Our Little Aztec Cousin of Long Ago - C. V. Winlow

Uncle Amotl, the Merchant

Merchants were much honored by the emperor Montezuma. Traveling about through the kingdom, with a number of armed men in their party to carry and protect the merchandise they had for sale, they formed powerful small bands that often proved to be valuable in emergencies. Then too, the merchants could report to Montezuma, when they came back from a long trip, on the welfare of provinces in which they had travelled and whether or not certain wealthy nobles had paid all their taxes. Also, Montezuma often called upon a traveling merchant to act as his ambassador or messenger, carrying gifts and letters of greeting to some subordinate sovereign or noble.

Amotl, the merchant, had taken leave of Montezuma, and was busy preparing himself for a trip to the furthest edges of the great kingdom of Anahuac.

He was now a man of nearly sixty. His hair was still black as a bird's wing on his large head, but his craggy, dignified features were seamed with wrinkles, and his black eyes had a look of peaceful understanding that seems very often to come into men's eyes as years go by.

In his youth he had always been on the road, with his burden-bearers following him, each man armed, and loaded with about sixty pounds of merchandise.

But of late years, he went less often, seldom more than once a year, and usually it was at the request of his sovereign, though there were very few people in the kingdom who knew how much Montezuma valued the wisdom and prudence of Amotl.

Uncle Amotl (trusted friends of Montezuma were "Uncle," as a title symbolic of esteem) was about to depart from Mexico City for the north, and he was not very happy about going, because danger threatened.

Pacing up and down restlessly in a small room in his beautiful palace on the hills of Chapultepec, inside the City of Mexico, Montezuma had confessed to Amotl that he distrusted the loyalty of certain nobles of the ally-state of Tezcuco, but that he wished to be assured that they were plotting against him before he sent his armies to force them into submission. "And I have heard of thieves in the mountains," he said. Thieving was punishable by death.

The room to which Montezuma had summoned Amotl was small, but it gave upon a garden that was carpeted thickly with flowers. Hangings made of the down of birds woven into cloth, and intricately dyed in a beautiful pattern alternated upon the walls with hangings made of colored bird's feathers sewed upon cotton in a lovely design. A small richly carved seat of wood, with inlay of pearls and gold, was the only furniture of the small room. That seat was for Montezuma alone.

"I must war against those nobles if they plot to evade the payment of taxes and men that they agreed upon," said Montezuma, "because if the states to the south learn that we have lost Tezcuco as our ally, they will rise against us. You must take out a train of men, with rich stuffs, and go into the homes of the nobles in Tezcuco, and report to me, by special messenger if need be, the state of their loyalties and their strength. You will start as soon as you can arrange your party." Amotl had little trouble in gathering together rich merchandise likely to tempt the wealthy nobles into entertaining him and his followers for some days.

The nobles, many of them, lived on vast estates in the country, growing corn and vegetables, and raising fowl and animals for food. Though their homes were luxurious, and they had many slaves and employed workers, their lives were likely to lack the excitement afforded by the great cities of the capitol, and the visit of a merchant laden with precious goods, was an event of great importance and excitement for all members of the household, especially the ladies.

Amotl would gather his loveliest jewelry of gold bracelets; earrings made like wheels to be inserted in the ears; linked necklaces, with turquoise beads set in gold; finger rings made to be worn near the nail, with a long piece of gold designed to cover the nail completely; little nose ornaments in the shape of a small round peg to be worn through that part of the nose which separates the two nostrils from each other, just above the upper lip. And he would pack also jewelry made of white jade, and strings of pearls, and ornaments of all kinds made of tortoise shell.

Then he would make special packs of the most beautiful of fine feather weaving,—robes, rugs, and wall hangings.

For the ladies, besides jewelry, he might take an assortment of finely woven veils of fiber, some of them sewn with precious stones, toilet articles made of tortoise shell, and many other trinkets.

Amotl had not made a long, wearisome, and hazardous journey for some time, and his old heart almost failed him at what he was to undertake. He would much have preferred simply fitting out some younger merchant with the goods to sell, and resting behind quietly among the spicily fragrant flowers of his gardens. But Montezuma's wish was a command.

Therefore, arraying himself in clean robes, combing his hair with sweet-smelling oil, and taking offerings of his choicest and loveliest flowers, and of gold and pearls, he betook himself to the temple-pyramid in the center of the city, at mid-day, and made ready to pray and to ask for safe-keeping and success on the journey.

Through the busy market square in the center of the city, Amotl walked, the sun shining on his freshly-oiled hair, and drawing fragrance from the flowers in his arms. In the square there were sections set aside for each sort of special article on sale—foodstuffs, especially corn meal, pepper powder, chocolate, potatoes, squashes, fowls and fishes. And cloths. And flowers, for those too poor to own plots of ground where they might raise their own. Jars and pottery for dishes. Everything you can imagine that was needed for life and comfort, the people brought together in the great central square every fifth day, and traded, or sold for set prices. And there were special overseers or magistrates, wandering among the booths and stalls to see that everything was done with justice and with no confusion.

Amotl passed by one booth where a house-wife was purchasing her week's supply of chocolate, for which she paid with the Aztec money—little pieces of tin cut into a shape like the letter T of a standard size, thickness, and shape. This chocolate she would later mix with vanilla, with the sugar from corn stalks, and with spices to make it into a sweet frothy drink which the Aztecs used as a beverage with meals, and as a dessert.

At another booth a feather-weaver had just sold one of his loveliest hangings to a noble, who was paying for it with a currency of higher value than the tin money—transparent quills, filled with a set weight of gold dust.

A steady stream of merry, musical people, men women and children, was flowing through the square. Some emerged from the temple. Others went in. Even though it was mid-day the flames from the sacred fire at the altar on top of the pyramid shone for some distance, and Amotl raised his eyes reverently toward that swaying tribute to the gods.

He entered the temple just as the beams of the sun fell directly below on the sun dial which told the priests that it was mid-day. Amotl advanced through the cool dusk of the courts toward the inner altar, and there he laid down his flowers and jewels as an offering, and prostrated himself on the stone floor to pray.

He felt a touch on his shoulder. It was one of the priests of the temple. The priest signed to Amotl to follow him into one of the inner chambers.

There they remained for some time. But within the hour Amotl emerged from the chamber, and following him, with bowed head, was Coyotl, a slave boy.

Out through the pyramid courts, and into the bright sunshine of the day they went, and Amotl silently began the walk to his home.

Coyotl, behind him, stepped along swiftly to keep up with Amotl, because when Amotl was unusually thoughtful or busy with some problem, he walked faster than many young men.

Though his head was bowed, as he became a slave, Coyotl's heart beat with happiness. He was to live in the great city at last! In his soul he gave thanks to Quetzalcoatl.

"Thank thee, God of sunshine and living things! Thank thee! For thou hast granted my wish! I walk in the streets of Mexico!"