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

A Kingdom Divided against Itself

The coming of Quetzalcoatl, so longed for by the people, was awaited by their emperor Montezuma with dread unspeakable. The very thought of losing rank and power, though to a god, made the days of the mighty monarch a nightmare, and the courtiers whispered as they watched his sombre face—"He is well named Montezuma, the man of gloom." By ceaseless sacrifice he strove to propitiate the gods and to avert his doom, but portent after portent seemed to presage coming evil.

On a calm and windless day the great salt lake encircling Tenochtitlan was troubled, and its waters raging in wild unrest o'er wall and causeway swept down the very streets of the city, while the emperor trembled in his palace. On one of the towers of the great teocalli  descended a ball of fire which no man could extinguish until the turret crashed in ruin. At night a comet streamed across the sky and Montezuma grew sick with foreboding fear. Most terrible portent of all, there appeared in the east on several nights in succession "a flood of fire thickly powdered with stars." And while this baleful light spread over the eastern sky, staining blood-red the white summits of the two great volcanoes, a sound of wild and unearthly wailing filled the air. Fateful omen! From the east would the Fair God come!

Almost distraught, Montezuma sent for counsel to Nezahualpilli, the learned king of Tezcuco, who was steeped in the lore of astrology. To the imperial palace in Tenochtitlan came the grey-bearded monarch, the son for whom the great Nezahualcayotl had fasted. Gloomy was his face, and his prophetic words but added to the emperor's despair.

"So sure am I that the days of our empire are numbered," he said, "that I will play you at dice for my kingdom of Tezcuco. You shall stake three fighting cocks, and I will set against them my realm itself. If you win, all shall be well with the land of Anahuac, but if I win the glory of our race shall vanish like snow before the coming of the children of the Sun." So the two kings played this fateful match and Nezahualpilli won the cocks.

"We have played against destiny and we have lost!" cried the sage. "Would that you had won my kingdom! Swiftly now will come the day of doom!" So saying he arose and returned across the lake to his city of Tezcuco. Soon came word to Montezuma that the astrologer-king, brooding o'er the downfall of his race, was dead.

Two sons, Cacama and Ixtlilxochitl, disputed the succession, and for a time Tezcuco was torn with civil strife, until the strong hand of the Aztec emperor placed Cacama on the throne. But the younger son, henceforth Montezuma's deadly foe, still ruled in the hill-fastnesses of the northern part of the kingdom.

Many months passed by in suspense. The solemn words of Nezahualpilli grew fainter, and hope even began to creep into the emperor's heart. Then came like a thunderbolt the news of Grijalva's landing. But the time was not yet, and Grijalva sailed away. Had the gods heard his prayers, accepted his sacrifices?

Alas! who can escape his fate? Once more the dreaded strangers seek his shores, bringing in their train thunder and lightning and fierce, fiery animals for war. In the pictured scroll he gazes on these white-skinned metal-clad men, and from the trembling tongue of his fleet courier he hears the bold words of their chief. They wish to march to his very citadel, they demand an audience, to no subordinate will they commit the message of their own all-powerful lord. Montezuma is perplexed. Who is this lord, this monarch so mighty? Quetzalcoatl? The Aztec hesitates. He temporises.

Eight days did CortÚs await the answer to his message in his camp on the sandy shore. This was the tierra caliente, the hot region of Mexico, and all day long the sun beat mercilessly down on the palpitating, breathless land. Hard by was a fever-haunted marsh, and several of the Spaniards fell sick with malaria. Tormented by myriads of tropical insects they would have found the place insupportable but for the kindness and attention of the natives, who lavished on the strangers cooling fruits and food of all kinds. Some of them, indeed, by Tendile's command, built booths of branches near the Spanish camp, and passed their time in cooking tempting dishes for CortÚs and his officers.

On the eighth day appeared Tendile himself with two stately Aztec nobles and a numerous train of attendants. A hundred slaves bore the multitude of gifts sent by their imperial master. To the general's large tent they made their way, and the slaves waving their censers filled the air with incense, while the nobles did reverence in Aztec fashion. Then on brightly coloured mats before the Spaniards' dazzled eyes they spread glittering shields, embossed helmets, collars, bracelets, sandals, all of purest gold; crests and head-dresses of gorgeous feathers wrought with gold and silver thread and adorned with precious stones; curtains, coverlets, and robes of finest cotton interwoven with the soft fur of rabbits, dyed in rich colours and embroidered with devices of birds and flowers.

Cunningly fashioned were the ornaments in wrought and cast gold and silver, representing birds and beasts with jewelled eyes and movable wings and limbs. Most beautiful, perhaps, of all these truly royal gifts were the mantles of that exquisite feather work peculiar to the Mexican people. From the plumage of countless parrots, whose haunt was in the forests, came the bold and brilliant shades, while the humming-birds who lived in the honeysuckle bowers of Mexico supplied the softer and more delicate tones. True artists were the feather-workers, and held in high esteem.

A silver moon, a golden sun, the size of a carriage wheel, and elaborately carved with plants and animals, inflamed the cupidity of the Spaniards, who valued this alone at twenty thousand pesos de oro (about ú50,000). Last of all was offered to CortÚs the Spanish helmet filled to the brim with grains of gold.

With courtly formality the ambassadors then delivered the message of their master. "Montezuma rejoices," they said, "in the arrival of such brave men in his country, and is pleased to hold this communication with their powerful king, for whom he feels the deepest respect. He regrets much that owing to the distance of his capital he cannot receive the strangers at his court, but the journey is beset with so many difficulties that they must not dream of attempting it. It is the emperor's wish, therefore, that they should return at once to their own land bearing his gifts to their master as proofs of friendship."

This reply, so courteous yet so unwelcome, called for all the diplomacy of CortÚs, who dissembled his disappointment in effusive thanks for Montezuma's munificence. "It makes me," he declared, "but the more anxious to see and speak with your gracious monarch in person. It will be indeed impossible for me to present myself before my own sovereign without having accomplished this great object of my voyage. One who has sailed over two thousand leagues of ocean holds lightly the perils and fatigues of so short a journey by land."

The ambassadors promised to convey this message, but held out no hopes of a favourable answer, and it was with some reluctance that they accepted for their master a handsome Venetian glass cup, some Holland shirts, and a few worthless trinkets.

All thoughts of discipline were lost as the adventurers crowded to the general's tent to gaze on the treasure which they had seen borne through the camp by the long train of Aztec slaves. Roused to a frenzy of greed and daring the bolder spirits cried, "Let us strike inland at once and seize this treasure-house!" With others caution prevailed. "How civilised, how powerful must be this rich empire whose subjects are so skilled," they said soberly; "it will be madness to attempt the conquest with our small force. Let us return and report what we have seen to Velasquez."

Difficulties now gathered round the general, dissensions broke out among his followers, and the secret friends of Velasquez began to show their hand. CortÚs had never intended to be a cat's-paw for the Governor of Cuba, nor even to share with him the rewards of this expedition. He realised that until he was independent he could not really cope with the situation, so he determined to found a crown colony and cause himself to be elected commandant, answerable to the king of Spain alone.

After ten days the Aztec envoys returned with more gifts, but curter and briefer was their message. Montezuma forbade the strangers to advance farther, and requested them to leave his shores without delay. "This is a rich and powerful prince indeed," said CortÚs to his officers, "yet it shall go hard, but we will one day pay him a visit in his capital! "At this moment the vesper bell rang out and the Spanish soldiers flung themselves on the sands before the great wooden cross in the centre of the camp, and offered their evening prayer, while the envoys looked on curiously. Father Olmedo then strove earnestly to expound to them the Christian faith. They listened with cold but courteous indifference, and with a few words of haughty command to the Aztecs whom Tendile had ordered to attend on the Spaniards, they left the camp.

That very night the supply of provisions suddenly ceased, and all the natives silently disappeared from the neighbourhood. The Spaniards were left without food on the scorching sands, and the ravages of fever added fuel to their smouldering discontent. Resolving to move his camp, CortÚs sent two ships to explore the coast northwards, and find if possible a safer harbour and a healthier situation. But each day the soldiery clamoured still more insistently, "Let us return to Cuba before we bring the force of the whole Mexican empire on our heads!"

At this juncture fortune came to the general's aid. Five Indians appeared one morning in the camp. In dress and appearance they seemed to differ from the Aztecs. They lacked the striking dignity of manner, and were decorated in more barbarous fashion. To their under-lips were fastened golden leaves, and rings of gold with bright blue stones hung from their split nostrils and ears. Marina could not at first understand their language, but she soon found that two of them could speak the Aztec tongue. They belonged to the ancient tribe of the Totonacs who had dwelt in freedom for many centuries on the eastern slopes of the plateau of Anahuac. They had been conquered, however, by the armies of Montezuma, and very bitter did they find their bondage. Their cacique  had heard of the wonderful white men, and petitioned for their aid to throw off the yoke of his oppressors. He invited the Spaniards to visit him in Cempoalla, his chief city, which lay to the north along the coast near to the spot where CortÚs had decided to pitch his new camp.

Lavishing every attention and honour on the five Totonacs, the Spanish general pondered over their proposal with thankful heart. This Mexican empire, then, outwardly so strong and united, had enemies already within its gates! His keen eye saw here an invaluable aid to the foreign conqueror. Promising the Totonacs that he would visit Cempoalla, he gave orders to break up the encampment and prepare for the march northward. This command enraged still more the discontented soldiers, who, going in a body to CortÚs, called him a traitor and demanded to be taken home. To their surprise the general at once consented, and ordered the whole army to be in readiness to embark the following day.

And now in fury rushed to the general's tent all those bold spirits who wished to be led to Mexico. "Are we to be dragged back now?" they cried, "when we stand on the threshold of a golden empire!" All night the uproar continued, until the ardour of the bold so infected the waverers that by the next morning an almost complete revulsion of feeling had taken place. When it came to the point hardly a man wished to renounce the treasure so nearly within his grasp, and unanimously they besought the general to go forward. With well-simulated reluctance CortÚs gave way. "Since you so much wish it," he said, "I will found a settlement in this new country for the glory of the Spanish name. But no unwilling soldier shall aid me. Whoever wishes may return to Cuba!" With ringing cheers the army prepared for its onward march.

Ever ready to strike while the iron was hot, CortÚs proposed to elect at once the civil magistrates for the projected colony, which was to receive the name of Villa Rica de la Vera Cruz. Two alcaldes  were appointed,—one a personal friend of the general, the other an adherent of Velasquez. Then followed the elections to the minor offices. When all was settled CortÚs, cap in hand, presented himself before this new municipal council and resigned the office which he had received from Velasquez. Not a word was spoken until their former leader had retired, then with one consent the councillors, in the name of his Catholic Majesty of Spain, re-elected him as Captain-General, with the added honour and title of Chief Justice to the colony.

The ships with the heavy guns on board were to follow the coast until they came to the chosen harbour. The army, leaving with joy the mosquito-infested marsh lands, struck out through more fertile country. Grassy plains broken by clumps of cocoa groves and palm forests rejoiced their hearts. Beneath the trees the deer were grazing and startled pheasants rose at their very feet. Here they saw for the first time the turkey, a native of Mexico, and hitherto unknown to Europeans. Twelve Totonacs met them to act as guides through the jungle, where rioted the prickly aloe, and where gorgeous tropical creepers and dark purple vines clothed the trunk of every tree. Roses, honeysuckle, and flowers of every hue vied with the colours of the brilliant birds and butterflies. Few were the songsters, but the scarlet cardinal sang sweetly as a nightingale, and the strange mocking-bird roused the echoes of the forest.

Amidst all this varied beauty stood a temple and on its altar the mangled corpse of a human being. Shuddering, the Christians turned away, vowing to purge the land of its savage blood-stained deities.

Next morning as they drew near Cempoalla, they were met by crowds of people in holiday attire, who flung on them garlands of flowers, and decked the horses with chaplets of roses. Women in gay cotton robes mingled freely in the throng.

Entering the city the Spaniards were struck with the appearance of the houses, which were well built and plastered with stucco. They were led at once to the palace, where they were received by the lord of Cempoalla, whom Bernal Diaz distinguishes as "the fat cacique."  Quarters were provided for the whole army in the wide courtyard of the chief temple, and the general gave strict orders that no annoyance was to be offered to the natives.

On the morrow CortÚs, with Marina and one of his officers, visited the palace, where the cacique  gave him much information as to the condition of Anahuac. "The great Montezuma," he said, "dwells in a strong city in the midst of a lake far off among the mountains. He is a stern prince, and merciless in his exactions. If we dare to resist him, his armies pour down from the mountains of the west, and, rushing over the plains like a whirlwind, sweep off our young men and maidens to slavery and sacrifice."

"Do not fear," replied CortÚs, "if you will be true to me I will enable you to throw off the yoke of Montezuma. A single Spaniard is stronger than a host of Aztecs."

The chief then told him of other conquered tribes equally discontented, and also of the republic of Tlascala, independent and irreconcilable.

Bidding farewell to his new friends, CortÚs marshalled his men to march on to the coast, where they were to meet the ships and build their settlement. Visions of conquest danced before his kindling eyes. Alone he had not feared to face the Aztecs; with native allies he felt that victory would be sure and speedy.

Passing through another Totonac city, the Spaniards were kindly received by the people. While they were conversing amicably with the leading men of the place a message was brought to the cacique, who at once withdrew from the Spaniards in constrained silence.

At this moment five richly dressed strangers entered the market-place, and passed by the adventurers with haughty disdain. "Their hair was shining," says Bernal Diaz, "and, as it were, tied on the top of the head, and each of them had in his hand a bunch of roses which he occasionally smelt." They were Mexican collectors of tribute, and were hurriedly joined by the notables of the place, to whom they administered a severe reprimand for entertaining the Spaniards. In expiation they demanded young men and women to sacrifice to the gods.

The indignation of CortÚs knew no bounds. He urged the Totonacs to seize and imprison the imperial tax-gatherers, pledging his word to support them in their rebellion. After some persuasion this was done.

Having thus embroiled the Totonacs with Montezuma, he determined to reap all possible advantage from the occurrence, and that night secretly set free two of the prisoners to carry a message to their emperor, saying that the Spaniards were still his friends.

No course was now open to the rebellious tribe but to throw in their lot with the white men, and the caciques  of all the Totonac cities came at CortÚs' summons to swear allegiance to the king of Spain.

This strong alliance gave the invaders confidence to establish their settlement. "For the site of our town," says Bernal Diaz, "we chose a plain half a league from the fortress where we now were; and tracing out the foundations of the church, square, arsenal, and fort, we raised all the buildings to the first story, and also the walls and parapets with loopholes and barbicans. CortÚs was the first to carry earth or stones or dig in the foundations. His example was followed by all the officers and soldiers, some digging and others making the walls of clay, bringing water, and at the kilns making bricks and tiles; others seeking provisions or timber, and the smiths preparing the iron-work. In this manner we continued until, with the assistance of the natives, we had nearly completed the church, houses, and fortresses."

While this work was in progress an embassy arrived from Montezuma, who had heard of the insult offered to the tax-collectors and also of their rescue. He sent thanks and a costly gift to the Spaniards, informing them of his conviction that they were the Teules or god-like beings so long announced by the oracles. He would spare the Totonacs while the strangers were in their midst, but the time for vengeance would come. "How formidable must these Teules be," thought the people of the country, "whom even the great Montezuma fears!"

To bind the Spaniards to them in close alliance the Totonacs proposed intermarriage, and offered to them seven noble maidens attended by slaves. Father Olmedo saw here an opportunity; the Church, he said, could not sanction such a union unless the Totonacs gave up their hideous worship and accepted Christianity. Indignantly the natives refused. Then cried CortÚs to his men, "Though it cost the lives of all, this very hour their false gods shall be demolished!" At the word the soldiers rushed to the chief temple. The cacique  immediately summoned his warriors to arms, while the dark-robed priests, their flowing hair matted with blood, roused the whole city to frenzy. CortÚs at once seized both cacique  and priests, and commanded them to pacify the people. "If a single blow is struck," he exclaimed, "the whole town shall perish!" "Hiding his face the cacique cried, "The gods will avenge their own wrongs!"

The idols were then flung from the temple and burnt by the zealous Christians, the walls of the chamber of sacrifice were purged and covered with stucco, while in the place of the sacrificial stone an altar was built and dedicated to the Virgin. Seeing that the gods made no resistance, the Totonacs were quite willing to embrace the new faith. Exchanging their dark robes for white, even the heathen priests, with candles in their hands, marched in solemn procession behind an image of the Virgin Mary covered with flowers.

This holy work accomplished, the Spaniards with much complaisance returned to their own city, the Villa Rica de la Vera Cruz.

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