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 XXX.

"The great wheels
Turning but softly, make the less to whirr
About their business; every different part
Concurring to one commendable end."

Chapman, Edward III.

"Now, my Lords," said Constantine, when Phranza and De Rushton joined him and the party with him near the tower of S. Romanus; "we have well-nigh done all that in us lies, and our last preparations are all but complete. Once more we propose to visit the points of attack; but we would fain first decide the various commands for tomorrow."

"I think, my Liege," said Justiniani, "that the enemy's principal effort will be made where we now stand. It is true, the wall along the Horn is weaker in itself, and is less perfectly defended; but then the number of men that can be brought to bear upon it is comparatively few. If they conquer, it will be by positive physical force; and by the enormous waste of life which nothing can support, but such an army, and no one have the heart for, but such a prince."

"I agree with the General Justiniani, sire," said De Rushton. "The Anatolian troops are the flower of Mahomet's infantry: he himself is to be here with his Janissaries: the preparations which even hence we can see making are on no ordinary scale. Here the principal stress of war has been, and I have no doubt will be."

"All to which, my Liege," remarked Phranza, "that the very circumstance of the only tangible advantage they have gained having been obtained here, is, in itself, a sufficient reason for a wise general--and that no one will, deny Mahomet to be,--to press his good fortune in the same direction."

"The very fact of the reserve here, and not elsewhere," said Galeotti, "proves as much in my opinion."

"We think so ourselves," said Constantine; "and therefore here is our place also. Justiniani, we share the command on this side with you."

Justiniani bowed. "I will do my best, sire, to deserve the honour."

"For you, my Lord Great Logothete," pursued the Emperor, "we shall ask you to command at the Silivri Gate; and you, my Lord Cantacuzene, will also take your station there. My Lord Acolyth, your place, and that of the Lord Phranza, will be the side of the Horn. Whichever may be the principal attack, it is certain that your courage and your skill will there be tested to the uttermost."

"Its principal advantage, my Liege," said Phranza, "lies in the fact that they can there, and there only, advance their scaling ladders to the very walls. To make the place tenable at all, we must have the largest disposable force that can be spared."

"You shall have all that the necessary defence of the other positions--and the Silivri Gate will not ask much--can leave," replied the Emperor.

"Sire," said De Rushton, looking out northward, "those droves of mules import no good, I fear--yonder, coming in to the north and north-east. They are loaded with fascines; if ever I guessed right, I am right now."

"The ditch is deep yet," replied the Emperor, "notwithstanding the multitude of dead bodies and of rubbish that have been thrown into it. But we will take order for this. Let commands be issued that the paving-stones from the nearest streets be taken up at once, and disposed in heaps along the parapet--say from the tower of S. Dionysius to the bastion of S. Nicetas,--a hundred and fifty or two hundred in each. They are weapons that any one can wield: See to it, Burstow," for that worthy officer had just come up.

"I will, my Liege."

"I think, may it please your Splendour," said the master mason, advancing towards the Emperor, "that we have done all here that man can do--at least, on such short notice. All the shaken pieces have been rebuilt in the inner wall; the outer stones are clamped with two-inch iron; and the earth and lime in the centre, is very strongly bedded. What further would your Majesty have us do?"

"We will go towards the Horn, Ducas, and you shall run your eye over the works there. We will go round the ramparts, my Lords; for Nicephorus promised to have two new machines ready by this evening, and we gave him our word that we would visit them."

They accordingly proceeded eastward along the ramparts. The royal party now might consist of nearly twenty persons--all of most consequence in the defence. Constantine, according to his invariable custom, wore the Imperial purple, though he knew that it rendered him a conspicuous mark for the assailants. As they were on their way, a ballista in the besieging camp twanged; there was a loud hum in the air; and the ejected stone struck the wall about four yards in front of the foremost of the party, blinding them with dust, but embedding itself innocuously in the repaired wall.

"Not so badly aimed, my Liege," cried the Acolyth.

"It proves Ducas's work, and proves it good," replied Constantine; which was all the notice taken of the occurrence.

On reaching the angle that the Horn made with the northern wall, the sound of hammers and sledges overpowered every other noise. In a rude shed, put together of massy timber, Nicephorus Spartalides, no mean engineer, had established his manufactory. Seeing the Emperor approaching, from the sooty aperture that served as a window, he came out, in his leathern apron and wire mask: the latter of which he removed as he made a respectful, but somewhat brief reverence to Constantine.

"Well, good Nicephorus," said the Emperor, "are those engines you promised to have ready finished?"

"They have been finished this hour, my Liege," replied the engineer, "and by midnight, please the Panaghia, I will have another complete. They are on the wall; please your Highness to step up, and see them tried?"

"I shall be glad to see them," said the Caesar. And he followed Nicephorus up a narrow flight of steps, cut in the thickness of the wall, to the top of the rampart,--in his turn attended by the rest of his courtiers. The two machines stood side by side; the one like an enormous crane, with wheels running in horizontal grooves, and a ponderous chain hanging in front of the wall; the other a tangled network of slighter chains, cables, and pulleys, towering twelve or fourteen feet into the air, and furnished, on a flat iron plate, with four large stones, each weighing half a hundredweight.

"This," said Nicephorus, laying his hand on the latter machine, "is a ballista of my own improving, so as to discharge three or four stones successively by means of a double motion concealed in this shaft. Shall I try it?"

"By all means,"' said Constantine.

"I will but call some of my men, sire," said Nicephorus: and he went down to the smithy.

"The sun is setting-," observed the Emperor. "How still the Horn is; and but one boat, that I can see, in the harbour!".

"Bearing a message, I suppose," cried the Acolyth, "from the further side. It is a Greek-built boat, too; I marvel where the dog's took it."

"A Greek in it, too," said the Emperor; "either a deserter or a renegade."

"Here, Peter and George!" cried the engineer, reappearing on the wall, "wind me up this ballista as far as it will go. What shall I aim at, sire? The galleys, I fear, are too far off."

"Aim at yonder boat," replied the Emperor. "It is rather a small object: the more your skill."

"I will try it," said Nicephorus, running his eye along the movable rod that served as the point of sight, and adjusting it' to the boat in which Zosimus was pulling lustily forward, and congratulating himself at having made his escape. The evening gun boomed as he said, "There, be quick, men!"

The hairy giants stretched and strained; Nicephorus went on adjusting the lateral motion as the boat flew forward, till at length the clicking of the machine ended with a sudden catch, and Peter cried, "Ready!"

"See, now, my Liege, if the new motion answers not," said Nicephorus, still following the motion of the boat, and then hasping down the rod, and calling "Now!"

Whirr, whirr, went the machine; the handle flew round like a mill wheel, the pulleys buzzed, the chain jarred, and the first stone flew out, and struck the water a few yards in advance of the boat, covering it with a shower of foam; the rower plied his task for his life.

"Missed!" cried De Rushton, the machine still running round.

"Wait, my Lord!" said Nicephorus, as the engine, which had seemed to slacken, seized the second stone, and whirled it forth. This time it only missed the head of the boat by a few inches; but the water that was dashed into it had almost swamped it.

"He shall not get off, however," cried Nicephorus, seizing the directing rod, as the engine was about to discharge its third load. And he was right; the missile crashed down on the boat's stern; it sunk like lead; the rower disappeared, but rose in a few seconds, just as the fourth stone dashed furiously into the water by his very side, and sank him for a second time.

"Bravo! Bravo, Nicephorus!" was the general exclamation.

"I wish I had killed the dog, though," said the engineer.

"But what is your other machine?" asked Constantine; "it seems quite on a different principle."

"It I cannot so well show your Majesty now," replied Nicephorus, "but I hope it will do good execution tomorrow. It is for flinging stones or spars along the outer face of the wall, and parallel with it, so as to destroy them by wholesale when they bring up their fascines."

"Down with it at once then, to S. Romanus' tower," cried Constantine. "We shall have good need of it tomorrow, if ever men had."

"It goes on wheels, as your Majesty sees. I will send it down thither, and see it properly fixed this evening."

"Do so," said Constantine; "but attend at the palace at midnight; it may be that we shall require your advice. Now, my Lords!"

They passed along upon the Horn. The galleys were now in motion, or getting into motion; as well as the deepening twilight permitted to be seen, the sails of some flapped lazily against the mast; those of others bellied out: they were clearly going to take up a position nearer to the walls. Constantine pointed it out, and merely saying, "Does that betoken the work?" passed on some distance in silence.

"What have we here?" asked he, as, on arriving at the Fanar gate, sledges, chisels, and saws blended discordantly together.

"The smiths and carpenters are at work there, my Liege; it was injured by a shot from the great gun this afternoon."

The Emperor went up to the men. Here, for the first time, torches had been lighted. "A life may hang on every blow, good fellows!" said he.

"They'll hang safely enough, sire, then," said the head smith, bluntly.

So, with a kind word here, and an exhortation to diligence there, praise for the deserving, and sympathy for all, Constantine passed on, till he came to the landing-place at which Zosimus had embarked. After a few inquiries had been made, "Your servant has not returned, my Lord," said the guard to Phranza.

"My servant returned! How mean you, then?"

"He that your Lordship sent to the Bucentaur,--Zosimus, my Lord."

"I never sent him to the Bucentaur," replied Phranza. "Is he gone to it?"

"Nearly an hour agone, he came down and said that he had a message from your Lordship to the Bucentaur; so we helped him to a boat, and he promised to be back by the sunset gun, which he might have been. We saw him pull to the ship, and then he went on to the S. Francis, and a comrade of ours, who came along the wall not long ago, thinks that he saw him pulling on to the Turkish galleys: at least, from what he says, I think that it must have been he."

"Was he by himself?" inquired Sir Edward.

"Yes, my Lord."

"The boat painted green?"

"Yes, my Lord."

"Narrow built, and long?"

"The same, my Lord."

"Then, depend upon it, that was the same man whom Nicephorus sunk. Some treason is hatching. I know the fellow, Lord Phranza, and should long ago have made you acquainted with some of his doings, had not weightier affairs somewhat put him from my mind."

"It looks like desertion, certainly," said the Caesar.

"I always thought him honest," said Phranza; "but he lied most foully to-day, if he says that I sent him to the Bucentaur."

"Well, the man is drowned, and there's an end," remarked Justiniani.

"I think not," replied De Rushton; "firstly because, as our Western proverb goes, he is fated to a drier death; and, in the second place, because I rather imagine that I saw him rise after the last shot and strike out; and he certainly can swim."

"He can do us no harm," said Constantine. "Goodnight, you fellows, and keep careful watch."

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