At San Juan de Ul˙a the fleet of
CortÚs lay at anchor, its fiery purpose clothed, as some one has
said, in dissembling white. Hardly had it assumed its position when
from two large canoes there ascended to the deck of the flagship a
group of Indians. Asking for the Tlatoan, or Chief, they did him
reverence, but beyond this they were unable to make themselves
understood. Thereupon Marina, who with other slave girls was
standing by, said to Aguilar that the Indians were Mexicans sent by
the cacique Cuitlalpitoc, a servant of Montezuma, and that he wished
to know whence the strangers had come and why. So was begun a series
of interchanges between CortÚs and the overlord of Cul˙a or Mexico
—interchanges conducted on the part of the one with veiled though
ever mounting audacity, and on the part of the other with veiled
though ever deepening apprehension.
For more than a fortnight CortÚs encouraged the coming of embassies — "for trade." First came Cuitlalpitoc accompanied by his superior, Teuhtlilli; and with them they brought cotton fabrics done in brilliant feather designs — ten bales of them — as also articles of wrought gold set with rare stones. In return CortÚs gave a carved and inlaid armchair, some engraved stones, a crimson cap, beads, and a gilt helmet which Teuhtlilli had wondered at and was told to bring back filled with gold dust. The Spaniard asked also for a time and place to be fixed at which he might meet Montezuma. Then, in due season, came a second embassy, one headed by a cacique named Quintalbor, who in looks resembled CortÚs. With Quintalbor came Teuhtlilli; and this time, besides cotton fabrics embroidered in feathers and gold, there were brought large plumes of bright colors spangled with gold and pearls; great feather fans; rods of gold like a magistrate's staff; collars and necklaces with pendant golden bells; head-dresses of green quetzal feathers and gold, or of feathers and silver; miniature golden fish; alligators, ducks, monkeys, pumas, and jaguars; a graceful bow with twelve sharp arrows — all these things, to say naught of Nahua books executed in picture-writing upon cotton or bark. Nor yet were these things all, for, dominating the entire collection, were a wheel of gold as large as a cart-wheel, a wheel of silver equally large (the twain worth in American money of today some $290,000), and the helmet at which Teuhtlilli had wondered filled with grains of gold fresh from the placers.
The object of this second embassy was clearly to bribe CortÚs into leaving the country, for, to his wish again earnestly expressed to visit Montezuma many objections were courteously interposed. The refusal indeed was soon made pointed and explicit, for Teuhtlilli, having gone through the form of carrying to his lord the Spanish leader's reiterated request, came back after ten days bearing a quantity of robes, feathers, and gems as a gift to be carried by CortÚs personally to his own overlord, the Spanish King.
Having thus "felt out" Montezuma and his magnificence, CortÚs saw his goal before him. But could he reach it? Reach it he must if he would escape outlawry. Already he had broken with Velasquez, for at Tabasco he had taken possession in the name of the King alone. His position was like that of Balboa after he had deported Enciso and had heard of the golden-shored Pacific. He must seize his opportunity. He must do or die.
As a first step CortÚs resolved upon a new basis for his expedition. The soldiers must become a Spanish colony looking immediately to the King. Over this colony he himself must be chosen Captain-General and Justicia Mayor. As such he could found a settlement, taking care by destroying his fleet to remove from his followers all temptation to resume relations with Cuba and Velasquez. Even so, however, the situation for CortÚs was fraught with difficulty. Assuming the successful establishment of direct relations with Charles V, successor to Ferdinand on the Spanish throne, how about the Indians? What would be their attitude toward the appropriation of Montezuma's wealth by the arrogant white strangers — the white strangers from out the sunrise? But just here a stroke of fortune!
Across the sand dunes above the San Juan de Ul˙a anchorage, came one day, soon after the departure of the last of the embassies from Montezuma, five Indians. They were not Aztec, but two of their number spoke Nahua, and by aid of Marina and Aguilar it was quickly learned that they were Totonacs, subject to Montezuma and hating him with a deadly fear. Their principal settlement, Cempoalla, was a short distance inland to the north, and here, eager for a conference with the white chieftain, waited their cacique. Into the hands of CortÚs was given a possible solution of his difficulty, and he was not slow to perceive it.
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