Our Little Aztec Cousin of Long Ago - C. V. Winlow




The Banquet

Coyotl had determined to find Amotl and tell him of the discovery of the hidden weapons in the grain room, but Amotl was busy all day with Huitl, and the little slave did not dare approach the master while he was being entertained by his host.

And yet, just as the sun set, one of Huitl's slaves came searching for the boy. "Your master commands that you present yourself to him immediately. Come with me," he said.

Coyotl followed the slave out of the unpaved courtyard, and through two others, which were paved with stones and fragrant with flowers, before he came to the guest room where Amotl was preparing himself for the banquet with the noble and his family.

Amotl dismissed the slave and summoned Coyotl inside the room. Amotl's feather robe lay ready to be adjusted across his shoulders, and his fine jewels waited to be clasped around his arms and around his neck.

"Hand me my bracelets," he ordered the boy, and as Coyotl took them from the box and clasped them around Amotl's extended arm, the merchant continued: "You will come to the banquet tonight with me, because I trust your sharp eyes. There is something I want you to do. You are to watch Huitl for any hostile or suspicious move. We are near Tezcucan land, and I do not trust this noble."

At this, the nearest approach either to a compliment or a confidence that Amotl had ever shown him, Coyotl burst out with all his suspicions and discoveries.

The words came stumbling over each other in a hurried whisper.

"Master, I slept in the grain room alone. Why alone, I did not know, but I do now."

Amotl turned on him as if to stop him, but Coyotl rushed on.

"Master, the grain bags are filled with weapons. It was dark but I felt them. I felt them inside the bags on which I lay, and out of curiosity I felt all the others. And master, there are weapons for an army in that grain room! And there may be other things in some of those sacks, too. Also, there was an opening into another cellar, hidden underneath some of those bags, and I do not know why that should be, since who could get in, with the bags covering the door below? And the men say they do not trust this noble; they were talking in the court-yard against him."

Amotl stopped the boy imperiously by covering his mouth with his own hand, and as he did so, Coyotl realized that Huitl himself stood in the doorway, shining in his gold jewelry and in his best robes. If he had heard he gave no sign. Amotl bowed and made the customary greetings.

Then he said, "I have not been well since the attack upon us in the road. May I bring my slave boy into the banquet with me so that he may perform small services for me about which I would not wish to trouble your family or your servants?"

"Certainly," replied Huitl, and his smile was all graciousness, though behind his narrowed eyes there was no expression, "though it would be my pleasure to attend you myself, and also my duty as a host. However, if it suits you best, I will command a place to be made ready immediately for this boy."

Amotl bowed his thanks, but Coyotl's heart beat fast for fear he had been overheard, and that he had exposed his master to danger. However, as soon as Huitl had left the room, Amotl turned to Coyotl and said quietly, "You have done well, my boy. It is my wish that you watch this man carefully and constantly during the banquet for any strange gestures, and that you tell me by a sign if you see one. I suspect him of plots against us and against the King. You have already been of help to me. You will be more. Come now, it is time."

With his head a whirl of thought, but both fearful and happy at his new responsibility, Coyotl helped his master adjust the feather-woven robe and put on his head his gold turban with its feather decorations.

As they started through the courtyard toward the banquet room, slaves were lighting tall torches, which gave a sign that the feast was to last for hours. The hall was scented with perfumed oil which burned in little bowls set in niches in the walls. Flowers were strewn over the floor and from the banquet room, where already they could hear a babble of women's voices, came the mixed odors of incense, spicy fruit, tobacco and roast meats. At the doors of the entrance hall stood servants with large earthen pitchers of water, bowls into which it was poured for each guest to wash himself, and white cotton napkins with which they dried their fingers and faces.

Coyotl followed Amotl's example carefully, except that he did not accept a tortoise shell pipe with its pinch of aromatic tobacco, as did his master. They passed along the rows of white-clad servants, who stood on either side of the long table, until they came to their host, whom they greeted with elaborate courtesy. Huitl stood near the end of the table at the further end of the banquet hall until all his guests had arrived. By the time he gave the signal to be seated, there were thirty persons, men and women, and a few boys and girls no older than Coyotl himself, gathered around the table.

From their dress, Coyotl assumed that those boys and girls were sons and daughters of the noble, and that all the other guests besides Amotl and himself were of Huitl's family. The men all sat at one end of the table, but the women, as was the Aztec custom, sat apart from them at the other end, and did not smoke.

The meal was of the best. The servants passed to and fro in their white robes, replenishing the platters of fruits, the dishes of steaming meats and fish, and all the vegetables, cooked in many ways, and plentifully spiced and seasoned.

At last came the sweets, made of maize flour and sugar, in different shapes, and the steaming foamy chocolate, very sweet and flavored with vanilla.

After the chocolate had been served, the young men and girls rose from their places, thanked Huitl for the feast, and went into the patio, from which shortly came the sound of pipes and drums, and of singing.

Coyotl saw the young men and women dancing, as they gracefully flitted past the wide-open doorway of the banquet room. But he stayed close to Amotl, who was now smoking his pipe luxuriously, compressing his nostrils with the fingers of his left hand, and swallowing the smoke. Huitl also smoked, but less deeply, and his eyes darted about the room with a deadly activity, like a snake's.

The conversation hummed about the table after the pulque mugs had gone round, and each guest had received a brimming portion of the intoxicating drink.

Amotl raised his mug frequently with the others, but he did little more than dip his lips in it, for Coyotl saw that he did not empty his mug, and he waved away the servants who went about refilling all those that were drained.

Suddenly a shout and outcry rose from inside the house near the outer gates. Huitl was on his feet at once, his hand on his dagger. Coyotl had tugged at Amotl's cloak to notice this, but Amotl did not need his warning. His weapon was ready to his hand, too.

There were the frantic sounds of a struggle in the halls. The music stopped, and the dancers, wide-eyed with interest, rushed back into the banquet room.

In a moment Huitl's servants appeared in the doorway, trying to prevent about ten men from entering, but Huitl, seeing them, called out, "Let the men come in who disturb me at my banquet. Who may they be?" He stood up scornfully, but his scorn was wasted, for they were the soldiers of Montezuma, led by one of the king's most trusted men, a general, in his war robes.

"Huitl, you will come with us immediately, and command as many of your men as you can equip with weapons to come with you."

"For what?" Huitl was haughty, but Coyotl saw his hand trembling at his dagger hilt.

"There is war in the north, and Montezuma commands that you join him immediately at Azcapozalco, where he is banding together his forces."

"But I should have received less rude word than this—breaking into my house—disturbing my feast—"

Montezuma's soldiers stood in the doorway, with folded arms. Their sandals were dusty; their breasts heaved quickly for they had been on fast march.

"Montezuma directed me to say to you that only because he has need of you and your men immediately does he affront the pride of his noble, Huitl." The commander bowed deep, but he did not tell his men to rest at ease. Stiffly at attention, with watchful black eyes, they stood near, ready to use force.

"I can equip no more than fifty men," said Huitl. "I have not many acres here, nor many men of the warrior age."

The guests had been silent, but now they began to murmur restlessly and frightenedly. The women rose from their seats at the end of the table, and chatteringly excused themselves, and the pat! pat! of their bare feet as they hurried out of the room sounded to Coyotl's ears like bird's wings flying close to the ground.

Montezuma's general looked Huitl squarely in the eye.

"It is treachery to deny Montezuma men for war, or their equipment," he said. "I must ask you to send for all your men except those who will stay to raise enough corn for your family to eat. And bring out all your equipment."

The banquet broke up in real earnest now. The pale servants whisked away the last vestiges of the feast, and the older men who had drunk several cups of pulque took to puffing their pipes in an effort to clear their heads so that they might know what was going on.

"Follow me into the outer patio," said Huitl, and at a sign from him the servants ran forward into the patio with torches enough to light it as brilliantly as if it were day.

"Call all the men," said Montezuma's general, and he stood with folded arms and a stern face, waiting, while Huitl beat on a drum with a heavy stick an impetuous, angry summons.

Hurriedly they came pouring into the patio, servants, field workers, kitchen slaves . . . more and more of them. At last there was a great crowd in the patio, standing about with restless feet and anxious faces under the flickering glare of the torches. Coyotl swiftly counted a few more than ninety men.

"There are no others," declared Huitl.

But here Amotl spoke, quietly, but flatly.

"There are others," he said, turning to Montezuma's general. "Some are wounded, and some lie dead in the road., but there are still others."

Huitl turned on Amotl with an angry snarl, and his drawn dagger flashed. But Montezuma's general stopped him.

"What courtesy is this? To a guest, it is an offence. To one of Montezuma's councillors it is treason."

"He a councillor?" Huitl's face fell, and an expression of confused surprise spread over the anger in his convulsed features.

"I am," said Amotl, and before Huitl could stop him, he seized the stick and himself beat on the drums with decisive strokes. The low throbbing sound filled the courtyard, and the many-spreading rooms of the house. Timidly a few other men came into the patio. One limped. Another had wounds in his chest and shoulder, to judge from his bandages.

"Send for them all," shouted Amotl. "Send for all the bandits and brigands. You are going to war. You will swoop down on merchants along the highway no longer!"

Swiftly Huitl turned and darted away like a snake, but Coyotl saw him go, and his warning shout put the soldiers on guard. Two of them caught Huitl and imprisoned his arms.

"I have a hundred men outside," hissed Montezuma's general, "so do not struggle or call to your men. We have suspected you for some time."

He turned then and spoke to the men in the patio.

"All men here will follow me in the morning. There is war, and Montezuma needs every fighter he can find. Because of the danger and the need for soldiers, I will not report that you attacked the merchant. As for Huitl, he will suffer for his treachery. Arm yourselves, and be ready to march at dawn."

The men in the patio,—those who were wounded and the common servants, and the bandits who had escaped injury—conferred uneasily among themselves. Montezuma's general grew impatient.

A spokesman for Huitl's men stepped forward.

"The master armed us always, before . . . we started. . . . We do not know where he kept the arms. . . ."

"I tell you there are arms for only fifty," shrieked Huitl, struggling.

Coyotl ran forward then, and tugged at the general's arm.

"I know where he hides the arms for his men, and there are arms for many times a hundred!" he cried.

"Where?" The general laid his hand on the boy's shoulder, and Amotl stepped forward proudly, as the boy continued.

"In the grain room, hidden in the bags of grain. They put me to sleep there. . . ."

"Take my soldiers to the grain room," the general commanded one of Huitl's servants, and a trembling man stepped forward immediately to lead the king's soldiers through the patio and into the room in back where Coyotl had slept.

"Wait," called Coyotl, and then, turning to the general again, he rushed on, "and there is another room, a secret room, the door of which is hidden under the bags of grain. A cellar room. Who knows what is hidden in there?"

The general gave orders that the cellar beneath be explored. Then he said to Amotl, "You have a fine boy here. A relative?"

"He is my slave," said Amotl, and Coyotl's heart sank, for he had again forgotten it.

"He has done well," said the general.

The next few events happened with such rapidity that Coyotl scarcely knew what was happening. The soldiers returned, shouting that there were weapons for an army hidden in the grain room, and that in the secret room below there was much grain that should have been paid in taxes—grain enough to feed the army many days. And treasure . . . Huitl's lootings over a period of years.