MoboReader> Literature > The Fair God; or, The Last of the 'Tzins: A Tale of the Conquest of Mexico

   Chapter 13 WHO ARE THE STRANGERS

The Fair God; or, The Last of the 'Tzins: A Tale of the Conquest of Mexico By Lew Wallace Characters: 9883

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:02


March passed, and April came, and still the strangers, in their great canoes, lingered on the coast. Montezuma observed them with becoming prudence; through his lookouts, he was informed of their progress from the time they left the Rio de Tabasco.

The constant anxiety to which he was subjected affected his temper; and, though roused from the torpor into which he had been plunged by the visit to the golden chamber, and the subsequent prophecy of Mualox, his melancholy was a thing of common observation. He renounced his ordinary amusements, even totoloque, and went no more to the hunting-grounds on the shore of the lake; in preference, he took long walks in the gardens, and reclined in the audience-chamber of his palace; yet more remarkable, conversation with his councillors and nobles delighted him more than the dances of his women or the songs of his minstrels. In truth, the monarch was himself a victim of the delusions he had perfected for his people. Polytheism had come to him with the Empire; but he had enlarged upon it, and covered it with dogmas; and so earnestly, through a long and glorious reign, had he preached them, that, at last, he had become his own most zealous convert. In all his dominions, there was not one whom faith more inclined to absolute fear of Quetzal' than himself.

One evening he passed from his bath to the dining-hall for the last meal of the day. Invigorated, and, as was his custom, attired for the fourth time since morning in fresh garments, he walked briskly, and even droned a song.

No monarch in Europe fared more sumptuously than Montezuma. The room devoted to the purpose was spacious, and, on this occasion, brilliantly lighted. The floor was spread with figured matting, and the walls hung with beautiful tapestry; and in the centre of the apartment a luxurious couch had been rolled for him, it being his habit to eat reclining; while, to hide him from the curious, a screen had been contrived, and set up between the couch and principal door. The viands set down by his steward as the substantials of the first course were arranged upon the floor before the couch, and kept warm and smoking by chafing-dishes. The table, if such it may be called, was supplied by contributions from the provinces, and furnished, in fact, no contemptible proof of his authority, and the perfection with which it was exercised. The ware was of the finest Cholulan manufacture, and, like his clothes, never used by him but the once, a royal custom requiring him to present it to his friends.[28]

When he entered the room, the evening I have mentioned, there were present only his steward, four or five aged councillors, whom he was accustomed to address as "uncles," and a couple of women, who occupied themselves in preparing certain wafers and confections which he particularly affected. He stretched himself comfortably upon the couch, much, I presume, after the style of the Romans, and at once began the meal. The ancients moved back several steps, and a score of boys, noble, yet clad in the inevitable nequen, responding to a bell, came in and posted themselves to answer his requests.

Sometimes, by invitation, the councillors were permitted to share the feast; oftener, however, the only object of their presence was to afford him the gratification of remark. The conversation was usually irregular, and hushed and renewed as he prompted, and not unfrequently extended to the gravest political and religious subjects. On the evening in question he spoke to them kindly.

"I feel better this evening, uncles. My good star is rising above the mists that have clouded it. We ought not to complain of what we cannot help; still, I have thought that when the gods retained the power to afflict us with sorrows, they should have given us some power to correct them."

One of the old men answered reverentially, "A king should be too great for sorrows; he should wear his crown against them as we wear our mantles against the cold winds."

"A good idea," said the monarch, smiling; "but you forget that the crown, instead of protecting, is itself the trouble. Come nearer, uncles; there is a matter more serious about which I would hear your minds."

They obeyed him, and he went on.

"The last courier brought me word that the strangers were yet on the coast, hovering about the islands. Tell me, who say you they are, and whence do they come?"

"How may we know more than our wise master?" said one of them.

"And our thoughts,-do we not borrow them from you, O king?" added another.

"What! Call you those answers? Nay, uncles, my fools can better serve me; if they cannot instruct, they can at least amuse."

The king spoke bitterly, and looking at one, probably the oldest of them all, said,-

"Uncle, you are the poorest courtier, but you are discreet and honest. I want opinions that have in them more wisdom than flattery. Speak to me truly: who are these

strangers?"

"For your sake, O my good king, I wish I were wise; for the trouble they have given my poor understanding is indeed very great. I believe them to be gods, landed from the Sun." And the old man went on to fortify his belief with arguments. In the excited state of his fancy, it was easy for him to convert the cannon of the Spaniards into engines of thunder and lightning, and transform their horses into creatures of Mictlan mightier than men. Right summarily he also concluded, that none but gods could traverse the dominions of Haloc,[29] subjecting the variant winds to their will. Finally, to prove the strangers irresistible, he referred to the battle of Tabasco, then lately fought between Cortes and the Indians.

Montezuma heard him in silence, and replied, "Not badly given, uncle; your friends may profit by your example; but you have not talked as a warrior. You have forgotten that we, too, have beaten the lazy Tabascans. That reference proves as much for my caciques as for your gods."

He waved his hand, and the first course was removed. The second consisted for the most part of delicacies in the preparation of which his artistes delighted; at this time appeared the choclatl, a rich, frothy beverage served in xicaras, or small golden goblets. Girls, selected for their rank and beauty, succeeded the boys. Flocking around him with light and echoless feet, very graceful, very happy, theirs was indeed the service that awaits the faithful in Mahomet's Paradise. To each of his ancients he passed a goblet of choclatl, then continued his eating and talking.

"Yes. Be they gods or men, I would give a province to know their intention; that, uncles, would enable me to determine my policy,-whether to give them war or peace. As yet, they have asked nothing but the privilege of trading with us; and, judging them by our nations, I want not better warrant of friendship. As you know, strangers have twice before been upon our coast in such canoes, and with such arms;[30] and in both instances they sought gold, and getting it they departed. Will these go like them?"

"Has my master forgotten the words of Mualox?"

"To Mictlan with the paba!" said the king, violently. "He has filled my cities and people with trouble."

"Yet he is a prophet," retorted the old councillor, boldly. "How knew he of the coming of the strangers before it was known in the palace?"

The flush of the king's face faded.

"It is a mystery, uncle,-a mystery too deep for me. All the day and night before he was in his C?; he went not into the city even."

"If the wise master will listen to the words of his slave, he will not again curse the paba, but make him a friend."

The monarch's lip curled derisively.

"My palace is now a house of prayer and sober life; he would turn it into a place of revelry."

All the ancients but the one laughed at the irony; that one repeated his words.

"A friend; but how?" asked Montezuma.

"Call him from the C? to the palace; let him stand here with us; in the councils give him a voice. He can read the future; make of him an oracle. O king, who like him can stand between you and Quetzal'?"

For a while Montezuma toyed idly with the xicara. He also believed in the prophetic gifts of Mualox, and it was not the first time he had pondered the question of how the holy man had learned the coming of the strangers; to satisfy himself as to his means of information, he had even instituted inquiries outside the palace. And yet it was but one of several mysteries; behind it, if not superior, were the golden chamber, its wealth, and the writing on the walls. They were not to be attributed to the paba: works so wondrous could not have been done in one lifetime. They were the handiwork of a god, who had chosen Mualox for his servant and prophet; such was the judgment of the king.

Nor was that all. The monarch had come to believe that the strangers on the coast were Quetzal' and his followers, whom it were vain to resist, if their object was vengeance. But the human heart is seldom without its suggestion of hope; and he thought, though resistance was impossible, might he not propitiate? This policy had occupied his thoughts, and most likely without result, for the words of the councillor seemed welcome. Indeed, he could scarcely fail to recognize the bold idea they conveyed,-nothing less, in fact, than meeting the god with his own prophet.

"Very well," he said, in his heart. "I will use the paba. He shall come and stand between me and the woe."

Then he arose, took a string of pearls from his neck, and with his own hand placed it around that of the ancient.

"Your place is with me, uncle. I will have a chamber fitted for you here in the palace. Go no more away. Ho, steward! The supper is done; let the pipes be brought, and give me music and dance. Bid the minstrels come. A song of the olden time may make me strong again."

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