"Content to take his adventure gladly."—Hakluyt.
"Stone walls do not a prison make,
Nor iron bars a cage."—Lovelace.
There were many and terrible wars in Italy in the thirteenth century, and the chance of trying his fortune as a soldier was not long in coming to Francis Bernardone.
Only fifteen miles away from Assisi stands a larger city, called Perugia. It also is built upon a mountain, and the two towns seem to smile at each other across the green valley. But for hundreds of years there were only bitter looks and hatred between the two. Perugia, higher and stronger, lay like a dragon, ready to spring upon her small but furious enemy. Assisi, like a lion's cub, was always ready to fight. Sometimes the lion was victor; always it was fierce enough to make the huge dragon writhe with pain.
When Francis Bernardone was about twenty years old, there was war between the great dragon and the little lion. Down from one mountain came the Perugian army. Down from the other came that of Assisi. With the army of Assisi rode Francis and most of the company of friends who had been so merry together in times of peace. They were gay as ever, and eager to see what a real battle might be like.
The armies met in the plain, and fought by the river side, near a tiny town called Ponte San Giovanni, the Bridge of St. John.
This time the Perugians were too strong for the Assisans, and the young soldier's first combat was a defeat. One day taught him all the horror of a field of battle. He saw men wounded and dying. He heard the terrified cries of riderless horses. He suffered from blinding sun and parching thirst. War, that he had thought so noble and glorious, seemed somehow confused and cruel and hideous.
The army of Assisi lost heavily that day. Many men were slain, many were made prisoners, and one of the prisoners was Francis Bernardone. He was too tired, too hungry and too thirsty to feel anything keenly except the need of sleep and food; yet he wondered how it had all happened. Could he be the same man who had gone about for days delighting in the song of a warlike Troubadour:
"Luck to the arm that's quickest,
And, if at odds ye strive,
Die where the field is thickest,
But never yield alive?"
He knew that he had not been a coward. He had not even been afraid, yet here he was unarmed and captive.
Because of his beautiful dress, and because of his courtly manners, Francis was placed, not among the common soldiers, but among the nobles. For a whole year he was a prisoner of war. It must have been a sad change from the free, wild life in Assisi. Captives, even if of noble rank, were not softly treated in old times; and, though Francis and his companions may not have suffered serious hardships, the long confinement was, in itself, a cruel thing to bear. On Francis Bernardone, however, his misfortune sat lightly. The army of Perugia could not make a captive of his fancy. His fellow-prisoners were astonished to hear him tell of his hopes and plans for the future; of the battles he should fight; of the fame he should win; of the beautiful ladies who should smile on him. The brave knights whom he admired, Gawain, Tristram and Lancelot, had sometimes fallen into prison, but had won their way out again, to fight better than before. So Francis still dreamed of war and glory, and boasted in his pride: "You will see that, some day, all the world will adore me."
Though he was proud and boastful, Francis was still gentle-hearted, and quick to feel sympathy for all who were unhappy. Among the prisoners of war was one man so vain and ill-tempered that his companions would have nothing to do with him. The unfortunate creature sat gloomily apart, with a black frown on his face, and with black thoughts in his mind. The songs and jests and games with which the others whiled away the long hours made him seem all the lonelier in his silent corner. The sight of the sad, bitter face was more than Francis could bear. Many times he slipped away from the noisy group of his comrades to speak cheerily to the solitary knight, and, little by little, with the friendliness that no one was ever known to resist, he won the heart of the miserable man. Through the good-will of the boy whom everybody loved, the victim and his tormentors in the end became friends once more, and there was peace in the great prison.
All through the long winter, from across the valley, the sad eyes of the Lady Pica watched the towers of Perugia. In her heart she questioned what might have been her boy's fate. Was he ill, and suffering and lonely? When would he come back to her? She seemed still to hear him singing, as on the morning when he had ridden out so blithely to his first battle:
"Comrades, let each be ready
To give and take his part;
Shields bright and lances steady,
And all men glad of heart."
If the breeze that swept down the long valley from Perugia could have carried the prisoner's merry voice, the mother might have been somewhat comforted.
In prison or out of it, the heart of Francis of Assisi was always the heart of the poet, the Troubadour. Because his companions remembered gratefully the songs and laughter that brightened their captivity, the story of his gaiety has come down to us across seven hundred years.