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Miqeul de Cervantes >> Don Quixote (page 3)


By means of a ransomed fellow-captive the brothers contrived toinform their family of their condition, and the poor people atAlcala at once strove to raise the ransom money, the fatherdisposing of all he possessed, and the two sisters giving up theirmarriage portions. But Dali Mami had found on Cervantes the lettersaddressed to the King by Don John and the Duke of Sesa, and,concluding that his prize must be a person of great consequence,when the money came he refused it scornfully as being altogetherinsufficient. The owner of Rodrigo, however, was more easilysatisfied; ransom was accepted in his case, and it was arrangedbetween the brothers that he should return to Spain and procure avessel in which he was to come back to Algiers and take off Miguel andas many of their comrades as possible. This was not the firstattempt to escape that Cervantes had made. Soon after the commencementof his captivity he induced several of his companions to join him intrying to reach Oran, then a Spanish post, on foot; but after thefirst day's journey, the Moor who had agreed to act as their guidedeserted them, and they had no choice but to return. The secondattempt was more disastrous. In a garden outside the city on thesea-shore, he constructed, with the help of the gardener, aSpaniard, a hiding-place, to which he brought, one by one, fourteen ofhis fellow-captives, keeping them there in secrecy for several months,and supplying them with food through a renegade known as El Dorador,"the Gilder." How he, a captive himself, contrived to do all this,is one of the mysteries of the story. Wild as the project mayappear, it was very nearly successful. The vessel procured byRodrigo made its appearance off the coast, and under cover of nightwas proceeding to take off the refugees, when the crew were alarmed bya passing fishing boat, and beat a hasty retreat. On renewing theattempt shortly afterwards, they, or a portion of them at least,were taken prisoners, and just as the poor fellows in the gardenwere exulting in the thought that in a few moments more freedomwould be within their grasp, they found themselves surrounded byTurkish troops, horse and foot. The Dorador had revealed the wholescheme to the Dey Hassan.

When Cervantes saw what had befallen them, he charged his companionsto lay all the blame upon him, and as they were being bound hedeclared aloud that the whole plot was of his contriving, and thatnobody else had any share in it. Brought before the Dey, he said thesame. He was threatened with impalement and with torture; and ascutting off ears and noses were playful freaks with the Algerines,it may be conceived what their tortures were like; but nothing couldmake him swerve from his original statement that he and he alone wasresponsible. The upshot was that the unhappy gardener was hanged byhis master, and the prisoners taken possession of by the Dey, who,however, afterwards restored most of them to their masters, but keptCervantes, paying Dali Mami 500 crowns for him. He felt, no doubt,that a man of such resource, energy, and daring, was too dangerous apiece of property to be left in private hands; and he had himheavily ironed and lodged in his own prison. If he thought that bythese means he could break the spirit or shake the resolution of hisprisoner, he was soon undeceived, for Cervantes contrived beforelong to despatch a letter to the Governor of Oran, entreating him tosend him some one that could be trusted, to enable him and three othergentlemen, fellow-captives of his, to make their escape; intendingevidently to renew his first attempt with a more trustworthy guide.Unfortunately the Moor who carried the letter was stopped just outsideOran, and the letter being found upon him, he was sent back toAlgiers, where by the order of the Dey he was promptly impaled as awarning to others, while Cervantes was condemned to receive twothousand blows of the stick, a number which most likely would havedeprived the world of "Don Quixote," had not some persons, who theywere we know not, interceded on his behalf.

After this he seems to have been kept in still closer confinementthan before, for nearly two years passed before he made anotherattempt. This time his plan was to purchase, by the aid of a Spanishrenegade and two Valencian merchants resident in Algiers, an armedvessel in which he and about sixty of the leading captives were tomake their escape; but just as they were about to put it intoexecution one Doctor Juan Blanco de Paz, an ecclesiastic and acompatriot, informed the Dey of the plot. Cervantes by force ofcharacter, by his self-devotion, by his untiring energy and hisexertions to lighten the lot of his companions in misery, had endearedhimself to all, and become the leading spirit in the captive colony,and, incredible as it may seem, jealousy of his influence and theesteem in which he was held, moved this man to compass his destructionby a cruel death. The merchants finding that the Dey knew all, andfearing that Cervantes under torture might make disclosures that wouldimperil their own lives, tried to persuade him to slip away on board avessel that was on the point of sailing for Spain; but he told themthey had nothing to fear, for no tortures would make him compromiseanybody, and he went at once and gave himself up to the Dey.

As before, the Dey tried to force him to name his accomplices.Everything was made ready for his immediate execution; the halterwas put round his neck and his hands tied behind him, but all thatcould be got from him was that he himself, with the help of fourgentlemen who had since left Algiers, had arranged the whole, and thatthe sixty who were to accompany him were not to know anything of ituntil the last moment. Finding he could make nothing of him, the Deysent him back to prison more heavily ironed than before.

The poverty-stricken Cervantes family had been all this timetrying once more to raise the ransom money, and at last a sum of threehundred ducats was got together and entrusted to the RedemptoristFather Juan Gil, who was about to sail for Algiers. The Dey,however, demanded more than double the sum offered, and as his term ofoffice had expired and he was about to sail for Constantinople, takingall his slaves with him, the case of Cervantes was critical. He wasalready on board heavily ironed, when the Dey at length agreed toreduce his demand by one-half, and Father Gil by borrowing was able tomake up the amount, and on September 19, 1580, after a captivity offive years all but a week, Cervantes was at last set free. Before longhe discovered that Blanco de Paz, who claimed to be an officer ofthe Inquisition, was now concocting on false evidence a charge ofmisconduct to be brought against him on his return to Spain. Tocheckmate him Cervantes drew up a series of twenty-five questions,covering the whole period of his captivity, upon which he requestedFather Gil to take the depositions of credible witnesses before anotary. Eleven witnesses taken from among the principal captives inAlgiers deposed to all the facts above stated and to a great deal morebesides. There is something touching in the admiration, love, andgratitude we see struggling to find expression in the formallanguage of the notary, as they testify one after another to thegood deeds of Cervantes, how he comforted and helped the weak-hearted,how he kept up their drooping courage, how he shared his poor pursewith this deponent, and how "in him this deponent found father andmother."

On his return to Spain he found his old regiment about to marchfor Portugal to support Philip's claim to the crown, and utterlypenniless now, had no choice but to rejoin it. He was in theexpeditions to the Azores in 1582 and the following year, and on theconclusion of the war returned to Spain in the autumn of 1583,bringing with him the manuscript of his pastoral romance, the"Galatea," and probably also, to judge by internal evidence, that ofthe first portion of "Persiles and Sigismunda." He also brought backwith him, his biographers assert, an infant daughter, the offspring ofan amour, as some of them with great circumstantiality inform us, witha Lisbon lady of noble birth, whose name, however, as well as thatof the street she lived in, they omit to mention. The solefoundation for all this is that in 1605 there certainly was livingin the family of Cervantes a Dona Isabel de Saavedra, who is describedin an official document as his natural daughter, and then twenty yearsof age.

With his crippled left hand promotion in the army was hopeless,now that Don John was dead and he had no one to press his claims andservices, and for a man drawing on to forty life in the ranks was adismal prospect; he had already a certain reputation as a poet; hemade up his mind, therefore, to cast his lot with literature, andfor a first venture committed his "Galatea" to the press. It waspublished, as Salva y Mallen shows conclusively, at Alcala, his ownbirth-place, in 1585 and no doubt helped to make his name morewidely known, but certainly did not do him much good in any other way.

While it was going through the press, he married Dona Catalina dePalacios Salazar y Vozmediano, a lady of Esquivias near Madrid, andapparently a friend of the family, who brought him a fortune which maypossibly have served to keep the wolf from the door, but if so, thatwas all. The drama had by this time outgrown market-place stages andstrolling companies, and with his old love for it he naturallyturned to it for a congenial employment. In about three years he wrotetwenty or thirty plays, which he tells us were performed without anythrowing of cucumbers or other missiles, and ran their coursewithout any hisses, outcries, or disturbance. In other words, hisplays were not bad enough to be hissed off the stage, but not goodenough to hold their own upon it. Only two of them have beenpreserved, but as they happen to be two of the seven or eight hementions with complacency, we may assume they are favourablespecimens, and no one who reads the "Numancia" and the "Trato deArgel" will feel any surprise that they failed as acting dramas.Whatever merits they may have, whatever occasional they may show, theyare, as regards construction, incurably clumsy. How completely theyfailed is manifest from the fact that with all his sanguinetemperament and indomitable perseverance he was unable to maintain thestruggle to gain a livelihood as a dramatist for more than threeyears; nor was the rising popularity of Lope the cause, as is oftensaid, notwithstanding his own words to the contrary. When Lope beganto write for the stage is uncertain, but it was certainly afterCervantes went to Seville.

Among the "Nuevos Documentos" printed by Senor Asensio y Toledo isone dated 1592, and curiously characteristic of Cervantes. It is anagreement with one Rodrigo Osorio, a manager, who was to accept sixcomedies at fifty ducats (about 6l.) apiece, not to be paid in anycase unless it appeared on representation that the said comedy was oneof the best that had ever been represented in Spain. The test does notseem to have been ever applied; perhaps it was sufficiently apparentto Rodrigo Osorio that the comedies were not among the best that hadever been represented. Among the correspondence of Cervantes theremight have been found, no doubt, more than one letter like that we seein the "Rake's Progress," "Sir, I have read your play, and it will notdoo."

He was more successful in a literary contest at Saragossa in 1595 inhonour of the canonisation of St. Jacinto, when his composition wonthe first prize, three silver spoons. The year before this he had beenappointed a collector of revenues for the kingdom of Granada. In orderto remit the money he had collected more conveniently to the treasury,he entrusted it to a merchant, who failed and absconded; and as thebankrupt's assets were insufficient to cover the whole, he was sent toprison at Seville in September 1597. The balance against him, however,was a small one, about 26l., and on giving security for it he wasreleased at the end of the year.

It was as he journeyed from town to town collecting the king'staxes, that he noted down those bits of inn and wayside life andcharacter that abound in the pages of "Don Quixote:" the Benedictinemonks with spectacles and sunshades, mounted on their tall mules;the strollers in costume bound for the next village; the barber withhis basin on his head, on his way to bleed a patient; the recruit withhis breeches in his bundle, tramping along the road singing; thereapers gathered in the venta gateway listening to "Felixmarte ofHircania" read out to them; and those little Hogarthian touches thathe so well knew how to bring in, the ox-tail hanging up with thelandlord's comb stuck in it, the wine-skins at the bed-head, and thosenotable examples of hostelry art, Helen going off in high spirits onParis's arm, and Dido on the tower dropping tears as big as walnuts.Nay, it may well be that on those journeys into remote regions he cameacross now and then a specimen of the pauper gentleman, with hislean hack and his greyhound and his books of chivalry, dreaming awayhis life in happy ignorance that the world had changed since hisgreat-grandfather's old helmet was new. But it was in Seville thathe found out his true vocation, though he himself would not by anymeans have admitted it to be so. It was there, in Triana, that hewas first tempted to try his hand at drawing from life, and firstbrought his humour into play in the exquisite little sketch of"Rinconete y Cortadillo," the germ, in more ways than one, of "DonQuixote."

Where and when that was written, we cannot tell. After hisimprisonment all trace of Cervantes in his official capacitydisappears, from which it may be inferred that he was notreinstated. That he was still in Seville in November 1598 appears froma satirical sonnet of his on the elaborate catafalque erected totestify the grief of the city at the death of Philip II, but from thisup to 1603 we have no clue to his movements. The words in thepreface to the First Part of "Don Quixote" are generally held to beconclusive that he conceived the idea of the book, and wrote thebeginning of it at least, in a prison, and that he may have done so isextremely likely.

There is a tradition that Cervantes read some portions of his workto a select audience at the Duke of Bejar's, which may have helpedto make the book known; but the obvious conclusion is that the FirstPart of "Don Quixote" lay on his hands some time before he couldfind a publisher bold enough to undertake a venture of so novel acharacter; and so little faith in it had Francisco Robles of Madrid,to whom at last he sold it, that he did not care to incur theexpense of securing the copyright for Aragon or Portugal, contentinghimself with that for Castile. The printing was finished inDecember, and the book came out with the new year, 1605. It is oftensaid that "Don Quixote" was at first received coldly. The facts showjust the contrary. No sooner was it in the hands of the public thanpreparations were made to issue pirated editions at Lisbon andValencia, and to bring out a second edition with the additionalcopyrights for Aragon and Portugal, which he secured in February.

Title: Don Quixote
Author: Miqeul de Cervantes
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