One day in summer, Francis of Assisi came out from the city gate and walked down the mountain on his way to the Portiuncula. He took a path that he loved well because it led him by the chapel of San Damiano, where, long ago, the good priest had hidden him from his father's anger, and where many times, in that first year of trouble, he had found shelter and comfort. He loved the little chapel the more because he had helped to rebuild it. He knew the very stones that he had laid with his own hands. Now, the place was dear to him for another reason, for house and garden and little chapel belonged to a sisterhood, whose leader, Sister Chiara, had come to him in the early days at the Portiuncula asking that she might live the same life of poverty and service as that of the Little Poor Men. To her, and to all her company, Francis had been friend and father, and it made him happy that his old refuge had become their home.
From the gate of San Damiano Francis could see the whole valley, where the August air quivered with heat, and the river-bed lay white and dry. The little huts in the plain were hidden in deep forest, and he thought how cool the shadow of the oaks and tall walnut trees would be at the end of his journey. Hot as it was, he did not take the shortest road, but turned into a footpath that led to the leper hospital. He was barefooted and bareheaded; his robe was the colour of the dusty path; he walked with bent head, wearily, for he was not strong, and the air at the foot of the mountain was still and close.
Under the trees, men and women were resting through the hottest hours, and the children were playing quietly. A baby lay sound asleep on the brown grass, where the shadow of broad vine leaves fell across its face. A tired-looking donkey nibbled sadly along the hedgerows, which were dry and dusty, for the August rains had not begun.
As Francis drew near, the men and women rose to greet him, and the children left their play to run and kiss his hand, for no one in all the countryside was so beloved as the Little Poor Man. He petted the children; he found a greener twig for the donkey, and called him "Brother Ass"; he lingered to ask and answer questions, for he knew all the peasants, and they told him all their joys and sorrows.
As he turned to go, a little girl, pushed forward by her mother, came toward him timidly, holding up a basket covered over with vine leaves. The sun shone on the child's curly head and tiny brown arms. As she lifted the basket higher the green leaves slipped aside, showing the deep purple of the August figs. "Will you accept them, Father, for your supper at the Portiuncula?" the mother said. "They are ripe and sweet." The child said nothing, but stood smiling up into the kind eyes of the Little Poor Man. Brother Francis took the basket and bent to kiss the giver. "God reward you, little one," he said. "I will carry the fruit to our sick brothers at the hospital."
One of the first duties which Francis had taught his Little Poor Men was the care of the lepers, and some of the Brothers always stayed in the hospital, and Francis himself went often to nurse and comfort the sufferers. On this August day, to his surprise, he found his Brother nurses worn and discouraged. They turned eagerly to him, as always when they were in trouble, and they told him a sad story. "Father," said one of them, "do not be angry with us, nor think that we have been impatient and have forgotten our rule of humbleness and service. There is here a leper so wretched in mind and body that not one of us can help him nor even control him. He is in constant pain, and nothing gives him relief, and he is as bad in spirit as in body, for he shrieks and curses when we come near him, and his words are so wicked that we are afraid to listen."
"I will go to him," said Francis, and they showed him the bed where the leper lay, muttering curses still with his parched and swollen lips. "God give you peace, dear Brother," said Francis, as he stepped to the bedside. "What peace can I have from God, who has taken away from me peace, and every other good thing, and has made me altogether miserable?" cried the leper. "I am in pain day and night, and these Brothers of yours do not care for me as they should; they have done nothing," he complained, bitterly. "I will take care of you, Brother," said Francis, "I will do for you whatever you wish." "Then wash me from head to foot with your own hands," cried the leper, still angrily, "for all my body is covered with sores, and I am loathsome, even to myself." Then Francis very patiently began to bathe the leper, and his hand and his words were so tender that the wretched man was soothed, and ceased to curse and complain. His pain vanished, too, under the care of his new nurse, and, as he became comfortable in body, he grew gentle in spirit, and was sorry for his unkind and wicked words.
The other Brothers were astonished to see the man who had given them so much trouble become suddenly gentle and patient and grateful to them all.
One day, as Francis sat by the bedside, the sick man turned to him with tears in his eyes. "Forgive me, Brother," he said, "all the evil that I have spoken of you and of your Brotherhood." And Francis took his hand and spoke softly to him: "My Brother, you have suffered great pain. If you have not borne it meekly, ask God to forgive you, for His love is greater, far, than ours."
The old story tells how, a few weeks later, the leper died, at peace with God and with all the world.