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 XXXVIII.

"Now, Polyphron, the news?
The conquering army
Is within ken.
How brook the men the object?
Cheerfully yet: they do refuse no labour."

The Bondman.

Thus again Manuel Chrysolaras found himself on his way towards the harbour wall; but, the aspect of affairs was indeed changed. There was no longer the struggle to plant the scaling ladders on the one side, nor the almost superhuman efforts to throw them down on the other; the walls were comparatively deserted both by assailants and defenders; and the whole efforts of the Mahometan troops were directed against the Fanar gate, that very gate concerning which Sir Edward dc Rushton had expressed so much anxiety on the preceding night. The woodwork of this gate, originally very strong, was now much decayed through its great age: it had been erected in the time of Latin domination, and had occasionally since been clamped and pieced, patched and plated, joined and riveted, till the original work was almost gone. But such a mass of junctions and patchings was ill calculated to resist a vigorous and persevering onset. This gate could not, of course, be attacked, till the Horn was in the hands of the invaders, and therefore, till the transportation of the galleys, no particular attention had been paid to its defence; while after that period, there had not been time to make a new gate, though the work was actually in hand at the last assault.

Between the fifth and sixth hour, Zosimus had requested to see Leontius; and on being, sorely against his will, brought on to the galley where that nobleman was, he told him in as few words as possible, that the attack had much better chance of success if directed against the Fanar gate, which, to his certain knowledge, though of great apparent mass, possessed no real strength. Having satisfied himself by more minute inquiries that such was the case, Leontius allowed Zosimus, who had been all the time of the interview in an agony of fear, to return to the other side of the Horn whence he had come. As the gate opened too close to the sea to permit operations of any magnitude to be carried on between the walls and the water, the renegade gave orders that two galleys should be moored opposite it, at some little distance from each other, and from one to the other was stretched a platform of planks, rendered more solid by another flooring laid crosswise. Meanwhile instructions had been despatched to bring the largest sized piece of timber that could be found on the Galata side of the Horn; and, in less than half an hour a prodigious cedar was dragged down to the beach by three teams of horses. Here a body of men were soon actively engaged in rolling it into the sea; twenty or thirty boats presently had it in tow, and though Nicephorus sank five or six of them with that new petraria which he had promised--and he had kept his promise--to have ready by midnight,--yet, notwithstanding, the tree was brought over in triumph, and preparations were made to hoist it on deck.

At this instant, Chrysolaras arrived at the scene of action; but soon found that, not even to speak of Theodora, could he withdraw De Rushton's attention from the conflict before him. Already on the platform had been erected the frame from which the ram was to work; already the smiths were riveting the chains from which it was to be suspended; already the diminished violence of the attack in other quarters showed that a fearful assault was intended in this; and De Rushton, knowing what he knew, had no scruple in requesting the Emperor to spare Nicephorus to a point than at which, he felt sure, there could be no greater peril.

"In good time, Manuel," cried he. "Go to the Emperor, and request him to send Nicephorus here with all speed. I shall hardly else be able to hold out."

"But, De Rushton--"

"Nay, go at once, Manuel--I have no one that I can spare well but you,--and the danger presses."

Chrysolaras, finding that it did indeed press, set forth with speed on his errand; though sadly beginning to feel his own weakness and the exhaustion consequent on such fatigue endured before perfect recovery. De Rushton counted the moments till his return. For though he and Burstow themselves pointed every ballistas, though with promises, and threats, and entreaties, he incited the men to do their utmost, though such volleys of stones had been thrown down on the assailants that now to procure fresh pavement the drays had to go as far nearly as to the old cistern, and were already beginning to interfere with those that were supplying the Emperor's side,--though the corpses of the Moslems were piled high and thick under the walls and in the galleys, and that without any advantage, as on the other side, to the living assailants, still the work went on. The cedar was hoisted on the platform: a kind of light work of defence was run up to protect those engaged on it,--a framework of wood, covered with thick wet mats; the smiths were already engaged in clamping on its head, a tremendous block of iron, a cube of more than two feet. Two more galleys were now ordered to take their position behind the other two, and another platform was constructed on them, in order to give room for the play of the ram, and the motions of those that worked it. Then came the heaving of five hundred arms, rearing the monstrous engine into its place; the galleys rolled under the unusual weight; the platforms groaned and creaked: here and there a plank might give, or a clamp start, but the work stood good; down came the light mat-work that concealed the preparations; and the enormous beam stood ready hung to play upon the devoted gate. Before the besieged could well tell what system of defence now to resort to, it began to vibrate, under the united pull of two hundred arms; backwards and forwards moved the beam, slowly at first, acquiring increased velocity as it proceeded, till at length Leontius gave the signal "Now!" and it swang full on the Fanar gate.

At that first stroke it crashed through one panel, and stove in clamp, plate, and chain: the whole work tottered and quivered on its hinges; and for a moment De Rushton imagined that an entrance to the city was forced. But at that instant Nicephorus arrived upon the ramparts, panting and dripping with heat.

"What's this? what's this?" cried he. "By S. George! but you should have sent for me before! Run for sacks, sacks and ropes,--and send up some cart-loads of earth. Hurry them, Burstow, or the gate will be in. Lord Acolyth, where are the masons? They must begin a wall behind the gate--give way, give way,"--to the engineer--"I'll work that myself."

But before any of the directions could be obeyed, the ram had been pulled back a second time, and a second time had swung upon the gate. Vain were then the great studs of iron, that knobbed it over like a rhinoceros's hide; vain the double clenched stanchions, and cross-riveters six inches thick; vain, that once the oak which supplied its wood had been the glory of the Balkan; vain, that the staples had been trebly hammered out, and the iron the strongest that Hungary could yield. Splinters of wood, bars, bolts, plates, knobs, fragments of iron and stone came flying forth on the inside, as if chased forth by a whirlwind: the wall itself shook and groaned; and the head of the ram came right in,--the first thing from the Turkish camp that entered that day.

Nicephorus hastily discharged his ballistae, with such good aim that fourteen or fifteen of the assailants were killed or knocked down, and the action of the ram most materially retarded. The sacks had come up; some held tham open; some threw spadeful after spadeful of earth into them as the carts rattled up to the rescue of the gate; some attached ropes to their mouths: some heaved them over the sides; and the third stroke of the ram was deadened by the interposition of these flying bulwarks. To Burstow was intrusted their management, while Nicephorus superintended the construction of the more solid defences. By his direction close to the gate, and in the thickness of the wall, ten or twelve carts were piled, the upper ones being heaved up by main strength on the top of the lower ones; while behind, masons and labourers were busy with another wall, the materials being obtained from a house that was hastily pulled down to furnish them. Thus, should the ram be successful, a sort of extempore barbican was formed, the thickness of the wall in this, serving as the flanking walls of a regular defence; or, if the comparison be made with the modern system of fortification, the thickness of the wall formed the bastions, the new wall the curtain, while the upset carts might be regarded as a rude sort of tenaille. But, notwithstanding these efforts, the end was very fast approaching.

However, in the meantime, the inner wall rose higher, and the gate was more effectually protected; and Nicephorus, having now performed his office at this post, was anxious to return to the Emperor.

"How go things there?" inquired the Acolyth.

"He will not hold out very long," said Nicephorus. "The only chance is, that they may abandon the attack. If they do, we may be saved yet; for the loss of life must have been tremendous." With which words he hurried back to his original position.

De Rushton, though not feeling any immediate apprehension for the safety of the Fanar, on hearing the opinion of Nicephorus, determined that it would be better for Theodora to retire to the hiding place. Manuel, who had been detained a few minutes by the Emperor, came up at this time; and confirmed the report of the engineer.

"The wall," said he, "is in ruins in three different places; nothing but the most resolute courage keeps them back; how long this hand-to-hand struggle may last, it is impossible to say."

"Then," replied Sir Edward, "go and see them in safety; it is high time. You can come back again, and carry word a second time, if necessary."

"I will," said Manuel,--"but"------

"My Lord," said Burstow, "put some cross-bow men at both sides of the gate--it will not stand many more blows--those two first quite did for it."

"Demetrius," said De Rushton, "twelve cross-bows on each side--good men--if it may be. Stay,--I will mount the wall myself"--for at that moment he was superintending the new erection.

"But, De Rushton"--cried Manuel, as he sprang forward.

"When you come back," replied his friend, without waiting to hear what followed.

"Only one word, De Rushton--for God's sake, stay one moment!" But De Rushton was gone.

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