She started up in dismay, her eyes fixed on the terrible sight. The whole sky seemed to be in flames; a fiery furnace, with dense smoke and myriads of shooting sparks, filled the whole space between earth and heaven. A devouring conflagration was apparently about to annihilate the town, the river, the starry vault itself; the metal heralds which usually called the faithful to church lifted up their voices; the quiet road at her feet suddenly swarmed with thousands of people; shrieks, yells and frantic commands came up from below, and in the confusion of tongues she could distinguish the words “Governor’s Palace”—“Arabs”—“Mukaukas”—“Orion” —“fire”—“Put it out”—“Save it.”
At this moment the old head-gardener called up to her from the lotos-tank: “The palace is in flames! And in this drought—God All-merciful save the town!”
Her knees gave way; she put out her hands with a faint cry to feel for some support, and two arms were thrown about her-the arms which she so lately had pushed away: her mother’s: that mother who had bent over her only child and inhaled death in a kiss on her plague-tainted hair.
The governor’s palace, the pride and glory of Memphis, the magnificent home of the oldest and noblest family of the land—the last house that had given birth to a race of native Egyptians held worthy, even by the Greeks, to represent the emperor and uphold the highest dignity in the world—the very citadel of native life, lay in ashes; and just as a giant of the woods crushes and destroys in its fall many plants of humbler growth, so the burning of the great house destroyed hundreds of smaller dwellings.
This night’s work had torn the mast and rudder, and many a plank besides, from that foundering vessel, the town of Memphis. It seemed indeed a miracle that had saved the whole from being reduced to cinders; and for this, next to God’s providence, they might thank the black incendiary himself and his Arabs. The crime was committed with cool and shrewd foresight, and carried through to the end. During his visitation throughout the rambling buildings Obada had looked out for spots that might suit his purpose, and two hours after sunset he had lighted fire after fire with his own hand, in secret and undetected. The troops he intended to employ later were waiting under arms at Fostat, and when the fire broke out, first in the treasury and afterwards in three other places in the palace, they were immediately marched across and very judiciously employed.
All that was precious in this ancient home of a wealthy race, was conveyed to a place of safety, even the numerous fine horses in the stables; and the title-deeds of the estate, slaves, and so forth were already secured at Fostat; still, the flames consumed vast quantities of treasures that could never be replaced. Beautiful works of art, manuscripts and books such as were only preserved here, old and splendid plants from every zone, vessels and woven stuffs that had been the delight of connoisseurs—all perished in heaps. But the incendiary regretted none of them, for all possibility of proving how much that was precious had fallen into his hands was buried under their ashes.