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huac. In the centre of the great basin were beheld the lakes, occupying then a much larger portion of its surface than at present; their borders thickly studded with towns and hamlets, and, in the midst, – like some Indian empress with her coronal of pearls, - the fair city of Mexico, with her white towers and pyramidal temples, reposing, as it were, on the bosom of the waters, the far-famed • Venice of the Aztecs.' High over all rose the royal hill of Chapoltepec, the residence of the Mexican monarchs, crowned with the same grove of gigantic cypresses, which at this day fling their broad shadows over the land. In the distance beyond the blue waters of the lake, and nearly screened by intervening foliage, was seen a shining speck, the rival capital of Tezcuco, and, still further on, the dark belt of porphyry, girdling the Valley around, like a rich setting which Nature had devised for the fairest of her jewels.
“Such was the beautiful vision which broke on the eyes of the Conquerors. And even now, when so sad a change has come over the scene; when the stately forests have been laid low, and the soil, unsheltered from the fierce radiance of a tropical sun, is in many places abandoned to sterility ; when the waters have retired, leaving a broad and ghastly margin white with the incrustation of salts, while the cities and hamlets on their borders have mouldered into ruins; even now that desolation broods over the landscape, so indestructible are the lines of beauty which Nature has traced on its features, that no traveller, however cold, can gaze on them with any other emotions than those of astonishment and rapture.
" What, then, must have been the emotions of the Spaniards, when, after working their toilsome way into the upper air, the cloudy tabernacle parted before their eyes, and they beheld these fair scenes in all their pristine magnificence and beauty! It was like the spectacle which greeted the eyes of Moses from the summit of Pisgah, and, in the warm glow of their feelings, they cried out, “It is the promised land !"" — Vol. 11. pp. 50 – 53.
In the use which Mr. Prescott has made of his various materials, in the apt distribution and symmetrical arrangement of his subject, in his observance of the rules of historical perspective, which give to the objects and figures of the foreground and background their appropriate dimensions, he has shown the same judgment and skill which were so signally displayed in the finished proportions of his history of Ferdinand and Isabella, and which distinguish the historian from the chronicler, the artist from the mechanic. After entering upon the narrative, an obvious difficulty preVOL. LVIII. - No. 122.
sented itself in the sickening detail of battles and slaughter, which it became his duty to narrate. The course of the conquering army is everywhere to be tracked by bloody footprints. The clash of arms is interrupted only by short breathing-spaces of repose. The eye is wearied with the perpetual gleaming of steel, and the ear vexed with the constant rattle of musketry. Nothing is more tedious and revolting than the record of battles, where no great principle is at issue, where no precious prize is staked upon the result, where nothing is gained to humanity by the blood that is poured out, and where no sublime feeling of self-sacrifice sustains the fainting frame and lights up the dying eye with gleams of triumph. At Marathon or Bunker Hill, we can hang with interest upon every stroke that is dealt, and every shot that is fired, because the course of events and the
progress of humanity have invested these contests with a dignity and importance which bear no proportion to the numbers engaged in them ; but what eye can watch, with the same minuteness of observation, the bloody fields of carnage which mark the devastating career of Attila, Tamerlane, or Genghis Khan? Milton has remarked, and Hume has quoted the remark with approbation, that the wars of the Heptarchy are as little worth recording as the fights of kites or crows.
In the case of the battles fought by the Conquerors of Mexico, this feeling is enhanced by the pitiable odds between the contending parties. Until we come to the capital itself, where the Aztecs fought with the frantic desperation of a wild animal at bay, aided by the peculiar position and construction of the city, which were singularly suited to embarrass the movements of a besieging army, and to enable the inhabitants to act with advantage, there was nothing like a fair contest or an impartial distribution of danger. Their contests are not so much battles as massacres of the weak, the defenceless, and the unarmed by the strong and the armed, in which the work of death is only arrested by sheer weariness of muscle, and the sword is not sheathed till it is clogged with slaughter. Masses of naked Indians are brought forward only to be mowed down by the iron hail of artillery, to be trampled under foot by the fiery charge of horsemen, - an apparition that always paralyzed them with terror, -to be pierced through with lances, and cloven down
, with swords. In such cases, it is idle to talk of the disparity
of numbers. No amount of numbers can make the naked, the timid, and the weak commensurate antagonists to the strong, the brave, and the well armed.
A thousand antelopes are not a match for a single lion. The Spaniards bad advantages that more than made up for all numerical inferiority, in their horses and their firearms, which were equally new revelations to the simple Indians, and alike invested by them with supernatural terrors. Their crowded ranks only presented a fairer mark to the cannon and arquebuse, and made the confusion, into' which they were thrown by charges of cavalry, more extensive and irremediable.
This difficulty did not escape Mr. Prescott's observation, and he has shown his usual judgment in the means employed to obviate it. He has relieved the bloody monotony of the Conquest by a variety of collateral matter, which throws light upon the main narrative, and furnishes us with the information necessary for understanding the story. With this view, he has introduced rather minute descriptions of the states or provinces through which the Spaniards passed in their march to the capital, — such as the holy city of Cholula, the Mecca or Jerusalem of the Aztec race, and the interesting republic of Tlascala, whose rocky fastnesses were defended by that unconquerable valor which seems the natural growth of a mountain soil. His frequent pictures of natural scenery afford the same grateful relief to the mind; and the same purpose is served by the minute and animated accounts he gives us of the capital, its romantic situation, its peculiar structure, its architectural wonders ; and of Montezuma's habits of life, the ceremonials of his court, and the splendors of his palace. With all this, the eye is always kept fixed upon the city of Mexico as the central point in the picture, and the great prize to be struggled for, and wherever the story is likely to have an engrossing interest from its own nature, it is not broken by any interpolations.
Every well-conditioned mind, that prefers the open daylight of truth to the dim twilight of delusion, will feel pleasure in the distinct views which Mr. Prescott gives of an event, of which most persons, we apprehend, have rather a vague and cloudy impression. We usually read Robertson's narrative early in life, and retain ever afterwards a dreamy image of a romantic enterprise, with no clear apprehension of the means by which it was accomplished. As we look back upon it, it seems something marvellous and unreal, like the wild adventures of knight-errantry, where giants are slain and princesses rescued, — where, by the prowess of a single arm, rightful kings are restored and usurpers are vanquished. No one will regret the removal of these clouds of delusion, though fancy may have painted them in colors of purple and gold. Amid all the enchantments of his subject, Mr. Prescott has kept unimpaired that sober tone of mind essential to historical inquiry ; has adhered scrupulously to facts, fortifying every statement by reference to original authorities ; has conscientiously investigated all doubtful or disputed points, and given us that full information upon all matters of detail, such as dates, numbers, and dimensions, which can alone make the knowledge we have of any matter entirely satisfactory. Under the guidance of his sagacious judgment and penetrating industry, we are enabled to trace that regular sequence of cause and effect in the successes of Cortés, which, astonishing as they were, takes away their supernatural character. While we acknowledge it to be a very extraordinary enterprise, we perceive that its favorable result was brought about by many accidental and unforeseen circumstances, without any one of which it must have been doubtful, and without some of them, impossible. How greatly, for instance, were they aided in their progress by that remarkable tradition, universally believed, which foretold the downfall of the Aztec empire by a race of men who should come from the East and resemble the Spaniards in physical peculiarities ! a tradition, of which they could have known nothing before they landed, and the effect of which upon so superstitious a people can hardly be overestimated. Of how great importance do we perceive it to be, that Cortés should have the means of communicating with the various tribes or communities which he encountered on his march, and how little to be foreseen were the chances which enabled him to do so by the combined aid of Doña Marina and Jerónimo de Aguilar ! How different a catastrophe might the historian have been called upon to record, if the resolute Guatemozin had occupied the throne, upon the landing of the Spaniards, instead of the vacillating and superstitious Montezuma ; or if the councils of Tlascala had been guided by the unconquerable spirit and clear-sighted sagacity of Xicotencatl ; or if Narvaez, who was sent to supersede Cortés, had been equal to him in en
ergy and capacity! And above all, how essentially were the plans of the Spaniards aided by the character of the Aztec empire itself; an aggregate of distinct communities, with no natural cohesion, and bound together by no stronger ties than those of fear! Like the iron and clay in the vision, the separate parts were united, but would not coalesce. Cortés conquered Mexico by dividing it; by fanning into a flame the sparks of disaffection which the terror of Montezuma's name had kept smothered and concealed, by vanquishing the separate portions, and making their inhabitants his allies, and requiring them to serve under his banner. His Indian auxiliaries are entitled to at least an equal share in the honors of the conquest.
In what we have just said, we do not wish to be understood as at all detracting from the merit of those remarkable qualities of character displayed by the Conquerors of Mexico, and especially by Cortés, who was so eminently the heart and soul of the enterprise. Though, under the penetrating light which Mr. Prescott has brought to bear upon the achievement, it may have lost somewhat of its visionary glories, the substantial facts, which claim and justify our sober admiration, are set forth in more distinct relief. To appreciate fully the resolution, hardihood, and perseverance displayed by that band of adventurers, we must go back to their own age, and wrap round ourselves the cloud of their own ignorance. We must remember, that they were, at every step of their progress, discoverers as well as conquerors. They landed upon the shores of a country of which they knew nothing, and boldly set out upon their wonderful march, ignorant of what a day or an hour might bring forth. They knew not the extent or the resources of the country they invaded ; nor where was its capital city ; nor how far off was the ocean that washed its opposite shores. They knew not in what distinct shape the dangers they were to encounter would present themselves; whether in that of hunger, or thirst, or cold, or opposing steel. They could not tell what pathless forests, what impassable chains of mountains, what desert wastes of sand might lie between them and the end of their march. It was literally a groping in the dark, where they could only feel sure of the ground on which their very feet were planted. And yet, in spite of all this, — in spite of the power which the imagination has in magnifying un