Tour Of The Caribbean - Casa Blanca
( Originally Published 1925 )
THE walled capital of Puerto Rico will be for ever associated with the life and times of that most romantic adventurer, Juan Ponce de Leon. This picturesque Castilian was a soldier of fortune, who had already served in many campaigns before he embarked with Columbus on his second voyage in 1493.
Ponce de Leon in due course settled in the turbulent, murder-ridden island of Espanola, where he became lieutenant to the governor, and where he perfected himself in the arts of Indian warfare. As a hunter and slayer of Indians he acquired imperishable fame. In 1508 he went with an armed force to Puerto Rico, found the island peopled by the gentle Arawaks, and proceeded, in the Spanish fashion, to wipe them off the face of the earth. They died very hard ; but left no traces of themselves except in records of native risings, of Spanish houses in flames, and of white men stumbled upon in woods, dead and mutilated. In 1509 Ponce de Leon was appointed Governor of Puerto Rico, where, two years later, he founded the city of San Juan Bautista. Here he lived in the Casa Blanca, the White House, which he built for himself by the margin of the harbour.
Time was beginning to tell upon the intrepid soldier. Three years of alert fighting in a treacherous country had sapped his vigour; three years of the tropics had damped that fiery and disdainful spirit which had made him a leader of men. Although he had but reached the age of fifty-two he was already an old man. He who had been the imperious ruler was losing his grip upon the neck of affairs. He who had feared nothing was now haunted by a hundred dreads. The man whose voice had been the voice of a god, had come to be mocked by underlings, and defied by creatures he had lifted from the dust. Like the lion who was once king of the forest, but who had become aged and toothless, he could now only stand with his back against a rock and snarl at those who essayed to snap at him.
If there could return once more the strength and daring of bygone days ! If it were but possible to feel again in his veins the stirring pulse of youth ! What a dream would that be to gloat over, whenever he had turned from the council chamber thwarted, and sore at heart !
As he fretted within the walls of Casa Blanca, pondering these things, he heard some story of an island where was a spring of water, of which all who drank had restored to them the dash and vigour of youth. Here then it seemed was the substance of his longing. At all hazards he would search the world for this fountain of life and find it. The very thought filled his mind with warm fancies and extravagant imaginings. He learned that the spring was in an island called Bimini, away to the north. With the haste of one whose days are few, he fitted out three ships and sailed from Puerto Rico on March 3, 1512, taking his departure from San German on the west of the island.
Now Bimini was to be found—so the soothsayer affirmed—among the Bahamas. It was an unlikely spot for the Fountain of Youth, inasmuch as the Bahamas are a prosaic group of sandstone islets and rocks, poor of soil and but thinly wooded. Some are indeed mere wastes of scrub, given over to sea birds and turtles. They are dangerous of approach, which was a good omen in the eyes of the pursuer of youth, for it may be supposed that Bimini the precious would be guarded by dragons in the form of coral reefs and death-scattering shoals.
Had Ponce de Leon possessed the advantage of consulting the Admiralty "West India Pilot" he would have found it reported (in volume ii.) that among the Bahamas "good water is rather scarce." According to the same authority the Bimini Islands, two in number, are mean and sandy, being " covered with small wood to the height of about forty feet." On the north island "is a small settlement and a resident magistrate ; and vessels in distress may obtain water and supplies sufficient for the moment." It is not stated that the water has any medicinal or magic properties.
In the course of his search the expectant Juan incidentally discovered Florida. He called it Florida, it would seem, because his mind was full of thoughts of the budding flowers that grace the boy and girl time of the year.
He landed at every island or cay he came upon, and as they number some hundreds in this region he was well engaged. He drank of every spring, pool or puddle that the islands could muster. During the course of his experiments on this spa-hunting quest he must have drunk brackish water, dirty water as well as water that made him sick.
Still there was hope in every draught. He would fill his cup at the last discovered spring, would gaze at it with the expectancy of a toper reviewing a precious wine, would gulp it down, and then, drawing himself erect and squaring his shoulders, would wait for that glow in the veins and that tightening of the muscles which would tell that he had reached the fountain that made all men young. Lack of information as to the therapeutics of the desired beverage would involve some uncertainty as to how long it would take for the dose to act. The miracle might work when he was deep in sleep ! Filled with this hope he would spring from his couch in the morning and rush to the mirror, hoping to find reflected there the ruddy cheeks of a lad with down upon his lips, and a merry gleam in his eyes. Alas ! he met instead with the old, familiar, shrunken visage, the lined brow, the wearied eyes, the grey tuft of scanty beard.
Every native that the adventurer encountered was questioned as to the Fountain of Life, although he might as well have been interrogated as to the Binomial Theorem, Every man with whom the Castilian could obtain speech was pressed by the ever repeated, piteous demand, "Tell me the way to Bimini" It was like a child at Christmas time, wandering about with an empty stocking and asking everyone if he had met Santa Claus.
On one small island, on a certain day in his journeying, he found an aged Indian woman. She was the sole human being on the desolate spot. It is probable that she had been left there to die, or had been turned adrift in a canoe without paddles, and had found herself cast upon this particular shore. It may not be too much to suppose that she was the scold and virago of her native village, an old harridan of whose tongue everybody went in dread, yet whom no one dared to murder outright. Perhaps she was carried off one night with her head in a bag, squealing, scratching, and fire-spitting, to be dropped into a canoe when the tide was running strong.
The stately Ponce de Leon asked her, of course, if she knew Bimini and the Spring of Eternal Youth. She replied, with the readiness of Sapphira, that she knew both the island and the fountain well. She was probably not called upon to explain why she herself had not drunk of its water, or why, if she had so drunk, the result was so exceedingly discouraging. She was rowed off to the ship as a pearl of great price, to become her saviour's guide, philosopher and friend.
So the two started off together on the great quest, a curious couple in very truth, the spotless knight, the Sir Galahad of the West, and this toothless, unsavoury old beldame, who jabbered and chattered all day long, and who was constantly dragged out of the hold (where she had been put for peace) to see if this island or that was the real Isle of the Blessed. How the deluded soldier would scan her wrinkled face each time as she looked shoreward ; how he would gaze into her cunning eyes for the light of recognition ; with what impatience would he wait for the first words that dropped from her mumbling lips !
Ponce de Leon and the dirty old woman travelled together for many months, but no fountain was come upon. She became more jovial and less bony, while he only felt himself weighed down more heavily by age as each day passed. After much travail he returned to Puerto Rico and to the Casa Blanca with its restful garden, His faith in the ancient crone, who had been so long his shipmate, never faltered, So deep was he under her spell that he sent her off again upon the high seas with his captain, Juan Perez, to continue the search for this precious fountain which all the time was running recklessly to waste.
The grimy old lady must have become quite a mariner, quite an authority on the Bahamas, as well as a finished expert in the art of lying. After many months of absence, Juan Perez dropped his anchor one day in the harbour over against the White House, and, rowing ashore, came to tell his master, with downcast face and hat in hand, that the quest had failed. What became of that ancient mariner, the lady pilot, is not known. I expect that Juan Perez, maddened by her babble and sick of her story-telling, dropped her once more into a canoe without paddles and reported her—on his return—as having flown away upon a witch's broom-stick.
As to Ponce de Leon, his vanity and restlessness, together with the flattery of his friends, brought him to his end. After some leisured years he felt that he must needs display once more to the admiring world his long latent talents as a fighter of Indians. So with nothing less than a fleet from Spain he proceeded to rid the islands and the adjacent seas of the obnoxious native. He commenced his operations at Guadaloupe, was received not by gentle Arawaks but by a teeth-gnashing company of lusty Caribs, who, without more ado, ambushed and killed most of his men.
The great Indian fighter had failed: He was beaten in his very first essay by a pack of naked cannibals ; so, sick at heart, he returned ingloriously once more to the Casa Blanca. Here he was content to stay and build castles in the air, and strut the part of governor, a peevish, testy, conceited old man, whom folk were disposed to humour compassionately.
In 1521—by which time he was sixty-one and a tiresome old dodderer—he must needs go forth to conquer Florida, and by this exploit eclipse the deeds of Cortes and Pizarro. He made a landing on the coast, with fine bluster and ceremony no doubt, but was driven back to his boats by the Indians, who in the process wounded the crazy old soldier in the thigh. This little rebuff, involving, as it did, much puffing and panting, left him resolved to go home again and resume his gardening. He had had in one day enough of empire-making, being, moreover, fully satisfied that Pizarro was not a man he was disposed to flatter by further imitation.
Poor soul ! his ship reached only so far as Cuba, where he was carried ashore and where he died.
The visitor to San Juan will readily find the Casa Blanca. It stands on a bluff overlooking the harbour, a great white, rambling house, which is still a place of authority, for it is the Headquarters of the United States Army. Of the white house that Ponce de Leon knew and loved, it is safe to say that no stone exists. But the garden is there with its picturesque slopes, its nodding palms, and its glorious outlook across the shining lagoon. Well might the man who dallied in this pleasance sigh for eternal youth, so that the enchanting scene should never fade, or become out of tune or unappreciated.
Surrounding the garden is a most noticeable wall, white from end to end, very ancient and very curiously crenellated. It has about it so wizen a look, that one is tempted to believe that it was built by him who sought the Fountain of Youth, and that a memory of this very garden, with its white wall, survived the medley of arms and men that crowded upon his brain as he lay dying in Cuba.