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 XII.

"Oft expectation fails, and most oft there
Where most it promises; and often hits
Where hope is coldest, and despair most sits."

All's Well that Ends Well.

When the peasant Cyril left Contari, he was but just in time to pass out of the gates, which, as we have said, were shut at sunset. Having, however, succeeded in effecting his passage, he mounted his ass, and urged it homewards at its full speed; but, in the two hours which were necessarily taken up by the journey, it had grown quite dark. When he came to the turn of the road which, he well knew, gave him the first view of his own cottage, to his horror and dismay, he found that it was on fire; and, as he hurried onward his weary beast, the lurid glare showed him that a party of eight or ten Turkish soldiers were standing round the blaze. Suspecting he hardly knew what, he turned and fled. But he had been discovered; and with shouts of "There he is! there he is!" five or six of the soldiers ran after him, and found not the least difficulty in overtaking him.

Dragging him from the ass, they hauled him along, amidst shouts and blows, to him who was apparently the chief of the party.

"Uncircumcised wretch!" said the latter personage, "how came you by the Aga Selim's horse, and where is he himself?"

Cyril was a true Greek, in the worst sense of the word; the more he was insulted and injured, the more he crouched to his oppressor.

"May it please your most gracious excellency," said he, "I know not who the Aga Selim is; but if your very reverend worship means the horse that is in my shed, I had him to take care of for a Varangian."

"Dog, you lie!" said the officer. "Habib, tie him up to yonder tree, and scourge him till he speaks the truth."

"No, your worshipful excellency," shrieked Cyril, "no, for the Panaghia's sake, your thrice illustrious respectability; no, by your beard, your super-excellent reverence. I will tell you all I know of the Varangian, and somewhat, perhaps, that you will be glad to learn."

"Stay, Habib; let us hear what the dog can tell. Speak on, Nazarene!"

"And your excellency will do me no harm, if I speak the whole truth?"

"I will throw you into the fire if you palter with me any longer, dog," was all the comfort Cyril could obtain; and thus adjured, he told all that he knew, and a great deal that he only guessed; that a Varangian had lodged in his cottage the night before, had disguised himself as a peasant that morning, had paid him for attending him to Hadrianople, had seemed much bent on some scheme connected with the prisoners who had lately been lodged in the castle, and had finally dismissed him some three hours before.

"This tallies," said one of the men, "with what we have elsewhere heard of a single Varangian having passed this way."

"It does, so far," said the leader; "but yet it seems hardly probable."

Cyril had resolved to say nothing of the letter that had been entrusted to him; but when he saw that his account was evidently not believed, his fear overcame every other feeling, and he said--

"I am speaking the truth, your excellency, and so I have no doubt that this letter will show, though I cannot read."

"What is this letter?" asked the leader of the party, taking it into his hands.

"The Varangian gave it me," replied Cyril, "with orders that, if he did not return in three days, I was to take it to the Great Acolyth of Constantinople, and that I might then keep his horse for my pains."

"Which of you can read Greek?" demanded the chief, after opening the letter.

"I can, a little," said one of the men; and with some difficulty, he read as follows:--

"To the most illustrious Lord, Sir Edward de Rushton, Great Acolyth of the Roman Empire, George Contari, devotion and greeting:

"I have received, thrice worthy Lord, such intelligence of the fate of the Lord Chrysolaras and his companions, that I have thought it right to go forward to this place; having also received most singular and unexpected help towards assisting them. But if this letter reaches your Lordship's hands, I shall have failed, and shall probably be no more.

"In that case, if your Lordship will send to Eudocia Tomatis, my promised wife, whose mother's cottage is between Bourghiaz and Eski Baba, as I once mentioned to you, she will be able to explain all that has passed, which it may advantage your Lordship to know. And forasmuch as I shall have fallen in the service of the Cassar, and in doing a good deed towards your Lordship's friend, the Lord Manuel, I am sure that I may commend to your care one who will, in all but name, be my widow; praying you to remove her family into a place of safety, and to protect them from poverty. And so I pray God and the Panaghia to have you in their most holy keeping.

"Written from Hadrianople, this Wednesday after the Presentation. Indiction 8."

"This," said the Mussulman, "confirms what the Greek has told us: let him go.--Be off, dog!" And Cyril, overjoyed to retain the very handsome present which had been made him by Contari, and caring nothing for the loss of the hovel, knowing well that there was many a one at no great distance, deserted, and free for him to occupy if he pleased, slank away to his wife, who had stood wringing her hands close by, to learn from her how the Turks had discovered the horse, which had been the occasion of his trouble.

"This letter," said the leader, "warrants us in going at once to Hadrianople. We cannot be more than ten or twelve miles thence, and if there is any mischief, we might prevent it; though what it can be is hard to say."

"Where it not well," asked one of the soldiers,--the same who had read the letter,--"that some two or three were despatched after this girl whom he names?"

"I think it were," replied his chief. "You, and Habib, and Omar, shall ride thither. Inshallah, we will find out the truth. You might sleep at Eski Baba to-night, for there is no occasion to distress your horses. The rest will attend me to Hadrianople."

It is not our intention to follow either party at present; but we shall again transport the reader to that precise moment of time to which we have already twice brought him, and have twice been compelled to carry him off to other scenes; we mean when Burstow, making a virtue of necessity, demanded the name of the intruders by the river gates.

That precise moment, we said; but to take up our tale five minutes later will, on all accounts, be better. By that time, the first burst of surprise, the doubt whether the whole circumstance were not a mere vision, had gone by; and the party, both above and below, were at leisure to consider how best advantage might be taken of the circumstances, and the escape of the prisoners facilitated.

"My advice," said Contari, who had been drawn up into the room of consultation, "would, on most accounts, be this: to remain quietly where we are till morning, which cannot be far off; and then, at the first moment the river gates are opened, to present ourselves at the outer, as if we had already passed the inner one. But my boat certainly will not hold seven,--and it was the largest I dared to take; so that we must run the risk of disguises, and I must carry you back into the town at two trips. Then, at the earliest, you must present yourselves at the gates; and it is not likely that, at that time, there will be any alarm in the castle."

"As to disguises," cried Burstow, "consider this; Stephen is the only one who cannot, with tolerable safety, show himself as he is. I should prefer, indeed, that the despot Choniates and the ladies were differently attired, but there must be some risk; and, after all, there are plenty of Greeks of good fortune in the city, infidel though it is: he might well be mistaken for one of them."

"Lose no time, then, in S. Dimitri's name," said Contari; "that is day which is breaking yonder. I dub myself general of the expedition, and will take three the first time, and two the next. This time, the ladies and Stephen."

Matters being thus arranged, and the rope attached to Contari, he was lowered with some difficulty into the boat: he and Stephen rendered the descent of Maria Choniatis, who came next, both easier and safer; and the comparatively light weight of Euphrasia made her descent the easiest of all. As softly and tenderly as heart could imagine, the two oarsmen rowed out into the river. Choniates and the Varangian Lochagus were left behind; the former with a heart that palpitated for the safety of those nearest to him,--the latter with the coolness and nonchalance which so greatly distinguished him.

"We must manage something for Stephen," said he, "or the poor fellow will be snapped up like a locust by a turkey. I must buy him something as soon as the shops are opened."

"I fear he will ruin us all," said the Exarch.

"Not he, sir," replied Burstow. "Ruin himself he may; but never those he is with. I wonder how long it will be ere they find that we are gone?"

"Are they not a very long time?" inquired Choniates.

"Why, truly," replied the Lochagus, "they are taking the matter easily, if no accident has delayed them. Day is breaking very fast."

"I can never believe that we shall effect it," answered Choniates, despondingly.

"Never fear, sir. I do not think that that ruffian of a gaoler paid us a visit till nearly the second hour yesterday; and it must want two hours and a half to that yet."

"No, but the light, Lochagus! that will betray us as effectually as the gaoler." And he wrung his hands in agony.

Burstow tried to comfort him; but the light increased so fast, as to make the risk evidently tremendous. Each object in the room became greyly visible; even the sullen water that flowed beneath caught a leaden hue from the little light that found its way in at the arches.

"We must let ourselves down, and swim for it," said Burstow, at length.

"Then shall I never see the shore," said the Exarch.

"Keep up a heart, sir, and hope better things. Hark! what is that?"

"By the Panaghia, it is an oar," said Choniates.

"Ay, it is Contari," said the Lochagus, bending down his head through the trap-door. "Hist! hist! George! quick!"

The Exarch was lowered down. "I have had rare work, sir," said Contari, "to get back at all: a dog of a Turk was on the quay. But I think all is safe. They are in the court of a house that I know is empty, till we join them.--Now, Burstow, bend to your oars," added he, as his companion lowered himself into the boat, and took his place.

Swiftly and smoothly the little vessel glided out of the stone jaws of the fortress. Still, all silent and unsuspicious.

We must shift the scene.

A bright November morning: the sky, blue--the air, balmy--the bees, at work--the birds, in song. Round the little village church of the Taxiarchus, near Bourghiaz, a party of Christian peasants were assembled. The church itself, with its heavy, arcaded dome, three semicircular east ends, and western porch entered by a triple arch, curiously contrasted the mosaics with which its exterior was adorned, with the grey, sombre tints of the autumnal grove, by which it was partly enclosed. On the south side, there was an open grave; and into the interior of the building a little group of labourers were conveying the coffin of him who was to be its tenant. Very plain and simple it was; of the commonest elm, and adorned with one long cross only, that stretched from the head to the feet. Among those who followed were Eudocia and her mother; and the Priest, who, vested in the purple phenolion,--which, even in that age of Church oppression, still retained some of its jewels, was none other than Father Demetrius. The coffin was set down on the tressels, the Deacon swung the silver censer, and the solemn office of the dead began. Bright was the sunshine without--glowing and solemn the radiance of the lamps within; and the song- of the birds and the melody of the breeze was in strange contrast with the wail of the requiem, broken only by the monotonous, but musical cry of the Deacon, as he called on the spectators "again and again in peace to make their supplications to the Lord." "Approach!" cried the good Priest, kissing the pale cheek of the corpse,--a man, apparently in the prime and vigour of life, but with the distorted features that always accompany death by a sword wound; "approach! embrace him who is one of yourselves. He is delivered up to the grave; he is covered with a stone; he sojourns in darkness, and dwells among the dead. Kindred and friends, they are far from him; pray we to the Lord for his eternal repose." Again rose the wail of the requiem: "When the tremendous band of angels have sundered spirit and body, kindred and acquaintance are for ever forgotten; then the coming judgment is alone, and is all; then the pursuits and pleasures of life are at an end. Let us supplicate the Judge of all for the sins of the departed."

While the little band of attendants were thus surrounding the coffin, a small party of horse might have been seen, had any one been outside the church, to pass rapidly along to the house of the old peasant Tomates. The ten or twelve soldiers that composed it seemed much harassed at finding the cottage empty, and pressed still further onwards, as if seeking for some information. In the meantime the requiem was finished, the party of mourners followed the coffin to the grave. It was lowered into the earth, and Father Demetrius proclaimed, as the last farewell rite, "For our brother Joseph, everlasting remembrance, everlasting remembrance, everlasting remembrance!"

Scarcely had he finished, when the Turkish horsemen whom we have already mentioned were upon them. Leaping from their horses, they hurried into the churchyard; they seized, while the peasants were escaping in all directions, Eudocia and the Priest, and dragged them out into a kind of green which faced the southern entrance to the church. Sophia Tomatis had been fortunate enough to escape.

"What mean you by thus seizing us?" said Father Demetrius, calmly, "when there is peace between the Sultan and the Caesar?"

"Peace can there never be between the faithful and the infidel," said the leader of the party, whose name was Walid, and who was none other than the soldier who had interpreted the intercepted letter of Contari to Sir Edward de Rushton. "But if there were, treachery is always to be punished. I am given to understand, maiden, that a Varangian soldier, named Contari, lodged at your mother's house yesterday: is that so?"

"I cannot tell a lie," replied Eudocia; "he did."

"Whither went he?"

No answer.

"I ask," continued Walid, sternly, "whither went he?"

"That question you have no right to ask," said Father Demetrius.

"We shall soon see that," replied the leader: "look at my men, and at yon peasants, and then judge if I have not the right. Tell me, maiden, whither he went; or rather, that I know already,--to Hadrianople he went. But tell me with what design, and what had happened that made him willing to go? No answer? Nay, then we will easily tear one from you." And he laid his heavy hand on her shoulder.

"Listen," said Father Demetrius. "This maiden and her mother carefully tended one of your comrades, who died but yestermorn; and is this the return you make her?"

"One of our comrades!" cried Walid, fiercely: "whom? was it Ismael?"

"The same," replied the Priest.

"Where is the body?" said the other. "How know we that he was not murdered?"

"Because you have my word to the contrary," said the Priest, quietly, taking no notice of the other part of the question; the necessary consequences of a reply being too clear.

"Where is the body, then?" repeated Walid.

There was a moment's hesitation that confirmed the Turk in his suspicions. "Infidel dog!" he cried, "speak! or I stab you to the heart." And he drew the dagger from his belt.

"I will freely speak," answered Father Demetrius. "His body is in yonder grave." And he pointed to that which had so recently been opened, and was still uncovered.

One or two of the soldiers hurried thither, to satisfy themselves of the truth of the statement: while Walid proceeded,--"In yonder grave?--You will not venture to tell me that he died a Nazarene?"

"God be praised, he did," answered the Priest.

"At your persuasion, dog?"

"Yes," said Father Demetrius.

"Then have you sealed your fate. Does the Nazarene speak truth?" he continued, as his comrades returned from the grave.

"It is true," replied one of them, "that Ismael lies there."

"Take away the Mufti," cried Walid, "and hang him in his own church; and throw out the body of that miserable renegade into the road: the dogs shall have their gain from it. Or stay: let us to this other matter first--Maiden, will you tell me the truth, yes or nay?"

"God forbid that I should," replied Eudocia, trembling.

"Then God also strengthen you, my daughter," said the Priest: "but you are right--come what come may."

"We shall see," said Walid. "Habib, cut me from yonder tree a stout piece of a branch, some foot long: and do you, Omar, fetch me a rope. I have seen Achmet Pasha make the dumb speak ere now, and will try the same way here."

Poor Eudocia trembled as if she would have fallen; the one or two peasants who lingered at a little distance, drew nearer, as if to see the event. Father Demetrius seemed wrapped in prayer for a few moments--then he said, "My daughter, did you never hear out of whose mouth praise is perfected?"

"Oh, Father," said Eudocia, in a low voice, "you know not my weakness!"

"He That made you doth," replied the Priest,--"and He will strengthen it. He That died for you doth, and He will reward it."

"Will this serve the turn?" said Habib, returning with such a piece of wood as he had been ordered to bring.

"Excellently," cried Walid, taking out his dagger, and carving each end to a blunt point. "Now carry her to yonder tree. The rope, Omar."

Eudocia was carried to the tree. "Now," continued Walid, "tie me the rope round both her hands in a running noose, and draw her up to that branch." The command was obeyed--not without a shriek of terror from the sufferer, or a silent prayer from the Priest. Walid next fixed the piece of wood upright in the ground, and under Eudocia; and then, taking off her sandal, desired the men who held the rope to lower her till the ball of the great toe should rest on the blunt point. "That will do," he said. "Now make it fast. I never knew woman that endured that for five minutes."

"You may make me shriek out," cried Eudocia, "for I am abundantly weak,---but never tell."

"Wait," said the Turk.

And they stood round for a minute or a minute and a half; when from the lips of the sufferer there burst such a long, piercing shriek of agony, that even some of the Janissaries started at the sound.

"It is well," said Walid, seating himself on the grass.

"Patience yet, my daughter," said Father Demetrius. "You shall not be tempted--sore though the temptation be--above that you are able to bear."

"I will not tell," gasped Eudocia: and in another moment uttered another shriek, more prolonged, more heart-piercing than the former.

Father Demetrius seemed for an instant to notice nothing of the scene around him--his whole attention was concentrated on something that appeared for a second on the hill that rose on the Hadrianople road, and then almost instantly disappeared. Forthwith he exclaimed, to the intense astonishment both of the Infidels, and of those few of his flock whom curiosity had attracted to the place, "Tell all! tell all! my daughter!"

"Tell all?" moaned Eudocia. "May I? may I, father?"

"On my blessing, tell all," replied the Priest.

"Let me down, and I will tell all," she cried.

"I said so," observed Walid, coolly. "Loose her, Habib. Now, then, maiden," he proceeded, as she was lowered to the ground, and sank exhausted upon it--"how was it?"

"Well, then," began Eudocia------

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