Very weary grew both officers and men of the long, toilsome siege, and very earnestly they urged their general to give up his plan of slowly starving the city into surrender. "Better far," they cried, "to encamp in the market-place than to retreat each evening to the causeways!" But the sure judgment of CortÚs saw at once the weak points in such a course. They might become the besieged instead of the besiegers, and endure another Noche Triste! At last, however, yielding to the temper of his men, he gave a reluctant consent, and a simultaneous assault was agreed upon.
CortÚs divided his own force into three companies, one to advance along each of the streets leading from the southern dyke to the market-place. Strict orders were given to the captains to secure retreat by filling up all breaches and levelling all barricades in their forward march. No needless risks were to be taken. "I knew," he says, "from the men they were they would advance to whatever spot I told them to gain, even if it cost them their lives."
Early on the appointed day CortÚs, marching on foot at the head of his infantry, advanced up one of the side streets, while the gallant but rash Alderete, the royal treasurer, commanded the company in the main avenue.
Slowly but surely the general's division drove the enemy before them, filling up each gap they crossed, throwing down each barricade. From the adjoining streets they could hear their comrades' shouts of victory, and several messages came from Alderete to say he was not far from the square.
Fearing this rapid advance, CortÚs left his own company and went with his bodyguard to the main street. There lay an open breach nearly twelve paces wide! Intoxicated with victory no man in the race for glory had stayed to fill up the gap. Suddenly, as the general was trying to remedy the fault, fierce and wild rang out the Aztec battle-cry, followed by a rushing sound like the tramp of a multitude of flying men.
In a moment Spaniards and allies appeared racing wildly onwards towards the open breach. Behind were hosts of yelling warriors, and on either side of the street the waterways were dark with canoes, while the house-tops bristled with Aztecs raining death on the struggling mass below. CortÚs and his bodyguard on the farther side of the gap watched in helpless horror.
Alderete in his rash haste had fallen into one of Guatemozin's traps, and his men, overwhelmed and panic-stricken, were now flying for their lives. Plunging into the gulf, they tried to swim across, but many were drowned and many more were captured. The general, who with outstretched hands strove to rescue his unfortunate followers, was speedily recognised by the enemy, and now the cry, "Malintzin! Malintzin!" rose high above the tumult of the fight. Six Aztec warriors springing from their canoe, seized their arch foe, the most splendid of victims, and dragged him towards their boat. To the rescue dashed Christoval de Olea, and ere he received his death-blow four of the Mexican chiefs were slain. CortÚs, wounded in the leg, lay on the ground disabled beside his faithful follower. More warriors rushed up, and. Malintzin was once more dragged in triumph into the water.
"The general is taken! The general is taken!" flew from lip to lip, and at the terrible words Quinones, captain of the bodyguard, followed by several of his men, rushed into the water, tore CortÚs from the very arms of the Aztecs, and lifted him with a desperate effort to the roadway. At that instant the page, who ran up with a horse for his master, fell mortally wounded, and Guzman, the chamberlain, sprang forward to take the boy's place. But even as CortÚs was lifted into the saddle some Aztec warriors seized the unfortunate Guzman, flung him into a canoe, and rowed swiftly away.
"My master's life is too important to the army to be thrown away here," exclaimed Quinones, as he resolutely turned the horse's head from this "bridge of affliction." Surrounded by his faithful body-guard, CortÚs reached at last his own division, which he found broken and confused. The few who remained of Alderete's company struggled up, and with difficulty the troops regained the Camp of the Causeway, shattered and exhausted and pursued to the last by the triumphant foe.
Alvarado and Sandoval, meanwhile, had united their forces, and had almost reached the market-place, when they heard with sinking hearts the Aztec yells of victory, and the sounds of desperate battle growing fainter in the distance. Their comrades must be retreating! And now their own enemies were reinforced by a strong body of Aztecs—the warriors who had just routed the general's own division. Five bleeding heads were flung before the Spaniards, and with savage glee the Indians shouted, "Thus will we slay you as we have slain Malintzin!" Then at the blast of Guatemozin's horn they made so furious an onslaught that, "though it is now present to my eyes," says Diaz, "I can give but a faint idea to the reader. God alone could have brought us off safe from the perils of that day!"
Cortes and his men at the gap.
Was CortÚs indeed slain? Sandoval could not rest until he had heard the fate of his beloved leader. Wounded as he was he mounted his good chestnut Motilla, and rode alone to the Camp of the Causeway. He was chased by some of Guatemozin's scouts, but Motilla, the best horse in the army, bore him swiftly onward, and the arrows glanced harmlessly from his steel armour.
"The general is safe!" were the first glad words he heard at the camp, but then followed a story of disaster. Sixty-two Spaniards had been captured alive! Many were wounded and many had been killed, but death and wounds were as naught to the horror of capture.
"O Senor Captain! what is this?" exclaimed Sandoval as he met his general.
"Son Sandoval," answered CortÚs, with tears in his eyes, "it is for my sins that this misfortune has befallen me; but the fault is with the treasurer Alderete, who was ordered by me to fill up the bad pass where the enemy threw us into confusion." Then to this most trusted officer he told his plans. For some days the men must rest and recover their nerve, fighting only to defend their camps.
"You must take my place," he said, "for I am too much crippled at present to discharge my duties. You must watch over the safety of the camps. Give especial heed to Alvarado's. He is a gallant soldier, I know it well; but I doubt the Mexican hounds may some hour take him at disadvantage."
It was the hour of vespers when Sandoval reached Alvarado's camp, and the sun was sinking in a sea of golden light. Suddenly into the peace and stillness of the evening broke a blood-curdling sound—the drum of Huitzilopotchli! The camp was not a mile from the city, and with one accord the soldiers turned to gaze at the great temple. In fascinated horror they watched a long procession of priests and warriors winding snake-like round and round the terraces of the teocalli with white-skinned victims in their midst. In the clear air the soldiers could almost recognise their comrades. "We perceived," says Diaz, "that when they had brought the unfortunate victims to the summit, where were the adoratories, they put plumes upon their heads, and with a kind of fan in the hand of each made them dance before their accursed idols. When they had done this, they laid them upon their backs, on the stone used for the purpose, where they cut out their hearts, alive, and having presented them yet palpitating to their gods, they drew the bodies down the steps by the feet, where they were taken by others of their priests. Let the reader think what were our sensations. 'Oh, heavenly God!' said we to ourselves, 'do not suffer us to be sacrificed by these wretches! do not suffer us to die so cruel a death!' and then how terrible a reflection, that we could not relieve our poor friends thus murdered before our eyes!"
They were roused from their frozen gaze by another onslaught on the camp. "Look!" yelled the Aztecs as they charged the Spanish lines, "that is the way in which you all shall die, for our gods have promised this to us many times!"
There was joy and exultation in the city of Mexico. The gods had spoken at last! In the darkness of the night Guatemozin sent across the lake from city to city the heads of white men and of horses with this message, "The priests announce that Huitzilopotchli is appeased by the sacrifice of so many of his foes, and will deliver the strangers into the hands of his faithful people ere eight days have passed!"
With sinking hearts the allies heard this prediction. They too had gazed on the sacrifice of the Teules, whom they had once deemed invincible, and perhaps divine. Surely they had sinned to aid the foes of their gods, and now the time of punishment was at hand. Silently in the night-time they began to steal away from the Spanish camps to expiate their sin. Tribe after tribe disappeared, and CortÚs was powerless to prevent the desertion. Even the faithful Tlascalans, with the words of the priests ringing ominously in their ears, returned to their little republic. Several of the caciques with their own immediate followers indeed remained. They had fought by the side of the white men in victory and in defeat, and the feeling of comradeship was strong within them. Ixtlilxochitl, the new king of Tezcuco, also held to his allegiance, though most of his subjects departed.
At last out of every thousand only about two of the allies remained. Day and night the soldiers had to watch and fight, for fierce and unceasing were the Aztec attacks, and every evening the dismal roll of the great drum announced over city and lake that fresh victims were being led to the stone of sacrifice.
Yet amid all the toil and danger the courage of the Spaniards did not fail. A few had brought their wives with them to Mexico, and these women set a noble example of heroism and endurance. They had refused to be left in Tlascala. "It is the duty of Castilian wives," they said proudly, "to share the danger of their husbands—to die with them, if need be!" One of these women named Beatriz de Palacios used to don her husband's armour, and when he was overcome with weariness, mount guard in his place. Another once rushed into the fight when the soldiers were retreating, and led them on with sword and lance. But it was the wounded who had most cause to bless the women, since the greatest service they rendered was the tending of the sick. And so, in watching and fighting, the eight days passed painfully away.