with other Exterminating Angels, changed their blue jackets for the redcoats of the recently captured marines. They boarded the boats and rowed back towards the unsuspecting British ships. As soon as the boats reached the ships, two other boats filled with Marius men were launched from the shore towards the ships.
As soon as the disguised French stepped onto the deck they pulled out their pistols and commanded the British to surrender. At first the British were startled by the surprising French appearance. Those valiant souls who tried to resist were overpowered mercilessly.
As the other two boats with the Exterminating Angels arrived, the crews of both ships had already capitulated.
About eighty prisoners sat in the great courtyard of the compound. English, Welsh, Scottish, Irish, Indians, and Somalis sat with naked torsos and barefoot, only in their breeches.
Marius’ little army of French and Malaysian warriors had taken the fort and two naval ships with little casualties, while the English had lost more than a hundred men. Marius had lost eight men, six of whom had been Popescu’s Malaysians who were hit by musket bullets.
Everything had happened so quickly that the general, officers, and captain of the ships were not sure who they were surrendering to. Little by little, it dawned on them that they had been beaten by a smaller force of Napoleon’s soldiers. The shock of this realization shamed them to their core.
The British soldiers without leadership succumbed to the better organization of the French and soon capitulated. The battle to take the fort lasted less than an hour.
Stage three was completed. The grand stratagem had worked well.
Marius along with Popescu, Zahir, and Douglas explored the compound guided by two British officers. Their first stop was the immense warehouses, finding tons of silk, boxes of silver and gold bars, precious stones, sacs of Indian spices, magnificent rugs, and wall paintings, and many valuable oriental goods. Zahir and Douglas were taking notes. Marius asked Zahir, who had been a merchant trader in Egypt before the French invasion, how much he estimated the value of the merchandise. Popescu answered before Zahir could say anything, “Lieutenant Poucel, I don’t know the exact value, but I can tell you that this is more than two million pounds!”
Zahir said, with the cool head of a merchant, “Given the dimensions of the warehouse and the goods that we have so far seen, I assume we are talking of about eight to ten million pounds.” Douglas was furiously taking notes. The Kentuckee Gazette would soon be spreading the news of the French capture of the East Indian Trading Company warehouses and the fort near Safaga.
Marius allowed himself to feel some relief. They had taken the fort with very few losses and had captured valuable merchandise, arms and animals. Napoleon’s army was soon going to have 20 more cannons, hundreds of pistols and muskets, and tonnes of ammunition. Quite a good catch and they had just started taking inventory of the fort. What else was yet to be found?
Popescu asked the two British officers to take them to the Company’s safe rooms, which was known as the company’s bank. After a brief silence, the British officers realized the futility of resisting, so they led the way to the main building and directly to the Company offices. One of the civilian employees opened the door to the safe room where, after a speedy inspection, they found 500,000 pounds in currency.
This British kept on surprising Marius. No wonder everybody said that the British East Trading Company was wealthier than the English Crown. Marius did not know whether that was true, but he was sure that the Company was richer than the Directory governing the French Republic.
The third stop was the dungeons. What they saw shocked them to their core. Even the toughened Popescu was horrified. In a small darkened room stinking of human suffering, feces, urine, and sweat were thirty jailed prisoners, a combination of Egyptians, Bedouins, and British soldiers. They were all semi-naked with blisters on their skin and bloody backs with the scars of lashes.
Marius ordered their immediate release. The British with shameful expressions obliged immediately. There were ten British soldiers, six of whom were Irish, a Welsh, a Somali, and two Indians. As an American, Douglas had a special affinity towards the Irish so he asked one of them what their crime was. Immediately, three of the Irish responded, “General Wright didn’t like the song we made in his honor.” Marius interrupted and asked, “He jailed you because you wrote a song ridiculing him? One of the Irish responded, “It was a very good song,” and the rest of the British prisoners laughed out loud.
The jailbirds were guided to the courtyard where they sat alongside their captors on the front left of the courtyard, about thirty meters away from general Wright and his officers.
The prisoners were being guarded by Popescu’s Malaysian warriors whose attention was focused on the British soldiers, ignoring the British jailed prisoners.
Marius and his companions tried to rest, while some of them kept the night watch. The captured defenders began to nod off and started to lay down on the ground. They were soon sleeping soundly after the exertions of the battle, the adrenaline of the hand-to-hand combat, and the excesses of their drinking. Some of the jailed prisoners began sneaking among the soldiers towards the front of the yard. The Malaysian guards paid little notice.
Dawn came rapidly, as it does in the desert. Marius, Zahir, and Popescu inspected the prisoners waking up in the courtyard. Their attention was caught by the prostrated figures of the general and some of his officers. Marius and Popescu wanted to interrogate the general so they approached him and when standing next to him, Marius called on him to stand up. The general and his officers did not move. Popescu kicked the general’s boots. No response. They rolled the bodies over and saw their garroted throats and glassy eyes. None of the surrounding live officers had heard or noticed anything amiss. Popescu interrogated his Malaysian guards and they didn’t have anything to report.
The jailed prisoners had gotten their revenge. This was a huge loss, as the general would have been a wealth of information. However, not everything was lost. Marius still had the company’s managers and accountants, as well as a ship captain. He turned to Popescu and asked him to select two officers to accompany him to Cairo alongside the company’s employees. Marius would take the ship captain and the rest of the Company’s civilian employees on the two captured ships. They would be properly interrogated by Napoleon’s intelligence machine.
Marius didn’t know who were the general’s murderers, and he did not have time to investigate. Speed was of the essence. He needed to organize the return to Cairo and the disposal of the British prisoners. Of course, he would need to destroy the fort upon his departure. He couldn’t leave it for the British to take back.
After talking to Popescu they decided to divide the loot, arms, and animals into two groups. One would be under the command of Popescu and travel on the camels to Quena, where it would be transferred to the feluccas and sail to Cairo. The second group would be under the command of Marius who would sail the two British ships with the heavier and bulkier part of the loot to Cairo by navigating around Africa into the Mediterranean and t disembark in Alexandria.
Taking command of the ships, navigating the Red Sea into the Indian Ocean, rounding The Cape of Good Hope into the Atlantic, sailing up Africa to enter the Mediterranean, and then dash towards Alexandria was a bold and risky move. Some would even call it a foolish move. The British dominated the seas and had a presence in The Cape of Good Hope (also known as The Cape of Storms) where they would have to stop for provisions, as well as commanding the Mediterranean. Marius asked Popescu, “What do you think our General Bonaparte would do? Burn the ships or risk it and take them to join his navy in Egypt?” Popescu laughed and said, “Lieutenant, you already know the answer. The petit Corsican would risk it and take it all!” So, it was decided.
With the help of the British prisoners, they transferred the warehouse goods to the cargo holds of the ships. Once these were full, the remaining goods were packed and loaded onto the camels.
It was time to deal with the British prisoners. Marius addressed them. “You will be taken at least sixty leagues into the desert and then set free. You will have enough water and provisions for five days. We will also provide you with compasses, daggers, and sabers so you can defend yourselves from raiders and robbers. In five days, you should reach Safaga.”
To the thirty jailed prisoners he gave three choices. “You can be set free to do whatever you want. We will give you water, provisions, and arms so you can sustain and defend yourselves. You can also join the British prisoners who will be set free sixty leagues from Safaga. Or, you can join our Army.” The six Irish prisoners joined the French ranks without hesitation. The rest of them chose freedom. They would walk alongside Popescu’s caravan and then continue on the road to Safaga.
Zahir and Bisyu, with a dozen guards, guided the British prisoners south. As they rode into the desert, they could see the smoke coming from the burning fort. They were released in the middle of the desert. Zahir and his group returned rapidly on their horses to join Popescu and Marius. Bisyu bid farewell to Zahir and left with his Malaysians in search of Popescu on the way to Quena. Zahir went to the shore where a boat waited for him to be rowed to the ship commanded by Marius.
Marius and Jean Jacques grew up in Marseilles. They both had ample sea experience and were familiar with ships, having been born to families of merchant sailors. Therefore, Jean Jacques Dubois became the captain of one ship and Marius Poucel of the other. All of his Exterminating Angels accompanied them, alas few of them had sea experience, making it necessary to retain the British sailors to help them on their voyage to Alexandria. Another guest of Marius was the former captain of the ship who was an invaluable source of information to avoid other British ships.
Once in Safaga, Popescu launched five messenger pigeons towards Cairo. A couple of days later, one of Popescu’s men went to see general Alexandre Dumas and gave him the note the courier pigeon had brought. Alexandre Dumas took it and read, “Fivefold Paris above London. Two whales are coming.”
Alexandre Dumas clapped his immense black hands together, making a sonorous loud sound. He laughed with his whole body. “Mon Dieu Poucel, you did it!” Then caution prevailed, making him doubt the validity of the message. Could it be possible? Such an immense loot, five times larger than originally estimated plus two captured ships. Impossible! Yet he had the paper in his hands and Lieutenant Marius Poucel generally delivered. With a slap on his desk, he stood up and went in search of Napoleon.
Without announcing himself, he entered Napoleon’s office. They knew each other well and could read the other’s body language. Napoleon stood up and barked nervously, “Tell me everything. What is the news from Safaga?” But devious Dumas stayed quiet with a face made of stone. Dumas was enjoying the moment. Napoleon went to him and snatched the note from his hand, glancing at it, blinked, and read it again.
Napoleon uttered a high pitched giggle. “Finally, a good blow to the perfidious Albion!”
Popescu arrived in Cairo without setbacks. He was received as a hero and rewarded handsomely for his services by Napoleon himself. Now, all that Napoleon and Dumas could do was to wait for the return of Captain Marius Poucel, because, if he survived, he would no longer be a Lieutenant.
As luck would have it, destiny rewarded the risk-takers. Marius’ voyage was uneventful, sailing with good winds on mostly empty seas. A couple of times they saw other British ships who did not bother them since they were flying the British and East India Company’s flags. If they were caught they would be hanged as spies. They also saw some Spanish and Portuguese ships. The scariest moment was when a British ship in the middle of the Mediterranean hailed them to parlay, but the British Captain under Marius’ instructions, signaled them back that they were under Nelson’s urgent business and did not have time. When at last they reached Alexandria a great weight was lifted from Marius’ shoulders. Breathing deeply he thanked his father for having shown him the business of seafaring.
At the French headquarters in Alexandria, they reported to general Jean-Baptiste Kléber who stood up after hearing Lieutenant Poucel’s report and embraced him in a congratulatory bear hug. He then sent a dispatch to general Dumas asking him whether he should leave his cargo in Alexandria or transport it to Cairo. Dumas’ answer arrived swiftly telling him that “Our general wants you to bring everything to Cairo!” He ended the dispatch with a personal note, “Well done little sailor man!”
Marius and Jean Jacques commanded, with the blessing of general Kléber, enough wagons to carry the loot to Cairo. Upon their arrival, Marius and his Exterminating Angels were welcomed as heroes by Napoleon and his staff. When the clapping, felicitations, and cheers quieted down, Napoleon presented Lieutenant Marius Poucel with his promotion papers, saying, “Lieutenant Marius Poucel for your valiant services to the Republic and to the Army of the Orient, you hereby are promoted to the rank of Captain of the French Army.” The room exploded in cheers to France, Napoleon, and Captain Poucel.
Marius was humbled by the congratulatory reception. Only general Dumas, who had a soft spot for the young captain, reprimanded him with a serious ebony face, “How come you brought back so little loot? If it was up to me, I would have demoted you back to the rank of a soldier! Shame on you little sailor man!” All laughed at Dumas’ roasting of Marius and many of his superiors joined in the fun. He felt that Dumas’ humorous remark was the best thank you of them all.
The narrow streets of the bazaar in Cairo were dark and empty. The only sounds to be heard where rats scuttling over the cobblestones and through the drains. The tajir walked carefully towards his rug shop. He had been enraged for several days because Lieutenant Marius Poucel had not come to see him. He had heard that the young shit arrived in Cairo a week ago, after the successful completion of his mission, capturing the fort, taking the merchandise from the warehouses, and commandeering two British naval ships in the process. “How could he ignore me? Me, who provided him with the map of the fort and the necessary intelligence to take it. I deserve at least half of the profits!”
Distracted and furious he opened the locks to his rug store. He lit an oil lamp and walked into his crumpled office, where he lit another lamp. As he sat down behind a table full of papers, he noticed a shadow moving towards him through the gloom. Startled, he began to stand up when he heard the voice of the young soldier who had fended off the thieves and saved his life. His blood turned to ice when he heard, “You owe me your life you worthless sack of camel shit. I saved your life and you pay me back by double-crossing me!”
“Noooo…,” cried the tajir in a strident voice. “No, you’re wrong and confused. Let me explain. I am a loyal, truthful, and honest man!”
“You have imperiled the lives of my men, as well as my own,” continued Marius. “You have endangered general Bonaparte’s mission! You filtered information about the mission to Bedouin robbers and all because you wanted a bigger share for yourself. That is not the way an honorable man pays back a debt of gratitude. I saved your life; I now claim it back.”
The tajir felt a little prickle in his neck. It was the second time, and probably not the last, that Marius had used the krizz dagger that Popescu had given him.
Walking back through the deserted streets, Marius reflected on the sweetness felt by the French after taking revenge on the British for their attack in Alexandria, and Napoleon’s sweet revenge on Nelson by capturing two of his ships. However, his revenge on the tajir only left a whiff of bitterness in its wake.
Read more of the adventures of Marius Poucel in the upcoming book La Sombra del Soldado by Luis Gutierrez Poucel, Editorial Gato Blanco, Mexico City, October 2020….