Ferdinand de Soto - Frederick Ober

Ferdinand and Isabella


It may be presumed that before proceeding further with the career of Ferdinand de Soto in Peru, the reader may wish to learn something of his previous life, and how he came to the New World in search of adventure. Acting upon this assumption, we will turn back a few leaves in his biography, and investigate the scant records of his early life as they exist in Spain. Like his great countrymen, Pizarro and Cortes, he was a native of Estremadura, which seems to have been prolific in sturdy sons and daughters. Unlike them, he was born a gentleman, "by all four descents"—which means that not only his father and mother were of "gentle" birth, but also their parents as well. Then again, he was born in the noble town of Jeres de los Caballeros, anciently a seat of the Templars, the ruins of whose castle may still be traced.

Some have given his birthplace as Barcarota, in the same province of Estremadura; but the majority of his biographers agree on Jeres, or Xeres (pronounced Hayrds), which lies about forty miles south of Badajoz, where resided a family, that of Don Pedro Arias de Avila, with which he became intimately connected. It was in one of the ruinous castles of Jeres that Ferdinand de Soto was born; but so obscure was his family at that time, that no exact record was kept of the occurrence. The year, however, was probably 1500, or 1501, and it is generally agreed that he made his advent with the sixteenth century.

Though his family belonged to the hidalguia, or nobility, it must have been quite poor, for on the death of his parents, which occurred when he was a youth, Ferdinand was thrown upon the world. Fortunately for him, he had won the regard of Don Pedro de Avila, the Count of Punorostro, who occupied one of the several castles for which ancient Badajoz is famous. This nobleman invited him to make his home at Badajoz, and is said to have supported him at the University of Salamanca for a number of years, where he acquired some knowledge of books, but not enough to make him eligible for a profession. As a member of the Spanish nobility, indeed, it was not necessary that he should be proficient in much besides horsemanship, sword-play, fencing, and the like, and in these he led all his young companions. Possessing a handsome face, muscular limbs, and a shapely body, combined with a happy disposition and gallant demeanor, he became a great favorite at the tourney, where he won the admiration of the fair sex, and took prizes in every competitive encounter with the caballeros. There was no other horseman like him in all Estremadura, neither a gallant who was so reckless and jovial with the cavaliers, but at the same time held in such high repute by the ladies.

Now, Don Pedro had a family, comprising several sons and daughters, as well as a wife who was so nearly related to royalty that she entertained the highest hopes of great alliances for her children. She was, in fact, a niece of the Marchioness of Moya, that beloved friend and constant companion of Queen Isabella of Spain, who was with her when she died, and who nearly lost her life by an assassin's dagger intended for her royal mistress. The Marchioness of Moya, it may be recalled, has the credit of inclining Queen Isabella's ear to the story told by Columbus when he went begging for some one to send him out to find a world. Her niece, the Dona Isabel, was also a favorite at court, at which, as soon as they became old enough, she presented her daughters, two of whom were noted for their beauty. The most promising of them all was the second daughter, named after her mother, Isabel de Bobadilla, and whom her parents had decided should marry no less than a prince of the royal blood. They had, in truth, picked out the very prince she should espouse; but, alas for their plans! Isabel fell in love with Ferdinand de Soto.

Ferdinand, of course, had fallen in love with her; but being only a poor cavalier, and regarded in the light of a dependant of the family, with no fortune but his sword, and that, perhaps, a borrowed one, he was a long time in declaring his affection. This should be said to his honor; but such a condition of things could not exist forever, it must be admitted, and the day came when each became acquainted with the affection of the other. And, what was very bad for them, Don Pedro became acquainted with it also! He was away when the affair first developed so far that Ferdinand first spoke of his love, having sought and obtained the position of governor of Darien. It was a position which the king had no right to give him, as it belonged really to Vasco Nunez de Balboa, who had fought the natives of Darien, subdued the province, and also discovered the Pacific Ocean, before Don Pedro received his appointment.

But "might was right" with the king and Don Pedro, and the latter sailed from Spain in the year 1514 to take possession of his province. What he did there has a bearing on the fortunes of De Soto, else it would not be detailed in this connection; but it was of vastly greater consequence to poor Balboa, who lost, not only all his hard-earned possessions, but his head as well, which Don Pedro caused to be cut off in 1517. From this it will be seen that Ferdinand de Soto's prospective father-in-law was not the sort of man to be trifled with. In very truth, he was one of the most cruel and tyrannical of all those Spaniards who went out to conquer the natives of the New World. Not alone that, but he was peculiarly ferocious in his cruelty, taking delight in the infliction of pain and even torture upon the innocent natives of his territory.

Imagine, then, the reception he gave poor Ferdinand when, the old tyrant having returned to Spain, the young man threw himself at his feet and announced his love for Isabel. At first he was speechless from indignation, then, in a voice trembling with passion, he bellowed: "What? You—poverty-stricken wretch that you are, one who has sat at my table and lived in my castle for years! You, dastard, venture to aspire to the hand of the daughter of Don Pedro Arias de Avila, Count of Punorostro, an hidalgo of ancient lineage, friend of the king and the queen? You must be mad! Mad, I say! Do you hear? Begone, ingrate, and never let me see thy face again!"

The young man thought it prudent to retire, not only from the immediate presence of Don Pedro, but from the castle; but before he departed from Badajoz he somehow secured a final interview with his beloved. She appeared at the grated window of her room, which overlooked a garden, and he, standing beneath, amid the myrtles and the rose-trees, poured forth his woes. She listened in silence, then said, in sorrowful ac- cents: "Ferdinand, it is true, you cannot remain here longer. My father is a cruel man, and he never forgives! He thinks you have betrayed a trust, that you have committed a crime, in loving me."

"But I do love you, Isabel. I will go away, but I shall return; and you—you will be true to me?"

"Always, Ferdinand. Always. But do not allow my father to get you in his power. Remember what he did to Vasco Nunez [Balboa]. Did he not behead him? And for what? Merely because he aspired too greatly. And—and he was betrothed to my sister, too! Ah me, that I should be compelled to say it—but my father is a vengeful man!"

It was true, as Isabel had said, that in order to get the gallant Balboa completely in his power, Don Pedro had pledged him his eldest daughter in marriage, then had turned and slain him. Ferdinand pressed her to elope with him, as soon as her father should return to Darien; but she had too high a sense of honor and of her obligations to her family to consent.

"No," she mournfully replied, "it cannot be. He will return; but he will not leave you here to plot in his absence. He is too wise for that. And, being himself deceitful, he will not trust me, either. Ferdinand, he will compel you to go with him, and—and I see no way other than that you must go."

"Compel!" replied De Soto, scornfully. "Isabel, no man hath ever compelled me yet. And again, he has driven me from him."

"Yes, but that was when in a rage. He will recall you, Ferdinand, and (though I warn you to beware of his friendship), it may be, that way your fortune lies, beloved."

"Ah, that would impel me," declared De Soto, warmly. "If he does invite me, surely I will go to that land of gold, where quickly I may win a fortune, perchance fame. Then I will return, Isabel."

"And I shall await you, Ferdinand, even through long years!"

This was the purport of their conversation, in the last meeting between Ferdinand and Isabel, and it fell out as she had predicted. Informed by her governess that Isabel's heart was in the keeping of the young cavalier, Don Pedro at first stormed and raged, declaring that she should die rather than become the bride of an impecunious nobleman like De Soto. Then, as he grew calmer, he took counsel with himself and dissembled. He sent for Ferdinand and asked him if he would accept a captain's commission in the expedition he was then preparing for Darien. He pictured the land of promise, rich in vast possibilities for the young and ardent adventurer; he assured him that wealth and distinction awaited him in that land, where, as the favorite of the governor, he would be rapidly promoted.

"Enough, Don Pedro," exclaimed De Soto. "I will serve you faithfully; but I ask no favors, only an opportunity for winning my way with my sword."

"That you shall have," replied Don Pedro. "Darien is the land of opportunities, and you may carve out an empire. Sooth, there will be blood enough to spill, and gold enough for all!"

Don Pedro was as good as his word. Overjoyed to have De Soto in his power, and relieved at being able to part him so easily from his daughter, he advanced the money for a splendid outfit, and gave him a commission as captain of a troop. They sailed for Darien in the year 1519, with a gallant company of fortune-seekers, most of whom "found their graves in the land whither they had gone to dig for gold."

As Ferdinand was about embarking, he was handed a note from Isabel, containing two lines, merely: "Dearest, remember my promise, and remember my warning!" Her promise—to remain faithful always; her warning—against the treachery of her own father.

Ferdinand de Soto pondered her words, and took heed. That he escaped the snares set for him by Don Pedro, was owing to the watchfulness of Isabel; that he held to higher aims and loftier purposes than his companion conquistadores, was because of his love for her and the consciousness that in the end she was to be his reward.

He was noble by nature; but many noble natures became perverted in that prolonged hunt for gold; many a man of honorable instincts became a monster of cruelty when pitted against the savages of Darien and Panama. It was, however, the universal testimony of De Soto's companions that he was constantly humane to the unfortunate Indians whom he was ordered by Don Pedro to torture or destroy. To women and children, especially, he was tender and considerate; thus many a poor wretch was saved from suffering through the love that existed between Isabel de Bobadilla and Ferdinand de Soto!

Old Don Pedro, or "Pedrarias," as he was sometimes called, dissembled well; but his settled purpose, which was to destroy his daughter's suitor at the earliest opportunity, was perfectly apparent to De Soto. It was no secret, even, among the men of his command, who, seeing the unequal fight that was being carried on, were the closer drawn to him, through sympathy. They soon became his pronounced partisans, and would follow him through fire, if need be, when he ordered them. Though never a word was spoken as to this between the captain and his men, the latter frequently foiled Pedrarias in his efforts to find a joint in De Soto's armor, through which he might thrust a poisoned weapon.

Ferdinand himself, while ever alert, always treated Don Pedro with the deference due to a benefactor, and the father of one whom he loved better than his life. As time went by, and Pedrarias found himself continually foiled in his evil purpose, he became nearly insane with rage. Indeed, it is doubtful if he were not insane during his entire term as governor of Darien and Nicaragua. For what man in his right mind would order, as he did often and again, the extermination of people who had never offended, save by withholding from him the gold they found in the forest, and which was theirs by right? And it was almost invariably Captain de Soto's troop of horsemen that was ordered on this disgusting service. Thus a twofold object was attained by crafty Pedrarias: the extermination of the natives, and the decimation of the detested troop.

As he did not accompany the troops on their forays, he was not aware, at first, that his orders were disobeyed, and that the poor natives were oftener warned of an attack than sufferers from it. At last, the suspicious old governor sent out a creature of his company to spy upon the doings of De Soto in the field, and this man reported the true condition of affairs. When he heard it, Don Pedro nearly choked with rage. "Ho!" he exclaimed. "That is it! Instead of putting those red scoundrels to the sword, and tearing them to pieces with the dogs, he merely sacks their dwellings and then allows them to return. Little wonder that I have not received gold enough, in the months just past, to pay the expenses of my household!

"Now, go you, Captain Perez, and tell that squeamish son of a nobody, Fernan Soto, that my orders are for all villages to be razed, or burned to the ground, and for all Indians to be killed. He is not to spare a single one, remember, and you are to see that he does as I command."

This Captain Perez was scarcely less ferocious than Pedrarias himself—he could not be more so—and, moreover, he hated De Soto for his popularity. So he gladly undertook the errand that was to result in his humiliation; but when he delivered the orders he met with such a reception that he returned like a whipped cur to his master. He found De Soto sitting easily on his horse, superintending the collecting of tribute from some Indians of a forest hamlet, who were only too glad to escape with their lives, and were bringing him all their portable possessions.

He heard Perez through, disdainfully and in silence, then replied: "My life and my services are, of course, always at my superior's commands, and I shall do his bidding—so long as I can do so without besmirching my character as a Spanish cavalier. But in this instance, Captain Perez, it would seem that the service to be performed could more fittingly be done by yourself! I am surprised at Don Pedro's lack of discrimination, and this, if you like, you may tell him from me."

This was the reply, in substance, which Perez carried back to Pedrarias, and, as the ferocious captain had the reputation of being in his element while massacring unarmed Indians and burning their dwellings, he took it as an insult. In this view he was supported by Pedrarias, who told him, in effect, that were he a younger man, this insolence should not go unpunished. "But, alas!" he exclaimed, smiling significantly, "I am no longer able to hold my own on the field of honor. Old age has palsied my arm, and perhaps, also, it has enfeebled my constitution, for I seem to lack courage to meet this insolent young man and chastise him as he deserves!"

This hint was not lost upon Perez, who, as Pedrarias knew, of course, was a noted duelist. He had already killed several men and had never, himself, been harmed. A challenge was promptly sent to De Soto and as promptly accepted. Feeling assured that the young man's doom was surely sealed, Pedrarias was in high glee, and issued invitations to all the officials and dignitaries of his capital, which was then at Panama, the city he had founded.

A noted and numerous assemblage witnessed the combat, which took place on the plain outside the city. Though each man had his partisans, and it was with difficulty that Ferdinand restrained his troopers from assaulting his opponents, fair play was given, and the fight proceeded according to the "code of honor." It was to be a sword-fight, and to the death. As the combatants stepped into the arena, a murmur of admiration went around the throng, chiefly on account of De Soto's gallant appearance and his youth, as contrasted with the savage aspect of his grizzled opponent.

Ferdinand was the embodiment of Spanish chivalry, in the eyes of the dames and gentlemen who loved Spain for her glorious traditions. He seemed a typical knight-errant, clad as he was in shining armor, tall, erect, confident of bearing, and sweeping the assemblage with his flashing glances. He reminded the veterans of the Moorish war (who, under King Ferdinand, had driven the Moslems from Andalusia) of their knightly defender, Garcilaso, when he went forth to meet the Moor in mortal combat on the vega  of Granada.

Many a prayer was muttered for his success, and many a scowling glance was cast at old Pedrarias, who, crafty dissembler that he was, could not conceal his satisfaction. The combat lasted two long hours, and its various stages might have been followed by scanning the features of Don Pedro, who cried out in delight when Ferdinand received a scratch, and growled like a lion when his champion seemed in danger.

As Ferdinand received several slight wounds during the protracted conflict, while his opponent remained untouched, Pedrarias seemed to have no doubt as to the issue. The old soldier forced the fighting from the first, Ferdinand remaining mostly on the defensive, having all he could do to parry the lightning-like blows and thrusts that were rained upon him. But, through it all, he kept himself cool and collected, never once losing temper nor allowing himself to be taken off his guard.

From the very fact that the fierce Perez had forced the fighting, he had, naturally, expended his strength in doing so, while Ferdinand had held his in reserve. As the old duelist's thrusts became feebler, those of his adversary became more forceful, until at last the veteran was compelled to act wholly on the defensive. He was finally forced upon his knees, while, with a rapid upward cut, Ferdinand gashed his sword-hand at the wrist. His weapon fell to the ground, whither, in attempting to recover it, Perez swiftly followed. He was then completely at the mercy of Ferdinand, who, planting a foot upon his breast, and holding the point of his sword at his throat, demanded submission. A single word would have saved the surly veteran's life, but, game to the last, he refused to utter it.

"Very well," exclaimed the magnanimous victor. "Then I give back to you a life not worth the taking, since it is not worth the asking." He removed his foot, and, carefully wiping his sword, returned it to its scabbard.