Historical Tales: 3—Spanish American - Charles Morris

The Romantic Story of the Prince of Tezcuco

About a hundred years before the Spanish conquest of the Aztecs, there reigned over the kingdom of Tezcuco, in the valley of Mexico, a monarch whose history is as interesting and romantic as any that can be found in the annals of Europe. His story was preserved by his descendants, and its principal events are as follows:

The city of Tezcuco, the capital of the Acolhuans, stood on the eastern borders of the lake on whose opposite side was Mexico, the Aztec capital. About the year 1418 the Acolhuans were attacked by a kindred race, the Tepanecs, who, after a desperate struggle, captured their city, killed their monarch, and subjugated their kingdom. The heir to the crown, the young Prince Nezahualcoyotl, concealed himself in the foliage of a tree when the triumphant the broke into the palace, and from his hiding-place saw his father killed before his eyes. This was the opening event in a history as full of deeds of daring and perilous escapes as that of the "Young Chevalier of English history."

Floating gardens of the Chenapas


The young prince did not long remain at liberty. Soon after his flight from the city he fell into the hands of his foes, and was brought back and thrown into a dungeon. This led to the first romantic incident in his career. The governor of the fortress prison was an old servant of the royal family of Tezcuco, and aided the little captive to escape in disguise, taking his place in the dungeon. He paid for his loyalty with his life, but he willingly gave it in exchange for the liberty of the heir to the throne.

The royal boy had friends in the Mexican capital. He was, in fact, closely related to the Aztec monarch, and through his good offices he was at length permitted to reside in that city. Afterwards he was allowed to return to Tezcuco, where for eight years he dwelt in privacy, studying under the teachers of his early youth, and unheeded by the party in power. Thus the boy grew to manhood, cherishing in his soul ardent hopes of regaining the throne of his ancestors.

A change came when the Tepanec conqueror died and his son, Maxtla, succeeded to the throne. The now king was of a suspicious disposition, and when Nezahualcoyotl sought his capital to render him homage on his accession, Maxtla treated with disdain the little gift of flowers which the young prince laid at his feet, and turned his back on him in the presence of his chieftains. Evidently the palace was no place of safety for the Tezcucan prince, and, warned by a friend among the courtiers, he hastened to withdraw from the court and seek a refuge in his native city of Tezcuco. Here the tyrant dared not proceed openly against him. His popular manners had won him many friends, and the ancient subjects of his family looked upon him as a coming leader who might win back for them their lost liberty. The prince had given evidence of the possession of talent and energy, and Maxtla, fearful of his growing popularity, resolved to make away with him by stratagem. He accordingly invited him to an evening's entertainment, where he had assassins ready to murder him. Fortunately, the tutor of the prince suspected the plot, and contrived to replace the youth by a person who strongly resembled him, and who became the victim of the fate intended for him.

Maxtla, baffled in his murderous stratagem, now resolved to kill him openly, and sent a party of soldiers to the city, who were instructed to enter the palace, seize the prince, and slay him on the spot. Again the watchfulness of his old teacher saved him. Warned of his danger, and advised to flee, the prince refused to do so, but boldly awaited the assassins.

When they reached the palace in which he resided, they found him playing at ball in the court-yard. He received them courteously, showing no suspicion of their errand, and invited them in to take some refreshment after their journey. While they were thus engaged, he strolled carelessly into an adjoining saloon; but the doors being open and the soldiers able to see through both apartments, his movements gave them no concern. It was the custom, however, when any one entered the presence of a great lord, for the servants to throw aromatics into a burning censer. This the prince's attendants did, and such clouds of incense arose as to hide him from the unsuspecting soldiers. Thus obscured, he entered a secret passage which led to a large earthen pipe, formerly employed to bring water to the palace. In this he concealed himself until nightfall, and then made his way into the suburbs, where he found shelter in the house of one of his father's former vassals.

Maxtla, enraged to find that his proposed victim had twice escaped him, grew more determined on his death, and ordered immediate and thorough pursuit, promising to reward whoever should take him, dead or alive, with the hand of a noble lady and an ample domain. Troops of armed men scoured the country in every direction, searching all suspected places, and some of them entered the cottage in which he had taken refuge. Here there was a heap of the maguey fibres used in the manufacture of cloth, and hid beneath this the fugitive escaped capture. But the chase soon grew so hot that he left this place for the wooded hill country between his state and the neighboring one of Tlascala, hoping to find safety in its thickets and caverns.

The royal fugitive now led a wretched life, wandering from place to place, exposed to all the inclemencies of the weather, remaining concealed by day, and stealing out at night in search of food. His pursuers, eager to win the enticing reward, kept up an active search, more than once coming dangerously near to his retreat.

Very interesting stories are told of his adventures in this period of peril. The high rewards offered did not suffice to wean from him the attachment of the people, and more than once he owed his safety to their loyalty. Some of them submitted to torture, and even to loss of life, rather than betray his place of retreat to his enemies. Even many of the soldiers were his friends, and once, when hotly pursued, he took refuge among a small party of these, who were dancing around a large drum. To conceal him from his enemies they placed him in the drum and continued their dance around it.

At another time the pursuers were so close to him that he just succeeded in turning the crest of a hill when they began to climb it on the other side. Here he fortunately found a girl who was reaping chia, a plant whose seeds were used in making palatable drinks. Telling her who he was and of his great danger, he got her to cover him up with a heap of the plants she had cut, and when the pursuers came up and asked if she had seen him, the faithful girl coolly replied that she had, and pointed out a path which she said he had taken.

None of the natives showed any inclination to betray him, despite the richness of the promised rewards.

"Would you not deliver up the prince if he came in your way?" he asked of a peasant who did not recognize him.

"Not I," was the reply.

"What! not for a fair lady's hand, and a rich domain as dowry?"

The peasant shook his head decisively and laughed in disdain.

But, in spite of the loyalty of the people, the prince was in constant danger, and his situation, in the rough fastnesses of the hills and forests, became very distressing.

"Leave me," he said to the faithful few who kept with him in his wanderings and shared his sufferings. "Leave me to my fate. Why should you throw away your lives for one whom fortune steadily persecutes?"

But they clung to his fortunes still, despite their danger and the fact that most of the great nobles of the land had sought safety and reward by an adhesion to the usurper.

Meanwhile, events were working in favor of the fugitive. Maxtla had shown himself an oppressor, and his ambition and military successes had caused much alarm in the surrounding states, where his tyranny was contrasted with the mild rule of the former monarchs of Tezcuco. The friends of the young prince took advantage of this feeling, and succeeded in forming a coalition against his enemy. A day was fixed for a general rising, and on the date appointed Nezahualcoyotl found himself at the head of an army strong enough to face that of Maxtla and the Tepanecs.

The two armies soon met and victory rested on the banner of the young prince, the forces of Maxtla being badly beaten. No longer a hunted fugitive, but at the head of a victorious army, he marched in triumph to the capital which he had left with a price on his head, his joyful subjects crowding to the route of march to render homage to their rightful sovereign. The Mexicans, who were angry at the tyrannic conduct of Maxtla, readily allied themselves with the young victor, and a series of bloody battles followed, the usurper being at length defeated under the walls of his own capital. He was dragged from the baths, to which he had fled for concealment, and sacrificed to the cruel gods of the Aztecs; his royal city was razed to the ground, and its site was reserved as the great slave-market of the surrounding nations.

Thus it was that Nezahualcoyotl came to the throne of his ancestors, where he was to prove himself the greatest monarch of whom we have any record in the American annals. The story of his reign is far too full of detail for the space we can give to it, but is of such interest that we may venture on a concise account of it, as an example of the career of the most illustrious of the ancient American sovereigns.

The first thing the new monarch did was to proclaim a general amnesty. He not only pardoned the rebel nobles, but raised some of them to posts of honor and confidence. This was not only politic but just, since their offences were mainly due to fear of the usurper. Under the circumstances he could safely treat them with magnanimity.

He next remodelled the government of the kingdom, and framed a code of laws which seemed so wise that it was adopted by his allies, the Aztecs and Tlacopans. Councils of war, of finance, and of justice were established, and also a council of state, whose members acted as the immediate advisers of the king, and aided him in the despatch of business. But the most remarkable of these new departments was the "council of music," which was devoted to the encouragement of science and art, and served as a general board of education for the country. Historical compositions and poems were recited before it, and altogether it indicated a degree of civilization which we would scarcely look for in any part of ancient America. Its historians, orators, and poets became celebrated throughout the country, the allied monarchs presided over its deliberations, and among its chief bards was the king himself, who entered into impartial competition with his subjects for the prizes given for the best poems. Many of his odes were long preserved, and may perhaps still rest in the dusty archives of Mexico or Spain.

The far-seeing monarch did not content himself with writing poetry, or encouraging historians,—who wrote subject to the penalty that any one who wilfully lied should be punished with death,—but he sought to develop all the arts. Agriculture was greatly encouraged, the population rapidly increased, new towns and cities sprang up, and the borders of the nation were extended by successful wars. He made his capital the most stately city of the land. Special edifices were built for his nobles, whom he wished to reside at the court. There were more than four hundred of these palatial mansions, but far exceeding them in magnificence was the grand palace he built for himself. This covered a space of three thousand seven hundred feet in length and nearly three thousand feet in width. A wall surrounded it, enclosing an outer court which formed the great market-place of the city, and an inner one surrounded by the council chambers and halls of justice. There were apartments for ambassadors from other states, and a spacious saloon in which the poets and men of science met to study and converse. Here also were kept the public archives.

The royal apartments adjoined this inner court, and rivalled in beauty those of Oriental lands. Alabaster or stucco of rich tints covered some of the walls, while others were hung with tapestries of the gorgeous Indian feather-work. Long arcades and winding pathways bordered with verdure led to gardens where were baths and sparkling fountains shadowed by lofty trees. Fish of various kinds stocked the basins, and in rich aviaries were birds of glowing tropical plumage. Many birds and animals were reproduced in gold and silver with wonderful fidelity to nature. In the inner apartments dwelt the wives and children of the monarch, who were as numerous as those of an Eastern sultan. Such was the famous palace, in which were three hundred apartments, some of them fifty yards square. It is said that two hundred thou-sand workmen were employed in building it. In this splendid residence dwelt a monarch who in his youthful days had been glad to share with wild animals a shelter in the thickets and caverns of the mountains.

Nezahualcoyotl did not confine his love for magnificence to this palatial residence. Beautiful villas were built in various picturesque localities and adorned with all the requisites of pleasure and comfort. His favorite retreat from the cares of office was built on a rounded hill about six miles from the city. Here were terraced gardens reached by a stairway of five hundred and twenty steps, many of them hewn in the native rock. In the summit garden was a reservoir kept filled with water by an aqueduct carried on masonry buttresses for several miles over hill and valley. In its centre was a large rock, on which were carved in hieroglyphics the principal events of each year of the king's reign.

Lower down were other reservoirs, adorned with statuary, and yielding water to channels that ran through the gardens or to cascades that tumbled riotously over the rocks. Here were marble porticoes and pavilions, and baths cut in the solid rock, which the natives still show to visitors under the title of the "Baths of Montezuma." Near the base of the hill, amid lofty groves of cedar, rose the royal villa, with its light arcades and airy halls, affording a delightful relief to the monarch from the duties of the court. Relics of this villa and garden still remain to attest their former beauty, and indicate that this Indian king lived in a magnificence resembling that of the far-famed court of the caliph Haroun-al-Raschid.

He was like the celebrated caliph of the "Arabian Nights" in another way, for it was his custom to wander about the streets, conversing with the humblest of his people and learning their condition and needs from their own words. Many anecdotes are told of this kind, in which it was his delight to reward merit and relieve distress. Some of these may be read with interest.

On one occasion he met a boy who was gathering sticks in a field for fuel, and asked him why he did not go into the neighboring forest, where he would find plenty of them.

"I dare not do that," said the boy. "It's the king's wood, and he would punish me with death if I took sticks from there. "

"What kind of man is your king?"

"He is a very hard man," answered the boy, "for he takes from his people what God has given them."

The boy was right; the forest laws in Tezeuco were as severe as those of Norman England. The king advised the boy not to heed such cruel laws but to help himself in the forest, for there was no one who would betray him. But the lad sturdily refused, and told his tempter that he was a traitor who wished to bring him into trouble.

The next day the boy and his parents were sent for to come to the palace. They obeyed with wonder and dread, and the boy was filled with terror on seeing the king and recognizing him as the man with whom he had talked so freely. But the good-natured monarch bade him not to fear, and thanked him for the lesson he had given his king, praising his respect for the laws and commending his parents for bringing up their son so wisely. He dismissed them with liberal presents, and afterwards gave orders that any one might gather fallen wood in the forest, if they did not interfere with the standing timber.

Another adventure was with a poor woodman and his wife. The man, as he stood in the market-place with his little store, complained bitterly of his lot, as compared with that of those who lived idly amid luxuries in the palace. The wife bade him be careful, as he might be overheard in his complaints. The king, looking down on the market from a latticed window, and amusing himself with the chatter of the market people, heard the words of the couple, and ordered them to be brought into his presence.

He asked the frightened pair what they had said, and was pleased to find that they answered him truly. Then he bade them reflect that if he had great wealth, he had great demands upon it; that he who had a nation to govern could not lead an idle life; and told them "to be more cautious in future, as walls had ears." He then dismissed them, after giving them a quantity of cloth and a good supply of cacao,—the coin of the country. "Go," he said; "with the little you now have, you will be rich; while, with all my riches, I shall still be poor."

Of all the stories told of this famous monarch, there is only one not to his credit, and of this we may speak in passing, as it bears a remarkable resemblance to that told in the Bible of David and Uriah. He fell in love with a beautiful maiden, who was betrothed to an old lord of his kingdom, and to obtain her hand he bade the old man take command of a warlike expedition against the Tlascalans. Two chiefs were bidden to keep near him and bring him into the thick of the fight, that he might lose his life, which the king said he had forfeited by a great crime. The old man suspected what was meant, and said so in a farewell entertainment to his friends. He was correct in his prophecy; like Uriah, he soon fell in battle, and the royal lover's path was clear.

The king now secretly offered his hand and heart to the maiden, who was by no means inconsolable for the loss of her old lover, and willingly accepted. To prevent any suspicion of what he had done, he had the maiden brought to his villa to witness some ceremony there. Standing on a balcony of the palace, the king pretended to be struck with her beauty, and asked, "Who is the lovely young woman, yonder in the garden?" Some of those present soon learned her name and rank, which was that of a princess of the royal house of Mexico. She was asked to enter the palace and receive the attention due to her station, and the king was not long in publicly declaring his love. The marriage soon after took place, in the presence of his brother monarchs of Mexico and Tlacopan, and with great pomp and ceremony.

Such was the one blot in the history of this famous monarch. Aside from this act of treachery, it is remarkable to find so great and high-minded a monarch in the early annals of the nations of Mexico, and one whose history is so full of romantic adventure.