Don Q was created by Kate and Hesketh Prichard and debuted in “The Parole of Gevil-Hay” (Badminton Magazine, September 1897). Don Q went on to appear in numerous stories, collections, and novels, which is collected in The Chronicles of Don Q. Hesketh Prichard (1876-1922) was a successful author, big game hunter, and cricketer and was reportedly E.W. Hornung’s model for Raffles. Kate Prichard (1851-1935), Hesketh’s mother, was a novelist, short story writer, and political activist. The Prichards also created Flaxman Low.
Don Q is a grim Spanish bandit active in the mid- and late-19th century, operating with his gang in “the Andalusian highlands, stretching from Jerez to Almeria and beyond.” Don Q is known to the locals as “Don Quebranta Huesos,” or “Don Bone Smasher,” the local name for the “bonebreaking” vulture whose features Don Q seems to share. Don Q is no ordinary thief or bandit chief, however. He is a sequestrador, one who kidnaps and holds for ransom, what Don Q describes as “the noblest rank of brigand.”
When his men discover a traveler making his way across the “magnificent desolation” which is Don Q’s home, they capture the traveler and escort him to the mountain headquarters where Don Q resides. Don Q then chats with his victim, usually cordially, for Don Q is an aristocrat to his bones and thoroughly believes in the duties of the host, which include a kindly courtesy. Don Q then disposes of “the disagreeables of business,” the setting of the ransom, which is always what he believes his victim, or the victim’s friends and family, or the victim’s country, can afford to pay. If the ransom is not paid, “regrettable consequences” follow. If not all of the ransom is paid, the consequences are equally regrettable; if only 75% of the ransom is forthcoming, only 75% of the kidnap victim will return to freedom.
As might be expected, however, Don Q is considerably more complicated than that. The Don Q stories are late Victorian versions of the räuberroman. But Don Q differs from earlier noble bandits in a few ways. He is not a noble minded patriot, like Schiller’s Karl von Moor or Christian Vulpius’ Rinaldo Rinaldini. Don Q, though patriotic, views himself as an artist and is happy to kill, in varied and creative ways, those who displease him, as well as to earn money. Neither is Don Q a conscienceless murderer, like Edmond About’s Hadji Stavros. Don Q has a strict code of honor from which he never deviates. Don Q is an anti-hero, approaching the limits of the Hero-Villain, although Don Q always maintains a firm hold on his passions. But he is clearly a man of great qualities, and is firmly within the räuberroman genre.
Don Q’s origins are tragic. Exactly what happened to him is not spelled out, but the implications and hints are that once, long ago in his youth, he was an aristocrat of noble blood, the intimate of presidents and kings. But a “blackness of treachery” descended upon him, preventing him from marrying his young love and forcing him into a loveless marriage. He fathered children but was unhappy, and “he knew but one way remained to carry the honour of his ancient name clear, and that was to give up all his great possessions and to die.” He faked his death, so well that all the world thought him dead, and took the name “Don Q,” making his way into the mountains becoming the renowned and widely feared sequestrador. His love went to a convent, eventually becoming a Mother Superior. A later origin, in Don Q’s Love Story (1909), contradicts the preceding, earlier story. The later version has Don Q as a young aristocrat who is framed for the murder of one of the Spanish Hapsburgs. Don Q then fakes his death, assumes the alias of Don Q, and takes to the mountains to life the live of a sequestrador. A few years later Don Q proves his innocence, marries his true love, and abandons the Don Q identity.
Don Q is the undisputed ruler of the mountains. He is greatly disliked by the Governor of his province and by the government. Don Q’s work humiliates the local Civil Guard who never succeed in capturing him and are repeatedly defeated and embarrassed by him. Additionally, under Don Q’s rule, the mountains and Spain itself become known for his work, rather than for more genteel and cultured things. But the poor of the mountains and the plains love him, because he deals out local justice according to his own code, so that those who prey on the poor face his violent and final vengeance, rather than the inconstant and venal justice of the courts. Don Q says:
I hold rule over a large region; I administer strict justice, which the law cannot do, since I know the true particulars in each case, and the executive relies on witnesses more or less prejudiced if not perjured. Truth up here is undiluted and pure as our own springs; down in the plains it has grown foul and corrupted.
Don Q sympathizes with the poor and protects them, never holding any of them for ransom and punishing those who do. When Don Q does kidnap those of reduced circumstances, the ransoms are always low. When the poor do him a service, they are always amply rewarded. He is notably chivalrous toward women, never holding any of them ransom and always treating them as gallantly as possible. And although the Spanish court does not love him, he is a staunch patriot, and when Queen Christina is threatened, he arranges matters so that the villain is killed. And although many local clergy are afraid of him Don Q is the patron of a local church, giving huge amounts of money to it and expecting in exchange only the occasional confession said for himself or his men or masses sung for the souls of those Don Q is about to kill.
He is vengeful, going to great lengths to punish those who betray him. He is proud, and those who besmirch his name regret it, painfully and at length. He has a savage sense of humor, which manifests itself in grotesquely humorous deaths for his enemies and victims. One such was blindfolded and told that he could take ten steps and then be free, with the ninth step taking the man over a cliff’s edge. Don Q always keeps his word, regardless of the difficulties in which it places him. And he has his own code of honor, so when one prisoner, given the chance to shoot Don Q at the cost of his breaking his promise not to do so, passes it up, Don Q releases the man:
“Señor…when I find one like you, I do not spoil the good God’s work in him. You are not the type of man who comes to harm at my hands. A man who can keep his honour as you have done is worthy of life.”
Don Q is clever, even ingenious, in dealing with his enemies. He thinks well of himself but he is prey to fits of despondency and depression, and when those overtake him he sits huddled beneath his cloak by the fire in the cave he calls his home, for days on end, and during these periods those who speak to him are either ignored or verbally abused. He does not think much of his own men, seeing them as either jackals or wolves in need of harsh leadership. He is writing his autobiography, in the hopes that sooner or later it will be published and those in Spain and elsewhere who believe him to be evil will gain a different and better view of him. He is not a pretty man:
…the livid, wrinkled eyelids, the white wedge-shaped bald head narrowing down to the hooked nose, the lean neck, the cruel aspect, all the distinct features of the quebranta huesos transmuted into human likeness. He is physically strong, surprisingly so given his slight frame, and is an excellent swordsman and shootist.
The Don Q stories are similar to Gilbert Parker’s Pierre stories. The Don Q stories are not immortal, but they are entertaining and eminently readable. The Prichards are skilled technicians and create memorable and moderately well written tales, much more entertaining than their Flaxman Low stories. Many of the Don Q stories have a significant plot twist to them, often good enough to surprise even a jaded modern reader. The stories are picaresque but told in a knowing, straight-faced, wry and sardonic way that elevates them above more humdrum picaresques. They are, basically, great fun.