The fateful day dawned, and still the city was beleaguered on every side, while within its walls the Aztecs were dying of famine and plague. Why was the war-god deaf to the frantic prayers of his faithful people? Had the victims been too few? "He shall have more!" cried the warriors, rushing again to battle.
Shamefaced and doubtful of their reception, the allies came stealing back to the Spanish camps. Huitzilopotchli and his priests had lied, or was the god impotent against the Teules? The Tlascalans, who had halted on the road, were the first to return. CortÚs, only too thankful for the reinforcement, received them all kindly. He would permit them, he said, to share the joys of victory, though the Spaniards, he took care to add, did not really need their services.
The supreme importance of appearing strong and victorious induced the general to send help to a tribe of allies in a distant province, though, as he said himself, "God knows the peril in which we all stood!" To the remonstrances of his captains he replied, "The greater our weakness, the greater need have we to cover it under a show of strength." The wisdom of this plan was soon proved by the return of all the allies; and new tribes, eager to be on the winning side, offered their aid.
As the Spaniards grew stronger the Mexicans grew steadily weaker. Against starvation and disease they could not fight, yet "we found them," says CortÚs, "with more spirit than ever." He had now a new plan for bringing the siege to an end. The city, which he called "the most beautiful thing in the world," should be utterly destroyed. Every building should be torn down, and every waterway filled up with solid masonry. Slowly would the Spaniards and their allies advance, but sure and terrible would be their progress. "That which is lofty," said the general, "shall become level; that which is water dry land."
Hoe in hand the allies, protected by Spanish cavalry and guns, flocked by thousands to the work. In vain were the despairing efforts of the Aztecs to save Tenochtitlan from the spoilers. Houses, palaces, temples, all were razed to the ground, and the rubbish was used to fill up the canals. A bare open space soon surrounded the city where the cavalry and artillery could have full play. Surely now, thought CortÚs, the Aztecs will submit. Rats, lizards, and a slimy substance gathered from the surface of the lake were all the poor wretches had to eat.
To their emperor the Spaniards sent word, "You have done all that brave men can do. You have now no hope but in immediate surrender. Take pity on your brave subjects who perish daily before your eyes, and on the fair city whose stately buildings are fast crumbling into ruin. Return to your allegiance. The past shall be forgotten. The persons and property of the Aztecs shall be respected. You shall be confirmed in your authority, and Spain will once more take your city under her protection."
In the Aztec citidel gathered a council of haggard, war-grimed princes, chiefs, and priests, to consider the Spanish proposals. Some voted for surrender, but up rose the wild fanatic priests.
"Peace is good, but not with the white men!" they cried. "Think of the fate of Montezuma, who showed them kindness! Think of their treatment of Cacama! Think above all of the massacre of the noblest of our land by Tonatiuh! Better to trust in the promises of our own gods who have so long watched over the nation. Better, if need be, give up our lives at once than drag them out in slavery among the false strangers!"
"Since it is so," said Guatemoziri, "let us think only of supplying the wants of the people. Let no man henceforth who values his life talk of surrender. We can at least die like warriors!"
The only answer the Spaniards received to their offers of peace was an assault so furious that but for their cannon they would have been overwhelmed. Indeed, these fiery monsters which the Aztecs must meet on causeway and lake and street made the struggle most unequal, and dreary, even in the telling, is the story of these latter days when proud Tenochtitlan became "a desolation among the nations."
Sometimes the Aztecs, who had their own code of chivalry, would cease their fearless but hopeless battling, while one of their warriors stood forth and challenged a Teule or Tlascalan to single combat. Then upon the azotea or roof of some building was waged a mortal duel, while the opposing armies watched and cheered on the combatants. One day a valiant Aztec, armed with Castilian sword and buckler, sprang upon a house-top and offered battle to any Teule who would meet him. A young page of CortÚs, burning to win laurels, at once accepted the challenge. Small and slight he seemed as he faced the Aztec, but he was agile and skilled in the use of the weapons, which were to the Indian awkward and unwonted. A sharp struggle ended in victory for the boy, who ran his foe through the body and returned in triumph to his comrades.
Of no avail was Aztec valour to stay the work of ruin. Farther and farther into the city the destroyers made their way, and black was the trail they left behind them.
"Go on!" shouted the Mexicans bitterly to the allies, "the more you destroy, the more you will have to build up again hereafter. If we conquer, you shall build for us, and if your white friends conquer, they will make you do as much for them!"
A band of warriors fought till every man was slain to save from the spoilers their royal palace, the beauty and pride of all the land. Well might the doomed people cry with the prophet of old, "A fire devoureth before them, behind them a flame burneth; the land is as the garden of Eden before them, behind them a desolate wilderness; yea, and nothing shall escape them."
Appalling even to the conquerors seemed the hideous downfall of the magnificent buildings which had once so aroused their wonder and admiration. "It was a sad thing to see their destruction," says CortÚs himself, "but it was part of our plan of operations, and we had no alternative."
As the Spaniards drew near the quarter of the city where the Aztecs were still holding out, ghastly were the sights which met their eyes. The starving people had even devoured the bark and leaves off the trees, and had torn up the ground searching for roots and weeds. With dead and dying the streets were strewn, for the living were too few to bury the multitude who perished daily by famine and pestilence. To the Aztecs funeral rites had ever been very sacred, and bitter it was to leave their dead to be trampled into the dust by the foe or devoured by birds of prey. Too anguished now they were even to bear the corpses within the shelter of the houses, and worse than ever grew the black and horrible plague.
More harrowing still were the sights within the dwellings, where women, children, and sick or wounded men lay helpless to fight or fly. CortÚs gave orders that the mercy for which they scorned to ask should be shown to these wretched creatures, but the allies in the fierceness of victory were beyond control, and all alike were buried in the burning ruins.
And now only one broad canal separated the general and his division from the great market-place towards which Alvarado from his western causeway was also making his devastating way. The canal was defended by the Aztecs, and as night was drawing in CortÚs encamped on the bank, deciding to postpone the attack until the next morning. Suddenly a brilliant light shot from a teocalli near the market, and flared high into the midnight sky. Was some devilish rite being celebrated in that bloodstained tower? But no, as the Christians watched they called to each other with shouts of joy that the building itself was in flames! Alvarado must have reached the market-place.
With a will Spaniard and ally laboured at day-break to fill up the wide canal, and the Aztecs were impotent to stay the work. Soon the cavalry were able to gallop across, and then indeed the Indians, weak and worn as they were, had no choice but flight. Alvarado and his officers hastened to greet and embrace their comrades in the general's division, for they had not met since the beginning of the siege.
Climbing the ruined temple from which waved in triumph the flag of Spain, CortÚs gazed at the scene around him. Less than two years before he had stood by the side of Montezuma on the summit of the great teocalli, and had marvelled at the beauty of the rich island city, the crown of all the lovely valley. What a change had those two years wrought! Where palaces had stood, surrounded by green gardens aglow with flowers and cooling fountains, stretched now a black and smoking desert. The gleaming canals, alive with canoes and gay with chinampas, had for ever disappeared; seven-eighths of the city lay in ruins, and CortÚs, as he stood on the teocalli, was planning its utter destruction.
"There was in the army," says Bernal Diaz, "a soldier who boasted of having served in Italy and of the great battles he had seen there. This man was eternally talking of the wonderful military machines which he knew the art of constructing, and how he could make a stone engine which should in two days destroy the whole quarter of the city where Guatemozin had retreated. He told CortÚs so many fine things of this kind that he persuaded him into a trial of his experiments." The machine, which took several days to make, was built on a great platform in the centre of the market-place. Here, in the happy, prosperous days of Tenochtitlan, jugglers and mountebanks had charmed the populace with many an ingenious trick. In the machine was placed a huge rock, and the Aztecs on the house-tops hard by watched with terror while the engineer set in train his death-dealing creation. The rock, according to the proud inventor, would be hurled with terrific force upon a neighbouring palace. "But, behold! instead of taking that direction, the stone flew up vertically into the air," and then crashed down again upon the catapult and smashed it into pieces. CortÚs was ashamed and much enraged, but it continued, says Diaz, the joke of the army for many a day.
More and more horrible grew the sufferings of the besieged, but still they declared that never would they submit, and they yet had spirit to fight and taunt the Spaniards.
"The treasure you hope to win," they cried, "is buried where you will never find it!"
Brave as the men were the Aztec women, nursing the sick, and aiding the warriors by supplying them with stones and arrows. Two ladies of high rank remained three days and nights up to their necks in the water among the reeds, and this is but an instance of the unspeakable sufferings which tenderly nurtured women heroically endured. In the ever-narrowing Aztec quarters the dead bodies soon lay so thick that "a man could not set his foot down unless on the corpse of an Indian." Yet the courage of Guatemozin never failed, and his subjects, catching his noble spirit, felt with him that death even in such dreadful forms was indeed better far than submission to the false strangers.