In the previous episode, Don Quixote and Sancho Panza were still at the roadside inn when there arrived four masked horsemen escorting a woman, also with her face covered. It transpired that the woman was Luscinda and one of the horsemen Fernando. After a tense reconciliation, Fernando agreed to return to his original wife Dorotea, and to allow Luscinda to go back to Cardenio. That shattered Sancho’s illusions of Dorotea being a princess, but Don Quixote coped better with the sudden end to his quest for the fictional princess. Then a man arrived from Algiers with a Moorish woman, who wanted to convert to Christianity. Over dinner, Don Quixote argued surprisingly rationally for the pre-eminence of arms over learning, before they all listened to the man from Algiers tell his story.
At this point, Cervantes starts another story within the story, this time narrated by the man from Algiers, a former captive.
The man came from the mountains of Léon (in the north-west of Spain), where his family were relatively well off, although poor by more general standards. His father had been overgenerous with his money, so decided to sell his property and divide the money into four shares: one for each his three sons, and the remainder to live on himself. He told his sons that one was to study and become a man of letters, another was to go into commerce, and the third to serve the king in the military.
As the eldest, the man chose first, and opted to serve the king as a soldier. His younger brother decided to sail to America with merchandise to sell there, and the youngest wanted to complete his studies at the University of Salamanca and enter the Church. Their father sold his estate quickly, and each got his share in cash. Between them, the sons returned their father much of the money, and they bade one another farewell as they pursued their careers.
That was twenty-two years ago, since when the man had heard nothing further of his father or brothers. He had travelled to Milan and armed himself well, enlisted and rose in rank over a succession of military campaigns to become a captain of infantry. However, he was captured by Alouk Ali, King of Algiers, during combat at sea, the only prisoner on a day when Christian forces defeated those of the Turks. He was first taken to Constantinople, then the following year he was rowing the King of Algiers’ flagship at the battle of Navarino.
Still captive, he continued to serve in the King’s galleys in further battles. Among those who rowed with him was Don Pedro de Aguilar, from Andalusia, a clever man and a distinguished soldier, who composed two sonnets and eventually escaped in disguise. One of the horsemen who accompanied Fernando confirmed that Don Pedro’s escape was successful, as he was his brother. He then recited the two sonnets, to everyone’s pleasure.
Five months after his fleet had returned to Constantinople, the King of Algiers died. That king was a Calabrian who had rowed as a slave of the Grand Turk for fourteen years before he was freed, rose to become king, and from there had become Admiral of the Fleet. On the King’s death, his slaves were divided, and the man ended up serving a notoriously cruel former Venetian who succeeded as King of Algiers. That took him to Algiers, which was at least closer to home, although all his attempts to become freed were unsuccessful.
In Algiers he was kept in a bagnio, a compound for Christians who used to undertake public works and other tasks. As he had been a captain, he was deemed capable of earning a ransom, so wore a chain. He was often hungry, but what distressed him most was the new king’s cruelty: each day he hanged a Christian, impaled another, and cut the ears off others, even for trivial offences. The only one to avoid this was a renegade Spanish soldier named something Saavedra,* who led a charmed existence.
This bagnio was overlooked by the house of an eminent Moor, and one day the man saw a handkerchief on the end of a cane waving from one of its windows. His companions tried to take the handkerchief, but each time it was withdrawn. When the man tried, it was left for him to remove and open. Inside it were ten gold coins, which filled him with joy. After that a woman’s pale hand appeared, to which they expressed their gratitude by bowing. Next a small cross appeared, which he interpreted as meaning this generous woman was a Christian.
Later, the performance with the cane and handkerchief was repeated, providing the man with forty Spanish gold coins, and a message in Arabic with the sign of the cross at the end. He took the letter to a friend who read Arabic, and discovered its meaning. It was from a young amd beautiful woman, whose father had kept a Christian slave, who told her about the Virgin Mary. She therefore wanted to go to a Christian country to see Mary, but was afraid that if her father found out he’d throw her down a well.
They agreed to help the young woman, and wrote back to her in Arabic, offering their support and assistance. When the cane next appeared from the window, they attached their reply to it, and it was taken in to be read. The woman’s response was even more money. That night they learned that she was the only daughter of a very wealthy Moor, and was famous for her beauty. They discussed how they could escape and help her, but considered that she was the key to success.
A few days later, the woman passed him another note containing her instructions. She was to provide sufficient money for him to buy his release, then he was to go and buy a boat. Once they were ready, she would go and wait for him at her father’s villa on the coast.
The captives progressed this plan with the woman’s financial support. The renegade Saavedra went off to buy a boat, the man paid his ransom of eight hundred escudos, and ransomed his three companions. It was then time for the woman, named Zoraida, to go to the villa by the sea.
*Cervante’s own name, thus a reference to his own time in captivity, making this story autobiographical.
That completes the fortieth 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.