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

Spaniard against Spaniard

It was the month of May 1520. More than a year had gone swiftly by since the adventurers on a cool, clear February day first set sail from Cuba. Strange had been their adventures and strenuous their deeds, and now for six months they had been quartered in the very heart of a mighty and hostile city, its king their prisoner in all but name.

Rumours of their startling success and of the treasure ship sent to Spain had come to the ears of Velasquez, and inflamed still further his bitter resentment against CortÚs. He resolved to spare neither time nor money in equipping a fleet and army strong enough to annihilate the force of his rebellious officer and to conquer the golden Mexico.

All Cuba was alive with the bustle of preparation, and the hammers of the shipwrights resounded on many a quivering plank. Eighteen ships were fitted out; and nine hundred men, allured by lavish promises of reward, enlisted under the Governor's banner. Of these, eighty were horsemen and eighty gunners. It was an armada of which Velasquez felt justly proud, and he decided at first to take the command himself. But with advancing years he had grown too stout to ride and fight, and he felt also that he could not, like any knight-errant, wander from Cuba his own colony. Yet to whom could he entrust this expedition on which all his hopes were set? He chose at last a captain named Narvaez, a tall, red-bearded man with a lordly bearing. A good horseman and valiant soldier, he was yet a braggart and utterly without foresight and judgment. Rash and careless of the feelings and safety of his soldiers, he lacked altogether that personal magnetism which made CortÚs a born leader of men.

In the end of April the expedition anchored off the sandy coast of St. Juan de Ulua. A Spaniard sent by CortÚs on a roving errand in search of gold, wildly excited at the sight of the armada, hastened to meet his countrymen. To Narvaez he gave a glowing account of the great achievements of his commander. "CortÚs rules over the land like its own sovereign," he declared, "so that a Spaniard may travel unarmed from one end of the country to the other without insult or injury." With amazement and righteous wrath Narvaez listened to the story, and resolved to build a settlement without loss of time and summon Villa Rica to surrender. Pig-headed and arrogant, he would listen to no advice, but pitched his camp on the very spot which CortÚs had found so unhealthy.

A priest and four soldiers despatched to Villa Rica received short shrift from stout-hearted Sandoval, who refused to allow them even to read their proclamation to the garrison. When they waxed insolent, they were without more ado seized and bound on the back of Indian tamanes, who instantly set out for Mexico accompanied by a guard of twenty Spaniards. The bewildered men, "hardly knowing if they were dead or alive, or if it was not all enchantment," were borne post-haste day and night by fresh relays of Indians, until at the end of four days they reached the salt waters of Lake Tezeuco. But swift as was the journey, news of the arrival of a strong force of Spaniards on the coast had reached the ears of CortÚs while the tamanes  and their burden were still on the road.

In every corner of his great empire Montezuma had watchful spies, and hardly had Narvaez landed ere couriers were bearing to Mexico a full account in picture-writing of the numbers and equipment of these new visitors. After some hesitation the emperor told the news to CortÚs. The white men, he declared, need now no longer wait on the tardy shipbuilders. They could return in the vessels of their countrymen, and the empire would be free from the burden of their presence. Montezuma spoke as if CortÚs would now be certain to depart, but his face was pale and troubled, for he feared in his heart that the coming of reinforcements would encourage the iron general to remain and finish his grim work of robbery and desecration.

"Blessed be the Redeemer for His mercies!" exclaimed CortÚs, and little did the emperor suspect that he viewed the fresh arrival with equal anxiety. Well the Spaniard knew that no such armada could have been sent out from Spain in so short a time. It had been equipped for his undoing by the venomous zeal of the Governor of Cuba.

One of the soldiers of the escort soon appeared with a letter from Sandoval confirming his worst fears; the guard was outside the city waiting to hear the general's will. CortÚs at once ordered that the prisoners should be unbound, mounted, and brought to the Old Palace in honourable fashion. The Aztecs must not suspect that the Spaniards were divided against themselves or see the humiliation of a white man.

On these envoys of Narvaez, therefore, was lavished every honour and courtesy, and under such treatment they soon became the firm friends of so generous a commander. CortÚs was quick to gather from his guests that the common soldiers had not come, like Narvaez, to punish a rebel, but to gain gold, and might therefore be easily induced, by the hope of reward, to desert the cause of Velasquez. He gave the envoys a letter to Narvaez begging him to lay aside all hostility, and then he "anointed their fingers so plentifully with gold that though they came like roaring lions they went back like lambs." Father Olmedo was despatched later, ostensibly to bear another letter proffering friendship, but with secret orders to win the officers and men to the interests of CortÚs.

Both letters were received by Narvaez with derision and abuse, and one of the captains declared loudly, "As to this rebel CortÚs, I will cut off his ears and broil them for breakfast!" Far different was the attitude of the soldiers, who listened greedily to their comrades as they spoke of the splendour and generosity of CortÚs. Father Olmedo fanned this feeling, and distributed much gold as a foretaste of his general's favour. This was contrasted by the men with the miserable avarice of Narvaez, who used to say "in his lofty tones" to the major-domo, "Take heed that not a mantle is missing as I have duly entered down every article!" Thus there soon arose in the camp a strong party for CortÚs.

Meanwhile there was anxious debate in the Old Palace in Mexico. The adventurers seemed indeed to be between the upper and the nether mill-stone. If Narvaez, posing as the saviour of the imprisoned emperor, marched to Mexico, the whole city would join him, and they would die like rats in a trap. On the other hand, if CortÚs returned to the coast and attacked Narvaez he would perhaps never more regain the city he had worked so hard to win. He decided, however, to march forth and meet the most pressing danger. Alvarado was left in Mexico with a garrison of a hundred and forty men, and with orders to guard the emperor as a most precious jewel, and not to rouse or offend in any way the susceptibilities of the Aztec people.

Only seventy men did CortÚs lead across the great causeway to do battle against the army equipped with such care by Velasquez. Even though valiant and stout of heart, they were glad to meet in Cholula, Leon with a hundred and twenty of their comrades. He had hastened from the coast at the news that his general needed all his forces. Near Tlascala they met Father Olmedo and his companions returning from the camp of Narvaez, which was now pitched in Cempoalla, the city of the Totonacs. "What greeting and embracing!" says Bernal Diaz. "We all got round to hear their narrative. . . . Our merry, droll friar took off Narvaez, mimicking him to admiration! Thus were we all together like so many brothers, rejoicing and laughing as if at a wedding or a feast, knowing well that to-morrow was the day on which we were to conquer or die opposed to five times our number."

In the wild mountain passes the little army was met by Sandoval with sixty soldiers from the garrison at Villa Rica. At the same place waited Totonac tamanes, bearing long double-headed spears tipped with copper. These they brought at the command of CortÚs, who knew by grim experience of what service they would be against cavalry. The Spaniards were at once drilled in the use of these weapons, and then the general reviewed his forces—two hundred and sixty-six foot soldiers and five horsemen. On again they marched down into the glowing tierra caliente, where the scorching sun made the way seem weary, and violent tropical showers drenched the soldiers to the skin. Three miles from Cempoalla a roaring river barred their way, and here CortÚs allowed his men to rest. Night-time was drawing on, the sky was dark with storm-clouds, and the rising moon gave but a fitful gleam.


The whole army knelt in the mud and confessed their sins.

While his enemies were making this rapid march, Narvaez was wasting his time in idle ease. "Why are you so heedless? cried the old cacique  of Cempoalla. "Do you think Malintzin is so? I tell you when you least dream of it he will be upon you!" Roused at last, Narvaez set out and reached the raging river several hours earlier than his foes. The rain was lashing down, the trees groaning, and all nature seemed alive with storm, but of man there was no trace. The troops, unused to hardship, began to grumble. "Of what use is it to remain here fighting with the elements?" they cried. "There is no sign of an enemy, and how could one approach in such weather? Let us return to our camp and be fresh for action if CortÚs should come in the morning. Narvaez, wishful himself to get back under shelter, consented, and leaving two sentinels behind, they returned to their quarters in the temple of Cempoalla. The artillery and cavalry were stationed in the square, the infantry in the three teocallis. On the summit of the highest Narvaez took up his own position, and then with his mind quite at ease retired to sup and to sleep.

He had an enemy who took no sleep in time of danger. After a brief rest CortÚs marshalled and harangued his men. In answer to his appeal every man cried out that he was ready to conquer or die. It was the eve of Whitsunday, and a surprise attack was planned for that very night. The watchword was to be Espiritu Santo. To Sandoval with sixty picked men was given the proud task of capturing Narvaez himself.

In the driving rain and darkness the Spaniards with the aid of their long pikes struggled through the wild waters of the river. Two unfortunates were swept away, the others gained the opposite bank in safety. Marching along a road nearly impassable with mud and brambles, the vanguard suddenly fell on their knees. They had come to a wayside cross erected months before on their march to Mexico. The whole army knelt in the mud and confessed their sins to the priest. On one side of the road a little clump of timber lay, and here the baggage was left, and the cavaliers tethered their horses.

In profound silence the soldiers marched on. The sentinels of Narvaez were surprised and one of them captured. The other fled to Cempoalla to give the alarm, but Narvaez and his sleepy followers actually refused to believe him. "You have been deceived by your fears," they exclaimed insultingly, "you have mistaken the noise of the storm and the waving of the bushes for the enemy, who are far enough on the other side of the river!" So they turned once more to slumber, the foe almost at their gates.

Unchallenged the attackers entered the city and passed silently through the sleeping streets. They were nearly at the temple ere the alarm was given. Then indeed the trumpets rang out, the soldiers seized their arms, and the gunners rushed to their guns. Too late, the enemy were upon them. "Espiritu Santo!" cried CortÚs, hurling his company on the guns, and before the fury of the onslaught the gunners gave way and fled. Then Sandoval with his sixty followers forced his way up the stairway of the chief teocalli, and gaining the summit grappled with the commander and his guard. Right gallantly Narvaez fought, but a spear at last pierced his left eye, and he sank to the ground crying, "Santa Maria, aid me! I am slain!" With a supreme effort his men dragged him into the sanctuary on the summit, and there they made their last stand. In vain; Martin Lopez, the shipwright, a very tall man, set fire to the thatch of the roof, and those inside were forced to rush out into the midst of their foes.

"Victory! Victory for the Espiritu Santo! Long live our king and CortÚs! Narvaez is dead!" shouted the victors, and at the cry the captains defending the other teocallis  at once surrendered. As for the officer who had talked of broiling the ears of CortÚs for his breakfast, he was seized with a sudden illness and could fight no more. The victory was won. A handful of men, without cannon or horses, had completely vanquished the strong force of Velasquez. Narvaez, not dead, but sore wounded, lay a helpless prisoner. The darkness and the storm had been the greatest aid to the attackers, and myriads of fire-flies had been mistaken by the sleepy garrison for an army with matchlocks. Very shame-faced were the soldiers of Narvaez when the morning dawned and they saw by how small a force they had been vanquished.

Surrounded by his captains, CortÚs, a mantle of orange colour thrown over his shoulders, sat in state to receive the homage of his rival's officers and cavaliers. Willingly enough they came to kiss his hand, not sorry, perhaps, to change commanders. Narvaez and one or two of the really hostile men were led before him in chains.

"You have reason, Senor CortÚs," said the humiliated general, "to thank Fortune for having given you the day so easily."

"I have much to be thankful for," replied CortÚs, "but for my victory over you I deem it as one of the least of my achievements."

With fair words and many gifts the soldiers of Narvaez were conquered still more completely than by the blows of the night before. Indeed, the veteran adventurers grew jealous, and grumbled that the general had forsaken his friends for his foes. Alonzo de Avila, an imperious and turbulent captain whom CortÚs could not bear to have near him, voiced their complaints. He was, however, a valuable and gallant soldier, and the general pacified him with many presents, but took care for the future to employ him on business of importance at a distance.

Soon vanished the discontent of the men, and dividing up his now large force, CortÚs gave every soldier some definite work to do. Ordaz and Leon were each despatched with two hundred men to form new settlements, Lugo with another company was sent to the coast to dismantle the fleet.

But now came from Alvarado in Mexico news so threatening that the glory and joy of the recent victory seemed to disappear like the rays of the sun behind a lowering storm-cloud.

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