Page images
PDF
EPUB

therefore, not bitten with English prestige. He could not find words sufficient to express his admiration of Nelson. “I can only say," he said, “that there could never be such a sailor again."

I own that I was consumed with curiosity as the train, which, for some unfathomable reason, starts from a suburb some miles out of Alexandria, carried me towards Abakir. I will not describe the journey's beauties as you glide between the fresh-water lake of Ramleh, like the sparkle of champagne in a thirsty land, on one side, and a shady palm grove on the other. Before you come to Abûkir there is desert, but the deserts of the Mediterranean littoral are not like the deserts of the Nile Valley ; for here in places fine palm-trees spring from the golden sand, witnessing to lurking moisture. Just before the station of Abûkir the train plunges into sand. hummocks, with a large encampment of very tidy Bedouins amid the dwarf prickly pears, which are a mass of yellow blossom in May. As I stepped out of the train my heart sank within me, for I could see nothing but dust-heapy sandhummocks, and the poor little hotel, which had not had the courage to open. But the usual Arab, with a smattering of all languages, appeared as if he had arisen from the earth at the summons of a genie, and led us sharp down to the right.

Then an enchanting scene broke upon my eyes. A deep, blue roadstead, with a fringe of fishing felookahs on a grassy shore, was in front of me; the old yellow fort of Abûkir rose high on the left, connected by a dotted line of reefs with Nelson's Island, while on my right was a palm grove, with a gay little minaret towering over it, and the golden blossoms of the dwarf prickly pears spreading over the sand in front of it, like the Beard of Jove on the sands of the Bay of Naples. I could just see through the trees the fort on the other brow of the bay, and the pale-blue line of coast stretching away to the Rosetta mouth of the Nile. The colouring was perfect.

I turned my footsteps instinctively towards the fort on the Abukir headland crowning the termination of the high ridge on which the village stands. The slopes of the ridge presented a blessed sight, for they were covered with wild

flowers—more wild flowers than all we had seen in Egypt put together, especially the dwarf mauve unscented wild stock, the bright blue alkamet, a gay and delicate heath, and that dwarf prickly pear.

The calmness of the roadstead, in which the French met their fate a hundred and ten years to a day before the night on which I write these words, was shown by the stillness of the dark-blue mirror as we came upon it at sunset, though we could hear the surf breaking round the head. The picturesque fort, with its two crumbling moats and its dismantled guns, and its polygonal tower of poor, rough masonry, looked as if it might be of any age. We passed in through the vaulted gateway, unchallenged. The little houses for barracks, which ring the enceinte inside, were garrisoned only by native women and a swarm of children. It looked such a deserted place, with its old mortars and rusty Armstrongs. We seemed to be back at Syracuse in the castle of Maniace, which guards the mouth of the Great Harbour, as we walked on the wide ramparts with dwarf stocks spreading their bright flowers over the old masonry, and the carriages of the guns just as they do in the Sicilian Castle. It was all so like Syracuse, for the line of reefs which connected the fort with Nelson's Island recalled irresistibly the more famous reefs of the Marble Harbour of Dionysius at the ancient capital of Sicily. This was a good point for taking in the lie of the battlefield, if one may use such a term of water. The roadstead of Abukir has the outline of a fret-saw-the French fleet being on the line of the actual saw and the land taking the form of the steel bow which holds the saw. There is a fort at each end of the bow, the left-hand point from the sea being a very bold object in the landscape, at the end of its high ridge, continued in almost a straight line by a succession of reefs to Nelson's Island, which also rises boldly out of the water.

It cannot be said that Admiral Brueys, the French Commander-in-Chief, took as much pains about securing his position as the fearless Nelson would have taken. The semicircle of high ground, which encloses the roadstead, was

[graphic]
[ocr errors]

THE CASTLE OF ABÛKIR AND THE SCENE OF THE BATTLE OF THE NILE, The sea beyond is Abûkir Bay, in which Nelson won the Battle of the Nile. The French held this casule during the battle.

[p. 222

[graphic][merged small][merged small]

not of the same value in supporting the fleet as it would be nowadays, for the guns of the Nelsonic era were not like ours, and the French fleet had to lie three miles from the shore on account of the shallowness of the coast water. But Brueys, as Nelson divined from the rough chart taken from a prize, which was all he had to guide him in the most daring piece of seamanship in the whole history of the world, had not anchored as close to the shoal water as he might have done either on the side or at the head of his column. Otherwise Nelson could never have executed his unutterably daring manœuvre of penetrating between the French and the shore. And instead of anchoring his ships so close to each other that his line could not be pierced, he anchored them five hundred yards apart. The skilled eyes of Nelson and his captains took in the points of the situation at a glance. “Where a French ship can swing,” said Nelson, "an English ship can pass,” or words to that effect; and proceeded to advance to the task, with his own ship in the centre of his line, so as to be in the best position for adapting the attack to circumstances. To show the full daring of the attack, I must recall a few facts of the history of that eventful day.

It was at a quarter to three in the afternoon of August 1, 1798, that the mast-head-man of the Zealous discovered the long-sought-for enemy lying in Abukir Bay, fifteen miles east of Alexandria. The enemy was so distant that Nelson knew he could not reach them till nightfall, and that he would not only have to fight the battle in the dark, but that some of his ships would have to take up their positions in the dark, with hardly anything to guide them but their knowledge of the margin, which a bad seaman like the French admiral would allow himself. Each side had thirteen ships, but Nelson's were all two-deckers, and some of the French were three-deckers, so their preponderance in the number of guns and the weight of metal was enormous. Further, only ten of Nelson's thirteen ships were with him. Two of them, the Alexander and the Swiftsure, were a dozen miles to leeward, doing frigate's duty; and the Culloden, captained by Troubridge, the finest sailor in the fleet after Nelson, was

« PreviousContinue »