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Theodora Phranza; or, the Fall of Constantinople

By John Mason Neale

New York: E.P. Dutton, 1913.
First published London: J. Masters, 1857.

Chapter I.

"A thousand horrid prodigies foretold it;
A feeble government, eluded laws,
A factious populace, luxurious nobles,
And all the maladies of sinking states."


High was the revel and loud the clamour in one of the gorgeous palaces of Constantinople, on a stormy evening, at the end of November, 1452. In the great hall, paved and vaulted with pure Parian marble, and supported on fair columns of pale green Carystian stone, the banquet was spread for some twenty guests, the flower of Byzantine aristocracy. The cedar-wood tables groaned under the gold and silver that glittered in the blaze of the chandeliers and tapers; lamps, fed with the sweetest oils of the East, flashed gloriously on jewels and precious hangings; the costliest viands were served in the costliest style,--for the head of the Imperial kitchen had condescended to lend his services for the occasion; and ever and anon wind instruments breathed out soft melodies from the gallery, as the wine circulated more freely, and the mirth grew more boisterous, and the cheek more flushed.

Inside the hall, then, all was revelry; outside, the southern wind was driving a mingled tempest of hail and rain on roof, battlement, and buttress. The marble terraces that sloped up from the Bosporus to the palace, were slippery with wet; the withered foliage of chestnut or plane was torn off, and swept round by the gusty eddies; while, through the great hall windows, (for the house had been built during the Frank domination of Constantinople,) a misty brightness shot forth; and between the long-drawn howls of the wind, the tempered sweetness of flutes and hautboys stole out into the garden.

"A health, noble Protovestiare," cried the Lord of the banquet; "a health, with your permission, worthy friends! a prosperous embassy to George Phranza, and a fair bride to the ever august Emperor!"

Goblets sparkled, and Chian foamed; and the toast was duly honoured. When the confusion had a little subsided, George Phranza, the intimate friend of the last of the Augusti, and Great Protovestiare of the Empire, rose to speak. [Protovestiare: literally the first of the vestment-keepers. It was the sixth dignity in the Palace of Constantinople. He was one of those who had the privilege of wearing a red hat; or as one of the describers of that court phrases it, he was adorned skiadioiV eruqroiV crusw kekosmenoiV]

"So be it," said he; "and I thank you, noble friends,' for the wish. True it is that my last embassy was neither pleasant to me, nor profitable to my master; but, with the blessing of God and S. Demetrius, we shall hail an Augusta in early summer. And now, let us pledge the Great Duke! This to the health of our excellent host, Leontius!"

He spoke cheerfully, and even gaily; but yet one glance might have been sufficient to show that he was no mere reveller,--one moment's reflection, to give rise to wonder that he was to be found in such a scene. Tall, stern, and grave, it seemed that only by an effort he adapted himself to the occasion; and when he had returned the compliment that had been paid him, he sat down to resume a conversation (of great importance, it seemed) which he had been carrying on with the guest who sat next to him. That guest, by his habit, manner, and language, was a Frank; by his fresh, fair complexion, well-made, though somewhat athletic, figure, and light, crisp hair circling round his high forehead, you would not have been mistaken in supposing him of English descent. He was, in truth, Sir Edward de Rushton, Great Acolyth of the Empire, and head of the Varangians or English bodyguard, of the Augustus. [Great Acolyth. This was the name of the officer in the Byzantine Court who had the command of the Varangian guards. Codinus thus explains the reason of the title: The Acolyth is responsible for the Varangians, and follows (akolouqei) the Emperor before them, wherefore, also, he is called Acolyth. The Varangians, Varagians, or Virangoi, for by all these, and several other names were they called,--the title originally signified Corsairs,--were the Norman adventurers who, by degrees, were promoted to be the Life-guards of the Byzantine Emperor. Gibbon says well of them,--"The first Vladimir had the merit of delivering Russia from these foreign mercenaries. They had seated him on the throne; his riches were insufficient to satisfy their demands; but they listened to his pleasing advice, that they should seek, not a more grateful, but a more wealthy, master; that they should embark for Greece, when, instead of the skins of squirrels, silk and gold would be the recompense of their service. At the same time the Russian Prince admonished his Byzantine ally to disperse and employ, to recompense and restrain, these impetuous children of the north. Contemporary writers have recorded the introduction, name, and character of the Varangians; each day they rose in confidence and esteem; the whole body was assembled at Constantinople to perform the duty of guards, and their strength was recruited by a numerous band of their countiymen from the island Thule. On this occasion, the vague appellation of Thule is applied to England, and the new Varangians weie a colony of English and Danes, who fled from the yoke of the Norman conqueror. These exiles were entertained in the Byzantine Court; and they preserved, till the last age of the Empire, the inheritance of spotless loyalty, and the use of the Danish or English tongue." That they spoke Danish is asserted only by Saxo Grammaticus, who could have had no intimate acquaintance with the subject: Codinus, who must have known positively, affirms that they spoke English.]

"Now," said he, "that these fools will leave us in peace, and will see nothing but their wine so long as they have eyes to see anything, let me hear more. So lately as I have returned, and such innumerable visits of compliment as I have had to receive and to make, I have not had a fair opportunity of learning what ought to be done, and what is to be feared. Now tell me the worst, if there be a worst, beyond common report."

"Why, truly, my Lord," replied Sir Edward, "to look at this scene, who would fancy that only just across the strait there is the fortress of Amurath, and now, at the Asomatoi, but five short miles from the city, Mahomet has erected such a work as will stand for ages? [Asomatoi. Literally, the Bodiless Ones: that is, as it would have been called in the West, the Church of all Angels.] He commands the Bosporus; he commands the ground up to the very gates. Why he has allowed us this last year he knows best; but how we are to expect another, God only knows!"

"Ay," said Phranza; "and yet the flatterers at the palace represent the Asomatoi as a mere temporary arrangement. When there is a better understanding between the two nations, they say, it will be removed; and so they go on disputing about titles and precedence, and all in this parody of an empire."

"You must have help from the Latins," returned De Rushton, "or an unconditional surrender will be all that can be hoped for. And that reminds me,--is it true that Cardinal Isidore is so near as Selymbria?"

"A courier brought the news to-day. There will be an Union, of course: he will say Mass at S. Sophia; and there will be the end. As to any real help from Nicolas, I should as soon expect it from Prester John."

"The fault is on your side more than on his," said his companion, boldly. "I myself heard the Great Duke say, only three days ago, that he had rather see the Sultan's turban than the Cardinal's hat, in the great Church."

"Don't let us dispute about the degree of fault," said Phranza, earnestly. "You are a Latin; do your best to persuade this Cardinal to respect the prejudices of the people. What his conscience obliges him to insist on, that, of course, he must do; but nothing immaterial,--no innovation that he can possibly help. We are the weakest, and must of course yield; but persuade him, for the sake of our common Christianity, and our common cause, to use his power mercifully."

"I will try," said De Rushton; "but he is not one to lose an opportunity, or to neglect stretching a point. But the fact is,--you will not accuse me of vanity in saying so,--you have not a single native soldier that you can depend on in danger. For reviews and processions to S. Sophia they do indifferently well; but once let the Turkish troops be seen under the walls, and your very women would fight as bravely."

"More so," said Phranza, with a bitter smile; "and of all this cowardly rubbish, the most cowardly, the most lost to everything like a sense of shame or honour, would be these same banqueters, on whose brains our host's excellent wine is beginning to act."

"Noble Protovestiare, you do small credit to the banquet," cried Leontius. "Taste this wine,--it is from Lemnos; I have a vineyard there. Demetrius, carry me this flask to the most noble Phranza."

"I thank you," replied Phranza, tasting the proffered beverage; "it is choice indeed.--Ha! what is that?" he cried, as the heavy boom of a gun came rolling over the Bosporus.

"Only the new Turkish cannon," cried one or two of the guests.

"At the Asomatoi," explained Sir Edward de Rushton. "The infidel dogs are going to prayer. I never hear it, without fancying it the death knell of the city. Why, it was but the other day that one shot sank a Venetian vessel up the strait yonder; the master ana some twelve or fifteen of the sailors made a shift to get to land, and there the Aga had them impaled for their pains: so they might as well have let the thing alone."

"I wonder," said Phranza, "that no attempt was made to hinder the erection of this fort. There is but one man of sense,--there is but one man of courage,--among us, but that man, thank God, is the Emperor. I wonder he did not rather die sword in hand than submit to this."

"So he would have done," replied De Rushton, "if he could have had his own way. But all the Domestics were against him; I could not be heard; and the Protopope next Sunday preached from the text, 'the king is not he that can do anything against you.' "

"Would I had been here!" said Phranza: "things might not have come to this pass! What tidings have you from Hadrianople? Mahomet is not one to spend the winter in idleness."

"They say that he is building a palace," answered Sir Edward; "and we hear a good deal of his trying new experiments with artillery. But it is almost impossible to obtain certain information."

"Certain information I must have, though," said Phranza, "if I go for it myself. Is there no one among the Varangians who could go as a spy there? I would rather trust them than a Greek."

"I will try to find such a man," replied his friend. "Yes, I do know one who might do. His father was an Englishman, but his mother was a Smyrniot, and he takes more after her; he might pass for a Turk anywhere, and a likely fellow he is. The best part of him is, that if he happens to be taken, they may tear him to pieces before they would tear his secret out of him."

"That is well indeed," said Phranza; "what is the fellow's name?"

"Richard Burstow," replied Sir Edward.

"Ricardos Mpurstos," repeated Phranza. "Could you bring him to me to-morrow?"

"At what time?"

"Why, not too early: for there is a Synod of Bishops about this union at the Studium. I hope the Emperor will be there; and if so, I must attend him. But come you to me at about two of the clock in the afternoon, and wait for me if I am not returned."

"Young Chrysolaras, there, looks as weary of this banquet as I am," said De Rushton. "The Great Duke is getting past the notice of anything by this time: could we not slip out?"

"Wait a moment," said Phranza; "I will catch Chrysolaras' eye, and he shall go too. I should have excepted him just now, when I said that we had only one man of courage amongst us; he is as brave as a lion."

"Him and one or two others you should have excepted," said Sir Edward, with rather a melancholy smile. "Things are bad enough, but not quite at such a pitch."

"Not far off," rejoined the Great Protovestiare. "But I love that young man as if he were my own son; and so, please the Panaghia, he shall be before many weeks are over. There!--he sees!--now, excellent Acolyth, as quickly as we can."

The manoeuvre was successful; and the three friends were presently standing in the portico of the palace. The night had cleared, though the wind still blew fitfully from the south. The moon, now nearly at her zenith, shed a flood of glory on the dome of S. Sophia, that rose immediately behind, on the palace of the Emperor, on the innumerable domes of Constantinople's countless churches; the marble terraces glittered like snow among the dark green shade of laurel and cypress; the Bosporus rolled on in the path of brightness that lay on its waters; while across the strait, the yellow glow of torches showed that some outpost of the Turks was stationed close to the beach.

The friends stood still to enjoy the beauty of the scene, and the freshness of the evening breeze after the heated apartments of the revel. Chrysolaras was the first to speak.

"It is a city worth dying for, noble Phranza," said he; "and yet I suppose that out of all the crowd yonder, we three are the only men that think so,--or, at least, that would do so."

"I fear you are not far wrong, Manuel," answered the nobleman addressed. "Well, it is time to be separating: you are for the palace, Sir Edward de Rushton?"

"By your good leave, I will walk with you to the gate," said Manuel Chrysolaras. "So the Cardinal is to make his entry to-morrow."

"You are no friend of his, I know," said Phranza; "but I do trust that now at last you will see the necessity of submitting to this Union. I speak openly before the Acolyth; he will excuse it, I know. I do not believe that he would press it upon us in this unseemly--I might well say, this unholy--manner."

"You only do me justice," replied De Rushton.

"But it is so forced upon us; and the question is, how we are to meet it. Have we a single hope of defending the city without the aid of the Latins?"

"Have we with it?" in his turn inquired Chrysolaras.

"That, as God pleases," replied Phranza. "If the difference seems so irreconcilable to any one,--if the Latins seem so thoroughly to have apostatized, that death without them is better than union with them,--act as your conscience tells you: only then leave the city. We have no such scruples; have them for yourself, if you will, but do not weaken our arms by spreading them amongst us."

"For me,--"said Chrysolaras, "my mind is made up. If the Union is carried, I submit to it; but only as to a necessary evil. Hark! what is that?" he added, as, in turning the corner of a street, a sound was heard as of one haranguing.

"It is by the church of S. Irene," said Sir Edward de Rushton; "let us go and see."

Late as it was, at the west end of the little church he had named a crowd had assembled, and was listening with excited attention to a monk, who, on the highest step of the western facade, was preaching in the most fiery strain against the Union.

"Trust to God, men and brethren," he was saying, "trust to God, and to your own good swords, and to the saintly patrons of this city. But do not ruin your cause, do not profane your faith, do not alienate your God, by accepting the assistance of these Azymites. [Azymites. That is, those who do not use leaven in the Holy Eucharist; one of the bitterest causes of dispute between the two Churches.] Perish they, and all that trust in them! Let not Nicolas, by a few smooth words,--let not this firebrand of a Cardinal, whom he has sent to tempt us,--beguile you from your crown of orthodoxy. Let Mahomet do his worst; leave the defence of the city to God; He will appear when there is no other helper.--Know--even as I know, who have received it by revelation--that the Turks will encamp against Constantinople; they will bend their engines against it; they will open great breaches in its walls; there will be, as the prophet speaks, the noise of a whip, and the rattling of the wheels, and of the prancing horses, and of the jumping chariots; they will prevail against the city; they will enter into it; they will advance as far as the great Place of Constantine;---but there their triumph will end. The Angel of the Lord will descend from heaven, with a sword drawn in his hand; he will give it to a poor man that shall be seated at the foot of the Column; he will say, 'Take this sword, and deliver the people of God from the stranger.' Then the Turks will turn; the men of Constantinople will pursue them from the city; victory after victory shall declare for us, till we have driven the circumcised dogs across the Bosporus; and even then the Caesar shall go conqueringly onward till all Anatolia shall bow itself to the Roman sway."

"This is intolerable," said Phranza, as the vehemence of the orator compelled him to pause for breath. "This man will be the ruin of the scheme: I must try what can be done.--Friends and fellow-countrymen," he began, in a louder voice, "it were surely meeter that, instead of listening to these untimely midnight harangues, ye were content to leave the question to them that can best decide it, namely, your Bishops. To-morrow they meet in synod to discuss the Union; and, if they find it unfit------"

"Anathema on thee also, George Phranza!" cried the monk; "anathema on thee, and on thy time-serving counsels! These are the men that have brought us to this depth of humiliation; these are the counsels that have drawn down God's anger upon us." And the little crowd, as with one man's voice, shouted "Anathema to the Azymites!"

"Most noble Phranza," cried Chrysolaras, "it is but waste of breath to persuade the mob. This Gennadius is their idol; God send he be an honest one! If he incited them against the palace to-night, to-morrow it would be a smoking ruin!"

"I believe you are right," answered the Protovestiare. "But we must take order against the recurrence of these meetings: a man that shall have the ear of the mob, like this monk, is the engine of incalculable mischief. I am glad I have seen this.--Come, friends------" And with some difficulty,--for the mob seemed well disposed to deny them passage,--they forced their way from the square of S. Irene.

"May I inquire," asked Sir Edward de Rushton, when they had passed a little way in silence, "what is the exact number, as nearly as it can be told, of the Roman soldiers to whom we are to look in the siege?"

"Will you both swear not to reveal it, if I trust you with the secret?" inquired Phranza.

"Certainly we will," cried his two companions.

"The best account, then, that I have been able to procure makes them--I almost fear that, when you hear the sum, you will regard all idea of defence as hopeless."

"Let us know the worst," said the Acolyth.

"Four thousand nine hundred and seventy."

"Impossible!" cried Chrysolaras. "Why, I looked for ten times that number, at the very least!"

"Too possible," replied Phranza; "for it is only too true."

"And does the Emperor know this?" demanded Sir Edward de Rushton.

"He does."

"And what did he say?"

"He spoke like himself. 'If they are cowards,' he said, 'four thousand are as good as forty thousand; and if they are brave men, four thousand lives such as theirs are enough to throw away in so hopeless a cause.' "

"But the other Domestics--they surely have no idea of the forces we can muster?" inquired Chrysolaras.

"No; we must keep them in ignorance till the siege is formed, or they would compel a surrender. Still, we may look to Europe for some help, if this unhappy Union can but be brought about; and whether it be or not, I have certain advices that Genoa will help us."

"Why, the Genoese merchants have almost as great a stake in the city as we have, for Galata is their town," said Sir Edward; "but it is something, nevertheless, to look for such stout hearts and skilful hands as theirs."

By this time the party had reached the gate of the palace. Four Varangians stood sentinels on the outside, and a strong party kept guard in the guard-house, which opened by one door on the porch of entrance, by another on to the court. Two huge resin torches flared in stands of brass before the great gate; and as the three friends approached, the sentinels changed their listless watch into quick attention.

"Who goes there?" cried one, presenting his partisan.

"Peace, fool!" cried another; "it is the Acolyth and the Protovestiare." And the soldiers paid the usual compliment to two such distinguished officers of the Court.

"Good-night, Manuel," said Phranza; "I shall probably see you to-morrow. Good-night, friends; has it been quiet watch?"

"Quite quiet, your Augustness," replied one of the men, in broken Greek.

"Ah! you on guard, Richard Burstow?" cried Sir Edward de Rushton. "That is well. Bid one of your comrades take your place, and then follow me. I may have an errand for you. Good-night, my lord Phranza; I will not fail you at two of the clock to-morrow."

So saying, the English chief proceeded up the broad marbled staircase that led to his metoecia, or as we should call it now, his suite of apartments. With a pass-key he opened the door that was entered from the landing; for he loved not at all the pomp of Oriental life, and had desired that no one, not even his page, should shorten their night by waiting for his arrival. The room, into which we must follow him, was floored with the finest cedar; the walls were concealed by Peloponnesian hangings of cloth, for the Great Acolyth had vigorously opposed the introduction of silk into his apartments. A lamp was burning on the table of citron-wood; and by its faint light might be seen various pieces of armour, disposed with no small degree of taste about the room;--some, the actual appurtenances of Sir Edward de Rushton, somewhat earlier in their form than those in use at the time in Europe,--for nothing changed its fashion more quickly, and fashion travelled but slowly to Constantinople. A few moments, and the heavy step of Richard Burstow was heard on the staircase. He came in his sentinel's suit of half-armour, only having left his partisan in the porch, and showed a well-set, well-compacted frame, such as did not belie his descent from English yeomanry; while his dark, sallow face, piercing black eye, and well-chiselled nose, were all from his mother. When his countenance was at rest, it maintained something of the sullen look of his English ancestors; when he spoke or smiled, it lighted up into a gleam of exquisite shrewdness, and sly, good-natured humour.

"Well, Richard," said the Great Acolyth, who, however exalted a personage at Court, maintained, and was forced to maintain, no small affability with his own men,--"the nights are getting long now, and rainy and windy enough to remind one of England. A cup of Lesbian will do you no harm, man; you will find a tankard on yonder shelf,--and here is the beaker."

"Your Lordship's good health," said Burstow. "Very reasonable good wine," he added, setting down the glass, "though not quite like Burgundy."

"Very true, comrade. I told you I had a piece of business in hand for you, and no time like the present for talking of it: if you succeed, your fortune is made."

"And if I fail, my Lord?"

Sir Edward shrugged his shoulders, and added, "But if I know you, you are not the man to turn back for that."

"Not I, by S. George! out with it, my Lord!"

"It is easily told. The Emperor wants some certain intelligence of what is doing at Hadrianople; he can trust no one so well as his Varangians, and of his bodyguard I can trust none so well as you: so you must e'en run the venture."

"I'll go confess, my Lord," returned the soldier; "pray heaven I fall not into mortal sin on the road."

"Pooh! it is not so bad as that," said the Acolyth. "You can make as good a Turk as the Sultan himself; you can speak their language like ours, or, by'r Lady! something better; and you have wit enough to match the foul fiend himself."

"I am not going to prove that last character, my Lord, I take it: however, what must be, must. And when is it your Lordship's pleasure that I hold me ready?"

"Nay," returned Sir Edward de Rushton, "I have no pleasure in the matter: it depends on the Emperor, or rather, on the Lord Phranza, who will see you before you depart. I am to visit him at two of the clock to-morrow, and you were best to go with me."

"Very well, my Lord," replied Burstow. And so they parted.

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