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   Chapter 11 COUNT CORTI IN DILEMMA

The Prince of India; Or, Why Constantinople Fell — Volume 01 By Lew Wallace Characters: 13069

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:02


From the repast at Blacherne-festive it was in no sense-Count Corti escorted the Emperor to the door of Sancta Sophia; whence, by permission, and taking with him his nine Berbers, he rode slowly to the residence of the Princess Irene. Slowly, we say, for nowhere in the pent area of Byzantium was there a soul more oppressed.

If he looked up, it was to fancy all the fortunate planets seated in their Houses helping Mahommed's star to a fullest flood of splendor; if he looked down, it was to see the wager-and his soul cried out, Lost! Lost! Though one be rich, or great, or superior in his calling, wherein is the profit of it if he have lost his love?

Besides the anguish of a perception of his rival's better fortune, the Count was bowed by the necessity of deciding certain consequences unforeseen at the time the wager was made. The place of the surrender of the Princess was fixed. Thinking forward now, he could anticipate the scene in the great church-the pack of fugitives, their terror and despair, the hordes raging amongst them. How was he single-handed to save her unharmed in the scramble of the hour? Thoughts of her youth, beauty, and rank, theretofore inspirations out of Heaven, set him to shivering with an ague more like fear than any he had ever known.

Nor was this all. The surrender was by the terms to be to Mahommed himself. The Sultan was to demand her of him. He groaned aloud: "Oh, dear God and Holy Mother, be merciful, and let me die!" For the first time it was given him to see, not alone that he might lose the woman to his soul all the sun is to the world, but her respect as well. By what management was he to make the surrender without exposing the understanding between the conqueror and himself? She would be present-she would see what took place-she would hear what was said. And she would not be frightened. The image of the Madonna above the altar in the nave would not be more calm. The vaguest suspicion of a compact, and she the subject, would put her upon inquiry; then-"Oh, fool-idiot-insensate as my sword-grip!" Thus, between groans, he scourged himself.

It was late, but her home was now a hospital filled with wounded men, and she its sleepless angel. Old Lysander admitted him.

"The Princess Irene is in the chapel."

Thus directed, the Count went thither well knowing the way.

A soldier just dead was the theme of a solemn recital by Sergius. The room was crowded with women in the deepest excitement of fear. Corti understood the cause. Poor creatures! They had need of religious comfort. A thousand ghosts in one view could not have overcome them as did the approach of the morrow.

At the right of the altar, he discovered the Princess in the midst of her attendants, who kept close to her, like young birds to the mother in alarm. She was quiet and self-contained. Apparently she alone heard the words of the reader; and whereas the Count came in a penitent-doubtful-in a maze-unknowing what to do or where to turn, one glance at her face restored him. He resolved to tell her his history, omitting only the character in which he entered her kinsman's service, and the odious compact with Mahommed. Her consent to accompany him to Sancta Sophia must be obtained; for that he was come.

His presence in the chapel awakened a suppressed excitement, and directly the Princess came to him.

"What has happened, Count Corti? Why are you here?"

"To speak with you, O Princess Irene'

"Go with me, then."

She conducted him into a passage, and closed the door behind them.

"The floor of my reception room is overlaid with the sick and suffering-my whole house is given up to them. Speak here; and if the news be bad, dear Count, it were mercy not to permit the unfortunates to hear you."

She was not thinking of herself. He took the hand extended to him, and kissed it-to him it was the hand of more than the most beautiful woman in the world-it was the hand of a saint in white transfigurement.

"Thy imperial kinsman, O Princess, is at the church partaking of the Holy Communion, and receiving absolution."

"At this hour? Why is he there, Count?"

Corti told her of the repast at the palace, and recounted the scene at parting.

"It looks like despair. Can it be the Emperor is making ready to die? Answer, and fear not for me. My life has been a long preparation. He believes the defence is lost-the captains believe so-and thou?"

"O Princess, it is terrible saying, but I too expect the judgment of God in the morning."

The hall was so dimly lighted he could not see her face; but the nerve of sympathy is fine-he felt she trembled. Only a moment-scarcely longer than taking a breath-then she answered:

"Judgment is for us all. It will find me here."

She moved as if to return to the chapel; but he stepped before her, and drawing out a chair standing by the door, said, firmly, yet tenderly:

"You are weary. The labor of helping the unfortunate these many days-the watching and anxiety-have been trying upon you. Sit, I pray, and hear me."

She yielded with a sigh.

"The judgment which would find you here, O Princes, would not be death, but something more terrible, so terrible words burn in thinking of it. I have sworn to defend you: and the oath, and the will to keep it, give me the right to determine where and how the defence shall be made. If there are advantages, I want them, for your sweet sake."

He stopped to master his feeling.

"You have never stood on the deck of a ship in wreck, and seen the sea rush in to overwhelm it," he went on presently: "I have; and I declare to you, O beloved lady, nothing can be so like to-morrow when the hordes break into the city, as that triumph of waters; and as on the deck there was no place of safety for the perishing crew, neither will there be place of safety for man, woman, or child in Byzantium then-least of all for the kinswoman of the Emperor-for her-permit me to say it-whose loveliness and virtue are themes for story-tellers throughout the East. As a prize-whether for ransom or dishonor-richer than the churches and the palaces, and their belongings, be they jewels or gold, or anointed crown, or bone of Saint, or splinter of the True Cross, or shred from the shirt of Christ-to him who loves her, a prize of such excellence that glory, even the glory Mahommed is now dreaming of when he shall have wrenched the keys of the gates from their rightful owner dead in the bloody breach, would pale if set beside it for comparison, and sink out

of sight-think you she will not be hunted? Or that the painted Mother above the altar, though it spoke through a miraculous halo, could save her when found? No, no, Princess, not here, not here!... You know I love you; in an unreasoning moment I dared tell you so; and you may think me passion-blind, and that I hung the vow to defend you upon my soul's neck, thinking it light as this favor you were pleased to give me; that love being a braggart, therefore I am a braggart. Let me set myself right in your opinion-your good opinion, O Princess, for it is to me a world of such fair shining I dream of it as of a garden in Paradise.... If you do not know how hardly I have striven in this war, send, I pray, and ask any of the captains, or the most Christian sovereign I have just left making his peace with God. Some of them called me mad, but I pardoned them-they did not know the meaning of my battle-cry-'For Christ and Irene'-that I was venturing life less for Constantinople, less for religion-I almost said, less for Christ-than for you, who are all things in one to me, the fairest on earth, the best in Heaven.... At last, at last I am driven to admit we may fail-that to-morrow, whether I am here or there, at your side or under the trampling, you may be a prisoner at mercy."

At these words, of infinite anguish in utterance, the Princess shuddered, and looked up in silent appeal.

"Attend me now. You have courage above the courage of women; therefore I may speak with plainness.... What will become of you-I give the conclusion of many wrangles with myself-what will become of you depends upon the hands which happen to be laid on you first. O Princess, are you giving me heed? Do you comprehend me?"

"The words concern me more than life, Count."

"I may go on then.... I have hope of saving your life and honor. You have but to do what I advise. If you cannot trust me, further speech were idleness, and I might as well take leave of you. Death in many forms will be abroad to-morrow-nothing so easily found."

"Count Corti," she returned, "if I hesitate pledging myself, it is not because of distrust. I will hear you."

"It is well said, dear lady."

He stopped-a pleasant warmth was in his heart-a perception, like dim light, began breaking through the obscurities in his mind. To this moment, in fact, he had trouble gaining his own consent to the proposal on his tongue; it seemed so like treachery to the noble woman-so like a cunning inveiglement to deliver her to Mahommed under the hated compact. Now suddenly the proposal assumed another appearance-it was the best course-the best had there been no wager, no compact, no obligation but knightly duty to her. As he proceeded, this conviction grew clearer, bringing him ease of conscience and the subtle influence of a master arguing right. He told her his history then, holding nothing back but the two points mentioned. Twice only she interrupted him.

"Your mother, Count Corti-poor lady-how she has suffered! But what happiness there is in store for her!" And again: "How wonderful the escape from the falsehoods of the Prophet! There is no love like Christ's love unless-unless it be a mother's."

At the conclusion, her chin rested in the soft palm of her hand, and the hand, unjewelled, was white as marble just carven, and, like the arm, a wonder of grace. Of what was she thinking?-Of him? Had he at last made an impression upon her? What trifles serve the hope of lovers! At length she asked:

"Then, O Count, thou wert his playmate in childhood?"

A bitter pang struck him-that pensiveness was for Mahommed-yet he answered: "I was nearest him until he took up his father's sword."

"Is he the monster they call him?"

"To his enemies, yes-and to all in the road to his desires, yes-but to his friends there was never such a friend."

"Has he heart to"-

The omission, rather than the question, hurt him-still he returned:

"Yes, once he really loves."

Then she appeared to awake.

"To the narrative now-Forgive my wandering."

The opportunity to return was a relief to him, and he hastened to improve it.

"I thank you for grace, O Princess, and am reminded of the pressure of time. I must to the gate again with the Emperor.... This is my proposal. Instead of biding here to be taken by some rapacious hordesman, go with me to Sancta Sophia, and when the Sultan comes thither-as he certainly will-deliver yourself to him. If, before his arrival, the plunderers force the doors of the holy house, I will stand with you, not, Princess, as Count Corti the Italian, but Mirza the Emir and Janissary, appointed by the Sultan to guard you. My Berbers will help the assumption."

He had spoken clearly, yet she hesitated.

"Ah," he said, "you doubt Mahommed. He will be upon honor. The glory-winners, Princess, are those always most in awe of the judgment of the world."

Yet she sat silent.

"Or is it I who am in your doubt?"

"No, Count. But my household-my attendants-the poor creatures are trembling now-some of them, I was about saying, are of the noblest families in Byzantium, daughters of senators and lords of the court. I cannot desert them-no, Count Corti, not to save myself. The baseness would be on my soul forever. They must share my fortune, or I their fate."

Still she was thinking of others!

More as a worshipper than lover, the Count replied: "I will include them in my attempt to save you. Surely Heaven will help me, for your sake, O Princess."

"And I can plead for them with him. Count Corti, I will go with you."

The animation with which she spoke faded in an instant.

"But thou-O my friend, if thou shouldst fall?"

"Nay, let us be confident. If Heaven does not intend your escape, it would be merciful, O beloved lady, did it place me where no report of your mischance and sorrows can reach me. Looking at the darkest side, should I not come for you, go nevertheless to the Church. Doubt not hearing of the entry of the Turks. Seek Mahommed, if possible, and demand his protection. Tell him, I, Mirza the Emir, counselled you. On the other side, be ready to accompany me. Make preparation to-night-have a chair at hand, and your household assembled-for when I come, time will be scant.... And now, God be with you! I will not say be brave-be trustful."

She extended her hand, and he knelt, and kissed it.

"I will pray for you, Count Corti."

"Heaven will hear you."

He went out, and rejoining the Emperor, rode with him from the Church to Blacherne.

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