Boys' Prescott - Helen Ward Banks

Malinche in Mexico

November, 1519

As soon as Cortes was left alone, he went to work with his usual care to examine his quarters. The palace, like most of the Mexican houses, except for a tower in the center, had only one story, but it spread over enough ground to shelter all the Spaniards, and there was room for the Indian allies in the courtyard enclosed by a thick stone wall. The rooms were hung with gay-colored cotton draperies and the floors covered with rush mats. To sit on, there were low carved stools; and to lie on, there were mats woven thickly from palm leaves. The bedcovers were made of cotton.

After Cortes had inspected his quarters, he assigned his soldiers their places, and enforced strict military discipline. The wall around the courtyard was turreted at intervals, and in each tower he posted sentinels, while he mounted his guns to command the approaches from the square into the courtyard. No soldier was allowed to leave the palace grounds without permission, for Cortes knew how easily there might start between a Mexican and a Spaniard a brawl that would in a minute undo all the efforts he had made to reach Tenochtitlan as a friend.

The camp placed, the soldiers sat down to the dinner that Montezuma's servants had prepared for them. After they had finished dinner and their afternoon nap, Montezuma was again announced. Cortes received him with great respect. He and the Emperor sat, while their trains stood by, and Marina acted as interpreter between the Spanish general and the Mexican Emperor.

"Why did Malinche come to Mexico?" Montezuma asked.

"To see a monarch so distinguished as Montezuma," Cortes answered, "and to declare to him the Christian faith."

"Are you kinsman of your Emperor?" asked Montezuma.

"We Spaniards are kin to one another," Cortes answered, "and subjects of one great monarch, who, indeed, holds us in peculiar estimation."

The two talked for a long time, and Montezuma showed that he knew all that Malinche had done from the day he set foot in Anahuac. Nothing had been left out of the picture newspapers. When the interview was over, Montezuma was presented to the chief Spanish generals and learned their names. Then he ordered his slaves to bring forward the presents he had ready for his guests: a cotton suit for every man, including the Indian allies; and gold chains for the generals. Then, with great ceremony, the Emperor withdrew.

After dark that night the Spaniards celebrated their arrival in Tenochtitlan by firing salutes of artillery, which added the last touch of awe to Aztec hearts. The thunder of the gods and the belching sulphurous smoke of their feared Popocatepetl seemed to be at the command of the white men.

The next day Cortes asked and received permission to return Montezuma's visit. The Emperor even sent his own servants as a personal escort to Malinche. Cortes dressed in his most striking clothes, and took with him Alvarado, Sandoval and Ordaz and a few common soldiers.

Montezuma's palace was a huge wandering structure of red brick, much like the palace of Axayacatl, though it was ornamented with marble, and over the main entrance were carved Montezuma's arms—an eagle with an ocelot in his talons.

As the Spaniards passed in through the entrance, they came first into the court, where fountains were playing and Aztec nobles loitering about, and then through the apartments to the hall of audience. At the door of this room the Mexicans took off their sandals and covered their rich clothes with coarse, gray cloaks before they could usher in Cortes.

Montezuma was sitting at the far end of the long room with a few favorite caciques. He received Cortes kindly, and the two talked together of unimportant matters, until Cortes suddenly plunged into the subject nearest to his heart—the conversion of the Aztecs to the Christian religion.

Very earnestly he preached the power of his God, and tried to show Montezuma that, in offering their cruel human sacrifices, the Mexicans were only worshiping Satan by another name. Montezuma listened politely and probably understood but little of what Malinche said. The little he understood, he did not care about. Educated as a priest of the Mexican war god, to him there was nothing repulsive in offering to Huitzilopotchli his fellow-creatures as sacrifices and afterwards eating their flesh. Montezuma, as Emperor, was head of both church and state in Anahuac, and he was not ready to change either policy to suit the white men.

"I know," he said when Cortes had finished, "that you hold this discourse wherever you go. I doubt not that your God is, as you say, a good being. My gods, also, are good to me. Yet what you say of the creation of the world is like what I have been taught to believe. It is not worthwhile to discourse further of the matter. My ancestors were not the original proprietors of the land. They have occupied it but a few ages, and were led here by a great Being, who, after giving them laws and ruling over the nation for a time, withdrew to the region where the sun rises. He declared, on his departure, that he or his descendants would again visit them and resume his empire. Your wonderful deeds, your fair complexions, and the quarter whence you come, all show that you are his descendants. If I have resisted your visit to my capital, it is because I have heard such accounts of your cruelties—that you sent the lightning to consume my people or crushed them to pieces under the hard feet of the ferocious animals on which you ride. I am now convinced that these were idle tales; that the Spaniards are kind and generous in their natures; you are mortals of a different race, indeed, from the Aztecs, wiser and more valiant—and for this I honor you. You, too," he added with a smile, "have been told, perhaps, that I am a god and dwell in palaces of gold and silver. But you see it is false. My houses, though large, are of stone and wood like those of others; and as to my body, you see it is flesh and bone like yours. It is true, I have a great empire inherited from my ancestors; lands, and gold, and silver. But your sovereign beyond the water is, I know, the rightful lord of all. I rule in his name. You, Malinche, are his ambassador; you and your brethren shall share these things with me. Rest now from your labors. You are here in your own dwellings, and everything shall be provided for your subsistence. I will see that your wishes shall be obeyed in the same way as my own."

"It is true," Cortes answered, "that my sovereign is the great being you call him, but, be assured, he has no desire to interfere with your authority; only out of pure concern for your welfare, to effect your conversion and your people's to Christianity." That ended the interview. Cortes and his party took leave, loaded as usual with rich gifts. Even the common soldiers received each two gold collars apiece, and they were moved to such gratitude by this generosity that all the Spaniards, as they passed the Emperor hats in hand, made him a deep bow. Cortes, besides his presents, took with him permission to visit the city and its principal buildings. Shut up as he was in a strange country, it behooved him to be well acquainted with it.

Montezuma was ready, not only to have Cortes see the city, but to accompany him personally in the sight-seeing. Perhaps he thought that from what he knew of the doings of Malinche in the temples of Anahuac, it would be safer to be close by when Malinche inspected the temple of Tenochtitlan. He appointed his chief caciques to guide Cortes and his men through the great market on the way to the temple where Montezuma would wait to receive his visitors.

Cortes, at the head of his Spanish troops, horse and foot, set out one morning four days after his arrival to visit Montezuma in the great temple. As it was market day, the city was thronged with people, both men and women. The weather was growing wintry, so instead of cotton cloaks, the people wore cloaks of fur or feather work or of a cloth spun from rabbit's hairs and dyed as marvelously as their cotton. The women wore a series of gay, embroidered cotton petticoats, one showing above another. The Spaniards did not tire, as they walked through the streets, of watching these dark-faced Mexicans, who were in some ways as civilized as the white men.

But if they thought the streets crowded, when they reached the great market they were overwhelmed. Forty thousand people from all Anahuac were in the huge place, gossiping and looking and buying, much as we do in a market nowadays, except that instead of paper and gold and silver coins, they had for money bits of tin, bags of cacao and quills filled with gold-dust. The sellers had each his own stall, and there was for sale everything that Mexicans could want. There was cotton in bales; cotton woven into cloth; cotton cloth made into dresses or curtains or coverlets, as fine and soft and rich in color as the silks in Europe. There were shields made of leather, and cloaks made of feather work. There was gold fashioned by the skillful gold-smiths of Anahuac into all sorts of curious toys and ornaments. There were weapons of all kinds,—hatchets, arrows, lances and swords. There were drug shops, and barber shops, and stationery shops where one could buy for the picture writing blank books made of parchment or cotton and folded together like a fan or the paper made from the fibers of the "Swiss Family Robinson Tree." One could buy provisions—poultry, game birds, fruit, vegetables and corn. Some of the food was even cooked, ready for eating—pastry and cakes and confectionery offering themselves to the hungry; while on a booth nearby one could drink chocolate beaten to a solid froth and flavored with vanilla. And everywhere were flowers; the stalls were smothered in them, for the Indians of Anahuac loved flowers as part of their life.

Through all this crowd of thousands of men and women there was no disorder. Policemen patrolled the market, and if any one transgressed the laws, he was at once arrested and taken before a court that sat in one corner of the great market. We can imagine Cortes watching the scene with brooding eyes, as he realized the civilization and wealth, the strength and numbers of the people in whose power he had put himself and his followers.

From the market the Spaniards went back to the square where stood the great terraced temple, on the summit of which Montezuma was waiting them. He had left two priests and several nobles at the entrance to the temple court to carry Cortes up and save him the trouble of climbing the steps from one terrace to another. Montezuma himself was always carried up, and wished to show the same honor to Malinche. But the general, with thanks, declined, and at the head of his men marched up the hundred and fourteen winding steps which took them to the top, passing four times around the temple as they mounted from one terrace to another.

Montezuma and the high priest came forward to greet Cortes as he reached the top and came out on the broad, flat, stone-paved area.

"You are weary, Malinche, with climbing up our great temple," Montezuma said.

"The Spaniards are never weary," Cortes answered. He was willing that the Mexicans should think him supernatural.

Immediately before them the Spaniards saw the big stone on which the victims were sacrificed. At the end of the court were the two holy towers, each with a fire before it—the sacred fire that was never allowed to go out. Each tower had three stories, the lower one of stone, the two upper of wood. The lower stories held the images of their war gods—one of Huitzilopotchli, and the other of Tezcatlipoca, the god who had created the world; the upper stories held the necessaries for their worship. Nearby was the huge round drum of snake skin which could be heard for miles. When the drum was beaten, every inhabitant listened, for it was never struck unless some great event was pending. The Spaniards looked at it now with curiosity. Later they were to hear it with horror.

Montezuma pointed out to the Spanish general the wonderful view from the temple top. They could see beneath them Montezuma's palace and the palace of Axayacatl where the Spaniards were quartered; the market place they had just left; the broad avenues leading from the heart of the city to the long causeways; the many canals in the city crowded with canoes, as the streets were crowded with people in gay, picturesque dress. Beyond were the blue waters of Lake Tezcuco, and further still the woods and hills of the mainland and the peak of Popocatepetl which some of them had climbed with such exertion.

Cortes gazed with wonder, but presently his delight in the beauty around him changed to his intense desire to convert all this wonderful country to Christianity. He turned to Father Olmedo.

"What a conspicuous place to plant the Christian cross would be this temple area," he said, "if Montezuma would but allow it."

Father Olmedo quickly advised him not to ask such a concession from Montezuma just yet, and Cortes contented himself with asking permission to enter the sanctuaries. The priests consented, and Montezuma led the Spaniards first into the shrine of the war god.

"They found themselves in a spacious apartment incrusted on the sides with stucco, on which various figures were sculptured, representing the Mexican calendar, perhaps, or the priestly ritual. At one end of the saloon was a recess with a roof of timber richly carved and gilt. Before the altar in this sanctuary, stood the colossal image of Huitzilopotchli, the tutelary deity and war god of the Aztecs. His countenance was distorted into hideous lineaments of symbolic import. In his right hand he wielded a bow, and in his left a bunch of golden arrows, which a mystic legend had connected with the victories of his people. The huge folds of a serpent, consisting of pearls and precious stones, were coiled round his waist, and the same rich materials were profusely sprinkled over his person. On his left foot were the delicate feathers of the humming-bird, which, singularly enough, gave its name to the dread deity. The most conspicuous ornament was a chain of gold and silver hearts alternate, suspended round his neck, emblematical of the sacrifice in which he most delighted.

"The adjoining sanctuary was dedicated to a milder deity. This was Tezcatlipoca, next in honor to the invisible Being, the Supreme God, who was represented by no image, and confined by no temple. It was Tezcatlipoca who created the world, and watched over it with providential care. He was represented as a young man, and his image, of polished black stone, was richly garnished with gold plates and ornaments; among which a shield, burnished like a mirror, was the most characteristic emblem, as in it he saw reflected all the doings of the world." [Prescott's Conquest of Mexico]

The walls of both these sanctuaries were stained with human blood, and their dark-robed priests flitted through the rooms like bats. Cortes and his men were glad to come out again into the fresh air of the temple area.

Cortes turned to Montezuma. "I do not comprehend," he said with a smile, "how a great and wise prince, like you, can put faith in such evil spirits as these idols, the representatives of the Devil! If you will but permit us to erect here the true cross, and place the images of the blessed Virgin and her Son in your sanctuaries, you will soon see how your false gods will shrink before them!"

"These are the gods," Montezuma answered, "who have led the Aztecs on to victory since they were a nation, and who send the seed-time and harvest in their seasons. Had I thought you would have offered them this outrage, I would not have admitted you into their presence."

Possibly Father Olmedo was pulling at Cortes' sleeve to warn him that this was not the time to change Montezuma's religion. In any ease, Cortes apologized to Montezuma for having wounded him, and with his men withdrew.

Montezuma stayed behind, his superstitious mind deeply stirred. He had admitted heretics into his holy places and they had profaned the altars. He must expiate by sacrifice this crime to his gods. The Spaniards wound down from the summit of the great temple to the courtyard below, which was so smoothly paved that the horses slipped as they would on ice. There were other smaller temples in this courtyard dedicated to different Aztec gods. One, dedicated to Quetzalcoatl, was round, with an entrance built like a dragon's mouth bristling with fangs. The Spaniards shudderingly glanced in as they passed it, and left the temple courtyard glad to be free from the place they called "The hell."

The rites of the heathen religion had stirred the Spaniards to new zeal for the performance of their own. The very next day they asked from Montezuma permission to turn one of the halls of Axayacatl's palace into a chapel. Montezuma was generous enough to forget the affront to his gods and to grant the white men the privilege they asked.

As the Spaniards worked, they came upon a door which had been recently sealed up. Through the camp ran the rumor that Montezuma's treasure was concealed in this old palace of his father's. At once the Spaniards were a-tiptoe in their eagerness to see what lay behind that freshly plastered entrance.

With excited hands they tore away the plaster and uncovered a locked door. Through this they forced their way to the chamber beyond and thought they had reached fairyland.

They were in a large room filled with the wealth of which they had dreamed, rich stuffs, jewels, bags of gold and silver, and gold and silver worked into beautiful and delicate ornaments. The men stood dazzled. Finally they withdrew, awestruck, and plastered again the doorway. Cortes ordered that the treasure-room should never be mentioned, but no man that saw it ever forgot that he was living in a palace which contained the treasure of an empire.