The Fair God or The Last of the 'Tzins is a magnificent tale of conflict between the Spanish Conquistadors and the Aztecs. The Cortez's conquest of Mexico is a central theme and this unique historical novel gives an account of the descent of the Aztec Empire. Lew Wallace (1827-1905) was an American lawyer, Union general in the American Civil War, politician, diplomat and author, best known for his historical adventure story, Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ, a bestselling novel that has been called "the most influential Christian book of the nineteenth century." He wrote several historical novels and biographies of American generals.
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A personal experience, though ever so plainly told, is, generally speaking, more attractive to listeners and readers than fiction. A circumstance from the tongue or pen of one to whom it actually happened, or who was its hero or victim, or even its spectator, is always more interesting than if given second-hand. If the makers of history, contradistinguished from its writers, could teach it to us directly, one telling would suffice to secure our lasting remembrance. The reason is, that the narrative so proceeding derives a personality and reality not otherwise attainable, which assist in making way to our imagination and the sources of our sympathy.
With this theory or bit of philosophy in mind, when the annexed book was resolved upon, I judged best to assume the character of a translator, which would enable me to write in the style and spirit of one who not merely lived at the time of the occurrences woven in the text, but was acquainted with many of the historical personages who figure therein, and was a native of the beautiful valley in which the story is located. Thinking to make the descriptions yet more real, and therefore more impressive, I took the liberty of attributing the composition to a literator who, whatever may be thought of his works, was not himself a fiction. Without meaning to insinuate that The Fair God would have been the worse for creation by Don Fernando de Alva, the Tezcucan, I wish merely to say that it is not a translation. Having been so written, however, now that publication is at hand, change is impossible; hence, nothing is omitted,—title-page, introductory, and conclusion are given to the reader exactly as they were brought to the publisher by the author.
L.W. Boston Mass. August 8, 1873.
Fernando De Alva,1 a noble Tezcucan, flourished, we are told, in the beginning of the sixteenth century. He was a man of great learning, familiar with the Mexican and Spanish languages, and the hieroglyphics of Anahuac. Ambitious to rescue his race from oblivion, and inspired by love of learning, he collected a library, availed himself of his knowledge of picture-writing, became master of the songs and traditions, and, in the Castilian language, composed books of merit.
It was scarcely possible that his labors should escape the researches of Mr. Prescott, who, with such incomparable genius, has given the world a history of the Conquest of Mexico. From him we have a criticism upon the labors of the learned Fernando, from which the following paragraph is extracted.
“Iztlilzochitl’s writings have many of the defects belonging to his age. He often crowds the page with incidents of a trivial and sometimes improbable character. The improbability increases with the distance of the period; for distance, which diminishes objects to the natural eye, exaggerates them to the mental. His chronology, as I have more than once noticed, is inextricably entangled. He has often lent a too willing ear to traditions and reports which would startle the more sceptical criticism of the present time. Yet there is an appearance of good faith and simplicity in his writings, which may convince the reader that, when he errs, it is from no worse cause than the national partiality. And surely such partiality is excusable in the descendant of a proud line, shorn of its ancient splendors, which it was soothing to his own feelings to revive again—though with something more than their legitimate lustre—on the canvas of history. It should also be considered that, if his narrative is sometimes startling, his researches penetrate into the mysterious depths of antiquity, where light and darkness meet and melt into each other; and where everything is still further liable to distortion, as seen through the misty medium of hieroglyphics.”
Besides his Relaciones and Historia Chichemeca, De Alva composed works of a lighter nature, though equally based upon history. Some were lost; others fell into the hands of persons ignorant of their value; a few only were rescued and given to the press. For a considerable period he served as interpreter to the Spanish Viceroy. His duties as such were trifling; he had ample time for literary pursuits; his enthusiasm as a scholar permitted him no relaxation or idleness. Thus favored, it is believed he composed the books now for the first time given to the world.
The MSS. were found among a heap of old despatches from the Viceroy Mendoza to the Emperor. It is quite probable that they became mixed with the State papers through accident; if, however, they were purposely addressed to His Majesty, it must have been to give him a completer idea of the Aztecan people and their civilization, or to lighten the burthens of royalty by an amusement to which, it is known, Charles V. was not averse. Besides, Mendoza, in his difficulty with the Marquess of the Valley (Cortes), failed not to avail himself of every means likely to propitiate his cause with the court, and especially with the Royal Council of the Indies. It is not altogether improbable, therefore, that the MSS. were forwarded for the entertainment of the members of the Council and the lordly personages of the Court, who not only devoured with avidity, but, as the wily Mendoza well knew, were vastly obliged for, everything relative to the New World, and particularly the dazzling conquest of Mexico.
In the translation, certain liberties have been taken, for which, if wrong has been done, pardon is besought both from the public and the shade of the author. Thus, The Books in the original are unbroken narratives; but, with infinite care and trouble, they have all been brought out of the confusion, and arranged into chapters. So, there were names, some of which have been altogether changed; while others, for the sake of euphony, have been abbreviated, though without sacrificing the identity of the heroes who wore them so proudly.
And thus beginneth the First Book.
The Spanish Calendar is simpler than the Aztecan. In fact, Christian methods, of whatever nature, are better than heathen.
So, then, by the Spanish Calendar, March, 1519, had about half spent itself in the valley of Anahuac, which was as yet untrodden by gold-seeker, with cross-hilted sword at his side, and on his lips a Catholic oath. Near noon of one of its fairest days a traveller came descending the western slope of the Sierra de Ahualco. Since the dawn his path had been amongst hills and crags; at times traversing bald rocks that towered to where the winds blew chill, then dipping into warm valleys, where were grass, flowers, and streamlets, and sometimes forests of cedar and fir,—labyrinths in which there reigned a perpetual twilight.
Toilsome as was the way, the traveller, young and strong, marched lightly. His dress, of the kind prevalent in his country, was provincial, and with few signs of rank. He had sandals of buffalo-hide, fitted for climbing rocks and threading pathless woods; a sort of white tunic, covering his body from the neck to the knees, leaving bare the arms from the shoulder; maxtlatl and tilmatli—sash and mantle—of cotton, blue tinted, and void of ornament; on the wrist of his left arm he wore a substantial golden bracelet, and in both ears jewelled pendants; while an ebony band, encircling his head, kept his straight black locks in place, and permitted a snow-white bird’s-wing for decoration. There was a shield on his left arm, framed of wood, and covered with padded cloth, and in the left hand a javelin barbed with ’itzli; at his back swung a maquahuitl, and a quiver filled with arrows; an unstrung bow in his right hand completed his equipments, and served him in lieu of staff. An ocelot, trudging stealthily behind him, was his sole companion.
In the course of his journey he came to a crag that sank bluffly down several hundred feet, commanding a fine prospect. Though the air was cold, he halted. Away to the northwest stretched the beautiful valley of Anahuac, dotted with hamlets and farm-houses, and marked with the silver tracery of streams. Far across the plain, he caught a view of the fresh waters of Lake Chalco, and beyond that, blue in the distance and faintly relieved against the sky, the royal hill of Chapultepec, with its palaces and cypress forests. In all the New World there was no scene comparable with that he looked upon,—none its rival for beauty, none where the heavens seemed so perfectly melted into earth. There were the most renowned cities of the Empire; from that plain went the armies whose marches were all triumphs; in that air hovered the gods awaiting sacrifices; into that sky rose the smoke of the inextinguishable fires; there shone the brightest suns, and lingered the longest summers; and yonder dwelt that king—in youth a priest, then a warrior, now the terror of all nations—whose signet on the hand of a slave could fill the land with rustling of banners.
No traveller, I ween, could look unmoved on the picture; ours sat down, and gazed with brimful eyes and a beating heart. For the first time he was beholding the matchless vale so overhung with loveliness and full of the monuments of a strange civilization. So rapt was he that he did not observe the ocelot come and lay its head in his lap, like a dog seeking caresses. “Come, boy!” he said, at last rousing himself; “let us on. Our Mother2 has a fortune waiting us yonder.”
And they resumed the journey. Half an hour’s brisk walk brought them to the foot of the mountain. Suddenly they came upon company.
It was on the bank of a considerable stream, which, pouring in noisy torrent over a rocky bed, appeared to rush with a song forward into the valley. A clump of giant oaks shaded a level sward. Under them a crowd of tamanes,3 tawny, half-clad, broad-shouldered men, devoured loaves of cold maize bread. Near the roots of the trees their masters reclined comfortably on petates, or mats, without which an Aztec trader’s outfit was incomplete. Our traveller understood at a glance the character of the strangers; so that, as his road led directly to them, he went on without hesitation. As he came near, some of them sat up to observe him.
“A warrior going to the city,” said one.
“Or rather a king’s courier,” suggested another.
“Is not that an ocelot at his heels?” asked a third.
“That it is. Bring me my javelin!”
“And mine! And mine!” cried several of them at once, all springing to their feet.
By the time the young man came up, the whole party stood ready to give him an armed welcome.
I am very sorry to have disturbed you,” he said, quietly finding himself obliged to stop.
“You seem friendly enough,” answered one of the older men; “but your comrade there,—what of him?”
The traveller smiled. “See, he is muzzled.”
The party laughed at their own fears. The old merchant, however, stepped forward to the young stranger.
“I confess you have greatly relieved me. I feared the brute might set on and wound somebody. Come up, and sit down with us.”
The traveller was nowise disinclined, being tempted by the prospect of cheer from the provision-baskets lying around.
“Bring a mat for the warrior,” said the friendly trader. “Now give him bread and meat.”
From an abundance of bread, fowl, and fruit the wayfarer helped himself. A running conversation was meantime maintained.
“My ocelot? The story is simple; for your sakes, good friends, I wish it were better. I killed his mother, and took him when a whelp. Now he does me good service hunting. You should see him in pursuit of an antelope!”
“Then you are not a warrior?”
“To be a warrior,” replied the hunter, modestly, “is to have been in many battles, and taken many captives. I have practised arms, and, at times, boasted of skill,—foolishly, perhaps; yet, I confess, I never marched a day under the banner of the great king.”
“Ah!” said the old man, quizzically, “I understand you. You have served some free-trading company like our own.”
“You are shrewd. My father is a merchant. At times he has travelled with strong trains, and even attacked cities that have refused him admission to their market.”
“Indeed! He must be of renown. In what province does he live, my son?”
“Tepaja! old Tepaja, of Tihuanco! Are you son of his?” The good man grasped the young one’s hand enthusiastically. “I knew him well; many years ago we were as brothers together; we travelled and traded through many provinces. That was the day of the elder Montezuma, when the Empire was not as large as now; when, in fact, most gates were closed against us, because our king was an Aztec, and we had to storm a town, then turn its square into a market for the sale of our wares. Sometimes we marched an army, each of us carrying a thousand slaves; and yet our tasks were not always easy. I remember once, down on the bank of the Great River, we were beaten back from a walled town, and succeeded only after a four days’ fight. Ah, but we made it win! We led three thousand slaves back to Tenochtitlan, besides five hundred captives,—a present for the gods.”
So the merchant talked until the hunger of his new acquaintance was appeased; then he offered a pipe, which was declined.
“I am fond of a pipe after a good meal; and this one has been worthy a king. But now I have no leisure for the luxury; the city to which I am bound is too far ahead of me.”
“If it is your first visit, you are right. Fail not to be there before the market closes. Such a sight never gladdened your dreams!”
“So I have heard my father say.”
“O, it never was as it will be to-night! The roads for days have been thronged with visitors going up in processions.”
“What is the occasion?”
“Why, to-morrow is the celebration of Quetzal’! Certainly, my son, you have heard the prophecies concerning that god.”
“In rumors only. I believe he was to return to Anahuac.”
“Well, the story is long, and you are in a hurry. We also are going to the city, but will halt our slaves at Iztapalapan for the night, and cross the causeway before the sun to-morrow. If you care to keep us company, we will start at once; on the way I will tell you a few things that may not be unacceptable.”
“I see,” said the hunter, pleasantly, “I have reason to be proud of my father’s good report. Certainly, I will go a distance with you at least, and thank you for information. To speak frankly, I am seeking my fortune.”
The merchant spoke to his companions, and raising a huge conch-shell to his mouth, blew a blast that started every slave to his feet. For a few minutes all was commotion. The mats were rolled up, and, with the provision-baskets, slung upon broad shoulders; each tamane resumed his load of wares, and took his place; those armed put themselves, with their masters, at the head; and at another peal from the shell all set forward. The column, if such it may be called, was long, and not without a certain picturesqueness as it crossed the stream, and entered a tract covered with tall trees, amongst which the palm was strangely intermingled with the oak and the cypress. The whole valley, from the lake to the mountains, was irrigated, and under cultivation. Full of wonder, the hunter marched beside the merchant.
“I was speaking about Quetzal’, I believe,” said the old man, when all were fairly on the way. “His real name was Quetzalcoatl.4 He was a wonderfully kind god, who, many ages ago, came into the valley here, and dwelt awhile. The people were then rude and savage; but he taught them agriculture, and other arts, of which you will see signs as we get on. He changed the manners and customs; while he stayed, famine was unknown; the harvests were abundant, and happiness universal. Above all, he taught the princes wisdom in their government. If to-day the Aztec Empire is the strongest in the world, it is owing to Quetzal’. Where he came from, or how long he stayed, is not known. The people and their governors after a time proved ungrateful, and banished him; they also overthrew his religion, and set up idols again, and sacrificed men, both of which he had prohibited. Driven away, he went to Cholula; thence to the sea-coast, where, it is said, he built him a canoe of serpent-skins, and departed for Tlapallan, a heaven lying somewhere toward the rising sun. But before he went, he promised to return some day, and wrest away the Empire and restore his own religion. In appearance he was not like our race; his skin was white, his hair long and wavy and black. He is said to have been wise as a god, and more beautiful than men. Such is his history; and, as the prophecy has it, the time of his return is at hand. The king and Tlalac, the teotuctli,5 are looking for him; they expect him every hour, and, they say, live in continued dread of him. Wishing to propitiate him, they have called the people together, and celebrate to-morrow, with sacrifices and combats and more pomp than was ever seen before, not excepting the time of the king’s coronation.”
The hunter listened closely, and at the conclusion said, “Thank you, uncle. Tell me now of the combats.”
“Yes. In the days of the first kings it was the custom to go into the temples, choose the bravest warriors there set apart for sacrifice, bring them into the tianguez, and make them do battle in the presence of the people. If they conquered, they were set free and sent home with presents.”6
“With whom did they combat?”
“True enough, my son. The fight was deemed a point of honor amongst the Aztecs, and the best of them volunteered. Indeed, those were royal times! Of late, I am sorry to say, the custom of which I was speaking has been neglected, but to-morrow it is to be revived. The scene will be very grand. The king and all the nobles will be there.”
The description excited the listener’s fancy, and he said, with flushed cheeks, “I would not lose the chance for the world. Can you tell me who of the Aztecs will combat?”
“In the city we could easily find out; but you must recollect I am going home after a long absence. The shields of the combatants are always exhibited in the tianguez the evening before the day of the fight. In that way the public are notified beforehand of those who take the field. As the city is full of caciques, you may be assured our champions will be noble.”
“Thank you again, uncle. And now, as one looking for service, like myself, is anxious to know with whom to engage, tell me of the caciques and chiefs.”
“Then you intend entering the army?”
“Well, yes. I am tired of hunting; and though trading is honorable, I have no taste for it.”
The merchant, as if deliberating, took out a box of snuff and helped himself; and then he replied,—
“The caciques are very numerous; in no former reign, probably, were there so many of ability and renown. With some of them I have personal acquaintance; others I know only by sight or reputation. You had better mention those of whom you have been thinking.”
“Well,” said the hunter, “there is Iztlil’, the Tezcucan.”7
“Do not think of him, I pray you!” And the good man spoke earnestly. “He is brave as any, and perhaps as skilful, but proud, haughty, soured, and treacherous. Everybody fears him. I suppose you have heard of his father.”
“You mean the wise ’Hualpilli?”
“Yes. Upon his death, not long since, Iztlil’ denied his brother’s right to the Tezcucan throne. There was a quarrel which would have ended in blood, had not Montezuma interfered, and given the city to Cacama, and all the northern part of the province to Iztlil’. Since that, the latter has been discontented with the great king. So, I say again, do not think of him, unless you are careless about honor.”
“Then what of Cacama?8 Tezcuco is a goodly city.”
“He has courage, but is too effeminate to be a great warrior. A garden and a soft couch delight him more than camps, and dancing women better than fighting men. You might grow rich with him, but not renowned. Look elsewhere.”
“Then there is the lord Cuitlahua.”9
“The king’s brother, and governor of Iztapalapan!” said the merchant, promptly. “Some have thought him better qualified for Chapultepec than Montezuma, but it is not wise to say so. His people are prosperous, and he has the most beautiful gardens in the world; unlike Cacama, he cares nothing for them, when there is a field to be fought. Considering his influence at court and his love of war, you would do well to bear shield for him; but, on the other hand, he is old. Were I in your place, my son, I would attach myself to some young man.”
“That brings me to Maxtla, the Tesoyucan.”
“I know him only by repute. With scarcely a beard, he is chief of the king’s guard. There was never anything like his fortune. Listen now, I will tell you a secret which may be of value to you some time. The king is not as young as he used to be by quite forty summers.”
The hunter smiled at the caution with which the old man spoke of the monarch.
“You see,” the speaker continued, “time and palace life have changed him: he no longer leads the armies; his days are passed in the temples with the priests, or in the gardens with his women, of whom there are several hundreds; his most active amusement now is to cross the lake to his forests, and kill birds and rabbits by blowing little arrows at them through a reed. Thus changed, you can very well understand how he can be amused by songs and wit, and make favorites of those who best lighten his hours of satiety and indolence. In that way Maxtla rose,—a marvellous courtier, but a very common soldier.”
The description amused the young man, but he said gravely, “You have spoken wisely, uncle, and I am satisfied you know the men well. Really, I had no intention of entering the suite of either of them: they are not of my ideal; but there is a cacique, if reports are to be credited, beyond all exception,—learned and brave, honored alike by high and low.”
“Ah! you need not name him to me. I know him, as who does not?” And now the merchant spoke warmly. “A nobler than Guatamozin,10—or, as he is more commonly called, the ’tzin Guatamo—never dwelt in Anahuac. He is the people’s friend, and the Empire’s hope. His valor and wisdom,—ah, you should see him, my son! Such a face! His manner is so full of sweet dignity! But I will give you other evidence.”
He clapped his hands three times, and a soldier sprang forward at the signal.
“Do you know the ’tzin Guatamo?” asked the merchant.
“I am an humble soldier, my master, and the ’tzin is the great king’s nephew; but I know him. When he was only a boy, I served under him in Tlascala. He is the best chief in Anahuac.”
“That will do.”
The man retired.
“So I might call up my tamanes,” the merchant resumed, “and not one but would speak of him in the same way.”
“Strange!” said the Tihuancan, in a low tone.
“No; if you allude to his popularity, it is not strange: if you mean the man himself, you are right. The gods seldom give the qualities that belong to him. He is more learned than Tlalac or the king; he is generous as becomes a prince; in action he is a hero. You have probably heard of the Tlascalan wall in the eastern valley;11 few warriors ever passed it and lived; yet he did so when almost a boy. I myself have seen him send an arrow to the heart of an eagle in its flight. He has a palace and garden in Iztapalapan; in one of the halls stand the figures of three kings, two of Michuaca, and one of the Ottomies. He took them prisoners in battle, and now they hold torches at his feasts.”
“Enough, enough!” cried the hunter. “I have been dreaming of him while among the hills. I want no better leader.”
The merchant cast an admiring glance at his beaming countenance, and said, “You are right; enter his service.”
In such manner the conversation was continued, until the sun fast declined towards the western mountains. Meantime, they had passed through several hamlets and considerable towns. In nearly the whole progress, the way on either hand had been lined with plantations. Besides the presence of a busy, thriving population, they everywhere saw evidences of a cultivation and science, constituting the real superiority of the Aztecs over their neighbors. The country was thus preparing the stranger for the city, unrivalled in splendor and beauty. Casting a look toward the sun, he at length said, “Uncle, I have much to thank you for,—you and your friends. But it is growing late, and I must hurry on, if I would see the tianguez before the market closes.”
“Very well,” returned the old trader. “We will be in the city to-morrow. The gods go with you!”
Whistling to his ocelot, the adventurer quickened his pace, and was soon far in the advance.
In the valley of Anahuac, at the time I write, are four lakes,—Xaltocan, Chalco, Xochichalco, and Tezcuco. The latter, besides being the largest, washed the walls of Tenochtitlan, and was the especial pride of the Aztecs, who, familiar with its ways as with the city, traversed them all the days of the year, and even the nights.
“Ho, there!” shouted a voyageur, in a voice that might have been heard a long distance over the calm expanse of the lake. “Ho, the canoe!”
The hail was answered.
“Is it Guatamozin?” asked the first speaker.
“And going to Tenochtitlan?”
“The gods willing,—yes.”
The canoes of the voyageurs—I use that term because it more nearly expresses the meaning of the word the Aztecs themselves were wont to apply to persons thus abroad—were, at the time, about the middle of the little sea. After the ’tzin’s reply, they were soon alongside, when lashings were applied, and together they swept on rapidly, for the slaves at the paddles vied in skill and discipline.
“Iztlil’, of Tezcuco!” said the ’tzin, lightly. “He is welcome; but had a messenger asked me where at this hour he would most likely be found, I should have bade him search the chinampas, especially those most notable for their perfume and music.”
The speech was courteous, yet the moment of reply was allowed to pass. The ’tzin waited until the delay excited his wonder.
“There is a rumor of a great battle with the Tlascalans,” he said again, this time with a direct question. “Has my friend heard of it?”
“The winds that carry rumors seldom come to me,” answered Iztlil’.
“Couriers from Tlascala pass directly through your capital—”
The Tezcucan laid his hand on the speaker’s shoulder.
“My capital!” he said. “Do you speak of the city of Tezcuco?”
The ’tzin dashed the hand away, and arose, saying, “Your meaning is dark in this dimness of stars.”
“Be seated,” said the other.
“If I sit, is it as friend or foe?”
“Hear me; then be yourself the judge.”
The Aztec folded his cloak about him and resumed his seat, very watchful.
“Montezuma, the king—”
“Beware! The great king is my kinsman, and I am his faithful subject.”
The Tezcucan continued. “In the valley the king is next to the gods; yet to his nephew I say I hate him, and will teach him that my hate is no idleness, like a passing love. ’Tzin, a hundred years ago our races were distinct and independent. The birds of the woods, the winds of the prairie, were not more free than the people of Tezcuco. We had our capital, our temples, our worship, and our gods; we celebrated our own festivals, our kings commanded their own armies, our priesthood prescribed their own sacrifices. But where now are king, country, and gods? Alas! you have seen the children of ’Hualpilli, of the blood of the Acolhuan, suppliants of Montezuma, the Aztec.” And, as if overcome by the recollection, he burst into apostrophe. “I mourn thee, O Tezcuco, garden of my childhood, palace of my fathers, inheritance of my right! Against me are thy gates closed. The stars may come, and as of old garland thy towers with their rays; but in thy echoing halls and princely courts never, never shall I be known again!”
The silence that ensued, the ’tzin was the first to break.
“You would have me understand,” he said, “that the king has done you wrong. Be it so. But, for such cause, why quarrel with me?”
“Ah, yes!” answered the Tezcucan, in an altered voice. “Come closer, that the slaves may not hear.”
The Aztec kept his attitude of dignity. Yet lower Iztlil’ dropped his voice.
“The king has a daughter whom he calls Tula, and loves as the light of his palace.”
The ’tzin started, but held his peace.
“You know her?” continued the Tezcucan.
“Name her not!” said Guatamozin, passionately.
“Why not? I love her, and but for you, O ’tzin, she would have loved me. You, too, have done me wrong.”
With thoughts dark as the waters he rode, the Aztec looked long at the light of fire painted on the sky above the distant city.
“Is Guatamozin turned woman?” asked Iztlil’, tauntingly.
“Tula is my cousin. We have lived the lives of brother and sister. In hall, in garden, on the lake, always together, I could not help loving her.”
“You mistake me,” said the other. “I seek her for wife, but you seek her for ambition; in her eyes you see only her father’s throne.”
Then the Aztec’s manner changed, and he assumed the mastery.
“Enough, Tezcucan! I listened calmly while you reviled the king, and now I have somewhat to say. In your youth the wise men prophesied evil from you; they said you were ingrate and blasphemer then: your whole life has but verified their judgment. Well for your royal father and his beautiful city had he cut you off as they counselled him to do. Treason to the king,—defiance to me! By the holy Sun, for each offence you should answer me shield to shield! But I recollect that I am neither priest to slay a victim nor officer to execute the law. I mourn a feud, still more the blood of countrymen shed by my hand; yet the wrongs shall not go unavenged or without challenge. To-morrow is the sacrifice to Quetzal’. There will be combat with the best captives in the temples; the arena will be in the tianguez; Tenochtitlan, and all the valley, and all the nobility of the Empire, will look on. Dare you prove your kingly blood? I challenge the son of ’Hualpilli to share the danger with me.”
The cacique was silent, and the ’tzin did not disturb him. At his order, however, the slaves bent their dusky forms, and the vessels sped on, like wingless birds.
The site of the city of Tenochtitlan was chosen by the gods. In the southwestern border of Lake Tezcuco, one morning in 1300, a wandering tribe of Aztecs saw an eagle perched, with outspread wings, upon a cactus, and holding a serpent in its talons. At a word from their priests, they took possession of the marsh, and there stayed their migration and founded the city: such is the tradition. As men love to trace their descent back to some storied greatness, nations delight to associate the gods with their origin.
Originally the Aztecs were barbarous. In their southern march, they brought with them only their arms and a spirit of sovereignty. The valley of Anahuac, when they reached it, was already peopled; in fact, had been so for ages. The cultivation and progress they found and conquered there reacted upon them. They grew apace; and as they carried their shields into neighboring territory, as by intercourse and commerce they crept from out their shell of barbarism, as they strengthened in opulence and dominion, they repudiated the reeds and rushes of which their primal houses were built, and erected enduring temples and residences of Oriental splendor.
Under the smiles of the gods, whom countless victims kept propitiated, the city threw abroad its arms, and, before the passage of a century, became the emporium of the valley. Its people climbed the mountains around, and, in pursuit of captives to grace their festivals, made the conquest of “Mexico.” Then the kings began to centralize. They made Tenochtitlan their capital; under their encouragement, the arts grew and flourished; its market became famous; the nobles and privileged orders made it their dwelling-place; wealth abounded; as a consequence, a vast population speedily filled its walls and extended them as required. At the coming of the “conquistadores,” it contained sixty thousand houses and three hundred thousand souls. Its plat testifies to a high degree of order and regularity, with all the streets running north and south, and intersected by canals, so as to leave quadrilateral blocks. An ancient map, exhibiting the city proper, presents the face of a checker-board, each square, except those of some of the temples and palaces, being meted with mathematical certainty.
Such was the city the ’tzin and the cacique were approaching. Left of them, half a league distant, lay the towers and embattled gate of Xoloc. On the horizon behind paled the fires of Iztapalapan, while those of Tenochtitlan at each moment threw brighter hues into the sky, and more richly empurpled the face of the lake. In mid air, high over all others, like a great torch, blazed the pyre of Huitzil’.12 Out on the sea, the course of the voyageurs was occasionally obstructed by chinampas at anchor, or afloat before the light wind; nearer the walls, the floating gardens multiplied until the passage was as if through an archipelago in miniature. From many of them poured the light of torches; others gave to the grateful sense the melody of flutes and blended voices; while over them the radiance from the temples fell softly, revealing white pavilions, orange-trees, flowering shrubs, and nameless varieties of the unrivalled tropical vegetation. A breeze, strong enough to gently ripple the lake, hovered around the undulating retreats, scattering a largesse of perfume, and so ministering to the voluptuous floramour of the locality.
As the voyageurs proceeded, the city, rising to view, underwent a number of transformations. At first, amidst the light of its own fires,13 it looked like a black sea-shore; directly its towers and turrets became visible, some looming vaguely and dark, others glowing and purpled, the whole magnified by the dim duplication below; then it seemed like a cloud, one half kindled by the sun, the other obscured by the night. As they swept yet nearer, it changed to the likeness of a long, ill-defined wall, over which crept a hum wing-like and strange,—the hum of myriad life.
In silence still they hurried forward. Vessels like their own, but with lanterns of stained aguave at the prows, seeking some favorite chinampa, sped by with benisons from the crews. At length they reached the wall, and, passing through an interval that formed the outlet of a canal, entered the city. Instantly the water became waveless; houses encompassed them; lights gleamed across their way; the hum that hovered over them while out on the lake realized itself in the voices of men and the notes of labor.
Yet farther into the city, the light from the temples increased. From towers, turreted like a Moresco castle, they heard the night-watchers proclaiming the hour. Canoes, in flocks, darted by them, decked with garlands, and laden with the wealth of a merchant, or the trade of a market-man, or full of revellers singing choruses to the stars or to the fair denizens of the palaces. Here and there the canal was bordered with sidewalks of masonry, and sometimes with steps leading from the water up to a portal, about which were companies whose flaunting, parti-colored costumes, brilliant in the mellowed light, had all the appearance of Venetian masqueraders.
At last the canoes gained the great street that continued from the causeway at the south through the whole city; then the Tezcucan touched the ’tzin, and said,—
“The son of ’Hualpilli accepts the challenge, Aztec. In the tianguez to-morrow.”
Without further speech, the foemen leaped on the landing, and separated.
There were two royal palaces in the city; one built by Axaya’, the other by Montezuma, the reigning king, who naturally preferred his own structure, and so resided there. It was a low, irregular pile, embracing not only the king’s abode proper, but also quarters for his guard, and edifices for an armory, an aviary, and a menagerie. Attached to it was a garden, adorned with the choicest shrubbery and plants, with fruit and forest trees, with walks strewn with shells, and fountains of pure water conducted from the reservoir of Chapultepec.
At night, except when the moon shone, the garden was lighted with lamps; and, whether in day or night, it was a favorite lounging-place. During fair evenings, particularly, its walks, of the whiteness of snow, were thronged by nobles and courtiers.
Shortly after the arrival of Iztlil’ and Guatamozin, a party, mostly of the sons of provincial governors kept at the palace as hostages, were gathered in the garden, under a canopy used to shield a fountain from the noonday sun. The place was fairly lighted, the air fresh with the breath of flowers, and delightful with the sound of falling water.
Maxtla, chief of the guard, was there, his juvenility well hidden under an ostentatious display. That he was “a very common soldier” in the opinion of the people was of small moment: he had the king’s ear; and that, without wit and courtierly tact, would have made him what he was,—the oracle of the party around him.
In the midst of his gossip, Iztlil’, the Tezcucan, came suddenly to the fountain. He coldly surveyed the assembly. Maxtla alone saluted him.
“Will the prince of Tezcuco be seated?” said the chief.
“The place is pleasant, and the company looks inviting,” returned Iztlil’, grimly.
Since his affair with Guatamozin, he had donned the uniform of an Aztec chieftain. Over his shoulders was carelessly flung a crimson tilmatli,—a short, square cloak, fantastically embroidered with gold, and so sprinkled with jewels as to flash at every movement; his body was wrapped closely in an escaupil, or tunic, of cotton lightly quilted, over which, and around his waist, was a maxtlatl, or sash, inseparable from the warrior. A casque of silver, thin, burnished, and topped with plumes, surmounted his head. His features were gracefully moulded, and he would have been handsome but that his complexion was deepened by black, frowning eyebrows. He was excessively arrogant; though sometimes, when deeply stirred by passion, his manner rose into the royal. His character I leave to history.
“I have just come from Iztapalapan,” he said, as he sat upon the proffered stool. “The lake is calm, the way was very pleasant, I had the ’tzin Guatamo’ for comrade.”
“You were fortunate. The ’tzin is good company,” said Maxtla.
Iztlil’ frowned, and became silent.
“To-morrow,” continued the courtier, upon whom the discontent, slight as it was, had not been lost, “is the sacrifice to Quetzal’. I am reminded, gracious prince, that, at a recent celebration, you put up a thousand cocoa,14 to be forfeited if you failed to see the daughter of Mualox, the paba. If not improper, how runs the wager, and what of the result?”
The cacique shrugged his broad shoulders.
“The man trembles!” whispered one of the party.
“Well he may! Old Mualox is more than a man.”
Maxtla bowed and laughed. “Mualox is a magician; the stars deal with him. And my brother will not speak, lest he may cover the sky of his fortune with clouds.”
“No,” said the Tezcucan, proudly; “the wager was not a sacrilege to the paba or his god; if it was, the god, not the man, should be a warrior’s fear.”
“Does Maxtla believe Mualox a prophet?” asked Tlahua, a noble Otompan.
“The gods have power in the sun; why not on earth?”
“You do not like the paba,” observed Iztlil’, gloomily.
“Who has seen him, O prince, and thought of love? And the walls and towers of his dusty temple,—are they not hung with dread, as the sky on a dark day with clouds?”
The party, however they might dislike the cacique, could not listen coldly to this conversation. They were mostly of that mystic race of Azatlan, who, ages before, had descended into the valley, like an inundation, from the north; the race whose religion was founded upon credulity; the race full of chivalry, but horribly governed by a crafty priesthood. None of them disbelieved in star-dealing. So every eye fixed on the Tezcucan, every ear drank the musical syllables of Maxtla. They were startled when the former said abruptly,—
“Comrades, the wrath of the old paba is not to be lightly provoked; he has gifts not of men. But, as there is nothing I do not dare, I will tell the story.”
The company now gathered close around the speaker.
“Probably you have all heard,” he began, “that Mualox keeps in his temple somewhere a child or woman too beautiful to be mortal. The story may be true; yet it is only a belief; no eye has seen footprint or shadow of her. A certain lord in the palace, who goes thrice a week to the shrine of Quetzal’, has faith in the gossip and the paba. He says the mystery is Quetzal’ himself, already returned, and waiting, concealed in the temple, the ripening of the time when he is to burst in vengeance on Tenochtitlan. I heard him talking about it one day, and wagered him a thousand cocoa that, if there was such a being I would see her before the next sacrifice to Quetzal’.”
The Tezcucan hesitated.
“Is the believer to boast himself wealthier by the wager?” said Maxtla, profoundly interested. “A thousand cocoa would buy a jewel or a slave: surely, O prince, surely they were worth the winning!”
Iztlil’ frowned again, and said bitterly, “A thousand cocoa I cannot well spare; they do not grow on my hard northern hills like flowers in Xochimilco. I did my best to save the wager. Old habit lures me to the great teocallis;15 for I am of those who believe that a warrior’s worship is meet for no god but Huitzil’. But, as the girl was supposed to be down in the cells of the old temple, and none but Mualox could satisfy me, I began going there, thinking to bargain humilities for favor. I played my part studiously, if not well; but no offering of tongue or gold ever won me word of friendship or smile of confidence. Hopeless and weary, I at last gave up, and went back to the teocallis. But now hear my parting with the paba. A short time ago a mystery was enacted in the temple. At the end, I turned to go away, determined that it should be my last visit. At the eastern steps, as I was about descending, I felt a hand laid on my arm. It was Mualox; and not more terrible looks Tlalac when he has sacrificed a thousand victims. There was no blood on his hands; his beard and surplice were white and stainless; the terror was in his eyes, that seemed to burn and shoot lightning. You know, good chief, that I could have crushed him with a blow; yet I trembled. Looking back now, I cannot explain the awe that seized me. I remember how my will deserted me,—how another’s came in its stead. With a glance he bound me hand and foot. While I looked at him, he dilated, until I was covered by his shadow. He magnified himself into the stature of a god. ‘Prince of Tezcuco,’ he said, ‘son of the wise ’Hualpilli, from the sun Quetzal’ looks down on the earth. Alike over land and sea he looks. Before him space melts into a span, and darkness puts on the glow of day. Did you think to deceive my god, O prince?’ I could not answer; my tongue was like stone. ‘Go hence, go hence!’ he cried, waving his hand. ‘Your presence darkens his mood. His wrath is on your soul; he has cursed you. Hence, abandoned of the gods!’ So saying, he went back to the tower again, and my will returned, and I fled. And now,” said the cacique, turning suddenly and sternly upon his hearers, “who will deny the magic of Mualox? How may I be assured that his curse that day spoken was not indeed a curse from Quetzal’?”
There was neither word nor laugh,—not even a smile. The gay Maxtla appeared infected with a sombreness of spirit; and it was not long until the party broke up, and went each his way.
Over the city from temple to temple passed the wail of the watchers, and a quarter of the night was gone. Few heard the cry without pleasure; for to-morrow was Quetzal’s day, which would bring feasting, music, combat, crowd, and flowers.
Among others the proclamation of the passing time was made from a temple in the neighborhood of the Tlateloco tianguez, or market-place, which had been built by one of the first kings of Tenochtitlan, and, like all edifices of that date properly called Cûs, was of but one story, and had but one tower. At the south its base was washed by a canal; on all the other sides it was enclosed by stone walls high, probably, as a man’s head. The three sides so walled were bounded by streets, and faced by houses, some of which were higher than the Cû itself, and adorned with beautiful porticos. The canal on the south ran parallel with the Tlacopan causeway, and intersected the Iztapalapan street at a point nearly half a mile above the great pyramid.
The antique pile thus formed a square of vast extent. According to the belief that there were blessings in the orient rays of the sun, the front was to the east, where a flight of steps, wide as the whole building, led from the ground to the azoteas, a paved area constituting the roof, crowned in the centre by a round tower of wood most quaintly carved with religious symbols. Entering the door of the tower, the devotee might at once kneel before the sacred image of Quetzal’.
A circuitous stairway outside the tower conducted to its summit, where blazed the fire. Another flight of steps about midway the tower and the western verge of the azoteas descended into a court-yard, around which, in the shade of a colonnade, were doors and windows of habitable apartments and passages leading far into the interior. And there, shrouded in a perpetual twilight and darkness, once slept, ate, prayed, and studied or dreamed the members of a fraternity powerful as the Templars and gloomy as the Fratres Minores.
The interior was cut into rooms, and long, winding halls, and countless cellular dens.
Such was the Cû of Quetzal’,—stern, sombre, and massive as in its first days; unchanged in all save the prosperity of its priesthood and the popularity of its shrine. Time was when every cell contained its votaries, and kings, returning from battle, bowed before the altar. But Montezuma had built a new edifice, and set up there a new idol; and as if a king could better make a god than custom, the people abandoned the old ones to desuetude. Up in the ancient cupola, however, sat the image said to have been carved by Quetzal’s own hand. Still the fair face looked out benignly on its realm of air; carelessly the winds waved “the plumes of fire” that decked its awful head; and one stony hand yet grasped a golden sceptre, while the other held aloft the painted shield,—symbols of its dominion.16 But the servitors and surpliced mystics were gone; the cells were very solitudes; the last paba lingered to protect the image and its mansion, all unwitting how, in his faithfulness of love, he himself had assumed the highest prerogative of a god.
The fire from the urn on the tower flashed a red glow down over the azoteas, near a corner of which Mualox stood, his beard white and flowing as his surplice. Thought of days palmier for himself and more glorious for his temple and god struggled to his lips.
“Children of Azatlan, ye have strayed from his shrine, and dust is on his shield. The temple is of his handiwork, but its chambers are voiceless; the morning comes and falls asleep on its steps, and no foot disturbs it, no one seeks its blessings. Where is the hymn of the choir? Where the prayer? Where the holiness that rested, like a spell, around the altar? Is the valley fruitless, and are the gardens without flowers, that he should be without offering or sacrifice?... Ah! well ye know that the day is not distant when he will glister again in the valley; when he will come, not as of old he departed, the full harvest quick ripening in his footsteps, but with the power of Mictlan,17 the owl on his skirt, and death in his hand. Return, O children, and Tenochtitlan may yet live!”
In the midst of his pleadings there was a clang of sandalled feet on the pavement, and two men came near him, and stopped. One of them wore the hood and long black gown of a priest; the other the full military garb,—burnished casque crested with plumes, a fur-trimmed tilmatli, escaupil, and maxtlatl, and sandals the thongs of which were embossed with silver. He also carried a javelin, and a shield with an owl painted on its face. Indeed, one will travel far before finding, among Christians or unbelievers, his peer. He was then not more than twenty-five years old, tall and nobly proportioned, and with a bearing truly royal. In Spain I have seen eyes as large and lustrous, but none of such power and variety of expression. His complexion was merely the brown of the sun. Though very masculine, his features, especially when the spirit was in repose, were softened by an expression unusually gentle and attractive. Such was the ’tzin Guatamo’, or, as he is more commonly known in history, Guatamozin,—the highest, noblest type of his race, blending in one its genius and heroism, with but few of its debasements.
“Mualox,” said the priestly stranger.
The paba turned, and knelt, and kissed the pavement.
“O king, pardon your slave! He was dreaming of his country.”
“No slave of mine, but Quetzal’s. Up, Mualox!” said Montezuma, throwing back the hood that covered his head. “Holy should be the dust that mingles in your beard!”
And the light from the tower shone full on the face of him,—the priest of lore profound, and monarch wise of thought, for whom Heaven was preparing a destiny most memorable among the melancholy episodes of history.
A slight mustache shaded his upper lip, and thin, dark beard covered his chin and throat; his nose was straight; his brows curved archly; his forehead was broad and full, while he seemed possessed of height and strength. His neck was round, muscular, and encircled by a collar of golden wires. His manner was winsome, and he spoke to the kneeling man in a voice clear, distinct, and sufficiently emphatic for the king he was.18
Mualox arose, and stood with downcast eyes, and hands crossed over his breast.
“Many a coming of stars it has been,” he said, “since the old shrine has known the favor of gift from Montezuma. Gloom of clouds in a vale of firs is not darker than the mood of Quetzal’; but to the poor paba, your voice, O king, is welcome as the song of the river in the ear of the thirsty.”
The king looked up at the fire on the tower.
“Why should the mood of Quetzal’ be dark? A new teocallis holds his image. His priests are proud; and they say he is happy, and that when he comes from the golden land his canoe will be full of blessings.”
Mualox sighed, and when he ventured to raise his eyes to the king’s, they were wet with tears.
“O king, have you forgotten that chapter of the teoamoxtli,19 in which is written how this Cû was built, and its first fires lighted, by Quetzal’ himself? The new pyramid may be grand; its towers may be numberless, and its fires far reaching as the sun itself; but hope not that will satisfy the god, while his own house is desolate. In the name of Quetzal’, I, his true servant, tell you, never again look for smile from Tlapallan.”
The paba’s speech was bold, and the king frowned; but in the eyes of the venerable man there was the unaccountable fascination mentioned by Iztlil’.
“I remember the Mualox of my father’s day; surely he was not as you are!” Then, laying his hand on the ’tzin’s arm, the monarch added, “Did you not say the holy man had something to tell me?”
Mualox answered, “Even so, O king! Few are the friends left the paba, now that his religion and god are mocked; but the ’tzin is faithful. At my bidding he went to the palace. Will Montezuma go with his servant?”
“Only into the Cû.”
The monarch faltered.
“Dread be from you!” said Mualox. “Think you it is as hard to be faithful to a king as to a god whom even he has abandoned?”
Montezuma was touched. “Let us go,” he said to the ’tzin.
Mualox led them into the tower. The light of purpled lamps filled the sacred place, and played softly around the idol, before which they bowed. Then he took a light from the altar, and conducted them to the azoteas, and down into the court-yard, from whence they entered a hall leading on into the Cû.
The way was labyrinthine, and both the king and the ’tzin became bewildered; they only knew that they descended several stairways, and walked a considerable distance; nevertheless, they submitted themselves entirely to their guide, who went forward without hesitancy. At last he stopped; and, by the light which he held up for the purpose, they saw in a wall an aperture roughly excavated, and large enough to admit them singly.
“You have read the Holy Book, wise king,” said Mualox. “Can you not recall its saying that, before the founding of Tenochtitlan, a Cû was begun, with chambers to lie under the bed of the lake? Especially, do you not remember the declaration that, in some of those chambers, besides a store of wealth so vast as to be beyond the calculation of men, there were prophecies to be read, written on the walls by a god?”
“I remember it,” said the king.
“Give me faith, then, and I will show you all you there read.”
Thereupon the paba stepped into the aperture, saying,—
“Mark! I am now standing under the eastern wall of the old Cû.”
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