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

   Chapter 62 THE WAY THROUGH THE WALL

The Fair God; or, The Last of the 'Tzins: A Tale of the Conquest of Mexico By Lew Wallace Characters: 18510

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:02


"Al templo, al templo! to the temple!" shouted Cortes, as he charged the close ranks of the enemy.

"Al templo!" answered the cavaliers, plunging forward in chivalric rivalry.

And from the column behind them rolled the hoarse echo, with the words of command superadded,-

"Al templo! Adelante, adelante!-forward!"

Not a Spaniard there but felt the inspiration of the cry; felt himself a soldier of Christ, marching to a battle of the gods, the true against the false; yet the way was hard, harder than ever; so much so, indeed, that the noon came before Cortes at last spurred into the space in front of the old palace.

The first object to claim attention there was the temple against which the bigotry of the Christians had been so suddenly and shrewdly directed,-shrewdly, because in the glory of its conquest the failure of the mantas was certain to be forgotten. In such intervals of the fight as he could snatch, the leader measured the pile with a view to the attack. Standing in his stirrups, he traced out the path to its summit, beginning at the gate of the coatapantli, then up the broad stairs, and around the four terraces to the azoteas,-a distance of nearly a mile, the whole crowded with warriors, whose splendid regalia published them lords and men of note, in arms to die, if need be, for glory and the gods. As he looked, Sandoval rode to him.

"Turn thine eyes hither, Se?or,-to the palace, the palace!"

Cortes dropped back into his saddle, and glanced that way.

"By the Mother of Christ, they have broken through the wall!"

He checked his horse.

"Escobar," he said, calmly, through his half-raised visor, "take thou one hundred men, the last in the column, and attack the temple. Hearest thou? Kill all thou findest! Nay, I recollect it is a people with two heads, of which I have but one. Bring me the other, if thou canst find him. I mean the butcher they call the high priest. And more, Se?or Alonzo: when thou hast taken the idolatrous mountain, burn the towers, and fear not to tumble the bloody gods into the square. Thy battle will be glorious. On thy side God, the Son, and Mother! Thou canst not fail."

"And thou, Olea," he added to another, "get thee down the street, and hasten Mesa and his supports. Tell them the infidels are at the door of the palace, and that the captain Christobal hath scarce room to lift his axe. And further,-as speed is everything now,-bid Ordas out with the gun, and fire the manta, which hath done its work. Spare not thy horse!"

With the last word, Cortes shut his visor, and, griping his axe, spurred to the front, shouting,-

"To the palace, gentlemen! for love of Christ and good comrades. Rescue, rescue!"

Down the column sped the word,-then forward resistlessly, through the embattled gate, into the enclosure; and none too soon, for, as Cortes had said, though at the time witless of the truth, the Aztecs were threatening the very doors of the palace.

Escobar, elated with the task assigned him, arranged his men, and made ready for the assault. The infidels beheld his preparation with astonishment. All eyes, theretofore bent upon the conflict in the palace yard, now fixed upon the little band so boldly proposing to scale the sacred heights. A cry came up the street: "The 'tzin, the 'tzin!" then the 'tzin himself came; and as he passed through the gate of the coatapantli, the thousands recognized him, and breathed freely. "The 'tzin has come! The gods are safe!" so they cheered each other.

The good captain led his men to the gate of the coatapantli. With difficulty he gained entrance. As if to madden the infidels, already fired by a zeal as great as his own, the dismal thunder of the great drum of Huitzil' rolled down from the temple, overwhelming all other sounds. Slowly he penetrated the enclosure; closely his command followed him; yet not all of them; before he reached the stairway he was fighting for, the hundred were but ninety.

Twenty minutes,-thirty: at last Escobar set his foot on the first step of the ascent. There he stopped; a shield of iron clashed against his; his helmet rang with a deadly blow. When he saw light again, he was outside the sacred wall, borne away by his retreating countrymen, of whom not one re-entered the palace unwounded.

Cortes, meantime, with sword and axe, cleared the palace of assailants; and, as if the day's work were done, he prepared to dismount. Don Christobal, holding his stirrup, said,-

"Cierto, Se?or, thou art welcome. I do indeed kiss thy hand. I thank thee."

"Not so, captain, not so. By my conscience, we are the debtors! I will hear nothing else. It is true we came not a moment too soon,"-he glanced at the breach in the wall, and shook his head gravely,-"but-I speak what may not be gainsaid-thou hast saved the palace."

More he would have said in the same strain, but that a sentinel on the roof cried out,-

"Ola, Se?ores!"

"What wouldst thou?" asked Cortes, quickly.

"I am an old soldier, Se?or Hernan,-"

"To the purpose, varlet, to the purpose!"

"-whom much experience hath taught not to express himself hastily; therefore, if thy orders were well done, Se?or, whither would our comrades over the way be going?"

"To the top of the temple," said Cortes, gravely, while all around him laughed.

"Then I may say safely, Se?or, that they will go round the world before they arrive there. They come this way fast as men can who have to-"

A long, exulting cry from the infidels cut the speech short; and the party, turning to the temple, saw it alive with waving sashes and tossing shields.

"To horse, gentlemen!" said Cortes, quietly, but with flashing eyes. "Satan hath ruled yon pile long enough. I will now tilt with him. Let the trumpets be sounded! Muster the army! God's service hath become our necessity. Haste ye!"

Out of the gate, opened to receive Escobar and his bruised followers, marched three hundred chosen Christians, with as many thousand Tlascalans. In their midst went Olmedo, under his gown a suit of armor, in his hand a lance, and on that a brazen crucifix. Other ensign there was not. Cortes and his cavalry led the column, which was of all the arms except artillery; that remained with De Olid to take care of the palace.

And never was precaution more timely; for hardly had the gate closed upon the outgoers, before the good captain sent his garrison to the walls, once more menaced by the infidels.

The preparations of Escobar, as we have seen, had been under Io's view; so the prince, divining the object, drew after him a strong support, and hastened to keep the advantage of the stairways. On one of the eastern terraces he met the 'tzin ascending. There was hurried salutation between them.

"Look you for Hualpa?" asked Io', observing the 'tzin search the company inquiringly.

"Yes. He should be here."

The boy's face and voice fell.

"I would he were, good 'tzin. He left me on the azoteas. With the look of one who had devoted himself, he embraced me. His last words were, 'Tell the 'tzin I have gone to make for him a way into the palace.'" And thereupon Io' told the story through, simply and sorrowfully; at the end the listener kissed him, and said,-

"I will find the way he made for me."

There was a silence, very brief, however, for a burst of yells from below warned them of the fight begun. Then the 'tzin, recalled to himself, gave orders.

"Care of the gods is mine now. Leave me these friends and go, and with the people at command, bring stones and timbers, all you find, and heap them ready for use on the terraces at the head of each stairway. Go quickly, so may you earn the double blessing of Huitzil' and Tezca'!"

In a little time the 'tzin stood upon the last step of the lowest stairway; nor did he lift hand until Escobar, half spent with exertion, confronted him shield to shield. The result has been told.

And then were shown the qualities which, as a fighting man, raised the 'tzin above rivalry amongst his people. The axe in his hand was but another form of the maquahuitl; and that his shield was of the Christian style mattered not,-he was its perfect master. With a joyous cry, he rushed upon the arms outstretched to save the fallen captain; played his shield like a shifting mirror; rose and fell the axe, now in feint, now in foil, but always in circles swifter than eye could follow; striking a victim but once, he amazed and dazzled the Spaniards, as in the Moorish wars El Zagel, the Moor, amazed and dazzled their fathers. Nor did he want support. His followers, inspired by his example, struggled to keep pace with him. On the flanks poured the masses of his countrymen, in blind fury, content if, with their naked hands, they could clutch the weapons that slew them. Such valor was not to be resisted by the lessening band of Christians, who yielded, at first inch by inch, then step by step; at length, in disorder, almost in rout, they were driven from the sacred enclosure.

The victory was decided; the temple was safe, and the insult punished! The air shook with the deep music of the drum; in the streets the companies yelled as if drunk; the temple was beautiful with waving sashes and tossing shields and banners; an

d on the azoteas of the great pile, in presence of the people, the priests appeared and danced their dance of triumph,-a horrible saturnalia. The fight had been a trial of power between the gods Christian and Aztec, and lo, Huitzil' was master!

The 'tzin felt the sweetness of the victory, and his breast filled with heroic impulses. Standing in the gate of the coatapantli, he saw the breach Hualpa had made in the wall enclosing the palace, noticed that the ascent to the base of the gorge was easy, and the gorge itself now wide enough to admit of the passage of several men side by side. The temptation was strong, the possibilities alluring, and he fixed his purpose.

"It is the way he made for me, and I will tread it. Help me, O God of my fathers!"

So he resolved, so he prayed.

And forthwith messengers ran to the chiefs on the four sides of the palace with orders for them to pass the wall. From the dead Spaniards the armor was stript, and arms taken; and the robbers, fourteen caciques, men notable for skill and courage, stood up under cuirass, and helm or morion, and with pike and battle-axe of Christian manufacture, covered, nevertheless, with pagan trappings.

Still standing in the gateway, the 'tzin saw the companies in the street begin the assault. Swelled their war-cries as never before, for the inspiration of the victory was upon them also; rattled the tambours, brayed the conchs, danced the priests, and from the temple and housetops poured the missiles in a darkening cloud. Within his view a hundred ladders were planted, and crowded with eager climbers. At the gorge of the breach men struggled with each other to make the passage first. He called a messenger:-

"Take this ring to the prince Io'," he said. "Tell him the house of the gods is once more in his care." Then to his chosen caciques he turned, saying,-"Follow me, O countrymen!"

With that, he walked swiftly to the breach; calm, collected, watchful, silent, he walked. His companions shouted his war-cry. From mouth to mouth it passed, thrilling and inspiring,-

"Up, up, Tlateloco! Up, up, over the wall! The 'tzin is with us!"

Meantime the beseiged were not idle; over the crest of the parapet the Tlascalans fought successfully; through the ports and embrasures the Christians kept up their fire of guns great and small. Nevertheless, to the breach the 'tzin went without stopping.

"Clear the way!" he cried.

The guns within made answer; a shower of blood drenched him from head to foot. Except of the dead, the way was clear! A rush through the slippery gorge,-a shout,-and he was inside the enclosure, backed by his caciques. And as he went in, Cortes passed out, marching to storm the temple.

No doubt or hesitation on the 'tzin's part now; no looking about, uncertain what to do, while bowmen and gunners made a mark of him. He spoke to his supporters, and with them faced to the right, and cleared the banquette of Tlascalans. Over the wall, thus cleared, and through the breach leaped his people; and as they came, the iron shields covered them, and they multiplied rapidly.

About eight hundred Spaniards, chiefly Narvaez' men, defended the palace. They fought, but not with the spirit of the veterans, and were pushed slowly backward. As they retired, wider grew the space of undefended wall; like waves over a ship's side, in poured the companies; the Aztecs fell by scores, yet they increased by hundreds.

Again the sick and wounded staggered from their quarters; again De Olid brought his reserves into action; again the volleys shook the palace, and wrapped it in curtains of smoke, whiter and softer than bridal veils: still the infidels continued to master the walls and the space within. By and by the gates fell into their hands; and then, indeed, all seemed lost to the Christians.

The stout heart of the good Captain Christobal was well tempered for the trial. To the windows and lesser entrances of the buildings he sent guards, stationing them inside; then, in front of the four great doors, he drew his men back, and fought on, so that the palace was literally girt with a belt of battle.

An hour like that I write of seems a long time to a combatant; on this occasion, however, one there was, not a combatant, to whom, possibly, the time seemed much longer. In his darkened chamber sat the king, neither speaking nor spoken to, though surrounded by his court. He must have heard the cries of his people; knowing them so near, in fancy, at least, he must have seen their heroism and slaughter. Had he no thought in sympathy with them? no prayer for their success? no hope for himself even? Who may answer?-so many there are dead in the midst of life.

At length the 'tzin became weary of the mode of attack, which, after all, was but a series of hand-to-hand combats along lengthened lines, that might last till night, or, indeed, as long as there were men to fill the places of the fallen. To the companies crowding the conquered space before the eastern front of the palace, he passed an order: a simultaneous forward movement from the rear took place; the intervals between the ranks were closed up; a moment of fusion,-a pressure; then a welding together of the whole mass followed. After that words may not convey the scene. The unfortunates who happened to be engaged were first pushed, then driven, and finally shot forward, like dead weights. Useless all skill, useless strength; the opposite lines met; blood flew as from a hundred fountains; men, impaled on opposing weapons, died, nailed together face to face. As the only chance for life, very many fell down, and were smothered.

The defenders broke in an instant. Back, back they went,-back to the guns, which, for a time, served as breakwaters to the wave; then past the guns, almost to the wall, forced there by the awful impetus of the rush.

The truly great leaders of men are those who, invoking storms, stand out and brave them when they come. Such was Guatamozin. The surge I have so faintly described caught him foremost in the fighting line of his people, and flung him upon his antagonists. With his shield he broke the force of the collision; the cuirass saved him from their points; close wedged amongst them, they could not strike him. Tossed like so much drift, backward they went, forward he. Numbers of them fell and disappeared. When, at last, the impetus of the movement was nigh spent, he found himself close by the principal door of the palace. But one man stood before him,-a warrior with maquahuitl lifted to strike. The 'tzin raised his shield, and caught the blow; then, upon his knee, he looked up, and saw the face, and heard the exulting yell, of-Iztlil', the Tezcucan! Whirled the weapon again. The noble Aztec summoned all his spirit; death glared upon him through the burning eyes of his hated rival; up, clear to vision, rose all dearest things,-gods, country, glory, love. Suddenly the raised arm fell; down dropped the maquahuitl; and upon the shield down dropped Iztlil' himself, carrying the 'tzin with him.

The Tezcucan seemed dead.

A friendly hand helped the 'tzin to his feet. He was conscious, as he arose, of a strange calm in the air; the clamor and furious stir of the combat were dying away; he stood in the midst of enemies, but they were still, and did not even look at him. A shield not his own covered his breast; he turned, and lo! the face of Hualpa!

"Whence came you?" asked the 'tzin.

"From the palace."

"Thanks-"

"Not now, not now," said Hualpa, in a low voice. "The gods who permitted me to save you, O 'tzin, have not been able to save themselves. Look! to the temple!"

His eyes followed Hualpa's directing finger, and the same astonishment that held his enemies motionless around him, the same horror that, in the full tide of successful battle, had so instantly stayed his countrymen, seized him also. He stood transfixed,-a man turned to stone!

The towers of the temple were in flames; and, yet more awful, the image of Huitzil', rolled to the verge of the azoteas, was tottering to its fall! A thousand hands were held up instinctively,-a groan,-a long cry,-and down the stairway and terraces, grinding and crashing, thundered the idol. Tezca' followed after, and the sacrificial stone; then the religion of the Aztecs was ended forever.

As if to assure the great fact, when next the spectators raised their eyes to the azoteas, lo! Olmedo and his crucifix! The faithful servant of Christ had performed his mission; he had burst the last gate, and gained the last mountain in the way; and now, with bared head, and face radiant with sublime emotion, he raised the symbol of salvation high up in view of all the tribes, and, in the name of his Master, and for his Master's Church, forever, by that simple ceremony, took possession of the New World.

And marvellous to relate further, the tribes, awed if not conquered, bowed their heads in peace. Even the companies in the palace-yard marched out over their dead, and gave up the victory so nearly won. Guatamozin and Hualpa followed them, but with their faces to the foe. Needless the defiance: as they went, not a word was spoken, not a hand lifted. For the time, all was peace.

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