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The Rosetta Key Excerpt

by admin on March 3, 2011

Chapter One

Eyeing a thousand musket barrels aimed at one’s chest does tend to force consideration of whether the wrong path has been taken. So I did consider it, each muzzle bore looking as wide as the bite of a mongrel stray in a Cairo alley. But no, while I’m modest to a fault, I have my self-righteous side as well – and by my light it wasn’t me but the French army that had gone astray. Which I could have explained to my former friend Napoleon Bonaparte if he hadn’t been up on the dunes out of hailing distance, aloof and annoyingly distracted, his buttons and medals gleaming in the Mediterranean sun.

The first time I’d been on a beach with Bonaparte, when he landed his army in Egypt in 1798, he told me the drowned would be immortalized by history. Now, nine months later outside the Palestinian port of Jaffa, history was to be made of me. French grenadiers were getting ready to shoot me and the hapless Muslim captives I’d been thrown in with, and once more I, Ethan Gage, was trying to figure out a way to sidestep destiny. It was a mass execution, you see, and I’d run afoul of the general I once attempted to befriend.

How far we’d both come in nine brief months!

I edged behind the biggest of the wretched Ottoman prisoners I could find, a Negro giant from the Upper Nile whom I calculated might be just thick enough to stop a musket ball. All of us had been herded like bewildered cattle onto a lovely beach, eyes white and round in the darkest faces, the Turkish uniforms of scarlet, cream, emerald, and sapphire smeared with the smoke and blood of a savage sacking. There were lithe Moroccans, tall and dour Sudanese, truculent, pale Albanians, Circassian cavalry, Greek gunners, Turkish sergeants – the scrambled levies of a vast empire, all humbled by the French. And me, the lone American. Not only was I baffled by their babble, they often couldn’t understand each other. The mob milled, their officers already dead, and their disorder a defeated contrast to the crisp lines of our executioners, drawn up as if on parade. Ottoman defiance had enraged Napoleon – you should never put the heads of emissaries on a pike – and their hungry numbers as prisoners threatened to be a crippling drag on his invasion. So we’d been marched through the orange groves to a crescent of sand just south of the captured port, the sparkling sea a lovely green and gold in the shallows, the hilltop city smoldering. I could see some green fruit still clinging to the shot-blown trees. My late benefactor and recent enemy, sitting on his horse like a young Alexander, was (through desperation or dire calculation) about to display a ruthlessness that his own marshals would whisper about for many campaigns to come. Yet he didn’t even have the courtesy of paying attention! He was reading another of his moody novels, his habit to devour a book’s page, tear it out, and pass it back to his officers. I was barefoot, bloody, and only forty miles as the crow flies from where Jesus Christ had died to save the world. The past several days of persecution, torment and warfare hadn’t persuaded me that Our Savior’s efforts had entirely succeeded in improving human nature.

“Ready!” A thousand musket hammers were pulled back.

Napoleon’s henchmen had accused me of being a spy and traitor, which was why I’d been marched with the other prisoners to the beach. And yes, circumstance had given a grain of truth to that characterization. But I hadn’t set out with that intent, by any means. I’d simply been an American in Paris, whose tentative knowledge of electricity – and the need to escape an utterly unjust accusation of murder – resulted in my being included in the company of Napoleon’s scientists, or savants, during his dazzling conquest of Egypt the year before. I’d also developed a knack for being on the wrong side at the wrong time. I’d taken fire from Mameluke cavalry, the woman I loved, Arab cutthroats, British broadsides, Muslim fanatics, French platoons: And I’m a likeable man!

My latest French nemesis was a nasty scoundrel named Pierre Najac, an assassin and thief who couldn’t get over the fact that I’d once shot him from beneath the Toulon stage when he tried to rob me of a sacred medallion. It’s a long story, as an earlier volume will attest. Najac had come back into my life like a bad debt, and had kept me marching in the prisoner rank with a cavalry saber at my back. He was anticipating my imminent demise with the combination of triumph and loathing with which one crushes a particularly obnoxious spider. I was regretting that I hadn’t aimed a shave higher and two inches to the left.

As I’ve remarked before, it all seems to start with gambling. Back in Paris, it had been a card game that won me the mysterious medallion and started the trouble. This time, what had seemed a simple way to get a new start – taking the bewildered seamen of HMS Dangerous for every shilling they had, before the British put me ashore in the Holy Land – had solved nothing and, it could be argued, had actually led to my present predicament. Let me repeat that gambling is a vice, and that it is foolish to rely on chance.


But I’m getting ahead of myself, aren’t I?

I, Ethan Gage, have spent most of my thirty-four years trying to keep out of too much trouble, and away from too much work. As my mentor and one-time employer, the late, great Benjamin Franklin would no doubt observe, these two ambitions are as at odds as positive and negative electricity. The pursuit of the latter, no work, is almost sure to defeat the former, no trouble. But that’s a lesson, like the headache that follows alcohol, or the treachery of beautiful women, forgotten as many times as learned. It was my dislike of hard labor that reinforced my fondness for gambling, gambling that got me the medallion, the medallion that got me to Egypt with half the planet’s villains at my heels, and Egypt that got me my lovely lost Astiza. She in turn had convinced me that we had to save the world from Najac’s master, the French-Italian count and sorcerer Alessandro Silano. All this, without quite expecting it to, put me on the wrong side of Bonaparte. In the course of things I fell in love, found a secret way into the Great Pyramid, and made the damndest discoveries ever, only to lose everything I held dear when forced to escape by balloon.

I told you it was a long story.

Anyway, the gorgeous and maddening Astiza – my would-be assassin, then servant, and then priestess of Egypt – had fallen from the balloon into the Nile along with my enemy, Silano. I’ve been desperately trying to learn their fate ever since, my anxiety redoubled by the fact that my enemy’s last words to Astiza were, “You know I still love you!” How’s that for prying at the corners of your mind at night? Just what was their relationship? Which is why I’d agreed to allow the English madman Sir Sidney Smith to put me ashore in Palestine just ahead of Bonaparte’s invading army, to make inquiries. Then one thing led to another and here I stood, facing a thousand gun muzzles.



But before I tell you what happened when the muskets blazed, perhaps I should go back to where my earlier tale left off, in late October of 1798, where I was trapped on the deck of the British frigate Dangerous, making for the Holy Land with her sails bellied and a bone in her teeth, cutting the frothy deep. How hearty it all was, English banners flapping, burly seamen pulling at their stout lines of hemp with lusty chants, stiff-necked officers in bicorne hats pacing the quarterdeck, and bristling cannon dewed by the spray of the Mediterranean, droplets drying into stars of salt. In other words, it was just the kind of militant, masculine foray I’ve learned to detest, having narrowly survived the hurtling charge of a Mameluke warrior at the Battle of the Pyramids, the explosion of L’Orient at the Battle of the Nile, and any numbers of treacheries by an Arab snake worshipper named Achmed Bin Sadr, who I finally sent to his own appropriate hell. I was a little winded from brisk adventure and more than ready to scuttle back home to New York for a nice job like bookkeeper, or dry goods clerk, or perhaps as solicitor attending to dreary wills clutched by black-clad widows and callow, undeserving offspring. Yes, a desk and dusty ledgers – that’s the life for me! But Sir Sidney would hear none of it. Worse, I’d finally figured out what I cared about in this world: Astiza. I couldn’t very well take passage home without finding out if she’d survived her fall with that villain Silano and could, somehow, be rescued.

Life was simpler when I had no principles.

Smith was gussied up like a Turkish admiral, plans building in his brain like an approaching squall. He’d been given the job of helping the Turks and their Ottoman Empire thwart the further encroachment of Bonaparte’s armies from Egypt into Syria, since young Napoleon’s hope was to carve an Eastern empire out for himself. Sir Sidney needed allies and intelligence, and, after fishing me out of the Mediterranean, he’d told me it would work to both our advantage if I joined his cause. It was foolhardy for me to try to return to Egypt and face the angry French alone, he pointed out. I could make inquiries about Astiza from Palestine, while simultaneously assessing the various sects that might be lined up to fight Napoleon. “Jerusalem!” he’d cried. Was he mad? That half-forgotten city, an Ottoman backwater encrusted by dirt, history, religious lunatics, and disease, had – by all reports – survived only by foisting obligatory tourism on the credible and easily cheated pilgrims of three faiths. But if you’re an English schemer and warrior like Smith is, Jerusalem had the advantage of being a crossroad of the complicated culture of Syria, a polyglot den of Muslim, Jew, Greek Orthodox, Catholic, Druze, Maronite, Matuwelli, Turk, Bedouin, Kurd, and Palestinian, all of them remembering slights from each other going back several thousand years.

Frankly, I’d never have ventured within a hundred miles of the place, except that Astiza was convinced that Moses had stolen a sacred book of ancient wisdom from the bowels of the Great Pyramid and that his descendants had carried it to Israel. That meant Jerusalem was the likeliest place to look. So far this Book of Thoth, or the rumors of it, had been nothing but trouble. Yet if it did hold keys to immortality and mastery of the universe, I couldn’t quite forget about it, could I? Jerusalem did make a perverse kind of sense.

Smith imagined me a trusted accomplice, and in truth we did have an alliance of sorts. I’d met him in a gypsy camp after I’d shot Najac. The signet ring he gave had saved me from a yardarm noose when I was hauled before Admiral Nelson after the fracas at the Nile. And Smith was a genuine hero who’d burned French ships and escaped from a Paris prison by signaling one of his former bedmates from a barred window. After I’d picked up a Pharaoh’s treasure under the Great Pyramid, lost it again to keep from drowning, and stolen a balloon from my friend and fellow savant Jacque-Nicolas Conte, I’d crash-landed into the sea and found myself wet and penniless on the quarterdeck of the Dangerous, fate putting me face-to-face with Sir Sidney once more, and as much at the mercy of the British as I’d been the French. My own feelings – that I’d had quite enough of war and treasure and was ready to go home to America – were blithely ignored.

“So while you make inquiries from Syrian Palestine about this woman you took a fancy to, Gage, you can also feel out the Christians and Jews for possible resistance to Bonaparte,” Smith was telling me. “They might side with the frogs, and if he’s taking an army that way our Turkish allies need all the help they can get.” He put his arm around my shoulder. “You’re just the man for this kind of work, I judge: clever, affable, rootless, and without any scruples or belief. People tell you things, Gage, because they figure it doesn’t matter.”

“It’s just that I’m American, not British or French…”

“Exactly. Perfect for our uses. Djezzar will be impressed that even a man as shallow as you has enlisted.”

Djezzar, whose name meant “The Butcher,” was the notoriously cruel and despotic Pasha in Acre who the British were depending on to fight Napoleon. Charmed, I’m sure.

“But my Arabic is crude, and I know nothing of Palestine,” I pointed out reasonably.

“Not a problem for an agent with wit and pluck like you, Ethan. The Crown has a confederate in Jerusalem by the code name of Jericho, an ironmonger by trade who once served in our own navy. He can help you search for this Astiza and work for us. He’s contacts in Egypt! A few days of your artful diplomacy, a chance to walk in the footsteps of Jesus Christ hisself, and you’re back with nothing more than dust on your boots and a holy relic in your pocket, your other problems solved. It’s really quite splendid how these things work out. Meanwhile I’ll be helping Djezzar organize the defense of Acre in case Boney marches north as you’ve warned. In no time we’ll both be bloody heroes, feted in the chambers of London!”

Whenever people start complimenting you and using words like ‘splendid,’ it’s time to check your purse. But by Bunker Hill, I was curious about the Book of Thoth and tortured by the memory of Astiza. Her sacrifice to save me was the worst moment of my life – worse, honestly, than when my beloved Pennsylvania longrifle blew up – and the hole in my heart was so big you could fire a cannon ball through it and not hit a thing. Which is a good line to use on a woman, I figured, and I wanted to try it out on her. So of course I said yes, the most dangerous word in the English language.

“I am lacking clothes, weapons and money,” I pointed out. The one thing I’d managed to retain from the Great Pyramid were two small gold seraphim, or kneeling angels, which Astiza contended came from the staff of Moses and which I’d stuffed rather ingloriously into my drawers. My initial thought had been to pawn them, but they’d acquired sentimental value despite their tendency to make me scratch. At the very least they were a reserve of precious metal I preferred not to reveal. Let Smith give an allowance, if he was so anxious to enlist me.

“Your taste for Arab rags is perfect,” the British captain said. “That’s quite the swarthy tan you’ve developed, Gage, and add a cloak and turban in Jaffa and you’ll blend like a native. As for an English weapon, that might get you clapped in a Turkish prison if they suspect you of spying. It’s your wits that will keep you safe. I can lend you a small spyglass. It’s splendidly sharp and just the thing to sort out troop movements.”

“You didn’t mention money.”

“The Crown’s allowance will be more than adequate.”

He gave me a purse with a scattering of silver, brass, and copper: Spanish reales, Ottoman piastres, a Russian kopek, and two Dutch rix-dollars. Government budgeting.

“This will hardly buy breakfast!”

“Can’t give you pound sterling, Gage, or it will give you away in an instant. You’re a man of resources, eh? Stretch the odd penny! Lord knows the Admiralty does!”

Well, resourcefulness can start right now, I said to myself, and I wondered if I and the off-duty crewmen might while away the hours with a friendly game of cards. When I was still in good standing as a savant on Napoleon’s Egyptian expedition, I’d enjoyed discussing the laws of probability with famed mathematicians such as Gaspard Monge and the geographer Edme Francois Jomard. They’d encouraged me to think in a more systematic way about odds and the house advantage, sharpening my gambling skills.

“Perhaps I can interest your men in a game of chance?”

“Haw! Be careful they don’t take your breakfast, too!”

Copyright © 2008 William Dietrich

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