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   Chapter 17 NIGHT AT THE CHALCAN’S

The Fair God; or, The Last of the 'Tzins: A Tale of the Conquest of Mexico By Lew Wallace Characters: 13688

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:02


The same day, in the evening, Xoli lay on a lounge by the fountain under his portico. His position gave him the range of the rooms, which glowed like day, and resounded with life. He could even distinguish the occupations of some of his guests. In fair view a group was listening to a minstrel; beyond them he occasionally caught sight of girls dancing; and every moment peals of laughter floated out from the chambers of play. A number of persons, whose arms and attire published them of the nobler class, sat around the Chalcan in the screen of the curtains, conversing, or listlessly gazing out on the square.

Gradually Xoli's revery became more dreamy; sleep stole upon his senses, and shut out the lullaby of the fountain, and drowned the influence of his cuisine. His patrons after a while disappeared, and the watchers on the temples told the passing time without awakening him. Very happy was the Chalcan.

The slumber was yet strong upon him, when an old man and a girl came to the portico. The former, decrepit and ragged, seated himself on the step. Scanty hair hung in white locks over his face; and grasping a staff, he rested his head wearily upon his hands, and talked to himself.

The girl approached the Chalcan with the muffled tread of fear. She was clad in the usual dress of her class,-a white chemise, with several skirts short and embroidered, over which, after being crossed at the throat, a red scarf dropped its tasseled ends nearly to her heels. The neatness of the garments more than offset their cheapness. Above her forehead, in the fillet that held the mass of black hair off her face, leaving it fully exposed, there was the gleam of a common jewel; otherwise she was without ornament. In all beauty there is-nay, must be-an idea; so that a countenance to be handsome even, must in some way at sight quicken a sentiment or stir a memory in the beholder. It was so here. To look at the old man's guardian was to know that she had a sorrow to tell, and to pity her before it was told; to be sure that under her tremulous anxiety there was a darksome story and an extraordinary purpose, the signs of which, too fine for the materialism of words, but plain to the sympathetic inner consciousness, lurked in the corners of her mouth, looked from her great black eyes, and blent with every action.

Gliding over the marble, she stopped behind the sleeper, and spoke, without awakening him; her voice was too like the murmur of the fountain. Frightened at the words, low as they were, she hesitated; but a look at the old man reassured her, and she called again. Xoli started.

"How now, mistress!" he said, angrily, reaching for her hand.

"I want to see Xoli, the Chalcan," she replied, escaping his touch.

"What have you to do with him?"

He sat up, and looked at her in wonder.

"What have you to do with him?" he repeated, in a kindlier tone.

Her face kindled with a sudden intelligence. "Xoli! The gods be praised! And their blessing on you, if you will do a kind deed for a countryman!"

"Well! But what beggar is that? Came he with you?"

"It is of him I would speak. Hear me!" she asked drawing near him again. "He is poor, but a Chalcan. If you have memory of the city of your birth, be merciful to his child."

"His child! Who? Nay, it is a beggar's tale! Ho, fellow! How many times have I driven you away already! How dare you return!"

Slowly the old man raised his head from his staff, and turned his face to the speaker; there was no light there: he was blind!

"By the holy fires, no trick this! Say on, girl. He is a Chalcan, you said."

"A countryman of yours,"-and her tears fell fast. "A hut is standing where the causeway leads from Chalco to Iztapalapan; it is my father's. He was happy under its roof; for, though blind and poor, he could hear my mother's voice, which was the kindliest thing on earth to him. But Our Mother called her on the coming of a bright morning, and since then he has asked for bread, when I had not a tuna[32] to give him. O Xoli! did you but know what it is to ask for bread, when there is none! I am his child, and can think of but one way to quiet his cry." And she paused, looking in his face for encouragement.

"Tell me your name, girl; tell me your name, then go on," he said, with a trembling lip, for his soul was clever.

At that instant the old man moaned querulously, "Yeteve, Yeteve!"

She went, and clasped his neck, and spoke to him soothingly. Xoli's eyes became humid; down in the depths of his heart an emotion grew strangely warm.

"Yeteve, Yeteve!" he repeated, musingly, thinking the syllables soft and pretty. "Come; stand here again, Yeteve," said he, aloud, when the dotard was pacified. "He wants bread, you say: how would you supply him?"

"You are rich. You want many slaves; and the law permits the poor to sell themselves.[33] I would be your slave,-asking no price, except that you give the beggar bread."

"A slave! Sell yourself!" he cried, in dismay. "A slave! Why, you are beautiful, Yeteve, and have not bethought yourself that some day the gods may want you for a victim."

She was silent.

"What can you do? Dance? Sing? Can you weave soft veils and embroider golden flowers, like ladies in the palaces? If you can, no slave in Anahuac will be so peerless; the lords will bid more cocoa than you can carry; you will be rich."

"If so, then can I do all you have said."

And she ran, and embraced the old man, saying, "Patience, patience! In a little while we will have bread, and be rich. Yes," she continued, returning to the Chalcan, "they taught me in the teocallis, where they would have had me as priestess."

"It is good to be a priestess, Yeteve; you should have stayed there."

"But I did so love the little hut by the causeway. And I loved the beggar, and they let me go."

"And now you wish to sell yourself? I want slaves, but not such as you, Yeteve. I want those who can work,-slaves whom the lash will hurt, but not kill. Besides, you are worth more cocoa than I can spare. Keep back your tears. I will do better than buy you myself. I will sell you, and to-night. Here in my house you shall dance for the bidders. I know them all. He shall be brave and rich and clever who buys,-clever and brave, and the owner of a palace, full of bread for the beggar, and love for Yeteve."

Clapping his hands, a slave appeared at the door.

"Take yon beggar, and give him to eat. Lead him,-he is blind. Come, child, follow me."

He summoned his servants, and bade them publish the sale in every apartment; then he led the girl to the hall used for the exhibition of his own dancing-girls. It was roomy and finely lighted; the floor was of polished marble; a blue drop-curtain extended across the northern end, in front of which were rows of stools, handsomely cush

ioned, for spectators. Music, measured for the dance, greeted the poor priestess, and had a magical effect upon her; her eyes brightened, a smile played about her mouth. Never was the chamber of the rich Chalcan graced by a creature fairer or more devoted.

"A priestess of the dance needs no teaching from me," said Xoli, patting her flushed cheek. "Get ready; they are coming. Beware of the marble; and when I clap my hands, begin."

She looked around the hall once; not a point escaped her. Springing to the great curtain, and throwing her robe away, she stood before it in her simple attire; and no studied effect of art could have been more beautiful; motionless and lovely, against the relief of the blue background, she seemed actually spirituelle.

Upon the announcement of the auction, the patrons of the house hurried to the scene. Voluntary renunciation of freedom was common enough among the poorer classes in Tenochtitlan, but a transaction of the kind under the auspices of the rich broker was a novelty; so that curiosity and expectation ran high. The nobles, as they arrived, occupied the space in front of the curtain, or seated themselves, marvelling at the expression of her countenance.

The music had not ceased; and the bidders being gathered, Xoli, smiling with satisfaction, stepped forward to give the signal, when an uproar of merriment announced the arrival of a party of the younger dignitaries of the court,-amongst them Iztlil', the Tezcucan, and Maxtla, chief of the guard, the former showing signs of quick recovery from his wounds, the latter superbly attired.

"Hold! What have we here?" cried the Tezcucan, surveying the girl. "Has this son of Chalco been robbing the palace?"

"The temples, my lord Iztlil'! He has robbed the temples! By all the gods, it is the priestess Yeteve!" answered Maxtla, amazed. "Say, Chalcan, what does priestess of the Blessed Lady in such unhallowed den?"

The broker explained.

"Good, good!" shouted the new-comers.

"Begin, Xoli! A thousand cocoa for the priestess,-millions of bread for the beggar!" This from Maxtla.

"Only a thousand?" said Iztlil', scornfully. "Only a thousand? Five thousand to begin with, more after she dances."

Xoli gave the signal, and the soul of the Chalcan girl broke forth in motion. Dancing had been her r?le in the religious rites of the temple; many a time the pabas around the altar, allured by her matchless grace, had turned from the bleeding heart indifferent to its auguration. And she had always danced moved by no warmer impulse than duty; so that the prompting of the spirit in the presence of a strange auditory free to express itself, like that she now faced, came to her for the first time. The dance chosen was one of the wild, quick, pulsating figures wont to be given in thanksgiving for favorable tokens from the deity. The steps were irregular and difficult; a great variety of posturing was required; the head, arms, and feet had each their parts, all to be rendered in harmony. At the commencement she was frightened by the ecstasy that possessed her; suddenly the crowd vanished, and she saw only the beggar, and him wanting bread. Then her form became divinely gifted; she bounded as if winged; advanced and retreated, a moment swaying like a reed, the next whirling like a leaf in a circling wind. The expression of her countenance throughout was so full of soul, so intense, rapt, and beautiful, that the lords were spell-bound. When the figure was ended, there was an outburst of voices, some bidding, others applauding; though most of the spectators were silent from pity and admiration.

Of the competitors the loudest was Iztlil'. In his excitement, he would have sacrificed his province to become the owner of the girl. Maxtla opposed him.

"Five thousand cocoa! Hear, Chalcan!" shouted the Tezcucan.

"A thousand better!" answered Maxtla, laughing at the cacique's rage.

"By all the gods, I will have her! Put me down a thousand quills of gold!"

"A thousand quills above him! Not bread, but riches for the beggar!" replied Maxtla, half in derision.

"Two thousand,-only two thousand quills! More, noble lords! She is worth a palace!" sung Xoli, trembling with excitement; for in such large bids he saw an extraordinary loan. Just then, under the parted curtain of the principal doorway, he beheld one dear to every lover of Tenochtitlan; he stopped. All eyes turned in that direction, and a general exclamation followed,-"The 'tzin, the 'tzin!"

Guatamozin was in full military garb, and armed. As he lingered by the door to comprehend the scene, what with his height, brassy helm, and embossed shield, he looked like a Greek returned from Troy.

"Yeteve, the priestess!" he said. "Impossible!"

He strode to the front.

"How?" he said, placing his hand on her head. "Has Yeteve flown the temple to become a slave?"

Up to this time, it would seem that, in the fixedness of her purpose, she had been blind to all but the beggar, and deaf to everything but the music. Now she knelt at the feet of the noble Aztec, sobbing broken-heartedly. The spectators were moved with sympathy,-all save one.

"Who stays the sale? By all the gods, Chalcan, you shall proceed!"

Scarcely had the words been spoken, or the duller faculties understood them, before Guatamozin confronted the speaker, his javelin drawn, and his shield in readiness. Naturally his countenance was womanly gentle; but the transition of feeling was mighty, and those looking upon him then shrank with dread; it was as if their calm blue lake had in an instant darkened with storm. Face to face he stood with the Tezcucan, the latter unprepared for combat, but in nowise daunted. In their angry attitude a seer might have read the destiny of Anahuac.

One thrust of the javelin would have sent the traitor to Mictlan; the Empire, as well as the wrongs of the lover, called for it; but before the veterans, recovering from their panic, could rush between the foemen, all the 'tzin's calmness returned.

"Xoli," he said, "a priestess belongs to the temple, and cannot be sold; such is the law. The sale would have sent your heart, and that of her purchaser, to the Blessed Lady. Remove the girl. I will see that she is taken to a place of safety. Here is gold; give the beggar what he wants, and keep him until to-morrow.-And, my lords and brethren," he added, turning to the company, "I did not think to behave so unseemly. It is only against the enemies of our country that we should turn our arms. Blood is sacred, and accursed is his hand who sheds that of a countryman in petty quarrel. I pray you, forget all that has passed." And with a low obeisance to them, he walked away, taking with him the possibility of further rencounter.

He had just arrived from his palace at Iztapalapan.

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