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Vasco Nunez de Balboa by  Frederick A. Ober
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IMPRISONED AND IN CHAINS

1517

[257] WHILE his enemies were plotting to take his life, Balboa was beyond their reach at Isla Rica, where, all unconscious of the dangers that menaced him, he was completing preparations for the voyage southward to Peru. He had sent for and expected supplies and reinforcements, but while they were, presumably, on the way, he did not abate his diligence for a moment.

He relaxed, however, his strenuous exertions, for the great object of the past months of terrible toils had been in a measure accomplished in the building of the brigantines. While the work went on beneath his eye, he allowed himself a little recreation, and amid the delights of Isla Rica indulged in dreams of future conquests. One evening, while reclining in company with some comrades on a couch of palm-leaves spread upon the [258] sands, he pointed to a particular star in the heavens above them, and said: "There is the planet that holds my fate in its keeping. See you yon star, my friends? Well, I was told by Micer Codro (the Venetian astrologer who was with us, you remember, when we first found these shores) that when that star appeared in this position in the firmament my life would be in jeopardy. But should I survive this period of peril, I would become the richest, the most renowned man in the Indies!

"Now, what think ye, comrades? That was more than three years ago, and, according to Micer Codro's prophecy, I should be in peril of my life; yet here am I, almost within reach of my desires, sound in health, with four brigantines and three hundred good men at my command, and on the point of exploring the great Southern Ocean, which I was the first to find! Out upon all astrologers, say I. That man is surely womanish who gives credit to diviners, and especially to old Micer Codro. Star, I salute thee! Continue thou to shine; but thy baleful radiance is not for Vasco Nunez de Balboa!"

"He was a learned man," replied one of his companions. "Of a truth, I have heard [259] fearsome stories of his sagacity. But what is that? See, yonder on the sea: a canoe approaches. What can fetch a boat hither from the main, save unwelcome tidings?"

"I cannot conceive," rejoined Balboa, "except that the new governor has arrived and it is a summons for us to return. But we shall see as to that, for while the isthmus intervenes between him and me, no power shall stay us nor cause us to delay."

Propelled by the sinewy arms of naked Indians, the canoe darted over the sea and through the surf to the strand, when a man in the garb of a king's official leaped out and approached the group. Going up to Balboa, who was standing expectantly, he bowed low, then said: "Senor Adelantado, a letter I bring you from his excellency the governor."

"Which I receive as his dutiful servant," answered Balboa, taking it in his hand, and reading it by the light of a torch held by one of his aids. "It seems my intended father-in-law is desirous of seeing me and consulting with respect to our projected expedition," he explained to his comrades. "As his wishes are my desires, I shall start in the morning. Meanwhile I am gone, [260] Francisco Companon, you will be in command of the ships and the soldiers. Messenger, what tidings in Antigua del Darien? For, sooth, my father-in-law says not a word as to happenings there. Is all well? Has the new governor arrived? Perchance not, else Pedrarias would not have written."

"The new governor, who was to supersede his excellency, died as he entered the harbor," answered the messenger; but he was silent, or evasive, as to other happenings at Antigua.

On the shore of the mainland other messengers were in waiting, who, finding that Balboa had set out unarmed and without a suspicion of the fate that was in store for him, consulted together as to the advisability of informing him. They did not do so, however, until the mountains were passed and the little party drew near Acla, when, won by Balboa's frankness and open conduct, their sympathies prevailed over their fears of the governor's vengeance, and they informed him of the snare into which he was hurrying. Balboa was astounded, and at first refused to believe in the perfidy of the man to whose daughter he was pledged in marriage.

[261] "I am innocent of any evil intention," he finally exclaimed. "Faithfully have I served Pedrarias, and faithfully have I served my king. No, I will not retreat," he said, in answer to a suggestion that he should escape while the opportunity offered. "I have done nothing worthy of punishment, and I will go forward, for my innocence I can prove."

"To-morrow it will be too late," answered one of the messengers, "for at Acla awaits Francisco Pizarro, with a command, to arrest you. Adelantado, we entreat you: return while you may."

"Nay, never! My back I have never turned to an enemy yet. But I cannot believe that Pedrarias will continue my enemy; and as for Francisco Pizarro, have I not reared him in the profession of arms? Have we not campaigned together, fought and starved together?"

Sorrowfully, then, the little band of unarmed Spaniards held on their way to Acla, in the environs of which they were met by Pizarro and a company of soldiers, who barred the way. Pizarro drew from his corselet an order of arrest and proceeded to read it, while Balboa regarded him with [262] reproachful astonishment. When it was concluded, he exclaimed: "How is this Francisco? You were not wont to come out in this fashion to receive me!" His former comrade made no reply, for he was only obeying the orders of his superior, and had no alternative but to choose between the two: Pedrarias, supreme in authority, and Balboa, discredited commander. He chose to serve the former, and, as shown in the light of future events, he may have chosen wisely, for it was under Pedrarias, then governor of Panama, that he made his first voyage southward, eventually achieving the conquest of Peru, and tearing Balboa's laurels from his brow.

At a muttered command from Pizarro, two soldiers stepped forward with manacles, which they placed upon Balboa's wrists and ankles, and in chains he was conducted to Acla and thrown into prison. There he was soon visited by the wily Pedrarias, who could scarce conceal his exultation at having in his power the man he hated because his reputation was greater than his own. But, concealing his true feelings, he said to Balboa: "Be thou not afflicted, my son. Thou art here through the charges brought against [263] thee by Alonzo de Puente, who, being the king's treasurer, hath compelled me to this proceeding. But, doubtless, an investigation will not merely establish thy innocency, but serve to render thy zeal and loyalty to the crown the more conspicuous."

Balboa made no reply, for, frank and generous himself, without the power of dissembling, he despised, detested a hypocrite. He knew that Puente's charge was a mere pretence behind which were cloaked deeper designs than had yet been revealed; and so it proved, for when, in the course of a few days, Pedrarias was satisfied that the grounds of the legal process were sufficiently strong to secure Balboa's conviction of treason and enable him to put his unhappy prisoner to death, he threw off the mask. Returning to the prison, he said to Balboa, with the hard and threatening countenance which he habitually wore: "Hitherto I have treated you as a son, because I gave you credit for fidelity to the king, and to me, in his name. Since, however, I find myself mistaken, you have no longer to expect from me the conduct of a father, but of a judge and an enemy, as I shall henceforth treat you."

"As for your feelings towards me," [264] indignantly replied the prisoner, "it matters not to me one whit; but as to my conduct towards the king, my sovereign, your charges are false! If what you impute to me were true, holding as I did at my command four ships and three hundred men, by whom I am beloved, why should I not have gone straight to sea without permitting anything to impede my purpose? Safe in the consciousness of my innocence, I returned at your command; and little did I dream of being treated so rigorously and with such enormous injustice. This is my reward for trusting you: a dungeon, with slander, indignities, and chains."

"Yea, traitor," rejoined Pedrarias, hotly, "a dungeon is truly your merited reward for despising the alliance I would have made with you. Truly, I shudder to think of what my family has escaped: of the foul blot which the marriage of my daughter with one of your stamp would have spread upon my proud escutcheon. And all the time you had an Indian mistress, for whom you sent to accompany you on the expedition which would have placed you well beyond my reach. But know, traitor and scoundrel, that she has confessed, and thus the means [265] by which you would have covered my daughter's name with obloquy have been those for encompassing your own destruction!"

"Who, Cacica, the pledge of amity between me and Careta? She has confessed? Nothing had she to confess, for I sent her no message. After my word was given to you that I would not see her, of a truth, I saw her no more. You are a liar, Pedro Pedrarias, and were I but free, with my good sword in hand, fain would I render you unable to utter more false statements against me and those who were once true to me!"

"Ha! Would you, then? Here, jailer, double this fellow's irons, and if he protest, weight him to the floor with them! My throat you would slit, eh? Old as I am, you will find that when it comes to the cutting of throats, Don Pedrarias de Avila needs not rely upon his own unaided sword. There is one in my employ who wields a more potent weapon—mark you—and that is Gomez, the headsman. I go to tell him now to sharpen his axe for four!"

"For four?" exclaimed Balboa, as the old man retreated from the cell. "Who else have you enmeshed in your net, base [266] wretch? Will not one victim suffice you? Who are they? Tell me."

"Who?" repeated the old man, mockingly, peering at his victim through the bars. "Why, who but Hernan de Arguello, Hernan Munos, Valderrabano, and Botello. Were they simply your friends, it were enough; but they are more: they are traitors to the king, and to me, Pedrarias de Avila, governor-in-chief of Darien, whose authority you have endeavored to usurp."

"They, my officers, condemned to die merely because they were friends, and loyal to me," groaned Balboa as, left in the solitude of his cell, he sank helpless to the floor. "Truly is this Pedrarias a fiend, an intimate of the devil, and scarce human! And they will die, being my friends, but no man's enemies."

Realizing that he had proceeded so far it was impossible to leave Balboa alive in the same land with himself, Pedrarias left no stone unturned to accomplish his death. Urged to activity by promise of the command of Balboa's expedition in the event of his death, the vile lawyer, Espinosa, found an indictment against the five which warranted his master in proclaiming they were [267] doomed to die for treason against the king. The proclamation was made at Ada, and not in Antigua, where resided most of the settlers, because, as Pedrarias knew, it would provoke an uprising of the people.

While they were supremely loyal to the crown, and, in their timidity, afraid to declare against its representative, Pedrarias, the people of Darien were yet well inclined towards Vasco Nunez de Balboa, and most of them his friends, because of his possessing many lovable qualities which the governor lacked.

When, affrighted at the vindictiveness of Pedrarias, Espinosa explained to him that the verdict against Balboa was technical only, and that on account of his great services he should be inclined to mercy, the fiend replied: "No, if he has merited death, let him suffer it. Die he must, and shall, and on your head be his blood!"


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