The morning after the last adventure Don Quixote and his squire were riding along the road, when the knight saw in front of him a man on horseback, with something on his head which looked as if it were made of gold.
‘If my eyes do not deceive me,’ he said, turning to Sancho Panza, ‘here comes one who wears on his head the helmet of Mambrino.’
‘If I had your worship’s leave to speak,’ answered Sancho, who was by this time beginning to learn a little wisdom, ‘I could give many reasons to show that you are mistaken.’
‘How can I be mistaken?’ cried Don Quixote angrily. ‘Do not you see for yourself that a knight is coming towards us, mounted on a grey horse and with a golden helmet on his head?’
‘All that I can see,’ replied the squire, ‘is that the man is mounted on a grey donkey like my own, and he has on his head something that glitters.’
‘What you see,’ answered Don Quixote solemnly, ‘is the helmet of Mambrino.1 Go, stand aside and let me deal with him, for without even speaking to him I will get possession of his helmet, for which my soul has always longed.’
Truth to tell, the real story of the helmet, for so Don Quixote took it to be, was very simple. A rich man who lived in a village only a few miles away had sent for the nearest barber to shave and bleed him. The man started, taking with him a brass basin, which he was accustomed to use, and, as a shower of rain soon came on, he put the basin on his head to save his hat, which was a new one. The ass, as Sancho Panza rightly said, was very like his own.
The good man was jogging comfortably along, thinking what he would like for supper, when suddenly he saw Don Quixote galloping towards him, head bent and lance in rest. As he drew near he cried loudly:
‘Defend yourself, or give me up the helmet, to which you have no right.’
The barber was so taken by surprise that for a moment he did nothing; then he had only just time to escape the lance thrust by sliding off his ass and running so swiftly over the plain that even the wind could scarcely overtake him. In his flight the basin fell from his head, to the great pleasure of Don Quixote, who bade his squire bring it to him.
‘The Unbeliever who wore this helmet first must have had indeed a large head,’ cried he, turning it over in his hands, seeking the vizor; ‘yet, even so, half of it is wanting.’
At this Sancho began to laugh, and his master asked him what he found to divert him so much.
‘I cannot but laugh when I think how large was the head of the Unbeliever,’ replied Sancho gravely, knowing that the knight did not love the mirth of other men. ‘But, to my mind, the helmet looks exactly like a barber’s basin.’
‘Listen to me,’ answered Don Quixote, ‘and I will tell you what has happened. By a strange accident this famous helmet must have fallen to the lot of someone who did not know the value of his prize. But, seeing it was pure gold, he melted half of it for his own uses, and the rest he made into a barber’s basin. Be sure that in the first village where I can meet with a skilled workman I will have it restored to its own shape again, and meanwhile I will wear it as it is, for half a helmet is better than none.’
‘And what,’ inquired Sancho, ‘shall we do with the grey horse that looks so like an ass? The beast is a good beast.’
‘Leave the ass or horse, whichever it pleases you to call it,’ replied the Don, ‘for no knight ever takes the steed of his foe, unless it is won in fair fight. And perchance, when we have ridden out of sight, its master will come back and seek for it.’
Sancho, however, was not overmuch pleased by this speech.
‘Truly the laws of chivalry are strict,’ he grumbled, ‘if they will not let a man change one donkey for another! And is it forbidden to change the pack-saddle also?’
‘Of that I am in doubt,’ replied Don Quixote; ‘and until I have certain information on this point, if your need is great, you may take what you need.’
Sancho hardly expected such good fortune to befall him, and stripping the ass of his harness he speedily put it upon his own beast, and then laid out the dinner he had stolen from the sumpter mule for himself and his master.
Not long after this event, as Don Quixote and his squire were riding along the road, discoursing as they went of matters of chivalry, they saw approaching them from a distance a dozen men or more, with iron chains round their necks, stringing them together like beads on a rosary, and bearing iron fetters on their hands. By their side were two men on horseback carrying firelocks, and two on foot with swords and spears.
‘Look!’ cried Sancho Panza, ‘here come a gang of slaves, sent to the galleys by the king.’
‘What is that you say —sent?’ asked Don Quixote. ‘Can any king send his subjects where they have no mind to go?’
‘They are men who have been guilty of many crimes,’ replied the squire, ‘and to punish them they are being led by force to the galleys.’
‘They go,’ inquired Don Quixote, ‘by force and not willingly?’
‘You speak truly,’ answered Sancho Panza.
‘Then if that is so,’ said the knight, ‘it is my duty to set them free.’
‘But think a moment, your worship,’ cried Sancho, terrified at the consequences of this new idea; ‘they are bad men, and deserve punishment for the crimes they have committed.’
Don Quixote was silent. In fact, he had heard nothing of what his squire had said. Instead he rode up to the galley-slaves, who by this time were quite near, and politely begged one of the soldiers who had charge of them to tell him of his courtesy where these people were going, and why they were chained in such a manner.
The guard, who had never read any of the romances of chivalry, and was quite ignorant of the speech of knights, answered roughly that they were felons going to the galleys, and that was all that mattered to anybody. But Don Quixote was not to be put aside like this.
‘By your leave,’ he said, ‘I would speak with them, and ask of every man the reason of his misfortune.’
Now this civility of the knight made the soldiers feel ashamed of their own rudeness, so one of them replied more gently than before:
‘We have here set down the crimes of every man singly, but if your worship pleases you may inquire of the prisoners yourself. And be sure you will hear all about their tricks, and more too, for it is a mighty pleasure to them to tell their tales.’
The soldier spoke truly; and wonderful were the stories which Don Quixote listened to and believed, until the knight, smitten by compassion, turned to the guards and implored them to set free the poor fellows, whose sins would be punished elsewhere.
‘I ask you to do this as a favour,’ he ended, ‘for I would willingly owe you this grace. But, if you deny me, my arm and my sword will teach you to do it by force.’
‘That is a merry jest indeed,’ cried the soldier. ‘So we are to let go the king’s prisoners just because you tell us to do it. You had better mind your own business, fair sir, and set that pot straight on your head, and do not waste your time in looking for five feet in a cat.’
Don Quixote was so furious at the man’s words that he felled him to the earth with a blow from his sword, while for a moment the other guards stood mute from surprise. Then seizing their weapons they rushed at Don Quixote, who sat firm in his saddle as became a knight, awaiting their onslaught. But for all his valour it would have gone hard with him had not the attention of the soldiers been hastily called off by the galley-slaves, who were taking advantage of the tumult to break their fetters. The chief among them had snatched the sword and firelock of the man whom Don Quixote had overthrown, and by merely pointing it at the other guards he so frightened them that they fled in all directions, followed by a shower of stones from the rest of the captives.
‘Let us depart from here,’ whispered Sancho Panza, knowing better than his master in what a sorry plight they might presently find themselves. ‘If we once reach those hills, none can overtake us.’
‘It is well,’ replied the knight; ‘but first I must settle this matter,’ and, calling together the prisoners, he bade them go with all speed and present themselves before the Lady Dulcinea del Toboso, and say that they had come by the command of the Knight of the Sorrowful Countenance, and further to relate the doughty deeds by which they had been set free.
At this the convicts only laughed, and replied that if they were to fulfil his desires and travel together in a body they would soon be taken captive by their enemies, and would be no better off than before, but that in gratitude for his services they would be willing to pray for him, which they could do at their leisure.
This discourse enraged Don Quixote nearly as much as the words of the guard had done, and he answered the fellow in terms so abusive that the convict’s patience, which was never very great, gave way altogether, and he and his comrades, picking up what stones lay about, flung them with such hearty goodwill at the knight and Rozinante, that at length they knocked him right out of the saddle. The man then dragged the basin from his head, and after dealing him some mighty blows with it dashed it to the ground, where it broke in pieces. They next took the coat which he wore over his armour, and stripped the squire of all but his shirt. Having done this, they went their ways, fearing lest they might be overtaken.
1 Mambrino was one of the Moorish kings, to whom the helmet belonged. He who wore it could not be wounded in battle.
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:52