Historical Tales - The Romance of Reality - Volume III
by Charles Morris
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Historical Tales - The Romance of Reality - Volume III

by Charles Morris

Edition 1, (October 9, 2006)

Philadelphia and London J. B. Lippincott Company

Copyright, 1904, by J. B. LIPPINCOTT COMPANY. Copyright, 1908, by J. B. LIPPINCOTT COMPANY.







The 12th of October, 1492, ranks very high among the important dates in the history of the world. For on that day men from Europe, then the centre of civilization, first gazed on a rich new land beyond the seas, a great virgin continent, destined to become the seat of flourishing civilizations and to play a leading part in the later history of the world. Little did Columbus and his companions, when they saw before them on that famous morning a beautiful island, rising like a pearl of promise from the sparkling tropical sea, dream of what time held in store for that new-found land, foreordained to become the "New World" of the nations, the hope of the oppressed, and the pioneer dwelling-place of liberty and equality.

But we are here concerned with only what they saw, and this was a green and populous island, so covered with fresh verdure that it seemed to their eyes like a continual orchard. An orchard it was, for many of the trees were laden with new and strange fruits, of rare color and attractive form. Never had they breathed air more pure and fresh, and never had they beheld seas of such crystal clearness or verdure of more emerald hue; and it is not surprising that their eyes sparkled with joy and their souls were filled with wonder and delight as they gazed on this entrancing scene after their long and dreaded journey over a vast and unknown ocean.

Not less strange to the new-comers were the people who flocked in numbers from the woods and ran to the shore, where they stood gazing in simple wonder on the ships, winged marvels which had never met their eyes before. No clothing hid their dusky, copper-colored skins, of a hue unknown to their visitors, and they looked like the unclad tenants of some new paradise. Their astonishment turned into fright when they saw boats leave these strange monsters of the deep, in them men clad in shining steel or raiment of varied color. Their white faces, their curling beards, their splendid clothing, as it appeared to these simple denizens of the forest, and especially the air of dignity of their leader, with his ample cloak of scarlet, added to their amazement, and they viewed the strangers as divine visitors, come to them from the skies.

Not less was their surprise when they saw the wonderful strangers kneel and kiss the soil, and then uplift a great and gleaming banner, of rich colors and designs that seemed magical to their untaught eyes. And deep was their delight when these strange beings distributed among them wonderful gifts,—glass beads, hawk's bells, and other trifles,—which seemed precious gems to their untutored souls. They had nothing to offer in return, except tame parrots, of which they had many, and balls of cotton-yarn; but the eyes of the Spaniards sparkled with hope when they saw small ornaments of gold, which some of them wore. Happy had it been for all the natives of the New World if this yellow metal had not existed among them, for it was to bring them untold suffering and despair.

Such was the island of San Salvador, as Columbus named this first-seen land; but, leaving it, let us go with him in his voyage through that island-sprinkled sea, and use his eyes in taking in the marvels with which it was sown. Familiar as these islands have become to many of us, to him they were all new, beautiful, and strange, a string of tropic pearls or rare emeralds spread out along those shining waters of the South.

On leaving San Salvador, the Spaniards, their hearts elate with joy and pride in their discovery, hardly knew whither to go. They seemed drawn to the right and the left alike. They found themselves in an archipelago of beautiful islands, green and level, rising on all sides and seemingly numberless. To us they are the great green cluster of the Bahamas, but to Columbus, who fancied that he had reached the shores of Asia, they were that wonderful archipelago spoken of by Marco Polo, in which were seven thousand four hundred and fifty-eight islands, abounding with spices and rich in odoriferous trees and shrubs.

On went the Spanish caravels, sailing over bright and placid waters scarce ruffled by the gentle breeze, and touching at isle after isle, each of which seemed to the voyagers more beautiful than the last. Besting under the shade of warm and verdant groves, while his men sought to fill their water-casks from the purest and coolest springs, the admiral found the scene around him entrancing to his vision, "the country as fresh and green as the month of May in Andalusia; the trees, the fruits, the herbs, the flowers, the very stones, for the most part, as different from those of Spain as night from day."


One isle, which he honored with the name of Isabella, after his patron, the Spanish queen, surpassed in charm all he had yet seen. Like them all, it was covered with rich vegetation, its climate delightful, its air soft and balmy, its scenery so lovely that it seemed to him "as if one would never desire to depart. I know not where first to go, nor are my eyes ever weary of gazing on the beautiful verdure."

Fresh water was abundant, and he ordered all the casks of the ships to be filled. He could not say enough in praise of what he saw. "Here are large lakes, and the groves about them are marvellous, and in all the island everything is green, and the herbage as in April in Andalusia. The singing of the birds is such that it seems as if one would never wish to leave this land. There are flocks of parrots which hide the sun, and other birds, large and small, of so many kinds, and so different from ours, that it is wonderful; and besides, there are trees of a thousand species, each having its particular fruit, and all of marvellous flavor, so that I am in the greatest trouble in the world not to know them, for I am very certain that they are each of great value."

As he approached this island, he fancied that the winds bore to his senses the spicy odors said to be wafted from the islands of the East Indian seas. "As I arrived at this cape," he said, "there came off a fragrance so good and soft of the flowers or trees of the land that it was the sweetest thing in the world."

Not only were the islands the homes of birds of brilliant plumage and flowers of gorgeous hue, but the very seas seemed to their new visitors like tropical gardens, for the fish with which they abounded rivalled the birds and flowers in brilliancy of color. The scales of some of them glittered like precious stones, and gleams of gold and silver seemed to come from them as they swam around the ships, while the dolphins taken from the water changed color like the chameleon.

The natives who had been taken on board the ships made signs which seemed to indicate that more wonderful islands were yet to be seen, with cities and kings and queens, and abundance of gold and gems; or, at least, the Spaniards understood this from their signs, as they pointed to the south when gold was shown them and they were asked where it could be found. Far to the south was a great island which they named Cuba, and another which they called Bohio. Cuba, as their signs appeared to show, was of vast extent and abounded with gold, pearls, and spices, and Columbus determined to sail for it, hoping there to find the wealth which he and his companions so ardently craved. It cannot be said that the natives wished to deceive them, but no doubt they willingly agreed to all they were asked, with the innocent desire of pleasing their wonderful new friends. Columbus, full of the idea that he was near the shores of India, hoped to reach the city of Quinsai, which Marco Polo had said was one of the most magnificent in the world, and there deliver the letter of his sovereigns to the Grand Khan of the Indies and bring back his reply to Spain. Inspired by this enticing hope, he left the Bahamas and turned the prows of his small fleet towards the isle of Cuba.

It was on the morning of October 28 that the shores of this noble island first met the eyes of the eager mariners. As the small fleet swept along its coast the admiral was struck with its size and grandeur; its high and airy mountains, like those of Sicily; its long and sweeping plains, and the fertile valleys of its broad rivers; its far-reaching forests and many green headlands, which led them on and on into the remote distance. They anchored at length in a beautiful river, whose waters were transparent and deeply shaded with overhanging trees. Here Columbus had himself rowed up the stream, which seemed to grow more enchanting with every mile, forests of lofty and spreading trees crowding down to its banks, some in fruit, some in flower, some bearing fruits and flowers at once. These woods swarmed with birds of brilliant plumage,—the scarlet flamingo, the rich-hued parrots and woodpeckers, the tiny and sparkling humming-birds, which flitted on rainbow wings from flower to flower, and which no European had ever before seen. Even the insects were beautiful, in their shining coats of mail. Though most of the birds were silent, the charms of song were not wanting, and the excited fancy of Columbus detected among them notes like those of the nightingale. Ever open to the charms of nature, Cuba seemed to him an elysium, "the most beautiful island that eyes ever beheld."

He was sure there must here be mines of gold, groves of spices, rivers and seas that bore pearls. The houses, though simple in structure, were well built and clean, roofed with palm-leaves and shaded by spreading trees. Led on still by his excited fancy, he hoped soon to find great cities and rich settlements, but none such greeted his gaze. Assured that the capital of the Grand Khan could not be far away, he sent two ambassadors, with presents, to the interior, in a direction pointed out by the people. But after going many miles they found only a village of fifty houses, like those seen on the coast. There was no gold or silver, no spices, none of the things they so ardently sought. The only thing new to their eyes was a fashion seen among the people, who rolled up certain dried and aromatic leaves, and, lighting one end, put the other in their mouths, and exhaled the smoke. This was the first ever seen by white men of that remarkable American plant, called by the natives by a name like tobacco, which has since grown to be a favorite throughout the world, in palace and hovel alike.

Sailing onward along the Cuban coast, the imagination of Columbus was continually aroused by the magnificence, freshness, and verdant charm of the scenery, which he could not praise too highly. A warm love of nature is frequently displayed in the description of the country which he wrote out for Ferdinand and Isabella, of Spain. Of one place, named by him Puerto Santo, he said: "The amenity of this river, and the clearness of the water, through which the sand at the bottom may be seen; the multitude of palm-trees of various forms, the highest and most beautiful that I have met with, and an infinity of other great and green trees; the birds in rich plumage, and the verdure of the fields, render this country, most Serene Princess, of such marvellous beauty, that it surpasses all others in graces and charm, as the day doth the night in lustre. For which reason I often say to my people, that, much as I endeavor to give a complete account of it to your Majesties, my tongue cannot express the whole truth or my tongue describe it; and I have been so overwhelmed at the sight of so much beauty that I have not known how to relate it."

One more island he was yet to see in this marvellous series of discoveries,—the one called by the natives Bohio or Babeque, now known as Hayti, one of the most beautiful islands in the world in the splendor of its tropical vegetation. Columbus and his men could describe it only by comparison with the most beautiful provinces of the country from which they came, and in consequence he named the island Hispaniola, or "Little Spain."

Here he found the people as innocent and simple in their habits as those of San Salvador, living in huts built of the palm-branches, wearing no clothing, for the air was always warm and balmy, and passing life in a holiday of indolence and enjoyment. To the Spaniards their life seemed like a pleasant dream, their country a veritable Lotus land, where it was "always afternoon." They had no wants nor cares, and spent life in easy idleness and innocent sports. They had their fields, but the food plants grew bountifully with little labor. The rivers and sea yielded abundance of fish, and luscious tropical fruits grew profusely in their forests. Thus favored by nature, they spent much of the day in repose, while in the evenings they danced gayly in their fragrant groves with songs or the rude music of their drums. After the coming of the Spaniards the clear tinkle of the hawk's bells as they danced gave them the deepest delight, and for those musical toys they were ready to barter everything they possessed.

In Hispaniola gold seemed more plentiful than the Spaniards had yet seen, but they were still lured on to distant places, with the illusive hope that this precious metal might there be found in quantities. Yet Columbus felt forced to cease, for a time, the quest of the precious metal, and sail for home with the story of the new world he had found. One of his vessels had deserted him; another had been wrecked: if he should lose the third he would be left without means of return and his great discovery might remain unknown.

Moved by this fear, on the 4th of January, 1493, he spread the sails of the one caravel left to him, and turned its prow towards Europe, to carry thither the news of the greatest maritime discovery the world had ever known. Thus ended in success and triumph the first voyage of Columbus to the "New World."


Of the three ships with which Columbus made his first voyage, the "Pinta" deserted the others and went off on a voyage of discovery of its own, and the "Santa Maria," the flag-ship of the admiral, ran ashore on the coast of Hispaniola and proved a hopeless wreck. Only the little "Nina" (the "girl," as this word means in English) was left to carry the discoverer home. The "Santa Maria" was carefully taken to pieces, and from her timbers was constructed a small but strong fort, with a deep vault beneath and a ditch surrounding. Friendly Indians aided in this, and not a shred of the stranded vessel was left to the waves. As the "Nina" was too small to carry all his crew back to Spain, Columbus decided to leave a garrison to hold this fort and search for gold until he should return. That the island held plenty of gold he felt sure. So Captain Ardua was left, with a garrison of forty men, and the "Nina" spread her sails to the winds to carry to Spain the wonderful news of the great discovery.

La Navidad, or The Nativity, he named the fort, in remembrance of the day of the wreck, and when he came back in 1493 he hopefully expected to find its garrison awaiting him, with a rich treasure in the precious yellow metal. He reached the spot to find the fort a ruin and the garrison a remembrance only. They had been attacked by the Indians and massacred during the absence of the admiral.

In fact, the mild, gentle, and friendly Indians whom Columbus had met with on his first voyage were not the only people of the islands. There were on some of the West Indies a warlike race called Caribs,—cannibals, the Spaniards said they were,—who gave the invaders no small trouble before they were overcome.

It was a band of these fierce Caribs that had attacked La Navidad and destroyed the fort and its garrison, impelled to this, likely enough, by some of the ruthless acts which the Spaniards were much too ready to commit. The leader of these warriors was a bold cacique named Caonabo, chief of a warlike mountain tribe. It is with this chieftain that we are at present concerned, as he was the hero, or victim rather, of the first romantic story known to us in Indian life.

In addition to the forts built by the Spaniards on the coast of Hispaniola, there was one built far in the interior, called Fort Santo Tomas. This stood in the mountainous region of Cibao, the reputed land of gold of the island. Its site lay within the territory of Caonabo, who ruled over a great district, his capital town or village being on the southern slope of the Cibao Mountains.

The first conflict between the Spaniards and the natives, after the massacre of the garrison of La Navidad, was in the district of the Vega, where a fierce fight took place in the spring of 1495, the natives suffering a severe defeat. The next was at Fort Santo Tomas, which was commanded by Alonso de Ojeda, a young man who had come out with Columbus in his second voyage. He was a man of great courage and unusual daring, one of the chief among those dauntless spirits who had to do with the conquest of the New World.

A man of his spirit was needed to command this isolated fort in the mountains, for the cacique, Caonabo, was not pleased with this invasion of his territory, and soon marched upon the fort with a strong force of his warlike race. Santo Tomas was closely invested and fiercely attacked, Ojeda being reduced to such an extremity that he owed his escape only to a rescuing force sent by Columbus from Fort Isabella, on the coast. Driven off by the superior arms of his foes, Caonabo withdrew sullenly to his stronghold in the mountains. But he was quickly back again, with a larger force than before. He had never met his equal among the Indians, but the fire-spouting tubes of the Spaniards proved too much even for his courage, and he was a second time forced to withdraw.

It was evident, however, that Ojeda was perilously situated, surrounded as he was by warlike enemies, led by so bold and persistent a chief. In the face of this peril he adopted an expedient as daring as any of those shown by Cortez, Pizarro, or any other of the Spanish caballeros of that age of conquest, and one whose ingenuity equalled its daring. It is this striking adventure which it is our purpose to describe.

Choosing from his men a few of the bravest and most trusty, Ojeda set out on horseback over the mountains, following paths never before traversed by the Spaniards, until they came to the Carib town of Maguana, where he found Caonabo surrounded by a throng of armed warriors. The Spaniards had bearded the lion in his den, and were in a position of extreme peril should the cacique prove hostile. But Ojeda was a past-master in craftiness, and by professions of friendship and other arts of duplicity he persuaded the chief to accompany him alone into the edge of the forest.

He now took from his pocket a pair of handcuffs, bright and shining manacles of which the untutored Indian had no conception of the use, but whose brightness attracted him. Ojeda told him they were bracelets, which the King of Spain had graciously sent him as a present, in recognition of his fame as a warrior of skill and courage. The poor Indian probably understood all this very imperfectly, but he was easily brought to view the manacles as Turey or a gift from Heaven, and willingly held out his wrists that his guest might adorn them with those strange and splendid bracelets.

In a moment his hands were secured, and before he could recover from his surprise Ojeda, whose small frame concealed much strength, reached from his saddle, seized the astonished chief, and by a great exertion of muscular force lifted him from the ground and swung him up on the horse. The warriors, who beheld this act with sudden suspicion, had no time to use their weapons before the Spaniards had put spur to their horses and dashed off into the forest. Two of them rode on each side of Ojeda, to prevent the captive throwing himself from the horse. Threatened by their swords and with his hands clasped in those fatal bracelets, Caonabo was forced to submit, and was carried by his captors for many miles through the heart of his own country to Fort Isabella, a stronghold which Columbus had built at a site on the sea-coast, fronting a bay in which all his vessels could ride in safety. Here the bold Ojeda, as the culmination of his daring enterprise, delivered his captive to Columbus, and he was locked up in a secure cell.

As the story goes, the brave cacique had a greater admiration for courage than anything else in the world, and instead of hating Ojeda for the crafty way in which he had been captured, he seemed to hold him in high esteem as the bravest of the Spaniards. Whenever Ojeda appeared in his cell he would rise and courteously salute him, while he treated the visits of Columbus with haughty disregard. So far as the captive cacique could make himself understood, the high rank of Columbus was nought to him. He had no proof that he was a man of courage, while the manner in which Ojeda had captured him showed him to be a brave man. To the bold Carib courage was the first of virtues and the only one worthy of respect.

The poor Indian suffered the fate of most of his countrymen who had to do with the Spanish invaders. Put on board ship and sent as a prize of valor to Spain, the unfortunate chief died on the voyage, perhaps from a broken heart, or as a result of the change from his free forest life to the narrow confines of a fifteenth-century ship.

The life of Ojeda after that date was one full of adventure, in which he distinguished himself as much by rashness as by valor. In 1499 he was put in command of an exploring expedition and sent out from Spain, one of his companions being Amerigo Vespucci, he whose first name gained the immemorial honor of being given to the great western continent. In this voyage Ojeda discovered part of the continent of South America, which he called Venezuela, or Little Venice, a name suggested by an Indian village built on piles in the water. Eight years later Ojeda sought to plant a colony in New Andalusia, but the natives there proved too bold and hostile for him, and he failed to subject them to his authority.

Many were his adventures, all of them characterized by a rash daring like that he had shown in the capture of Caonabo. When at length he died, he was buried, in response to his own request, in the doorway of the Franciscan monastery in the city of Santo Domingo, so that all who entered that place of worship should walk over his grave.


The island elysium which Columbus had discovered, and of which he wrote and conversed in the most glowing terms, seemed like a fairy-land of promise to the people of Spain, and hundreds of adventurers soon crossed the seas, hopeful of winning gold and ready for deeds of peril and daring in that wonderful unknown land. Some of them were men of wealth, who were eager to add to their riches, but the most of them had little beyond their love of adventure and their thirst for gold to carry them across the seas, needy but bold soldiers and cavaliers who were ready for any enterprise, however perilous, that might promise them reward. The stories of many of these men are full of romantic interest, and this is especially the case with one of them, the renowned Hernando Cortez.

We propose here to deal with the interesting early history of this most famous of the New World conquerors. The son of a Spanish captain, of good family, his buoyant spirit and frolicsome humor led him into many wild escapades while still a boy. The mystery and romance of the strange land beyond the sea and the chance to win gold and glory which it offered were fascinating to a spirit like his, and he was prevented from taking part in an expedition when but seventeen years of age only by an unlucky accident. As he was scaling a wall one night, in an adventure like that of Romeo and Juliet, the stones gave way and he was thrown violently to the ground and buried under the ruins. Before he got out of bed from his hurts the fleet had sailed.

Two years longer the ambitious boy remained at home, engaged, perhaps, in similar pranks, but at length another chance offered, and in 1504 he set sail for the land of promise, still a youth of only nineteen years of age. He did not get across the sea without adventure. Quintero, the captain of his ship, bound for Hispaniola and a market, stole away from the rest of the squadron, hoping to reach port and sell his cargo before the others arrived. But fierce gales came to punish him; for many days the vessel was tossed about, the sailors not knowing where they were, and furious at the treachery of their captain. At length, one morning, hope returned to them, in the form of a white dove that lighted on the foremast-top. When the bird had rested it took to flight again, and by following its course the weary mariners finally came to the port they sought. But the captain was paid for his treachery by finding that the other vessels had arrived before him and sold their cargoes.

The young adventurer was full of ambitious hope. When the governor's secretary told him that no doubt he would be given a good estate to settle on, he replied, "But I came to get gold; not to till the soil, like a peasant."

As no gold offered, however, he was glad enough to accept the land, but his fondness for active deeds clung to him, and he took part in the military expeditions sent out to fight with the rebel natives. He had his quarrels, too, and his duels about the love of fair ladies, and received wounds whose scars he carried to the grave. A nobler opening for his valor came in 1511, when an expedition set out for the conquest of Cuba. Cortez enlisted under the leader, Diego Velasquez, whose favor he won by his courage and activity, his cordial and lively disposition, and the good humor and ready wit which made him a favorite with all he met.

After the island had been conquered, Velasquez was made its governor, Cortez still being his close friend. But for some reason this friendship did not last, and when at length a party of discontented men formed a plan to complain of the acts of the governor to the higher authorities in Hispaniola, Cortez took part in the conspiracy, and was chosen, from his fearless spirit, to act as their envoy, it being necessary to perform the perilous exploit of crossing an arm of the sea over fifty miles wide in an open boat.

In some way the plot got wind, and, before he could leave the island, Cortez was arrested by order of the governor and thrown into prison, his limbs being loaded with fetters. Velasquez even intended to hang him, as we are told, but was persuaded by his friends not to go so far. These Spanish governors had the power to do almost anything they pleased, their distance from home enabling them to act the despot at will, and their influence at court saving them from evil consequences.


Cortez did not stay long in his prison cell. In some way he managed to open one of the bolts of his fetters and soon had his limbs free. Then, turning his irons into tools, he used them to force open the window of his cell. As he was on the second floor of the building, it was easy for one so agile as he to reach the ground without injury, and he made his way to a church near by, where he claimed the right of sanctuary.

When Velasquez heard of the escape of his prisoner he was furious. He did not dare attempt to take him from the church by force, since the sacred walls protected all who sought their asylum. But a guard was stationed close by, with orders to seize the fugitive if he should leave the sanctuary. With one so careless as Cortez this was sure to be done. A few days later, as he stood heedlessly sunning himself outside the walls of the building, one of the guards rushed on him from behind, seized his arms, and held him till his comrades came to his aid. This man was one of those who afterwards took part in the conquest of Mexico, during which he was hung for some offence by Cortez, who perhaps took this opportunity for revenge.

Once more the reckless young adventurer found himself a fettered captive, this time being put on board a vessel that was to sail the next morning for Hispaniola, where Velasquez designed he should be tried for his offence. But he proved a very hard prisoner to hold. That night, with much pain and difficulty, he managed to pull his feet out of the irons that held them, and then stole cautiously to the deck, where he found a boat floating by the vessel's side. Slipping down into this, under cover of the darkness, he cut loose and paddled silently away.

When near the shore he met with a rapid current and rough waters, to which he was afraid to trust the boat. Being an expert swimmer, he thought it safest to breast the water himself, and boldly plunged overboard. He found his task a hard, almost a fatal one; the current threatened to sweep him away, but after a long struggle with the waves he succeeded in reaching the shore, in a state of almost complete exhaustion. He now sought the church again, no doubt resolving this time to keep safely within its sacred shelter.

The story goes on to state that the governor, worked upon by friends of the culprit, offered him forgiveness, which the incensed young cavalier was too proud to accept. What followed is amusing. Velasquez was at a distance from the capital, on a military excursion, when one evening he was startled in his tent by the appearance of his enemy, completely armed and threatening in aspect. In dismay, the governor asked him what he wanted. Cortez replied, angrily, that he was tired of being treated like a felon, and that he must have an explanation or he would know the reason why. Velasquez answered as angrily, and a hot altercation followed. But at length their talk became more friendly, and in the end their old amicable relations were resumed and they embraced like a pair of lovers. The amusing part of the story is this: When a messenger arrived to tell the governor that Cortez had left the sanctuary and disappeared, he found the governor and the culprit both fast asleep in the same bed.

This story seems doubtful, but at any rate they became friends again, and Cortez was given a large estate in Cuba, which he stocked with cattle, and on which he found gold-mines, which were worked by Indian labor. He married a beautiful Spanish girl, and, fast growing rich, spent several years in happy content.

This, with some, would have been the end of a career. It was only the beginning of that of Cortez, before whom still lay a wonderful history and a record of undying fame. All we can tell here is how this came about. It began in expeditions of discovery. Cordova, a Cuban settler, seeking Indians for slaves in the Bahamas, was blown far westward by a storm, and reached an unknown shore, where the natives lived in stone buildings, cultivated the soil, and wore delicate cotton garments and ornaments of gold. In other ways they showed evidence of civilization. The land thus reached is that now known as Yucatan.

Velasquez, on seeing the gold which Cordova brought back, sent out a small fleet under his nephew, Juan de Grijalva, to visit and explore this new land. Grijalva found evidence that a great civilized nation dwelt inland, rich in gold and far superior in civilization to any Indians whom the Spaniards had yet met. He named the country New Spain, and sailed back to Cuba with an account of his important discoveries.

The news filled Velasquez with hope and joy. Here seemed to be the land of gold which the Spaniards had so long sought. Here he might win vast wealth and the glory of adding a new and splendid province to Spain. He at once began to fit out a much larger expedition, and looked around for a man fit to command it. Several of the hidalgos, or gentlemen of Cuba, offered themselves, but none pleased the governor, and at length he settled upon Cortez as the best man for his purpose. By chance, rather than by intention, he had made a splendid choice. Cortez was the one man in the New World, and perhaps the one man at that time in all Spain, fitted by nature for the difficult task which lay before him. Wild and frivolous as he had shown himself in youth, all he needed was a great occasion to prove himself a great man. He was to develop into one of the ablest military leaders in all history, a man who, on a small scale, was to display a genius and achieve a success worthy of Caesar or Alexander or any of the famous soldiers of the world.

But, from another point of view, Velasquez had made a bad choice. Cortez had disdained his fetters and his prisons, and would soon disdain his control. His hope to win gain and glory by the aid of this young adventurer was likely to prove a mere Will-o'-the-wisp.


The very appointment seemed to change the whole character of the new admiral. He became a different man. His high spirits now changed to a tireless energy. He spent his money freely in fitting out the fleet, and even mortgaged his estate to raise more, and borrowed all he could. He worked incessantly, and inspired his companions and followers to active and enthusiastic toil. He was so popular in the island that several hundred recruits soon flocked to his banner, and six ships, some of them of large size, were rapidly got ready and stocked with provisions and military stores.

Yet at the last moment it seemed as if all the labor and cost of Cortez would go for naught. Velasquez grew suspicious of him, and decided to rob him of his command and trust the fleet to safer hands. But he was not dealing with a man who could be played with in this fast and loose fashion. The secret was whispered to Cortez, and he decided to sail at once, though he was still short of men, of vessels, and of supplies. That night he took on board all the meat in the town, weighed anchor, and got ready to set sail.

At day-dawn the news came to Velasquez that the fleet was about to depart. In a panic he sprang from his bed, threw on his clothes, mounted his horse, and rode in all haste to the beach. Cortez entered a boat and rowed near enough to the shore to speak with him.

"And is this the way you leave me?" cried the angry governor; "a courteous leave-taking, truly."

"Pardon me," said Cortez; "time presses, and there are some things that should be done before they are even thought of. Has your excellency any commands?"

His excellency would have commanded him to come on shore, if it had been of any use. As it was he had little to say, and with a polite wave of the hand Cortez returned to his ships. Soon only their vanishing hulls were to be seen.

The fleet stopped for supplies at Macaca and at Trinidad. At the last place many men, and several cavaliers who were to prove his ablest officers, joined him. While there, letters came from Velasquez to the governor of Trinidad, ordering him ta arrest Cortez, and hold the fleet for a new admiral who was to command it. The governor looked at Cortez and his men and concluded that he had better let them alone. They were too strong for him to deal with.

So once more the bold adventurers escaped from Velasquez and his schemes and sailed in triumph away, this time for Havana. Here, also, the governor of the place had received orders to arrest Cortez, and here, also, he did not dare attempt it. Velasquez also wrote to Cortez, asking him to wait till he could see him. Hernando Cortez was hardly the fool to pay any heed to such a letter as that. The lion was hardly likely to trust himself to the fox. He sent him a very polite and mild answer, saying that he would not lose sight of the interests of his excellency, and that he and the fleet, "God willing, would set sail the next morning."

Finally, on the 18th of February, 1519, the fleet lost sight of Cuba at Cape San Antonio, on the western end of the island. It consisted in all of eleven vessels, most of them small, and had on board six hundred and sixty-three soldiers and sailors. A few of these were armed with cross-bows and only thirteen with muskets, while the horses numbered only sixteen. In addition there were ten heavy guns and four lighter ones, with a good supply of ammunition.

Such was the fleet and such the force with which Hernando Cortez set sail to conquer a powerful and warlike nation. Fortunately the expedition had one of the world's great commanders at its head, or the enterprise would have ended in failure instead of leading, as it did, to a wonderful success.


It was a splendid road to fortune which Columbus opened to the adventurers of Spain, and hundreds of them soon took that promising path. Among these was one Vasco Nunez de Balboa, a man poor in gold or land, but rich in courage and ambition, and weary enough of trying to live at home like a gentleman with the means of a peasant. In the year 1501 he crossed the seas to Hispaniola, where, like Cortez, he took up land and began to till the soil for a living. But he had not the skill or good luck of Cortez, and after years of labor he found himself poorer than when he commenced. He began to see that nature had not meant him for a farmer, and that if he wanted a fortune he must seek it in other fields.

Balboa was not alone in this. There were others, with better-filled pockets than he, who were ripe for adventure and eager for gold. A famous one of these was Alonso de Ojeda, one of the companions of Columbus and the hero of the adventure with the Carib chief already described, who in 1509 sailed for South America and founded a settlement named by him San Sebastian. He left orders with Enciso, a lawyer of the town of San Domingo, to fit out two more vessels and follow him with provisions for his new settlement.

Enciso sailed in 1510, his vessels well laden with casks of bread and other food-stuffs. There was more in them, indeed, than Enciso dreamed of, for when far from land there crept out of one of these casks a haggard, woe-begone, half-starved stowaway, who looked as if he had not many ounces of life left in him. It was Vasco Nunez de Balboa, who had taken this way to join the expedition and escape from his creditors, since they would not have permitted him to go openly. The cask in which he snugly lay had been carried from his farm to the ship among others containing provisions.

Enciso was furious when he saw this unwelcome addition to his crew. He threatened to throw him overboard, and on second thought vowed to leave him to starve on a desert island. The poor fellow fell on his knees and tearfully begged for mercy. Others joined him in entreaties, and Enciso at length softened and spared him his life. He was to pay bitterly for his kindness before many days.

The expedition had its adventures on the seas, ending in a wreck, and when San Sebastian was reached Ojeda was not to be found, and the settlement was a ruin. Enciso was in a quandary what to do, but Balboa had been on that coast before, on his first voyage out from Spain, and knew of an Indian village on the Darien River where they might find food and shelter. He advised Enciso to go thither, and a journey was made overland, among hostile Indians and with little food. The adventurers were half-starved when at length they reached their goal.

Here they founded a new settlement named Santa Maria, no doubt first disposing of the Indians in the usual Spanish fashion,—killing some and making slaves of others. But it was not long before there were bitter quarrels among themselves. Enciso had forbidden them to have any private trade for gold with the natives, a ukase which they strongly resented. The result was that a party rose against him, with Balboa at its head. Enciso was deprived of his authority, but when they tried to elect another in his place it did not prove easy. Diego de Nicuesa, who had made a settlement near there, was sent for by some of the settlers, but when he came, Balboa's party would not receive him, and he, with seventeen companions, was placed in a crazy old barque and left to find their way back to Hispaniola as best they could.

Balboa had by this time shown himself the ablest and boldest man in Darien, and his influence and power grew steadily until the settlers voted him their governor. Enciso was seized and imprisoned, and finally was sent to Spain. With him went one of Balboa's chief supporters, in order to gain for him from the king the royal right to his new office.

Balboa lost no time in showing that he was worthy of the dignity given him. He made many incursions into the surrounding country, and succeeded in collecting much gold, the yellow metal being more plentiful there than in the West India islands. In those expeditions he showed a wise spirit of conciliation and won the friendship of several of the Indian chiefs. In one of their excursions a quarrel arose among the Spaniards about the division of the gold they had obtained. They were almost at sword's-point when a young Indian chief, surprised to find them so hot about what seemed to him a useless substance, upset the gold out of the balance, and turned to Balboa, saying,—

"Why do you quarrel about such stuff as this? If you value it so highly, I could take you to a country where it is so common that it is used for the meanest utensils."

These significant words filled the Spaniards with hope and desire, and they eagerly asked where that rich land lay, and how it might be reached.

"At the distance of six suns [six days' journey] from here," said the cacique, "lies another ocean as great as the one before you. Near its shores is the kingdom I spoke of. But it is very powerful, and if you wish to attack it you will need far more men than you have here."

This was the first the Spaniards had heard of the great southern ocean or of the rich land of Peru. This must be the ocean, thought Balboa, which Columbus sought for without success, the waters which border the East Indies, and the great and rich nation on its shores must be one of the famous countries of Asia. At once the desire arose in his mind to gaze on that unknown sea.

Balboa felt it necessary to do something striking and do it quickly. He had received letters from Zamudio, the agent he had sent to Spain, which were very discouraging. Enciso had complained to King Ferdinand of the way in which he had been treated, and the king had not only refused to support Balboa with a royal warrant for his actions, but had condemned his course and ordered him to return to Spain. His hopes of fortune and greatness were at an end unless he could win the favor of the king by some great enterprise. Such would be the discovery of that great ocean, and this he determined to attempt.

The Isthmus of Darien, which he would have to cross, is not over sixty miles wide. But many of these are miles of mountain, on which grow forests so dense as to be almost impassable. There, too, where it rains for more than half the year, the valleys are converted into marshes, and are so often overflowed that in many places the natives have to dwell in the trees, while from the high grounds rush swollen rivers, fierce and threatening. To march across an unknown and perilous country like this, led by treacherous Indian guides, was a bold and desperate enterprise, surpassing any which the Spaniards had yet attempted. But Balboa was one of the most daring and intrepid of them all, and to win the favor of his sovereign there was no danger he was not ready to face.

For the perilous expedition he could muster only one hundred and ninety men. But these were veterans, hardened to the climate of the isthmus, and ready to follow him whatever the peril. They had good reason to trust his courage and readiness in emergencies, for they had found him always brave and alert. A thousand Indians were taken with them, to carry their provisions, and they added to their force a number of the fierce bloodhounds which were dreaded by the natives as much as the fire-arms of the Spaniards.

Thus equipped, the expedition set out on the 1st of September, 1513, sailing along the coast to Coyba, where dwelt a friendly chief. Here half the men were left to guard their vessels and canoes. With the remainder the terrible journey across the rock-ribbed and forest-covered isthmus was begun.

No sooner had the Spaniards left the coast than troubles and perils thickened around them. The country was difficult to traverse, the people were bold and hostile. With their poisoned arrows they proved no feeble antagonists. As the adventurers left the plain and toiled up the mountains, a warlike cacique, with a large body of followers, met them in a narrow pass and boldly disputed the way. A fierce battle ensued, ending in favor of the Spaniards, who cut their way through the savages, leaving hundreds of them dead on the ground.

Thus, fighting nature and fighting men, they toiled onward and upward, until the six days fixed for their journey had stretched out to twenty-five. But now hope burned fresh in their hearts, for their guides assured them that from the top of the next mountain they could see the ocean they so ardently sought. Up the steep pass they toiled, until near the lofty summit, when Balboa bade them halt and went on alone, that he might be the first to gaze on the wonderful spectacle.

Soon he stood on the mountain-top, and there, to his infinite delight, sparkled and spread before his eyes the mightiest ocean of the earth, stretching away to the north, south, and west as far as human eye could see. Overwhelmed by the stupendous vision, he fell prostrate on the ground, like a worshipper before the object of his adoration. Then, rising to his knees, he thanked God for the great boon vouchsafed to him.

His men, gazing eagerly upward, saw him rise and beckon them, while with his other hand he pointed wildly westward. With springing steps they rushed to his side, and joined in his delight and his thanks to God as the marvellous spectacle met their eyes. Heaps of stones were piled up to show that they had taken possession of this spot for his sovereign, and as they went down the farther slope they carved on many trees the name of King Ferdinand of Castile, as the lord of this new land.

Let us repeat here the closing lines of Keats's famous sonnet to Homer, in which a great poet has admirably depicted the scene, though, by a strange error, giving the credit to Cortez instead of Balboa:

"Then felt I like some watcher of the skies When a new planet swims into his ken; Or like stout Cortez, when with eagle eyes He stared at the Pacific—and all his men Looked at each other with a wild surmise— Silent, upon a peak in Darien."

Twelve men were sent on in advance to seek the easiest and shortest path to the sea, one of them a man destined to become still more famous than Balboa,—Francisco Pizarro, the future conqueror of Peru. Reaching the shore, they found on it two stranded canoes, into which stepped two of the men, Blaze de Atienza and Alousa Martine, calling on their comrades to witness that they were the first to embark on that sea.

For three days the remaining men waited advices from their pioneers, and then followed the guides sent them to the shore, Balboa, armed with his sword and buckler, rushing into the water to his middle, and claiming possession of that vast sea and all its shores in the name of his king, for whom he pledged himself to defend it against all comers.

Such was the discovery of the great South Sea, as Balboa named it, the Pacific Ocean, as Magellan soon after called it. The people of the coast told the Spaniards of a rich and mighty kingdom that lay to the south, and whose people had tame animals to carry their burdens. The form of these they drew on the sand, their long necks convincing Balboa that they were camels, and that the land indicated must be Asia. They really represented the llama of Peru, an animal resembling the camel in form.

After remaining for some time on the coast, gathering all the information he could obtain, Balboa led his travel-worn men back to Darien, resolved to return with a stronger force next year and seek that distant land of gold. But this exploit was left for Pizarro, one of the ablest and bravest of the men who took part in this pioneer expedition.

It was the 18th of January, 1514, when the adventurers reached their starting-point at Santa Maria, when the people heard of his discovery with the utmost joy. Messengers were at once sent to Spain, with an account of the remarkable exploit, which was received with an enthusiasm little less than had been the news of the discovery of the New World. If Columbus had discovered a new land, Balboa had matched it with the discovery of a new ocean, added to which was the story of a land of gold, for whose conquest Balboa asked for a reinforcement of a thousand men.

Unfortunate as Columbus had been, the new discovery was destined to still greater ill-fortune, as we shall soon see. Before his messengers reached Spain a new governor, Pedrarias de Avila, had been appointed and had set sail, with fifteen vessels and fifteen hundred men. Balboa had nearly five hundred men under his command, but he at once submitted to the decision of his king and accepted Pedrarias as his superior. The fifteen hundred new men landed in that pestilential climate, in the unhealthy season, paid bitterly for their imprudence. A violent disease attacked them; scarcity of provisions made it worse; and within a month more than six hundred of them had died, while others hastened away from that noxious spot.

At length news came that the king fully appreciated the splendid discovery of Balboa; letters of high praise were received, and he was appointed Adelantado, or admiral of the South Sea, Pedrarias being ordered to support him in all his operations. The rivals now became reconciled, their union being made firmer by Pedrarias giving his daughter in marriage to Balboa.

The adventurer now began active preparations for an exploration of the South Sea, materials for ship-building being conveyed, with the greatest labor, across the isthmus, and two brigantines constructed. There was no lack of volunteers for the expedition, and the vessels were launched and sailed to the Pearl Islands, the inclement weather alone preventing them from going on to the coast of Peru.

Thus there seemed a great career opening before Balboa at the very moment when adverse fate was gathering darkly around him. Pedrarias had grown jealous of his daring exploits and the fame that seemed his coming meed, and, cherishing treacherous designs, by a crafty message induced him to return to Acla, his new capital.

On arriving there, Balboa was at once seized by order of the governor, thrown into prison, and put on trial on a charge of disloyalty to the king and an intention to revolt against his superior. The judge was forced to condemn him to death, and the fatal sentence was at once carried into effect, the great discoverer being beheaded on the public square of Acla. Thus, in blood and treachery, ended the career of one of the ablest of the bold adventurers of Spain.


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 foe 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."

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 new 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 thousand 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 Tezcuco 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 marketplace 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.


There is no chapter in all history more crowded with interesting and romantic events than the story of the conquest of Mexico by the Spaniards under Cortez. And of all these records of desperate daring and wonderful success, the most extraordinary is the tale of the Noche Triste, the terrible night-retreat of the Spaniards from the Aztec capital. No one can read this story, and that of the remarkable victory of Otumba which followed it, without feeling that Cortez and his men were warriors worthy of the most warlike age. This oft-told story we shall here again relate.

In a preceding tale we described how Cortez set out from Cuba on his great expedition, with a few hundred soldiers and a small number of cannon, muskets, and horses. It may briefly be stated here that he sought to conquer a warlike and powerful nation with this insignificant force, less than a modern regiment. We might relate how he landed in Mexico; won, with the terror of his horses and guns and the valor of his men, victory in every battle; gained allies among the foes of the Aztecs; made his way into their capital; seized and held prisoner their emperor, Montezuma, and for a time seemed to be full master of the land. We might go on to tell how at length the Mexicans rose in fury, attacked the Spaniards with the courage of desperation, mortally wounded their own emperor, and at length brought the invaders into such terrible straits that they were forced to fight their way out of the city as their last hope of life.

To understand what followed, it must be stated that the city of Mexico lay, not in the open country, but on an island in the centre of a large lake, and that all the roads leading to it passed over narrow causeways of earth across this lake. Each of these causeways was broken at intervals by wide ditches, with bridges crossing them. But the Aztecs had removed these bridges, and thus added immensely to the difficulty of the night-march which the desperate Spaniards were obliged to make.

It was at midnight on the 1st of July, 1520, that Cortez and his men threw open the gates of the palace fortress in which they had long defended themselves against the furious assaults of thousands of daring foes. The night was dark and cloudy, and a drizzling rain was falling. Not an enemy was to be seen, and as they made their way with as little noise as possible along the great street of Tlacopan, all was hushed in silence, Hope rose in their hearts. The tramp of the horses and the rumble of the guns and baggage-wagons passed unheard, and they reached the head of the causeway without waking a sleeping Aztec warrior.

Here was the first break in the causeway, and they had brought with them a bridge to lay across it. But here also were some Indian sentinels, who fled in haste on seeing them, rousing the sleeping city with their cries. The priests on the summit of the great temple pyramid were also on the watch, and when the shouts of alarm reached their ears from below, they sounded their shells and beat their huge drum, which was only heard in times of peril or calamity. Instantly the city broke from its slumber, and as the leading Spaniards crossed the bridge a distant sound was heard, which rapidly approached. Soon from every street and lane poured enemies, flinging stones and arrows into the crowded ranks of the Spaniards as they came. On the lake was heard a splashing sound, as of many oars, and the war-cry of a host of combatants broke on the air. A brief interval had sufficed to change the silence into a frightful uproar of sound and the restful peace into the fast growing tumult of furious battle.

The Spaniards pushed steadily along the causeway, fighting only to drive back the assailants who landed from their canoes and rushed in fury upon the marching ranks. The horsemen spurred over them, riding them down; the men on foot cut them down with their swords, or hurled them backward with the butts of their guns; the Indian allies of the Spaniards attacked them fiercely, and the roar of war spread far through the gloom of the night.

Onward marched the Spaniards, horse and foot; onward creaked and rumbled the artillery and the wagons; and the second canal in the causeway was reached while the rear files were not yet across the first. The Spaniards had made a fatal mistake in bringing with them only one bridge. When the last of the retreating force was across this, a vigorous effort was made to raise it and carry it to the canal in front, but in vain. The weight of men, horses, and cannon had wedged it so firmly in the earth and stones that it could not be moved. Every nerve was strained to lift the heavy mass, until, many of the workmen being killed and all wounded by the torrent of Aztec missiles, they were forced to abandon it.

When the dread tidings that the bridge could not be raised spread through the crowded host, a cry of despair arose that almost drowned the sounds of conflict. All means of retreat were cut off. Before them lay a deep and yawning ditch. Behind them pressed an army of assailants. On each side hundreds of canoes dashed on the causeway, yielding foes who rushed in fury upon their crowded ranks. All hope seemed lost. All discipline was at an end. Every one thought only of saving his own life, without regard to the weak or wounded. The leading files, gathered on the brink of the gulf, were pressed forward by the rear. The horsemen in front dashed into the water and swam across, but some of the horses failed to climb the steep and slippery bank, and rolled back with their mail-clad riders headlong into the lake.

After them pell mell came the infantry, some seeking to swim, others forced into the water to sink to a muddy death; many of them slain by the arrows and war-clubs of the Aztecs; others, wounded or stunned, dragged into the canoes and carried away to be sacrificed to the terrible war-god of the pagan foe. Along the whole length of the causeway, from ditch to ditch, the contest raged fearfully. The Aztecs, satisfied that they had now got their detested foes in their power, fought like demons, grappling with the Christians and rolling with them down the sloping way together; seeking to take their enemies alive that they might be kept for the bloody sacrifice.

With the horrid shouts of the combatants, the cries of vengeance and groans of agony, the prayers to the saints and the blessed Virgin, mingled the screams of women, of whom there were several, both Spaniard and Indian, in the Christian ranks. One of these, Maria de Estrada, fought as valiantly as any of the warriors, battling staunchly with broadsword and target in the thickest of the fray, and proving herself as valiant a soldier as the best.

During this terrible contest, Cortez was not at rest. He was everywhere, ordering, fighting, inspiring, seeking to restore the lost discipline to his ranks. Conscious that all was lost unless the fatal ditch could be crossed, and feeling that life must be considered before wealth, he hurried forward everything, heavy guns, ammunition-wagons, baggage-vans, and hurled them into the water along with the spoil of the Spaniards, bales of costly goods, chests of solid ingots, everything that would serve to fill the fatal gap. With these were mingled bodies of men and horses, drowned in that deadly ditch, the whole forming a terrible pathway across which the survivors stumbled and clambered until they reached the other side.

Cortez, riding forward, found a spot in the ditch that was fordable, and here, with the water up to his saddle-girths, he tried to bring order out of confusion, and called his followers to this path to safety. But his voice was lost in the turmoil, and with a few cavaliers who kept with him, he pressed forward to the van, doubly saddened by seeing his favorite page, Juan de Salazar, struck down in death by his side.

Here he found the valiant Gonzalo de Sandoval, who, with about twenty other cavaliers, had led the van, composed of two hundred Spanish foot-soldiers. They were halted before the third and final breach in the causeway, a ditch as wide and deep as those which had been passed. Fortunately it was not so closely beset by the enemy, who were still engaged with the centre and rear, and the gallant cavaliers plunged without hesitation into the water, followed by the foot, some swimming, some clinging desperately to the manes and tails of the horses, some carried to the bottom by the weight of the fatal gold with which they were heavily laden. On leaving the fortress in which they had so long defended themselves, much of the gold which they had gathered was necessarily abandoned. Cortez told the soldiers to take what they wished of it, but warned them not to overload themselves, saying, "He travels safest in the dark night who travels lightest." Many of those who failed to regard this wise counsel paid for their cupidity with their death.

Those who safely passed this final ditch were at the end of their immediate peril. Soon they were off the causeway and on solid ground, where the roar of the battle came more faintly to their ears. But word came to them that the rear-guard was in imminent danger and would be overwhelmed unless relieved. It seemed an act of desperation to return, but the valiant and warm-hearted cavaliers did not hesitate when this cry for aid was heard. Turning their horses, they galloped back, pushed through the pass, swam the canal again, and rode into the thick of the fight on the opposite section of the causeway.

The night was now passing, and the first gray light of day was visible in the east. By its dim illumination the frightful combat could be seen in all its horrid intensity. Everywhere lay dead bodies of Christian or pagan; the dark masses of the warriors could be seen locked in deadly struggle crowding the blood-stained causeway; while the lake, far and near, was crowded with canoes, filled with armed and ardent Aztec warriors, yelling their triumphant war-cry.

Cortez and his companions found Alvarado, who led the rear, unhorsed and wounded, yet fighting like a hero. His noble steed, which had borne him safely through many a hard fight, had fallen under him. With a handful of followers he was desperately striving to repel the overwhelming tide of the enemy which was pouring on him along the causeway, a dozen of the Indians falling for every Spaniard slain. The artillery had done good work in the early part of the contest, but the fury of the assault had carried the Aztecs up to and over the guns, and only a hand-to-hand conflict remained. The charge of the returning cavaliers created a temporary check, and a feeble rally was made, but the flood of foes soon came on again and drove them resistlessly back.

Cortez and the cavaliers with him were forced to plunge once more into the canal, not all of them this time escaping. Alvarado stood on the brink for a moment, uncertain what to do, death behind him and deadly peril before. He was a man of great strength and agility, and despair now gave him courage. Setting his long lance firmly on the wreck that strewed the bottom, he sprang vigorously forward and cleared the wide gap at a bound, a feat that filled all who saw it with amazement, the natives exclaiming, as they beheld the seemingly impossible leap, "This is truly the Tonatiuh,—the child of the Sun!" This name they had given Alvarado from his fair features and flaxen hair. How great the leap was no one has told us, though the name of "Alvarado's leap" still clings to the spot.

Thus ended the frightful noche triste, or "doleful night." Cortez led the remnant of his men off the causeway, a feeble, wounded, straggling few, faltering from weariness and loss of blood. Fortunately, the Aztecs, attracted by the rich spoil that strewed the ground, did not pursue, or it is doubtful if a man of the Spaniards, in their worn and wounded state, would have survived. How many perished in that night of dread no one knows. A probable estimate is about five hundred Spaniards and four thousand natives, nearly all the rear-guard having fallen. Of forty-six horses, half had been slain. The baggage, the guns, the ammunition, the muskets, and nearly all the treasure were gone. The only arms left the warriors were their swords and a few damaged cross-bows, while their mail was broken, their garments were tattered, their proud crests and banners gone, their bright arms soiled, and only a miserable and shattered fragment of their proud force was left, these dragging themselves along with pain and difficulty.


Day after day passed as the Spaniards and their allies, the Tlascalans,—inveterate enemies of the Aztecs,—slowly moved away from that blood-stained avenue of death, now little molested by their foes, and gradually recovering from their fatigue. On the seventh morning they reached the mountain height which overlooks the plain of Otumba, a point less than thirty miles from the capital. This plain they were obliged to traverse on their way to Tlascala, their chosen place of retreat.

As they looked down on the broad level below them they saw with shrinking hearts why they had not been as yet molested. A mighty host filled the whole valley from side to side, their arms and standards glistening in the sun, their numbers so great that the stoutest heart among the Spaniards viewed them with dismay, and Cortez, daring and hopeful as he was, felt that his last hour had now surely come.

But this stout leader was not the man to give way to despair. There was nothing to do but to cut their way through this vast array or perish in the attempt. To retreat would have been to invite sure destruction. Fortunately, they had rested for two nights and a day, and men and horses had regained much of their old strength. Without hesitation, Cortez prepared for the onset, giving his force as broad a front as possible, and guarding its flanks with his little body of horse, now twenty in all. Then, with a few words of encouragement, in which he told them of the victories they had won, and with orders to his men to thrust, not strike, with their swords, and to the horsemen on no account to lose their lances, and to strike at the faces of the foe, he gave the word to advance.

At first the natives recoiled from the stern and fierce onset, rolling back till they left a wide lane for the passage of their foes. But they quickly rallied and poured on the little band in their midst, until it seemed lost in the overwhelming mass. A terrible fray followed, the Christians, as one writer says, standing "like an islet against which the breakers, roaring and surging, spend their fury in vain." The struggle was one of man to man, the Tlascalans and Spaniards alike fighting with obstinate courage, while the little band of horsemen charged deep into the enemy's ranks, riding over them and cutting them down with thrust and blow, their onset giving fresh spirit to the infantry.

But that so small a force could cut their way through that enormous multitude of armed and valiant enemies seemed impossible. As the minutes lengthened into hours many of the Tlascalans and some of the Spaniards were slain, and not a man among them had escaped wounds. Cortez received a cut on the head, and his horse was hurt so badly that he was forced to dismount and exchange it for a strong animal from the baggage-train. The fight went on thus for several hours, the sun growing hotter as it rose in the sky, and the Christians, weak from their late wounds, gradually losing strength and spirit. The enemy pressed on in ever fresh numbers, forcing the horse back on the foot, and throwing the latter into some disorder. With every minute now the conflict grew more hopeless, and it seemed as if nothing were left but to sell their lives as dearly as possible.

At this critical juncture a happy chance changed the whole fortune of the day. Cortez, gazing with eagle eye around the field in search of some vision of hope, some promise of safety, saw at no great distance in the midst of the throng a splendidly dressed chief, who was borne in a rich litter and surrounded by a gayly attired body of young warriors. A head-dress of beautiful plumes, set in gold and gems, rose above him, and over this again was a short staff bearing a golden net, the standard of the Aztecs.

The instant Cortez beheld this person and his emblem his eye lighted with triumph. He knew him for the commander of the foe, and the golden net as its rallying standard. Turning to the cavaliers beside him, he pointed eagerly to the chief, exclaiming, "There is our mark! Follow me!" Then, shouting his war-cry, he spurred his steed into the thick of the foe. Sandoval, Alvarado, and others spurred furiously after him, while the enemy fell back before this sudden and fierce assault.

On swept the cavaliers, rending through the solid ranks, strewing their path with the dead and dying, bearing down all who opposed them. A few minutes of this furious onset carried them to the elevated spot on which were the Aztec chief and his body-guard. Thrusting and cutting with tiger-like strength and ferocity, Cortez rent a way through the group of young nobles and struck a furious blow at the Indian commander, piercing him with his lance and hurling him to the ground. A young cavalier beside him, Juan de Salamanca, sprang from his horse and despatched the fallen chief. Then he tore away the banner and handed it to Cortez.

All this was the work almost of a moment. Its effect was remarkable. The guard, overwhelmed by the sudden onset, fled in a panic, which was quickly communicated to their comrades. The tidings spread rapidly. The banner of the chief had disappeared. He had been slain. The blindness of panic suddenly infected the whole host, which broke and fled in wild terror and confusion. The Spaniards and Tlascalans were not slow in taking advantage of this new aspect of affairs. Forgetting their wounds and fatigue, they dashed in revengeful fury on the flying foe, cutting them down by hundreds as they fled. Not until they had amply repaid their losses on the bloody causeway did they return to gather up the booty which strewed the field. It was great, for, in accordance with Cortez's instructions, they had struck especially at the chiefs, and many of these were richly ornamented with gold and jewels.

Thus ended the famous battle of Otumba, the most remarkable victory, in view of the great disparity of forces, ever won in the New World. Chance gave the Spaniards victory, but it was a chance made useful only by the genius of a great commander. The following day the fugitive army reached the soil of Tlascala and were safe among their friends. History has not a more heroic story to tell than that of their escape from the Aztec capital, nor a more striking one than that of their subsequent return and conquest.


The great expedition to the land of gold, which Vasco Nunez de Balboa had planned to make, was left by his death to be carried out by one of his companions in the discovery of the South Sea, the renowned Francisco Pizarro. It was an expedition full of romantic adventure, replete with peril and suffering, crowded with bold ventures and daring deeds. But we must pass over all the earlier of these and come at once to the climax of the whole striking enterprise, the story of the seizure of the Inca of Peru in the midst of his army and the tale of his incredible ransom.

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