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   Chapter 44 WHOM THE GODS DESTROY THEY FIRST MAKE MAD

The Fair God; or, The Last of the 'Tzins: A Tale of the Conquest of Mexico By Lew Wallace Characters: 18053

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:02


The morning after Hualpa's return Xoli, the Chalcan, as was his wont, passed through his many rooms, making what may be called a domestic reconnoissance.

"What!" he cried, perplexed. "How is this? The house is empty! Where are all the lords?"

The slaves to whom he spoke shook their heads.

"Have there been none for breakfast?"

Again they shook their heads.

"Nor for pulque?"

"Not one this morning," they replied.

"Not even for a draught of pulque! Wonderful!" cried the broker, bewildered and amazed. Then he hurried to his steward, soliloquizing as he went, "Not one for breakfast; not even a draught of pulque! Holy gods, to what is the generation coming?"

The perplexity of the good man was not without cause. The day the king removed to the palace of Axaya', the royal hospitality went with him, and had thenceforth been administered there; but though no less princely and profuse than before, under the new régime it was overshadowed by the presence of the strangers, and for that reason became distasteful to the titled personages accustomed to its enjoyment. Consequently, owners of palaces in the city betook themselves to their own boards; others, especially non-residents, quartered with the Chalcan; as a further result, his house assumed the style of a meson, with accommodations equal to those of the palace; such, at least, was the disloyal whisper, and I am sorry to say Xoli did not repudiate the impeachment as became a lover of the king. And such eating, drinking, playing, such conspiring and plotting, such political discussion, such transactions in brokerage went on daily and nightly under his roof as were never before known. Now all this was broken off. The silence was not more frightful than unprofitable.

"Steward, steward!" said Xoli to that functionary, distinguished by the surpassing whiteness of his apron. "What has befallen? Where are the patrons this morning?"

"Good master, the most your slave knows is, that last night a paba from the great temple passed through the chambers, after which, very shortly, every guest departed."

"A paba, a paba!" And Xoli was more than ever perplexed. "Heard you what he said?"

"Not a word."

"About what time did he come?"

"After midnight."

"And that is all you know?"

The steward bowed, and Xoli passed distractedly to the front door, only to find the portico as deserted as the chambers. Sight of the people beginning to collect in the square, however, brought him some relief, and he hailed the first passing acquaintance.

"A pleasant morning to you, neighbor."

"The same to you."

"Have you any news?"

"None, except I hear of a crowd of pabas in the city, come, as rumor says, from Tezcuco, Cholula, Iztapalapan, and other lake towns."

"When did they come?"

"In the night."

"Oho! There's something afoot." And Xoli wiped the perspiration from his forehead.

"So there is," the neighbor replied. "The king goes to the temple to worship to-day."

A light broke in upon the Chalcan. "True, true; I had forgotten."

"Such is the talk," the citizen continued. "Will you be there? Everybody is going."

"Certainly," answered Xoli, dryly. "If I do not go, everybody will not be there. Look for me. The gods keep you!"

And with that, he re-entered his house, satisfied, but not altogether quieted; wandering restlessly from chamber to chamber, he asked himself continually, "Why so many pabas? And why do they come in the night? And what can have taken the lords away so silently, and at such a time,-without breakfast,-without even a draught of pulque?"

Invariably these interrogatories were followed by appeals to the great ebony jar of snuff; after sneezing, he would answer himself, "Pabas for worship, lords and soldiers for fighting; but pabas and soldiers together! Something is afoot. I will stay at home, and patronize myself. And yet-and yet-they might have told me something about it!"

* * *

About ten o'clock-to count the time as Christians do-the king issued from the old palace, going in state to the teocallis, attended by a procession of courtiers, warriors, and pabas. He was borne in an open palanquin, shaded by the detached canopy, the whole presenting a spectacle of imperial splendor.

The movement was slow and stately, through masses of people on the pavements, under the gaze of other thousands on the housetops; but neither the banners, nor the music, nor the pomp, nor the king himself, though fully exposed to view, amused or deceived the people; for at the right and left of the carriage walked Lugo, Alvarado, Avila, and Leon; next, Olmedo, distinguishable from the native clergy by his shaven crown, and the cross he carried aloft on the shaft of a lance; after him, concluding the procession, one hundred and fifty Spaniards, ready for battle. Priesthood,-king,-the strangers! Clearer, closer, more inevitable, in the eyes of the people, arose the curse of Quetzal'.

When the monarch alighted at the foot of the first stairway of the temple, the multitude far and near knelt, and so remained until the pabas, delegated for the purpose, took him in their arms to carry him to the azoteas. Four times in the passage of the terraces the cortege came in view from the side toward the palace, climbing, as it were, to the Sun;-dimmer the holy symbols, fainter the solemn music; and each time the people knelt. The unfortunate going to worship was still the great king!

A detachment of Christians, under De Morla, preceded the procession as an advance-guard. Greatly were they surprised at what they found on the azoteas. Behind Tlalac, at the head of the last stairway, were a score or more of naked boys, swinging smoking censers; yet farther toward the tower or sanctuary of Huitzil' was an assemblage of dancing priestesses, veiled, rather than dressed, in gauzy robes and scarfs; from the steps to the door of the sanctuary a passage-way had been left; elsewhere the sacred area was occupied by pabas, drawn up in ranks close and scrupulously ordered. Like their pontiff, each of them wore a gown of black; but while his head was bare, theirs were covered by hoods. Thus arranged,-silent, motionless, more like phantoms than men,-they both shocked and disquieted the Spaniards. Indeed, so sensible were the latter of the danger of their position, alone and unsupported in the face of an array so dismal and solid, that many of them fell to counting their beads and muttering Aves.

A savage dissonance greeted the king when he was set down on the azoteas, and simultaneously the pabas burst into a hymn, and from the urn over the tower a denser column of smoke arose, slow mounting, but erelong visible throughout the valley. Half bending, he received the blessing of Tlalac; then the censer-bearers swept around him; then, too, jangling silver bells and beating calabashes, the priestesses began to dance; in the midst of the salutation, the arch-priest, moving backward, conducted him slowly toward the entrance of the sanctuary. At his side strode the four cavaliers. The escort of Christians remained outside; yet the pabas knew the meaning of their presence, and their hymn deepened into a wail; the great king had gone before his god-a prisoner!

The interior of the sanctuary was in ordinary condition; the floor and the walls black with the blood of victims; the air foul and sickening, despite the smoking censers and perfuming pans. The previous visit had prepared the cavaliers for these horrors; nevertheless, a cry broke from them upon their entrance. In a chafing-dish before the altar four human hearts were slowly burning to coals!

"Jesu Christo!" exclaimed Alvarado. "Did not the pagans promise there should be no sacrifice? Shrieve me never, if I toss not the contents of yon dish into the god's face!"

"Stay!" cried Olmedo, seizing his arm. "Stir not! The business is mine. As thou lovest God,-the true God,-get thee to thy place!"

The father spoke firmly, and the captain, grinding his teeth with rage, submitted.

The pedestal of the idol was of stone, square in form, and placed in the centre of the sanctuary. Several broad steps, fronting the doorway,-door there was not,-assisted devotees up to a platform, upon which stood a table curiously carved, and resting, as it were, under the eyes of the god. The chamber, bare of furniture, was crowded with pabas, kneeling and hooded and ranked, like their brethren outside. The cavaliers took post by the entrance, with Olmedo between them and the altar. Two priests, standing on the lower step, seemed waiting to assist in the ceremonial, although, at the time, apparently absorbed in prayer.

Tlalac led the monarch by the hand up the steps.

"O king," he said, "the ears of the god are open. He will hear you. And as to these companions in devotion," he pointed to the assistants as he spoke, "avoid them not: they are here to pray for you; if need be, to die for you. If they speak, be not surprised, but heed them well; what they say will

concern you, and all you best love."

Thereupon the arch-infidel let go the royal hand, and descended the steps, moving backward; upon the floor he continued his movement. Suddenly he stopped, turned, and was face to face with Olmedo; all the passions of his savage nature blazed in his countenance; in reply, the Christian priest calmly held up the cross, and smiled, and was content.

Meantime the monarch kissed the altar, and, folding his hands upon his breast, was beginning to be abstracted in prayer, when he heard himself addressed.

"Look not this way, O king, nor stir; but listen."

The words, audible throughout the chamber, proceeded from the nearest devotee,-a tall man, well muffled in gown and hood. The monarch controlled himself, and listened, while the speaker continued in a slow, monotonous manner, designed to leave the cavaliers, whom he knew to be observing him, in doubt whether he was praying or intoning some part of the service of the occasion,-

"It is in the streets and in the palaces, and has gone forth into the provinces, that Montezuma is the willing guest of the strangers, and that from great love of them and their society, he will not come away, although his Empire is dissolving, and the religion of his fathers menaced by a new one; but know, O king, that the chiefs and caciques refuse to credit the evil spoken of you, and, believing you a prisoner, are resolved to restore you to freedom. Know further, O king, that this is the time chosen for the rescue. The way back to the throne is clear; you have only to go hence. What says the king? The nation awaits his answer."

"The throne is inseparable from me,-is where I am, under my feet always," answered the monarch, coldly.

"And there may it remain forever!" said the devotee, with fervor. "I only meant to pray you to come from amongst the strangers, and set it once more where it belongs,-amongst the loving hearts that gave it to you. Misunderstand me not, O king. Short time have we for words. The enemy is present. I offer you rescue and liberty."

"To offer me liberty is to deny that I am free. Who is he that proposes to give me what is mine alone to give? I am with Huitzil'. Who comes thus between me and the god?"

From the pabas in the chamber there was a loud murmur; but as the king and devotee retained their composure, and, like praying men, looked steadily at the face of Huitzil', the cavaliers remained unsuspicious observers of what was to them merely a sinful ceremony.

"I am the humblest, though not the least loving, of all your subjects," the devotee answered.

"The name?" said the king. "You ask me to go hence: whither and with whom?"

"Know me without speaking my name, O king. I am your brother's son."

Montezuma was visibly affected. Afterwhile he said,-

"Speak further. Consider what you have said true,-that I am a prisoner, that the strangers present are my guards,-what are the means of rescue? Speak, that I may judge of them. Conspiracy is abroad, and I do not choose to be blindly led from what is called my prison to a tomb."

To the reasonable demand the 'tzin calmly replied, "That you were coming to worship to-day, and the conditions upon which you had permission to come, I learned from the teotuctli. I saw the opportunity, and proposed to attempt your rescue. In Tlalac the gods have a faithful servant, and you, O king, a true lover. When you were received upon the azoteas, you did not fail to notice the pabas. Never before in any one temple have there been so many assembled. They are the instruments of the rescue."

"The instruments!" exclaimed the king, unable to repress his scorn.

The 'tzin interposed hastily. "Beware! Though what we say is not understood by the strangers, their faculties are sharp, and very little may awaken their suspicion and alarm; and if our offer be rejected, better for you, O king, that they go hence ignorant of their danger and our design. Yes, if your conjecture were true, if we did indeed propose to face the teules with barehanded pabas, your scorn would be justified; but know that the concourse on the azoteas is, in fact, of chiefs and caciques, whose gowns do but conceal their preparation for battle."

A pang contracted the monarch's face, and his hands closed harder upon his breast; possibly he shuddered at the necessity so thrust upon him of deciding between Malinche whom he feared, and the people whom he so loved.

"Yes," continued the 'tzin, "here are the chosen of the realm,-the noblest and the best,-each with his life in his hand, an offering to you. What need of further words? You have not forgotten the habits of war; you divine the object of the concourse of priests; you understand they are formed in ranks, that, upon a signal, they may throw themselves as one man upon the strangers. Here in the sanctuary are fifty more with maquahuitls; behind them a door has been constructed to pass you quickly to the azoteas; they will help me keep the door, and stay pursuit, while you descend to the street. And now, O king, said I not rightly? What have you to do more than go hence? Dread not for us. In the presence of Huitzil', and in defence of his altar, we will fight. If we fall in such glorious combat, he will waft our souls straightway to the Sun."

"My son," the king answered, after a pause, "if I were a prisoner, I would say you and the lords have done well; but, being free and pursuing my own policy, I reject the rescue. Go your ways in peace; leave me to my prayers. In a few days the strangers will depart; then, if not sooner, I will come back as you wish, and bring the old time with me, and make all the land happy."

The monarch ceased. He imagined the question answered and passed; but a murmur, almost a groan, recalled him from the effort to abstract himself. And then the teotuctli, exercising his privilege, went to him, and, laying a hand upon his arm, and pointing up to the god, said,-

"Hearken, O king! The strangers have already asked you to allow them to set up an altar here in the house of Huitzil', that they may worship their god after their manner. The request was sacrilege; listening to it, a sin; to grant it would make you accursed forever. Save yourself and the god, by going hence as the lords have besought. Be wise in time."

"I have decided," said the poor king, in a trembling voice,-"I have decided."

Tlalac looked to the 'tzin despairingly. The appeal to the monarch's veneration for the god of his fathers had failed; what else remained? And the 'tzin for the first time looked to the king, saying sorrowfully,-

"Anahuac is the common mother, as Huitzil' is the father. The foot of the stranger is heavy on her breast, and she cries aloud, 'Where is Montezuma? Where is the Lord of the Earth? Where is the Child of the Sun?'"

And silence hung heavy in the sanctuary, and the waiting was painful. Again the 'tzin's voice,-

"A bride sits in the house waiting. Love puts its songs in her mouth, and kindles her smiles with the dazzle of stars. But the bridegroom lingers, and the evening and the morning bring him not. Ah, what is she, though ever so beautiful and sweet-singing, when he comes not, and may never come? O king, you are the lingering lord, and Anahuac the waiting bride; as you love her, come."

The fated king covered his face with his hands, as if, by shutting out the light, to find relief from pangs too acute for endurance. Minutes passed,-minutes of torture to him, and of breathless expectancy to all present, except the cavaliers, who, unconscious of peril, watched the scene with indifference, or rather the scornful curiosity natural to men professing a purer and diviner faith. At last his hand dropped, and he said with dignity,-

"Let this end now,-so I command. My explanation must be accepted. I cannot understand why, if you love me as you say, you should receive my word with so little credit; and if you can devote yourselves so entirely to me, why can you not believe me capable of equal devotion to myself? Hear me once more. I do not love the strangers. I hope yet to see them sacrificed to Huitzil'. They promise in a few days to leave the country, and I stay with them to hasten their departure, and, in the mean time, shield you, the nation, the temples, and the gods, from their power, which is past finding out. Therefore, let no blow be struck at them, here or elsewhere, without my order. I am yet the king. Let me have peace. Peace be with you! I have spoken."

The 'tzin looked once to heaven, as if uttering a last appeal, or calling it to witness a vow, then he fell upon his knees; he, too, had despaired. And as if the feeling were contagious, the teotuctli knelt, and in the sanctuary there was stillness consistent with worship, save when some overburdened breast relieved itself by a sigh, a murmur, or a groan.

And history tells how Montezuma remained a little while at the altar, and went peacefully back to his residence with the strangers.

* * *

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