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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 XXIII.

".....The Grecians judged
Hope vain, and their whole host's destruction sure:
But nought expected every Trojan less
Than to consume the fleet with fire, and leave
Achaia's heroes lifeless on the field.
With such persuasion occupied, they fought."

Iliad XV.

Four days more had passed,--and what days for Constantinople.

No sooner was the Upper Horn fairly in the Sultan's power, than he commenced preparations for attacking the city from that side. Day and night the coopers were making casks, and the carpenters shaping beams; and in spite of the best directed fire and most vigorous efforts of the Greeks, a floating mole, fifty cubits in length, was moored across the narrowest part of the harbour. One of the huge cannon, that threw a ball twelve hundred pounds in weight, was placed on its extremity; and nightly and daily, every three hours, it discharged the enormous mass of rock against the devoted walls. Nor was the attack less vigorous towards the Tower of S. Romanus: there also the wall was much shaken; and the double assault had almost worn out the physical strength, as much as it had depressed the courage of the handful of troops by which the city was defended.

It might be about six o'clock on the evening of the fourth day, that Constantine, who ever seemed to delight in the post of danger, was holding a council of war in a guard-house nearly opposite the mole. Every nobleman and officer of note in the city was there; and, as if to heap misfortune on misfortune, high words had broken out among the Christian chiefs.

"I repeat it again, John Justiniani," cried the Great Logothete, "that if you and your Genoese had done their duty this morning at the Tower of Nicetas, it could not have fallen."

"Done my duty, Lord Notaras? How could I keep bricks and lime together that were old and decayed to begin with, and had never been properly repaired? If you had done your duty months ago,--if you had only taken common care of repairing the walls, this could never have happened."

"The walls may be bad for aught I know, or care," cried Lorenzo Galeotti, the leader of the Venetian auxiliaries, "but I will maintain it with my body in a fair field, either by sword or lance, against all gainsayers, that the Genoese did not do their duty."

"And the Venetians, of course, did," retorted Justiniani. "But I tell you this, Galeotti: the White Horse shall go further in a sally than the Winged Lion would dare to follow even with his eyes. Come, now; let it come to a trial when you will, and then------"

"Silence, my Lords!" said Constantine. "It is for us to judge whether you have done your duty, one and all; and to reprimand you for it, if you have not. As to such vain trials as you talk of, he that leaves the city in that guise will never return to it, for we will give strict orders that the gates be shut upon him."

"But, sire------" said Lucas Notaras.

"We will not be interrupted," said Constantine. "The thing we have now to discuss is, not why the Tower of S. Nicetas fell, but how we may if possible destroy this terrible mole. Sir Edward de Rushton, have the walls on this side been surveyed, as we gave orders?"

"They have, sire; and the engineer reports that they cannot hold together for more than ten or twelve fresh discharges of that cannon."

"That will be something more than a day, and then we have nothing to trust to but our swords," said the Emperor. "My Lord Phranza, we wait for your sentence."

"I would try, my Liege, if my rede be worth having, to set the mole on fire. The weather has been very dry, and there has been little dew since it was erected; the planks and the galleys must be like tinder--fire one, and the whole would be in a blaze in less than an hour."

"I agree," said Justiniani, "that it is our only hope; and why not to-night?"

"I marvel you do not think the danger too great," sneered Galeotti.

"Sir General," said the Emperor, "you will either bridle your tongue, or leave the Council. Such taunts are no disgrace but to him that utters them."

"I thank your Majesty," replied Justiniani: "they trouble not me. Have I your royal leave to speak my mind on this point?"

Constantine bowed, and the Genoese General proceeded. "I would man the galleys, sire, soon after nightfall; the wind, I see, is south; they might creep up in single file, if the night be tolerably dark, as it is like to be, with so cloudy a sky and no moon; and then, in God's name, try the Greek fire. The galleys it is sure to destroy, if we can but once get close to them; if the mole will not kindle, we must try if it cannot be broken up."

"I think the scheme good," said Sir Edward de Rushton. "It is useless to sit here, till the walls are knocked down about our ears. We may fail in this plan--very like; but there is a chance of success."

"So say I," said the Great Logothete.

"And I," cried the young Gabriel Notaras, his son.

At this juncture of affairs there was a demand for admittance at the door, and Contari presented himself.

"Well, what is it?" demanded the Emperor.

"My Liege," said Contari, "the Curopalata bids me to say, that in five or ten minutes they will discharge the great cannon; and this place is hardly safe from its effects."

"We will go on the ramparts," said Constantine; "it were well to note what the effect really is. Follow me, my Lords."

So saying, he walked quietly down to the guard-house, and passed on to the ramparts. Immediately in front, the mole stretched far out into the Horn; and at its nearest end stood the huge, shapeless piece of ordnance, surrounded by the engineers, now busily engaged in removing the crane which had raised the enormous bullet into its mouth. The mole itself was a living mass of heads. On the shore, close to the place where it joined the beach, was the Sultan, on horseback, surrounded by a glittering ring of his principal Pashas: while the further side of the Horn was dark with the immense masses of troops, now inactive, but preparing themselves for the great assault. Around the mole, and higher up the harbour, lay the galleys and brigantines,--also full of workmen,--and fearful piles of scaling ladders might already be seen on one or two of the decks. A little behind the rampart was the small church of S. John, hitherto safely protected by being out of the direct line of fire, and at that time the favourite resort of the wives and mothers of such as were engaged in that part of the ramparts. The bells had just rung out for vespers; the priest and deacons had long ago entered the church; and now thirty or forty, principally women, were passing in through the silver gates.

"Why, Eudocia!" cried Contari, as he followed the royal train, "you here, also!"

"Can I do better?" she asked. "You are doing your best for us: we must do what we can for you."

"Go in, then, dear girl, go in," said her husband. "I will try to come to you by supper-time to-night; but it will only be for half an hour, or so, for there is a scheme on foot which will keep me up all night, I hear."

"Well, I shall look for you at supper, then, if only for that," said Eudocia Contari. And she went into the church: and, in another moment, amidst the soft response of the Litany, you might have seen her kneeling on the marble floor,--her hands clasped on her breast, her head bowed,--as quiet and peaceful as if, instead of a temple in a besieged city, she had already entered the home of everlasting peace.

"A little more this way, sire," said De Rushton. "They will discharge it in a moment, now."

Constantine moved a few yards, but yet stood more exposed than any others of those with him, except Sir Edward de Rushton and Contari.

"I have been watching them this half-hour, Lord Acolyth," said the Curopalata, "and it strikes me that they never charged that cannon so before. I saw them empty that congiarius three times into it."

"God grant it bursts," cried one of the officers. "It would do some execution."

"The Sultan keeps at a safe distance," said Phranza.

"Ay, he is shy of those pieces, since that one burst by S. Romanus's Tower: and, by S. Cosmas, I cannot blame him," replied the Curopalata.

"Well, there is the quick-match," cried De Rushton. "The fellows have no great relish for their work. Look how yon engineer is slipping off behind!"

"Surely," said Constantine, "that would not be very difficult to sink!"

"I dare say the rafterage is well lashed together," replied De Rushton; "but still, the weight must be tremendous."

"How they ever contrived to get it to its present position, is a marvel to me," said Justiniani. "They must have some good engineers."

"That arch-traitor, Leontius, directs all the engineering operations," said the Curopalata.

"Our Lady confound him therefore," growled Galeotti.

"Now for it!" cried Justiniani, as one of the Janissaries applied the match to the touch-hole. "No, by S. Luke! How was that? Well, they are bunglers at their trade, anyhow!"

"They are clustering round it thick enough," said the Curopalata. "What are our gunners about?"

He had scarcely spoken, when from the Byzantine side, and close to Port S. Peter, there was the boom of a single cannon: and, before any of the party could speak, five or six of those who were clustering round the Turkish piece of ordnance fell.

"Bravo!" said Phranza, "who commands there?"

"The Lochagus Burstow, my Lord," replied Contari.

"A clever fellow that," observed the Curopalata.

"I can bear the same testimony," cried Phranza.

Constantine, while these remarks. were being interchanged among his courtiers, stood rather apart, as his custom sometimes was; and though he kept his eyes fixed on the Turkish cannon, his thoughts seemed occupied with some other subject. Now, however, he came forward and spoke.

"That shot was well aimed, my Lords; was it not?"

"Excellently well, sire," replied Phranza. "But they soon repair their losses."

"Ay, ay," said the Curopalata, "they will do it this time."

"There is the match again," remarked Justiniani. "The dogs know not whether to be more afraid of their own cannon, or of ours."

"Stand fast, sire," said De Rushton. "Now!"

As he spoke, a low, rumbling sound seemed to shake the wall on which they stood. The waters of the Horn darkened, as at the rising of a breeze. There was a blinding blaze of light, that seemed to fill all the sky, and then a roar,--deep, long, and terrible beyond words to describe. The ejected rock struck the breastwork of the battlements, about three hundred yards from the place where Constantine stood; a volley of shattered masonry flew round, as from a whirlwind; the mass of stone glanced off northward, humming in its passage like thunder, and crashed in upon the central dome of S. John's church. Even at that distance, the shriek that followed was terrific.

Contari, merely exclaiming, "Oh God!" flew to the place; and Constantine, calling out, "Let us give what help we may: De Rushton, send for surgeons!" followed with all the rest.

The outer walls of the church were standing: but the crush from the doors,--the struggling, the screaming, the fighting,--was terrible. Women seemed changed into furies, impelled by the desire to escape; the weaker were borne down and trodden upon; even the voice of Constantine himself was ineffectual for some minutes. Ingress was impossible; and Contari tried it with the frenzy of despair, as one after another rushed by him, and still no Eudocia.

"There is no danger now, it is over,--quietly, quietly,--whatever you do take time!" Such were the Emperor's words: and Justiniani and the Curopalata joined with Phranza in endeavouring to restore order. Contari, meanwhile, flew to the sacristy door: it was locked; but two or three blows with one of the shattered stones of the building, soon drove it in. Leaping through its fragments, and hurrying through the Holy of Holies, he came out under the dome.

It was a frightful scene.

Masses, piles of masonry strewing the floor; wounded creatures, in every kind and degree of agony, writhing upon the ground; here and there a mound of stones heaving, as if with the efforts of some wretch imprisoned below them: pools of blood, blotting out the patterns of the mosaic-work, or oozing through the clotted dust of the fallen fabric: in one place, a man, with his head literally smashed to atoms, tremulously beating the ground with his feet; in another, a woman crying for help for God's love, to enable her to extricate her broken arm from the heap of rubbish which pinned it to the ground; in another, a child, with its back broken, trailing itself along the floor like a wounded serpent, and uttering cries which it made the blood run cold but to remember; in yet another, a woman wallowing in a pool of her own blood, and throwing every limb convulsively about in the death agony. Everywhere shrieks, outcries, adjurations; not one left who could fly, except only the Priest and Deacons: they were extricating as they could the wounded, and removing them into the aisle, till help could come from without.

In the midst of all this wreck and carnage, a female figure lay extended on the floor, as still and undisturbed as that of one in sleep. It was on one side, and supported against the plinth of one of the columns; the hands were clasped on the bosom; the face rather pale, but with not one feature discomposed,--the very drapery unruffled; the; lips parted in a half-smile; the eyes closed as in slumber.

It was Eudocia Contari: and of such a death the curious but beautiful question of the schoolmen might well be asked, Whether her last prayer entered first into Heaven, or her soul into Paradise?

Contari thought that she had fainted, and tried to raise her: but the Priest, who was rendering assistance to a wounded man close by, said sadly, "She will wake no more, my son, till the Resurrection day." The Varangian officer, in a silent agony of grief, laid his hand on the heart of his bride: there was, or he fancied, a tremulous motion; but the clear, distinct pulsation was over for ever. He held her lips to his cheek, but the breath had fled: and, finding that the spirit had departed to its Maker, he laid her down whence he had raised her, and knelt by her side, hiding his head in his hands for about two minutes. When he arose, the whole expression of his face was altered. A friend might have passed, and not recognized him,--or, if he had, would surely have pronounced him to be not long for this world. Rising, he went to the priest, and said, in such a deep, hollow voice that the good man was perfectly startled, "Can I help you, father?"

"We have help, my son," said the Priest: for now men were pouring in from the western doors, and the Emperor was already in the church. "And you"--looking towards the corpse--"have your own charge."

Without saying another word, Contari returned lo all that remained of his bride: and he was about to raise her in his arms, when the Priest, struck by his grief, was again at his side. "Remember, my son," said he, "He doeth all things well: and who shall say that this also is not well; who knows what may be the lot of those who survive the siege? Could there be a better death than to be removed from prayer to praise? And look at that face, and tell me if you think that she could have suffered?"

It was, indeed, a most sweet and gentle face, even in death: and raising the fair form in his arms as easily, and withal as tenderly, as a mother might a sleeping infant, he bore it to the house where, but a quarter of an hour before, he had promised to meet Eudocia at the hour of supper. The room into which he carried her, was untenanted; for her mother chanced to be out. He laid her on the bed on which so often, returning from the midnight watch, he had hung over the beauty of her quiet sleep, and had woke her gently with a kiss. There she now lay, sleeping more quietly, more beautifully; but insensible now to caress or word of love, and to be woke by no less a sound than the trumpet which will end time.

Half an hour he was with her alone,--the loving with the loved: the one at rest, after the storm of life,--the other in its worst and most tremendous tempest. Half an hour he was with her; but what passed in that half-hour was never known. At the end of that time, Burstow, who had received intelligence from some whose humanity had carried them into the church of what had happened, knocked, first gently, then more loudly, at the outer door. Receiving no answer, he went in, and found the room in which he had so often sat with Contari and Eudocia empty. Knocking then at the inner door, there was still no answer: but in a moment his friend opened it and came out, so startlingly changed that Burstow was absolutely beyond the power of speech.

"Is it arranged for to-night?" he asked in a careless, harsh voice.

"Arranged!" repeated Burstow. "Contari! Contari! for God's sake be yourself!"

"Myself! who else should I be?" cried Contari,--and he laughed. That laugh had something in it which haunted Burstow till his dying day.

Burstow, though unused to scenes of such anguish, yet even then displayed the natural good sense which never forsook him.

"Contari!" he said, "talk to me of her. Did she suffer much? Tell me how it was?"

Contari seemed for a moment as if he were going to give way to a burst of grief. Then he said, "No I will not talk to you about her. Come, let us go."

"May I not see her, Contari? Many and many a happy hour have I seen you spend with her here; but I make no doubt she is happier now."

"Come," said Contari, "we are losing time. I am going to the Acolyth." And he went out at once, followed by Burstow, who was unwilling to lose sight of him, and took his way to the ramparts. Inquiring for De Rushton, they found that he' was said to have returned to his residence.

"We will go there, too, then," said Contari: and Burstow, unwilling to thwart him, followed. We will use the historian's liberty, and precede them.

In the same little room, which, no long way back, we described, De Rushton, who had but just returned from rendering what assistance he could to the sufferers at S. John's church, was seated by Theodora,--one arm thrown round her fair waist,--the other hand tightly clasped in hers, as he related to her the events of the day.

"Poor Contari!" said she. "I owe him much gratitude for having attended you so faithfully in that dreadful conspiracy; and now to lose his bride thus! Have you seen him since?"

"No," her husband replied: "he went home immediately, and, though we much needed him, yet of course, under the circumstances, unless it had been a case of absolute necessity, we would not intrude on his grief."

"But now tell me,--at what time is this expedition to take place to-night? Oh, will it ever be that we shall have any rest from this constant alarm and danger?"

"The principal persons concerned are to meet here at the third hour of the night, and to receive their orders: so it was thought best. But I am very anxious about poor Manuel. Since the Emperor's visit, he has seemed to go back every hour. Whether it were that the excitement was too much for him, or what else, I wot not, but certainly Theophrastus thinks ill of his case."

"And poor Euphrasia!" said Theodora, leaning her head on her husband's shoulder. "She was here to-day, as she derived some comfort from being in the same house with the Lord Chrysolaras; and oh! how anxious she is to see him, if it were but for one moment."

"And by my faith, if we come through this night's work well," said Sir Edward, "she shall see him, let Theophrastus say what he will. I ever doubt these physicians, when they counsel what is so opposite to nature. Who can tell but that his seeing her were worth all the drugs of the apothecary's confection?"

"I think you are quite right," said Theodora. "I pray you, for once let her have her way. Her father or I can be with her, to satisfy all that this evil-minded city could suspect."

"It shall be so without fail," replied Sir Edward, kissing the forehead that had somehow insinuated itself almost close to his lips. "It shall be so, if I have life and health to-morrow to order it. Ha! who is this? Come in! Well, Cyril?"

"My Lord, Lieutenant Contari is below, and desires to speak with your Lordship."

"Show him into the great hall," replied the Acolyth. "I will be with him immediately. I wonder what his errand can be," he continued, when the servant had left the room: "however, whatever it is, I will but despatch it, and return to you."

"Contari!" said he, as he entered the hall, and saw that officer and Burstow, "I am most truly and deeply grieved for your loss; and had it not been for the great pressure of business, I should myself have come to tell you so."

"I thank you, my Lord," replied Contari: "but I came now on other business. Burstow tells me that this attack is resolved on to-night. I would fain, if your Lordship will so arrange it, be one of those that attempt to fire the mole."

"Willingly," said Sir Edward, "if you so wish it. But remember, Contari, no one has a right to throw away his life, however much he may have suffered: nothing can justify that; nothing can prevent its being an act of cowardice."

"Not cowardice, my Lord!"

"Yes, cowardice," replied the Great Acolyth; "because it shows that he who throws it away is afraid of enduring what God appoints him to endure. But I well trust you have no such thoughts."

"I should at all events," said Contari, "like to be in a post of danger: there is no harm in wishing that; and if I am at the mole, I will promise to do my best."

"Well," returned De Rushton, "you are here in happy time, for I expect the rest of the generals here anon: and then the matter will be definitely arranged. You shall wait till they come: it may be we shall be glad to put some questions to you. Burstow, you had better take your supper here: you will have need of all your strength to-night; and you too, Contari,--go you to my steward, and tell him so."

"I thank your Lordship," replied Burstow; "we will not fail to wait. For me, wherever I am placed, I hope I shall do my duty."

"I am sure you will," replied the Acolyth. "Now go and take care of yourselves; "and he returned to Theodora.

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