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

Tribute to the King of Spain

In his stately city on the eastern border of the great salt lake, Cacama, king of Tezcuco and nephew of Montezuma, brooded with dark suspicion on his uncle's prolonged stay in the quarters of the strangers. Surely he must be a captive! Never of his own free will would the emperor of the Aztecs consent to such a humiliating position. Cacama resolved to raise the great lords of the empire to rescue their monarch, even against his will, from the hands of the white men. Montezuma's brother, Cuitlahuac, the lord of Iztapalapan, his nephew Guatemozin, and the lord of the allied state of Tlacopan, readily consented to aid in the attempt.

Ever on the watch, CortÚs ere long heard of these plots which were being hatched on the opposite shore of the lake, and strong in the complete sway he had acquired over the mind of Montezuma, he sent a haughty message to the young king of Tezcuco, warning him to beware of the people of the monarch of Spain, the ruler of all the world.

Equally haughty was Cacama's reply, "I acknowledge no such authority. I know nothing of the Spanish sovereign nor his people!" Even a summons from Montezuma to appear before him at the Old Palace did not move the resolute young king, though the emperor's slightest wish had ever been law to all his subjects. But well Cacama knew that his uncle was now a mere tool of the Spaniards, and bold as before was his answer, "When I visit the capital it will be to rescue it, the emperor, and our common gods from bondage. I will come, not with my hand in my bosom, but on my sword,—to drive out the detested strangers who have brought such dishonour on our country."

Now there were certain Tezcucan nobles in the pay of Montezuma, and at the bidding of CortÚs, the wretched emperor actually commanded these traitors to seize his nephew their king, by fair means or foul, and send him to Mexico. To a lonely house over-hanging the lake Cacama was enticed, and then suddenly seized, bound hand and foot, flung into a canoe, and borne swiftly across the water to Mexico. As a criminal he was brought before Montezuma, but proud and brave as ever, he would make no effort to win favour from the Spaniards, and boldly accused his uncle of treachery and cowardice. Loaded with fetters he was thrown into a dungeon, and his younger brother was proclaimed, by order of the emperor, king of Tezcuco.

By this same wondrous talisman, the command of the great Montezuma, CortÚs was able to capture also the lord of Tlacopan, and Cuitlahuac the lord of Iztapalapan, with others who were suspected of sharing in Cacama's plot.

The Spaniards now began to feel as if this fair land of Mexico really belonged to them, for was not its all-powerful emperor a mere puppet in their hands? Parties sent out to explore the country and to search for gold found that the much-coveted metal was gathered from the beds of rivers some hundreds of miles away. So secure was CortÚs in his position as dictator to the emperor that he actually dared to diminish his small force. Velasquez de Leon was despatched with a hundred and fifty men to found another colony and fort on the shores of the Atlantic about sixty leagues south of the Villa Rica de la Vera Cruz.

Surely now the time had come, thought CortÚs, when he might safely demand from Montezuma a public sign of vassalage to the Spanish emperor. What a triumph to write to Charles V. that an unknown adventurer had won as a new vassal to Spain the monarch of a rich and mighty empire!

To the Old Palace came at Montezuma's summons all his princes and chief lords. Then in a voice broken by sobs their monarch addressed them. He spoke of the coming of Quetzalcoatl and his descendants from the land of the rising sun. The prediction had been fulfilled. The white strangers had sailed from the east over the ocean to claim the land of their sire. The Aztecs must not seek to resist the gods.

"You have been faithful vassals of mine," said the emperor, "during the many years that I have sat on the throne of my fathers. I now expect that you will show me this last act of obedience by acknowledging the great king beyond the waters to be your lord, and that you will pay him tribute in the same manner as you have hitherto done to me."

The emperor's will was law. In silent bitterness each noble took the oath of allegiance to Don Carlos of Spain, while the Spanish notary recorded the curious ceremony. So intense seemed the distress of the Aztecs at the act of humiliation that "even though it was in the regular way of our own business," says Bernal Diaz, "there was not a Spaniard who could look on the spectacle with a dry eye."

To show that the Mexicans were vassals in deed as well as word, CortÚs at once sent Montezuma's tax-gatherers throughout all Anahuac to collect tribute for the Spanish emperor. As his own share the Aztec monarch gave all the riches of his treasure-chamber.

In twenty days the collectors returned and the tribute was piled in the courtyard of the Old Palace. As CortÚs gazed on the shining heaps of gold-dust, the bars of gold and silver, the ornaments, the feather-work, the ingenious toys and trinkets, he exclaimed, "Surely it is a treasure such as no monarch in Europe can boast!"

"I regret," said Montezuma, "that it is not larger, but it is somewhat diminished by my former gifts. Take it, Malintzin, and let it be recorded in your annals that Montezuma sent this present to your master."

And now the soldiers began to clamour for an immediate division of the spoil. The treasures were counted and valued, and some of the larger ornaments taken to pieces by Mexican goldsmiths. The value was reckoned at about one million four hundred and seventeen thousand pounds sterling in our own currency. Equally divided, the share of each soldier would have been over three thousand pounds. But one-fifth had to be deducted for the Crown and another fifth for the general. Then the expenses of the expedition had to be defrayed, compensation given for the loss of killed horses, and a portion set aside for the men left behind in Villa Rica. To the cavaliers, crossbowmen, and musketeers had been promised a double share. "Thus," says Bernal Diaz, with hot indignation, "by the time all these drafts were made, what remained for each soldier was hardly worth stooping for!"

"Is it for this," cried the men with all the fury of balked greed, "that we left our homes and families, perilled our lives, submitted to fatigue and famine, and all for so contemptible a pittance? Better to have stayed in Cuba, and contented ourselves with the gains of a safe and easy traffic. When we gave up our share of the gold at Vera Cruz, it was on the assurance that we should be amply requited in Mexico. We have, indeed, found the riches we expected; but no sooner seen, than they are snatched from us by the very men who pledged us their faith!"

All the general's consummate tact, all the magic of his winning tongue, and the power of his personality were needed to calm these men almost ripe for mutiny. The division, he declared, had been perfectly fair. If they thought his own share was too much he was willing to divide it with the poorest soldier. "This treasure," he went on, "is nothing to what we shall gain in the future when the whole country with its rich mines is ours. But never shall we possess this empire while we are divided against ourselves." The soldiers were pacified at last, and consoled themselves with "deep gaming, day and night, with cards made out of the heads of drums."

The holy Virgin and the saints had been ever with the adventurers, who now felt that as Christians they ought to brave any danger to plant the true cross if possible in the very sanctuaries of the abominable idols. CortÚs, with several of his cavaliers, formally requested Montezuma to deliver up to them the great teocalli  itself, that they might worship their God openly in the sight of the whole city.

Horror-struck at the very suggestion, Montezuma exclaimed piteously, "Why, Malintzin, why will you urge matters to an extremity that must surely bring down the vengeance of our gods, and stir up an insurrection among my people, who will never endure this profanation of their temples."

Dismissing his officers, CortÚs, left alone with the emperor, bent him as usual to his will. He promised, however, not to insult the shrines of the Aztec gods if one of the sanctuaries on the great teocalli  was given to him for a Christian chapel. "But," he added threateningly, "if this request is refused, we will roll down the images of your false gods in the face of the city. We fear not for our lives, for, though our numbers are few, the arm of the true God is over us."

Shrinkingly the Aztec emperor gave his sanction, and the priests were ordered to leave free for the Teules  one of these most sacred sanctuaries of their gods.

Much had the Aztec people borne, at their emperor's command, from these insolent strangers, but when they saw a procession of white men mount the sacred summit to celebrate in the very shrine of an Aztec god their own religion, their fury knew no bounds. With disgust and scorn the Aztec priests looked on the flower-decked crucifix and image of the Virgin which had ousted their glittering, blood-stained god, and with wild chants and ceremonies they strove to rouse still more the temper of their people. Message after message was sent to Montezuma that no longer would his subjects brook the presence of the impious white men.

The Spaniards had gone too far. From the emperor's altered manner CortÚs divined that trouble was in the air. The almost cringing subservience of the Aztec had given place to cold, abstracted reserve. He conferred much with his nobles and the priests, and the little page Orteguilla who could speak Aztec was not suffered to be present at these meetings.

At last came a summons to Montezuma's apartments. Escorted by some of his chief cavaliers, CortÚs, grave and anxious, obeyed the unwonted request. The emperor, who had regained some measure of his old kingly dignity, spoke in firm, impressive tones, "The gods of my country," he said, "offended by the violation of their temple, have threatened that they will forsake the city if the sacrilegious strangers are not sacrificed on their altars or driven at once from the land of Anahuac. I am your friend and do not wish for bloodshed. Leave the country therefore without delay. I have only to raise my finger and every Aztec in the land will rise in arms against you!"

With well-concealed consternation CortÚs listened to these unwelcome words, but his reply was guarded and courteous. "I much regret two things, my lord. One is, that if I leave in such precipitation I shall be obliged to take your Majesty with me. The other, that we cannot all return immediately, as our ships were destroyed when we first landed on your territory. Wherefore we must build others, and I should be obliged if you would give us labourers to cut and work the wood. I myself have ship-builders, and when the vessels are completed we will take our departure."

To so reasonable a request Montezuma could not refuse his consent, and he undertook to restrain the fury of his people until the ships were finished. Labourers and the Spanish shipwrights were at once despatched to the coast, but CortÚs gave secret orders to Martin Lopez to delay the work as much as possible. He hoped that time might bring a turn of fortune and that reinforcements might arrive from Europe.

So the Spaniards kept their quarters in the Old Palace, and kept too their royal prisoner. But the triumphant sense of owning the country was theirs no more. Sullen, threatening looks met them in the streets, and every moment they expected an attack. Constant watch and guard were kept as if in a siege, the soldiers never sleeping out of their armour. "Without meaning to boast," says old Diaz, "I may say of myself that my armour was as easy to me as the softest down, and such is my custom, that when I now go the rounds of my district, I never take a bed with me unless I happen to be accompanied by strange cavaliers, in which case I do it only to avoid the appearance of poverty, but, by my faith, even when I have one I always throw myself on it in my clothes; such it is to be a true soldier! Another peculiarity I have is, that I cannot sleep through the night, but always awaken and get up in order to contemplate the heavens and the stars, and thus I amuse myself, walking backwards and forwards, as I used to do when on guard without hat or cap; and glory be to God, I never yet caught cold, nor was a jot the worse for it. I mention these things that the world may understand of what stuff we, the true conquerors, were made, and how well drilled we were to arms and watching."

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