Days of the Discoverers Part 15

The Spaniards looked at this strange figure in absolute bewilderment. He was to all appearance an Indian. His long hair was braided and wound about his head, he had a bow in his hand, a quiver of arrows on his back, a bag of woven grass-work hung about his neck by a long cord. The pattern of the weaving was a series of interwoven crosses. Cortes, giving up hope of rescuing any Christian captives, had left the island, but one of his ships had sprung a leak and he had put back. When he saw an Indian canoe coming he had sent scouts to see what it might be. They now led Jeronimo Aguilar and his Indian companions into the presence of the captain-general and his staff. Aguilar saluted Cortes in the Indian fashion, by carrying his hand from the ground to his forehead as he knelt crouching before him. But Cortes, when he understood who this man was, raised him to his feet, embraced him and flung about his shoulders his own cloak. Aguilar became his interpreter, and thus was the prophecy fulfilled concerning the gods of Taxmar.



The story of Jeronimo Aguilar follows the actual facts very closely. The account of his adventures will be found in Irving's "Life of Columbus"

and other works dealing with the history of the Spanish conquests.


O sorcerer Time, turn backward to the shore Where it is always morning, and the birds Are troubadours of all the hidden lore Deeper than any words!

There lived a maiden once,--O long ago, Ere men were grown too wise to understand The ancient language that they used to know In Quezalcoatl's land.

Though her own mother sold her for a slave, Her own bright beauty as her only dower, Into her slender hands the conqueror gave A more than queenly power.

Between her people and the enemy-- The fierce proud Spaniard on his conquest bent-- Interpreter and interceder, she In safety came and went.

And still among the wild shy forest folk The birds are singing of her, and her name Lives in that language that her people spoke Before the Spaniard came.

She is not dead, the daughter of the Sun,-- By love and loyalty divinely stirred, She lives forever--so the legends run,-- Returning as a bird.

Who but a white bird in her seaward flight Saw, borne upon the shoulders of the sea, Three tiny caravels--how small and light To hold a world in fee!

Who but the quezal, when the Spaniards came And plundered all the white imperial town, Saw in a storm of red rapacious flame The Aztec throne go down!

And when the very rivers talked of gold, The humming-bird upon her lichened nest Strange tales of wild adventure never told Hid in her tiny breast.

The mountain eagle, circling with the stars, Watched the great Admiral swiftly come and go In his light ship that set at naught the bars Wrought by a giant foe.

Dull are our years and hard to understand, We dream no more of mighty days to be, And we have lost through delving in the land The wisdom of the sea.

Yet where beyond the sea the sunset burns, And the trees talk of kings dead long ago, Malinche sings among the giant ferns-- Ask of the birds--they know!



"Glory is all very well," said Juan de Saavedra to Pedro de Alvarado as the squadron left the island of Cozumel, "but my familiar spirit tells me that there is gold somewhere in this barbaric land or Cortes would not be with us."

Alvarado's peculiarly sunny smile shone out. He was a ruddy golden-haired man, a type unusual in Spaniards, and the natives showed a tendency to revere him as the sun-god. Life had treated him very well, and he had an abounding good-nature.

"It will be the better," he said comfortably, "if we get both gold and glory. I confess I have had my doubts of the gold, for after all, these Indians may have more sense than they appear to have."

"People often do, but in what way, especially?"

"_Amigo_, put yourself in the place of one of these caciques, with white men bedeviling you for a treasure which you never even troubled yourself to pick up when it lay about loose. What can be more easy than to tell them that there is plenty of it somewhere else--in the land of your enemies? That is Pizarro's theory, at any rate."

Saavedra laughed. "Pizarro is wise in his way, but as I have said, Cortes is our commander."

"What has that to do with it?"

"If you had been at Salamanca in his University days you wouldn't ask.

He never got caught in a scrape, and he always got what he was after."

"And kept it?"

"Is that a little more of Pizarro's wisdom? No; he always shared the spoils as even-handedly as you please. But if any of us lost our heads and got into a pickle he never was concerned in it--or about it."

"He will lose his, if Velasquez catches him. Remember Balboa."

"Now there is an example of the chances he will take. Cortes first convinces the Governor that nobody else is fit to trust with this undertaking. Cordova failed; Grijalva failed; Cortes will succeed or leave his bones on the field of honor. No sooner are we fairly out of harbor than Velasquez tries to whistle us back. He might as well blow his trumpets to the sea-gulls. All Cortes wanted was a start. You will see--either the Governor will die or be recalled while we are gone, or we shall come back so covered with gold and renown that he will not dare do anything when we are again within his reach. Somebody's head may be lost in this affair, but it will not be that of Hernan' Cortes."

The man of whom they were speaking just then approached, summoning Alvarado to him. Saavedra leaned on the rail musing.

"Sometimes," he said to himself, "one hastens a catastrophe by warning people of it, but then, that may be because it could not have been prevented. Cortes is inclined to make that simple fellow his aide because they are so unlike, and so, I suspect, are others. At any rate I have done my best to make him see whose leadership is safest."

The fleet was a rather imposing one for those waters. There were eleven ships altogether, the flagship and three others being over seventy tons'

weight, the rest caravels and open brigantines. These were manned by one hundred and ten sailors, and carried five hundred and fifty-three soldiers, of whom thirty-two were crossbowmen and thirteen arquebusiers.

There were also about two hundred Indians. Sixteen horses accompanied the expedition, and it had ten heavy cannon, four light field-guns, called falconets, and a good supply of ammunition. The horses cost almost more than the ships that carried them, for they had been brought from Spain; but their value in such an undertaking was great.

Hernando Cortes had come out to Cuba when he was nineteen, and that was fifteen years ago. Much had been reported concerning an emperor in a country to the west, who ruled over a vast territory inhabited by copper-colored people rich in gold, who worshiped idols. Cortes had observed that Indian tribes, like schoolboys, were apt to divide into little cliques and quarreling factions. If the subject tribes did not like the Emperor, and were jealous of him and of each other, a foreign conqueror had one tool ready to his hand, and it was a tool that Cortes had used many times before.

The people of this coast, however, were not at all like the gentle and childlike natives Colon had found. From the rescued captive Aguilar, the commander learned much of their nature and customs. On his first attempt to land, his troops encountered troops of warriors in brilliant feathered head-bands and body armor of quilted white cotton. They used as weapons the lance, bow and arrows, club, and a curious staff about three and a half feet long set with crosswise knife-blades of obsidian.

Against poisoned arrows, such as the invaders had more than once met, neither arquebus nor cannon was of much use, and body armor was no great protection, since a scratch on hand or leg would kill a man in a few hours. After some skirmishing and more diplomacy, at various points along the coast, Cortes landed his force on the island which Grijalva had named San Juan de Ulloa, from a mistaken notion that Oloa, the native salutation, was the name of the place. The natives had watched the "water-houses," as they called them, sailing over the serene blue waters, and this tribe, being peaceable folk, sent a pirogue over to the island with gifts. There were not only fruits and flowers, but little golden ornaments, and the Spanish commander sent some trinkets in return. In endeavoring to talk with them Cortes became aware of an unusual piece of luck. Aguilar did not understand the language of these folk. But at Tabasco, where Cortes had had a fight with the native army, some slaves had been presented to him as a peace-offering. Among them was a beautiful young girl, daughter of a Mexican chief, who after her father's death had been sold as a slave by her own mother, who wished to get her inheritance. During her captivity she had learned the dialect Aguilar spoke, and the two interpreters between them succeeded in translating Cortes's Castilian into the Aztec of Mexico from the first.

The young girl was later baptized Marina. There being no "r" in the Aztec language the people called her Malintzin or Malinche,--Lady Marina, the ending "tzin" being a title of respect. She learned Castilian with wonderful quickness, and was of great service not only to Cortes but to her own people, since she could explain whatever he did not understand.

Cortes learned that the name of the ruler of the country was Moteczuma.

His capital was on the plateau about seventy miles in the interior. This coast province, which he had lately conquered, was ruled by one of his Aztec governors. Gold was abundant. Moteczuma had great store of it.

Cortes decided to pitch his camp where afterward stood the capital of New Spain.

The friendly Indians brought stakes and mats and helped to build huts, native fashion. From all the country round the people flocked to see the strange white men, bringing fruit, flowers, game, Indian corn, vegetables and native ornaments of all sorts. Some of these they gave away and some they bartered. Every soldier and mariner turned trader; the place looked like a great fair.

On Easter Day the Aztec governor arrived upon a visit of ceremony.

Cortes received him in his own tent, with all courtesy, in the presence of his officers, all in full uniform. Mass was said, and the Aztec chief and his attendants listened with grave politeness. Then the guests were invited to a dinner at which various Spanish dishes, wines and sweetmeats were served as formally as at court. After this the interpreters were summoned for the real business of the day.

The Aztec nobleman wished to know whence and why the strangers had come to this country. Cortes answered that he was the subject of a monarch beyond seas, as powerful as Moteczuma, who had heard of the Aztec Emperor and sent his compliments and some gifts. The governor gracefully expressed his willingness to convey both to his royal master. Cortes courteously declined, saying that he must himself deliver them. At this the governor seemed surprised and displeased; evidently this was not in his plan. "You have been here only two days," he said, "and already demand an audience with the Emperor?" Then he expressed his astonishment at learning that there was any other monarch as great as Moteczuma, and sent his attendants to bring a few gifts which he himself had chosen for the white chief.

These tributes consisted of ten loads, each as much as a man could carry, of fine cotton stuff, mantles of exquisite feather-work, and a woven basket full of gold ornaments. Cortes expressed his admiration and appreciation of the gifts, and sent for those he had brought for Moteczuma. They consisted of an arm-chair, richly carved and painted, a crimson cloth cap with a gold medal bearing the device of San Jorge and the dragon, and some collars, bracelets and other ornaments of cut glass. To the Aztec, who had never seen glass, these appeared wonderful.

He ventured the remark that a gilt helmet worn by one of the Spanish soldiers was like the casque of their god Quetzalcoatl, and he wished that Moteczuma could see it. Cortes immediately sent for the helmet and handed it to the chief, with the suggestion that he should like to have it returned full of the gold of the country in order to compare it with the gold of Spain. Spaniards, he said, were subject to a complaint affecting the heart, for which gold was a remedy. This was not entirely an invention of the commander's fertile brain. Many physicians of those days did regard gold as a valuable drug; but only Cortes ever thought of making use of the theory to get the gold.

Chapter end

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