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One of the conspirators, touched with compunction, betrayed the secret. Without losing a moment, with that decision which marked his character,—Cortés, attended by a few of his favorite officers, proceeded at once to the quarters of Villafana. The criminal, confounded at the sudden apparition of his commander, and confused by his guilt, endeavoured to swallow a paper which he snatched from his bosom. The prompt grasp of Cortés arrested the movement. Looking over the fatal list, it was with equal surprise and mortification that he read the names of several in whom he had every confidence. But his sagacious mind instantly comprehended the necessity of keeping this discovery to himself. He destroyed the scroll
, and contented himself with the execution of the one ringleader. The conspirators trembled, but without cause. The magnanimous judgment of Cortés forbore farther inquiry. In an address to his troops, he told them that the guilty man had made no confession. His admirable policy never once suffered them to suppose that he had any suspicion of the guilty parties ; but his vigilant eye watched them nevertheless,--they were never permitted to see how closely.
At length, the curtain rose upon the last act in the great drama of the conquest. On the 28th of April, 1521, the brigantines were borne through the canal upon the lake. The event was marked by due solemnity. Mass was said, and the whole army received the sacrament; prayers were offered up, and a benediction invoked upon the little navy, the first ever launched by Europeans upon the waters of America. It was a proud moment for Cortés. It was the triumph of his peculiar genius,—the harbinger of its final triumph over fortune and Tenochtitlan. His forces numbered more than a thousand men. His material and appointments were superior to what they had ever been before. Three hundred of his men were assigned to the vessels, each of which carried a heavy piece of ordnance. His Indian confederates were summoned to the siege. Fifty thousand of these came from Tlascala. But, we hurry over the preparations-over numerous events, highly interesting in themselves, but too much calculated to crowd our pages and distract the single interest which is our object. The first opposition which the Spaniards met from the Aztecs, w when they attempted to "cut off the pipes that conducted the water from the royal streams of Chapoltipec to feed the
numerous tanks and fountains of the capital. The Aztecs knew the importance of this work, and fought desperately to save it, but the Spaniards prevailed. A part of the aqueduct was demolished, and water, from this source, no longer found its way to the capital. The flotilla of Cortés, commanded by himself, was soon environed by clouds of canoes; but there was no fight. The frail vessels of the savages were overswept by the advancing brigantines, and such a slaughter followed, as to leave the Spaniards forever after in full possession of the Aztec Sea. This afforded them vast advantages in every conflict along the causeways leading to the capital. But the courage of the Indians seemed to increase with their disasters. The fighting was incessant, by night as well as day. The two principal avenues to Mexico, were soon in the hands of the assailants. There yet remained a third, by which the besieged could still maintain their communications with the country, and effect their escape. This was finally taken possession of by the Christians, and, with these avenues in their power, and in full command of the lakes, the blockade of the capital was complete.
But Cortés was not the man to carry on the war by blockade merely. His warfare was active also. His vessels on the lake were made to co-operate with his troops upon the causeway, until, step by step, the Aztecs were driven from every position along the avenues. The breaches which they had left by tearing away the bridges, were filled up, and, securing a solid and secure passage for his horse and artillery, Cortés at length confined his opponents to the limits of the city, into which he penetrated, destroying the dwellings as he advanced, that they might give no shelter to his numerous enemies. In this way, the Spaniards reached the old quarters which they had held in the time of Montezuma. The Mexicans fled for refuge into the sacred enclosure of the teocalli. Here the priests, from the terraces, in their wild and bloody vestments, chanted to their gods, and shouted encouragement to their warriors. The Spaniards poured into the area, and a party, rushing up the winding steps of the teocalli to its summit, hurled the priests headlong down the sides of the pyramid, and stripped the horrid image of the Aztec war-god of its gorgeous decorations. This profanation aroused the fury of the Aztec warriors, and reinvigorated their courage. A dreadful fight ensued, in which
their reckless desperation proved more than a match for Spanish discipline. A route ensued. The voice of Cortés was no longer heeded by his men in the eagerness of their apprehensions. Nothing saved them but the sudden appearance of a small body of cavalry, by which they were rescued. The horse and rider were still objects of terror to the Mexicans. Cortés beheld their hesitation, availed himself of the movement, and drove them back to the enclosure, while he ordered a retreat.
A second attack upon the capital soon followed, distinguished, like the former, by a struggle, step by step, in which the immense numbers and dogged valor of the foe, atoned for their inferior capacity for war. This time, however, in penetrating into the city as he had done before, Cortés resolved upon a measure by which the more completely to intimidate, and perhaps impress the superstitious feelings of the Aztecs. He fired the venerable abode of their monarchs,—the House of Birds,—and other fabrics equally dear to the eyes and imaginations of their people. The result was not what he expected. It made them desperate rather than desponding; and the task of extrication, that night, from their thronging myriads, was equally difficult as on the day before. "Day by day, in the same manner, was the assault continued, and each day brought him nearer to his object.
Guatemozin, meanwhile, was doing all within the province of Indian warfare to save his empire. We cannot detail the process by which he contrived to relieve the labors and maintain the valor of his men. His conduct was conspicuous in all their efforts, and his adroitness enabled him even to capture one of the Spanish brigantines, and render another useless. The contest was waged at the same time on the lake, on the causeways and in the city. The Aztec monarch was true to himself and empire. But famine began to press upon his people. Deserted by their allies, hemmed round by hostile legions, unsuccessful in the fight and unable to escape, they yet betrayed no terrors. Their spirits were unbroken, even though pestilence began to show itself among them—the most terrible of all the allies of famine.
Cortés,strove vainly to save them. He offered to spare their lives and city. He implored them, by means of captives whom he dismissed, to be merciful to themselves, and, by timely concession, to avoid their own and the destruction 28
VOL. VI.--NO. 11.
of their country. But they heard his proffers with scornthey had no thought of submission.
Impatient of this obstinacy, the high-mettled cavaliers of the Spanish army, urged their General to a coup-de-main. To this he was opposed. The time had not come. He allowed himself, however, to be overruled, and the result confirmed his opinions. The army entered to the assault in three divisions-one of which he led in person. The others were entrusted to brave, but hot-headed officers, who rushed head-long into a cunning snare, laid for them by the Aztecs. The division led by Cortés himself, was successful in its objects; but terrible was the result to the others. His whole efforts were now addressed to saving them from the destruction by which they were threatened. “I will die rather than desert my poor followers in extremity !” And narrow, indeed, was his escape in this magnanimous endeavor. He became a conspicuous mark for his enemies. “Malinche ! Malinche” was their cry, as they hurled their missiles and darts, their stones and arrows, at his person. Six of their most athletic warriors rushed upon him at the same instant, striving to drag him into their boats by which the causeway was environed. He was disabled by a severe wound in the leg, and, prostrate, was only saved by the desperate exertions of two devoted followers. These baffled the enemy for a moment, and gained time for the approach of the captain of his guard, who, with several others, succeeded in tearing him from the grasp of the enemy who were struggling with him in the water. once more raised upon the causeway. One of his pages leading him a horse, was struck down with a javelin. Guzman, his chamberlain, seized the bridle, but as Cortés mounted, the faithful attendant was snatched away by the Aztecs, and dragged to their canoes. While the General lingered, unwilling to leave the spot, his bridle was seized by a faithful follower, who hurried him away from a conflict in which no skill or valour could well prevail against the immense numbers which opposed them. The danger was not even then over, nor the escape easy. Cortés, at length, regaining firm ground, rallied his broken squadrons under the fire of his artillery, and, charging at the head of a body of horse, which had not been in the action, beat off the infuriate enemy. Speaking comparatively, the Spaniards had suffered a terrible defeat. "It is for my sins," said Cortés,
"that it has befallen me !” That night the war drum in the great temple of the Mexicans was heard. It denoted some solemn ceremonial. As the Spaniards looked out they could behold a long procession, winding up the steps of the great pyramid—and could detect among the figures, the white skins of their brother Christians—captives taken in the dreadful conflict of the day-stripped to the waist, and decorated for the horrid sacrifice of the Aztec Moloch.
The Mexicans, elated by these events, gave themselves up to unmeasured exultation. The priests assured them that the wrath of their offended deities was appeased. They predicted that, before the end of eight days, all their enemies should be delivered into their hands. This prediction had an equal effect upon the Mexicans themselves, and upon the superstitious allies of the Spaniards. Company after company deserted. But a few faithful chiefs, with their followers, remained, and these were not wholly uninfluenced by the prediction. Cortés was firm under this defection. He treated the prophecy with scorn, and simply requested the retreating squadrons to halt upon the road until its false hood should be shown by the lapse of the appointed time. The Spaniards themselves, encouraged by the constancy of their General, were undismayed. They yielded none of their resolution, relaxed in no degree the severity of the blockade, and still, with prompt carnage, of musketry and cannon, swept away the long files of the Aztecs, at every fresh assault. The brigantines, still in possession of the lake, made effectual the cordon about the beleaguered city.
That great triumph of Guatemozin was his last. His priests had blundered in fixing the time of their prediction. Supplies of ammunition and military stores came from Vera Cruz. The war was to be resumed with new resolve. The determination of Cortés, now, was to advance no step without securing the safety of the army. Every breach in the causeway, every canal, was to be filled up as soon as it was gained. The buildings were to be pulled down for this purpose. Palace, temple, hut-all were to be demolished in their path. The cavalry and artillery must have room for exercise. This was a painful necessity, which Cortés was slow to admit. He wished to spare the city, which he styles "the most beautiful thing in the world," but this desire wa inconsistent with its conquest. His losses and defeats had arisen only from this anxiety, which, springing from a moral