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Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891.
Vols. IX–XI: Literature of the Republic, Part IV., 1861–1889

The Helmet of Mambrino

By Clarence King (1842–1901)

[Born in Newport, R. I. Died in Phoenix, Az., 1901. The Century Magazine. 1886.]

  • “How can I be mistaken, thou eternal misbeliever?” cried Don Quixote; “dost thou not see that knight that comes riding up directly toward us upon a dapple-gray steed, with a helmet of gold on his head?”
  • “I see what I see,” replied Sancho, “and the devil of anything can I spy but a fellow on such another gray ass as mine is, with something that glitters o’top of his head.”
  • “I tell thee that is Mambrino’s helmet,” replied Don Quixote.—Cervantes.

  • DEAR DON HORACIO: You cannot have forgotten the morning we turned our backs upon San Francisco, and slowly rambled seaward through winding hollows of park, nor how the mist drooped low as if to hear the tones of fondness in our talk of Cervantes and the Don, nor how the approving sun seemed to send a benediction through the riven cloud-rack overhead.

    It was after we had passed the westward edge of that thin veneer of polite vegetation which a coquettish art has affixed to the great wind-made waves of sand, and entered the waste of naked drift beyond, that we heard afar a whispered sea-plaint, and beheld the great Pacific coming in under cover of a low-lying fog, and grinding its white teeth on the beach.

    Still discoursing of La Mancha, we left behind us the last gateway of the hills, came to the walk’s end and the world’s end and the end of the Aryan migrations.

    We were not disturbed by the restless Aryan who dashed past us at the rate of 2:20 with an insolent flinging of sand, a whirling cobweb of hickory wheel, and all the mad hurry of the nineteenth century at his heels.

    For what (we asked one another as we paced the Cliff-House verandah) did this insatiable wanderer leave his comfortable land of Central Asia and urge ever westward through forty centuries of toilsome march? He started in the world’s youth a simple, pastoral pilgrim, and we saw him pull up his breathless trotters at the very Ultima Thule, rush into the bar-room, and demand a cocktail.

    Having quenched this ethnic thirst and apparently satisfied the yearning of ages, we watched him gather up his reins and start eastward again, as if for the sources of the sacred Ganges, and disappear in the cloud of his own swift-rushing dirt.

    By the fire in our private breakfast-room we soon forgot him, and you led me again into the company of the good knight.

    Even Alphonso must have felt the chivalric presence, for all unbidden he discreetly hispanized our omelet.

    Years have gone since that Cervantean morning of ours, and to-day, my friend, I am come from our dear Spain.

    As I journeyed in the consecrated realm of Don Quixote, it happened to me to pass a night “down in a village of La Mancha, the name of which I have no desire to recollect.”

    Late in the evening, after a long day in the saddle, we had stopped at an humble posada on the outskirts of an old pueblo, too tired to press on in search of better accommodations, which we believed the town would probably afford. We were glad enough to tie our weary animals to their iron rings within the posada, and fling ourselves down to sleep in the doorway, lulled by the comfortable munching sound of the beasts, and fanned by a soft wind which came fitfully from the south.

    The mild, dry night, wherein thin veils of cloud had tempered the moonlight and overspread the vacant plains with spectral shadows, was at length yielding to the more cheerful advance of dawn.

    From an oaken bench on which I had slept, in the arched entrance of the posada, I could look back across those wan swells of plain over which my companion and I had plodded the day before, and watch the landscape brighten cheerfully as the sun rose.

    Just in front, overhanging the edge of a dry, shallow ravine, stood the ruin of a lone wind-mill, a breach in its walls rendering visible the gnarled trunk of an old olive-tree, which hugged the shade of the ancient mill, as if safe under the protection of a veritable giant.

    Oaken frames of the mill-arms, slowly consuming with dry-rot, etched their broken lines against the soft gray horizon. A rag or two of stained canvas, all that was left of the sails, hung yellow, threadbare, and mouldering in the windless air.

    The walls of our doorway seemed visibly to crumble. Here and there lingering portions of stucco still clung to a skeleton of bricks; and overhead, by the friendly aid of imagination, one could see that time out of mind the arch had been whitewashed.

    Signs of life one by one appeared. From a fold somewhere behind the posada a small flock of gaunt, lately sheared sheep slowly marched across my narrow field of view.

    Single file, with heads down, they noiselessly followed a path faintly traced across the plain, the level sun touching their thin backs, and casting a procession of moving shadows on the gray ground. One or two stopped to rub against the foundation-stones of the mill; and presently all had moved on into a hollow of the empty land and disappeared.

    Later, at the same slow pace, and without a sound of footfall, followed a brown and spare old shepherd, with white, neglected hair falling over a tattered cloak of coarse homespun. His face wore a strange expression of imbecile content. It was a face from which not only hope but even despair had faded out under the burning strength of eternal monotony.

    A few short, jerky, tottering steps, and he too was gone, with his crust of bread and cow’s horn of water, his oleander-wood staff, and his vacant smile of senile tranquillity.

    Then an old, shrivelled parrot of a woman, the only other inhabitant of the posada, came from I never knew where, creeping in through the open portal, heavily burdened with an earthen jar of water for our beasts. “Buenos dias!” fell in a half-whisper from her lips, which held a burning cigarette. She too disappeared.

    On the other side of the arched entry, against the opposite wall, on an oaken bench like mine, his head to the outer air, asleep on his back, lay my guide and companion, Salazar—a poor gentleman, humbled by fate, yet rich in the qualities of sentiment which make good men and good friends.

    His arms were crossed on his breast, after the manner of those pious personages who lie in their long bronze or marble slumber in church and chapel. His delicate constitution, yielding at last to the wear of time, and now plainly declining, had decreed for him only a narrow margin of life. In a little while, in a few short years, he will lie as he lay that morning in La Mancha, and his countenance will wear the same expression of mingled pain and peace.

    I had chosen him as companion for this episode of travel because of his fine, appreciative knowledge of Cervantes, and from his personal resemblance to the type of Don Quixote. He had listened affectionately to my talk of the Bachelor of San Francisco, and joined with zest in my search for a “Helmet of Mambrino,” which I hoped to send as a gift to the gentleman by the western sea.

    I scanned his sleeping features long and thought him a perfect Spanish picture. How sternly simple the accessories! Only a wall of time-mellowed brick, barred by lines of yellow mortar, and patched by a few hand-breadths of whitened plaster! Only a solid, antique bench of oak, weather-worn into gray harmony with an earthen floor! Nothing more!

    His ample cloak of dark, olive-colored cloth, reaching from foot to chin, covered him, save for one exposed hand, completely, and hung in folds to the ground. There was nothing to distract from his face, now thrown into full profile against the rough wall.

    Far back over the bald cranial arch, a thin coat of mixed gray and brown wiry hair covered the back of his head, just where it rested on the blue handkerchief he had carefully composed over an improvised pillow. The heavy eyebrow formed a particularly long, high bow, and ended abruptly against a slightly sunken bony temple. The orbital hollow, an unusually large and cavernous bowl, showed beneath the brow a tracery of feeble blue veins; but the closed eye domed boldly up, its yellow lids strongly fringed with long brown lashes. The hooked beak of a well-modelled but large aquiline nose curved down from the brow. Over his always compressed mouth grew a delicate, grizzled mustache, the ends of which turned up in the old Spanish way. His jaw was refined rather than strong, and bore on his long chin a thin tuft of hair, which grew to a point and completed a singularly chaste and knightly profile. The shallow thinness of his figure, the sunken yellow cheek, and emaciated throat, were all eloquent of decline.

    Age, too, recorded itself in the exposed hand—not so much in its pallor or slenderness of finger, as in the prominence of bony framework, which seemed thrust into the wrinkled muscular covering as into a glove which is too large and much outworn.

    These are but material details, and only interesting as the seat and foundation of a fixed air of gentlemanliness, which, waking or sleeping, never left his countenance.

    He was, as he slept, the figure of the dead Quixote—a gaunt face softened by a patient spirit, an iron frame weakened and refined by lifelong frugality, and now touched by the wintry frosts of age; but, above all, the sleeping mask, with its slightly curled lip, wore an aspect of chivalric scorn of all things mean and low. I watched the early light creep over his bald forehead, and tinge the sallow cheek with its copper warmth, and I marked how the sharp shadow of his nose lay like a finger of silence across his lips.

    There lay one of those chance friends whom to meet is to welcome from the heart, and from whom I for one never part without perplexing wonder whether chance or fate or Providence will so throw the shuttle through the strange pattern of life’s fabric that our two feeble threads will ever again touch and cross and interweave.

    Chocolate is the straw at which the drowning traveller catches in the wide ocean of Spanish starvation. Its spicy aroma, with that of a cigarette, announced the coming of the old posadera.

    I reluctantly awakened Salazar, and we began the day by each pouring water from an earthen jar for the other’s ablutions. From a leathern wallet my companion produced a few dry, crumbled little cakes, and my ulster pocket yielded up a bottle of olives I had brought from Seville. The woman squatted by us and smoked.

    While waiting for his boiling beverage to cool, Salazar addressed our hostess. “This American gentleman has in his own country a friend of whom he is exceedingly fond, a certain Don Horacio, who, it seems, is in the habit of reading the adventures of Don Quixote, which you very well know, Señora, happened here in La Mancha. This Don Horacio has never seen one of our Spanish barbers’ basins, such as the good Don Quixote wore for a helmet.

    “It is to find him an ancient basin that we have come to La Mancha. There were plenty of new ones in Seville and Cordova, but they will not serve. We must have an ancient one, and one from this very land. Do you by chance remember where there is such an one?”

    The good woman reflected, while we sipped the chocolate and ate the cakes and the olives. She threw away the end of the cigarette, and began rolling another. This little piece of manipulation, well known as provocative of thought, was hardly accomplished when she exclaimed:

    “Mira! I do know the very piece. Come to the door! Do you see that church in ruins? Bueno! Just beyond is an old posada. The widow Barrilera, with her boy Crisanto, lives there. Poor people put up their beasts there. It used to be a great fonda many years ago, and ever since I was a child an old basin has hung in the patio. It ought to be there now.” At this we were much gladdened; for our search all the day before among the villages and hamlets had been fruitless. The posadera was so dumb at the silver we gave her that she forgot to bid us “Go with God!” till we were mounted and moving away from her door toward the pueblo.

    A Spanish town, especially in wide, half-waste regions between great cities, sometimes sinks into a slow decline, and little by little gives up the ghost of life; dying, not of sudden failure in the heart or central plaza, but wasting away by degrees around its outskirts, and shrinking by the slow ruin of block after block inward toward the centre of vitality. This form of decay comes at last to girdle the whole town with mounds of fallen wall, vacant squares of roofless masonry, fragments of paved patio, secluded no more by enclosing corridors, but open and much frequented of drowsy goats, who come from their feeding-grounds to sleep on the sun-heated stones.

    Here and there a more firmly founded edifice, like a church or a posada, resists the unrelenting progress of destruction, and stands for a few years in lonely despair among the levelled dust of the neighbor buildings.

    If a church, it is bereft of its immemorial chimes, which are made to jangle forth the Angelus from some better-preserved tower on the plaza. Owls sail through the open door, and brush with their downy wings the sacred dust from wooden image of Virgin or Saviour; till at last the old towers and walls, yielding to rain and wind, melt down into the level of humbler ruin.

    The old posadas, while they last, are tenanted by the poorest of the poor. Childless widows too old to work end here in solitary penury their declining days, sister tenants with wandering bats and homeless kids.

    Past such an old and dying church Salazar and I rode, following the directions of our hostess, and soon drew rein before an old oaken gate in a high wall of ancient masonry. Upon the lintel was rudely cut, as with a pocket-knife, the sign “Forraje.” Half the double gate, fallen from its rusty hinges, lay broken and disused on the ground, its place taken by a ragged curtain of woollen cloth, which might once have been a woman’s cloak. This, with the half gate still standing, served to suggest that the ruinous enclosure was to be respected as private ground.

    My grave companion alighted from his horse, folded his cloak, which till now he had worn against the morning cold, laid it carefully across his saddle, and knocked very gently; then after a pause, as if to give misery a time to compose its rags, he drew aside the curtain an inch or so, and after peering around the enclosed yard, turned to me with a mysterious smile, laid his finger on his lips, and beckoned to me to look where he pointed.

    I saw a large, square, walled enclosure bounded on the right by a one-story house, with a waving, sagging, collapsing roof of red tiles. The left or eastern wall, which rose to a height of twenty feet or so, was pierced by several second-story window-openings and two doorways. Through these we looked out upon the open plain, for the apartments into which the doorways had once led were ruined and gone.

    Over the eastern door was traced the half-faded word “Comedor,” and over the other “Barberia.” Still above this latter sign there projected from the solid masonry an ornamental arm of wrought iron, from which hung a barber’s basin of battered and time-stained brass, the morning light just touching its disk of green.

    Salazar knocked a little louder, when a cheery, welcoming woman’s voice called out, “Pasen, señores!” We held aside the woollen curtain, crossed the enclosure, and entered a little door directly opposite the old barberia, scenting as we entered a rich, vigorous odor of onion and garlic.

    There are nerves so degenerate, there are natures so enfeebled, as to fall short of appreciating, as even to recoil from, the perfume of these sturdy esculents; but such are not worthy to follow the footsteps of Don Quixote in La Mancha, where still, as of old, the breath of the cavalier is the savor of onions, and the very kiss of passion burns with the mingled fire of love and garlic.

    From a dilapidated brick floor rose the widow Barrilera, a handsome, bronzed woman of fifty, with a low, broad brow, genial, round face, and stout figure; who advanced to meet us, and rolled out in her soft Andalusian dialect a hearty welcome, smiling ardently out of sheer good-nature, and showing her faultless teeth.

    It did not seem to have occurred to her to ask, or even consider, why we had come. Our entrance at this early hour created no surprise, no questioning, not even a glance of curiosity. It was enough for her sociable, affluent good-nature that we had come at all. She received us as a godsend, and plainly proposed to enjoy us, without bothering her amiable old brains about such remote, intricate conceptions as a cause for our coming.

    To one of us she offered a stool, to the other a square of sheepskin, and urged us to huddle down with her in the very focus of the garlic pot, which purred and simmered and steamed over a little fire. She remarked in the gayest way that it was still cool of a morning, and laughed merrily when we assented to this meteorological truth, adding that a little fire made it all right, and then beaming on in silence, while she stirred the savory contents of the pot, never varying the open breadth of her smile, till she pursed up her lips as if about to whistle, and blew on a ladle full of the soup till it was cool, when she swallowed it slowly, her soft eyes rolling with delight at the flavorous compound.

    “Señora,” said my hollow-eyed and hollow-voiced comrade, “the gentleman is a lover of good Don Quixote.”

    The woman flashed on me a look of curiosity, as who should say, “So is every one. What of that?”

    “My friend is Americano,” continued Salazar.

    “Valgame Dios!” ejaculated the now thoroughly interested widow. “All the way from Buenos Ayres! No? Then from Cuba, of course! Yes, yes! My father’s cousin was a soldier there, and married a woman as black as a pot.”

    “No, senñra, my friend is from another part of America; and he has come here to buy from you the old brass basin above the barberia door.”

    Curiosity about America suddenly gave way to compassion.

    “Pobrecito!” she said in benevolent accents. “You take care of him! He is”—making a grimace of interrogation, arching up her brows, and touching her head—“a little wrong here.”

    Salazar, with unbroken gravity, touched his own head, pointed to me, and replied, “Perfectly clear!”

    “What in the name of the Blessed Virgin does he want of that old basin with a hole in it?” shrugging her fat, round shoulders till they touched her earrings, and turning up the plump, cushiony palms of her hands to heaven.

    “It seems very droll, my good woman, does it not?” I interrupted, “but I have in my own country a charming friend whom I love very much. He is called the Bachelor of San Francisco, and he has never seen a Spanish barber’s basin, so I want to carry this as a gift to him. We have no barbers’ basins in America.”

    “Caramba!” she exclaimed, “what a land! Full of women as black as coals, and no barbers! My father’s cousin had a beard like an Englishman when he came back, and his wife looked like a black sheep just sheared. As to the basin, señor, it is yours.”

    Then turning to a hitherto unnoticed roll of rags in a dark corner, she gave an affectionate shove with her foot, which called forth a yawning, smiling lad, who respectfully bowed to us, while yet half asleep.

    “Crisanto, get down the old barber’s basin from the patio, and bring it here!”

    In a moment the boy returned with the old relic, but seemed to hesitate before relinquishing it to his mother, who extended her hand to receive it.

    “What are you waiting for, child?” said the woman.

    “It is mine. You gave it to me,” said the boy bashfully.

    “My lad,” said Salazar, “we shall give you two silver duros for it.”

    The boy at once brightened and consented. His mother seized the basin in one hand, a wet rag in the other, with her toe scraped out some ashes from the fire, and was about to fall upon it with housewifely fury, and in a trice, had I not stopped her, would have scraped away the mellow green film, the very writing and sign-manual of the artist Time.

    A few silver duros in the smiling lad’s palm, a bit of gold to the mother, a shudder of long unknown joy in the widow’s heart, a tear, a quiver of the lip, then a smile—and the bargain was made.

    I was grasping her hand and saying “adios!” she was asking the Virgin to give me “a thousand years,” when Salazar said:

    “No, no! it is not yet adios. This basin and bargain must be certified to by the Ayuntamiento in a document stamped with the seal of the pueblo, and setting forth that here in La Mancha itself was bought this barber’s basin.”

    “Seguro!” replied the woman, who flung over her head a tattered black shawl, tossing the end over her left shoulder. We all walked, Salazar and I leading our beasts, to the door of the Alcalderia.

    The group of loungers who sat around the whitewashed wall of the chamber of the Ayuntamiento showed no interest in our arrival. To our story the secretary himself listened with official indifference, sipped his morning coffee, only occasionally asking a question of idle curiosity, or offering objection to the execution of so trivial a document.

    “Ridiculous!” he exclaimed; “the authorities of Spain have not provided in the Codex for such jesting. What is all this for?”

    “Señor Secretario,” I replied, “I have conceived this innocent little caprice of legalizing my purchase of the basin, to gratify a certain Don Horacio, known in America as the Bachelor of San Francisco, a gentleman whose fine literary taste has led him to venerate your great Cervantes, and whose knightly sentiments have made him the intimate friend of Don Quixote.”

    “But,” said the secretary, “no contract of sale with a minor for vendor can be legalized by me. The Codex provides”— He was going on to explain what the Codex did provide, when Salazar, who knew more about the legal practice of provincial Spain than the Codex itself, stepped forward, passed behind the august judicial table, and made some communication in a whisper, which was not quite loud enough to drown a curious metallic clink, as of coins in collision.

    Thus softened, the cold eye of the secretary warmed perceptibly, and he resumed: “As I was about to say when my friend here offered me a—a—cigarette, the Codex does not in terms recognize the right of an infant to vend, transfer, give over, or relinquish real or personal property; but on reflection, in a case like this, I shall not hesitate to celebrate the act of sale.”

    A servant was despatched for some strong paper, and the softened magistrate fell into general conversation.

    “You have had a great war in your country.”

    “Yes,” I replied, “very destructive, very exhausting; but, thank God, North and South are now beginning to be friends again.”

    “Are you of the North or of the South?”

    “The North.”

    “Do you not find it very trying to have those Chilians in your Lima, señor?”

    Weeks before this I had given up trying to stretch the Spanish conception of America to include a country north of Mexico, for the land of Cortes is the limit of imagination in that direction; so I helplessly assented. Yes, it was trying.

    The boy returned with the paper; ink-horns and pens were successfully searched for, and the document was executed and sealed.

    Salazar and I withdrew after saluting the upright official, mounted our beasts, received the soft benediction of the smiling widow, and pricked forward down a narrow way which led to the open plain. We were descending a gentle slope on the outskirts of the pueblo when we were overtaken by the secretary’s servant, who charged down upon us, his donkey nearly upsetting mine in the collision.

    Like a wizard in a show, he drew from under his jacket an incredibly bright and brand-new barber’s basin.

    “The secretary,” he said, “remembered, just after you had gone, that the old Duchess of Molino had deposited with him, as security for a large loan, this basin, which is proved to have been the authentic and only one from which Cervantes was shaved every day while prisoner at Argamosillo. The secretary knew that you would like to see this valued relic, and to touch it with your own hand. The duchess, señor” (lowering his eyes and face), “is in gloria. For ten duros you can have this undoubted memento; and full documents shall follow you to Madrid or Lima by the next mail.”

    “Hombre!” I replied, “do me the favor to present to the secretary my most respectful compliments, and say that the supposed death of the duchess is a curious mistake. The old lady is living in great luxury in Seville, and her steward is already on the way to redeem her favorite relic.”

    The man, who saw the force of my pleasantry, laughed explosively, and shamelessly offered me the basin at two duros and a half. We shook our heads and rode away. Having gone a hundred yards, we heard a voice, and looking back beheld the servant, who brandished aloft the basin and shouted: “One duro?” I answered “Never,” and we rode out upon the brown and sunburnt plain.

    Some sheep lay dozing, huddled in the shadow of a few stunted cork-trees. Brown and dim as if clad in dusty leather, the Sierra Morena lay sleeping in the warm light. Away up among the hazy summits were pencillings of soft, cool color; but we were too far away to discern the rocks and groves where Don Quixote did his amorous penance.

    After riding long and silently, Salazar addressed me:

    “Señor, this friend of yours, this Don Horacio, will he ever come to La Mancha?”

    “Quien sabe?” I replied; “but if he comes you will certainly know him and love him as he is known and loved by his friend.”

    To the Bachelor of San Francisco.