Project Canterbury

Theodora Phranza; or, the Fall of Constantinople

By John Mason Neale

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

Chapter II.

"To pass further
Were not alone impertinent, but dangerous.
We are not distant from the Turkish Camp
Above five leagues; and who knows but some party
Of his Timariots, that scour the country,
May fall upon us?"

The Picture: Massinger.

We must leave the splendour and confusion of the Imperial City for a little while, for a quieter, but perhaps far lovelier, scene.

Some half mile to the east of Silivri, on a down that sloped steeply to the sea of Marmora, there stood--and its ruins still stand--a summer mansion of one of the luxurious nobles of Constantinople, in the days of John Cantacuzene. Since its erection, the family that had built it had become extinct, and it had passed into less wealthy hands. Its present owner, Nicetas Choniates, called himself Exarch of Silivri, and might hold a position of the same social importance that the mayoralty of a flourishing town might now-a-days confer, if made perpetual in the same person. There was the house, then, with its marble entrance hall, its spacious rooms branching right and left, so as to form three sides of a quadrangle, and the cool colonnade, catching all the southern breezes, that made the fourth. Late as it was in the year, roses, and heliotrope, and jessamine were entwining the pillars of this cloister with autumnal beauty; the garden, curtailed in extent, and deprived of many of the curious exotics that it once had possessed, still was laid out in fair terraces; and in the midst two fountains threw up their waters to the November sun. A small chapel, curiously covered on the outside with Mosaics, stood at the end of one of these terraces; and the whole place, though no longer possessing its former splendour, was still kept up with neatness, and showed equal good taste and good feeling on the part of the worthy owner.

The morning was warm, and the cheerful rays of the sun had called out a diligent swarm of bees round the colonnade. Tempted it would seem, by the lingering appearance of summer, two ladies had also taken their place in the same cloister; and the view was sufficiently lovely to justify their choice. They looked down on the blue waters of the Propontis, studded here and there with a passing sail, like a snow-flake; beyond rose the gentle hills of Bithynia, like a grey cloud; while from the many coves and creeks of the European shore, all along as far as Erekli, fishermen were launching out their little skiffs, or repairing them after the last night's storm.

Of the two ladies who occupied that pleasant colonnade, one might have seen seventeen, the other five or six and thirty summers; and their likeness told at once that they could only be mother and daughter. The elder, brought up in all the simplicity and old fashion of Silivri, was employed with the spinning-wheel, the buzz of which seemed to respond to the hum of the bees; the younger was engaged with her silk work, intended as a hanging for the little chapel we have mentioned above. Her rich toga praetexta, though it had long lost the title, still retained its primitive simplicity: of pure white silk it was, with the purple band at its lowest border; and her dark palla floated carelessly over her shoulders as she plied her work. Just as we now look at her, her face is so pertinaciously turned to the ground, that it is impossible to distinguish its features; and yet, if we could, we should find it as sweet an one as that bright sun was looking down upon in the Emperor's dominions. There, she has raised it,--and now you may see the long, dark hair, braided so tightly back from the white, marble forehead, and presenting that contrast with the full, blue eye, which is so rare, and yet so lovely. A little more pensive than one might have expected; for what could have given her, whose father and mother still survived, and who had never known, and so never lost, brother or sister,--what could have given her a sorrow to shade her brow? Nothing, save that it was a time of sorrow: the great Empire was coming to an end, and there fell on men's minds the honor and dread that presages the turning events of the world's history. The agony of the dissolving State was shared, in some small degree, by its individual members: it could not but be sad to see churches that would be denied, houses that must be possessed, gardens that must be tended, by Turkish owners; and to know that it needed little more than the will of the Sultan to make their country a name, and themselves the slaves of infidels. If the fair girl of whom we are writing had another momentary cause of anxiety, let her own words explain it.

"Mother, do not say so,"--she was pleading,--"he is so good, so true,--you know he is, dearest mother,--that I would trust him were the thing to be trusted ten times as difficult of belief. He will be here soon; speak to him, if you will, yourself, but do not grieve me by doubting him."

"My dear child," replied the elder lady, "I do not doubt him. I can trust you to him, when the time shall come, and your father, who has seen more of men than I have, will as willingly give you to him. But this is a temptation for him, and an unfair requisition for you. Why should he wish to conceal his betrothal with you from the Court? If he is so unworthy of you as to be ashamed of the laugh that may follow, when it is known that he has matched himself with one who is in rank his inferior, I for one, should be only thankful never to see him more."

"It is not that, I am sure, mother," replied her daughter. "That I should resent as much as you,--not for my own sake, for the Panaghia knows I feel not worthy of him, but for my father's,--whose alliance is an honour to any man, even to Manuel. No; he has some good reason, depend on it; and I doubt not he will tell it you himself."

"I am not needlessly curious, Euphrasia: but this it is your mother's duty to inquire. I doubt not the answer will be satisfactory. But you know, my dear child, that you, brought up at Silivri here all your life, cannot pretend to compete with the ladies of the Court; and you know, or if you do not, I do, that the best men have sometimes been led away by a pretty face or pretty form; and though I mistrust Chrysolaras as little as any one, I own that I should wish his betrothal to be known, and there will be an end of doubt."

"Well, you may soon tell him so yourself," answered Euphrasia, giving her little head the slightest possible toss, "for look!" and she pointed in the direction of Constantinople. A single rider came rapidly over the brow of the hill,--the silver trappings of his charger even at that distance glittering in the sun: and though an uninterested person could not have so soon discovered that it was Manuel Chrysolaras, Euphrasia knew that it was his time, and felt that it must be he.

Five minutes brought the superb horse to the colonnade: and Manuel, leaping down, and throwing the bridle over the bough of a laurel which seemed to have answered that purpose before, held out his right hand to Maria Choniatis, at the same time that, throwing his left round Euphrasia, he drew her to him, and affectionately embraced her. For, by the solemn rite of his Church, she was half his wife; and it needed only the Bridal 'Coronation' ere he carried her to his own home.

After the first few joyful words of salutation were over, the elder lady fulfilled her resolution. "Lord Manuel," she said, "I have ever dealt openly with you,--and openly I will deal now. I do not like this concealment at Court of your betrothal to my Euphrasia; and I think that her mother has a right to ask, either that the concealment shall exist no longer,--or, why it has already existed so long."

"Dear lady, you have," replied Chrysolaras: "and if you had not asked me, I think I should have told you to-day,--or, at furthest, next time. Thus then it is. You know the Lord George Phranza, as well from his high character, as from having heard me so often speak of him."

"Right well," replied the Lady Choniatis. "He was my earliest,--and has always been my kindest, friend," pursued Manuel: "and there was a kind of understanding between him and my father,--the blessed one--that, in due time, I was to wed his daughter. Much I have always seen of Theodora, and much I have always liked her; but never, even before I knew you, dear Euphrasia, so liked her as to wish that she should ever become my wife. And if I did, she, I much misdoubt me, has no heart to give me."

"But whereto tends this?" asked his companion, rather gravely.

"A moment," he answered. "Thus. The Lord Phranza, as you know, went on a two years' embassy to seek a bride for our Augustus, from which he has but just returned. To write to him while travelling over Iberia, with any chance of the epistle reaching its destination, was impossible: and I was anxious that neither in his absence, nor on his return, should he learn the tidings of my betrothal from any but myself. For I knew that out of love to my dear father, he had looked forward to my receiving the hand of his daughter. To-day, immediately on my return, I tell him: and then the whole Court shall know how much I glory in my choice."

"Well," said the Lady Choniatis, with a well pleased smile,--"I am satisfied: and I am sure that Euphrasia's father will be equally so. But you will not go, however, without taking something to eat; and I will have your horse tended also."

"And you too, dear Euphrasia, did you doubt me?" continued Chrysolaras, as soon as they were left alone.

"Not for a moment," she answered;--"but I am glad the mystery is over; and only so far sorry, if your love to me should be the means of alienating you from so old and tried a friend as the Lord Phranza."

"Never fear that, dearest," answered Manuel. "He may not love you at first so well as I shall hope that hereafter he will; but he is too just a man, and too well tried a friend, to bear any resentment because our houses are not to be united. But come; let us talk of something nearer my heart. This place is becoming no safe home for you, Euphrasia, or for your parents. The Turks are constantly scouring the country; and, ere long, they will reach the gates of Constantinople itself. You have promised, very soon, to give me a right to take you to another home; but your father and mother must not be left here. In Silivri, they would be safer: but there is no real safety, depend upon it, outside the walls of Constantinople."

"Are things really so bad?" inquired Euphrasia, anxiously. "I know how my father will pine in a city: he has been used to the free hills and the breezes of the Propontis all his life; and how he will brook imprisonment in Constantinople I know not."

"Better that," said Chrysolaras, "than imprisonment in Hadrianople. But you--how will you bear the change?"

"I shall bear it with you, Manuel," replied Euphrasia, with a smile. "There is a wide difference between my father and myself." And so the conversation continued till just as the sun was beginning to cast the shadows slightly westward, the owner of the house made his appearance. He was a well-made, good-humoured looking man, some fifty years of age; somewhat tanned by constant exposure to the sun, but with the clear, brown complexion, rather portly, though not corpulent, form, and muscular limbs, that evinced unusual strength, and seemed to give fair promise of length of days. He wore the picturesque Roumelian costume, the loose trousers, the fantastical cap, the richly wrought waistcoat, and embroidered shoes.

"Well, my Lord Chrysolaras," he cried, in a loud clear voice, "wasting my girl's time and your own! I did so once myself: men must be men, I suppose. At all events, there is a poor refection awaiting your Lordship within; you must not return before breaking your fast."

The young nobleman made some kindly answer, and then said,--"Will you go on first, dear Euphrasia? I would fain speak a few moments to your father alone. Now, worthy Nicetas," he continued, "what I would say respects our marriage. It is now four months since God and the Church gave Euphrasia to me; and what need is there for any long deferring of the Coronation? Nay, there is every reason why it should take place as soon as may be; and why you yourself should, for a while at least, leave this house."

"Much reason in your Lordship's eyes, I doubt not," returned Choniates, "for hurrying on the Coronation; but what cause for our removing from this house passes my comprehension."

"You know not," replied Chrysolaras earnestly, "what apprehensions are entertained at Constantinople with respect to these constant inroads of the Turks. It is firmly believed that they will ravage the country to the very gates of the city this winter, and give us a foretaste of what, undoubtedly, we shall suffer in the spring. Now, if one of these parties should pass here, nothing could save you. Silivri itself would be but of doubtful security. I should earnestly recommend you to take refuge in Constantinople: my house, as soon as the marriage is completed, shall be at your service; and there you will be as free from immediate danger as in these evil times it is possible to be. But, howsoever you decide about yourself, which the Panaghia grant be wisely, let me remove Euphrasia from the peril, and that soon."

"I am bounden to you, Lord Chrysolaras," returned Nicetas, "for your warning of this hazard; and for your offer to me. It may be that love exaggerates the danger to your eyes; but neither do I deny that there may be some. Yet it could hardly take us so suddenly as not to give us time to retire into Silivri, where also, as you know, I have a house. I will think of this matter. Now let us speak of yours."

The time for the Coronation of the bridal pair was forthwith discussed; and finally, that day fortnight was fixed for the wedding.

"And now," said Nicetas, "let us in; for, by S. Demetrius, talking is hungry work."

"And dinner over," answered Chrysolaras, "I will lose no time in making to Constantinople, and telling my friend the Great Protovestiare all that has been arranged."

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