The Last Stand
"You are the children of the Sun!" cried an Aztec chief to CortÚs and his cavaliers as they approached the barricade he was defending, "but the Sun is swift in his course. Why are you then so tardy? Why delay so long to put an end to our miseries? Rather kill us at once that we may go to our god Huitzilopotchli, who waits for us in heaven to give us rest from our sufferings." Wan and despairing were the faces of the cacique and his followers, and their eyes were wild with hunger and pain.
In pitying tones the conqueror replied, "I do not desire your death, but your submission. Why does your master refuse to treat with me when a single hour will suffice for me to crush him and all his people? Go bid him confer with me at noon in the market-place to-morrow."
At the appointed time CortÚs awaited the coming of the emperor. But four caciques came without their lord, who would not consent to a conference. They were offered food which they ate ravenously, and then the general sent them back to Guatemozin with provisions and an earnest request for a personal interview.
The messengers soon returned with a gift of cotton cloth, but a curt refusal from their master to meet or treat with the enemy. "Go back," said CortÚs, "and urge him to alter his desperate resolve. When he sees that I suffer you to go and come unharmed, you who have been my steady enemies no less than himself throughout the war, he will surely come. He has nothing to fear from me."
The next day came a message that the emperor would meet Malintzin at noon in the market-place, and CortÚs at once gave orders to delay the general assault he had been planning. Noon came and the Spaniard waited in vain for many hours. Guatemozin did not appear.
At last the allies, who had been left outside the city, were called in and the whole army marched on the enemy's quarters. The Aztecs were prepared. In front were the strongest warriors, behind, the weak and wounded, and on the roofs and terraces, women and children armed with stones and arrows. This pitiful resistance was of no avail, and the horrible struggle soon became a mere massacre of the famine-stricken people. Canals and streets ran red with blood, and the Spaniards themselves sickened at the slaughter. "The piteous cries of the women and children in particular," says CortÚs, "were enough to break one's heart." But he could not check the ferocity of the allies, who outnumbered his own men by many thousands. "Never," he declared, "did I see so pitiless a race, or anything wearing the form of men so destitute of humanity!"
Night at last gave pause to the carnage. In the Spanish camp the hours of darkness were passed by the camp-fires in music and festivity. The Aztecs spent the night preparing for a last stand and for death.
In the morning CortÚs, not wishing to continue the massacre, called to some Aztec chiefs, "Your emperor surely will not see you all perish when he can so easily save you! Prevail on him to confer with me!"
The message was given, but unflinching was the answer: "Guatemozin is ready to die where he is, but will hold no parley with the Spaniards. Let Malintzin work his pleasure."
"Go then," said CortÚs sternly to the messengers, "prepare your countrymen for death. Their hour is come.
A short time longer the general held his hand, then as no sign of submission came a musket was fired, and at the signal Spaniard and ally rushed to the assault. Through all the long bright hours of the summer day the butchery continued. To the last gasp the Aztecs fought until their bodies bridged the canals, blocked the streets, and polluted the very lake itself.
Towards evening some canoes were seen trying to escape across the water which was veiled by the smoke of the guns from the brigantines. Giving chase, one of the Spanish ships came up with a large and well-manned boat, and the captain ordered his men to shoot. At that moment the rowers cried out, "It is the emperor himself," and the Spaniards at once lowered their bows. CortÚs had given explicit orders that the Aztec monarch was on no account to be slain, but captured if possible alive. With his maquahuitl in his hand, Guatemozin, who did not wish to be spared, stood up in the canoe a mark for the cross-bowmen, but when he saw that they were resolved to take him alive he cried, "Lead me to Malintzin, I am his prisoner, but let no harm come to my wife and my followers."
He was taken on board the brigantine with the empress and his attendants, and the captain begged him to command the Aztec warriors who were still fighting in the other canoes to cease the hopeless combat. "It is not necessary," replied Guatemozin; "they will fight no longer when they see their prince is taken." On the terrace of one of the few buildings still left standing, a crimson cloth was spread, and there CortÚs with Dona Marina at his side awaited his royal prisoner. With deep interest he looked at the Aztec monarch who was now led before him. He saw a tall, slight, young warrior with flashing eyes and a skin remarkably fair for an Indian. Weak and haggard as he was, he yet stood before the conqueror with an air of princely pride and dignity. For a moment he too gazed at the steel-clad white man in silence. At last he said, proudly and calmly, "I have done all that I could to defend myself and my people. My efforts have failed. Deal with me as you list." Then pointing to the dagger at the Spaniard's side he added, with sudden passion, "Draw that poniard from your side, and rid me of life at once!"
"Fear not, Guatemozin," replied CortÚs with courtesy, "you shall be treated with all honour. A Spaniard knows how to respect valour even in an enemy."
With a strong guard under Sandoval, Guatemozin and his beautiful young wife, Montezuma's daughter, were sent to Cojohuacan on the western shore of the lake. Alvarado and Olid were ordered to draw off the troops to their quarters on the causeways for the night, since the heaps of unburied dead made the air of the town like poison. As the royal prisoners passed out of the desolate city in the heavy dusk of the sultry summer evening, the rain came down in torrents as if to add to the gloom of the dreary scene. And all night long a terrific tropical thunderstorm raged over the valley of Mexico. In the brilliant flashes of the angry heavens the wretched Aztecs who still survived, cowering among their dead, could see the ghastly ruins of their beloved city.
But the Spanish soldiers, exultant with victory, and overjoyed that their long weeks of watching and fighting were at an end, slept in security hardly broken by the storm. So used had they become to the sounds of midnight battle, that "we felt," says Diaz, "like men suddenly escaped from a belfry where we had been shut up for months with all the bells ringing about our ears!"
In this wise, after three months' heroic defence, fell the great city of Mexico on the day of St. Hippolytus, the 13th of August 1524. Never have a people shown more desperate devotion to their country and their prince than this strange race of civilised barbarians hidden for so long from the eyes of Europe in their beautiful valley in the heart of the great New World.
Day dawned on a pitiful sight. By command of CortÚs the survivors were suffered to leave the city unmolested, and miserable creatures, "whom it was a grief to behold," dragged themselves feebly along the causeways, the strongest supporting the weak. When they had all gone, the work of cleansing the city was taken in hand.
"It is true, and I swear 'Amen' to it," says Bernal Diaz, "that all the lake and the houses and the barbicans were full of the bodies of dead men so that I do not know how I may describe it. In the streets and in the courts there were no other things, and we could not step without treading on them. I have read of the destruction of Jerusalem, but whether there was such a mortality in that I do not know."
With the victors feasting and riot now took the place of vigils, fasts, and battles. The general gave a banquet to all his officers and cavaliers. Father Olmedo was much distressed at the unseemly revelry, and sought to check it through Sandoval, always upright and sober. But even CortÚs himself dared not now interfere with his turbulent followers, who considered that by hard work they had earned a time of gaiety and licence.
The next morning the victory was celebrated by a solemn procession of the whole army with Father Olmedo at its head, bearing the image of the Virgin Mary. The soldiers repeated the litany as they marched, while above them waved the tattered banners of Spain which had been all through the long campaign. Then the good priest preached to the rough soldiers whose toils and dangers he had so bravely shared, reminding them that they had conquered in the strength of God, and beseeching them to treat the vanquished Mexicans with justice and with kindness.