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The Prince of India; Or, Why Constantinople Fell — Volume 01 By Lew Wallace Characters: 24866

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:02

In June, a few days after the completion of the enormous work begun by Mahommed on the Asometon promontory, out of a gate attached to the High Residence of Blacherne, familiarly known as the Caligaria, there issued a small troop of horsemen of the imperial military establishment.

The leader of this party-ten in all-was Count Corti. Quite a body of spectators witnessed the exit, and in their eyes he was the most gallant knight they had ever seen. They cheered him as, turning to the right after issuance from the gate, he plunged at a lively trot into the ravine at the foot of the wall, practically an immense natural fosse. "God and our Lady of Blacherne," they shouted, and continued shouting while he was in sight, notwithstanding he did not so much as shake the banderole on his lance in reply.

Of the Count's appearance this morning it is unnecessary to say more than that he was in the suit of light armor habitual to him, and as an indication of serious intent, bore, besides the lance, a hammer or battle-axe fixed to his saddle-bow, a curved sword considerably longer, though not so broad as a cimeter, a bow and quiver of arrows at his back, and a small shield or buckler over the quiver. The favorite chestnut Arab served him for mount, its head and neck clothed in flexible mail. The nine men following were equipped like himself in every particular, except that their heads were protected by close-fitting conical caps, and instead of armor on their legs, they wore flowing red trousers.

Of them it may be further remarked, their mode of riding, due to their short stirrups, was indicative of folk akin to the Bedouin of the Desert.

Upon returning from the last interview with Mahommed in the White Castle, the Count had subjected the crew of his galley to rigorous trial of fitness for land service. Nine of them he found excellent riders after their fashion, and selecting them as the most promising, he proceeded to instruct them in the use of the arms they were now bearing. His object in this small organization was a support to rush in after him rather than a battle front. That is, in a charge he was to be the lance's point, and they the broadening of the lance's blade; while he was engaged, intent on the foe before him, eight of them were to guard him right and left, and, as the exigencies of combat might demand, open and close in fan-like movement. The ninth man was a fighter in their rear. In the simple manoeuvring of this order of battle he had practised them diligently through the months. The skill attained was remarkable; and the drilling having been in the Hippodrome, open to the public, the concourse to see it had been encouraging.

In truth, the wager with Mahommed had supplied the Count with energy of body and mind. He studied the chances of the contest, knowing how swiftly it was coming, and believed it possible to defend the city successfully. At all events, he would do his best, and if the judgment were adverse, it should not be through default on his part.

The danger-and he discerned it with painful clearness-was in the religious dissensions of the Greeks; still he fancied the first serious blow struck by the Turks, the first bloodshed, would bring the factions together, if only for the common safety.

It is well worth while here to ascertain the views and feelings of the people whom Count Corti was thus making ready to defend. This may be said of them generally: It seemed impossible to bring them to believe the Sultan really intended war against the city.

"What if he does?" they argued. "Who but a young fool would think of such a thing? If he comes, we will show him the banner of the Blessed Lady from the walls."

If in the argument there was allusion to the tower on the Asometon heights, so tall one could stand on its lead-covered roof, and looking over the intermediate hills, almost see into Constantinople, the careless populace hooted at the exaggeration: "There be royal idiots as well as every-day idiots. Staring at us is one thing, shooting at us is another. Towers with walls thirty feet thick are not movable."

One day a report was wafted through the gates that a gun in the water battery of the new Turkish fort had sunk a passing ship. "What flag was the ship flying?" "The Venetian." "Ah, that settles it," the public cried. "The Sultan wants to keep the Venetians out of the Black Sea. The Turks and the Venetians have always been at war."

A trifle later intelligence came that the Sultan, lingering at Basch-Kegan, supposably because the air along the Bosphorus was better than the air at Adrianople, had effected a treaty by which the Podesta of Galata bound his city to neutrality; still the complacency of the Byzantines was in no wise disturbed. "Score one for the Genoese. It is good to hear of their beating the Venetians."

Occasionally a wanderer-possibly a merchant, more likely a spy-passing the bazaars of Byzantium, entertained the booth-keepers with stories of cannon being cast for the Sultan so big that six men tied together might be fired from them at once. The Greeks only jeered. Some said: "Oh, the Mahound must be intending a salute for the man in the moon of Ramazan!" Others decided: "Well, he is crazier than we thought him. There are many hills on the road to Adrianople, and at the foot of every hill there is a bridge. To get here he must invent wings for his guns, and even then it will be long before they can be taught to fly."

At times, too, the old city was set agog with rumors from the Asiatic provinces opposite that the Sultan was levying unheard-of armies; he had half a million recruits already, but wanted a million. "Oh, he means to put a lasting quietus on Huniades and his Hungarians. He is sensible in taking so many men."

In compliment to the intelligence of the public, this obliviousness to danger had one fostering circumstance-the gates of the city on land and water stood open day and night.

"See," it was everywhere said, "the Emperor is not alarmed. Who has more at stake than he? He is a soldier, if he is an azymite. He keeps ambassadors with the Sultan-what for, if not to be advised?"

And there was a great deal in the argument.

At length the Greek ambassadors were expelled by Mahommed. It was while he lay at Basch-Kegan. They themselves brought the news. This was ominous, yet the public kept its spirits. The churches, notably Sancta Sophia, were more than usually crowded with women; that was all, for the gates not only remained open, but traffic went in and out of them unhindered-out even to the Turkish camp, the Byzantines actually competing with their neighbors of Galata in the furnishment of supplies. Nay, at this very period every morning a troop of the Imperial guard convoyed a wagon from Blacherne out to Basch-Kegan laden with the choicest food and wines; and to the officer receiving them the captain of the convoy invariably delivered himself: "From His Majesty, the Emperor of the Romans and Greeks, to the Lord Mahommed, Sultan of the Turks. Prosperity and long life to the Sultan."

If these were empty compliments, if the relations between the potentates were slippery, if war were hatching, what was the Emperor about?

Six months before the fort opposite the White Castle was begun, Constantine had been warned of Mahommed's projected movement against his capital. The warning was from Kalil Pacha; and whether Kalil was moved by pity, friendship, or avarice is of no moment; certain it is the Emperor acted upon the advice. He summoned a council, and proposed war; but was advised to send a protesting embassy to the enemy. A scornful answer was returned. Seeing the timidity of his cabinet, cast upon himself, he resolved to effect a policy, and accordingly expostulated, prayed, sent presents, offered tribute, and by such means managed to satisfy his advisers; yet all the time he was straining his resources in preparation.

In the outset, he forced himself to face two facts of the gravest import: first, of his people, those of age and thews for fighting were in frocks, burrowing in monasteries; next, the clergy and their affiliates were his enemies, many openly preferring a Turk to an azymite. A more discouraging prospect it is difficult to imagine. There was but one hope left him. Europe was full of professional soldiers. Perhaps the Pope had influence to send him a sufficient contingent. Would His Holiness interest himself so far? The brave Emperor despatched an embassy to Rome, promising submission to the Papacy, and praying help in Christ's name.

Meantime his agents dispersed themselves through the Aegean, buying provisions and arms, enginery, and war material of all kinds. This business kept his remnant of a navy occupied. Every few days a vessel would arrive with stores for the magazine under the Hippodrome. By the time the fort at Roumeli Hissar was finished, one of his anxieties was in a measure relieved. The other was more serious. Then the frequency with which he climbed the Tower of Isaac, the hours he passed there gazing wistfully southward down the mirror of the Marmora, became observable. The valorous, knightly heart, groaning under the humiliations of the haughty Turk, weary not less of the incapacity of his own people to perceive their peril, and arise heroically to meet it, found opportunity to meditate while he was pacing the lofty lookout, and struggling to descry the advance of the expected succor.

In this apology the reader who has wondered at the inaction of the Emperor what time the Sultan was perfecting his Asiatic communications is answered. There was nothing for him but a siege. To that alternative the last of the Romans was reduced. He could not promise himself enough of his own subjects to keep the gates, much less take the field.

The country around Constantinople was given to agriculture. During the planting season, and the growing, the Greek husbandmen received neither offence nor alarm from the Turks. But in June, when the emerald of the cornfields was turning to gold, herds of mules and cavalry horses began to ravage the fields, and the watchmen, hastening from their little huts on the hills to drive them out, were set upon by the soldiers and beaten. They complained to the Emperor, and he sent an embassy to the Sultan praying him to save the crops from ruin. In reply, Mahommed ordered the son of Isfendiar, a relative, to destroy the harvest. The peasants resisted, and not unsuccessfully. In the South, and in the fields near Hissar on the north, there were deaths on both sides. Intelligence of the affair coming to Constantine, he summoned Count Corti.

"The long expected has arrived," he said. "Blood has been shed. My people have been attacked and slain in their fields; their bodies lie out unburied. The war cannot be longer deferred. It is true the succors from the Holy Father have not arrived; but they are on the way, and until they come we must defend ourselves. Cold and indifferent my people have certainly been. Now I will make a last effort to arouse them. Go out toward Hissar, and recover the dead. Have the bodies brought in just as they are. I will expose them in the Hippodrome. Perhaps their bruises and blood may have an effect; if not, God help this Christian city. I will give you a force."

"Your Majesty," the Count replied, "such an expedition might provoke an advance upon the city before you are entirely prepared. Permit me to select a party from my own men." "As you choose. A guide will accompany you."

To get to the uplands, so to speak, over which, north of Galata, the road to Hissar stretched, Corti was conducted past the Cynegion and through the districts of Eyoub to the Sweet Waters of Europe, which he crossed by a bridge below the site of the present neglected country palace of the Sultan. Up on the heights he turned left of Pera, and after half an hour's rapid movement was trending northward parallel with the Bosphorus, reaches of which were occasionally visible through cleftings of the mountainous shore. Straw-thatched farmhouses dotted the hills and slopes, and the harvest spread right and left in cheerful prospect.

The adventurer had ample time to think; but did little of it, being too full of self-gratulation at having before him an opportunity to recommend himself to the Emperor, with a possibility of earning distinction creditable in the opin

ion of the Princess Irene.

At length an exclamation of his guide aroused him to action.

"The Turks, the Turks!"


"See that smoke."

Over a hilltop in his front, the Count beheld the sign of alarm crawling slowly into the sky.

"Here is a village-to our left, but"-

"Have done," said Corti, "and get me to the fire. Is there a nearer way than this?"

"Yes, under the hill yonder."

"Is it broken?"

"It narrows to a path, but is clear."

The Count spoke in Arabic to his followers, and taking the gallop, pushed the guide forward. Shortly a party of terror-stricken peasants ran down toward him.

"Why do you run? What is the matter?" he asked.

"Oh, the Turks, the Turks!"

"What of them? Stand, and tell me."

"We went to work this morning cutting corn, for it is now ripe enough. The Mahounds broke in on us. We were a dozen to their fifty or more. We only escaped, and they set fire to the field. O Christ, and the Most Holy Mother! Let us pass, or we too will be slain!"

"Are they mounted?"

"Some have horses, some are afoot."

"Where are they now?"

"In the field on the hill."

"Well, go to the village fast as you can, and tell the men there to come and pick up their dead. Tell them not to fear, for the Emperor has sent me to take care of them."

With that the Count rode on.

This was the sight presented him when he made the ascent: A wheat field sloping gradually to the northeast; fire creeping across it crackling, smoking, momentarily widening; through the cloud a company of Turkish soldiers halted, mostly horsemen, their arms glinting brightly in the noon sun; blackened objects, unmistakably dead men, lying here and there. Thus the tale of the survivors of the massacre was confirmed.

Corti gave his lance with the banderole on it to the guide. By direction his Berbers drove their lances into the earth that they might leave them standing, drew their swords, and brought their bucklers forward. Then he led them into the field. A few words more, directions probably, and he started toward the enemy, his followers close behind two and two, with a rear-guardsman. He allowed no outcry, but gradually increased the pace.

There were two hundred and more yards to be crossed, level, except the slope, and with only the moving line of fire as an impediment. The crop, short and thin, was no obstacle under the hoofs.

The Turks watched the movement herded, like astonished sheep. They may not have comprehended that they were being charged, or they may have despised the assailants on account of their inferiority in numbers, or they may have relied on the fire as a defensive wall; whatever the reason, they stood passively waiting.

When the Count came to the fire, he gave his horse the spur, and plunging into the smoke and through the flame full speed, appeared on the other side, shouting: "Christ and Our Lady of Blacherne!" His long sword flashed seemingly brighter of the passage just made. Fleckings of flame clung to the horses. What the battle-cry of the Berbers we may not tell. They screamed something un-Christian, echoes of the Desert. Then the enemy stirred; some drew their blades, some strung their bows; the footmen amongst them caught their javelins or half-spears in the middle, and facing to the rear, fled, and kept flying, without once looking over their shoulders.

One man mounted, and in brighter armor than the others, his steel cap surmounted with an immense white turban, a sparkling aigrette pinned to the turban, cimeter in hand, strove to form his companions-but it was too late. "Christ and our Lady of Blacherne!"-and with that Corti was in their midst; and after him, into the lane he opened, his Berbers drove pell-mell, knocking Turks from their saddles, and overthrowing horses-and there was cutting and thrusting, and wounds given, and souls rendered up through darkened eyes.

The killing was all on one side; then as a bowl splinters under a stroke, the Turkish mass flew apart, and went helter-skelter off, each man striving to take care of himself. The Berbers spared none of the overtaken.

Spying the man with the showy armor, the Count made a dash to get to him, and succeeded, for to say truth, he was not an unwilling foeman. A brief combat took place, scarcely more than a blow, and the Turk was disarmed and at mercy.

"Son of Isfendiar," said Corti, "the slaying these poor people with only their harvest knives for weapons was murder. Why should I spare your life?"

"I was ordered to punish them."

"By whom?"

"My Lord the Sultan."

"Do your master no shame. I know and honor him."

"Yesterday they slew our Moslems."

"They but defended their own.... You deserve death, but I have a message for the Lord Mahommed. Swear by the bones of the Prophet to deliver it, and I will spare you."

"If you know my master, as you say, he is quick and fierce of temper, and if I must die, the stroke may be preferable at your hand. Give me the message first."

"Well, come with me."

The two remained together until the flight and pursuit were ended; then, the fire reduced to patches for want of stalks to feed it, the Count led the way back to the point at which he entered the field. Taking his lance from the guide, he passed it to the prisoner.

"This is what I would have you do," he said. "The lance is mine. Carry it to your master, the Lord Mahommed, and say to him, Ugo, Count Corti, salute him, and prays him to look at the banderole, and fix it in his memory. He will understand the message, and be grateful for it. Now will you swear?"

The banderole was a small flag of yellow silk, with a red moon in the centre, and on the face of the moon a white cross. Glancing at it, the son of Isfendiar replied:

"Take off the cross, and you show me a miniature standard of the Silihdars, my Lord's guard of the Palace." Then looking the Count full in the face, he added: "Under other conditions I should salute you Mirza, Emir of the Hajj."

"I have given you my name and title. Answer."

"I will deliver the lance and message to my Lord-I swear it by the bones of the Prophet."

Scarcely had the Turk disappeared in the direction of Hissar, when a crowd of peasants, men and women, were seen coming timorously from the direction of the village. The Count rode to meet them, and as they were provided with all manner of litters, by his direction the dead Greeks were collected, and soon, with piteous lamentations, a funeral cortege was on the road moving slowly to Constantinople. Anticipating a speedy reappearance of the Turks, hostilities being now unavoidable, Count Corti despatched messengers everywhere along the Bosphorus, warning the farmers and villagers to let their fields go, and seek refuge in the city. So it came about that the escort of the murdered peasants momentarily increased until at the bridge over the Sweet Waters of Europe it became a column composed for the most part of women, children, and old men. Many of the women carried babies. The old men staggered under such goods as they could lay their hands on in haste. The able-bodied straggled far in the rear with herds of goats, sheep, and cattle; the air above the road rang with cries and prayers, and the road itself was sprinkled with tears. In a word, the movement was a flight.

Corti, with his Berbers, lingered in the vicinity of the field of fight watchful of the enemy. In the evening, having forwarded a messenger to the Emperor, he took stand at the bridge; and well enough, for about dusk a horde of Turkish militia swept down from the heights in search of plunder and belated victims. At the first bite of his sword, they took to their heels, and were not again seen.

By midnight the settlements and farmhouses of the up-country were abandoned; almost the entire district from Galata to Fanar on the Black Sea was reduced to ashes. The Greek Emperor had no longer a frontier or a province-all that remained to him was his capital.

Many of the fugitives, under quickening of the demonstration at the bridge, threw their burdens away; so the greater part of them at an early hour after nightfall appeared at the Adrianople gate objects of harrowing appeal, empty-handed, broken down, miserable.

Constantine had the funeral escort met at the gate by torch-bearers, and the sextons of the Blacherne Chapel. Intelligence of the massacre, and that the corpses of the harvesters would be conveyed to the Hippodrome for public exposure, having been proclaimed generally through the city, a vast multitude was also assembled at the gate. The sensation was prodigious.

There were twenty litters, each with a body upon it unwashed and in bloody garments, exactly as brought in. On the right and left of the litters the torchmen took their places. The sextons lit their long candles, and formed in front. Behind trudged the worn, dust-covered, wretched fugitives; and as they failed to realize their rescue, and that they were at last in safety, they did not abate their lamentations. When the innumerable procession passed the gate, and commenced its laborious progress along the narrow streets, seldom, if ever, has anything of the kind more pathetic and funereally impressive been witnessed.

Let be said what may, after all nothing shall stir the human heart like the faces of fellowmen done to death by a common enemy. There was no misjudgment of the power of the appeal in this instance. It is no exaggeration to say Byzantium was out assisting-so did the people throng the thoroughfares, block the street intersections, and look down from the windows and balconies. Afar they heard the chanting of the sextons, monotonous, yet solemnly effective; afar they saw the swaying candles and torches; and an awful silence signalized the approach of the pageant; but when it was up, and the bodies were borne past, especially when the ghastly countenances of the sufferers were under eye plainly visible in the red torchlight, the outburst of grief and rage in every form, groans, curses, prayers, was terrible, and the amazing voice, such by unity of utterance, went with the dead, and followed after them until at last the Hippodrome was reached. There the Emperor, on horseback, and with his court and guards, was waiting, and his presence lent nationality to the mournful spectacle.

Conducting the bearers of the litters to the middle of the oblong area, he bade them lay their burdens down, and summoned the city to the view.

"Let there be no haste," he said, "for, in want of their souls, the bruised bodies of our poor countrymen shall lie here all tomorrow, every gaping wound crying for vengeance. Then on the next day it will be for us to say what we will do-fight, fly, or surrender."

Through the remainder of the night the work of closing the gates and making them secure continued without cessation. The guards were strengthened at each of them, and no one permitted to pass out. Singular to say, a number of eunuchs belonging to the Sultan were caught and held. Some of the enraged Greeks insisted on their death; but the good heart of the Emperor prevailed, and the prisoners were escorted to their master. The embassy which went with them announced the closing of the gates.

"Since neither oaths, nor treaty, nor submission can secure peace, pursue your impious warfare"-thus Constantine despatched to Mahommed. "My trust is in God; if it shall please him to mollify your heart, I shall rejoice in the change; if he delivers the city in your hands, I submit without a murmur to his holy will. But until he shall pronounce between us, it is my duty to live and die in defence of my people." [Footnote: Gibbon]

Mahommed answered with a formal declaration of war.

It remains to say that the bodies of the harvesters were viewed as promised. They lay in a row near the Twisted Serpent, and the people passed them tearfully; in the night they were taken away and buried.

Sadder still, the result did not answer the Emperor's hope. The feeling, mixed of sorrow and rage, was loudly manifested; but it was succeeded by fear, and when the organization of companies was attempted, the exodus was shameful. Thousands fled, leaving about one hundred thousand behind, not to fight, but firm in the faith that Heaven would take care of the city.

After weeks of effort, five thousand Greeks took the arms offered them, and were enrolled.

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