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   Chapter 9 THE MADONNA TO THE RESCUE

The Prince of India; Or, Why Constantinople Fell — Volume 01 By Lew Wallace Characters: 31095

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:02


We have given the opening of the siege of Byzantium by Mahommed with dangerous minuteness, the danger of course being from the critic. We have posted the warders on their walls, and over against them set the enemy in an intrenched line covering the whole landward side of the city. We have planted Mahommed's guns, and exhibited their power, making it a certainty that a breach in the wall must be sooner or later accomplished. We have shown the effect of the fire of the guns, not only on the towers abutting the gate which was the main object of attack, but on the non-combatants, the women and children, in their terror seeking safety in cellars, vaults, and accessible underground retreats. We have carefully assembled and grouped those of our characters who have survived to this trying time; and the reader is informed where they are, the side with which their fortunes are cast, their present relations to each other, and the conditions which environ them. In a word, the reader knows their several fates are upon them, and the favors we now most earnestly pray are to be permitted to pass the daily occurrences of the siege, and advance quickly to the end. Even battles can become monotonous in narrative.

The Sultan, we remark, adopted the suggestions of the Prince of India. He distributed his guns, planting some of them in front of the several gates of the city. To control the harbor, he, in modern parlance, erected a battery on a hill by Galata; then in a night, he drew a part of his fleet, including a number of his largest vessels, from Besich-tasch on the Bosphorus over the heights and hollows of Pera, a distance of about two leagues, and dropped them in the Golden Horn. These Constantine attacked. Justiniani led the enterprise, but was repulsed. A stone bullet sunk his ship, and he barely escaped with his life. Most of his companions were drowned; those taken were pitilessly hung. Mahommed next collected great earthen jars-their like may yet be seen in the East-and, after making them air-tight, laid a bridge upon them out toward the single wall defending the harbor front. At the further end of this unique approach he placed a large gun; and so destructive was the bombardment thus opened that fire-ships were sent against the bridge and battery. But the Genoese of Galata betrayed the scheme, and it was baffled. The prisoners captured were hanged in view of the Greeks, and in retaliation Constantine exposed the heads of a hundred and sixty Turks from the wall.

On the landward side Mahommed was not less fortunate. The zigzag trench was completed, and a footing obtained for his men in the moat, whence they strove to undermine the walls.

Of the lives lost during these operations no account was taken, since the hordes were the victims. Their bodies were left as debris in the roadway so expensively constructed. Day after day the towers Bagdad and St. Romain were more and more reduced. Immense sections of them tumbling into the ditch were there utilized. Day after day the exchange of bullets, bolts, stones, and arrows was incessant. The shouting in many tongues, heating of drums, and blowing of horns not seldom continued far into the night.

The Greeks on their side bore up bravely. Old John Grant plied the assailants with his inextinguishable fire. Constantine, in seeming always cheerful, never shirking, visited the walls; at night, he seconded Justiniani in hastening needful repairs. Finally the steady drain upon the stores in magazine began to tell. Provisions became scarce, and the diminution of powder threatened to silence the culverins and arquebuses. Then the Emperor divided his time between the defences and Sancta Sophia-between duty as a military commander, and prayer as a Christian trustful in God. And it was noticeable that the services at which he assisted in the ancient church were according to Latin rites; whereat the malcontents in the monasteries fell into deeper sullenness, and refused the dying the consolation of their presence. Gennadius assumed the authority of the absent Patriarch, and was influential as a prophet. The powerful Brotherhood of the St. James', composed of able-bodied gentry and nobles who should have been militant at the gates, regarded the Emperor as under ban. Notaras and Justiniani quarrelled, and the feud spread to their respective followers.

One day, about the time the Turkish ships dropped, as it were, from the sky into the harbor, when the store of powder was almost exhausted, and famine menaced the city, five galleys were reported in the offing down the Marmora. About the same time the Turkish flotilla was observed making ready for action. The hungry people crowded the wall from the Seven Towers to Point Serail. The Emperor rode thither in haste, while Mahommed betook himself to the shore of the sea. A naval battle ensued under the eyes of the two. [Footnote: The following is a translation of Von Hammer's spirited account of this battle:

"The 15th of April, 1453, the Turkish fleet, of more than four hundred sails, issued from the bay of Phidalia, and directing itself toward the mouth of the Bosphorus on the western side, cast anchor near the two villages to-day Besich-tasch. A few days afterward five vessels appeared in the Marmora, one belonging to the Emperor, and four to the Genoese. During the month of March they had been unable to issue from Scio; but a favorable wind arising, they arrived before Constantinople, all their sails unfurled. A division of the Turkish fleet, more than a hundred and fifty in number, advanced to bar the passage of the Christian squadron and guard the entrance to the harbor. The sky was clear, the sea tranquil, the walls crowded with spectators. The Sultan himself was on the shore to enjoy the spectacle of a combat in which the superiority of his fleet seemed to promise him a certain victory. But the eighteen galleys at the head of the division, manned by inexperienced soldiers, and too low at the sides, were instantly covered with arrows, pots of Greek fire, and a rain of stones launched by the enemy. They were twice repulsed. The Greeks and the Genoese emulated each other in zeal. Flectanelli, captain of the imperial galley, fought like a lion; Cataneo, Novarro, Balaneri, commanding the Genoese, imitated his example. The Turkish ships could not row under the arrows with which the water was covered; they fouled each other, and two took fire. At this sight Mahommed could not contain himself; as if he would arrest the victory of the Greeks, he spurred his horse in the midst of the ships. His officers followed him trying to reach the vessels combating only a stone's throw away. The soldiers, excited by shame or by fear, renewed the attack, but without success, and the five vessels, favored by a rising wind, forced a passage through the opposition, and happily entered the harbor."] The Christian squadron made the Golden Horn, and passed triumphantly behind the chain defending it. They brought supplies of corn and powder. The relief had the appearance of a merciful Providence, and forthwith the fighting was renewed with increased ardor. Kalil the Vizier exhorted Mahommed to abandon the siege.

"What, retire now? Now that the gate St. Romain is in ruins and the ditch filled?" the Sultan cried in rage. "No, my bones to Eyoub, my soul to Eblis first. Allah sent me here to conquer."

Those around attributed his firmness, some to religious zeal, some to ambition; none of them suspected how much the compact with Count Corti had to do with his decision.

To the lasting shame of Christian Europe, the arrival of the five galleys, and the victory they achieved, were all of succor and cheer permitted the heroic Emperor.

But the unequal struggle wore on, and with each set of sun Mahommed's hopes replumed themselves. From much fondling and kissing the sword of Solomon, and swearing by it, the steel communicated itself to his will; while on the side of the besieged, failures, dissensions, watching and labor, disparity in numbers, inferiority in arms, the ravages of death, and the neglect of Christendom, slowly but surely invited despair.

Weeks passed thus. April went out; and now it is the twenty-third of May. On the twenty-ninth-six days off-the stars, so we have seen, will permit an assault.

And on this day the time is verging midnight. Between the sky and the beleaguered town a pall of clouds is hanging thick. At intervals light showers filter through the pall, and the drops fall perpendicularly, for there is no wind. And the earth has its wrap of darkness, only over the seven hills of the old capital it appears to be in double folds oppressively close. Darkness and silence and vacancy, which do not require permission to enter by a gate, have possession of the streets and houses; except that now and then a solitary figure, gliding swiftly, turns a corner, pauses to hear, moves on again, and disappears as if it dropped a curtain behind it. Desertion is the rule. The hush is awful. Where are the people?

To find each other friends go from cellar to cellar. There are vaults and arched passages, crypts under churches and lordly habitations, deep, damp, mouldy, and smelling of rotten air, sheltering families. In many districts all life is underground. Sociality, because it cannot exist under such conditions save amongst rats and reptiles, ceased some time ago. Yet love is not dead-thanks, O Heaven, for the divine impulse!-it has merely taken on new modes of expression; it shows itself in tears, never in laughter; it has quit singing, it moans; and what moments mothers are not on their knees praying, they sit crouched, and clasping their little ones, and listen pale with fear and want. Listening is the universal habit; and the start and exclamation with which in the day the poor creatures recognize the explosive thunder of Mahommed's guns explain the origin of the habit.

At this particular hour of the twenty-third of May there are two notable exceptions to the statement that darkness, silence and vacancy have possession of the streets and houses.

By a combination of streets most favorable for the purpose, a thoroughfare had come into use along which traffic preferably drove its bulky commodities from St. Peter's on the harbor to the Gates St. Romain and Adrianople; its greater distance between terminal points being offset by advantages such as solidity, width and gentler grades. In one of the turns of this very crooked way there is now a murky flush cast by flambeaux sputtering and borne in hand. On either side one may see the fronts of houses without tenants, and in the way itself long lines of men tugging with united effort at some cumbrous body behind them. There is no clamor. The labor is heavy, and the laborers in earnest. Some of them wear round steel caps, but the majority are civilians with here and there a monk, the latter by the Latin cross at his girdle an azymite. Now and then the light flashes back from a naked torso streaming with perspiration. One man in armor rides up and down the lines on horseback. He too is in earnest. He speaks low when he has occasion to stop and give a direction, but his face seen in flashes of the light is serious, and knit with purpose. The movement of the lines is slow; at times they come to a dead stand-still. If the halt appears too long the horseman rides back and comes presently to the black hull of a dismantled galley on rollers. The stoppages are to shift the rollers forward. When the shifting is done, he calls out: "Make ready, men!" Whereupon every one in the lines catches hold of a rope, and at his "Now-for love of Christ!" there follows a pull with might, and the hull drags on.

In these later days of the siege there are two persons actively engaged in the defence who are more wrought upon by the untowardness of the situation than any or all their associates-they are the Emperor and Count Corti.

There should be no difficulty in divining the cause of the former's distress. It was too apparent to him that his empire was in desperate straits; that as St. Romain underwent its daily reduction so his remnant of State and power declined. And beholding the dissolution was very like being an enforced witness of his own dying.

But Count Corti with the deepening of the danger only exerted himself the more. He seemed everywhere present-now on the ruins of the towers, now in the moat, now foremost in a countermine, and daily his recklessness increased. His feats with bow and sword amazed his friends. He became a terror to the enemy. He never tired. No one knew when he slept. And as note was taken of him, the question was continually on the lip, What possesses the man? He is a foreigner-this is not his home-he has no kindred here-what can be his motive? And there were who said it was Christian zeal; others surmised it was soldier habit; others again, that for some reason he was disgusted with life; yet others, themselves of sordid natures, said the Emperor affected him, and that he was striving for a great reward in promise. As in the camps of the besiegers none knew the actual reason of Mahommed's persistence, so here the secret of the activity which left the Count without a peer in performance and daring went without explanation.

A few-amongst them the Emperor-were aware of the meaning of the red net about the Italian's neck-it shone so frequently through the smoke and dust of hourly conflict as to have become a subject of general observation-yet in the common opinion he was only the lady's knight; and his battle cry, For Christ and Irene-Now! did but confirm the opinion. Time and time again, Mahommed beheld the doughty deeds of his rival, heard his shout, saw the flash of his blade, sometimes near, sometimes afar, but always where the press was thickest. Strange was it that of the two hosts he alone understood the other's inspiration? He had only to look into his own heart, and measure the force of the passion there.

The horseman we see in charge of the removal of the galley-hulk this night of the twenty-third of May is Count Corti. It is wanted at St. Romain. The gate is a hill of stone and mortar, without form; the moat almost level from side to side; and Justiniani has decided upon a barricade behind a new ditch. He will fill the hull with stones, and defend from its deck; and it must be on the ground by break of day.

Precisely as Count Corti was bringing the galley around the turn of the thoroughfare, Constantine was at the altar in Sancta Sophia where preparations for mass were making; that is, the priests were changing their vestments, and the acolytes lighting the tall candles. The Emperor sat in his chair of state just inside the brass railing, unattended except by his sword-bearer. His hands were on his knees, his head bowed low. He was acknowledging a positive need of prayer. The ruin at the gate was palpable; but God reigned, and might be reserving his power for a miraculous demonstration.

The preparation was about finished when, from the entrances of the Church opposite the nave, a shuffling of many feet was heard. The light in that quarter was weak, and some moments passed before the Emperor perceived a small procession advancing, and arose. The garbs were of orthodox Brotherhoods which had been most bitter in their denunciation. None of them had approached the door of the holy house for weeks.

The imperial mind was greatly agitated by the sight. Were the brethren recanting their unpatriotic res

olutions? Had Heaven at last given them an understanding of the peril of the city? Had it brought to them a realization of the consequences if it fell under the yoke of the Turk?-That the whole East would then be lost to Christendom, with no date for its return? A miracle!-and to God the glory! And without a thought of himself the devoted man walked to the gate of the railing, and opening it, waited to receive the penitents.

Before him in front of the gate they knelt-in so far they yielded to custom.

"Brethren," he said, "this high altar has not been honored with your presence for many days. As Basileus, I bid you welcome back, and dare urge the welcome in God's holy name. Reason instructs me that your return is for a purpose in some manner connected with the unhappy condition in which our city and empire, not to mention our religion, are plunged. Rise, one of you, and tell me to what your appearance at this solemn hour is due."

A brother in gray, old and stooped, arose, and replied:

"Your Majesty, it cannot be that you are unacquainted with the traditions of ancient origin concerning Constantinople and Hagia Sophia; forgive us, however, if we fear you are not equally well informed of a more recent prophecy, creditably derived, we think, and presume to speak of its terms. 'The infidels'-so the prediction runs-'will enter the city; but the instant they arrive at the column of Constantine the Great, an angel will descend from Heaven, and put a sword in the hands of a man of low estate seated at the foot of the column, and order him to avenge the people of God with it. Overcome by sudden terror, the Turks will then take to flight, and be driven, not only from the city, but to the frontier of Persia.' [Footnote: Von Hammer.] This prediction relieves us, and all who believe in it, from fear of Mahommed and his impious hordes, and we are grateful to Heaven for the Divine intervention. But, Your Majesty, we think to be forgiven, if we desire the honor of the deliverance to be accounted to the Holy Mother who has had our fathers in care for so many ages, and redeemed them miraculously in instances within Your Majesty's knowledge. Wherefore to our purpose.... We have been deputed by the Brotherhoods in Constantinople, united in devotion to the Most Blessed Madonna of Blacherne, to pray your permission to take the Panagia from the Church of the Virgin of Hodegetria, where it has been since the week of the Passover, and intrust it to the pious women of the city. To-morrow at noon, Your Majesty consenting, they will assemble at the Acropolis, and with the banner at their head, go in procession along the walls and to every threatened gate, never doubting that at the sight of it the Sultan and his unbaptized hordes will be reft of breath of body or take to flight.... This we pray of Your Majesty, that the Mother of God may in these degenerate days have back the honor and worship accorded her by the Emperors and Greeks of former times."

The old man ceased, and again fell upon his knees, while his associate deputies rang the space with loud Amens.

It was well the light was dim, and the Emperor's face in shadow; it was well the posture of the petitioners helped hide him from close study; a feeling mixed of pity, contempt, and unutterable indignation seized him, distorting his features, and shaking his whole person. Recantation and repentance!-Pledge of loyalty!-Offer of service at the gates and on the shattered walls!-Heaven help him! There was no word of apology for their errors and remissness-not a syllable in acknowledgment of his labors and services-and he about to pray God for strength to die if the need were, as became the Emperor of a brave and noble people!

An instant he stood gazing at them-an instant of grief, shame, mortification, indignation, all heightened by a burning sense of personal wrong. Ay, God help him!

"Bear with me a little," he said quietly, and passing the waiting priests, went and knelt upon a step of the altar in position to lay his head upon the upper step. Minutes passed thus. The deputies supposed him praying for the success of the morrow's display; he was in fact praying for self-possession to answer them as his judgment of policy demanded.

At length he arose, and returned to them, and had calmness to say:

"Arise, brethren, and go in peace. The keeper of the Church will deliver the sacred banner to the pious women. Only I insist upon a condition; if any of them are slain by the enemy, whom you and they know to have been bred in denial of womanly virtue, scorning their own mothers and wives, and making merchandise of their daughters-if any of them be slain, I say, then you shall bear witness to those who sent you to me that I am innocent of the blood-guilt. Arise, and go in peace."

They marched out of the Church as they had come in, and he proceeded with the service.

Next day about ten o'clock in the morning there was a lull in the fighting at the Gate St. Romain. It were probably better to say the Turks for some reason rested from their work of bringing stones, tree-trunks, earth in hand carts, and timbers wrenched from houses-everything, in fact, which would serve to substantially fill the moat in that quarter. Then upon the highest heap of what had been the tower of Bagdad Count Corti appeared, a black shield on his arm, his bow in one hand, his banderole in the other.

"Have a care, have a care!" his friends halloed. "They are about firing the great gun."

Corti seemed not to hear, but deliberately planted the banderole, and blowing his trumpet three times, drew an arrow from the quiver at his back. The gun was discharged, the bullet striking below him. When the dust cleared away, he replied with his trumpet. Then the Turks, keeping their distance, set up a cry. Most of the arrows shot at him fell short. Seeing their indisposition to accept his challenge, he took seat upon a stone.

Not long then until a horseman rode out from the line of Janissaries still guarding the eminence, and advanced down the left of the zigzag galloping.

He was in chain mail glistening like gold, but wore flowing yellow trousers, while his feet were buried in shoe-stirrups of the royal metal. Looking over the small round black shield on his left arm, and holding a bow in the right hand, easy in the saddle, calm, confident, the champion slackened speed when within arrow flight, but commenced caracoling immediately. A prolonged hoarse cry arose behind him. Of the Christians, the Count alone recognized the salute of the Janissaries, still an utterance amongst Turkish soldiers, in literal translation: The Padishah! Live the Padishah! The warrior was Mahommed himself!

Arising, the Count placed an arrow at the string, and shouted, "For Christ and Irene-Now!" With the last word, he loosed the shaft.

Catching the missile lightly on his shield, Mahommed shouted back: "Allah-il-Allah!" and sent a shaft in return. The exchange continued some minutes. In truth, the Count was not a little proud of the enemy's performance. If there was any weakness on his part, if his clutch of the notch at the instant of drawing the string was a trifle light, the fault was chargeable to a passing memory. This antagonist had been his pupil. How often in the school field, practising with blunted arrows, the two had joyously mimicked the encounter they were now holding. At last a bolt, clanging dully, dropped from the Sultan's shield, and observing that it was black feathered, he swung from his seat to the ground, and, shifting the horse between him and the foe, secured the missile, and remounted.

"Allah-il-Allah!" he cried, slowly backing the charger out of range.

The Count repeated the challenge through his trumpet, and sat upon the stone again; but no other antagonist showing himself, he at length descended from the heap.

In his tent Mahommed examined the bolt; and finding the head was of lead, he cut it open, and extracted a scrip inscribed thus:

"To-day at noon a procession of women will appear on the walls. You may know it by the white banner a monk will bear, with a picture of the Madonna painted on it. The Princess Irene marches next after the banner."

Mahommed asked for the time. It was half after ten o'clock. In a few minutes the door was thronged by mounted officers, who, upon receiving a verbal message from him, sped away fast as they could go.

Thereupon the conflict was reopened. Indeed, it raged more fiercely than at any previous time, the slingers and bowmen being pushed up to the outer edge of the moat, and the machines of every kind plied over their heads. In his ignorance of the miracle expected of the Lady of the Banner, Mahommed had a hope of deterring the extraordinary march.

Nevertheless at the appointed hour, ten o'clock, the Church of the Virgin of Hodegetria was surrounded by nuns and monks; and presently the choir of Sancta Sophia issued from the house, executing a solemn chant; the Emperor followed in Basilean vestments; then the Panagia appeared.

At sight of the picture of the Very Holy Virgin painted front view, the eyes upraised, the hands in posture of prayer, the breast covered by a portrait of the Child, the heads encircled by the usual nimbus, the mass knelt, uttering cries of adoration.

The Princess Irene, lightly veiled and attired in black, advanced, and, kissing the fringed corners of the hallowed relic, gathered the white staying ribbons in her hands; thereupon the monk appointed to carry it moved after the choir, and the nuns took places. And there were tears and sighs, but not of fear. The Mother of God would now assume the deliverance of her beloved capital. As it had been to the Avars, and later to the Russians under Askold and Dir, it would be now to Mahommed and his ferocious hordes-all Heaven would arm to punish them. They would not dare look at the picture twice, or if they did-well, there are many modes of death, and it will be for the dear Mother to choose. Thus the women argued. Possibly a perception of the failure in the defence, sharpened by a consciousness of the horrors in store for them if the city fell by assault, turned them to this. There is no relief from despair like faith.

From the little church, the devotees of the Very Holy Virgin took their way on foot to the southeast, chanting as they went, and as they went their number grew. Whence the accessions, none inquired.

They first reached a flight of steps leading to the banquette or footway along the wall near the Golden Gate. The noise of the conflict, the shouting and roar of an uncounted multitude of men in the heat and fury of combat, not to more than mention the evidences of the conflict-arrows, bolts, and stones in overflight and falling in remittent showers-would have dispersed them in ordinary mood; but they were under protection-the Madonna was leading them-to be afraid was to deny her saving grace. And then there was no shrinking on the part of the Princess Irene. Even as she took time and song from the choir, they borrowed of her trust.

At the foot of the steps the singers turned aside to allow the Panagia to go first. The moment of miracle was come! What form would the manifestation take? Perhaps the doors and windows of Heaven would open for a rain of fire-perhaps the fighting angels who keep the throne of the Father would appear with swords of lightning-perhaps the Mother and Son would show themselves. Had they not spared and converted the Khagan of the Avars? Whatever the form, it were not becoming to stand between the Panagia and the enemy.

The holy man carrying the ensign was trustful as the women, and he ascended the steps without faltering. Gathering the ribbons a little more firmly in her hands, the Princess kept her place. Up-up they were borne-Mother and Son. Then the white banner was on the height-seen first by the Greeks keeping the wall, and in the places it discovered them, they fell upon their faces, next by the hordes. And they-oh, a miracle, a miracle truly!-they stood still. The bowman drawing his bow, the slinger whirling his sling, the arquebusers taking aim matches in hand, the strong men at the winches of the mangonels, all stopped-an arresting hand fell on them-they might have been changed to pillars of stone, so motionlessly did they stand and look at the white apparition. Kyrie Eleison, thrice repeated, then Christie Eleison, also thrice repeated, descended to them in the voices of women, shrilled by excitement.

And the banner moved along the wall, not swiftly as if terror had to do with its passing, but slowly, the image turned outwardly, the Princess next it, the ribbons in her hands; after her the choir in full chant; and then the long array of women in ecstasy of faith and triumph; for before they were all ascended, the hordes at the edge of the moat, and those at a distance-or rather such of them as death or wounds would permit-were retreating to their entrenchment. Nor that merely-the arrest which had fallen at the Golden Gate extended along the front of leaguerment from the sea to Blacherne, from Blacherne to the Acropolis.

So it happened that in advance of the display of the picture, without waiting for the Kyrie Eleison of the glad procession, the Turks took to their defences; and through the city, from cellar, and vault, and crypt, and darkened passage, the wonderful story flew; and there being none to gainsay or explain it, the miracle was accepted, and the streets actually showed signs of a quick return to their old life. Even the very timid took heart, and went about thanking God and the Panagia Blachernitissa.

And here and there the monks passed, sleek and blithe, and complacently twirling the Greek crosses at the whip-ends of their rosaries of polished horn buttons large as walnuts, saying:

"The danger is gone. See what it is to have faith! Had we kept on trusting the azymites, whether Roman cardinal or apostate Emperor, a muezzin would ere long, perhaps to-morrow, be calling to prayer from the dome of Hagia Sophia. Blessed be the Panagia! To-night let us sleep; and then-then we will dismiss the mercenaries with their Latin tongues."

But there will be skeptics to the last hour of the last day; so is the world made of kinds of men. Constantine and Justiniani did not disarm or lay aside their care. In unpatriotic distrust, they kept post behind the ruins of St. Romain, and saw to it that the labor of planting the hull of the galley for a new wall, strengthened with another ditch of dangerous depth and width, was continued.

And they were wise; for about four o'clock in the afternoon, there was a blowing of horns on the parapet by the monster gun, and five heralds in tunics stiff with gold embroidery, and trousers to correspond-splendid fellows, under turbans like balloons, each with a trumpet of shining silver-set out for the gate, preceding a stately unarmed official.

The heralds halted now and then to execute a flourish. Constantine, recognizing an envoy, sent Justiniani and Count Corti to meet him beyond the moat, and they returned with the Sultan's formal demand for the surrender of the city. The message was threatening and imperious. The Emperor replied offering to pay tribute. Mahommed rejected the proposal, and announced an assault.

The retirement of the hordes at sight of the Panagia on the wall was by Mahommed's order. His wilfulness extended to his love-he did not intend the Princess Irene should suffer harm.

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