A glowing romance of the Byzantine Empire, presenting with extraordinary power the siege of Constantinople, and lighting its tragedy with the warm underglow of an Oriental romance.
In the noon of a September day in the year of our dear Lord 1395, a merchant vessel nodded sleepily upon the gentle swells of warm water flowing in upon the Syrian coast. A modern seafarer, looking from the deck of one of the Messagerie steamers now plying the same line of trade, would regard her curiously, thankful to the calm which held her while he slaked his wonder, yet more thankful that he was not of her passage.
She could not have exceeded a hundred tons burthen. At the bow and stern she was decked, and those quarters were fairly raised. Amidship she was low and open, and pierced for twenty oars, ten to a side, all swaying listlessly from the narrow ports in which they were hung. Sometimes they knocked against each other. One sail, square and of a dingy white, drooped from a broad yard–arm, which was itself tilted, and now and then creaked against the yellow mast complainingly, unmindful of the simple tackle designed to keep it in control. A watchman crouched in the meagre shade of a fan–like structure overhanging the bow deck. The roofing and the floor, where exposed, were clean, even bright; in all other parts subject to the weather and the wash there was only the blackness of pitch. The steersman sat on a bench at the stern. Occasionally, from force of habit, he rested a hand upon the rudder–oar to be sure it was yet in reach. With exception of the two, the lookout and the steersman, all on board, officers, oarsmen, and sailors, were asleep—such confidence could a Mediterranean calm inspire in those accustomed to life on the beautiful sea. As if Neptune never became angry there, and blowing his conch, and smiting with his trident, splashed the sky with the yeast of waves! However, in 1395 Neptune had disappeared; like the great god Pan, he was dead.
The next remarkable thing about the ship was the absence of the signs of business usual with merchantmen. There were no barrels, boxes, bales, or packages visible. Nothing indicated a cargo. In her deepest undulations the water–line was not once submerged. The leather shields of the oar–ports were high and dry. Possibly she had passengers aboard. Ah, yes! There under the awning, stretched halfway across the deck dominated by the steersman, was a group of persons all unlike seamen. Pausing to note them, we may find the motive of the voyage.