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   Chapter 7 THE GREAT GUN SPEAKS

The Prince of India; Or, Why Constantinople Fell — Volume 01 By Lew Wallace Characters: 16496

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:02


The first sufficient gleam of light next morning revealed to the watchmen on the towers an ominous spectacle. Through the night they had heard a medley of noises peculiar to a multitude at work with all their might; now, just out of range of their own guns, they beheld a continuous rampart of fresh earth grotesquely spotted with marbles from the cemetery.

In no previous siege of the Byzantine capital was there reference to such a preliminary step. To the newly enlisted, viewing for the first time an enemy bodily present, it seemed like the world being pared down to the smallest dimensions; while their associate veterans, to whom they naturally turned for comfort, admitted an appreciable respect for the Sultan. Either he had a wise adviser, they said, or he was himself a genius.

Noon-and still the workmen seemed inexhaustible-still the rampart grew in height-still the hordes out on the campania multiplied, and the horizon line west of the Gate St. Romain was lost in the increasing smoke of a vast bivouac.

Nightfall-and still the labor.

About midnight, judging by the sounds, the sentinels fancied the enemy approached nearer the walls; and they were not mistaken. With the advent of the second morning, here and there at intervals, ill-defined mounds of earth were seen so much in advance of the intrenched line that, by a general order, a fire of stones and darts was opened upon them; and straightway bodies of bowmen and slingers rushed forward, and returned the fire, seeking to cover the mound builders. This was battle.

Noon again-and battle.

In the evening-battle.

The advantage of course was with the besieged.

The work on the mounds meanwhile continued, while the campania behind the intrenchment was alive with a creaking of wheels burdened by machinery, and a shouting of ox-drivers; and the veterans on the walls said the enemy was bringing up his balistas and mangonels.

The third morning showed the mounds finished, and crowned with mantelets, behind which, in working order and well manned, every sort of engine known in sieges from Alexander to the Crusaders was in operation. Thenceforward, it is to be observed, the battle was by no means one-sided.

In this opening there was no heat or furore of combat; it was rather the action of novices trying their machines, or, in modern artillery parlance, finding the range. Many minutes often intervened between shots, and as the preliminary object on the part of the besiegers was to destroy the merlons sheltering the warders, did a stone strike either wall near the top, the crash was saluted by cheers.

Now the foreigners defending were professionals who had graduated in all the arts of town and castle taking. These met the successes of their antagonists with derision. "Apprentices," they would say, "nothing but apprentices."... "See those fellows by the big springal there turning the winch the wrong way!" ... "The turbaned sons of Satan! Have they no eyes? I'll give them a lesson. Look!" And if the bolt fell truly, there was loud laughter on the walls.

The captains, moreover, were incessantly encouraging the raw men under them. "Two walls, and a hundred feet of flooded ditch! There will be merry Christmas in the next century before the Mahounds get to us at the rate they are coming. Shoot leisurely, men-leisurely. An infidel for every bolt!"

Now on the outer wall, which was the lower of the two, and naturally first to draw the enemy's ire, and then along the inner, the Emperor went, indifferent to danger or fatigue, and always with words of cheer.

"The stones under our feet are honest," he would say. "The Persian came thinking to batter them down, but after many days he fled; and search as we will, no man can lay a finger on the face of one of them, and say, 'Here Chosroes left a scar.' So Amurath, sometimes called Murad, this young man's father, wasted months, and the souls of his subjects without count; but when he fled not a coping block had been disturbed in its bed. What has been will be again. God is with us."

When the three days were spent, the Greeks under arms began to be accustomed to the usage, and make merry of it, like the veterans.

The fourth day about noon the Emperor, returning from a round of the walls, ascended the Bagdad tower mentioned as overlooking the Gate St. Romain on the right hand; and finding Justiniani on the roof, he said to him: "This fighting, if it may be so called, Captain, is without heart. But two of our people have been killed; not a stone is shaken. To me it seems the Sultan is amusing us while preparing something more serious."

"Your Majesty," the Genoese returned, soberly, "now has Heaven given you the spirit of a soldier and the eyes as well. Old John Grant told me within an hour that the yellow flag on the rising ground before us denotes the Sultan's quarters in the field, and is not to be confounded with his battle flag. It follows, I think, could we get behind the Janissaries dismounted on the further slope of the rise, yet in position to meet a sally, we would discover the royal tent not unwisely pitched, if, as I surmise, this gate is indeed his point of main attack. And besides here are none of the old-time machines as elsewhere along our front; not a catapult, or bricole, or bible-as some, with wicked facetiousness, have named a certain invention for casting huge stones; nor have we yet heard the report of a cannon, or arquebus, or bombard, although we know the enemy has them in numbers. Wherefore, keeping in mind the circumstance of his presence here, the omissions satisfy me the Sultan relies on his great guns, and that, while amusing us, as Your Majesty has said, he is mounting them. To-morrow, or perhaps next day, he will open with them, and then"-

"What then?" Constantine asked.

"The world will have a new lesson in warfare."

The Emperor's countenance, visible under his raised visor, knit hard.

"Dear, dear God!" he said, half to himself. "If this old Christian empire should be lost through folly of mine, who will there be to forgive me if not Thou?"

Then, seeing the Genoese observing him with surprise, he continued:

"It is a simple tale, Captain.... A Dacian, calling himself Urban, asked audience of me one day, and being admitted, said he was an artificer of cannon; that he had plied his art in the foundries of Germany, and from study of powder was convinced of the practicality of applying it to guns of heavier calibre than any in use. He had discovered a composition of metals, he said, which was his secret, and capable, when properly cast, of an immeasurable strain. Would I furnish him the materials, and a place, with appliances for the work such as he would name, I might collect the machines in my arsenal, and burn them or throw them into the sea. I might even level my walls, and in their stead throw up ramparts of common earth, and by mounting his guns upon them secure my capital against the combined powers of the world. He refused to give me details of his processes. I asked him what reward he wanted, and he set it so high I laughed. Thinking to sound him further, I kept him in my service a few days; but becoming weary of his importunities, I dismissed him. I next heard of him at Adrianople. The Sultan Mahommed entertained his propositions, built him a foundry, and tried one of his guns, with results the fame of which is a wonder to the whole East. It was the log of bronze Count Corti saw on the road-now it is here-and Heaven sent it to me first."

"Your Majesty," returned the Genoese, impressed by the circumstance, and the evident remorse of the Emperor, "Heaven does not hold us accountable for errors of judgment. There is not a monarch in Europe who would have accepted the man's terms, and it remains to be seen if Mahommed, as yet but a callow youth, has not been cheated. But look yonder!"

As he spoke, the Janissaries in front of the gate mounted and rode forward, probably a hundred yards, pursued by a riotous shouting and cracking of whips. Presently a train of buffaloes, yoked and tugging laboriously at something almost too heavy for them, appeared on the swell of earth; and there was a driver for every yoke, and every driver

whirled a long stick with a longer lash fixed to it, and howled lustily.

"It is the great gun," said Constantine. "They are putting it in position."

Justiniani spoke to the men standing by the machines: "Make ready bolt and stone."

The balistiers took to their wheels eagerly, and discharged a shower of missiles at the Janissaries and ox-drivers.

"Too short, my men-more range."

The elevation was increased; still the bolts fell short.

"Bring forward the guns!" shouted Justiniani.

The guns were small bell-mouthed barrels of hooped iron, muzzle loading, mounted on high wheels, and each shooting half a dozen balls of lead large as walnuts. They were carefully aimed. The shot whistled and sang viciously.

"Higher, men!" shouted the Genoese, from a merlon. "Give the pieces their utmost range."

The Janissaries replied with a yell. The second volley also failed. Then Justiniani descended from his perch.

"Your Majesty," he said, "to stop the planting of the gun there is nothing for us but a sally."

"We are few, they are many," was the thoughtful reply. "One of us on the wall is worth a score of them in the field. Their gun is an experiment. Let them try it first."

The Genoese replied: "Your Majesty is right."

The Turks toiled on, backing and shifting their belabored trains, until the monster at last threatened the city with its great black Cyclopean eye.

"The Dacian is not a bad engineer," said the Emperor.

"See, he is planting other pieces."

Thus Justiniani; for oxen in trains similar to the first one came up tugging mightily, until by mid-afternoon on each flank of the first monster three other glistening yellow logs lay on their carriages in a like dubious quiet, leaving no doubt that St. Romain was to be overwhelmed, if the new agencies answered expectations.

If there was anxiety here, over the way there was impatience too fierce for control. Urban, the Dacian, in superintendency of the preparation, was naturally disposed to be careful, so much, in his view, depended on the right placement of the guns; but Mahommed, on foot, and whip in hand, was intolerant, and, not scrupling to mix with the workmen, urged them vehemently, now with threats, now with promises of reward.

"Thy beasts are snails! Give me the goad," he cried, snatching one from a driver. Then to Urban: "Bring the powder, and a bullet, for when the sun goes down thou shalt fire the great gun. Demur not. By the sword of Solomon, there shall be no sleep this night in yon Gabour city, least of all in the palace they call Blacherne."

The Dacian brought his experts together. The powder in a bag was rammed home; with the help of a stout slab, a stone ball was next rolled into the muzzle, then pushed nakedly down on the bag. Of a truth there was need of measureless strength in the composition of the piece. Finally the vent was primed, and a slow-match applied, after which Urban reported:

"The gun is ready, my Lord."

"Then watch the sun, and-Bismillah!-at its going down, fire.... Aim at the gate-this one before us-and if thou hit it or a tower on either hand, I will make thee a begler-bey."

The gun-planting continued. Finally the sun paused in cloudy splendor ready to carry the day down with it. The Sultan, from his tent of many annexes Bedouin fashion, walked to where Urban and his assistants stood by the carriage of the larger piece.

"Fire!" he said.

Urban knelt before him.

"Will my Lord please retire?"

"Why should I retire?"

"There is danger."

Mahommed smiled haughtily.

"Is the piece trained on the gate?"

"It is; but I pray"-

"Now if thou wilt not have me believe thee a dog not less than an unbeliever, rise, and do my bidding."

The Dacian, without more ado, put the loose end of the slow-match into a pot of live coals near by, and when it began to spit and sputter, he cast it off. His experts fled. Only Mahommed remained with him; and no feat of daring in battle could have won the young Padishah a name for courage comparable to that the thousands looking on from a safe distance now gave him.

"Will my Lord walk with me a little aside? He can then see the ball going."

Mahommed accepted the suggestion.

"Look now in a line with the gate, my Lord."

The match was at last spent. A flash at the vent-a spreading white cloud-a rending of the air-the rattle of wheels obedient to the recoil of the gun-a sound thunder in volume, but with a crackle sharper than any thunder-and we may almost say that, with a new voice, and an additional terror, war underwent a second birth.

Mahommed's ears endured a wrench, and for a time he heard nothing; but he was too intent following the flight of the ball to mind whether the report of the gun died on the heights of Galata or across the Bosphorus at Scutari. He saw the blackened sphere pass between the towers flanking the gate, and speed on into the city-how far, or with what effect, he could not tell, nor did he care.

Urban fell on his knees.

"Mercy, my Lord, mercy!"

"For what? That thou didst not hit the gate? Rise, man, and see if the gun is safe." And when it was so reported, he called to Kalil, the Vizier, now come up: "Give the man a purse, and not a lean one, for, by Allah! he is bringing Constantinople to me."

And despite the ringing in his ears, he went to his tent confident and happy. On the tower meantime Constantine and the Genoese beheld the smoke leap forth and curtain the gun, and right afterward they heard the huge ball go tearing past them, like an invisible meteor. Their eyes pursued the sound-where the missile fell they could not say-they heard a crash, as if a house midway the city had been struck-then they gazed at each other, and crossed themselves.

"There is nothing for us now but the sally," said the Emperor.

"Nothing," replied Justiniani. "We must disable the guns."

"Let us go and arrange it."

There being no indication of further firing, the two descended from the tower.

The plan of sortie agreed upon was not without ingenuity. The gate under the palace of Blacherne called Cercoporta was to be opened in the night. [Footnote: In the basement of the palace of Blacherne there was an underground exit, Cercoporta or gate of the Circus; but Isaac Comnenus had walled it up in order to avoid the accomplishment of a prediction which announced that the Emperor Frederick would enter Constantinople through it.... But before the siege by Mahommed the exit was restored, and it was through it the Turks passed into the city.-VON HAMMER, Hist. de l'Empire Ottoman.] Count Corti, with the body-guard mounted, was to pass out by it, and surprise the Janissaries defending the battery. Simultaneously Justiniani should sally by the Gate St. Romain, cross the moat temporarily bridged for the purpose, and, with the footmen composing the force in reserve, throw himself upon the guns.

The scheme was faithfully attempted. The Count, stealing out of the ancient exit in the uncertain light preceding the dawn, gained a position unobserved, and charged the careless Turks. By this time it had become a general report that the net about his neck was a favor of the Princess Irene, and his battle cry confirmed it-For God and Irene! Bursting through the half-formed opposition, he passed to the rear of the guns, and planted his banderole at the door of Mahommed's tent. Had his men held together, he might have returned with a royal prisoner.

While attention was thus wholly given the Count, Justiniani overthrew the guns by demolishing the carriages. A better acquaintance with the operation known to moderns as "spiking a piece," would have enabled him to make the blow irreparable. The loss of Janissaries was severe; that of the besieged trifling. The latter, foot and horse, returned by the Gate St. Romain unpursued.

Mahommed, aroused by the tumult, threw on his light armor, and rushed out in time to hear the cry of his assailant, and pluck the banderole from its place. At sight of the moon with the cross on its face, his wrath was uncontrollable. The Aga in command and all his assistants were relentlessly impaled.

There were other sorties in course of the siege, but never another surprise.

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