When the 78th Highlanders traveled in time-kinda-
Believe it or not, Sisterhood of the Sword’s initial conception was due to a button.
Yes, a button. On one of my first visits to the Halifax Citadel I was given a button off one of the military uniforms. On it was an elephant. I found it curious and asked the obvious question, “Why?”
What followed was a history of the 78th Regiment of Foot provided by one of the interpreters. While the 78th Highlanders are presently based at the Halifax Citadel in Halifax, Nova Scotia. They haven’t always been based here. Here is a brief video detailing some of the history and interior of the Citadel itself.
As you can see, it commands its own position in the heart of Halifax. With Jamie Poole’s storyline with an alabaster statue uncovered in Egypt, it didn’t take much convincing on Jamie’s part to include the 78th Highlanders in a book. I had half the book in my head when I left the Citadel that day, button in hand.
And while Sisterhood of the Sword is entirely a fictional story, there is a lot of historical fact in the backdrop of the story, including this. I want to showcase the 78th Highlanders as they blend past and present into a city caught somewhere in between.
Sisterhood of the Sword will bring back favorite characters including Lenore Taylor, Bruce Sutherland, and Nick Fagan. It will also introduce you to the Borden family and to Walter Cornwall.
Here is where we meet the first Borden, a 78th Highlander himself. And we find a statue. From Sisterhood of the Sword:
Private Harrison Borden stretched.
Every part of his body ached. The fighting had ended. For now. He and the rest of the 78th Regiment of Foot reclined in their tented camp on a plain outside Alexandria, Egypt.
The 78th Regiment of Foot was a Highland Infantry Regiment of the Line raised by Francis Humberstone MacKenzie in late Eighteenth Century Scotland. Their first action, before his time, had begun in 1792 with the French Revolutionary Wars. He had joined up less than two years ago. Already the 78th had been active in the Netherlands, South Africa, and now Northern Africa.
As a result of their Scottish origin, Private Borden wore the MacKenzie tartan on his kilt, a uniform chosen because of the flexibility it provided in combat. Nearby someone played the bagpipes. Borden had tossed off his glengarry bonnet and reclined his head on his supply bag, listening while contemplating a nap. Perhaps the chap would soon stop. He was a bit too close.
This was the Alexandria Expedition, part of the Anglo-Turkish war, or more specifically part of the Napoleonic Wars, as they would be known. All Private Borden knew or cared about was their goal to secure Alexandria for a base of operation against the Ottoman Empire. The people of Alexandria, being disaffected toward Muhammad Ali of Cairo, had opened the gates to the city, making it one of the easiest conquests of the war.
As Private Borden catnapped despite the bagpipe, he had no way of knowing this victory would be short-lived. He couldn’t guess a lack of British supplies would put them at a great disadvantage against their Egyptian adversaries. What he knew was the city made him curious, and for this reason he decided against a nap. He wanted to explore. He stood and shook off any sand. He felt safe wandering the city. He donned the glengarry bonnet and took off. He nodded at fellow members of the 78th who guarded the main streets of Alexandria. Not that there was much to guard. After all, the citizens had opened the doors to them!
The city, walled and gated, was built along the coast of the Mediterranean Sea. It had been founded by Alexander the Great and once boasted the greatest library in the world. There had been a lighthouse here, too, if Borden recalled correctly. He knew the basics of the city’s history.
Before he realized it, he’d wandered off the main thoroughfare and into an alley. He stood at a crossway, wondering which way would get him back to somewhere familiar. Why had he let himself get lost in his thoughts? He wandered left, then right, and left again, trying to get back on the main road. The alleys were fascinating with a treasure trove of strange foods, wares, and people, but it wasn’t exactly safe. There could be spies.
He found himself thoroughly lost in the tangle of streets. Finally, many minutes later, he came to a clearing where all the alleyways exited into some sort of clearing where the buildings turned their backs. A few men in native dress regarded him curiously. They appeared to have been playing some sort of game on a stack of casks. He smiled and shrugged open palms to show he was unarmed. The men shrugged and resumed their game.
A woman materialized to Borden’s right before he realized there were any women in the area. She wore a loose-fitting garment and a rag wrapped about her head. It was hard to tell her age. The bits of hair that escaped the rag were prematurely gray. She could have been anywhere from forty to eighty. She had no teeth. “My sir,” she said in halting English.
“Can you tell me…?”
“Oh, sir, you lost, sir?”
“Yes, mum. Which way is the main road?”
“I show you. I show. But first. You see this.” She took his hand and led him a few paces to her home. The entrance hid behind a stack of wicker baskets.
“Oh, no, mum,” Borden pulled his hand to free it, assuming she led him to a brothel. He had a young wife back in Scotland who was pregnant with their first child.
“You see. You see.” She tugged.
Against his will, Borden followed. They entered the house. A man and a couple children sat on pallets on the floor. It was clear they were poor.
“Come, come.” The woman pulled him over to the man. Curious now, Borden followed.
The man held something in his lap wrapped in rags. These he undid. Borden gasped.
The man held up a statue no more than the length of a man’s foot. It was of a woman holding a sword.
“Is that…?” Borden stuttered.
The man replied with an Arabic word Borden didn’t recognize. “Mur…” he couldn’t get his mouth around the pronunciation. “Alabaster,” he finished in English instead.
“Alabaster. Yes. Is alabaster. You like?”
He was mistaken. She had a few teeth hiding in the back of her mouth. He reached for the statue but the man snatched it away.
“Look. No touch.”
“Yes, mum,” Borden replied, a glint of hunger lighting his eyes. The statue was beautifully carved. The woman gazed at him through dark green eyes. She seemed to smile with full lips painted rich pink. Even the sword was painted. A blue stone was set into the pommel. It was utterly magnificent.
As he regarded the statue, he realized any noise in the room had died. He glanced around. Everyone, including the children, regarded him. “It’s beautiful,” he said.
“You buy?” The woman cocked her head.
“You want to sell this?” He assumed it was a family heirloom. It looked old, but what did he know? He wasn’t an antiquities dealer.
“Yes. Yes. You buy.”
The family had to be hungry. Whatever they wanted for the statue would feed them for the year. Something like this had to be expensive.
Private Borden looked down at his sporran. He thought he had carried his purse when he entered Alexandria. Either he had forgotten it back at camp or a pickpocket had lifted it neatly. He extended his hands in the international sign. “I have no money.”
The woman looked sad but not angry. So did the man.
“I’m sorry. I can try to find money. I’ll come back…” He voice dropped. He wanted the statue. Could he afford it though? He didn’t even know the price. It would look oddly out of place in his cottage. Even so, he wanted it desperately, more than anything in his life.
He’d never felt such greed… Something in the woman’s eyes…
He’d find a way to get it.
“You come back. Yes?”
The woman smiled. “He help you back.”
Private Borden looked over his shoulder. Another man stood there. Had he been there the whole time? While the man dressed like any other Egyptian man, his eyes were ice blue. They blazed from beneath his turban. Like the other men, he wore a loose fitting gallabiyah and a scarf about his neck.
“My brother son,” the woman tried to explain.
“I’ll help you back,” the man replied in perfect British English.
Returning to camp no worse for wear an hour later, Private Borden discovered his sporran had indeed been stolen. On this account he felt discouraged for many reasons. He had a wife at home after all. And goodness, that statue had been beautiful. He almost ached for want of it. Imagine his wife’s surprise if he returned from this war with a souvenir. It could be handed down to his son and his son’s son. A wonderful heirloom. Imagine the stories they’d tell! “Remember when Grandfather was in Egypt?”
Borden wrote about it in his diary, but he didn’t tell any of the other men. He also never returned to purchase the statue. He never found the money. But he never forgot.
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