South American Fights and Fighters - Cyrus T. Brady

The Great Adventures of Cortez (continued)

The Meeting with Montezuma

It was early in the morning of November the 8th, 1519, when Cortes, at the head of his little army, rode over one of the long causeways and into the city to his first meeting with Montezuma. As no one can tell better than he what happened, I here insert his own account of the episode:

"The next day after my arrival at this city, I departed on my route, and having proceeded half a league, I entered upon a causeway that extends two leagues through the centre of the salt lake, until it reaches the great city of Temixtitan (Mexico), which is built in the middle of the lake. . . .

"I pursued my course over the above-mentioned causeway, and having proceeded half a league before arriving at the body of the city of Temixtitan, I found at its intersection with another causeway, which extends from this point to terra firma, a very strong fortress with two towers, surrounded by a double wall, twelve feet in height, with an embattled parapet, which commands the two causeways, and has only two gates, one for the entering and the other for departure. There came to meet me at this place nearly a thousand of the principal inhabitants of the great city, all uniformly dressed according to their custom in very rich costumes; and as soon as they had come within speaking distance, each one, as he approached me, performed a salutation in much use among them, by placing his hand upon the ground and kissing it; and thus I was kept waiting about an hour, until all had performed the ceremony. Connected with the city is a wooden bridge ten paces wide, where the causeway is open to allow the water free ingress and egress, as it rises and falls; and also for the security of the city, as they can remove the long and wide beams of which the bridge is formed, and replace them whenever they wish; and there are many such bridges in different parts of the city, as Your Highness will perceive hereafter from the particular account I shall give of it.

"When we had passed the bridge, the Senor Muteczuma came out to receive us, attended by about two hundred nobles, all barefooted, and dressed in livery, or a peculiar garb of fine cotton, richer than is usually worn; they came in two processions in close proximity to the houses on each side of the street, which is very wide and beautiful, and so straight that you can see from one end of it to the other, although it is two-thirds of a league in length, having on both sides large and elegant houses and temples. Muteczuma came through the centre of the street, attended by two lords, one upon his right and the other upon his left hand, one of whom was the same nobleman who, as I have mentioned, came to meet me in a litter, and the other was the brother of Muteczuma, lord of the city of Iztapalapa, which I had left the same day; all three were dressed in the same manner, except that Muteczuma wore shoes, while the others were without them. He was supported in the arms of both, and as we approached, I alighted and advanced alone to salute him; but the two attendant lords stopped me to prevent my touching him, and they and he both performed the ceremony of kissing the ground; after which he directed his brother who accompanied him to remain with me; the latter accordingly took me by the arm, while Muteczuma, with his other attendant, walked a short distance in front of me, and after he had spoken to me, all the other nobles also came up to address me, and then went away in two processions with great regularity, one after the other, and in this manner returned to the city. At the time I advanced to speak to Muteczuma, I took off from myself a collar of pearls and glass diamonds, and put it around his neck. After having proceeded along the street, one of his servants came bringing two collars formed of shell fish, enclosed in a roll of cloth, which were made from the shells of colored prawns or periwinkles, held by them in great esteem; and from each collar depended eight golden prawns, finished in a very perfect manner and about a foot and a half in length. When these were brought Muteczuma turned toward me and put them around my neck; he then returned along the street in the order already described, until he reached a very large and splendid palace, in which we were to be quartered, which had been fully prepared for our reception. He there took me by the hand and led me into a spacious saloon, in front of which was a court, through which we entered. Having caused me to sit down on a piece of rich carpeting, which he had ordered to be made for himself, he told me to await his return there, and then went away. After a short space of time, when my people were all bestowed in their quarters, he returned with many and various jewels of gold and silver, feather work and five or six thousand pieces of cotton cloth, very rich and of varied texture and finish. After having presented these to me, he sat down on another piece of carpet they had placed for him near me, and being seated he discoursed as follows:

"'It is now a long time since, by means of written records, we learned from our ancestors that neither myself nor any of those who inhabit this region were descended from its original inhabitants, but from strangers who emigrated hither from a very distant land; and we have also learned that a prince, whose vassals they all were, conducted our people into these parts, and then returned to his native land. He afterward came again to this country, after the lapse of much time, and found that his people had inter-married with the native inhabitants, by whom they had many children, and had built towns in which they resided; and when he desired them to return with him, they were unwilling to go, nor were they disposed to acknowledge him as their sovereign; so he departed from the country, and we have always heard that his descendants would come to conquer this land and reduce us to subjection as his vassals; and according to the direction from which you say you have come, namely the quarter where the sun rises, and from what you say of the great lord or king who sent you hither, we believe and are assured that he is our natural sovereign, especially as you say that it is a long time since you first had knowledge of us. Therefore, be assured that we will obey you, and acknowledge you for our sovereign in place of the great lord whom you mention, and that there shall be no default or deception on our part. And you have the power in all this land, I mean wherever my power extends, to command what is your pleasure, and it shall be done in obedience thereto, and all that we have is at your disposal. And since you are in your own proper land and your own house, rest and refresh yourself after the toils of your journey, and the conflicts in which you have been engaged, which have been brought upon you, as I well know, by all the people from Puntunchan to this place; and I am aware that the Cempoallans and the Tlascalans have told you much evil of me, but believe no more than you see with your own eyes, especially from those who are my enemies, some of whom were once my subjects, and having rebelled upon your arrival, make these statements to ingratiate themselves in your favor. These people, I know, have informed you that I possessed houses with walls of gold, and that my carpets and other things in common use were of the texture of gold; and that I was a god, or made myself one, and many other such things. The houses, as you see, are of stone and lime and earth.' And then he opened his robes and showed his person to me, saying: 'You see that I am composed of flesh and bone like yourself, and that I am mortal and palpable to the touch,' at the same time pinching his arms and body with his hands. 'See,' he continued, 'how they have deceived you. It is true that I have some things of gold, which my ancestors have left me; all that I have is at your service whenever you wish it. I am now going to my other houses where I reside; you will be here provided with everything necessary for yourself and your people, and will suffer no embarrassment, as you are in your own house and country.' I answered him in respect to all that he had said, expressing my acknowledgments, and adding whatever the occasion seemed to demand, especially endeavoring to confirm him in the belief that Your Majesty was the sovereign they had looked for; and after this he took his leave, and having gone, we were liberally supplied with fowls, bread, fruits and other things required for the use of our quarters. In this way I was for six days amply provided with all that was necessary, and visited by many of the nobility."

It throws a somewhat amusing light on the interview when we note that the presents exchanged were of great value on Montezuma's part, while the gift of Cortes was a collar of cheap imitation diamonds!

The emotions of the Spaniards at this singular meeting between the immeasurable distance of the past and present were so strong that even the rough soldier felt it. "And when we beheld," says Bernal Diaz, "so many cities and towns rising up from the water, and other populous places situated on the terra firma, and that causeway, straight as a level, which went into Mexico, we remained astonished, and said to one another that it appeared like the enchanted castles which they tell of in the book of Amadis, by reason of the great towers, temples, and edifices which there were in the water, all of them work of masonry. Some of our soldiers asked if this that they saw was not a thing in a dream."

Fiske thus felicitously alludes to it:

"It may be well called the most romantic moment in all history, this moment when European eyes first rested upon that city of wonders, the chief ornament of a stage of social evolution two full ethnical periods behind their own. To say that it was like stepping back across the centuries to visit the Nineveh of Sennacherib or hundred-gated Thebes, is but inadequately to depict the situation, for it was a longer step than that. Such chances do not come twice to mankind, for when two grades of culture so widely severed are brought into contact, the stronger is apt to blight and crush the weaker where it does not amend and transform it. In spite of its foul abominations, one sometimes feels that one would like to recall the extinct state of society in order to study it. The devoted lover of history, who ransacks all sciences for aid toward understanding the course of human events, who knows in what unexpected ways one progress often illustrates other stages, will sometimes wish it were possible to resuscitate, even for one brief year, the vanished City of the Cactus Rock. Could such a work of enchantment be performed, however, our first feeling would doubtless be one of ineffable horror and disgust, like that of the knight in the old English ballad, who, folding in his arms a damsel of radiant beauty, finds himself in the embrace of a loathsome fiend."

What the emotions of the Mexicans were we have no account, but it is not difficult to imagine them. Amazement as at the visitation of a god, fear begot of this gross superstition, apprehension of what might be the result of the coming of these strange monsters, curiosity mingled with admiration; and as they looked at the long lines of fierce, dauntless, implacable Tlascalans who accompanied the Spaniards, their hereditary enemies, there must have swelled in their savage breasts feelings of deep and bitter hatred.

Outwardly, however, all was calm. The Spaniards marched through the flower-decked streets to the great palace of Ayxacatl, which had been assigned to them as a residence, and which was spacious and commodious enough to take them all in, bag and baggage, including their savage allies. It is one of the singular contradictions of the Aztec character that with all of their brutal religion and barbarism, they were passionately fond of flowers and like other barbarians rejoiced in color. "Flowers were used in many of the religious festivals, and there is abundant evidence, moreover, that the Mexicans were very fond of them. This is illustrated in the perpetual reference to flowers in old Mexican poems: 'They led me within a valley to a fertile spot, a flowery spot, where the dew spread out in glistening splendor, where I saw various lovely fragrant flowers, lovely odorous flowers, clothed with the dew, scattered around in rainbow glory; there they said to me, 'Pluck the flowers, whichever thou wishest; mayst thou, the singer, be glad, and give them to thy friends, to the chiefs, that they may rejoice on the earth.' So I gathered in the folds of my garments the various fragrant flowers, delicate, scented, delicious.'"

The will of Montezuma was supreme. Nothing dimmed the warmth and generosity of his splendid hospitality. There were no frowning looks, no mutterings of discontent, everything was joyous and pleasant, at least outwardly, yet not one of the Christians was blind to the peril in which he stood, or doubted that the least accident might precipitate an outbreak which would sweep them all from off the face of the earth.

For six days the Spaniards remained the guests of the Mexican Emperor. Visits were exchanged, religious discussions were indulged in, and Cortes was only constrained from overthrowing their idols in the temples which he visited, and substituting Christian emblems therein by force, by the prudent counsel of the worthy priests, men remarkable for their wisdom and their statesmanship, who accompanied him. Continual efforts were made to convert Montezuma, but without results.

That monarch, who was of a cheerful and jovial nature, professed great friendship for and interest in the Spaniards, whom he often visited and to whom he accorded many privileges. Such a condition of affairs, however, could not last very long. The suspense was intolerable to a man of action like Cortes and to the men who followed him as well. They were not good waiters. Something had to be done.

Into the mind of this Spanish soldier of fortune there leaped a bold design. He decided upon a course of action, as amazing in its character, so far-reaching in its result, that its conception and its execution almost thrust him into the ranks of the demi-gods. This project was nothing less than the seizure of the person of Montezuma in the midst of his capital, a city of three hundred thousand people, among whom were thousands of fierce and highly trained veteran warriors who counted their lives as nothing in the Emperor's need. Undoubtedly such an action was the basest of treachery, but Cortes had put himself in such a position that the nakedness of such an action did not prevail with him for a moment. He quieted his conscience with the old reasoning that Montezuma was a heathen, and that oaths to him were by no means binding.

Whether he quieted his conscience or not, something was necessary. He could not retire from Mexico after this ostensibly friendly visit. Such a withdrawal would not have suited his purposes at all, and it was more than possible that the moment he turned his back on the Aztec capital, he would be forced to fight for his life against conditions which would leave him little or no possibility of escape. It was really Montezuma's life and liberty or Cortes' life and liberty. In such an alternative, there was no hesitation.

The Seizure of the Emperor

Occasion was soon found for the seizure. A chief on the sea coast had attacked and killed some of the men left at Vera Cruz. It was alleged that this was done by the orders of Montezuma. Cortes accompanied by the hardiest and bravest of his companions, and after a night of prayer—singular with what good consciences they could pray for the success of the most nefarious undertaking!—visited Montezuma, and accused him of having instigated the crime. Montezuma denied it, and despatched messengers to the offending cacique, directing that he be put under close arrest and brought to the capital. This was all any reasonable man could expect, but Cortes and his companions were not reasonable.

In spite of the fact that the prompt action of the Aztec had deprived them of the faintest pretext, they nevertheless at last declared to the unhappy monarch that he must accompany them to the pueblo, which he had assigned to them, and remain in the custody of the Spaniards until the matter had been decided. In vain Montezuma protested. His situation was unfortunate. He was surrounded by an intrepid body of steel-clad Spaniards, and although the room was filled with officers, courtiers and soldiers, he realized—indeed he was bluntly told—that the first act of hostility against the Spaniards would result in his immediate death. He made a virtue of a necessity, and complied with the Spaniards' demand. Forbidding his subjects, who were moved to tears—tears of rage and anger, most probably—to assist him, he submitted himself to the will of his captors, and went away with them. He had to go or he would have died then and there. Far better would it have been if he had chosen the nobler course, both for his fame and his empire.

The affairs of the government were carried on as usual by Montezuma, to whom his officers and his counsellors had free access. Cortes even permitted him to go to the Temple on occasion for the ordinary worship, but in every instance he was accompanied and practically surrounded by a body of one hundred completely armed and thoroughly resolute Spaniards. Cortes did not attempt to interfere in the least degree with the national administration, although it was patent to everybody that as he held the person of the Emperor, he could also command, if he so elected, the power of the empire.

Meanwhile, the Cacique Quahpopoca, who was guilty of the murder of the Spaniards on the coast, was brought into Mexico two weeks after the seizure of Montezuma. With a loyalty touchingly beautiful, he promptly declared that he had acted upon his own responsibility and that Montezuma had had nothing whatever to do with it, which was, of course, highly improbable. The official clearing of Montezuma was complete; nevertheless, despite the testimony of Quahpopoca, Cortes actually put the Mexican monarch in double irons. It is true, the irons were removed almost immediately, and he was treated as he had been during his two weeks' captivity, with the greatest possible respect and deference, but the irons had not merely clasped the wrists and ankles of the unfortunate Aztec. They had entered his soul.

Quahpopoca was burned in the public square. The heaping fagots which surrounded the stake were made of javelins and spears collected by Cortes with intrepid audacity and far-seeing prudence, from the public armory. Vast numbers of them were used. The populace looked on in sullen and gloomy silence. Montezuma was not merely the ruler of the country, but in some senses he was a deity, and his capture, together with the capture of the great lords of his family, who, under ordinary circumstances would have succeeded to his throne, paralyzed the national, social, political and religious organization.

Cortes actually held his captive in this way until spring. The intervening months were not wasted. Expeditions were sent to all parts of the country to ascertain its resources and report upon them, so that, when the Spaniards took over the government, they would be prepared to administer it wisely and well. No such prudent and statesmanlike policy was inaugurated by any other conqueror. Cortes in this particular stands absolutely alone among the great adventurers, Spanish and otherwise. He was not a mere plunderer of the people, he was laying a foundation for an empire. Vast treasures were, nevertheless, collected. Messengers were despatched to Charles V. with the letters which have already been quoted and with the royal share of the booty, which was great enough to insure them a favorable reception.

What Cortes would have done further can only be surmised. Something happened suddenly which forced his hand. In the spring, Montezuma received word through an excellent corps of messengers which supplied him daily with information from all parts of the empire, of the arrival of a strange Spanish force on the coast. Mexico had no writing, but its messenger system was one of the best in the world. Messengers arrived daily from the farthest parts and confines of the Mexican empire, supplementing pictures, which the Mexicans drew very cleverly, with verbal accounts. Incidentally, there was no money in the empire, either. The art of coinage had not been attained.

The Revolt of the Capital

Cortes was naturally much interested and not a little perturbed by the news. Soon the exact tidings reached him from the commander at Vera Cruz, that the force consisted of some twelve hundred men, including eighty horse, all under the command of one Panfilo de Narvaez, which had been organized, equipped and sent out by Cortes' old enemy, Velasquez, with instructions to seize him and his companions and send them back to Cuba for trial. Narvaez was loud in his threats of what he was going to do with Cortes and how he was going to do it.

The great Spaniard acted with his usual promptness. He left in charge of the city one Pedro de Alvarado, called from his fair hair, Tonatiuh, or the child of the sun. Committing the care of Montezuma to this cavalier and bidding him watch over him and guard him with his life, as the safety of all depended upon him, Cortes with some two hundred and fifty men made a dash for the coast. It was two hundred and fifty against five times that number, but with the two hundred and fifty was a man whose mere presence equalized conditions, while with the twelve hundred and fifty was another whose braggart foolishness diminished their superiority until, in the end, it really amounted to nothing!

Cortes actually surprised Narvaez in the town in which he had taken refuge and seized him after an attack—a night surprise of bold and audacious conception—by the two hundred and fifty against the twelve hundred which was completely successful. With Narvaez in Cortes's hands all opposition ceased on the part of the men. In one swoop Narvaez lost power, position and one eye, which had been knocked out during the contest, and Cortes found his following reinforced by so great a number and quality that he had never dreamed of such a thing.

"You are, indeed, fortunate," said Narvaez to his conqueror, "in having captured me."

"It is," said Cortes carelessly, "the least of the things I have done in Mexico!"

While affairs were thus progressing favorably on the coast, the smouldering rebellion had at last broken out in Mexico, and Cortes received a message from Alvarado, bidding him return with all possible speed. There was not a braver soldier, a fiercer fighter, or a more resolute man in the following of Cortes than Pedro de Alvarado. When that has been said, however, practically all has been said that can be said in his favor. He was a rash, impetuous, reckless, head-long, tactless, unscrupulous man, and brutal and cruel to a high degree.

His suspicions that the Aztecs, led by Montezuma, were conspiring to overwhelm his small force were aroused. It is probable that there was some truth in his apprehensions, although he could not point to anything very definite upon which to base them. He knew of but one way to deal with such a situation—by brute force. He waited until the great May Festival of the Aztecs was being held, and then fell upon them in the midst of their joyous play and slew six hundred, including many of the noblest chiefs of the land. The outbreak was instant and universal. The house of Ayxacatl was at once besieged, the influx of provisions was stopped, and the pueblo was surrounded by vast numbers of thoroughly enraged citizens. Neither the Spaniards nor the allies could leave the pueblo without being overwhelmed. Alvarado at last compelled Montezuma to show himself on the walls and bid the people stop fighting, to enable him to strengthen his position and hold it until the arrival of Cortes, and some fifteen hundred men, his own force and that of Narvaez combined.

When the conqueror met Alvarado he upbraided him and told him that he had behaved like a madman. There was little or no provision. Cortes now made the mistake of sending Cuitlahua, the brother of Montezuma, out into the city with instructions for him to have the markets opened at once and secure provisions for the Spaniards and their horses. Cuitlahua, being free, called the council of priests. This council at once deposed Montezuma and elected Cuitlahua emperor and priest in his place. The revolution and the religion now had a head.

The next morning an attack of such force was delivered that many of even the stoutest-hearted Spaniards quailed before it. The slaughter of the natives was terrific. The Spanish cannon opened long lanes through the crowded streets. The Spanish horse sallied forth and hacked and hewed broad pathways up the different avenues. Still, the attack was pressed and was as intrepid as if not a single Aztec had died. The roar that came up from every quarter of the city, from the house tops, from the crowded streets, from the Temples, was in itself enough to appall the bravest.

In God's Way

Finally Cortes resorted to Alvarado's expedient. He compelled the unhappy Montezuma to mount the walls of the palace and bid the people disperse. When he appeared in all his splendid panoply upon the roof of the palace there was a strange silence. He was no longer priest, he was no longer emperor, he was no longer a power, he was no longer a god, but some of the old divinity seemed to cling to him, to linger around him still. The situation was so tragic that even the meanest soldier, Mexican or Spanish, felt its import. A long time the Aztec looked over his once smiling capital, and into the faces of his once subordinate people. Finally he began to address them. He bade them lay down their arms and disperse.

The people, led by the great lords and Montezuma's brother, Cuitlahua, and his nephew, Guatemoc, answered with a roar of rage, and the roar spread as the purport of the message was communicated to those further back. Montezuma stood appalled. The next instant a rain of missiles was actually launched at him and the Spaniards who stood by his side. A stone hurled, it is said by young Guatemoc, struck him in the forehead. He reeled and fell. With the bitter words: "Woman! woman!" ringing in his ears, he was carried away by the Spaniards. His face, says Lew Wallace, was the face of a man "breaking because he was in God's way!" He lived a few days after that, but he refused to eat, and repeatedly tore the bandages from his wounds until death put an end to his miseries. The stone that had struck him had broken his heart. Neither Cortes nor Montezuma himself knew that he had been deposed. Cortes and the principal Spaniards visited him and endeavoured to console him, but he turned his face to the wall and would have none of them. It was said afterward that he became a Christian, but it is most probably not true. He died as he had lived. Helps thus describes the scene and the great Montezuma's end:



"He was surrounded by Spanish soldiers, and was at first received with all respect and honor by his people. When silence ensued, he addressed them in very loving words, bidding them discontinue the attack, and assuring them that the Spaniards would depart from Mexico. It is not probable that much of his discourse could have been heard by the raging multitude. But, on the other hand, he was able to hear what their leaders had to say, as four of the chiefs approached near him, and with tears addressed him, declaring their grief at his imprisonment. They told him that they had chosen his brother as their leader, that they had vowed to their gods not to cease fighting until the Spaniards were all destroyed, and that each day they prayed to their gods to keep him free and harmless. They added, that when their designs were accomplished, he should be much more their lord than heretofore, and that he should then pardon them. Amongst the crowd, however, were, doubtless, men who viewed the conduct of Montezuma with intense disgust, or who thought that they had already shown too much disrespect toward him ever to be pardoned. A shower of stones and arrows interrupted the parley; the Spanish soldiers had ceased for the moment to protect Montezuma with their shields; and he was severely wounded in the head and in two other places. The miserable monarch was borne away, having received his death-stroke; but whether it came from the wounds themselves, or from the indignity of being thus treated by his people, remains a doubtful point. It seems, however, that, to use some emphatic words which have been employed upon a similar occasion: 'He turned his face to the wall, and would be troubled no more.'

"It is remarkable that he did not die like a Christian, and I think this shows that he had more force of mind and purpose than the world has generally been inclined to give him credit for. To read Montezuma's character rightly, at this distance of time, and amidst such a wild perplexity of facts, would be very difficult, and is not very important. But one thing, I think, is discernible, and that is, that his manners were very gracious and graceful. I dwell upon this, because I conceive it was a characteristic of the race; and no one will estimate this characteristic lightly, who has observed how very rare, even in the centres of civilized life, it is to find people of fine manners, so that in great capitals but very few persons can be pointed out who are at all transcendent in this respect. The gracious delight which Montezuma had in giving was particularly noticeable; and the impression which he made upon Bernal Diaz may be seen in the narrative of this simple soldier, who never speaks of him otherwise as 'the great Montezuma'; and, upon the occasion of his death, remarks that some of the Spanish soldiers who had known him mourned for him as if he had been a father, 'and no wonder,' he adds, 'seeing that he was so good.'"

Cortes sent out the body to the new king, and Montezuma was mourned over by the Spaniards, to whom he had always been gracious, and probably, by his own people; but little could be learned of what the Mexicans thought, or did, upon the occasion, by the Spaniards, who only saw that Montezuma's death made no difference in the fierceness of the enemy's attack.

Meanwhile the situation of the Spaniards was indescribable. There was mutiny and rebellion among them. The soldiers of Narvaez, who looked for a pleasant promenade through a land of peace and plenty, were appalled. There was daily, desperate fighting. The Mexicans had manned the temple of the war-god which overlooked the Spanish pueblo, and Cortes determined to capture it. With a large body of chosen men he attempted its escalade. It was crowded to the very top with the most resolute Aztecs, and they fought for it with the courage of fanaticism and despair itself. The feather shields were no match for the steel cuirasses. The wooden clubs, stuck full of sharp pieces of obsidian, could not compete on equal terms with the Toledo blades. Step by step, terrace by terrace, the Spaniards fought their way to the very top. As if by mutual consent, the contests in the streets stopped and all eyes were turned upon this battle in the air.

Arriving at the great plateau upon the crest, the Spaniards were met by five hundred of the noblest Aztecs, who, animated by their priests, made the last desperate stand for the altars of their gods.

"And how can men die better,

Than in facing fearful odds,

For the ashes of their Fathers,

And the temples of their Gods?"

In the course of the terrific conflict which ensued, two of the bravest leaped upon Cortes, wrapped their arms around him, and attempted to throw themselves off the top of the temple, devoting themselves to death, if so be, they might compass their bold design. It was on the very verge of eternity that Cortes tore himself free from them. Singled out for attack because of his position and because of his fearlessness in battle, his life was saved again and again by his followers, until it seemed to be miraculously preserved.

After a stupendous struggle the summit of the temple was carried. Amid the groans of the populace, the Spaniards tumbled down from its resting-place the hideous image of the war-god, and completed in Aztec eyes the desecration of the temple. They were victorious, but they had paid a price. Dead Spaniards dotted the terraces, the sunlight, gleaming on their armor, picking them out amid the dark, naked bodies of the Mexicans. Of those who had survived the encounter, there was scarcely one but had sustained one or more wounds, some of them fearful in character. The Mexicans had not died in vain.

Leaving a guard at the temple, Cortes came back to the garrison. The attack was resumed at once by the natives. Attempts were made to burn the thatched roofs of the pueblo. A rain of missiles was poured upon it. The Spaniards made sally after sally, inflicting great slaughter, but losing always a little themselves. The Aztecs would sometimes seize a Spaniard and bear him off alive to sacrifice him on some high pyramid temple in full view of his wretched comrades below. The Spaniards fired cannon after cannon, but to no avail. They were starving, they were becoming sick, and they were covered with wounds; their allies, who took part gallantly in all the hard fighting, suffered frightful losses. It was at last reluctantly agreed among the leaders that their only salvation was the evacuation of the city.

The Melancholy Night

Although the course thus thrust upon them was indeed a hard one, there was nothing else to be done. Sick, wounded, starving, dying, they could by no means maintain themselves longer in the city. Fight as they might and would, the end would come speedily, and would mean annihilation. Happy in that event would be those who died upon the field, for every living captive, whatever his condition, would be reserved for that frightful sacrifice to the war-god, in which his body would be opened, and his reeking heart torn, almost while still beating, from his breast. To retreat was almost as dangerous as it was to remain. It was certain, however, that some would get through in that attempt, although it was equally certain that many would not.

Cortes, mustering his soldiers and allies, after a day of heart-breaking fighting, disclosed the situation to them in blunt soldier-like words, although they all knew it as well as he, and then the hasty preparations began. A vast treasure had been amassed by the Spaniards. Making an effort to preserve the fifth portion of it, which by law belonged to the King, Cortes threw open the treasure chamber and bade the rest help themselves. He cautioned them, however, that those who went the lightest, would have the greatest prospects for escape, a warning which many, especially among those who had come to the country with Narvaez, chose to disregard.

The causeway along which they determined to fly and which connected Mexico with the mainland was pierced at intervals to admit passage from one portion of the lake to the other. The bridges which usually covered these openings had been taken away by the Aztecs. Cortes caused a temporary bridge or pontoon to be built which was to be carried with the fugitives to enable them to pass the openings.

The night was the first of July, 1520. It was pitch dark and a heavy rain was falling. The forces consisted of twelve hundred and fifty Spaniards, of whom eighty were mounted, and six thousand Tlascalans. They were divided into three divisions. The advance was under the command of Juan Valesquez, Cortes led the main body, and the rear was put in the charge of the rash, cruel, but heroic Alvarado. The less severely wounded were supported by their comrades, and those unable to walk were carried on litters or mounted on horses. Montezuma had died the night before. Any lingering hopes of being able to effect peace through his influence had departed. Leaving everything they could not carry, the Spaniards, after prayer, confession and absolution, threw open the gates, and entered the city.

Midnight was approaching. The streets and avenues were silent and deserted. The retreat proceeded cautiously for a little way, unmolested, when suddenly a deep, booming sound roared like thunder over the heads of the Spaniards, through the black night, filling their hearts with alarm. Cortes recognized it at once. The Aztecs were awake and ready. The priests in the great teocallis, or temple pyramids, were beating the great drum of the war-god, Huitzilopocahtli. Lights appeared here and there in the town, the clashing of arms was heard here and there on the broad avenues. Under the lights farther up the streets could be seen files of troops moving. The hour was full of portent.

Dragging their artillery, carrying their wounded, bearing their treasure, the Spaniards and their allies passed rapidly through the streets. Before the advance reached the first opening in the causeway it was already hotly engaged. The water on either side of the cause-way suddenly swarmed with canoes. Spears, javelins, arrows, heavy war-clubs with jagged pieces of obsidian were hurled upon the Spaniards on the causeway. In front of them, almost, it seemed, for the whole length, the Indians were massed. Step by step, by the hardest kind of hand-to-hand fighting, the Spaniards and their allies arrived at the first opening. Their loss had been frightful already. They were surrounded and attacked from all sides. Indians scrambled up the low banks in the darkness, seized the feet of the flying Spaniards and strove to draw them into the water. Many a white man, many a Tlascalan locked in the savage embrace of some heroic Aztec, stumbled or was dragged into the lake and was drowned in the struggle. The frightened horses reared and plunged and created great confusion. The golden treasure with which many had loaded themselves proved a frightful incumbrance. Those who could do so, flung it away; those too bitterly occupied in fighting for their lives could do little but drive, thrust, hew, hack and struggle in the dark and slippery way.

But the army did advance. Arriving at the brink of the first opening, the bridge was brought up and the division began its passage. It had scarcely crossed the gap when under the pressure of tremendous fear, the second division, in spite of all that could be done to refrain and control them by Cortes and his officers—and there were no braver men on earth—crowded on the frail bridge. The structure which was sufficiently strong for ordinary and orderly passage, gave way, precipitating a great mass of Spaniards and Indians into the causeway. Cortes with his own hands, assisted by a few of the cooler veterans, tried to lift up the shattered remains of the bridge but was unable to do anything with it. It was ruined beyond repair, and sank into a splintered mass of timber under the terrific pressure to which it had been subjected. A passage at that gap was afforded to those who came after because it was filled level with dead bodies of Spaniards, Indians and horses, to say nothing of guns, baggage and equipment.

By this time the advance guard was again heavily engaged. The Spaniards and their allies staggered along the dyke, fighting desperately all the time. Velasquez, leading the advance division was killed at the brink of the second opening. The wretched fugitives were driven headlong into the second opening which was soon choked with horses and men as the first had been. Over this living, dying bridge the survivors madly ploughed. Some of them led by Cortes himself found a ford on the side. Although they were cut down by the hundreds, there seemed to be no end to the Aztecs. The rain still fell. The drum of the war-god mingled with frightful peals of thunder, and the shrill cries of the Mexicans rose higher and higher. The Spaniards were sick, wounded, beaten and terrified. Only Cortes and his captains and a few of his veterans preserved the slightest semblance of organization.

The third gap was passed by the same awful expedient as the other two had been. There was not a great distance from the third opening to the mainland. The few who had passed over rushed desperately for the shore. Way back in the rear, last of all, came Alvarado. There was a strange current in the lake, and as he stood all alone at the last opening, confronting the pursuers, his horse having been killed under him, a swift movement of the water swept away the gorged mass of bodies. Torches in the canoes enabled the Aztecs to recognize Alvarado, Tonatiuh, the child of the sun. His helmet had been knocked off and his fair hair streamed over his shoulders. He indeed would be a prize for their sacrifice, second only to Cortes himself. With furious cries, the most reckless and intrepid leaped upon the dyke and rushed at him. At his feet lay his neglected lance. Dropping his sword, he seized his spear, swiftly plunged the point of it into the sand at the bottom of the pass, and, weighted though he was with his armor, and weak from his wounds and from the loss of blood, leaped to safety on the other side. To this day, this place of Alvarado's marvelous leap is pointed out. Like Ney, Alvarado was the last of that grand army, and like the French commander, also, he might properly be called the bravest of the brave.

Darkness was not the usual period for Aztec fighting. It was this alone that saved the lives of the remaining few for, having seen Alvarado stagger to freedom along the causeway, the Aztecs concluded that they had done enough and returned to the city rejoicing. They took back with them many Spaniards and Tlascalans as captives for sacrifice and the cannibalistic feast which followed.

When day broke, Cortes sitting under a tree, which is still to be seen in Mexico, ordered the survivors to pass in review before him. They numbered five hundred Spaniards and two thousand Tlascalans and a score of horses. Seven hundred and fifty Spaniards had been killed or taken captive and four thousand Tlascalans. All the artillery had been lost, seven arquebuses had been saved, but there was no powder. Half the Spaniards were destitute of any weapons and the battle-axes and spears which had been saved were jagged and broken. Their armor was battered and the most important parts, as helmets, shields, breastplates, had been lost. Some of the Tlascalans still preserved their savage weapons. There was scarcely a man, Spanish or Tlascalan who was not suffering from some wound.

It is no wonder that when Cortes saw the melancholy and dejected array, even his heart of steel gave way and he buried his face in his hands and burst into tears. This terrible night has always been known in history as la noche triste—the melancholy night. Melancholy indeed it was. Surely the situation of a man was never more desperate. If the Mexicans had rejoiced in the leadership of a Cortes, they would have mustered their forces and fallen upon the Spaniards without the delay of a moment, and the result could only have been annihilation. But the Mexicans themselves had suffered terrifically. They had won a great victory, but they had paid a fearful price for it. Now they wanted to enjoy it. They wished to sacrifice their captives to their gods, and they thought that there was no hope for the Spaniards, and that they might overwhelm them at their leisure.

This is Sir Arthur Helps' vivid description of the awful retreat:

"A little before midnight the stealthy march began. The Spaniards succeeded in laying down the pontoon over the first bridge-way, and the vanguard with Sandoval passed over; Cortes and his men also passed over; but while the rest were passing, the Mexicans gave the alarm with loud shouts and blowing of horns. 'Tlaltelulco! Tlaltelulco!' they exclaimed, 'come out quickly with your canoes; the teules are going; cut them off at the bridges.' Almost immediately after this alarm, the lake was covered with canoes. It rained, and the misfortunes of the night commenced by two horses slipping from the pontoon into the water. Then, the Mexicans attacked the pontoon-bearers so furiously that it was impossible for them to raise it up again. In a very short time the water at that part was full of dead horses, Tlascalan men, Indian women, baggage, artillery, prisoners, and boxes (petacas) which, I suppose, supported the pontoon. On every side the most piteous cries were heard: 'Help me! I drown!' 'Rescue me! They are killing me!' Such vain demands were mingled with prayers to the Virgin Mary and to Saint James. Those that did get upon the bridge and on the causeway found hands of Mexicans ready to push them down again into the water.

"At the second bridge-way a single beam was found, which doubtless had been left for the convenience of the Mexicans themselves. This was useless for the horses, but Cortes diverging, found a shallow place where the water did not reach further than up to the saddle, and by that he and his horsemen passed (as Sandoval must have done before). He contrived, also to get his foot-soldiers safely to the mainland, though whether they swam or waded, whether they kept the line of the causeway, or diverged into the shallows, it is difficult to determine. Leaving the vanguard and his own division safe on shore, Cortes with a small body of horse and foot, returned to give what assistance he could to those who were left behind. All order was now lost, and the retreat was little else than a confused slaughter, although small bodies of the Spaniards still retained sufficient presence of mind to act together, rushing forward, clearing the space about them, making their way at each moment with loss of life, but still some few survivors getting onward. Few, indeed, of the rear-guard could have escaped. It is told as a wonder of Alvarado, that, coming to the last bridge, he made a leap, which has by many been deemed impossible, and cleared the vast aperture. When Cortes came up to him, he was found accompanied by only seven soldiers and eight Tlascalans, all covered with blood from their many wounds. They told Cortes that there was no use in going further back, that all who remained alive were there with him. Upon this the General turned; and the small and melancholy band of Spaniards pushed on to Tlacuba, Cortes protecting the rear. It is said that he sat down on a stone in the village called Popotla near Tlacuba, and wept; a rare occurrence, for he was not a man to waste any energy in weeping while aught remained to be done. The country was aroused against them, and they did not rest for the night till they had fortified themselves in a temple on a hill near Tlacuba, where afterward was built a church dedicated, very appropriately, to Our Lady of Refuge (a Nuestra Senora de los Remedios)."

There is an old story of a Roman general, who after a most terrific defeat, a defeat due largely to his own incompetency, not only escaped censure but was officially thanked by the senate, because he declared publicly that he did not despair of the republic. Of that same temper was Cortes.

Exhorting his men in the face of this awful peril which menaced them to conduct themselves as white men, as Spaniards, and as soldiers of the Cross, Cortes led his army toward Tlascala. Upon the position of that republic absolutely depended the future. It depends upon the way you look at the situation as to how you estimate the conduct of these dusky allies of the unfortunate conqueror. Had there been any national feeling among them, had their hatred of the Aztecs been less, they might have broken their agreements with the Spaniards and overwhelmed them, but the hatred of the Tlascalans did not permit them to look beyond the present day. They decided to maintain the alliance they had entered into with Cortes and welcomed him with open arms. They gave him a chance to recuperate, to get something to eat, and to dress the wounds of his men. All the Spaniards wanted was time to bring about the inevitable downfall of Mexico and the Mexicans.

Among the men who had followed Narvaez was a Negro who had brought with him the germs of small-pox, which were communicated to the Aztecs in the city. It spared neither rich nor poor, as one of the first victims was their leader, Cuitlahua. The electors chose his nephew to succeed him, the youthful Guatemoc, or, as he was commonly called, Guatemotzin. In some respects in spite of the lack of the sagacity and farsightedness of Cuitlahua, he was a better man for the problem, for he at once mustered his forces and launched them upon Cortes and the Tlascalans in the valley of Otumba. The Tlascalans had furnished shelter and provisions to Cortes, and had resolved to stand by their treaty with him, but they had not yet furnished him with any great assistance. A strong party in the council had been entirely opposed to doing anything whatever for him. Cortes practically had to fight the battle alone and the battle had to be won. He and his fought, as the saying is, with halters around their necks.

All day long the Spaniards and their few allies fought up and down the narrow valley. Defeat meant certain death. They must conquer or be tortured, sacrificed and eaten. It was Cortes himself who decided the issue. With Alvarado and a few of the other captains, he finally broke through the Aztec centre, with his own hand killed the Aztec general, to whom Guatemoc had committed the battle, and seized the Aztec standard. At the close of the long hours of fighting the natives broke and fled, and the supremacy of Cortes and the Spaniards was once more established.

Wavering Tlascala decided for Cortes and he was received with generous, royal and munificent hospitality, which accorded him everything he asked. Messengers were despatched to Hispaniola for reinforcements and every preparation made for the renewal of the campaign. During the fall, troops, horses, men, guns and thousands of the flower of the Tlascalan army were placed at Cortes's disposal. He occupied them by sending expeditions in every direction, thus restoring their morale and punishing the savage tribes who had revolted against the Spanish rule and had returned to their old allegiance to the Aztec emperor. The punishments were fearful. The resources of the Mexicans were gradually cut off and by the end of the year the Aztecs realized that they would have to fight their last battle alone. These successful campaigns reestablished the prestige which the Spaniards had lost. The people everywhere knew that they were no longer gods, but they now enjoyed a higher reputation, that of being invincible.

Cortes was resolved to attack Mexico. With a prudence as great as his determination he decided to neglect no precaution which would insure his success. He caused to be built a number of brigantines by which he could secure the command of the lake, and thereby give access to the city for his troops and allies. These brigantines were built at Tlascala under the supervision of the sailors of the expedition. The rigging of the ships, which had been destroyed, was useful in fitting them out. They were built in pieces and arrangements were made to carry them over the mountains and put them together at the lake when the campaign began. Guns and provisions were also amassed. Powder was brought from Cuba and it was also made by means of the sulphur deposits of the volcanoes round about. The troops were daily drilled and trained. Daily prayers were held, and every effort was made to give the forthcoming campaign the spirit of a crusade. The strictest moral regulations were promulgated. In short, nothing was left undone to bring about the downfall of Mexico.

On his part, Guatemoc was not idle. He summoned to his assistance all the tribes that remained loyal to him, especially those to the west, not subjected to the Spanish attack. He strove by bribery to detach those who had given their adherence to Cortes. Vast numbers of allies assembled in Mexico, which was provisioned for a siege. Everything that occurred to the minds of these splendid barbarians was done. After having done all that was possible, with resolution which cannot be commended too highly, they calmly awaited the onset of the Spaniards.

On Christmas day, 1520, Cortes took up the march over the mountains again for the great city of the cactus rock.