Days passed, and still Don Quixote rode bare-headed: for as yet he had found no means whereby to win for himself a new helmet. Every day, however, had its adventures, and every turn of the road seemed to lead the knight and his squire into new fields of action.
One morning as they were riding along a highway from a small village to a larger one, they saw a horseman coming slowly towards them.
"See there!" cried Don Quixote. "Now I shall have an adventure that will redound to my glory."
"Why do you think so?" asked Sancho.
"Do you not see that horseman?" answered Don Quixote. "He wears something on his head that glitters like gold. If I mistake not, he is a knight, and it is Mambrino's helmet that he wears."
"Mambrino's helmet, master!" said Sancho. "What about Mambrino's helmet?"
"Thou knowest my vow, Sancho," was the answer. "To-morrow I shall eat bread on a tablecloth. For that knight who is riding toward us on his prancing steed has a helmet of gold on his head."
"I don't see any knight," said Sancho. "I see only a common man riding a gray donkey much like my own. There is something bright on the top of his head; but all is not gold that glitters."
"I tell thee, it is Mambrino's helmet, and it is gold!" cried Don Quixote, growing angry.
Now the truth of the matter is this: The smaller of the two villages I have mentioned had no barber. The people, therefore, were obliged to depend on the barber of the larger village, who rode over whenever he was wanted.
Sometimes he was called upon to trim the men's beards, sometimes to dress the ladies' hair; but he was oftenest required to bleed some person who was not feeling well. For in those times it was the custom, when any one was sick, to open one of his veins and let the "bad" blood run. This was thought to be the best medicine and a cure for all sorts of ailments.
To do this bloodletting was, indeed, the main business of a barber. His sign was a pole with red stripes running spirally around it. These red stripes represented the bloody bandage which was used to bind up the wound. The same sign is used by barbers even now; but good barbers never bleed their customers.
In those olden times, the barber always had a brass basin in which to catch the blood as it flowed from the patient's arm. This basin was kept very bright and clean; for it was a necessary thing in every barber's shop, and often used.
And now let us go back to our story. The "knight on his prancing steed" was nobody but the barber of the bigger village, riding on his gray donkey to visit his patients in the smaller village.
The morning was cloudy, and rain might begin to fall at any minute. The barber had a new hat which the rain would spoil. To guard against this misfortune, he clapped his brass basin, upside down, upon his head. It covered hat and all, and was proof against the rain.
Don Quixote, as we know, wanted a helmet. He had read so much about Mambrino's helmet that he could think of nothing else. His mind, having dwelt so long upon this subject, could turn anything he chose into a golden helmet. Some people in our own times can do as much.
As the barber came nearer, the knight raised his lance, which you will remember was only the branch of a tree. He braced himself in his stirrups and made ready for a charge.
Then he shouted, "Wretch, defend thyself, or at once surrender that which is justly mine." And without further parley, he rushed upon the barber as fast as Rozinante, with his blundering feet, could carry him.
The barber saw him coming, and had just time enough to throw himself from his donkey and take to his heels. He leaped the hedge at the side of the road and ran across the fields with the swiftness of a deer. But the brass basin, having slipped from his head, was left lying in the dust.
Don Quixote checked his steed. "Here, Sancho!" he cried. "Here is my helmet. Come and pick it up."
"Upon my word, that is a fine basin," said Sancho, as he stooped and handed it to his master.
Don Quixote, with great delight, clapped it on his head. He turned it this way and that, and tilted it backward and forward.
"It is pretty large," he said. "The head for which it was made must have been a big one. The worst is, that it has no visor, and half of one side is lacking."
Sancho could not help smiling.
"What is the fool grinning at now?" cried his master, angrily.
"Oh, nothing," answered Sancho. "I was only thinking what a big jolthead it must have been to wear a helmet so much like a barber's basin."
"Well, it does look like a barber's basin," said Don Quixote. "But that is because some enchanter has changed its form. When we come to a town where there is an armorer, I will have it made over into its proper shape; for there is no doubt that it is really the helmet of the famous Mambrino."
He turned it about on his head, and pulled it well down over his ears.
"I'll wear it as it is," he said. "It is better than nothing."
"There is that knight's dappled steed," said Sancho, pointing to the barber's gray donkey which was nibbling grass by the roadside. "I have a good mind to exchange my own faithful beast for him."
"Well, exchange is no robbery," answered Don Quixote. "We do not plunder those whom we meet, for that would be unbecoming to a knight. The dappled steed is no doubt very dear to its master and therefore should be spared to him; but I give thee leave, Sancho, to exchange saddles."
"You are a wise master," said Sancho; and without another word he made his own poor donkey look three times better by dressing him in the barber's saddle.
Then, well satisfied with themselves and their plunder, the knight and the squire renewed their journey.