With the Crusaders
From the first, the way in which the Brotherhood of Little Poor Men grew in numbers was a wonderful thing to see. Within a few years it had outgrown the settlement in the plain and was a vast company, like a great army sent out to make, not war, but peace. The groups of Grey Brothers were known all over Italy, and companies of them had gone to France and Spain and Germany, and even to the north of Africa. In foreign lands, just as in Italy, they preached their simple Gospel, and preached it best by caring for the sick and the poor.
Sometimes the Brothers were received kindly in the far-off countries; sometimes they were mocked and stoned, as they had been at home, and in Africa a brave little band was cruelly put to death.
It seemed to Francis that he could not bear to stay where he was known and safe, while his Brothers were enduring danger, and even death, in strange lands. Moreover, his heart yearned over the ignorant and miserable everywhere, and he longed to tell in other places what he had told in Italy, that men should love each other and live at peace, and that food and clothing and money should be for all, not for the few. It was only the Gospel of the Carpenter of Nazareth, but men had forgotten His teaching, though they built churches in His honour, and though they went to war in His name.
In the year 1219, one of the great wars called Crusades, or Wars of the Cross, was going on. The Crusaders were soldiers from Europe, who fought in the Holy Land to drive the Saracens away from Jerusalem, that the Holy Sepulchre where Christ was buried, and the hill where He was crucified, might not be in the hands of unbelievers, for the Saracens were not Christians, but Mohammedans. They were brave and able soldiers, however, and many times the knightly armies from England, France, Germany and Italy, suffered terrible defeats in Egypt or in Palestine.
Fifteen years earlier Francis Bernardone would have been the most eager of Crusaders. The thought of the long voyage, of the battles to be fought in Eastern lands for the rescue of the Holy Sepulchre, would have made him even happier than he had been when he rode out to his first fight. Now, Brother Francis, the Little Poor Man, was no less determined to go with the crusading army, but he went with only peace and pity in his heart. He knew that where there were battles there would be wounded and dying to tend and comfort, and he hoped that, in the midst of hatred and cruelty, he might find a chance to speak of love and gentleness. He even hoped that he might go among the armies of the enemy and preach to them.
The Italian Crusaders were to sail for Egypt from the port of Ancona, on the Adriatic Sea, toward the end of June. Francis and a company of his Brothers crossed the mountains from Assisi and reached Ancona in time to go about from ship to ship, seeking to find passage. Since they were not soldiers, and since they had no money, they were forced to trust to the friendliness of the ships' captains and, when the day of sailing came, places had been found for only Francis and eleven companions. It was a sad minute, for all wanted to go, and Francis could not bring himself to decide whom to leave behind. As he walked with them along the white beach, and looked away over the blue harbour where the ships rode at anchor, he spoke sorrowfully: "My Brothers, the shipmen will not take us all, and I have scarcely the courage to choose between you. Let us seek to know what is God's will." On the beach a little child was playing in the sand, and Francis called him to them. "Do you know numbers, little one?" he asked. "Can you count?" "Yes, Father," the child answered, proudly, "I can count more than twenty." "Then count me out eleven of these, my Brothers, to go to sea with me to-night when yonder ships set sail." The child did not understand what he was doing, but he went about solemnly among the company, and, with his small forefinger, told off eleven Brothers, and, at evening, these eleven sailed away with Francis and the Crusaders, across the southern sea.
On the water, the summer days were long and hot. Sometimes the wind died away, the sails hung empty, and the sun blistered the decks. The ships were crowded, and the soldiers were uncomfortable and discontented. Many fell sick of sunstroke and fever, and Francis and his Brothers found plenty of misery ready to their kind hands. At night, when the breeze freshened, and the great sails filled slowly; when the sky darkened and the stars came out; when the ship's prow and the long oars cut through waves of wonderful, shining light, all the wretchedness of the day was forgotten, and the voyagers made merry. The sailors sang at the ropes, the Crusaders, common soldiers and knights together, seated on the deck, listened while some one told a marvellous story of Tristram, or of Roland. Then a Troubadour would sing some brave or plaintive song, while his fingers made sweet music on an old Venetian lute.
Francis was soon known to all, and he found many new friends. Sometimes even the knightly tales were neglected, while the soldiers questioned the Little Poor Man and listened to the story of the Brotherhood of Assisi.
Francis was with the crusading army in Egypt for a long time, but we know little of what happened to him. A certain French bishop wrote home a letter which has, somehow, been kept all these seven hundred years. He tells in it of the wonderful "Brother Francis, whom every one reveres because he is so lovable; and who is not afraid to go even into the army of the Saracens."
Francis was so fearless and so gentle that, commonly, strangers and even enemies received him kindly, and he came to be almost as well known among the Saracens as among the Crusaders. But there were some who hated him because he preached a strange religion, which they feared, thinking that it might bring success to the Christian armies and defeat to their own.
One day Francis and Brother Illuminatus, who was his comrade at this time, were returning alone from the Saracen camp to that of the Christians. Their course lay westward, and, where the treeless plain rose toward the red sunset, they could see the line of the Crusaders' tents. The distance was short, and they had good hope of reaching their friends before darkness fell, when, suddenly, from the south, a band of mounted men appeared. As they came near, Francis could see that they were not Crusaders in heavy mail, but lightly armed Saracens, on swift Arabian horses. They swept across the plain like a flight of birds, and Francis watched them admiringly, for he loved all beautiful things. But the fleet riders had quick, fierce eyes. As they espied the grey robes, they wheeled sharply and fell upon the Little Poor Men, like wolves upon sheep, so the old story says.
Wounded and helpless in their cruel hands, Francis somehow made his enemies understand that he wished to be taken into the presence of the Soldan himself, their emperor. Perhaps they were afraid to kill a man who appealed to them in the name of their master; perhaps they expected a reward for their prisoners; perhaps even their hard hearts were softened by the sight of men who neither fought nor feared. At any rate, they finally bound the two Brothers and carried them off to the Saracen camp. The next day Francis had his wish fulfilled, for he and Brother Illuminatus were brought into the royal tent.
The Soldan sat on a splendid throne, and his dress was rich and beautiful. All about the throne stood armed guards, and, at the foot of it black Ethiopian slaves, with shining eyes and teeth. On one side were the Soldan's counsellors, his Wise Men, who could read in the stars the things that were to happen in the future; who could tell the meaning of dreams, as the magicians had tried to do in Egypt, since the day, and long before the day when young Joseph put them all to shame. The Wise Men wore turbans and long flowing robes. They had white beards, and deep-set eyes, and solemn faces.
In front of the throne stood Francis and his one Little Brother. They were bare-headed and barefooted. Their rough grey robes were dusty and torn and stained with blood. They seemed no match for the tall magicians, who looked down on them with scorn, thinking them madmen or fools. But the Soldan was grave and thoughtful. He wanted to know which spoke the truth, his learned counsellors, whom he had always trusted, or these simple, poor men, with their new teaching.
The Wise Men could give no help to their Sovereign, and, at last, Francis said: "My lord, bid your slaves build here a fire before you, great and hot; it may be that God will show us a sign." When the red fire blazed high, Francis spoke across it to the magicians: "If you love your religion better than your life, walk into the midst of this fire with me, that it may be seen which faith should be held most certain and most holy." Then the Wise Men cowered away from the flames with horror, and covered their faces in shame, knowing that they dared not go into the fire. And Brother Francis cried aloud to the Soldan: "Promise me, my lord, for thyself and thy people, that, if I come out unharmed, thou wilt worship Christ, and I will enter the fire alone." But the Soldan was afraid, for he thought that his people might revolt, knowing that they held the Wise Men in great dread and honour. Therefore he hastily sent the Brothers, with a safeguard, back to the camp of the Crusaders; but he marvelled much at the quiet grey-robed man who had no fear.