Boys' Prescott - Helen Ward Banks

The Fury of the Mexicans

June, 1520

In pretty good shape Cortes and his army entered Tlascala. Maxixca, one of the four ruling chiefs, always friendly to the Spaniards, gave Cortes quarters in his own palace.

So long as the war was now against the Aztecs and not against the Spaniards, Tlascala offered plenty of men. Cortes accepted two thousand recruits, which, added to one thousand foot and one hundred horse, gave him a fair army. Among his foot soldiers one hundred were arquebusiers and one hundred crossbow-men.

The Spaniards left Tlascala this time by the more northerly route that led straight to the city of Tezcuco. Like the road they had taken on their first entrance into Mexico, it went over the Cordilleras and between the two big volcanoes, Popocatepetl and Iztaccihuatl. They marched through forests of evergreen and up to the barren mountain peaks where, looking back, they saw the green, fertile valley stretching as far as Cholula, and looking forward, they saw again the Mexican valley, this time from the north, for the city of Tezcuco lay, in her cypress groves, directly below them. Tenochtitlan they could see across the lake with its shining waters and fire-topped temples.

The Spaniards came down into the Mexican valley to a cold reception. When they had come at Montezuma's bidding they had been met by throngs of curious, happy, welcoming people, hanging flowers around the horses' necks and showering presents on the Spaniards. Now there were no flowers and no presents, and when the Spaniards asked for food it was given with a grudging coldness.

Tezcuco was almost empty; even Cuicuitzca whom Cortes himself had made King of Tezcuco when he had seized Cacama, was absent from his capital and not on hand to welcome Cortes. Cortes' veterans were much annoyed at these doings; they had boasted to the newcomers of their high position in Mexico, and now were unable to prove it.

Cortes suffered more than wounded vanity. He was growing keenly anxious as to the fate of his garrison in Tenochtitlan, in a country as unhospitable as Mexico was now showing itself, when there came a messenger who had escaped in a canoe from Tenochtitlan and had crossed the lake to Tezcuco.

The man brought a letter from Alvarado to Cortes, telling him what we know already, that the Aztecs at Montezuma's request had stopped their assault on the palace of Axayacatl, but that they had surrounded the palace with earthworks and had sat down to besiege it, so that, when their supplies gave out, the Spanish garrison would be in a bad way. Alvarado begged Cortes to come quickly to Tenochtitlan, for he knew that as soon as Cortes arrived everything would be as peaceful as it had been before. But Alvarado was to find out that though it is easy to raise a tumult, it is a harder matter to quiet it. Montezuma also sent a message to Cortes urging him to come back. He protested that he had had nothing to do with the revolt and that it had been raised without his knowledge.

Cortes allowed his men time for rest in Tezcuco and then on the 24th of June, 1520, led them down the west side of the lake to the southern shore where the dyke of Iztapalapan crossed to the City of Mexico. Here, too, everything was unlike their first entrance. Then the causeway had been crowded with people and the lake gay with canoes. Now there was emptiness and silence, the only sign of life an occasional distant canoe which seemed to spy upon their movements and to glide away the moment it was seen.

Moodily Cortes rode on across the causeway at the head of his troops, wondering doubtless at the fool-hardy and unwise act by which Alvarado had made all this mischief. But he did not let his own low spirits affect his men. He had the trumpets sounded, and their clear notes carried comfort across the water to the Spaniards shut up in the palace of Axayacatl. They answered with a salute of artillery, and Cortes' men, breaking into quicker time, were across the drawbridge and once more in Tenochtitlan.

Tenochtitlan was even more deserted than Tezcuco had been; the horses' hoofs echoed hollowly from the empty streets; in some places the small bridges had been removed from the canals. Cortes realized anew that now that his brigantines were burned, if the Aztecs were to raise their drawbridges in the causeway and destroy the small bridges that led across the canals in the city itself, it would not be easy to leave Tenochtitlan.

Marking quick time, the army traversed the avenue, entered the square and reached the palace of Axayacatl. The gates were thrown open and Cortes' troop passed into the courtyard to meet the eager welcome of Alvarado's men.

The general at once demanded from Alvarado the story of the tumult and listened with outward calm to Alvarado's explanations and excuses. He had heard rumors, he said, of an uprising among the natives and thought to act as quickly and efficiently as Cortes had acted at Cholula.

Inwardly Cortes was far from calm. Angry as he was at Alvarado, he was angrier at himself for the mistake he had made in leaving Alvarado in charge of so delicate a situation. No one had known better than Cortes the temper of the Aztecs and the eternal vigilance and patience necessary to hold them under Spanish authority, and no one had known better than he that, in attempting an act like the Massacre of Cholula, one must be strong enough to deal with the consequences. Alvarado had had neither the patience nor the strength, and Cortes reproached himself that he had let his own friendship for his captain and Alvarado's courage and gay manner and handsome face blind him to Alvarado's greed and cruelty and lack of judgment. He could scarcely have chosen a worse commander for a weak army in the heart of a not too friendly nation. By one turn of his hand, Alvarado had thrown down the entire edifice that Cortes had so painstakingly built up.

When Alvarado had finished his story, Cortes' anger burst its bonds of self-control.

"You have done badly," he exclaimed. "You have been false to your trust. Your conduct has been that of a madman." Then he turned and abruptly left the room.

For the time being Cortes was a changed man. Instead of his usual calm courage and gay comradeship, he was silent and irritable.

The Emperor came at once to Cortes' quarters to welcome Malinche back. But Cortes was bad-tempered even with him. He chose to suspect Montezuma of stirring up the tempest and closing the market, and treated him so coldly that Montezuma went mournfully back to his own apartments. A little later he sent some of his nobles to ask an interview. Cortes' anger had grown when he saw that even his coming had not raised the blockade and opened the market. He turned angrily from the Aztec nobles to his own officers.

"What have I to do with this dog of a king who suffers us to starve before his eyes?" he asked brutally.

Olid, Avila and Leon protested respectfully.

"If it had not been for the Emperor," one of them ventured, "the garrison might even now be overwhelmed by the enemy."

The protest made Cortes only more angry. "Did not this dog," he cried again, "betray us in his communications with Narvaez? And does he not now suffer his markets to be closed and leave us to die of famine?"

He turned fiercely again to the nobles. "Go," he commanded, "tell your master and his people to open the markets, or we will do it for them at their cost."

The Aztec chiefs understood too well Cortes' harsh, contemptuous speech even if they had not much knowledge of Spanish. They went back to Montezuma, swelling with resentment, and they did not soften, in repeating them, Cortes' insults.

Gradually Cortes got more control of himself. He saw that he must bury his disapproval of Alvarado and his suspicion of Montezuma, for with all Mexico against them outside, they must at least keep unity within. He was fully convinced, too, that with his present army at his back, the Aztecs must finally yield to his authority and come back to their old friendship.

But his new forces, which swelled his army to one thousand two hundred and fifty Spaniards and eight thousand Tlascalans, meant new hardship as well as new help. Cortes must fill the nine thousand two hundred and fifty mouths and, with the markets closed, how was he to do it? He determined to adopt Montezuma's methods and send an embassy to the assaulting Aztecs.

By Montezuma's advice Cortes chose for his messenger the Emperor's brother, Cuitlahua, whom he had held a prisoner since he had seized him at the time of Cacama's capture. Cortes sent a messenger to Vera Cruz with an account of his safe arrival in Tenochtitlan and the assurance of his ability to rule even the frenzied Aztecs. Then he sent Cuitlahua on his errand of peace—to quiet his countrymen and bring them back to their Spanish allegiance. But Cuitlahua, free, had other business than urging the Mexicans to return to the Spanish yoke. Guatemozin was there to welcome him, and they gathered to their banners thousands and thousands of Aztecs stirred to their depths and thirsting for revenge. They did not even think of peace. Instead, they chose Cuitlahua as their Emperor to act in Montezuma's place as long as Montezuma was a prisoner. Cuitlahua, a brave and skilled soldier and a patriotic Aztec, accepted the position of honor and danger, and soon had his levies under command.

Cortes had gone about his own business after he had sent his messenger to Vera Cruz and Cuitlahua to the Aztecs. An hour passed. Then stumbling back across the square, almost dead of wounds and exhaustion and terror, came the man he had sent to Vera Cruz.

"The city is in arms," he cried hoarsely. "The drawbridges are raised. The enemy is upon us."

With hushed breath the Spaniards listened. In the distance was a muffled roar that sounded like a flood broken loose pouring toward them. Cortes dashed up to the wall and, looking from the parapet that surrounded the palace courtyard, he saw the square, and every street leading to it, dark with the confused masses of Aztecs, while all the flat housetops around suddenly, as if by magic, were filled with warriors waving their weapons. Through the breach Alvarado had made, the flood of Aztec vengeance, in all its fury, was pouring upon the Christians.