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   Chapter 68 ADIEU TO THE PALACE

The Fair God; or, The Last of the 'Tzins: A Tale of the Conquest of Mexico By Lew Wallace Characters: 14177

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:02


At sunset a cold wind blew from the north, followed by a cloud which soon filled the valley with mist; soon the mist turned to rain; then the rain turned to night, and the night to deepest blackness.

The Christians, thinking only of escape from the city, saw the change of weather with sinking hearts. With one voice they had chosen the night as most favorable for the movement, but they had in mind then a semi-darkness warmed by south winds and brilliant with stars; not a time like this so unexpectedly come upon them,-tempest added to gloom, icy wind splashing the earth with icy water.

Under the walls the sentinels cowered shivering and listening and, as is the habit of wanderers surrounded by discomforts and miseries, musing of their homes so far away, and of the path thither; on the land so beset, on the sea so viewless. Recalled to present duty, they saw nothing but the fires of the nearest temple faintly iridescent, and heard only the moans of the blast and the pattering of the rain, always so in harmony with the spirit when it is oppressed by loneliness and danger.

Meantime, the final preparation for retreat went on with the completeness of discipline.

About the close of the second watch of the night, Cortes, with his personal attendants,-page, equerry, and secretaries,-left his chamber and proceeded to the eastern gate, where he could best receive reports, and assure himself, as the divisions filed past him, that the column was formed as he had ordered. The superstructure of the gate offered him shelter; but he stood out, bridle in hand, his back to the storm. There he waited, grimly silent, absorbed in reflections gloomy as the night itself.

Everything incident to the preparation which required light had been done before the day expired; outside the house, therefore, there was not a spark to betray the movement to the enemy; in fact, nothing to betray it except the beat of horses' hoofs and the rumble of gun-carriages, and they were nigh drowned by the tempest. If the saints would but help him clear of the streets of the city, would help him to the causeway even, without bringing the infidels upon him, sword and lance would win the rest: so the leader prayed and trusted the while he waited.

"My son, is it thou?" asked a man, close at his side.

He turned quickly, and replied, "Father Bartolomé! Welcome! What dost thou bring?"

"Report of the sick and wounded."

"I remember, I remember! Of all this bad business, by my conscience! no part so troubled me as to say what should be done with them. At the last moment thou wert good enough to take the task upon thyself. Speak: what did thy judgment dictate? What did thy conscience permit?"

The good man arranged his hood, the better to shield his face from the rain, and answered,-

"Of the Christians, all who are able will take their places in the line; the very sick will be borne by Tlascalans; the litters are ready for them."

"Very well," said Cortes.

"The Tlascalans-"

"Cierto, there the trouble began!" and Cortes laid his hand heavily on the priest's shoulder. "Three hundred and more of them too weak to rise from the straw, which yet hath not kept their bones from bruising the stony floor! Good heart, what didst thou with them?"

"They are dead."

"Mother of God! Didst thou kill them?" Cortes griped the shoulder until Olmedo groaned. "Didst thou kill them?"

The father shook himself loose, saying, "There is no blood on my hands. The Holy Mother came to my help; and this was the way. Remembrance of the love of Christ forbade the leaving one Christian behind; but the heathen born had no such appeal; they must be left,-necessity said so. I could not kill them. By priestly office, I could prepare them for death; and so I went from man to man with holy formula and sacramental wafer. The caciques were with me the while, and when I had concluded, they spoke some words to the sufferers: then I saw what never Christian saw before. Hardly wilt thou believe me, but, Se?or, I beheld the poor wretches, with smiles, bare their breasts, and the chiefs begin and thrust their javelins into the hearts of all there lying."

An exclamation of horror burst from Cortes,-

"'Twas murder, murder! What didst thou?"

Olmedo replied quickly, "Trust me, my son, I rushed in, and stayed the work until the victims themselves prayed the chiefs to go on. Not even then did I give over my efforts,-not until they made me understand the purpose of the butchery."

"And that? Haste thee, father. What thou tellest will stagger Christendom!"

Again Cortes caught the priest's shoulder.

"Nay," said the latter, shrinking back, "thy hand is hard enough without its glove of steel."

"Pardon, father; but,-"

"In good time, my son, in good time! What, but for thy impatience, I would have said ere this is, that the object was to save the honor of the tribe, and, by killing the unfortunates, rescue them from the gods of their enemy. Accordingly, the bands who are first to enter the palace to-night or to-morrow will find treasure,-much treasure as thou knowest,-but not one victim."

The father spoke solemnly, for in the circumstance there was a strain of pious exaltation that found an echo in his own devoted nature; greatly was he shocked to hear Cortes laugh.

"Valgame Dios!" he cried, crossing himself; "the man blasphemes!"

"Blasphemes, saidst thou?" and Cortes checked himself. "May the saints forget me forever, if I laughed at the tragedy thou wert telling! I laughed at thy simplicity, father."

"Is this a time for jesting?" asked Olmedo.

"Good father," said Cortes, gravely, "the bands that take the palace to-night or to-morrow will find no treasure,-not enough to buy a Christmas ribbon for a country girl. Look now. I went to the treasure-room a little while before coming here, and there I found the varlets of Narvaez loading themselves with bars of silver and gold; they had sacks and pouches belted to their waists and shoulders, and were filling them to bursting. Possibly some gold-dust spilled on the floor may remain for those who succeed us; but nothing more. Pray thou, good priest, good friend, pray thou that the treasure be not found in the road we travel to-night."

A body of men crossing the court-yard attracted Cortes; then four horsemen approached, and stopped before him.

"Is it thou, Sandoval?" he asked.

"Yes, Se?or."

"And Ordas, Lugo, and Tapia?"

"Here," they replied.

"And thy following, Sandoval?"

"The cavaliers of Narvaez whom thou gavest me, one hundred chosen soldiers, and the Tlascalans to the number thou didst order."

"Bien! Lead out of the gate, and halt after making what thou deemest room for the other divisions. Christ and St. James go with thee!"

"Amen!" responded Olmedo.

And so the vanguard passed him,-a long succession of shadowy files that he heard rather than saw. Hardly were they gone when another body approached, led by an officer on foot.

"Who art thou?" asked Cortes.

"Magarino," the man replied.

"Whom have you?"

"One hundred and fifty Christians, and four hundred Tlascalans."

"And the bridge?"

"We have it here."

"As thou lovest life and honor, captain, heed well thine orders. Move on, and join thyself to Sandoval."

The bridge spoken of was a portable platform of hewn plank bolted to a frame of stout timbers, designed to pass the column over the three canals intersecting the causeway to Tlacopan, which, in the sally of the afternoon, had been found to be bridgeless. If the canals were deep as had been reported, well might Magarino be charged with particular care!

In the order of march next came the centre or main body, Cortes' immediate command. The baggage was in their charge, also the greater part of the artillery, making of itself a long train, and one of vast interest; for, though in the midst of a confession of failure, the leader did not abate his intention of conquest,-such was a peculiarity of his genius.

"Mexia, Avila, good gentlemen," he said, halting the royal treasurers, "let me assure myself of what beyond peradventure ye are assured."

And he counted the horses and men bearing away the golden dividend of the emperor, knowing if what they had in keeping were safely lodged in the royal depositaries, there was nothing which might not be condoned,-not usurpation, defeat even. Most literally, they bore his fortune.

A moment after there came upon him a procession of motley composition: disabled Christians; servants, mostly females, carrying the trifles they most affected,-here a bundle of wearing apparel, there a cage with a bird; prisoners, amongst others the prince Cacama, heart-broken by his misfortunes; women of importance and rank, comfortably housed in curtained palanquins. So went Marina, her slaves side by side with those of Nenetzin, in whose mind the fears, sorrows, and emotions of the thousands setting out in the march had no place, for Alvarado had wrapped her in his cloak, and lifted her into the carriage, and left a kiss on her lips, with a promise of oversight and protection.

As if to make good the promise, almost on the heels of her slaves rode the deft cavalier, blithe of spirit, because of the happy chance which made the place of the lover that of duty also. Behind him, well apportioned of Christians and Tlascalans and much the largest of the divisions, moved the rear-guard, of which he and Leon were chiefs. His bay mare, Bradamante, however, seemed not to share his gayety, but tossed her head, and champed the bit, and frequently shied as if scared.

"Have done, my pretty girl!" he said to her. "Frightened, art thou? 'Tis only the wind, ugly enough, I trow, but nothing worse. Or art thou jealous? Verguenza! To-morrow she shall find thee in the green pasture, and kiss thee as I will her."

"Ola, captain!" said Cortes, approaching him. "To whom speakest thou?"

"To my mistress, Bradamante, Se?or," he replied, checking the rein impatiently. "Sometimes she hath airs prettier, as thou knowest, than the prettinesses of a woman; but now,-So ho, girl!-now she-Have done, I say!-now she hath a devil. And where she got it I know not, unless from the knave Botello."[52]

"What of him? Where is he?" asked Cortes, with sudden interest.

"Back with Leon, talking, as is his wont, about certain subtleties, nameless by good Christians, but which he nevertheless calleth prophecies."

"What saith the man now?"

"Out of the mass of his follies, I remember three: that thou, Se?or, from extreme misfortune, shalt at last attain great honor; that to-night hundreds of us will be lost,-which last I can forgive in him, if only his third prediction come true."

"And that?"

"Nay, Se?or, except as serving to show that the rogue hath in him a savor of uncommon fairness, it is the least important of all; he saith he himself will be amongst the lost."

Then Cortes laughed, saying, "Wilt thou never be done with thy quips? Lead on. I will wait here a little longer."

Alvarado vanished, being in haste to recover his place behind Nenetzin. Before Cortes then, with the echoless tread of panthers in the glade, hurried the long array of Tlascalans; after them, the cross-bowmen and arquebusiers, their implements clashing against their heavy armor; yet he stood silent, pondering the words of Botello. Not until, with wheels grinding and shaking the pavement, the guns reached him did he wake from his thinking.

"Ho, Mesa, well met!" he said to the veteran, whom he distinguished amid a troop of slaves dragging the first piece. "This is not a night like those in Italy where thou didst learn the cunning of thy craft; yet there might be worse for us."

"Mira, Se?or!" and Mesa went to him, and said in a low voice, "What thou saidst was cheerily spoken, that I might borrow encouragement; and I thank thee, for I have much need of all the comfort thou hast to give. A poor return have I, Se?or. If the infidels attack us, rely not upon the guns, not even mine: if the wind did not whisk the priming away, the rain would drown it,-and then,"-his voice sunk to a whisper; "our matches will not burn!"

At that moment a gust dashed Cortes with water, and for the first time he was chilled,-chilled until his teeth chattered; for simultaneously a presentiment of calamity touched him with what in a man less brave would have been fear. He saw how, without the guns, Botello's second prediction was possible! Nevertheless, he replied,-

"The saints can help their own in the dark as well as in the light. Do thy best. To-morrow thou shalt be captain."

Then Cortes mounted his horse, and took his shield, and to his wrist chained his battle-axe: still he waited. A company of horsemen brushed past him, followed by a solitary rider.

"Leon!" said Cortes.

The cavalier stopped, and replied,-

"What wouldst thou, Se?or?"

"Are the guards withdrawn?"

"All of them."

"And the sentinels?"

"I have been to every post; not a man is left."

Cortes spoke to his attendants and they, too, rode off; when they were gone he said to Leon,-

"Now we may go."

And with that together they passed out into the street. Cortes turned, and looked toward the palace, now deserted; but the night seemed to have snatched the pile away, and in its place left a blackened void. Fugitive as he was, riding he knew not to what end, he settled in his saddle again with a sigh-not for the old house itself, nor for the comfort of its roof, nor for the refuge in time of danger; not for the Christian dead reposing in its gardens, their valor wasted and their graves abandoned, nor for that other victim there sacrificed in his cause, whose weaknesses might not be separated from a thousand services, and a royalty superbly Eastern: these were things to wake the emotions of youths and maidens, young in the world, and of poets, dreamy and simple-minded; he sighed for the power he had there enjoyed,-the weeks and months when his word was law for an empire of shadowy vastness, and he was master, in fact, of a king of kings,-immeasurable power now lost, apparently forever.

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