Gateway to the Classics: Mexico by Margaret Duncan Coxhead
Mexico by  Margaret Duncan Coxhead

Dead Sea Apples

The conqueror is once more entering his city of Mexico, and natives and Spaniards alike throng to meet him with tumultuous joy. Two years of blood-stained anarchy have marked the absence of his iron hand. Reports of his death in the far-away marshes of the south have bred dissension and despair on every side, and now intensify this passionate welcome which seems to know no bounds. But the cheers die painfully away as the people gaze on the wan, haggard face of their idol. How changed! how aged! His intimate friends hardly recognise this ghost of the once brilliant Hernando CortÚs. Not all the horrors and hardships of the siege of Mexico left such traces of suffering as this terrible march to Honduras.

Not for long was CortÚs permitted to rule his province in peace. Such stories had his enemies sent to the Emperor in Castile that commissioners arrived from Europe to investigate the conduct of the Governor of New Spain. The conqueror, ever impatient of petty interference, found his actions trammelled and his influence undermined at every turn. At last he resolved to go to Spain and justify himself before the Emperor in person.

"In all the state of a great lord," with a retinue of Aztec chiefs, and many rich presents and specimens of Mexican animals and plants for the Emperor, CortÚs set sail for he Spain. News of his father's death came just before he left the shores of Villa Rica, but Sandoval was at his general's side ever ready to support and console.

In the month of May the conqueror of Mexico landed at Palos, where the discoverer of the New World had disembarked just thirty-five years before. To the convent of La Rabida CortÚs retired to rest and give thanks for his safe arrival. Sandoval, who had fallen ill, remained at the little in inn at Palos, whither his chief was soon summoned by the news that the young captain was dying. It was but too true. The gallant soldier, who had come safely through such appalling perils in far-distant lands, was dying almost within sight of the home he did not live to see. "Those whom the gods love die young," and pity the young soldier who left behind him a memory of unsullied honour, and escaped those "slings and arrows of outrageous fortune" which so embittered the last years of the Conquistadores? On a pine-clad hill looking westward over the waves of the Atlantic his comrades laid their best-loved captain to rest, and for nine days CortÚs delayed his journey to the Court that he might pray in the convent by the sea for the soul of his most loyal friend.

"In the pomp and glory, not so much of a great vassal, as of an independent monarch," with a long retinue of Indian chiefs in all their barbaric splendour, CortÚs, himself in deep mourning, marched to Toledo, where the Emperor had promised to give him audience. Cheering crowds, eager to gaze on the victor and his trophies, lined the roads, and as he drew near the city he was welcomed by nobles of the Court.

Graciously did Charles receive his magnificent subject, and with flattering interest he listened as the soldier told in simple, vivid words the story of all that he and his comrades had endured and done in that strange land beyond the sea. With eager curiosity the monarch examined the trophies of the conquest, and many were the questions he asked as to the products and value of his new possessions.

All honour was given to the conqueror, who was created Marquess of the Valley of Oaxaca, a vast province in Mexico. "Your Majesty's kind expressions and generous treatment," declared CortÚs, "make me not only forget all my toils and sufferings, but even cause me regret that I have not been called to endure more in your service."

As the fair Catalina, the wife thrust upon him by Velasquez, was dead, CortÚs was free to marry a young and noble lady, the daughter of a count and the niece of a great duke. The Marquess was able to present his bride with jewels worthy of a queen—five exquisite emeralds cut by Aztec jewellers into the shape of a rose, a horn, a fish with eyes of gold, a bell with a pearl for a tongue, and a cup with a foot of gold attached to a large pearl by four golden chains. The Empress is said to have turned a cold shoulder to the Marquess because his gifts to her Majesty were not so fine as these jewels he gave to his bride.

The Emperor soon left his realm of Spain to the guidance of the Empress and set out for Flanders. Honour and rich lands he had given to CortÚs, but he had been resolute in depriving its conqueror of the government of New Spain. Henceforth a Council, sent out from the mother country, was to direct the affairs of the province.

In the summer of 1530 the Marquess, with his wife and his old mother, landed in Mexico. They were gladly welcomed by both Indians and colonists, who were eager to pour forth their many grievances under the oppressions of the Council. But CortÚs soon found that he had no power to right their wrongs, and retired in disgust to his valley of Oaxaca. There on the sunny slope of a hill he built a palace and cultivated his estates, planting sugar-canes and importing cattle and sheep. But the adventurer tired of so tame a life, and longed to make fresh discoveries and to win new conquests. Allured still by the phantom strait, he spent much of his great fortune in fitting out exploring expeditions. Leaving his fertile valley, he hazarded his life on many a dangerous voyage, but met with steady misfortune. No golden empire, no beneficent strait rewarded these years of restless striving and wearing hardship.

When at last he returned to Mexico, it was but to find that during his absence the Council had been despoiling his property. Once more CortÚs resolved to seek redress in Spain. He set out in 1540, taking with him his eight-year-old son Don Martin. Ten years had passed away since his first triumphant return, and ever since that brief time of glory "everything," as Bernal Diaz remarks, "had turned to thorns with him."

In Spain his path proved as difficult as in Mexico. The Emperor was in Italy, and when, after a long year of waiting, he returned, it was to organise an expedition against the pirate stronghold of Algiers. CortÚs at once volunteered, and embarked on the admiral's ship with his little son. Disastrous indeed the expedition proved. A mighty tempest wrecked the navy, and the Marquess and his son only saved their lives by swimming. The loss of his priceless emeralds made the disaster "fall more heavily on the Marquess of the Valley than on any other man in the kingdom except the Emperor."

CortÚs seemed doomed to disappointment. Charles, who, ten years before, had welcomed him so warmly, now listened to his suit with coldness. He had already rewarded the conqueror, and felt that he was not responsible for the misfortunes which had since befallen him. Pizarro, moreover, had just conquered for Spain the dazzling empire of Peru, which far outshone Mexico in the treasure so coveted by the Spaniard. The deeds of CortÚs were for the moment quite eclipsed.

In vain did he address one last pathetic letter to the Emperor:—"Sacred Cesarian Catholic Majesty: I thought that, having laboured in my youth, it would so profit me that in my old age I might have ease and rest; and now it is forty years that I have been occupied in not sleeping, in eating ill, and sometimes neither well nor ill, in bearing armour, in placing my person in danger, in spending my estate and my life all in the service of God and for my king. . . . I see myself old, poor, and indebted, and I foresee labour and trouble until my death. Please God that the mischief may not go beyond death, since, whosoever has such toil in defending his bodily estate cannot avoid injuring his soul."

After seven years of the law's delays the Marquess decided to return to Mexico, that he might make his account clear with God, "since it is a large one that I have . . . and it will be better for me to lose my property than my soul." But on the way to the coast he was seized at Seville by a fatal illness. He was carried to a little village inn without the city, and there, tended by his devoted son, Don Martin, now fifteen years old, he "arranged his affairs for this and the next world."

"It was the Lord's will," says Diaz, "to take him from this troublesome state on the second day of December 1547 . . . and he was at the time of his death sixty-two years old."

As the stern conqueror lay dying, did the thought of a nation enslaved by his act assail his harassed soul?

We do pray for mercy; And that same prayer doth teach us all to render The deeds of mercy.

Had the mercy which he now sought so earnestly been shown to Guatemozin and his people? Did he seek, perhaps, to expiate the past when he bequeathed to Mexico money for the foundation of a hospital, a convent, and a college for missionaries? On his heir Don Martin he laid a solemn charge: "Because doubts have arisen with respect to those natives of New Spain who have been made slaves . . . whether they can be held with a sufficiently good conscience or not, and up to this time the question is not settled, I desire that it should be ascertained what in this matter ought to be done in respect of those which I hold. And I charge upon my son and heir Don Martin, and upon his successors, that they should use all diligence for the discharge of my conscience and theirs in this matter."

In the hour of his own extremity CortÚs did not forget the veterans who had served him so loyally and well. He left money for two thousand masses to be said for the souls of his followers. His high position as Marquess had not made him too proud to keep up his friendship with his old comrades. "He preferred," says Diaz, "to be called CortÚs by us than by any title; and with good reason, for the name of CortÚs is as famous in our day as was that of Caesar among the Romans or of Hannibal among the Carthaginians."

And as the personality of Caesar and of Hannibal could seize upon Roman and Carthaginian alike, so did the personality of CortÚs seize upon the imagination of his followers. "In his whole appearance and presence," says Diaz, "in his discourse, his table, his dress, in everything, in short, he had the air of a great lord. His clothes were in the fashion of the time; he was not fond of silks, damasks, or velvets, but everything plain and very handsome; nor did he wear massy chains of gold, but simply a small one of prime workmanship, bearing the image of our Lady the Blessed Virgin with her precious Son in her arms, and a Latin motto; and on the reverse, St. John the Baptist with another motto. He wore on his finger a ring with a very fine diamond, and in his cap, which, according to the fashion of that day, was of velvet, he bore a medal, the device of which I do not recollect. His table was always magnificently attended and served with four major-domos, a number of pages, and a great quantity of plate both gold and silver. He dined heartily at midday and drank a glass of wine mixed with water. He was not nice in his food, nor expensive, except on particular occasions when he saw the propriety of it. He was very affable with all his captains and soldiers, especially those who accompanied him in his first expedition from Cuba.

"He was a Latinist, and, as I have been told, a bachelor in laws. He was also something of a poet and a good rhetorician; very devout to our Holy Virgin, and his advocates St. Peter, St. James, and St. John the Baptist in particular; and charitable to the poor. When he was much enraged the veins in his throat and forehead used to swell, and when in great wrath he would not utter a syllable to any one. With his men he was very patient; and they were sometimes impertinent and even insolent. He was very determined and headstrong in all business of war, not attending to any remonstrances on account of danger. When we had to erect a fortress CortÚs was the hardest labourer in the trenches; when we were going into battle he was as forward as any.

"He was fond of cards and dice, and while playing was always in good humour, indulging freely in jests and repartees. In his campaigns he paid strict attention to discipline, constantly going the rounds himself during the night, visiting the quarters of the soldiers, and chiding those whom he found without their armour and accoutrements, saying, 'It is a bad sheep which cannot carry its own wool.'

"He was frank and exceedingly liberal in his disposition until the last few years of his life, when he grew close. But we should consider that his funds were employed on great and costly enterprises, and that none of these after the conquest, neither his expedition to Honduras, nor his voyages to California, were crowned with success. Perhaps it was that he might have felicity in heaven. And I believe it was so, for he was an honourable cavalier and a devoted worshipper of the Virgin, St. Peter, and other saints. May God pardon him his sins, and me mine, and give me a righteous ending, which things are of more concern than all conquests and victories over Indians."

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