Gateway to the Classics: A Child's History of Spain by John Bonner
A Child's History of Spain by  John Bonner

Cortez Driven Out of Mexico

A. D. 1520

Up the great street of the city, towards the barrack where the Spaniards were quartered, the Aztecs poured in a furious wave, swinging their banners and shrieking their yells. When they got within range, Cortez opened fire on them. But they were only staggered for a moment. They came on and on and on, and the shower of arrows and darts and stones never ceased till the going down of the sun. Lucky it was for the Spaniards that the enemy could not get into the barrack.

Next day Cortez made a sally, and whenever he met the Aztecs they went down before the charge of his heavy cavalry and his men in armor. But no matter how many he killed, their numbers seemed undiminished, and the rain of arrows was as constant as ever. Then Cortez asked Montezuma to call off his people.

The poor cowed king said he would take no part in the strife. He moaned:

"What have I to do with Malinche? I do not wish to see him. I only wish to die. My people will not stop at my request. It is of no use trying. You will never leave these walls alive."

But, hearing that the Spaniards would go away if they could, he put on his white-and-blue mantle and his diadem and his golden sandals, ascended a turret, and waved his hand to the mob. They were instantly hushed. He bade the people lay down their arms, and let the Spaniards go. He said that Malinche was his friend.

At this roars and shrieks arose from the crowd, and a noble shouted:

"Base Aztec, you are a woman—a woman, only fit to weave and to spin."

And a cloud of stones and arrows fell upon the turret; one of them struck the king on the forehead and knocked him senseless.


Aztec Calendar Stone

He was carried inside, and surgeons busied themselves with his wound. But he tore off the bandages and refused to be treated, or to eat or drink. Shaken as his constitution was, he began to sink very fast. A priest got at him, dinned religious argument into his aching head, and kept shaking the crucifix before his eyes, but he answered feebly:

"I will not at this hour desert the faith of my fathers." To Cortez, who came to see him, he said:

"Care for my poor children. 'Tis the least you can do in return for what I have done for the Spaniards."

And so he died.

The street fight went on all the same. Cortez took the great Teocalli, and rolled the Aztec god down head-first into the street. But he could not hold the building. He asked the Aztec chiefs to meet him. They gathered opposite the turret on which Montezuma had stood, and Cortez, speaking by the musical voice of Marina, who stood by his side, threatened them.

"I will forgive everything," he said, "if you lay down your arms. But if you do not, I will make your city a heap of ruins, and will not leave a soul alive in it."

They scoffed at him, and cried:

"You are perishing from hunger and sickness; you have no food and no water; you must soon fall into our hands. The bridges are broken down, and you cannot escape. There will be too few of you to glut the vengeance of the gods."

Then Cortez knew that he must escape if he could. The City of Mexico was on an island in a lake; it was connected with the mainland by causeways, which were cut at intervals by canals over which were bridges. These were the bridges which the Aztecs had broken down. Cortez resolved to escape by the principal causeway, which was cut by three canals; to cross these he built a portable bridge.

In the early hours of the night of July 1st, 1520, after mass had been said, the Spaniards and their Tlascalan allies crept silently out of the barrack and slunk to the causeway. The night was rainy, and so dark that the men could hardly see each other; not a footstep of a sentry was heard; the streets were still as graves; sleep reigned over all. But when the advance of the Spanish army began to lay the timbers of the portable bridge, the noise awoke a guard, who shouted; in an instant the priests on the Teocallis took the alarm, sounded their shells, the big war-drum began to beat, and thousands of Aztecs poured headlong down the streets to the causeway.

Cortez crossed the first canal with little loss, but when the second was reached, and the bridge was called for, it was found that the weight of the men and horses who had passed over it had jammed and wedged its ends so tightly against the stone and earth that it could not be lifted. The Spaniards were caught. A few of the horsemen swam the second canal, and some of the infantry followed; but many of them had loaded themselves with Montezuma's gold, and its weight carried them to the bottom. After a time there were so many dead men and horses, and guns, and wagons of ammunition in the gap in the causeway that they formed a bridge, over which the Spaniards managed to scramble. The same thing occurred at the third and last canal. Each side of the causeway was lined with Aztecs in boats, who poured darts and arrows upon the Spaniards, leaped ashore and pierced them with spears or clubbed them, or when they fell helpless carried them off as prisoners for sacrifice. It was not till the gray of the morning that Cortez was able to draw off the remnant of his army into the country.

This night is called by the Mexicans "Noche triste"—the sad night. Sad night indeed it was. About two-thirds of the Spaniards and four-fifths of the Tlascalans fell in the fight, and those who had been killed outright were the least to be pitied. A wretched ending this for an expedition which had begun so well.

For six days the Spaniards retreated steadily, without seeing or hearing anything of the victorious Aztecs. But, when the sun rose on July 8th they beheld the plain of Otumba as far as the eye could reach swarming with waving banners, forests of spears, and masses of fighting men tossing to and fro like the waves of the ocean. Then Cortez had need of all his courage and all his spirit. His little army was weakened by wounds and privations. They had found little to eat but corn-stalks, wild-cherries, and the bodies of dead horses. They seemed only a mouthful for such a host as the Mexicans.

But Cortez drew up his men in line of battle with a firm face, and when the Aztecs approached, he met them with an intrepid charge. He must have been beaten and his force destroyed, but just as the tide of battle went decidedly against him, he saw the commander of the Aztec army surrounded by a gorgeous staff. Calling a few of his officers to his side, the charged furiously through the enemy's ranks till he reached the general, ran him through with his lance, and, seizing the Aztec battle-flag, waved it over his head. The sight caused a panic among the Aztecs. They turned face and ran away headlong, while Spaniards and Tlascalans, forgetting their wounds and their hunger, pursued them until their legs gave way.

This unexpected victory saved the Spaniards from destruction; but the power and courage shown by the Aztecs taught Cortez that he must proceed with more caution hereafter. He first gave his troops a rest, during which they recovered their health and spirits. Then he sent to the coast and to Hispaniola for reinforcements, and succeeded in getting a few score men and horses, and a supply of ammunition. With this increase to his strength, the captured numbers of towns round Mexico, and compelled them to furnish him with recruits and provisions. In course of time he mustered an army which is said to have been a hundred thousand strong, though only a few hundred of these were Spaniards.

Cortez had satisfied himself that to retake Mexico he must get command of the lake which surrounded it. How he accomplished this is one of the most wonderful proofs of his enterprise. When he sunk his ships at Vera Cruz, he had been careful to take out of them their cordage and iron-work, and to store these safely on shore. He now sent a party of Indian porters for them. Then choosing a spot where tall trees were abundant, he bade a ship-carpenter, who was in his service, build him thirteen small vessels, and rig them as brigantines. When the vessels were built they were taken apart, carried in pieces over the mountains, a distance of sixty miles, and launched on the lake of Mexico. Arming them with small cannon, of which he had a few, and filling them with fighting men, he felt that he could now command the lake, and sweep the Aztec canoes from its surface.

This done, he set his army in motion in three divisions, and planted one at the end of each of the three chief causeways which led into the city.

So the siege of Mexico began in the last week of May, 1521.

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