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

   Chapter 60 THE BATTLE OF THE MANTAS

The Fair God; or, The Last of the 'Tzins: A Tale of the Conquest of Mexico By Lew Wallace Characters: 13700

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:02


The report of a gun awoke the 'tzin in the morning. The great uproar of the assault, now become familiar to him, filled the chamber. He knelt on the step and prayed, for there was a cloud upon his spirit, and over the idol's stony face there seemed to be a cloud. He put on his helm and mantle; at the door Hualpa offered him his arms.

"No," he said, "bring me those we took from the stranger."

Hualpa marked the gravity of his manner, and with a rising heart and a smile, the first seen on his lips for many a day, he brought a Spanish shield and battle-axe, and gave them to him.

Then the din below, bursting out in greater volume, drew the 'tzin to the verge of the temple. The warriors made way for him reverently. He looked down into the square, and through a veil of smoke semilucent saw Cortes and his cavaliers charge the ranks massed in front of the palace gate. The gate stood open, and a crowd of the Tlascalans were pouring out of the portal, hauling one of the towers whose construction had been the mystery of the days last passed; they bent low to the work, and cheered each other with their war-cries; yet the manta-so called by Cortes-moved slowly, as if loath to leave. In the same manner the other tower was drawn out of the court; then, side by side, both were started down the street, which they filled so nearly that room was hardly left for the detachments that guarded the Tlascalans on the flanks.

The fighting ceased, and silently the enemies stared at the spectacle,-such power is there in curiosity.

At sight of the structures, rolling, rocking, rumbling, and creaking dismally in every wheel, Cortes' eyes sparkled fire-like through his visor. The 'tzin, on the other hand, was disturbed and anxious, although outwardly calm; for the objects of the common wonder were enclosed on every side, and he knew as little what they contained as of their use and operation.

Slowly they rolled on, until past the intersection of the streets; there they stopped. Right and left of them were beautiful houses covered with warriors for the moment converted into spectators. A hush of expectancy everywhere prevailed. The 'tzin shaded his eyes with his hand, and leant eagerly forward. Suddenly, from the sides of the machine next the walls, masked doors dropped out, and guns, charged to the muzzle, glared over the house-tops, then swept them with fire.

A horrible scream flew along the street and up to the azoteas of the temple; at the same time, by ladders extended to the coping of the walls, the Christians leaped on the roofs, like boarders on a ship's deck, and mastered them at once; whereupon they returned, and were about taking in the ladders, when Cortes galloped back, and, riding from one to the other, shouted,-

"Ordas! Avila! Mirad! Where are the torches I gave ye? Out again! Leave not a stone to shelter the dogs! Leave nothing but ashes! Pronto, pronto!"

The captains answered promptly. With flambeaux of resinous pine and cotton, they fired all the wood-work of the interior of the buildings. Smoke burst from the doors and windows; then the detachments retreated, and were rolled on without the loss of a man.

Behind the mantas there was a strong rear-guard of infantry and artillery; with which, and the guards on the flanks, and the cavaliers forcing way at the front, it seemed impossible to avert, or even interrupt, an attack at once so novel and successful.

The smoke from the burning houses, momentarily thickening and widening, was seen afar, and by the heathen hailed with cries of alarm: not so Cortes; riding everywhere, in the van, to the rear, often stopping by the mantas, which he regarded with natural affection, as an artist does his last work, he tasted the joy of successful genius. The smoke rising, as it were, to Heaven, carried up his vows not to stop until the city, with all its idolatries, was a heap of ashes and lime,-a holocaust to the Mother such as had never been seen. The cheeriness of his constant cry, "Christo, Christo y Santiago!" communicated to his people, and they marched laughing and fighting.

Opposition had now almost ceased; at the approach of the mantas, the house-tops were given up without resistance. A general panic appeared to have seized the pagans; they even vacated the street, so that the cavaliers had little else to do than ride leisurely, turning now and then to see the fires behind them, and the tall machines come lumbering on.

As remarked, when the mantas stopped at the intersection of the streets, the 'tzin watched them eagerly, for he knew the time had come to make their use manifest; he saw a door drop, and the jet of flame and smoke leap from a gun; he heard the cry of agony from the house-tops, and the deeper cry from all the people; to the chiefs around him he said, with steady voice, and as became a leader,-

"Courage, friends! We have them now. Malinche is mad to put his people in such traps. Lord Hualpa, go round the place of combat and see that the first bridge is impassable; for there, unless the towers have wings, and can fly, they must stop. And to you, Io'," he spoke to the lad tenderly, "I give a command and sacred trust. Stay here, and take care of the gods."

Io' kissed his hand, and said, fervently, "May the gods care for me as I will for them!"

To other chiefs, calling them by name, he gave directions for the renewal of the assault on the palace, now weakened by the sortie, and for the concentration of fresh companies in the rear of the enemy, to contest their return.

"And now, my good lord," he said to a cacique, gray-headed, but of magnificent frame, "you have a company of Tezcucans, formerly the guards of king Cacama's palace. Bring them, and follow me. Come."

A number of houses covering quite half a square were by this time on fire. Those of wood burned furiously; the morning, however, was almost breathless, so that the cinders did little harm. On the left side of the street stood a building of red stone, its front profusely carved, and further ornamented with a marble portico,-a palace, in fact, massively built, and somewhat higher than the mantas. Its entrances were barricaded, and on the roof, where an enemy might be looked for, there was not a spear, helm, or sign of life, except some fan-palms and long banana-branches. Before the stately front the mantas were at length hauled. Immediately the door on that side was dropped, and the ladder fixed, and Avila, who had the command, started with his followers to take possession and apply the torch. Suddenly, the coping of the palace-front flamed with feathered helms and points of bronze.

Avila was probably as skilful and intrepid as any of Cortes' captains; but now he was surprised: directly before him stood Guatamozin, whom every Spaniard had come to know and respect as the mos

t rodoubted of all the warriors of Anahuac; and he shone on the captain a truly martial figure, confronting him with Spanish arms, a shield with a face of iron and a battle-axe of steel. Avila hesitated; and as he did so, the end of the ladder was lifted from the wall, poised a moment in the air, then flung off.

The 'tzin had not time to observe the effect of the fall, for a score of men came quickly up, bringing a beam of wood as long and large as the spar of a brigantine; a trailing rope at its further end strengthened the likeness. Resting the beam on the coping of the wall, at a word, they plunged it forward against the manta, which rocked under the blow. A yell of fear issued from within. The Tlascalans strove to haul the machine away, but the Tezcucans from their height tossed logs and stones upon them, crushing many to death, and putting the rest in such fear that their efforts were vain. Meantime, the beam was again shot forward over the coping, and with such effect that the roof of the manta sprang from its fastenings, and nearly toppled off.

The handiwork so rudely treated was not as stout as the ships Martin Lopez sailed on the lake. It was simply a square tower, two stories high, erected on wheels. The frame was enclosed with slabs, pinned on vertically, and pierced with loopholes. On the sides there were apertures defended by doors. The roof, sloping hip-fashion, had an outer covering of undressed skins as protection against fire. The lower floor was for the Tlascalans, should they be driven from the drag-ropes; in the second story there was a gun, some arquebusiers, and a body of pikemen to storm the house-tops; so that altogether the contrivance could hardly stand hauling over the street, much less a battery like that it was then receiving. At the third blow it became an untenable wreck.

"Avila!" cried Cortes. "Where art thou?"

The good captain, with four of his bravest men, lay insensible, if not dead, under the ladder.

"Mercy, O Mother of God, mercy!" groaned Cortes; next moment he was himself again.

"What do ye here, men? Out and away before these timbers tumble and crush ye!"

One man stayed.

"The gun, Se?or, the gun!" he protested.

Spurring close to the door, Cortes said, "As thou art a Christian, get thee down, comrade, and quickly. I can better spare the gun than so good a gunner."

Then the beam came again, and, with a great crash, tore away the side of the manta. The gun rolled backward, and burst through the opposite wall of the room. The veteran disappeared.

By this time all eyes were turned to the scene. The bowmen and arquebusiers in the column exerted themselves to cover their unfortunate comrades. Upon the neighboring houses a few infidels, on the watch, yelled joyously,-"The 'tzin! the 'tzin!" From them the shout, spread through the cowering army, became, indeed, a battle-cry significant of success.

To me, good reader, the miracles of the world, if any there be, are not the things men do in masses, but the sublimer things done by one man over the many; they testify most loudly of God, since without him they could not have been. I am too good a Christian to say this of a heathen; nevertheless, without the 'tzin his country had perished that morning. Back to the roofs came the defenders, into the street poured the companies again; no leisure now for the cavaliers. With the other manta Ordas moved on gallantly, but the work was hard; at some houses he failed, others he dared not attack. From front to rear the contest became a battle. In the low places of the street and pavement the blood flowed warm, then cooled in blackening pools. The smoke of the consuming houses, distinguishable from that of the temples, collected into a cloud, and hung wide-spread over the combat. The yells of Christians and infidels, fusing into a vast monotone, roared like the sea. Twice Mesa went to the front,-the cavaliers had need of him,-twice he returned to the rear.

The wrath of the Aztecs seemed especially directed against the Tlascalans tugging at the ropes of the manta; as a consequence, their quilted armor was torn to rags, and so many of them were wounded, so many killed, that at every stoppage the wheels were more difficult to start; and to make the movement still more slow and uncertain, the carcasses of the dead had to be rolled or carried out of the way; and the dead, sooth to say, were not always Aztecs.

Luis Marin halted to breathe.

"Ola, compa?ero! What dost thou there?"

"By all the saints!" answered Alvarado, on foot, tightening his saddle-girth. "Was ever the like? It hath been strike, strike,-kill, kill,-for an hour. I am dead in the right arm from finger to shoulder. And now here is a buckle that refuseth its work. Caramba! My glove is slippery with blood!"

And so step by step,-each one bought with a life,-the Christians won their way to the first bridge: the floor was gone! Cortes reined his horse, bloody from hoof to frontlet, by the edge of the chasm. Since daybreak fighting, and but a square gained! The water, never so placid, was the utmost limit of his going. He looked at the manta, now, like that of Avila, a mocking failure. He looked again, and a blasphemy beyond the absolution of Olmedo, I fear, broke the clenching of his jaws,-not for the machines, or the hopes they had raised, but the days their construction lost him. As he looked, through a rift in the cloud still rising along the battle's track, he saw the great temple; gay banners and gorgeous regalia, all the splendor of barbaric war, filled that view, and inspired him. To the cavaliers, close around and in waiting, he turned. The arrows smote his mail and theirs, yet he raised his visor: the face was calm, even smiling, for the will is a quality apart from mind and passion.

"We will go back, gentlemen," he said. "The city is on fire,-enough for one day. And hark ye, gentlemen. We have had enough of common blood. Let us go now and see of what the heathen gods are made."

His hearers were in the mood; they raised their shields and shouted,-

"To the temple! To the temple! For the love of Christ, to the temple!"

The cry sped down the column; and as the men caught its meaning they faced about of their own will. Wounds, weariness, and disappointments were forgotten; the rudest soldier became a zealot on the instant. Al templo! Adelante, adelante! rose like a new chorus, piercing the battle's monotone.

Cortes stood in his stirrups, and lo! the enemy, ranked close, like corn in the full ear, yet outreaching his vision,-plumed, bannered, brilliant, and terrible.

"Close and steady, swords of the Church! What ye see is but grass for the cutting. Yonder is the temple we seek. Follow me. Adelante! Christo y Santiago!"

So saying, he spurred in deep amongst the infidels.

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