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   Chapter 8 A BUSINESS MAN IN TENOCHTITLAN.

The Fair God; or, The Last of the 'Tzins: A Tale of the Conquest of Mexico By Lew Wallace Characters: 12624

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:02


Xoli, the Chalcan, was supposed to be the richest citizen, exclusive of the nobles, in Tenochtitlan. Amongst other properties, he owned a house on the eastern side of the Tlateloco tianguez, or market-place; which, whether considered architecturally, or with reference to the business to which it was devoted, or as the device of an unassoilzied heathen, was certainly very remarkable. Its portico had six great columns of white marble alternating six others of green porphyry, with a roof guarded by a parapet intricately and tastefully carved; while cushioned lounges, heavy curtains festooned and flashing with cochineal, and a fountain of water pure enough for the draught of a king, all within the columns, perfected it as a retreat from the sultry summer sun.

The house thus elegantly garnished was not a meson, or a café, or a theatre, or a broker's office; but rather a combination of them all, and therefore divided into many apartments; of which one was for the sale of beverages favorite among the wealthy and noble Aztecs,-Bacchic inventions, with pulque for chief staple, since it had the sanction of antiquity and was mildly intoxicating; another was a restaurant, where the cuisine was only excelled at the royal table; indeed, there was a story abroad that the king had several times borrowed the services of the Chalcan's artistes; but, whether derived from the master or his slaves, the shrewd reader will conclude from it, that the science of advertising was known and practised as well in Tenochtitlan as in Madrid. Nor were those all. Under the same roof were rooms for the amusement of patrons,-for reading, smoking, and games; one in especial for a play of hazard called totoloque, then very popular, because a passion of Montezuma's. Finally, as entertainments not prohibited by the teotuctli, a signal would, at any time, summon a minstrel, a juggler, or a dancing-girl. Hardly need I say that the establishment was successful. Always ringing with music, and of nights always resplendent with lamps, it was always overflowing with custom.

"So old Tepaja wanted you to be a merchant," said the Chalcan, in his full, round voice, as, comfortably seated under the curtains of his portico, he smoked his pipe, and talked with our young friend, the Tihuancan.

"Yes. Now that he is old, he thinks war dangerous."

"You mistake him, boy. He merely thinks with me, that there is something more real in wealth and many slaves. As he has grown older, he has grown wiser."

"As you will. I could not be a merchant."

"Whom did you think of serving?"

"The 'tzin Guatamo."[23]

"I know him. He comes to my portico sometimes, but not to borrow money. You see, I frequently act as broker, and take deposits from the merchants and securities from the spendthrift nobles; he, however, has no vices. When not with the army, he passes the time in study; though they do say he goes a great deal to the palace to make love to the princess. And now that I reflect, I doubt if you can get place with him."

"Why so?"

"Well, he keeps no idle train, and the time is very quiet. If he were going to the frontier it would be different."

"Indeed!"

"You see, boy, he is the bravest man and best fighter in the army; and the sensible fellows of moderate skill and ambition have no fancy for the hot place in a fight, which is generally where he is."

"The discredit is not to him, by Our Mother!" said Hualpa, laughing.

The broker stopped to cherish the fire in his pipe,-an act which the inexperienced consider wholly incompatible with the profound reflection he certainly indulged. When next he spoke, it was with smoke wreathing his round face, as white clouds sometimes wreathe the full moon.

"About an hour ago a fellow came here, and said he had heard that Iztlil', the Tezcucan, had challenged the 'tzin to go into the arena with him to-morrow. Not a bad thing for the god Quetzal', if all I hear be true!"

Again the pipe, and then the continuation.

"You see, when the combat was determined on, there happened to be in the temples two Othmies and two Tlascalans, warriors of very great report. As soon as it became known that, by the king's choice, they were the challengers, the young fellows about the palace shunned the sport, and there was danger that the god would find himself without a champion. To avoid such a disgrace, the 'tzin was coming here to-night to hang his shield in the portico. If he and the Tezcucan both take up the fight, it will be a great day indeed."

The silence that ensued was broken by the hunter, whom the gossip had plunged into revery.

"I pray your pardon, Xoli; but you said, I think, that the lords hang back from the danger. Can any one volunteer?"

"Certainly; any one who is a warrior, and is in time. Are you of that mind?"

The Chalcan took down the pipe, and looked at him earnestly.

"If I had the arms-"

"But you know nothing about it,-not even how such combats are conducted!"

The broker was now astonished.

"Listen to me," he said. "These combats are always in honor of some one or more of the Aztecan gods,-generally of Huitzil', god of war. They used to be very simple affairs. A small platform of stone, of the height of a man, was put up in the midst of the tianguez, so as to be seen by the people standing around; and upon it, in pairs, the champions fought their duels. This, however, was too plain to suit the tastes of the last Montezuma; and he changed the ceremony into a spectacle really honorable and great. Now, the arena is first prepared,-a central space in a great many rows of seats erected so as to rise one above the other. At the proper time, the people, the priests, and the soldiers go in and take possession of their allotted places. Some time previous, the quarters of the prisoners taken in battle are examined and two or more of the best of the warriors found there are chosen by the king, and put in training for the occasion. They are treated fairly, and are told that, if they fight and win, they shall be crowned as heroes, and returned to their tribes. No need, I think, to tell you how brave men fight when stimulated by hope of glory and hope of life. When chosen, their names are published, and their shields hung up in a portico on the other side of the square yo

nder; after which they are understood to be the challengers of any equal number of warriors who dare become champions of the god or gods in whose honor the celebration is had. Think of the approved skill and valor of the foe; think of the thousands who will be present; think of your own inexperience in war, and of your youth, your stature hardly gained, your muscles hardly matured; think of everything tending to weaken your chances of success,-and then speak to me."

Hualpa met the sharp gaze of the Chalcan steadily, and answered, "I am thought to have some skill with the bow and maquahuitl. Get me the opportunity, and I will fight."

And Xoli, who was a sincere friend, reflected awhile. "There is peril in the undertaking, to be sure; but then he is resolved to be a warrior, and if he survives, it is glory at once gained, fortune at once made." Then he arose, and, smiling, said aloud, "Let us go to the portico. If the list be not full, you shall have the arms,-yes, by the Sun! as the lordly Aztecs swear,-the very best in Tenochtitlan."

And they lifted the curtains, and stepped into the tianguez.[24] The light of the fires on the temples was hardly more in strength than the shine of the moon; so that torches had to be set up at intervals over the celebrated square. On an ordinary occasion, with a visitation of forty thousand busy buyers and sellers, it was a show of merchants and merchantable staples worthy the chief mart of an empire so notable; but now, drawn by the double attraction of market and celebration, the multitude that thronged it was trebly greater; yet the order was perfect.

An officer, at the head of a patrol, passed them with a prisoner.

"Ho, Chalcan! If you would see justice done, follow me."

"Thanks, thanks, good friend; I have been before the judges too often already."

So the preservation of the peace was no mystery.

The friends made way slowly, giving the Tihuancan time to gratify his curiosity. He found the place like a great national fair, in which few branches of industry were unrepresented. There were smiths who worked in the coarser metals, and jewellers skilful as those of Europe; there were makers and dealers in furniture, and sandals, and plumaje; at one place men were disposing of fruits, flowers, and vegetables; not far away fishermen boasted their stock caught that day in the fresh waters of Chalco; tables of pastry and maize bread were set next the quarters of the hunters of Xilotepec; the armorers, clothiers, and dealers in cotton were each of them a separate host. In no land where a science has been taught or a book written have the fine arts been dishonored; and so in the great market of Tenochtitlan there were no galleries so rich as those of the painters, nor was any craft allowed such space for their exhibitions as the sculptors.

They halted an instant before a porch full of slaves. A rapid glance at the miserable wretches, and Xoli said, pitilessly, "Bah! Mictlan has many such. Let us go."

Farther on they came to a platform on which a band of mountebanks was performing. Hualpa would have stayed to witness their tableaux, but Xoli was impatient.

"You see yon barber's shop," he said; "next to it is the portico we seek. Come on!"

At last they arrived there, and mixed with the crowd curious like themselves.

"Ah, boy, you are too late! The list is full."

The Chalcan spoke regretfully.

Hualpa looked for himself. On a clear white wall, that fairly glistened with the flood of light pouring upon it, he counted eight shields, or gages of battle. Over the four to the left were picture-written, "Othmies," "Tlascalans." They belonged to the challengers, and were battered and stained, proving that their gathering had been in no field of peace. The four to the right were of the Aztecs, and all bore devices except one. A sentinel stood silently beneath them.

"Welcome, Chalcan!" said a citizen, saluting the broker. "You are in good time to tell us the owners of the shields here."

"Of the Aztecs?"

"Yes."

"Well," said Xoli, slowly and gravely. "The shields I do not know are few and of little note. At one time or another I have seen them all pass my portico going to battle."

A bystander, listening, whispered to his friends,-

"The braggart! He says nothing of the times the owners passed his door to get a pinch of his snuff."

"Or to get drunk on his abominable pulque," said another.

"Or to get a loan, leaving their palaces in pawn," said a third party.

But Xoli went on impressively,-

"Those two to the left belong to a surly Otompan and a girl-faced Cholulan. They had a quarrel in the king's garden, and this is the upshot. That other,-surely, O citizens, you know the shield of Iztlil', the Tezcucan!"

"Yes; but its neighbor?"

"The plain shield! Its owner has a name to win. I can find you enough such here in the market to equip an army. Say, soldier, whose gage is that?"

The sentinel shook his head. "A page came not long ago, and asked me to hang it up by the side of the Tezcucan's. He said not whom he served."

"Well, maybe you know the challengers."

"Two of the shields belong to a father and son of the tribe of Othmies. In the last battle the son alone slew eight Cempoallan warriors for us. Tlascalans, whose names I do not know, own the others."

"Do you think they will escape?" asked a citizen.

The sentinel smiled grimly, and said, "Not if it be true that yon plain shield belongs to Guatamo, the 'tzin."

Directly a patrol, rudely thrusting the citizens aside, came to relieve the guard. In the confusion, the Chalcan whispered to his friend, "Let us go back. There is no chance for you in the arena to-morrow; and this new fellow is sullen; his tongue would not wag though I promised him drink from the king's vase."

Soon after they reached the Chalcan's portico and disappeared in the building, the cry of the night-watchers arose from the temples, and the market was closed. The great crowd vanished; in stall and portico the lights were extinguished; but at once another scene equally tumultuous usurped the tianguez. Thousands of half-naked tamanes rushed into the deserted place, and all night long it resounded, like a Babel, with clamor of tongues, and notes of mighty preparation.

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