In the previous episode, after they stayed the night with a group of goatherds, Don Quixote and Sancho Panza attended the burial of a local scholar and shepherd who died as a result of his unrequited love for a young shepherdess. She appeared at the burial and denied responsibility for his death, asserting that no woman should be compelled to love someone just because they had fallen in love with her. She then disappeared into the forest. Those attending the burial dispersed, with Don Quixote in pursuit of the young woman, intending to offer her his services as a knight errant.
Don Quixote and his squire Sancho Panza rode into the forest, searched for the shepherdess, but still couldn’t find her when the day became hot. They settled near a cool stream, leaving their mounts to wander freely as they ate what they could find in the donkey’s saddle-bags. Rocinante seized the opportunity to make the acquaintance of some local mares, shedding his saddle on the way. The muleteers who owned those mares didn’t share Rocinante’s enthusiasm, so beat Don Quixote’s horse with their staffs.
Seeing this, Don Quixote was incensed at their mistreatment of his charger, and brandishing his sword he led his squire in an attack on the muleteers. After he’d cut open the shoulder of one of the men, the muleteers surrounded the pair and laid into them with their staffs, knocking them both to the ground before they rushed away with their mares.
Sancho and his master were left groaning in pain, the squire distancing himself from any future combat. The two men argued on, Sancho wanting to avoid all conflict, Don Quixote pressing steadfastly on no matter what the pain or danger. They eventually got Rocinante back onto his feet, loaded the knight onto the donkey’s back, and Sancho led them on foot.
They headed towards the road, and after a couple of miles came upon an inn, which Don Quixote took to be a castle. As they arrived the innkeeper asked what was wrong with the man, who remained slumped over the donkey. The squire explained that his master had fallen from a rock and done himself a mischief to his ribs. They were quickly attended to by a bevy of pretty women under the supervision of the innkeeper’s wife, who turned out to be unusually charitable.
Soon Don Quixote had laid himself down on the thin mattress of his bed up in a former hayloft. The ladies covered his bruised body with ointment, as Sancho explained that despite appearances his master really hadn’t been beaten, but the rock from which he fell had lots of sharp edges. When Sancho admitted to being badly bruised himself, he had to say that it was the shock of the knight’s fall which had caused his own bruising. Don Quixote them expressed his gratitude to the innkeeper’s wife and her helpers in such a convoluted way that none of the ladies understood a word that he said, other than he had thanked them.
The muleteer who was sharing their room in the loft of the inn had arranged a night of pleasure with one of those who had attended to the knight, a half-blind and very short young woman from Asturia. She had promised to come up to his bed once all the guests were asleep. To get to the muleteer’s bed, she first had to pass the narrow and uncomfortable bed of Don Quixote, then the humble mat occupied by Sancho.
Meanwhile, Don Quixote had decided that the innkeeper’s daughter, to his mind the princess of the castle, had fallen in love with him despite his loyal devotion to his lady Dulcinea. When the Asturian woman tiptoed into their bedroom, he stretched his arms out to pull her over to sit on his bed, thinking she was the young princess. He then launched into an elaborate account of his chivalric allegiance to Dulcinea, which drew the attention of the muleteer.
The Asturian was trying to break free from Don Quixote’s grasp as the muleteer crept up and threw a hefty punch at his mouth, drawing blood. His assailant then stood on the knight’s bruised ribs, but the frail bed couldn’t bear the combined load and collapsed to the floor with a crash.
The noise awoke the innkeeper, who guessed that the Asturian was involved, so started to make his way upstairs. She took fright at the sound of his approach, and took shelter in the next bed.
Sancho, suddenly awoken, flailed at the woman with his fists, which she fought back with her own punches, and they both rose to their feet. When the innkeeper arrived, he started to punish the woman. In no time at all, the muleteer was hitting Sancho, who was hitting the Asturian woman, who was hitting him back, as the innkeeper was hitting her, all at a furious pace. Even when the innkeeper’s lamp went out, they each continued to thump one another.
Just then they were joined by an officer of the law, from the Holy Brotherhood of Toledo, who was staying there that night. Completely misreading the situation in the dark, he first grasped Don Quixote, who by now was lying senseless amid the ruins of his bed. When his body didn’t move, the officer thought that he was dead, and immediately cried that no one leave the inn because of the murder.
At that, everyone involved fled: the innkeeper back to his room, the muleteer to his bed on the other side of the loft, the Asturian woman to her bed in the garret, leaving only Sancho Panza and Don Quixote where they were.
Don Quixote had recovered consciousness, and called out to Sancho in the dark, asking if he was asleep. His squire asked how he was supposed to do that. The knight concluded that the castle was haunted, and tried to explain to Sancho how the princess had visited him just before he had been struck a great blow in his mouth by the unseen hand of an enchanted Moor who was guarding her. Sancho told his master that he had been beaten even more severely, and complained again about getting more than his fair share of misadventure.
The officer of the law then entered with a lamp and, pleased to see the knight was very much alive again, asked Don Quixote how he was. The knight was surprised at his lack of courtesy, causing the pair of them to exchange insults until the officer smashed his lamp against Don Quixote’s head, plunging the room into darkness again.
Presuming that the officer of the law was the enchanting Moor, Sancho stumbled through the dark towards the innkeeper’s bedroom, where he bumped into the officer. When the squire asked for some rosemary, oil, salt and wine to tend to his master’s bruising, the officer presumed that he was mad. The innkeeper provided the ingredients for Don Quixote to make himself a healing balsam which he then poured into an oil tin. To test his ointment, the knight drank what was left in the pot in which he had prepared it, and promptly vomited it all back.
Once Don Quixote’s stomach had purged itself of the balsam, he rested for three hours, then felt cured. Seeing this miracle, Sancho Panza tried the same, but the effects were quite different, convincing the poor squire that he was just about to die. His master suggested that might be because the medicine was intended for knights rather than their squires, which only upset Sancho more.
Then the balsam had its full effect on Sancho, whose body expelled it forcefully from both ends, sometimes simultaneously, rendering the mat and his bedding unfit for further use. Eventually those effects wore off, but instead of feeling rejuvenated, Sancho was so weak that he couldn’t stand.
Don Quixote wasn’t going to be held back by Sancho’s condition, so went down and saddled Rocinante himself, helped his squire dress and load the donkey up, and mounted his horse. Before he left the inn, he helped himself to a short pike for use as a lance, then made a lofty parting speech to the innkeeper, who asked him to pay for his night’s stay at his inn.
The knight was taken aback at being told that it wasn’t a castle at all, and made an excuse for not paying before spurring Rocinante on and heading off. The innkeeper turned to Sancho Panza and demanded that he paid instead. Although the squire echoed the claims of his master, the innkeeper wasn’t going to be put off this time. Nine of the other guests staying at the inn spontaneously pulled Sancho from his donkey, threw him in a blanket, then took him outside and started tossing him into the sky.
Sancho’s cries grew steadily as he flew ever higher, eventually attracting Don Quixote’s attention and forcing him to turn round and gallop slowly back to the inn.
After the knight had hurled a torrent of invective at those tormenting his squire, the nine men grew tired of their game and sat Sancho back on his donkey. The Asturian woman brought him out a jug of water, but the knight yelled at him to drink two drops of his balsam instead. Remembering his recent encounter with this evil substance, Sancho told his master to keep his balsam, and proceeded to take his first gulp from the jug. When he realised it was water, he asked the woman for some wine, which she paid for herself.
Once he had drunk his fill of wine, Sancho spurred on his donkey and escaped from the inn without paying a thing. What he didn’t notice though was that he’d left his saddle-bags behind, which the innkeeper kept in lieu of payment. Sancho Panza and Don Quixote finally rode away.
That completes the seventeenth chapter of the first book of Don Quixote.
Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, trans John Rutherford (1604, 2000) Don Quixote, Penguin, ISBN 978 0 140 44909 9.
Roberto González Echevarría (2015) Cervantes’ Don Quixote, Yale UP, ISBN 978 0 300 19864 5.
Roberto González Echevarría (ed) (2005) Cervantes’ Don Quixote, A Casebook, Oxford UP, ISBN 978 0 19 516938 6.