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Theodora Phranza; or, the Fall of Constantinople

By John Mason Neale

New York: E.P. Dutton, 1913.
First published London: J. Masters, 1857.

Chapter XIV.

"And let us try, with God's help, while we may,
To make the done undone, ere ends the day."

Love's Revenge.

When the peasant Cyril had made his escape from the inquiries of the Turkish officers, it struck him, to use his own expression to his wife, that he had been a very great rascal. "But what was I to do?" continued he. "I was not born to be a martyr."

"Nor I neither," said his wife. "Wherefore, let us quietly go to the cottage, where old Cosmas used to live till they murdered his son; we shall find shelter there, I warrant."

"I know not, I know not, sweetheart," replied her husband. "Here have I this soldier's money in my scrip! S. Luke be praised they found it not! and it goes against my heart to have betrayed him, or at least not to give him warning. I will back towards Hadrianople, may be I may meet him on the road."

"May be you may meet the foul fiend, rather say," said his wife angrily. "Come along, come along: a wise man may do once what we have done to-night, but only a fool will do it twice."

"Nay, nay, wife, I will go. There, take the money. I warrant you I keep out of the way of mischief. I will go, I will."

And in spite of all that his wife could urge--in spite of tears, threats, and ridicule, Cyril set forward; night being now very far advanced. With a good heart he kept on, feeling as if he were making some slight recompense to his benefactor for his former vile cowardice and ingratitude. Twilight broke before he reached the city; and he retired into a little grove at the side of the road to hold council with himself on what he was to do, on the degree of danger that would attend his re-entering the city, on the chances that Contari would return on the same road by which he had gone, and on other themes of a similar kind.

"After all," said he to himself, "would that I had taken the advice of my wife! And yet--and yet--well; none can compel me to enter the city; and while I keep out of it, I am safe enough. Would, though, that I could do something for that soldier!"

While occupied with these thoughts, his attention was attracted to a party of horsemen, who, leaving the city, were now winding up the hill where he stood. Though unable to see, at that distance, the person of any of them, Cyril felt a kind of unaccountable presentiment that Contari was one; and on finding that a number, at least, of them were Greeks, he left his retreat, and came forth into the road, so that they could not advance without passing him. As the party drew nearer, he discovered beyond all doubt, that one of them was the Varangian whom he had guided into Hadrianople, and instantly resolved on telling him what had occurred. The others, though utterly unknown to Cyril, were, it is almost superfluous to say, Euphrasia, her father and mother, Burstow, and Stephen, the latter of whom now wore the dress of a Christian peasant well to do in the world, or small farmer. "Noble sir," said Cyril, addressing Contari, "may I crave a word with you for a moment, and in private?"

"Be quick, then, good peasant, for my business is one of haste. Lochagus, ride forward; I will overtake you."

"May it please you, worthy sir, when you dismissed me last night, I hastened home with my best speed, and found that, through that accursed horse which you left at my poor cottage, the Turks had set it on fire, and were waiting to seize me. Hardly did I escape with my life. They took all I had,"--at least, thought Cyril, they were as guilty as if they had, and I am sure the Varangian could afford to make good the money he gave me, if I had lost it,--"and among other things, your worship's letter. That they opened and read; and the chief of the party sent two or three Janissaries to the cottage therein mentioned by you, and, as I fear me, with no good intent."

"Now God forbid!" cried Contari. "Lochagus, a word with you!" He related the circumstances to Burstow, and then said, "What shall we do?"

"We cannot leave the Lady Choniatis and her daughter, nor can we diminish our numbers by separating from them. They must push on with us; for I fear the worst, if they find out the truth of the matter." He again rode forward to the rest of the party, and explained what had occurred, and what was feared.

"Oh, let us save the poor girl and her mother at all risks, if we can," cried Euphrasia.

"We have need enough to ride, on our own account," said the Exarch, "and this is an additional spur."

"Then on, sir, in S. George's name," cried Contari. "Here are you, and I, and Stephen, and the Lochagus, whose one arm is worth four Turks, any day,--only let us lose no time."

"Much at the same moment that Contari said this, the Turks were, without any manner of hurry, leaving Bourghiaz, after the night's repose, which, by their superior officer's direction, they had taken there. But as they rode slowly, and Burstow and Contari hurried on their party at its utmost speed, it is not astonishing that the latter should have gained very considerably on the former, and have made their appearance on the hill in time to prevent Eudocia the necessity of further suffering.

As they gained the brow, Contari, who was foremost, shading his eyes with his hand, and exclaiming, "Ah! what have we here?" drew his sword, the only weapon which he had, and galloped recklessly down the hill.

"We must support him," cried Burstow, "or he is lost: there are six or eight of them.---Ladies, ride on as fast as you can, keeping about a hundred yards behind us: you will be quite safe. Now, Exarch! now, Stephen!" And the three dashed forward together.

On descending into the little valley which intervened between the hills, they again lost sight of the whole party; but, at their second view, they were near enough clearly to distinguish what was passing. Eudocia lay stretched on the ground; Walid was bending over her, and apparently listening with great eagerness to what she was saying. The other Turks, also dismounted, were in a circle round, and holding their own and their leader's horses: two being more especially occupied in keeping guard over Father Demetrius. Contari and his companions were not a hundred yards from them, when first perceived. All was confusion--mounting of horses--an attempt to form--an adjuration to stand firm--when the Varangians were among them. Walid was in the midst of a brief exhortation to his men to do their duty, when one sweep of Contari's long sword silenced his voice in death; one or two blows were struck by the Janissaries, but the loss of their leader, and the suddenness of the attack, had beaten down their courage; and, within five minutes from the first onset, they were riding off in all directions, not without leaving two of their comrades on the scene of action.

While Burstow and Nicetas Choniates rode back to cheer their companions with the intelligence that the danger was over, and Stephen procured such information as he could from the crowd of peasants who were now rapidly collecting, Contari threw himself from his horse, and kneeling by Eudocia, eagerly inquired into what had passed. She was too much exhausted by pain and the struggle to be able to reply in more than a few words; but Father Demetrius, after despatching one of the bystanders for Sophia Tomatis, gave him the full account. "You will have," he added, "a heroine for your bride, my son; only love her according to her deserts, and she will be happy indeed."

"I cannot do that, Father," replied Contari; "but I will love her most dearly and tenderly, nevertheless. But what are we to do? Her I cannot leave here; my own party--whom, God be praised! I have rescued--are hurrying on to Constantinople: had they not all better journey together? But it must be at once, for we shall doubtless be pursued."

"Carry her first to her mother's cottage," replied Father Demetrius; "there I will look to her, for I have some small skill in medicine, and you shall tell me what has chanced as we go along. Bid all your party thither too; your horses must want refreshment, and the time will not be lost."

The advice was followed. Contari raised Eudocia in his arms, as easily as he might have carried an infant; and bearing her softly and quietly along, he laid her on her own bed, and then left her to the charge of the Priest and of her mother, whom they had met, almost in a state of frenzy, near the cottage door.

"Burstow," said Contari, "my rede is, that we ride for Wisa. Even now, no doubt, the Janissaries are in hot pursuit of us; and we may, perchance, throw them out for an hour or so, by leaving the road they will judge us likely to take."

"And Wisa is nearer than Silivri,--nearer even than Tchorlu," said the Lochagus. "But the road under the Balkan is terrible."

"Perhaps the better," replied Contari. "But, at all events, we must not tarry here. Give my poor Eudocia half an hour,--the horses must have that time,--and then she must be ready; for any fate is better than leaving her here."

"And she may then go, my son," added the Priest, who had entered the room while the latter was speaking, "in safety, as I trust. I will ride with you too; for though I will never desert my flock, yet I think that it will be for their safety, as well as mine, if for a time I withdraw myself from these bloodthirsty Turks."

"Come with us, father," said Euphrasia; "we shall need your prayers, and perhaps your counsel. But oh! do not let us lose unnecessary time."

"We will not, my daughter," replied the Priest. "I will go seek a horse for myself, and by that time we may be ready. And God and the Panaghia defend us! for we are of those that suffer for righteousness' sake."

In the meantime the gaoler, at the usual hour, visited the cell in which Burstow and Choniates had been confined. He carried with him their breakfast, and as he set it down,--"There, Varangian," said he, "that is the last you will ever need; for the Sultan------but ah! what! how's this?" He ran to the beds, and found the deception. "By the Prophet! they must be fiends! they have vanished! Now Allah save us from sorcery! There is not a hole large enough for a mouse to escape; they could not have known the wards of the lock." And he scrutinized door, window, and ceiling very minutely, and then proceeded, much crest-fallen, to make his report to the lieutenant of the guard,--the same soldier whom Stephen had wished to attack on the previous night.

"Made their escape, sir, and no door nor window broken open? Never tell me that; such things happen not now-a-days. Run for two or three of the watch, and then we will examine the thing together. By Allah! when the Sultan hears of this, your head is like to be in peril!"

The gaoler did as he was desired, and the party went to the empty cell. It was unlocked; for that functionary, in his dismay, had left the key in the door, as he hurried downstairs.

"Are you sure, sir," said the lieutenant of the guard, sternly, "that the Nazarenes were not safe enough when you went in, and that they had not a golden key to make their escape when you came to me?"

"By the Prophet"--began the gaoler.

"I know they cannot escape from the castle," said the lieutenant; "but that does not lessen your guilt. You shall pay right dearly, if------"

"Look, sir," cried another of the party, and its shrewdest man. "What is the matter with the plank? By Mahomet! they have cut a trap-door," he added, with some difficulty pulling it up.

"Quick! quick! to the room below," cried the lieutenant.

They ran down--threw open the door--found it empty, _--and observed that a similar method of exit had been used from it.

"Now I understand!" cried the gaoler. "The women were shouting and howling last night, because as they said, some one was coming in from above, and I thought------"

"The women! By the Black Stone, we are all undone if anything has befallen them," cried the officer. They hurried to the apartment they had occupied--found it untenanted, saw the trap-door open, and heard the sullen roar of the river underneath.

By this time the castle began to be alarmed: and it was soon discovered that some accomplice or accomplices must have introduced a boat through the river gate. Inquiry was made along the river side, but to no effect. Every one who might possibly be implicated in the matter was under the greatest apprehension for his own personal safety; as Mahomet had expressed an intention to examine Burstow for himself that morning, and had conceived the highest ideas of the beauty of Euphrasia Choniatis from the account which the officer, who had effected her capture, had taken care to have transmitted to him. Confusion was at its highest, when the arrival of the Janissaries who had been concerned with Cyril the night before tended to make the fact of an accomplice more clear, and to prove that the scheme had been well laid. What the plan was could not be learnt till Walid with his party should discover it from Eudocia Tomatis; but the fact of the escape was certain, and a little inquiry convinced the officers that the fugitives had set forth on the Constantinople road. The man on guard remembered that, as soon as the gates were opened, a party of mounted Greeks had issued from the city, and, immediately afterwards, had set forth at so quick a pace as for the moment to excite his attention.

Pursuit, then, was all that remained. Pursuit, if successful, would appease, and if earnest might palliate, Mahomet's anger; and, within half an hour from the first alarm, a hundred Janissaries were on their way towards Bourghiaz. From one or two wayfarers they learnt that their pursuit lay right; and, could a bird's-eye view have been taken of the whole scene, they would have been seen entering Eski Baba, just as Father Demetrius, the Exarch, with his family, the Varangians, and Eudocia and her mother, a party of nine in all, were leaving the cottage to which we have so often had occasion to refer.

Meantime, determined to lose no clue to a discovery of the truth, the lieutenant of the guard resolved to pay a visit to Manuel Chrysolaras. That nobleman had, on the preceding night, been separated from his companions solely and entirely with a view of tampering more easily with his fidelity to the Caesar; and of attaching him to the factious party in Constantinople. He was therefore removed to an apartment furnished with every luxury that lay within the reach of even the Sultan: the hangings were of silk and pearls; the chairs and couches of ebony, inlaid with ivory: the fireplace had silver andirons; and a costly chandelier hung from the ceiling. Here the prisoner was supplied with a sumptuous repast, and with the costliest wines; and having been informed that he was to be favoured by the Sultan with an interview on the morrow, he was asked when he chose to retire for the night. Two slaves attended him to his bed chamber, adorned with at least as much luxury as the other apartment; where, with difficulty excusing himself from their menial attendance, Chrysolaras was left to meditate on the reason of this singular change in his circumstances; and, as he closed his eyes, to breathe one last prayer for the success of his comrades in the difficult enterprise which they meditated that night, and above all for the safety of Euphrasia.

He was still asleep on the following morning, for the labour of the preceding night had almost worn him out, when a knock at his door was followed by a petition for admittance--and the lieutenant of whom we have already spoken, entered.

"I have to apologize, my Lord," said he, "for thus disturbing your rest; but circumstances have occurred which must excuse my intrusion."

"What are they, sir?" inquired Chrysolaras, rather eagerly, immediately connecting the visit with the enterprise from which he had been so unwillingly cut off.

The lieutenant had concerted his plan. "I am sorry to say, my Lord, that your companions were last night guilty of the egregious folly of attempting to escape from their confinement; and that they were assisted by some person or persons from without. They are, of course, in safe custody; but the accomplice has escaped."

"Well, sir," said Manuel.

"My Lord, I have in vain applied to the prisoners for any explanation as to who this unknown party could be; I have reason to fear that it was some official, which makes me more anxious to discover who it was: I have told them that their lives are worth nothing, when the Sultan shall be informed of the attempt, and that their only chance of escape is to tell all that they know."

"Well, sir," again replied Chrysolaras.

"They, my Lord, I am sorry to say, were not to be persuaded: I thought that as you feel an interest, doubtless, in their welfare, and are probably acquainted with their plans, you would perhaps do them the only good turn which circumstances put in your power, by informing me who this audacious accomplice was. You will probably save their lives by so doing."

"If I could," replied Chrysolaras, "by so horrid an ingratitude, God be my witness, I would not! But I know not who might have helped them. I know that they attempted to escape, and I hoped that they had succeeded; but God's will be done!"

"Then I may tell the Sultan, my Lord, that you are absolutely ignorant------"

"I send no message sir: what I have told you, it is, of course, in your power to use as you please."

At this moment another officer came in. "The Sultan has been informed," said he, "of the escape of that girl and the rest of the prisoners------"

The lieutenant had in vain tried to stop him. "Hush! hush!" he said.

"Have they escaped?" said Chrysolaras.

"Eh! how? have they? why all the Castle knows that."

"It is useless to deny it now," said the lieutenant; "but what says the Sultan?"

"I never saw him so moved--you must to him directly."

"Allah preserve me!" cried he in consternation, as he hurried to Mahomet.

"Now God and All Saints be praised," cried Chrysolaras. "It matters little what becomes of me!"

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