Montezuma! The very name calls up one of the most pathetic scenes in history. From out the past rises the majestic figure of a heathen king in the prime of his life, standing aloft, for the last time, on the central turret of his palace. His mantle of blue and white flowed over his shoulders, his feet were shod with golden sandals, his dark brows covered with the Mexican tiara, while the jewels on his imperial robes glistened in the June sunshine. A deathlike silence reigned amid the masses of his subjects, standing below in slavish awe, broken only by the sound of the king's voice. Then a murmur of disapproval in the crowd, a cloud of stones and arrows directed at the central turret, and Montezuma fell.
Montezuma had been made king in 1502, elected in preference to his two brothers for his wisdom and ability. Naturally a grave and silent man, the few words he used to say in the council of the chiefs impressed every one, and when the throne of Mexico became vacant, all eyes turned to Montezuma as the right man to fill it. When Montezuma heard this, he hid himself in a temple, for he was a devout and religious man, thinking the responsibility of governing the people too heavy a burden for him. At last they found him, and with proclamations of joy they took him to the council chamber, where the Mexicans received him as their chosen king. Sadly and gravely he accepted; indeed his very name signified sadness.
They attired him with royal ornaments, pierced his nostrils to hang a rich emerald, and seated him on his throne. Then speeches began.
"Rejoice, O happy land!" cried a neighbouring king, "to whom the Creator hath given a prince, as a firm pillar to support thee, who shall be thy father in distress, who will be more than a brother to his subjects. Thou hast a king not given up to amusements, one who will neither eat nor sleep till he has worked for your good. And thou, noble young man, and our most mighty lord, be confident and of a good courage, that seeing the Lord of things created hath given thee this charge, He will also give thee force and courage to manage it."
Montezuma listened attentively to every word, but he was so troubled that three times he tried to answer and could not speak for his tears. At last he recovered himself.
"I were too blind, good king," he said, "if I did not know that what thou hast spoken unto me was spoken out of mere kindness; and, in truth, I find myself so incapable of so great a charge that I know not what to do, but to beseech the Creator of all created things that He will favour me, and I entreat you all to pray unto Him for me."
Having uttered these words the new king began to weep.
Montezuma's first efforts were crowned with success; he led an expedition in person against a rebel province, and brought back in triumph a throng of captives.
He had a great idea of his regal dignity. He never set foot on the ground in public, but was always carried on the shoulders of noblemen; whenever he alighted, they laid down rich tapestry for him to tread on. No man, under rank of a knight, might look in his face; if he did, he was at once put to death. So Montezuma "laboured to be respected and worshipped as a god." His magnificence must have made a great impression on the public mind.
He never put on the same garment twice, he never ate or drank out of the same dish more than once, his servants were numberless. He was very careful to have his laws well observed, and punished with death those who broke them. He was very fond of patrolling the streets of Mexico disguised from head to foot, in order to see for himself any abuses. He built temples, brought water into his capital by a new channel, established a hospital for sick soldiers, and generally improved the city.
So Montezuma reigned over his kingdom for many years in great prosperity, which so "put up his conceit," says the old story, "that the Almighty Lord began to chastise him, suffering even the very devils whom he worshipped to tell him heavy tidings of the ruin of his kingdom, and to torment him by visions," which made him yet more sad and melancholy than usual.
Now the Mexicans had a curious, old tradition that the god of the air, whom they worshipped next to the "Supreme Creator," should one day return and rule the kingdom. This god with his white skin, dark hair, and flowing beard had sailed away in a wizard ship, made of serpents' skins, to an unknown shore; but the people never forgot his promise to return. It was about this time that many strange things happened, and the Mexicans remembered the words of their god.
In 1510, the great lake near suddenly began to swell without any sign of wind or earthquake, and the waves broke with such fury that all the buildings near fell down to the ground. At the same time there was the sound of many voices, crying, "Oh, my children, the time of your destruction is come."
Then there was a comet seen in the daytime, with a long tail and three heads.
Again, a great flame of fire, in the shape of a pyramid, appeared in the sky at midnight, and went on mounting till the sun rose in the morning, when it vanished away.
And there was another story, yet more conclusive than these to the Indian mind.
A labourer at his work was taken up by a great eagle, and carried by him to a cave where a figure lay apparently asleep with royal ensigns and flowers in his hand.
"It is King Montezuma," cried the labourer.
"Thou sayest true," said a voice. "Behold he lies asleep, careless of the great miseries prepared for him. It is time that he pay the great number of offences he hath done to God, and that he receive punishment for his tyrannies and great pride."
All these omens troubled Montezuma more and more, and he became excessively heavy and sad.
It was the fourteenth year of Montezuma's reign, when there appeared off the coast ships that roused the curiosity of the natives. Taking with them meats and stuffs they sailed out in their canoes to these ships, which they discovered to be Spanish. The Spaniards received them well, gave them chains of false stones—red, blue, green, and yellow—which the Indians thought were very precious, asked the name of their king, and promised to come and visit him the following year. The Indians returned to the king with pictures on cloth of all they had seen—pictures of the ships, the Spaniards, and some precious stones.
Montezuma was very sad when he saw the pictures, and ordered that this visit of the Spaniards should be kept a secret, though he took the precaution of setting watches along all the sea-coast.
The following year the Spanish fleet appeared again, this time with the great Spanish explorer Cortes on board. The news troubled Montezuma; he called his council together, and they all agreed that it could be none other than the god of the air, the old Lord Queztzalcoalt, come back again to his kingdom.
So Montezuma sent ambassadors with rich presents to congratulate the god on his return, and to deliver dutiful messages from the "servant Montezuma" to the great god. The Spaniards had on board a Mexican slave woman, Marina, who interpreted Montezuma's messages to Cortes. Cortes was gratified with his magnificent presents and messages, and desired to see the owner of all this wealth.
To impress the Mexican officers with his power, he had his artillery discharged from the ships. This troubled the natives terribly, for they were "unaccustomed to hear such music."
This was not their Lord Queztzalcoalt, but his representative.
The splendid treasure displayed before the Spaniards made them determined to visit the capital, and it increased their desire to possess a country which contained such boundless stores of wealth. Sending back to the king a few holland shirts, a goblet, and some toys of little value, Cortes sent also an urgent message that he could not return to Spain without having accomplished the object of his voyage—namely, to see the great king Montezuma, and to enter his capital. A week later the ambassadors returned, this time with a glorious sum of gold, but with a firm message that Montezuma refused to see them, and forbade them to enter his capital; he hoped they would return at once to Spain.
Cortes received the answer coldly.
"This is a rich and powerful prince indeed," he cried to his officers, "but it shall go hard if we will not one day pay him a visit in his capital!"
On August 16, 1519, Cortes started for his march to Mexico, just to see "what sort of a being the great Montezuma was, of whom they had heard so much,"—this tyrannical king, before whom every subject trembled, who declined to be looked on by the Spaniards. From time to time messengers reached him from Montezuma urging him to return to his own country; but to all these Cortes firmly replied, "It is my duty to the King of Spain," and passed on.
As a last hope Montezuma sent out wizards and sorcerers to waylay Cortes; but when they returned to him, having failed, he only broke into weeping and lamentations, bemoaning the fate of his country, and ending with words of calm despair: "We are born; let that come which must come."
With the first faint streak of dawn on the eighth of November, Montezuma's beautiful city of Mexico was reached by Cortes and his Spanish army. With beating hearts they gathered under their respective banners, their trumpets sounding, their eyes straining over the gorgeous sight that met their view. The sacred flames on the altars, dimly seen through the grey mists of the morning, showed the site of temples and towers. The palace was soon revealed in the glorious morning sunshine as it rose and poured over the wondrous valley.
Mexico was one of the most beautiful cities of the world. Situated on a great salt lake, but slightly divided from a large fresh-water lake, the city seemed to sit upon the waters with her diadems of gleaming towers, her expanse of flowery meadows, her circle of mountains, all reflected in the innumerable mirrors framed by her courts, her palaces, her temples.
No wonder the Spaniards looked with envy on the fair city, no wonder they coveted the boundless wealth of this uncivilized country. On they went, those seven thousand Spaniards, on to within half a league of the capital, where at a solid wall of stone twelve feet high they were stopped by some hundred Mexican chiefs, who announced that the great Montezuma had come out to meet them. Amid a crowd of nobles, preceded by three officers of state bearing golden wands, the Spaniards saw the royal palanquin, blazing with gold. It was borne on the shoulders of barefooted nobles, who walked slowly, with eyes bent down on the ground. Over it was a canopy of gaudy feather-work, powdered with jewels and fringed with silver. Suddenly it stopped, the great king alighted, the ground was spread with tapestry that the imperial feet should not be soiled, and with the canopy carried over his head the monarch advanced in all his regal majesty. His subjects lined the way, bending forward with their eyes fixed on the ground as he passed. He was dressed in an ample, square cloak sprinkled with pearls and precious stones, on his feet he wore sandals with soles of gold, on his head plumes of the royal colour green.
Cortes descended from his horse, and showed profound respect to Montezuma. He threw round his neck a collar made of false pearls and diamonds, while Montezuma returned this somewhat poor present by presenting the Spanish general with two collars of shells adorned with golden pendants. Then with colours flying and music playing the Spaniards followed the great king into his capital. Cortes himself was to lodge in the royal palace. "This palace belongs to you and your brethren," said the king. "Rest after your fatigues, and in a little while I will visit you again."
That evening the Spaniards celebrated their arrival in Mexico by a great discharge of guns. The thunder shook the buildings of the city and echoed away among the hills, the smoke rolled up in volumes, the hearts of the Indians were filled with dismay. They had those in their midst who could spread destruction through their fair city, who could call down thunderbolts to consume them.
The following day Cortes returned the visit to Montezuma. Passing through courts where fountains of crystal water played by night and day, under ceilings hung with feather draperies glowing with colour, over mats of palm-leaf, through clouds of incense and intoxicating perfumes, the Spaniards were at last ushered into the royal presence.
Cortes soon entered on the subject which was uppermost in his thoughts—the conversion to Christianity of Montezuma and his people.
Eloquently he spoke to the heathen king, always interpreted by Marina, of the wrong he did in worshipping idols and strange gods; eloquently he begged him to accept the new religion he was sent from Spain to teach.
Patiently the sad king listened to the Spaniard's words. Then he answered, "My lord, if you believe that it is your business to say such bad things of my gods, I will not show them to you. To us they are good gods; they give us health and rain, fine weather and victories. We must sacrifice to them."
Nevertheless Montezuma himself conducted Cortes and his officers to the great temple, and showed him the sanctuaries and shrines of his gods. There was the great image of the god of war, wielding a bow and golden arrows, and three fresh human hearts lay on the altar before him; there was the image of a milder deity, with five bleeding hearts on a golden platter on his altar, and the Spaniards turned away in disgust.
Cortes now saw clearly that neither conquest nor conversion could take place in Mexico as long as the great king Montezuma sat on the Mexican throne.
To take the king's person was the only course open.
Having gained an audience of the king, Cortes talked playfully for a time, receiving presents from. Montezuma and gaining favour. Suddenly he changed his tone, accused the king of having been the author of a skirmish between the Mexicans and the Spaniards, when a great many of the latter were killed, and begged him to come quickly into their palace to assure all of his innocence.
As the full meaning of Cortes' words dawned on Montezuma he became pale as death, then his face flushed as he cried angrily, "When was it ever heard that a great prince like myself voluntarily left his own palace to become a prisoner in the hands of strangers?"
The great king sat stupefied. The request was audacious. Here was a man into whose face other men did not venture to look, before whom crowds bent low and nobles bowed, worshipped as a god, feared as a king.
"And if I should consent to such a degradation," he continued firmly, "my subjects never would."
It seemed in vain to urge, in vain to plead, in vain to waste two long hours in argument. The king was firm. But Cortes was firmer.
"Why do we waste time on this barbarian?" cried one impatient Spaniard. "Let us seize him, and, if he resists, plunge our swords into his body."
The fierce tone of the Spaniard alarmed Montezuma. If death were the alternative, then he must go. He looked round for sympathy or support, his eye wandered over the stern faces and iron forms of the Spaniards; he felt his hour was come; his courage sank, and he feebly consented to go. His litter was called for. And so in sorry manner, borne on by his weeping nobles, and in deep silence, Montezuma left his palace, never to return. Though housed in comfort and allowed his servants, and a certain amount of pomp and luxury, he was virtually a prisoner. The fact was proclaimed to his subjects by the appearance of some sixty men patrolling outside the palace day and night. Soon the king's humiliation was complete by fetters being fastened to his feet.
He was speechless under this new insult. He was as one struck down by a heavy blow—he offered no resistance, he spoke no word, but from time to time low moans expressed his anguish.
His servants, bathed in tears, offered him what poor comfort they could; they tenderly held his feet in their hands, and tried to insert shawls and mantles to save him from the pressure of the iron. But the fact remained—he was a king no longer. Yet he was so firmly convinced that Cortes was but an ambassador from the great god Queztzalcoalt, whose will it was he should undergo this torment, that he consented to each new demand of the Spaniards without opposition.
At last came the demand that the king and his lords should swear allegiance to Spain and consent to pay tribute.
Montezuma obediently assembled his lords and nobles, and addressed them with great emotion.
They must all remember, he said, the old tradition of the great being who once ruled the land, who had sailed away to an unknown land with a promise that he would return. That time had come. The white men had come from the quarter beyond the ocean where the sun rose to which their god had gone. For his part, he was ready to acknowledge the authority of the ancient god.
"You have been faithful subjects," he continued; "I now ask that you will show me this last act of obedience, by acknowledging the great king beyond the waters, and that you will pay him tribute as you have done to me."
As he concluded, his voice broke and tears fell down his cheeks. At the sight of his distress, his lords were deeply moved. His will had always been their law, they said. It should be so still, they asserted amid their sobs. Their humiliation seemed complete, and as they took the oath of allegiance in presence of the Spaniards, they felt that they, the greatest people upon earth," had sold themselves to a small body of unknown men, and broke into loud lamentations.
Even among the triumphant Spaniards there was not a dry eye that day.
The tribute consisted of three great heaps of gold. "Take it," sobbed Montezuma, "and let it be recorded in your annals that the king sent this present to your master."
Not satisfied with this, Cortes went a step further. The temple must be given up for Christian worship.
"Why, why will you urge matters to an extremity?" cried Montezuma, who through all his troubles turned to his gods and his oracles. "Why will you bring down the vengeance of our gods and stir up rebellion among my people, who will never consent to this profanation of their temple?"
But this too had to be conceded.
Nevertheless, as time went on, it became evident to Cortes that he had pushed things too far. The people had borne with patience all the injuries and affronts put on them by the Spaniards; they had seen their mighty king dragged from his palace, fettered, deposed; humiliated; they had seen their temple profaned by Christian worship. They could not bear much more. Signs of discontent began to show themselves among the Mexicans, and the Spaniards grew uneasy.
"Go!" said Montezuma; "if you have any regard for yourselves, go without delay. You have enraged my gods and trampled on my priests. I have but to raise my finger and every Mexican will rise against you."
These words were spoken in May. It was the middle of June when they came true.
The Mexicans had a festival in honour of their great war-god. Montezuma was forbidden to take part in it, but some six hundred of his people, dressed in their gaudy gala costumes, with mantles of feather-work and collars of gold, were dancing their sacred dance, when a party of Spaniards rushed on them with drawn swords, and without pity or mercy slew them to a man. Not one was left alive.
The news spread like wildfire. Every feeling of long-smothered hostility, all the pent-up hatred of the Spaniards, burst forth in one great cry for revenge. The city rose in arms to a man. Before the Spaniards could secure themselves in their defences, they were assaulted with desperate fury by the Mexicans. With a hideous yell, or rather the shrill whistle used in war by these nations, they rained a very tempest of stones, darts, and arrows into the palace. A discharge of guns from the Spaniards mowed them down by hundreds, and for a moment they stood aghast at the slaughter, but only for a moment. Over the dead bodies of their comrades they struggled, with piercing cries of fury and revenge, only to be killed and driven back by the Spaniards' volleys. In their despair they at last set the palace on fire, but the building was of material that defied fire.
With fury on both sides the fight grew frantic; it was the battle of barbarian against civilized, of heathen against Christian, of rude weapons against scientific warfare. Night only brought rest. With dawn the contest was renewed, till late in the day the Spanish commander drew off his men and sounded a retreat.
Meanwhile, what was Montezuma doing?
From his quarters he had witnessed the tragic scenes in his capital; distressed, angry, hopeless, he could only moan, "I desire only to die."
His desire was soon enough to be fulfilled.
At the request of the Spaniards, he at last consented to expostulate with his subjects.
Mounting one of the battlements of his palace, the king appeared for the last time among his people. To make his presence more emphatic, he put on his imperial robes; his mantle of blue and white flowed over his shoulders, held together by his rich green clasp, emeralds of uncommon size set in gold shone on his dress. His feet were shod with golden sandals, his head surmounted by the Mexican diadem. Surrounded by a guard of Spaniards and by a few of his own nobles, preceded by the golden wand, the symbol of his kingly position, the Mexican monarch ascended the central turret of his palace.
His presence was instantly recognized, and as the royal retinue advanced along the battlements, a change, as if by magic, came over the scene.
The clang of instruments, the fierce cries were hushed, and a deathlike silence reigned over the whole crowd. Many prostrated themselves on the ground, others bent the knee; all eyes turned towards the king whom they had been taught to reverence with slavish awe, from whose face they had been taught to turn away as too divine to look upon.
Once more Montezuma felt himself a king, as with his old authority he spoke to them for the last time.
"Why do I see my people here in arms against the palace of my fathers? Is it that you think your king is a prisoner, and wish to release him? If so, you have acted rightly. But you are mistaken. I am no prisoner. The strangers are my guests. I remain with them only from choice, and can leave them when I like. Return to your homes, then. Lay down your arms. Show your obedience to me, who have a right to it. The white men shall go back to their land, and all shall be well again."
Then Montezuma was the friend of the hated Spaniards after all! A murmur of contempt ran through the crowd. Did he not care for the insults and injuries their great nation had received? It was intolerable. The blood of the Mexicans was up, passion and revenge urged them on.
"Base! base woman! coward!" Such words were flung at the unhappy monarch. They were followed by a cloud of stones and arrows, and Montezuma fell senseless to the ground.
He was borne below by his faithful nobles; but he had nothing more to live for. He had tasted the last drop in his cup of bitterness—his own people had turned against him.
In vain did Cortes try to soothe the anguish of his spirit; in vain did his attendants try to nurse him back to life; he tore the bandages from his bead, he refused comfort. He sat in gloomy silence brooding over his fallen fortunes.
And on June 30, 1520, he died.