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

   Chapter 52 THE ANGEL BECOMES A BEADSWOMAN

The Fair God; or, The Last of the 'Tzins: A Tale of the Conquest of Mexico By Lew Wallace Characters: 28610

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:02


The stars at the foot of the last chapter I called in as an easy bridge by which to cross an interval of two days,-a trick never to be resorted to except when there is nothing of interest to record, as was the case here.

Orteguilla occupied the interval very industriously, if not pleasantly. He had in hand two tasks,-one to instruct Tecetl about the world to which he had vowed to lead her; the other to fix upon a plan of escape. The first he found easy, the latter difficult; yet he had decided, and his preparations for the attempt, sufficient, he thought, though simple, lay upon the floor by the fountain. A lamp shed a dim light over the scene.

"So, so, Tecetl: are we ready now?" he asked.

"You are the master," she replied.

"Very good, I will be assured."

He went through a thorough inspection.

"Here are the paint and brush; here the oil and lamp; here the bread and meat, and the calabash of water. So far, good, very good. And here is the mat,-very comfortable, Tecetl, if you have to make your bed upon a stone in the floor. Now, are we ready?"

"Yes, if you say so."

"Good again! The Mother is with us. Courage! You shall see the sun and sky, or I am not a Spaniard. Listen, now, and I will explain."

They took seats upon the bench, this time together; for the strangeness was wellnigh gone, and they had come to have an interest in a common purpose.

"You must know, then, that I have two reliances: first, the man who brings the tray to the door; next, the Blessed Mother."

"I will begin with the first," he said, after a pause. "The man is a slave, and, therefore, easy to impose upon. If he is like his class, from habit, he asks no questions of his superiors. Your father-I speak from what you have told me-was thoughtful and dreamy, and spoke but little to anybody, and seldom, if ever, to his servants. You are not well versed in human nature; one day, no doubt, you will be; then you will be able to decide whether I am right in believing that the traits of master and slave, which I have mentioned, are likely to help us. I carried your father's body over to the corner yonder,-you were asleep at the time,-and laid it upon the floor, as we Christians serve our dead. I made two crosses, and put one upon his lips, the other on his breast; he will sleep all the better for them. As you would have done, had you been present, I also covered him with flowers. One other thing I did."

He took a lamp, and was gone a moment.

"Here are your father's gown and hood," he said, coming back. "I doubt whether they would sell readily in the market. He will never need them again. I took them to help save your life,-a purpose for which he would certainly have given them, had he been alive. I will put them on."

He laid his bonnet on the bench; then took off his boots, and put on the gown,-a garment of coarse black manta, loose in body and sleeves, and hanging nearly to the feet. Tying the cord about his waist, and drawing the hood over his head, he walked away a few steps, saying,-

"Look at me, Tecetl. Your father was very old. Did he stoop much? as much as this?"

He struck the good man's habitual posture, and, in a moment after, his slow, careful gait. At the sight, she could not repress her tears.

"What, crying again!" he said. "I shall be ashamed of you soon. If we fail, then you may cry, and-I do not know but that I will join you. People who weep much cannot hear as they ought, and I want you to hear every word. To go on, then: In this guise I mean to wait for the old slave. When he lets the tray down, I will be there to climb the ladder. He will see the hood and gown, and think me his old master. He will not speak, nor will I. He will let me get to his side, and then-"

After reflection, he continued,-

"Ah, Tecetl! you know not what troubles women sometimes are. Here am I now. How easy for me, in this guise, to follow the slave out of the temple! The most I would have to do would be to hold my tongue. But you,-I cannot go and leave you; the Se?or Hernan would not forgive me, and I could not forgive myself. Nevertheless, you are a trouble. For instance, when the slave sees you with me, will he not be afraid, and run? or, to prevent that, shall I not have to make him a prisoner? That involves a struggle. I may have to fight him, to wound him. I may get hurt myself, and then-alas! what would become of us?"

Again, he stopped, but at length proceeded,-

"So much for that. Now for my other reliance,-the Blessed Lady. If the slave escapes me, you see, Tecetl, I must trust to what the infidels call Fortune,-a wicked spirit, sometimes good, sometimes bad. I mean we shall then have to hunt the way out ourselves; and, having already tried that, I know what will happen. Hence these preparations. With the paint, I will mark the corners we pass, that I may know them again; the lamp will enable me to see the marks and keep the direction; if we get hungry, here are bread and meat, saved, as you know, from our meals; if we get thirsty, the calabash will be at hand. That is what I call trusting to ourselves; yet the Blessed Mother enabled me to anticipate all these wants, and provide for them, as we have done; therefore I call her my reliance. Now you have my plans. I said you were my trouble; you cannot work, or think, or fight; yet there is something you can do. Tecetl, you can be my pretty beadswoman. I see you do not know what that is. I will explain. Take these beads."

While speaking, he took a string of them from his neck.

"Take these beads, and begin now to say, 'O Blessed Mother, beautiful Mother, save us for Christ's sake.' Repeat! Good!" he said, his eyes sparkling. "I think the prayer never sounded as sweetly before; nor was there ever cavalier with such a beadswoman. Again."

And again she said the prayer.

"Now," he said, "take the string in your own hand,-thus; drop one bead,-thus; and keep on praying, and for every prayer drop one bead. Only think, Tecetl, how I shall be comforted, as I go along the gloomy passages, to know that right behind me comes one, so lately a heathen but now a Christian, at every step calling on the Mother. Who knows but we shall be out and in the beautiful day before the beads are twice counted? If so, then shall we know that she cared for us; and when we reach the palace we will go to the chapel, with good Father Bartolomé, and say the prayer together once for every bead on the string. So I vow, and do you the same."

"So I vow," she said, with a pretty submission.

Then, by ropes fixed for the purpose, he raised the calabash, and mat, and bundle of provisions, and swung them lightly over his shoulders. Under his arm he took an earthen vase filled with oil.

"Let us to the door now. The slave should be there. Before we start, look around: you are leaving this place forever."

The thought went to her heart.

"O my birds! What will become of them?"

"Leave them to God," he replied, laconically.

There were tears and sobs, in the midst of which he started off, lamp in hand. She gave a look to the fountain, within the circle of whose voice nearly all her years had been passed. In her absence, it would play and sing, would go on as of old; but in her absence who would be there to see and hear? In the silence and darkness it would live, but nevermore for her.

And she looked to the corner of the chamber where Orteguilla had carried the body of the paba. Her tears attested her undiminished affection for him. The recollection of his love outlived the influence of his Will. His World was being abandoned, having first become a tomb, capacious and magnificent,-his tomb. But Quetzal' had not come. Broken are thy dreams, O Mualox, wasted thy wealth of devotion! Yet, at this parting, thou hast tears,-first and last gift of Love, the sweetest of human principles, and the strongest,-stronger than the Will; for if the latter cannot make God of a man, the former can take him to God.

And while she looked, came again the bird of the breast of purple and wings of snow, which she placed in her bosom; then she followed the page, saying, trustfully, "O Blessed Mother, beautiful Mother, save us for Christ's sake!"

Outside the curtain door he deposited his load, and carefully explained to Tecetl the use of the ladder. Then he placed a stool for her.

"Sit now; you can do nothing more. Everything depends on the slave: if he behaves well, we shall have no need of these preparations, and they may be left here. But whether he behave well or ill, remember this, Tecetl,-cease not to pray; forget not the beads."

And so saying, he tossed a stout cord up through the trap; then, leaving the lamp below, he clomb to the floor above. His anxiety may be imagined. Fortunately, the waiting was not long. Through the gallery distantly he saw a light, which-praise to the Mother!-came his way. He descended the ladder.

"He comes, and is alone. Be of cheer, Tecetl; be of cheer, and pray. O if the Mother but stay with us now!"

Faster fell the beads.

When the sound of footsteps overhead announced the arrival of the slave, Orteguilla put his dagger between his teeth, drew the hood over his head, and began to ascend. He dared not look up; he trusted in the prayers of the little beadswoman, and clomb on.

His head reached the level of the floor, and with the trap gaping wide around, he knew himself under the man's eyes. Another moment, and his hand was upon the floor; slowly he raised himself clear of the rope; he stood up, then turned to the slave, and saw him to be old, and feeble, and almost naked; the lamp was on his forehead, the tray at his feet; his face was downcast, his posture humble. The Spaniard's blood leaped exultantly; nevertheless, carefully and deliberately, as became his assumed character, he moved to one side of the passage, to clear the way to the trap. The servant accepted the movement, and without a word took the lamp from his head, crossed the great stone, fixed the ropes, and stooped to lower the tray.

Orteguilla had anticipated everything, even this action, which gave him his supreme advantage; so he picked up the cord lying near, and stepped to the old man's side. When the tray was landed below, the latter raised himself upon his knees; in an instant the cord was around his body; before he understood the assault, escape was impossible.

Orteguilla, his head yet covered by the hood, said calmly, "Be quiet, and you are safe."

The man looked up, and replied, "I am the paba's servant now, even as I was when a youth. I have done no wrong, and am not afraid."

"I want you to live. Only move not."

Then the page called, "Tecetl! Tecetl!"

"Here," she answered.

"Try, now, to come up. Be careful lest you fall. If you need help, tell me."

"What shall I do with the bread and meat, and-"

"Leave them. The Mother has been with us. Come up."

The climbing was really a sailor's feat, and difficult for her; finally, she raised her head through the trap. At the sight, the slave shrank back, as if to run. Orteguilla spoke to him.

"Be not afraid of the child. I have raised her to help me take care of the temple. We are going to the chapel now."

The man turned to him curiously; possibly he detected a strange accent under the hood. When, on her part, Tecetl saw him, she stopped, full of wonder as of fear. Old and ugly as he was, he yet confirmed the page's story, and brought the new world directly to her. So a child stops, and regards the first person met at the door of a strange house,-attracted, curious, afraid.

"Come on," said Orteguilla.

She raised her hand overhead, and held up the bird with the white wings.

"Take it," she said.

Used as he was to wonderful things in connection with his old master, the servant held back. A girl and a bird from the cells,-a mystery, indeed!

"Take it," said Orteguilla.

He did so; whereupon the page assisted her to the floor.

"We are almost there,-almost," he said, cheerfully. "Have you kept count of the prayers? Let me see the beads."

She held out the rosary.

"Ten beads more,-ten prayers yet. The Mother is with us. Courage!"

Then of the slave he asked,-

"How is the day without?"

"There is not a cloud in the sky."

"Is it morning or evening?"

"About midday."

"Is the city quiet?"

"I cannot say."

"Very well. Give the girl her bird, and lead to the court-yard."

And they started, the slave ahead, held in check by the cord in the Spaniard's hand. The light was faint and unsteady. Once they ascended a flight of steps, and twice changed direction. When the page saw the many cells on either side, and the number of intersecting passages, all equal in height and width, and bounded by the same walls of rough red stone, he understood how he became lost; and with a shuddering recollection of his wanderings through the great house, he could not sufficiently thank the Providence that was now befriending him.

They clomb yet another stairway, and again changed direction; after that, a little farther walk, and Orteguilla caught sight of a doorway penetrated by a pure white light, which he recognized as day. Words cannot express his emotion; his spirit could hardly be controlled; he would have shouted, sung, danced,-anything to relieve himself of this oppression of happiness. But he thought, if he were out of the temple, he would not yet be out of danger; that he had to make way, by the great street from which he had been driven, to the quarters of his friends, before he could promise himself rest and safety; the disguise was the secret of his present good-fortune, and must help him further. So he restrained himself, saying to Tecetl,-

"For the time, cease your prayers, little one. The world I promised to bring you to is close by. I see the daylight."

There was indeed a door into the patio, or court-yard, of the temple. Under the lintel the page lingered a moment,-the court was clear. Then he gave the cord into the servant's hand, with the usual parting salutation, and stepped once more into the air, fresh with the moisture of the lake and the fragrance of the valley. He looked to the sky, blue as ever; and through its serenity, up sped his grateful Ave Maria. In the exul

ting sense of rescue, he forgot all else, and was well across the court to the steps leading to the azoteas, when he thought of Tecetl. He looked back, and did not see her; he ran to the door; she was there. The bird had fallen to the floor, and was fluttering blindly about; her hands were pressed hard over her face.

"What ails you?" he asked, petulantly. "This is not a time to halt and cry. Come on."

"I cannot-"

"Cannot! Give me your hand."

He led her through the door, under the colonnade, out into the court.

"Look up, Tecetl, look up! See the sky, drink the air. You are free!"

She uncovered her eyes; they filled as with fiery arrows. She screamed, staggered as if struck, and cried, "Where are you? I am lost, I am blind!"

"O Madre de Dios!" said Orteguilla, comprehending the calamity, and all its inconveniences to her and himself. "Help me, most miserable of wretches,-help me to a little wisdom!"

To save her from falling, he had put his arm around her; and as they stood thus,-she the picture of suffering, and he overwhelmed by perplexity,-help from any quarter would have been welcome; had the slave been near, he might have abandoned her; but aid there was not. So he led her tenderly to the steps, and seated her.

"How stupid," he said in Spanish,-"how stupid not to think of this! If, the moment I was born, they had carried me out to take a look at the sun, shining as he is here, I would have been blinder than any beggar on the Prado, blinder than the Bernardo of whom I have heard Don Pedro tell. My nurse was a sensible woman."

Debating what to do, he looked at Tecetl; and for the first time since she had come out of the door, he noticed her dress,-simply a cotton chemise, a skirt of the same reaching below the knees, a blue sash around the waist,-very simple, but very clean. He noticed, also, the exceeding delicacy of her person, the transparency of her complexion, the profusion of her hair, which was brown in the sun. Finally, he observed the rosary.

"She is not clad according to the laws which govern high-born ladies over the water; yet she is beautiful, and-by the Mother! she is a Christian. Enough. By God's love, I, who taught her to pray, will save her, though I die. Help me, all the saints!"

He adjusted the hood once more, and, stooping, said, in his kindliest tone, "Pshaw, Tecetl, you are not blind. The light of the sun is so much stronger than that of your lamps that your eyes could not bear it. Cheer up, cheer up! And now put your arm around my neck. I will carry you to the top of these steps. We cannot stay here."

She stretched out her arms.

"Hark!" he cried. "What is that?"

He stood up and listened. The air above the temple seemed full of confused sounds; now resembling the distant roar of the sea, now the hum of insects, now the yells of men.

"Jesu! I know that sound. There,-there!"

He listened again. Through the soaring, muffled din, came another report, as of thunder below the horizon.

"It is the artillery! By the mother that bore me, the guns of Mesa!"

The words of Io', spoken in Xoli's portico, came back to him.

"Battle! As I live, they are fighting on the street!"

And he, too, sat down, listening, thinking. How was he to get to his countrymen?

The sounds overhead continued, at intervals intensified by the bellowing guns. Battle has a fascination which draws men as birds are said to be drawn by serpents. They listen; then wish to see; lingering upon the edge, they catch its spirit, and finally thrill with fierce delight to find themselves within the heat and fury of its deadly circle. The page knew the feeling then. To see the fight was an overmastering desire.

"Tecetl, poor child, you are better now?"

"I dare not open my eyes."

"Well, I will see for you. Put your arms around my neck."

And with that, he carried her up the steps. All the time, he gave ear to the battle.

"Listen, Tecetl; hear that noise! A battle is going on out in the street, and seems to be coming this way. I will lead you into the chapel here,-a holy place, so your father would have said. In the shade, perhaps, you can find relief."

"How pleasant the air is!" she said, as they entered.

"Yes, and there is Quetzal',"-he pointed to the idol,-"and here the step before the altar upon which, I venture, your father spent half his life in worship. Sit, and rest until I return."

"Do not leave me," she said.

"A little while only. I must see the fight. Some good may come of it,-who knows? Be patient; I will not leave you."

He went to the door. The sounds were much louder and nearer. All the air above the city apparently was filled with them. Amongst the medley, he distinguished the yells of men and peals of horns. Shots were frequent, and now and then came the heavy, pounding report of cannon. He had been at Tabasco, at Tzimpantzinco, and in the three pitched battles in Tlascala, and was familiar with what he heard.

"How they fight!" he said to himself. "Don Pedro is a good sword and brave gentlemen, but-ah! if the Se?or Hernan were there, I should feel better: he is a good sword, brave gentleman, and wise general, also. Heaven fights for him. Ill betide Narvaez! Why could he not have put off his coming until the city was reduced? Jesu! The sounds come this way now. Victory! The guns have quit, the infidels fly, on their heels ride the cavaliers. Victory!"

And so, intent upon the conflict, insensibly he approached the front of the temple, before described as one great stairway. On the topmost step he paused. A man looking at him from the street below would have said, "It is only a paba"; and considering, further, that he was a paba serving the forsaken shrine, he would have passed by without a second look.

What he looked down upon was a broad street, crowded with men,-not citizens, but warriors, and warriors in such splendor of costume that he was fairly dazzled. Their movement suggested a retreat, whereat pride dashed his eyes with the spray of tears; he dared not shout.

More and more eagerly he listened to the coming tumult. At last, finding the attraction irresistible, he descended the steps.

The enemy were not in rout. They moved rapidly, but in ranks extending the width of the street, and perfectly ordered. The right of their column swept by the Spaniard almost within arm's reach. He heard the breathing of the men, saw their arms,-their shields of quilted cotton, embossed with brass; their armor, likewise of quilted cotton, but fire-red with the blood of the cochineal; he saw their musicians, drummers, and conch-blowers, the latter making a roar ragged and harsh, and so loud that a groan or death-shriek could not be heard; he saw, too, their chiefs, with helms richly plumed or grotesquely adorned with heads of wild animals, with escaupiles of plumage, gorgeous as hues of sunset, with lances and maquahuitls, and shields of bison-hide or burnished silver, mottoed and deviced, like those of Christians; amongst them, also, he saw pabas, bareheaded, without arms, frocked like himself, singing wild hymns, or chanting wilder epics, or shouting names of heroic gods, or blessing the brave and cursing the craven,-the Sun for the one, Mictlan for the other. The seeing all these things, it must be remembered, was very different from their enumeration; but a glance was required.

The actual struggle, as he knew, was at the rear of the passing column. In fancy he could see horsemen plunging through the ranks, plying sword, lance, and battle-axe. And nearer they came. He could tell by the signs, as well as the sounds; by the files beginning to crowd each other; by the chiefs laboring to keep their men from falling into confused masses. At length the bolt of a cross-bow, striking a man, fell almost at his feet. Only the hand of a Spaniard could have launched the missile.

"They come,-they are almost here!" he thought, and then, "O Madre de Dios! If they drive the infidels past this temple, I am saved. And they will. Don Pedro's blood is up, and in pursuit he thinks of nothing but to slay, slay. They will come; they are coming! There-Jesu Christo! That was a Christian shout!"

The cross-bow bolts now came in numbers. The warriors protected themselves by holding their shields over the shoulder behind; yet some dropped, and were trampled under foot. Orteguilla was himself in danger, but his suspense was so great that he thought only of escape; each bolt was a welcome messenger, with tidings from friends.

The column, meantime, seemed to become more disordered; finally, its formation disappeared utterly; chiefs and warriors were inextricably mixed together; the conch-blowers blew hideously, but could not altogether drown the yells of the fighting men.

Directly the page saw a rush, a parting in the crowd as of waters before a ship; scores of dark faces, each a picture of dismay, turned suddenly to look back; he also looked, and over the heads and upraised shields, half obscured by a shower of stones and arrows, he saw a figure which might well have been taken for the fiend of slaughter,-a horse and rider, in whose action there were a correspondence and unity that made them for the time one fighting animal. A frontleted head, tossed up for a forward plunge, was what he saw of the horse; a steel-clad form, swinging a battle-axe with the regularity of a machine, now to the right, now to the left of the horse's neck, was all he saw of the rider. He fell upon his knees, muttering what he dared not shout, "Don Pedro, brave gentleman! I am saved! I am saved!" Instantly he sprang to his feet. "O my God! Tecetl,-I had almost forgotten her!"

He climbed the steps again fast as the gown would permit.

"My poor girl, come; the Mother offers us rescue. Can you not see a little?"

She smiled faintly, and replied, "I cannot say. I have tried to look at Quetzal' here. He was said to be very beautiful; my father always so described him; but this thing is ugly. I fear I cannot see."

"It is a devil's image, Tecetl, a devil's image,-Satan himself," said the page, vehemently. "Let him not lose us a moment; for each one is of more worth to us than the gold on his shield there. If you cannot see, give me your hand. Come!"

He led her to the steps. The infidels below seemed to have held their ground awhile, fighting desperately. Eight or ten horsemen were driving them, though slowly; if one was struck down, another took his place. The street was dusty as with the sweeping of a whirlwind. Under the yellow cloud lay the dead and wounded. The air was alive with missiles, of which some flew above the temple, others dashed against the steps. It looked like madness to go down into such a vortex; but there was no other chance. What moment Don Pedro might tire of killing no one could tell; whenever he did, the recall would be sounded.

"What do I hear? What dreadful sounds!" said Tecetl, shrinking from the tumult.

"Battle," he answered; "and what that is I have not time to tell; we must go down and see."

He waited until the fighting was well past the front of the old C?, leaving a space behind the cavaliers clear of all save those who might never fight again; then he threw back the hood, loosed the cord from his waist, and flung the disguise from him.

"Now, my pretty beadswoman, now is the time! Begin the prayer again: 'O Mother, beautiful Mother, save us for Christ's sake!' Keep the count with one hand; put the other about my neck. Life or death,-now we go!"

He carried her down the steps. Over a number of wounded wretches who had dragged themselves, half dead, out of the blood and trample, he crossed the pavement. A horseman caught sight of him, and rode to his side, and lifted the battle-axe.

"Hold, Se?or! I am Orteguilla. Viva Espa?a!"

The axe dropped harmless; up went the visor.

"In time, boy,-in time! An instant more, and thy soul had been in Paradise," cried Alvarado, laughing heartily. "What hast thou there? Something from the temple? But stay not to answer. To the rear, fast as thy legs can carry thee! Faster! Put the baggage down. We are tired of the slaughter; but for thy sake, we will push the dogs a little farther. Begone! Or stay! Arrows are thicker here than curses in hell, and thou hast no armor. Take my shield, which I have not used to-day. Now be off!"

Orteguilla set the girl upon her feet, took the shield, and proceeded to buckle it upon his arm, while Alvarado rode into the fight again. A moment more, and he would have protected her with the good steel wall. Before he could complete the preparation, he heard a cry, quick, shrill, and sharp, that seemed to pierce his ear like a knife,-the cry by which one in battle announces himself death-struck,-the cry once heard, never forgotten. He raised the shield,-too late; she reeled and fell, dragging him half down.

"What ails thee now?" he cried, in Spanish, forgetting himself. "What ails thee? Hast thou looked at the sun again?"

He lifted her head upon his knee.

"Mother of Christ, she is slain!" he cried, in horror.

An arrow descending had gone through her neck to the heart. The blood gushed from her mouth. He took her in his arms, and carried her to the steps of the temple. As he laid her down, she tried to speak, but failed; then she opened her eyes wide: the light poured into them as into the windows of an empty house; the soul was gone; she was dead.

In so short a space habitant of three worlds,-when was there the like?

From the peace of the old chamber to the din of battle, from the din of battle to the calm of paradise,-brief time, short way!

From the sinless life to the sinful she had come; from the sinful life sinless she had gone; and in the going what fulness of the mercy of God!

I cannot say the Spaniard loved her; most likely his feeling was the simple affection we all have for things gentle and helpless,-a bird, a lamb, a child; now, however, he knelt over her with tears; and as he did so, he saw the rosary, and that all the beads but one were wet with her blood. He took the string from the slender neck and laid her head upon the stone, and thought the unstained bead was for a prayer uncounted,-a prayer begun on earth and finished in heaven.

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