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

La Noche Triste

Montezuma, so often a shield to the Spaniards, was dead, and now their one thought was how most quickly to escape from his city. Should the retreat be attempted by night or by day?

There was among the common soldiers a man named Botello "who spoke Latin, had been at Rome, and was said to be a necromancer; while some declared he had a familiar, and others called him an astrologer." This man predicted that if CortÚs did not attempt the retreat the last night of the month of June, not a Spaniard would be left alive. If that night was chosen the flight would be successful, though Botello himself would perish. So much influence had the astrologer on his comrades, that CortÚs decided to please his men and leave the city that very night.

The question of what to do with the sick and wounded troubled the general. They were far too numerous to be all carried away, and CortÚs reluctantly declared that the three hundred wounded Tlascalans must be left behind. As to the Spaniards, those who could not possibly march should be borne in litters. A few hours later Father Olmedo came to the general with a brave story of Indian resolution and heroism. He had seen the Tlascalan  caciques go to their wounded warriors. He had seen each stricken man bare his breast with smiles of heroic joy to receive his death-blow from the javelin of his chief, resolved to save the honour of his race. When the Aztecs entered the deserted palace they would find no victims for their gods. Only the dead would await them!

The preparations for retreat went rapidly forward. Martin Lopez, the carpenter, was ordered to construct a portable bridge of very strong timber, to be thrown over the canals where the enemy had broken down the bridges. With great care CortÚs arranged for the transport of the treasure belonging to the Crown, entrusting it to a strong Castilian guard, under Alonzo de Avila, one of the royal officers. Much booty had, perforce, to be left behind, and greedily the soldiers eyed the glittering heaps. "Take what you will of it," said the general; "better you should have it than these Mexican hounds. But be careful not to over-load yourselves. He travels safest in the dark night who travels lightest." The veterans listened to the warning, but the soldiers of Narvaez eagerly seized loads of gold and great bars of silver.


All sense of order and discipline was lost.

At last the darkness fell. Wild and stormy was the night, and the fugitives shivered as they peered fearfully into the icy gloom without the palace walls. At midnight all was ready, and CortÚs rode to the gateway to see his army pass forth. Two hundred infantry formed the vanguard under the command of Sandoval, supported by Ordaz, Lugo, and twenty cavaliers. Then came a large band of Tlascalans bearing the portable bridge. They were escorted by the captain Magarino and forty picked Spaniards, who had all sworn to defend to the death their charge on which so much depended. In the centre, protected by a strong guard, under the command of the general himself, came the baggage, the artillery, the wounded, the prisoners, and the women. Marina and Montezuma's daughters were carried in curtained palanquins. The rearguard, consisting chiefly of the infantry of Narvaez, was commanded by Alvarado and Leon. In silence they all filed past, and then CortÚs, with one last look of bitter regret at the palace where he had lorded it as ruler of an empire, galloped out into the night after his devoted army.

Through the silent city they hurried, starting at every sound, for might not the enemy spring up at any moment from the dark alleys on either side? And how could they fight entrapped in the street, and burdened with wounded and baggage? But only the tramp of the horses, the rumble of the carriages, and the driving rain and wind broke the stillness of the night.

With a sigh of relief and a prayer of thanksgiving, Sandoval passed with the vanguard out from the cramping street on to the open causeway, which was broken by three canals. At the first gaping chasm they waited for Magarino and his bridge.

Suddenly a loud shrill sound pealed forth, and the hearts of the fugitives stood still. As they listened with strained white faces, another blast rang out and yet another, until from every quarter of the city the warning note seemed to echo. Then boomed forth the blood-curdling drum of Huitzilopotchli, crying for vengeance on the impious strangers. The Aztecs were awake!

Hastily the bridge was laid down, but even as the vanguard marched across they heard the sound as of the gathering of a mighty multitude, and the report of a gun in the city behind told them that their comrades had been already attacked. Louder and nearer grew the distant sounds, and just as CortÚs, with his company and the baggage, reached the bridge, out of the dark water, on either side, sprang up a fleet of canoes filled with white-clothed warriors. So furious was the storm of missiles that the infantry, panic-stricken, pressed wildly on the cavaliers, who were thus driven across the bridge. CortÚs attempted in vain to make a stand. The horsemen, riding down their assailants, swept by, and after them struggled the infantry with the baggage. Every moment added to the multitude of canoes and increased the carnage. All sense of discipline was lost, and each man fought and prayed for himself, straining forward over friend and foe. For a time CortÚs stayed his horse by the bridge, but at last he too was swept onward. Those who could, struggled madly after the general's flying horse, but the sick and the wounded, the women and the prisoners, were all slain. There fell Cacama, the heroic young king of Tezcuco, and the two princesses, the fair daughters of Montezuma. Marina, rescued and borne to the vanguard by some Tlascalans, was fortunately saved.

Meanwhile the rearguard, under Alvarado and Leon, were still in the city where Guatemozin in person led the Aztecs. To this gallant young prince had been given the chief command by his uncle, Cuitlahuac, who had been elected king at the death of Montezuma. Desperate was the fight and great was the havoc wrought by the guns, but at last the gunners were slain, and the fiery monsters captured by the exultant foe. Leon then, valiant both on horseback and foot, ever ready to bear the brunt of battle, made a last heroic stand, and the pile of Aztec dead that rose around him and his brave followers bore witness to the desperation with which they sold their lives.

All this time Magarino with his faithful band of Spaniards and Tlascalans had been defending the bridge for his comrades. At last up galloped Alvarado with but a remnant of his men. Carving their way across, they shouted to Magarino that they alone survived of all the rearguard. It was time to raise the bridge and carry it forward to the next canal. But it had been wedged so firmly into the soft banks by the weight of men, horses, and gun carriages, that the utmost efforts to move it were of no avail. Yet Magarino, with despair in his heart, laboured on amidst a terrible storm of missiles. The safety of the whole army depended on him, for how could they escape without the bridge? Closer and closer pressed the Aztecs, ghost-like in their white tunics, and one by one Spaniard and Tlascalan dropped dead at their captain's side. Magarino, left almost alone at his post, gave up the work at last, and with a despairing cry, "Todo es perdido! All is lost! Save yourselves!" fought his way with his few surviving followers across the fateful bridge.

Long before this Sandoval and the vanguard had reached the second canal, where they waited impatiently for the coming of the bridge. Here, too, the waters were covered with the canoes of the Aztecs, who sprang on to the causeway to grapple with their foes. "Santiago!" cried the captain to his men, "stand firm. We must hold the canal for Magarino." But, goaded by the fierce attack, the infantry forced the horsemen to the brink of the yawning gulf, and Sandoval, calling to his cavaliers to follow, dashed into the water and swam his horse across. The infantry were left a writhing, leaderless mass on the other side. Would Magarino never come? Many of the men in despair hurled themselves into the canal, but few reached the bank. Weighed down by armour, they sank beneath the dark waters, or were dragged on board the canoes—victims for the gods!

CortÚs, riding up with his guard of horsemen, beheld a scene of hopeless confusion. Not even his presence could restore order now. Swimming his horse across, he strove with his fearless cavaliers to hold the canal until the coming of the bridge. At his side fell his favourite page, but still the general held to his post, praying that Magarino might hasten.

And now the cry arose, "Todo es perdido!  The bridge cannot be raised! Magarino will not come!" All chance of escape seemed to vanish, and wilder than ever grew the panic. In front was the bridgeless canal, behind and on either side the foe. Instinct drove the despairing soldiers blindly forward, and those in front were flung into the gulf by the mad rush behind. CortÚs, as he saw the struggling men and horses drowning in the swirling waters, or finding a rescue worse than death in the Aztec canoes, turned his horse at last and galloped after the van-guard with the bitter cry, "Todo es perdido!" The canal was soon filled with baggage and the bodies of men and horses, and over this ghastly bridge clambered those who came last.

The general, galloping on, found the vanguard halting before the third canal. Here the attack was not nearly so fierce, for the mass of the enemy was behind. The cavaliers calling to the foot soldiers to follow, made the plunge and swam across, and though many were drowned, most of the company reached the bank in safety. Riding to the end of the causeway, CortÚs led his miserable little band on to the mainland.

At this moment a rumour came that some of the rearguard still survived, but that they would all be lost unless rescued. Careless of danger, CortÚs, Sandoval, Olid, De Morla, and other brave cavaliers turned their horses back along the causeway. "Santiago! Santiago! To the rescue!" they cried; and Alvarado, on foot and wounded, but defending himself at the last canal against a host of assailants, was right glad to hear the battle-cry. His beloved mare Bradamante, whom he always called his sweet-heart, had been killed under him, and all his followers had fallen save seven Spaniards and a few Tlascalans. Several times the Aztecs could have slain the hated Tonatiuh, but they had sworn to carry him off for sacrifice.

CortÚs and his cavaliers diverted the attack, though De Morla paid the forfeit with his life. Alvarado, breaking through his foes, stood for an instant alone on the brink of the canal. Flinging away his shield and sword, and planting his long lance on the wreckage at the bottom of the water, he leapt into the air, cleared the wide gulf, and stood safe among his comrades, while Spaniard and Aztec alike gazed in wonder at the mighty feat. "This is truly the Tonatiuh—the child of the Sun!" exclaimed the Indians in awestruck tones, and to this very day they call the place "Alvarado's Leap." Mounting behind CortÚs, the hero rode with his rescuers safely to the mainland. Weary perhaps with slaughter, or eager for the spoil scattered along the causeway, the Aztecs did not long pursue the wretched remnant of the once dreaded strangers.

On the steps of an Indian temple not far from the lake, CortÚs sat down in the dismal dawn to count his losses by the number of the living. Chilled and wounded, with ragged, blood-stained clothes and broken armour, the men passed slowly by. The artillery and baggage were lost, most of the horses had been killed, and not a single musket remained. As the general looked in vain for Velasquez de Leon, Francisco de Morla, and many another trusted comrade, he could not restrain the tears of bitter regret. Most of the soldiers of Narvaez, overloaded with treasure, had perished, and Botello the astrologer was, as he himself had predicted, among the slain. Over four hundred Spaniards and four thousand Tlascalans, at least, must have fallen on that terrible night, ever afterwards called La Noche Triste.

Wearily they tramped through the city of Tacuba towards the open country—their only refuge. At a hill crowned with a stone temple, a good stronghold in which to encamp, they halted. But it was held by some Aztec warriors, and the jaded Spaniards declared at first that they could fight no more. Urging them on with his wonderful power of persuasion, Codes charged up the hill, and easily took possession of the temple. Deeply thankful were the fugitives to find at last shelter and rest. Drying their sodden garments at glowing fires, they dressed their wounds, cooked their much-needed food, and then threw themselves down to forget their miseries in sleep.

So ended one of the most disastrous retreats which history records.

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