Chronicles of America 


Some months later, Alvarado was met by news of a startling character. Cortés, it was declared, had died, not in Mexico but on the way to Honduras, whither he was conducting an expedition. If so, who would be his successor? It might well be Alvarado; and the conquistador at once made ready to repair to the seat of government in New Spain. Cortés was soon discovered to be far from dead, however, for toward the close of 1525 Alvarado received orders from him to repair straightway to Honduras with all his forces. Vehemently declaring that all he possessed he owed to Hernan Cortés, and that with him he would die, Alvarado obeyed. But he learned on crossing the border that his master had changed his plans and had returned by sea to Vera Cruz, whereupon, in the midsummer of 1526, Alvarado retraced his own steps to Santiago, of which he had been a founder. But his venturesome spirit would not let him rest content with his single conquest. Comprehensive ideas had gripped him. He felt the imperious lure of golden dreams. He would go back to Mexico after all. He would see Cortés, secure his support, and sail for Spain. There he would win sanction to adventure where the South beckoned. He would be the man to complete the work of Balboa.

But what of the expedition of Cortés into Honduras? Originally it had not been Cortés's intention to make this expedition in person. He had chosen for the task Cristóbal de Olid, a friend of Velásquez, Governor of Cuba, a "strong limbed" man and "a very Hector in fight." But although Olid sailed from Vera Cruz to Honduras, he had on the way, at Habana, gone back to his allegiance to Velásquez. It had thereupon become necessary to send after the recreant a sleuth in the person of Francisco de las Casas. At Triunfo de la Cruz, just south of Columbus's island of Guanaja, Olid had captured Las Casas and also Las Casas's prisoner, Gil Gonzalez, but had afterwards been mortally stabbed by his captives as he sat with them at meat.

Cortés had been unfaithful to Velásquez; Olid had been unfaithful to Cortés; would Las Casas be any more faithful than Olid had been? Such, in the mind of the Conqueror of Mexico, was now the question. "Villain whom I have reared and trusted, " Cortés had exclaimed on hearing of the treachery of Olid, "by God and St. Peter he shall rue it!" As for Las Casas, it were well, perhaps, that he even have not too much the temptation of opportunity. So, late in October, 1524, Cortés set forth for the district of Tabasco, where he planned to cross the peninsula of Yucatán, then thought to be an island, to the northern coast of Honduras. He took a force of about one hundred horsemen and forty foot-soldiers, together with pages, musicians, jugglers, servants, and some three thousand Indians. A unique feature was a body of Aztec war chiefs and caciques from about Lake Tezcoco, including Quauhtemotzin, deposed Chief-of-Men of Tenochtitlan. These it had not been deemed prudent to leave in Mexico in the absence of the Conqueror.

At Teotilac, a point between Iztapan and Lake Peten, Cortés became convinced that the deposed chiefs and caciques in his train were plotting to overthrow him and to restore in Mexico the Aztec régime, and he hanged two of them, Quauhtemotzin and the war chief of Tlacopan, to a ceiba tree at midnight. Thus was tragedy invoked. But comedy did not range far behind. On an island in Lake Peten was a fairly large Indian settlement where Cortés left a badly lamed horse. The Indians, filled with veneration for the strange creature, fed it on flowers and birds, of which diet it speedily died. They then worshiped it in effigy in one of their temples as a god of thunder and lightning, a practice which was still maintained in 1614.

The march to the southeast, begun after the Spanish mode with music and dancing, quickly became a thing of grief. Rivers, forest-clad morasses, lakes, and labyrinthine sloughs seemed everywhere; and when these at length ceased, there supervened a flinty mountain pass which cost the lives of men and of scores of horses. To the south lay the ruins of Palenque, but they awakened no interest, and it was five weary months before the exhausted band reached Golfo Dulce and the Spanish town of Nito.

At Trujillo, where Cortés was planning yet further conquests, disturbing news overtook him. Quarrels had broken out among members of the administrative board to which he had left the government, and upon rumor of his death his property had been seized. His presence was sorely needed to save his fortune and his conquests. Resolving to return, he set out on April 25, 1526, and reached Vera Cruz late in May, so emaciated and broken in body as to be but a specter of his former self. In Mexico City — now a " city " in the true sense of the term — Cortés was welcomed with demonstrations of delight by Spaniards and Indians alike. He was still to all beholders the Spanish conquistador par excellence.

Like Columbus, Cortés was an object of much envy on both sides of the Atlantic, and to make clear his doings to the Spanish King he took ship in 1528 for Spain. He debarked at Palos, where he is said to have met Pizarro; and in his train, by a freak of fate, was Pizarro's future Brutus, Juan de Rada. Charles V was at this time holding Court at Toledo, and here Cortés was met and escorted into his monarch's presence by a brilliant group of nobles. Needless to say, he did not come empty handed. Indeed, by comparison with what he brought, the offerings of Columbus to Ferdinand and Isabella seem mean and trivial. First, there was heaped treasure of gold and silver; then featherwork and embroidery; then specimens of arms and implements; strange plants and animals and beautiful birds. Imposing Indian chiefs, among them a son of Montezuma, graced his retinue, while amusement was contributed to the occasion by dwarfs, albinos, and human monstrosities. Cortés, like Columbus, would have knelt at the royal feet, but Charles, like Ferdinand and Isabella, raised up the suppliant and compelled him to speak sitting; and, when illness overtook him, the King personally visited him in his lodgings.

In Spain the conqueror of Mexico contracted a brilliant marriage. Catalina, his first wife, had already died, and Marina, his Indian mistress, he had given as wife to one of his soldiers. He received the title of Marqués del Valle de Oaxaca (Marquis of the Valley) and was made a Knight of Santiago. But amid these marks of royal favor misfortunes were not wanting. His father had died, and so had his beloved follower, the youthful Gonzalo de Sandoval. Capping all, he failed of his ambition to be made a duke, a glory which he coveted beyond any other.

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