WHEN we reached the island of Cozumel, Bernal and I were not content to lounge about doing nothing; and one morning, taking a boat, we hoisted a sail and made for a headland away to the west, in the hope that we should be the first in all our company to set foot on Mexican soil. We stole away as day broke, for we knew that if we had asked permission we should have been refused, since it was said that the Indians were cruel to strangers. The natives had told us, when we began to understand their language a little, that no white man had ever landed there, that the shore was dangerous, and that the people who dwelt there were savage and brutal. None even of the natives of Cozumel ever returned if they were bold enough to venture thither, and many a time a great flotilla of canoes had come, and the Indians, landing by night, had rushed through the town, murdering whomsoever they met.
The danger, instead of frightening us, seemed to have an extra attraction. We thought how fine a thing it would be if we could steal away, sail to the distant shore, land and look around, and bring something back in token of our actual visit; and this, too, when it was common talk among the Spaniards of the danger being so great, that Cortes had determined to avoid the place lest a fight might begin, and he would lose some valuable men.
Had we chosen our wind and weather we could not have found a better day than that when we stole out of a distant creek, and hoisting our sail, made for a point where we thought to find a bay and a landing-place. The boat bounded forward as a creature who loved the water, and found the wind to her fancy. In three hours her keel grated on the shingle, and leaping out at a sheltered spot we drew her up out of the reach of the tide, so that she should not float away. We had already eaten a hearty meal while the boat was breasting the waves, so that we lost no time when we landed. We were cautious, however, and going softly round the headland, looked about us. Our first thought was to avoid the Indians, of whom we had heard so much, but nowhere was there any sign of life.
On our right was the sea, and to the left was a sloping country , rising higher and higher until, in the distance, we saw the great mountains, covered with mighty forests. The rising land was dotted with the bluish-leaved mimosa and the prickly cactus.
Creeping onwards we came to a sudden break in the cliff, and entering, waited to listen. There was no sound beyond that of a noisy stream which was running down to the sea, and the crying of the birds that were there in vast numbers. Bernal wanted to shoot one, but I told him he might bring the Indians down on us, and our lives would not then be worth ten minutes' purchase.
Going up what looked very much like a Spanish barranca, or strong valley, we came at the sudden bend to a spot where the rock opened out flat and circular, like a table. There were oak trees all around, save on one side, and there the table ended abruptly.
Below us some ten or twelve feet, was another open space of rock, large enough to hold a hundred men. There was a view of the country for miles-a beautiful stretch of wave-like hills and dales covered with grass, with here and there clusters of trees and Indian villages.
Looking down carelessly, we drew back in alarm, for we saw on the lower rock three gigantic Indians who were lying on the ground and looking idly on the scene before them. Their faces were turned away from us, and they did not see that we were watching them. Fortunately, we had made no sound, and were not speaking when we drew near to the edge. They had evidently not heard us, and did not move when we turned to creep away quietly, thinking to escape. But when once we began to move, our fear seemed to get the better of us, and we went quickly, forcing our way among the prickly cactus which tore our clothes and skin.
Suddenly Bemal, who was leading, pulled up with a low cry of surprise, and after I had bundled against him, I saw what had caused the exclamation. Before us stood a huge Indian, naked but for the thin belt of plaited grass about the waist, His bead was gaudily decorated with coloured feathers, while his dark body was striped with red and yellow lines of paint. In his hand he held a bundle of long, sharp, flint - pointed arrows, and at his grass-plaited belt was a knife unsheathed, and thrust between it and the skin. It gleamed in places as the sunlight played on it, but in parts the blade had dull red spots which suggested blood.
It was startling to see this great savage in our path. He had been standing with his back towards us, scanning the country, and shading his eyes with his two hands. Bernal's exclamation, however, caused him to swing round, and on the instant he drew his knife. Then he raised a loud cry , and in a moment or two another Indian sprang up from among the bushes, and came towards us. He who blocked the road turned his eyes from us for a moment, as if to discover whether anyone was coming in answer to his call, and Bernal, seeing the chance, set off at a run for the neighbouring bush, with me at his heels. But we heard the bare feet of the man pattering on the ground in swift pursuit.
The run had lasted several minutes, and more than once a lance flew past us and stuck trembling in the ground, but we went on, thinking that if we could get among the trees we might make a stand and shoot down our pursuers. It seemed at last as if the pursuit had ended, for where we had clothing to protect our limbs from the needle - like points of the cactus bushes among which we plunged, the Indians tore their bare skin, and had to turn aside. At one place they had to go so far round that we succeeded in eluding them, for when we got into a dense bush within sight of the sea, they were nowhere to be seen.
We lay in the bush for an hour, and seeing no more of the Indians, thought we might try to get away. Crawling out and shaking ourselves, we started warily for the boat, looking in all directions as we went. There was a spot we were obliged to pass, and a dangerous one, for on the left side of the narrow way was a sudden drop of a hundred feet or thereabouts, while to our right the rock rose almost perpendicular. The path widened in one place, but the extra breadth was taken up by a dense bush in which half a dozen men might hide. We had no thought of such a probability, and turned our attention instead to our footing, lest a slip might result in a fall to the rocks below. If we could pass that spot safely, we thought that we might speedily scramble down the steep slope to the beach, and get to the boat.
Bernal again led the way, and presently we were passing the bush. Suddenly from among the leaves I saw a dark-skinned hand dart out and grip my comrade's ankle. There was a quick pull, and down he went on the hard path with a thud, and a cry of alarm. I drew back, but felt a grip at my own foot, a painful wrench, and I was on my back, half stunned with my fall. Before either of us could recover from the shock, two men, still gripping our feet, crawled out of the bush, and bent over us. In a few moments we were bound hand and foot with some knotted grass, and helpless. Dangerous though the path was, the Indians lifted us from the ground, threw us across their shoulders, and carried us away.
I shudder to think of the path the Indians took, for it went round the face of the rock. Now the men leapt down from one point to another, then went warily at any specially perilous places. They sometimes laid us full length on the ground while they dropped to a lower spot, and we could hear their bare feet go with a sharp slap on the naked rock. Then they drew us from the ledge on which we lay in horrible fear lest we should slip into the abyss, and bearing us on their shoulders again, resumed their journey.
After a time we came to a bush at the base of the cliff , and there they set us down with anything but gentleness, and one of the Indians, crawling behind it, pulled away some great stones which were heaped against the rock. That being done, we were drawn to it, and thrust through a hole which seemed to open into blackness.
The cords at our feet were now cut, and we stood upright, but our hands were not free. Otherwise we should have made a fight for freedom. While one Indian stood on guard to prevent our escape, holding his keen weapon in readiness, the other contrived to procure alight, and with a blazing torch he led the way. Looking round us we found that we were in a great cavern, sufficiently high for a very tall man to walk upright in. Only here and there were we obliged to bend the head a little, but the light of the torch enabled us to avoid severe blows against the roof.
A cry of horror escaped our lips when we had gone some distance, for not a yard from the path we were treading we saw the huddled form of a man in grey clothing. He was clasping his hands about his knees, and sat with his back against the side of the cavern, his chin resting on his chest; but as we drew nearer, we saw that he was nothing more than a skeleton in Spanish clothing.
The Indians watched us stolidly when they saw us halt and gaze at the dead man as if we would try to find out something that would tell us a little of his history , but they resumed the journey into the earth's bowels, going forward slowly. One almost imagined that they went so leisurely in order to add to our torture.
After a while they halted, and we saw by the light of the torch that the cavern narrowed down until the walls on either side were only three or four yards distant from each other. But in front of us was something that filled us with alarm. The path we had taken ended abruptly, and at our feet was a chasm in the cavern floor . It must have been a couple of yards across - not a big jump in broad daylight, but a terrible leap when there was nothing but the uncertain torch - light to show the distance.
The Indians meant us to cross the gap, doubtless thinking to leave us on the other side in the darkness, black and horrible, to die as the Spaniard we had passed who had died so long before. They conversed with each other for a little while, and when they had disarmed us they cut the bonds which had held our hands down tightly to our sides. They purposed that we should leap over the chasm, and the man without the torch indicated by a gesture that he would lead the way. He drew back a little distance, ran forward, and jumped. Whether the light confused him, or he took a false step when he was about to leap, I cannot tell. At all events he jumped short, and his body struck against the opposite edge. With a cry he threw out his hands to catch at the rock, but his fingers found no hold, and he fell into the chasm. We heard a thud, then another, as though his body beat against various jutting pieces of rock in the descent. There was a third, and then nothing but a moan, as of a man in pain.
The Indian who held the torch exclaimed in dismay, and disregarding everything but the fate of his comrade, he threw himself prone on the floor of the cavern, and leaning over the edge of the chasm, held the torch low down, waving it to and fro in the endeavour to see where his companion lay. He called, but there was no answer, and called again; but no sound was heard from below but that frequent moaning.
The thought came to us that we were alone with this one man, and Bernal suggested in a whisper that we should make a bold bid for liberty. But how should we deal with him? We were but boys, while he was a man of giant growth and strength.
At our feet lay the grass thongs which had been taken from our ankles and wrists, and a wild thought came to my mind. I whispered it to Bernal, and we acted on the suggestion instantly, since time was precious. Going on my knees I took one of the thongs, and without touching the Indian, slipped one end under his ankles. Then, with swiftness I drew the ends together, and quickly knotted the grass rope, so that the man's feet were in a grip so strong that he could not move them. He screamed in fear, knowing that he was at our mercy, for had he struggled, a push would have sent him head-long after his fellow, and he knew it.
What was next to be done was a matter of instinct. Bernal held the man's feet, ready to lift them, and topple over the Indian if need called for such an act on our part, while I went cautiously towards his hands, alert lest he should strike back at me. In his right hand was the torch. By his left he had laid his lances, and it was these I wanted, so that he might be disarmed. I snatched at them and drew back; then took the knife from his belt.
Thus armed once more, the advantage lay with us, and although he had in his alarm for his comrade gone down flat, and lay across our own weapons, we were able to draw them out one by one. He tried to clutch at them, and at us, while we aid so, but Bernal was at his feet, and whenever he raised them, if but a trifle, the balance was so much overset that the Indian had to grasp the edge of the rock to prevent himself from sliding forward, and down into the abyss.
We now had our weapons and were fully armed. Next I sought to get the torch. It was not an easy task, but going softly I made a snatch and caught it with my hand just as Bernal, at my call, raised the man's feet, and kept his left hand engaged in grasping the edge of the rock. A wrench at the torch loosened his grip, and I possessed it.
There was no time to be lost. The man was bound at the ankles, and we were bold enough now to draw him away from his dangerous position. Then we contrived, but only after a desperate struggle, to fasten the man's left hand. The other, when we both flung ourselves upon it, was more quickly bound, and the savage lay helpless.
Picking up the torch, which was smoking on the floor, we went back through the cavern, hoping to find the entrance, but we soon discovered that there were more ways than one, and we were lost. We found ourselves presently in a narrow passage, and resolving to trace it to the end, hoping to find an outlet, we went forward. At last there was daylight in the distance, and we, hastening towards it, saw that the passage opened on the beach not far from our boat.
But we stood and gazed in amazement. By its side, examining it eagerly, stood a man, naked as the Indians, but he was bearded, and white - skinned, like ourselves. It was easy to see that he was no Indian, nor were there any of the ornamentations about his head like those which the savages we had been dealing with wore.
Except for a knife at his grass-belt he was unarmed, so that we were bold to approach him, ready, however, for emergencies, in case he should attack us. He heard the noise of our boots on the shingle, and looking round he gazed at us half in alarm for a moment, then raised a shout of joy.
"These be Spaniards!" he cried; and coming towards us at a run, he fell on his knees at our feet, and began to pray. The words he uttered were those of thankfulness, since he had looked again, after long and weary years, on countrymen of his own.
"Are ye not Spaniards?" he asked, when he sat up on his heels, his knees resting on the beach.
We told him that we were, and then we heard his story .He spoke as one who had almost forgotten his native tongue, mixing his Spanish with Indian words, but we understood enough to know that he was a countryman of ours who, eight years before, had been wrecked on this coast, and had fallen with some of his companions into the hands of natives. They had murdered all except himself, but the cacique of the district, having taken a fancy to him, and finding him useful in many ways, had allowed him to dwell among the people as one of themselves. He had almost forgotten his name as well as his language, but it came back in its correctness presently. He was Jeronimo de Aguilar, who had gone to the New World from Spain as a priest, but had been wrecked in a fearful storm. We asked him to sail back with us, but he said he was on parole, and dared not break his word to the cacique to whom he had given the promise never to leave the country without permission.
"Go, senors," he exclaimed, "and tell the Captain-General that I am here. Perhaps he will ransom me, especially when he knows that I may be useful to him as an interpreter. Let me but have a week among my countrymen and I shall soon be able to speak my own language with ease."
We left him standing on the shore, watching us until we were no longer within the range of his vision. We returned to our comrades with what speed the breeze would carry us over the waters. Without waiting to explain our absence to those who met us on the shore of the island, we hurried to Cortes and told him of Aguilar.
"This man must come with me!" cried the Captain-General. "I shall need him when dealing with those who belong to Mexico, for I do not understand the Indian tongue at all." A week went by before Aguilar was with us. Cortes sent to the cacique a present which he thought would be deemed a great ransom, and the chieftain had parted with Aguilar, not with readiness, but with extreme unwillingness, since he had taken the shipwrecked priest into his home as a friend. It was only when Aguilar had made a solemn promise to return when his work for Cortes was accomplished, that even the ransom tempted the cacique to set him free. When Aguilar stepped on board the brigantine that had gone to meet him, and he was clothed in garments more suitable to one who belonged to Spain, he told us that the Indian in the cavern had been set free. But he also said that we had had a narrow escape from death, for the Indians who captured us had meant to carry us to the temple to offer us on the sacrificial stone.
My experiences after that startling adventure with the Indians were not such as promised well, for when Cortes had landed his little army on the mainland, and began to prepare for a march to Mexico, I fell ill with the vomito, a bilious fever which seemed likely to end in death. A score of soldiers were sick of the same disease, and at one time it was thought that the whole army would be at the mercy of the scourge which swept over the camp from the stagnant marshes. For weeks I lay at death's door in a hut, and in all that time I did not put my feet to the ground.
Had it not been for Donna Marina, a beautiful Indian slave who had been sent to Cortes by a friendly cacique to act as interpreter - she being able to speak the Spanish tongue with ease - l am sure I should have died. She watched at my bedside night and day, and never was one kinder or more tender than she. She was skilled in medicine, and when she saw how sick I was, she went into the forest, and after being absent some hours, came back with her arms full of strange leaves which she boiled, giving me the water to drink. She told Cortes the secret of this strange decoction, and going with some of the soldiers into the forest, she showed them what leaves to pick, and how to prepare them. Under her treatment many of them who were sickening were kept from being seriously ill, and were able to go forward with Cortes when the march to Mexico began.
One afternoon, when I seemed to be somewhat better, and was able to take an interest in what was going on, Donna Marina took one arm, and Aguilar the other, and led me out of the hut. The Captain-General had assembled his army to tell his men what his plans were. At first he was listened to in sullen silence. The cavaliers and others had joined the expedition in the hope of finding gold in such quantities as to mend their broken fortunes, but as yet there was none save a few presents which the caciques living near the coast had brought, to purchase the goodwill of the invaders, and save their villages and temples from being burnt.
Alvarado was standing by Cortes while he spoke, and presently touching him on the shoulder, pointed to the plain. Every eye turned in that direction, and we saw a company of Indians approaching slowly. There must have been two or three hundred of them, and in their midst were three gorgeous litters, gleaming with plates of gold, carried by poles of red wood on the shoulders of slaves. In each of the litters was an Aztec noble, and when the procession halted within a short distance of the spot where I was reclining, the litters were lowered, and the nobles stepped out of them.
They were barefooted, and we afterwards learned that the Aztec nobles, like the Emperor Montezuma, went thus in token that they were born to be carried, and not to walk like the common people. Each cacique carried a golden rod, and over the head of each, when they began to walk towards Cortes, was held a parasol made of feathers, among which were tiny plates of gold. The edgings were of gold embroidery. A mantle hung over their bodies from the shoulders to the ankles, and as they moved, one saw that about their necks were pearls and precious stones, while the mantles flashed back golden gleams from the numberless ornaments that were wrought in the valuable metal.
The caciques approached slowly and haughtily, and Cortes as proudly went to meet them. What they said, none could understand but Aguilar and Donna Marina, who advanced with the Captain-General to serve as interpreters. Perhaps Cortes thought the soldiers would like to hear, for Donna Marina's voice presently reached our ears, coming sweetly in the bush, so that we knew what was the message that was brought from Montezuma. First of all, however, one of the nobles waved his golden rod, and from behind the litters came a line of slaves, bearing in their hands some treasures which the Mexican monarch had sent to his visitors from beyond the sea.
The wealth and beauty of the presents amazed us, when slave after slave set his burden down on the ground, and then stepped aside to allow those who came behind to advance and do the same. A dozen of them carried on their heads circular plates, some of gold, and others of silver, exquisitely carved, "as large as carriage wheels," as Bernal exclaimed. There were also shields wrought in silver, with great bosses of gold; helmets of the same, studded with precious stones, cuirasses of silver decorated with golden studs; bracelets, collars, sandals, fans - all in solid gold, and a hundred other ornaments bejewelled richly, and dazzling in the setting sun. One of the helmets, strange to say, was of Spanish make, and probably had fallen into the hands of the Indians of Mexico in one of the many fights that had taken place before this embassy came; and when the slave who carried it set it down at the Captain-General's feet, we saw that it was filled with dust of gold.
We looked at the presents in wonder, for here was abundant token that we had come to a land of gold, from which we need not depart until the poorest soldier in the camp was rich. It was only when Cortes waved his hand and spoke sternly that the soldiers were prevented from leaving the ranks, and crowding round to see the gifts more closely.
The message which the Aztec nobles brought was not pleasing. He who spoke, Mestizo by name, declared that Montezuma, the great lord of Mexico, would fain see them in his capital, but it was far away, and through a dangerous country , where he could not answer for the safe passage of the Spaniards.
"Montezuma sends you these presents as a mark of his perfect friendship," said Mestizo, "and he bids us say that he wishes you farewell and begs you to return without delay to the great King across the sea, and assure him of his good will."
Cortes looked at the speaker, but from his face it was impossible to tell whether he was angry at the message. He gazed at the haughty Aztec who stood proudly, as though he, too, were a king, then at the costly presents at his feet.
"Mestizo," he said at last, "go tell your royal master that we thank him for his splendid gifts; but tell him also that I must not return to my King in far - off Spain until I have seen and spoken with the Emperor of this great realm. As for the journey over land, tell him that we have come a thousand leagues across the sea, facing perils daily; so that we think naught of the few leagues of land that must be traversed in order to visit him in his capital, where we may tell him face to face what the King of Spain would say to him."
Mestizo's handsome and refined face, already dark, grew darker yet with anger, and I saw that the golden rod in his hand trembled.
"'Tis madness to venture into Mexico, great lord," he cried. "The way is beset with foes whom even the might of Montezuma may not hold back; and to have you die within his territories when he is powerless to protect you because of tribes who will not brook the intrusion of a strange army, would be a grief to him. For your own sakes he bids you turn back, and for your own sakes he bids me tell you that he cannot and dare not see you."
Cortes invited the caciques into his pavilion, and what took place during that private interview, I cannot say. I only know that the Aztecs came forth with gloomy faces, and their gestures indicated their impatience. More than once on his way to his litter Mestizo struck the ground angrily with his golden rod, and as he stepped in and was raised on the shoulders of his slaves he turned to Cortes. His eyes seemed to blaze, and his face was full of wrath.
"Great lord," he cried, "accept the warning while there is time. The way is far; and for you and these," he added, waving his hand towards the Spanish soldiers, " it is the way of death!"
At a movement of his hand the slaves turned, and the procession went on the way towards Mexico.
There were some in the camp who thought it unwise to go forward after what had been said concerning the dangers of the march. Some clamoured for a return to Cuba. But while so many were of this way of thinking, the leading cavaliers stood by the side of Cortes and declared that it would be a lasting disgrace to forego an enterprise that would win such glory and so much wealth, merely because an Aztec ambassador had brought a message demanding their return without striking a blow for Spain.
Cortes turned and went into his tent and was no more seen for many hours. In the morning, however, when the trumpet sounded for parade, he came forth and surprised the camp by announcing his intention to return at once to Cuba. Then he went in again, and I could not see from my sick-bed what was happening, but Donna Marina told me how, when the men heard this, the greater number of them left their ranks and crowded about the Captain-General's pavilion, demanding that he should recall the order to embark.
Christoval de Olid was spokesman for the others.
"We came here expecting to form a settlement, and demand it here and now. Cortes, if you refuse you will prove a traitor to us, and worse than that - a traitor to the King of Spain! Lead us to Mexico!"
There was a great shout when De Olid ceased, and the cry rang loud and insistent: "To Mexico!" Cortes, who stood in the tent door, pale and careworn, raised his hand to demand silence.
"My brothers," he cried, when the shouts had died away, and all were listening for his words, "none within this camp is more loyal to the King that I. For this great enterprise I have spent my all. If I return to Cuba tomorrow I go a beggar. I shall be poorer than the poorest here, for every golden ducat I possessed before we sailed went to meet the costs of the expedition to Mexico. Some of you are afraid to face the difficulty of the march, and rather than lead an unwilling army thither, I am ready to lose all, and sail back to Cuba."
"Nay,"came a shout from hundreds. "To Mexico!" I heard the cry as I lay in bed, and feeble though I was because of the fever that was still in me, I joined in it when the soldiers raised it again and again. The others who were sick did also, and Cortes, in the lull that followed heard the cry "To Mexico!" coming from the pavilion where the fever-stricken lay.
"Hark!" he exclaimed. "Even the sick - the men who are at death's door cry "To Mexico!'" The response was louder than ever, and it was long ere Cortes could be heard again. He said, at last: "My brothers, I will not decide now. I will spend the night in prayer and thought, and give you my answer tomorrow."
"None the less, General, let it be' To Mexico,' "cried Alonso de Avila, who drew his sword, and waved it in the sunlight.
Donna Marina was entering the tent where I was lying, and the door was held open for a little while; we who were there saw the flash of hundreds of swords as they leaped from their scabbards.
When Cortes came out of his pavilion after what was to him a sleepless night, the men were drawn up in ranks to hear his decision. Even the sick asked to be carried out to hear, and when he told of his determination to found a colony in the name of the Spanish King, there was a loud shout of approval. But louder still was the response when he exclaimed: "We go to Mexico!"
That same day Cortes laid the foundation of a Spanish city to which he gave the name of Villa Rica de Vera Cruz." The Rich Town of the True Cross."
How can I tell of my disappointment when the day came on which the army began its march, and I was left behind? I told Bernal that I would go, well or ill; that a strong will could throw aside sickness. I stood to show that it was so, but the pavilion swam round and round, my legs would not support my weight, and had it not been for Escobar, De Leon's page, I should have fallen heavily to the floor. Cortes was in the place at the time and heard what I said.
"Senor," he exclaimed kindly, "there are others who are unable, like yourself, to begin the march today - all these brave fellows. When they are strong enough they will follow, and shall share alike in the glory and wealth that we shall win."
That hour he was gone, and but for a few soldiers who were left behind to guard the new city of Vera Cruz, we were alone. Aguilar was left with us to act as interpreter, for there was constant intercourse between the Spaniards of the city and the Indians of the surrounding country. What was greatly to my liking was, that Padillo remained to look after me.
From time to time news came as to the progress of Cortes through the country. We heard of fearful battles, when the caciques of the districts came forth with thousands and thousands of warriors, thinking to overwhelm the Spaniards by weight of numbers. Still more terrible was the fight when the Tlascalaus attempted to bar the way, and snatching sometimes at one of our soldiers, carried him to a temple somewhere in the mountains, and slew him on the sacrificial stone. But Spanish valour always came off victorious, and the armies that were mighty in their numbers broke up and fled before the charges which Cortes led, even when, at times, the cause seemed lost.
Meanwhile, we who were in hospital grew stronger, and at last I was able to move about with freedom long before any of the others could stand on their feet.
One day, when I was impatient to be on the move, the Governor of Vera Cruz sent for me, and when I stood in his presence he said that he was about to send a score of soldiers to join Cortes, and if I chose and felt strong enough, I could travel with them. It was a delight to be told this, and for the next two days I was busy with my weapons, and looking to my armour to see that it was in sound condition.
THERE was an Indian in the camp who was employed to act as our guide during our journey to the capital. Perote was a strongly-built man, skillful with his bow and arrows, and carried with him a spear of his own height, barbed with feathers at one end, and having at the other a saw-like point which, when it was drawn out of a man's body, would tear the flesh and cause great pain. Silver bracelets were on his wrists, and rings of the same metal about the arms, above his elbows, while similar bands were clasped round the thick parts of his legs. His only clothing was a cloak flung over his shoulders, and fastened about the neck by a copper collar studded with silver knobs, while a cloth girdle was strapped about his waist, to which was attached a triangular leather apron, the point hanging downwards and coming to his knees. His head looked somewhat formidable, for on it he wore a thin wooden helmet, very light, at the back of which great feathers were fastened which bobbed on the top at every movement, and fell forward like a plume. On his feet were leather sandals, so that he was able to travel on the roughest roads.
Why the Governor should place reliance on Perote I could never understand. There was a sly look on his face, and when he spoke it was difficult to believe that he said the truth. The more I knew of him the more I felt assured that he would not hesitate to betray us if it suited his purpose. I said so to Cerralvo, who was the captain of our party, but his reply was a careless one.
"I think he is all right, senor; but if he shows any sign of treachery, I'll hang him offhand."
None the less I kept my eyes open and watched Perote at every turn.
We were ready to leave Vera Cruz one morning, when we saw an Indian coming in hot haste. Seeing the Governor, he gave him a letter which he read intently.
"'Tis a strange message, senors," he said, presently; "and it comes from Cortes. He says that there are some in his camp who are always talking of deserting with the intention of sailing back to Cuba, and that he declares they shall not do. He came to conquer Mexico, and he will do so or die. He tells me to dismantle the ships and sink them all but one in case he may want to send messages to Spain. 'Tis a matter of burning the bridges behind one, so that it is a question of dying or conquering. Well, 'tis a wise policy when there are half-hearted ones in the camp, and I'll do it at once! Adios!"
With that he saluted us, and went to the harbour to give orders for dismantling the ships. When he turned his back on us the march began. We had as much food as would last for two or three days, but we were going through a fertile country where fruit was plentiful, and if we wanted anything, we had but to take it, as all conquerors do. There would be granaries in the Mexican towns, and even the smallest village should be able to provide for the wants of a score of Spaniards.
On the way we found that the fame of Cortes had spread everywhere, and instead of having to use force in order to obtain supplies, they were brought to us in plenty. In nearly every case a cacique came out to meet us to know our will, and when Perote was told to ask for food, a file of Indians came bringing baskets filled with fruit, and bread-cakes made from maize. Not infrequently they gave us presents, and knowing that the Spaniards loved gold, which was plentiful, they gave us golden ornaments, and sometimes precious stones.
At evening time, after a long day's march, we often rested, sometimes in the cacique's house, but often in the open air among the trees and flowers. The convolvulus and wild rose and honeysuckle were everywhere, and gorgeously - coloured birds crossed our path, or flew by overhead, constantly. When one sauntered among the trees he could pluck the purple grapes that hung within easy reach, or eat the fruit that was so temptingly near. If for nothing else Mexico was a delightful country to travel in.
One day we got among the hills, and Perote led us towards the castle of an Aztec noble. As we went up the steep roadway the Indian told us that the great lord who owned it was friendly to the Spaniards. He was one of the thirty caciques of the Aztec nobility who were so rich and powerful that they could muster thousands of vassals on their estates, and take them into the field at war-time. This lord's home was flanked by a great forest, so that we saw little more than the gateway, and the massive wall for a few yards on either hand. How great the extent of the mountain stronghold was we could not tell, because the forest trees seemed to hide it completely.
When we reached the gate Perote, putting his hands to his mouth, sent forth a shrill cry which, in the silence which was only broken by the sounds of the birds, might have been heard a mile away. At this call an Indian appeared above the gate, and asked our business.
"I bring the Spaniards who come to see the great lord, Tapia," was Perote's answer.
The Indian on the gate, who was of high rank, judging from the golden ornaments he wore, and the jewels on his casque, put his hand to his mouth, and sent forth a loud, strange call, and very shortly the wall was lined with dark- skinned warriors, each of whom set his arrow in the bow, and covered us with them. Had the cacique but given the word, few of us would have gone from the gate alive.
We turned to Perote, and Cerralvo spoke angrily.
If you have betrayed us, I will run my sword through you, and much good will your treachery do to you."
"Nay, my lord, I have not betrayed you," said the Indian calmly. "'Tis what is done whenever strangers come near the gate, for one knows not whether they be enemies. Wait, lord, you will find a welcome."
While he was speaking we heard the sounds of dropping chains, the moving of heavy bars of iron from their sockets, the shooting back of bolts, and then the great door moved slowly inwards, and the Indian who had spoken on the gateway stepped forth and bade us welcome.
It was Tapia himself, and the great chieftain went on his knees, touched the earth with his hand, and taking up some of the dust in his fingers, held it up to his forehead.
"Follow me, lord," said he, when once more he stood upright, and turning round, he led the way.
We found ourselves in a great courtyard where armed Indians stood with their backs against the walls, all with their arrows set in the bows, and pointing them at us, even as we had seen them do above the gate.
"Perote," exclaimed Cerralvo, halting, "tell this Indian lord that I would have these warriors lower their arrows, for it ill pleases me to have so many pointed at me, or at my men."
Perote obeyed, and at a gesture from Tapia the arrows were flung on the stones, falling with a loud rattle, and even the sheaves, at his bidding, were taken from the shoulders and tossed away towards us, some two or three yards from their sandalled feet. At the same moment Cerralvo turned and spoke to us in low tones.
"Be on your guard, my men. See quietly to your weapons, and let none be taken unawares. Perote, come hither. Tell us plainly," he went on to say to the guide, "whether any evil is threatening."
The Indian glanced at the cavalier; then, crossing his hands upon his breast, he protested that he knew of no danger.
"I am at your mercy, lord. If there be evil in the heart of the cacique Tapia, I know not of it. Tapia is your friend. Else would he not have raised dust to his forehead."
We had now entered a great inner hall, gloomy and almost threatening, because light only came through the open door and small windows which showed the thickness of the walls. Had Cortes brought his heavy cannon here, the balls would have pounded against the solid stonework vainly, for I could easily lie full length in the deep recess, and yet have room to move without touching the outer frame with my fingers or the inner one with my toes.
"Were Cortes here with his four hundred men," said Cerralvo, looking about him as we crossed the floor, "he would hold the place against Montezuma and a hundred thousand of his warriors."
His soldier eye seemed to measure the marvellous strength and advantage of this mountain stronghold, and there was a look in his face which set me thinking that he would have not been sorry, had he been stronger in numbers, to have shown these Mexicans what Spanish soldiers could do in the way of fighting.
We quitted the gloomy hall and entered a long, broad corridor, on either side of which were doorways. At every step we saw signs of wealth. The doors themselves were of beautiful red wood which I afterwards knew to be mahogany. They were studded with curious devices in little knobs of silver, while in the centre of each door was a golden ornament, differing in every case from that of the other doors. On one was the image of a serpent. On the other the figure of a human heart. On another the face of a god. Elsewhere was a shield representing the sun; the crescent of the new moon; a big shining star; a bunch of golden arrows.
Tapia halted at one of the doors at the distant end of the corridor, and throwing it open, he bade us enter. He led the way into a gorgeous apartment, and the cavaliers, most of them accustomed to luxury in Spain, since many were of noble rank, exclaimed in admiration when they looked around. The floors were matted, and on the walls were draperies wrought in gold, silver, and other gorgeous - coloured threads, depicting scenes in the lives of the lords who had dwelt in the mountain fastness. At intervals along the sides were tables of solid silver, and on them stood vessels of gold, or of some rare stone.
"A king's ransom is here!" exclaimed Mendoza, who in his day had been a jeweller in Madrid, but having lost all he had by gambling, had come to the New World to mend his broken fortunes. Tapia, however, broke in on what he was saying when he began to estimate the value of the several caskets and other articles that were in the chamber, and declared that he would bring us food, if we would first bathe ourselves and so wash off the stains of the day's journey. With that he led us into another chamber where we found gold and silver basins. Slaves attended us, and after a hot and dusty march the splash of cold water, and the scented cloths with which we dried ourselves, was a delight.
Then came the thought of food, and we had not long to wait. Tapia had left us for a while, but when our ablutions were ended he returned, and standing in another doorway than that by which we had entered, requested us to follow him.
The banquet chamber was worthy of the great Emperor himself, and as Tapia had told us when we sat about the great table that stretched down the centre, Montezuma had more than once been his guest, and had sat there also. It was made of polished cedar, and along its length were ranged carved stools, each beaded with gold.
"They are each worth a thousand golden ducats," exclaimed Mendoza, as he examined that on which he was seated.
But what struck us most was an obelisk at the extreme end of the banquet hall. On a square pedestal of polished porphyry was a pyramid of gold which stood quite three feet high, and in the four sides of which was engraved the face of a stern-looking man.
"Perote," said Cerralvo, "ask Tapia what that means."
"'Tis the face of the war-god, Mexitli,"said the guide, who was standing behind the captain.
"The war-god! Does Tapia mean to feed us here, and yet keep us in mind of the fact that we are here on an errand of war?" exclaimed Cerralvo, smiling grimly.
A score of slaves entered while he spoke, each carrying a dish of silver, and setting it down before the particular soldier he was told to serve. The dish covers were removed, and on the dishes lay some fish we did not know, but the taste was so delicious that I could have wished for more. This was the beginning of a repast, - the like of which even I, in my father's house, had never sat down to. During the meal some Indian damsels, clothed in white linen, and wearing on their shoulders little cloaks of scarlet, stood at the further end of the room, and sang their own strange songs of Mexico - wild, weird music, the words conveying no meaning to us, since we had not yet mastered the Mexican tongue.
When the meal was nearly ended silver lamps were brought in and hung upon the walls, after which the Indian servants bore in golden goblets, filled with a drink which I can scarcely describe. Perote said it was chocolate, flavoured with spices, and sweetened with honey, and it was so delicious that some of our men asked for more.
Tapia, when the goblets were ended, rose from his stool, and bade Perote tell us that since it was late and we were tired with the day's journey, he would lead us to our sleeping chambers. Nothing loth, we rose and followed, but when the cacique halted at a doorway, and showed Cerralvo into a small chamber, and indicated that the one opposite was to be at my service, the captain protested that he must sleep with his men, from whom, when on a journey, he never separated himself. A look of disappointment swept over Tapia's face, but it was so swift that none, perhaps, noticed it but myself. I had become suspicious, and greatly doubted the Indian, who, however, smiled so amiably that had he intended to separate us for his own purposes, none could have supposed that Cerralvo's determination to keep his men together had in any way spoiled his plans.
"I did it for your comfort, lord," he exclaimed. " But let me think."
Standing for a few moments deep in thought, he passed his hand across his brow, and then with a smile beckoned us to follow him. At the end of the corridor we came to some stone steps , and these, we descended until we came to a long passage. Walking down this some little distance, he halted. Throwing open a doorway, he showed us a spacious chamber into which the lamp-carriers filed quickly, and then we entered. It was large enough for twice our number to sleep in, and while we gazed around, admiring the strange beauty of the place, the slaves filed out again, but soon returned, carrying thick, soft mats of palm leaves and linen cloths that were to serve as coverlets.
"You will sleep well here, my lord," said Tapia, who, wishing us a good night's rest, went away, shutting the door after him. It opened again, however, and some Indians entered, carrying golden goblets.
I chanced when I received my own from a slave's hand to look up. Tapia was standing in the doorway, and there was such a strange look on his face that my suspicions were aroused, and fearing lest some of the men might drink off the contents of the goblets, I exclaimed:
"Do not taste the wine yet, senors!" Tapia did not understand, and when the slaves had left the chamber he drew back smiling, and then we were alone.
"Why did you say that, Don Martin?" asked the captain.
"I fear poison, or a drug, judging from the strange look I saw on Tapia's face." While I spoke I saw a strange look on Perote's face, and quickly added: "Perhaps Perote can tell us."
The guide tried to look unconcerned, but I saw that he trembled, and his dark skin turned paler
"Better than telling us, Perote shall taste the wine for us," cried Cerralvo, who looked round at him.
Perote threw up his hands with a gesture of dismay.
"I know not, lords, what is in the goblets, but I dare not drink."
"Nay, but you shall! "cried Cerralvo; and going to the Indian, he compelled him to swallow the wine that was in his goblet, down to the dregs.
The man moaned, rolled his eyes in despair, watched us as one who expected that death was coming, then fell in a senseless heap upon the floor.
CERRALVO bade each man look round to see whether there was any possible entrance by which Tapia might bring his Indians in while we slept. Not content with that he went round the walls himself, tapping at the cedar wainscoting with the handle of his dagger to listen for any hollow sound which might suggest a secret doorway. He went so far as to tear down the tapestry which hung on the wall at one end, and examined the plaster-work to see if there were any cracks that might show signs of some secret entrance, but there was nothing visible even to the sharpest eye. There was but one door that offered ingress - that by which we had entered; and to guard against any intrusion while we slept, he told the men to pile up the heavy furniture against the entrance.
"We can sleep now," Cerralvo exclaimed, when the door had been made secure." If ye be as I am, ye must all be dead-beat with fatigue."
There was apparently no need for further precaution, and we lay down on our palm-leaf beds and slept. It seemed to me that as soon as my head touched my tunic, which I folded up to make a pillow, I fell into a dreamless sleep. After a time I awoke, and turning over on my bed, I cast a sleepy look around the chamber which was dimly lit by a couple of silver lamps, one of which hung from the ceiling. Perote was lying where he had fallen, not having so much as moved a hand or foot.
I closed my eyes contentedly and tried to sleep, but grew more and more wakeful, and finally, being wide awake, I sat up, resting my back against the wall and looking around. There was nothing to be heard but the breathing and restless movements of the sleeping soldiers, until I was suddenly startled by a sound close to my side. An arrow rattled sharply on the floor, and rebounding, slid along the polished stones until it caught in the fringed edges of one of the beds.
I looked around, but saw nothing to explain this strange thing. When I scanned the walls eagerly to see whether any unknown door had opened, I knew that the arrow had not come thus. I cast a look at Perote to see whether he had pretended to be dead or unconscious, and had watched his opportunity for sitting up and shooting the arrow, but he had not moved. Even the curled forefinger of his right hand which was outstretched towards me lay as it had been lying ever since he drank the drugged wine and fell to the floor.
Putting out my hand, I awakened Padillo who was by my side, and whispered to him when he turned towards me. When I told him what had happened he sat up and watched. Like me he stared about the room, and while he gazed in all directions thus, up and down, to the floor and walls, it seemed to us that the hanging lamp was swinging to and fro. It began to lower - of that we had no doubt; and when it had descended a foot or more, another arrow rattled near, and slid along the floor like the previous one. Padillo's hand went out for his pistol which lay near him, and with a swift movement he fired up to the ceiling. There was a cry of pain, the lamp fell and crashed on the floor, and after it came the body of an Indian.
In a moment every sleeper was awake, and on his feet, wondering at the cause for the shot. With but one remaining lamp to light the chamber, none at first saw the Indian lying maimed upon the floor, and in the clamour it was useless to attempt an explanation. Cerralvo cried for silence, and then asked who had fired the pistol, and why.
"It was I, captain," exclaimed Padillo, and then he told what had happened. Instantly every eye turned to the man who lay helpless, and moaning. In the semi - darkness we could not see where he was wounded. My own eyes were fixed on the ceiling, but there was no sign, so far as I could see, of any opening. The hole through which the man had fallen had closed up, as if it had worked by a spring, and when the Indian's hand was taken from it, it must have closed up instantly.
"Bring the lamp," cried Cerralvo, and when it was brought to him all eyes were centred on the prostrate Mexican. His face was turned downward, but when the captain, bending down for a closer scrutiny, turned him over on his back, there was an instant outcry , for the face we gazed on was Tapia's. He was conscious, but it was easy to see that he was in great pain.
The pistol shot had gone through his side, and blood was coming from the wound and staining his white robe.
"Why this treachery , Tapia? " asked Cerralvo, sternly.
"How can there be treachery when one deals with an enemy?" asked the cacique, sullenly, trying to stay the bleeding by holding his robe against the wound.
One of our number - Ulloa of Bayonne - who was skillful in surgery, went on his knees at the cacique's side, and tearing Tapia's costly robe into strips, he bound up the wound, and did what his skill suggested to prevent the cacique from bleeding to death. When that was done Cerralvo spoke again.
"You professed sincere friendship, Tapia, and displayed such kindness."
"What have I done otherwise?" came the sullen enquiry.
"Did you not send us poisoned goblets?" "No."
"Then look at Perote who drank from the goblet intended for me," said the captain, pointing to the still unconscious guide.
"I know nothing of it," exclaimed the cacique.
"If the goblets were poisoned it was not with my knowledge. Perote may have done it with his own hands, or persuaded others to do it for him; but as for me I had no thought but for your care."
It was difficult to believe that he was lying, and when asked what he was doing when the arrow came clattering about my bed, he said that he had gone up to watch from a moving panel in the ceiling. He wanted to know what we were doing, and whether he had reason to suspect any mischief because we were so silent. Then came the shot which caused him to fall through the opening.
"But the arrow?" persisted Cerralvo. "I know nothing of it," Tapia answered emphatically." All I can suggest is that someone must have been looking at you from the panel yonder," and he pointed to the wainscoting of the wall.
Cerralvo stood and considered, and calling Ulloa and one or two others to his side, he talked with them earnestly while we stood about, waiting to know what would be done with our treacherous host - for we could not dismiss the idea of his treachery in spite of his protestations, Presently the captain turned and spoke. "Tapia, we have decided to hold you as hostage for our safety."
"There is no necessity," interrupted the Mexican." You have nothing to fear."
"That remains to be proved," said Cerralvo, sharply. "I like not to appear cruel, and especially to a wounded man, but we cannot get away from the thought of treachery, and rather than come to any harm, we intend to hold you as hostage, as I have just said. If need arises I shall resort to strong measures. I will not hesitate at torture," he added sternly, " rather than have my comrades die like rats in a hole."
As Cerralvo proceeded, his indignation seemed to grow. I could see that he did not believe one word of what the Mexican said, and had it not been that he considered Tapia necessary in order to get away from the stronghold in which we were trapped, I quite believe he would have had him shot then and there.
There was silence for a while, but the cacique presently tried to rise to his feet. He was so bruised and shaken that he could only do so with Padillo's help.
"Lord," said he when he was standing, and looked at Cerralvo, "I dare not take you forth. There are those within this palace who would slay me for playing the part of traitor if I allowed you to pass through the gate."
"Your death would not trouble us, Tapia," said Cerralvo, bluntly. "'Tis our own safety that concerns us, and if you do not find us an exit in some way at sunrise, my men shall kill you, and we will fight our way out. You must choose."
Tapia sat on a stool, and suffering his head to fall on his breast he thought intently. It was only after long consideration that he looked up and spoke.
"Bid your men light the lamps that are round the walls, lord, and I will show you a way into the open country; but only on one condition - that when you are safely outside my castle, and the road lies before you, you shall do me no further harm, but leave me free to return to my home."
"That shall be so," answered Cerralvo. "Nay, but you must swear it," said Tapia. "I have heard that when men of your nation make solemn oath, they do so on what you call the Cross, and that such an oath is binding to the death."
"That shall be done." Cerralvo drew a golden cross from his bosom, and putting it to his lips and going on his knees, he made the promise.
"Tapia, there is no promise so binding to a Spaniard as when it is made thus," the captain said, when he had risen from his feet.
"Then I am content," was the cacique's response.
"But what promise will you make, Tapia?" asked Cerralvo. "How shall we know that you will not trifle with us?"
"Lord, I swear by this," said the Mexican. And taking from his bosom a small pendant, wounded though he was, and going on his knees, while every movement caused him intense pain, he placed the pendant on the floor. Then, lying full length, he touched it with his forehead. He could not rise until Padillo and another assisted him, and then throwing the golden chain, which held this strange ornament, about his neck, and thrusting it within his robe, he declared himself ready to lead us to liberty.
"Clear the doorway ,"Cerralvo said, turning to the men who were near the barricade.
"There is no need," exclaimed Tapia. Crossing the floor slowly, as if every step caused him pain, he went to the wall on the opposite side of the great chamber. Out of the many bosses of cedar wood in the wainscot he looked for one in particular, and with his hand gave it a sudden wrench. At once a panel as broad as a man's body came away. Calling for a lamp, he led the way. We had been looking into blackness, and instinctively we drew our daggers in readiness to meet some sudden danger; for in spite of the cacique's oath we were still afraid of treachery.
Tapia saw this when he turned and looked at our faces, and bade us have no fear. When each man had furnished himself with a lamp he went forward with Cerralvo at his side to prevent his escape. So resolute was the captain, indeed, to have perfect freedom in his movements to deal with the cacique if occasion required it, that he set down the lamp he held, and with his left hand free, and his right holding his drawn sword, he walked on at Tapia's side.
"Listen, Tapia!" he exclaimed, before he passed through the opening, and with this he halted and stood before the Mexican.
"You took an oath, and no doubt it was a solemn one, but whether it was such or not I cannot tell. But let there be no misunderstanding. My sword is drawn, and I must needs tell you plainly that I shall run its keen blade through your body at the first sign of treachery ."
A strange look swept across the Mexican's face, and his eyes flashed, but he did not answer . He waited for Cerralvo to stand aside, and then entered a dark and winding passage, richly panelled, like our sleeping chamber, with cedar . The passage, however, was blocked farther on by a door to which there was neither bolt, nor bar, nor sign of lock; but Tapia laid his hand on the wainscot, thrust at it suddenly, and the door slid downwards through the floor.
"Pass on," said the cacique, standing aside and leaving the way clear, and the men at a nod from the captain, filed past him - all save Cerralvo, who would not leave his side.
"You do not trust me, lord," said Tapia, querulously, still holding his fingers on the panel.
"'Tis true," came the sturdy answer. "When a man has been once deceived, he is not easily convinced of the other's honesty."
Tapia swung round hastily, and with an exclamation moved forward side by side with Cerralvo through the doorway. We then found ourselves in a chamber, and when we had looked round we knew, without being told, that here was all that was most precious in the cacique's palace.
WE gazed about us in amazement. The walls of the chamber were of white marble, jasper, and black stones with veins of red, and would measure about forty-five feet in length, while the breadth would not be less than twenty feet. The walls consisted of separate tall and narrow stones reaching from the floor to the ceiling. On the face of each was a single piece of carving; here a man, life size, cut out of the rock in relief, but naked, save for the loin cloth, and standing ready to hurl his dart. Elsewhere one saw a slave, or a woman nursing her child, or a queen being waited on by her maid. A woman was bending at a stream, drinking water from her hand while a man lay full length on the ground, and drank from the running brook. In the place of honour was carved the image of a cacique, and if we had doubted Tapia's assertion that he was lord of the palace of the forest, here was proof that he spoke the truth, for the carving presented a perfect likeness of himself .
At the foot of every stone panel lay an iron chest, bound with straps of brass. There was no lock to any of them, for in this secret place, without a doubt, the boxes were safe from would-be robbers.
Mendoza went to one of them and raised the cover, and when the lamp he held displayed the contents he exclaimed in wonder. The chest was filled with bars of gold, and no sooner had the one-time jeweller shown what was in the open chest than the Spaniards desired to know what lay in the others. Careless as to Tapia's feelings, the covers were raised, and we found wealth beyond what we had anticipated in our wildest moments. In one were collars, bracelets, ear-pendants, nose-jewels, and other ornaments, such as were worn by the rich women of the empire. There were jewels-great emeralds of fabulous worth, and of various shapes, some spherical, some cylindrical, and others conical, pierced with the skill of the cleverest lapidary.
To tell of all that was in the chests would be impossible, just as it would be beyond one's power to estimate the value of what was in the treasure chamber. Regardless of the fact that the cacique was present, and that he would object, the men began to take from the boxes whatever met their fancy. They commenced with only taking a trifle, but presently the craving for gold made them forget that this was robbery , and they began to take the wealth by handfuls, cramming the gold and jewels into their bosoms, and wherever they could find a place for them.
I turned to look at the cacique, and his eyes were ablaze with wrath.
"Lord," he cried, turning to Cerralvo, "is this the justice one meets with from the men of Spain? Are they nothing but common robbers, after all?"
"'Tis the part that conquerors play everywhere, Tapia," the cavalier answered coolly.
"Then, 'tis a scandalous part," came the indignant rejoinder. "I renounce my oath. I will lead you no farther."
The cacique was standing at that moment with his back against the wall, almost touching my shoulder; for in the rush to the treasure - chests the men had disregarded rank and everything, so that being but a boy I had to give place to the superior roughness of the stalwart soldiers. When Tapia declared that he would no longer be our leader through the unknown ways of his great castle, I noticed that he put back his right hand, while, as if absent-mindedly, he laid his left hand on my arm. At that moment, when I felt his touch, the wall behind me seemed to give way. I felt that it was falling back, and that I was going with it. Aguilar, who was near me, saw me going, and put out a hand as if to hold me, but the floor felt as if it rocked, and unable to keep my footing, I fell, and Aguilar tumbled across me. Then there was a heavy thud, followed by darkness. The wall which had opened for a moment or two closed up again, the lights of the silver lamps were gone, and Aguilar and I were left alone together.
For a brief space we did not realize what had happened. The first thought was that there had been an earthquake, and that we were precipitated into the unknown depths of the mountain fortress. But in the strange silence that followed someone moved at my side, as of a man who was rising to his feet. Then came a loud cry in the darkness, coming, as I knew, from the cacique's lips. In a short while the cry was repeated and was answered, and some Indians came tramping along a passage carrying torches in their hands, showing as they drew nearer that Tapia was standing a little distance away.
Those who approached us were Mexicans, judging from their swarthy faces, but their dress was unlike any we had seen before. On each man's head was a hat which resembled a mitre, and from their necks hung snow-white garments, reaching to the ankles. Their feet were shod in what looked like golden sandals. The dark- skinned arms were bare from the shoulders, but on the part above the elbows were bands of gold. Similar bands formed bracelets about the wrists. On the chest, hanging by a golden chain, each wore a pendant of the precious metal, on which was carved the image of one of the Mexican gods. There were nearly twenty. of these men, and in the golden belt of each was a long sacrificial knife, stained with what was possibly the blood of the victims slain on the altar.
By this time Aguilar and I were on our feet, our hands ready to use the weapons we had about us. but my companion exclaimed in horror, "They are the priests of the sacrificial chamber, senior!" he cried. "We are undone, for there is no escape for us!"
The priests gathered round and looked at us in wonder, but Tapia spoke a few words, and after taking a torch from one who was near, he strode away as quickly as his wound allowed.
It was useless to struggle against what was inevitable. Had we fought and succeeded in getting away from these men, we should yet be in wandering passages or in chambers out of which we knew no exit, so that while we escaped one danger it would be to meet another quite as great. There was no alternative but to follow those who led the way, and keep pace with the others who marched beside us and behind to prevent our escape into the numerous dark passages we saw as we proceeded. We went forward at a swift pace for several minutes, traversing a way that seemed to wind in all directions, but presently the leader halted before a door. Here he uttered a loud cry:
"Mexitli!" "'Tis the name of the war-god," said Aguilar. "We shall see some terrible sights, senior," he added, with a shudder.
He spoke truly, for when the door opened we entered a great chamber-a Teocalli, Aguilar called it, that being the Mexican name for the house of God. At the farther end, exactly opposite the door, was a gigantic image of the God of War. It was standing under a canopy of carved and gilded wood. In the right hand the god held some golden arrows and a bow. For a belt a golden serpent was wound round his waist, the eyes being precious stones which, in the lamplight, flashed a thousand darts of colour. There was an anklet of feathers about his left foot, while a string of gold and silver hearts was hung around his neck. Before him was an altar on which lay three human hearts which had been taken from the bodies of three men who were prisoners of war. I shuddered when Aguilar told me, lest these might be the hearts of some of our countrymen.
"Ours may lie there tomorrow," said Aguilar, gloomily, and I shuddered again, for I loved life, and the thought was terrible that it might soon be ended.
Along the sides of the Teocalli were pyramids of human skulls, and each of these represented a life that had been taken in order to lay a human heart on the altar. There must have been thousands of them.
The leader of our party walked up the centre of the temple floor and halted just in front of the altar, where, going on his knees and bowing low, so that his forehead touched the floor, he spoke some words I did not understand. But Aguilar knew.
"We are to be sacrificed," he said, as we stood, the only standing ones in the group. The others had prostrated themselves like their leader. More was said in a slow and chanting tone, and after many minutes had passed, the priest at the altar rose to his feet and cried aloud.
"He says that we are to be sacrificed a week hence," exclaimed Aguilar, as two of the priests, laying their hands on our shoulders, went backwards step by step, making us do the same. The others in like manner went with us out of the Teocalli. Then, as the door closed, we were swung around, almost roughly, and led away.
I had thought that we should be taken to separate cells to spend those seven long days before the sacrifice in the loneliness and the horrors of darkness; but to my surprise we were ushered into an apartment where many lamps hung on the walls, showing a chamber as gorgeous as any we had seen in Tapia's palace. We halted there but a few minutes, and were led through another doorway. Here the priests stripped us to the skin. Solemn and stately though they were, they looked at our bodies with curiosity. Their own were dark, but ours were of a whiteness which astonished them, and more than one smoothed swarthy hands down our limbs.
We were washed in pure cool water which ran along a copper pipe into a great basin of marble, and when we had been dried with linen cloths and anointed with oil, we were richly dressed, and taken back to the apartment we had already passed through. Here was everything that could delight the eye and afford comfort for a tired body. The air was perfumed by a spray of scent which sprang out of a small fountain in the centre of the chamber, and fell into a silver bowl, while great vases of beautiful flowers were everywhere. On a table at one end was set some fruit, and, close by, another on which was food that a hungry one would eat with delight. At the opposite end were soft beds where we could sleep.
Had there been no thought of death this would have been all that one could desire, but we had a constant reminder of what our fate was to be. Once a day we were taken to the Teocalli, where, as before, every priest in attendance prostrated himself before the image of the God of War .Whether it was apart of our torment to be taken there I cannot say, but in spite of all the comfort and the wealth, and the rich repasts that were brought to us by the priestesses who came every hour of the night as well as the day, to see that we wanted nothing , we were always face to face with death. We never knew, when we took that daily walk into the temple, whether it was for the last time, and sometimes I almost wished it was, so that there might be an end of the torment.
AMONG the priestesses who came to wait on us was one who seemed kinder than any of the others. From what she whispered to us when she brought the perfumed water for our hands, she was sorry for us, and once, after five days had gone, she bade us keep awake during the night since she thought she might help us to escape. She whispered, too, that the night attendance was to be discontinued, and we were to be allowed to sleep on until daybreak, undisturbed.
She was very beautiful, and by no means so dark-skinned as the other maidens. She must have been their superior, for she was more richly dressed, her necklace being of gold while theirs were of silver, and her sandals the same. About her neck and shoulders her linen robe was bordered with rich embroidery in many colours. Later we found that her name was Rava Oella, and that she was the daughter of the high priest of Mexitli. Knowing that Aguilar could understand her language she spoke in a low whisper when she brought us food, speaking so lest the other girls might hear.
That night we did not close our eyes. We spent the time in wondering how escape was possible, but we felt that she must have some scheme or knowledge, or she would not have spoken.
As on other nights the lamps were all extinguished save one at the distant end, yet our eyes became accustomed to the little more than darkness, and we were able to see her when Rava Oello entered the room. The door through which she came was not that which she generally used, being very much nearer to our beds; but when she had shut it softly, she stepped across the floor quickly, and went down on her knees beside us.
"Are you awake, Don Martin?" she asked, laying her soft hand on my face.
For answer I rose instantly to my feet, and Aguilar, equally alert, stood also, so that no time should be lost.
"Come," she whispered, crossing to the door, and passing through into another chamber . When we followed we saw that it was small, but richly furnished.
"This is my room, so that I have always been near you, Don Martin," she said. "But we must waste no time in talking. Here are your own clothes. Throw off those you are wearing , and put these on. Be quick."
With that she left us alone. We needed no urging, for we were too anxious to get away. The white robes we had been wearing were speedily thrown aside, and never had I dressed so quickly as then. We were ready and waiting when she returned, and she could not restrain her curiosity when she saw us in our Spanish dress, for she had never seen any of our countrymen before.
"Before you go, lords," she exclaimed, "I must give you what will be a safeguard in your wanderings. See! I give you these. They are sacred. With these displayed on your breasts you can pass through the ranks of ten thousand of our soldiers, and however much a man might hate you, no harm will come to you, since this is the emblem of the great god Mexitli. It is the god's warrant for your safety. It takes you through water and through fire, through storm and battle. In any fight your enemy's arm will be weak. His weapon, even if held ready to pierce your body, will fall to the ground, and he will be at your mercy. You need not speak, and all you have to do is to go forward with this showing on your body.
Rava held in her hands two circular plates of gold, each as large as the palm of one's hand, and framed by a stone as red as coral. In the centre was the image of the god as we had seen him in the Teocalli.
There were four small holes bored through the plates, and holding one of them to my bosom she drew her needle through the holes, and skilfully fastened it there, where it was exposed to the view of all who should see me. She did the same for Aguilar , and looking at us approvingly, bade us follow her. She told us first of all, however, to take off our shoes and carry them, so that we might walk softly, and not be heard.
The passage along which we went was in darkness, but for a lamp that hung on the wall. It took a sudden bend, and then the darkness was complete.
Taking my hand in hers, Rava led me on, going softly, and Aguilar laid a hand on my shoulder so that he should not miss the way. Halting presently, she opened a door and looked in, then entered, drawing us in with her. To our alarm we were in the Teocalli. Lights were burning on the altar and showed up the terrible face of Mexitli. It had looked cruel to us when we saw it in the daytime, but in that strange light, while everything around was black, or only dimly visible, it seemed more dreadful. I fancied, while we crossed the floor stealthily, that the god's eyes followed us, and so greatly was I disturbed when we threaded our way among the pyramids of skulls that I almost expected to hear his harsh voice, bidding us return, and wait for the day of our sacrifice.
We passed through the doorway on the opposite side, but then some danger threatened, and we drew back into the shadows. It was well for us that the passage was so dark, for we saw a priest in white robes pass the golden lamp which hung on the wall, some distance from where we stood. Was he coming? Rava was startled, for she drew back with a little gasp of fear, and held my hand tightly, as if the grip would give her courage. Another priest followed at his heels. Then two more came into view, and yet a fifth.
"Are they coming our way?" I whispered, forgetting that this brave girl could not understand me: but she seemed to be thinking with me. A breath of relief escaped us when we saw the priests halt at a door, and entering, close it after them.
"Come!" whispered Rava.
Still holding my hand she went past that same door, and stood before another where it was, quite dark, since the passage had taken a sudden bend. The door opened into a long, narrow chamber, scarcely more than six feet broad, and going forward to the distant end we saw some steps. Descending them we came to a blank wall where further progress seemed impossible, but going on her knees, Rava pressed on a small stone, and the wall before us sank into the floor. Then we saw a dimly-lighted room.
It was a small chamber, so small that by the aid of the solitary lamp that hung from the ceiling we could see all that was in it. A man lay on the palm-leaf bed at our feet, and the sight of his face so startled me that I. almost cried aloud; for the sleeper was none other than Tapia the cacique.
"He is asleep," said Rava calmly.
"He will wake!" exclaimed Aguilar.
"No, he will not wake," she answered, and she looked so unconcerned that I gathered confidence. So did Aguilar who, I noticed, had his hand in his belt, as if ready to use his dagger if the cacique awoke and saw us. Rava told us presently that she had drugged his wine, and quite carelessly she stepped across Tapia's body, telling us to do the same.
When we were at her side she thrust back a panel, showed us a passage, and entered it, closing up the opening when Aguilar and I had stepped in after her. A dozen yards away the passage ended abruptly at a door which was barred and bolted. This, however, we opened in a brief space, and looked out into the forest.
Overhead were the stars. In front of us we saw a white and winding path which led down to a lake whose waters shone like silver in the clear moonlight. Away beyond it was another path which was lost in the distance.
"That is the road to Mexico," said Rava, "Follow it, and you will overtake your comrades."
She paused, and Aguilar asked her if it was not dangerous to keep the road.
"If you wear the golden discs where I have fastened them, none who are of my country will ever molest you. They are your passports throughout the empire. The people who see them will feed you if you are hungry .They will take you where you will."
With those words she bent down. Taking my hand in hers, she kissed it. She did the same to Aguilar, and waving her hand by way of farewell turned from us and entered the castle. We heard her bar the door, then came silence, and we were left alone.
END OF the second 6 chapters; click HERE for the next 6 chapters.