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 VII.

"Had he been ta'en, we should have heard the news:
Had he been slain, we should have heard the news:
Or had he lived, methinks we should have heard
The happy tidings of his good escape."

Henry VI.

Once fairly outside the Hadrianople gate, the little party in attendance on Chrysolaras spurred on at full speed, and hardly drew rein till they descended the hill above Silivri. The night was cloudless, but the moon had long set; and the stars glittered as calmly above, as if they looked down on an earth of peace. I suppose no one has ever passed a night of excitement, without feeling calmed and elevated by one look at the dark blue sky, with its innumerable array of constellations; not because of its peace only,--for the quiet of a sunny landscape is anything but soothing to an agitated mind,---but because its majesty awes, rather than wooes, the mind to rest. Born in an age which had no sympathy with nature--the sure sign of a decaying race--Chrysolaras was nevertheless alive to all the vicissitudes of storm or calm, of light and shadow, that make the same scene so different. And even now, harassed by gnawing fear as he was, he could not but drink in somewhat of the high and holy influences of the hour. He thought of Euphrasia still; but he thought of her with more trust. The innumerable hordes of the Sultan--the ferocity of his predatory parties--the wild hills and rough roads which their prisoners must travel--all these things, it is true, still presented themselves to his fancy; but he thought also of the angelic squadrons that might even then be arrayed on the side of his bride. He remembered how the race was not to the swift always, nor the battle to the mighty; and, in the beautiful words of Holy Writ, "he thanked God, and took courage."

And yet it was a bitter remembrance that came over him as the little party wound down between the hill of Silivri and the sea, how, but a few hours before, he had passed along that same road with all the fond hopes of a lover, every thought full of Euphrasia, and counting the moments till he should see her again. At the same instant, however, Richard Burstow spoke.

"Right up to the gate, comrades! we shall get our best news there."

On they went at full speed along the sandy road, till close to the very walls; and then a halt was cried.

"Ho! ho!" cried Burstow, smiting lustily on the gate with the butt end of the battle-axe which he wore slung to his waist; "who keeps the gate there? ho!"

Presently a talking was heard in the guard-house, and in a few minutes a soldier with a lantern appeared on the walls.

"Who goes there, ho?" he cried.

"A guard of Varangians," replied Burstow. "We do not want admission, but we want intelligence of the Turks. We are on orders from the Great Acolyth."

The sentinel having reconnoitred them, and found the statement to be true, proceeded down to summon the corporal, who presently made his appearance at the wicket.

"Is it you, Lord Chrysolaras?" he cried, shading the lantern from his eyes, as he looked out into the dark night.

"It is," returned Manuel, who remembered the man's face, though he could not recollect his name. "We wish to obtain all the information we can concerning the party of Turks that this morning carried off your Exarch and his family."

The intelligence communicated by the corporal, though not very concise, resolved itself into this:--that the first alarm had been given at about two o'clock, by a soldier who arrived at full speed from Tchorlu; that the officer in command of the garrison had instantly despatched notice to the Exarch, believing that he might have full time to reach Silivri in safety; that tbe Turkish cavalry had appeared about a quarter of an hour later; that, on finding the gates closed, they had advanced in the direction of Constantinople; that nothing further was known in the town except by report; that it was believed that the Exarch and his family had been carried off, and that the marauders had again retreated to Tchorlu, though not by the same road, but had cut across higher up the country.

"What force had they?" inquired Burstow.

"About one hundred and fifty, or not quite so many as near as we can calculate," replied the corporal.

"Good-night, comrade! We must ride to Tchorlu, my Lord; no fear of their having taken the other road, though they did cross the country higher. We have too good a garrison there for that, and the Infidel dogs know it. For this wretched place they have not more than thirty men; they must have more now. Gentlemen of the Life-Guard, forward!"

Forthwith the steeds were breasting the hill gallantly. The wind grew colder, and the air damper, as the breeze, drawing round with the sun, swept bitterly over the high ground to the east. The road wound drearily over a vast common, studded here are there with a few small groups of stunted oaks, the rustling of whose leaves, as the train rode by, was like the distant talking of spirits. The sky as so often before morning twilight breaks, began to cloud over, and rime formed on brigandine and cuisse, on horse-mane and helmet-plume. As the night was at its very darkest, Burstow's horse, foremost in that rapid chase, started so violently at some object in the road, as almost to throw its rider; and the other steeds, close behind, were reined up so suddenly as nearly to bring them on their haunches.

"It is a corpse, Lochagus!" cried one of the guard, leaping down.

"Let's see," cried Burstow, also springing to the ground. "The skull beaten in, seemingly. Ah, well! I knew we were on the right track." And with this soldier's comment on that spectacle, he mounted, and again gave the word, "Forward!"

"Was it a man, or a woman?" inquired Chrysolaras.

"A man, my lord; it's the Infidels, I'll warrant. Take care, Stephen," as one of the horses stumbled desperately. "We must get a change at Tchorlu; it is a good forty miles there from Constantinople."

On they rode, though their good steeds gave manifest indication of weariness; still on, on, over the great waste common. The wind sang more mournfully; the oaks whispered more ghostily; the sky lowered more gloomily; still, without rest, without pause, without pity, onward.

"Is that day-break yonder?" said Chrysolaras, pointing to a cold, uncomfortable streak in the east.

"By'r Lady, it must be!" cried Burstow; "and if that be not cloud, it is part of the Strandjia. How say you, Gregory? Your eyes are better than mine."

"Ay," said the Varangian, "that is the Strandjia, sure enough; we shall soon be in Tchorlu."

But so weary were the horses, and so deep in sand the roads, that day had broken long before they saw the walls of the little town, and the dome of its cathedral rising above them; and just as they rode up to the gates, the sun rose. The sentinel had already given notice of the approach of a party of Varangians, so that Chrysolaras and his companions found ready admission. Here they heard that the party of whom they were in search had passed under the walls of Tchorlu at about nine o'clock on the preceding evening, and were supposed to have made some prisoners. It was, the Commandant of the garrison said, believed that the marauders had some ulterior object besides the acquisition of plunder,--so distinguished an officer as Achmet Pasha being at their head. The horses, which Burstow at once demanded, were furnished, but not without loss of time; and more than an hour elapsed between the arrival of his men at Tchorlu, and their departure from that city.

As they rode out again, the aspect of the country quite changed; for they had now passed the last garrison town that held for the Emperor of the Romans. The fields were uncultivated; the highway untended; the little farms that here and there bordered the road, either deserted, or, in some cases, blackened ruins; a peasant hardly to be seen; a woman, nowhere. In one or two patches of corn-fields, the wheat-ears had been cut off almost at the head, and the long stubble was still rustling to the wind; in the orchards, the apples still hung on the trees, or lay withering on the ground: everything bore witness to a government that could no longer protect its subjects, and an empire in the last weary stage of decay.

Little was said by either of the party beyond an occasional remark on the state of the country through which they were passing; and so, about mid-day, they rode through the little town of Bourghiaz, and found it deserted. Here they had hoped to refresh their horses, but the strictest search could discover no one; and the houses bore evident marks of the recent passage of the enemy through the street. Shutters had been wrenched back,--doors broken open; there were fragments of food and fruit cast here and there; and in one place a cask of wine had been brought forth, and the head knocked out by the depredators.

"A bad set, a bad set," said Burstow, crossing himself; "they neither keep our laws, nor their own."

"Our Lady confound them and their Prophet together!" cried Stephen.

"It is not many hours since they passed,--that is one thing," said the Lochagus; "and if we could but get other horses by and by, we might well overtake them to-night."

"No hope of that," said Chrysolaras, despondingly.

"A halt of two hours will do nearly as well, my lord. No use losing time here, however." Again they rode forward, as for life and death.

About two miles further on, the road, having climbed a slightly rising ground, plunged down into a narrow valley, to re-ascend almost immediately the opposite hill. To the left, this valley was rough with underwood, through which a puny streamlet clave out for itself a little ravine, bearing the same similitude to a mountain gorge, that the empire of the last did to that of the first Constantine. To the right, the same valley went winding away to Strandjia, in one smooth bed of turf, save for the broken edges of the rill. As soon as our party reached the brow of the hill, there was a simultaneous exclamation. Some hundred and fifty yards to the right of the road, there was a cottage pitched snugly under the very brow of the slope, and round it eight or ten horses, some of their riders standing by their side, some, it would appear, in the cottage itself.

"That's some of them! that's some of them!" shouted Chrysolaras. "Gentlemen, on them!"

"Nay, nay," cried the Lochagus, "a moment's halt. What is that at the bottom of the hill?--there, by the stonework of the bridge? A corpse? No, by S. Mary, it moves! Gentlemen, follow me!" And he rode at the most reckless pace down the hill, closely followed by the Varangian life-guards.

Leaning against the abutment of the bridge, and bleeding profusely, and, as it would seem, from more than one wound, was an old peasant. The dust, ploughed up all around him,--the oak-stick which, notched and shattered, he still held in his hand,--the thick felt cap, cut in half by the same blow that had gashed its wearer's cheek,--showed that he had not fallen without a struggle.

"What cheer, friend?" cried Burstow, reining up his horse; "who has been assaulting you?"

"The Turks! the Turks!" gasped the poor old man, pointing in the direction of the cottage. "Oh, save them! save them!"

"Save whom?" inquired Chrysolaras.

"My wife and children," returned the dying man; "there, there,--do you not see?"

"But where are the Turks?" inquired Burstow, laying at the same time his hand on the bridle of Chrysolaras, who had turned his horse's head to the cottage. "I mean, where's the main body?"

"Gone on, towards Hadrianople," said the peasant, with an effort; "but the Pasha is there--at the cottage. Save them! for the love of the Panaghia, save them!"

"No, no, my Lord," said the Lochagus, roughly; "if we stop every time we find a peasant in distress, we had better turn back at once. What should he know about the Pasha? Let us push on!"

"God forbid!" cried Chrysolaras; "how shall we obtain mercy ourselves, if we are merciless now?" And throwing off Burstow's hand in no very gentle sort, he galloped down towards the cottage.

"Well--an you will--have with you!" cried the Lochagus. "And beshrew me but I like you the better for it!" And the whole party galloped down on the cottage.

Having now fairly brought our party into action, I will do, what I ought to have done before, pause one moment to describe their equipment. They all wore the brigandine,--or rather, to speak in the language of the times, a pair of brigandines,--the breast and back being made separately; the lappets of steel were curiously set on to a groundwork of canvas, and covered over with rich purple velvet, embroidered, in the case of Chrysolaras, with gold: the leg-harness was of the same material. The head was defended by beaver and gorget, much as in the West; only the shape somewhat resembled the ancient helmets of Greece--a lion, or other animal, forming its upper part. The proper or offensive armour of the Varangians was the double-edged battle-axe; but that being less adapted for cavalry warfare, the common men, all but two, carried the spetum, or long pointed partisan: a broad-bladed spear, rising from a crescent at the end of a staff. The two we have excepted carried the stirrup cross-bow, improved by a then recent invention, a reservoir box for arrows, so that the first motion simultaneously brought the string to the nut, and dropped a quarrel in the groove: the second discharged it. Richard Burstow, as Lochagus, would not discard the battle-axe, which hung by his saddle; and he carried a mere lance. Chrysolaras prided himself greatly on a matchlock musket, the stock richly inlaid with gold--not half so really serviceable as a crossbow, but valued by him as a recent and very ingenious invention; as before this device guns were discharged with one hand and held with the other, or supported on a prop. When I have added that each party wore a cut-and-thrust sword, I have sufficiently armed them for the fight.

The sun, which had now got round some little way to the west, seemed at first to prevent the recognition of the Varangians by the Turks round the cottage. As they were yet in full speed, two piercing shrieks rang from the building; and almost at the same moment the Turks seemed to discover that the advancing body were not friends, but foes. In another second there was a rush from the cottage: a man, apparently of considerable importance, was hurried on to his horse; and the whole force, after manoeuvring as if they were about to meet the Varangians, wheeled suddenly round, and galloped off. Almost at the same moment there was the whizz of two cross-bows, and some five seconds later the report of the matchlock--the latter perfectly harmless.

"One of them is down," cried the Lochagus, as the other Turks rode off without paying any attention to their fallen companion: "secure him, Stephen." And then he and Chrysolaras, giving their reins to some other of the life-guards, entered the cottage. It was the dwelling of a yeoman of the times: substantially built, well kept, and as things went, not ill-furnished: much such a cottage, in short, as you may now see in the Christian villages of Bulgaria: the guardian picture of our Lady, and the lamp burning before it. There were but two persons in this cottage--a mother and a daughter. The former had, at the first entrance of the marauders, been stretched on the ground by a blow from the butt-end of a pike; the latter, a fair girl of sixteen, had thrown herself on her knees before the image of the Panaghia, and clasped her arms round a staple in the wall with such convulsive violence that they were ghastly white. Her hair had been torn down from its fillet, and fell over her shoulders and waist; while one long thin tress that lay on the ground by her side, showed what had been the violence of her insulters.

"God be praised," said Chrysolaras, advancing into the room, "that we were in time to save you. Fear nothing: we are all friends."

The girl for the first time looked round, and seeing Greek faces, gave one shriek, and fell back insensible. While the Varangians, some of whom had by this time dismounted, were endeavouring, in a more gentle manner than might have been expected from their appearance, to recall her and her mother to their senses, Chrysolaras and Burstow, eager for the great object of their journey, advanced to the wounded Turk.

"Listen," said Burstow, speaking the language like a native, (I may remark in passing that Chrysolaras was sufficiently acquainted with it to keep up a conversation with tolerable ease.) "Speak the truth, and I spare your life; prevaricate, and that word is your last. Were you of the party that was marauding by Silivri yesterday?"

"Allah is great," said the Mussulman: "I was."

"Who commanded it?"

"Achmet Pasha."

"It is well. Did you yesterday take any captives from Silivri?"

"Allah is merciful," was the answer; "not from Silivri, but on the sea coast nigh there."

"How many?"

"A despot, and his wife and daughter."

"Where are they now?"

"Who can say?" replied the Infidel. "Allah and the Prophet only know."

"No paltering with me, dog," cried the Lochagus, giving his battle-axe a little swing; "where do you imagine them to be?"

"Two hours further on, with the rest of our party."

"Where are they to halt to-night?"

"At Eski Baba."

"What is the destination of the prisoners?"

"The despot and his wife for the Pasha's slaves, his daughter for my lord's harem."

"And why did you attack this cottage?"

"Allah is just," gasped the Infidel with a great effort: 'we did wrong--and--and--and-

'The death-rattle came in his throat as he spoke, and he fell back on the grass.

"A good thing, too," said Burstow. "I should have been sorry to let the vermin escape. Where's this girl?"

Poor Eudocia--for such was her name--now somewhat recovered, came from the cottage, threw herself at the feet of Chrysolaras, clasped his knees, and half devotion-ally, half hysterically, called down a thousand blessings upon him.

"Kneel to the Panaghia, maiden," he replied, "not to me. She, doubtless, it was that rescued you in this great strait; and you also," as the mother came up with scarcely less vivid gratitude. "Was it your husband that warned us of your danger?"

"If any man did, noble sir, it was he. Where did you see him?"

"Where he is now," replied Chrysolaras; "and whence--it grieves me much to say it--I misdoubt me, he will never rise again: by the bridge yonder."

A few hasty words explained the matter; and Eudocia and her mother were hurrying, in another moment, to the spot, Chrysolaras and his companions following. The yeoman had not moved: he made an effort to turn his head as the party advanced, and his wife and daughter were kneeling beside him.

"Are you safe, Eudocia?" he asked faintly, passing one hand over his brow, as if thinking- that the darkness of death, gathering over his eyes, were some tangible substance, which might be rubbed off.

"I am safe," said Eudocia, weeping bitterly as she spoke, "thanks to God and to this noble gentleman."

The dying man made a great effort. "If there be one blessing more than another on which you have set your heart, noble sir, God and the Panaghia grant it to you!"

As he spoke, a terrible convulsion came over him; for he was a strong man, and life was not to be easily dispossessed by his great enemy. Burstow, to whom a violent death was no novelty, leaped from his horse, knelt by the ground, and held both the sufferer's arms down to his side, in a firm, calm, but vice-like grasp, while the others commended the departing soul to its Redeemer. In half a minute the distended muscles relaxed, the rigid form grew supple, there was one deep groan, and all was over.

"My Lord," said Burstow, rising, "we must be gone. There is no danger now for the women."

"Two of you," said Chrysolaras, in a low voice, "carry the body to the cottage, then rejoin us: we will ride slowly till you do."

He said some kind words to the mourners; and in a few minutes more the party, with the exception of two of the Varangians, were in motion again. For some way they rode on in silence: Chrysolaras was the first to speak.

"God be praised that we turned out of our way to that cottage! Who knows how far a dying man's prayer may prevail for us? 'If there be one blessing more than another on which you have set your heart, God and the Panaghia grant it for you!'"

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