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

Mexico the Golden

In the Old Palace meanwhile Spaniard and Tlascalan, rejoicing in the rest and good fare, took no thought for the morrow. Not so their general. Ever gay and confident in manner, he realised clearly the peril of his position in the heart of a fortified and perhaps hostile city. His first care must be to inspect the town and its strongholds, and for this he requested the emperor's permission.

Readily consenting, Montezuma detailed four nobles as guides. With a flourish of trumpets and drums, cavalry and infantry marched into the great square. Crowds of citizens had assembled to gaze once more on the strangers. Many women of both high and low degree mingled freely among the men. They all wore several embroidered petticoats of different lengths, a chemise matching the skirts, and a bright-coloured scarf crossed like a fichu at the throat, and hanging down with tasselled ends almost to the feet. They had no veils or any kind of head-dress save a simple fillet of flowers which caught back their dark and flowing tresses. The richer ladies wore a loose mantle over their embroidered chemise and skirts, and bound their hair with a jewelled fillet.

The streets through which the Spaniards passed were watered and swept daily by a thousand labourers, and were so clean that "a man could walk through them with as little danger of soiling his feet as his hands." The canals were used as highways with paths of pavement on either side.

It was market-day in Mexico, and the Aztec nobles led the way to the busy square, where the Spaniards stood astonished at the multitude of people and the regularity which prevailed. Nowhere in Europe, not even in Rome or Constantinople, had they seen a market-place so vast, so skillfully laid out, and so well managed. "The entire square was enclosed in piazzas, under which great quantities of grain were stored and where were also shops." Every merchant had his particular place, which was distinguished by a sign. Goldsmiths, jewellers, potters, furniture-makers, feather-work artists, sculptors, all were there. In one of the deep porticoes hung beautiful fabrics and robes. In another, and here the Spaniards gazed long, were exhibited weapons and armour, all of copper, stone, or tin, for the use of iron was still unknown to the Aztecs. Out of the same stone, which formed the blades of the deadly maquahuitl, razors and even mirrors were manufactured. Here and there were booths where busy barbers plied their trade, or chemists sold their healing drugs. One quarter of the market was reserved for provisions, and here were the hunters with their game, and the fishermen carrying their fish caught that day in the fresh waters of Lake Chalco or in the silvery mountain streams. Here too were delicious fruits, green vegetables, and gorgeous flowers. Tables with pastry, bread, cakes and cups of chocolate or pulque, the aloe-wine, tempted the passer-by. In another quarter were live animals for sale, and near them gangs of miserable slaves. The Aztecs sold according to number or measure, and their currency consisted of bits of tin stamped with a letter like T, bags of cacao, and quills filled with gold dust. A court of justice was held in the market-place, where to all caught cheating summary punishment was meted out by the policemen who patrolled the square.

The soldiers, fascinated by the sights around them, were loath to leave, but CortÚs was informed that the emperor awaited them in the great Temple of Huitzilopotchli.

Retracing their steps, the Spaniards came to the "wall of serpents," sculptured in stone, which surrounded the vast quadrangle in which lay this mighty temple—a city within a city. Four turreted gateways with arsenals above and barracks beside them opened into the four principal streets.

In the great central courtyard, where the horses slipped at every step on the polished stone pavement, the cavaliers dismounted and gazed curiously around them. Lanes branched off in every direction leading to the numerous buildings which filled the vast enclosure. There were granaries, storehouses, and gardens, so that the temple inhabitants could in time of need be self-supporting. There were houses for the priests and for the priestesses; schools where boys were taught picture-writing, astronomy, and above all, the ceremonies of their religion and traditions of their race; while the girls learned the arts of weaving and embroidery. There were several teocallis  or sacred turrets, and on their flat roofs flamed the never-dying fires.

But high above all other buildings towered in the centre of the quadrangle the great teocalli  of Huitzilopotchli. This mighty structure was solid and made of earth and pebbles, the whole coated with hewn stone. It was shaped like a pyramid, and its four sides faced north, south, east, and west. It was encircled by five terraces, each one smaller than the one below. A flight of steps led from the ground to the first terrace, round which the pilgrim must pass to gain the steps leading upward. The fifth and last platform could only be reached by passing four times around the pyramid. This laborious ascent had been devised to add to the magnificence of the religious festivals. The procession of priests with their banners and music winding slowly round and round the great teocalli  to reach the shrine on its summit must have been a gorgeous spectacle to the people in the streets below.

Refusing the offer of the Aztec priests to carry him up, CortÚs with Dona Marina and his captains climbed to the summit, where Montezuma received him with kindly courtesy.

"You are weary, Malintzin, with the ascent," said the emperor.

"To the Spaniards," replied CortÚs vauntingly, "fatigue is unknown!"

At one end of the smooth-paved summit were two towers with the shrines and images of the gods; in front of each blazed its altar fire. At the other end was the jasper stone of sacrifice, and the huge drum of serpents' skins struck only in a time of great triumph or danger.

Montezuma then took CortÚs by the hand and told him to look at the wonderful view below. There lay the city with its crowded streets and canals, glittering temples, flower-crowned palaces, and the three great white causeways which stretched far across the dancing waters of the lake to the northern, southern, and western shores. To the west rose cypress-covered Chapoltepec, "the grasshoppers' hill," crowned with the emperor's country palace. From here was carried across the lake in a skillfully constructed aqueduct Mexico's supply of pure water. In the south gleamed Lake Chalco. Far on the horizon stood out against the deep blue sky the white peaks of the volcanoes.

For long did CortÚs gaze at the symmetrical plan of the city, but turning at last to the emperor he asked permission to enter the two-towered chapels. Montezuma at once led his guests to the shrine of Huitzilopotchli, a huge idol with a great face and terrible eyes. He was bedecked with jewels; round his body coiled golden serpents, and on his neck was a chain strung alternately with golden hearts and silver heads. In his right hand he held a bow, in his left a sheaf of golden arrows. Beside him stood his page, a little idol bearing his lance and shield. On the altar were three bleeding hearts torn from the victims of that day's sacrifice; the walls and floor were dark with human blood.

In the other tower was the image of Tezcat, the "Soul of the World." This was an idol of polished black marble covered with golden ornaments, with mirrors for eyes, and a shield of burnished gold in which he saw reflected all the doings of the world. Here too lay offerings of human hearts, and "the stench was more intolerable," says the old chronicler, "than that of all the slaughter-houses of Castile!" Even to the god of the harvest, a figure half-alligator, half-man, said to contain the germ and origin of all created things, the Aztecs had made bloody sacrifice. "We thought," says Bernal Diaz, "we never could get out soon enough, and I devoted them and all their wickedness to God's vengeance."

"I do not know, my Lord Montezuma," exclaimed CortÚs, "how so great a king and so learned a man as you are should not have collected in his thoughts that these idols are not gods, but devils? If you will but permit us to erect here the true cross, and place the images of the blessed Virgin and her Son in your sanctuaries, you will soon see how your false gods will shrink before them!"

But at the words Montezuma's face grew dark, and the priests scowled blackly at the impious stranger. With much dignity the emperor replied, "My Lord Malinche, these are the gods who have led the Aztecs on to victory since they were a nation, and who send the seed-time and the harvest in their seasons. Had I thought you would have offered them this outrage I would not have admitted you into their presence."

Gladly the Christians turned to descend, but Montezuma remained behind to expiate by sacrifice his sin in permitting the strangers to enter the shrines.

Among the smaller teocallis  in the courtyard was one to which CortÚs turned with some curiosity, for it was dedicated to Quetzalcoatl. But even the worship of the Fair God, who had forbidden human sacrifice, had been profaned by the bloodthirsty priests. The tower, which was round, had an entrance in imitation of a dragon's mouth, and its horrid fangs were dripping with human blood. Glancing down the throat the Spaniards saw within the ghastly instruments of sacrifice, and they christened the hateful place henceforth as "hell."

Passing by a wooden pyramid strung with thousands of skulls, the Christians breathed a sigh of relief as the great gate in the serpents' wall closed behind them, and they found themselves once more in the gay and busy street. It was with gloomy faces that they returned to their quarters in the old palace. They had seen the strength of the city, and they had seen the horrors of its religion. It was the sights in the great temple which sobered the faces of the rank and file. If any disaster came to their little force each soldier saw before him the dreadful fate of the victim.

To cheer and occupy his men, CortÚs on the following day ordered one of the halls in the Old Palace to be transformed into a Christian chapel. While at work the soldiers noticed that part of the wall had been newly plastered over. Pulling down the plaster, they found a door concealed beneath. It was quick work to force it open, and there before their dazzled eyes lay masses of gold, silver, jewels, and costly fabrics! It was Montezuma's treasure-room of which they had heard vague rumours. "I was a young man," says Bernal Diaz, and it seemed to me as if all the riches of the world were in that room!" But CortÚs, who was not yet prepared to risk offending the emperor, ordered the door to be closed up once more, and forbade the soldiers to speak of their discovery.

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