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- The Bride of the Nile, Volume 10. - 5/9 -
"But, Child," Susannah began with a laugh; but Katharina gave her no peace till she yielded, and promised to bathe in the men's room, which had not been used at all since the appearance of the epidemic. When Dame Susannah found herself alone she smiled to herself in silent thankfulness, and in the bath again she lifted up her heart and hands in prayer for her only child, the loving daughter who cared for her so tenderly.
Katharina went to her own room, after ascertaining that the clothes she had worn this evening had been sacrificed in the bath-furnace.
It was past midnight, but still she bid the maid sit up, and she did not go to bed. She could not have found rest there. She was tempted to go out on the balcony, and she sat down there on a rocking chair. The night was sultry and still. Every house, every tree, every wall seemed to radiate the heat it had absorbed during the day. Along the quay came a long procession of pilgrims; this was followed by a funeral train and soon after came another--both so shrouded in clouds of dust that the torches of the followers looked like coals glimmering under ashes. Several who had died of the pestilence, and whom it had been impossible to bury by day, were being borne to the grave together. One of these funerals, so she vaguely fancied, was Heliodora's; the other her own perhaps--or her mother's--and she shivered at the thought. The long train wandered on under its shroud of dust, and stood still when it reached the Necropolis; then the sledge with the bier came back empty on red hot runners--but she was not one of the mourners--she was imprisoned in the pestiferous house. Then, when she was freed again--she saw it all quite clearly--two heads had been cut off in the courtyard of the Hall of justice: Orion's and Paula's--and she was left alone, quite alone and forlorn. Her mother was lying by her father's side under the sand in the cemetery, and who was there to care for her, to be troubled about her, to protect her? She was alone in the world like a tree without roots, like a leaf blown out to sea, like an unfledged bird that has fallen out of the nest.
Then, for the first time since that evening when she had borne false witness, her memory reverted to all she had been taught at school and in the church of the torments of hell, and she pictured the abode of the damned, and the scorching, seething Lake of fire in which murderers, heretics, false witnesses....
What was that?
Had hell indeed yawned, and were the flames soaring up to the sky through the riven shell of the earth? Had the firmament opened to pour living fire and black fumes on the northern part of the city?
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.
The worst that could happen to him now was to be deposed from office for his too audacious proceedings. Of all the towns he had seen in the course of the triumphant incursions of Islam none had attracted him so greatly as Damascus, and he now had the means of spending the latter half of his life there in luxurious enjoyment.
At the same time it was desirable to rescue as much as possible from the flames; for it would have given his enemies a fatal hold upon him, if the famous old city of Memphis should perish by his neglect. And he was a man to give battle to the awful element.
Not another building fell a prey to it on the Nile quay; but a light southerly breeze carried burning fragments to the northwest, and several houses in the poorer quarter on the edge of the desert caught fire. Thither the larger portion of those who could combat the flames and rescue the inhabitants were at once directed; and here, as at the palace, he acted on the principle of sacrificing whatever could not be saved entire. Thus a whole quarter of the town was destroyed, hundreds of beggared families lost all they possessed; and yet he, whose ruthless avarice had cast so many into misery, was admired and lauded; for he was everywhere at once: now by the river and now by the desert, always where the danger was greatest, and where the presence of the leader was most needed. Here he was seen in the very midst of the fire, there he swung the axe with his own hand; now, mounted on horseback, he rode down the line where the dry grass was to be torn up by the roots and soaked with water; now, on foot, he directed the scanty jet from the pipes or, with Herculean strength, flung back into the flames a beam which had fallen beyond the limits he had set. His shrill voice sounded, as his huge height towered, above all others; every eye was fixed on his black face and flashing eyes and teeth, while his example carried away all his followers to imitate it. His shouts of command made the scene of the fire like a battle-field; the Moslems, so ably led, regardless of life as they were and ready to strain and exert their strength to the utmost, wrought wonders in the name of their God and His Prophet.
The Egyptians, too, did their best; but they felt themselves impotent by comparison with what these Arabs did, and they hardly felt anything but the disgrace of being over-mastered by them.
The light shone far across the country; even he whose splendid inheritance was feeding the flames perceived, between midnight and dawn, a glow on the distant western horizon which he was unable to account for.
He had been riding towards it for about half an hour when the caravan halted at the last station but one, on the high road between Kolzum and Babylon.
[Suez, and the Greek citadel near which Amru founded Fostat and Cairo subsequently grew up.]
A considerable troop of horse soldiers dismounted at the same time, but Orion had not summoned these to protect him; on the contrary, he was in their charge and they were taking him, a prisoner, to Fostat. He had quitted the chariot in which he had set out and had been made to mount a dromedary; two horsemen armed to the teeth rode constantly at his side. His fellow-travellers were allowed to remain in their chariot.
At the inn which they had now reached Justinus got out and desired his companion, a pale-faced man who sat sunk into a heap, to do the same; but with a weary shake of the head he declined to move.
"Are you in pain, Narses?" asked Justinus affectionately, and Narses briefly replied in a husky voice: "All over," and settled himself against the cushion at the back of the chariot. He even refused the refreshments brought out to him by the Senator's servant and interpreter. He seemed sunk in apathy and to crave nothing but peace.
This was the senator's nephew.
With Orion's help, and armed with letters of protection and recommendation from Amru, the senator had gained his purpose. He had ransomed Narses, but not before the wretched man had toiled for some time as a prisoner, first at the canal on the line of the old one constructed by the Pharaohs, which was being restored under the Khaliff Omar, to secure the speediest way of transporting grain from Egypt to Arabia and afterwards in the rock-bound harbor of Aila. On the burning shores of the Red Sea, under the fearful sun of those latitudes, Narses was condemned to drag blocks of stone; many days had elapsed before his uncle could trace him--and in what a state did Justinus find him at last!
A week before he could reach him, the ex-officer of cavalry had laid himself down in the wretched sheds for the sick provided for the laborers; his back still bore the scars of the blows by which the overseer had spurred the waning strength of his exhausted and suffering victim. The fine young soldier was a wreck, broken alike in heart and body and sunk in melancholy. Justinus had hoped to take him home jubilant to Martina, and he had only this ruin to show her, doomed to the grave.
The senator was glad, nevertheless, to have saved this much at any rate. The sight of the sufferer touched him deeply, and the less Narses would take or give, the more thankful was Justinus when he gave the faintest sign of reviving interest.
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