In the previous episode, Don Quixote and Sancho Panza spent the night building their courage to investigate fearsome noises which turned out to be a waterfall and cloth mill. As they came away from there, they saw a barber wearing his brass basin on his head to keep his hat dry in the rain. Don Quixote took this to be Mambrino’s helmet, which held great significance to him that was lost on his squire. The knight drove the barber away and took the basin, and Sancho Panza the man’s donkey.
When Don Quixote looked up he saw to his surprise twelve men wearing shackles and chained in a long line. They were plodding along the road with four men escorting them: two mounted and bearing muskets, and two on foot. Sancho recognised them as convicts on their way to crew the King’s galleys, but when he mentioned this was a forced march, Don Quixote decided that no one should be forced, and that he had a duty to liberate them.
As the escorts reached the pair, the knight asked them to explain why their men were being forced anywhere. One of the escorts replied that they were all convicts and confirmed that they were on their way to the galleys. However, he was unable to explain to Don Quixote their individual reasons, so the knight questioned the men one by one.
The first to be asked said it was because of love, although that turned out to be a euphemism for theft of a basket of clothes. The second wouldn’t answer for himself, but the first explained that he was there because he was a canary, which turned out to mean that he’d confessed under torture that he was a horse-thief. The third of the convicts said that he was there because of his lack of money, which the knight said that he would have covered.
The next convict had been a pimp, which Don Quixote said didn’t justify his punishment. Eventually, the knight concluded that it was his duty to set them free, and for their guards to release them. Their sergeant said this was a joke, and told Don Quixote to clear off. The knight suddenly knocked the sergeant to the ground with his pike. The other escorts attacked Don Quixote, but the convicts had broken their chain and were already busy removing their shackles, with Sancho’s assistance. The squire seized the sword and musket from the fallen sergeant. As he waved the firearm at the escorts they turned and ran, pursued by rocks hurled by the convicts.
Fearing that the guards would return with support, Sancho convinced his master that they should go quickly to hide in the forest. Before departing, Don Quixote addressed the convicts, telling them to go to the Lady Dulcinea to pay their respects and convey news of this adventure. However, one of the convicts replied that they couldn’t, which angered the knight. The convicts started throwing stones at their liberators.
This hail of stones knocked Don Quixote to the ground, where one of the men took Mambrino’s helmet, broke it into pieces, and started to strip the pair of their clothing before they left the scene.
Don Quixote and his horse Rocinante, who had also fallen under the bombardment, lay next to one another. The knight expressed his regret at having done good to unappreciative rabble, but Sancho was sure that he still hadn’t learned his lesson. The squire warned his master of the imminent danger of the Holy Brotherhood of Toledo. After a little argument, they mounted and rode away towards the mountains to find some rough country to hide in.
Once they were safe in the Sierra, the knight spotted a travel bag on the ground. This contained several clean shirts, a bound notebook, and a pile of gold coins which the knight gave to his squire. They were speculating how these came to be left there when Don Quixote read out a sonnet from the notebook. There was a letter on the following page referring to its author’s impending death, and his love for a married woman. As his master looked through later pages, Sancho searched the bag meticulously in case there was any more gold hidden in it.
They mounted and rode off. Don Quixote then caught a glimpse of a man on the hill in front of them, who was leaping around the bushes half-naked. He decided that this strange figure was the owner of the bag he had found, and that he would find him no matter how long it took. He told Sancho to dismount and walk with his donkey to one side of the hill, so that he could cover the other. His squire was too fearful to leave his master’s side, and grew worried that he’d have to return the gold coins if this stranger proved to be their owner.
In a stream a little way around the hillside they found a dead mule, which they suspected had been the stranger’s. Just then a herd of goats appeared with an old man tending them. He came down, and they talked about the dead mule which he said had been lying there for six months. The goatherd knew of the travel bag too, but wouldn’t touch it for fear of bad luck. Sancho insisted that they hadn’t touched it either.
The old goatherd explained that a young man had arrived on that mule six months earlier, looking for the wildest part of the Sierra. A few days later, he turned up again and stole all the bread and cheese from their supply donkey before disappearing again. Later they found him hiding in the hollow of a tree, sunburned and his clothes in tatters. The herdsmen offered him food, but he wouldn’t say who he was, other than telling them that he was doing penance.
He was obviously of high rank, and as he was talking he suddenly fell silent, as if in the grip of madness. He attacked one of them for no apparent reason, calling him Fernando. After the other herdsmen had pulled him away, the stranger ran off and hid in the bushes, since when he had come down from the hill from time to time. The old man had decided to take him to the nearest town to see if he could be cured.
As they were talking, the stranger appeared in a nearby gorge and made his way towards them. Don Quixote dismounted and embraced him as if he was an old friend. The young man pushed him away gently, and prepared to speak.
That completes the twenty-third 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.