"For within the crown
That rounds the mortal temples of a king
Holds death his court: and there the antic sits,
Mocking his state and grinning at his pomp."
"Sire," said Sir Edward de Rushton, ushered into the private apartment of the Caesar, on the afternoon of the day that had been fixed for the second meeting of the conspirators, "I am here by your Majesty's directions to receive instructions for to-night."
"To your own wisdom, and your own faith," replied Constantine, "we leave all. You have preserved our Crown and our Church, and we cannot better what you have done."
"Sire, your Majesty is pleased to overrate my poor services. I am most deeply concerned for the death of those whom I ever regarded as my best men--Contari and Burstow--God rest their souls. I had trusted much to them; but your Majesty shall be well and faithfully served."
"We doubt it not," replied the Caesar. "But use all gentleness with the conspirators--and as much as may be hide their crime. One or two must perish: but none shall die that the most lax justice can suffer to live. I, too, grieve for those brave men. Is their death certain?"
"So goes the report, sire: and the Lord Chrysolaras and his betrothed bride. A merchant coming from Hadrianople spoke of it as beyond doubt. I sent for the man--but he had left the city for Chalcedon, and I cannot learn how to get at him."
"The Lord Phranza lays it much to heart," said Constantine.
"Manuel Chrysolaras was a son to him in all but name, sire. But they died gloriously, for they died for the faith. Doubtless they might have saved their lives, had they abjured their Lord: and they have their portion with the Martyrs."
"God give us grace to embrace it too!" said the Caesar. "They died like heroes; the maiden showed the courage of the warrior; the Panaghia give us faith to tread in their footsteps. Lord Acolyth, the end is drawing near."
"Sire,--I will not attempt to deceive your Majesty--I fear it is. But the great empire shall end gloriously."
"So it shall--so it shall, De Rushton. They that have fallen for the Cross against the Crescent shall not have died in vain."
And so he spoke--and so he acted. He almost seemed, in his words, to anticipate the glorious lines of a then unborn poet:
"They had the hearts of freemen to the last,
And the free blood that bounded in their veins,
Was shed for freedom with a liberal joy.
But had they thought--or could they but have dreamed,
The great examples that they died to show
Should fall so flat, should shine so lifeless here,
That men should say--For liberty these died,
Wherefore let us be slaves--Oh, with what shame,
Their blushing faces buried in the dust,
Had their great spirits parted hence for heaven!"
"And at what time, sire," said the Acolyth, preparing to take his leave, "shall I wait on your Majesty? As soon as the traitors are in safe custody? or shall it not be till to-morrow?"
"To-night, Lord Acolyth. I shall not sleep."
"I will use my best diligence, then, sire. God preserve your Sacred Majesty!" And he left the palace.
The management of the enterprise was left to the Great Acolyth alone. He could have wished to trust no one but Phranza; and the Protovestiare was in no condition to give advice. He had given himself up to one deep, uncontrollable burst of grief since the tidings of Chrysolaras's death had reached him. He thought of his father--he thought of Manuel himself as a child,--as a boy--as a youth--how he had grown up in his house,--how he had wound round his heart. Above all, he remembered that their last interview had begun with reproaches on his side, and had ended in deep grief and anger on that of his friend. Phranza was not a hero; we have not represented him as such: he could not rouse himself; had the fate of the city depended on his acting, it must have fallen. To Sir Edward de Rushton, then, the whole business was intrusted.
He had made his preparations with great skill and sagacity. A week before the day fixed, a Genoese galley had been ordered to sea, under the pretext of carrying despatches to Chios; the commander had sealed orders, which he was to open twenty-four hours after sailing. On doing so, he was directed to cruise between Gallipoli and Marmora for six days; on the evening of the sixth, he was to be off Silivri, and then to wait till he should receive orders from, or under the hand of Acolyth, but on no account to obey or to notice any other, even though they should profess to come from the Emperor himself. During those days, the captain, whose name was Athanasio Coressi, was instructed not to communicate with the shore. The eyes of the conspirators were thus completely blinded: they knew not that the slightest idea was entertained of their plan; by the Cassar's express orders, no parade of double guards, or additional military preparations were visible. The only change made--and on that Sir Edward de Rushton had insisted--was, that at nightfall, when the palace gates were closed, a strong party of Varangians were drawn up under arms in the gardens of Constantine, to be ready for action, should their services be required. But of this nothing transpired beyond the walls of the palace.
It was late in the afternoon when Sir Edward de Rushton left the Emperor; and, followed by four picked Varangians, he rode out at the western gate, and, urging onward his horse, reached Silivri towards nine o'clock. The night was dark; and everything seemed to favour his design. Riding through the gates, (for his office, of course, ensured him access at any hqur, and to any place), he left his own horse, and those of his party, in charge of the sergeant of the guard; and preceded by a soldier with a lantern, he desired to be shown the way to the quay.
"A large galley is lying off the town, is there not, good fellow?" inquired he, as they wound their way through the dark and narrow lanes of the place.
"Yes, my Lord," replied the man; "she came in about nightfall--a Genoese galley, by her build; but it was past port hours, and the harbour-master would suffer no boat to go out to her."
"Past port hours, was it?" said De Rushton. "Show me the way, then, to the harbour-master's house. He lives, I suppose, near the quay."
"Close to it, my Lord. That is it, with the light in the lower storey."
The Acolyth struck the door somewhat impatiently with the hilt of his dagger; and it was presently opened by an important, busy, bustling little personage, who seemed disposed to resent the unwonted summons till his anger was changed into surprise at understanding its import.
"The Great Acolyth!" cried he, "and wishing to go aboard! I beg your most honourable Lordship's forgiveness. I had no idea that it was your Excellency. I will order my own boat at once."
"Thank you," said De Rushton, briefly; "but let it be procured without delay, for time presses."
"My Lord, it shall attend your Lordship directly. Will not your Lordship walk into my poor house while I give the orders?"
"No," replied the Acolyth; "I will accompany you with your good leave. We shall, perhaps, be quicker."
It took some little time to get the rowers prepared, and the boat off. But at length, rowed by four stout seamen, and attended by the harbour-master and the four Varangians, Sir Edward was on his way to the galley. The dark sea flashed gloriously into phosphorescent light; the watchword--Irene--was given to the sentinel on the pierhead; and presently the dark form of the Genoese galley could be made out through the obscurity. Captain Coressi was on deck; and as the splash of the oars came nearer, he sung out--
"Boat ahoy! What boat's that?"
"From Silivri," answered the harbour-master.
"'And with orders, Captain Coressi," added De Rushton.
"Show a light," cried the Captain. "My Lord, I hardly thought we should have instructions to-night."
"I am rather later than I should have been," replied De Rushton, as he mounted the ship's side, followed by the Varangians. "Good-night, sir harbour-master! Goodnight, good fellows! Take that for your pains: "and he gave a gold piece to one of the men.
The boat was presently cast off, and on its way to the shore. "How's the wind?" inquired Sir Edward.
"North and by west," said the Captain.
"Set your men to work, then," returned the other; "up with your sails, and steer for Chalcedon. I will tell you more anon."
It took no long time to get the ship in motion. The long sweeps ploughed the dark waters; the sails bellied out; and the galley, which was called the Griffin, went bounding along over the Sea of Marmora. As soon as the Captain had given his necessary orders, he rejoined Sir Edward; and the latter, as they walked up and down the deck, informed Coressi of the circumstances in which they stood.
"Now," continued he, "my plan is this: When we are within half a mile of the island, you shall lie to, and send me ashore in your boat. I shall thus, perhaps, be able to gain some useful insight into their schemes. And then do you, at one o'clock, get up to Leander's Rock, and send your long boat on shore for their capture."
"You may run some risk, my Lord," said the Captain.
"I know I may," replied De Rushton; "but I may gain a very important advantage. You have your full complement of men?"
"A hundred soldiers, my Lord, besides the seamen and slaves."
"I do not expect that there will be more than eight or ten at the conference," said the Acolyth: "but it is as well to be on the safe side. And give strict orders that no further harm be done to the conspirators than is absolutely essential to their capture."
After a good deal more conversation on the subject, the lights of Chalcedon were clearly to be made out; shortly afterwards the galley lay to; a small boat was lowered; an experienced seaman took the rudder; the rowers were instructed to make as little noise as possible; and, a quarter of an hour saw the party at Leander's Rock, without sight or sound of alarm.
"It is too early," said De Rushton; "get you back, good fellows, to the galley, and bid your Captain remember his instructions." His orders having been obeyed, he and his followers made their way to the castle; and groped up a broken staircase, near the spot where the conspirators had held their last meeting. This led on to the ruinous floor of an oriel window, of which some of the shattered mullions remained; and crouching down behind the window-seat, the knight felt confident that he should be able to hear everything that was said, and, if necessary, to view what was done, without himself running the slightest risk of observation. For some time he and his companions waited patiently, yet rather anxiously, lest perchance, notwithstanding all their precautions, some hint should have been conveyed to the conspirators. A few minutes, however, after midnight, made them sensible that a boat was approaching from the Asiatic shore; and gliding lightly up to the ruined landing-place, it was moored to the old staple that, in ages past, when Constantinople was in her glory, might have held many a freight of Grecian chivalry and Byzantine loveliness. One by one the Turks glided out, and took up the same position which they had occupied on the former occasion.
"I thought we had been late," said Redschid Pasha. "Surely the Christians mean not to betray us!"
"We are deep enough in their secrets, if they do," observed one of the attendant officers, "to endanger more than one head with the Caesar."
"All is smooth now," said the Pasha; "but we must not too lightly give way. I am glad that the Sultan consented to the terms. I know Constantinople better than he does; and though Allah would doubtless at last deliver it into the hands of the faithful, there would be many a tent empty first, and many a horse masterless. But now--hark! did I not hear them?"
"I heard something, my Lord," said one of the attendants, "but I thought it was in the castle."
"It was an owl," replied another; "when I was here last I noticed one."
"I hear them now, at all events," said the Pasha. And a boat from the north presently glided up to the walls. So far as Sir Edward de Rushton could make out, in the extreme obscurity of the night, the conspirators on each side were, whether by chance or design, six; and among those that came from Constantinople, he instantly recognized by their voices, in the course of the preliminary salutations, the Monk Joasaph, and the Great Duke Leontius.
After formal greeting, Redschid Pasha spoke first. "We have to announce," said he, "that, as was agreed upon at our last meeting, my companions and myself have had an interview with the Sultan at Hadrianople." He seemed to wait for an answer.
"I trust," said Joasaph, "that the communication with which you are charged is such as may prove satisfactory to us. The risk of these interviews is very great on our side,--none at all on yours; and, if the negociation fails, we only shall have incurred danger: you, most probably, will claim reward from your master."
"They are such as ought to content you to your heart's desire," said Redschid, "unless men in such a desperate condition as your own be more unreasonable than your good sense on other points would lead me to believe that you are."
"Our condition is in God's hands, not in yours," replied Joasaph; "we came not here to be taunted with it. Please you to proceed; with the full knowledge that, whatever be the result of the negociations, here, at least, we meet no more."
"For your first condition, then," said Redschid, "that concerning the ten principal churches, and all the monasteries, it is conceded; but I tell you fairly that we had no small difficulty to procure the Sultan's consent thereto."
"Methinks you counselled, and he acted, wisely," said one of the conspirators who had not yet spoken.
"Do you know that voice?" whispered De Rushton to the soldier next him.
"I think I should, my Lord," he replied.
"Who is it?" inquired the Varangian chief.
"Nay, my Lord, tell me your own thoughts."
"I think--nay, I am all but sure--that it is Neophytus, the Great Emir: "or, as we should now say, the Lord High Admiral."
"It is he, my Lord, past doubt. Hark! he speaks again!"
"Come, to the second condition, Lord Pasha," said he; "we tarry too long over the first."
"The second,"'said Redschid, deliberately, "was to the effect that no badge of disgrace should be forced on the Christians."
"Yes," interrupted Joasaph, "we know it was: but what we wish to hear is, whether the Sultan agrees to it."
"In all particulars," replied the Pasha, "except that which relates to the allowance of the use of horses to Christians. For yourselves personally, and for those that have a share in the transfer of the city, exceptions will be made; but the Muftis will not consent that it should be general."
"Then my sentence is," cried the Great Emir, "that the negociation breaks off."
"Pooh, pooh!" said Leontius, "why should it? We have secured our own rights."
"Yea," returned another of the party, "but will not men say that------"
"My Lords," said Joasaph, "let us reserve this point to be discussed afterwards: it may be that the result of the last condition,--which is also the most important,-- will upset all. If that is agreed to, we can return and discuss this."
"The Sultan," said Redschid, "gives free consent that such a hostage should be given, and in such a way as you require. If, therefore, you can agree to the terms I have hitherto proposed,--and I swear by our most holy law that I am not authorized to make any relaxations in them,--the matter is concluded, and we have only to interchange such written sureties as may be satisfactory to both parties."
"Stay," said Leontius. "What say you to my own particular stipulation, that I shall have Theodora Phranza given into my hands?"
"Even as I said before," replied Redschid Pasha, "It shall be as you desire."
Sir Edward de Rushton, in his eagerness to hear every word relating to the infamous proposal of Leontius, was leaning over the broken mullions of the oriel window, and almost directly over the heads of the conspirators. The night, as we have said, was very dark: but the northernly breeze had cleared that part of the sky from clouds, which hung like a heavy veil over the rest of the heavens. On a sudden, from the north-western portion of the sky, over the hills of Erekli, arose a meteor of most intense brightness, four times as large as the moon; and traversing the north slowly and majestically, again appeared to touch the horizon at or near Cape Kirpe; and there exploded, with the sound of a thousand cannon. During its progress, heaven and earth glowed with a brightness exceeding that of the mid-day sun: the domes of Constantinople blazed and glittered; Chalcedon stood out as clear as at noon; and speechless terror seized on the conspirators, infidels, and even on De Rushton and his companions. At the explosion, the Turks fell prostrate on their faces, the Greeks crossed themselves, and invoked the innumerable saints of their country; Joasaph only spoke.
"Heaven itself," said he, in a voice trembling with emotion, "bears witness against this infamous proposal: it would blast the best cause. I will have nought to do with it."
"Hush! hush!" cried Neophytus; "there are spies in the castle. I watched them at the window."
"It cannot be, my Lord," said Joasaph. "It was the spectacle of terror that abused your fancy."
"I am sure I saw something," replied the Great Emir. "At all events let us have a torch, and examine."
"We will meet them on the staircase," said De Rushton in a whisper to the Varangians. "One man might hold it against a host."
"By your leave, my Lord," said one of the soldiers, pushing past him, "you shall not be he. The Empire depends on you, and I shall serve this turn. Now, you accursed dogs and traitors!" he shouted out, "come on if you will; you are dead men which way soever you turn. I noted the galley, my Lord," he added in a lower voice.
All below was dreadful consternation. God and man seemed to have combined against the conspirators. They crowded round the servant, who, with trembling hands, was endeavouring to strike a light. Sparks flew hither and thither, but the tinder would not kindle; and at each ineffectual stroke, the horror and agony of all increased. At last a fortunate spark set it aglow; a torch was lighted, and the grey old walls gleamed ruby red in its glare.
"There are but three or four," said Redschid Pasha, who, as having the clearest conscience, was the coolest of the party. "Follow me! A purse of gold!" he shouted to two Janissaries, who came running up from the boat, "for each of their heads."
He threw himself on the staircase. "Now, Nazarcnes! it is certain death for you if we fail! On them! on them!"
But the Varangian stoutly stood his post, till one of the Janissaries, crouching under the Pasha, struck him in the leg with a dagger, and brought him to the ground. He was pulled out, and stabbed on the green sward below. De Rushton instantly took his place.
"Help! help!" shouted one of the surviving Varangians. "Help! help! for the love of God!"
The splash of the approaching oars was heard. "Give way, my men! give way!" roared Captain Coressi. And in another second a bright gleam or tongue of light shot out from the forecastle, followed by the heavy boom of a cannon, rolling from Chalcedon to Seraglio Point.
"To the boats! to the boats!" cried Joasaph. "We are betrayed." The conspirators made a rush for their boat; the Turks, in better order, and fighting- hand to hand with their four opponents, made good their retreat also. One of the Varangians was stretched senseless on the beach from the blow of a boat-hook, in his attempt to stop the fugitives. Another, a quickwitted Londoner, caught up the torch which had been thrown down in the conflict, and lay blazing on the ground, and applied it to the dry withered grass that grew up to the castle walls. In an instant it was in a blaze; and the two boats were clearly seen, the one pulling for Chalcedon, and the other for Constantinople.
"Captain Coressi!" shouted De Rushton, "follow the Turks! The others cannot escape us!" The captain put the ship's head about; the four-and-twenty oars struck the water evenly; the Turks laboured and hauled in vain: flight was hopeless; resistance impossible; and, at length, they obeyed the Genoese commander's order to lie-to.
"Keep them in sight, if you can," said De Rushton, leaping into his boat, and followed by his three soldiers; he that was stunned having received only a momentary injury. "They cannot escape us."
And, indeed, the effeminate arms and weak hearts of the nobles of Constantinople were no match for the brawny muscles and English courage of the Varangians; their weight also was a fearful disadvantage; for they too only carried four oars. So that, though a sailor would have smiled at both flight and pursuit; though over and over again the oars of both parties flew out of the water; and _more than once, the rowers were precipitated backward, half the space between Leander's Rock and the city was not passed, when De Rushton was within a boat's length of the fugitives.
"Turn on them! Turn on them!" cried Joasaph: "we are six to four! It is our only chance!"
The conspirators turned: and the boats were presently alongside of each other. But the swell was now considerable; blows were struck at random, and at random returned; and both parties were in far more danger from the waves than from their enemies. Still the flight of the traitors was hindered, and thus their last hope cut off.
Meanwhile, the heavy sweeps of the galley thundered behind them; and up came the vessel like a greyhound on its prey. Five or six torches were kindled on deck; and as the Griffin dashed up to them, the conspirators felt that all was over.
"Assure us of life, and we surrender," cried Leontius.
"I will assure you of nothing," said De Rushton, "except that the Caesar wishes to be merciful, if you submit to his mercy."
"Surrender!" cried Coressi, "or we fire upon you."
Mean, pale, and trembling, the traitors submitted; they were ordered to bring their boat to the galley's side, hauled up one by one, and secured on board. The Turks were already in security.
"God bless you, Lord Acolyth!" said Coressi. "You have done most gallantly."
"My good Varangians might be depended on, I knew," said De Rushton. "But onwards! worthy captain! The Emperor must hear of this as soon as may be."
"We shall be under the palace gardens in twenty minutes," said Coressi. "But, my Lord, did you see the meteor?"
"See it!" said the Acolyth. "I never beheld aught so awful. It betrayed us."
"I thought it would," said the captain. "It portends some great changes, belike."
"No less, I fear," answered De Rushton. "I took it at first for some signal."
"So did I," said Coressi. "Hark! what is that?"
First one bell, then another, then another, came pealing from the shore; then it seemed that every church in the Royal City was pouring out its summons--lights flashed from the land--gradually a long line of tapers made themselves perceptible--the thunder of the bells ceased, and, soft and clear, from a thousand voices, Kyrie Eleison floated out over the night waves.
"Doubtless a procession," said Coressi, "I would fain be there also. Where shall we put in, my Lord?"
"Under the palace gardens," replied the Acolyth. "Land me there: I will send you the Emperor's orders."
And the galley flew onward to the shore.