The Death of Montezuma
True to their threats, the Aztecs renewed the assault early next morning, and CortÚs soon realised that his men, few in number as compared with the enemy, could not long stand the strain of such fighting. He felt that their only hope lay in the emperor, who must be induced to appease his subjects once more by promising that the Spaniards would, if permitted, immediately leave the city.
"That have I to do with Malintzin?" exclaimed Montezuma bitterly, "I do not wish to hear from him. I desire only to die!" At last, however, Father Olmedo won his reluctant consent. "I will speak to my people," he said, "but it will be useless. They will neither believe me nor the false promises of Malintzin. You will never leave these walls alive."
So the emperor of the Aztecs, preceded by the golden wand of empire, but surrounded by a Spanish guard, mounted the palace roof to speak for the last time to his faithful people. He was arrayed in his royal robes, and on his weary brow rested the gorgeous crown of Mexico. A sudden silence fell on the battling multitudes below as they gazed on the monarch they had so long revered.
For a moment Montezuma was speechless with emotion, then, in a tone of kingly dignity, he said: "Why are you here in arms against the palace of my fathers? Is it that you think your sovereign a prisoner? If so, you have acted rightly. But you are mistaken. The strangers are my guests. I remain with them only from choice, and can leave them when I list. Have you come to drive them from the city? They will depart of their own accord if you will open a way for them. Return to your homes, lay down your arms, and the white men shall go back to their own land, and all shall be well again within the walls of Tenochtitlan."
But when the people heard their emperor declare that the ruthless invaders of their city were his guests and friends, a frenzy of patriotic wrath swept through the multitude. "Base Aztec!" they cried, "coward! woman! fit only to weave and spin!" and, before the Spaniards could shield him, Montezuma was struck senseless to the ground by a shower of stones and arrows. A sudden horror at their own deed instantly smote the Aztecs, who scattered in every direction with groans of bitter mourning, leaving the great square silent and deserted. The emperor, restored to consciousness, lay speechless in his apartments, refusing steadfastly to eat, and when his attendants strove to heal his wounds he tore away the bandages. His one longing was for death.
The Aztec warriors soon rushed back to their posts, thirsting for vengeance. The great teocalli of Huitzilopotchli, nearly a hundred and fifty feet high, afforded so strong a vantage-point, that CortÚs saw that at all costs he must dislodge the band of caciques who from its terraces and summit deluged the Old Palace with blinding missiles. Three attempts had the Spanish captains made in vain, and now the general, though wounded, resolved to capture the tower himself. Fastening a spear to his left arm, which was disabled, with three hundred of his bravest followers and several thousand Tlascalans, he charged the gateway of the serpent wall and galloped into the great courtyard. Leaving the gunners, bowmen, and Tlascalans to hold the square, which was soon won, CortÚs and his cavaliers sprang up the stairway of the great teocalli. Desperate was the ascent, and many a good soldier was hurled to the bottom by the storm of javelins, spears, and stones from the terraces above. For nearly a mile round the four platforms and up the five stairways the Spaniards fought their way, aided by the gunners and bowmen in the courtyard, who picked off the dusky warriors above.
At last the summit was gained, and there was waged so wild and fierce a battle that the troops in the city below ceased their warfare to gaze fascinated at this conflict in mid-air. No wall or parapet protected the edge, smooth and slippery was the stone pavement, and sometimes two wrestling figures locked together in furious struggle rolled headlong over the dizzy brink. For three long hours did the fight endure, but one after another the caciques and priests fell before the keen Castilian swords. At the shrine of Huitzilopotchli the survivors took their last stand, and on them rushed the mailed strangers with their glittering steel, CortÚs, as usual, to the fore. Suddenly two caciques, unarmed, flung themselves on the Spanish general, dragged him by main force to the edge of the summit, resolved to leap into death with their country's foe! But at the brink one of them stumbled, and CortÚs, tearing himself away, escaped the horrible fate. At length the battle was ended. Every Aztec was slain, and forty-five of the most gallant cavaliers had perished also, while each man bore gaping wounds. "Here CortÚs showed himself," said Bernal Diaz, "the man that he really was!"
The first act of the conquerors was to enter the two sanctuaries. They found, to their wrath, that the image of the Virgin Mary had been removed, but the horrible Huitzilopotchli still stood in his niche, before him his censer of smoking hearts, torn perhaps from Christian victims! Out of the chapel, across the broad summit and over the brink of the precipice the vengeful victors hurled the mighty god, while the crowds below gazed in frozen horror. Then setting fire to the sanctuary itself, they returned, unopposed, to their own quarters. And the flames, rising like banners in the sky, announced to the people in all the fair valley of Mexico that their religion was tottering to its fall.
That very night the tireless general made a sortie, and the flames of three hundred burning houses lit up the grim strangers at their work of destruction. Surely now, thought CortÚs, he had proved himself master, and broken the spirit of the enemy. Requesting a parley, he mounted the roof of the Old Palace with Marina by his side.
"You have seen your gods trampled in the dust, and your warriors falling on all sides," he called to the listening Aztecs. "If you will lay down your arms and return once more to your obedience, I will yet stay my hand. But if you do not, I will make your city a heap of ruins, and leave not a soul alive!"
The Spaniard did not yet understand the spirit of his foes. Defiantly they answered—
"You have destroyed our temples and massacred our warriors. Many more, doubtless, will fall under your terrible swords. But we are content if for every thousand Mexicans we can shed the blood of a single white man! Look out on our terraces and streets, see them still thronged with warriors as far as your eye can reach! Our numbers are scarcely lessened while yours are diminishing every hour. You are perishing from hunger and sickness. Your provisions and water are failing, and you must soon fall into our hands. The bridges are broken down and you cannot escape! There will be too few of you left to glut the vengeance of our gods!"
The words were but too true, and the hearts of the bravest veterans sank, while as for the soldiers of Narvaez, they showered maledictions upon CortÚs, who had led them with his specious promises into such a death-trap. Retreat was the only possible course, and anxiously the general considered when and by what way it could most safely be effected. He decided that the western causeway leading to Tacuba would be safer, because shorter, than the great southern dyke. But before beginning the perilous retreat he resolved to make a sortie to clear the road and build up the broken bridges.
Early the next morning the palace gate opened, and out dashed the cavaliers, scattering the dense ranks of the enemy. Behind came the Tlascalans dragging along with ropes three strange-looking machines. The Aztecs gazed with fear and curiosity. The monsters seemed to be square towers, two stories high, and they rolled heavily along on wheels. Suddenly from each of the machines doors dropped down, the muzzles of guns appeared, and both house-tops and street were swept with a withering fire. Then from the upper story ladders were flung out on to the roofs of the houses, and armed Spaniards springing across grappled with the astonished Aztec warriors, set fire to the buildings, and replacing the ladder returned to their tower of defence.
Down the long street went these mantas, leaving behind them a burning track. They were protected by a vanguard of cavalry and a rearguard of infantry, and in vain did Guatemozin strive to stop their progress. But at last they came to a palace so high that from its commanding roof the Aztecs could hurl with ease their clouds of missiles. Crash after crash struck the mantas, until at last they fell to pieces, and many of the men within were crushed to death.
Abandoning the ruined machines, the Spaniards now found the way barred by a canal, and fierce was the fight ere they were able to restore the broken bridge. Seven canals cut the street to Tacuba, and at each there was the same hard struggle. Very weary were the men whom CortÚs led back at night to the Old Palace, but early next morning they were perforce once again in the saddle, and before the day closed a way had been rebuilt over each canal. Strong companies of infantry under Alvarado were stationed at each bridge.
To the general there now came a message that the Aztecs wished to confer with him in his quarters at the Old Palace. With thankful heart, hoping that their spirit at last was broken, CortÚs rode hastily back, and at once consented to the Mexican proposal that two priests captured in the teocalli should be released to bear his terms. One of these priests was the teoteuctli, or high priest of Mexico, a mighty power among the Aztecs. Forth they went from the enemy's quarters to the wild welcome which awaited them in the city. But on no errand of peace were they bound, and no intention had they of ever returning to the Old Palace. The request for a conference had been but a ruse.
CortÚs and some of his officers, very tired with the long day's fight, were hurriedly eating a much-needed meal, and debating as to the result of their offers of peace, when a frantic message came that the detachments under Alvarado had been overpowered at three of the bridges. Flinging themselves into the saddle, CortÚs and his cavaliers rode at once to the rescue. "Christo y Santiago!" rang out the battle-cry, and Alvarado and his men rallied once more. Each bridge was regained, but as the general rode back victorious down the long street he found to his dismay that the enemy had actually fallen with renewed ferocity on the infantry guarding the chief bridge, which they had again destroyed.
Once more a desperate struggle, while the Spaniards strove to repair the bridge and make good their retreat. Right gallantly did the cavaliers cover the infantry at their work, and never did CortÚs himself fight more recklessly. Until the last man had crossed he held the foe at bay, and then, as some of the planks had given way, he leaped his horse across a gulf six feet in width. His escape was looked on by the old Spanish chroniclers as a miracle, and they record that the holy Virgin, robed in white, was seen at his side throwing dust into the eyes of the Aztecs.
As the darkness fell the Indians scattered, and the Spaniards were left to retrace their steps unmolested to their quarters. More dejected, battered, and worn they were after their victory than after many a more doubtful fray, and bad news awaited the general's return. The Aztec emperor lay at the point of death, and had asked for Malinche.
During these two days of battle Montezuma, refusing all food and all remedies, had been slowly dying on his couch in the Old Palace. As CortÚs clanked in his armour into the death-chamber, he saw Father Olmedo holding the ivory crucifix before the emperor's dying eyes, and beseeching him to find everlasting happiness while there was still time. But true to his own religion, the Aztec replied, "I have but a few moments to live, and will not at this hour desert the faith of my fathers."
Turning eagerly to CortÚs, he committed to his care "my most precious jewels, my children." He begged Malinche to request his master, the monarch of Spain, to see that if their country fell they should yet not be left destitute, but given some portion of their rightful inheritance. "Your lord will do this," he said, "if it were only for the friendly offices I have rendered the Spaniards, and for the love I have shown them—though it has brought me to this condition!" According to the conquerors, from whom alone we have the story of Montezuma's death, he added, "But for this I bear them no ill-will." It is hard to believe that their report was absolutely true!
So on the 30th of June 1520 the great Montezuma died in the quarters of the white strangers, who had sailed to his shores from the land of the rising sun, bringing with them fire and sword and ruin to all that he held most dear.
Eighteen years had he ruled as emperor of Anahuac, yet he was but forty-one, in the prime of life, when he met his miserable end. "Thus," says a native historian, "died the unfortunate Montezuma, who had swayed the sceptre with such consummate policy and wisdom, and who was held in greater reverence and awe than any other prince of his lineage, or any, indeed, that ever sat on a throne in this western world. With him may be said to have terminated the royal line of the Aztecs, and the glory to have passed away from the empire, which under him had reached the zenith of its prosperity!"
In simpler language old Bernal Diaz, who had known and loved the munificent, gentle-mannered Aztec, tells of his death. "The tidings were received with real grief," he says, "by every cavalier and soldier who had known him, as if he had been our father—and no wonder, seeing how good he was!"
Early in the morning the body of the emperor, arrayed in his robes of state, was borne by six Aztec nobles, through the gates of the Old Palace, to his people in the city.