Boys' Prescott - Helen Ward Banks

The Storming of the Great Temple

June, 1520

His attendants carried Montezuma to his apartments. As he recovered consciousness there came back to his mind his utter wretchedness; one year, the proud ruler of Anahuac, whose most distant tribes paid him homage, and the next, a prisoner in the hands of his enemies; no longer reverenced by, his subjects or feared by his foes; struck down by an Aztec hand. He did not wish to live.

Cortes and his generals tried to comfort him in the old way, but now they could make no impression. Montezuma would not answer; he did not even seem to hear them; he sat with his eyes on the ground, mourning over his loss of honor.

His wounds, though dangerous, were not necessarily fatal. Cortes gave him the best of care, but Montezuma would do nothing to help toward his recovery. Without a word he tore of the bandages every time they were put on. He had lost all. Nothing now but death could satisfy his savage ideas of honor.

Cortes, in his attendance on Montezuma, was interrupted by a call from his sentinels.

"The Aztecs have possession of the great temple," came the word, "and are assaulting us from that high position."

We can make a clear picture of things as they were. First the great square of the City of Mexico, or Tenochtitlan, with the four great avenues running out of it, north, west, south and east, and in its center the huge temple, a pyramid whose each side at its base measured three hundred feet and which rose in the air in terraces one hundred feet before it ended in the broad, flat, paved roof, on which stood the two tower-like sanctuaries. Around the courtyard of this great temple lay the Wall of Serpents, which had an exit on each of the four great avenues. Opposite the Wall of Serpents, across the square, was the wall which enclosed the courtyard of the palace of Axayacatl—a space large enough to contain not only the palace that sheltered the Spaniards, but also the barracks of the thousands of Tlascalan allies. Around the square were other palaces and buildings whose flat roofs commanded the palace courtyard. The picture is clear before our eyes.

Cortes had destroyed some of the houses which threatened his troops, but events had moved so fast that he had had little time to think of the menace of the great temple area which towered above him. It was in the possession now of a body of six hundred Aztec nobles, who had recovered from the shock of seeing Montezuma fall, and were showering arrows down into the palace courtyard, while they sheltered themselves from return fire behind the sanctuaries.

Cortes saw at once that he must either vacate his quarters or drive the Aztecs from the temple area. To Escobar, his chamberlain, he gave one hundred men and orders to storm the temple area and fire the sanctuaries on top. Three times the little band tried to mount the terrace, and three times they were driven back.

Then Cortes himself headed the party. He had been wounded in the left hand the day before and was suffering greatly, but instead of nursing his wound, he had his shield buckled to his useless arm, and with his sword in his right hand, sallied out with three hundred picked Spanish troops and several thousand of his Indian allies to disperse the Aztecs massed in the temple courtyard.

He charged with the cavalry across the paved courtyard, but it was so slippery that the horses could not keep their feet. Cortes had to let the cavalry return to the palace, while he pushed back the Aztecs by means of his foot-soldiers. He soon got command of the temple courtyard, but the place he wanted was a hundred feet above him, up one hundred and fourteen steps, which could not be rushed all at once, but must be taken in five sorties. The first flight led only to the first terrace, and he must go on that terrace around the four sides of the pyramid before he came to the flight—just above the first—which led to the second terrace; passing around the temple four times before he could reach the flat, paved area at the top, where stood the two towers that Cortes wished to burn.

Cortes left a guard of Spanish arquebusiers and Indian allies to hold the foot of the staircase in the courtyard he had just cleared and, followed by Alvarado, Sandoval, Ordaz and others of his officers, sprang up the first flight of steps in face of the Aztec warriors who were drawn up on the terrace above to oppose him.

It took courage of the strongest to face that opposition. The Mexicans, from their higher place, showered down not only stones and arrows from their slings and bows, but thundered down the stairway heavy stones and beams and burning rafters, against which it was almost impossible to stand. The greater part of the invaders, however, got out of the way or sprang over these obstacles and reached the first terrace.

Once on level ground, it was not hard to push back the Mexicans and gain the next staircase. They had less trouble in taking this, for the Spanish arquebusiers below in the temple courtyard poured up a steady musket fire at the Indians in their exposed position, until finally they abandoned the stairways entirely and fled up to the flat area of the temple.

"The Spaniards mounted the last staircase close upon their rear, and the two parties soon found themselves face to face on this aerial battlefield, engaged in mortal combat, in presence of the whole city, as well as of the troops in the courtyard, who paused, as if by mutual consent, from their own hostilities, gazing in silent expectation on the issue of those above. The area, though somewhat smaller than the base of the temple, was large enough to afford a fair field of fight for a thousand combatants. It was paved with broad, flat stones. No impediment occurred over its surface, except the huge sacrificial block, and the temples of stone which rose to the height of forty feet, at the further extremity of the arena. One of these had been consecrated to the Cross. The other was still occupied by the Mexican war god. The Christian and the Aztec contended for their religions under the very shadow of their respective shrines; while the Indian priests, running to and fro, with their hair wildly streaming over the sable mantles, seemed hovering in mid-air, like so many demons of darkness urging on the work of slaughter." [Prescott's Conquest of Mexico]

It was indeed mortal combat, for no quarter was asked or given, and no one could escape. At the end, either Mexicans or Spaniards would be alone on the temple area without a surviving enemy. There was no wall to protect the edge of the area, and any man's misstep on the slippery pavement would send him hurtling down a hundred feet to the paved courtyard below. In the three hours' struggle that followed each party tried to throw his enemy from the height; sometimes two men in close embrace went over together. Two Aztecs seized Cortes, but he was too strong for them, and, instead of falling himself, sent one of the Indians to his own death.

The Mexicans outnumbered the Spaniards two to one, and in such a hand-to-hand conflict it seemed as if numbers and not skill would tell. But Cortes' veterans added to their courage and coolness and skill, matchless weapons and defensive armor, which counted for more than the numbers of the Aztecs. Fainter and fainter grew their resistance and fewer their numbers, until at last the only living Aztecs on the area were the two or three priests who had been taken alive.

Every Spaniard was covered with wounds, but nothing could stay them now in their rush to accomplish the destruction of the war god. They found, too, that the tower that had been given to them for a chapel had been restored to its savage uses; the cross and the image of the Virgin were gone, and the heathen symbols had been put back in their place. In the other tower before the awful figure of Huitzilopotchli a sacrifice was smoking on the altar.

With their war cry of victory the Spaniards fell upon the image of the war god and rolled him down the temple steps into the midst of the gasping crowd of Indians. Then they set fire to his tower, and the flames told abroad, as far as they could be seen, that Huitzilopotchli had been cast down from his high place.

The Spaniards marched proudly down from the temple top back to their own barracks through the files of Indians too awestruck by the overthrow of their gods to attempt opposition. That same night Cortes, flushed with victory, burned three hundred houses in the city.

The next day, thinking he had taught the Aztecs their lesson, he demanded a parley. He went up into the turret on the castle top with Marina, while the great chiefs gathered in the huge square below. They gazed with curiosity at Marina as she, in her soft Indian voice, translated Cortes' words.

"You must now be convinced," Cortes said to the Aztec chiefs, "that you have nothing further to hope from opposition to the Spaniards. You have seen your gods trampled in the dust, your altars broken, your buildings burned, your warriors falling on all sides. All this you have brought on yourselves by rebellion. Yet for the affection the sovereign, whom you have so unworthily treated, still bears you, I would willingly stay my hand, if you will lay down your arms, and return once more to your obedience. But if you do not, I will make your city a heap of ruins, and leave not a soul alive to mourn over it."

The Indians listened in silence, but they were not impressed.

"It is true," they answered, "that you have destroyed our temples, broken in pieces our gods, massacred our countrymen. Many more, doubtless, will yet fall under your terrible swords. But we are content so long as for every thousand Mexicans we can shed the blood of a single white man. Look out on our terraces and streets, see them still thronged with warriors as far as your eyes can reach. Our numbers are scarcely diminished by our losses. Yours, on the contrary, are lessening every hour. You are perishing from hunger and sickness. Your provisions and water are failing. You must soon fall into our hands. The bridges are broken down and you cannot escape. There will be too few of you left to glut the vengeance of our gods."

They ended this conference as they had that with Montezuma, by sending a shower of arrows at the Spaniards on the turret. Cortes and his men went moodily to their quarters.

Gloom settled dark over the palace of Axayacatl. The news ran through camp that the Aztecs were not to be appeased and that the white men no longer ruled or terrified them. Every word of their speech had been true. The Christians were short of provisions and water; they had lost men they could ill afford to spare, while the Aztec ranks were swelling hourly. And to Cortes, who realized what it meant, the taunt that the bridges were down was the worst word of all. He had known all along that Mexico could be a trap, and now he had shut his men up in it.

At once the Narvaez men broke into open mutiny. They had left a comfortable life in Cuba to fill their pockets with Mexican gold. Instead, they had filled their days with hardship and suffering, for which their reward was to be death or, at best, a return home poorer than they had set out. They wished they had never heard of Velasquez and they wished they had never seen Cortes.

Deaf to the veterans' arguments that Cortes always found victory in the end, and that, in the worst, their only chance of safety lay in keeping together and following their leader with implicit obedience, they demanded angrily that he should at once take them back to Vera Cruz, before they were sacrificed alive to the Mexican war god.

Cortes could not take his army back to Cuba just then, so he set them to work in the Tenochtitlan palace to build a bridge that could be carried with them as they marched and laid down over any gap in the causeway. When this was done, he started them at three movable forts.

We all remember in our Cesar the little moving forts Caesar used in his wars against the Gauls. Cortes had been planning something of the same sort since his first sally along the streets, when the Mexicans had assaulted the Spaniards from their flat roof-tops. He made of planks three of these little forts, called mantas, two-storied, with loop-holes cut in the side for the musketeers. They were mounted on wheels and were to be dragged through the streets by the Tlascalan allies.

Cortes, while he busied his men, was himself squarely facing the situation. He was one of those rare people who have the romance and poetry to glimpse the high vision, and who possess, at the same time, the patience and courage and constancy to carry the vision step by step into actual experience. It was his sureness of his own ability to accomplish his purpose unfalteringly that made his men as eager to follow as he was to lead.

Cortes did not for a moment consider that his cause was lost, but he saw that for the present he must leave Mexico. To stay was impossible; each day the breaches in the wall increased, and the numbers of his men diminished; yet even for those who were left, there was only a small daily ration of bread; they could not long on that endure the strain of hard fighting and constant watching; none but. Spaniards could have endured it so long. Cortes knew that to every mind but his, going out of Mexico now would mean the giving up of the conquest. He did not speak even to his friends about his own certainty of eventual success.

His mind made up to evacuate Tenochtitlan, he went to work to find the best way out, and decided that the safest route would be across the dyke of Tlacopan, which led from the great square west to the mainland; this causeway was two miles in length, but was the shortest of the three dykes.

He had come and gone before always by the southern causeway of Iztapalapan. In order to get acquainted with the Tlacopan dyke, he determined to make in that direction a sally which would not only serve the purpose of exploration but would give his men employment and blind the Mexicans to the fact that he meant to leave Tenochtitlan.

For this sortie he called into use his new moving forts, filling them with musketeers. As they rolled out of the palace courtyard and down the Tlacopan avenue, the Aztecs gazed with astonishment and dismay at this latest device of their enemies; a rolling house that belched fire and smoke from both sides against the Mexicans stationed on the low, flat roofs, and which occasionally opened at the top to let Spanish soldiers leap out upon the housetops to engage in hand to hand fight with the occupants.

The Aztecs had their chance too. From the higher buildings they threw down huge stones and timbers on the forts and threatened to wreck them. The machines went along fairly well, however, until they reached the first canal. There the bridge had been destroyed and the farther side was guarded by Aztec troops. Although the canal was not deep, as the portable bridge had been left at home, neither the machines nor the cavalry could get across the opening. Cortes gave order to break up the clumsy, moving forts and to use their timbers to fill up the gap. The bridge was mended under a heavy Aztec fire. The cavalry charged across and swept the enemy before them as far as the next canal, where the Indians made another determined stand, and so on to the next, till all the seven breaches in the Tlacopan avenue had been carried by the Spaniards and filled in. The work took two days. Cortes, with a straight road now before him to the Tlacopan dyke, left Alvarado in charge of the avenue and went himself back to the palace of Axayacatl.

The Spanish successes seemed to discourage the Aztecs. They begged for a truce and asked that their captured priests might be sent as Cortes' envoys. Cortes sent them, hoping the worst was over. While he waited for his reply, he allowed his soldiers a little rest.

It was a very short respite. Instead of offers of peace, there came the news that the whole city was under arms again in a wilder tumult than ever; that they had overpowered Alvarado, and were again destroying the bridges. The desire for a truce was only an Aztec plot to get back their high-priest from captivity. Angry that the Aztecs had so easily duped him, Cortes threw himself on his horse and, with his guard, was off full speed to Alvarado's help.

The first body of Indians yielded at once to his wild charge. Cortes restored the bridge and, leaving his infantry, galloped on down the long avenue with his cavalry, driving the Aztecs at spears' point. But while he raced ahead, behind him, through the side streets, great bodies of Indians poured into the avenue of Tlacopan and attacked the Spanish foot, too faint and weary after its days of hard fighting to offer much resistance. The Indians again demolished the bridge Cortes had just restored, thus cutting off from their quarters all the Spaniards on the far side of the canal. Hearing the conflict, the cavalry charged back to this breach, where they found tremendous confusion. Cortes dashed this way and that, terrifying his enemies and cheering his own men by his well-known battle-cry. Finally the bridge was again repaired and the Spaniards passed over.

Cortes was the last. As his turn came, some boards gave way opening a hole six feet wide in the bridge. Amid a whirl of Indian arrows, he put spurs to his horse, leaped the chasm, and escaped with only a few slight wounds. Cortes' soldiers saw, leading on the charge in the thickest of the battle, their patron saint—St. James—riding a milk-white steed, his sword flashing lightning. He, they said, had taken care of Cortes.

As night fell the Indians dropped away and left the Spaniards in possession of the bridge. Cortes led his victorious troops back to the palace, but they went without joy, drooping with weariness and hunger, knowing that to-morrow it must all be done again.

As they passed in through the palace entrance, a messenger stood waiting for Cortes. He had still another thing to face.

Montezuma was dying.