Boys' Prescott - Helen Ward Banks

Cacama Sends a Challenge

January, 1520

As soon as Cortes heard Montezuma's whispered words, he gave orders for the royal litter to be brought. The nobles who bore it could scarcely believe their ears when the order came. But Montezuma, covering his humiliation with his pride, told his nobles that he wished to take up his residence for a while with his friend who had crossed the water to see him.

As the Emperor's train passed through the streets a rumor ran ahead of it that the white men were carrying off Montezuma by force. The crowd that gathered was seething for a tumult. One sign from the Emperor would have freed Tenochtitlan from the white invaders. But in his superstition he spoke the words that fastened his fetters.

"Disperse!" he ordered. "I am visiting my friends of my own accord."

The mob dispersed. The Aztecs had no excuse for attacking the Emperor's friends.

The nobles, however, were not content. Montezuma's brother, Cuitlahua, lord of Iztapalapan, Cacama, king of Tezcuco, and Guatemozin, Montezuma's nephew, all thought that Montezuma was not playing his part as a great prince. All were young and strong and warlike, and all had grown to hate the Spaniards. Guatemozin, indeed, had always hated them. As Hannibal, in old times, had sworn undying enmity to the Romans, so had Guatemozin to the Spaniards.

When Montezuma reached the palace of Axayacatl he was given his choice of rooms, which were furnished with all elegance. His wives and pages were with him, and his life went on in its usual routine. The Spaniards treated him with the greatest respect; no one sat in his presence, and even Cortes took off his helmet when he spoke to the Emperor.

[Illustration] from The Boys' Prescott by Helen Ward Banks


But although in these ways Montezuma was still an Emperor, in his heart he knew he was a prisoner. In the front of the palace and in the rear of the palace there was a constant patrol of twenty men, changed three times in twenty-four hours. Another guard was stationed in the ante-chamber of the Emperor's apartment, for Cortes knew that if Montezuma should now escape, the Spaniards would be much worse off than before this bold stroke had been made. Leon was in charge of this guard. Although Cortes had put him in irons in Vera Cruz, he was now one of Cortes' most trusted friends. The constant guard of forty men gave the soldiers much more work and they soon tired of it.

"Better this dog of a king should die than that we should wear out our lives in this manner," cried a rude soldier one day in Montezuma's presence.

The Emperor felt the insult though he could not understand the words. By Cortes' order the soldier was severely punished.

Montezuma had not been long in Axayacatl's palace when the messenger returned from the coast with Quauhpopoca, his son and fifteen chiefs. Although Quauhpopoca was a man of high rank and had traveled all the way carried by slaves in his litter, he entered Montezuma's presence in a coarse robe and with downcast eyes. Montezuma, received Quauhpopoca very coldly and referred his examination to Cortes. The trial was not long.

"Are you a vassal of Montezuma?" Cortes asked. "What other sovereign could I serve?" answered Quauhpopoca.

He acknowledged the murder of the Spaniards and Cortes condemned him to be burned to death. Then Quauhpopoca threw the blame of the deed on Montezuma.

It did not save him, however. The funeral piles were built in the palace courtyard out of the javelins, arrows and spears taken, with Montezuma's permission, from the arsenals in the courtyard of the great temple. Cortes in this way got rid of great quantities of ammunition which might otherwise be used against him in case of hostilities.

While these preparations were going on, Cortes entered Montezuma's apartment without his usual respect. With him was a soldier carrying iron fetters.

"It is proved by the declaration of your own subject," Cortes said sternly, "that you were the original contriver of the violence offered the Spaniards. Such a crime, which is punished by death to the subject, must also be atoned for by the sovereign."

He then ordered the fetters to be placed on Montezuma's ankles and, after it was done, left the room to carry out the execution of Quauhpopoca. This insult to a broken enemy is one of Cortes' deeds hardest to forgive. Even according to the code of his day it was ungenerous.

"Montezuma was speechless under the infliction of this last insult. He was like one struck down by a heavy blow, that deprives him of all his faculties. He offered no resistance. But, though he spoke not a word, ill-suppressed moans, from time to time, intimated the anguish of his spirit. His attendants, bathed in tears, offered him their consolations. They tenderly held his feet in their arms, and endeavored, by inserting their shawls and mantles, to relieve them from the pressure of the iron. But they could not reach the iron which had penetrated into his soul. He felt that he was no more a king." [Prescott's Conquest of Mexico]

In the courtyard outside the whole Spanish force was under arms, ready to repel any Aztec insurrection. No tumult was raised, however. The criminals took their punishment with the silent endurance of the Indian races, and the Indians looking on watched also in silence. They were used to the burning of captives and supposed the execution to be by Montezuma's order.

When Cortes went back to remove Montezuma's fetters, he found the Emperor's spirit entirely broken. But a few days before, all Anahuac had feared and obeyed him; now he was only a crushed child in the hands of a hard master. He thanked Cortes for taking off the fetters.

Cortes, thinking his power over the Emperor firmly established, gave him leave to go back, if he wished, to his own palace. Montezuma refused, saying that if he were free, his nobles would never rest till they had pushed him to rebellion against Malinche. There was doubtless truth in this, but probably, too, Montezuma was as afraid of Cuitlahua and Cacama and Guatemozin as he was of Malinche. Whether his reason for refusing to leave Cortes came from fear or from generosity, Cortes received it with pleasure.

"I love you as a brother," he exclaimed, embracing Montezuma—and this time there were no nobles to stop him. "Every Spaniard among us will be as zealously devoted to your interests as you have shown yourself mindful of theirs."

Thus Cortes had ventured his coup d'etat and won. It would have been impossible to a man less sure of himself and of his power over others. Cortes was able not only to accomplish the bold deed, but to govern the situation with wisdom afterward. It needed surely a man almost superhuman to enter the capital of an absolute monarch, whose nod controlled the fate of thousands, and, in the midst of tens of thousands of devoted subjects, carry the prince a captive out of his own palace and hold him for weeks in captivity.

While Cortes thus guarded Montezuma in Tenochtitlan, news came from the little city of Villa Rica that Grado, the new governor, had not the force to keep order there. Villa Rica was too important to take any chances with, and Cortes determined to send as its governor one of his best men to supersede Grado. He chose for the office Sandoval, a young fellow, brave, just and wise, loved by the soldiers for his unselfishness and good temper. Sandoval set out with instructions as to his government, and with orders to send back to Tenochtitlan some of the cordage, sails and iron saved from the dismantled ships.

After Sandoval was gone, Cortes, with his usual foresight, started Martin Lopez, an experienced ship-builder, at building two brigantines. This work not only kept his men employed, but the vessels would give the Spaniards a chance to get out of the city and across the lake if the Mexicans should raise the drawbridges in the causeways and cut the visitors off from the mainland. The timber Montezuma allowed the Spaniards to take from the royal forests. He himself was much interested in the enterprise.

Except for knowing he was a prisoner, Montezuma's days went on as if he were in his own palace. Cortes waited on him every morning to receive his orders, and after that the Emperor gave audience, as he always had, to envoys from all parts of Anahuac, keeping up the careful etiquette that his court had always known. When his business for the day was over, Montezuma amused himself by hunting or by playing Mexican games or by watching the Spaniards drill or Martin Lopez build his "water houses." When the Emperor played games with the Spaniards he set up some gold or precious stones for a prize; if he lost, he took it good-naturedly; if he won, he gave the prize to those around him. He had a present always ready for anyone who did him the smallest service. His feelings were very sensitive. One day a soldier spoke to him angrily, and tears came into Montezuma's eyes. Cortes at once condemned the soldier to be hanged, but the Emperor begged for his life and the soldier got off with a flogging. Montezuma thought this punishment deserved.

"If a similar insult had been offered by a subject of mine to Malinche, I should resent it in like manner," he said.

It was very seldom that any one was rude to Montezuma, for his gentleness and generosity made him beloved by both captain and soldier. He knew the name and rank of every officer in the Spanish army, and had detailed for his own service a little Spanish page named Orteguilla, of whom he was very fond and whom he always kept with him. "Malinche" was the Emperor's greatest favorite; next came Leon and "Tonatiuh," as he called Alvarado.

Thus in the palace of Axayacatl the winter days ran quietly away, while Cortes increased his power in every direction and Montezuma amused himself. Outside the palace there was less calm; Cacama, Cuitlahua and Guatemozin took good care that the Aztecs should not accommodate themselves too easily to the new order of things.

Cacama had tried many times, always in vain, to rouse Montezuma to assert his power and escape from his prison. When he found no success there, Cacama turned to Montezuma's brother, Cuitlahua, lord of Iztapalapan. Cuitlahua and many other caciques were ready enough to enter into a league with Cacama against the Spaniards, though there were some of the Aztec nobles who refused to consider any scheme not authorized by Montezuma.

The news of their intended uprising came to Cortes in the palace of Axayacatl. With his usual quickness of enterprise he made ready to stamp out the flame of rebellion—before it should begin to run through the country—by marching on Tezcuco.

Montezuma, however, restrained him. Cacama was strong and fearless and, in his own country, would have thousands behind him; he could not be conquered. Montezuma advised Cortes to follow his own policy and send ambassadors to Cacama.

Cortes reluctantly agreed with this milder method. He sent his envoys, but Cacama refused to treat with them. Cortes, enraged, sent a more threatening message in the name of the King of Spain.

"I acknowledge no such authority," Cacama replied proudly to the second embassy. "I know nothing of the Spanish sovereign nor of his people, nor do I wish to."

Montezuma interfered then and sent for Cacama to come to Mexico that he might mediate between Cacama and Malinche.

Cacama's smile was grim when he received Montezuma's message. Was he, like his uncle, to walk into the Spanish trap?

"Go back," he said to the envoy, "and say to Montezuma that when Cacama visits his capital, it will be to rescue the city and Montezuma and their common gods from bondage. I will come with my hand not in my bosom, but on my sword; to drive out the detested strangers which have brought such dishonor on our country."

Cacama's opinion had changed since he had advised Montezuma to receive the Spaniards politely.