The Story of Mexico/Chapter 12

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Ahuitzotl died in 1502. His successor was Motecuhzoma II., the son of the famous warder King Axayacatl. Motecuhzoma took the surname of Xocoyotzin to distinguish him from the first king with his name.

He was thirty-four years old when he came to the throne. He had been general-in-chief of the armies, as was usual with the heir-apparent to the throne, and when he was elected king he was fulfilling the office of high-priest, which was unusual. His demeanor was grave, calm, and taciturn. He was inflexible in his determination, and admitted no contradiction, stern and cruel in exacting obedience to his commands; but extremely credulous and timid to cowardice when his superstitious fears were aroused.

He is said to have been handsome, of a fine form, slight rather than robust, with great dignity of manner. His well-formed features wore an habitual expression of sadness or gloom, even in the early days of his reign, when the shadow of his destiny had not to all appearance yet fallen upon him.

When his election was announced to him, he was found sweeping down the stairs in the great teocalli. He received the message with assured humility, as one unfit for so high a station. The usual great preparations were made for his coronation, which was more splendid than those of his predecessors, graced by the sacrifice of a horde of captives, won by the young monarch in battle for this purpose. Nezahualpilli, the wise king of Texcuco, the valued relative and adviser of the Aztec royal house, made an address at the coronation which has been preserved.

"Who can doubt," he exclaimed at the close, "that the Aztec empire has reached the zenith of its greatness! Rejoice, happy people, and thou, happy youth, doubt not that our Great Deity will keep thee safe upon thy throne through many long and glorious years."

Now let us try to imagine this young heir to a splendid kingdom, just ascending the steps of the throne, clothed in all the majesty which the customs of his country allowed. Soft robes of well chosen colors hung about him, and over all the beautiful mantle of feather-work which the Aztecs knew how to make out of the plumage of all the brilliant tropical birds within their reach. There was no stint of splendor in his ornaments, neck, wrists, ankles enclasped with gold, and set with precious stones. A superb head-dress, over which waved a bunch of feathers, stuck with sparkling jewels, added dignity to his haughty carriage and grave features.

One hundred years of successful government had made the Aztecs proud. Their enemies feared them. Surrounding nations sought their friendship for the sake of peace. The great house of Texcuco had allied itself with their king in marriage. Mingled in the veins of Montezuma with the savage blood of the worshippers of Huitzilopochtli, the terrible god of war, was a gentler strain of the delicate culture of the family of Nezahualcoyotl. The career of the young monarch seemed clear before him; it was to be a life of stirring excitement in battle,—a warfare not for conquest or slaughter on the field, but a holy enterprise to bring back the necessary material for sacrifice to the gods, in whom he believed so firmly that the horror of such wholesale destruction of life made not the slightest impression. In the Aztec wars their enemies were seldom killed in battle; the great object was to save prisoners alive, in order to lay them upon their altars.

But these fearful raids upon surrounding populations were only episodes in the life he proposed to himself. He inherited a splendid palace in a great city; for although we are now taught to consider the accounts of Tenochtitlan given by the Spaniards as grossly exaggerated, we must accept the assumption that in the estimation of himself and his people his palace was splendid, and that the city was great, and upon this foundation, since the Spanish statements are unreliable, and accurate information is lacking, we may draw upon fancy to fill up the picture.

All splendor is comparative; the halls of the Montezumas, never in contact with the palaces of the Old World, were to be judged upon a scale of their own. Tenochtitlan was, undoubtedly, the richest city upon Anahuac. It was built, like Venice, in the midst of waters, upon an island intersected with canals, and communicating with the mainland by means of four broad causeways. An aqueduct from Chapultepec brought fresh water, as the lake was brackish. The streets were laid out in straight lines and at right angles, following the direction of the causeways; some of them were the intersecting canals themselves, with houses facing at once upon the water, and on the other side the street. Upon the canals floated canoas for pleasure or business, coming from the suburbs laden with food, vegetables, and fruit, the cargo heaped always with a profusion of flowers, bright-hued poppies, sweet peas, and the deep-red blossoms of clover. Above the houses, which were not high, with flat roofs, or azoteas, rose the lofty teocalli, and the walls of the royal palace which dominated the other buildings.

Bernal Diaz, the companion of Cortés, who is charged with much garrulity and exaggeration, says that when the Spaniards arrived at the great causeway leading to the capital they paused, struck with admiration on seeing so many cities and villages rising from the soil, with the splendid highway, perfectly level, stretching on to Mexico. They compared the scene to the enchanted castles described in "Amadis of Gaul," and as they gazed at the lofty towers, the great temples, and the white buildings gleaming in the sun and reflected in the waters of the lake, they asked each other if it was not all a dream. The old chronicler ends his account with this brief remark: "Now, the whole of this city is destroyed and not a bit of it left standing."

The life that Montezuma proposed to himself was one of enjoyment and pleasure. Upon his people he wasted little thought. The country was prosperous and they were happy, always a docile and domestic population busy with agriculture, their crops, and their families. It is said that he used to go out among them like the Sultan in the "Arabian Nights," disguised, to see what the occupations of his subjects were, and hear what they talked about. But this must have been chiefly to fill up his time, for there was no danger of sedition or conspiracy among the citizens of his capital. A walk incognito outside its walls, through the lanes of any one of the surrounding pueblos would have revealed to him a state of hostility and a longing for his overthrow which might have taught him something for the future.

In the palace was luxurious living; fruits of the warmer climate, and even fresh fish from the Gulf, it is said, were brought by swift-footed runners up the steep path that the steam-engine now requires fourteen hours to climb; music and the enjoyment of society, occupied leisure hours. The state correspondence of the Aztec court consisted in picture writings brought by messengers from all parts of the country, depicting in realistic forms the events requiring attention. Montezuma could go to the lovely Grasshopper Hill over the fine causeway under the aqueduct built by his ancestors; not as the gay, fashionable world now makes the excursion on horse-back before breakfast, for air and exercise, but carried in a palanquin by four strong bearers. It has been thought that the Aztec kings had a royal villa at Chapultepec; but the wise men have given that up now, because they find no traces of any. Lately, however, have been discovered fragments of the effigy of Ahuitzotl, Montezuma's uncle and predecessor, who was doubtless buried there. It was carved in half-relief, a full-length figure life-size, stretched out on a ledge of natural rock. The carving is much mutilated, the top having been blasted off apparently, but beneath, distinctly visible, is the date corresponding to 1507, with the name, Ahuitzotl.

This chieftain died in 1502. The monument was erected therefore by the direction of his successor, Montezuma, in the spot well-beloved by all generations of Aztecs, under the trees protected and guarded by them.

There is now standing an ancient cypress, or ahuehuete, huge among the other great trees of the grove, which goes by the name of Montezuma's cypress. Its gnarled trunk must measure more than ten feet across, and its branches themselves are as big as trees. The leaves of this great tree are small and delicate, like those of the acacia; they hang from slender stems drooping over the great limbs down to the ground. Long trailing gray moss now droops from the branches, which, with the dense foliage, shuts out the rays of the sun, so that a gloomy half-light pervades the place. Perhaps it was more cheerful in the heyday of Mexico, or did coming events cast their shadows before, as Montezuma paced those silent alleys?

It may well have been, for misfortunes began to obscure the sky of his prosperity like little clouds coming up on the horizon. His almost constant wars were not always successful. Each victory left behind it bitterness and discontent, so that the same field had soon to be fought over again. In 1516, Nezahualpilli, the wise sovereign of Texcuco, who had always been a safe and strong adviser of the Aztec king, during his long reign of forty-four years, left the kingdom to the eldest of four sons, Cacamatzin; the honor was coveted by another son, Ixtlilxochitl, who contested the throne. Montezuma took the side of Cacamatzin, as rightful heir, in a civil war. The matter was settled by a division. Cacamatzin kept that part of the kingdom of the Aculhuas which stretched south of the capital Texcuco; while his rebellious brother obtained the part towards the north, among the mountains. This division of the kingdom becomes important to us by and by.

About this time all minds in Anahuac were occupied by sinister presages, constantly repeated, of dreadful events soon to occur. Temples were in flames, comets appeared unexpectedly; there were inundations, earthquakes all over the land, and the people dreamed strange dreams.

Above all hovered the rumor that men of great stature, white and with beards, were on their way to subjugate all the nations of the earth. This rumor was perfectly in accordance with the universal tradition about Quetzalcoatl (the Bright Shining Serpent), the bearded white man, clothed in raiment covered with crosses, who had taught the Toltecs awe, industry, and skill. He predicted with supreme authority before he disappeared from them, the arrival of men white and bearded as he was, who would take possession of the country, and destroy their temples and their gods.

This event was a part of the Mexican belief, a something in the future to be hoped for in a certain way, yet dreaded as the inception of great changes in the manners of the people. The races subjugated by the power of Montezuma might look forward to the coming of the strangers as to deliverance; but that monarch himself became penetrated with the conviction that his wealth and prosperity were to disappear in the course of his lifetime.

This foreboding took possession of his mind and undermined its peace; he became unhappy and brooded over his fate as he wandered among the gloomy cypresses of Chapultepec. He had consulted the wise Nezahualpilli before his death upon the meaning of the portents which pervaded the air, but from him he had received no consolation. The sage shook his head gravely, and when urged, confirmed his fears by translating these prodigies as warnings of the downfall of empires.

It might well be that these things pervaded the air, for it was twenty-five years at the time of Nezahualpilli's death since Columbus had set foot on American soil. The strange apparition of white men armed with thunder and lightning, would be sure to spread from mouth to mouth and from nation to nation. The fleet-footed messengers of the Mexican king would be sure to bring such news along with fresh fish and fruit up from the shores of the Gulf. And while these things were more and more weighing upon the king's mind, there came the report, swift, certain, and not to be denied, that men in boats had landed by the river Tabasco.

Twenty years after the discovery of the Antilles by Columbus, these islands were fully under the control of the Spanish. Cuba, the most important of them, was a flourishing colony, under the administration of Diégo Velasquez de Léon.

In 1517, three Spanish adventurers armed three vessels of discovery at Cuba. The governor Velasquez joined himself to this enterprise. These explorers discovered the eastern point of Yucatan, which they named Cape Catoche, after a wood which they heard spoken of by one of the natives. They were filled with amazement at the civilization of the buildings and the costumes, and hastened to land, but being received by a shower of arrows they as quickly went back to their boats. At Campeche they were received more kindly, and exchanged gifts with the natives. Later, Cordova, the leader of this expedition, was wounded in an encounter with the natives, and returning to Havana died ten days after. Velasquez heard from the others such an account of the wealth and resources of Yucatan, that he resolved to take possession of it.

He sent out a little squadron in the charge of Juan de Grijalva, one of his relatives, to make further explorations. They coasted along the shore of Yucatan, admiring its fertile fields and the cities and villages in the midst of them, soon arriving at the mouth of the Tabasco River. At first the natives seemed inclined to give them a rough reception, but Grijalva propitiated them by friendly messages, and on disembarking met a brilliant reception. Green copal was burnt before him, in the way of incense, and the natives brought him game, fish, and corn-bread. The prince made him a present of some gold necklaces and ornaments carved in the shape of birds and lizards.

Grijalva and his followers came next into the country belonging to the Mexican crown, and saw for the first time the royal standard of Montezuma, with the nopal and the eagle. They now for the first time began to hear of this great prince, and of the riches of Anahuac.

Such were the tidings brought to the poor Montezuma, already depressed by vague forebodings. He received the news with positive anguish, as he contemplated the evidences of their power. Reporters at Tabasco had already prepared on great maguey canvasses graphic pictures of the ship of the strangers, their costumes and arms, which were hurried with telegraphic promptness to the great sovereign in his capital.

The council was assembled. It met in dismay. Finally they decided to send to the shore an embassy laden with gifts of gold, feathers, and splendid stuffs, but bearing messages urging them not to penetrate farther into the country, where they would be exposed to constant danger. The messengers were charged to lay great stress on the difficulties and perils of travel in these regions. Thus, while they tempted with one hand full of gifts, they repulsed with the other. Temptation and warning were for the moment unheeded. When they reached the coast, Grijalva, who had no authority from Velasquez to involve him in negotiations with the Aztec monarch, had sailed away.

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