The Three Robbers
Brother Francis made many journeys through the mountains and valleys about Gubbio, and all the people, rich and poor, came to know the drooping grey figure and the face that was always so cheerful and kind, though often it looked pale and thin.
One of the little cities where he used to visit is called Borgo San Sepulcro. It lies at the foot of a mountain, and outside its walls was a deep moat with a drawbridge before each gate, for a city on a plain is harder to defend in battle than a city on a hill. To-day, the moat is dry and planted with vineyards, but the old walls are solid still, though they are so covered by trailing vines that an army of small boys might scale them.
From Borgo San Sepulcro, Brother Francis visited the little villages that lay, each at the gates of a great castle, as a dog crouches at his master's feet. For village and villagers belonged to the lord of the castle, and, though he might be cruel, and ill treat them, they had no other protection in war save that of the castle courtyard, which was big enough to shelter them all.
One day, in a place called Monte Casale, about two hours' walk from Borgo San Sepulcro, a youth from one of the castles came to Brother Francis. He had a great name and great wealth, and the common people stood aside to let him pass. The youth knelt down humbly before Francis and said: "Father, I wish to be one of your Poor Brothers." Francis looked down kindly into the eager young face and replied: "My son, you are used to a beautiful home, to rich clothing and delicate food; how will you endure poverty and hardship such as ours?" But the lad answered simply: "Can I not bear all these things, by the help of God, even as you do?" Francis was greatly pleased by this answer. He joyfully received the youth into the company of Little Poor Men, giving him the name of Brother Angelo; and his trust in the new Brother was so great that, a little time after, he made him guardian of a small house, near by, where some of the Brotherhood were living.
The house stood in a wild region of mountains and forests, and, at this time, three famous and terrible robbers lived in the woods, and were the terror of the neighbourhood.
On a certain day, when Francis was absent, these men came to the house of the Brothers and asked for food. Brother Angelo answered them sharply, saying: "You cruel thieves and murderers! you are not ashamed to steal what others have worked to earn; and you even have the face to ask for that which has been given in charity to God's poor! You are not fit to live, since you reverence neither men nor yet God, who made you. Away with you! and do not let me see you here again!" The robbers went off with dark looks and muttered curses, but Brother Angelo felt well satisfied with himself, and perhaps a little proud that he had been so good a guardian.
An hour later, Brother Francis returned to the house, weary with long walking on the rough mountain paths. Over his shoulder he carried a bag of food that had been given to him for the Brothers and for their poor folk.
Brother Angelo greeted him with the story of the three robbers. He doubtless expected praise for having rid the house of such dangerous evil-doers; but, to his surprise, Francis looked at him, sadly and sternly, and said: "My son, you have behaved most cruelly. One should receive sinners with gentleness, not with harshness, even as Jesus Christ, who said: 'They that are whole have no need of a physician, but they that are sick,' and 'I came not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.' Moreover, Jesus Himself used often to eat with the most wretched sinners, and you, my son, have forgotten all charity, and the teaching of Christ. Go then quickly; take this food and follow the robbers, as fast as you can, until you overtake them. When you find them give them this bread from me; and kneel down before them and confess your fault, and beg them, in my name, not to do any more evil. Tell them that, if they will give up their wicked life, I will find food for them always, and they shall want for nothing."
It was a hard minute for young Brother Angelo. He had looked for praise, and, instead, he was being reproved by the lips that had never before spoken any but gentle words to him. Surely this command was strange and unreasonable! How could he run after the men he had just driven away? How could he ask pardon of such wretches? But as he looked into the face of Brother Francis, so stern, and yet so pitiful, a thought that he had never known before stirred in his heart, the thought that it is possible to love not only those who are good and gentle, but even the wicked and vile. For it was easy to see that Francis loved and pitied these robbers, who were prowling about, not far away, hungry and fierce, like wild beasts. When this new thought came to Angelo, all his anger disappeared, and he was ready and glad to obey Brother Francis.
He threw the bag over his shoulder, and ran along, as fast as he could, by the narrow path that the thieves had taken. The way was steep and stony, but he did not notice. There had been a thunder storm, but now the sun came out, and the wind piled the clouds white and high above the mountain tops, and the sky was deep blue. The sunshine seemed to Angelo like the face of Brother Francis, shining upon him and driving away all his hard and cruel thoughts. He began to be more and more sorry as he remembered the rough words he had used to the beggars. As he went on, seeing no one, sometimes through the woods, sometimes over stony pastures, where sheep were feeding, he began to think: "Suppose I cannot find the men? Suppose they have taken some other road, and are wandering in the woods, hungry and miserable?" At the thought, he pulled the bag higher on his shoulder, and hurried along faster and faster.
Just as the path made a sharp turn and entered the woods again, Angelo saw the three wretched men sitting under a chestnut tree, trying in vain to find a few nuts among the husks, for it was late autumn and the nuts were all gathered or decayed.
As Angelo came running along the path, the three robbers eyed him sullenly, and when they recognised the haughty youth who had driven them so harshly from his door, they were ready to fall upon him and beat him. A minute later, they sat in speechless surprise, for the boy threw himself and his bag down before them, crying: "Here is food, my brothers, take it, and forgive my cruelty. Brother Francis sends me to you, and begs you, for his sake, to accept the food; and he bids me tell you that, if you will give up your wicked life, he will care for you and feed you always."
Perhaps there were never three men more astonished than the robbers of Monte Casale. They devoured the food greedily, for they were starving; but, as they ate, they began to say among themselves: "What miserable creatures we are, who live by thieving and murder, and fear neither men nor God! And here is this youth, who said to us only what we richly deserved, asking our pardon, and bringing us food, and promising that the holy Brother Francis will forgive and care for us!"
The three robbers became sorrier and sorrier as they remembered all their wicked deeds. By and by one of them said: "Let us go ourselves to Brother Francis and ask him if God will yet forgive us. It may be that the good Brother will help us to live like honest folk once more."
Thus it came about that the three infamous robbers of Monte Casale joined the company of Little Poor Men, and spent the rest of their days in doing good and not evil to their fellow-men.