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

Montezuma a Prisoner

Day and night the Spanish general studied with anxious care the possibilities and dangers of his strange position. Well he knew that on his action depended the lives of all his men. While in Cholula bad news had come to him from the settlement on the coast, but fearing to dishearten the soldiers on the very eve of their entrance into Mexico, he had until now concealed the painful story.

Juan de Escalante, whom he had left as command-ant of the garrison at Vera Cruz, had received, soon after the departure of CortÚs, a message from an Aztec chief named Quauhpopoca, begging that four Spaniards might be sent to escort him to the Spanish settlement. He wished to give in his allegiance to the white men, but feared to venture to their town without protection. The four soldiers were despatched, and found to their horror that the request was but a treacherous ruse. Two of them were murdered in cold blood, but the other two managed to escape to Vera Cruz.

With fifty of his men and several thousand Totonac allies, Escalante marched at once to take vengeance on the Aztec chief. In the fierce fight which followed the Totonac allies fled, and the Spaniards would surely have suffered defeat but for "the aid of the blessed Virgin who was distinctly seen hovering over their ranks in the van." They were at length victorious, but at great cost. One Spaniard was captured alive by the enemy, and seven, including Escalante himself, died of their wounds. To the great Montezuma the Indian prisoners attributed the hostile action of their chieftain, and to the emperor had been sent the head of the captured white man.

As CortÚs pondered the painful story he felt sure that Montezuma's present hospitality was but a mask to conceal some dark design. At any moment he might turn on his unwelcome guests, and even if by force of arms he could not subdue them, he might yet by cutting off retreat starve them to death in the midst of his island city. Only in one way could the Spanish general frustrate possible treachery and insure the safety of his little band.

Calling a council of his officers CortÚs listened to all their suggestions. But no plan seemed to save the critical situation. Then he himself proposed a scheme, so daring, so extraordinary, that all were startled. This was, to seize and hold as a hostage the great Montezuma himself!

"Impossible!" cried some. "To what end?" asked others. But the general, self-confident and sure as ever, calmed their fears and gave his reasons. He himself would entice the emperor into Spanish quarters. Once there, so strongly fortified was the Old Palace, it would be easy to hold the royal prisoner. The Mexicans would fear to attack or to starve the Spaniards, lest by so doing they should imperil the sacred person of their monarch. The trappings and show of empire should still remain to Montezuma, but in reality his keepers would rule the land.

It was a bold plan, and the soldiers, blindly trusting the general who had never yet failed them, gave their assent. The night was passed in prayer that Heaven might smile upon the deed of the morrow. But CortÚs, through all the hours of darkness, was heard restlessly pacing up and down his chamber wrapt in his schemes for the future.

In the morning the whole army was drawn up in the courtyard ready to sally forth at the first alarm. Several detachments of picked men sauntered along the streets leading to Montezuma's palace, as if they were merely viewing the city. Thirty of them were ordered to wander as if by chance into the grounds of the palace itself. Then CortÚs set out to visit the emperor, who had consented to receive him. He was attended by Dona Marina and by five of his most daredevil cavaliers, Pedro de Alvarado, Gonzalo de Sandoval, Francisco de Lujo, Velasquez de Leon, and Alonzo de Avila.

Courteously and even gaily Montezuma welcomed his guests. At the entrance of these august strangers whom the emperor delighted to honour, his attendants retired with deep obeisance. In friendly talk the time slipped by, but just as the Aztec was explaining his favourite game, the Spanish general, with an abrupt change of manner, stepped forward and sternly accused him of having instigated the treacherous assault on the garrison at Vera Cruz. The startled monarch, eagerly denying the charge, took from a bracelet at his wrist his signet, the image of Huitzilopotchli, and calling one of his attendants, ordered that the guilty cacique  should be summoned at once to Mexico.

In gentler tones CortÚs thanked the emperor, and declared that he was now quite satisfied as to his innocence. My companions in arms, however," he added, "will not be convinced of your good faith unless you will deign to prove it by taking up your abode in our quarters until the affair is quite cleared up by the arrival of Quauhpopoca from the coast."

Aghast the monarch listened to this extraordinary proposal. Finding his voice at length, he exclaimed, "When was it ever heard that a great prince, like myself, voluntarily left his own palace to become a prisoner in the hands of strangers?"

"Not a prisoner," replied CortÚs, "your own court and household shall be round you. You shall exercise your kingly power as usual. It will be but a change of residence, and you will have Spaniards to serve you as well as your own people."

In vain the Spanish general argued and entreated. Montezuma was not to be persuaded. "Never would my subjects," he said proudly, "consent to such a degradation!" Then as the voice of CortÚs grew sterner and more insistent, the wretched king, made a coward by his superstitious fears, pleaded, "Spare me this disgrace! Take as hostages one of my sons and one of my daughters!"

Time was passing, and the Spaniards, anxious lest a rumour of their attempt should reach the royal guard, grew impatient. Leon at last, tall and stalwart, with a great red beard and a rough, fierce voice, drew his sword, exclaiming, "Why waste words on this barbarian! In Christ's name, let him yield himself our prisoner, or we will this instant plunge our swords in his body!"

At the word the other captains advanced with naked blades, and Montezuma terrified, turned to Marina for an explanation of the fierce words and gestures.

"Go with the white men!" cried the girl eagerly. "If you yield they will treat you kindly; if you refuse, they will kill you!"

One last piteous, hunted look the emperor cast around him. Gleaming swords, iron mail, and the stern faces of the strangers hemmed him in. Despairingly he murmured, "The gods have abandoned me! I will go with you."

With deep respect the captain now addressed the unhappy monarch, and CortÚs declared that none should ever hear of the humiliating scene. Montezuma, tortured with shame at his own weakness, assented gladly to the suggestion that his visit to the Old Palace should appear to be entirely by his own free will. Ordering his palanquin, he sent for his chief nobles, and told them that the gods had advised him to go and abide for a time with the white strangers.

Strange was the procession which now passed through the crowded streets. The royal palanquin surrounded by an escort of Spaniards! Three squares and three bridges had been passed when there arose a sullen murmur in the crowd. A whisper grew that the emperor was a prisoner! The murmur swelled into a tumult. The people blocked the way, calling to their monarch and threatening the strangers.

Unarmed as they were, they would yet by mere force of numbers have rescued their lord, but even as they threatened, the curtains of the palanquin were drawn aside, and Montezuma in a calm, clear voice demanded the cause of their clamour. A sudden silence fell upon the crowd, the people sank to their knees and listened as to the voice of a god.

"Return in peace to your homes," said the emperor. "Of my own free will I am visiting my trusted friends!"

Bewildered and abashed the Aztecs fell back, and the Spaniards passed on their way unmolested. So in the very heart of his capital, from the midst of a devoted people who would have given their life's blood to save him, with his warriors within call, the Aztec emperor was carried through the gates of the Old Palace—a prisoner.

Montezuma was received, as CortÚs had promised, with the utmost deference. His apartments were furnished with every luxury, and he was attended by his favourite wives and pages. He was free to receive his subjects and to transact the business of the empire. But well did he know that in spite of all this pomp and ceremony he was a captive. Only a limited number of Aztecs were admitted at one time, and day and night a guard kept watch at the gates and also in the emperor's antechamber. So wearisome even to the tireless Spaniards became this ceaseless watching, that a soldier at Montezuma's door exclaimed bitterly one day, "Better this dog of a king should die than that we should wear out our lives in this manner!" The man was punished, but the incident increased the emperor's anxiety to escape from his veiled bondage.

And now arrived Quauhpopoca from the coast accompanied by his son and fifteen nobles, in obedience to the messenger with the royal signet.

Humbly clad in nequen  the chieftain entered the presence of the emperor, bowing to the ground with the usual salutation, "Lord, my lord, great lord!" He was received with haughty displeasure, and told that as his offence had been against the Spaniards, the Spanish general should judge him. Montezuma hoped by this act to propitiate his gaolers and win his freedom.

With great dignity the chieftain bore himself before his alien judge, confessing at once that he had plotted to overthrow the white strangers in Vera Cruz, since he considered them to be the enemies of his country. In grim silence CortÚs listened, and then passed his ghastly sentence. The cacique  with his son and the fifteen nobles were to be immediately burnt alive in front of the palace. With Montezuma's permission the arsenals of the great temple were despoiled, and the arms and missiles piled high in the courtyard of the Old Palace. Here, in the blaze of their country's weapons, the Aztec nobles bravely met their death.

Just before the execution CortÚs entered the emperor's apartment followed by a soldier carrying fetters. Sternly he told his prisoner that the cacique  had declared before his death that Montezuma had ordered the assault. Then, commanding the soldier to fasten the fetters on the shrinking monarch, the general strode away.

Racked with humiliation, the once great Montezuma lay in silence amid his weeping attendants, who strove to wedge their garments between the irons and their master's feet. So broken in spirit he seemed that he did not even resent this last degradation, but actually thanked CortÚs when he reappeared and removed with his own hands the shameful bonds. With "honeyed words" the Spaniard expressed his deep regret that he had been obliged to punish one whom he loved as a brother.

Horrible to modern minds seems this cruel execution of seventeen men, whose only fault was obedience to their emperor and love of their country. But the old conquerors themselves did not for a moment question the morality or humanity of the sentence. The life of an Indian and a heathen was almost worthless in their eyes, and even in this dark deed they felt that God was their guide. "As soon as this chastisement was known," says Bernal Diaz, "it struck universal terror, and the people on the coast returned to their submission. Now, let the curious consider upon our heroic actions! . . . Now I am old, I say that it was not we who did these things, but that all was guided by the hand of God, for what men on earth would otherwise have ventured, their numbers not amounting to four hundred and fifty, to have seized and put in irons a mighty monarch, and publicly burned his officers for obeying his orders, in a city larger than Venice, and at a distance of a thousand and five hundred leagues from their native country!!!"

One day followed another, and still the emperor of the Aztecs remained a prisoner in the hands of his guests. He was treated with all honour, and seemed often to forget his degradation in some new interest or pleasure. He was attended always by Orteguilla, a page of the general's, who had already learnt to speak Aztec. He loved to watch the soldiers at their military drill, and soon learned to know all the captains and many of the men. On his favourites, and especially on Leon, the captain of his guard, he delighted to bestow princely gifts. His favourite game was totoloque, in which the players aimed with golden balls at a golden target. He declared gaily one day that Tonatiuh must not score, as "he did not say that which was true," at which "we all," says Diaz, "burst out laughing, because Alvarado was a little addicted to exaggeration!" Once when CortÚs would have punished a soldier who had stolen a cup from the royal treasury, now reopened, Montezuma intervened. "Your countrymen," he said, "are welcome to the gold, if you will but spare what belongs to the gods."

But at times his captivity seemed to prey on the emperor's mind, and bitter grew the thought that he could not even worship at the shrines of his gods. CortÚs, not daring to show the Aztec people too plainly that Montezuma was a prisoner, promised at last to allow him to visit the great temple, with a warning that if there was any attempt at a rescue his life would pay the forfeit.

With banners and music a splendid procession of nobles and courtiers left the gates of the Old Palace. In the midst was the royal palanquin, surrounded by Spanish captains and followed by a hundred and fifty picked Spaniards in battle array. Sullen and puzzled were the faces of the multitude who prostrated themselves as the emperor passed. At the teocalli  priests were waiting to carry up their lord, but in front and at the rear tramped a guard of the mailed strangers. Four times as it wound its way upward did this unwonted procession, Aztec priest and white-skinned warrior, pass before the sombre gaze of the kneeling throngs below.

To prevent human sacrifice Father Olmedo was at the emperor's side, but his efforts were in vain, for on the preceding night four victims had been offered to the gods in Montezuma's name. His devotions fulfilled, the Aztec monarch was borne peaceably back to the Old Palace through his silent, watchful subjects, who at his slightest sign or word would have torn him from his gaolers.

CortÚs, meanwhile, was carefully making his plans. He recognised the importance of his settlement in the Villa Rica de la Vera Cruz, and was anxious to appoint in the place of Escalante a man of tact who would maintain peaceful relations with the Indians. For this purpose he chose Alonzo de Grado, an indifferent soldier, but a handsome, talented man and something of an orator.

The general, who seemed to have had some scorn for this fine gentleman, said to him in parting: "Now, Senor de Grado, go and possess your wishes; you are commandant of Villa Rica, and see that you fortify it well, and mind I charge you on no account to go out and fight the wicked Indians, nor let them kill you as they did Juan de Escalante." This, Bernal Diaz tells us, CortÚs said ironically, knowing the condition of the man, and that all the world could not have got him to put his nose out of the town!

For once the general had made a mistake. De Grado paid no attention to the fortifications, but spent his time in feasting and in scheming against his leader with the adherents of Velasquez. His fall was speedy. Sandoval arrived one day as new commandant, with orders to arrest De Grado and send him prisoner to Mexico. A very different man was Sandoval. Only about twenty-two years of age, he was felt by all to be absolutely reliable and trustworthy. "He was a plain man and one who did not know much of letters, not avaricious of gold, but attentive to his business like a good officer, seeing that his soldiers did their duty well and taking good care of them. He was robust in body, his legs rather bowed, and his countenance masculine; his voice was rough and somewhat terrible, and he stammered a little. . . . He had the best horse that ever was seen—a chestnut, with a star in his forehead, and his near foot white, his name was Motilla." And the old soldier concludes his description of this officer so loved by his men with the proud words: "Sandoval was an officer fit for any station!"

The new commandant soon made himself very popular with the natives by his affability and humanity, and immediately began to put the fort into proper repair. Very promptly he executed his orders to send to Mexico a supply of ironwork, cordage, and sails for the construction of two ships. The general's greatest anxiety was the fact that the Aztecs could at any time cut off all communications and all supplies, and hold the Spaniards prisoners within the city. He had resolved, therefore, to build two vessels large enough to carry the army across the lake. Fortunately he had among his men a skilled ship-builder named Martin Lopez. Montezuma, who consented to have timber brought from the royal forests, took a child-like pleasure in watching the construction of the vessels.

From Orteguilla, whose duty it was to keep the emperor amused and in good humour, CortÚs learned that he had a desire to go hunting in the forest. The Spanish ships were now finished, and the general offered to convey Montezuma and his suite in the wonderful water-houses to the woods across the lake. He hoped that a day in the open country would make the captive seem indeed a guest.

In the swiftest ship embarked with the emperor and his retinue Leon, Alvarado, De Oli, and Avila, "all men who had blood in their eyes," two hundred soldiers and artillery-men with four brass guns. The guest was well attended. The wind blew very fresh, and the ship with the flag of Spain waving from its mast seemed to fly across the lake, leaving the native canoes far behind. Well might the Aztecs shudder as over the waters thundered the "voices of the gods." The forest, which was strictly preserved, abounded in game such as deer, hares, and rabbits. A good archer the emperor proved, and for long the hunt continued, but wherever he roamed the Spaniard was at his side to remind him that the apparent liberty of the forest would assuredly end in the guarded chamber of the palace.

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