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 XX.

"For earthly things were turned into watery; and the things that before swam in the water, now went upon the ground."--Wisdom xix. 19.

Manuel Chrysolaras, an unwilling spectator of the Sultan's gradual but difficult progress, was guarded, a close prisoner, in the Turkish camp. He was, however, permitted to take the air at stated times, under good guard. He had been witness to the successful result of the attempt made by the five ships; and, throughout the whole of that famous action, his heart had burnt with a mixture of honest pride and friendly envy; for it was well known that Sir Edward de Rushton was the commodore of the little fleet. He knew, also, that the Sultan's council of war was much divided as to the propriety of continuing the siege: that the approach of summer, considering the insufficient preparations made for that vast army, was greatly dreaded; that large armaments were being talked of, as in a state of equipment by the European Powers; that if once the strong arm of Christendom were stretched forth, so far from being able to obtain Byzantium, Mahomet might be forced to disgorge Adrianople, and the rest of his European conquests. Then the impossibility of reducing the city, unless it were invested by sea and land; the great difficulty of entering the Horn; the impracticability, by any then known means, of breaking the chain. All these things were urged with great force by Calil Pasha, and but feebly repelled by Baltha Ogli, who was again received into favour, Achmet Pasha, and the other counsellors in whom Mahomet placed most reliance.

One evening, towards the middle of May, Chrysolaras received a visit, as was sometimes the case, from Calil Pasha. "I am on my way," said that nobleman, after the usual interchange of civilities, "to a great council in the Sultan's tent, in which the question of raising the siege is to be decided. If they determine to persevere, the fate of Constantinople is sealed. Is there aught that I can urge, which I have not urged already, in favour of desisting?"

"I know of nothing," replied Manuel. "But, to speak truth, even if they resolve to carry on operations, the fate of the city seems by no means so sure as you say. What have they done in the month that has passed since you first appeared before the walls?"

"I know it,--I know it," replied the Pasha; "but there is some fresh scheme, I cannot tell what, that they say is to produce wonderful effects. I will let you know the result, if I can; but we must be careful to avoid suspicion. At all events, I will lose no time in announcing what happens to the Lord Phranza."

"By the old conveyance, I presume?"

"None so safe or so speedy," replied Calil. "A slave may deceive you, if he had sworn ten thousand oaths to secrecy;--a bird, never. But I must not delay. If you wish to communicate with your friends, get ready your letter at once; I will forward it, if it be possible. But, whatever you do, be careful."

The Pasha left the prisoner's tent, mounted his Arabian, and rode, followed by his usual retinue, to the Sultan's pavilion. The Council were already assembled, though the Sultan was not yet in readiness. All the pashas were there; some of the most experienced generals; Baltha Ogli and Leontius, from whose presence Calil augured the very worst; inasmuch as the Greek, who had no hope of being restored to his property while Constantine reigned, was one of the warmest promoters of every design for carrying on the siege.

At length an eunuch, drawing aside the curtains at the upper part of the tent, announced that the Commander of the Faithful desired their presence. And, in the council-chamber, which, though a mere portion of the imperial tent, was hung with the costliest silks, and adorned in all directions with fringes and draperies of inestimable value, Mahomet was accordingly awaiting them.

After the usual prostration, the Sultan gave them leave to be seated, and a secretary having taken his place, Mahomet, who, when not carried away by passion, spoke well, stated the business before the Council.

Allah, he said, had not yet blessed their arms, as they had a right to expect, and as the Muftis assured them that he would. They had tried means that had never been tried before; they had mustered three hundred thousand soldiers against the city; they had invented new engines; they had spared neither toil, nor treasure, nor blood:--and to what effect? Save the overthrow of three or four small towers near that of S. Romanus, absolutely nothing had been done; nay, provisions and ammunition had been introduced into the city, and it had thus been proved that the blockading fleet was nothing more than a name. In the meantime, the summer was coming on; disease was spreading among the troops; potent armaments were expected from Europe: in time, the attacked might become the attackers, and a retreat, now only advisable, might be found indispensable.

"The words of the Commander of the Faithful are as the Law of the Prophet," replied Calil Pasha. "Allah hath not decreed, at this time, to give the Golden City into our hands. There is no disgrace in acquiescing in that which is written. A few years or a few months later, and Constantinople shall be ours. To-day, for the sins of the army, it is otherwise ordained. Already do provisions begin to fail: every day the sun grows more powerful, and herbage more scanty: even now, not without great difficulty, can the horses be supplied with fodder. The sky is bright and glowing, and there is no hope of rain; and, without rain, they must soon perish. Add, too, that water grows scarce, that disease grows rife; daily we hear of more numerous deaths; charms and physicians avail nothing. Now we may raise the siege with honour: another month, and almost certain disgrace will be the consequence. Let us be wise while we may. To defer is not to abandon. Unless we could command the sea, unless we could force our way into the Horn, the enterprise is hopeless. And well says the proverb, 'If Allah has given the earth to the Faithful, he has left the sea for the Infidels.' We will come before Constantinople again, but we will come with a larger fleet; and fear not then, but that the Vicegerent of the Prophet will soon unfold the green banner in the courts of the Caesar's Palace."

The Sultan seemed much influenced by what Calil had said. Achmet Pasha, however, instantly rose.

"The Gaban Ottashi," (the foster-brother of the Infidels,) he said, with a sneer, "hath doubtless spoken well and wisely, both for himself and for them,--for it is one and the self-same thing to do both."

"How mean you by that, my Lord Pasha?" asked Mahomet, angrily; for, at that time, no one stood higher in his good-will and confidence, than Calil.

"I crave pardon most humbly," returned Achmet, "if my zeal for the prosperity of the Sultan, and the advancement of our most holy faith, has caused me to speak unadvisedly; but the Pasha said that, till we obtain the command of the sea, we can effect nothing. Will he then confess, that if we could at once obtain possession of the harbour, we should persevere in the siege?"

"Were it not that we are in the presence of the Emir of Emirs," replied Calil, "I would chastise any man who dared to hint what Achmet Pasha has even now said. As it is, thus much I reply: if the harbour were in our possession, I would be first in urging the continuance of the siege."

"Then will the matter be made easy," returned Achmet; "for this Greek nobleman pledges himself,"---and he pointed to Leontius,--"if your Majesty will give him leave, to put the harbour in your possession in seven days."

"How? how?" inquired Mahomet, eagerly.

"Has your slave licence to speak?" asked Leontius.

"Tell us at once," cried Mahomet; "lose no time."

"Then," said the Great Duke, "I would engage, if I had the men and means, to transport twenty or thirty galleys from the Sea of Marmora into the upper part of the harbour."

There was a pause of astonishment. Mahomet was the first to break it.

"If you can do this," said he, "name your own reward.--But it is surely impossible?"

"My Lord Sultan," said Leontius, "I am certain that it may be done, with patience and resolution. Give me but the command of ten thousand men, and the unbounded use of all the timber felled for the purpose of building vessels, or of making machines; and, my life for it, I succeed."

"May it please your Highness," said Calil, in dismay, "this is a very extraordinary proposal. Such power is not usually given but to a Pasha; and though I mean to imply no suspicion against the Christian, may it not be thought dangerous to put such weapons into the hands of one not yet a believer?"

"If your Highness entrusts them to Achmet Pasha," replied Leontius, "I shall be well content."

"And we repeat what we said," answered the Sultan.

"If you succeed, you have but to ask your own price; and, by the thirty-seven thousand prophets, I would give it, were it half my empire! But if you fail, you, Pasha, shall be publicly degraded from your office, and your wealth confiscated to the treasury; and you, Lord Leontius, sent back again to Constantinople. Are you content?"

Achmet seemed to hesitate, but Leontius boldly answered, "And thankful also, may it please your Highness." And the Pasha, who had been made thoroughly acquainted with the plan, assented.

"Take this ring, then," said the Sultan, "and lose no time in setting about the work. We ourselves will visit it to-morrow morning; let the progress then be made in it."

Calil, on his return to his tent, finding himself already suspected by his rivals of some sympathy with the Greeks, thought it best to refrain from giving any notice of the attempt at Constantinople, lest an investigation should take place into the methods by which the besieged acquired their information, and his head should pay the price of his treachery. But he took care to acquaint Chrysolaras, at an early hour of the following day, with what had been determined.

"It is a bold attempt," said that nobleman, "but it can hardly be successful. The distance must be full three leagues, the ground hilly, the valleys marshy; and then the Genoese of Galata might endanger the work by a well-conducted sally. It is the scheme of a clever desperado."

"I know that," replied Calil. "I have this morning been down to the works; and, if you wish to see them, you shall have leave."

"I would gladly go thither," said Manuel Chrysolaras. And before noon, mounted, but under an escort of six Janissaries, two of whom passed his bridle reins through their own, he was on his way to the place.

It was a wonderful scene, of which some faint idea may be formed from the view of the operations in making a railroad. Fifty thousand men were at work; hills were being lowered, valleys filled, planks clamped and clenched together, to form a viaduct for the passage of the ships; oxen pulling along piles of wood, loaded on heavy drays; everywhere the blunt echo of mallets, the sharp ring of chisels, the shouts of workmen, the strokes of spades, the creaking of wheels; everywhere messengers running along to excite or to despatch; trees felled, bushes torn up by the roots, cart-loads of earth poured on to a suspected spot, piles driven in, pulleys straining, cranes groaning, windlasses stretching,--all in full work, none interfering with another--the long line of country between the two seas, a living stream of heads; flags waving in the sun, to direct their course; officers slowly cantering along, to inspect the proceedings.

Mahomet, when the operations were actually begun, had been so impressed with the feasibility of the scheme, that, instead of ten thousand men, he placed fifty thousand at the command of Achmet; and Leontius engaged that, by the following night, all should be ready for the transport of the ships. Herds of bullocks and oxen were slaughtered all along the line of operations; butchers and cooks were busy in extracting their fat; immense cauldrons were hissing and bubbling, as they received suet, and marrow, and tallow; and fires beneath them were tended by armies of slaves. Already in some places they were applying the unctuous mixture to the planks, to facilitate the passage of the ships. Two thousand young pines, cut down in the neighbouring hills of Therapia, were being fashioned into rollers. On a sudden, every sound ceased, as if by magic; the hammers fell not, the pulleys were silent, the windlasses were left, the beasts of burden were checked; while from the tower, that served as a temporary minaret, the muezzin thundered forth his summons, "Come to prayer! come to prayer! There is no God but God, and Mahomet is the Prophet of God! Come to prayer! come to prayer!" And every head was bowed, and every knee was bent, for a few short moments towards Mecca. Then every hand turned busily to its work again, and the orderly confusion of a labouring army clanged on as before.

And Chrysolaras thought to himself, as he viewed the scene, "It is not wonderful that these men have conquered the East." He turned, and the Sultan was by his side. The Greek nobleman courteously raised his cap, for he scorned to do more; and Mahomet, than whom, when his passions were not aroused, none was ever a more finished gentleman, as courteously returned the salutation.

"Ha! my Lord Chrysolaras! what think you of this? what of the city now?"

"The city, your Highness, is where it was; in God's hands, not in yours. Yet none shall ever say that I would not do an enemy justice. This is a wonderful scene."

"See how Allah himself is fighting for us," said the Sultan with a smile. "This bright blue sky and pleasant north-easternly breeze is the very weather we need."

"God oftentimes permits a bad cause to prosper," said Manuel, boldly, "if only for this--to teach us that there is a world where these wrongs will be set to rights."

"Ha! say you so? By Omar, you are a bold man! But prisoners have a licence. By to-morrow morning, our galleys will be in the Horn."

"I think your Highness is right."

"And what then?"

"Then--the final struggle."

"You cannot doubt that the city will fall?"

"I do not, your Highness, unless God interferes to save it with a miracle. That may well be; but whether or not, I am sure that my brethren in arms will do their duty."

"It is a beautiful city," said Mahomet, rather sadly, as he turned towards it. And glorious surely it was, the noonday sun lying quietly upon it, and lighting up its golden domes and towers, while the silver Bosporus rolled on as if to kiss its feet,--and here and there a light wreath of smoke played round the ramparts, or crested the besieger's works. "It is a fit city for the head of the world. Perhaps the prophecy will be fulfilled."

"What prophecy, your Highness?"

"An old one,--now afloat for a hundred years at least. It foretells that Islam shall obtain yonder city, and shall hold it for four centuries,--but not a day longer; and that strangers from the north-east shall dispossess them of it. But the empire of the Prophet is interminable." [This is strictly true, and is related by more than one historian. The 400 years were fully completed on the 16th of May, 1853.]

He was riding away, when, as if impelled by a sudden thought, he returned and said, "My Lord Chrysolaras, doubtless you have some friends in the city who are interested in your weal. Now, if I give you licence to go thither for twelve hours, will you pledge me your word as a knight and a nobleman, to lay fairly before the Emperor the state of affairs here, and to return? I am well resolved that the city shall yield; but if it might be so, I would spare the lives of many brave men, who, if we come to the final struggle, must fall."

"I will certainly give the promise," said Chrysolaras. "But I will not deceive your Highness. If I go, so far as in me lies, I shall exhort the Caesar to hold out to the last: and to rely on help from Europe, or from heaven."

"Give him what advice you please," said the Sultan in a displeased voice, "only state what you see and know. Will you do this?" "Assuredly I will."

"You shall wait till after the evening hour of prayer: by that time great progress will have been made. And I shall look for you by noon to-morrow, and, as I hope, with terms from the Emperor."

"For me, your Highness, undoubtedly; I trust for nothing further."

Mahomet spoke a few words to one of the Janissaries by whom Chrysolaras was guarded; and then said to him--

"Under these circumstances you will give your word not to attempt to enter Constantinople till you receive my licence this evening?"

"I will promise so far, your Highness." "Then you are released from your attendance," said the Sultan to the guards. "I should wish you, Lord Chrysolaras, to examine the works for yourself--ride along the line, and satisfy yourself that the thing is practicable." So saying, he rode off in the direction of S. Dimitri; and Chrysolaras, by no means unwilling to make use of his temporary freedom, proceeded at a brisk trot to the seashore, where now stands the suburb of Beshiktash. Here eighty galleys and brigantines were moored, as near to the beach as might be: and here were the headquarters of the engineers. Leontius himself was absent, at a different part of the line: but Achmet was surrounded with all kinds of officers, and had barely time to acknowledge the salutations of the Greek nobleman.

"So you have accepted parole at last?" said the Pasha.

"Till sunset," replied Chrysolaras, to whom it was well known to have been frequently offered. "The Sultan was desirous that I should see the works."

"That shall you do," replied Achmet. "I shall ride along them myself, if you will wait for a few minutes. Now, Hassan?"

"May it please your Highness, they need more sheep--all that were brought in have been slain, and there lacks more grease."

"Send out a party of light horse towards Therapia, and so on by Buthys and Delcus. You, Ameer, to the Asiatic side--there are five or six transports there--bid them send over every beast that can be spared, and instantly."

"If it please you," said another messenger, "Selim, the engineer, cannot get the piles to hold under S. Nicolas' hill. He bade me come and inquire what he was to do."

"To prepare for the bowstring," answered the Pasha, "if the planks be not laid there in an hour from this time. Lose no time in telling him so.--There are few difficulties, my Lord, that such an argument will not overcome."

"I should think not," replied Chrysolaras, drily.

"Now, Avedichian," said the Pasha, addressing an Armenian renegade who, with pencil and compass in hand, was sitting at a table in the tent, "is that plan ready?"

"A moment, Lord Pasha. There: "and he gave it to a Janissary in waiting. "Bid Murad rebate the timbers thus, in his viaduct, and rest assured it would bear the earth itself. What further, my Lord?"

"The sea-bridge," replied the Pasha. "Choose your own spot, and the galleys shall come ashore there."

"No place better than here, my Lord. Boy, bid them bring the largest crane hither. I will arrange the platform."

"Well, Lord Chrysolaras?" said Achmet in a moment of quiet.

"I give you all the praise you can wish for," replied the prisoner. "If diligence alone deserves success, you have a right to it."

"And we shall secure it. What now, Abdul Medschid?"

"The men have wrought long and well, my Lord--were it not well they dined?"

"Let them dine on the works, then--serve them out their rations along the line. And hark--let those have wine that will--we must not be too strict to-day."

"I understand, your Highness."

"Lord Chysolaras, you shall dine with me. But first shall we ride towards the Horn?"

Manuel consented; and they were presently on their way along the line of works. Everywhere the same diligence--the Sultan was inspecting--the Pashas in constant attendance--everything that despotism could do, both in rewards or punishments, was strained to the full.

"Well wrought, men, the Sultan will not forget this," cried the Pasha, as he paused at the deepest cutting. "Firm, very firm," as he rode along an entrenchment. "Well, Selim, do the piles hold?"

"We have just got them to hold, your Highness."

"I thought they would. Remember, if they fail to-night, your head answers it. What is that yonder?"

"They have opened a sandpit, may it please your Highness."

"Let us see"--and followed by Chrysolaras, he galloped up to it, meeting a waggon groaning under the weight of sand that had been heaped upon it. Eight or ten men were at work in the excavations.

"So, so," said Achmet. "Work away! work away! it will be dinner time anon. How now! By the Prophet, there is a man asleep! How now, sirrah?"

The unfortunate slave started to his feet, and saw the Pasha close to him. "It was but for a moment," he shrieked out. "I had not tasted anything------"

But he said no more: the scymitar was already glittering in Achmet's hand; there was the sound of a stroke; and the head fell on the ground, and rolled into the pit.

"Let that be a warning to sleepers," said Achmet, quietly, and again rode forward.

In a few moments a horseman came towards them at a rapid pace; and, to his horror and disgust, Manuel Chrysolaras recognized Leontius.

"Well met, Lord Pasha! everything is right towards the Horn."

"Then will we back towards the sea. The Sultan will believe us now."

"We must not flag, though, my Lord. I am anxious about the torches. We must turn night into day, or there will be no progress."

"I have given orders that cauldrons of pitch be placed every fifty yards along the whole line, at sunset. There is, luckily, pitch enough in the stores yonder at Beshiktash and at Scutari. The transports are actively engaged in carrying it over."

"May I ask," said Manuel Chrysolaras, "whether this scheme is owing to the Lord Leontius?"

"It was his proposal to the Sultan," replied the Pasha.

"Then, Leontius," cried Manuel, "you are the deepest dyed villain that our times can show. Well for you I am unarmed, or, whatever were the consequences to me, I would take such vengeance on a renegade, as should be equally famous with his crime."

Leontius half drew his sword.

"Nay, nay!" said Achmet; "the Lord Chrysolaras is a prisoner, and under my protection. Never waste your anger on a loser. And you, my Lord, I warn you to be more chary of your words."

"This only will I say; and mark me, Leontius, if God does not visit your crime in some terrible and unheard-of manner, and so deprive human justice of its prey, I will never leave you till I have inflicted, in some degree, the punishment you deserve. Nay, nay, Lord Pasha," seeing him about to speak, "not while I am a prisoner,--fear nothing;--but that, by God's grace. I shall not always be."

Leontius glared at him like a disappointed tiger, and then, striking spurs into his horse, rode off to S. Dimitri.

Project Canterbury