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

The Great Montezuma

In the green land of the valley the Spaniards were met by another embassy from Montezuma. The envoys had expected to meet the strangers on the farther side of the mountains, and were astonished at the ease with which they had surmounted that formidable barrier. They had been sent to offer CortÚs bribes and yearly tribute for his king if he would even now turn back. In vain, no humiliation on the part of the emperor could change the foreordained.

When Montezuma had received the news that the Spaniards were actually in the valley and marching towards the capital, he retired to sacrifice and prayer alone. The gods were dumb, no good omen answered his supplication. "We are born, let that come which must come!" cried the unhappy man at last. Even from his council he received no help; opinion was divided, some were for amicably receiving the strangers, others, and among these his brother Cuitlahuac, would drive them from the land. Hopeless himself, Montezuma inclined to the peaceful party, exclaiming, "Of what avail is resistance, when the gods have declared themselves against us!" He determined to send his nephew Cacama, the lord of Tezcuco, with other nobles, to welcome the invaders.

The prince with his retinue found the Spaniards at Chalco, the most southerly of the five lakes. CortÚs was much impressed with the dignity of Cacama's bearing and by the courtesy of his greetings. When the imposing cortege had retired, the army followed the southern shore of the lake until a great dyke was reached leading across to the narrow peninsula which separates the fresh waters of Chalco from briny Tezcuco. This stone roadway with its evidence of engineering skill excited the admiration of the Europeans, while they were charmed with the gay scene around them. The waters were bright with chinampas, the floating gardens so beloved by the Mexicans; myriads of canoes darted to and fro. "And when," says Bernal Diaz, "we saw from thence so many cities rising up from the water, and other populous places on the terra firma, and that causeway straight as a carpenter's level, we remained astonished, and said to one another that it appeared like the enchanted castles they tell of in the book of Amadis! Some even of our soldiers asked if this that they saw was not a thing in a dream!"

Near the shores of Lake Tezcuco lay Iztapalapan, the wonderful City of Gardens, where Montezuma had prepared a royal reception for his guests. The palace, which belonged to Cuitlahuac, was most magnificent, and here the Spaniards were entertained. The ceilings were of sweet-smelling cedar wood, and the walls were hung with tapestry of fine cotton. But the gardens, unrivalled in Europe, were the glory of the place. They occupied a large tract of land and were watered by means of aqueducts and canals. The grounds were laid out in regular squares, and numerous paths trellised with roses, honeysuckle, and brilliant creepers ran in every direction. Flower-beds, scientifically arranged, astonished the rough soldiers. In the orchards were rare fruit-trees brought from distant lands. An aviary and a great reservoir of sculptured stone full of curious fishes attracted the attention of all. "I thought within myself," says Bernal Diaz, "that this was the garden of the world."

At sunrise next morning the Spaniards marched on to the great causeway which fled across the salt lake to the city of Mexico. It was the eighth of November, a day glorious in the annals of Spain.

Each soldier looked grave and anxious; he was leaving the open country behind and committing himself to the very citadel of the enemy. CortÚs, ever alive to the spirit of his men, ordered the trumpeters and drummers to play, and it was to the strains of a triumphant march that the Spaniards went forward.

In the van rode the cavalry, horseman and horse alike glittering in steel mail. At their saddle-bows hung heavy battle-axes. In his right hand each cavalier carried a lance which rested on his iron shoe, and from the lance a silken pennon waved. Plumed helmets and gay scarfs gave colour to the cavalcade. Foremost rode CortÚs with his two favourite captains on either side,—Alvarado, dauntless in bearing and splendid in dress, and modest young Sandoval, in whom "courage was combined with judgment." Father Olmedo, bareheaded and dressed in rough black serge, followed the horsemen on his mule. Then came in order a chosen guard with the flag of Spain, the artillery drawn by slaves, the infantry, cross-bowmen, gunners, and the tamanes  with the baggage. With insolent pride marched in the rear the two thousand Tlascalans, who were to enter for the first time the city of their ancient foes.

About a mile and a half from the walls, at a point where a smaller dyke branched off to the western shore, the causeway was barred by the famous stone fort of Xoloc, twelve feet high with towers at either end. A mighty gate swung open for the army to pass through, and, as it clanged heavily behind, each Spaniard breathed a prayer to his guardian saint. They were but four hundred in number, and they were entering an island city of over three hundred thousand inhabitants from which retreat would be wellnigh impossible. "And now let who can tell me," boasts Bernal Diaz with pardonable pride, "where are the men in this world to be found except ourselves who would have hazarded such an attempt?"

As the Spaniards crossed the wooden drawbridge which joined the causeway to the city they beheld, slowly approaching, a procession so magnificent that an awestruck whisper passed through their ranks—"It is the emperor! the great Montezuma himself!"

Three ushers with golden wands walked in advance to clear the way. Then barefooted and bareheaded came princes of the blood carrying on their proud shoulders the royal palanquin glittering with gold and surmounted by a canopy of green feathers sprinkled with precious stones. Behind, with reverent mien and downcast eyes walked an escort of nobles richly dressed in green and silver.

The procession halted, and a carpet of white cloth was spread on the ground. Then leaning on the arms of Cuitlahuac, his brother, and the lord of Tezcuco, his nephew, the emperor descended from his palanquin and advanced on foot to meet his guests. His cloak and tunic were embroidered with jewels, and the dark-green feathers which floated from his headdress were powdered with emeralds and pearls. The very soles of his sandals were of pure gold, and the leather thongs were rimmed with gems. He was tall and thin, with regular features, pale complexion, and scanty black beard, and his manner as he greeted the Spanish general was dignified and kingly.

Cortes presented Montezuma with a chain of coloured crystals, and advanced to embrace him, but Cuitlahuac, with a look of horror, flung back the outstretched arm of the impious stranger who presumed to touch the sacred person of the emperor. Greetings exchanged, Montezuma, leaving his nobles to escort the visitors to their quarters, re-entered his palanquin and was borne back to his palace.

Along a broad paved avenue, which stretched in a straight line right through the centre of the capital from the southern to the northern causeway, the Spaniards passed, lost in wonder at the throngs of people and the splendour of the city. Houses of red stone, one story high, but covering great space, lined the streets. Between them and on the flat roofs edged with parapets were terraced gardens, and the air was sweet with the perfume of flowers. The houses had airy windows, balconies entwined with flowering creepers, and porches with columns of sculptured marble. Here and there the line of stately dwellings was broken by an open square or towered temple with its never-dying fires. Numerous canals spanned by drawbridges intersected the streets.

Everywhere swarmed the people. From street, canal, temple, balcony, window, and housetop the Aztecs gazed curiously on the strangers, their horses, and their guns. But when they beheld the hated Tlascalan stalk defiantly down their streets dark grew their faces, though, in obedience to the emperor's command, they uttered no word or sound.

On one side of a great square rose the mighty temple of Huitzilopotchli, and on the other a pile of low stone buildings, which had been in old days the royal palace, and was now assigned to the Spaniards for their quarters. Here Montezuma was waiting to receive his guests. Placing round the neck of CortÚs a curiously wrought collar made of gold and of the shells of crawfish, the emperor withdrew, saying, with gracious courtesy, "This palace belongs to you, Malintzin. Rest after your fatigues, and in a little while I will visit you again."

In spite of the friendly reception, the first care of the Spanish general was to examine and fortify his quarters. Though only one story high, the vast palace easily held the whole army, including the allies. It was encircled by towered walls of massive stone along which CortÚs stationed sentinels. At the gates he placed his cannon. This done, the soldiers were allowed to sit down to the sumptuous repast prepared for them by Mexican slaves. Very pleasant and indeed luxurious was their new abode, with tapestry-covered walls and floors strewn with mats or rushes. In the sleeping-rooms were beds of woven palm leaves with coverlets and sometimes canopies of cotton.

The hour of siesta over, the emperor paid his promised visit. He asked many questions as to the king and country of his guests, and showed great courtesy to all the captains, taking care to learn their names, and presenting them ere he retired with magnificent gifts. Each soldier also received two loads of rich mantles. "And all this he did," says Diaz, "in the most free and gracious manner, like a great monarch as he was."

All day long the citizens crowded the top of the great temple opposite, eager to catch a glimpse of the strangers. All day long they restlessly walked the street below talking of the portentous beings within their gates. But when darkness fell, and the evening guns thundered for the first time through the city, they turned away shuddering at "the voices of the gods."

In the morning CortÚs returned the emperor's visit, taking with him Alvarado, Sandoval, Ordaz, and five of the soldiers, among whom was Bernal Diaz. Montezuma's new palace, which was built of red stone ornamented with marble, was so vast that it contained quarters for a large guard and a great armoury. In a spacious aviary, tended by three hundred slaves, were birds of brilliant plumage, and it was here that much of the feather-work was fabricated. Enormous eagles, vultures, and other fierce birds of prey from the snow-clad Andes were in a separate house, and were fed daily with five hundred turkeys. The menagerie of wild animals and reptiles, in roomy houses kept scrupulously clean, seemed to fill the Spaniards with horror rather than with interest. "In this accursed place," says Bernal Diaz, "were poisonous serpents with somewhat in their tails that sounds like castanets. They were kept in vessels filled with feathers where they reared their young. . . . These beasts and horrid reptiles were retained to keep company with their infernal gods, and when these animals yelled and hissed the palace seemed like hell itself." With more pleasure Diaz speaks of the gardens which were "irrigated by canals of running water and shaded with every variety of tree. In them were baths of cut stone, pavilions for feasting or retirement, and theatres for shows and for the dancers and singers; all were kept in the most exact order by a number of labourers constantly employed."

Through many stately rooms with hangings of feather-work exquisite in colour and design the Spaniards were led to the audience-chamber where Montezuma awaited his visitors. At the threshold the Aztec officers cast off their sandals, and flinging over their rich garments a robe of coarse nequen  made from aloe thread, they entered with deep obeisance the sacred presence, All, save the members of his family, approached the emperor in this humble garb.

Montezuma received his guests graciously as ever, placing CortÚs at his right hand. The Spanish general then proceeded to make a valiant attempt to convert the heathen monarch, explaining to him at great length the mysteries of the Christian religion. Faithfully Marina tried to interpret the abstruse doctrines, and then Montezuma, who had listened with the utmost courtesy, replied, "I doubt not that your God is good, but my gods, also, are good to me. It is not worth while to discourse further of the matter." He spoke of Quetzalcoatl and of the belief that the Spaniards were the god's descendants. "You, too," he said in a laughing manner, for he was gay in conversation, "have been told, perhaps, that I am a god and dwell in palaces of gold and silver. But you see I am of mere flesh and blood, and my houses are of lime and stone and timber! Rest now from your labours, Malintzin; you are here in your own dwellings, and your every want shall be supplied."

Attendants then brought forward such rich gifts that each soldier received at least two heavy gold collars for his share. With many expressions of gratitude, CortÚs observing that it was past midday, the emperor's dinner hour, took leave. "And on the way home," says Diaz, "we could discourse of nothing but the gentle breeding and courtesy of the Indian monarch."

But when the Spaniards had left him the gracious smiles forsook Montezuma's face. How strong they were, these gods or god-like men! With what confidence had they spoken of their lord who ruled the world, and their God whom they wished to make all men worship. A foreboding of coming evil which he was powerless to avert possessed the emperor as he flung himself moodily on his luxurious cushions. He took all his meals in solitary state, for his numerous wives lived in their own apartments, and only appeared when summoned by their master. His attendants, barefooted and in robes of nequen, were yet nobles of the highest rank. They now placed around him a screen of carved wood embossed with gold, and covered with a white cloth the low table at his side. Four beautiful women presented, on bended knee, water in a silver basin for the emperor's hands, and towels of the finest cotton. Then from the hundreds of dishes placed on the matted floor Montezuma chose which he would have. The plates, which were of fine red and black Cholulan china, were given away at the end of every meal to the attendants. The fish, which was served first, came fresh every day from the Gulf of Mexico. The meats, which were kept hot in chafing-dishes, were dressed in a great variety of ways, for the Aztecs were well versed in the art of cooking. To the four ancient lords who stood at a respectful distance Montezuma gave from time to time "as a mark of particular favour a plate of that which he was eating."

After pastry and sweetmeats a golden goblet of foaming chocolate, flavoured with vanilla and other spices, was presented to the emperor. All manner of delicious fruits were then placed before him, gathered from the tropical groves of the coast and the orchards of the temperate plateau.

When the meal was over the fair maidens presented once more the silver basin of sparkling water, the ancient lords retired, and pipes were brought of gilded wood containing "liquid amber, mixed with an herb they call tobacco." While the emperor lay and smoked, buffoon and jester, juggler, minstrel and dancing-girl sought in vain to chase from his brow the lines of heavy care. Dismissing them all at last, he sank to sleep in the heavy, scent-laden air; but not to rest, for in his dreams echoed the iron tramp of the horses and the thunder of those dread engines brought by the steel-clad children of the East.

 Table of Contents  |  Index  |  Home  | Previous: Cholula the Sacred  |  Next: Mexico the Golden
Copyright (c) 2005 - 2023   Yesterday's Classics, LLC. All Rights Reserved.