The aztec treasure house, p.32
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       The Aztec Treasure-House, p.32
 

          

  XXX.

  THE FALL OF THE CITADEL.

  Tizoc, I was glad to see, had his men well under his command, as wasshown by the orderly manner in which they waited, despite their eagerimpatience to be off, until he gave the command to march. And hardmarching we found it, as we floundered about that rough, rocky place,tripping and stumbling, and now and then hearing a crash in the darknessas one of our men went down. But, somehow or other, we certainly managedto get over the ground very rapidly; and all the while the sounds of thefight that was raging hotly struck with a constantly increasingclearness upon our ears.

  The whole width of the town lay between our camp and the foot of therugged path that led down from the promontory; but when we were fairlyin the streets, and no longer had rough rocks to stumble over in thedarkness, we went forward at a very slashing pace. And we were furtherhelped now by the fact that day was breaking, so that we could seeclearly where we were going; and we had also within us that feeling ofcheer and encouragement that ever is given to man by the return of thesun. In but a few minutes more, in that tropical region, a flood ofdaylight would be about us; and Tizoc's hope was that when the horror ofdarkness, ever appalling to barbarians, should be lifted, and when ourcoming should afford a firm centre to rally around, our army mightregain the courage and steadiness which it had lost in the terror andbewilderment of a night surprise.

  But he quickly found that this hope was doomed to disappointment. Only alittle beyond the gate of the Citadel we came upon a flying body ofTlahuicos--though no pursuers were in sight beyond them--and these wereso completely demoralized that they took our company for a detachment ofthe enemy, and with wild cries fled away from us down a side street andso disappeared. "What do you think of your friends now?" Rayburn askedYoung, grimly. But Young's only answer was to curse the vanishedTlahuicos for cowards.

  A moment later the whole street in front of us was filled with a howlingmob of our men, and these came surging towards us with the evidentintention of seeking safety in the Citadel. Tizoc saw at a glance thehopelessness of trying to rally a rout like this until the terrifiedcreatures, fleeing like sheep from a pack of wolves, had been given restfor a while in some safe place where their courage might return to them.Being once within the Citadel they would be for a time wholly out ofdanger; for even should the enemy try to set scaling-ladders in place,and so break in upon us there, it would be an easy matter for a fewdetermined men to hold the walls until some sort of order had beenrestored among our broken forces. Tizoc therefore promptly wheeled ourlittle force aside into an open space, and so made a way for thestruggling crowd to sweep past us. We noted, as the stream ofterror-stricken men flowed by, that their officers were not with them;from which Tizoc drew the hopeful augury that the officers, being alltrained soldiers, had drawn together into a rear-guard that sought tocover this wild retreat. And presently we found that Tizoc was right inhis inference, for soon the crowd began very perceptibly to growthinner, and the sound of loud cries and the rattle and clashing of armsrang out above the tumult, and then there came around a turn in thestreet, a little beyond where we had halted, a compact body of men whowere falling back slowly, and who were laying about them most valiantlywith their swords. Our party gave a yell, by way of putting fresh heartinto these gallant fellows, and Tizoc quickly disposed our company insuch a manner that the retreating force fell back through our midst; andthen we promptly closed in, and so took the fighting to ourselves.

  I cannot tell very clearly how our retreat to the Citadel was managed,nor even of my own part in it; for fighting is but rough, wild work,which defies all attempts at scientific accuracy in describing it--andfor the reason, I fancy, that it engenders a wholly unscientific frameof mind. Reduced to its lowest terms, fighting is mere barbarity; a mostillogical method of settling some disputed question by brute forceinstead of by the refined reasoning processes of the intelligent humanmind; and by the anger that it inevitably begets, the habit of accurateobservation, out of which alone can come accurate description, ishopelessly confused. Therefore I can say only that foot by foot weyielded the ground to the enemy that pressed upon us; that wild shoutsrang out--in which I myself joined, though why I should have shouted Iam sure I do not know--together with the sharp rattle of clashingswords; and that through the roar of this outburst of fierce soundsthere ran an undertone of groans and sobs from the poor wretches who hadfallen wounded to the ground. The one thing that I remember clearly is aset-to with swords that I had with a big fellow, just as we had comeclose to the Citadel, that ended in a way (that would have surprised himmightily had he lived long enough to comprehend it) by my finishing himby means of a stop-thrust followed by a beautiful draw-cut that was afamous stroke with my old sabre-master at Leipsic. And I well rememberthinking, at the moment that I made this stroke--and so saved my life byit, for the fellow was pressing me very closely--how happy it would havemade the old Rittmeister could he have seen me deliver it.

  As we made a rush for the gate of the Citadel, that we might get insidethis place of safety and drop the grating before the enemy could followus, we were surprised by finding many of our own men lying dead aboutthe entrance; and what was far worse for us, we found that unskilledhands had been at work with the machinery whereby the gate was loweredand by their bungling had managed to start it downward in such a waythat it had jammed in the grooves. What actually had happened there, aswe knew afterwards, was that the first of the cowardly wretches who hadentered the Citadel had tried to drop the gate in the faces of theircompanions and so secure their own safety; whence a fight amongthemselves had sprung up, in course of which many of them verydeservedly were slain, and, most unhappily for us, their frantic effortsto lower the gate had resulted in thus disabling it.

  We had a moment of breathing space before the enemy came up with us, andin this time Rayburn and Young and I had a grip of each other's hands,in which, without any words over it, we said good-bye to each other; forwe neither of us for one moment doubted that our last hour had come.Tizoc stood a little distance from us, as steady and as gallant in hisbearing as ever I saw a man; but that he also counted surely upon dyingthere was shown by the glance of grave friendliness that he gave us, andby his making the gesture that among his people is significant offarewell. Then we ranged ourselves across the gate-way, holding ourswords in hand firmly, and Rayburn, who had caught up a javelin, stoodwith it poised above his shoulder in readiness to discharge it as theenemy came on. The sight of his splendid figure towering defiantly inthat heroic attitude set my mind to running upon the Homeric legend ofthe glorious battling of the Greeks before the gates of Troy, and ofHector uplifting the rock; and I was very angry with Young, whosedisposition to seize upon the whimsical side of everything was the mostirrepressible that ever I came across, when he exclaimed: "I'll bet youfive dollars, Rayburn, that when you throw that clothes-prop you don'thit th' man you fire at!"

  But Rayburn did hit his man, straight in the heart too, a moment later,as the enemy with a wild yell charged us; and then, with his back setwell against the wall, he fell to work most gallantly with his sword.

  From the very beginning of it we knew that our fighting was utterlyhopeless; for all of our company together did not number fifty men, andwe were confronting there a whole army. Up the street, as far as wecould see, the troops of the enemy were solidly massed; and for everyman whom we struck down twenty were ready to spring forward, fresh andvigorous, to exhaust still further the strength that rapidly was leavingus. That we fought on was due not to our valor but to our desperation;and also--at least such was my own feeling--to a swelling rage that madeus long to kill as many as possible of these savages before we ourselvesdied beneath their blows. Death, we knew, was the best thing that couldhappen to us; for it would save us from the worse fate, that surelywould come to us should we be captured, of being turned over to thepriests, that they might torture us before their heathen altars, and inthe end tear our still quivering hearts out. And that the wish of ourenemies--according to the Aztec
custom--was rather to capture us than tokill us was shown by the way in which they fought; for all their effortwas to disable us, and so to take us alive; nor did they seem to haveany great care, if only this purpose could be accomplished, how many ofthemselves were slain.

  Sometimes in my dreams the wild commotion of that most desperate combatcomes back to me. I see again before me the crowd of half-naked men,curving in a semicircle measured by the length of my sword, their facesdistorted by the passionate anger that stirred their souls; and I seeone fierce face after another lose out of it the look of life, yet notthe look of hate, as my sword crunches into the vitals of the body towhich it belongs; and I hear the wild din around me, and the yells ofrage and of pain, and my feet tread in slippery pools of blood, and mybody aches with weariness, and sharp thrills of agony dart through thestrained muscles of my right arm--yet still I fight on, and on. And,truly, all this seems more real to me now in my sleep than it did to methen in its reality; for a dull weight of most desolate hopelessnesssettled down upon me as I fought out to the end that most hopelessbattle--so that my spirit shared in the numbness of my body, and I cutand parried and gave men their death-blows with the stolid energy of amere death-dealing machine.

  It had been from the first no more than a question of minutes how longthis unequal fight would last; and when I heard a great yell from theenemy, and perceived a flood of soldiers swirling inward through thegate-way just beyond the fellows whom I was dealing with, I knew thatTizoc's men had been beaten down or slain, and that the end was verynear at hand. As I glanced across the shoulders of the man whom I justthen put forever on the list of the non-combatants, I saw what seemed tobe an eddy in the midst of the crowd that was rushing into the Citadel;and in the thick of the tightly knotted group that thus choked thenarrow way I saw Tizoc still laying about him with his sword. He was avery ghastly object, for a cut on his head had loosened a piece of hisscalp, that hung down over his forehead and waved and trembled therelike a draggled plume; his face was bathed in blood from this horridwound, and his armor of cotton cloth was soaked with the blood that hadrun down upon it from the cut in his head, and also from a wound in hisneck. In the moment that I had free sight of him he made as fine asword-stroke as ever I saw, wherewith he fairly severed from its bodythe head of one of his assailants; and at the very same instant, whilethat head still was spinning in the air, a man directly behind himforced back the pressing crowd by main strength and so gained a freespace in which to swing his sword. I shouted to Tizoc to warn him of thedanger, and he half turned to ward against it; but before he could turnwholly around the blow had fallen, splitting his whole head open fromthe crown to the very chin. And in the midst of the fierce yell oftriumph that went up as this cowardly stroke was delivered there passedfrom earth the soul of as brave and as true a man as earth has everknown.

  A dizziness came over me as I saw Tizoc fall, and saw in the same momentthe wild rush forward of the enemy over his dead body into the Citadel;and so I suppose that what with this dizziness and my great weariness Imust have dropped my guard. I faintly remember hearing a shout ofwarning from Young, who was close beside me, which shout mingled withthe shrieks of those inside the Citadel whom the enemy everywhere werecutting down, and the great roar of victory that went up from all thearmy, both within and without the Citadel, rising tempestuously inmighty waves of sound: and then a crash like that of a thunder-boltburst directly upon my head, and a sickening pain shot through me, and Iseemed to be falling through untold depths into vast gloomy chasms (sothat I thought I was dropping once more into the hollow darkness of thecanon), and there was a very dreadful surging and roaring and ringing inmy ears; and then all this horror of evil sounds grew fainter, and Ifelt myself slipping quickly into the awful stillness and blackness thatI surely thought must be the entrance-way to death. And with thisthought a numb sort of gladness came over me, for in death there waspromise of restfulness and peace.

 
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