Tall and of commanding presence, with lofty brow and dark piercing eyes, the new captain-general seemed in person a man born to rule. A fine horseman and skilful fencer, he was strong enough to endure great hardship, and in battle he knew no fear. Keen were his wits as his own Castilian sword, and his winning tongue served him well with the turbulent spirit of his followers. To the banner of such a leader rallied all the men in Cuba who would fain carve their way to fortune. CortÚs clearly saw that self-interest alone was their incentive, and so he kept ever before them the golden prize. Such men, who knew no duty to king or country, could be bound only by personal allegiance, and this their leader, by every art, sought to inspire.
Ships, provisions, arms, all were needed. Something indeed did Velasquez contribute, but for the most part CortÚs had to draw upon his friends, while every peseta of his own was sunk in the venture.
Day by day grew the popularity of the young commander, and in the rich dress and lordly bearing of his subordinate the jealous eyes of the Governor of Cuba read insolence. In his heart was born a fear and the wish that he had not given to CortÚs the command of this expedition.
Portrait of Cortes
Now Velasquez had a jester who hated the new favourite of fortune, and waited the moment to do him an ill turn. One morning, as the Governor and his lieutenant visited the port to watch the work on the ships, the jester called out:
"Have a care, master Velasquez, or we shall have to go a-hunting, some day or other, after this same captain of ours!"
At the sound of these words, which seemed to voice his own suspicions, Velasquez looked narrowly at his companion, and asked him brusquely, "Hear'st thou the rogue?"
"A saucy knave who would be bettered by a whipping!" replied CortÚs smoothly.
The matter dropped, but the seed had fallen on ground prepared. From that instant Velasquez resolved to take the command from the captain he had so rashly chosen. Fearing to depose for no just reason so popular a leader, he worked secretly to accomplish this end.
CortÚs, meanwhile, was quick to notice the change in the Governor's manner, and he was warned also by a trusty friend. Ruin stared him in the face, for had he not staked his all upon this venture? The ships were not ready, men were lacking, provisions were short, but the very night of the warning he gave orders that the little fleet should weigh anchor. High-handed perforce were his actions that night. Meat was his greatest need, but that was in part remedied by a raid on the butcher, to whom he flung in payment his golden chain. By midnight every man was on board, and the ships dropped down the bay.
In the morning Velasquez was roused by incredible news. The expedition had sailed, his enemy had forestalled him! Assuring himself that it was an impossibility, he hurriedly dressed and galloped down to the quay. But, alas! there were the ships rapidly dwindling in the distance.
When CortÚs saw from his ship that the Governor, with his little group of officers, had come to the waterside, he put off in a small armed boat and came near the shore. "And is it thus you part from me?" Velasquez called out furiously; "a courteous way of taking leave, truly!"
"Pardon me," replied his lieutenant suavely, "time presses, and there are some things that should be done before they are even thought of. Has your Excellency any commands!" Velasquez was speechless with impotent anger, and CortÚs, waving farewell, returned to his ship once more.
With the ships insufficiently equipped it was, however, impossible to undertake the voyage to Mexico, and the fleet put in at Trinidad, on the southern coast of Cuba. Here CortÚs issued a proclamation and raised his standard, a banner of black velvet embroidered in gold, bearing in its centre a red cross surrounded by blue and white flames, and this motto: "Friends, let us follow the Cross; and in that sign, if we have faith, we shall conquer!" His call for volunteers met with ready response. Haughty hidalgo and common soldier, cavalier and man-at-arms, all were welcome. Most welcome were Alvarado, Sandoval, and others who had sailed under Grijalva.
When Velasquez heard that CortÚs was still in Cuba, he hoped even yet to balk his rebellious subordinate. Orders were sent to the commandant of Trinidad to seize the captain-general as a traitor. But rumours of this raised the soldiery to such fury that they threatened to burn the town to ashes if a hair of their captain's head was touched.
Anxious to avoid all broils, CortÚs, however, preferred to move his camp. He chose Havana, because there much cotton was grown, and he could add to the armour of his troops those quilted jackets so useful as a defence against the arrows of the Indians.
The enmity of Velasquez, still unsated, led him to make yet another attempt, which also proved unavailing, for "all the soldiers, officers and privates, would have cheerfully laid down their lives for the Captain." So says Bernal Diaz, old soldier and unbiased chronicler.
A man of experience was this Diaz, who had sailed with Cordova on his ill-starred voyage. Nothing dismayed he had followed also Grijalva, and had resented the treatment accorded by Velasquez to that brave man. And now he was eager to go once more to the golden land of which he had caught a fleeting glimpse. Little did he know the desperate perils which awaited him. Yet perhaps if he had known all his stout heart would not have quailed.
Years after, when he was an old man, he wrote the story of all the strange adventures, the hairbreadth escapes, the defeats and the victories which he and his comrades passed through as they followed their fearless captain, to whom toil and danger were as nothing. He wrote that he might keep green the memory of his brave comrades, long since dead. "Where are now my companions? They have fallen in battle, or been devoured by the cannibal, or been thrown to fatten the wild beasts in their cages! They whose remains should rather have been gathered under monuments emblazoned with their achievements, commemorated in letters of gold; for they died in the service of God and of his Majesty . . . and also to acquire that wealth which most men covet."
This vivid narrative, the glowing testimony of an eye-witness, is far more valuable than the courtly and polished history of Gomara and other writers. With Bernal Diaz we live the daily life and share the dangers and toils of the Conquistadores. No mere eulogy of CortÚs is this chronicle, for the stout old soldier allows no valiant man to miss his due meed. Truth breathes in every line, even when with simple boastfulness he tells the story of his own achievements. "If we did not speak well of ourselves," says he, "who would? Who else witnessed our exploits and our battles—unless, indeed, the clouds in the sky and the birds flying over our heads?"
From Havana the fleet sailed to Cape St. Antonio, the nearest point to the continent. There CortÚs mustered and reviewed his forces. The ships were eleven in number, some of them small and open. His chief pilot had not only sailed on the two former expeditions to Yucatan, but had also been with the great Columbus on his last voyage. There were one hundred and ten sailors, five hundred and fifty-three soldiers, and about two hundred Indian slaves from Cuba, with ten heavy and four light guns. Bernal Diaz describes each one of the sixteen horses, for they had been brought from Europe and were worth their weight in gold.
CortÚs harangued his men with a few last stir-ring words—"I hold out to you a glorious prize, but it is to be won by ceaseless toil. . . . If I have laboured hard and staked my all, it is for love of renown. If any among you covet riches more, be but true to me, as I will be true to you and to the occasion, and I will make you masters of such as our countrymen have never dreamed of! You are few in number, but strong in resolution; and, if this does not falter, doubt not that the Almighty who has never deserted the Spaniard will shield you! Your cause is just, and you fight under the banner of the Cross!"
On a fair and cloudless day, the 18th of February 1519, the little fleet set sail for the coast of Yucatan, but before it had been long at sea a sudden storm arose. Driven southwards from their course the ships were scattered, and the capitana, or admiral's ship, was the last to make the isle of Cozumel.
Very wrathful was CortÚs to find on his arrival that the Captain Alvarado had already sacked the temples and terrified the friendly natives into precipitate flight. Many a time and oft in the course of his long campaign the general was to pay the cost of this dashing officer's violence and wanton cruelty. The simple inhabitants of Cozumel were, however, easily persuaded by friendly signs and presents to return to their homes once more.
While lingering here to refit his battered ships, rumours came to CortÚs of Spaniards held in degrading bondage by the Indians of the mainland. A Spanish ship, 'twas said, had been wrecked long years before on that inhospitable coast. This story recalled to Bernal Diaz, who had sailed with Cordova, the cry of "Castilian! Castilian!" yelled by the Indians near Cape Catoche as they drove back the white men with fury to their ships. Here was a mystery, and CortÚs, his blood boiling at the thought of a Castilian enslaved, at once despatched a rescue party to the opposite coast under the captain Diego de Ordaz, who was ordered to remain there eight days and to offer a tempting ransom for the Christians.
The time of waiting was employed by the general in exploring the island and in converting the natives. The process of conversion was extremely swift and simple. The Indian idols were broken in pieces by the zealous soldiery, the image of the Virgin was set up in a place of honour, the intimidated natives were harangued by the two Spanish priests, and then baptized by hundreds into the Christian Church.
Ordaz returned after eight days without news of the captives. Impatient to be gone, the general at once embarked his men. They had, however, sailed but a few leagues ere a leak in one of the ships forced them to put back to their safe harbour in Cozumel. Just as they were once more on the point of embarking, a canoe, paddled with desperate speed by three or four natives, was seen crossing the strait. Directly it touched the shore a man, dark in colour as a native, leaped out calling wildly to the white men in a jargon, partly Spanish, partly Indian. About his shoulders and waist hung a few rags, and in a bundle on his back was the remnant of an old book of prayers. The soldiers, astonished and pitiful, led him at once to their general, whom he saluted In Indian fashion, making low obeisance and then touching the ground with his right hand and lifting it to his head. Raising the wretched man, CortÚs covered him with his own yellow mantle lined with crimson, and welcomed him as a comrade, while officers and men gathered round to hear the rescued Christian's romantic story.
His name was Jeronimo de Aguilar, and for eight weary years he had been a captive. Wrecked on some sunken rocks, called the Vipers, he had been stranded with fifteen companions on the coast of Yucatan. As they wandered famishing along the shore they were attacked and carried off by natives. Cooped up in a kind of pen they were at first well treated and remarkably well fed, but too soon did they learn the horrible reason for their bounteous repasts. They were being fattened for a cannibal feast! One night their captain and four other unfortunates, whose flesh seemed fair and tempting, were dragged from the pen and gleefully sacrificed in the neighbouring temple. With shudders the survivors listened to the succeeding sounds of loathsome banqueting and horrid orgy. Armed with the frantic strength of despair they managed that very night to break from their prison and fly to the dark and lonely forest. Here they roamed starving and desolate for many harrowing days, fearing at every turn to be trapped by their cannibal hunters.
Driven by their anguish to seek at last the haunts of men they fell into the hands of another tribe whose cacique elected to use them as slaves, not victims. Forced to cut wood, draw water, and carry intolerable burdens, the Spaniards soon sank under the hardships of their lot. Finally all perished save two: one, a sailor named Gonzalo Guerrero, and the other Jeronimo de Aguilar, who had fortunately found favour in the eyes of the cacique. The sailor, a man of fine physique, was sold into a neighbouring tribe. Proud of their acquisition these natives treated him with great respect, and his powers in warfare soon won for him the proud position of an Indian brave. In time he even became a chieftain and was given the hand of a dusky princess.
Aguilar, meantime, who had been trained as a priest, steadfastly refused all offers of Indian brides. His sober and upright behaviour much impressed the savage cacique, who made him keeper of his household and his wives and wise man to the tribe. In spite of this honourable estate the white man never ceased to pine for his countrymen and home. Hardly could he conceal his joy when there appeared one day in the village three natives from Cozumel bringing tidings of the arrival of white and bearded warriors in that isle, whose captain had actually sent a letter offering a ransom for the release of all captive Christians.
This letter Aguilar translated to the cacique, to whom so peculiar a way of sending news seemed to savour of magical power. But the Indian proved most reluctant to lose his favourite white man, and it was only by working first on his fears and then on his cupidity that Aguilar obtained his release. The white men, he declared, were gods armed with thunder and lightning, able to wreak vengeance on all their enemies and willing to lavish priceless gifts on their friends. The sight of the shining beads and baubles borne by the messengers decided the wavering cacique. Aguilar was free, but mindful of his old comrade, he sent the letter of Codes to Gonzalo Guerrero who lived in a different province, and lingered yet awhile in the Indian village awaiting a reply.
When Guerrero, now a great warrior chieftain, received this offer of deliverance his heart leaped for joy. Not all his barbarous splendour, not the beauty of his dark-eyed princess, not his pride in his many children would have kept him back from the land of his birth. More potent was the bond which held him captive in his far-away western home. His face and hands were tattooed in many colours, a heavy golden ring dragged down his nose, while from his slit ears and lips hung jewelled ornaments. Gorgeous he might appear to his Indian braves, but ridicule only would greet him from bearded Spanish sailors. The messengers returned without him, and it was this delay which so nearly destroyed Aguilar's chance of return to civilised life.
The mishap which had compelled CortÚs to put back to the shores of Cozumel proved a blessing not only to the poor exile, but to the whole adventure, since Aguilar, who, though he did not know the Aztec language, could speak the dialect of Yucatan, soon made himself invaluable as interpreter to the little army.