The aztec treasure house, p.24
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       The Aztec Treasure-House, p.24

           Thomas A. Janvier



  So dismal was this sound, and so many were the dismal possibilities thatit suggested, that as I heard it a cold chill went down into my heart;and I was glad enough that we at once were led forth from theguard-room, and that in consideration of matters of immediate moment mymind was diverted from dwelling drearily upon a future that seemed fullof gloom.

  For all the brilliant blaze of sunlight that brightened the largecourt-yard into which we were conducted, there was about it curiouscoldness and cheerlessness. As in the case of all the other houses whichwe had observed, the stone-work of the walls and of the pavement was adull black; but here there were no flowers, nor bright-colored hangingsover the inner doors, nor brightness of any sort or kind. The carving ofthe stone was extraordinarily rich, to be sure; but the bass-reliefswhich covered the walls were wholly of a gloomy sort--being for the mostpart representations of the slaughter of men in sacrifice, and thetearing of hearts out--so that the eight of them made me shiver,notwithstanding the warmth of the sun. From the centre of the court-yarda broad stair-way ascended to the plateau above on which the templestood; and this direct way of communicating with it led me to theconclusion that the building was a dependency of the temple, and thatvery likely the higher members of the priesthood were housed here.

  However, little time was given for looking around us, for our guardhurried us--El Sabio following close at Pablo's heels--across thecourt-yard to a door-way at its farther side, before which hung in heavyfolds a curtain of some sort of thick black cloth. Across this entrancethe guard was drawn up in orderly ranks behind us; and then thebarge-master, who had preserved absolute silence towards us since ourmarch through the city began, held aside the curtain and silentlymotioned to us to enter.

  From the bright sunshine we passed at a step into a chamber so shadowythat we involuntarily stopped on the threshold, in order that our eyesmight become accustomed to the semi-darkness before we advanced. Theonly light that entered it came through two narrow slits in the thickwall above the portal that we had just passed; and the glimmer diffusedby the thin rays thus admitted was in great part absorbed by the blackdraperies with which everywhere the room was hung. As our eyes adjustedthemselves to these gloomy conditions we perceived that we were in ahall of great size; and presently we were able to distinguish objectsclearly enough to see that at the far end of it was a raised dais,having a sort of throne upon it; but not until, being urged forward bythe officer, we had traversed more than half the length of the hall didwe discern upon the throne the shadowy figure of a man.

  Being come close to the dais, the officer halted us by a gesture; but noword was spoken, and for several minutes we stood in the semi-darknessof that strange place in absolute silence. For myself, I must confessthat I was somewhat awed by my surroundings, and by the impassivesilence and stillness that the dimly seen figure upon the thronemaintained, and I am sure that Fray Antonio's imaginative nature wassimilarly impressed; as for Pablo, I distinctly heard his teethchattering in the dark. But neither Rayburn nor Young, as the latterwould have expressed it, awed easily, and it was Rayburn who presentlyspoke.

  "This fellow in the big chair would be a good hand at privatetheatricals. He's got a first-rate notion of stage effect. Hadn't Ibetter stick a pin in him and wake him up?"

  "There's no good in stickin' pins into _him_," said Young, in a tone ofgreat contempt. "What's the matter with him is, he's not real atall--he's stuffed!"

  There was something so absurdly incongruous in these comments that theyacted instantly upon my overstrained nerves, and I burst into a laugh,in which the other two immediately joined. Evidently, this was not atall the effect that this carefully arranged reception was intended tohave upon us; for the seated figure started suddenly and uttered anangry exclamation, and at the same time gave a quick order to theofficer.

  "I take it all back," said Young; "he ain't stuffed. I guess he was onlyasleep."

  As Young spoke there was a slight rustle of draperies, and in a momentthe curtains which had veiled four great windows in the four sides ofthe hall were pulled aside, and the darkness vanished in a sudden blazeof light. While we shaded our eyes for some seconds, Rayburn said, withgreat decision: "This settles it. He must have been in the show businessall his life."

  But the man whom we now saw clearly did not look like a showman. He wasa very old man, lean and shrivelled; his brown skin so wrinkled that hisface looked like some sort of curiously withered nut. Yet there was awonderful sinewiness about him, and a most extraordinary brightness inhis eyes. His face was of the strong, heavy type that is found in thefigures carved on the ruins in Yucatan; a much stronger type than I haveobserved anywhere among the Mexican Indians of the present day. Hisdress was a long, flowing robe of white cotton cloth, caught over hisleft shoulder with a broad gold clasp, and richly embroidered withshining green feathers; and shining green feathers were bound into hishair and rose above his head in a tall plume. His sandal-moccasins (forthe covering of his feet was between these two) repeated the sacredcombination of colors, green and white; and on his breast, falling fromhis neck, were several richly wrought gold chains. Even apart from hisstately surroundings, his dress--and especially the shining greenfeathers which were so conspicuous a part of it--would have informed methat this man was a priest of very exalted rank; and the conditions ofour presentation to him assured me that he was none other than thePriest Captain, Itzacoatl. And I may add that if ever a high dignitaryof a heathen religion was in a rage, Itzacoatl was in a rage at thatparticular moment. Young's comment lacked reverence, but it was to thepoint: "Well, he _has_ got his back up, for sure!"

  With an alertness that was astonishing in one of his years, Itzacoatlrose quietly from the throne; and as he pointed to us with a commandinggesture, he asked, sharply, why we had been allowed to retain our arms,and ordered them to be taken away from us; which order troubled usgreatly, and also occasioned us a very lively surprise. As for thebarge-master, he evidently was vastly puzzled by it; for, according tohis notions, we were not armed. He did not venture to reply, but hisuncertainty was to the duty that was expected of him was apparent in hishopeless look of entire bewilderment. It seemed to me that for a momentthe Priest Captain was slightly confused, as though he recognized theincongruity between his own knowledge in this matter and his officer'signorance; and in explaining his order he took occasion to refer to thesuperior knowledge with which he was endowed by the gods. Fray Antonioand I glanced at each other doubtingly as he spoke, for this explanationstruck us as being decidedly forced. The gods of the ancient Mexicanspre-eminently were war gods; but they certainly were not likely to haveany very extended knowledge of Winchester rifles and self-cockingrevolvers.

  However, when the officer comprehended what was required of him, he wasprompt enough in his actions. Without any ceremony at all he laid handson Young's rifle, that was hanging by its strap on his shoulder, andendeavored to take it away from him. This was a line of action that theLost-freight Agent by no means was inclined to submit to. Without anyassistance he unslung the rifle, cocked it as he jumped back half adozen steps, and then raised it to his shoulder, with his finger on thetrigger and the muzzle fairly levelled at the officer's heart. "Shall Idown him?" he asked.

  "Don't shoot!" Rayburn cried, quickly; and in obedience to this orderYoung slowly dropped the rifle from his shoulder, yet held it ready foraction in his hands. The perfect calmness of the officer through thisexciting episode afforded the most convincing proof that fire-arms werewholly unknown to him. And the conduct of the Priest Captain affordedequally convincing proof that he not only understood the nature offire-arms, but that he was very much afraid of them; for, at the momentthat Young made his offensive demonstration, he very precipitatelysheltered himself by crouching behind the throne.

  "Don't shoot!" Rayburn repeated. "We may have a chance to pull throughif we don't rile these follows; but if we go killing any of them nowit's all day with us, for sure. We'd better l
et 'em have our guns; butthere's something mighty odd in their having found out all of a suddenwhat a gun is."

  Very reluctantly Young surrendered his rifle to the officer, who lookedat it contemptuously, as though he considered it but a poor sort ofweapon in case real fighting was to be done. In turn, the rest of usgave up our rifles also; and we were mightily pleased because theofficer did not attempt to take our revolvers away from us. But in thisour satisfaction was short-lived, for the Priest Captain quickly orderedthe officer to relieve us of them, and of our cartridge-belts as well;nor was it until we had been thus entirely disarmed that he arose fromhis undignified position and resumed his seat upon the throne.

  While the disagreeable process of disarming us was going on I spoke toFray Antonio of the curious possibilities suggested by the knowledge offire-arms which the Priest Captain, alone among all the Aztlanecas, soobviously possessed; and he, in reply, bade me remember what Tizoc hadtold us of the use that Itzacoatl made of wax-matches in lighting thesacred fire. "Can it possibly be, then, that he is in communication withthe outside world?" I exclaimed.

  As I uttered these words I glanced at Itzacoatl, and the expression onhis face was that of one who listens intently, and who is greatlyenraged by what he hears. At the same moment Rayburn cried: "That manunderstands Spanish. He is listening to you."

  Doubtless, some sort of an explanation would have followed this strangediscovery, for that we had made it was very obvious, but at that momenta man--seemingly, from his dress, a priest of high rank--came into thehall hurriedly, and very earnestly delivered a communication toItzacoatl in low, excited tones. That the substance of thiscommunication was highly disagreeable to him was shown by his manner ofreceiving it; and for a moment he slightly hesitated, as though verygrave consequences might attend upon the decision that he then made. Butit was for a moment only that he stood in doubt. Then he called thebarge-master to him, and gave some order in a low voice; and then,accompanied by the priest, went out rapidly from the hall.

  Evidently in obedience to the order that he had received, thebarge-master bade us follow him, and so led us into the court-yardagain. Young proposed, since we had only this one man to deal with, thatwe should make short work of him, and so get back our arms--whichremained where he had placed them in a pile beside the throne. ButRayburn's more prudent counsel overcame this tempting proposition. As hepointed out, the promptness with which the curtains had been pulled backshowed that attendants of some sort were close at hand; and, in additionto these, we knew that the guard of soldiers was just outside of theentrance to the hall. It was certain, therefore, that we could notregain our arms without immediately using them in very active fighting;and no matter how well we fought, under these conditions we mustcertainly be defeated in the end. All of which was so just and soreasonable that Young could not in anywise gainsay its propriety; but hewas in a very ill humor at being restrained from the pleasure of havingit out with them, as he grumblingly declared; and as we passed out intothe court-yard he relieved his mind by swearing most vigorously.

  For my part, even the peril that we were in did not suffice to distractmy mind from curious consideration of the strange state of affairs thatexisted among the folk dwelling in this hidden valley if our surmise inregard to the Priest Captain's knowledge of the outer matches, hisacquaintance with fire-arms, and his knowledge of the Spanish tongue.The implication was unavoidable that this extraordinary man actually hada more or less complete knowledge of the powers and appliances of thenineteenth century, and that he was using his nineteenth centuryknowledge to maintain his supremacy over a people whose civilization wasabout on a par with that of European communities of a thousand yearsago. From the stand-point of the ethnologist, a more interestingsituation than the one time developed could not possibly be devised.What I most longed for was the establishment of such friendly relationswith Itzacoatl that I could carry out a systematized series ofscientific investigations among the Aztlanecas before the impendingcrash of discovery came; and my keenest regret at that moment was causedby the conviction that the incapacity of Itzacoatl to understand thevalue of scientific inquiry into such curious ethnologic facts wouldresult in his mere vulgar killing of me, whereby a precious store ofknowledge would be withheld from the world at large.

  As we came out into the court-yard we heard the sound of voices, whichseemed to be raised in angry altercation, coming from the direction ofthe main entrance, with which there was also a slight clinking sound asof arms being got in readiness; and, much farther away, the soundseemingly coming from distant quarter of the city, the tapping of adrum. When we first had crossed the court-yard it had been entirelydeserted; but now many priests and soldiers were standing in groupsabout it, and more were coming down the stair from the temple; and allof these men had a look of eager alertness, as though some decisiveevent were imminent in which they expected to have a part. But we hadonly a moment in which to observe all this, for we were hurried awaytowards the corner of the building that was most remote from the street,and here, before I well could understand what was being done with me, Iwas thrust so suddenly and so violently through a narrow door-way that Ifell heavily upon the floor. Before I could regain my feet Young hadtumbled down on top of me, and then the others tumbled on top of usboth--they having been in the same rude fashion injected into theapartment; and while we thus were lying in a heap together--my own body,being undermost, having the breath wellnigh squeezed out of it--we heardthe rattle of metal upon stone as the door-way was quickly closed withheavy bars.

  We struggled to our feet in wellnigh total darkness--for outside thebars a curtain had been dropped that shut off almost wholly the light ofday--and I am confident that no one room ever contained two angrierpeople than Rayburn and Young were then; for their very strength andhardihood made them the more ragingly resent being thus tumbled about asthough they were bales or boxes rather than men. Rayburn's language wasnot open to the charge of weakness; but the words in which Young gavevent to his feelings were so startlingly vigorous that even a Wyomingcow-boy would have been surprised by them; yet I must confess that atthe moment--so greatly was my own anger aroused--I thought hisobservations exceedingly appropriate to the occasion that called themforth, and I even was disposed to envy him the command of a technicalvocabulary that enabled him to express so adequately his righteouswrath. However, I was for once well pleased that Fray Antonio did notunderstand English.

  But our anger quickly was swallowed up in anxious grief as wediscovered, when our eyes had become somewhat accustomed to the veryfaint light, that only we four were in the room together; and a greatdread fell upon us because of the imminent peril to Pablo which thisseparation of him from the rest of us implied. Assuredly there wasstrong reason why he should be an especial object of Itzacoatl's fearand hatred. He and El Sabio together were the visible sign which toldthat the prophecy touching the Priest Captain's downfall was about to befulfilled; and, more than this, Pablo's simple statement of thecondition of affairs among the modern Mexicans--showing that the crisisin their fate that Chaltzantzin had foretold, and for which he had sowell prepared, long since had come and gone--would be far moreconvincing to the masses of the Aztlanecas than would be any exhibitionof these same facts that we could make to them; for we were aliens amongthem, while Pablo was of their own race and class. That we all were liketo be done to death by this barbarous theocrat we did not for a momentdoubt; but it was plain enough that every motive of self-interest mustprompt him to put Pablo and the poor ass most summarily out of the way.And as the logic of these facts irresistibly presented itself in my minda keen and heavy sorrow overcame me, for I could not shirk theconviction that, whoever might strike the blow that killed him, I myselfwas the cause of this poor boy's death. Fray Antonio could not see myface in that shadowy prison, yet his fine nature divined the pain that Isuffered and the cause of it, and he sought to comfort me with hissympathy. He did not speak, but he came close beside me and tenderlylaid his hand upon my shoulder; and his loving touch, tellin
g of hissorrow for me and with me, did bring a little cheer into my heavy heart.

  Meanwhile the commotion outside increased greatly, and even through thethick folds of the curtain we could hear plainly the clanking of arms,and the heavy tread of men, and sharply given words of command. Wepressed close to the bars and tried to push, the curtain aside that wemight see out into the court-yard; but the bars were so near togetherthat our hands would not pass between them, and we therefore couldgather only from the sounds which we heard what was going on outside.But the sounds were unmistakable. There could be no doubt whatever thata vigorous assault upon the building was in progress, and those withinit vigorously were defending it; and we knew that the cause of thefighting certainly must be ourselves. Already, it would seem, theprophecy of the Priest Captain's downfall was assuming a tangiblereality; for this rising in arms against him could mean nothing lessthan that his high-handed refusal to permit us to be carried before theCouncil of the Twenty Lords had fairly brought matters to a crisis, andthat the long-threatened revolution actually had been begun.

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