"Hold, daughter! I do spy a kind of hope
Which craves as desperate an execution
As that is desperate which we wouid prevent."
Romeo and Juliet.
"Now then, lead on," cried the captain of the little party that was under the direction of Zosimus, as the first roar of the sack was somewhat lulling, as the shrieks were less piercing or better stifled, and as quarter was being offered and accepted.
"I will," replied the slave with a trembling voice. "But remember that, if you lose me, you lose all clue to your object."
"Never fear, never fear," cried Walid, for that was the name of the leader. "Your miserable carcase is safe enough. To-day is not for such as you. Lead us on."
The walls towards the Horn, where so lately that tremendous struggle had been carrying on, were now silent and deserted. Brave Nicephorus Spartalides lay at the side of his newest petraria, calm and still; the first time for many a long day. The undischarged machine showed that the Turks were on him before he knew that the city was taken. Following the course of the ramparts, slippery here and there with blood, and in some places almost blocked up with corpses, the party, which consisted of twelve men, hurried onward to the palace. But, when they came to the garden gate, the ruinous walls, the heaps of paving stones torn up and ready for use, and the varied wreck of terrible and desperate defence, made further passage next to impossible.
"I must lead you round by S. Sophia," said Zosimus.
"Quick then," cried Walid: "or others will be beforehand with us."
They struck down then into one of the narrow streets which ran behind, and parallel with, the palace wall. Here and there they passed a bleeding corpse,--the victim of the sack, not of the battle;--here and there a wild shriek rang out from some of the houses, where a door burst in and a shattered shutter showed that pillage and rapine were doing their work. And still, as they went, rose a great roar from the city, a Babel of all frightful sounds, amidst which might sometimes be distinguished the notes of a trumpet, a solitary cannon, or a loud cheer. Once they met a drove--it is the only word that can express the thing--of the captives,--nuns, tradesmen, daughters of the high court-officers, priests, all yoked together, all goaded forward by the Janissaries, all hurrying on to their fate.
But when they came to the great square of Saint Sophia, every inch was thronged with a vast, yet orderly multitude. It needed no second glance to show that the Sultan was there in person. Struggling onwards through the press, the party of Zosimus had soon approached the great western doors. There sat Mahomet on the same horse which had borne him through the day: Pashas, Imaums, and Janissaries were grouped round him: a costly wreck of pictures, and jewelled crosses, and chalices, and priestly vestments, lay by the Silver Gates: soldiers were pouring into the huge pile,--the sanctuary desecrated,--the altar already overthrown,--carpenters and blacksmiths beating down the great iconostasis, the glory of Byzantine Art: a thousand profane hands and tongues polluting the very place where, only a few short hours before, the Christian Sacrifice had been offered, and Constantine and his little band of warriors had commemorated Him as a Saviour into whose presence they had now passed as a Judge.
Near, but rather behind, the Sultan, was a company of prisoners:--two of them men of the first importance,--Lucas Notaras and George Phranza. Of the rest, in whom he was more particularly interested, Zosimus could see none. De Rushton, Choniates, Chrysolaras,--where were they?
"Ha!" cried Mahomet, in answer to the report of some Pasha who spurred up with intelligence,--"that is news indeed! Say you so? Where is it? Where is it?"
At the same time the crowd to the south-west of the square struggled this way and that way to open a pass. A stillness came over the whole multitude.
"Hush! it is the Emperor!"
"Make way! Make way!"
"Back! back! Give room!"
On a rude kind of litter, six sturdy men bore a corpse right onward to the Sultan. It had been stripped of whatever armour it might have worn:--the upper cloak had been rudely torn away: the figure was that of a man of some fifty years of age: the face, kind and commanding even in death, wore the sharp expression of anguish which is always consequent on a steel wound. The litter is set down; and one of the bearers says briefly--
"May it please your Majesty, it is the Emperor."
Mahomet turned to the captives. "Some of you must have known Constantine," he said: "was this he?"
Phranza stepped forward.
"Sire," he said, "this is none other than he who, two short hours ago, was an Emperor. The golden eagles on his shoes are sufficient to tell the whole world as much--but we shall never forget his face. God rest his soul!" he added, as he threw himself on his knees and wept bitterly: "he has died like a Cassar and like a Martyr!" "Let his body," said Mahomet, after a pause, "be taken honourable care of till we can order his funeral. We do not war with the dead. Now follow me!" And attended by the chief Pashas, he dismounted from his horse, and entered S. Sophia.
"Now then, on!" said Zosimus. And putting himself at the head of his party, with some little difficulty they traversed the square, and approached the entrance to the palace. But then, "Back! back!" was shouted by the gigantic Janissaries who already stood as its guard. "It is a servant of the Lord Leontius," said Walid. "It may be a servant of the Prophet's, for aught I know," replied a Janissary: "but, by the Flight, if he comes one step nearer, he shall go to join his master."
"It matters not," said Zosimus, in a low voice. "I can lead you in by a safer way."
Keeping then to the right, they pressed forward to the stable gate. The sun, though it was at the end of May, was beginning to get low; the streets were already in shade; the outcry and uproar had become duller and deader; passion and hate had in some degree done their work; and meeting but a few straggling soldiers, the party came in front of the gate to which Zosimus was directing them. It was barred and bolted; but there was no guard; and forcing the wicket, they easily entered into the precincts of the palace.
"Now be careful," said the slave. "I will take you straight to the very place; the rest must be your business."
As he spoke, they turned a corner of the buildings. The trees of Phranza's garden were quiet in the evening twilight; a rich yellow seemed to sleep on their topmost branches; one wall,--one weak door, is all that intervenes between the pursuers and their victims.
"Zosimus!" shouted a voice from the window of the metoecia to the left.
The slave looked up and saw Burstow; at the very same moment there was a flash,--a report,--and Zosimus had passed to his account.
"After him! after him!" cried Walid. Several of the soldiers tried to find an entrance into the metaecia; the rest gathered round their guide, and strove to raise him.
"It is useless!" said the captain. "The man is as dead as Ali. This is a bad day's work for us. How are we to go on?"
"We have no chance of succeeding now," cried one of the men.
"We must back to Leontius instantly," said Walid. "He may have some clue that we have not. But let us first get the man that fired the shot."
A wise resolve; but not so easily executed. Some time was lost in breaking into the metoeciae: more, in scouring its passages: no promises or threats could then hinder the soldiers from helping themselves to the movable pillage: and when Walid had again got his men together, they learnt at S. Sophia that Leontius had been despatched to the Tower of S. Romanus, for the purpose of preserving some degree of order, and of providing for the safety of the public buildings. By the time that Walid had reached the house in which the renegade nobleman was reported to be, the sun had set. At that same moment, from the roof of S. Sophia, the muezzins made their first proclamation, "There is no God but God, and Mahomet is the Prophet of God! Come to prayer! Come to prayer!"