DON QUIXOTE had not ridden more than two miles when, at a turn in the road, he saw several horsemen approaching him.
They were merchants of Toledo, and they were going to some distant town to buy silks. There were six of them, and each carried an umbrella over his head to shield him from the sun.
Following behind these horsemen there were four servants and three mule drivers, all on foot.
Don Quixote's heart beat fast when he saw this company.
"Here is an adventure worthy of my courage!" he cried.
He fixed himself in his stirrups, he couched his lance, he covered his breast with his shield. Then he posted himself in the middle of the road at the top of a gentle hill.
As soon as the merchants were within hearing, he cried out, "Halt there! Let all mankind stand still. No person shall pass here unless he is ready to declare that the peerless Dulcinea del Toboso is the most beautiful lady in the universe."
The merchants stopped in wonder at the strange being who thus barred their way. They were not long in guessing the truth.
"It is some poor gentleman who has lost his senses," they said to one another.
Then their leader rode forward a few paces and saluted the knight.
"Sir Knight," he said, "we do not know the fair lady whom you name. If you will let us see her, and if she proves to be as beautiful as you think, we will agree to all that you require of us."
"Let you see her!" cried Don Quixote. "I might do that if I chose. But the importance of the thing is in making you confess and declare her beauty without seeing her. Come now, raise your right hands and say what I demand of you.
The merchants sat quietly in their saddles, and made no answer.
"What!" cried Don Quixote. "Are you silent? Then know that I am your enemy, and I challenge you to combat right here and now."
He braced himself in his saddle and shook his lance; but still the merchants made no reply.
"Are you afraid, you cowards?" shouted the knight. "Come one by one; or come all together, as you please. I am ready for the combat."
Then he spurred his horse and rode furiously down the hill towards the astonished merchants.
There is no telling what might have happened had Rozinante behaved himself. But that gallant steed had gone scarcely twenty yards when he stumbled and fell in the middle of the road.
Don Quixote was pitched headlong into the dust. His long lance went flying into the weeds on one side of the highway; his shield was thrown among the bushes on the other. The knight himself made a funny appearance as he rolled and tumbled on the ground. The weight of his rusty armor held him down.
But even while he lay helpless in the dust, he was a hero with his tongue. "Stay, you cowards!" he shouted. "Do not run away. It is my horse's fault that I have been thus dismounted."
The merchants laughed. His sorry plight amused them no less than his wonderful pluck. They spread their umbrellas above their heads and rode onward over the hill.
But one of the mule drivers, who was an ill-natured fellow, could not bear to hear his master called a coward. He picked up the fallen lance and broke it in pieces. Then with one of the longer parts he belabored Don Quixote's sides until it was splintered into a dozen fragments. Nor did he stop until he was quite tired out.
Still Don Quixote was not conquered. Through all this storm of blows he lay kicking on the ground and daring his enemies to do their worst. "Slay me if you will," he cried, "but, still I affirm that the Lady Dulcinea is without her equal on earth."
At last the mule driver left him and ran onward to overtake his mules and his master.
When Don Quixote found himself alone he tried once more to get on his feet. But if he was unable to do this at first, how was he to do it now, all bruised and battered as he was?
As he lay helpless on his back it so happened that a plowman came that way. This plowman, who lived in Don Quixote's village, had been to the mill and was returning with a bag of meal on his donkey's back.
When he saw the knight sprawling in the dust he stopped, while the donkey began to make acquaintance with poor Rozinante who was picking grass by the roadside.
"Hello, my good friend!" cried the plowman. "What has happened to you?"
Don Quixote did not answer. He looked up at the sky and began to repeat a long speech he had read in one of his books.
"The fellow has lost his senses," said the plowman to himself.
Then he stooped and lifted the knight's helmet from his face. It was the helmet that had been patched with pasteboard and tied on with green ribbons; but the mule driver had broken it with kicks and blows, and the ribbons were torn into shreds.
As soon as the plowman saw the knight's face he knew him.
"Oh, my good neighbor Quixana," he said, "how came you here, and what is the matter?"
The poor gentleman paid no attention to his friend, but kept on repeating passages from his books. In fact, he was very badly hurt.
The plowman, with a good deal of trouble, lifted him up and set him astride of the donkey. He placed him so that he could lean over and rest upon the bag of meal. Then he got all the knight's armor together, and even the splinters of the lance, and tied them on the back of Rozinante.
Having seen that everything was secure, he took the steed by the bridle and the donkey by the halter, and, walking before them, he made his way slowly toward the village. He trudged thoughtfully along, often looking back and speaking kindly to the wounded man; but Don Quixote, resting on the bag of meal, answered only with sighs and groans. He complained most dolefully, but would not tell how he had fallen into misfortune.
"My dear Quixana," at length said the plowman, "I fear you do not know me."
"That is no matter," said Don Quixote. "I know very well who I am. What's more, I am perhaps not only myself but a dozen other brave knights all joined in one."
It was about sunset when they reached the village. The plowman did not wish his neighbors to see the poor knight in his battered and bruised condition, for he knew that much depended upon keeping him as quiet as possible. So he tarried in a grove outside of the village until daylight had faded into dusk.
Then he led the poor man to his own house.
As he went up cautiously to the door he heard voices within.
The curate of the village and his friend the barber were there. These men were neighbors of Don Quixote, and it had been their habit to come in often and spend a pleasant evening with him.
The plowman stopped at the door and listened.
"What do you think?" cried the housekeeper. "My master has not been seen for two whole days. His horse, his shield, his lance, and the old armor that was his grandfather's have also disappeared."
"Indeed! And where can he have gone?" inquired the curate.
"Where? Where but riding over the world and making believe that he is a knight!" answered the woman. "It's all because of those vile books which he was forever poring over."
The niece then spoke. "Certainly it's the books," she said. "The books made him foolish. Why, I have known him to read forty-eight hours without stopping. Then he would fling the book from him and make believe draw his sword, slashing it about him in a most fearful manner."
"I have known him to do even wilder things than that," said the housekeeper. "Once, in broad daylight, he ran around this very room shouting that he had killed four giants as tall as church steeples. It was the books. They made him mad."
"Indeed, that's true," declared the niece. "It was the books—and they ought to be burned every one of them."
"You are right," said the curate. "Those books have unsettled his mind. Before the setting of another sun they shall be brought to trial and condemned to the flames."
During all this discourse the plowman and Don Quixote were just outside of the door, unseen, in the darkening twilight. Now, without more ado, the plowman cried out,
"Hello there, house! Open the gates, for here are a dozen valorous knights who bring a prisoner with them."
The housekeeper shrieked and dropped her broom on the floor. The curate and the barber rushed to the door, and the niece followed them with the lighted candle in her hand. When they saw Don Quixote astride of the donkey they all ran to embrace him.
"Have a care," he groaned. "Be gentle, for I am sorely hurt. It was all on account of my steed failing me. Carry me to bed, and send for the enchantress, Urganda, to heal my wounds."
"There! Didn't I say so?" whispered the housekeeper to the curate. "His head is full of those wicked books."
"Where are you wounded, uncle?" asked the niece.
"Wounded! I'm not wounded. I'm only bruised. I had a bad fall from Rozinante while I was fighting ten giants. You never saw such giants. They were the wickedest fellows that ever roamed the earth; but I was a match for them."
"Hear him!" whispered the curate to the housekeeper. "He talks of giants. It is as we feared. Those vile books must be condemned and burned without further delay."
They lifted the knight from the donkey's back. They helped him into the house and put him in his favorite chair.
Then the women asked him a thousand questions; but his only answer was that they should give him something to eat and let him alone.
This they did.
When he had eaten a hearty supper he crept off to bed without so much as saying good-night.