THE next day as Sancho Panza was plodding slowly along the highway, he came to a little inn. He knew the place quite well, for he and his master had lodged there not a month before.
It was dinner time, and the odors of the kitchen filled the air. Sancho's mouth watered at the thought of a bit of hot roast beef; for he had tasted nothing but cold victuals for many days.
He rode up to the gate and stopped. He had had some trouble with the servants on his former visit to this inn, and therefore he had some misgivings about the reception that might now be given him. So he sat still, outside the gate, and enjoyed the savory smells which came to him through the open windows.
Presently, two men came out, and when they saw him at the gate, they paused. Then one said to the other,—
"Look there, master doctor, isn't that Sancho Panza?"
"Most surely it is," said the other; "and more than that, he rides Don Quixote's horse."
Now these two men were the curate and the barber of Don Quixote's own village. They were the men who had passed sentence on his books, and they knew more than any one else about the poor man's malady.
They were now going through the country in search of him; for they wished to persuade him to return to the care of his family and friends.
They spoke to Sancho, and he was not a little surprised to meet them in that out-of-the-way place.
"Where is your master, Sancho? Where is Don Quixote?" they asked.
"My master is engaged with some important business of his own," answered Sancho, quite stiffly.
"But where is he?" said the curate.
"That I dare not tell you," said Sancho.
"Now, Sancho Panza!" cried the barber, "don't try to put us off with any flimflam story. If you don't tell us where he is, we shall believe you have murdered him and stolen his horse. So, out with it. Tell us the truth, or we'll have you laid by the heels and punished as you deserve."
"Oh, come now, neighbors!" said Sancho. "Why should you threaten me? I don't know where my master is at this particular moment; but I left him in yonder mountain, knocking his head against the trees, tearing up rocks, and doing a thousand queer things which I need not mention."
Then he told the whole story as I have told it to you, adding to it a great many fanciful touches of his own.
"And now," he said, "I am on my humble way to Toboso, where I mean to give my master's letter into the hands of the Lady Dulcinea."
"Let us see the letter," said the barber.
Sancho put his hand into his pocket to get the notebook. He fumbled a great while without finding it. He searched first in one pocket, then in another. He searched in his sleeve, in his bosom, in his hat. But had he searched until now, he would not have found it. It had slipped through a hole in his pocket and was lost in the dust of the highway.
He turned pale, and his hands trembled. Then he began to rave, and to stamp like a madman. He tore his beard. He beat himself with his fists.
"Why need you be so angry, Sancho?" asked the curate, kindly. "What is the matter?"
"Matter enough," he answered. "I deserve the worst beating in the world, for I have lost three donkeys which were as good as three castles."
"How so?" asked the barber. "Were the donkeys in your pocket?"
"Not exactly," answered Sancho; "but I have lost the notebook which contained not only the letter to Dulcinea, but an order on Don Quixote's niece for three of his five donkeys."
Then with tears and sobs, the poor man told them how he had recently lost his own Dapple, the joy of his household, the hope of his life.
"Cheer up, Sancho," said the curate. "We are going to find your master, and I will see that he gives you another order written in due form on paper."
"Will you indeed?" said Sancho, brightening up. "Well then, the loss is not so bad after all. As for Dulcinea's letter, I don't care a straw about that. I know it all by heart, and will carry it to her by word of mouth. In other words, I will repeat it to her, just as it was written; and I will repeat it to you, if you wish."
"You speak like a wise man," said the curate. "But what concerns us now is to find your master and persuade him to give up his mad pranks and projects. So, come into the inn with us, and we'll talk it over while we eat dinner."
"You two may go in," answered Sancho; "but as for me, I feel best out here in the open air. However, you may send me a dish of hot victuals, if you like; and I will eat while I'm waiting. And you may tell the stable boy to bring Rozinante an armful of fodder."
So Sancho sat at the gate while the curate and the barber went inside. Presently a dish of hot meat was sent out to him, and he feasted as he had not feasted for many a day.
The hearty meal put him in fine, good humor; and as he thought over the words of the curate and the barber he made up his mind to return with them into the mountains. He was anxious to receive from Don Quixote a second order for the three donkeys.
He had scarcely finished his meal when the curate and the barber came riding out from the inn-yard, ready to begin the journey. No further time was wasted, and late that very afternoon they reached the place where Sancho had strewn the green branches in the road.
"It was right about here that I left him," he said.
And sure enough, they soon discovered the knight sitting quietly upon a rock and gazing at the sky. He was pale and almost starved, and Sancho could hear him sighing dolefully and muttering the name of the Lady Dulcinea.
I need not stop here to tell of the manner in which Don Quixote received his friends, who were so disguised that he did not know them; nor shall I describe the ingenious trick by which they induced him to put on his armor again and ride out of the forest.
At first, all went well; for he was persuaded that he was going to the aid of a fair princess whom a tyrant had driven from her kingdom.
"Come on," he cried, as he mounted Rozinante; "let us all go together and avenge the wrongs of this unfortunate lady."
They set out, the curate and the barber being disguised and unknown to their poor friend. Sancho was obliged to travel on foot again, while the rest rode gallantly along the highway on horseback. But his heart was light and free, and he kept thinking of the three donkeys and the glorious time when Don Quixote would make him the governor of an island.
The next day, when the party were well out of the mountains, they suddenly saw at a turn in the road, a stranger riding slowly along at a little distance ahead. He was dressed like a gypsy, and was mounted upon a small donkey which he could not by any means urge out of a snail's pace.
Sancho Panza's eyes opened very wide. For at the first glance he knew that the gypsy was none other than the thief, Gines de Passamonte, and that the donkey was his own long-lost Dapple.
The next moment he was running to overtake the pair; and although Gines tried hard to whip the donkey into a trot, Sancho was soon beside them.
"Ah, thou thief!" he shouted. "Get off from the back of my dear beast. Away from my Dapple! Away from my comfort! Take to thy heels and begone."
He had no need to use so many words. For Gines, seeing several men so close upon him, dismounted quickly and took to his heels. No doubt he thought that the king's officers were after him; for he bounded into the woods, and was soon out of sight.
And now Sancho's joy was too great to be described. He stroked the donkey with his hands; he kissed it again and again; he called it by every endearing name.
"My treasure, my darling, my dear Dapple! Is it possible that I have thee again? How hast thou been since I saw thee last?" he cried.
As for the donkey, it was as silent as any donkey could be. It said not one word in answer to Sancho's questions, but allowed him to kiss its nose as often as he pleased.
The rest of the company rejoiced at the squire's good fortune; and Don Quixote said: "I am glad that you have found your beast, Sancho. But it shall make no difference with the order which you have on my niece. She is to give you the three donkeys, just the same."
"I thank you, sir," said Sancho. "You were always a kind master."