Gateway to the Classics: Juan Ponce de Leon by Frederick A. Ober
Juan Ponce de Leon by  Frederick A. Ober

Adelantado of Florida


Among those who darted to the spot where Becerrico had fallen, his master was foremost, and dragging him out of the shade into the sunlight, proceeded to examine his wounds. There were several slight ones, made by darts and arrows, but the cause of his discomfiture was found in a great gash across his forehead, evidently made by a fragment of rock hurled with terrific force. Water was brought by willing hands, and the wound cleansed of blood and gravel by Juan Ponce, who muttered maledictions against the Indians, while he labored to restore the brute to consciousness. He was at last successful, and Becerrico feebly attempted to stand up and lick his hand, though unable to walk for quite a while thereafter. After ordering a litter to be made, in which to convey the hound back to the coast, Juan Ponce turned to his companions and said: "Can it be that we, the conquerors of this island, must allow yon Indians to insult us thus? Are we, then, turned poltroons, or is the ascent impossible?"

It was decided to be impossible to assault the savages in their stronghold from that point, without scaling-ladders and a strong party of support; but it grieved Ponce de Leon sorely to accept this conclusion of his comrades. He knew that he and they were helpless, with only their swords as weapons, and without an arquebusier, or cross-bowman, in the party. As if to emphasize their helplessness, an arrow came hurtling down from the cliffs above and sank itself feather-deep in the body of Juan Ponce's horse, behind the saddle-housings. The stricken brute reared, turned its eyes imploringly towards its master, and then fell heavily to the ground. After a few convulsive struggles it lay still, and as the cavaliers gathered about they whispered, awesomely: "Dead! Killed by a poisoned arrow!"

"Strip him quickly," Juan Ponce hoarsely commanded his servants, "and let us get away, ere other poisoned darts prevent us. My faith, but it irks me to retreat from a foe which I've already beaten—or thought I had! But we will return, my comrades, and then we shall have bowmen with us, and musketeers, as well as lombardiers—I trow—even if I divest my castle of its cannon."

It was a sorry procession that wended its way down the wooded steeps of Luquillo towards the coast. The stout old cavalier, Juan Ponce, was on foot, limping beside the litter containing Becerrico, and lamenting his loss, of steed as well as hound. Other mounts were offered him, but he would have none of them, saying, remorsefully: "It is I and an old man's foolishness that have this misfortune brought to ye, caballeros, and it is I, Juan Ponce, who shall suffer for it; though no more than to foot it into San Juan were the extent of my penance."

At last the coast was reached, and the castle of Casa Blanca opened its gates to the downcast cavaliers on horseback, the foot-sore Juan Ponce, and the train of attendants bearing the hound and the harness of the steed that was slain. Dona Inez and her children gazed in wonder mingled with sadness through the crenelles of the battlements, and they all but cried aloud in their grief at sight of faithful Becerrico stretched on a litter. When they saw the lord of the castle, however, haltingly approaching on foot, they could contain themselves no longer, but wept in unison, for they knew, not only that Juan Ponce was sore distressed, but that his horse, the gallant steed all in the castle knew and loved, had been killed.

Well, this was not so happy a home-coming for Juan Ponce de Leon as that from Bimini and Florida, nor was there any whit of satisfaction in it; and to soothe his outraged feelings he resolved to leave the island for a while, and perform that long-contemplated voyage to Spain. He waited only to assure himself of Becerrico's convalescence, and then, leaving him again the warden of the castle, trimmed his sails for the nearest port in Spain. Yet again was the faithful Dona Inez left with the children Juan Ponce was the father of, while the galliard cavalier hied himself off across the ocean. But home, and wife, and children (he might have said) would surely await his return, be it never so late; while the king's favor waited no more than time or the tide upon the king's subjects. Months had elapsed since his return from the Bahamas, yet Juan Ponce, who would fain be made adelantado of the lands he had discovered, found himself idling and dallying here, with Ferdinand's court and Ferdinand's favor two thousand miles away. He would no longer delay going to court, there to gamer the harvest he had sown, there to bask in the sunlight of royalty, which he had denied himself so long.

The voyage to Spain was accomplished without incident, and eventually Juan Ponce reached the royal court, where Ferdinand received him in a manner according with his expectations. His fame had long since preceded him, his deeds had been trumpeted throughout the land, and especially had he made himself renowned by his quest for the Fountain of Youth. Some of the vapid courtiers affected to treat his adventure with disdain, and lost no opportunity to rally him about it, saying that it could not have been successful, else Juan Ponce would not then have seemed so grizzled and infirm. They had expected, they said, to see him young and agile, with flowing locks, and beard unstreaked with silver; but instead, behold a gray-beard and a bald-head, exceedingly stiff in the joints!

It was while awaiting reception by the king, the court being then at Burgos for the time, that the beardless witlings assailed the veteran with their jibes and quips, having no respect for his age nor pride in his achievements. They were stay-at-home courtiers, who had never fleshed a sword or held lance at an enemy, and for such as they the old soldier had nothing but contempt. He would not have vouchsafed them notice of any sort; but their gibes touched him in a tender spot, for he certainly had hoped, perhaps expected, to receive rejuvenation in the waters of Bimini.

"The callow striplings!" he muttered, savagely, beneath his breath. "Poco barba, Poco verguenza  (Little beard, little modesty). It is a true saying, and surely these cubs exemplify the same." But aloud he said, grimly smiling upon the youth who thought to tease him: "Antes de mil anos todos seremos calvos, caballeros  (In less than a thousand years we shall all be bald, gentlemen). Thus the proverb, you know, and sooth it may be true." The shouts and laughter that went up were not at his expense, and the echoes had hardly ceased ringing through the hall when an attendant came out with a command for him to appear before the king. Accompanied by his friend and former patron, Pero Nunez de Guzman, grand knight-commander of Calatrava, Ponce de Leon went into an audience with his sovereign.


King Ferdinand.

Ferdinand was then suffering from the illness that finally terminated in his death, two years later, and was greatly changed from the gay, light-hearted monarch whom Juan Ponce remembered as the consort of Queen Isabella. Since he had last seen the king, Isabella had departed, and within a year of her death Ferdinand had married the niece of Louis XII. of France. A child was born to them the very year that Juan Ponce first set foot in Boriquen, but lived only a short while, and thus a new grief was added to the burden borne by Ferdinand—a burden which became greater and heavier as he neared the grave.

But though overborne by cares and greatly afflicted, the king received Juan Ponce most graciously, and a trace of his former gayety appeared in flashes, which set the awkward soldier at his ease when he came to proffer his request for a patent similar to that which had been granted Columbus.

"Aha!" said the king, with a laugh. "So my gallant conquistador would be another Colon? But nay, Juan Ponce de Leon. When we signed that capitulation with Cristobal Colon, you must recall, nothing was known of the world he sailed to soon thereafter. He had faith to believe there was a world; but we were sceptical, and, owning it not, of course gave him all he asked. But, let me say, it is one thing to grant boundless power when nothing is expected to come of it, and quite another to do so when success is almost certain, or at least taken for granted! My faith! Haven't those capitulations been as thorns in my side ever since the return of Colon from his voyage? Never was such a rapacious varlet let loose upon the world before; and never, with my concurrence, will such another be!

"But tell me, Juan Ponce, of your adventures, and describe to me the country you fain would govern. Letters you have sent me, truly; but I have had scant time to peruse them, having been engaged in this business with France and Navarre, the which is hardly settled yet. Now proceed, and you will find me a good listener—for the space of a half-hour, but no longer."

Modestly, even diffidently, Juan Ponce related the things that had happened to him in the years since he had left Spain with Columbus, then more than twenty in number, dwelling especially upon the invasion of Boriquen and the voyage to Florida. He made it evident that he would like to return and settle the newly discovered country, even though he had a castle and estates in Boriquen, so that it was a gracious thing in the king to exclaim, when Juan Ponce had ceased: "Enough! enough! You shall be governor over the islands you have found, and also adelantado of Bimini and Florida!"

King Ferdinand dismissed the soldier with a smile, cutting short his expressions of gratitude by a command to have him taken to the apartments of Queen Germaine, where she and her ladies-in-waiting, he said, would doubtless be glad to hear his story. The bluff old warrior was more alarmed at the prospect of an audience with the young queen than he had ever been in the presence of any enemy whatever; but his sovereign's word was law, and he was led away disconsolate.

But the fair Germaine was not so terrible, he found, after he had been duly presented, and as both the queen and her ladies were perishing of ennui (as they would have expressed it had they told the truth), they gladly welcomed the advent of this gallant cavalier, old as to years, perhaps, though youthful at heart. After the crust of reserve had been broken, Juan Ponce found himself going over with enthusiasm the record of his deeds on land and sea. He told his tale so modestly, yet with such an air of truth and honesty, that his auditors were charmed. Again and again, as he made to retire, they exclaimed against his leaving until another story was forthcoming. Their flattering attention might have turned the head of a weaker man than this sturdy fighter, who was more at home in camp than in court; but the blandishments of beauty were ever lost upon Juan Ponce de Leon.

When he had gone, one of the fair ladies said, with a sigh: "Ah me, your majesty, was he not grand? Such an air of noble dignity, withal he is scarce above medium height, and the portliness of advancing age might mar his figure were he not in armor."

"Yes, as you say, this cavalier is more than interesting," the queen is said to have replied in effect. "I like his deep-set eyes, so black and flashing, the poise of his sturdy shoulders, and the luxuriant beard that ripples down to his corselet. We see few such nowadays—adventurers who have been across the world and helped to conquer it. I almost envy those who lived at court when the great events were happening that shaped the history of Spain."

"They tell me," said another lady, "that knights were more courtly and more venturesome, e'en though it be but twenty years agone, when the Moslems dwelt within Granada. Each knight served one fair mistress, and for her dared death in single combat with the Moor. Think of the exploit of Garcilasso, who slew the giant Moor before the mosque of Granada, now consecrated as a church! And this cavalier saw all these things, and was part of them, perchance."

Interest in the exploits of Ponce de Leon was not confined solely to the ladies of the court, for he was warmly welcomed everywhere as the romantic yet hard-headed cavalier who had made a voyage expressly for the purpose of discovering the secret of eternal youth. Had he not made it, some other would have, for the country had in it adventurers as quixotic as Ponce de Leon. "The Spaniard" of that time says the talented author of Ferdinand and Isabella, "was a knight-errant in its literal sense, roving over seas on which no bark had ever ventured, among islands and continents where no civilized man had ever trodden, and which fancy peopled with all the marvels and drear enchantments of romance; courting danger in every form, combating everywhere, and everywhere victorious. The very odds presented by the defenceless natives among whom he was cast, 'a thousand of whom,' to quote the words of Columbus, 'were not equal to three Spaniards,' was in itself typical of his profession; and the brilliant destinies to which the meanest adventurer was often called (now carving out with, his good sword some 'El Dorado' more splendid than fancy had ever dreamed of, and now overturning some old, barbaric dynasty), were fully as extraordinary as the wildest chimeras which Ariosto ever sang or Cervantes satirized."

It is true, moreover, that "his countrymen who remained at home, feeding greedily on the reports of his adventures, lived almost equally in the atmosphere of romance. A spirit of chivalrous enthusiasm penetrated the very depths of the nation, swelling the humblest individual with lofty aspirations, and a proud consciousness of the dignity of his nature." In this spirit the countrymen of Ponce de Leon welcomed him to Spain, and sped him forth again on his voyage, when, after several months had passed away, everything had been arranged for another expedition. According to the terms of the "capitulation" with the king, he was to have exclusive right to the "island" of Florida and Bimini, settle it at his own cost, and be called, and entitled to be called, "adelantado." But the king was to construct and garrison forts in the island, "send agents to divide the Indians among the settlers, and receive, first a tenth, afterwards a fifth, of all gold that might be found."'

This capitulation, or contract, was signed on September 27, 1514, and shortly after the king ordered the fitting out of three ships, to be well manned and well armed, at the port of Seville. He aided Juan Ponce to that extent, and he extended the time for the conquest and settlement of the country from three years after the time it was dated, to three years from the day of sailing.

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