Chapter XXIX. Telleth Somewhat of a Strange City

By midday we were come in sight of this Indian city, a place strange beyond thought, it being builded in vast terraces that rose one upon another up the face of a great cliff, and embattled by divers many towers. And the nearer I came the more grew my wonder by reason of the hugeness of this structure, for these outer defences were builded of wrought stones, but of such monstrous bulk and might as seemed rather the work of sweating Titans than the labour of puny man; as indeed I told Sir Richard.

"Aye, truly, Martin," said he, "this is the abiding wonder! Here standeth the noble monument of a once great and mighty people."

In a little Atlamatzin brought us to a stair or causeway that mounted up from terrace to terrace, and behold, this stair was lined with warriors grasping shield and lance, and brave in feathered cloaks and headdresses and betwixt their ordered ranks one advancing,--an old man of a reverend bearing, clad in a black robe and on whose bosom shone and glittered a golden emblem that I took for the sun. Upon the lowest platform he halted and lifted up his hands as in greeting, whereon up went painted shield and glittering spear and from the stalwart warriors rose a lusty shout, a word thrice repeated.

And now, to my wonder, forth stepped Atlamatzin, a proud and stately figure for all his rags, and lifting one hand aloft, spake to them in voice very loud and clear, pointing to us from time to time. When he had gone they shouted amain and, descending from the platform, the priest (as he proved to be) knelt before Atlamatzin to touch his heart and brow. And now came divers Indians bearing litters, the which, at Altlamatzin's word, Sir Richard and I entered and so, Pluto trotting beside us, were borne up from terrace to terrace unto the town. And I saw this had once been a goodly city though its glory was departed, its noble buildings decayed or ruinated and cheek by jowl with primitive dwellings of clay. And these greater houses were of a noble simplicity, flat-roofed and builded of a red, porous stone, in some cases coated with white cement, whiles here and there, towering high among these, rose huge structures that I took for palaces or temples, yet one and all timeworn and crumbling to decay. Before one of such, standing in a goodly square, we alighted and here found a crowd of people--men, women and children--who stood to behold us; a mild, well-featured people, orderly and of a courteous bearing, yet who stared and pointed, chattering, at sight of the dog. And if this were all of them, a pitiful few I thought them in contrast to this great square whence opened divers wide thoroughfares, and this mighty building that soared above us, its great walls most wonderful to sight by reason of all manner of decorations and carvings wrought into the semblance of writhing serpents cunningly intertwined.

Betwixt a kind of gatehouse to right and left we entered an enclosure where stood the temple itself, reared upon terraces. Here Atlamatzin giving us to know we must leave the dog, Sir Richard tied him up, whereon Pluto, seeing us leave him, howled in remonstrance, but, obedient to Sir Richard's word, cowered to silence, yet mighty dismal to behold. And now, Atlamatzin and the High Priest leading the way, we to climb numberless steps, and though Richard found this no small labour despite my aid, at last we stood before the massy portal of the temple that seemed to scowl upon us. And from the dim interior rose a sound of voices chanting, drowned all at once in the roll of drums and blare of trumpets and Atlamatzin and the Priest entered, signing on us to follow.

"Have your weapons ready, Martin!" gasped Sir Richard. "For I have heard evil tales of blood and sacrifice in such places as this!"

And thus side by side we stepped into the cool dimness of this strange building. Once my eyes were accustomed to the gloom, I stood amazed by the vast extent of this mighty building and awed by the wonder of it. Midway burned a dim fire whose small flame flickered palely; all round us, huge and mountainous, rose the shapes of strange deities wonderfully wrought; round about the altar fire were grouped many black-robed priests and hard by this fire stood a thing that brought back memory of Adam Penfeather his words--of how he had fought for his life on the death-stone; and now, beholding this grim thing, I shifted round my sword and felt if my pistols were to hand. And now rose Atlamatzin's voice, rumbling in the dimness high overhead, and coming to us, he took us each by the hand and, leading us forward, spake awhile to the motionless priests, who, when he had done, came about us with hands uplifted in greeting. And now Atlamatzin spake us on this wise:

"Father and my brother, well do I know ye have clean hearts despite your pale skins, so do I make ye welcome and free of this city that once was overruled by my forefathers. And because ye are white men, loving all such foolish things as all white men do love, follow me!"

Saying which, he brought us before one of those great idols that glared down on us. I saw him lift one hand, then started back from the square of darkness that yawned suddenly as to engulf us. Taking a torch, Atlamatzin led us down steps and along a broad passage beneath the temple and so into a vasty chamber where lay that which gave back the light he bore; everywhere about us was the sheen of gold. In ordered piles, in great heaps, in scattered pieces it lay, wrought into a thousand fantastic shapes, as idols, serpents, basins, pots and the like,--a treasure beyond the telling.

"Behold the white man's God, the cause of my people's woes, the ruin of our cities, of blood and battle!"

And here he gives us to understand this wealth was ours if we would; all or such of it as we might bear away with us. Whereupon I shook my head and Sir Richard told him that of more use to him than all this treasure would be pen, inkhorn and paper, and a compass. Nothing speaking, Atlamatzin turned, and by a very maze of winding passageways brought us up the steps and so to a great and lofty chamber or hall where lay a vast medley of things: arms and armour, horse furniture and Spanish gear of every sort, and in one corner a small brass cannon, mounted on wheels. Amongst all of which Sir Richard began searching and had his patience rewarded, for presently he came on that he desired; viz: a travelling writing case with pens, paper, and a sealed bottle of ink, though why he should want such was beyond me, as I told him, whereat he did but smile, nothing speaking.

So back we came and unloosed our dog (and he mighty rejoiced to see us) whereafter, by Atlamatzin's command, we were lodged in a chamber very sumptuous and with servants observant to our every want; for our meals were dishes a-plenty, savoury and excellent well cooked and seasoned, and for our drink was milk, or water cunningly flavoured with fruits, as good as any wine, to my thinking. And cups and platters, nay, the very pots, were all of pure gold.

This night, having bathed me in a small bathhouse adjacent and very luxurious, I get me to bed early (which was no more than a mat) but Sir Richard, seated upon the floor hard by (for of chairs there were none), Sir Richard, I say, must needs fall to with pen and ink, the great hound drowsing beside him, so that, lulled by the soft scratching of his busy quill, I presently slumbered also.

Next morning I awoke late to find Sir Richard squatted where he had sat last night, but this time, instead of writing case, across his knees lay a musket, and he was busied in setting a flint to the lock.

"Why, sir--what now?" I questioned.

"A musket, lad, and fifty-and-five others in the corner yonder and all serviceable, which is well."

Now as I stared at him, his bowed figure and long white hair, there was about him (despite his benevolent expression) a certain grim, fighting look that set me wondering; moreover, upon the air I heard a stir that seemed all about us, a faint yet ominous clamour.

"Sir," quoth I, getting to my feet, "what's to do?"

"Battle, Martin!" said he, testing the musket's action.

"Ha!" cried I, catching up my sword. "Are we beset?"

"By an army of Spaniards and hostile Indians, Martin. In the night came Atlamatzin to say news had come of Indians from the West, ancient enemies of this people, led on by Spanish soldiers, cavalry and arquebuseros, and bidding us fly and save ourselves before the battle joined. But you were asleep, Martin, and besides, it seemed ill in us, that had eaten their bread, to fly and leave this poor folk to death--and worse--"

"True enough, sir," said I, buckling my weapons about me, "but do you dream that we, you and I, can hinder such?"

"'Twere at least commendable in us to so endeavour, Martin. Nor is it thing so impossible, having regard to these fifty-and-five muskets and the brass cannon, seeing there is powder and shot abundant."

"How then--must we stay and fight?" I demanded. And beholding the grim set of his mouth and chin, at such odds with his white hair and gentle eyes, I knew that it must be so indeed.

"'Twas so I thought, Martin," said he a little humbly, and laying his hands upon my shoulders, "but only for myself, dear lad, I fight better than I walk, so will I stay and make this my cumbersome body of some little use, perchance; but as for thee, dear and loved lad, I would have you haste on--"

"Enough, sir," quoth I, catching his hands in mine, "if you must stay to fight, so do I."

"Tush, Martin!" said he, mighty earnest. "Be reasonable! Atlamatzin hath vowed, supposing we beat off our assailants, to provide me bearers and a litter, so shall I travel at mine ease and overtake you very soon; wherefore, I bid you go--for her sake!"

But finding me no whit moved by this or any other reason he could invent, he alternate frowned and sighed, and thereafter, slipping his arm in mine, brought me forth to show me such dispositions as he had caused to be made for the defence. Thus came we out upon the highest terrace, Pluto at our heels, and found divers of the Indians labouring amain to fill and set up baskets of loose earth after the manner of fascines, and showed me where he had caused them to plant our cannon where it might sweep that stair I have mentioned, and well screened from the enemy's observation and sheltered from his fire. And hard beside the gun stood barrels of musket balls, and round-shot piled very orderly, and beyond these, powder a-plenty in covered kegs.

And now he showed me pieces of armour, that is, a vizored headpiece or armet, with cuirass, backplates, pauldrons and vambraces, all very richly gilded, the which it seemed he had chosen for my defence.

"So, then, sir, you knew I should stay?"

"Indeed, Martin," he confessed, a little discountenanced, "I guessed you might." But I (misliking to be so confined) would have none of this gilded armour until, seeing his distress, I agreed thereto if he would do the like; so we presently armed each other and I for one mighty hot and uncomfortable.

Posted upon this, the highest terrace, at every vantage point were Indians armed with bows and arrows--men and women, aye and children--and all gazing ever and anon towards that belt of forest to the West where it seemed Atlamatzin, with ten chosen warriors, was gone to watch the approach of the invading host. Presently, from these greeny depths came a distant shot followed by others in rapid succession, and after some while, forth of the woods broke six figures that we knew for Atlamatzin and five of the ten, at sight of whom spear-points glittered and a lusty shout went up.

"See now, Martin," quoth Sir Richard, speaking quick and incisive, a grim and warlike figure in his armour, for all his stoop and limping gait, "here's the way on't: let the Indians shoot their arrows as they may (poor souls!) but we wait until the enemy be a-throng upon the stair yonder, then we open on them with our cannon here,--'tis crammed to the muzzle with musket balls; then whiles you reload, I will to my fifty-and-five muskets yonder and let fly one after t'other, by which time you, having our brass piece ready, will reload so many o' the muskets as you may and so, God aiding, we will so batter these merciless Dons they shall be glad to give over their bloody attempt and leave these poor folk in peace."

As he ended, came Atlamatzin, telling us he had fallen suddenly on the enemy's van and slain divers of them, showing us his axe bloody, and so away to hearten his people.

At last, forth of the forest marched the enemy, rank on rank, a seemingly prodigious company. First rode horsemen a score, and behind these I counted some sixty musketeers and pikemen as many, marching very orderly and flashing back the sun from their armour, while behind these again came plumed Indians beyond count, fierce, wild figures that leapt and shouted high and shrill very dreadful to hear. On they came, leaping and dancing from the forest, until it seemed they would never end, nearer and nearer until we might see their faces and thus behold how these Spaniards talked and laughed with each other as about a matter of little moment. Indeed, it angered me to see with what careless assurance these steel-clad Spaniards advanced against us in their insolent might, and bold in the thought that they had nought to fear save Indian arrows and lances and they secure in their armour. Halting below the first terrace, they forthwith began assault, for whiles divers of the pikemen began to ascend the stairway, followed by their Indian allies, the musketeers let fly up at us with their pieces to cover their comrades' advance and all contemptuous of the arrows discharged against them. But hard beside the cannon stood Sir Richard, watching keen-eyed, and ever and anon blowing on the slow-match he had made, waiting until the stairway was choked with the glittering helmets and tossing feathers of the assailants.

A deafening roar, a belch of flame and smoke that passing, showed a sight I will not seek to describe; nor did I look twice, but fell to work with sponge and rammer, loading this death-dealing piece as quickly as I might, while louder than the awful wailing that came from that gory shambles rose a wild hubbub from their comrades,--shouts and cries telling their sudden panic and consternation. But as they stood thus in huddled amaze, Sir Richard opened on them with his muskets, firing in rapid succession and with aim so deadly that they forthwith turned and ran for it, nor did they check or turn until they were out of range. Then back limped Sir Richard, his cheek flushed, his eyes bright and fierce in the shade of his helmet, his voice loud and vibrant with the joy of battle, and seeing how far the gun was recoiled, summoned divers of the Indians to urge it back into position; while this was doing, down upon this awful stair leapt Atlamatzin and his fellows and had soon made an end of such wounded as lay there.

"I pray God," cried Sir Richard, harsh-voiced, as he struck flint and steel to relight his match, "I pray God this may suffice them!"

And beholding the wild disorder of our assailants, I had great hopes this was so indeed, but as I watched, they reformed their ranks and advanced again, but with their Indians in the van, who suddenly found themselves with death before them and behind, for the Spanish musketeers had turned their pieces against them to force them on to the attacks. So, having no choice, these poor wretches came on again, leaping and screaming their battle cries until the stair was a-throng with them; on and up they rushed until Death met them in roaring flame and smoke. But now all about us was the hum of bullets, most of which whined harmlessly overhead, though some few smote the wall behind us. But small chance had I to heed such, being hard-set to prime and load as, time after time, these poor Indians, driven on by their cruel masters, rushed, and time after time were swept away; and thus we fought the gun until the sweat ran from me and I panted and cursed my stifling armour, stripping it from me piece by piece as occasion offered. And thus I took a scathe from bullet or splinter of stone, yet heeded not until I sank down sick and spent and roused to find Pluto licking my face and thereafter to see Sir Richard kneeling over me, his goodly armour dinted and scarred by more than one chance bullet.

"Drink!" he commanded, and set water to my lips, the which mightily refreshed me.

"Sir, what o' the fight?" I questioned.

"Done, lad, so far as we are concerned," said he. "Atlamatzin fell upon 'em with all his powers and routed them--hark!"

Sure enough, I heard the battle roar away into the forest and beyond until, little by little, it sank to a murmurous hum and died utterly away. But all about us were other sounds, and getting unsteadily to my legs, I saw the plain 'twixt town and forest thick-strewn with the fallen.

"So then the town is saved, sir?"

"God be praised, Martin!"

"Why, then, let us on--to meet my dear lady!" But now came an Indian to bathe my hurt, an ugly tear in my upper arm, whereto he set a certain balsam and a dressing of leaves and so bound it up very deftly and to my comfort.

And now was I seized of a fierce desire to be gone; I burned in a fever to tramp those weary miles that lay 'twixt me and my lady Joan; wherefore, heedless alike of my own weakness, of Sir Richard's remonstrances and weariness, or aught beside in my own fevered desire, I set out forthwith, seeing, as in a dream, the forms of Indians, men, women and children, who knelt and cried to us as in gratitude or farewell; fast I strode, all unmindful of the old man who plodded so patiently, limping as fast as he might to keep pace with me, heeding but dimly his appeals, his cries, hasting on and on until, stumbling at last, I sank upon my knees and, looking about, found myself alone and night coming down upon me apace. Then was I seized of pity for him and myself and a great yearning for my lady, and sinking upon my face I wept myself to sleep.