Chronicles of America 

Cortés Flees from Tenochtitlan

When the Spaniards entered Mexico it was November 8, 1519. Between this date and the beginning of 1520, Cortés and his men found lodgings in the halls and chambers of the tecpan, the official house or council lodge in the great square, near the great temple, formerly the quarters of Montezuma himself, but now vacated to accommodate the Spaniards; Montezuma having taken up new quarters in one of the vast communal dwellings. Here Cortés made himself secure by placing cannon to command the approaches, and here he was received in audience by Montezuma, who, causing him to be seated on "a very rich platform," in a chamber "facing a court" embellished with fountains and flowers, addressed him thus: "We believe that our race was brought to these parts by a lord, whose vassals they all were, and who returned to his native country. . . . And we have always believed that his descendants would come to subjugate this country and us, as his vassals; and according to the direction from which you say you come, which is where the sun rises, and from what you tell us of your great lord, or king, who has sent you here, we believe and hold for certain that he is our rightful sovereign."

Early fruits of the occupation of the tecpan by Cortés were the discovery by accident of the walled-up storeroom containing the official treasure of the Aztec Government — that Aladdin's cave whence had come the gold and silver wheels; the burning alive of certain Aztec plotters; and the seizure of the person of the Chief-of-Men, who, transferred to the tecpan, became, under Castilian tutelage, the tool and mouthpiece of his captor.

During 1520 complications for the invaders arose. Cortés contrived the seizure of the war chiefs of Tezcoco and Tlacopan, sub-heads of the Aztec tripartite confederacy, and of the war chiefs of Coyohuacan and Itztapalapan, two of the four sub-heads of the Aztec district itself. Then, further, he forbade human sacrifices. By both these acts he stored up trouble for himself. Trouble, furthermore, developed independently from without. Diego Velásquez, Governor of Cuba and Adelantado of the lands over which Cortés was exercising sway, had at length organized a strong expedition under Pánfilo de Narváez, a man of "hollow" voice, to assert his authority. Narváez reached San Juan de Ulúa in April, and secretly got into relations with Montezuma. In order to check him, Cortés was compelled to divide his own small command. Leaving one hundred and forty men under Pedro de Alvarado in Tenochtitlan, he marched forth with ninety-two men in May, and before the end of the month had, near Cempoalla, met his foe, defeated him, and made him prisoner. Meanwhile in Tenochtitlan, Alvarado, impetuous by nature and roused by tales of conspiracy among the Aztecs fostered by the coming of Narváez, set upon the population while engaged in celebrating the festival of the god Tezcatlipoca and slaughtered them without discrimination and without ruth.

Stunned by the onslaught but rallying promptly, the Mexicans fiercely assaulted the tecpan where the Spaniards were housed, and held them in a state of siege till Cortés, informed of their plight by secret messengers, was able to return to their relief. Food was running short, and Montezuma, being appealed to, induced Cortés to liberate the war chief of Itztapalapan, Cuitlahuatzin by name, that he might calm the people and procure it. This was the beginning of the end of the official character of Montezuma. Cuitlahuatzin was henceforth recognized by the clans as Chief-of-Men, and led the Mexicans in desperate attempts to force the Spaniards out of Tenochtitlan.

It was now late June and departure from the lake settlement became imperative for Cortés. In vain did the Spaniards in a hand-to-hand struggle drive the Aztecs from the dizzy summit of the pyramid in the great square. In vain did Montezuma appeal to his countrymen from the roof of the tecpan. The Chief-of-Men, no longer such, was reviled to his face; nay more, was assailed by missiles and stricken in the forehead. Within three days he was dead, and on the fourth at midnight his erstwhile jailers stole silently from the tecpan into the avenue leading west to the Tacuba Causeway — shortest of the three routes to the mainland and interrupted by the fewest sluice-ways. At first undetected, they had nearly gained the causeway-head, when the night silence reechoed to a cry — the shriek of a native woman. A signal drum on the pyramid in Tlatelolco at once boomed forth a warning, and secrecy was at an end. It was the noche triste — the "doleful night." The bridges over the sluiceways were gone and could not be quickly replaced. Men, horses, and booty, smitten in rear and flank, filled the chasms in a tangled mass. Cortés himself got over by the greatest difficulty. Alvarado, it is said, cleared one of the chasms by an unparalleled vaulting leap. Velásquez de León and Francisco de Morla fell, to emerge no more. Of the total force of Spaniards — 1250 men since the capture of Narváez — some 450 were missing.

Twenty-four horses survived the catastrophe, but the significance of this fact was now small. Neither white stranger nor horse was any longer preternatural. Both were proven mortal; both could perish. Cortés, after all, was not the Fair God Quetzalcoatl — was not even his priest. He was not divine in any sense — just human, just lustful — a dissembling conqueror of flesh and blood. Once on the mainland, the Spaniards were able to stay somewhat the Aztec pursuit; and though, as Cortés expressed it, "without a horse that could run, or a horseman who could lift an arm, or a foot soldier who could move," he finally managed to round Lake Tezcoco on the north, and so, after a fierce melee at Otumba on the 7th of July, to reach friendly and sheltering Tlascala. Among the saved, besides Alvarado, were Gonzalo de Sandoval, Cristóbal de Olid, and the indispensable Marina and Aguilar.

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