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   Chapter 40 THE IRON CROSS COMES BACK TO ITS GIVER

The Fair God; or, The Last of the 'Tzins: A Tale of the Conquest of Mexico By Lew Wallace Characters: 16065

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:02


Admitting that the intent with which the Spaniards came to Tenochtitlan took from them the sanctity accorded by Christians to guests, and at the same time justified any measure in prevention,-a subject belonging to the casuist rather than the teller of a story,-their situation has now become so perilous, and possibly so interesting to my sympathetic reader, that he may be anxious to enter the old palace, and see what they are doing.

The dull report of the evening gun had long since spent itself over the lake, and along the gardened shores. So, too, mass had been said in the chapel, newly improvised, and very limited for such high ceremony; yet, as Father Bartolomé observed, roomy enough for prayer and penitence. Nor had the usual precautions against surprise been omitted; on the contrary, extra devices in that way had been resorted to; the guards had been doubled; the horses stood caparisoned; by the guns at the gates low fires were burning, to light, in an instant, the matches of the gunners; and at intervals, under cover of the walls, lay or lounged detachments of both Christians and Tlascalans, apparently told off for battle. A yell without or a shot within, and the palace would bristle with defenders. A careful captain was Cortes.

In his room, once the audience-chamber of the kings, paced the stout conquistador. He was alone, and, as usual, in armor, except of the head and hands. On a table were his helm, iron gloves, and battle-axe, fair to view, as was the chamber, in the cheerful, ruddy light of a brazen lamp. As he walked, he used his sword for staff; and its clang, joined to the sharp concussion of the sollerets smiting the tessellated floor at each step, gave notice in the adjoining chamber, and out in the patio, that the general-or, as he was more familiarly called, the Se?or Hernan-was awake and uncommonly restless. After a while the curtains of the doorway parted, and Father Bartolomé entered without challenge. The good man was clad in a cassock of black serge, much frayed, and girt to the waist by a leathern belt, to which hung an ivory cross, and a string of amber beads. At sight of him, Cortes halted, and, leaning on his sword, said, "Bring thy bones here, father; or, if such womanly habit suit thee better, rest them on the settle yonder. Anyhow, thou'rt welcome. I assure thee of the fact in advance of thy report."

"Thank thee, Se?or," he replied. "The cross, as thou mayst have heard, is proverbially heavy; but its weight is to the spirit, not the body, like the iron with which thou keep'st thyself so constantly clothed. I will come and stand by thee, especially as my words must be few, and to our own ears."

He went near, and continued in a low voice, and rapidly, "A deputation, appointed to confer with thee, is now coming. I sounded the men. I told them our condition; how we are enclosed in the city, dependent upon an inconstant king for bread, without hope of succor, without a road of retreat. Following thy direction, I drew the picture darkly. Very soon they began asking, 'What think'st thou ought to be done?' As agreed between us, I suggested the seizure of Montezuma. They adopted the idea instantly; and, that no consideration like personal affection for the king may influence thee to reject the proposal, the deputation cometh, with Diaz del Castillo at the head."

A gleam of humor twinkled in Cortes's eyes.

"Art sure they do not suspect me as the author of the scheme?"

"They will urge it earnestly as their own, and support it with arguments which"-the father paused a moment-"I am sure thou wilt find irresistible."

Cortes raised himself from the sword, and indulged a laugh while he crossed the room and returned.

"I thank thee, father," he said, resuming his habitual gravity. "So men are managed; nothing more simple, if we do but know how. The project hath been in my mind since we left Tlascala; but, as thou know'st, I feared it might be made of account against me with our imperial master. Now, it cometh back as business of urgency to the army, to which men think I cannot say nay. Let them come; I am ready."

He began walking again, thumping the floor with his sword, while Olmedo took possession of a bench by the table. Presently, there was heard at the door the sound of many feet, which you may be sure were not those of slippered damsels; for, at the bidding of Cortes, twelve soldiers came in, followed by several officers, and after them yet other soldiers. The general went to the table and seated himself. They ranged themselves about him, standing.

And for a time the chamber went back to its primitive use; but what were the audiences of Axaya' compared with this? Here was no painted cotton, or feather-work gaudy with the spoils of humming-birds and parrots: in their stead, the gleam and lustre blent with the brown of iron. One such Christian warrior was worth a hundred heathen chiefs. So thought Cortes, as he glanced at the faces before him, bearded, mustachioed, and shaded down to the eyes by well-worn morions.

"Good evening, gentlemen and soldiers," he said, kindly, but without a bow. "This hath the appearance of business."

Diaz advanced a step, and replied,-

"Se?or, we are a deputation from the army, appointed to beg attention to a matter which to us looketh serious; enough so, at least, to justify this appearance. We have been, and are, thy faithful soldiers, in whom thou mayst trust to the death, as our conduct all the way from the coast doth certify. Nor do we come to complain; on that score be at rest. But we are men of experience; a long campaign hath given us eyes to see and ability to consider a situation; while we submit willingly to all thy orders, trusting in thy superior sense, we yet think thou wilt not take it badly, nor judge us wanting in discipline and respect, if we venture the opinion that, despite the courtesies and fair seeming of the unbelieving king, Montezuma, we are, in fact, cooped up in this strong city as in a cage."

"I see the business already," said Cortes; "and, by my conscience! ye are welcome to help me consider it. Speak out, Bernal Diaz."

"Thank thee, Se?or. The question in our minds is, What shall be done next? We know that but few things bearing anywise upon our expedition escape thy eyes, and that of what is observed by thee nothing is forgotten; therefore, what I wish, first, is to refer some points to thy memory. When we left Cuba, we put ourselves in the keeping of the Holy Virgin, without any certain purpose. We believed there was in this direction somewhere a land peopled and full of gold for the finding. Of that we were assured when we set out from the coast to come here. And now that we are come, safe from so many dangers, and hardships, and battles, we think it no shame to admit that we were not prepared for what we find, so far doth the fact exceed all our imaginings; neither can we be charged justly with weakness or fear, if we all desire to know whether the expedition is at an end, and whether the time hath arrived to collect our gains, and divide them, and set our faces homeward. There are in the army some who think that time come; but I, and my associates here, are not of that opinion. We believe with Father Olmedo, that God and the Holy Mother brought us to this land, and that we are their instruments; and that, in reward for our toils, and for setting up the cross in all these abominable temples, and bringing about the conversion of these heathen hordes, the country, and all that is in it, are ours."

"They are ours!" cried Cortes, dashing his sword against the floor until the chamber rang. "They are ours, all ours; subject only to the will of our master, the Emperor."

The latter words he said slowly, meaning that they should be remembered.

"We are glad, Se?or, to hear thy approval so heartily given," Diaz resumed. "If we are not mistaken in the opinion, and, following it up, decide to reduce the country to possession and the true belief,-something, I

confess, not difficult to determine, since we have no ships in which to sail away,-then we think a plan of action should be adopted immediately. If the reduction can be best effected from the city, let us abide here, by all means; if not, the sooner we are beyond the dikes and bridges, and out of the valley, the better. Whether we shall remain, Se?or, is for thee to say. The army hath simply chosen us to make a suggestion, which we hope thou wilt accept as its sense; and that is, to seize the person of Montezuma, and bring him to these quarters, after which there will be no difficulty in providing for our wants and safety, and controlling, as may be best, the people, the city, the provinces, and all things else yet undiscovered."

"Jesu Christo!" exclaimed Cortes, like one surprised. "Whence got ye this idea? Much I fear the Devil is abroad again." And he began to walk the floor, using long strides, and muttering to himself; retaking his seat, he said,-

"The proposition hath a bold look, soldiers and comrades, and for our lives' sake requireth careful thought. That we can govern the Empire through Montezuma, I have always held, and with that idea I marched you here, as the cavaliers now present can testify; but the taking and holding him prisoner,-by my conscience! ye out-travel me, and I must have time to think about the business. But, gentlemen,"-turning to the Captains Leon, Ordas, Sandoval, and Alvarado, who, as part of the delegation, had stationed themselves behind him,-"ye have reflected upon the business, and are of made-up minds. Upon two points I would have your judgments: first, can we justify the seizure to his Majesty, the Emperor? secondly, how is the arrest to be accomplished? Speak thou, Sandoval."

"As thou know'st, Se?or Hernan, what I say must be said bluntly, and with little regard for qualifications," Sandoval replied, lisping. "To me the seizure is a necessity, and as such justifiable to our royal master, himself so good a soldier. I have come to regard the heathen king as faithless, and therefore unworthy, except as an instrument in our hands. I cannot forget how we were cautioned against him in all the lower towns, and how, from all quarters, we were assured he meant to follow the pretended instructions of his god, allow us to enter the capital quietly, then fall upon us without notice and at disadvantage. And now that we are enclosed, he hath only to cut off our supplies of bread and water, and break down the bridges. So, Se?or, I avouch that, in my opinion, there is but one question for consideration,-Shall we move against him, or wait until he is ready to move against us? I would rather surprise my enemy than be surprised by him."

"And what sayest thou, Leon?"

"The good Captain Sandoval hath spoken for me, Se?or. I would add, that some of us have to-day noticed that the king's steward, besides being insolent, hath failed to supply our tables as formerly. And from Aguilar, the interpreter, who hath his news from the Tlascalans, I learn that the Mexicans certainly have some evil plot in progress."

"And yet further, captain, say for me," cried Alvarado, impetuously, "that the prince now with us, his name-The fiend take his name!"

"Thou would'st say, the Prince of Tezcuco; never mind his name," Cortes said, gravely.

"Ay, never mind his name," Olmedo repeated, with a scarce perceptible gleam of humor. "At the baptism to-morrow I will give him something more Christian."

"As ye will, as ye will!" Alvarado rejoined, impatiently. "I was about to say, that the Tezcucan averreth most roundly that the yells we heard this afternoon from the temple over the way signified a grand utterance from the god of war; and of opinion that we will now be soon attacked, he refuseth to go into the city again."

"And thou, Ordas."

"Se?or," that captain replied, "I am in favor of the seizure. If, as all believe, Montezuma is bent to make war upon us, the best way to meet the danger is to arrest him in time. The question, simply stated, is, his liberty or our lives. Moreover, I want an end to the uncertainty that so vexeth us night and day; worse, by far, than any battle the heathen can offer."

Cortes played with the knot of his sword, and reflected.

"Such, then, is the judgment of the army," he finally said. "And such, gentlemen, is mine, also. But is that enough? What we do as matter of policy may be approved of man, even our imperial master, of whom I am always regardful; but, as matter of conscience, the approval of Heaven must be looked for. Stand out, Father Bartolomé! Upon thy brow is the finger of St. Peter, at thy girdle the cross of Christ. What saith the Church?"

The good man arose, and held out the cross, saying,-

"My children, upon the Church, by Christ himself, this solemn hest hath been placed, good for all places, to be parted from never: 'Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature.' The way hither hath been through strange seas and deadly climates. Hear me, that ye may know yourselves. Ye are the swords of the Church. In Cempoalla she preached; so in Tlascala; so in Cholula; and in all, she cast out false gods, and converted whole tribes. Only in this city hath the gospel not been proclaimed. And why? Because of a king who to-day, almost in our view, sacrificed men to his idols. Swords of the Church, which go before to make smooth her path, Christ and the Holy Mother must be taught in yon temple of sin. So saith the Church!"

There was much crossing of forehead and breast, and "Amen," and the sweet name "Ave Maria" sounded through the chamber, not in the murmur of a cathedral response, but outspokenly as became the swords of Christ. The sensation was hardly done, when some one at the door called loudly for Alvarado.

"Who is he that so calleth?" the captain asked, angrily. "Let him choose another time."

The name was repeated more loudly.

"Tell the mouther to seek me to-morrow."

A third time the captain was called.

"May the Devil fly away with the fellow! I will not go."

"Bid the man enter," said Cortes. "The disturbance is strange."

A soldier appeared, whom Alvarado, still angry, addressed, "How now? Dost thou take me for a kitchen girl, apprenticed to answer thee at all times? What hast thou? Be brief. This goodly company waiteth."

"I crave thy pardon, captain. I crave pardon of the company," the soldier answered, saluting Cortes. "I am on duty at the main gate. A little while ago, a woman-"

"Picaro!" cried Alvarado, contemptuously. "Only a woman!"

"Peace, captain! Let the man proceed," said Cortes, whose habit it was to hear his common soldiers gravely.

"As I was about saying, Se?or, a woman came running to the gate. She was challenged. I could not understand her, and she was much scared, for behind her on the street was a party that seemed to have been in pursuit. She cried, and pressed for admittance. My order is strict,-Admit no one after the evening gun. While I was trying to make her understand me, some arrows were shot by the party outside, and one passed through her arm. She then flung herself on the pavement, and gave me this cross, and said 'Tonatiah, Tonatiah!' As that is what the people call thee, Se?or Alvarado, I judged she wanted it given to thee for some purpose. The shooting at her made me think that possibly the business might be of importance. If I am mistaken, I again pray pardon. Here is the cross. Shall I admit the woman?"

Alvarado took the cross, and looked at it once.

"By the saints! my mother's gift to me, and mine to the princess Nenetzin." Of the soldier he asked, in a suppressed voice, "Is the woman old or young?"

"A girl, little more than a child."

"'Tis she! Mother of Christ, 'tis Nenetzin!"

And through the company, without apology, he rushed. The soldier saluted, and followed him.

"To the gate, Sandoval! See the rest of this affair, and report," said Cortes, quietly. "We will stay the business until you return."

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