The aztec treasure house, p.20
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       The Aztec Treasure-House, p.20
 

           Thomas A. Janvier

  XVIII.

  THE STRIKING OF A MATCH.

  As we emerged from the nook in the mountain-side the whole of the valleylay open before us, and never was a more lovely spot beheld by the eyesof man. A half-dozen leagues in front of us rose the great mountain wallwhich shut in its farther side, and about as far away to the right andto the left these walls swept around in vast curves and joined thecliffs through which we had come by the hollow way that tunnelledbeneath them. A noble lake extended nearly the whole length of thevalley, and covered near a third of its width, and so seemed less like alake than like a calm and majestic river. From the water-side the landrose in broad terraces, broken by belts of timber and by many groups ofsmaller trees, which, because of the regularity of their growth, I tookto be fruit plantations. All the open country seemed to be one vastgarden, most carefully tended, and everywhere cut up by little canals,whence water for irrigation was drawn. Scattered everywhere about thevalley were single houses embowered in trees, and from where we stood wecould see also four or five little towns, which also were plentifullyshaded. And on the lake many boats were passing, of which several wereof a considerable size, and were fitted with curiously shaped sails. Andall this exquisite tropical beauty of ample water and luxuriant foliageshone richly beneath the bright splendor of a deep blue tropical sky.

  Yet that which most strongly attracted our attention was not thischarming display of the manifold excellencies of God's handiwork, butrather a wonderful manifestation of the handiwork of man. Over againstus, on the far side of the lake, slantingwise from where we stood, rosea mass of buildings of such vastness and such majestic design that atthe first glance we took it to be one of the square-topped mountainswhich are found not uncommonly in this portion of the world, and aroundthe bases of which are sloping heaps of the fragments of rock whichhave broken away through countless ages from their weather-worn sides.Yet in a moment we perceived that what we saw was a walled city builtupon a great promontory, that jutted out from the mountain-side; and inthe same breath Fray Antonio and I called out together, "It is the cityof Culhuacan!"

  As we uttered this name Tizoc turned towards us quickly, and with astartled, troubled look upon his face. "They are not of our race," hesaid, as though speaking his thoughts aloud; "yet the sacred name, thatamong us only a few know, is known to them!" and the troubled look uponhis face deepened as we went onward.

  The way by which we descended was a narrow road carried zigzag down thecliff--for the pass by which we had entered the valley was fully sixhundred feet above the level of the lake--and at short intervals alongits course this road was defended by walls of very solid masonry,pierced with openings so narrow that only one man at a time could passthrough them. That the walls were for defence was shown by the piles ofmetal bars on the inner side of each opening--the side towards themountain--so arranged that in a moment they could be slipped intosockets in the stone-work, thus closing effectually the way.

  Perceiving that we regarded with surprise this curious system offortification, Tizoc explained: "These are the barriers set up againstthe Tlahuicos, who, heeding not the order given of old by our lordChaltzantzin, have striven many times to break forth from thevalley--for among these men there are many of perverse natures and evilminds."

  In _tlahuico_ I recognized a Nahua word that means "men turned towardsthe earth," but what its meaning might be in the sense in which Tizocemployed it I did not know. I should have asked for furtherexplanation--for the manner of this man was so frank and so friendlythat it invited a cordial familiarity--but as I was about to speak wepassed through the narrow opening in a wall of unusual height andstrength, and so came into a charming garden, in the midst of whichstood a large house well built of stone. For the making of this garden anatural nook on the side of the mountain had been enlarged by filling inalong its outer edge against a great retaining-wall, built up from adepth of a hundred feet from the slope below; and on the farther side ofthe plateau thus created, where the path down into the valley went onagain, were heavy defensive walls. Near this exit, also, was a long lowbuilding that I took to be a guard-house.

  The crowd that had followed behind us from the height above went onacross the plateau, and out through the gate beside the guard-house--itsmembers casting many curious looks at us as they departed--and theguardsmen who had formed our escort, at an order from Tizoc, went on totheir quarters. But Tizoc led us across the garden to the large housethat stood in the midst of it, and there, with a formal courtesy, badeus enter. This was his home, he said, and we were his welcome guests.

  The house was so like the houses ordinarily found in Mexico that we hadno feeling of strangeness in entering it. It was built of stone neatlylaid in cement; was but a single story in height, and enclosed a largecentral court, in the midst of which a fountain sparkled, surrounded bysmall trees and shrubs and beds of flowers. All of the rooms opened uponthis central court, and in the outer wall the only opening was thenarrow way by which we had entered--for the prompt closing of whichthere lay in readiness a pile of metal bars. The flat roof, also ofstone, was reached by a stone stair-way from the court, and had about ita heavy stone parapet that was pierced with narrow slits through whichjavelins and arrows could be discharged. But these arrangements fordefence did not by any means produce a gloomy effect, as they would hadwe encountered them in a country-house in our own part of the world--forsimilar defence arrangements are found in every hacienda in Mexico atthe present day, and even I, though my stay in the country had been soshort, already had become accustomed to them.

  A buzzing chatter of talk, in which women's voices predominated, ceasedsuddenly as we entered the court; and from the swaying and twitching ofthe curtains hanging in the front of the openings leading into severalof the rooms, we inferred that we were undergoing a keen inspection. Inresponse to a call from Tizoc, some men-servants came out from one ofthe rooms and received his order to prepare food for us; and he then ledus to a large room in a corner of the court that was arranged verydelightfully as a bath. Here was a great stone tank, twenty feet or sosquare, and with a slanting bottom, so that the depth of it ranged fromtwo feet to nearly five, in which was fresh running water; and over theportion of the room that the tank occupied there was no roof but thebright blue sky. On the stone floor were beautifully woven mats, andtowels of cotton cloth hung upon pegs driven into the walls, and inearthen bowls were fresh pieces of a saponaceous root that I have seenthe like of in use among the Indians of New Mexico. It seemed to strikeTizoc as odd that we preferred to make use of the bath successivelyrather than all together; but he was too polite a man to interpose anyobjections to our eccentricities. Pablo only--coming last of all ofus--had a companion in his bathing in the person of El Sabio; and thesleekness of that excellent animal, when Pablo had brushed carefully hislong coat when his bath was ended, was a wonder to behold.

  Being thus refreshed, we heartily welcomed the excellent meal that wasserved to us in the cool shade of the veranda by which the court-yardwas surrounded. Our eating was somewhat in the Roman fashion, for thetable was a broad slab of stone, raised but a little from the ground,and around it we reclined upon mats, with cushions woven of rushes tolean upon. The food was excellent--a small animal of the deer species,but no larger than a hare, roasted whole; birds very like quails,delicately broiled; little cakes made of maize, which were rather likethe hoe-cakes of our Southern negroes than _tortillas_; some sort ofsweet marmalade; and a great abundance of oranges, mangoes, bananas, andother fruits common to the hot lands of Mexico; all of which fruitswere much more delicate in flavor than Mexican fruits usually are; theresult, as we found later, of the great care bestowed upon theirculture. Only water was served with the meal, but at the end of it asmall jar of some sort of potent liquor was brought, very cool, and withan excellent spicy taste, that Tizoc warned us must be taken butsparingly; and truly he was right, as I found from the warm and mellowfeeling of benevolent friendliness that but half a cup of it infusedinto me. Tizoc himself did not follow very
rigidly the advice that hehad given us; and to this fact, probably, was due the exceedingfrankness with which he subsequently spoke with us concerning gravematters, of which he surely would have been reticent had he been in aless genial mood.

  "Just ask th' Colonel if he minds my smokin' a pipe, won't you,Professor?" Young said, when our meal was ended; and as I myself wantedto smoke, and as I was sure that Rayburn did also, I made the requestgeneral. Tizoc, to my surprise--for I believed smoking to be common toall the indigenous races--evidently did not at all understand mymeaning; but perceiving that I asked to have some favor granted, hecourteously gave the permission that I desired. As we filled our pipeshe watched us curiously; but when we drew out our matches and struckfire by what seemed to him but the turn of our hands, he started to hisfeet and manifested a strange excitement, in which there seemed to beless of alarm than of awe. His voice shook, and his whole persontrembled, as he asked, "Are ye the children of Chac-Mool, the God ofFire, and therefore the chosen servants of Huitzilopochtli theTerrible, that ye thus can do what among us is done only by our PriestCaptain Itzacoatl?"

  THE STRIKING OF A MATCH]

  Both Fray Antonio and I heard with delight this utterance, that in amoment settled the long-disputed question as to whether or not Chac-Moolwas an idol, and settled it, also, in favor of the ingenious hypothesispresented by the learned Senor Chavero. The moment was not a favorableone, however, for pursuing the matter in its archaeological bearings, forall of our tact and skill just then were required to restore Tizoc tocalmness. As well as this was possible in the language common to us--wesuddenly realized how difficult it was to express in the Nahua tonguemore than rudimentary concepts of the ideas that we sought to convey--weexplained to him how matches were made; and illustrated our words byshowing him how fire was induced by friction, even as the rubbing of twopieces of wood together produced fire also. This explanation was lessexact than ingenious; but it was one that he could understand, and ithad the effect of allaying his alarm sufficiently to permit him toresume his seat, when he at once drank off a whole bowlful of thestrong, spicy liquor at a draught. Added to what he already had insideof him, this draught set his tongue to wagging in the free way that Ihave already referred to, and he grew bold enough to take a match in hishand. But even in his cups he manifested a certain reverence in hishandling of it; and presently, from a little bag that was hung about hisneck, he produced the burnt remnant of a match that he compared with itcritically. "They are the same?" he asked, as he extended the wholematch and the fragment together towards us that we might examine them.

  "They are the same," Fray Antonio answered. "Whence comes the one thatyou guard so carefully?"

  "From the Priest Captain--from Itzacoatl. With such things does hemiraculously set burning the fire of sacrifice; but he does not speak ofthem lightly, as you do; he tells us that they are the handiwork of theFire God, Chac-Mool; and when the fire of sacrifice is kindled he giveswhat remains of them as high rewards to those who have served well theState by brave acts or honorable deeds. This which I cherish was myreward for crushing a revolt among the Tlahuicos."

  Fray Antonio and I exchanged curious glances, for the conviction wasforced upon us both that the Priest Captain of whom Tizoc spoke musteither have invented friction matches, or that he must have some secretchannel of communication with the outside world. In either case it wasevident that he must be a man of unusual shrewdness; and it also wasevident that his feeling towards us--since we also could perform amiracle that he obviously made use of as a means of manifesting hisdivine right to rule--must be that of strong hostility.

  To Rayburn and Young, who had observed wonderingly Tizoc's extraordinaryconduct, I rapidly translated what he had said; and explained howserious our situation appeared in the light of this new development.

  "Well, it certainly _is_ cold weather for this Priest Captain fellow,"Young commented, "if we've got hold of his boss miracle; and I guessyou're about right, Professor--he'll want t' take it out of our hides.Just poke up th' Colonel t' telling all he knows about this old dodger.Th' Colonel's got his tongue pretty well greased just now with his ownprime old Bourbon--pass me that jar, Rayburn, I don't mind if I haveanother whack at it myself--and we may get something out of him thatwill be useful. Try it on, Professor, any way. Here's luck, gentlemen."

  That Young's tongue also was a little greased, as he put it, by thisvery agreeable beverage was quite evident; but his wits were sharpenedrather than dulled by the drink, and his present suggestion evidentlywas a very good one. As for Tizoc, his disposition towards us obviouslywas most soft and friendly; and as his mind slowly absorbed the factthat, somehow or another, the Priest Captain had made a fool of him witha miracle that was not really a miracle at all, his choler rose in amanner most favorable to our purposes. Yet this very feeling ofresentful anger--showing a growing irreverence of one to whom all thetraditions of his people gave reverence second only to that due to thegods themselves--was startling evidence of the menace that our presencewas to the theocratic ruler's temporal and spiritual power. Therefore itwas with a keen curiosity that we listened--and Tizoc needed, to inducehim to talk freely, but little of the poking-up that Young hadsuggested--to what was told us concerning the strange people among whomwe had come by ways so perilous, and of their chieftain, the PriestCaptain Itzacoatl--with whom, as no spirit of prophecy was needed totell us, we were destined soon to engage in a conflict that must befought out to the very death.

 
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