WE had not travelled many miles before we had the opportunity of testing the value of the Golden Passports. The moonlight which came to help us on our way soon after we had said farewell to Rava threw dense shadows everywhere, but it also lit up the country so that we could see what lay in our path. At last we came to a valley where, for a little while, we rested to enjoy the gorgeous night, and overhead in the purple heavens we saw the white stars. Around us was the hum of insect life, but nowhere did we hear anything that was human. But when we rose and went forward just at the break of day we came unexpectedly on a party of Indians.
They were seated in a circle at the foot of a mighty tree when I stepped from behind a rock and saw them there, preparing their morning meal. I must have made a sound, for the men turned suddenly, and seeing us, picked up their weapons, sprang to their feet, strung their arrows in the bows and pointed them at us.
Remembering what Rava had said, we took courage and stepped forward into the space where they could see us plainly. Apart from the fact that we had the golden discs it was the only thing we could do. It was impossible to retreat, for had we turned to reach the shelter of the trees, the arrows would have whizzed after us, and we should have fallen dead on the soil.
Aguilar, accustomed to the ways of Indians, raised his hands and made some sign they understood: "Put down your arrows!"
The Indians' faces showed their amazement, and whereas we had been confronted with death when the poisoned arrows were pointed at us, the men suffered their weapons to fall from their hands, and the half score of naked warriors fell prostrate on the ground, touching the earth with their foreheads, just as we had seen the priests go down before the god Mexitli in his temple. For a little while there was absolute silence, but for the birds and the rattle of coloured land crabs that scrambled out of our way. Neither Aguilar nor I spoke one word during that time, and so still did the Indians lie that they might well have been dead men.
At last Aguilar spoke. "Stand on your feet and listen."
"The Indians rose with a certain fearfulness, and shaded their eyes with their hands, as if they feared to look at us otherwise.
"We want food," said my companion, who had resolved to act boldly, and to test the worth of the coral-rimmed discs of gold.
No answer came, but one went to the fire and turned the deer's flesh that was cooking there, so that we heard it frizzling with a sound that added to our hunger, and made us anticipate the meal with satisfaction. Another spread some leaves on the ground and laid on them the fruit he had been carrying in a basket. Two others ran to a stream near by, and returned with some water in the earthen cups they carried at their belts, and this they placed beside the fruit. Then they waited with the others, standing in a group and displaying increasing amazement. They must have known that we were not Mexicans by our dress, but more especially because our skin differed from their own. Nor did our faces bear any likeness to their country-men. At a first glance they must have thought us Spaniards - those men who had come so suddenly into Mexico with war-horses and thunder-tubes which had filled the thousands of warriors, who had never known fear before, with panic.
It was said throughout the whole empire at the time, that Cortes was none other than Quetzalcoatl, the God of Air, who had left the country long ago, and had gone across the seas to the land of Tlapallan, because he had incurred the hatred of a god more powerful than himself . Before he had stepped into his canoe, made of the skins of serpents, he had said to those who stood upon the shore that he would come again. When Cortes came, a man with a white skin and a beard like Quetzalcoatl, many believed that he was the god returning to Mexico.
Had the people been left to themselves, remembering the old story, they would have welcomed us, believing that we were come to do them good, since, when Quetzalcoatl was in Mexico, the earth teemed with flowers and fruit, and the land was filled with plenty without the trouble of labour in the fields. The priests of other gods, however, hating the thought of the return of the God of Air, sought in every way to stir the people to resistance. When the Spaniards came, and were supposed to be the companions of the returning god, they opposed him furiously, and sacrificed our men whenever they captured them.
Many a time when we bivouacked in the forest, or in the glorious plains, sheltering beneath the shade of a gigantic tree, the Indians talked of the progress of the Spanish army, and we heard much of which we were ignorant. We were told how the Tlascalans, although they hated Montezuma the Emperor, had refused to allow the Spanish army to march through their territories, since that was the only direct way to Mexico. Consequently there had been some fearful battles, fifty thousand of their warriors, brave and disciplined, and armed more effectively than any of the Spaniards, had been sweeping down on the little army.
But Spanish valour told as it had done before. The little body of cavalry had charged into the dense masses of the Tlascalans, led superbly by Cortes, who bade his men remember that they were soldiers of the Cross. Horses as well as riders fought in these tremendous conflicts, and although some of the warriors, fighting with the energy of despair, actually flung their arms about the legs of the plunging horses, and clung to them until their own lives were battered out of them by the iron hoofs, the Spaniards cut their way through these overwhelming thousands, each man performing prodigies of valour. At the same time the cannon hurled their iron balls into the midst of the foe, cutting out lanes as it were in their fearful progress, and filling the Indians with terror. The Tlascalans were horrified at the flash of fire, and the thunder of the guns.
Fight after fight ended in the same way. Brave as the dusky warriors were, they were seized with panic when they saw their comrades falling dead about them, and heard the whistling of the musket shots which maimed them, and laid them suffering and bleeding on the battlefield.
The fights ended, so we heard when listening to what was said, in the Tlascalans withdrawing their opposition, and Xicotencatl, their great chieftain, joined his forces to those of Cortes, and became the ally of the invaders.
Other things were spoken of in those campfire talks. Montezuma had sent another embassy to Cortes. The Emperor was dismayed when he heard that the warriors of Tlascala - who were the greatest fighters in the New World - had been swept aside, not merely by the cavalry and artillery, but by the foot soldiers of Spain, who did not flinch when their enemies poured in on them, and seemed, by force of numbers, able to sweep them off their feet. The embassy brought gifts of marvellous value, but when the envoys requested that Cortes should return to his own country , and make no further advance towards the capital, the Captain-General declared that he would not turn back until he had spoken face to face with Montezuma in his palace in Mexico.
We also heard the Indians tell in their simple way how the Spaniards had desecrated their temples, and when Aguilar and I talked the matter over, we concluded that this was probably one reason why Cerralvo's party was made prisoners in Tapia's palace, and destined for death on the sacrificial stone. The story of desecration filled our companions with horror, for they were as loyal to their own religion as ever we were to ours. While we were jealous for Christians and the Cross, they were as devoted to the worship of their own gods. It was told how, in one of the cities, Cortes took his soldiers to the Teocalli, or House of God, and although the cacique, horrified at the indignity he knew was intended to be shown to the idol, called his warriors to arms, the Spaniards burst in the temple gates, pulled the idol down from its place, and hurled it down the steps before all the people, where it lay battered and broken. The Cross was reared in the god's place when the sacrificial stone, the floors, and the walls had all been cleansed of the human blood that stained them. It was a day's work that nearly led to the destruction of every Spaniard who had dared to set foot on Mexican soil, for nothing can work up the people to such a pitch of madness as any indignity shown to their religion. Only the terror Cortes inspired prevented a massacre of our countrymen.
Then there had come the strange experience in the city of Cholula. Cortes and his soldiers were welcomed and received as honoured guests, but Donna Marina, the beautiful Indian woman who was acting as interpreter, quietly called the Captain-General's attention to the meditated treachery of the Cholulans. Wealth had been lavished upon the Spaniard until even the common soldier in the ranks might have called himself rich, and was made much of by the nobles and the citizens. But here and there Donna Marina pointed to barricades in the side streets, to great stones that were piled on the flat house-tops, to holes pierced in the walls of the houses, so that arrows and darts might be shot forth into the streets when the Spaniards marched down them, and to the constant coming in of armed warriors to the city. More than that, she had discovered a conspiracy to murder Cortes, and massacre his men.
Hemmed in, as it were, by thousands of the enemy, and caught like rats in a trap, it seemed as though there was no escape for our countrymen; but as before, Cortes was equal to the emergency. After an anxious night, he sent at day-dawn for the caciques of Cholula, and the chieftains, feeling confident in their preparations, came readily. Cortes had gathered his men together, and when hen he had charged the caciques with treachery, a massacre followed. The fire of muskets came from unexpected quarters, and the Cholulans fell in scores. The massacre became more terrible still when the Spaniards, at a cry from Cortes, rushed out of hiding with drawn swords, and cut down the half-naked Indians. Soldiers were everywhere waiting for the panic-stricken ones, who fell dead before the spear thrusts of the invaders. When others came to aid the encircled Cholulans they found the streets swept by the Spanish cannon, while horses plunged into other ways where Indians were crowded, in the fierce hope of being able to succour their countrymen.
It was a terrible story to listen to. One's blood seemed to run cold as the Indians told it round the camp fire, and went on to tell how, at last, although the Spaniards had to fight their way through a perfect hail of stones and arrows, they got away from what was to have been their place of death. It was then that we heard that Cortes had gone on, that he was drawing near to Mexico, and might, before many days had gone, be in the great city itself.
There came a day in our journeying with this little Indian band, when our hearts failed us, in spite of our pretended indifference. We wondered whether our Golden Passports would avail us, and for once Aguilar and I debated seriously as to whether we would not bid the Indians lead us by another path.
We had been traversing a dense forest filled with oaks, sycamores, and cedars, but it suddenly ended on the crest of a hill which sloped down into a great valley full of fields of maize, with orchards and gardens, and flowers which made a scene so beautiful that my pen fails me when I endeavour to describe it.
In the valley, some two miles distant from the base of the slope, lay a great army. It seemed to us as we watched, that there must be fifty thousand warriors in the camp. We could see the gleam of their swords and bucklers, and polished copper spear-tops, as the sunlight played upon them, and on their helmets were the dancing feather plumes. Banners waved everywhere, and the naked painted bodies of the warriors seemed to shine, and add to the terror we experienced when we watched that formidable army.
"We may not pass through such a host, Otomi," exclaimed Aguilar, speaking to the leader of our bodyguard.
"There is no other way, lord, to the great city where Cortes is," was the warrior's answer, "But what matters it, lord, when you wear that golden disc?"
It taxed our courage, but we dared not display our fears. To us, as we passed down the mountain slope, it was as though we went to death, but since it was our only way, we suffered the Indians to carry us into the valley. We were stopped at the outside of the camp, but we lounged in the litters with apparent indifference, while Otomi, without a word, pointed to the coral-framed badges of gold on our breasts. Each man who saw them went on his knees and touched the ground with his forehead just as Otomi and the others had done.
It was a strange progress. Otomi took us through the very heart of the army, where we saw the warriors in their thousands, and the almost naked bodies striped or dotted with gaudy colours, varying according to the chieftain they served, and their weapons looking formidable as they rose and watched us. Eager glances were directed towards our litters, and many a question went as to our business. To all appearances we were Spaniards, yet those who stood far away saw those who were near to us prostrate themselves whenever Otomi pointed to the golden discs.
We passed the pavilion in the centre of the camp. Over it waved the great banner on which was displayed in gorgeous colours a white heron on a rock, and a golden eagle with outspread wings. It sparkled in the sun with precious stones, and waved slowly and yet defiantly in the breeze. At the entrance to the pavilion stood the general - a cacique of the empire - surrounded by others of lower rank. He was magnificently clad, and seemed to blaze in gold and silver armour, and the plume of feathers in his helmet gleamed with emeralds and rubies.
Stepping forward he stopped the little group of which we were the centre, and spoke to Otomi, who, as before, pointed to our breasts. The haughty Aztec bowed as the others had done when he saw the golden discs; then rising, with a puzzled look on his fine face, he asked whither we were going.
"To Mexico!" exclaimed Aguilar.
The cacique looked more puzzled, but turned and spoke to a chieftain of lower rank. This man, saluting the general, called to some of the warriors, waited until a number gathered round him, and then led the way through the wondering camp. When we were once more on the road, with the camp behind us, and the clear valley in front, he halted. He called a slave to his side, and the man came trembling.
"He is yours," said the cacique. "Eat his flesh and drink his blood."
"We want no such gift," cried Aguilar, without waiting to question me.
The cacique looked at us in wonder, beckoned to the slave to drop back into his place again; then, bowing, he and his fifty warriors, first touching the earth with their foreheads, rose and waited while we passed on. For the full space of half an hour we saw them standing there, and they were yet there when we passed into less open country, and were lost to view.
We drew a deep breath of relief when we no longer saw the army, and we spoke gratefully of Rava Oello for having given us what proved a passport through the most perilous places. She had spoken truly when she told us of the service these golden discs would render us.
I RECALL the wonder with which I gazed at the Spanish camp when I saw it in the distance. I had no thought of finding more than a few hundreds of my countrymen, and as many Indians who had gone with Cortes from Vera Cruz as carriers and servants. But now the army numbered six or seven thousand at least - warriors of Tlascala and other tribes who had become our allies, and had taken the oath to fight with us against our enemies. There were women, too, who had come with the Tlascalans, and body-servants for the higher-class cavaliers, and these being accommodated with tents which the Indians had made in return for a few paltry gifts of things that had been brought over from Spain, made a formidable display as they ranged in military lines on the extended plain. At first I thought it another camp of Indians, but as we drew nearer I saw the banner of Spain floating over the great pavilion in the centre of all, while other flags of my country were unfurled in front of various smaller tents.
When the Indians passed the sentinels, and carried our litters into the camp itself, we were soon surrounded by Spaniards who were eager to know how matters fared at Vera Cruz. Bernal, who was standing at a tent door, espied me as I stepped out of the litter. He ran towards me with open arms, and while we stood face to face, we put a score of questions to each other. To each of his I returned the briefest answers, and told him I would reply in full when I had re- ported myself to the Captain-General.
He looked at me curiously, and then espied the golden disc, which he examined curiously.
"I will tell you all about it presently," I said, when he began to question me afresh.
Turning on my heel, I crossed to the pavilion to report myself to Cortes, and before long I was telling him the story of what had transpired since I left Vera Cruz. He listened in amazement, then walked to and fro in great agitation, expressing his anxiety as to the safety of those who had been in Cerralvo's command, and who, like myself, had been held prisoners in the castle of Tapia.
It was some time before he halted and spoke to me.
"Don Martin," he said," I must be assured of the safety of those whom you left in the place from whence you have escaped, and I must ask you to help me by serving as guide to those whom I will send. Are you willing?"
When he sent for me an hour later, he told me that it was his intention to send fifty men under the command of Velasco, and it was his wish that I should accompany the rescue party, since the knowledge I had of Tapia's castle would certainly be of service. When I left the pavilion I found the camp busy preparing for the expedition. Bernal rushed in as I was coming out, but whispered to me to wait, as he was going to have an interview with Cortes. When he came out again, he linked his arm in mine, and giving me no time to say a word, he exclaimed: "The general says that I may go with you."Not waiting to say more, he left me, and hurried to his tent. I hastened after him, and watched while he looked up his weapons, and changed into his fighting garments.
"I suppose we shall have some rough work when we come to close quarters with Tapia in his mountain fastness, Martin," he cried, testing his sword before returning it to its scabbard.
"There is little doubt of that," I said, looking to my own equipment.
"There is little doubt of that," I said, looking to my own equipment.
Then the Captain-General told the men what I had related concerning the jeopardy of Cerralvo and his companions, who might by that time have been slain on the sacrificial stone in the fearful temple of the God of War.
"Are you ready to go to the rescue of your countrymen?" cried Cortes, who was standing near to the men in Velasco's force.
"We are!" came the answering shout, and every sword flashed in the sun.
Father Olmedo stepped forward and implored a blessing on our endeavour, and when his rich voice hushed, and a prolonged silence followed, we rose from our knees, and kissed our sword hilts. There followed a word of command from Velasco, and saluting the Captain-General, we marched away on our perilous expedition.
Otomi and his companions went with us willingly to act as guides, for Cortes had made them a promise of gifts so precious in the estimation of Mexicans, that their eyes flashed with satisfaction.
I need not tell of the journey. It was free of any startling events since Aguilar, who went with us, told Otomi that Velasco wished him to avoid all armies, and, as far as possible, towns and villages, so that the ground might be covered as swiftly as possible. The consequence was that before many days had passed, we were at the gate through which Cerralvo's men had entered.
Velasco selected ten of his soldiers, and having told the others to hide among the trees and await a signal, he went forward boldly, and halted in the open space. We had thought that Tapia would admit this small body of soldiers without demur, meaning to entrap them, and it was not long before we found our supposition a correct one. One of the Spaniards blew a trumpet, and not long after the sound of the ringing blast had died away, Tapia, with a number of Indians, appeared on the wall, with their arrows set in their bows.
"What want ye?" cried the cacique. "Rest and refreshment, ere we go forward to rejoin Cortes," replied Velasco, Aguilar acting as his interpreter.
"Enter and be welcome, but leave your arms outside," came the response; but Velasco answered sturdily:
"Nay, Tapia. Spanish soldiers never do that. My men always sleep under arms."
"Be it so," said the cacique; and when he had spoken a few words to the Indians about him, some of them disappeared. Before long the gate slowly opened, and then we saw Tapia just within, waiting to receive us.
There was amazement on his face when, instead of the little group of ten, full fifty Spaniards entered quickly and surrounded him. They had hastened from the trees the moment the cacique, who was the last to leave, had gone from the wall. When the Indians saw the cacique surrounded by our men, they gave utterance to loud cries of anger, and the arrows of at least two hundred warriors were pointed at us. There was not a moment to be lost, and Aguilar, not waiting for Velasco to give instructions, spoke aloud:
"If an arrow leaves its bow, your lord dies!"
While he was saying these words Velasco gave a command, and half a dozen Spanish swords were pointed at Tapia's bosom.
"Speak, Tapia," exclaimed the captain. "Tell your warriors to throw their weapons to the floor, or I will bid my men thrust their swords into your body."
The cacique looked at Velasco, and saw it was no idle threat. He cried aloud, and hundreds of arrows rattled on the floor, then the bows.
At another cry the Indians stepped back in sullen silence.
"Tapia, your men must disarm completely," said Velasco. "There shall be no room left for treachery such as was dealt out to Cerralvo and his soldiers."
The cacique, however, was slow to respond . "Tell them, instantly," cried the captain, decisively. "I will have no delay ."
Saying this he drew his own dagger from his belt, and a man of Tapia's quick perception could not mistake the look on Velasco's face. At once he spoke in an angry tone, and every dagger was taken from the belts of the warriors, and rang on the stones at their feet.
Even now Velasco was not satisfied, for he, said yet more to the cacique.
"Tell off some of your men to gather these weapons into a heap here, in the middle of the floor."
I have often thought of the cool nerve of Velasco, who spoke in a determined tone, but seemed to be in no hurry. Not only so, but when some Indian slaves had come forward and picked up the weapons, he gave other directions, bidding them not throw them in a heap, but carry the bundles of arrows and the like under their arms and stand in a group among our men, who were told to hold them in check, and see that none of them slipped away.
Now that the warriors were disarmed, we had so much less to fear in the matter of attack. Velasco's deliberation astonished Tapia considerably. Standing within what one might call a gleaming wall of swords, the cacique looked at his slaves, and then at the captain, but did not speak.
"Lead the way, Tapia, to some chamber where I may talk with you," said Velasco.
For a moment the cacique hesitated, but realising that he had no alternative but to obey, he began to move forward slowly. I knew every step of the way he took, and I think he had the hope of finding some possible escape, but Velasco was alert, and would not suffer him to advance a yard without being surrounded by a strong cordon of Spaniards with ready swords. I know that he would not have hesitated to take the risks, and would have plunged his keen blade into the thinly clad body, had Tapia shown the slightest sign of treachery. It was Velasco's determination to gain absolute possession of the castle, and prosecute his search for our missing countrymen, with the aid of the Mexican noble, if possible, but without him if Tapia proved obstinate or treacherous.
Before long we reached the banquet chamber , and some of the Indian attendants attempted to enter with their master. Velasco waved them back with his hand. They had marched side by side with our men along the passages, and from the looks on their faces we feared that in spite of the gleaming swords which looked so terrible, they would fling themselves upon us, so that in the confusion Tapia might find an opportunity of escape.
I had wondered what effect our golden discs would have had, but Aguilar, talking the matter over with me, while we were on the road, thought that it would not be wise to display them lest we might bring trouble to Rava Oello. Consequently they were not exposed to view, and we agreed not to use them except in emergency
The Spaniards filed in with the cacique in the midst, but five of our soldiers were stationed outside to keep watch, and guard against surprise. Halting in the center of the chamber. Tapia angrily bade Velasco state his business, since he had no desire to waste his time in this manner. While he spoke he caught sight of me for the first time, and a strange look came into his face. He pointed to me.
"You want to ask me questions; but what is the need, when you have that boy to tell you all you wish to know?"
"Nay, Tapia, 'tis for you to answer such questions as I may put to you. Listen. You received into this castle a score of my countrymen, the chief of whom was Cerralvo, one of the ablest soldiers. You also had Don Martin, here," added Velasco, laying his hand on my shoulder. "Him and Aguilar, who stands by my side, you gave to the priests for sacrifice, in spite of all your protestations of friendship. But by the mercy of God they escaped, and telling us what they knew, we have come for our missing comrades. Where are they?"
A stubborn look came into the Mexican's face, and with a readiness that astounded me he gave a lying answer.
"This boy was here, and the man Aguilar; but none other of your countrymen have been here1 and therefore I can tell you nothing of them. Now I pray you be gone, and leave me in my home in peace."
"In peace?" , cried Velasco, angrily. "Nay , there will be no peace for you until I have my countrymen here - every one of them. Tapia, you have lied to me. If you lie further, and refuse to bring Cerralvo and his comrades here, I will pull down this castle about your ears, and then, if I fail, I will bury you alive in the ruins."
There was no mistaking the cavalier's tone, and Tapia, who looked at him with an attentive gaze, showed by his face that he realized that he was confronted by a soldier who would stand no trifling.
"Come with me," he said, and he led the way through the same door we had passed when he was acting the host to Cerralvo. We passed through the same apartments and entered the treasure chamber.
Tapia, in an apparently careless way, walked towards the wall where he and I and Aguilar had fallen when it opened, but Aguilar stepped forward to prevent him.
"Not so, Tapia," he cried. "You passed that way once, but you shall not pass it again."
Holding back the cacique at arm's length, and even presenting the point of his sword at the Mexican's bosom, he told of what had chanced in this same chamber, and how he and I had been dragged through the space in the opening wall.
"You lie," exclaimed Tapia, angrily, when Aguilar repeated to him in the Mexican tongue what he had just told us - Nay, the lie is yours. See, I will stand as I saw you stand, Tapia. It was thus."
Aguilar stood with his back against the wall, and held out his hands, but it did not move.
The cacique spoke derisively. "Did the wall stay so?" he asked. "Nay, it fell back, and you know it." answered Aguilar, in no sense discomposed. "The difference is this, that I know not where the secret spring is, and you do; and all that the captain has to do is, either to pull up the stones of the floor one by one, or save himself the trouble by going the quicker way, and putting you to the torture. He could thus wring out the secret from you."
"Think you that I would tell anyone the secrets of my palace?" cried the cacique. "Nay, I tell you nothing."
He flung himself upon a heap of cushions, and watched in sullen silence while Aguilar explained what had passed between them in that short colloquy. Strangely enough, we had not noticed that while he did this so naturally, he had come so near to the wall that he could touch it by stretching out his hand. And that, indeed, he did, moving swiftly. His fingers pressed upon a stone hard by, the floor gave way, as it had done before, the wall itself opened sufficiently wide for a man to pass through.
Then, while everybody watched the moving stones in astonishment, Tapia sprang to his feet, made for the open space, and before a hand could be moved to hinder him, he was gone, and the wall closed up with a heavy thud which shook the floor.
IT is difficult to describe the consternation and disgust on every face when we found how the wily cacique had duped us. The thought that he was on the other side of the wall, probably laughing at our discomfiture, was maddening. But more than being the laughing - stock of the Mexican cacique was the fact that Tapia was free to muster his warriors, and might in his own way and time work out our destruction.
Velasco was not a man to bemoan his misfortune, and do no more. He saw our danger, and prepared to meet it.
"Did anyone see where the cacique's fingers went?" he asked.
"I did," said Bernal, who was at my side; and stepping forward, he went on his knees, and pressed his thumb on a spot on the floor. It looked like a dark thumb-mark on the white marble, close to where the stone slabs joined together, and while he pressed on it, the wall began to move, as before, and the floor itself sank a little.
"Take the risks, men!" cried Velasco, going to the entrance. His quick eye and ready wit showed him how it was possible to hold back the door, so that it should not close suddenly and shut off any of those who ventured forward from the others who remained in the chamber. He drew his dagger and thrust it into a crack where there seemed to be a hinge, and with this he was able to make a wedge of his steel blade so that the stone remained immovable. Giving the handle a wrench, and snapping off the steel close to the stonework, he removed in this manner all traces of what held back the stone in case any of the Indians followed, and sought to close up the exit.
"Now for the risks," the captain exclaimed, himself the first to take them by plunging int the opening. It meant a downward jump three or four feet, and then we were in the same dark passage as that which Aguilar and had been dragged into.
It was not total darkness, however, for a silver lamp hung burning on the wall, and taking it down, Velasco led the way.
Aguilar and I, knowing the place by terrible experience, hurried to his side, and before long we came to the Teocalli - the dreadful House of God where we had seen Mexitli so often. The god was yet there, with his bow and golden arrows. The pyramids of skulls were untouched, and the sacrificial stone we knew too well was there.
Instead of human hearts, as we had seen before, there now lay a white naked body; and going forward hastily, we saw by the light of the lamps that it was the dead body of a Spaniard. We knew his face, and all who saw it uttered the name.
"Mendoza!" It was Mendoza the jeweller, and already the priests had begun to use the sacrificial knife upon him.
"Was he the only one?" we asked, full of grief at the thought that one of our countrymen had died in so dreadful a manner - sacrificed on the altar of an idol.
There was no one to answer, and although we knew that our position was one of extreme peril, we lingered a while by our dead comrade. There was absolute silence, save for an occasional deep breath of sorrow or an exclamation of anger, but the silence was presently broken by the sound like the rolling down of some of the skulls on one of those pyramids I have spoken of. Three or four of the men heard it, and there was a rush, then a cry and a scuffle, and the soldiers came forth dragging with them a priest whose robe was spotted with blood.
"Aguilar," cried Velasco, "come forward and tell this priest, if he be such, that we must have some news concerning our comrades."
Aguilar spoke, but the priest stood in sullen silence. Not one word would he answer, nor did he give any sign of having understood what was said. The men were angry at his stubborn refusal to speak, and demanded that torture should be applied to compel him to say something. They took him by force, when they had carefully removed Mendoza's body from the sacrificial stone, and flung him on it with a roughness which extorted a cry of pain. Tearing his linen robes into strips, they bound him hand and foot on the altar; and that having been done, the man lying helpless, Aguilar spoke to the priest as Velasco directed. He told him that he must give the information desired, or he would be put to torture so terrible that I shuddered when I listened.
The man, however, did not answer, and only when a dagger had been thrust in slowly, and touched a spot where human endurance could bear no more, did he show any signs of flinching, or reply to the questions that were put to him.
"Where are the Spaniards who came hither?" asked Aguilar, repeating words he had uttered more than once, but to which no response had come.
"In the priest's chamber," gasped the man. "Where is that?" said Velasco.
"'Tis the third chamber on the left," cried the priest, screaming with agony as the Spaniard with the dagger gave it a cruel twist. Yet none of us could pity the suffering man, for we thought of our comrades.
Aguilar and I knew the door well, for we had passed it frequently when we were undergoing our preparations for the day of sacrifice. It was one of many others, and so alike were the outside doors, that we had to count them to tell our own room from the others. My dread increased when the place was named, for Aguilar and I had often heard the screams of victims, and wondered whether any Spaniards were among them.
When the priest had made his answer we hurried to the room, but the door was fastened. Some of the men, however, raised their battleaxes, and in a short time an entrance was effected. In a moment or two I was in Padillo's arms, and Cerralvo, with five others, was receiving the greetings of the rescuers. But these were all we found in the chamber out of all the eighteen men we had left behind us, when Aguilar escaped with me from Tapia's castle.
"Where are the others?" asked Velasco, looking round, astounded to think that these were all who remained.
"I know not," gasped Cerralvo, who, like his comrades, was faint from starvation and anxiety .Some of us gave them food out of the store we carried with us, and after a while we heard the story.
When Tapia had disappeared, taking Aguilar and me with him, the door had rolled back into its place quickly, and the Spaniards were left in the chamber in semidarkness. Filled with consternation they looked about. There was no doubt in their minds as to the treachery that had been contemplated, and Cerralvo, taking brief council with his companions, determined to fight his way out of the castle, and take the risks in the open country. Seeing to their arms and armour, the men followed the captain to the door by which they had entered the treasure chamber. When they flung it open they saw that the passage outside was empty, and fearing an ambuscade, they proceeded cautiously.
stronghold. It seemed that all they had to do was to unbar the gates and go forth, and for this purpose one of the cavaliers went forward. He met with instant death, for a great stone fell on him from the ceiling and crushed him. Thinking that this was an accident, another stepped forward, avoiding his dead comrade and the fallen stone, but no sooner had his hands touched the bar than another well-hewn rock dropped, and crushed out his life.
The Spaniards were filled with consternation, being convinced now that they were entrapped. They began to fear that all were doomed - that the whole ceiling might fall on them and leave none alive to tell the story; and such was their terror that they turned to retreat in order to find some other exit. Mexicans in war apparel were pouring in upon them. The passage by which they had entered the hall was filled with men whose arrows were strung in the bows or whose darts were held in readiness to be hurled at them. Even the hall itself was filling fast for doors were opening on all sides, and men were crowding through them. To go down the passage was impossible, for it would be but hewing the way down a human lane where men were ready to block the path.
"Follow me" cried Cerralvo, and he dashed forward to a door near by, sweeping his battleaxe to and fro, and at every sweep clearing a path for himself to take, and for the others to follow in. Then came a perfect rain of arrows, alike from those who were in the castle hall, and from the ceiling.
Looking up, the men saw unexpected openings there, from whence warriors were hurling darts and shooting arrows incessantly. The helmets, however, proved a great protection. It is true that several of our countrymen were wounded, but they fought on, and finally were able to force their way into an apartment where they had not such odds to contend with. After some further fierce fighting, during which three of Cerralvo's men were killed while holding the door, the sound of battle ceased. The great chamber had heaps of dead upon the floor, and those who were not killed escaped through various doorways.
No further assault was made, and the castle seemed to settle down to silence. The suggestion came that an attempt at escape through the windows should be made, but it was found that the walls on that side of the palace were built on a sheer precipice, and to climb out would be to court a terrible fall of a hundred and fifty feet. Hour after hour passed, and the men remained in the room, distressed from want of food. When, now and again, one ventured to open the door to see whether the Mexicans were outside, he was greeted with a shower of arrows, so that it was clear that escape was every way impossible.
Two days and two nights passed, and during all that time neither food nor water passed their lips. The men began to feel faint from hunger, so that when a stone moved over the door, and Tapia leaned through the open space and spoke, the Spaniards fell in with his compromise. The cacique, on Cerralvo's pledge of safety being given, entered the apartment, and began to make proposals. He said that he was only concerned to keep Cerralvo and his men from going forth to strengthen the hands of Cortes, and if they would take solemn oath not to escape, but lie in idleness, they should have food, and live in comfort for the space of a month, and after that they should go forth, free men.
There was no alternative but to accept the terms, and although they had little faith in Tapia's honesty, they were suffering so much from hunger and thirst that they preferred to take the risks rather than starve. The cacique himself led the way to the chamber where we had found them, and ordered food to be brought, sitting with them and eating from the same dishes, and drinking from the same flagons, to assure his prisoners that the food and wine were not poisoned.
At night they lay down to sleep, placing two of their number on the watch while the others took their rest. These, however, after a while, worn out by suffering, fell asleep, and with the others awoke at last to the terrible reality of Tapia's perfidy. Some of his men during the night had crept in, none knew how, and took their weapons away, so that when they awoke they found themselves defenceless. At the same time they discovered that a half of their number were missing.
So the days had gone. No food was brought, nor had they, from the hour when Tapia bade them goodnight, seen any other human face than their own. They were there, in hopeless misery , none knowing what an hour might bring.
Some of our party had remained with the priest who lay on the sacrificial stone, and Velasco, his face dark with anger, and his eyes flashing, went to the bound man.
"Priest," he cried, "you have but told me a part of the story. Where are the others of my countrymen?"
"Dead," came the answer."All?"
"Yes. They were brought here in turn at intervals, and offered in sacrifice," was the response.
"How shall we know that you speak the truth?" asked Velasco, speaking savagely." 'Their bodies lie in the chamber behind the god," said the priest in hopeless tones, for he felt that he would not now be set free.
Entering the place we found that he had spoken truly. The Spaniards lay there, dead. Each body was stripped, as Mendoza's was, and out of each chest the heart had been torn by the priests. We knew the faces, and counting the numbers, found that none were missing. All who had made up Cerralvo's party, allowing for those who had been killed in the fight, were accounted for, so that no further search was made.
Now came the question as to whether we should find ourselves entrapped like our comrades, and had it not been for some strange good fortune we might never have got out alive. Entering one of the rooms we found the high priest, and several others of lower rank. Aguilar told them what he wanted - a safe and rapid exit. The answer was an instant and uncompromising refusal to show the way.
"You really mean that?" exclaimed Velasco, turning to the high priest.
"Yes," came the emphatic reply. "Then I shall put every one of you in turn to the torture, for we mean to get away from this place," cried Velasco.
"That I cannot help," was the calm rejoinder.
When the captain gave the order to strip them one by one, terror shook their stolidity. They had heard the screams of the priest who had already been flung on the sacrificial stone, and the prospect of similar suffering broke down their resolution. One after another yielded before they were put to pain, and in a short time we were being led through passages which seemed strangely familiar to me.
The chief acted as leader and showed the way through the treasure chamber. There we halted, and Velasco, bidding every man take with him as much as he could carry, promising to divide it all fairly when we were outside, we were soon laden with wealth. Some of the rooms and passages through which we passed when we had taken what treasure we could carry, were those through which Aguilar and I were led by Rava Oello, and at last the stone in the castle wall sank down, and our men filed out quickly into the forest.
Council was taken when we had been an hour on the way, and it was decided not to allow the priests to leave us, but hold them as hostages for our safe march through the country to the camp of Cortes.
WE knew that in, these priests we had men to deal with who were as wily as Tapia himself, and consequently there was always a sense of insecurity. Of their promises we took no notice, for with them words were very cheap, and falsehood was a thing in which they indulged with an ease that was astounding. They proceeded on the principle that it was meritorious to deceive when there was any service to be rendered to their god, or to their own order, so that they felt justified in lying repeatedly to Velasco. More than once they misled us, and we experienced trouble in consequence.
On one occasion the captain stripped a priest who had so wantonly deceived us, and bade one of the soldiers beat him with a slim and supple rod which had been cut from one of the trees. The man's screams moved even the stolid priests, and where, at first, they watched the flogging with a certain amount of disdain, they now cried to Velasco to bid the soldier desist.
"'Tis just punishment for lying that might have led to our destruction," cried Velasco. "Give the priest ten strokes more, Verdugo."
This severity was a lesson to the man himself, and to his companions also, for two or three days passed, during which they all seemed tractable, and willing to please. They grew refractory when on our coming to a great pyramid, we entered it by a doorway in one of the sides.
"'Tis sacrilege," cried Coatepec, the high priest. "Why do you enter a temple which is sacred to our god?"
Velasco looked around. "I do not wish to intrude on what you deem sacred, Coatepec," he answered in a conciliatory tone. "I had no idea that it was such," he added; and turning round he walked out, calling on his men to follow him.
Standing outside, we gazed at the great square structure. It was formed in terraces one above another, and those who wished to ascend did so by passing from one terrace to another by flights of stone steps. Time had spoilt the beauty of the pyramid. The wind and the tropical rains, perhaps of centuries, had worn away the cleanly - cut edges, and from the base, on up to the apex of the mighty structure, prickly pears, aloes, and mesquite bushes had overgrown the stonework, so that it would only have been possible to pass along the marble paved terraces by cutting away this mass of vegetation.
From our standing place we could see that the top of the pyramid was flat, and Velasco, thinking that we might obtain a view of the country, determined to mount to the summit, and scanning the country from so high a stand - point, discover whether any great Indian army was within sight, and likely to bar the way to the Spanish camp. Coatepec was standing by his side apparently satisfied in having made a successful protest against intrusion into the Teocalli, or temple of the god. He took the trouble to explain to Velasco, through Aguilar, who interpreted, that this particular pyramid was not merely a temple, but that it was the entrance to the Micaotli, or the path of the dead, and no Mexican liked to feel that this sacred path was polluted by the feet of strangers.
Velasco laughed. "No pollution comes, Coatepec, where Spaniards tread. The pollution is to them, because the feet of Christians touch the ground which is trodden so often by heathens and heretics."
A dark look of anger swept across the priest's face."You insult us at every turn, lord," he answered. "Can you not see that what is a thing of contempt for you may be something very sacred to us?"
"No, I cannot," exclaimed Velasco, bluntly. "I count nothing sacred that is not under the shadow of the Cross, and this temple of yours is, to me, a place that ought to be swept clean, even with fire, if needs be."
Coatepec turned his back on the captain, and walked away in anger. With him went the other priests, and none thought it necessary to follow them as they ascended the pyramid, believing that they could go as far as the summit, and no farther. The Mexicans quickened their pace, and when they saw that the Spaniards were still halting, indifferent to their departure, they broke into a run, gained the steps which led to the first terrace, and then began to hurry on until, passing the bushes which obstructed the way, they reached the steps of the second terrace. Up these they were mounting also, when Cerralvo began to realise that the priests had some motive in making this hurried ascent.
"They mean to evade us," he cried. "How can they do that?" asked Velasco, incredulously.
"I do not know," said Cerralvo, "but I would never trust these priests. They are so astute and subtle that you cannot compass their intentions. They will cheat you when you think you have reason to trust them most. Is it not so, Aguilar? You ought to know, since you have lived with the Indians so many years."
"You are right, captain," answered Aguilar. "It were best to overtake them."
"Then after them," cried Velasco, who now seemed to realise that all was not as it should be.
Going forward at a run, he mounted the steps with agility, in spite of the fact that his armour was heavy, and that his weapons did not conduce to his speed. After him went every man in his company, some close at his heels; others, already tired, and Cerralvo's men especially, who were not yet fully recovered from their privations in Tapia's stronghold, went on more slowly, so that there was soon a straggling line of men mounting from terrace to terrace.
At first, when the chase began, it seemed to many of us a mere matter of following the priests to the top of the pyramid, but as we went on, and saw them going with increasing speed, widening the distance between us and themselves, we began to wonder what their motive was.
At last the Mexicans reached the summit, but there they disappeared, just as it the huge structure had suddenly opened, and the priests had dropped through the rift into the pyramid's bowels.
We were breathless when Velasco and some of us reached the spot where we lost sight of the escaping men. The Spaniards were straggling up the side of the mighty mound of stone, some on the lower terraces even now, others, short of breath, coming up the steps with slackening pace, and some fain to sit and rest, or stand to recover their lessened activity.
There were four of us besides Velasco on the top, and we found ourselves on a flat platform some thirty or forty feet square. In the centre stood the image of a god, and from the golden rim about his head like a nimbus, we concluded that this was one of the sun gods. In front of him was a sacrificial stone from which even .the torrents of rain which fell at certain seasons had not washed the stains of human blood. Near by a great drum, on which one of the priests would beat, so that the sound of it, echoing among the mountains which surrounded us, should call out the Mexicans from all quarters in that part of the country, to see the sacrifice of victims offered to the Sun. Horns lay on the floor, and trumpets of silver, which were blown to the beating of the drum on the day of sacrifice.
We had thought to find the priests here, but when we looked around they were nowhere to be seen. Thinking to find them crouching on the farther side of the sacrificial stone, we went thither, only to find that they were not there. We had seen them reach this place, but now they had vanished. There was not a trace of their presence. We went to the edge of the platform and looked down each side of the pyramid, thinking that they might be descending in order to reach the plain, or reach the door which led within; but not one of the Mexicans was in view. Here and there we saw a Spaniard, but no white garment fluttered anywhere. There was nothing to suggest the presence of any priest.
We gazed at each other in consternation, for this escape of Coatepec and his companions meant extreme peril to us. They were our hostages to take us through the country which might at any time be filled with an overwhelming army. We walked about on the platform, looking for any sign of an opening in the floor , but it was in vain. We stamped on the stones to hear if there was any hollow sound, but nothing resulted from it.
We stood dumbfounded, and as the Spaniards came up to the platform in twos and threes, and expected to find the priests in a huddled mass, giving what explanation they could of this escapade, they looked astonished, and asked for an explanation.
There was not one man among them all who did not realise the consequences, and some began to talk of our destruction as certain.
There was a short debate, Velasco and Cerralvo standing with their backs against the sacrificial stone, while others crowded round them.
The last of our company had mounted to the summit, and none were missing. But we could readily understand how, if the priests had time, they could call thousands upon thousands of Indians about the great mound, and these, if they could not carry the platform by storm, could hem us in, and watch us die of starvation.
"Throw down the idol, and set up the Cross!" cried one of the soldiers. His suggestion was applauded, and before many minutes had gone, the idol fell on the floor with a crash. The great rim of gold, which encircled its head, broke away at the fall, and slid along to my feet, where for the time it lay unregarded. The idol itself was picked up by a dozen men, carried to the edge, and when it had swung to and fro with steady movement for a moment or two, at a word from Velasco it was tossed out into the air. It fell on the steps below, rebounded and went crashing down and down, sliding across the terraces in its way, and down other flights of marble steps, until it rolled, a shapeless, beaten mass, on the ground at the base of the pyramid.
The men now turned their attention to the great drum; and this, too, with the trumpets and horns, went hurtling through the air, the drum itself giving forth an awful note each time it struck against anything, until it lay, a broken thing, among some bushes which stayed its progress.
There now remained the sacrificial stone, and the men crowded round it to overturn it, and roll it to the edge. While some of them were standing on the part where the idol had stood, one of the men cried out in alarm. He felt the ground giving way at his feet, and to save himself, he gripped his fellows on both sides of him. Fortunately they were strong, and bore his weight, while the ground on which they stood was firm. They pulled him back, and no sooner had they done so than they shouted in surprise. Below them was an open space - an entrance to a hidden staircase which descended into the darkness.
The disappearance of the priests was now explained. Coatepec knowing of this secret way, and revolving in his busy mind the possibilities of getting away from us, he had given the signal, gained a lead, and with his subordinates hurried to the top of the pyramid, and so escaped. There was no doubt in our minds that he was somewhere in the heart of the pyramid, with his companions, where, because of the darkness of a place we did not know anything of, they were safe from discovery . At first it seemed to us impossible to follow. Our only course was, apparently, to descend the steps and terraces, resuming our journey without our hostages, and take the risks.
While the captain and men were debating as to the course that should be pursued, Aguilar went down the steps alone. Bernal and I watched him, giving a ready ear in case he should cry out for assistance, and presently he went out of sight, apparently swallowed up by the darkness. He was so long away, as it seemed to us, that we were preparing to go in search of him.
"Do not go, senors," said Padillo. "One is enough to lose."
We laughed at his words, and already my foot was on the step ready for the descent, when Aguilar's head came into view out of the darkness, and then his whole body. In his hand was a lamp which burnt but dimly in the blazing sunshine.
"There are more lamps below," he said, when he placed the flickering light on the top - most step. "What is more; there is a priest close by," he added, with a satisfied look on his face, "and he is waiting for us, if we are not too long in going to him."
"Where's your belt, Aguilar? " I cried, for I saw that it was missing from his waist. "I will explain presently," he said, chuckling, "but ask the captain to come here, and ask him to come quickly."
IN a moment or two Velasco and Cerralvo were at the steps, and the other Spaniards were crowding round to know what was happening.
"I have a priest below, senors," said Aguilar, with a grim look on his face, " and if you care to venture with me, he will prove a guide to something useful."
"We will come," exclaimed Velasco, always ready to take the risks, and too proud to allow anyone to suppose that he could have a moment's fear. No sooner did Aguilar take the lamp in hand again, and turn to descend the steps with drawn sword, than Velasco and Cerralvo followed, while every man on the platform crowded after them, seeing to their weapons as they went.
Bernal and I were at Cerralvo's heels, and Padillo, always jealous for my safety, was so close, that more than once I felt his toe strike against my heel. At the second bend of the narrow staircase we came to a broad landing where a score of men could stand. On it lay a priest whose arms were bound down to his side with Aguilar's belt, which was strapped so tightly that the man's hands and lower arms looked numb. His feet were tied together by strips tom from his white robe, so that he was absolutely helpless.
"Coatepec!" cried Velasco, when he bent over the man, and held the lamp so that the light might fall on his face. Yes, senor," interposed Aguilar. "I found three or four of them here, and a fine time we had when I met them. There was a desperate fight which ended in the others going down the steps in a screaming bunch, while Coatepec, who had fallen, was senseless, and therefore at my mercy. Now, senors, 'tis for you to deal with him. He is the best hostage one could have, and I hope we shall not lose him again."
"I will see to that, Aguilar," was Velasco's response; and bending down again, he found that the priest was conscious. As we watched we saw the Mexican's malignant look, and presently he began to curse us, Lifting him roughly, and placing him with his back against the wall, his feet still bound, Velasco bade Aguilar question him as to the exit. His only answer was a repetition of the curses until Aguilar, understanding the meaning of them, and knowing how terrible they were, struck him across the mouth, and bade him be careful lest he should be treated yet more roughly. Coatepec's lips bled with the force of the blow, but even then he did not cease until Velasco knelt with one knee on the floor, and slit the bands at the priest's ankles with his dagger.
Placing the priest between them, Velasco and Cerralvo, each with a drawn sword in one hand, and a bared dagger in the other, descended the stairs, following Aguilar, who boldly led the way. He knew no fear. Here and there he halted and lit a lamp which he passed to us who were following to be carried carefully. Before long every man had a lamp in one hand, and a bare sword in the other.
We came to a door, and entered, in spite of the priest's protests. It was a large chamber , and at one end was an image of a god like that which we had already tossed down the pyramid's side. An altar was there, and on it lay a golden sacrificial knife.
Descending again by a narrow winding staircase which would barely take us in couples, we stood on another landing. Here we found a dead priest. He must have been one of those who had been fighting with Aguilar. He had undoubtedly fallen in his flight down the stairs, for his neck was broken.
Here again was a door which we thrust wide open, in spite of Coatepec's protestations. It was filled with priests' garments, and such things as they wore and used when engaged in their priestly functions. Trifles of value were lying about, and the men helped themselves before we quitted the place.
Finally we came to a great chamber similar in size to that in Tapia's stronghold where the great altar stood. But instead of one altar we found more than a score, ranged round the walls. Behind each altar was an image of a god, made of dark red wood which I have since heard called mahogany. The bodies of the gods were decked with gold and silver. There were golden aureoles about the heads, solid golden belts about the waists, collars of silver richly chased, bracelets of the same precious metal around each wrist and ankle, and in the right hand of each god a long golden spear, one end of which rested on the ground.
There was a pause when we had all entered, and began to gaze about curiously. Between each god was a silver lamp on a golden stand, and each lamp was burning at the time. At one end of the chamber was a door, bolted on the side within this great place. Drawing the bolts, Velasco flung the door wide open, and then we heard a woman's cry as of fear. Another woman also cried, and I thought it was a plea for mercy.
Stepping in with one or two others, I saw that the place was full of half-naked Indians, some of them women, the others men, all with their hands bound so that they could not use them. There were nearly fifty of them, and among the captives were Otomi and his companions. They had been captured, and flung into this place, with the others, to be sacrificed. It was to be their punishment for having acted as guides to the Spaniards.
We released them all, and bade them consider themselves at liberty. They fell on their knees and kissed our feet and hands; then rising to go away, they stripped from their bodies such valuables as they had, as if to pay for having saved them from death. Bracelets, anklets, belts of silver, some collars also of silver that were jewelled; but Velasco and Cerralvo, speaking together for a moment or two, forbade us to accept them. He would not have us rob those whose lives had just been spared. Not knowing the way out of the pyramid any more than ourselves, the Indians, fastening on their bodies the valuables that had been restored to them, remained in our company, to be under our protection.
When we had walked through two or three large chambers we came to a broad corridor, at the end of which was a spacious hall. Here was the largest image of a god we had yet seen. It must have stood thirty feet high, and the golden spear in its hand nearly touched the roof. A great doorway was immediately in the front of the image, and at a word from Velasco, some of our men unbolted it, and drew it open.
Before us was the open country, and far away in the distance were the hills down whose beautiful valleys we had come before we reached the plain. Villages dotted plain and hillside, and we shuddered at the thought that Coatepec might well have summoned the warriors from them to hem us in and slay us.
While some kept guard over the priest, and others stood to hold the entrance in case any of our enemies might be lurking near, and should suddenly make a rush in upon us, the captains and their principal men held a short council to decide what to do.
"Burn down the place, and destroy these gods," cried one. There was an instant and loud response:
"Burn down the place! Destroy the gods!" Velasco made no protest, nor did Cerralvo. But first of all, when the destruction of the temple was decided on, the men went hither and thither to collect the gold they had seen. Some came back laden with golden collars and anklets, and the belts which were on the idols. More than one brought great golden suns they had found hanging on the walls of the rooms we had not entered, while others carried the heavy golden spears they had taken from the hands of the images.
Laying these in piles outside, and setting some men to guard them in case the priests might be somewhere near, Velasco and Cerralvo began the work of destruction. In the store rooms were vast quantities of wood and straw; oil, I also, was found in one of the cellars. Wherever there was any woodwork some of the wood and straw was placed, oil poured over this, and set ablaze. About each idol was a separate fire, and oil was dashed over the images, so that they might soon be wrapt in flames.
In an hour the interior of the pyramid was a mass of fire. The flames licked up the oil, the straw, the wooden faggots, and the idols. The panels of red wood were blazing, and along every passage, up every staircase, and in every room the flames rushed, and the smoke poured out in a fierce red cloud, from which at last we had to retreat, so terrific was the heat. When Coatepec saw what we were doing, he danced with rage; then cursed us; and finally sat on the ground and wept with grief. But none among us pitied him. He had been cruel and treacherous, and there was no pity in anyone's heart.
The Indians who had been released lingered to watch the flames. Although it was a temple of their god, they displayed no sorrow when they saw the flames devouring it. If they had thought that their gods could defend themselves, and avenge what the white conquerors had done, they were undeceived, and soon began to realise that the images they worshipped were helpless, and had no power.
At last the flames died down. The temple was ruined. The pyramid still stood, for it was too massive to be broken down. But as a temple it was useless. Its gods were destroyed. Its altars could no more be used for human sacrifice, since they had been split up in the fearful heat, and lay in ruins.
An hour later we were on the move. The Indians whom we had liberated, when Velasco promised them a reward for any services they rendered, lent us a helping hand in carrying the precious things we had found in the temple for in addition to what the gods had on their bodies there were many vessels of gold, and other things of worth, which we did not want to leave behind us. Otomi, asking if he might do so, told the Indians how to set about their task, and with little delay we were marching on slowly, enriched by what we had found, following the lead of the Mexican who had been so faithful a guide. We took Coatepec with us as a hostage for our safety, and he, yielding to the inevitable, knowing that he was powerless in our hands, and knowing, too, that if he dealt treacherously, he would be slain, went on the long and weary way sullenly. Whenever we halted he was surrounded by a ring of men to guard against his escape. At night he was bound at the feet; in the day the thongs were taken from his ankles, but his hands were never free. If we passed through any villages - as we were sometimes compelled to do, since there was no way round - the men closed in about him. He was told that he would be shot down if he attempted to escape, and knowing that we were in deadly earnest, he went forward. He bargained with us, however, that as soon as we came within a mile of the Spanish camp he should be set free, and this was agreed to. We did not want his company an hour longer than was necessary to secure our passage through a country where there was danger for us night and day, and his death was not a thing we desired.
At last in the distance we saw the camp of Cortes, and the Spanish banner waving proudly in the breeze. When we were a mile away Coatepec halted, and demanded his liberty. At a nod from Velasco, Aguilar slit his bonds with his dagger, and the priest was free to go. When he found that he was no longer bound, he turned towards Velasco and Cerralvo. I had never seen so evil a look on any man's face before. But he said not a word. He simply spat on the ground in token of contempt and hate, then swung round on his heel, and with down - bent head, and clenched hands, he walked away swiftly towards a village in the distance, and after awhile he passed out of sight.
Less than an hour later we were in the camp.
WHEN we overtook Cortes we found that the Spanish army had descended from the mountains of Chalco to the valley of Tenochtitlan, after having obtained a magnificent view of the distant city of Mexico. We had seen it ourselves when we were travelling the mountain road. Beautiful as the country we had already traversed was, there was nothing so enchanting to the eye as this. Here and there were mighty forests, and about them ranged great sweeps of country that were golden with the ripening maize, while gardens with lakes and fountains in them were everywhere. In some places there were masses of colour - the colour of myriads of flower beds which the priests cultivated for use in their many religious festivals. Far beyond lay great lakes, on whose shimmering waters were the floating gardens of which we had heard so much; and here, as in the other royal gardens, we saw the gilded roofs of pleasure houses, which were dazzling in the sunshine.
Beyond these again lay the city of Mexico, to reach which we had faced so many dangers, and had fought such terrible battles. It lay bathed in sunlight, like a city of gold, with streaks of silver running in all directions. The gilded roofs and domes of the palace gave us this impression, while the streams that ran in all directions through the city gleamed in silvery light, and lent to Mexico that unwonted aspect which rendered it unlike any other in the whole wide world. The Mexicans whom we met called it the Pride of the World, and we did not wonder at their doing so; for at the first glance the men of Cortes's army cried out that the walls were of silver, and the roofs of gold, and they almost hugged each other at the thought of the wealth they would take back to Spain.
On the day of our arrival we found every Spaniard taking his part in the formation of three sides of a square, and in the fourth side stood Cortes with his chief officers. Without waiting to receive any greeting, we stood in line with the others, and watched. For coming slowly were some caciques who were being borne in golden litters, just as we had seen them when at Vera Cruz. The chief of them, when the procession of Indians halted, stepped out first and came forward with slow steps. He was none other than Mestizo.
This time his message ran much as when he spoke to Cortes in the newly - found city on the shore. Montezuma had sent him on this second embassy, laden with presents, some of the most costly the Emperor could think of. The cacique waved his golden rod, and the dark - skinned slaves brought them forth, and laid them at the feet of the Captain-General. There were robes of fur, so splendid that the proudest noble in Spain - even the King himself - would have worn them gladly, while others were made of silk, and decorated with gorgeously - coloured feathers. There were ornaments of gold similar to those already received, but they were more valuable. Great dishes and flagons of the precious metal, jars and mirrors of the same, studded with gems, to say nothing of the images of wild beasts, fowls and fishes, all of which were of gold, and had jewels for their eyes. The sight of these presents, which dazzled the eye when the sun shone on them, only whetted the appetite for wealth among the soldiers.
Donna Marina was by the Captain-General's side, and as Mestizo spoke she interpreted his words. Her clear voice rang through the ranks so that all could hear that Montezuma desired the Spaniards to return, and leave him and his people in peace.
"That cannot be, Mestizo," Cortes answered, firmly. "We came hither to see Mexico, and I dare not return to my King until I have spoken face to face with Montezuma, and in his palace within the capital. Go and tell your royal master so. Thank him for these costly gifts, but tell him that we commence our onward march tomorrow, and shall be at the city gates soon, hoping for his kind welcome and generous hospitality. Tell him that my soldiers are weary with their long march from the sea, and that a rest in Mexico, amid its splendours and its beautiful gardens, will be pleasant. Until then we do not turn back."
A look of anger swept across Mestizo's face, but it was only momentary.
"Cortes," he exclaimed, "my royal master bade me tell you that he would not allow you to enter his capital, yet he would have you for his friend. He would have you turn back even now, and sail away to your own country. He would not have you return empty - handed. He will send your King a yearly tribute in token of his friendship, and for yourself three loads of gold. As for your captains," added Mestizo the cacique, pointing with his golden rod to those who were grouped about the Captain-General, "they shall not be forgotten, for a load of gold shall be sent for each."
"And my men - what shall they have?" exclaimed Cortes, who had listened eagerly.
"They shall be remembered," came the answer, Donna Marina uttering every word in Spanish clearly, so that each man heard. "Twenty loads of gold shall be sent, to divide among them as Cortes thinks fit."
There was a murmur in the ranks, and loud cries of "No! On to Mexico!" came from every hand.
"If gold be so freely offered," cried one, "there is infinitely more to be had for the taking. Let us march to Mexico!"
The soldier's words were taken up with a shout, and Cortes, raising his hand for silence, spoke.
"Mestizo, tell your royal master that I thank him, but we must and will come on to Mexico to see him." Saying this, and with a gesture indicative of farewell, he turned to speak to Cristoval de Olid.
While we were standing thus, and the cacique turned away in anger to go to his litter, I caught sight of Tapia. He was among the other great Aztec lords who had come from their litters, and were now in a group about Mestizo. Cerralvo saw him and pointed to him angrily, and the gesture did not escape the cacique who had done us so much harm. His face betrayed his astonishment, and as if he feared that Cortes might have heard of the perfidious part he had played, he walked quickly to his litter, into which he stepped. He must have told his bearers to carry him away, for they began to move before he had settled down. Had Cortes known, I think he would have taken the risks and held him prisoner; for when we told him afterwards that Tapia had been there he declared that, had he been aware of the fact, the cacique should have been detained at whatever cost, and shot that evening. It was too late when we were able to tell him all, to overtake the embassy, but Cortes gave orders - particularly to us who knew the cacique by sight - that we should capture him whenever possible, and bring him to him without delay.
Next morning we were on the march, our faces towards Mexico, and two days later another embassy was seen approaching. This time the ambassador was none other than the Lord of Tezcoco, a nephew of the Emperor. Mestizo was with him, but although I looked keenly for Tapia, I could not see him. Doubtless he feared to be there, although four thousand armed Mexicans followed the ambassador who brought an invitation to Cortes to enter the capital.
"We will come at once," exclaimed the Captain-General, and in an hour, having first received instructions as to what should be done in case of treachery , we began our march along a great causeway which led into Mexico, and had the lakes of Chalco and Tezcoco on either side.
The causeway, which was constructed of mighty stones, was five miles in length, and as we went forward slowly, taking our pace to suit the dignified advance of the slaves who carried the litters, we saw that Mexico was no less beautiful when we were near than when we saw it from the distance. Boats were plying on the lakes. Floating islands, made of reeds and wickerwork, covered with soil, brimmed with luxuriant vegetation, splendid fruits, and odorous petals, rested on the waters.
Here and there we passed large villages which were built on mounds of stone in the midst of the lakes. These artificial islands were covered with earth in which flowers and maize were growing.
But our attention was chiefly turned to the magnificent city, of whose beauty we had heard so much. We saw its temples, palaces, and shrines, the stuccoed walls of which were gleaming in the sunshine. We had crossed a great drawbridge, and as the last man passed over it, it was raised. We felt that our retreat was cut off, and we were, if Montezuma chose, completely at the mercy of the Mexicans.
"Lord," exclaimed Cortes, riding forward to the litter in which the ambassador lay, "we go no farther unless the drawbridge is lowered, and remains so." "It shall be lowered instantly," came the answer, "It is well, lord," Cortes went on to say, "and since I see that your soldiers are mustered, full armed, by thousands, I must hold you as hostage for our safety," He thereupon called Gonzalo de Sandoval, one of his most trusty captains, and bade him ride on the other side of the litter, to be ready to meet anything that threatened treachery.
The causeway ended abruptly in a great square, and then we saw a sight which filled us with wonder. Coming towards us slowly were hundreds of Mexicans, clothed in mantles of fine cotton, and on their heads they wore handsome helmets adorned with feathered plumes. In front of all walked a cacique who, seeing us, stepped forward and announced that Montezuma was on the way to bid Cortes welcome.
Behind him were two hundred men similarly but not richly clad, walking with slow steps, and with their eyes fixed on the ground. They were barefoot, and the only sound they made was the stepping of so many naked feet on the whitened stones with which the square was paved.
These were followed by three nobles, each with a golden rod and as they held them high in the air, all who stood to watch fell on their knees and bowed their heads, as if they dared not look on the face of the Emperor.
Montezuma came next in his golden litter. The rods that supported it rested on the shoulders of four noblemen, while another walked beside it and held aloft a parasol of green feathers with gold embroidery. On the Emperor's head was a crown of gold. His feet were shod with golden shoes, the strings of which were embroidered with gold thread and gems. His robe was of pure white linen, but over his shoulders was a mantle studded with jewels, and fringed with lace of gold. I had never seen anything so magnificent, even at the Spanish Court where the nobles dressed more gorgeously, so it was said, than in any other court the whole world through.
The nobles who bore the litter halted presently, and slowly lowered it so that Montezuma stepped out, while at the same moment Cortes alighted from his saddle. Two great caciques - one of them the Lord of Tezcoco, and the other the Lord of Iztapalapan - went to the litter. Montezuma rested his hands on their arms. Slaves spread cloths on the stones, and then fell on their knees, making a broad lane down which the Emperor advanced.
It was a great moment. Cortes stepped forward with dignity, and threw a chain of gold and glass beads about the neck of Montezuma, saying, while he did so, that he had brought this present from his monarch as a token of his goodwill, in the hope that an alliance might be entered into between two such mighty sovereigns.
Nor was Montezuma less friendly in his turn. He bowed low, touching the earth with his hand; then, kissing it, he gave to the Captain-General two necklaces of mother-of-pearl, from which hung golden crayfish imitated from nature. (See Ranking's "Historical Researches.") After that the monarch turned, and he and Cortes walked to one of the palaces, talking as they went, with Donna Marina between them to serve as interpreter. Our men all followed slowly, and after them our allies with their women and slaves, seven thousand of us altogether.
The Emperor left us there, desiring Prince Cuitlahuitzin to see to our comfort. Before he left us he took Cortes by the hand, and leading him to a low stool, covered with cotton tapestry of gold and gems, bade him sit down and consider the palace his own, and all that was best in the way of entertainment in Mexico at his disposal. An hour later Cortes and his principal officers were seated to a sumptuous banquet, to which Bernal and I were invited by reason of our rank.
It was night when the banquet ended, and tired with the day's doings, we went to rest, each having a room in which was a bed of palm mats. 'The pillows were covered with fine cotton, while the floors were spread with mats of leaves, and the walls decorated with rich hangings of cotton.
END OF the third 6 chapters; click HERE for the last 6 chapters.