"Farewell!--God knows when we shall meet again.
I have a faint cold fear thrills through my veins
That almost freezes up the heat of life."
Romeo and Juliet.
As soon as De Rushton had despatched Manuel with his directions, he felt considerably more at ease, firmly convinced that Theodora was now in safety, whatever might befall him. With voice and action he encouraged the masons, on whom he felt that the ultimate maintenance of that post must depend; for the defences adopted against the battering ram could only, by their very nature, be temporary. Leontius and Achmet Pasha, who had now joined his fellow chief, bent their whole efforts to counteract the devices of Nicephorus. The ropes that held the sacks they cut, by sharp hooks fixed at the end of poles; the besieged in their stead employed chains,--and the Turks hooked them out of the way, so as to leave room for the ram to play upon the gate. Others, with long poles hoisted flf> the sacks as they descended; and thus it came to pass that, though not more than one blow out of three told with full effect, the gate was already little more than a skeleton, and the besiegers were preparing to enter.
Leontius gave orders that the beam should be directed on the hinges; and after one or two vigorous efforts, the upper hinge, already much shaken, was drawn from its sockets, and fell in among the rude barricade which had been erected behind it.
Sixty or seventy of the bravest soldiers at once poured into the breach. But the marksmen on the wall let fly so swift and deadly a shower of arrows and quarrels among them, that, entangled as they were in that barricade, few could extricate themselves, and they perished by inches, shot through and through by the incessant vigilance of the defenders.
A second set of men rolled onwards to take their comrades' places, but with such dreadful carnage that Leontius found it necessary to recall the soldiers.
"Back, men! back!" shouted he, "try it with fire."
A lighted torch was soon applied; but, as soon, the vigilance of the Varangians threw buckets of water on the kindling mass. At first the conflagration seemed to spread; but De Rushton hit on the proper remedy.
"Wet earth! wet earth!" cried he; "that will damp it most effectually."
There was a mound of earth on the ramparts, whence the sacks had been filled;--this was soon saturated with water: and twenty arms were busily engaged in dashing the hissing mud on the consuming mass. The blaze was checked--the smoke grew denser--the flames smouldered--the scheme had failed.
"Shift the ram a thought forward," roared Achmet, "and try it with that."
The ram was soon brought to bear on the barricade; the carts and spars that composed it were soon shivered to atoms; the Turks were preparing to rush on to a third hand-to-hand conflict; when suddenly from the north-west came a roar of shouts and voices,--and a wild doleful cry spread through the streets. "All lost! all lost! fly! fly!"
In fact, when Chrysolaras, hurried through the gate of S. Romanus, had been able to turn himself, with the intention of joining in the defence of the inner wall,--he found that all hope of resistance was at an end. Infidels clustered on this wall in equal numbers with Christians;--hundreds and thousands of the besiegers were pouring in; the city was taken.
All that remained was, if possible, to reach De Rushton, before the tide of war should sweep that way. Fortunately a saddled horse was tied at the door of a house at hand; it had belonged to one of the domestics, who had been despatched on several errands that day to the more distant parts of the city, and leaping up, Chrysolaras rode like a madman to Fort Fanar.
He reached it as that wild cry came rolling there. "All's lost, De Rushton." "Where is the Emperor?"
"I don't know--I saw him wounded--he was borne off by the crowd. Save yourself!"
"Save yourselves, Varangians!" shouted De Rushton. "Form in square--stand together--and they will presently give quarter!"
But commands were useless. East, west and north, the Christians scattered; the Turks poured in in tolerably good order, and soon joined their brethren who had entered by the breach of S. Romanus.
"To Phranza's house," said Sir Edward, seeing this to be case. "We can hide in the gardens!"
Keeping in the van of the crowd, they sped forward for life and liberty: but they were forced to turn and wind so often, that it was fully a quarter of an hour before they could emerge near the palace, and then, to their dismay, they found a multitude of Turks already pouring into it.
Scarcely had the gate been fairly forced, when Zosimus with Walid and his party were hurrying forward to Phranza's house. They met with no obstruction, being so far in front of the tide of war;--and on arriving at the metoecia, found every door wide open, as if all the inhabitants had made their escape.
While they are pressing on under the directions of Zosimus, we will return to the ice-house in order to see what its tenants have been doing.
For some time after the departure of Manuel and the steward, no unusual sound was to be heard. The roar of the cannon still continued, indeed, but did not increase, or rather began to slacken.
"Do you not think," inquired Theodora, "that the firing is less sustained than it was some half-hour agone?"
"It seems to me so," replied the Lady Choniatis; "God grant it may be a happy omen!"
"For my part," said Euphrasia, "I cannot but hope that God would never have stirred up the heart of Constantine to such a brave defence, had He not intended finally to crown it with success."
"At all events," replied Theodora, "let us hope; and, if the day goes against the city, let us pray that our dear ones may escape the ruin."
"There can be no doubt at all about the matter, now," cried Euphrasia, a few minutes afterwards, "the firing has ceased altogether."
"Hush!" cried Theodora; "hush! there are steps!"
As she spoke, a slow feeble tread was heard on the stairs leading down to the ice-house;--and then a knocking at the door.
"Lady! lady!" cried the voice of Barlaam, "good news!--The Turks are retreating!"
The door was thrown open immediately.
"Are you sure, Barlaam?--Are you quite certain?" burst from every one.
"Most certain," replied he;--"I was even now in the second court of the palace, when the Lord Curopalata entered on some errand from the Emperor; and he told me they were in full retreat from the north side;--and he was but just from the wall himself."
"Now God be praised!"
"God be praised indeed," replied Barlaam, "for this is far more than I had expected,--or than any one else did!--Hear you not, too, that the cannonade is almost entirely at an end?"
"I do indeed," replied Theodora.
"It might be as well," said the old man, "nevertheless, that you confined yourselves a little longer to this icehouse;--too much care can do no harm."
"We will stay, we will stay, Barlaam; but we need not go back again just this moment.--It is like being buried alive."
"Keep near the place," said he, "however."
They did so; and the steward again went into the court. Even after their short confinement, the change from the chilly darkness of their prison to the blue sky and summer air was delicious;--and they stood enjoying it and conversing together for perhaps a quarter of an hour.
"Do you not think," Theodora asked at length, "that the shouting to the north is louder?"
"No:--is it?" said Maria Choniatis.
Before another word could be spoken, the thunder of the final assault had begun round the city. The terrified girls, dismayed at a roar of artillery far louder than they had ever yet known, flew back into their hiding place: they locked the door,--and clung to each other as if seeking protection and comfort. Presently, the steps of Barlaam were heard coming down the stairs.
"Lady!" cried he, "make up your minds to the worst.--The Janissaries are being led on by the Sultan himself.--They say nothing can resist them.--I may not be able to come to you again. God preserve you!"