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

   Chapter 24 THE SECOND COMBAT

The Fair God; or, The Last of the 'Tzins: A Tale of the Conquest of Mexico By Lew Wallace Characters: 18662

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:02


It is hardly worth while to detail the debate between Hualpa and Xoli; enough to know that the latter, anticipating pursuit, hid the son of his friend in a closet attached to his restaurant.

That day, and many others, the police went up and down, ferreting for the assassin of the noble Iztlil'. Few premises escaped their search. The Chalcan's, amongst others, was examined, but without discovery. Thus safely concealed, the hunter throve on the cuisine, and for the loss of liberty was consoled by the gossip and wordy wisdom of his accessory, and, by what was better, the gratitude of Guatamozin. In such manner two weeks passed away, the longest and most wearisome of his existence. How sick at heart he grew in his luxurious imprisonment; how he pined for the old hills and woodlands; how he longed once more to go down the shaded vales free-footed and fearless, stalking deer or following his ocelot. Ah, what is ambition gratified to freedom lost!

Unused to the confinement, it became irksome to him, and at length intolerable. "When," he asked himself, "is this to end? Will the king ever withdraw his huntsmen? Through whom am I to look or hope for pardon?" He sighed, paced the narrow closet, and determined that night to walk out and see if his old friends the stars were still in their places, and take a draught of the fresh air, to his remembrance sweeter than the new beverage of the Chalcan. And when the night came he was true to his resolution.

Pass we his impatience while waiting an opportunity to leave the house unobserved; his attempts unsuccessfully repeated; his vexation at the "noble patrons" who lounged in the apartments and talked so long over their goblets. At a late hour he made good his exit. In the tianguez, which was the first to receive him, booths and porticos were closed for the night; lights were everywhere extinguished, except on the towers of the temples. As morning would end his furlough and drive him back to the hated captivity, he resolved to make the most of the night; he would visit the lake, he would stroll through the streets. By the gods! he would play freeman to the full.

In his situation, all places were alike perilous,-houses, streets, temples, and palaces. As, for that reason, one direction was good as another, he started up the Iztapalapan street from the tianguez. Passengers met him now and then; otherwise the great thoroughfare was unusually quiet. Sauntering along in excellent imitation of careless enjoyment, he strove to feel cheerful; but, in spite of his efforts, he became lonesome, while his dread of the patrols kept him uneasy. Such freedom, he ascertained, was not all his fancy colored it; yet it was not so bad as his prison. On he went. Sometimes on a step, or in the shade of a portico, he would sit and gaze at the houses as if they were old friends basking in the moonlight; at the bridges he would also stop, and, leaning over the balustrades, watch the waveless water in the canal below, and envy the watermen asleep in their open canoes. The result was a feeling of recklessness, sharpened by a yearning for something to do, some place to visit, some person to see; in short, a thousand wishes, so vague, however, that they amounted to nothing.

In this mood he thought of Nenetzin, who, in the tedium of his imprisonment, had become to him a constant dream,-a vision by which his fancy was amused and his impatience soothed; a vision that faded not with the morning, but at noon was sweet as at night. With the thought came another,-the idea of an adventure excusable only in a lover.

"The garden!" he said, stopping and thinking. "The garden! It is the king's; so is the street. It is guarded; so is the city. I will be in danger; but that is around me everywhere. By the gods! I will go to the garden, and look at the house in which she sleeps."

Invade the gardens of the great king at midnight! The project would have terrified the Chalcan; the 'tzin would have forbade it; at any other time, the adventurer himself would rather have gone unarmed into the den of a tiger. The gardens were chosen places sacred to royalty; otherwise they would have been without walls and without sentinels at the gates. In the event of detection and arrest, the intrusion at such a time would be without excuse; death was the penalty.

But the venture was agreeable to the mood he was in; he welcomed it as a relief from loneliness, as a rescue from his tormenting void of purpose; if he saw the dangers, they were viewed in the charm of his gentle passion,-griffins and goblins masked by Love, the enchanter. He started at once; and now that he had an object before him, there was no more loitering under porticos or on the bridges. As the squares were put behind him, he repeated over and over, as a magical exorcism, "I will look at the house in which she sleeps,-the house in which she sleeps."

Once in his progress, he turned aside from the great street, and went up a footway bordering a canal. At the next street, however, he crossed a bridge, and proceeded to the north again. Almost before he was aware of it, he reached the corner of the royal garden, always to be remembered by him as the place of his combat with the Tezcucan. But so intent was he upon his present project he scarcely gave it a second look.

The wall was but little higher than his head, and covered with snowy stucco; and where, over the coping, motionless in the moonshine, a palm-tree lifted its graceful head, he boldly climbed, and entered the sacred enclosure. Drawing his mantle close about him, he stole toward the palace, selecting the narrow walks most protected by overhanging shrubbery.

A man's instinct is a good counsellor in danger; often it is the only counsellor. Gliding through the shadows, cautiously as if hunting, he seemed to hear a recurrent whisper,-

"Have a care, O hunter! This is not one of thy familiar places. The gardens of the great king have other guardians than the stars. Death awaits thee at every gate."

But as often came the reply, "Nenetzin,-I will see the house in which she sleeps."

He held on toward the palace, never stopping until the top, here and there crowned with low turrets, rose above the highest trees. Then he listened intently, but heard not a sound of life from the princely pile. He sought next a retreat, where, secure from observation, he might sit in the pleasant air, and give wings to his lover's fancy. At last he found one, a little retired from the central walk, and not far from a tank, which had once been, if it were not now, the basin of a fountain. Upon a bench, well shaded by a clump of flowering bushes, he stretched himself at ease, and was soon absorbed.

The course of his thought, in keeping with his youth, was to the future. Most of the time, however, he had no distinct idea; revery, like an evening mist, settled upon him. Sometimes he lay with closed eyes, shutting himself in, as it were, from the world; then he stared vacantly at the stars, or into those blue places in the mighty vault too deep for stars; but most he loved to look at the white walls of the palace. And for the time he was happy; his soul may be said to have been singing a silent song to the unconscious Nenetzin.

Once or twice he was disturbed by a noise, like the suppressed cry of a child; but he attributed it to some of the restless animals in the museum at the farther side of the garden. Half the night was gone; so the watchers on the temples proclaimed; and still he stayed,-still dreamed.

About that time, however, he was startled by footsteps coming apparently from the palace. He sat up, ready for action. The appearance of a man alone and unarmed allayed his apprehension for the moment. Up the walk, directly by the hiding-place, the stranger came. As he passed slowly on, the intruder thrilled at beholding, not a guard or an officer, but Montezuma in person! As far as the tank the monarch walked; there he stopped, put his hands behind him, and looked moodily down into the pool.

Garden, palace, Nenetzin,-everything but the motionless figure by the tank faded from Hualpa's mind. Fear came upon him; and no wonder: there, almost within reach, at midnight, unattended, stood what was to him the positive realization of power, ruler of the Empire, dispenser of richest gifts, keeper of life and death! Guilty, and tremulously apprehensive that he had been discovered, Hualpa looked each instant to be dragged from his hiding.

The space around the tank was clear, and strewn with shells perfectly white in the moonlight. While the adventurer sat fixed to his seat, watching the king, watching, also, a chance of escape, he saw something come from the shrubbery, move stealthily out into the walk, then crouch down. Now, as I have shown, he was brave; but this tested all his courage. Out further crept the object, moving with the stillness of a spirit. Scarcely could he persuade himself at first that it was not an illusion begotten of his fears; but its form and movements, the very stillness of its advance, at last identified it. In all his hunter's experience, he had never seen an ocelot so large. The screams he had heard were now explained,-the monster had escaped from the menagerie!

I cannot say the recognition wrought a subsidence of Hualp

a's fears. He felt instinctively for his arms,-he had nothing but a knife of brittle itzli. Then he thought of the stories he had heard of the ferocity of the royal tigers, and of unhappy wretches flung, by way of punishment, into their dens. He shuddered, and turned to the king, who still gazed thoughtfully over the wall of the tank.

Holy Huitzil'! the ocelot was creeping upon the monarch! The flash of understanding that revealed the fact to Hualpa was like the lightning. Breathlessly he noticed the course the brute was taking; there could be no doubt. Another flash, and he understood the monarch's peril,-alone, unarmed, before the guards at the gates or in the palace could come, the struggle would be over; child of the Sun though he was, there remained for him but one hope of rescue.

As, in common with provincials generally, he cherished a reverence for the monarch hardly secondary to that he felt for the gods, the Tihuancan was inexpressibly shocked to see him subject to such a danger. An impulse aside from native chivalry urged him to confront the ocelot; but under the circumstances,-and he recounted them rapidly,-he feared the king more than the brute. Brief time was there for consideration; each moment the peril increased. He thought of the 'tzin, then of Nenetzin.

"Now or never!" he said. "If the gods do but help me, I will prove myself!"

And he unlooped the mantle, and wound it about his left arm; the knife, poor as it was, he took from his maxtlatl; then he was ready. Ah, if he only had a javelin!

To place himself between the king and his enemy was what he next set about. Experience had taught him how much such animals are governed by curiosity, and upon that he proceeded to act. On his hands and knees he crept out into the walk. The moment he became exposed, the ocelot stopped, raised its round head, and watched him with a gaze as intent as his own. The advance was slow and stealthy; when the point was almost gained, the king turned about.

"Speak not, stir not, O king!" he cried, without stopping. "I will save you,-no other can."

From creeping man the monarch looked to crouching beast, and comprehended the situation.

Forward went Hualpa, now the chief object of attraction to the monster. At last he was directly in front of it.

"Call the guard and fly! It is coming now!"

And through the garden rang the call. Verily, the hunter had become the king!

A moment after the ocelot lowered its head, and leaped. The Tihuancan had barely time to put himself in posture to receive the attack, his left arm serving as shield; upon his knee, he struck with the knife. The blood flew, and there was a howl so loud that the shouts of the monarch were drowned. The mantle was rent to ribbons; and through the feathers, cloth, and flesh, the long fangs craunched to the bone,-but not without return. This time the knife, better directed, was driven to the heart, where it snapped short off, and remained. The clenched jaws relaxed. Rushing suddenly in, Hualpa contrived to push the fainting brute into the tank. He saw it sink, saw the pool subside to its calm, then turned to Montezuma, who, though calling lustily for the guard, had stayed to the end. Kneeling upon the stained shells, he laid the broken knife at the monarch's feet, and waited for him to speak.

"Arise!" the king said, kindly.

The hunter stood up, splashed with blood, the fragments of his tilmatli clinging in shreds to his arm, his tunic torn, the hair fallen over his face,-a most uncourtierlike figure.

"You are hurt," said the king, directly. "I was once thought skilful with medicines. Let me see."

He found the wounds, and untying his own sash, rich with embroidery, wrapped it in many folds around the bleeding arm.

Meantime there was commotion in many quarters.

"Evil take the careless watchers!" he said, sternly, noticing the rising clamor. "Had I trusted them,-but are you not of the guard?"

"I am the great king's slave,-his poorest slave, but not of his guard."

Montezuma regarded him attentively.

"It cannot be; an assassin would not have interfered with the ocelot. Take up the knife, and follow me."

Hualpa obeyed. On the way they met a number of the guard running in great perplexity; but without a word to them, the monarch walked on, and into the palace. In a room where there were tables and seats, books and writing materials, maps on the walls and piles of them on the floor, he stopped, and seated himself.

"You know what truth is, and how the gods punish falsehood," he began; then, abruptly, "How came you in the garden?"

Hualpa fell on his knees, laid his palm on the floor, and answered without looking up, for such he knew to be a courtly custom.

"Who may deceive the wise king Montezuma? I will answer as to the gods: the gardens are famous in song and story, and I was tempted to see them, and climbed the wall. When you came to the fountain, I was close by; and while waiting a chance to escape, I saw the ocelot creeping upon you; and-and-the great king is too generous to deny his slave the pardon he risked his life for."

"Who are you?"

"I am from the province of Tihuanco. My name is Hualpa."

"Hualpa, Hualpa," repeated the king, slowly. "You serve Guatamozin."

"He is my friend and master, O king."

Montezuma started. "Holy gods, what madness! My people have sought you far and wide to feed you to the tiger in the tank."

Hualpa faltered not.

"O king, I know I am charged with the murder of Iztlil', the Tezcucan. Will it please you to hear my story?"

And taking the assent, he gave the particulars of the combat, not omitting the cause. "I did not murder him," he concluded. "If he is dead, I slew him in fair fight, shield to shield, as a warrior may, with honor, slay a foeman."

"And you carried him to Tecuba?"

"Before the judges, if you choose, I will make the account good."

"Be it so!" the monarch said, emphatically. "Two days hence, in the court, I will accuse you. Have there your witnesses: it is a matter of life and death. Now, what of your master, the 'tzin?"

The question was dangerous, and Hualpa trembled, but resolved to be bold.

"If it be not too presumptuous, most mighty king,-if a slave may seem to judge his master's judgment by the offer of a word-"

"Speak! I give you liberty."

"I wish to say," continued Hualpa, "that in the court there are many noble courtiers who would die for you, O king; but, of them all, there is not one who so loves you, or whose love could be made so profitable, being backed by skill, courage, and wisdom, as the generous prince whom you call my master. In his banishment he has chosen to serve you; for the night the strangers landed in Cempoalla, he left his palace in Iztapalapan, and entered their camp in the train of the governor of Cotastlan. Yesterday a courier, whom you rewarded richly for his speed in coming, brought you portraits of the strangers, and pictures of their arms and camp; that courier was Guatamozin, and his was the hand that wrought the artist's work. O, much as your faculties become a king, you have been deceived: he is not a traitor."

"Who told you such a fine minstrel's tale?"

"The gods judge me, O king, if, without your leave, I had so much as dared kiss the dust at your feet. What you have graciously permitted me to tell I heard from the 'tzin himself."

Montezuma sat a long time silent, then asked, "Did your master speak of the strangers, or of the things he saw?"

"The noble 'tzin regards me kindly, and therefore spoke with freedom. He said, mourning much that he could not be at your last council to declare his opinion, that you were mistaken."

The speaker's face was cast down, so that he could not see the frown with which the plain words were received, and he continued,-

"'They are not teules,'[36] so the 'tzin said, 'but men, as you and I are; they eat, sleep, drink, like us; nor is that all,-they die like us; for in the night,' he said, 'I was in their camp, and saw them, by torchlight, bury the body of one that day dead.' And then he asked, 'Is that a practice among the gods?' Your slave, O king, is not learned as a paba, and therefore believed him."

Montezuma stood up.

"Not teules! How thinks he they should be dealt with?"

"He says that, as they are men, they are also invaders, with whom an Aztec cannot treat. Nothing for them but war!"

To and fro the monarch walked. After which he returned to Hualpa and said,-

"Go home now. To-morrow I will send you a tilmatli for the one you wear. Look to your wounds, and recollect the trial. As you love life, have there your proof. I will be your accuser."

"As the great king is merciful to his children, the gods will be merciful to him. I will give myself to the guards," said the hunter, to whom anything was preferable to the closet in the restaurant.

"No, you are free."

Hualpa kissed the floor, and arose, and hurried from the palace to the house of Xoli on the tianguez. The effect of his appearance upon that worthy, and the effect of the story afterwards, may be imagined. Attention to the wounds, a bath, and sound slumber put the adventurer in a better condition by the next noon.

And from that night he thought more than ever of glory and Nenetzin.

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