The city of Mexico was roused at last! Her people were in arms against the insolent strangers. They had burnt the water-houses; they had attacked the Old Palace, undermined the defences, and killed and wounded many of the garrison. This was the alarming news which CortÚs received in the hour of victory. "Hasten to our relief," wrote Alvarado, "if you would save us or keep your hold on the capital!"
Swift to answer the appeal, CortÚs recalled his scattered troops, and with one thousand foot soldiers and nearly a hundred horsemen at once set out for Mexico. Only one hundred men, under an inferior officer, were left to garrison Villa Rica, for the general could not in such a crisis leave Sandoval behind. At Tlascala they were warmly welcomed, and their fighting force augmented by two thousand warriors.
Crossing the mountain barrier the veterans proudly pointed out to the men of Narvaez the lovely valley of Mexico, and described how its people would throng to welcome the wonderful white Teules. Down they marched into the glowing valley, but no crowds came forth to meet them, no flowers strewed their path. By the shores of the gleaming lakes they passed, but no canoes gave life and interest to the scene.
The army entered Mexico to the sound of martial music.
Early in the morning of the 24th of June, CortÚs, at the head of his army, rode on to the great southern causeway. The sun shone brightly on the white-towered city with its smoke and temple-fires, on the glancing waters and on the marching army; but its radiant beams revealed no other sign of life. The lake was deserted. Presently, however, far in the distance a sentinel canoe was descried darting rapidly away. The ominous stillness, more appalling than the noise of battle, was broken only by the steady tramp of the soldiers. The men of Narvaez, looking fearfully around at every step, began to grumble. This was not the reception they had been promised.
Would the fort of Xoloc be barred against them? No, it too was deserted, and unopposed they marched to the walls of Mexico.
"Sound the trumpets!" cries CortÚs, "that our comrades may know that rescue is at hand!"
To the sound of martial music they entered the city, and as they crossed the drawbridge they heard the guns of the garrison in answer. Alvarado was still holding out, and at the thought their drooping courage revived.
All was silence in the city, no living thing crossed their path as they marched through the empty streets. At every canal they found a broken bridge, but the tamanes were able to replace the timber, which still lay on the banks. What a trap was this island city! The canals were too wide for a horse to jump, and too deep for an armed man to wade; and the vessels built with such care by Martin Lopez had been destroyed! Gloomy and anxious were the faces of both captains and men as they reached the Old Palace. But wide open were the gates flung, and out rushed their comrades with tumultuous welcome, while the trumpets and guns echoed through the silent city.
The cause of the sudden revolt and open hostility of the Aztecs was the first inquiry of CortÚs. He found that Alvarado, the beloved Tonatiuh of the Indians, had himself provoked it by the most wanton cruelty. On a certain date in May a festival in honour of Huitzilopotchli was always held in the great temple. As Alvarado was governing Mexico in the name of Montezuma the caciques had requested his permission for the use of the temple. Consent was given on condition that the Aztecs came unarmed and offered up no human sacrifice. Vague rumours came to the ears of the Spaniards that the caciques intended to take advantage of the gathering to rouse the people to insurrection. Without waiting to prove the truth of this story, Alvarado, mindful perhaps of Cholula, resolved to intimidate the Aztecs by a most terrible blow.
On the appointed day six hundred caciques in gorgeous garments bedecked with gold and jewels assembled in the great temple. The Spaniards joined the throng, the music rang out, and the gay whirling dance began. Suddenly at a signal from Alvarado the mailed soldiers rushed with drawn swords on the unarmed and unsuspecting chiefs. To fight was impossible, to escape hopeless. The poor wretches who tried to scale the serpent-wall were shot or cut down. "The pavement ran with streams of blood," says an old chronicler, "like water in a heavy shower." The carnage did not cease till every Aztec lay dead. Then the Spaniards rifled the bodies of the gold and ornaments and returned to their quarters. The victims were all nobles of high rank, and the dastardly deed roused the city to indignation unspeakable. "Vengeance!" was the cry on every lip, and hardly had the murderers returned to the Old Palace ere it was assaulted with such fury that it might even have been stormed had not Montezuma appeared on the battlements and besought his people to depart. Sullenly they obeyed, resolving to blockade if they might not attack.
With a dark and angry face CortÚs listened to the story. Then in a tone of repressed fury and bitter disdain he said to Alvarado, "You have been false to your trust. Your conduct has been that of a madman!"
At this moment Montezuma entered the courtyard borne in his palanquin, clad in his royal robes and surrounded by his family and attendants. As CortÚs looked from the splendour of the procession to his own ragged, hungry soldiers his heart grew harder and more bitter. "I salute you, O Malinche, and welcome your return," said the emperor, and Marina in her sweet, clear voice translated the courteous words. Fixing the emperor with a cold stare, the general turned away without a word of greeting in reply.
Montezuma, who had restrained the violence of his subjects, and had shared his own provisions with the garrison, was cut to the heart at the deliberate insult. Returning to his apartments he sent to request an interview.
But CortÚs, whose temper seems for once to have completely given way, exclaimed angrily, "What have I to do with this dog of a king who suffers us to starve before his eyes?" Leon, Olid, and Lugo hastily interposed, begging the general to be more considerate to the emperor, whose kindness and generosity had never wavered. The implied censure seemed to irritate CortÚs the more.
"What compliment am I under to a dog who leaves us to die of famine?" he exclaimed. Then turning to the Aztecs he said sternly, "Go, tell your master and his people to open the markets, or we will do it for them at their cost! Begone!"
A reply soon came from the emperor. "My people," he said, "are ready to attack Malinche and his followers. Cuitlahuac, my brother, the lord of Iztapalapan, whom he holds a prisoner, is the only man I can depend on to keep the peace and open the markets." So CortÚs, in sore need of provisions, set free Cuitlahuac, who had been imprisoned with Cacama, king of Tezcuco. But the lord of Iztapalapan, brave and patriotic, far from calming the Aztecs, became their leader against the Spaniards, and returned no more to the Old Palace. CortÚs, meanwhile, not realising the imminence of the danger, despatched a solitary messenger to Villa Rica to tell of his safe arrival.
And now from every side, by the causeways, by the lake, up the canals, up the streets, came pouring into Mexico all the tribes summoned by Cuitlahuac and Guatemozin, nephew of Montezuma and bravest of Aztecs. Louder and nearer each minute grew the distant thunder of the mingled war-cries, and as the Spanish captains mounted the palace roof an appalling sight met their startled eyes. The whole valley seemed dark with warriors!
A white man came staggering down the street bearing no lance, but many wounds, and shouting as he ran. It was the messenger to Villa Rica, and as his comrades dragged him in through the gates flung open to receive him, he cried, "The city is all in arms! The drawbridges are up, and the enemy will soon be upon us!"
The noise of the advancing multitudes grew into deafening uproar as they swept into the streets surrounding the Old Palace. Yelling their war-cries, with their banners tossing above them, and in their midst frenzied priests clashing cymbals and leaping in fierce exaltation, they advanced at a run. Suddenly from behind the parapets on all the flat house-tops around sprang up myriads of warriors, who swarmed also on the terraces of the teocallis in the great temple. The Old Palace was but one story high, except in the centre, where another had been added, and was much lower therefore than the surrounding buildings, which offered a strong vantage-point to the Aztecs.
At the first alarm every Spaniard had rushed to his post. Aghast as they were at the great array which seemed to have appeared as if by magic against them, there was no panic or confusion, so marvellous was their discipline. Here and there through the walls which surrounded the Old Palace they had pierced holes for the guns, and the gunners but waited the word of command.
Three times did the drum of serpent skins boom forth from the great teocalli, and at the last stroke the Aztecs rushed forward raining their missiles thick and fast into the palace courtyard. With their guns the Spaniards answered, and terrible was the effect on an enemy whose dense ranks were so easy a mark that "the gunners loaded and fired with hardly the trouble of pointing their pieces." But nothing could daunt the spirit of the Aztecs. Those behind pressed forward to take the place of the slain, and scaling the wall fought hand to hand. At Guatemozin's command balls of burning cotton were shot into the enclosure, and though the palace was of stone the huts of the Tlascalans were of reeds and wood and speedily caught fire. The Spaniards had no water to spare, and they were obliged to pull down part of the walls ere they could stay the flames. Over the breach the Aztecs rushed, only to be driven back by the heavy guns.
When night fell the natives withdrew to collect their dead and wounded, and the garrison, thankful for the respite, repaired the defences. At daybreak, just as the Aztecs prepared to renew the assault, the guns thundered forth, mowing down their foremost ranks, and then out of the gates dashed CortÚs and his cavalry, followed by the infantry and Tlascalans. So headlong was the charge that the Spaniards, scattering all before them, rode unopposed down the wide street. But soon a barricade barred the way, and while they waited for the guns to come up and clear the road, missiles were showered from the roofs on either side, and the Aztecs falling on the rear did deadly work among the Tlascalans.
The way was cleared, but at every bridge the struggle was renewed, and the Spaniards, though victorious at all points, suffered severely. At last CortÚs sounded a retreat, darkness was falling, and his men were weary with the fight. Several hundred of the citadel houses had been burnt down, but the way back seemed even more difficult than the advance. "The Mexicans fought with such ferocity," says Bernal Diaz, "that if we had had the assistance that day of ten thousand Hectors, we could not have beaten them off! Some of our soldiers who had been in Italy swore that neither among Christians nor Turks, nor the artillery of the king of France, had they ever seen such desperation as was shown by these Indians." CortÚs himself fought like a hero, rescuing single-handed one of his cavaliers who had been unhorsed and almost overwhelmed by the foe. Not until the gates of the Old Palace clanged behind them did they feel themselves in safety.
All night long the Aztecs encamped around the Spanish quarters, and though they did not continue the fight their warlike yells showed they were far from subdued in spirit. "The gods have delivered you at last into our hands!" they cried, "Huitzilopotchli has long wanted his victims. The stone of sacrifice is ready! The knives are sharpened! The wild beasts in the palace are roaring for their offal, and the cages are waiting for the Tlascalans, false sons of Anahuac, who are to be fattened for the festival!" Even the stout-hearted Spanish veterans shuddered as they heard the savage threats and thought of what the morrow might bring forth.