"'She is won! we are gone, over bush, bank, and scaur!
They'll have fleet steeds that follow,' quoth young Lochinvar."
That night, towards eight o'clock, the party whose rapid progress from Constantinople we have been relating in the last chapter, were holding secret consultation on the course they had still to pursue. Some quarter of a mile from Eski Baba, at which place the dying Mussulman, whom Burstow had interrogated, had said--and said truly--that Achmet Pasha intended to halt for the night, there was a grove of lime trees, a bow-shot from the high road that led southward. Here the Varangians had dismounted; and tying or tethering their horses, as chance or convenience suggested, they were stretched in various attitudes on the ground, or against the roots of the old trees, and finishing the frugal meal which they had procured at their last halting-place. The moon, pouring down a flood of brightness on the open country, was dim here; and the low murmur of the nearly leafless branches over head was all the sound--save the occasional voice of a speaker--that interrupted the repose of the scene and the time.
"It is certain, then," said the Lochagus, "that Achmet Pasha is in the village. The best way (under your judgment, my Lord) of proceeding will be, that I should put on my disguise, and procure such information as I may be able."
"And we," said Chrysolaras, "must, I suppose, await your return here. Be cautious, however, Burstow. Remember how infinitely more than your own life, or than all our lives, depends upon this venture."
"I will be cautious, my Lord," replied the Lochagus; "but there must be some risk run. However, thus much it might be well to arrange: if I return not in two hours,--or, say at furthest, in three,--from this time, conclude that I am betrayed, and act according to your own judgment. I need not say that, whether I am discovered or not, our secret will be equally safe."
"That I know well," said Chrysolaras. "God guard you, for you need His care."
"Hand me that trunk, Gregory," said Burstow. The Varangian disengaged it from the saddle of the Lochagus, and gave it as directed. "It contains my disguise, my Lord; I will but don it, and then set out."
The change of dress took but a few minutes; and, prepared as Chrysolaras had been for the completeness with which Burstow could assume the Turkish character, the deception was so perfect as to astonish even him. Costume, countenance, expression, everything was in keeping; the manner seemed to change almost involuntarily; and the poor Turk--for such was the character which the Lochagus judged it best to personate--who stood in the midst of the Varangians, might, amidst eyes more critical than theirs, have passed unquestioned and undoubted.
"Farewell, my Lord," he said; "farewell, comrades. I well hope that, in two or three hours, we shall meet again; if not, I shall have done my duty,--and you, I am sure, will do yours."
"Our Lady guard you, Lochagus!" cried three or four voices from the little band; and, in another moment, their leader issued from the wood. Striking into the high road, a very few minutes' walk brought him to the outskirts of the little village; and by the side of its first house he saw two Turkish sentinels.
"Who goes there?" said one of them, as Burstow approached.
"A friend," replied he. "I am from Bourghiaz, and have tidings for the Pasha."
"What is your name?" inquired the sentinel.
"Mustapha," was the answer.
"If you give us your message, it shall be taken to the Pasha," said the other.
"No," replied the Lochagus, "I will take it myself; or it shall not go at all."
The soldiers, though evidently displeased at this announcement, seemed not to dare openly to resent it; and after a few moments' conversation in a low voice, one of them desired the supposed Mustapha to wait, until he could receive the Pasha's own instructions. The other continued his beat, and took not the slightest notice of the new-comer.
The sentinel who had undertaken to deliver the message presently returned with a more respectful air, and desired Burstow to follow him to the Pasha. The Lochagus, summoning up all his resolution, and feeling that he was indeed about to put his head into the lion's mouth, obeyed. The village might consist of about forty houses, and appeared to have been deserted by the inhabitants before the marauders had entered. At the door of most of the houses was a knot of the soldiers--disorderly beyond the hopes of the visitor. Wine appeared to have been taken pretty freely; and the usual gravity of Turkish demeanour was, in many cases, utterly thrown off. The greater part of the horses were stabled in the church, which was open, and before which hay, straw, and barley were wastefully scattered about, as if to prove that the troops had no objection to squander what they had never paid for. Nearly opposite was the house of which the Pasha had taken temporary possession; it had been that of the mayor, or, as he called himself, the constable of the place, and was a dwelling of some size, and not ill calculated for its present purpose. Two soldiers were sentinels at the door; but they allowed Burstow and his conductor to pass. The latter led the way up a staircase of some pretensions, and in another moment ushered the Frank into the presence of the Pasha.
Achmet Pasha, a good-looking, though somewhat corpulent man, of about fifty, was seated on a carpet at the upper end of the room, and solacing himself, after the fatigues of the day, with sherbet. The pretended Mustapha, after performing the usual homage, rose, and stood patiently, till it should please the Pasha to interrogate him further.
"Where do you come from?" inquired he, at length.
"From Bourghiaz," returned Burstow, "with important tidings for your highness."
Achmet indulged himself with two or three sips before he continued--"What are they?"
"The Christian dogs," replied the Lochagus, "have sent to Wisa for help. The Romans have a garrison there; and they wish to cut off your highness on your return to Hadrianople."
"Allah is great," said the Pasha; "they will not do it."
"They have heard," continued his visitor, "that your highness has, among the prisoners a Christian Aga, whom they wish to set free. I thought it was my duty to let this be known."
"You did well," returned the Pasha.
Burstow saw that he must wait till the great man should think it consistent with his dignity to ask something more; and in about a couple of minutes he found himself rewarded.
"What number have the dogs at Wisa?" inquired Achmet.
"Allah knows," said Burstow; "the servant of my Lord's servants doth not."
"How soon might they be here?" said the Pasha.
"Not before midnight," answered Burstow, "if even then."
"We shall be prepared for them," returned Achmet. "The prisoners are in this very house. What shall be, shall be; if we are ordained to be attacked, we cannot alter that which is written."
"Half a mile from this place," said Burstow, "on the road to Wisa, is a deep, narrow lane, where ten men might hold out against an army."
After his usual delay, Achmet inquired, "Could you lead the men thither?"
Burstow professed his ability to do so; and Achmet gave orders that a hundred of his party should be posted there. Nor was his attention to that spot at all singular. The garrison at Wisa had made itself peculiarly obnoxious to the Turks; and, under the command of a very active Frank officer, such tales were related of its deeds of prowess, as rendered its name the terror of the neighbouring country. Burstow himself, to whom every inch of Roumelia was as familiar as the guard-house of the palace, was perfectly correct in his description of the locality; and as soon as the men could be got together he led them to the spot, and saw them placed in good order for the repulsion of the pretended attack. That done, he was to return to the town, by order of the Pasha, who was not very well acquainted with the country, and was willing to obtain information connected with the locality that might be of use to him. But, instead of taking the nearest way back, he first resolved on going to the wood where he had left his comrades; as more than two hours had elapsed since he was with them, and they would naturally be growing anxious to hear of his success. Having reconnoitred the ground closely, so as to make sure that he was not watched, he turned from the road, and was presently greeted with rapture by his companions.
"How goes it?" cried Chrysolaras; "what have you done? Have you seen the prisoners? Where are they lodged? What can we do?"
Burstow related what he had done. "Now," he continued, "what you have to do is clear. There are not more than five and forty left in the place; you are sixteen. They are great odds, I allow; but shall we ever have less? The men have been drinking; they are dispirited by hearing of the garrison at Wisa; the troop sent out on the road consists of picked soldiers; those in Eski Baba are the dregs."
"I am for the trial, by all means," said Chrysolaras; "but the thing must be the work of a moment, or they will rally."
"Nay," said Lochagus, "I would not have you make an open attack down the street. The house where the despot is confined is almost opposite to the church, and is the only one that is built of stone. Behind it there is a garden, and then orchards, and then this moor. Now get your horses concealed in the orchard, as near to the garden wall as you can; you can climb the wall, and enter the house from behind."
"But you will be with us?" said Chrysolarus.
"No," replied Burstow; "I may be more useful if I return. I will do what I can to help you within; and that may be thrice as much as I can do without. But come, to horse! I will put you in the way; for, thank God! the moon is setting, and there will be no fear of our being discovered."
It took no long time to get the party on horseback; and Burstow's horse being led forth with the rest, he walked by the side of Chrysolaras for a short distance from the wood.
"There," he said, at length; "you can see the line of trees against the sky, out yonder; that is the orchard of which I spoke. Get to it as best you can; there can be no real difficulty. The house itself you cannot mistake: as I said, there is not another building of stone in the place, except the church. And one word more: give me an hour from this time, and then break in, as best you can."
Thus saying, he left his companions, and walked forwards into the village. Here he was somewhat concerned to perceive that the alarm about the garrison from Wisa, if it had materially diminished the numbers of the intruders, had exceedingly increased their watchfulness. The sentinels were doubled at the entrance of the place; regular patrols were established in all directions; a guardhouse was made out of what had been a wine shop; and every soldier wore a quiet, careful manner, far different from the licentiousness and listlessness that had prevailed two hours before. Reporting his arrival at the house occupied by the Pasha, Burstow was again summoned before that chief, and was questioned pretty closely as to his knowledge of the country, its capacities for an ambuscade, and the chances of falling into one before proximity to Hadrianople should give complete safety. In talk like this nearly half-an-hour passed; and then Achmet dis- missed his visitor, promising him a reward on the morrow.
The Lochagus, on leaving the Pasha, found his way into the court-yard of the house, where several Turkish guards were drinking, and sat down among them, apparently occupied in listening to their occasional remarks, but in reality reconnoitring the size and capacity of the building. It formed three sides of a square; a low wall, in the direction of the garden, completing the quadrangle. The apartment occupied by the Pasha lay on that side which faced the village street: and from his observation both within, and also without the house, Burstow was persuaded that Choniates and his family could not be confined there, but must be lodged in the other wing, that, namely, which ran backwards, at right angles, into the garden. However, to make his guess certain, he led the conversation that way.
"I cannot think," he said, "where you can find room, in such a dog-kennel as this, to lodge these same prisoners, about whom the Pasha seems so anxious."
"There is room enough," said an old Turk, "yonder." And he pointed to the wing on which Burstow had already fixed.
"They are well guarded, doubtless," said Burstow.
"Why should they be?" said the former speaker; "they are as safe as the gates of Paradise."
"Why, truly," remarked the Lochagus, "the uncir-cumcised dogs would not find it easy to come here. And, by the blessing of Allah and the Prophet, I trust our Lord will soon make the whole country as safe up to Stamboul: it is ill living here, between water and fire."
"Up to Stamboul! ay, Inshallah, and beyond it," cried one of the party. "This will be our last winter at Hadrianople."
"We hear," said Burstow, "that our Lord is making vast preparations. I have not seen them yet; but the Nazarenes fear them much."
At this moment from the street there came the cry, "La illah ilia Allah, Mahommcd resoul Allah!" and the whole party prostrated themselves for the last hour of prayer. Burstow was fain to follow their example. "Our Lady confound them for compelling me," thought he.
The conversation then turned on the garrison at Wisa, and the probability of its attempting an attack; and the pretended Mustapha was much encouraged to perceive the intense dread with which the Franks were viewed by the Infidels.
"It was doubtless some of them," said one of the soldiers who had not yet spoken, but whom Burstow instantly recognized, "to whom we owe that alarm this afternoon." And he proceeded to give a somewhat exaggerated account of the rescue of Eudocia. "It was all but over with the Pasha," said he. "I was the first to see they were Varangians, and not our own men. By the Black Stone, a moment's later notice, and Achmet might by this time have been in Wisa himself."
"Or in Paradise," said another with a laugh.
"Trust him for Paradise!" cried a third. "He wishes for no houris but those of Hadrianople. And, by the Prophet, the Sultan himself never saw a more beautiful one than we have yonder."
"You say true," said the old officer: "nor Sultan Amurath--peace be unto him! neither. And yet his taste was famous in Roman beauties."
Burstow was all this while intently listening for any sound which might betoken the approach of his companions: and at this moment in the garden, separated from them by the wall, he heard a kind of suppressed cry, as if some one had stumbled over some unexpected obstacle, and had been on the point of uttering an exclamation of surprise.
"What was that?" cried one or two voices.
"Where is the lantern?" said the officer. "Hassan and Abdallah, go through that wicket and look."
"Best not," said Burstow. "It may be a Katakhanas or a ghoul."
"It was nothing," said Abdallah, as if to excuse himself from stirring.
"Are there ghouls here?" inquired Hassan.
"They say so," returned the soi-disant Mustapha. "Eski Baba has an ill name for them. They ever haunt old ruined places like this."
"Ay," said one of the men. "And the Katakhanades that the Romans talk of are just as bad."
"Or worse," said Burstow. "Their mufti at Bourghiaz told me what happened to himself about one, no long time ago."
"What was it?" said two or three voices. And the Lochagus, very willing to render his auditors nervous, said,--"Am I to tell it?"
"Tell it," said the officer.
"It is getting very dark," said the Lochagus. "I will come nearer to you, before I begin." And the whole party caught the infection of terror, and shifted their places a little further from the boundary wall, whence the mysterious sound had so lately been heard.
"Listen then," said he. "There lived at Bourghiaz a Christian called Ephraim--and a right wicked one he was. He was Cadi, too: he never opened his hand but to receive a bribe--never did justice unless he was paid for it--ruined widows and robbed orphans, and ground the poor like a tyrant as he was. At last he died; and because he was so wicked, they would not bury him in the Nazarene cemetery, but they put him in the ground in a cave, in the hill just above Bourghiaz. And no long time after, there was a report that a Katakhanas went about, and several children were devoured by it. No one could tell where it lived, though inquiries were made in all directions. At last it fell out that a friend of this Ephraim's, named Demetrius, having been out snaring hares, was benighted, and lay down in the cave where the wicked man was buried. And he laid his staff athwart his body, so as to make the figure of the Cross, and went to sleep. Towards midnight he awoke. It was a wild stormy night; clouds swept over the moon, making a bright glow of light alternately with a deep abyss of shade. The hill roared with its woods; and Demetrius wished for the day. As he lay awake, he heard a voice from the interior of the cave; it was Ephraim's.
"'Demetrius,' it said.
"Demetrius lay in a cold sweat of terror; for now he saw that it was his friend who was the Katakhanas.
"'Demetrius,' it said again; 'I wish to come out.'
'"Why do you not come out?' said he, summoning up all his courage.
"'I cannot,' said the Katakhanas, 'while your staff lies crosswise over you.'
"When Demetrius felt his power over the Vampire, he took the more courage: so he said, 'I shall not remove it: you will tear me to pieces if I do.'
'"I will not,' said the Katakhanas.
'"You must swear it,' answered Demetrius.
"'I swear it by heaven,' said the Vampire.
"Now Demetrius knew that Katakhanades are bound only by one oath--and he replied--
"'That will not do. You must swear it by the inviolable oath.'
"'By what? ' said the Katakhanas.
"'You know,' replied his friend: 'swear it by your WINDING SHEET.'
"This the Vampire was very loth to do: at last he swore by his winding sheet; and Demetrius removed the staff; and the Vampire went out. At daybreak he came back, his teeth and lips dropping blood; and he went to his grave and lay down. Demetrius went to the mufti, and told him all. The Nazarenes of Bourghiaz went the next Saturday--for it is only on the Saturday that Vampires can rest in their graves--and dug up Ephraim; and there he was, perfect as when they buried him, only black. So they took him up and burnt him; and they have not been troubled with a Katakhanas since."
This story evidently affected the spirits of the party. One or two of the soldiers looked fearfully out into the thick darkness that shrouded the garden, as if dreading some unearthly appearance from the midst of it.
"And they say," remarked Abdallah, "that there are Katakhanadas here also."
"By the Prophet they do," replied the Lochagus. And, as he spoke, there arose so wild and horrible a shriek from the garden that officer and guards, forgetful of everything but their own safety, and the terrors of their unearthly visitants, sprang simultaneously from their places, tumbled one over another into the doorway, and disappeared in the house. In another second, Chrysolaras and the Varangians had scaled the fence, and were in possession of the court.
"Admirably done," cried the Lochagus. "You heard my tale then?"
"Ay," said Manuel. "Where are they?"
"In yonder range of buildings--they have a separate entrance. Stay; let us secure this door; we shall be the safer for it."
It took but a moment to barricade the door by which the Turkish guards had made their escape, and which fortunately opened outwards: and in another Chrysolaras and Burstow, with several Varangians, had forced in that which led to the range of rooms where the prisoners were confined, and were ascending the stairs which led to their apartment. The sentinel who was posted at the landing place, however he might have followed his companions in flying from supernatural foes, was too brave a man to dread any odds in enemies of flesh and blood. Shouting loudly for help, he struck at Chrysolaras, who was foremost, with his pike:--Burstow drove it up by a back stroke of his battle-axe, wrested it from its holder, and the next instant plunged his dagger into the breast of the unfortunate Turk.
"Now, Stephen, and Demetrius," he cried, "and two or three more of you, make good this passage for the next ten minutes with your lives. This way, my lord."--And hurrying along the corridor, they soon arrived at the door which, from his observations of the place, Burstow had fixed on as that which must lead to the room of which he was in search. A thundering blow from his battle-axe almost stove in its panelling: but, before he could repeat the stroke, loud shrieks burst from the inside, followed by the question, in a voice which Chrysolaras knew to be that of Choniates,--"Who is that?"
"It is I," shouted Manuel:--"I, Manuel Chrysolaras. Open the door, if you have the means--there is not a moment to lose."
"God be praised!" cried Nicetas. "The door is fastened on us; you must open it for yourselves."
"Stand back then, inside," shouted the Lochngus. And one or two more blows split panelling and tore down hinges, and the Varangians pushing their way through the ruins of the door, entered the apartment.
"Now, Euphrasia, now!" cried Chrysolaras, speaking to no else. "There is not a moment to be lost. Lochagus, look to the Lady Choniatis! Now, Exarch! we have horses for you in the garden!"
Hurrying Euphrasia along the passage, they found the Varangian guard hardly pressed, and with great difficulty holding their own. The Turkish soldiers appeared to have discovered the trick that had been played on them--but finding that the door leading to the court-yard was securely barricaded on the outside, they rushed to the apartments of the prisoners, and were confronted by the few picked men that Burstow had posted in the corridor. Achmet Pasha, throwing off his indolence, headed his troops: for such a rescue, he well knew, might have been punished by the bow-string at Hadrianople. The passage was, however, extremely narrow, and would not admit more than two abreast;--so that in the hand-to-hand struggle which ensued, the superior length of the Greek pikes told with fearful effect. Already, however, two Varangians were down, when Burstow and Chrysolaras, with the rescued captives hurried along the corridor.
"You to horse, my Lord!" cried Burstow--"I must mend this gear. "Quick! quick! in S. George's name! We shall have the whole city upon us!"
"But you will follow?"
"Ay,--if we can fight our way out. But quick! or we shall have lost all."
So saying, and crying, "Give way, my masters!" he threw himself among the combatants. Chrysolaras hurried Euphrasia down the stairs, and across the court;--with the assistance of two or three of the Life Guard the wall was soon scaled; and almost before the prisoners could believe that they were rescued, they were on horseback.
"We must ride, my Lord," said one of the Varangians. "We have express orders from the Lochagus."
Still, though on fire to free Euphrasia from her danger, Manuel could not endure the thought of deserting his friend.
"But Burstow?" he said.
"He must take care of himself," replied the soldier, whose name was Gregory;--"he is fighting to give you a start: for God's love do not lose it!"
It was enough. "We must ride, Exarch," said Chrysolaras:--and in another second the whole party,--Choniates, his wife and child, the four servants of Chrysolaras, and four of the Varangians, were in full gallop over the common. The night was pitch dark: the heath full of pools and gullies: but no fate seemed so dreadful as that of being overtaken,--and on they went, at reckless speed, towards the grove where Burstow had assumed his disguise.
"It seems like a dream," said Euphrasia to Manuel, who held her rein. "How could you hear that we were ' taken? And how could you come up with us?"
"Look well to your seat, dear Euphrasia," replied Chrysolaras: "this is no time for talking. The Acolyth lent me a party of Varangians and we were tracking you all yesterday. Hold up, Pasha! God grant we may come safely off this common!"
"Whither are we riding?" cried the Exarch, behind. "To Wisa," replied Chrysolaras. "Once there, we are ', safe."
"That is well," said the Exarch. "Whatever be the issue of this night's work, which is in God's hands, the Panaghia reward you, Lord Chrysolaras, for the attempt to save us from slavery, and Euphrasia from worse! And you, good fellows, if I live, you shall find that I have not forgotten how much I owe you."
"More to the left, my Lord," cried Gregory. "The Wisa road runs north of that copse yonder." ' "So best, so best," said Manuel, as they followed the advice. "Hark! I could swear that I heard horses!"
Every head was instantly turned, but not an inch of speed abated.
"Push on, my masters!" shouted Gregory at length, "we are pursued."
More fast and furiously than ever dashed on the little party: till faint from the distance, but yet clear, was heard a shout of, "Halt ho!"
"It is the Lochagus," cried one or two of the men. "Draw rein, my Lord."
"Are you sure?" inquired Chrysolaras, still pressing on. But as he spoke, the shout came nearer and clearer.
"God be praised," cried he, drawing rein. "Dear Euphrasia, that is the man to whom we owe everything. I should never have forgiven myself if aught had chanced him."
In a few moments Burstow and three others rode up. "They have taken the Bourghiaz road," said he: "as if we should be such fools! But ride on, my Lord, we have no time to lose. It is far enough to Wisa yet."
"But how came you off, Burstow?" cried Chrysolaras.
"By good luck, the Pasha was struck down; and, in the hurry, we got off. The four we have lost have been well avenged. If there is one down of the circumcised dogs there are twenty. My Lord Exarch, I trust that beyond the danger you have not suffered?"
"God be praised, not a whit," said Choniates. "I wish some one could lend me a sword; they have stripped me of all I had; and I were loth to be taken again without striking one blow for myself."
"There will be no more blows to-night," said the Lochagus. "But we will find you a sword, in case of the worst."
Richard Burstow was too confident. To explain the reason why, we must go back a little.
It happened that Vasif, the officer to whom Achmet Pasha had given the command of the troops whom he had been persuaded to despatch against the pretended sally of the garrison of Wisa, was a man of sense and courage; and though compelled to obey orders without a question, convinced that there was something strange in the errand itself, and in the character of the supposed Mustapha. With the latter, while on their way to the selected position, he had a good deal of conversation; and was more and more persuaded, though never for an instant doubting that his guide was a Turk,--that his motives were anything but pure desire for the success of the Sultan's arms. He had, indeed, very strong suspicions that it was intended to lead him into an ambuscade; and provided against such a result to his best ability by throwing out a strong advanced party, and keeping a diligent watch, as the band entered any copse or cutting that might seem to favour such a design. Nothing of the sort, however, as the reader knows, occurred; yet Vasif still felt doubtful and anxious; and as soon as Burstow had left them, communicated his suspicions to an inferior officer named Ali.
"Let me follow him," said the latter, on hearing the account: "he must be cunning indeed if he escapes from me. I know the country well."
"Ascertain, then, if he goes directly to the town, or if he makes a circuit by the way; and stop him without scruple if you notice anything suspicious in his conduct: I will answer it to the Pasha."
Ali, thus encouraged, mounted his horse, and following at the greatest possible distance, so as not to lose sight of his object--as we have before said, the moon was not then set--traced him without difficulty to the wood, and would have entered that also, had he not heard the sound of voices. He was now thoroughly convinced that some stratagem was to be apprehended; he endeavoured to catch a portion of what was said, but he was at too great a distance even to distinguish the language; and had he been nearer, his ignorance of Greek would have prevented his acquiring any information from what passed. He waited, however, in the skirts of the wood, till he saw the pretended Mustapha issue forth in company with a body of Varangians, and take his way towards Eski Baba. Then, only waiting till they were at safe distance, he galloped back to Vasif, and related what he had witnessed.
On this that officer summoned one or two of the sergeants, and laid the matter before them. On the whole, it was agreed that, though there were grounds for believing that their being posted in that defile was a mere stratagem, perhaps devised for the express purpose of keeping them from some place where their presence might be most useful, there was not sufficient warrant for their deserting their ground, the rather that, after all, if the warning received should prove true, the bowstring might be only too slight a punishment for such an offence. Ali, however, with a party of ten was despatched to observe the wood; and a private soldier charged with a message to Achmet Pasha, and sent to Eski Baba. Had the latter reached his destination in time, the course of events might have been changed; but the night was dark, he was a perfect stranger to the country, the common was much intersected with dykes, and the natural consequence was that the messenger did not arrive at his destination till half-an-hour after the escape of Choniates; and considered himself fortunate that in the hurry and bustle consequent on that event, he was not welcomed by an order for impalement.
Ali, meanwhile, and his comrades kept their post by the wood, and remained there for more than an hour without hearing any further sound than the sighing of the branches in the wind, and the occasional scream of an owl from a hollow tree hard at hand. They were beginning to think of returning to their superior officer, when the sound, in the direction of Eski Baba, of horses, first faintly and obscurely, then clearly beyond all possibility of denial, excited them to the sharpest attention. Ali, finding that the party, whoever they might be, were advancing on the Wisa road, drew up his men in line at the skirts of the wood, so as to be ready for instant attack.
On came the Lochagus, boasting, as we have just seen, of his security. "By the Panaghia," said Chrysolaras, "but this passes my expectations. That we should have tracked these dogs so surely, and come up with them so soon, and now, beyond all my hopes, have recovered the prize!"
"God be first thanked," said Maria Choniatis, "and then you!"
The pace of the fugitives, though still rapid, was much modified from what it had been; and did not now exceed a brisk canter. There was time, then, for a few brief hurried words of affection and hope.
"Ah, Manuel," said Euphrasia, "if my father had but followed your advice yesterday, what agony should we both have been spared!"
"All my advice, dearest one?" inquired Chrysolaras with a smile.
Poor Euphrasia, who had simply referred to the warning that Manuel had given of the risk from a sudden incursion of the Turks, and the consequent necessity of a removal to Constantinople, blushed, and said, "Nay, not all;--but, in good sooth, he must learn to brook what he calls imprisonment in a city. For this most unhopedfor deliverance," she presently continued, "dear Manuel, I am bound, were it possible, to be more your own in heart than ever; but that, I fear, can hardly be."
"You can never know, Euphrasia, the agony of that night. Had it not been that instant action was necessary to have a chance of recovering you, I really think I should have lost my senses."
"S. Irene be praised that it is over now," she replied, "and------"
At this moment, the wood being passed, there was a shout, a cry of surprise, and a rush from the side of the road.
"Halt, traitor!" cried Ali to Burstow, aiming a blow at him with his scymetar, which fell harmless on his brigandine.
"S. George for the Life Guard!" shouted the Lochagus, swinging round his tremendous battle-axe as if it had been a mere staff, and felling one of the Turks. "Gentlemen of the Varangians, close in! My lord, push on! We shall soon end these dogs."
Notwithstanding, however, the inferior numbers of the Turks,--eleven to thirteen,--they had the advantage of giving, instead of being taken by, surprise. Their horses were fresher, they were not so far from their own forces, and they knew perfectly well what they had to do. The Varangians, on the contrary, were well-nigh worn out with the labours of the preceding night and day, were taken unawares, were unacquainted with the country, and were by no means ready with an answer to the question, What was to be done next? Thus, though Chrysolaras threw himself desperately on such of the Turks as endeavoured to prevent his following the advice of Burstow, he was unable at once to cut his way through them; and the combat might have lasted four of five minutes, the soldiers being somewhat distracted by the defence of Maria Choniatis and her daughter, to secure which they were, after the first vain effort to break through the line of their opponents, obliged to form in hollow square.
At the end of that time, however, courage, discipline, and a good cause told. Four of the Turks were lying dead on the ground, while only one of the Varangians had fallen; Ali was hard pressed by the Lochagus, and the Infidels in the very act of dispersing, when the scene was changed by the rapid tramp of an advancing party of horse in the direction of Wisa. Burstow felt that his fate was sealed; Ali, on the contrary was divided between his hopes that the advancing troops might be a part of Vasif's detachment, and his fears that the garrison of Wisa might in reality have made a successful attack on his commander, and be now hurrying to the relief of their friends. A moment's suspense ended the doubt; and the shout of La illah illa Allah fell like a thunderbolt on the ears of the Christians. Still, hoping against hope, and in spite of the enormous odds (for the new party consisted of a detachment of thirty men, despatched by Vasif, who was fearful, from Ali's long absence, that something had befallen him), Burstow and Chrysolaras maintained the engagement; nor was it till two or three only of their companions survived, that they consented to accept the offer of surrender on quarter, till the Sultan's pleasure should be known thereupon.
The prisoners were then separated, and each put under the guard of a Turkish soldier; and so escorted, first to Vasif's detachment, and then the united body, leaving the place to which it was now manifest they had been directed by stratagem, advanced to Eski Baba.
Communication between the captives was impossible; and the one sad comfort of Manuel Chrysolaras was, that he was Euphrasia's companion in captivity, and should, at all events, know the worst. As to Richard Burstow, he felt certain, that to reach Hadrianople was to step into his grave; for the treachery of having assumed a Turkish disguise would never be forgiven. The stout old Exarch bore up manfully, except when, occasionally turning his head, he saw the deep agony of his wife and Euphrasia; and then the tears, in spite of all his stoicism, would break forth. The few surviving Varangians followed slowly and sullenly, evidently certain that their choice would be between apostacy and death. Each of the prisoners rode between two soldiers, and was fastened to his saddle; so that escape was impossible.
Thus, the east behind them kindling into a glorious day, they entered Eski Baba.