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   Chapter 5 COUNT CORTI RECEIVES A FAVOR

The Prince of India; Or, Why Constantinople Fell — Volume 01 By Lew Wallace Characters: 20989

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:02


"Gracious Princess, the Italian, Count Corti, is at the door. He prays you to hear a request from him."

"Return, Lysander, and bring the Count."

It was early morning, with February in its last days.

The visitor's iron shoes clanked sharply on the marble floor of the reception room, and the absence of everything like ornament in his equipment bespoke preparation for immediate hard service.

"I hope the Mother is keeping you well," she said, presenting her hand to him.

With a fervor somewhat more marked than common, he kissed the white offering, and awaited her bidding.

"My attendants are gone to the chapel, but I will hear you-or will you lend us your presence at the service, and have the audience afterwards?"

"I am in armor, and my steed is at the door, and my men biding at the Adrianople Gate; wherefore, fair Princess, if it be your pleasure, I will present my petition now."

In grave mistrust, she returned:

"God help us, Count! I doubt you have something ill to relate. Since the good Gregory fled into exile to escape his persecutors, but more especially since Cardinal Isidore attempted Latin mass in Sancta Sophia, and the madman Gennadius so frightened the people with his senseless anathemas, [Footnote: The scene here alluded to by the Princess Irene is doubtless the one so vividly described by Gibbon as having taken place in Sancta Sophia, the 12th of December, 1452, being the mass celebrated by Cardinal Isidore in an attempt to reconcile the Latin and Greek factions.

Enumerating the consequences of the same futile effort at compromise, Von Hammer says: "Instead of uniting for the common defence, the Greeks and Latins fled, leaving the churches empty; the priests refused the sacrament to the dying who were not of their faith; the monks and nuns repudiated confessors who acknowledged the henoticon (decree ordaining the reunion of the two churches); a spirit of frenzy took possession of the convents; one religieuse, to the great scandal of all the faithful, adopted the faith and costume of the Mussulmans, eating meat and adoring the Prophet. Thus Lent passed." (Vol. II., p. 397.)

To the same effect we read in the Universal History of the Catholic Church (Vol. XXII., p. 103): "The religious who affected to surpass others in sanctity of life and purity of faith, following the advice of Gennadius and their spiritual advisers, as well as that of the preachers and laity of their party, condemned the decree of union, and anathematized those who approved or might approve it. The common people, sallying from the monasteries, betook themselves to the taverns; there flourishing glasses of wine, they reviled all who had consented to the union, and drinking in honor of an image of the Mother of God, prayed her to protect and defend the city against Mahomet, as she had formerly defended it against Chosroes and the Kagan. We will have nothing to do with assistance from the Latins or a union with them. Far from us be the worship of the azymites."] I have been beset with forebodings until I startle at my own thoughts. It were gentle, did you go to your request at once."

She permitted him to lead her to an armless chair, and, standing before her, he spoke with decision:

"Princess Irene, now that you have resolved finally to remain in the city, and abide the issue of the siege, rightly judging it an affair determinable by God, it is but saying the truth as I see it, that no one is more interested in what betides us from day to day than you; for if Heaven frowns upon our efforts at defence, and there comes an assault, and we are taken, the Conqueror, by a cruel law of war, has at disposal the property both public and private he gains, and every living thing as well. We who fight may die the death he pleases; you-alas, most noble and virtuous lady, my tongue refuses the words that rise to it for utterance!"

The rose tints in her cheeks faded, yet she answered: "I know what you would say, and confess it has appalled me. Sometimes it tempts me to fly while yet I can; then I remember I am a Palaeologus. I remember also my kinsman the Emperor is to be sustained in the trial confronting him. I remember too the other women, high and low, who will stay and share the fortunes of their fighting husbands and brothers. If I have less at stake than they, Count Corti, the demands of honor are more rigorous upon me."

The count's eyes glowed with admiration, but next moment the light in them went out.

"Noble lady," he began, "I hope it will not be judged too great a familiarity to say I have some days been troubled on your account. I have feared you might be too confident of our ability to beat the enemy. It seems my duty to warn you of the real outlook that you may permit us to provide for your safety while opportunities favor."

"For my flight, Count Corti?"

"Nay, Princess Irene, your retirement from the city."

She smiled at the distinction he made, but replied:

"I will hear you, Count."

"It is for you to consider, O Princess-if reports of the Sultan's preparation are true-this assault in one feature at least will be unparalleled. The great guns for which he has been delaying are said to be larger than ever before used against walls. They may destroy our defences at once; they may command all the space within those defences; they may search every hiding-place; the uncertainties they bring with them are not to be disregarded by the bravest soldier, much less the unresisting classes.... In the next place, I think it warrantable from the mass of rumors which has filled the month to believe the city will be assailed by a force much greater than was ever drawn together under her walls. Suffer me to refer to them, O Princess... The Sultan is yet at Adrianople assembling his army. Large bodies of footmen are crossing the Hellespont at Gallipolis and the Bosphorus at Hissar; in the region of Adrianople the country is covered with hordes of horsemen speaking all known tongues and armed with every known weapon-Cossacks from the north, Arabs from the south, Koords and Tartars from the east, Roumanians and Slavs from beyond the Balkans. The roads from the northwest are lined with trains bringing supplies and siege-machinery. The cities along the shores of the Black Sea have yielded to Mahommed; those which defied him are in ruins. An army is devastating Morea. The brother whom His Majesty the Emperor installed ruler there is dead or a wanderer, no man can say in what parts. Assistance cannot be expected from him. Above us, far as the sea, the bays are crowded with ships of all classes; four hundred hostile sail have been counted from the hill-tops. And now that there is no longer a hope of further aid from the Christians of Europe, the effect of the news upon our garrison is dispiriting. Our garrison! Alas, Princess, with the foreigners come to our aid, it is not sufficient to man the walls on the landward side alone."

"The picture is gloomy, Count, but if you have drawn it to shake my purpose, it is not enough. I have put myself in the hands of the Blessed Mother. I shall stay, and be done with as God orders."

Again the Count's face glowed with admiration.

"I thought as much, O Princess," he said warmly; "yet it seemed to me a duty to advise you of the odds against us; and now, the duty done, I pray you hear me as graciously upon another matter.... Last night, seeing the need of information of the enemy, I besought His Majesty to allow me to ride toward Adrianople. He consented, and I set out immediately; but before going, before bidding you adieu, noble Princess and dear lady, I have a prayer to offer you."

He hesitated; then plucking courage from the embarrassment of silence, went on:

"Dear lady, your resolution to stay and face the dangers of the siege and assault fills me with alarm for your safety."

He cast himself upon his knees, and stretched his hands to her.

"Give me permission to protect you. I devote my sword to you, and the skill of my hands-my life, my soul. Let me be your knight."

She arose, but he continued:

"Some day, deeds done for your country and religion may give me courage to speak more boldly of what I feel and hope; but now I dare go no further than ask what you have just heard. Let me be your protector and knight through the perils of the siege at least."

The Princess was pleased with the turn his speech had taken. She thought rapidly. A knight in battle, foremost in the press, her name a conquering cry on his lips were but the constituents of a right womanly ambition. She answered:

"Count Corti, I accept thy offer."

Taking the hand she extended, he kissed it reverently, and said:

"I am happy above other men. Now, O Princess, give me a favor-a glove, a scarf-something I may wear, to prove me thy knight."

She took from her neck a net of knitted silk, pinkish in hue, and large enough for a kerchief or waist sash.

"If I go about this gift," she said, her face deeply suffused, "in a way to provoke a smile hereafter; if in placing it around thy neck with my own hands"-with the words, she bent over him, and dropped the net outside the hood so the ends hung loosely down his breast-"I overstep any rule of modesty, I pray you will not misunderstand me. I am thinking of my country, my kinsman, of religion and God, and the service even unto noble deeds thou mayst do them. Rise, Count Corti. In the ride before thee now, in the perils to come, thou shalt have my prayers."

The Count arose, but afraid to trust himself in further speech, he carried her hand to his lips again, and with a simple farewell, hurried out, and mounting his horse rode at speed for the Adrianople Gate.

Four days after, he reentered the gate, bringing a prisoner, and passing straight to the Very High Residence, made report to the Emperor, Justiniani and Duke Notaras in council.

"I have been greatly concerned for you, Count," said Constantine; "and not merely because a good sword can be poorly spared just now."

The imperial pleasure was unfeigned.

"Your Majesty's grace is full reward for my performance," the Count replied, and rising from the salutation, he began his recital.

"Stay," said the Emperor, "I will have a seat brought that you may be at ease."

Corti declined: "The Arabs have a saying, Your Majesty-'A nest for a setting bird, a saddle for a warrior.' The jaunt has but rested me, and there was barely enough danger in it...

. The Turk is an old acquaintance. I have lived with him, and been his guest in house and tent, and as a comrade tempted Providence at his side under countless conditions, until I know his speech and usages, himself scarcely better. My African Berbers are all Mohammedans who have performed the Pilgrimage. One of them is a muezzin by profession; and if he can but catch sight of the sun, he will never miss the five hours of prayer. None of them requires telling the direction to Mecca.... I issued from Your Majesty's great gate about the third hour, and taking the road to Adrianople, journeyed till near midday before meeting a human being. There were farms and farmhouses on my right and left, and the fields had been planted in good season; but the growing grain was wasted; and when I sought the houses to have speech with their tenants they were forsaken. Twice we were driven off by the stench of bodies rotting before the doors."

"Greeks?"

"Greeks, Your Majesty.... There were wild hogs in the thickets which fled at sight of us, and vultures devouring the corpses."

"Were there no other animals, no horses or oxen?" asked Justiniani.

"None, noble Genoese-none seen by us, and the swine were spared, I apprehend, because their meat is prohibited to the children of Islam.... At length Hadifah, whom I have raised to be a Sheik-Your Majesty permitting-and whose eyes discover the small things with which space is crowded as he were a falcon making circles up near the sun-Hadifah saw a man in the reeds hiding; and we pursued the wretch, and caught him, and he too was a Greek; and when his fright allowed him to talk, he told us a band of strange people, the like of whom he had never seen, attacked his hut, burned it, carried off his goats and she buffaloes; and since that hour, five weeks gone, he had been hunting for his wife and three girl-children. God be merciful to them! Of the Turks he could tell nothing except that now, everything of value gone, they too had disappeared. I gave the poor man a measure of oaten cakes, and left him to his misery. God be merciful to him also!"

"Did you not advise him to come to me?"

"Your Majesty, he was a husband and father seeking his family; with all humility, what else is there for him to do?"

"I give your judgment credit, Count. There is nothing else."

"I rode on till night, meeting nobody, friend or foe-on through a wide district, lately inhabited, now a wilderness. The creatures of the Sultan had passed through it, and there was fire in their breath. We discovered a dried-up stream, and by sinking in its bed obtained water for our horses. There, in a hollow, we spent the night.... Next morning, after an hour's ride, we met a train of carts drawn by oxen. The groaning and creaking of the distraught wheels warned me of the encounter before the advance guard of mounted men, quite a thousand strong, were in view. I did not draw rein"-

"What!" cried Justiniani, astonished. "With but a company of nine?"

The Count smiled.

"I crave your pardon, gallant Captain. In my camp the night before, I prepared my Berbers for the meeting."

"By the bones of the saints, Count Corti, thou dost confuse me the more! With such odds against thee, what preparations were at thy command?"

"'There was never amulet like a grain of wit in a purse under thy cap.' Good Captain, the saying is not worse of having proceeded from a Persian. I told my followers we were likely at any moment to be overtaken by a force too strong for us to fight; but instead of running away, we must meet them heartily, as friends enlisted in the same cause; and if they asked whence we were, we must be sure of agreement in our reply. I was to be a Turk; they, Egyptians from west of the Nile. We had come in by the new fortress opposite the White Castle, and were going to the mighty Lord Mahommed in Adrianople. Beyond that, I bade them be silent, leaving the entertainment of words to me."

The Emperor and Justiniani laughed, but Notaras asked: "If thy Berbers are Mohammedans, as thou sayest, Count Corti, how canst thou rely on them against Mohammedans?"

"My Lord the High Admiral may not have heard of the law by which, if one Arab kills another, the relatives of the dead man are bound to kill him, unless there be composition. So I had merely to remind Hadifah and his companions of the Turks we slew in the field near Basch-Kegan."

Corti continued: "After parley with the captain of the advance guard, I was allowed to ride on; and coming to the train, I found the carts freighted with military engines and tools for digging trenches and fortifying camps. There were hundreds of them, and the drivers were a multitude. Indeed, Your Majesty, from head to foot the caravan was miles in reach, its flanks well guarded by groups of horsemen at convenient intervals."

This statement excited the three counsellors.

"After passing the train," the Count was at length permitted to resume, "my way was through bodies of troops continuously-all irregulars. It must have been about three o'clock in the afternoon when I came upon the most surprising sight. Much I doubt if ever the noble Captain Justiniani, with all his experience, can recall anything like it.

"First there was a great company of pioneers with tools for grading the hills and levelling the road; then on a four-wheeled carriage two men stood beating a drum; their sticks looked like the enlarged end of a galley oar. The drum responded to their blows in rumbles like dull thunder from distant clouds. While I sat wondering why they beat it, there came up next sixty oxen yoked in pairs. Your Majesty can in fancy measure the space they covered. On the right and left of each yoke strode drivers with sharpened goads, and their yelling harmonized curiously with the thunder of the drum. The straining of the brutes was pitiful to behold. And while I wondered yet more, a log of bronze was drawn toward me big at one end as the trunk of a great plane tree, and so long that thirty carts chained together as one wagon, were required to support it laid lengthwise; and to steady the piece on its rolling bed, two hundred and fifty stout laborers kept pace with it unremittingly watchful. The movement was tedious, but at last I saw"-

"A cannon!" exclaimed the Genoese.

"Yes, noble Captain, the gun said to be the largest ever cast."

"Didst thou see any of the balls?"

"Other carts followed directly loaded with gray limestones chiselled round; and to my inquiry what the stones were for, I was told they were bullets twelve spans in circumference, and that the charge of powder used would cast them a mile."

The inquisitors gazed at each other mutely, and their thoughts may be gathered from the action of the Emperor. He touched a bell on a table, and to Phranza, who answered the call, he said: "Lord Chamberlain, have two men well skilled in the construction of walls report to me in the morning. There is work for them which they must set about at once. I will furnish the money." [Footnote: Before the siege by the Turks, two monks, Manuel Giagari and Neophytus of Rhodes, were charged with repairing the walls, but they buried the sums intrusted to them for these works; and in the pillage of the city seventy thousand pieces of gold thus advanced by the Emperor were unearthed.-VON HAMMER, Vol. II., p. 417.]

"I have but little more of importance to engage Your Majesty's attention.... Behind the monster cannon, two others somewhat smaller were brought up in the same careful manner. I counted seventeen pieces all brass, the least of them exceeding in workmanship and power the best in the Hippodrome."

"Were there more?" Justiniani asked.

"Many more, brave Captain, but ancient, and unworthy mention.... The day was done when, by sharp riding, I gained the rear of the train. At sunrise on the third day, I set out in return.... I have a prisoner whom this august council may examine with profit. He will, at least, confirm my report."

"Who is he?"

"The captain of the advance guard."

"How came you by him?"

"Your Majesty, I induced him to ride a little way with me, and at a convenient time gave his bridle rein to Hadifah. In his boyhood the Sheik was trained to leading camels, and he assures me it is much easier to lead a horse."

The sally served to lighten the sombre character of the Count's report, and in the midst of the merriment, he was dismissed. The prisoner was then brought in, and put to question; next day the final preparation for the reception of Mahommed was begun.

With a care equal to the importance of the business, Constantine divided the walls into sections, beginning on the landward side of the Golden Gate or Seven Towers, and ending at the Cynegion. Of the harbor front he made one division, with the Grand Gate of Blacherne and the Acropolis or Point Serail for termini; from Point Serail to the Seven Towers he stationed patrols and lookouts, thinking the sea and rocks sufficient to discourage assault in that quarter.

His next care was the designation of commandants of the several divisions. The individuals thus honored have been already mentioned; though it may be well to add how the Papal Legate, Cardinal Isidore, doffing his frock and donning armor, voluntarily accepted chief direction along the harbor-an example of martial gallantry which ought to have shamed the lukewarm Greeks morosely skulking in their cells.

Shrewdly anticipating a concentration of effort against the Gate St. Romain, and its two auxiliary towers, Bagdad and St. Romain, the former on the right hand and the latter on the left, he assigned Justiniani to its defence.

Upon the walls, and in the towers numerously garnishing them, the gallant Emperor next brought up his guns and machines, with profuse supplies of missiles.

Then, after flooding the immense ditch, he held a review in the Hippodrome, whence the several detachments marched to their stations.

Riding with his captains, and viewing the walls, now gay with banners and warlike tricking, Constantine took heart, and told how Amurath, the peerless warrior, had dashed his Janissaries against them, and rued the day.

"Is this boy Mahommed greater than his father?" he asked.

"God knows," Isidore responded, crossing himself breast and forehead.

And well content, the cavalcade repassed the ponderous Gate St. Romain. All that could be done had been done. There was nothing more but to wait.

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