ONCE there was, in very remote times, a knight named Don Suero de las Navas, feudal lord of a number of Spanish villages, with a quantity of titles sufficient to fill one of the biggest pages, so many and so long were they.
Now, this knight was so proud that he thought it was a great dishonour to learn how to read and write things which he considered not only useless for a man of his accomplishments, but even shameful for a noble so rich as he was, who could indulge in the luxury of a secretary. And so it was indeed, that a poor man, who on account of his humble condition was obliged to learn those trifling necessities, went, like a vagabond, behind his master, pen and ink in satchel, ready to put into good Castilian the thousand and one mistakes that Don Suero frequently made.
On a certain occasion the king summoned the powerful Don Suero to go with his soldiers to the war, and as it could not be otherwise, the poor secretary, carrying a pen instead of a sword and a horn inkstand instead of an arrow, was obliged to place himself at the side of his lord and to march to the war.
At the beginning all went well. The orders and the letters acquainting the king with the results of the struggle were written by the hand of the unfortunate secretary, who earned each month, if my particulars are not wrong, the enormous sum of two silver threepenny pieces. Enough to have a carriage and to build good castles—in the air!
But an arrow shot at hazard in the fury of the fight against the Moors put Don Lesmes, for so the secretary was called, out of action, and Don Suero was under the necessity of seeking a new dependant who knew how to read and write—not an easy matter at that time.
He could not find one, to his great unhappiness; and if he had not had that quantity of pride in his body, he would surely have felt his lack of education, which might place him in an awkward situation, which happened soon afterwards.
He was engaged in a campaign against the Moors, who occupied a great part of Spain, when he received a packet from the king. And here the difficulty began. What did he say in those pot-hooks written on an enclosed parchment? To advance? To retreat? It was difficult to guess. The messenger had confined himself to delivering the packet and, putting spurs to his horse, disappeared in a cloud of dust.
Don Suero, perplexed, found himself with the parchment in his hand, turning it round and round, without knowing what it said. He made a man of a neighbouring village come to him, a man who was an enemy of his because of a certain thrashing which he had ordered him to be given some days before, and said:
"I have been told that you know how to read and write, and as nobody else here knows how to, you will read to me what this document from the king says, and if you do not tell me the truth I will have you skinned alive. Moreover, I require from you absolute secrecy. What is said here only you and I must know."
The offended peasant promised him all, but with the idea of taking complete vengeance. And indeed hardly had he cast a glance at the document than he exclaimed in accents of the greatest surprise:
"The king orders you to give up the command of the troops and to go immediately to the court, where you have been accused of treason."
"I a traitor! Ah, what scoundrels are those who have said that of me! I will cut off their ears with my own hand."
No sooner said than done; he at once left the command of his troops and started on his march to the court.
The journey was long and wearisome, and our Don Suero was obliged to halt in an uninhabited place, to dismount from his horse and to sleep on the blessed ground, neither more nor less than if he had been the poorest of peasants.
So he passed the night, until dawn surprised him. On collecting himself he saw a large board close to a ditch situated at the side of the road. What might that say? It ought to be something important when it was written in such large letters. He went as near as he could to see if any sign, which was not in writing, might indicate something to him of what the board said; but, alas! on going nearer he slipped and fell headlong into the ditch.
The notice said, "Take care in approaching!"
It cost him no little work to get out of it, and still the shock left him so weak that he could hardly move.
As well as he could, he approached the nearest village and got into bed. The first person whom he met was the cunning peasant who had so badly translated his majesty’s letter. He was flying from Don Suero and had come face to face with him where he least expected to.
On seeing his good-natured gesture, he knew that his deceit had not been discovered, and, without trembling, he approached the noble knight.
"You can be useful to me," said the latter. "I do not feel disposed to go to the court. Write to the king what has happened to me and tell him that as soon as I am a little better I will come and confound those who have calumniated me."
But the peasant wrote what he liked and sent off the letter.
In it he heaped insults on the king, with the object of causing the latter to have the knight’s head cut off.
The effect that the insulting letter produced was so great that the king rose in his anger and commanded Don Suero to be brought dead or alive, and that if he resisted he was to be tied to the tail of a horse.
The knight was imprisoned, but as he was so proud he would not give the king any explanations, and the latter commanded him to be tortured.
Not even the severest tortures could succeed in taming that will of iron. He was innocent, and would not ask grace of the king, who condemned him without any further motive. At length they were going to sentence him to death for his insults to the king, when one of the judges mentioned to the king the possibility of Don Suero having put his seal at the foot of a document he had not signed.
"Because," he said, "it is stated he does not know how to read and write."
"What!" angrily exclaimed the king. "Did I pass five long years in learning how to spell, and that silly Don Suero does not know how to do it? I do not believe it. If you cannot prove to me that the letter in which he calls me a weak and stupid king is unknown to him, I will have him killed to-morrow."
The judge did not neglect to see. He wrote out the sentence of death and took it to the prison, saying to the knight:
"Sign this and you are free!"
"What is this?"
"A writing in which you say to the king that you are innocent of what you are accused."
"If that is so, bring it and I will sign it."
And he put a cross and his seal at the foot of it.
The judge bore to the king that sentence that the prisoner had signed, believing it to be his salvation, and then the king, convinced of his innocence, commanded him to be set free and returned all his honours to him.
After that the knight dedicated himself to learning reading and writing, and made such progress that, after eight years of lessons, he already knew which was the letter O, both capital and small, which indeed showed a progress not too rapid.
And the peasant? He was sought for, being a wicked man, and as soon as he was caught he was put into prison, where he finished his life.
Ignorance is bad, but the wicked are worse than the ignorant.