Boys' Prescott - Helen Ward Banks

The Melancholy Night

July, 1520

Montezuma died as he had lived, a pagan. Father Olmedo, in his great earnestness, had used his best efforts to bring him into the Christian church, but the Emperor held without faltering to his own gods. They had betrayed him, but he clung to them. The good father, kneeling at his side, held the cross before his dying eyes.

Montezuma pushed it away. "I have but a few moments to live," he said, "and will not at this hour desert the faith of my fathers."

He sent for Cortes and begged him to care for his three daughters and to implore the Spanish King to see that they had their rightful inheritance. "Your lord will do this," he concluded, "if it were only for the friendly offices I have rendered the Spaniards, and for the love I have shown them—though it has brought me to this condition. But for this I bear them no ill-will."

Cortes promised this, and he kept his word. Then, in the arms of his faithful nobles, on the 30th of June, 1520, Montezuma, the great Emperor of the Aztecs, died.

"The tidings of his death," says an old historian, "were received with real grief by every cavalier and soldier in the army who had had access to his person; for we all loved him as a father—and no wonder, seeing how good he was."

Cortes was greatly affected by the death of Montezuma. There had been friendship between them, and Cortes must have reflected that he had caused all the Emperor's misfortunes. When the Spaniards had come into the country, Montezuma had been the bold and war-like king of all Anahuac; for their friendship's sake, he had become the enemy of his own people, and his constancy to the Spaniards had been his own undoing. At the age of twenty-three he had ascended the throne as the greatest prince the Aztecs had ever known; at forty, a prisoner, he died from a wound inflicted by one of his own subjects.

Cortes, sad for the loss of his friend, and heavy-hearted because in Montezuma's death there was broken the last shield that stood between the white men and the Aztec vengeance, paid the Emperor all possible honor. He sent the body, dressed in its royal robes, on a litter to the Aztecs in the city. With the sound of their wails in his ears he called his officers to council to determine how they might get out of Tenochtitlan with all possible speed.

It was decided to retreat to Tlascala by the short Tlacopan dyke, which was less likely to be guarded than the dyke of Iztapalapan. Cortes counseled that they should go that very night while the Aztecs were occupied with Montezuma's funeral ceremonies and before they could imagine that the Spaniards thought of going. This decision was strengthened by an astrologer, who had already predicted that Cortes, after great misfortune, would rise again to wealth and power, and who now declared that this night was the time for the Spaniards to leave Tenochtitlan.

All was in motion at once, as the men hastened preparations for departure and took their orders. The portable bridge was given to Magarino and forty men instructed in its use. The van of two hundred Spanish foot were to march under Sandoval and Ordaz. Alvarado, with Leon, commanded the rear composed of the strongest foot-soldiers. The center was under the charge of Cortes with a picked guard of one hundred of his veterans; here were the cavalry, the guns, the baggage, the treasure and the prisoners—Cacama and Cuicuitzca among them. The Tlascalans were distributed between the three bodies.

The royal fifth of the treasure cast in gold bars Cortes delivered to the royal officers, giving them the strongest horses and a Spanish guard. His own he also put under guard. The captains and soldiers carried their wealth around their necks in thick gold chains. When the public and private treasure had thus been disposed of, Cortes turned to the soldiers who were looking greedily at the shining heaps of gold still left on the floor.

"Take what you will of it," he said to the men. "Better you should have it than these Mexican hounds. But be careful not to overload yourselves. He travels safest in the dark night who travels lightest."

The veterans followed his advice and took only what could be easily managed, but Narvaez' men, greedy for gold, loaded themselves down with all they could carry.

The night was pitch black and cold, drizzling rain was falling. At midnight, June 30th, the entire force was under arms, listening to Father Olmedo perform mass for the last time in their palace chapel. He asked God's protection through all the terrible hours of peril ahead. Then the gates were noiselessly thrown open and, with fast-beating hearts, the Spanish army went out of the palace courtyard into the great square.

The square was deserted and silent as the troops marched across it and struck into the wide avenue of Tlacopan which led to the Tlacopan dyke. Every nerve was tense as the soldiers peered into the thick darkness that enveloped them or down upon the inky canals as they passed over the bridges, expecting in every shadow to find a lurking foe.

But none disturbed them, the seven bridges were all in place and their hearts grew steadier and their feet lighter as they went, until the broad skyline ahead showed that they had left the city behind and were on the edge of the causeway of Tlacopan.

Here was the drawbridge—the first of the three cuts in the causeway, which Magarino's portable bridge must cover for them. The troops halted. Suddenly from the shadow a lithe form sprang up and ran toward the city, yelling as he went.

The Spaniards shivered at the sound. Magarino, undisturbed, quickly got his bridge into place, and Sandoval dashed across to test its strength. As his company followed him over, from the great temple in the city came the wail of the priests' shells shrilling alarm, and high above those notes, the dismal, terrifying booming of the huge drum, sounded only in times of great peril, struck its fear into the hearts of those in flight.

Without disorder, however, Cortes' contingent followed Sandoval's across the bridge. And then there came another sound—like the rushing of a torrent or a mighty wind. Nearer and nearer it came; the sweep of thousands of paddles over the dark lake, and finally shower upon shower of arrows on the hurrying army; while from all sides echoed the Aztecs' awful war-cry.

With unwavering step the Spaniards pushed on. They pursued no foes, but struck at what opposed them. Upon each side of the causeway Indians sprang from the water to block their progress, and the white men struck them down with their swords or rode over them with their horses, and marched on.

The van reached the next break in the causeway before the rear had crossed Magarino's bridge. Crowded from behind, as more and more of the troops came onto the causeway, the van was in danger of being pushed into the water unless a bridge could be quickly provided. Sandoval sent messenger after messenger to the rear with orders to hurry forward with the bridge. His army in the meanwhile, with no means of going ahead and no means of assaulting the thousands of savages who were as thick here as at the last gap, did its best to keep cool and hold its ground.

After the last of the Spanish troops had passed over Magarino's bridge and the whole army was massed on the long, narrow island made by the causeway with a breach at each end, Magarino tried to raise his bridge. It was jammed tight by the great weight of horses and artillery which had passed over it. Work as he might, he could not get it free.

When the troops understood what had happened, a great cry of anguish arose. In black darkness, in streaming rain, massed together on a strip of land wide enough only for fifteen men to ride abreast, foes pushing behind and the gloomy waters on each side alive with their enemies, where could they find help?

At once all order was gone. Each man forgot he was part of an army and tried only to save his own life. In panic and confusion they pressed this way and that, not caring now whether it was friend or foe they trampled. As they pushed on from behind they crowded Sandoval and his men in front to the very brink of the water.

Sandoval saw that someone must give way. He plunged on horseback into the water, followed by Ordaz and many other cavaliers. Sandoval and Ordaz swam their horses across the gap and scrambled up the slippery side of the second stretch of causeway ahead. Some of his men were with him, some were swept away into the darkness, others were seized and dragged into the Indian canoes.

The infantry came next, swimming or clinging to whatever offered support. All up and down the causeway the battle raged, a hand to hand conflict in the dark, where a misstep meant death.

Gradually, crowded irresistibly from behind, the wagons and guns and heavy baggage were thrust forward into the second breach in the causeway until the wreckage made of itself a bridge over which the rear could pass.

Cortes, in the meantime, had found a ford, and sitting stirrup-high on his horse in the water he tried to make his men recognize his voice and follow. But they could hear nothing through the wild uproar, and finally he rode on with a chosen few to join Sandoval on the causeway.

He found him advanced to the third breach, trying to cheer on his men to the last plunge, which would mean safety if they reached the far shore. But the water was wide and deep here, though not so closely guarded as at the other two cuts. Sandoval, as before, dashed into the lake and the bravest of his men followed, some swimming and others clinging to the horses' tails. Cortes and his corps followed—his veterans proving their wisdom in traveling light, as he had advised. Many of Narvaez' men, weighed down with gold, sank in the water and did not rise again.

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


Cortes and Sandoval scrambled up the far side of the slippery dyke and led their men along the last bit of causeway to the mainland beyond.

"The first gray of the morning was now coming over the waters. It showed the hideous confusion of the scene which had been shrouded in the obscurity of the night. The dark masses of combatants, stretching along the dyke, were seen struggling for mastery, until the very causeway on which they stood appeared to tremble, and reel to and fro, as if shaken by an earthquake; while the bosom of the lake, as far as the eye could reach, was darkened by canoes crowded with warriors, whose spears and bludgeons, armed with blades of 'volcanic glass,' gleamed in the morning light." [Prescott's Conquest of Mexico]

And then along the dyke there came a breathless messenger.

"Alvarado and his corps are overwhelmed in the rear."

Just freed as they were from the jaws of hell, neither Cortes nor Sandoval hesitated. They turned their horses, swam the breach once more, and dashed into the very heart of the fighting to save their comrade.

Alvarado was unhorsed, defending himself desperately against the savages, and trying to rally his men, who were pushed to the very edge of the causeway by the enemy who shut them in on every side. Cortes' charge checked the Indians only for a moment; the next, the torrent of warriors swept forward again, driving Cortes and his cavaliers into the water. Alvarado, with no horse, would not follow, fearing that he would be seized at once by the canoes. After a quick glance, he did the impossible. He set his long lance in the rubbish in the chasm and, with one spring of his powerful body, threw himself across the gap.

"This is truly Tonatiuh—the Sun," gasped the Aztecs. They did not pursue.

Cortes, Sandoval, Alvarado and as many others as had saved themselves rode forward once more to join the broken remnant of the Spanish army marching off the causeway, while the Indians gathered up the treasure the white men had scattered in their flight.

Popotla was the first village the refugees reached on the mainland. Cortes got down from his horse and sat on the steps of an Indian temple to watch his shattered army pass before him—dismounted cavalry, shivering, dripping infantry, wounded allies. Guns, banners, baggage were all left on the fatal causeway, with many of those who had borne arms. The captain-general, as he missed one familiar face after another, lost for the time his indomitable courage. He covered his face with his hands and the tears trickled through his fingers. In the bitterness of his soul he could understand how these midnight hours would go down in history under the name of "The Melancholy Night."