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 IX.

"The purpose you undertake is dangerous; the friends you have named uncertain; the time itself unsuited; and your whole plot too light for the counterpoise of so great an opposition."--Henry IV.

We must now shift the scene to Constantinople.

It is necessary to say a few words on the state of parties in the Capital of the Empire, or rather, the Capital and the Empire, in order that the course of our tale may be uninterrupted by explanations, and intelligible. The general hatred which was felt to any idea of union with the Latins seemed, instead of being diminished by the pressing urgency of such a step, to derive strength and bitterness from the very fact of its being inevitable. The popular voice was louder than ever against any trust in the Azymites; the religious of both sexes, but more especially Gennadius, the darling of the mob, preached day and night against such a contamination of Eastern orthodoxy; the last of the Greeks were exhorted to suffer the worst, even to death, rather than be freed by means accursed in themselves, and bringing a curse on others. And it must be confessed that the conduct of the Latins, and more especially that of the Cardinal Isidore, which ought to have been the very model of gentleness and consideration, was, on the contrary, well calculated to alienate, even had there been trust and concord before. The various points of difference between the Churches were exaggerated and coloured; the use of unleavened bread was made offensively prominent; the precedence claimed by the Cardinal, in virtue of a dignity which had no parallel among the Greeks, also caused great disgust; and, in short, it needed the utmost efforts of a government, itself not very zealous in the cause, to prevent a popular outbreak, and the violent expulsion of the Cardinal from the city. Justiniani, however, the celebrated Genoese general, had arrived, with a body of two thousand men; and this circumstance no doubt had its effect in preserving order: such allies were neither to be despised nor offended. At the same time, the infatuation with which the mob clung to the idea that, however hardly the city might be pressed, however nearly it might fall, assistance would come, even at the last hour, either from Europe, or immediately from heaven, is only to be paralleled by the similar insanity of the Jews, in the last dreadful siege of their own city.

But it was not only from what we may call the fanatical party that the safety of the metropolis was endangered. The state of degradation to which the nobles of Constantinople had sunk; the effeminacy, the luxury, the want of all sense of honour, the cowardice, the cruelty, is scarcely to be matched in history, unless it may find some likeness in the aristocracy of the last stage of the decadence of Poland. These men saw that the Empire could not, in human probability, hold out many months longer; that it certainly could not, without the toils and perils of a long and terrible siege; that, in case of the worst, their wealth and influence would be lost, themselves reduced to a condition little better than slavery, and the days of their delicate living for ever terminated. Hence the suggestion was entertained, that by secret negotiations with Mahomet, such a fate might be prevented; and such a plan was now actually on foot. It was proposed that on such a night one gate of the city should be opened to the Turkish force; the conspirators conditioning for themselves complete security in life, fortune, house, and family; and, they had the decency to add, religion. But such a conspiracy was almost beyond the strength or the daring of that dissolute and enfeebled aristocracy; and, on looking about for instruments who might be subservient to the design, none appeared so likely as the heads of the ultrafanatical party. It was no secret that in harangues and sermons, it had been given out as a watchword, "Better the Sultan than the Pope; better the Vizier than Isidore: "and men who could thus teach were not unlikely to enter with avidity into a negotiation which might banish the Latins, and give them toleration for their own religion, though it ended the Roman Empire in the last of the Caesars.

These two most opposite parties, accordingly, came to an understanding; joint commissioners were sent to Ha-drianople, and favourably received; and the negotiations, though of course conducted with the strictest privacy, were understood by the general body of conspirators to be approaching a happy termination. Such an union of opposing factions may receive a very good illustration in the alliance formed, rather more than two hundred years later, between the Ultra-Puritans and Fifth Monarchy men on the one side, and the flagitious Duke of Buckingham and his mates on the other.

A few days after the events we have been recording, Sir Edward de Rushton had just returned from a review of the Varangians, and was reposing himself in his own apartments, when he received an urgent message from Phranza, desiring his immediate attendance. Imagining that some intelligence had been received from Burstow or Chrysolaras, he lost no time in obeying the summons; and found the Protovestiare walking up and down his room of audience, apparently in a state of great agitation. "Is anything the matter, my Lord?" inquired De Rushton. "No ill news, I trust, from Hadrianople?"

"Better such tidings, than these," replied Phranza. "Read this paper: it was found in the terrace-walk of my garden some hour agone."

Sir Edward took it, and read as follows:--"Noble Protovestiare,--My own particular love to your Lordship, and some other causes, not needful here to be specified, lead me to give you this warning. Look well where the Caloire Joasaph, of the Studium, goes to this evening, at eight of the clock; and learn, if you can, with whom he consorts till midnight, and what is arranged by him. [A priest who is also a monk, as distinguished from a secular. And it must be remembered that the difference between these two classes is much greater in the East than in the West, the secular priests of the Eastern Church being necessarily married.] Seek not to discover the author of this letter; such an attempt must be vain, and may be mischievous."

"What do you think of this?" inquired the Acolyth, when he had read the document.

"As of a thing that may be of great weight," replied Phranza. "Joasaph is one of the most dangerous men in Constantinople; and, since he was disappointed of the throne of Chalcedon, ready for any perilous attempt. Intriguing he is, and artful as a Cardinal; and, after Gennadius, no man so popular."

"Gennadius," said Sir Edward, "is at all events conscientious and honest; he may be an enemy, but he will be an open one. And his deep asceticism, I verily believe, is from no desire of human applause. But Joasaph I have had my eye on long; and, it seems, a closer watch must be kept on him still."

"One might have him instantly arrested," continued Phranza, "though in the present state of the city it might lead to an outbreak; for the thing would be said to be owing to Azymite influence. But, if we did arrest him, we should be as far from gaining any knowledge of the plot as we are now; for that there is a plot, this letter most clearly intends to assert."

"There is no reason, I suppose, for doubting the credibility of this communication?" said the Great Acolyth.

"It bears every stamp of truth," rejoined Phranza. "Joasaph is no doubt dangerous; and any warning against him so far proves itself. Besides, what could any one propose to himself, by deceiving me here? The only possibility is, that it may be intended to withdraw our vigilance from a real to. a fictitious danger; but again, if there be any real plot, my life for it, Joasaph is concerned in it."

"It is plain," said De Rushton, "that we must keep the matter as secret as may be. What say you to my watching this monk myself, and having a party of Varangians at hand to support me, if needed?"

"It is the very thing that I was going to ask of you," said Phranza. "The whole matter shall be left entirely to your own discretion; and I will obtain warrants under the Emperor's own seal, without troubling the First Secretary, authorizing you to proceed as you shall think fit, and giving you the fullest powers.--Sup with me to-day, at six of the clock, and make all your arrangements beforehand."

"I will not fail your Lordship," replied Sir Edward de Rushton. "And I must look to the business at once; for it is already two hours past noon." So saying, he withdrew.

De Rushton's first care was to visit the Studium, for the purpose of determining in what way it would be most easy to keep an efficient watch over the proceedings of Joasaph. This large and celebrated monastery lay on the east of Constantinople, and presented an immense aggregation of buildings of different dates, though all conceived in the same immutable Byzantine type. Two vast quadrangles were appropriated to the dwellings of the monks; but the bakeries, granaries, and storehouses of all sorts extended the actual building in every direction. Conspicuous above all towered the great Church, with its five silver domes; and the marble walls of the convent rose gloriously amidst the extensive gardens and thick foliage with which it is surrounded. In all the extent of its walls, however, there was but one gate; that which led immediately up to the entrance of the first quadrangle. Having satisfied himself, by inquiry, that Joasaph was then within, De Rushton posted a corporal of the Varangian guard, by name George Contari, on whom implicit confidence might be placed, in a wine-shop which commanded a view of the monastery gates; for the wineshops of Constantinople at that time answered much the same purpose as the coffee-houses of our own day, and so afforded convenient accommodation for the officer in question. He was disguised, however, in the ordinary dress of a Byzantine tradesman; and to spend an afternoon in such a manner was nothing unusual in that luxurious city. Contari had orders to follow Joasaph,--whose person was perfectly well known to him, as, indeed, to almost every other citizen,--if he should leave the monastery; if not, to remain quietly in the wine-shop till De Rushton shoud come back again. Having arranged thus much, the Great Acolyth returned to the palace: and having summoned ten of the most trusty of his Varangians, he informed them that they would be wanted for secret service in a few hours, and commanded them to hold themselves in readiness in the guard-room at seven o'clock that evening.

By this time a December night was closing in: the sentinels wrapped themselves more closely in their military cloaks; the windows of the various shops were shut and secured; fires were lighted in the public places; the bells of S. Sophia, responded to by those of a hundred other churches, thundered out their summons to vespers; next, the quadrangles of the palace shone with innumerable lamps; and presently fifes and hautboys echoed through the stillness of the night, proclaiming that the Emperor was going to supper. As the supper-hour of the Augustus was of course that of his couriers, De Rushton had to hurry through his own--to us elaborate, for the time, simple--toilette; and even so committed what, under other circumstances, would have been a high breach of etiquette, by keeping the Protovestiare at least five minutes waiting.

The supper was quite private,--Phranza and De Rushton alone sitting down to table. As soon as the meal was served, the servants were ordered to withdraw, and the whole subject of their morning's conversation was re-discussed between the two friends. The Protovestiare had procured the warrants, drawn up by himself in as full and particular a manner as the conventional forms of such documents allowed. He informed his guest that the Emperor was disposed to view the whole subject in a very serious light; from having noticed the frequent expressions and signs of odium manifested by the populace on his way to and from the Studium, when the Council for the Union of the Churches and the reception of Isidore was being held there: and from having observed that, wherever the malcontents were most clamorous, there an attentive search would be sure to discover the Monk Joasaph, though keeping himself, as much as might be, in the background. It was agreed that Sir Edward should return to the palace as soon as any information was to be obtained, and that Phranza should not retire to bed till his friend either came back himself, or communicated with him. The free discussion of the subject, joined to the excellence of the meal, and the exhilarating effects of the Tokay which, as a great rarity, Phranza produced,--but more than all, a few words which the Great Protovestiare skilfully, though to all appearance carelessly, let fall, as if the alliance of Sir Edward de Rushton with himself were a thing, to say the least, very conceivable, served to raise the Acolyth's spirits, and to send him forth cheerful on a sufficiently difficult errand, and in weather as miserable as the state of the city which it enveloped.

"Good-night, Lord Acolyth, for the present," said Phranza, as it drew towards the time. "Take care of yourself, whatever you do: as a friend I should be deeply grieved now--in another point of view I may be grieved hereafter, at any misfortune that may happen to you."

The Great Protovestiare, as I have said, was a man of the highest honour, considering the evil days into which he was thrown. In the like manner, and with the same proviso, he was a very model of abstinence and moderation. Nevertheless, no particular public business claiming his attention now, he replenished his silver tankard, called for fresh cedar wood for his brazier, and listened with great complacency to the ceaseless dripping on the marble pavement before his lodgings.

Who has not known the inspiriting effect of a night walk, when the wind meets you bravely, like an open foe, in front, and dashes down the big drops in torrents, or pours a volley of sharp, cutting hail against you---when for every inch you have to do battle, and every mile achieved is a victory? But it was no such night into which De Rushton then went forth. There was no wind; nothing but a ceaseless, changeless, drizzle, diversified only by change from sleet to rain, and from rain to sleet. Not a ray of light to be seen in the sky; the fog hung like a funeral pall over the city; the Bosporus itself hardly moaned on the shore; the streets shone like mirrors wherever an occasional lamp was yet alight; the city fires hissed and smouldered away under the descending deluge: and the damp and cold chilled the very heart of the benighted wanderer.

De Rushton, however, manfully pursued his way to the wine-shop, where he had left Contari; and from him he learnt that Joasaph was certainly at that time in the Studium. Many of the nobility, however, who had the worst name for immorality and licentiousness, had visited the monastery in the course of the afternoon: and one or two of them, the Varangian believed, were even still there. The Acolyth, who had thrown the long military cloak over his brigandine, now placed his ten soldiers in the same wine-shop, desiring them to remain there till he should send or should give them his orders. Then, summoning Contari, he walked up and down before the outer wall of the Studium for more than half an hour; fully resolved that Joasaph should not leave it that night without the discovery of his errand.

It was now considerably past eight; the night more dismal than ever; the wind began to rise, and the fitful gusts howled round the stern old walls of the monastery, or rustled in the laurels and cypresses by which it was surrounded. The great gates were shut and barred; hardly a light was to be seen in the whole range of buildings, except in the church, which was all aglow with lamps, the Apodeipnon (i. e. Compline) having just commenced. De Rushton became more and more fully persuaded, either that the intimation forwarded to Phranza had been a mere ruse, or worse, a blind to distract attention from some really important movement, or else that Joasaph had changed his determination, whether from the dreadful state of the weather, or from having some other arrangement. He resolved, nevertheless, to maintain his watch till midnight; after which time he thought that it would be unnecessary to carry it on longer.

It was not nine o'clock, however, when the little gate of the monastery opened, and a monk, drawing his black cowl completely over his head, came forth, and hurried along in the direction of the sea. De Rushton and his companion followed, at the furthest possible distance which allowed their retaining sight of the personage whom they were dogging: and through a succession of the worst and narrowest bye-lanes of the city, they followed him down on the beach, close to what is now called the Seraglio Point. Here, dark as it was, a boat was evidently ready for launching: five or six persons were standing by it, who seemed at once to recognize and to address the monk. Keeping as far as possible under cover of the pier, the Acolyth and Contari contrived to approach near enough to hear somewhat that was said.

"The light has been burning this half hour," said one of the men that had been waiting: "we began to think that you had played us false."

"I could not get the writings finished sooner," said the monk, "and I think I was followed by two men: I threw them out, however, in the street of S. Trophimus,--and here I am. But, for heaven's sake, lose no more time--we have lost too much already."
He entered the boat as he spoke: it was pushed into the water; and in another moment the sound of the oars came regularly on the ear.

"There is something wrong here, Contari," said Sir Edward. "Tell me,--did that man who spoke first, and mentioned the light--a light there is yonder, sure enough--did he resemble, think you, any one you know?"

"Both in voice and form," said the Varangian.

"Tell me whom," continued the Great Acolyth.

The soldier hesitated.

"Never fear," cried De Rushton: "my thoughts, I see, point the same way as yours. Who was it?"

"Your Lordship, I know, will not betray me," replied the Varangian. "On my honour, I believe it was the Great Duke Leontius."

"I am sure it was," said De Rushton, briefly. "But now,--where can that light be?" and he pointed across the Bosporus to a clear, bright, red flame, easily distinguishable from, and higher than, the lights in Chalce-don, and in the new fort.

"Why," said the soldier, after looking attentively in the direction pointed out to him, "that yellow light to the left must be the Monastery of S. Euphemia at Chalcedon; and this red one, therefore, can come from nowhere else but from Leander's Tower."

"I think so, too," said De Rushton. "Could we not, think you, pull across to it?"

"Have with you, my Lord," cried Contari. "Shall I run for some of my comrades?"

"No, no," said the Acolyth; "we should lose too much time. Look! here is a light boat which we can manage to push down. Lend a hand."

In about five minutes, the two were afloat, and bending to their oars with main strength, though certainly not in very seamanlike fashion, they were soon nearing the signal: which was then clearly seen to proceed, as they had imagined, from the little island called "Leander's Rock." A ruined fortress on the shore had a flight of landing steps which led up to it; except here, it was no easy matter to land at all. But Contari knew the spot, and could act accordingly.

"My Lord," said he, "if we go to the usual landing place we shall find two boats moored there:--for certain it is that the monk is gone to meet some one. But I remember having noticed a little creek on the Asiatic side of the island, where one might make a shift to get out."

"Try it, then," said the Acolyth: "and now gently--for more than our lives depend on our quietness."

Keeping, therefore, round the island, Contari soon discovered the place he was in search of. It was a little cove; the rocks which bordered it were slippery with sea-weed; and in that obscurity offered no very safe footing. The boat was moored as well as it could be; and then the Varangian and his commander clambered slowly but steadily over the rocks, and in a few moments had made good their landing. Directing, then, their course to the castle, they soon reached its outer wall. The interior, though long ago dismantled, still retained the guard-room in tolerably perfect condition, and, at all events, afforded ample shelter from the weather; and from this apartment voices were heard issuing, as of people in consultation. Groping their way over the debris of the former building, which lay thickly strewed around its walls, Contari and De Rushton at length reached the corner formed by the barbican and the castle itself: and there they could hear tolerably well all that passed.

"We must have ample security, Lord Pasha," said a voice which De Rushton knew perfectly to be that of the Great Duke. "Here you require us to do everything, you exact ties and pledges, and hostages of all kinds, and yourselves offer nothing. This is not fair; and we will not be satisfied with it."

"The Commander of the Faithful," replied the person addressed, "is desirous of sparing the blood of his own subjects, and, in so far as in him lies, that of the Nazarenes also. For it is written in the book, 'slavery for infidels, but death only for apostates.' Therefore, it is, that he commissions us to treat with you: not that he has any doubt that Allah will give Constantinople into his hands, but that he may lose as little as possible in gaining it."

"That may or may not be," said the Monk Joasaph; "but this I can tell the Sultan; if he fights for Constantinople, he will need all the forces he can gather, all the artillery he can find; and then, by the Unmercenary Ones, he will have no easy task before him." [This was one of the most common oaths of Christian Constantinople; it referred principally to the popular saints, Cosmas and Damian--Physicians renowned for their charity in visiting the sick without a fee, but also to other saints of the same profession who had distinguished themselves in a similar manner.]

"A wiser man than you or I, Pasha," continued Leontius, "has said, Never force a foe to stand at bay. Reject our offers,--and us, whom you might have for your friends, you will have for your most bitter and determined enemies; for we well know what would be our fate in case the city were taken. Accept our terms, and Constantinople is yours."

"Let me hear what terms are contained in this paper," said the Pasha.

"They are not so difficult to remember," returned Joasaph, "but that I may well repeat them here. Firstly, the ten principal churches, and S. Sophia, to be left to the Christians; and all the monasteries to remain, and enjoy their present revenues."

"Proceed," said the Pasha.

"Then, the utmost security of life, person, property, houses, lands, servants, to the same extent now enjoyed by them, for those whose names are on that paper, and their families."

"It is well," observed the Pasha.

"Then, that, remaining Christians, they shall not be obliged to wear any particular dress, nor debarred from the use of horses, nor subject to any other vexations for their religion."

"Is that all?" inquired the Turk.

"All, so far as conditions go," returned Joasaph; "but we must have securities."

"It is not all, by S. Demetrius," cried Leontius. "I claim Phranza's daughter, Theodora, for my own peculiar reward in this matter. Her father you will of course have disposed of: for he will fight to the last."

"But you are married, my Lord," said Joasaph.

"And what if I am?" cried Leontius, turning round upon him fiercely. "Mind your own business, Monk, and leave me to mind mine. You never could imagine that I perilled my neck only to secure your monasteries? If I don't gain this article, I will have nothing to do with your conspiracy."

"I call God and the Panaghia to witness," cried the Monk with great agitation, "that I am innocent of this foul deed. I am labouring for a great end, and I will not draw back: but it is an accursed scheme, and unworthy of any that calls himself a Christian."

"Make yourself easy, father," cried Leontius with a sneer. "I can easily call myself a Turk if occasion be. How say you, Pasha, to my conditions?"

"If we can agree to the others, no fear that we shall quarrel about this," replied the Turk. "Thus much I may promise you of my own authority. And I have no fear but that your second and third articles will be easily arranged. But for the first, and especially that part of it which touches on the monasteries, I must consult the Sultan; and he, I doubt not, will be guided by the Mollahs."

"But now," said Joasaph, "the Sultan must swear to observe these conditions on the Koran, if he accepts them------"

"That he will do," observed the Pasha.

"I know he will," said the Monk. "But he must further do this. One of his sons we must have in hostage at Chios; at least for the present. I fear not that, when the city is once settled, he will violate his oath; but for security's sake at first, we must insist on this."

"That will hardly be granted," returned the Turk.

"Then the negociation ends," said Joasaph. "But when shall we have your answer, and where?"

"Here," replied the Pasha. "No place can be more secure. The seventh night from this, and at the same time."

"We will not fail," said one of the conspirators who had not yet spoken. "But for my part, if the plan be not then definitely settled, my vote will be for thinking no more of it, and fighting it out to the last."

"So say I," remarked Joasaph. "And now better disperse; for the night is wearing, and we must not be recognized in the city."

So saying, the conspirators bade good-night to the Pasha, and went down to the boat.

"How suspicious these Christians are!" cried the Pasha to one of his attendants, as soon as they were out of hearing. "As if the Commander of the Faithful would violate his oath for the riches of Constantinople ten times told! But they remember, I suppose, the battle of Varna; and they judge others by themselves."

Nothing further passed; and the Turks unmoored their boat, and pushed off. In a few moments Sir Edward de Rushton and the Varangian were left sole tenants of the island.

"Here is an infernal plot," said Contari, "spawned up by the Father of all plots. Back, I suppose, my Lord, directly?"

"Directly," said De Rushton. "But, thank God, we are in time enough to frustrate it. The Emperor shall hear of your conduct this night, Contari; and I pledge myself it shall be rewarded."

"It was not for that," said Contari, as they picked their way over the slippery rocks; "yet I am much beholden to your Lordship. But I confess that a lieutenancy in the Life Guard would be the summit of my wishes."

"Why that?" inquired Sir Edward, stepping into the boat.

"Why, my Lord, it is a long tale," said the Varangian. "Trim the boat, my Lord, or we shall be over."

"Let us have the sum and substance, then," cried De Rushton.

"Thus it is, my Lord," said Contari, pushing the boat off. "If I had that place, I could do what I cannot do now,--and that is, marry."

"You in love?" inquired the Acolyth. "I thought you had been a wiser man, Contari."

"Wiser, my Lord? The wisest man that ever I heard tell of,--and that was King Solomon,--thought differently; and so did the wisest man too, for the matter of that, that I ever saw--and that was Sultan Amurath."

"With such examples, Contari, I have nothing more to say. But who is it, if I may ask the question?"

"None the worse, my Lord, for having been bred in the country. Her father is an honest yeoman, between Bourghiaz and Eski Baba. His name is Tomates, and hers Eudocia."

"Not a very safe place for Christian yeomen now," returned De Rushton. "The sooner you remove her from it the better. I think I may safely promise you the place you wish. But now let us bend to our oars. The Protovestiare must hear of this as soon as may be."

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