The aztec treasure house, p.14
The Aztec Treasure-House,
IN THE VALLEY OF DEATH.
As the raft approached the western shore of the lake we perceivedbeneath us no longer houses, but large walled enclosures which plainlyhad been gardens of pleasure--for gaunt trees, symmetrically planted ingroves and beside stone-paved path-ways, yet stood in them; and seats ofcarved stone were placed in what once had been shaded nooks; and in manyof the gardens were carved stone fountains of elegant design. Betweenthe city and what once had been its charming suburb extended a broadpaved way, like that which we had found upon the eastern shore; and thispaved way was continued on the dry ground above the present level of thelake towards the cliffs westward. On the high western shore were a fewhouses, large and handsome, and having walled gardens around them,which evidently had belonged to persons of great wealth and consequence.
In these we found shadowy remnants of a past magnificence. On many ofthe walls were hangings, once rich and heavy, that now were mere filmsof ghostly stuff held together by the many gold threads which had beenwoven into their fabric. Pottery, wrought into beautiful shapes, yetornamented with designs that told of but half-redeemed barbarism, wasscattered about everywhere, and scarcely a piece was broken. Some veryhandsome weapons we found also--swords and spears and knives--of thesame curious metal as the sword which Pablo so opportunely had laidhands upon in the canon, but far more finely finished and more delicatein design. And of this same metal was made a great throne, as it seemedto us to be, that was in the largest room of the finest of all thehouses; a house that we believed was once the pleasure palace of theking. The audience-chamber in which this throne stood was of finelywrought stone-work, whereof the whole surface was covered withlow-reliefs of men and animals--scenes of battle, of council, and of thechase--surrounded by curious tracery of such orderly design that FrayAntonio agreed with me in the belief that it was some sort ofhieroglyphic writing. But this matter is treated of so fully in my_Pre-Columbian Conditions on the Continent of North America_ that I neednot enter upon discussion of it here.
But in none of these houses, much to the disappointment of Rayburn andYoung, did we find any scrap of the treasure for which they soearnestly longed. And, truly, if treasure remained in this wrecked city,it was less likely to be in these outlying country houses than in somestrong building in the city's heart; and so beyond their reach in thedepths of the lake. If this were indeed the walled city for which wewere searching--as well it might be, for never was a city surrounded bygrander walls than the mighty cliffs wherewith the valley wasencompassed--our search was like to be a vain one so far as meretreasure was concerned; though I, for my part, felt myself well repaidfor all that I had thus far suffered by the discovery of so much thatwas of archaeological value. In this purer pleasure Fray Antonio shared;yet was he also dissatisfied--for he had come with us that he mightpreach Christianity to living souls: and here were only the bones ofcountless dead.
The paved way still led westward, and we followed it--for to thewestward must be the valley's outlet. As it rose to a higher level theway widened; and on each side of it was a stone statue of the godChac-Mool. As we came to these statues Young proceeded, in a mostbusiness-like way, and with no apparent appreciation of the queer figurethat he cut, to sit down in turn on each of their heads. And he wasmightily disappointed when he found that neither of them stirred."They're not th' tippin' kind," he said, ruefully, as he got down fromthe head of the second one and looked at it with an expression ofreproach.
But his countenance brightened, when we had gone a little farther, as hecaught sight of another and much larger statue of the god that was setin a great niche cut in the cliff at the end of the paved way. Toprepare here the god's abiding-place very arduous labor had beenundertaken. For a space fully one hundred feet high and as many broadthe whole face of the cliff had been quarried into; making a deep recessthat was rounded above, and that from beneath was approached by a longflight of steps cut from the solid rock. In the centre of the recess,upon the terraced space above the stairs, was a huge squared mass ofstone, on which the great stone figure of Chac-Mool rested. The openingfaced directly eastward, and as we approached it the stone figure wasseen but indistinctly in the duskiness of the recess, over which, andfar beyond which into the valley, fell the shadow of the mighty cliff.From in front of this great altar all the valley was open to us; andhence, before the lake swallowed it, every part of the city must havebeen clearly visible in ancient times. As we mounted the steps andapproached the idol I observed that Pablo hung back a little; as thoughin the depths of his nature some chord had been touched, some ancientinstinct in his blood aroused, that filled his soul with awe.
Certainly there was no suggestion of awe in Young's demeanor towards thestatue. With a monkey-like quickness, that I would not have given hisstout legs and heavy body credit for, he climbed upon the altar andplumped himself down on the head of the figure almost in a moment. Butagain he was disappointed, for the idol did not stir. As we examined itclosely we perceived that its fixedness was not unreasonable; for thefigure, and the altar on which it rested, were one solid mass of rockthat itself was a part of the cliff--left standing here when the nichearound it was hollowed out. A very prodigious piece of stone-cutting allthis was, and as I contemplated it I was filled with admiration of theskill of them who had achieved it. But Young came down from the idolmoodily; and he said that the way these people had of playing tricks ontravellers, by making Mullinses that didn't tip when they ought to tip,was quite of a piece with their putting their treasure where it couldn'tbe got at without a diving-bell.
Behind the altar the niche was cut into the cliff so far that the depthsof it in the waning daylight were dusky with heavy shadows; indeed, sodense were these that Young came near to breaking his bones by fallinginto a little hole in the floor, that was the less easily seen becauseit was hidden behind a jutting mass of rock. But he caught the rock intime to save himself from falling, and eagerly struck a wax-match thathe might see if here were a passage-way for us. Descending into the rockwas a stair-way, the steps whereof were smoothed as though many feet hadtrodden them; and down these steps he promptly went, holding the lightedmatch before him--these Mexican wax-matches are as good as tapers--andhaving with him the full box of matches should further light berequired. A minute later we heard his voice calling to us, but where itcame from we could not tell--for he had descended into the rock belowus, and the sound that we heard seemed to come from the air above.While we listened we saw the gleam of the light in the darkness below,and then he came up the stair laughing.
"Well, that's just th' boss trick," he said. "I guess th' old priestswho used t' run this place would be everlastin'ly down on me if theyknew that I'd tumbled to it. There's a hole right up into th' idol an'room inside of him for half a dozen men, an' there's a crack in his headthat you can see out through while you're lettin' off prophecies an'that sort o' thing. Why, if you had a crowd t' work with who reallybelieved in Jack Mullins, you could set 'em up for almost anything witha rig like that!"
But this curious discovery, in which Fray Antonio and I were deeplyinterested, did not forward our immediate purpose, which was to find away out of the valley. We still cherished a faint hope, indeed, that wemight find the King's symbol with the arrow pointing the way onward, andso be assured that the city buried in the depths of the lake was not thecity of which we were in search. But in any event the need for gettingout of the valley pressed upon us; and that we might accomplish ourdeliverance from this shut-in place, we examined closely the wholecircuit of the cliffs at the western end. Not an inch of this greatexpanse of rock, for as far up the wall as our eyes could see clearly,escaped our attentive observation; yet nowhere was there, even by boldclimbing, a place where the cliff might be scaled, still less an openpath. And so, having walked slowly along the bottom of the cliffs tothe edge of the lake on the north, and there turned upon our steps andcome slowly back again to where we started from, and having made a likedouble journey of inspection to and from the edge of the l
One discovery we had made in the course of our explorations whichenabled us to understand how the fate that had overtaken the drownedcity had fallen upon it. Close by the northern border of the valley wesaw, high up above us, a vast rift more than a thousand feet wide in theface of the cliff; and below this the ground was torn into a deep wildchannel, and everywhere huge fragments of rock were scattered over theground. Here it was, then, that the water had poured in--bursting forthfrom a lake above--by which the city at one stroke had been overwhelmed.Some little notice, by the mighty roaring that must have accompanied sogreat a crash of rocks and so vast a rush of water, the dwellers in thecity must have had; and the gleam of the pouring waters would have shownthem the nature of the ruin that was upon them. There would have beentime, before the water was waist-deep in the city streets, for them tomake their way to the high mound on which their temple stood; and in theappalling horror of it all they might have clamored to their prieststhat a victim should be sacrificed to stay this terrible outburst ofanger on the part of their gods. But it was more than likely that beforethe sacrifice could be completed they all--people, priests, and he whowas to be sacrificed--perished together beneath the flood.
"Why," said Young, "th' Mill River disaster wasn't anything to it, an'that was pretty bad. I was runnin' th' way-freight on th' Old Colonyroad when that happened, an' I took a day off an' went up an' had a lookat it. But this just lays that little horror out cold. It's as big aslettin' loose on Boston the whole of Massachusetts Bay."
That we should be prisoners in a place where death had wrought soswiftly such tremendous havoc was quite enough to fill our souls with abrooding melancholy. But in addition to the sombre thoughts which thuswere forced upon us, bred of sorrow for the thousands who had hereuntimely perished, the gloomy dread of a more practical sort assailed usthat we also in a little while would join the silent company of thethousands who had died here in a long past time. And the death thatseemed to be in store for us was less merciful than that which had cometo them. Theirs had been a short struggle, and then a gentle ending asthe waters closed over them. But our ending was like to be a lingeringone and miserable--by starvation.
With the loss of our mules and horses we had been compelled to leavebehind us the greater portion of our stores; and for our protectionagainst savages, and in the belief that in the mountains we should meetwith an abundance of game, we had left almost all of our provisions, andmade our lading mainly of ammunition and arms. But in this valley, sosmiling and so beautiful, there was no live thing except ourselves. Nota beast, not a bird had we seen since we entered it; and in the lake, aswe found presently, there were no fish; the only sign that animal lifeever had existed here was that dried and withered remnant of a womanthat we had found in the deserted house, and the bones which we had seengleaming below us in the lake. This was, in truth, as we came thus tocall it, the Valley of Death.
While we worked at building the raft we had not thought to be sparing inour eating--for building that raft was hungry work--and now thatconsideration of the matter was forced upon us, we found that we hadwith us food barely sufficient for three days. We could, of course, eatEl Sabio--though such was our feeling towards that excellent animal thateating him would be almost like eating one of ourselves; and Pablo, weknew, would regard eating this dear friend of his as neither more norless than sheer cannibalism. And even if we did eat El Sabio, the meatof his little body would but prolong our lives for a week, or possiblyfor two weeks more. And what then?
Had there been room in our souls for yet more sorrow, we could have hadit in the thought that in all that we had set out to do we hadcompletely failed. If this Valley of Death were indeed the place that wehad been seeking, little good came to us from finding it. Of the soulswhich Fray Antonio had come forth to save, here there were none. Ofarchaeological discovery, truly, I had something to make me glad; yetlittle compared to what was hidden beneath the waters; and even thislittle, since knowledge of what I had found soon must die with me, wasof no avail. As for Rayburn and Young, the treasure which they soughtmight or might not be near at hand; but they certainly could no morecome at it than, were it heaped up before them, they could carry itaway. And most of all was my heart troubled by the fate that was like toovertake Pablo because of his love for me. Bitterly I blamed myself forpermitting the boy to come with me; for I should have foreseen that ahundred chances might intervene to render impossible my intention togive him his free choice to go or to stay when the decisiveturning-point in our adventure came. In point of fact, one of thesechances had intervened; and the attack upon us that the Indians hadmade, and the closing of the passage in the rock behind us that renderedreturn impossible, had forced him to remain with us without voice of hisown in the matter; and now would bring him, as it would bring the restof us, to the most horrible death of which a man can die.
Night was falling as we ended our search along the cliffs for a way ofescape, and found none, and so came again in front of the greatidol--where our packs had been left heaped up, and where the Wise One,happily unmindful of the fate that might soon be in store for him, wasenergetically cropping the rich grass. We built a fire, for the air inthat deep valley, mingling with the mists rising from the lake, was dampand chill; and beside the fire we made our evening meal. There was nogood in talking about what was so apparent to all of us; but Young, whowas our cook, showed his appreciation of the situation practically byserving only half rations and by making our coffee very thin and poor.
Silently we ate our short allowance of food; and thereafter we smokedour pipes with but little talk for seasoning, and that little of amelancholy sort. Of our own plight we did not speak at all, but in whatwe said there was constantly a reflection of the bitter sorrow withwhich all our hearts were charged. I remember that Young, who truly wasas merry a man naturally as ever I knew, told us that night only ofdreadful railroad accidents--of wrecks in which men lay crushed amongthe heaped-up cars, shrieking with the agony of their hurts; and thenshrieking with dread, and with yet greater pain as the fire that seizedupon the ruin around them came nearer and nearer until they fairly wereroasted alive. And Rayburn told of a prospecting party besieged byIndians upon a mountain peak in Colorado; how, one by one, they slowlydied in a raving horror of thirst until one man alone was left; and howthis one man prolonged his life until rescue came by drinking the bloodof his own body, and yet died in raging madness almost at the momentthat he was saved.
For myself, I had nothing to add to these horrors; yet such was my frameof mind that I found a certain bitter gladness in listening to thetelling of them, and in tracing between them and our own case theghastly parallel. In our talk, which wont on in English, Fray Antoniotook no part; but he could follow well enough the meaning of it in ourtones. On his face was an expression of tender melancholy that seemed tome to tell of sorrow for us rather than of dread of what might be instore for himself; and that this truly was his mood was shown when theothers paused, sated and appalled by the horrors which they had conjuredup, and he spoke at last.
It was not a sermon that Fray Antonio gave us; but out of the abundantstore of faith by which he himself was sustained he strove to comfort uswith thoughts of better things than life can give. And with the promiseof hope that he held out to us with the solemn authority that was vestedin him by reason of the service to which he was vowed, he mingled acertain yearning for us, very moving, that came of the love and thetender gentleness that were in his own heart. And yet, though he knewthat, excepting Pablo, we all were heretics according to his own creed,there was no word of doctrine in all of his discourse. Rather was whathe said a simple setting forth of that primitive Christianity which hasits beginning and its ending in a simple faith in an all-pervading,all-protecting love. And of this love, as it seemed to me, he himselfwas the human embodiment. Looking in his gentle face, which yet had suchhigh courage, such noble resolution in it,
With our souls soothed and strengthened by what Fray Antonio had spokento us, we lay down at last to sleep; yet was it impossible for us todrive out from our hearts that natural sadness which men must feel whoknow that they have failed in a strong effort to accomplish a projectvery dear to them, and who know also that they are standing upon thevery threshold of a most tormenting death.
The Aztec Treasure-House by Thomas A. Janvier / History & Fiction have rating 3.3 out of 5 / Based on20 votes