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   Chapter 6 MAHOMMED AT THE GATE ST. ROMAIN

The Prince of India; Or, Why Constantinople Fell — Volume 01 By Lew Wallace Characters: 18651

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:02


In the city April seemed to have borrowed from the delays of Mahommed; never month so slow in coming. At last, however, its first day, dulled by a sky all clouds, and with winds from the Balkans.

The inertness of the young Sultan was not from want of will or zeal. It took two months to drag his guns from Adrianople; but with them the army moved, and as it moved it took possession, or rather covered the land. At length, he too arrived, bringing, as it were, the month with him; and then he lost no more time.

About five miles from the walls on the south or landward side, he drew his hordes together in the likeness of a line of battle, and at a trumpet call they advanced in three bodies simultaneously. So a tidal wave, far extending, broken, noisy, terrible, rises out of the deep, and rolls upon a shore of stony cliffs.

Near ten o'clock in the forenoon of the sixth of April the Emperor mounted the roof of the tower of St. Romain, mentioned as at the left of the gate bearing the same name. There were with him Justiniani, the Cardinal Isidore, John Grant, Phranza, Theophilus Palaeologus, Duke Notaras, and a number of inferior persons native and foreign. He had come to see all there was to be seen of the Turks going into position.

The day was spring-like, with just enough breeze to blow the mists away.

The reader must think of the roof as an immense platform accessible by means of a wooden stairway in the interior of the tower, and battlemented on the four sides, the merlons of stone in massive blocks, and of a height to protect a tall man, the embrasures requiring banquettes to make them serviceable. In arrangement somewhat like a ship's battery, there are stoutly framed arbalists and mangonels on the platform, and behind them, with convenient spaces between, arquebuses on tripods, cumbrous catapults, and small cannon on high axles ready for wheeling into position between the merlons. Near each machine its munitions lie in order. Leaning against the walls there are also spears, javelins, and long and cross bows; while over the corner next the gate floats an imperial standard, its white field emblazoned with the immemorial Greek cross in gold. The defenders of the tower are present; and as they are mostly Byzantines, their attitudes betray much more than cold military respect, for they are receiving the Emperor, whom they have been taught to regard worshipfully.

They study him, and take not a little pride in observing that, clad in steel cap-a-pie, he in no wise suffers by comparison with the best of his attendants, not excepting Justiniani, the renowned Genoese captain. Not more to see than be seen, the visor of his helmet is raised; and stealing furtive glances at his countenance, noble by nature, but just now more than ordinarily inspiring, they are better and stronger for what they read in it.

On the right and left the nearest towers obstruct the view of the walls in prolongation; but southward the country spreads before the party a campania rolling and fertile, dotted with trees scattered and in thin groves, and here and there an abandoned house. The tender green of vegetation upon the slopes reminds those long familiar with them that grass is already invading what were lately gardens and cultivated fields. Constantine makes the survey in silence, for he knows how soon even the grass must disappear. Just beyond the flooded ditch at the foot of the first or outward wall is a road, and next beyond the road a cemetery crowded with tombs and tombstones, and brown and white mausolean edifices; indeed, the chronicles run not back to a time when that marginal space was unallotted to the dead. From the far skyline the eyes of the fated Emperor drop to the cemetery, and linger there.

Presently one of his suite calls out: "Hark! What sound is that?"

They all give attention.

"It is thunder."

"No-thunder rolls. This is a beat."

Constantine and Justiniani remembered Count Corti's description of the great drum hauled before the artillery train of the Turks, and the former said calmly:

"They are coming."

Almost as he spoke the sunlight mildly tinting the land in the farness seemed to be troubled, and on the tops of the remote hillocks there appeared to be giants rolling them up, as children roll snow-balls-and the movement was toward the city.

The drum ceased not its beating or coming. Justiniani by virtue of his greater experience, was at length able to say:

"Your Majesty, it is here in front of us; and as this Gate St. Romain marks the centre of your defences, so that drum marks the centre of an advancing line, and regulates the movement from wing to wing."

"It must be so, Captain; for see-there to the left-those are bodies of men."

"And now, Your Majesty, I hear trumpets."

A little later some one cried out:

"Now I hear shouting."

And another: "I see gleams of metal."

Ere long footmen and horsemen were in view, and the Byzantines, brought to the wall by thousands, gazed and listened in nervous wonder; for look where they might over the campania, they saw the enemy closing in upon them, and heard his shouting, and the neighing of horses, the blaring of horns, and the palpitant beating of drums.

"By our Lady of Blacherne," said the Emperor, after a long study of the spectacle, "it is a great multitude, reaching to the sea here on our left, and, from the noise, to the Golden Horn on our right; none the less I am disappointed. I imagined much splendor of harness and shields and banners, but see only blackness and dust. I cannot make out amongst them one Sultanic flag. Tell me, most worthy John Grant-it being reported that thou hast great experience combating with and against these hordes-tell me if this poverty of appearance is usual with them."

The sturdy German, in a jargon difficult to follow, answered: "These at our left are the scum of Asia. They are here because they have nothing; their hope is to better their condition, to return rich, to exchange ragged turbans for crowns, and goatskin jackets for robes of silk. Look, Your Majesty, the tombs in front of us are well kept; to-morrow if there be one left standing, it will have been rifled. Of the lately buried there will not be a ring on a finger or a coin under a tongue. Oh, yes, the ghouls will look better next week! Only give them time to convert the clothes they will strip from the dead into fresh turbans. But when the Janissaries come Your Majesty will not be disappointed. See-their advance guard now-there on the rising ground in front of the gate."

There was a swell of ground to the right of the gate rather than in front of it, and as the party looked thither, a company of horsemen were seen riding slowly but in excellent order, and the sheen of their arms and armor silvered the air about them. Immediately other companies deployed on the right and left of the first one; then the thunderous drum ceased; whereat, from the hordes out on the campania, brought to a sudden standstill, detachments dashed forward at full speed, and dismounting, began digging a trench.

"Be this Sultan like or unlike his father, he is a soldier. He means to cover his army, and at the same time enclose us from sea to harbor. To-morrow, my Lord, only high-flying hawks can communicate with us from the outside."

This, from Justiniani to the Emperor, was scarcely noticed, for behind the deploying Janissaries, there arose an outburst of music in deep volume, the combination of clarions and cymbals so delightful to warriors of the East; at the same instant a yellow flag was displayed. Then old John Grant exclaimed:

"The colors of the Silihdars! Mahommed is not far away. Nay, Your Majesty, look-the Sultan himself!"

Through an interval of the guard, a man in chain mail shooting golden sparkles, helmed, and with spear in hand and shield at his back, trotted forth, his steed covered with flowing cloths. Behind him appeared a suite mixed of soldiers and civilians, the former in warlike panoply, the latter in robes and enormous turbans. Down the slope the foremost rider led as if to knock at the gate. On the tower the cannon were loaded, and run into the embrasures.

"Mahommed, saidst thou, John Grant?"

"Mahommed, Your Majesty."

"Then I call him rash; but as we are not ashamed of our gates and walls, let him have his look in peace.... Hear you, men, let him look, and go in peace."

The repetition was in restraint of the eager gunners.

Further remark was cut short by a trumpet sounded at the foot of the tower. An officer peered over the wall, and reported: "Your Majesty, a knight just issued from the gate is riding forth. I take him to be the Italian, Count Corti."

Constantine became a spectator of what ensued.

Ordinarily the roadway from the country was carried over the deep moat in front of the Gate St. Romain by a floor of stout timbers well balustraded at the sides, and resting on brick piers. Of the bridge nothing now remained but a few loose planks side by side ready to be hastily snatched from their places. To pass them afoot was a venture; yet Count Corti, when the Emperor looked at him from the height, was making the crossing mounted, and blowing a trumpet as he went.

"Is the man mad?" asked the Emperor, in deep concern.

"Mad?

No, he is challenging the Mahounds to single combat; and, my lords and gentlemen, if he be skilful as he is bold, then, by the Three Kings of Cologne, we will see some pretty work in pattern for the rest of us."

Thus Grant replied.

Corti made the passage safely, and in the road beyond the moat halted, and drove the staff of his banderole firmly in the ground. A broad opening through the cemetery permitted him to see and be seen by the Turks, scarcely a hundred yards away. Standing in his stirrups, he sounded the trumpet again-a clear call ringing with defiance.

Mahommed gave over studying the tower and deep-sunken gate, and presently beckoned to his suite.

"What is the device on yon pennon?" he asked.

"A moon with a cross on its face."

"Say you so?"

Twice the defiance was repeated, and so long the young Sultan, sat still, his countenance unusually grave. He recognized the Count; only he thought of him by the dearer Oriental name, Mirza. He knew also how much more than common ambition there was in the blatant challenge-that it was a reminder of the treaty between them, and, truly interpreted, said, in effect: "Lo, my Lord! she is well, and for fear thou judge me unworthy of her, send thy bravest to try me." And he hesitated-an accident might quench the high soul. Alas, then, for the Princess Irene in the day of final assault! Who would deliver her to him? The hordes, and the machinery, all the mighty preparation, were, in fact, less for conquest and glory than love. Sore the test had there been one in authority to say to him: "She is thine, Lord Mahommed; thine, so thou take her, and leave the city."

A third time the challenge was delivered, and from the walls a taunting cheer descended. Then the son of Isfendiar, recognizing the banderole, and not yet done with chafing over his former defeat, pushed through the throng about Mahommed, and prayed:

"O my Lord, suffer me to punish yon braggart."

Mahommed replied: "Thou hast felt his hand already, but go-I commend thee to thy houris."

He settled in his saddle smiling. The danger was not to the Count.

The arms, armor, weapons, and horse-furniture of the Moslem were identical with the Italian's; and it being for the challenged party to determine with what the duel should be fought, whether with axe, sword, lance or bow, the son of Isfendiar chose the latter, and made ready while advancing. The Count was not slow in imitating him.

Each held his weapon-short for saddle service-in the left hand, the arrow in place, and the shield on the left forearm.

No sooner had they reached the open ground in the cemetery than they commenced moving in circles, careful to keep the enemy on the shield side at a distance of probably twenty paces. The spectators became silent. Besides the skill which masters in such affrays should possess, they were looking for portents of the result.

Three times the foemen encircled each other with shield guard so well kept that neither saw an opening to attack; then the Turk discharged his arrow, intending to lodge it in the shoulder of the other's horse, the buckling attachments of the neck mail being always more or less imperfect. The Count interposed his shield, and shouted in Osmanli: "Out on thee, son of Isfendiar! I am thy antagonist, not my horse. Thou shalt pay for the cowardice."

He then narrowed the circle of his movement, and spurring full speed, compelled the Turk to turn on a pivot so reduced it was almost a halt. The exposure while taking a second shaft from the quiver behind the right shoulder was dangerously increased. "Beware!" the Count cried again, launching his arrow through the face opening of the hood.

The son of Isfendiar might never attain his father's Pachalik. There was not voice left him for a groan. He reeled in his saddle, clutching the empty air, then tumbled to the earth.

The property of the dead man, his steed, arms, and armor, were lawful spoils; but without heeding them, the Count retired to his banderole, and, amidst the shouts of the Greeks on the walls and towers, renewed the challenge. A score of chiefs beset the Sultan for permission to engage the insolent Gabour.

To an Arab Sheik, loudest in importunity, he said: "What has happened since yesterday to dissatisfy thee with life?"

The Sheik raised a lance with a flexible shaft twenty feet in length, made of a cane peculiar to the valley of the Jordan, and shaking it stoutly, replied:

"Allah, and the honor of my tribe!"

Perceiving the man's reliance in his weapon, Mahommed returned: "How many times didst thou pray yesterday?"

"Five times, my Lord."

"And to-day?"

"Twice."

"Go, then; but as yon champion hath not a lance to put him on equality with thee, he will be justified in taking to the sword."

The Sheik's steed was of the most precious strain of El-Hejaz; and sitting high in the saddle, a turban of many folds on his head, a striped robe drawn close to the waist, his face thin, coffee-colored, hawk-nosed, and lightning-eyed, he looked a king of the desert. Galloping down on the Christian, he twirled the formidable lance dextrously, until it seemed not more than a stalk of dried papyrus.

The Count beheld in the performance a trick of the djerid he had often practised with Mahommed. Uncertain if the man's robe covered armor, he met him with an arrow, and seeing it fall off harmless, tossed the bow on his back, drew sword, and put his horse in forward movement, caracoling right and left to disturb the enemy's aim. Nothing could be more graceful than this action.

Suddenly the Sheik stopped playing, and balancing the lance overhead, point to the foe, rushed with a shrill cry upon him. Corti's friends on the tower held their breath; even the Emperor said: "It is too unequal. God help him!" At the last moment, however-the moment of the thrust-changing his horse to the right, the Count laid himself flat upon its side, under cover of his shield. The thrust, only a little less quick, passed him in the air, and before the Sheik could recover or shorten his weapon, the trained foeman was within its sweep. In a word, the Arab was at mercy. Riding with him side by side, hand on his shoulder, the Count shouted: "Yield thee!"

"Dog of a Christian, never! Do thy worst."

The sword twirled once-a flash-then it descended, severing the lance in front of the owner's grip. The fragment fell to the earth.

"Now yield thee!"

The Sheik drew rein.

"Why dost thou not kill me?"

"I have a message for thy master yonder, the Lord Mahommed."

"Speak it then."

"Tell him he is in range of the cannon on the towers, and only the Emperor's presence there restrains the gunners. There is much need for thee to haste."

"Who art thou?"

"I am an Italian knight who, though thy Lord's enemy, hath reason to love him. Wilt thou go?"

"I will do as thou sayest."

"Alight, then. Thy horse is mine."

"For ransom?"

"No."

The Sheik dismounted grumblingly, and was walking off when the cheering of the Greeks stung him to the soul.

"A chance-O Christian, another chance-to-day-to-morrow!"

"Deliver the message; it shall be as thy Lord may then appoint. Bestir thyself."

The Count led the prize to the banderole, and flinging the reins over it, faced the gleaming line of Janissaries once more, trumpet at mouth. He saw the Sheik salute Mahommed; then the attendants closed around them. "A courteous dog, by the Prophet!" said the Sultan. "In what tongue did he speak?"

"My Lord, he might have been bred under my own tent."

The Sultan's countenance changed.

"Was there not more of his message?"

He was thinking of the Princess Irene.

"Yes, my Lord."

"Repeat it."

"He will fight me again to-day or to-morrow, as my Lord may appoint-and I want my horse. Without him, El-Hejaz will be a widow."

A red spot appeared on Mahommed's forehead.

"Begone!" he cried angrily. "Seest thou not, O fool, that when we take the city we will recover thy horse? Fight thou shalt not, for in that day I shall have need of thee."

Thereupon he bade them open for him, and rode slowly back up the eminence, and when he disappeared Corti was vainly sounding his trumpet.

The two horses were led across the dismantled bridge, and into the gate.

"Heaven hath sent me a good soldier," said the Emperor to the Count, upon descending from the tower.

Then Justiniani asked: "Why didst thou spare thy last antagonist?"

Corti answered truthfully.

"It was well done," the Genoese returned, offering his hand.

"Ay," said Constantine, cordially, "well done. But mount now, and ride with us."

"Your Majesty, a favor first.... A man is in the road dead. Let his body be placed on a bier, and carried to his friends."

"A most Christian request! My Lord Chamberlain, attend to it."

The cavalcade betook itself then to other parts, the better to see the disposition of the Turks; and everywhere on the landward side it was the same-troops in masses, and intrenchments in progress. Closing the inspection at set of sun, the Emperor beheld the sea and the Bosphorus in front of the Golden Horn covered with hundreds of sails.

"The leaguer is perfected," said the Genoese.

"And the issue with God," Constantine replied. "Let us to Hagia St. Sophia."

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