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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 IV.

"He either fears his fate too much,
Or his deserts are small,
Who dares not put it to the touch,
To win or lose it all."

Sir Edward de Rushton had walked forth into the garden with a lighter heart than he had for months possessed. The great difficulty in the way of his happiness seemed removed. He should be guilty of no treachery to his friend, of no injustice to Theodora, though he gave full vent to his feelings. That Phranza, indeed, highly as the English knight knew himself to be respected by him, would willingly consent to his union with his daughter, was not to be expected. But much might be done by time,--much by the need, which Sir Edward could not but feel there would soon be, of his own strong arm and military skill; much, perhaps, if matters came to extremity, by the interference of the Augustus. He no longer felt himself a hopeless man: after so totally unexpected an opening made in his favour, what might not follow?"And I vow,"--such was the knight's secret thought,--"a chantry to the Church at Rushton, with two acres of pasture land, and bread, wine, and lights, if I ever bring Theodora Phranza to my own country as my own bride."

For some time, occupied in these thoughts, the knight paced up and down an avenue of aged chestnuts; till at length, pushing his walk a little further, he turned into a more sequestered arcade, whither, through the well-clipped hedges of yew, the eye here and there glanced on the blue strait, as it laughed with the thousand dimples of its puny billows. Here, in former days, a kind of seat had been constructed, where a slight elevation of ground showed the Dardanelles,--the Asiatic hills beyond,--the Golden Horn,--and the silver domes of the Imperial city. Even so late in the year honeysuckle and jessamine twined around it, effectually concealing the interior of the arbour; nor, till De Rushton was close to it, did he see that the old grey stone, which served as a seat, was tenanted,--and that by the being of all others whom he most desired to see.

"Our Lady be praised!" said he in his mind: "she must have heard my vow. Now do I deserve to lose Theodora, if I do not exert myself to win her."

It was indeed Theodora Phranza with whom a happy chance had so unexpectedly thrown him. She might be some eighteen years of age: every feature, every motion proved her high descent, and uncorrupted aristocracy of birth: the high forehead, the large hazel eye, the somewhat haughty erection of her head, the long, snow-white neck. She wore the fashionable dress of the day, beautiful though fashionable, and though a compound of the costumes of East and West. Over the white silk dress, and the embroidered bodice, she wore the short, tight-fitting cloak, or rather jacket, that the maidens of Circassia still wear: of crimson silk itself, the edges worked with gold thread into a thousand curious forms. Her veil, tied simply round her head, had been thrown on one side for the sake of air; and so showed her rich auburn hair clasped back from her forehead by a band of pearls. Rising at De Rushton's approach with, "A fair good morning to you, noble Acolyth," she was about to return to the palace, when Sir Edward turned too.

"Nay," he said, "lady, I had not been here had I known that I should intrude upon your leisure. I am but waiting for an interview with your noble father; and had stepped forth to enjoy all the beauty of so fair a day."

"Yes," answered Theodora, as, having turned with her, Sir Edward was walking by her side, "this garden is a very favourite retreat of mine. It is so thoroughly out of the pomp and bustle of the City; and the view over those waters is, to my eye, passingly beautiful."

"Passingly beautiful it is indeed! So much motion, and so much rest. And not even from the Emperor's own garden is the landscape so fair, with all the taste of the Palaaologi expended on it. I, too," he continued, after a moment's pause, "perhaps feel it the more, because it is now two years since we have met here."

"I was but a child then," said Theodora; "but you may remember how, even at that time, I loved this garden and this terrace."

"I am not likely, lady," replied De Rushton, "to forget any taste of yours. Yes; I know it well."

"Have you," said Theodora, passing from what appeared likely to become a dangerous subject,--"views like this in England?"

"Nothing so soft,--nothing so gently beautiful," answered the knight. "Our seas are not like the Pro-pontis. And now, while we are wandering under these beautiful trees, birds singing and flowers blooming around us, in England storm and sleet and snow are driving down, and making the fields and valleys raw and miserable."

"My father," said his companion, "is he still at the Council?"

"He is," replied Sir Edward. "And the Lord Chry-solaras is waiting to speak to him on business of importance."

"On State business?" inquired Theodora, rather anxiously.

"On business of his own," answered De Rushton, looking at his fair companion. "The Court, I understand, is shortly to be enriched with a new beauty."

"Indeed!" said Theodora. "And has this to do with the Lord Chrysolaras's errand to my father?"

"It has everything to do with it," said Sir Edward. "The matter will be no secret in a few hours. The Lord Chrysolaras is betrothed to a daughter of the Exarch of Silivri."

"I wish him joy," said Theodora, hastily. "He is a brave and honourable man, and no doubt his choice does him credit. I wish him joy, with all my heart."

"He is, in truth, the very flower of the Byzantine nobility," replied De Rushton. "And yet--may I tell you so, lady?--and yet I know not that yesterday I could have said so to you."

"Yesterday or to-day, Sir Edward de Rushton, you would equally have told me the truth touching the Lord Chrysolaras. You do yourself less than justice."

"I fear not," he replied.

"And how long has the betrothal been known?" inquired Theodora. "I never heard a whisper breathed of it till now."

"Nor did I know it till to-day; for Chrysolaras was unwilling that it should get abroad, till by your father it should have been heard; he having ever been so warm a friend to the Lord Manuel. But it is now four months since they were betrothed."

"And he is with my father still?" inquired his companion.

"He is," answered De Rushton. "But now may I, without the certainty of banishing myself from this fair garden of which we were talking, tell you, lady, what, since I knew of Chrysolaras's happiness, I have been presumptuous enough to hope?"

There was no answer.

"Dear Theodora," said De Rushton, eagerly, "you must have known it, you must have felt it, that, long before your father's embassy separated us for a time you were dearer to me than------"

As he spoke, one of the officers of the Protovestiare advanced down the lime alleys--"Lord Acolyth," said he, "my Lord bids me to say, that if you will do him the honour of visiting him, he is at your service."

"I will come immediately," replied De Rushton. And perceiving that the man lingered, he added hastily, "I am coming directly. Go in and tell your lord so."

The officer went. "Go, go, Lord Acolyth," said Theodora. "Oh! you should not have told me this! I may have thought it--I may have suspected it--but now--for the Panaghia's love, go! Leave me now at least. We shall meet again."

"Shall we meet again?" said De Rushton.

"Yes, yes," said his fair companion; "but leave me now." And the knight, seeing her agitation, and extremely anxious that no one connected with the palace should observe it, reluctantly obeyed.

"The foul fiend seize that meddling fool!" said he to himself as he returned to the Protovestiare's lodgings. "Yet it must be--she never would have heard me so far if it were otherwise. The opportunity must come again,--and then, to improve it better!"

So saying, he entered the colonnade, and was immediately ushered into the presence of Phranza. He found that worthy nobleman in conversation with Richard Burstow.

"Well, Lord Acolyth," he said, "this seems a likely fellow, and I think will answer the Emperor's purpose."

"I am glad your Lordship is satisfied with him," replied De Rushton. "Are you from the Council?"

"Yea, my Lord. Everything is settled; we are to receive the Cardinal as soon as he can arrange his entrance."

"That is well," replied the other. "And when is this good fellow to leave for Hadrianople?"

"The Augustus would first see him," replied Phranza, "and with your leave, we will be going to him, for it is well-nigh time. An hour after his return from the Studium was the hour he fixed."

The two friends, as after passing the quadrangle which we have already mentioned, they came into the great court of the Palace, were too much accustomed to the unbounded magnificence of the scene to give it even a thought. True, it was much impoverished since the days of Theophilus or Basil;--the golden tree with its vocal birds had long since found its way into Mahometan coffers;--the golden lions no longer astonished the passer-by with their mechanical roarings. But still, all was grandeur and luxury: everywhere were marble walls and porticoes, roofs of gilt brass, and mosaics of untold value. Before them was the celebrated sigma, the porch of the Church of S. Irene, one of the five that adorned and hallowed the palace; its walls marbled of as many hues as an autumn forest. On one hand was the silver fountain, now indeed contenting itself with Parian marble instead of the metal whence it derived its name; on the other, the Emperor's own private apartments,--the gold lay on its pure marble as the evening sunbeam on a mountain of cistus trees. Here they entered; and waiting for a moment in a hall of which the floor was of mosaic, the walls hung with the feathers of the most precious birds, a dazzling display of living purple, green, and gold, they were ushered by the Great Camerarius, who has orders to that effect, to the presence of the Emperor himself. Through corridor after corridor, through hall after hall they passed; each vying with the other in richness and splendour. Now the walls were hung with silk embroidered in gold; now with velvet powdered over with pearls; now they glittered with tooled and gilt marble; now with enamels from Limoges, or mosaics from Venice. At length, on approaching the golden door, it opened, and the Protovestiare and the Acolyth found themselves in the presence of their Emperor.

Constantine Palaeologus was seated on a throne inlaid with ebony and ivory, but here and there richly studded with jewels. He had not long returned from the Studium; nor had he yet laid aside the insignia of the empire. He wore the red buskins,--the mantle embroidered with ermine,--and the imperial tiara. In the last there was something of barbaric magnificence; it was a high pyramidal cap of crimson silk, sparkling with pearls and diamonds, surmounted by a light globe and cross of gold; while two lappets of pearls hung down on the cheeks of the wearer.

The Emperor himself might be forty-seven years of age: tall, well made, commanding; with an eagle eye, a somewhat aquiline nose, a decided, and at times rather stern character. Yet in the expression of his face there was somewhat which might well have led to the physiognomist's remark on seeing our own Charles the Martyr, "This man can never die a natural death."

The usual ceremony of adoration having been performed, the officers and the Varangian prostrating themselves, and touching the floor three times with their heads, Constantine spoke.

"A fair good day to you, Lord Acolyth. You have heard why we have summoned you to our presence?"

"I have, sire. Your majesty"--for so we must be content to Anglicise Sir Edward's real expression, "Your superillustriousness"--"was pleased to desire that I should find a Varangian who might be employed on a mission to Hadrianople."

"We were. Is this the man?"

"The same, sire."

"Where have we seen you before, sirrah? We remember. It was you who brought intelligence of the loss of that Venetian ship. We never forget a face that we have once seen."

"Wonderful!" said the Curopalata, who, with his silver wand was standing near the throne, to the First Secretary, who was also in attendance.

"The true memory of a Caesar," replied that officer.

"It is our wish," said Constantine, taking no notice of these remarks, to obtain as accurate information as we can regarding the proceedings of the Sultan at Hadrianople. We are told that you can pass yourself off as a Turk, fellow:--is it so?"

"I can, your majesty: my mother was of that nation."

"You will do well," proceeded the Emperor, "to use your best skill; for, if Mahomet discovers you, you know the consequences. We desire to learn especially,--what his present occupations are--if he is engaged in casting artillery--if there is any talk in his army of an early expedition against this city, beloved of Christ--what numbers he has with him, and what reinforcements he expects."

"I shall so inquire, sire," said the Varangian.

"And you must do it with speed. In a week we shall expect your presence again. Let a horse be given him from our stables, and a hundred pieces of gold; and let no time be lost. You can probably set forth to-morrow."

"At day-break, sire."

"That is well:--the Panaghia guard you! Lord Protovestiare, we require your presence. The rest may depart."

De Rushton and Burstow, having taken their leave, soon found themselves by the apartments of the former.

"Now, Burstow," said he, as he turned to ascend the marble staircase, "keep up the renown of the Varangians. You have a difficult task--God send you be equal to it."

"Ay, ay, my Lord," said Burstow, "no fear of that. An accident may happen to any man--a traitor may ruin any man; but S. George guard me so far, and I will guard myself for the rest. Shall I wait upon you, my Lord before I go?"

"Yes," said De Rushton; "come to me here after the gates are closed to-night. I may have something further to say to you."

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