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   Chapter 42 HOW THE IRON CROSS CAME BACK

The Fair God; or, The Last of the 'Tzins: A Tale of the Conquest of Mexico By Lew Wallace Characters: 15006

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:02


Io' stayed at the landing awhile, nursing the thought left him by his comrade. And he was still there, the plash of the rowers of the receding canoe in his ear, when the great gate of the palace gave exit to another person, this time a girl. The guards on duty paid her no attention. She was clad simply and poorly, and carried a basket. Around the hill were scores of gardeners' daughters like her.

From the avenue she turned into a path which, through one of the fields below, led her to an inlet of the lake, where the market-people were accustomed to moor their canoes. The stars gave light, but too feebly to reclaim anything from the darkness. Groping amongst the vessels, she at length entered one, and, seating herself, pushed clear of the land, and out in the lake toward the glow in the sky beneath which reposed the city.

Like the night, the lake was calm; therefore, no fear for the adventuress. The boat, under her hand, had not the speed of the king's when driven by his twelve practised rowers; yet she was its mistress, and it obeyed her kindly. But why the journey? Why alone on the water at such a time?

Half an hour of steady work. The city was, of course, much nearer. At the same time, the labor began to tell; the reach of her paddle was not so great as at the beginning, nor was the dip so deep; her breathing was less free, and sometimes she stopped to draw a dripping hand across her forehead. Surely, this is not a gardener's daughter.

Voyageurs now became frequent. Most of them passed by with the salutation usual on the lake,-"The blessings of the gods upon you!" Once she was in danger. A canoe full of singers, and the singers full of pulque, came down at speed upon her vessel. Happily, the blow was given obliquely; the crash suspended the song; the wassailers sprang to their feet; seeing only a girl, and no harm done, they drew off, laughing. "Out with your lamp next time!" shouted one of them. A law of the lake required some such signal at night.

In the flurry of the collision, a tamane, leaning over the bow of the strange canoe, swung a light almost in the girl's face. With a cry, she shrank away; as she did so, from her bosom fell a shining cross. To the dull slave the symbol told no tale; but, good reader, we know that there is but one maiden in all Anahuac who wears such a jewel, and we know for whom she wears that one. By the light of that cross, we also know the weary passenger is, not a gardener's daughter, but Nenetzin, the princess.

And the wonder grows. What does the 'tzin Nene-so they called her in the days they swung her to sleep in the swinging cradle-out so far alone on the lake? And where goes she in such guise, this night of all others, and now when the kiss of her betrothed is scarcely cold on her lips? Where are the slaves? Where the signs of royalty? As prayed by the gentle voyageurs, the blessings of the gods may be upon her, but much I doubt if she has her mother's, almost as holy.

Slowly now she wins her way. The paddle grows heavier in her unaccustomed hands. On her brow gathers a dew which is neither of the night nor the lake. She is not within the radius of the temple lights, yet stops to rest, and bathe her palms in the cooling waves. Later, when the wall of the city, close by, stretches away on either side, far reaching, a margin of darkness under the illuminated sky, the canoe seems at last to conquer; it floats at will idly as a log; and in that time the princess sits motionless as the boat, lapsed in revery. Her purpose, if she has one, may have chilled in the solitude or weakened under the labor. Alas, if the purpose be good! If evil, help her, O sweet Mary, Mother!

The sound of paddles behind her broke the spell. With a hurried glance over her shoulder, she bent again to the task, and there was no more hesitation. She gained the wall, and passed in, taking the first canal. By the houses, and through the press of canoes, and under the bridges, to the heart of the city, she went. On the steps bordering a basin close to the street which had been Cortes' line of march the day of the entry, she landed, and, ascending to the thoroughfare, set out briskly, basket in hand, her face to the south. With never a look to the right or left, never a response to the idlers on the pavement, she hurried down the street. The watchers on the towers sung the hour; she scarcely heard them. At last she reached the great temple. A glance at the coatapantli, one at the shadowy sanctuaries, to be sure of the locality; then her eyes fell upon the palace of Axaya', and she stopped. The street to this point had been thronged with people; here there were none; the strangers were by themselves. The main gate of the ancient house stood half open, and she saw the wheels of gun-carriages, and now and then a Christian soldier pacing his round, slowly and grimly; of the little host, he alone gave signs of life. Over the walls she heard the stamp of horses' feet, and once a neigh, shrill and loud. The awe of the Indian in presence of the white man seized her, and she looked and listened, half frightened, half worshipful, with but one clear sense, and that was of the nearness of the Tonatiah.

A sound of approaching feet disturbed her, and she ran across to the gate; at once the purpose which had held her silent on the azoteas, which prompted her ready acquiescence in the betrothal to Hualpa, which had sustained her in the passage of the lake, was revealed. She was seeking her lover to save him.

She would have passed through the gateway, but for a number of lances dropped with their points almost against her breast. What with fear of those behind and of those before her, she almost died. On the pavement, outside the entrance, she was lying when Alvarado came to the rescue. The guard made way for him quickly; for in his manner was the warning which nothing takes from words, not even threats; verily, it had been as well to attempt to hinder a leaping panther. He threw the lances up, and knelt by her, saying tenderly, "Nenetzin, Nenetzin, poor child! It is I,-come to save you!"

She half arose, and, smiling through her tears, clasped her hands, and cried, "Tonatiah! Tonatiah!"

There are times when a look, a gesture, a tone of the voice, do all a herald's part. What need of speech to tell the Spaniard why the truant was there? The poor disguise, the basket, told of flight; her presence at that hour said, "I have come to thee"; the cross returned, the tears, the joy at sight of him, certified her love; and so, when she put her arm around his neck, and the arrow, not yet taken away, rattled against his corselet, to his heart there shot a pain so sharp and quick it seemed as if the very soul of him was going out.

He raised her gently, and carried her through the entrance. The rough men looking on saw upon his cheek what, if the cheek had been a woman's, they would have sworn was a tear.

"Ho, Marina!" he cried to the wondering interpreter. "I bring thee a bird dropped too soon from the nest. The hunter hath chased the poor thing, and here is a bolt in its wing. Give place in thy cot, while I go for a doctor, and room with thee, that malice hurt not a good name."

And at the sight the Indian woman was touched; she ran to the cot, smoothed the pillow of feathers, and said, "Here, rest her here, and run quickly. I will care for her."

He laid her down tenderly, but she clung to his hand, and said to Marina, "He must not go. Let h

im first hear what I have to say."

"But you are hurt."

"It is nothing, nothing. He must stay."

So earnestly did she speak, that the captain changed his mind. "Very well. What is spoken in pain should be spoken quickly. I will stay."

Nenetzin caught the assent, and went on rapidly. "Let him know that to-morrow at noon the drum in the great temple will be beaten, and the bridges taken up, and then there will be war."

"By the saints! she bringeth doughty news," said Alvarado, in his voice of soldier. "Ask her where she got it; ask her, as you love us, Marina."

"From my father,-from the king himself."

"And this is child of Montezuma!" cried Marina.

"The princess Nenetzin," said the cavalier. "But stay not so. Ask her when and where she heard the news."

"To-day, at Chapultepec."

"What of the particulars? How is the war to be made? What are the preparations?"

"The lord Cuitlahua is to take up the bridges. Maize and meat will be furnished to-morrow only. About the great temple now there are ten thousand warriors for an attack, and elsewhere in the city there are seventy thousand more."

"Enough," said Alvarado, kissing the little hand. "Look now to the hurt, Marina. Bring the light; mayhap we can take the bolt away ourselves."

Marina knelt, and examined the wounded arm, and shortly held up the arrow.

"Good!" the cavalier said. "Thou art a doctor, indeed, Marina. In the schools at home they give students big-lettered parchments. I will do better by thee; I will cover the arm that did this surgery with bracelets of gold. Run now, and bring cloth and water. The blood thou seest trickling here is from her heart, which loveth me too dearly to suffer such waste. Haste thee! haste thee!"

They bathed the wound, and applied the bandages, though all too roughly to suit the cavalier, who, thereupon, turned to go, saying, "Sit thou there, Marina, and leave her not, except to do her will. Tell her I will return, and to be at rest, for she is safe as in her father's house. If any do but look at her wrongfully, they shall account to me. So, by my mother's cross, I swear!"

And he hurried back to the audience-chamber, where the council was yet in session. While he related what had been told by Nenetzin, a deep silence pervaded the assemblage, and the brave men, from looking at each other, turned, with singular unanimity, to Cortes; who, thus appealed to, threw off his affectation, and standing up, spoke, so as to be heard by all,-

"Comrades, soldiers, gentlemen, let there be no words more. The step you have urged upon me, in the name of the army, I hesitated to take. I grant you, I hesitated; but not from love of the soft-tongued, lying, pagan king. Bethink ye. We left Cuba hastily, as ye all remember, because of a design to arrest us there as malefactors and traitors. Now, when our enemies in that island hear from our expedition, and have told them all its results,-the wealth we have won, and the country, cities, peoples, and empire discovered,-envy and jealousy will pursue us, and false tongues go back to Spain, and fill the ears of our royal master with reports intended to rob us of our glory and despoil us of our hire. How could I know but the seizure in question might be magnified into impolicy and cruelty, and furnish cause for disgrace, imprisonment, and forfeiture? For that I hesitated. This news, however, endeth doubt and debate. The over-cunning king hath put himself outside of mercy or compassion; we are compelled to undo him. So far, well. Let me remind ye now, that the news of which I speak hath in it a warning which it were sinful not to heed. Yesterday the great infidel was at our mercy; not more difficult his capture then than a visit to his palace; but now, in all the histories of bold performances, nothing bolder,-nothing of the Cid's, nothing of King Arthur's. In the heart of his capital we are to make prisoner him, the head of millions, the political ruler and religious chief, not merely secure in the love and fear of his subjects, but in the height of his careful preparation for war, in the centre of his camp, within call, nay, under the eyes, of his legions, numbering thousands where we number tens. Take ye each, my brave brethren, the full measure of the design, and then tell me, in simple words, how it may be best done. And among ye, let him speak who can truly say, I dare do what my tongue delivereth. I wait your answer."

And in the chamber there again fell a hush so deep that those present might well have been taken for ghosts. The idea as first seen by them was commonplace; under his description, it became heroic; and struggling, as he suggested, to measure it each for himself, all were dumb.

"Good gentlemen," said Cortes, smiling, "why so laggard now? Speak, Diaz del Castillo. Offer what thou canst."

The good soldier, and afterward good chronicler, of the conquest and its trials, this one among the rest, replied, "I confess, Se?or, the enterprise is difficult beyond my first thought. I confess, also, to more reflection about its necessity than its achievement. To answer truthfully, at this time I see but one way to the end; and that is, to invite the monarch here under some sufficient pretence, and then lay hands on him."

"Are ye all of the same minds, gentlemen?"

There was a murmur of assent, whereupon Cortes arose from leaning upon his sword, and said, sharply,-

"To hear ye, gentlemen, one would think the summer all before us in which to interchange courtesies with the royal barbarian. What is the fact? At noon to-morrow our hours of grace expire. A beat of drum, and then assault, and after that,"-he paused, looking grimly round the circle,-"and after that, sacrifices to the gods, I suppose."

There was a general movement and outcry. Some griped their arms, others crossed themselves. Cortes saw and pressed his advantage.

"I shall not take your advice, Bernal Diaz; not I, by my conscience! Heaven helping me, I expect to see old Spain again; and more, I expect to take these comrades back with me, rich in glory and gold." Then, to the officers behind him, he said, in his ordinary tone of command, "Ordas, do thou bid the carpenters prepare quarters in this palace for Montezuma and his court; and let them begin their work to-night, for he will be our guest before noon to-morrow. And thou, Leon, thou, Lugo, thou, Avila, and thou, Sandoval, get ye ready to go with me to the-"

"And I?" asked Alvarado.

"Thou shalt go also."

"And the army, Se?or?" Diaz suggested.

"The army shall remain in quarters."

Never man's manner more calm, never man more absolutely assured. The listeners warmed with admiration. As unconscious of the effect he was working, he went on,-

"I have shown the difficulties of the enterprise; now I say further, the crisis of the expedition is upon us: if I succeed, all is won; if I fail, all is lost. In such strait, what should we do between this and then? Let us not trust in our cunning and strength: we are Christians; as such, put we our faith in Christ and the Holy Mother. Olmedo, father, go thou to the chapel, and get ready the altar. The night to confession and prayer; and let the morning find us on our knees shrieved and blessed. We are done, comrades. Let the chamber be cleared. To the chapel all."

And they did the bidding cheerfully. All night the good father was engaged in holy work, confessing, shrieving, praying. So the morning found them.

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