"Will you, not having my consent, bestow
Your love and your affections on a stranger?
(Who for aught I know to the contrary,
Or think, may be as great in blood as I.)
Hear, therefore, mistress; frame your will to mine,
And you, too, young sir!"
Pericles of Tyre.
At as early an hour on the following morning as Byzantine etiquette would permit, Sir Edward de Rushton presented himself at the door of the Great Protovestiare's apartments.
"I have important business with the Lord Phranza," said he to the servant who first met him, and who, he remarked, was the same that had summoned him from the garden the previous day:--"Can I speak with him?"
"I will see," said Zosimus, for that was his name. "Please your Lordship to wait for a few moments in the gallery." He accordingly went, and returned with the message that the Lord Phranza would be disengaged in a quarter of an hour. "And that is well, my Lord," he added, with an impertinent air; "for I wished for a few minutes' talk with your Lordship."
"Indeed!" said De Rushton. "Well, as you see, I am at leisure now; so that you may begin."
"My Lord," said Zosimus, "I am a poor man, but an honest one."
"It may be so," said De Rushton; "though I do not see that you are the former, and, sooth to say, I do not hear that you are the latter."
"Perhaps so, my Lord; but it is true, nevertheless. My Lord, the office of Secretary to the Stratopedarch is vacant."
"Well, my Lord, and I want it."
"You want it! By S. George, what will you want next? The Stratopedarchate itself, perhaps?"
"No, my Lord; I am not so unreasonable as that. But the secretaryship I do want; and I am going to trouble your Lordship to procure it for me."
"You must be mad, fellow!" cried De Rushton. "Off with you, at once, or I shall be forced to notice your conduct."
"My Lord, if you do not attend to my application, I shall be forced to notice yours."
The Knight, now really imagining that his friend's servant must have lost his senses, was about to walk into the hall to find some one to whom he might be given in charge; when the very earnest tone of the man arrested him.
"My Lord," he said, "listen to me for one moment. I saw all that passed yesterday between yourself and the Lady Theodora."
"What is it to me if you did?" inquired Rushton. "You are impertinent, sirrah."
"And I heard all that was said, also, my Lord."
"You played eaves-dropper for the sake of distorting what you could pick up, and making a gain of it. Take my word, fellow, you are playing with dangerous weapons."
"Well, well, my Lord, you know your interest best; you must allow me to be the best judge of mine. What I then saw and heard I shall lay before my master unless I have that office of which I speak."
"And I will take care," said De Rushton, "that for any false report you carry to your Lord or to any one else, you shall be soundly punished: so look to it. Take yourself off at once; or I shall disgrace myself by chastising you here."
Zosimus accordingly retired, leaving De Rushton in a state of far more anxiety than he chose to allow. He tried to remember all that had passed between Theodora and himself;--he tried to recall their position, the general locality,--the other circumstances connected with the affair, in order to be able to determine how far the servant had spoken the truth, or how far his invention might have enabled him to guess at what really had taken place, and his Greek brain had suggested to him the advantageous consequences that might result therefrom to himself. There remained, he thought, but one thing for him to do: candidly to acquaint the Great Protovestiare with all that had passed, and that without further loss of time. He had hoped for one more interview with Theodora before an explanation took place with her father; but to remain an unnecessary moment in the power of Zosimus was impossible. In a few minutes the Camerarius made his appearance, and informed De Rushton that his Lord was at liberty.
"I am come, Lord Protovestiare," said he, after the first salutations were over, "on a business of very painful import. Yesterday a party of about one hundred and fifty Turkish horse was ravaging the country in the direction of Tchorlu and Silivri; carrying off prisoners from undefended villages and farms, and burning what they could not take."
"By the Panaghia! This is too impudent," cried Phranza. "Constantinople is not invested yet, whatever it may be. How were they repulsed?"
"They were not repulsed at all," replied De Rushton; "they took themselves quietly off, when they had obtained as much plunder as they wished. So much for the public loss; for private sorrow, though I hear from Chrysolaras that you are annoyed at his choice of a bride, I am sure you will grieve with him at his having lost her."
"Lost her!" replied Phranza. "How lost her?"
"She was carried off with her family by those same marauders."
"Poor Chrysolaras!" cried Phranza. "And where is he?"
"I gave him a party of ten of my men, at my own risk, last night; for we learnt the news when we returned from the Palace. And with them I hurried off my spy--who was not, you know, to have set out till this morning. I spared all that I could venture, on my own authority; and I thought that time was of more importance than waiting for larger numbers."
"I think you judged rightly. Ah, Lord Acolyth, it is easy to see the end!"
"But what can be done?--or can anything be done?--I fear that any attempt by force is not to be thought of."
"Consider," replied Phranza, "how infinitely precious every man's life is to us now. One of our soldiers is worth more to us than thirty are to Mahomet. Could every man in our army destroy five-and-twenty Infidels before falling himself, we should very speedily be ruined."
"Can anything be done by treaty?"
"What have we to offer? Mahomet cares nothing for ransom: and we have not a prisoner, since that foolish generosity of releasing those we had. No: nothing can be done. I will mention the matter to the Emperor: but it will only be to add another sorrow to the many he has."
"I thank your Lordship," replied De Rushton. "There is yet one thing more," he said after a pause,--"on which I would speak."
"I am at your service," said Phranza. "I will but send a message to the Stratopedarch.--Without there!--Let Zosimus go to the Lord Argyropulus, and ask at what hour I might wait upon him on important business.--It is touching this inroad of the Turks, Lord Acolyth. Argyropulus ought to have intelligence of it;--and yet I hardly think he can; for jealous as he is of my favour with the Emperor, I do not believe he would carry his jealousy to so absurd a.pitch as to keep back from me information so necessary as this. Now, Lord Acolyth."
"My Lord," said De Rushton, "you cannot have forgotten, before you went on your embassy, how much, by your kindness, I almost seemed to form a part of your household."
"I am not likely to forget," said the Protovestiare, "how much pleasure I myself derived from so constantly associating with you, nor how much the information I obtained from you respecting some of the Courts of Europe tended to give me no small advantage in my negotiation with them afterwards."
"My Lord," continued De Rushton, making no reply to the compliment; "when you set forth on your embassy, I became--as need was--a comparative stranger to this house: but I could not lose the interest in it I had so long taken, because it was bound up with some of the dearest recollections of my life. Your Lordship had not long been in Iberia when it was everywhere rumoured, and generally believed, that you destined the hand of your daughter for the Lord Chrysolaras. That I might have formed some wild hopes,--that it was a hard trial to learn to forget them,--rrfatters not to your Lordship: forgotten they were; and I brought myself "to look on the Lady Theodora with brotherly regard,---such, and no other, as I might have felt had she been the bride of Chrysolaras. But when I heard from him yesterday that his troth was actually plighted to another--that your Lordship has also heard this, he told me too--all the old feelings came back upon my mind;--and I am now here to ask from you whether I may hope."
George Phranza was, as his writings prove, and as I have endeavoured to represent him, a high principled man for the time he lived in. When honour was almost unknown among the aristocracy of Constantinople, it was something to find a great officer of state, scrupulously just, perfectly inaccessible to bribes, and unwilling to take an unfair advantage, even against an enemy. At the same time, there existed not a spark of chivalry in his composition: he was part and parcel of the old decaying system around him; the best part of it, perhaps, but still a portion. As De Rushton spoke, he was revolving in his mind the advantages and the disadvantages of absolutely declining his offer--of absolutely accepting it he never thought. Twenty years before, under similar circumstances, he could not have had a moment's doubt.
To bestow his Theodora on any, not of equal rank and wealth with herself, more especially if that suitor were a Latin, and held his office simply during the Emperor's pleasure,---he would have considered a pure act of madness. But now, by that time in the following year, the whole established state of things might be at an end for ever. Emperors and Courts, Protovestiares and Great Stratopedarchs, all might have been swept away before Islam. In that case, to leave his daughter unprotected was an impossibility: to give her to any of the ephemeral minions of the Court would be to give her to one who, stripped of the accessaries of fortune, would become the cypher which, but for them, he must have ever been: while Sir Edward de Rushton had, at all events, a small patrimony in England, and was sure, in whatever service he enlisted, to distinguish himself by his courage and skill. But then again,--the danger to Constantinople might not be so imminent as it seemed. No politicians, of Phranza's sagacity, could doubt that the fate of 'the city eventually was sealed; but fifty years before, the danger had seemed nearly as great,--and for so long had the Empire been reprieved by the victories of Timour. Fifty years! It was a long time: and why might not the same thing happen again? At all events, it could do no harm to leave the answer doubtful,--and so, like all politicians of Phranza's stamp, he temporized.
"Lord Acolyth," said he, "I am flattered by the honour that you have done both to my daughter and to myself in making her the object of your preference. Were my choice perfectly free, there is no one to whom I would more unhesitatingly commit her than yourself,--a man of known courage in a degenerate age, and of unblemished honour in a lax capital. But, as you well know, we are scarcely free agents in this city: public considerations interfere with private wishes, and we, who hold office at Court, are very slaves to custom. To you, as a foreigner and a Latin, I cannot, in respect to popular prejudice, unconditionally give her;---from you as a friend, and of so high reputation, I can still less absolutely withhold her. My conclusion is this;--allow the matter to stand over for six months: at the end of that time I trust I may be able to give you such an answer as may be pleasing to you."
"My Lord," replied De Rushton, "I know not how to acknowledge your kindness. The disparity of station--for I will hardly say of rank--since my birth is as good as your own, I feel strongly: my being a Latin will, I trust, as soon as this Union takes place, be a matter of less moment."
"In the meantime," proceeded Phranza, "let us meet on the old terms: and I trust to your honour that you will not mention the subject of our present conversation to my daughter."
"My Lord," replied De Rushton, "I cannot with truth give such a promise, for the Lady Theodora is already acquainted with my regard."
"That is unfortunate," said Phranza: "that is hardly right: or at least"--added he, unwilling to offend a man of such importance as the Great Acolyth--"hardly consistent with our ideas: with Franks, indeed, I know that the case is otherwise. I must then ask you not to renew the subject with her, till after your Lordship shall have received a final communication from me."
"I will willingly promise that, my Lord Protovestiare, if you will engage to explain to the Lady Theodora a silence which she might well otherwise consider as strange."
"That I will do," said Phranza. "Come in,"--as some one requested admittance. "Oh! What says the Lord Stratopedarch?"
"He was about to go forth, my Lord: but he will willingly wait for any communication that your Lordship may have to make to him."
"Then, Sir Edward de Rushton, I will wish you farewell for the present. We shall probably meet again in the course of the day."
"Farewell, my Lord." And the Acolyth returned to his lodgings.