Boys' Prescott - Helen Ward Banks

What Alvarado Did in Tenochtitlan

May, 1520

The sun rose next morning on an earth swept clean. The storm of the heavens and the storm of battle were over; only their havoc remained. Narvaez and his chief generals were sent at once under a strong guard to Vera Cruz, where they were held as prisoners through the months that followed. Cortes set to work to win to his standard Narvaez' men, who were a little inclined to be sullen when the morning light showed them that they had been frightened into yielding their guns and horses and accouterments to such a handful of gaunt, worn men. To gain these strangers, Cortes risked the displeasure of his own veterans, who were proudly displaying this morning the horses and arms they had won in their night attack. Cortes distributed among Narvaez' men the gold found in Narvaez' quarters, and commanded that every horse and every weapon taken by his own men should be given back to its rightful owner.

"They are now embarked in our cause," he said, "and we must share with one another equally."

His troops heard these orders with surprise and disgust. Should not the spoil be theirs? And should they, who had made long marches with weary legs, now, just as they had acquired horses to bestride, be obliged to give them up again? They flocked to Father Olmedo with their complaints.

"Our commander," they cried, "has forsaken his friends for his foes. We stood by him in his hour of distress, and are rewarded with blows and wounds, while the spoil goes to our enemies."

Father Olmedo carried the remonstrance to Cortes, who listened with a sigh. Whichever way he turned there were perplexities to be straightened out. Once more he called the soldiers together.

"Our new comrades," he said, "are formidable from their numbers, so much so, that we are even now much more in their power than they are in ours. Our only security is to make them not only confederates, but friends. On any cause of disgust, we shall have the whole battle to fight over again, and, if they are united, under a much greater disadvantage than before. I have considered your interests as much as my own. All that I have is yours. But why should there be any ground for discontent, when the whole country, with its riches, is before us? And our augmented strength must henceforth secure the undisturbed control of it."

The soldiers obeyed, though with some grumbling. In a few days even that was forgotten, for the news that came from Mexico made every one bury personal grievances.

Cortes had had proof of Alvarado's cruelty and rashness when, in the island of Cozumel, on the first landing of the Spaniards, Alvarado—left a little while in charge of camp—had gone into the native temples and stolen their treasures, stirring the island at once against the white men. Cortes had had little patience with Alvarado then, but perhaps he thought that in the months between that time and this he had learned more calm wisdom. At any rate, relying on Alvarado's courage and on his personal friendship, he had left him in supreme control in Mexico with a garrison of a hundred and forty men.

It was May, the month that the Aztecs each year had, in honor of their war god, a festival called The incensing of Huitzilopotchli, in which they sacrificed and danced and sang. After Cortes had left Tenochtitlan, and the time came for this May festival, the Aztec nobles asked of Alvarado permission to hold it in the temple court as usual. They asked, too, that Montezuma might come to it. Alvarado denied that request, but allowed them to hold the festival in the courtyard on condition that there should be no human sacrifices.

The Aztec nobles—six hundred of them—assembled on the appointed day, dressed in their holiday clothes—gay cotton tunics, feather cloaks sprinkled with precious stones, and bracelets and collars of gold. They danced to their wild, uncivilized musical instruments and they sang their religious war chants. Alvarado and his soldiers, fully armed, were standing as onlookers by the temple gate or mixing with the throng itself.

And then, without warning, happened one of the most cruel and bloodthirsty and impolitic acts of history. As the Aztec nobles danced through their celebration, Alvarado and his men drew their weapons and rushed on them. The Indians, unarmed, taken by surprise, shut in the courtyard like beasts in a pen, had not the slightest chance to fight for their lives or even to escape. They tried to climb the walls, and they were shot; they tried to run out at the gateways, but they ran against the long pikes of the Spanish soldiers. Not one merry-maker was left alive, and there was scarcely a noble house in all Tenochtitlan that had not someone to mourn for that night. While the natives mourned their slain, the Spaniards were stealing from the murdered men their bracelets and jewels.

Though it was a quick, short deed, its consequences were long and terrible. When the news ran through the city that six hundred of the young, valiant nobles had been massacred by the Spaniards, men at first could not believe it. Then, as the deed was proved, all the enmity and resentment which their loyalty to Montezuma had kept in check swelled up to expression and cried for vengeance. We may be sure that Guatemozin felt that his time had come. He did not waste the opportunity.

Before the Spaniards could fortify themselves in their palace courtyard, the Aztecs, armed to a man, were upon them, undermining the walls, throwing firebrands in on the roofs, until the Spaniards, alarmed, asked Montezuma to intercede for them.

It was a singular request from men who had just murdered the flower of Montezuma's nobility, but the monarch, true to Malinche, came out upon the battlements. With dignified words he urged the mad crowd without to stay their assault or he, too, might be injured in the fighting.

They listened to him, and for his safety's sake gave up the attack, but not their desire for vengeance on the Spaniards. They drew back into the square, threw up earthworks around the palace, stopped the market so that the Spaniards could obtain no supplies, burned the two brigantines, and sat down to a regular siege.

The Spaniards inside the Spanish fortifications were in an exceedingly uncomfortable position. A hundred and forty men, far from their friends, with scant provisions and no means of getting more, shut up in an inland Venice, which they could leave only by permission of their enemies, and surrounded by thousands and thousands of savages who never meant them to leave alive—it was not a reassuring situation. Alvarado got out a messenger to tell Cortes of their plight and then sat sullenly down to wait. He must have had many hours in which to consider his mad, cruel act and the terrible consequences.

This was the news that came like a thunderbolt to Cortes as he was trying to prevent quarrels between his new recruits and his veterans in Cempoalla. At once he called the army together and told them that Alvarado was shut up, without food, in Tenochtitlan; that the brigantines were burned, and if the Aztecs took up the causeway bridges and the bridges over the city canals, there was no escape. Without hesitation the army demanded to be led back to Tenochtitlan to rescue their comrades.

Cortes at once started two bodies of Narvaez' troops under Olid and Ordaz for Tlascala, adding to each corps of raw recruits twenty of his veterans. He sent a hundred men under Rodrigo Rangre to garrison Vera Cruz, and took Sandoval with him, leaving the sick and wounded at Cempoalla to follow when they should be able. The cacique of Cempoalla, who had helped Cortes and then had helped Narvaez and now was ready to lend a hard again to Cortes, supplied him with provisions and started him on his journey.

Back again over the familiar road to Tlascala Cortes led his army, greater in numbers but less strong in spirit than when it was only his own little band of intrepid veterans. The newcomers were not yet seasoned to climate or hardship, and when the army reached the country around Tlascala, where there were few people and scanty provision, many of the men gave out. Unable to stand the forced marches under the hot sun, they threw themselves by the roadside, ready to die in their tracks.

Cortes, in this dilemma, sent a party of horse ahead to Tlascala for supplies. While he waited, like Alvarado, he had plenty of time to think, and all his thoughts were questions as to how he could win back his lost position. Although in so short a time he had been cast from the heights of attainment down to this valley of despair, he had no idea of giving up.

The Tlascalans, still Cortes' good friends, sent back the needed supplies. Refreshed by the food and rest, the weary army once more gathered its courage for the forward march.