Gateway to the Classics: Vasco Nunez de Balboa by Frederick A. Ober
Vasco Nunez de Balboa by  Frederick A. Ober

Pedrarias, the Scourge of Darien


At the time of the fleet's arrival at Darien, the town of Antigua consisted of about two hundred huts thatched with straw, with five hundred white men and fifteen hundred Indians composing its population. It was badly situated, in a deep valley between high hills which cut off the salutary sea-breeze, but the soil was rich, and, owing to the exertions and example of Balboa, gardens of fruits and vegetables were already numerous and well tilled.

Since his return from the sea beyond the mountains, Balboa had devoted himself assiduously to the improvement of the colony: erecting huts for dwellings, extending the area of cultivated ground, and devising means for inspiriting the lonely inhabitants of this isolated post in the wilderness. The demands upon his time were constant and pressing, for he was looked up to as the savior of the colony, while the simple natives regarded him almost as a father, and came to him for advice on all occasions. Having heard nothing from Spain since the sailing of Arbolancha, the arrival of Pedrarias and his fleet took him by surprise; but it did not destroy his balance. If he had but known that, at that very time, his messenger was being received at court, and that the old king, charmed by the story of discovery, the pearls and the gold, already repented of the slight he had put upon him, Balboa might have assembled his veterans and prevented the landing of Pedrarias. They were only one-fourth the number of the new arrivals, but every man was a seasoned soldier, and there would have been little doubt as to the result of an encounter.

But fate played Vasco Nunez false again, for Arbolancha had passed Pedrarias on the ocean and arrived in Spain too late to change the decision of the king, who then regretted that he had not rewarded Balboa with the governorship of Darien. He was the governor, in fact, elected to office by the votes of his adoring comrades; but Pedrarias came with royal authority, and Balboa bowed to the decree of the king.

There was doubt in the mind of Pedrarias as to the nature of his reception by Balboa; for he knew himself as a usurper, who had come out to reap the rewards of another, so he sent an envoy to announce his arrival and ascertain the sentiment ashore. This emissary, says the old chroniclers, expected to find the governor of the Golden Castile seated, of course, on a golden throne and lording it over a horde of captive slaves. What, then, was his astonishment to find the redoubtable Vasco Nunez de Balboa, Conqueror of the Mountains, and Pacificator of the Indians, overseeing a group of natives who were engaged in thatching his humble hut with straw! He wore no robe of state, but merely a cotton shirt over one of linen, cotton pantolones, or wide trousers, and hempen sandals, called alpargatas, on his feet.

He looked up from his work as the messenger approached, and, seeing that he was a stranger, saluted him with courtly dignity. Without manifesting emotion of any sort, he received the message, to which he replied: "Convey to Don Pedrarias de Avila my congratulations on his safe arrival, of which I am rejoiced to hear, and say also that I am ready, with my companions, to receive and to serve him who cometh in the name of the king."

The news soon spread that a new governor had arrived, and, hastily arming themselves, some of Balboa's comrades began to assemble around their chieftain, imploring him not to allow his authority to be usurped, even by an emissary from the king. Their leader seemed absorbed in his work, to which he had returned after the departure of the envoy; but his thoughts were busy over the problem with which he was so suddenly confronted. Though outwardly calm, he was deeply disturbed by the action of the sovereign he had so loyally served, upon whom he had thrust inestimable blessings—who thus requited all he had done with insult and rebuke. But finally, in answer to the clamors of his friends, he slowly said: "Nay, nay, my comrades. Though doubtless we are strong enough to repel Pedrarias and his carpet knights, who come to harvest with their swords the crops we have planted with ours, and watered with our blood, yet will we not oppose him, for he comes with authority from our sovereign. And, I understand, there is with him fair Mistress Bobadilla, erstwhile a companion of our late queen, who is now with God in glory. So it behooves us, caballeros, to receive them gallantly, as if, indeed, we were glad to do so, and to place at their disposal the best we have—which, God knows, is poor enough."

Thus saying, Balboa strode within his house, and when he emerged again he had on his complete suit of armor; but his good sword was in its scabbard, and in his hand only the wand of office. Likewise unarmed were his battle-scarred followers, though clad in armor which was no longer bright and shining, but rusty, dented, and battered by blows from many a weapon wielded by arm of savage foe. These veterans suffered in appearance by contrast with the foppish cavaliers who landed from the fleet, nearly two thousand in number, brave in their glistening armor and confident from their numerical superiority. When they saw them, however, they smiled significantly, being well assured that they could defeat them in open encounter, and by no means afraid to essay it.

"They are our guests and our brothers, remember," remarked Balboa, as the veterans seemed disposed to murmur at his lack of precaution. "They come as we once came, hopeful, and expectant of wealth. Think, then, of the disappointment in store for them, and not of their arrogance. And, too, forget not the governor's lady. Ah, here they come! We must be at the boats to greet them, comrades. Into line! March!" The bugle sounded, the drum beat, and the veterans went to meet Pedrarias at the shore.

As the boat touched ground a plank was thrown out and across it walked Pedrarias, followed by his wife, the bishop, and the alcalde, behind them a train of cavaliers who formed a body-guard and led the way to the town, preceded by the veterans of Darien. Balboa doffed his helmet, and extended a hand to assist Dona Isabel ashore, as he said: "Thy servants greet and welcome thee, lady. To serve thee we are here; but we regret we have so little to offer one who deserves so much." And to the governor: "Don Pedrarias de Avila, thou art welcome, coming in the king's name, whose hand I kiss, whose orders I shall ever obey."

Dona Isabel was a tall and stately woman, scarcely past her prime, and still retaining some of the beauty for which she was famous when at Isabella's court. She was not insensible to the gallant bearing of the handsome cavalier Balboa, whose straight and stalwart frame was in decided contrast to her husband's misshapen body, and his frank countenance grateful to her gaze, after long acquaintance with the sinister face of Pedrarias. That she smiled graciously on Balboa at the end of his speech, and perhaps showed pleasure at his flattery, was not to be wondered at; but old Pedrarias noted these things with a twinge of ignoble jealousy, and frowned at his host instead of smiling.

"Where is the palace?" he growled at Balboa, as they approached his straw-thatched hut and halted at the door. "This is not a fit habitation for my wife to dwell in, let alone a domicile for the executive."

"That I freely grant, your excellency, and it vexes me that it be so," replied his host, with a smile and deprecatory wave of the hand. "But such as it is, I trust you and your noble lady will accept and avail of it, until we can erect a better, which we will do without delay."

They entered without another word, and seating themselves at the table, which Balboa caused to be spread with as great a variety as the settlement afforded, gazed at the meagre banquet with amused disgust. For, though there was an abundance of food, it consisted entirely of vegetarian products, such as maize and cassava bread, wild roots and fruits; and as for drink, there was no beverage except water from the river.

The frown upon the governor's face deepened to a scowl, but his wife broke into a merry laugh, in which she was joined by the bishop, who said: "So, Senor Caballero, this is the best you can afford in this so-called land of plenty? Faith, I had heard we were but to open our mouths and luscious fruits would fall into them; while as for gold, we could kick it up in the streets, as it were."

Balboa was presiding at the table with a gracious dignity that, in the eyes of Dona Isabel, made ample amends for the lack of provand. An amused smile crept over his face, but he answered, gravely: "Needs it be said, your lordship, that this is the best we can afford? Would that it were not, for the sake of such distinguished guests as this day I am honored with; but, the truth to tell, we have not been compelled to fast on Fridays, merely, for meats of any sort have been hardly to be found. As for gold—well, my last remittance to the king was no less than fifty thousand ounces; but we did not by any means find it easy of acquisition, let me assure you. It is to be found far in the forest only, and must be won chiefly by toil, the sword, and the shedding of blood, your lordship."

"Then, perchance, many lives have been needlessly sacrificed?" It was the Dona Isabel who asked the question, and her host's bronzed cheeks flushed darkly as he slowly answered, "Gracious lady, doubtless there have been!" He said no more, either in explanation or extenuation of his deeds, for a flood of disagreeable memories surged over him and choked his utterance. Admiring his frankness, but pitying his evident distress, Lady Isabel hastily added, "And pearls, brave sir—rumor hath it that they have been also found, since we sailed from Spain."

"In sooth have they," replied Balboa. "And I have a necklace of them that, though they have been slightly injured by the Indian mode of piercing them, are good to behold. He then called a servant, who, in obedience to his whispered order, went into another room and soon returned with the pearls.

"By your leave, lady, let me show you these," said Balboa to Dona Isabel, who, at sight of the pearls, exclaimed outright, in pure ecstasy of delight: "Why, they are the most perfect and beautiful in all the world! None like these have I seen, even at the court of my queen."

"But, I trust, some time these may be seen at the court of the king, my lady, and that you may wear them there!"

"Why—how can that be?" asked Dona Isabel, in surprise.

"If his excellency will allow me, and if you, fair lady, will accept from me, these baubles, then are they yours," rejoined Balboa, rising from his seat and bowing, with his hand upon his heart.

"No, no," she exclaimed, hastily, but yet fondling the necklace admiringly, "it cannot be."

"Ay, but it can," said her husband, gruffly, his small, black eyes twinkling with avarice. "As I take it, this gift to thee, Isabel, comes from a portion due the crown, and hence belongs to me as well as to thee—if so be the king himself doth not lay claim to it, forsooth."

"Nay, nay; not so!" exclaimed Balboa, the hot blood rising to his brow, his eyes sparkling with anger. "The king hath had his fifths, justly apportioned before we took our shares, and a donative besides. These pearls are—that is, they were—my pearls, and if I chose to bestow them upon the Dona Isabel, your excellency, as her husband, has only the right to refuse them, and that, too, without questioning my motive or my ownership of these pearls."

"Our host, the gallant cavalier, is right," interposed the bishop. "He hath, in a most magnificent manner, done honor to thee, Don Pedro, and to thy wife, by despoiling himself of treasure that must have cost him dear, and presenting it to the Lady Isabel. It ill becomes thee, Pedro, to receive this precious gift so sourly. Verily," he added, with a sigh, "it is a gift worthy of acceptance by the Church!"

"I have reserved for thee and for the Church a tithe of the gold that was apportioned me, good father," declared Balboa.

"And for me what hast thou?" demanded Pedrarias.

"My services, your excellency, which are potential gold and pearls! For the wilderness contains much which has not yet been revealed, and which I have not had time to seek."

"Since that be so, suppose you, to-morrow, give me an account of your stewardship: an exact statement concerning the country and the savages, which I may send to the king."

"It shall be forthcoming, your excellency; but not to-morrow, I fear, since much have I to do, as well as much to write. Within the week will I have it ready for your perusal."

"Be it so, then, and see to it that the report is comprehensive as to the regions of gold and the great South Sea, which, I understand, you claim to have discovered."

"Which, of a truth, I did  discover," answered Balboa, indignantly, "Many had sought it, as you should know, but none had found it, or the way thereto, until I, Vasco Nunez de Balboa, showed the way. Mayhap I be deprived of fortune and of life, but of the honor, the immortal glory, of that discovery, none shall rob me!"

"There lives no man who could, perhaps none so base as to desire to," exclaimed Dona Isabel. Her voice trembled, not alone with indignation but with fear; for at her side sat the one man base enough to do such a thing, and that man was her husband. Pedrarias was possessed of a crabbed disposition that made him envy every man who had done something worthy of renown, and hate him who stood in the pathway of his own ambition. Hence he hated Balboa with a bitter, unreasoning hatred, and, as his wife had divined, was already scheming to deprive him of his laurels.

This conversation, at the frugal repast spread by Balboa for his guests, will show the trend of occurrences at and during the first week after the arrival of Pedrarias. He landed at Darien already prejudiced against its original settlers, and especially their leader, whom he was not satisfied to have superseded, but determined to degrade, bring to ruin, and if possible to an ignominious ending. The plot of this story will henceforth contain five principal characters: Pedrarias, Balboa, Bishop Quevedo, Espinosa the lawyer, and Dona Isabel. The governor and Balboa were soon at open enmity, the former persistently seeking to circumvent the latter, assisted by the lawyer, and sometimes opposed by the bishop, but frequently foiled by Dona Isabel, who was at heart the persecuted victim's only friend.

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