T HE natives went back to Montezuma at Mexico. They showed him the pictures of the Spaniards, and he was sore troubled. He had reigned over his country for sixteen years. A sad, severe, somewhat melancholy man, he had a great idea of his own importance. He never set foot on the ground in public, but was carried on the shoulders of noblemen. Whenever he alighted, they laid down rich tapestry for him to walk on. No man, under the rank of a knight, might look on his face. He never put on the same garment twice, he never ate or drank out of the same dish more than once. The people looked on him as a god.
Cortes now resolved to pay him a visit in his capital, and he began quietly to prepare for the journey. First he built the little town of Vera Cruz—the True Cross—on the sea-shore as a basis of future operations. It was dawning on him, too, that there were timid souls in the camp; he did not feel sure they would wait for his return from Mexico, so he made up his mind to do a desperate thing. He destroyed the ships in the harbour of Vera Cruz, all save one. The news created a panic among the Spaniards, now cut off from home and friends. They were on a hostile shore, a mere handful of men against a powerful kingdom. Murmurs grew louder and louder. Mutiny threatened. Cortes spoke: "If there be any so cowardly as to shrink from sharing the dangers of this glorious enterprise, let them go home. There is one ship left. Let them take it and return to Cuba. They can tell how they deserted their commander and their comrades, and wait till we return laden with spoils from Mexico."
They had put their hands to the plough, there must be no turning back. Enthusiasm for their leader revived, his banner should lead them to victory. Not a man stirred away as the air rang with shouts, "To Mexico! To Mexico!"
The march was long and tedious, and it was three months before Cortes and his army reached the capital. With the first faint streak of dawn on the 8th of November, Montezuma's beautiful city of Mexico came into sight. "Forward, soldiers, the Holy Cross is our banner, and under that sign we shall conquer," cried the commander.
With beating hearts and trumpets sounding, the Spaniards strained their eyes over the gorgeous sight before them. The sacred flames on the altars, dimly seen through the mists of the early morning, showed the site of temples and towers. The palace itself was soon seen 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.
"Who shall describe Mexico!" cries the enthusiastic historian; "only one who has seen all the wonders of the world."
No wonder the Spaniards looked with envy on the fair city; no wonder they longed for the wealth, the boundless wealth, of this wondrous land. At the walls of the city Cortes heard that, after all, Montezuma was coming out to meet him; and true enough the Spaniards soon saw, amid a crowd of nobles, the royal chair, blazing with gold. It was borne on the shoulders of barefooted knights, who walked with downcast eyes. Over the king was a canopy of feather-work, powdered with jewels and fringed with silver. As the king alighted, the Spaniards could see his cloak was sprinkled with precious stones and pearls; on his feet were golden sandals, on his head were plumes of royal green.
Cortes explained his mission. He spoke to the king of his mission—to teach the heathen of Christ. He begged Montezuma to give up his idols and strange gods and to abstain from human sacrifices. The king refused. Cortes saw that as long as Montezuma sat on the throne of Mexico no conversion of the people could take place. They must dethrone the king. In vain to argue with him: he was resolute.
"Why do we waste time on this barbarian?" he cried. "Let us seize him, and if he resists, plunge our swords into his body."
The fierce tone of the Spaniards alarmed the king. If death were the alternative, then he must go. He looked at the stern faces and iron forms of these strange Spaniards, and he felt that his hour was come.
One day the Mexicans held a great festival. Montezuma was not allowed to take part in it, but six hundred of his people, decked out in 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 mercy or pity slew them to a man.
Then the long-pent-up fury of the people burst forth in a great cry for revenge, and they rushed upon the Spaniards. A frantic fight took place, until the Spaniards begged Montezuma to intercede. Dressing himself for the last time in his royal robes, the king mounted one of the battlements of his palace. His mantle of blue and white flowed from his shoulders, held together by a rich clasp of green. Emeralds set in gold shone on his dress. His feet were shod in golden sandals, on his head shone the crown of Mexico. As he appeared, the clang of war and fierce cries were hushed, and a death-like silence reigned. All eyes were cast down. Montezuma the king was among them again.
"Why do I see my people here in arms?" he cried to the crowds below; "is it to release your king? Your king is not a prisoner: these strangers are my guests. Return to your homes, then, and lay down your arms."
Murmurs ran through the crowd. Was Montezuma, then, the friend of these hated Spaniards? Did he not mind all the insults and injuries that had been heaped on their unhappy nation? Their fierce Mexican blood boiled.
"Base! Woman! Coward!" Such words they flung at the unhappy king. Then a cloud of stones and arrows were aimed at the solitary figure standing aloft on the turret of his palace, and Montezuma fell senseless to the ground. He was borne away by his faithful knights; but he had nothing more to live for. He had tasted the last drop in his bitter cup,—his own people had turned against him. A few days later he died.
Mexico was no longer a safe place for the Spaniards, and Cortes left the city the following night, hoping to escape under cover of darkness. But the Mexicans were not asleep. They fell upon the Spaniards as they crept noiselessly forth, killed numbers, and took the gold they were carrying away with them. When morning dawned and Cortes gazed at this shattered army, and missed the familiar faces of those who had braved so much for him, he sat down upon a rock, buried his face in his hands, and wept.