The huts in the plain below Assisi were the home of the Little Poor Men, in so far as they had a home; but, like the Troubadours and Knights Errant, they were wanderers always. Just as Sir Lancelot or Sir Gawain would ride away from the court of King Arthur to fight for any forlorn lady, or for any hard-pressed knight, so Brother Leone or Brother Francis would set forth at any moment to carry help to the miserable. But the Brothers went on foot, and they wore no armour, and fought no battles; yet they had need to be as brave as the best of knights, for they went among the sick, and cared for those who were dying of most terrible diseases. They met fierce enemies, too, since many people hated them because they spoke without fear in the streets, saying that pride and greed and war are wicked, and that folk should live by love and labour, not by fighting and robbery. When people saw that the Brothers really lived as they preached, that, when they were stoned by cruel hands and abused by cruel tongues, they returned only gentleness for anger, many began to listen gladly, and even barons and princes came to love Francis and his Brothers, as the poor and wretched had loved them from the first.
Francis himself had a manner so sweet and winning that no one could refuse to listen to him; and sometimes he used to be sent for to make peace between two enemies, because even angry men, listening to his voice, forgot their hatred, and were ready to forgive and to be friends again. The stories say, moreover, that he could control not fierce men only, but the fiercest of wild beasts.
One of the places which Francis often visited is a little city called Gubbio, about fifteen miles north of Assisi. Almost all the way the road lies across the high mountains and the traveller can overlook the long Umbrian valley. From these bare heights, Perugia and Assisi seem to lie low, but far to the south, on clear days, the tops of the tallest Apennines stand out against the sky. Before the road drops to the narrow valley which lies below the gates of Gubbio, Francis, who loved the mountains, always turned to look back at the great peaks, shining white in winter time, or soft and blue if it were summer.
Gubbio looks not unlike Assisi, but is still more steeply built up a mountain side. In those days the stone houses seemed to huddle within the great city walls for shelter, for there was frequent fighting at Gubbio. Even in times of peace, people were often afraid to go beyond the gates, because in the forests and caves on the mountain lived daring robbers and brigands. Besides the savage men, there were also savage beasts, and the shepherds feared for their lambs and kids, when they heard the howling of the wolves at night.
Once, when Brother Francis came to Gubbio, all the city was in terror because of a wolf, the largest and fiercest ever known. The huge creature prowled about the country, devouring sheep and goats; but, worse than that, it fell upon men, and had killed more than one shepherd. No man dared to go out of the gates alone, and even three or four together went armed, as if to battle; for the beast came close to the city walls, and his strength was as that of three hunters.
Bands of citizens had been out to seek the wolf, but had found only the track of his big feet, and the bones of the victims that he had eaten. Every night the folk of Gubbio, safely barred within their stone houses, told a new story of the four-footed enemy: how a shepherd had lost his fattest sheep and two of his best dogs; how a soldier, riding alone, toward evening, from the next town, had seen a great grey creature moving in the woods by the roadside, and had spurred his horse to its best speed and reached the gate with the beast close at the heels of the frightened horse. Night after night the children of Gubbio shivered in their beds, thinking of a long shadow that crept about the city walls in the moonlight, and seeming to hear the pad of four swift feet, coming nearer and nearer.
Brother Francis had been often in Gubbio and was well known there, and much loved, and therefore all the people turned to him with the stories of their suffering. He was sorry, says the old tale, to see the folk wishing, but not daring, to go outside the gates, because the wolf was most terrible and fierce. To the astonishment and horror of everybody, Francis declared that he would himself go out and meet the wolf.
Though all the crowd begged him not to venture, and filled his ears with accounts of the cruelty of the beast, the Little Poor Man, followed by one or two Brothers, went out from the city gate and down the road toward the spot where the wolf was thought to lurk. Behind the Brothers came the citizens of Gubbio, still frightened, but curious to see what would happen, and, it may be, quieted by the coolness and fearlessness of Francis. Close at the heels of the Brothers marched certain venturesome boys, and at the very end of the procession dangled a group of smaller, timider children, round-eyed and open-mouthed, who clutched each others' hands, and were always ready to scamper home at a moment's warning.
About a quarter of a mile beyond the gate, where a wood of tall oaks and walnuts shadowed the road, those who were nearest turned pale at the sight of the wolf, coming swiftly along, with his great jaws open, eager to spring upon Brother Francis, who walked ahead and alone. He went, not as a soldier goes to meet an enemy, but as one might go out to meet a welcome friend.
As the unarmed man and the wild beast neared each other, Francis called, cheerily: "Come hither, Brother Wolf! I ask you, for Christ's sake, to do no harm to me nor to any one." Then the crowd saw, with wonder, that the terrible wolf stopped running, and that the great, wicked jaws closed; and, presently, the creature came softly up to Brother Francis and, meek as a lamb, lay down at his feet. And Francis spoke to him as one man might reason with another: "Brother Wolf, you do much harm in all this countryside, and you have committed many crimes, hurting and killing God's creatures. Not only have you killed and eaten beasts, but you have dared to kill men, made in God's image, and, therefore, you deserve to be punished like the worst of thieves and murderers; and all the people cry out and murmur against you; and everybody is your enemy." The wolf lay perfectly still, with his head flat in the dust of the road, and his red tongue lolled out like that of a winded hound. The people forgot their fright, and spread themselves in a circle that all might see and hear; the children tiptoed closer, to look at the monster who had filled all their dreams with terror. "But I wish, Brother Wolf," went on the voice of Francis, "to make peace between you and this folk, so that you shall not harm them any more; and they shall forgive you all your misdeeds, and neither the men nor the dogs shall trouble you any longer." Then, with body and head and tail, the great wolf seemed to agree to all that Brother Francis said. Perhaps the wolf somewhat wondered what he should do for dinner, if he could not kill a sheep nor a child; perhaps he was so charmed by this strange, gentle voice that he forgot all about his dinner. Brother Francis did not forget, as his next words showed. "Brother Wolf," said he, "since you are honestly willing to make and keep this peace, I promise you that, as long as you live, the men of this place shall give you food, so that you shall never go hungry; for I know well that it is hunger that has made you do all this evil. But I want you to promise me, in return, that you will never harm any human being, nor any animal. Will you promise me this?" And the wolf nodded his head, as if he said: "Yes, I promise." And Francis said: "Brother Wolf, I want you to make me so sure of your promise that I cannot doubt it." The man held out his hand, and the beast lifted his paw and laid it clumsily on Brother Francis's palm, as much as to say: "Here is my hand. I will keep my part of the treaty." "And now," said Francis, "I wish you, Brother Wolf, to come with me, and not to be afraid, and we will finish this business."
Francis turned back toward the city, and the wolf walked beside him like a pet lamb; and the people of Gubbio followed, in great wonder, silently. But, once within the city, they spread the news from street to street and everybody, big and little, young and old, crowded into the square to see Brother Francis and the wolf.
Beside the fountain, in the centre of the square, stood the Little Poor Man in his grey gown, with the great grey beast at his side. When he spoke, his clear voice carried far, and all the crowd fell silent, striving to hear. "Listen, my friends," said Francis, "Brother Wolf, who is here before you, has promised me on his honour never to hurt you again in any way; and you, in your turn, must promise to give him all that he needs. I will go surety for him that he will keep his promise." And all the people, with one voice, pledged themselves to feed the wolf, and not to harm him.
Then, before them all, Brother Francis said to the wolf: "And you, Brother Wolf, promise again before all this people that you will keep faith with them, and will hurt no man, nor animal, nor any living thing." Then the wolf knelt down and bent his head and said, as well as he could, with his body, his head and his ears, that he meant to keep his word. And Brother Francis said: "Give me your hand here, before all the people, as you did outside the gate"; and the big grey paw was laid again in the hand of Brother Francis, while all the people shouted to heaven for joy that God had sent so good a man to deliver them from so terrible a beast.
After this Brother Wolf lived in Gubbio, and went about tamely from door to door, even entering the houses, without doing harm or being harmed. He was well fed and politely treated by everybody, and not a dog dared to bark at him. He must have led a long life of evil-doing before his change of heart, for, at the end of two years, he died of old age. When he died, all the citizens of Gubbio mourned for him greatly, for his own sake, and because the sight of him walking so meekly through the streets had made them always remember the goodness of Brother Francis.