Boys' Prescott - Helen Ward Banks

Cortes is Besieged in the Palace of Axayacatl

June, 1520

If the savages were a sight to terrify the veterans, much more were they appalling to Cortes' new recruits.

"On they came, with the companies, or irregular masses, into which the multitude was divided, rushing forward each in its own dense column, with many a gay banner displayed, and many a bright gleam of light reflected from helmet, arrow and spearhead, as they tossed about in their disorderly array. As they drew near the enclosure, the Aztecs set up a hideous yell, or rather that shrill whistle used in fight by the nations of Anahuac, which rose far above the sound of shell and atabal, and their other rude instruments of warlike melody. They followed this by a tempest of missiles—stones, darts and arrows—which fell thick as rain on the besieged, while volleys of the same kind descended from the crowded terraces in the neighborhood." [Prescott's Conquest of Mexico]

It was impossible to take the Spaniards by surprise. The palace of Axayacatl was surrounded by a stone wall with openings at intervals for the guns and smaller holes for the arquebuses. The whole army, white men and Tlascalans, had each his assigned place and was drilled in strictest discipline. As soon as the trumpet called to arms, therefore, every man sprang to his post, the guns were manned, the cavalry mounted and the bowmen and arquebusiers ready with their missiles.

Cortes waited till the first column of Indians was within range and then opened fire. The Aztecs, grown used to the sound of fire-arms in peace, now saw what the cannon could do in war. The balls mowing through their ranks for a moment threw them into confusion but then, with their war-cry, they recovered and rushed forward over the bodies of their own men.

They were halted again by a second volley and a third, but after each they rallied and pressed forward, shrieking their horrible cry and letting go showers of arrows. These did not all hit the mark, but the savages on the flat housetops surrounding the palace courtyard were wonderfully placed for their murderous work. The stones from their slings and the arrows from their bows found true aim in the throng fighting in the courtyard beneath them.

The Aztecs below, seeing that their fire accomplished nothing, pressed close to the wall and even tried to scale it. But the moment an Aztec head showed above the wall, it was met from inside by a bullet or an arrow or a blow from a sharp-bladed Tlascalan club. Mounting on the heaped bodies of their own wounded and dead, the Aztecs tried again and again to climb the wall, but always in vain.

Failing in this, they attempted to batter a breach in it. Against this, the Spaniards had no defense, as they could not train their guns downward and any men shooting from the parapet would be themselves marks for Aztec slings and arrows. Fortunately the walls were too thick for the Indian battering-rams, and they gave up that attempt also.

Then they tried another plan. They swarmed up the outside wall as high as the gun holes, and through them shot into the courtyard blazing arrows that fell on the wooden huts of the Tlascalan allies and set them on fire.

The Spaniards had scarcely enough water to drink, in the enclosure; there was none to spare for putting out flames. They heaped earth on the burning piles, but could not extinguish them. Finally Cortes was obliged to throw down a part of the wall to stop the fire, opening the very breach the Aztecs had tried to make with their battering-rams. Cortes at once mounted his heavy guns in the breach and set the arquebusiers shooting through their openings. The walls belched forth unceasing fire and smoke; the ground shook with the thunder of the artillery; muskets rattled; arrows hissed; the Indians yelled their war cry. The peaceful palace had become Pandemonium.

Finally darkness put a stop to the battle. The Indians, true to their custom of not fighting at night, withdrew. There was no rest, however, for the Spaniards. In hourly dread of attack, they had to work all night to fill up the breach and mend their battered armor. Every once in a while an Aztec stone or an arrow came over the wall or a war cry shrilled from outside.

Cortes, as he paced his apartment that night, was not thinking so much about Alvarado as about the Mexicans whom he had found so gentle and patient. Now he saw that their submission had been only repressed anger, and the more they had hidden it, the deeper it had gone. The Tlascalans had been fierce without injuries to avenge. The Aztecs, as ferocious at heart, had in their memory insult after insult to their Emperor and their religion. Once they had burst through their restraint, every last man was willing to die if only he might have revenge on the Spaniard.

Determined to be the first to attack, at daylight Cortes had his forces under arms for a sally which should show the Indians that Cortes still ruled Mexico. The hours had but added to the number of Aztecs under arms. The great square itself and the entrances of all the large avenues leading into it were crowded with dark warriors, armed with slings and bows and spears and the terrible, heavy club set with metal knives. The priests ran to and fro among the companies, gesticulating and urging the Aztecs to avenge the insults to their gods. Instead of being a confused rabble, the Indians had now the dignity of regular troops massed in battalions, each with its own officer. Banners were there from every principal city in the valley of Mexico, showing that from all over the kingdom simple and noble and priest had gathered in a great religious war. High above the other standards was the royal banner of feather-work, bearing the same device that Montezuma had carved over the doorway of his palace—an eagle pouncing on an ocelot.

As the palace gates opened for the Spaniards to pour out, the Indians were in motion. Cortes ordered a raking fire from the artillery and, under cover of the Indians' confusion, dashed through the open gate into the square at the head of his cavalry, followed by Spanish and Tlascalan foot.

The Aztecs, preparing to attack, not to be attacked, were too surprised to resist. For a moment they were helpless, crushed down by the horses' feet or caught by the Spanish lances. Then they fell back a little down the avenue to a barricade of earth and timber, from whose shelter they poured on the Spaniards a volley of arrows.

Cortes was not to be held back by so flimsy a barrier. At once he ordered up the heavy guns and swept the street clear. Then he ordered another cavalry charge.

But this little stoppage had given the Aztecs time to rally again. Fresh troops poured into the avenue from all the side streets, and the canals were swarming with warriors in canoes. Worst of all, the slingers on the housetops poured down a deadly fire.

By repeated charges the Spaniards drove back the Indians, who were clinging to the horses' legs and trying to pull down their riders. To stop the galling fire from the housetops, Cortes ordered the Tlascalans to burn all the houses bordering on the great avenue, while he pressed on after the foe. As the canals cut the street into small sections and prevented the fire from spreading, it was late in the afternoon before the work was accomplished.

The Aztecs, after all day being driven back, to rally only to be defeated again, by their force of numbers still held the field. They had lost ten men to every one of the Spaniards, but they could have lost one hundred to one and still had men left to withstand the white men, for all day long recruits had been pouring in from the countryside to fill up the vacant places. Cortes, however, had interrupted their assault on the palace and had shown them again the power of Spanish firearms. Now he sounded the retreat and led his tired, hungry men back to their quarters.

As they went, Cortes saw in a side street his friend Duero unhorsed and desperately defending himself with his dagger against a number of Aztecs. The Spaniards were brave in facing death, but shuddered before what they knew would befall them if they were captured by the Indians. Cortes, shouting his war cry, dashed against the group of Aztecs. They fled at his coming, and Cortes recaptured Duero's horse and helped him to mount, and then the two galloped through the Indian forces and joined their own men in the palace courtyard.

The Indians followed up to the gates with their flights of stones and arrows and, when the Christians were safely inside, settled down outside as they had the night before, and all night long by turns they begged to have Montezuma delivered to them or threw taunts and threats over the wall at their foes.

"The gods have delivered you at last into our hands," they cried; "Huitzilopotchli has long cried for his victims. The stone of sacrifice is ready. The knives are sharpened. The wild beasts in the palace are roaring for their offal. And the cages," they added, taunting the Tlascalans with their leanness, "are waiting for the false sons of Anahuac, who are to be fattened for the festival."

Again Cortes did not sleep. He acknowledged now to himself that this was no mere tumult, but an actual revolution, with his few men set against tens of thousands of keen, determined savages, with capable leaders who, despairing of rescuing Montezuma, were now ready to act without him to free Mexico.

At the earliest hour of light on the second morning, the Aztecs were in motion again. They hurled themselves with such ferocity against the wall that several warriors succeeded in getting into the courtyard. For a moment it looked as if they would carry the place by storm, but the Spaniards killed those who had entered and drove back the others.

It was a desperate moment for Cortes. He had completely lost his power over the Aztecs; he could no more cajole them, and he knew he could not long withstand them. There was only one resource left him; he must get Montezuma to intercede once more with his people. Swallowing his pride, Cortes sent Olid and Father Olmedo to Montezuma.

The Emperor had been brooding over Cortes' insults and was not cordial. "What have I to do with Malinche?" he answered haughtily. "I do not wish to hear from him. I desire only to die. To what a state has my willingness to serve him reduced me!"

Father Olmedo used his softest words to win Montezuma back to his former friendly views.

"It is of no use," Montezuma answered. "My people will neither believe me, nor the false words and promises of Malinche. You will never leave these walls alive."

Then Olid interposed and begged only that he should persuade the people to let the Spaniards leave Mexico in safety. "We are ready to depart and we will go at once," he ended.

Finally Montezuma consented. In his gala dress—his mantle of blue and white fastened on his shoulders with an emerald, his gold sandals bound on his feet, a gold crown on his head, a noble carrying the scepter before him, Montezuma went once more to speak to his people. The palace was a huge one story building, long and low, except that in the center a tower ran up another story. To this tower above the roof of the main building Montezuma ascended with his own suite and a Spanish guard. As soon as he appeared on the battlements he was recognized by the thronging Aztecs in the great square below.

At once the fierce cries and the wild clanging of their musical instruments dropped away and a tense silence fell over the thousands of Mexicans who stood in the presence of their lawful Emperor. They forgot for a moment that now they called Cuitlahua instead of Montezuma their monarch, and while many fell on their knees before Montezuma, all the dense throng gazed eagerly at the man whom they had worshiped as a god and whose face they had always been forbidden to look at.

Montezuma seized the moment of quiet expectation to address them. He, too, forgot that he was a prisoner instead of a king, and spoke with all his old authority, calmly but in a voice easily heard by all his waiting subjects.

"Why," he began, "do I see my people here in arms against the palace of my fathers? Is it that you think your sovereign 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 list. Have you come to drive them from the city? That is unnecessary. They will depart of their own accord, if you will open a way for them. 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 own land; and all shall be well again within the walls of Tenochtitlan."

The Aztecs listened till the end, although a murmur of contempt ran through the throng when Montezuma called himself the friend of the Christians. When he had finished, their anger against the white men swept away their last remnant of reverence for a prince who could call his friends those who had insulted their religion and their customs. Surely now he was their prince no longer.

"Base Aztec!" they cried. "Woman! Coward! The white men have made you a woman—fit only to weave and spin!"

In his excitement a chief brandished his spear, and instantly the excited mob, leaping to their feet, passed from taunting speech to deadly action. They discharged a volley of stones and arrows against the royal party.

[Illustration] from The Boys' Prescott by Helen Ward Banks


The Spanish guard had seen the respectful kneeling of the crowd and had expected a quiet answer to Montezuma's harangue. Although taken utterly by surprise at this sudden attack, they sprang forward to cover the Emperor with their shields. It was too late. Two arrows pierced him and a stone struck him with such force on his temple that he fell insensible.

Then again the Mexicans were overcome with their superstitious reverence for their King. With their own hands they had struck down their Emperor. A dismal howl arose from the mob. Filled with horror at their deed, and fearful of the punishment the gods would send upon them, they scattered, panic-stricken, in every direction. The great square, a few moments before swaying with savage passion, was left utterly empty and silent,