"At midnight held they council high,
How best like Christian chiefs to die;
How the great Empire, ending fast,
Most gloriously should fall at last:
For all that night, by torch and lamp,
They labour in the invader's camp."
The Loosing of the Four Angels.
In the great audience hall of the palace, the nobles of Constantinople and the chiefs of the allies were, for the last time, assembled.
A council it could hardly be called; for all counsel now was evidently too late. No one had aught to propose; no one had aught to suggest: but at that last moment the degenerate aristocracy of Constantinople seemed to have caught something of the fire of their Roman ancestors; and, not being able to conquer, were prepared to die. Not one talk of surrender; not one hope of quarter; not one expectation of assistance, except immediately from heaven. They met like men that had done with this world; that had now but the last act of life to perform, and were determined to perform it well; that looked on the sufferings and toils that might yet be their lot, as matters of most trifling importance, when one day more would end them; that had taken their farewell of earthly scenes, and were treading on the confines of another world.
No one bore this appearance more strikingly than the Emperor himself, as he stood at the head of the council-table in the act of speaking. His calm, stern brow, his piercing blue eye,--the firm determination of his mouth,--the paleness of his cheek,--all showed how much he had suffered; how much he had overcome; how much he was yet prepared to endure.
"My Lords," said he, "nobles of Constantinople! barons, and knights, and esquires of the west! It is needless for me to say--what you see for yourselves--that the last scene of the tragedy is at hand. We who are here met, can bear, like men, to hear the truth. We do not deceive ourselves with any hope that to-morrow's resistance can be ultimately successful. But yet we shall defend ourselves to-morrow,--I am not less sure of you, than of myself,--as if even now a European succour were in the mouth of the Dardanelles, and we had but to hold out the city till it could arrive. Nobles of Constantinople! it is we whom God has called by every tie of blood and honour to take care that, in its fall, this city shall not shame the glories of its earlier days. As in the life of a private man the last moments confirm its honour or its disgrace,--as the behaviour of a few hours may tarnish past glory, or go far to redeem past shame,--so it is with us. We shall soon be matter of history, equally with Justiniani or Basil,--with Heraclius or Romanus. It is in our power yet to maintain their renown; it is in our power to show that the blood of martyrs and of warriors which has from age to age been poured forth for this city, has not been shed in vain. Or, if we are false to each other and to God, we may not only ourselves descend as traitors and cowards to all ages, but we may implicate many a glorious name in dishonour; and, so far as the spirits of the blest can grieve, we may cover them with sorrow, who have laid down their lives for us their posterity. This is the task, then, to which God calls us to-morrow; not to conquer,--which we cannot,--but to endure,--which we can; and by enduring-, to win for ourselves immortal renown in this world, and, as I well trust, everlasting glory in that which is to come. Think, then, that to-morrow thousands of just men made perfect, who have departed from this city to their reward, will be spectators of the conflict. Think that they will be ready to receive your spirits, and to carry them to their own happiness. Think that they are still invisibly with us,--nerving our arms, strengthening our hearts, putting wisdom into the weak-minded, and courage into the timorous; and that, as they are with us now, so to-morrow may we hope to be with them.
"And for you, barons and knights of Europe, if you have less stake in this last contest than we have, the more do we owe you for leaving your own halls to defend ours; the more merit may you claim from your labours, and, doubtless, the more reward. I may never again--I never shall again--be able to thank you for your zeal in this city's service: but what the Caesar cannot repay, the King of Kings will doubtless recompense. To you all, Veran-gians, Franks, Genoese, Barbarians, Venetians--to you, my Lord Acolyth, to you, Lord Great Hetaeriarch, to you, Justiniani, to you, Galeotti,--I give my best thanks; to you also, Sir Conrad Wolfenstein,--to you, Sir Fernando de Payva,--to each and to all of you. [Hetaeriarch: this was the officer who had command over the auxiliary forces not Varangians or Franks; and who thus stood in the same relation to these that the Great Acolyth bore with respect to the former.] Whatever brave hearts and skilful arms could do, that have you done. The fate of the city was not to be averted: if it had been, your courage would have averted it. God has otherwise ordained, and to Him we submit.
"There remains but one thing for me more to say, and then I have done. If there be any here present that I have injured,--if there be any that I have offended, knowingly or ignorantly,--if there be any who thinks that I have injured or offended him,--then I ask that man's pardon, as heartily, as truly, as I shall ask my own at the throne of God before to-morrow's sun sets."
Who can describe the scene that followed? Phranza, who noted it with no incurious eye, confesses that he could not. The tears, the embraces, the mutual confession and forgiveness of wrongs; the cries to God for help; the firm resolve to resist to the very last; the sure trust in Providence; the determination that, if the Roman Empire should perish, its fall should not disgrace the iron hearts of the republic, nor its piety, the patient endurance of the martyrs--the high bearing of Frank and Varangian, the stern resolution of Byzantine courage:--he, who was an eye-witness saw these things, but could not describe them; and who else would venture the attempt?
Nearly an hour thus passed, and then the bells of S. Sophia thundered their summons to its last Liturgy. Emperor and noble, baron and knight, all ranks and degrees of men poured into that glorious church: choir, nave, and narthex, aisle and gallery, were full to overflowing. Archbishop and bishops for the last time put on their magnificent vestments within its walls; for the last time, the Mystic Lamb was slain: for the last time 'again and again in peace supplication made unto the Lord;' for the last time 'with thousands of Angels and myriads of Archangels, with Cherubim and Seraphim,' was the Triumphal Hymn sung.
The Liturgy was finished, and Communion was over--nothing now remained but to make the end glorious.
Again the council met for a few brief moments in the palace.
"Now, my Lords," said Constantine, in a more cheerful voice,--"we have only to take our posts, and to hold them out as long as God shall give us grace. Three hours yet have we more before the assault begins;--if anything yet remains to be done, we have still time. Before morning, I trust to have visited all the posts in succession: each one of you I shall see separately: never altogether again as now. Therefore, my Lords, God bless you all, and give us all a meeting where there is no more war!"
No one trusted himself to speak: though there were indistinct murmurs of "God bless your Majesty! The Panaghia guard the Caesar! God preserve the Palaeologus!"
So ended the last Council of the Roman Empire.