The aztec treasure house, p.3
The Aztec Treasure-House,
My heart was light within me as I stood on the steamer's deck in thecool gray of an October morning and saw out across the dark green seaand the dusky, brownish stretch of coast country the snow-crowned peakof Orizaba glinting in the first rays of the rising sun. And presently,as the sun rose higher, all the tropic region of the coast and the brownwalls of Vera Cruz and of its outpost fort of San Juan de Ulua wereflooded with brilliant light--which sudden and glorious outburst ofradiant splendor seemed to me to be charged with a bright promise of myown success.
And still lighter was my heart, a week later, when I found myselfestablished in the beautiful city of Morelia, and ready to beginactively the work for which I had been preparing myself--at firstunconsciously, but for ten years past consciously and carefully--almostall my life long.
Morelia, I had decided, was the best base for the operations that I wasabout to undertake. My main purpose was to search for the remnants ofprimitive civilization among the more isolated of the native Indiantribes; and out of the fragments thus found, pieced together with whatmore I could glean from the early ecclesiastical and civil records, torecreate, so far as this was possible, the fabric that was destroyed bythe Spanish conquerors. Nowhere could my investigations be conducted tobetter advantage than in the State of Michoacan (of which State the cityof Morelia is the capital) and in the adjacent State of Jalisco; for inthis region tribes still exist which never have been reduced to morethan nominal subjection, and which maintain to a great extent theirprimitive customs and their primitive faith, though curiously minglingwith this latter many Christian observances. Indeed, the independence ofthe Indians of these parts is so notable that the proverb "Free asJalisco" is current throughout Mexico. Moreover, Morelia is a city richin ancient records. The archives of the Franciscan province, that hasits centre here extend back to the year 1531; those of the Bishopric ofMichoacan to the year 1538; and those of the Colegio de San Nicolas tothe year 1540; while in the recently founded Museo Michoacano alreadyhas been collected a rich store of archaeological material. In a word,there was no place in all Mexico where my studies and my investigationscould be pursued to such advantage as they could be pursued here.
From a fellow-archaeologist in the City of Mexico I brought a letter ofintroduction to the director of the Museo, the learned Dr. Nicolas Leon;and so cordially was this letter worded, and so cordially was itreceived, that within the day of my coming into that strange city Ifound myself in the midst of friends. At once their hearts and theirhouses were opened to me, and they gave me with a warm enthusiasm thebenefit of their knowledge and of their active assistance forwarding thework that I had in hand.
In the quiet retirement of the Museo I opened to that one of its membersto whom the director especially had commended me, Don Rafael Moreno, thepurposes which I had in view, and the means by which I hoped toaccomplish them. "Surely," I said, "among the free Indians in themountains hereabouts much may be found--in customs, in tone of thought,in religion--that has remained unchanged since the time of theconquest."
Don Rafael nodded. "Fray Antonio has said as much," he observed,thoughtfully.
"And as your own distinguished countryman, Senor Orozco y Berra, haspointed out," I continued, "many dark places in primitive history may bemade clear, many illusions may be dispelled, and many deeplyinteresting truths may be gathered by one who will go among theseIndians, lending himself to their mode of life, and will note accuratelywhat he thus learns from sources wholly original."
"Fray Antonio has professed the same belief," Don Rafael answered. "Butthat his love is greater for the saving of heathen souls than for theadvancement of antiquarian knowledge, he long ago would have done whatyou now propose to do. He has done much towards gathering a portion ofthe information that you seek, even as it is."
"And who is this Fray Antonio, senor?"
"He is the man who of all men can give you the wisest help in yourpresent need. We see but little of him here at the Museo, though he isone of our most honored members, for his time is devoted so wholly tothe godly work to which he has given himself that but little remains tohim to use in other ways. He is a monk, vowed to the Rule of St.Francis. As you know, since the promulgation of the Laws of the Reform,monks are not permitted in our country to live in communities; but, withonly a few exceptions, the conventual churches which have not beensecularized still are administered by members of the religious orders towhich they formerly belonged. Fray Antonio has the charge of the churchof San Francisco--over by the market-place, you know--and virtually is aparish priest. He is a religious enthusiast. In God's service he giveshimself no rest. The common people here, since his loving labors areamong them while the pestilence of small-pox raged, reverently believehim to be a saint; and those of a higher class, who know what heroicwork he did in that dreadful time, and who see how perfectly his lifeconforms to the principles which he professes, and how like is thespirit of holiness that animates him to that of the sainted men whofounded the order to which he belongs, are disposed to hold a likeopinion. Truly, it is by the especial grace of God that men like FrayAntonio are permitted at times to dwell upon this sinful earth."
Don Rafael spoke with a depth of feeling and a reverence of tone thatgave his strong words still greater strength and deeper meaning. Afterthat moment's pause he resumed: "But that which is of most interest toyou, senor, is the knowledge that Fray Antonio has gained of our nativeIndians during his ministrations among them. It is the dearest wish ofhis heart to carry to these heathen souls the saving grace ofChristianity, and for the accomplishment of this good purpose he makesmany journeys into the mountains; ministering in the chapels which hiszeal has founded in the Indian towns, and striving earnestly by hispreaching of God's word to bring these far-wandered sheep into theChristian fold. Very often his life has been in most imminent peril, forthe idolatrous priests of the mountain tribes hate him with a mostbitter hatred because of the inroads which his mild creed is making uponthe cruel creed which they uphold. Yet is he careless of the danger towhich he exposes himself; and there be those who believe, such is thetemerity with which he manifests his zeal, that he rather seeks thanshuns a martyr's crown."
Again Don Rafael paused, and again was it evident that deep feelingsmoved him as he spoke of the holy life of this most holy man. "You willthus understand, senor," he went on, "that Fray Antonio of all men isbest fitted by his knowledge of the ways of these mountain Indians toadvise you touching your going among them and studying them. You cannotdo better than confer with him at once. It is but a step to the churchof San Francisco. Let us go."
What Don Rafael had said had opened new horizons to me, and I wasstirred by strange feelings as we passed out together from the shadysilence of the Museo into the bright silence of the streets: for Moreliais a quiet city, wherein at all times is gentleness and rest. Forpriests in general, and for Mexican priests in particular, I hadentertained always a profound contempt; but now, from an impartialsource, I had heard of a Mexican priest whose life-springs seemed to bethe soul-stirring impulses of the thirteenth century; who was devoted insoul and in body to the service of God and of his fellow-men; in whom,in a word, the seraphic spirit of St. Francis of Assisi seemed to liveagain. But by this way coming to such tangible evidence of the survivalin the present time of forces which were born into the world six hundredyears ago, my thoughts took a natural turn to my own especial interests;and, by perhaps not over-strong analogy, I reasoned that if this monkstill lived so closely to the letter and to the spirit of the Rule thatSt. Francis, six centuries back, gave to his order, most reasonablymight I hope to find still quick something of the life that was in fullvigor in Mexico only a little more than half that many centuries ago.
We turned off from the Calle Principal by the little old church of LaCruz, and passed onward across the market-place, where buying andselling went on languidly, and where a drowsy hum of talk made arhythmic setting to a scene that seemed to my unaccustomed eyes less abit of re
We crossed to the eastern end of the church, where was a low door-way,closed by a heavy wooden door that was studded with rough iron nails andornamented with rudely finished iron-work; pushing which door openbriskly, as one having the assured right of entry there, Don Rafaelcourteously stood aside and motioned to me to enter the sacristy.
From the shadowy church I passed at a step into a small vaulted roombrilliant with the sunlight that poured into it through a broad windowthat faced the south. Just where this flood of sunshine fell upon theflagged floor, rising from a base of stone steps built up in a pyramidalform, was a large cross of some dark wood, on which was the life-sizefigure of the crucified Christ; and there, on the bare stone pavementbefore this emblem of his faith, his face, on which the sunlight fellfull, turned upward towards the holy image, and his arms raised insupplication, clad in his Franciscan habit, of which the hood had fallenback, knelt Fray Antonio; and upon his pale, holy face, that the richsunlight glorified, was an expression so seraphic, so entranced, that itseemed as though to his fervent gaze the very gates of heaven must beopen, and all the splendors and glories and majesties of paradiserevealed.
It is as I thus first saw Fray Antonio--verily a saint kneeling beforethe cross--that I strive to think of him always. Yet even when thatother and darker, but surely more glorious, picture of him rises beforemy mind I am not disconsolate; for at such times the thought possessesme--coming to me clearly and vehemently, as though from a stronglyimpelled force without myself--that what he prayed for at the momentwhen I beheld him was that which God granted to him in the end.
Some men being thus broken in upon while in the very act of communingwith Heaven would have been distressed and ill at ease--as I assuredlywas because I had so interrupted him. But to Fray Antonio, as I trulybelieve, communion with Heaven was so entirely a part of his daily lifethat our sudden entry in nowise ruffled him. After a moment, that hemight recall his thoughts within himself and so to earth again, he arosefrom his knees, and with a grave, simple grace came forward to greet us.He was not more than eight-and-twenty years old, and he was slightlybuilt and thin--not emaciated, but lean with the wholesome leanness ofone who strove to keep his body in the careful order of a machine ofwhich much work was required. His face still had in it the softroundness and tenderness of youth, that accorded well with itsexpression of gracious sweetness; but there was a firmness about thefine, strong chin, and in the set of the delicate lips, that showed areserve of masterful strength. And most of all did this strength shineforth from his eyes; which, truly, though at this first sight of him Idid not perceive it fully, were the most wonderful eyes that ever I haveseen. As I then beheld them I thought them black; but they really were adark blue, and so were in keeping with his fair skin and hair. Yet thatwhich gave them so strong an individuality was less their changing colorthan the marvellous way in which their expression changed with everychange of feeling of the soul that animated them. When I first saw them,turned up towards heaven, they seemed to speak a heavenly language fullof love; and when I saw them last, stern, but shining with the exultantlight of joy triumphant, they fairly hurled the wrath of outraged Heavenagainst the conquered powers of hell. And I can give no adequateconception of the love that shone forth from them when pitying sympathyfor human sorrow, or even for the pain which brute beasts suffered,touched that most tender heart for which they spoke in tones richer andfuller than the tones of words.
Don Rafael, standing without the door that he had opened in order that Imight precede him, did not perceive that we had interrupted Fray Antonioin his prayers; and began, therefore, in the lively manner natural tohim, when I had been in due form presented as an American archaeologistcome to Mexico to pursue my studies of its primitive inhabitants, tocommend the undertaking that I had in hand, and to ask of Fray Antoniothe aid in prosecuting it that he so well could give.
Perhaps it was that Fray Antonio understood how wholly my heart alreadyhad gone out to him--assuredly, later, there was such close sympathybetween us that our thoughts would go and come to each other withoutneed for words--and so was disposed in some instinctive way to join hispurposes with mine; but, be this as it may, before Don Rafael well couldfinish the explanation of my wishes, Fray Antonio had comprehended whatI desired, and had promised to give me his aid.
"The senor already has a book-knowledge of our native tongues. That iswell. The speaking knowledge will come easily. He shall have the boyPablo for his servant. A good boy is Pablo. With him he can talk in theNahua dialect--which is the most important, for it is sprung mostdirectly from the ancient stock. And I will arrange that the senor shalllive for a time in the mountains--it will be a hard life, I fear--atSanta Maria and at San Andres, in which villages he can gain amouth-mastery of both Otomi and Tarascan. A little time must be given toall this--some months, no doubt. But the senor, who already has studiedthrough ten years, will understand the needfulness of this shortdiscipline. To a true student study in itself is a delight--still morethat study which makes the realization of a long-cherished purposepossible. The senor, I know, reads Spanish, since so perfectly he speaksit"--this with a gracious movement of the hands and a courteousinclination of the body that enhanced the value of the compliment--"butdoes the senor read with ease our ancient Spanish script?"
"I have never attempted it," I answered. "But as I can read easily theold printed Spanish, I suppose," I added, a little airily, "that I shallhave no great difficulty in reading the old script also."
Fray Antonio smiled a little as he glanced at Don Rafael, who smiledalso, and as he turned out his hands, answered: "Perhaps. But it is notquite the same as print, as the senor will know when he tries. But itmakes no difference; for what is most interesting in our archives Ishall be glad--and so also will be Don Rafael--to aid him in reading.
"You must know, senor," he went on, dropping his formal mode of addressas his interest in the subject augmented, and as his feeling towards megrew warmer, "that many precious documents are here preserved. So earlyas the year 1536 this western region was erected into a Custodia,distinct from the Province of the Santo Evangelio of Mexico; and fromthat time onward letters and reports relating to the work done by themissionaries of our order among the heathen have been here received. Intruth, I doubt not that many historic treasures are hidden here. Inmodern times, during the last hundred years or more, but little thoughthas been given to the care of these old papers--which are so precious tosuch as Don Rafael and yourself because of their antiquarian value, andwhich are still more precious to me because they tell of the sowingamong the heathen of the seed of God's own Word. It is probable thatthey have not been at all examined into since our learned brothers Pablode Beaumont and Alonzo de la Rea were busy with the writing of theirchronicles of this Province--and the labors of these brothers ended morethan two hundred and fifty years ago. In the little time that I myselfcan give to such matters I already have found many manuscripts whichcast new and curious light upon the strange people who dwelt here inMexico before the Spaniards came. Some of these I will send for yourexamination, for they will prepare you for the work you have incontemplation by giving you useful knowledge of primitive modes of lifeand tones of faith and phases
"With your permission, senores, I must now go about my work. Don Rafaelknows that I am much too ready to forget my work in talk of ancientmatters. It is a weakness with me--this love for the study ofantiquity--that I struggle against, but that seems rather to increaseupon me than to be overcome. This afternoon, senor, I will send a few ofthe ancient manuscripts to you. And so--until we meet again."
The Aztec Treasure-House by Thomas A. Janvier / History & Fiction have rating 3.3 out of 5 / Based on20 votes