Days of the Discoverers Part 16

During this polite and interesting conversation Cortes observed certain attendants busily making sketches of all that they saw, and on inquiry was told that this "picture-writing" would give the Emperor a far better idea of the appearance of the strangers than words alone. Upon this the Spanish general ordered out the cavalry and artillery and put them through their evolutions on the beach. The cannon, whose balls splintered great trees, and the horsemen, whose movements the Aztecs followed with even more terror than those of the gunners, made a tremendous impression. The artists, though scared, stuck to their duty, and the strange and terrible beasts, and the thunder-birds whose mouths breathed destruction, were drawn for the Emperor to see. After this the governor, assuring Cortes that he should have whatever he needed in the way of provisions until further orders were received from the Emperor, made his adieux and went home.

Then began a diplomatic game between Cortes and the Emperor and the various chiefs of the country. The couriers of the imperial government, who traveled in relays, could take a message to the capital and return in seven or eight days. In due time two ambassadors arrived from Moteczuma, with gifts evidently meant to impress the strangers with his wealth and power. The embassy was accompanied by the governor of the province and about a hundred slaves. Some of these attendants carried burning censers from which arose clouds of incense; others unrolled upon the ground fine mats on which to place the presents.

Nothing like this had ever been offered to a Spanish conqueror, even by Moors, to say nothing of Indians. There were two collars of gold set with precious stones; a hundred ounces of gold ore just as it came from the mines; a large alligator's-head of gold; six shields covered with gold; helmets and necklaces of gold. There were birds made of green feathers, the feet, beaks and eyes of gold; a box of feather-work upon leather, set with a gold plate weighing seventy ounces; pieces of cloth curiously woven with feathers, and others woven in various designs. Most gorgeous of all were two great plates as big as carriage wheels, one of gold and one of silver, wrought with various devices of plants and animals rather like the figures of the zodiac. The wildest tales of the most imaginative adventurer never pictured such magnificence. If Moteczuma's plan had been to induce the strangers to respect his wishes and go home without visiting his capital, it was a complete failure.

After this proof of the wealth and splendor of the country Cortes had no more idea of leaving it than a hound has of abandoning a fresh trail.

When the envoys gave him Moteczuma's message of regret that it would not be possible for them to meet, Cortes replied that he could not think of going back to Spain now. The road to the capital might be perilous, but what was that to him? Would they not take to the Emperor these slight additional tokens of the regard and respect of the Spanish ruler, and explain to him how impossible it would be for Cortes to face his own sovereign, with the great object of his voyage unfulfilled? There was nothing for the embassy to do but to take the message.

While waiting for results, Cortes received a visit from some Indian chiefs of the Totonacs, a tribe lately conquered by the Aztecs. Their ruler, it seemed, had heard of the white cacique and would like to receive him in his capital. Cortes gave them presents and promised to come. In the meantime his own men were quarreling, and both parties were threatening him. The bolder spirits announced that if he did not make a settlement in the country, with or without instructions from the governor of Cuba who had sent him out, they would report him to the King. The friends of Velazquez accused Cortes of secretly encouraging this rebellion, and demanded that as he had now made his discovery, he should return to Cuba and report.

Cortes calmly answered that he was quite willing to return at once, and ordered the ships made ready. This caused such a storm of wrath and disappointment that even those who had urged it quailed. Seeing that the time was ripe, the captain-general called his followers together and made a speech. He declared that nobody could have the interests of the sovereigns and the glory of the Spanish race more at heart than he had.

He was willing to do whatever was best. If they, his comrades, desired to return to Cuba he would go directly. But if they were ready to join him, he would found a colony in the name of the sovereigns, with all proper officers to govern it, to remain in this rich country and trade with the people. In that case, however, he would of course have to resign his commission as captain-general of an expedition of discovery.

There was a roar of approval from the army at this alluring suggestion.

Before most of them fairly knew what they were about they had voted to form a colony under the royal authority, elected Cortes governor as soon as he resigned his former position, and seen the new governor appoint a council in proper form, to aid in the government.

"I knew it," said Saavedra to himself as he went back, alone, to his quarters. "Just as people have made up their minds they have got him between the door and the jamb, he is somewhere else. When he resigned his commission he slipped out from under the government of Cuba, and that has no authority over him. He has appointed a council made up of his own friends, and now he can hang every one of the Velasquez party if they make any trouble. But they won't."

They did not. Cortes sent his flagship to Spain with some of his especial friends and some of his particular enemies on board, the enemies to get them out of his way, the friends to defend him to the King against their accusations. He founded a city which he named Villa Rica de Vera Cruz, the Rich Town of the True Cross. Then, as the next step toward the invasion of the country, he proceeded to play Indian politics.

First he accepted the invitation of the chief of the Totonacs, and Moteczuma, hearing of it, sent the tax-gatherers to collect tribute and also to demand twenty young men and women to sacrifice to the gods as an atonement for having entertained the strangers. Cortes expressed lively horror, and advised the chief of the Totonacs to throw the tax-gatherers into prison. Then he secretly rescued them and telling them how deeply he regretted their misfortunes as innocent men doing their duty to their ruler, he sent them on board his own ships for safe-keeping. When the Emperor heard what had happened he was enraged against the Totonacs. If they wished to escape his vengeance now their only chance was to become allies of Cortes.

Thus within a few days after landing, the commander had got all of his own followers and a powerful native tribe so bound up with his fortunes that they could not desert him without endangering their own skins. He now suggested to two of the pilots that they should report five of the ships to be in an unseaworthy condition from the borings of the teredos--in those days sheathing for hulls had not been invented, and the ship-worm was a constant danger, in tropical waters especially. At the pilots' report Cortes appeared astonished, but saying that there was nothing to do but make the best of it, ordered the ships to be dismantled, the cordage, sails and everything that could be of use brought on shore, and the stripped hulls scuttled and sunk. Then four more were condemned, leaving but one small ship.

There was nearly a riot in the army, marooned in an unknown and unfriendly land. Cortes made another speech. He pointed out the fact that if they were successful in the expedition to the capital they would not need the ships; if they were not, what good would the ships do them when they were seventy leagues inland? Those who dared not take the risk with him could still return to Cuba in the one ship that was left. "They can tell there," he added in a tone which cut the deeper for being so very quiet, "how they deserted their commander and their friends, and patiently wait until we return with the spoils of the Aztecs."

An instant of breathless silence followed, then somebody shouted. A hundred voices took up the cry,--

"To Mexico! To Mexico!"

Of the adventures, the fighting, the wonderful sights and the narrow escapes of the march to the capital, Bernal Diaz, who was with the army, wrote afterward in bulky volumes. On the seventh day of November, 1519, the compact little force of Spaniards, little more than a battalion in all, with their Indian allies from the provinces which had rebelled against the Emperor, came in sight of the capital. The moment at which Cortes, at the head of his followers, rode into the city of Mexico is one of the most dramatic in all history. Nothing in any novel of adventure compares with it in amazing contrast or tragic possibilities.

The men of the Age of Cannon met the men of the Age of Stone. The mighty Catholic Church confronted a nation of snake-worshiping cannibals. The sons of a race that lived in hardy simplicity, a race of fighters, had come into a capital where life was more luxurious than it was in Seville, Paris or Rome--a heathen capital rich in beauty, wealth and all the arts of a barbarian people.

The city had been built on an island in the middle of a salt lake, reached by three causeways of masonry four or five miles long and twenty or thirty feet wide. At the end near the city each causeway had a wooden drawbridge. There were paved streets and water-ways. The houses, built around large court-yards, were of red stone, sometimes covered with white stucco. The roofs were encircled with battlements and defended with towers. Often they were gardens of growing flowers. In the center of the city was the temple enclosure, surrounded by an eight-foot stone wall. Within this were a score of teocallis, or pyramids flattened at the top, the largest, that of the war-god, being about a hundred feet high. Stone stairs wound four times around the pyramid, so that religious processions appeared and disappeared on their way to the top.

On the summit was a block of jasper, rounded at top, the altar of human sacrifice. Near by were the shrines and altars of the gods. Outside the temple enclosure was a huge altar, or embankment, called the tzompantli, one hundred and fifty-four feet long, upon which the skulls of innumerable victims were arranged. The doorways and walls everywhere were carved with the two symbols of the Aztec religion--the cross and the snake. Among the birds in the huge aviary of the royal establishment were the humming-birds which were sacred to one of the most cruel of the gods, and in cages built for them were the rattlesnakes also held sacred. Flowers were everywhere--in garlands hung about the city, in the hands of the people, on floating islands in the water, in the gardens blazing with color.

The Spanish strangers were housed in a great stone palace and entertained no less magnificently than the gifts of the Emperor had led them to expect. The houses were ceiled with cedar and tapestried with fine cotton or feather work. Moteczuma's table service was of gold and silver and fine earthenware. The people wore cotton garments, often dyed vivid scarlet with cochineal, the men wearing loose cloaks and fringed sashes, the women, long robes. Fur capes and feather-work mantles and tunics were worn in cold weather; sandals and white cotton hoods protected feet and head. The women sometime used a deep violet hair-dye.

Ear-rings, nose-rings, finger-rings, bracelets, anklets and necklaces were of gold and silver.

Moteczuma himself, a tall slender man about forty years old, came to meet them in a palanquin shining with gold and canopied with feather-work. As he descended from it his attendants laid cotton mats upon the ground that he might not soil his feet. He wore the broad girdle and square cloak of cotton cloth which other men wore, but of the finest weave. His sandals had soles of pure gold. Both cloak and sandals were embroidered with pearls, emeralds, and a kind of stone much prized by the Aztecs, the chalchivitl, green and white. On his head he wore a plumed head-dress of green, the royal color. When Cortes with his staff approached the building set apart for their quarters, Moteczuma awaited them in the courtyard. From a vase of flowers held by an attendant he took a massive gold collar, in which the shell of a certain crawfish was set in gold and connected by golden links. Eight golden ornaments a span long, wrought to represent the same shell-fish, hung from this chain. Moteczuma hung the necklace about the neck of Cortes with a graceful little speech of welcome.

[Illustration: "Moteczuma awaited them in the courtyard"--_Page_ 162]

The Aztec Emperor was making the best of a situation which he did not like at all. In other Mexican cities Cortes had ordered the idols cast headlong down the steps of the teocalli, the temples cleansed, and a crucifix wreathed in flowers to be set up in place of the red altar stained with human blood. He was attended by some seven thousand native allies from tribes considered by the Aztecs as wild barbarians. His daring behavior and military successes had all been reported to Moteczuma by the picture-writing of his scribes. There was a tradition among the Aztecs that some day white bearded strangers would come, destroy the worship of the old gods of blood and terror, and restore the worship of the fair god Quetzalcoatl. Before the white men landed there had been earthquakes, meteors and other omens. Would the old gods destroy the invaders and all who joined them, or was this the great change which the prophets foretold? Who could say?

In the beautiful, terrible city Cortes moved alert and silent, courteous to all, every nerve as sensitive to new impressions as a leaf to the wind. He knew that strong as the priesthood of the fierce gods undoubtedly was, there was surely an undercurrent of rebellion against their cruelty and their unlimited power. In a fruitless attempt to keep the Spaniards out of the city by the aid of the gods, three hundred little children had been sacrificed. If Cortes failed to conquer, by peaceful means or otherwise, nothing was more certain than that he and all of his followers not killed in the fighting would be butchered on the top of those terrible pyramids sooner or later. Yet he looked about him and said, under his breath,

"This is the most beautiful city in the world."

"And you think we shall win it for the Cross and the King?" asked Saavedra in the same quiet tone.

"We must win," said Cortes, with a spark in his eyes like the flame in the heart of a black opal. "There is nothing else to do."


In the spelling of the Aztec Emperor's name Cortes' own form is used,--"Moteczuma," instead of the commoner "Montezuma." One must read Prescott's "Conquest of Mexico" for even an approximately adequate account of this extraordinary campaign.


Klooskap's children, the last and least, Bidden to dance at his farewell feast, Under the great moon's wizard light, Over the mountain's drifted white, The Winag'mesuk, the wood-folk small, Came to the feasting the last of all!

Magic snowshoes they wore that night, Woven of frostwork and sunset light, Round and trim like the Master's own,-- Their lances of reed, with a point of bone, Their oval shields of the woven grass, Their leader the mighty Kaktugwaas.

The Winag'mesuk, the forest folk, They fled from the words that the white man spoke.

They were so tired, they were so small, They hardly could find their way back at all, Yet bravely they rallied with shield and lance To dance for Klooskap their Snowshoe Dance!

Light and swift as the whirling snow They leaped and fluttered aloft, alow.

Silent as owls in the white moonlight They pounced and grappled in mimic fight.

When they chanted to Klooskap their last farewell He laid on the forest a fairy spell.

From Little Thunder, from Kaktugwaas, He took the buckler of woven grass, The lance of reed with a point of bone, The rounded footgear like his own, And bade them grow there under the pines While the snowdrifts melt and the sunlight shines!

The sagamore pines are dark and tall That guard the Norumbega wall.

When the clear brooks dance to the flute of spring, And veery and catbird of Klooskap sing, The Winag'mesuk for one short hour Come back for their token of Klooskap's power-- Moccasin Flower!



"What shall I bring thee then, from the world's end, Reine Margot?"

asked Alain Maclou. The small girl in the deep fireside recess of a Picardy castle-hall considered it gravely.

"There should be three gifts," she said at last, "for so it always is in Mere Bastienne's stories. I will have the shoes of silence, the girdle of fortune, and diamonds from Norumbega. Tell me again about Norumbega."

"Nay, little one, I must go, to see after the lading of the ship. Fare thee well for this time," and the young man bent his tall head above the hand of his seven-year-old lady. The graceful, quick-witted and imaginative child had been his pet and he her loyal servant these three years. It was understood between them that she was really the Queen of France, barred from her throne by the Salic Law that forbade any woman to rule that country in her own right. Some day he was to discover for her a kingdom beyond seas, in which she alone should reign. Of all the tales, marvelous, fanciful or tragic, which he or her old nurse had told her, she liked best the legend of Norumbega, the city in the wilderness which no explorer had ever found. Wherever French, Breton or English fishermen had become at all familiar with the Indians they heard of a city great and populous, with walls of stone, ruled by a king richer than any of their chiefs, but no two stories agreed on the location.

Some had heard that it was an island, west of Cape Breton; others that it was on the bank of a great river to the southward. Maclou had seen at a fair one of the Indians brought to France ten years before in the _Dauphine_, and spoken to him. According to this Indian the chief town of his people was on an island in the mouth of a river where high gray walls of rock arose, longer and statelier than the walls of Dieppe. In describing these walls the Indian did not indeed say that they encircled the city, but no Frenchman could have imagined rock palisades built for any other purpose. On the other hand Maclou knew a pilot who had been caught in a storm and blown down the coast southwest from the fisheries, and he and his crew had seen, from ten or twelve leagues out at sea, white and shining battlements on the crest of a mountain far inland.

When they asked their Indian guides what city it was the slaves trembled and showed fear, and declared that none of their people ever went there.

Had only one man seen the glittering walls it might have been a vision, but they had all seen.

Chapter end

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