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 XXV.

If we no more meet, till we meet in heav'n,
Then joyfully, my noble Lord of Bedford,
My dear Lord Glo'ster, and my good Lord Exeter,
And my kind kinsman--warriors all--adieu!"

Henry V.

Early on the following morning, De Rushton received an urgent summons from Constantine Palaeologus. Bidding a hasty farewell to Theodora, he repaired to the Emperor's apartments, and there found him in a state of agitation in which he had never before known him.

"Here is a message, De Rushton," cried he, "for a Christian monarch to receive! Here is a hard strait, if ever one was! Can you guess the terms the Sultan sends me here?"

"I pray your Majesty to tell me," said the Great Acolyth.

"Here he sends me certain conditions," replied the Emperor, "with which I am to comply, under a penalty of seeing all the prisoners made in the last night's attempt beheaded before the very walls of the city."

"God forbid, my Liege! What are the terms?"

"An absolute surrender of the city, with a reservation to myself of the Principality of Chios, or Lesbos, or some other of the Ionian isles; with a choice to the people generally of removal from Constantinople, with perfect safety of goods, persons, and lives,--circumcision, or tribute."

"Surely your Majesty cannot doubt," replied De Rushton, "what answer ought to be returned to such unheard-of insolence!"

"I do not, my Lord. My only difficulty is this: will you, or will any one else honestly tell me that it is probable we can hold out the city a fortnight longer? To what purpose, then, resistance? Here we have the option of quite as favourable terms as we can possibly expect, or the bare chance of defending the city successfully, coupled with the certain destruction of at least forty youths, of the best families of Constantinople, in the prime of life."

"You are to remember, my Liege, that the question, taking the darkest view of the case, is this,--how the Great Empire, with its existence of more than two thousand years, shall end most gloriously. All other considerations give way to that. Never let it be said that the last Caesar was terrified into abdicating his crown and surrendering his capital. My Liege, for the fate of those brave men, I feel it as deeply as any man can do; but, so help me God, if I, or any dear to me, were in their place, I would give the same counsel that I now give. Consider this, too: What guarantee have we that Mahomet will keep his terms? If he wishes to violate them, nothing so easy as to find a pretext. A suspected conspiracy--a pretended outbreak--and the soldiery are let loose among the conquered. Turkish perfidy is no new thing."

"I feel what you say," answered Constantine, "but I will offer all the terms that honour will allow. My proposal will be this--and Phranza thinks that it may well be made: that the city shall pay an annual tribute of a hundred thousand gold ducats, on condition of Mahomet's instantly raising the siege; that the extent of the Empire shall be a circle of ten miles from S. Sophia, with such of the Greek islands as still remain to us; and that Mahomet swears on the Koran faithfully to observe these terms. But if he is not satisfied with this, then my resolution is fixed,--to find a grave within these walls, if I cannot deliver them. And if he lays hands on any one of his captives, I am resolved--and God so help me as I keep my resolution--to put to death the next hour every single Turk now a prisoner in the city: and, as I hear, there are two hundred and sixty of them. Now, Lord Acolyth, will you take a flag of truce, and propose these terms?"

"Instantly, my Liege."

"Remember," said Constantine, "they are strictly secret. Except yourself and Phranza, no one is acquainted" with them: for I would not consult the Great Logothete, because his son is a prisoner."

"I will take care, my Liege."

Accompanied, then, by Burstow, and one or two other attendants, Sir Edward de Rushton left the city together with the Sultan's messenger, and in twenty minutes was ushered into Mahomet's tent.

"I am come, Lord Sultan," said he, after the usual salutations, "with the Caesar's definite answer to your Highness's proposals. If our terms be not accepted, the negotiation absolutely ends on our side."

"It is well," replied Mahomet.

"On the contrary, my Lord Sultan, it may not be well. An experienced general like your Highness,--and how experienced that is, the events of the last few days have taught us,"--Mahomet looked pleased,--"must know that the city, if taken at all, cannot be taken without great expenditure of ammunition and treasure, and at a loss of human life that it is fearful to think of."

"You say truly," replied the Sultan; "all this we have well considered, else should we never have stooped to make proposals at all for a place that absolutely lies in our power."

"On that point we will not dispute," said De Rushton; "the event of war is ever uncertain; an European fleet might even now enter the Sea of Marmora,"--Mahomet glanced over its blue waters rather restlessly, and De Rushton saw that he had touched the right chord,--"for we have absolute promises of succour from Genoa, from Florence, from Spain, from France, from England; this I pledge my word as a knight and Christian to be true."

"You speak of Constantine's answer," said the Sultan: "let me hear what it is."

"It is this, my Lord: he will not surrender the city. He will have a throne within, or a grave under, its walls. But he offers your Highness an annual tribute of one hundred thousand ducats on condition of your raising the siege."

"Then, by the thirty-seven thousand Prophets," cried Mahomet, "you may return as you came. Take him my defiance. Two hours I will wait for his reply: if none comes, in the very sight of your walls I will behead every one of my prisoners, by the ruins of S. Nicetas' Tower."

"And be well assured," said De Rushton, rising-, "that the next hour the Caesar will do as much for his, who outnumber yours six to one."

"He dares not," said the Sultan.

"Your Highness will see. Before I take my departure, might I crave leave to speak to the Christian prisoners whom you have--that I may bid them prepare for death?"

The Sultan paused.--"No," replied he at length; "not with all; but if there be any one or two whom you would wish to see, you shall have licence so to do."

"Then I would name, my Lord, Sir Etienne d'Angoulême, and the Lord Gabriel Notaras."

"You hear," said Mahomet to the interpreter, who stood by, more for the sake of etiquette than anything else, for the Sultan spoke Greek with great fluency, and indeed Latin also. "Let those Nazarenes be summoned here. My Lord, you may retire into the outer tent; your interview with them must be short; but I shall look, in less than two hours, for your return."

"Never, my Lord," replied the Great Acolyth. And he withdrew.

Presently the two he had named were ushered into the tent, a small party of Janissaries waiting without.

"My Lords both," said De Rushton, "I have a sad task to perform: for I must bid both you and your fellow prisoners prepare for death."

"For death, Lord Acolyth!" cried young Gabriel Notaras, who was barely twenty years of age;--"how mean you?"

"Thus, my Lord: Mahomet has offered conditions to the Caesar which he cannot accept with honour. The terms it matters not how to particularize; they import the absolute surrender of the city. They are refused; and the Sultan has just declared that, if they be not accepted in two hours, he will behead every one of his prisoners in the sight of the wall."

Young Notaras, though distinguished for his courage during many of the sallies,--and particularly in the last night's expedition,--had never before seen a cold-blooded death approach him by inches,--and he turned away his head.

D'Angoulême, on the contrary, smiled. "Now God-a-mercy!" said he: "does the man think to frighten us, or the Caesar, or whom? Carry back my duty and allegiance to Constantine, De Rushton;--tell him that though, had God so ordered it, I had liefer have died on the field of battle; yet falling in his service and that of Christendom, I shall be well content,--and still more so if they give us our choice of apostasy,--for then we shall be martyrs. And one thing more. I would fain have my body of Franks--brave fellows are they all--on the walls, to see me die: they will fight the better for it, De Rushton, hereafter."

"It shall surely be so," replied his friend.

"And what little money I have, or furniture, let it be divided among them,--will you see to that?"

"Certainly I will," answered the Acolyth.

"Then that is all. There is no chance of a priest being allowed to visit us--for Mahomet has sworn that none such shall enter the camp. But I pray you, let some Latin Priest, if he can be had, be on the walls, and give us absolution."

"That shall be done," said De Rushton. "Come, come," he added, in a soothing voice, laying his hand on Gabriel's shoulder;---"take no shame, Lord Gabriel! It is all natural that you should feel this. Many a man laughs at death in a battle, who shrinks from it on a sick bed. But think of the cause,--and it will seem easy. For God and for the Caesar. The One will reward you,--the other will lament you. You have the honour of setting us all an example--men, whom the bravest knight might be proud to follow, will now be proud to follow you. Take cheer, my Lord!"

"I am most ready to lay down my life," replied Gabriel: "do not mistake me--but you do not--you were ever kind,--I was but thinking of my father, and my brothers, and my poor little Justina. Let them know, I pray you; and tell my father that, if I could see him on the ramparts, it would much encourage me."

"I will not fail," replied his friend. "You must communicate these sad tidings to the other prisoners--for the Sultan will not allow me to see them." As he spoke, the interpreter entered with the information that Mahomet did not wish the interview to be prolonged.

"Then farewell, De Rushton, till we meet in a better place," cried D'Angoulême. "And whatever happens, let not the Caesar be persuaded by the friends of the prisoners to consent to the Sultan's terms."

"Farewell, my Lord," said Gabriel; "bear my dear love to my father and my brothers, and sometimes remember me!"

Half an hour served to bring the Acolyth into the Emperor's presence; with the intelligence that the negotiation had failed. He related what had passed, and then said,--"Have I your royal licence to do as they wished?"

"Call out the Franks, my Lord," said Constantine; "I will myself go to the Logothete."

The intelligence soon spread through Constantinople that the last negotiations had failed, and that the prisoners were to die. The ramparts by the Tower of S. Romanus, and the Tower itself, were thronged with spectators; the Franks were drawn up under arms; all of the Varangians and the other troops that could be spared were marched forth, to do honour to the gallant end of their brothers in arms;--men, women, and children flocked together in a tumultuous mass; here a grey-headed old man, the tears streaming down his cheeks, would find reverent way made for him, by those who knew that his son was among the victims; here a widow hurried frantically forward, wringing her hands, and uttering piercing shrieks: here a sister came forth to look for the last time on her brother. And still the preparations for death went forward; the prisoners, who had been conveyed across the Horn, were made to kneel in three rows, about a bow shot from the city walls; around them a very strong body of troops was drawn up so as to form three sides of a hollow square, and to leave the fourth open to Constantinople; while other regiments were formed on the same side of the walls, so as to make a sally impossible. From the midst of the space destined to the sufferers rose a tall flag-staff from which floated a white banner, the sign that the time for peace was not over.

The prisoners were so near that they could easily be recognized; and various comments passed in the crowd on their demeanour.

"That is young Raphael--the son of old Cucullari at the Mint--he behind the Great Constable."

"He looks pale enough."

"Hush! that is his uncle, leaning against the breastwork there--he will hear you."

"Two hours, said you?"

"Ay--and better than one must be passed."

"Who is that,--at the extreme left?"

"That,--with his head bent?--I cannot make out.--Oh! that is Isidore Chalcocondylas--a nephew of Gennadius, you know."

"I wonder where Gennadius is."

"Oh! he will not come--he will have nothing to do with the Latins, as more than half of them are."

"The Emperor will kill his prisoners."

"He has sworn it."

"Is it wise?"

"What is there to hope in, but in defying the dogs?"

"Well, well!--Ah! that is young Gabriel Notaras. Now would I give an arm to save him."

"So would I, so would I. A brave young fellow."

A shout rose among the crowd. "Back! back! Out of the way! Stand back! Make room for his Illustriousness! [Eminence was not applied to Cardinals till the beginning of the seventeenth century.] Make way for his Holiness!"

And advancing together, neither yielding precedence to the other, Cardinal Isidore and the Arhbishop of Chalcedon passed along the ramparts. The people, as the custom was, knelt as the Archbishop went by, and kissed his hand or his mandyas. Isidore received no mark of recognition except from the Varangians and Franks, who presented arms as he passed. Arriving then at the part of the rampart nearest the prisoners, they turned towards them; and then Isidore fell back a little, in order to show that the Archbishop was first going to pronounce Absolution over those of his own rite. This had not been accomplished without the most decided interference on the part of the Emperor; who urged that in his own nation, and supplying the place of the highest dignitary of the Greek Church, the Patriarch of Constantinople, the Archbishop of Chalcedon ought to claim precedence over all other ecclesiastics whomsoever.

The Prelate then stood forth on the ramparts: and those of his own rite among the prisoners, though they could not catch his words, bent most reverently, and bowed to those words which they could not hear. "Our humility," said he, "having received by succession from the Apostles the commission to remit and retain, by virtue of that authority in me dwelling, absolves you from all sins that by human frailty you have committed, knowingly, or ignor-antly, in thought, word, or deed; from ban and excommunication; from curse of father or curse of mother; from guilt and from punishment; in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost."--And the multitude on the ramparts answered, as one man, Amen.

Then came the turn of Isidore; and he, laying aside the red hat, and in his place coming forward, pronounced the Absolution of the Latin Church. "Our Lord," said he, "by the merits of His Passion absolve you from all sin; and by His authority, and the authority of His blessed Apostles, Peter and Paul, and of our holy Lord Nicolas, in this case committed to me, as far as the keys of Holy Mother Church extend, I do absolve you from every sentence of excommunication, interdict, or other censure whatsoever, and restore you to the unity of the faithful of Christ, and to the Holy Sacraments of the Church. And by the same authority I absolve you from all sin, confessed, or by human frailty forgotten; and, as far as I may, I restore you to Baptismal innocence, shutting the gates of hell and purgatory, and opening the doors of Paradise. And this grace remain to you in the Article of Death."

Scarcely had he finished, when the Emperor and the Great Logothete came together on the wall. The crowd bowed low before them; less, as it seemed, out of veneration for the dignity of the Caesar, than in respect to the silent agony of the father. Constantine acknowledged their salutations; the Logothete passed on, fixing his eyes on the ground, till the Emperor stood still, and gazed over the ramparts. Then Lucus Notaras looked too; and clasping his hands together, gazed earnestly on his son, who was still kneeling in prayer. Presently he rose, and evidently distinguished his father and the Emperor; and waving his hand to them, he again knelt, and seemed completely in devotion.

"Take comfort, my son," said the Archbishop of Chalcedon. "Could the Lord Gabriel live a thousand years, he could never fall so gloriously, or meet death so well prepared, as now. The God Who gave him to you at first, now requires him at your hands; only give him up willingly, and the merit which is his, shall in part be reckoned to you. And who knows but that he goes to intercede for the city before the Throne of God; and thus to avail more by his death, than he could ever have done by his life?"

"The holy father speaks well," said Constantine. "Take comfort, I pray you; and pray, as I shall do, that as he has run the race with glory, so he may reach the goal with joy."

"You never had a son, sire," said the Great Logothete.

"But I have had a father and brethren," replied the Emperor, "and have lost them; would they had been honoured with such a fate."

It now wanted about a quarter of an hour to the expiration of the allotted time; and ever as the Emperor spoke, the white banner, which had hitherto floated in the breeze, was hauled down, and a red flag hoisted in its place.

"Sire," said Sir Edward de Rushton, "they understand their business. They wish to torture our feelings as much as possible, and perhaps to move the prisoners to apostasy."

"Which, by God's grace," said Constantine, "they will not do. But have you caused our captives, and specially Redschid Pasha, to be informed of their fate? If they have any preparations to make, we will not debar them time."

"Are you constant in that resolution, sire?"

"Most constant," replied the Palaeologus. "I have sworn it; and it is but a just punishment of the perfidy and cruelty of Mahomet."

"Then, my Liege, were it well to have them up on the ramparts at once? It would show that we are in earnest; and might give the prisoners another chance of their lives."

"Let them instantly be brought up," said the Emperor. And a messenger was despatched to the granary of S. Theodora, where--since it was now empty,--the Turkish prisoners had been confined.

"They are sent for,"--so ran the murmur in the crowd,--"the Emperor will keep his word."

"To be sure he will--but does Mahomet know it?"

"Yes, yes,--he knows it,--the Acolyth, they say, bore him the message."

"He never will kill his prisoners, then. Why, we have Redschid Pasha."

"What does he care? He will soon make another Pasha, and there will be an end of the matter."

"I am glad we shall have our revenge."

"A useless one, too."

"Not so--not so; it will cut off further thoughts of negotiation. We must fight when this is done."

"By S. George we must--there will be no quarter from them."

"Here they come--mark! mark!"

The Turkish prisoners were indeed being led forth. It was a long procession; for every one marched between two soldiers. The crowd was ordered to fall back: and a clear space with some difficulty formed for them as nearly opposite the Christian captives as might be.

"I grieve," said the Emperor, "that Mahomet's cruelty should have brought this fate upon you; but, as surely as those men die, so surely is your doom sealed. But I would spare you and them, if I can: and to that end, one of you shall have free licence to go to the Sultan, and tell him what I have now said. You, fellow; you are young; we give you your life on condition of your taking your message faithfully. Will you do this?"

"I will, may it please your Majesty."

"And further say thus;--that if Mahomet is even now willing to exchange the Lord Chrysolaras, or the Lord Gabriel Notaras, or Sir Etienne d'Angoulême for Redschid Pasha,--I am willing to accept the terms."

The Turk, transported with joy at having escaped what he had considered inevitable destruction, was escorted to the nearest gate, and was eagerly watched as he crossed the narrow space that intervened between the wall and the besieging army. Mahomet, though not to be seen, was believed to be in one of the tents in that quarter of the camp; and so the event proved. For presently the messenger was seen conducted thither; while there was evidently a pause of expectation among the Turkish troops.

It was soon, however, at an end. The red flag in its turn descended, and the black banner was run up; and at the same moment eight or ten of the Janissaries, with drawn swords, approached the prisoners. The excitement among the crowd on the walls became intense; for two or three Muftis accompanied the Janissaries, and it was evident that the fate of the prisoners was not so absolutely decided, but that they might save their lives by denying their faith.

Advancing to one corner of the first line, the Mufti stood before young Raphael Cucullari,--a Janissary went behind him. The Mufti was evidently speaking; Raphael replied; and, almost before the Mahometan teacher could step back, the head of the Greek captive fell on the ground. A thrill of horror ran through the multitude on the walls; but it was speedily changed into fresh interest, as the same offer was made to him who knelt next to the corpse, rejected, and followed with the same issue. The third sufferer was Sir Etienne d'Angoulême. He, those that had the best sight said, when the proposal of apostasy was made to him shook his head and smiled; but spoke not.

"God have mercy on his soul!" cried the Cardinal, when the fatal blow was given; "for he hath died a Martyr!"

"Amen," said Sir Edward de Rushton.

Thus the scene of death went on,--every victim in the first line remaining firm to their faith, till the executioner reached Gabriel Notaras. He had evidently, from the first, suffered more than his brethren, and some were even anxious lest, in the last moment of his life, he should fall away. Not so the Archbishop, who had known him from his youth.

"A moment more," he said to the Logothete, "and his pain will be over. Do not cover your eyes: see, he is looking at you!"

Gabriel Notaras looked up at his father for the last time: their eyes met; there came a beautiful smile over his countenance; and the next moment he had done with the siege and its miseries for ever.

Still the work of death went on; and still the victims fell not away from the faith. At length the Janissaries reached Isidore Chalcocondylas, the nephew of Gennadius, who was one of the last. The spectators saw, with some surprise, that the brief question of the Mufti was succeeded by others; that presently the Janissary withdrew; that a short conversation followed, when the young Greek arose, and retired into the tents.

"He hath apostatized! he hath apostatized!" burst from the crowd; and neither the presence of the Emperor, nor of the Archbishop could hush the yell of derision and rage that rang along the walls. The prisoner next in order turned round, and spat on the place where Isidore had been kneeling; and then, folding his arms, bowed his head to the sword, and with his companion on the other side, closed the catalogue of victims.

"Thank God it was not a Latin!" cried Cardinal Isidore.

"You might have spared the insult," said the Archbishop of Chalcedon. "I might reply------"

"The taunt is unworthy of any reply save silence," said Constantine. "My Lord Curopalata, you will superintend the execution of these unfortunate men, waiting, however, till we have returned. Come, my Lords. Sir Edward de Rushton, we have occasion for you at the Palace."

Project Canterbury