In the long-ago days, when the clash of arms was often heard in the streets of Florence, and when the sons of the great families were brought up early to learn the use of sword and lance, men thought more of a strong arm and brave deeds than of kindness and compassion for the weak. It is true that the knights were gentle and courteous to fair ladies, and truth and honour were as dear to them as their swords, but they had learnt to repay evil for evil, never to forgive an injury, and to take vengeance into their own hands.
In such a time as this, then, the story of the Merciful Knight shines out like the steady gleam of a single bright star, set in a dark sky. The beauty of its clear light is the more precious because of the darkness around.
It was in one of the proudest of the great Florentine families that the two little brothers, Giovanni and Hugo Gualberto, were brought up. The boys were taught all that noble children were expected to learn in those days, especially how to be skilful and quick in the use of all knightly weapons, so that they might be trained to be brave knights and courageous soldiers.
But besides this they were taught the lessons of their creed, for it was the duty of a Christian knight to hold in reverence all holy things. Together the two little brothers would kneel in the great dim church at Christmastide when the story of Bethlehem was pictured once more. The little waxen Bambino lying in the straw, guarded by the gentle mother and St. Joseph, taught the old lesson of humility and God's goodwill towards men. The ox and the ass too, that stood by the manger looking on with such wise eyes, would help them to remember that God's dumb creatures have also a share in His merciful kindness.
Then when Holy Week came round and all the city bells had ceased to ring, because it was Good Friday, the boys would kneel again beneath the crucifix and gaze with awe upon the sad scene of suffering. That was a difficult lesson to learn, why the King should suffer so at the hands of His servants. It was easier to understand the joy and brightness of Eastertide, when the bells rang out once more, and the world seemed full of joy because the King had triumphed over His enemies.
So the boys grew up, learning their lessons together, and loving each other with a deep and special love. They were the only children in the old grey palace, and shared with each other every joy and sorrow that came into their lives.
Then when all was sunshine and joy, when life was spreading out all its pleasures at the feet of the two young knights, suddenly the blow fell which seemed to blot out for ever the light from Giovanni's life. His brother Hugo, setting out one morning full of life and gaiety, was brought back ere nightfall pierced through the heart by an enemy's dagger.
There had been, perhaps, some hot quarrel, but the boy had been cruelly done to death by treachery, and no more than that was known.
It seemed impossible to believe, but it was only too true. Hugo was dead, and a deep wail of grief went up to heaven and a wild cry for vengeance upon the murderer.
The old father seemed turned to stone in his grief. The broken-hearted mother wept until she could weep no more. And then both turned to Giovanni, their one hope, and bade him avenge his brother's cruel death.
It was little urging that Giovanni needed. His heart burned within him like a red-hot coal in his wrath. No softening tears quenched the light of vengeance that glowed in his eyes. With his strong right hand he grasped his sword, and looking up to heaven he vowed that he would rest not, night nor day, until he had killed the murderer of his brother. He would hunt him down, no matter where he was hid. Nothing should save him from the vengeance which was his due. So Giovanni set out on his search, and it seemed as if in a few hours the light-hearted boy was changed into a stern-faced man.
It was springtime, but to Giovanni all seasons seemed alike. The sky was blue and the earth was bursting into flowers, but it might have been dead winter for all he knew. There was no sun in his sky. All was black before his eyes, lightened only by the glow of that one desire for vengeance. Day by day and hour by hour he searched, but no sign of his enemy could he find, and at last he turned wearily away from the city, and set out for the country-house, outside Florence, where his father and mother were waiting for news.
It was the evening of Good Friday, and a solemn stillness seemed to brood over the land. But Giovanni never noticed that the bells were silent and that there was no sound to tell the passing hours. Slowly he began to mount the steep hill which leads from the city gates to the church of San Miniato, which he must needs pass on his way home.
Half-way up the hill, a little road turns off sharply to the right, and there at the corner Giovanni suddenly came face to face with the man he was seeking, the enemy who had so cruelly killed his brother.
Quick as lightning Giovanni drew his sword, and a wild rush of joy filled his heart. Here was his enemy, given into his hand, alone and unarmed. There could be no escape. Vengeance had triumphed.
The wretched man saw too that all chance of escape was hopeless. Neither could he fight for his life, for he had no weapon. He was indeed given into the hand of the avenger. There was but one thing he could do, and throwing himself upon his knees he pleaded for mercy.
"For the love of Christ," he cried, "I beseech thee to spare my life. He who on this day hung upon the Cross to save mankind, would He not have us show mercy to one another? For the love of Him, our Saviour, have mercy upon me!"
And as he spoke he spread out his arms in the form of a cross, and looked upwards beseechingly into the eyes of the avenging knight.
There was a moment's pause. The uplifted sword was stayed. A terrible struggle was going on in Giovanni's heart. Could he forgo the revenge for which he had thirsted so long? The man was a murderer and deserved punishment. But had not Christ upon the Cross prayed for forgiveness for His own murderers? The meaning of the old lesson, so hard to understand, became clear. This was the higher devoir. Was not He, the perfect Knight, the example of all true courage and knightliness?
The struggle was fierce, but a prayer rose from his heart for help to overcome, and slowly he lowered his sword. Then as he gazed at the trembling wretch at his feet, a great pity began to flow into his heart, and he bent down and raised the man from his knees, and embraced him in token of forgiveness. There they parted, and Giovanni, still trembling after the fierce struggle that had gone on in his heart, went slowly on his way up the steep hill, until he came to the church door. Turning aside he went in, and found his way in the darkness to the high altar where a great crucifix hung. There he knelt and hid his face in his hands, and the great hot tears forced their way through his fingers and dropped on the marble floor.
He saw now that revenge was but a cruel black act, which no Christian knight should take into his own hands. He thought how often he had offended and grieved that gentle Master Who had hung so uncomplainingly upon the Cross to save his soul. And in the silence, the prayer rose to his lips: "O Christ, Who hast taught me to be merciful to mine enemy, have mercy upon me and forgive me, as I have shown mercy to him."
And surely the prayer was heard, for as the words fell upon the stillness, lo! the figure of the Christ above bent down, and in gracious answer kissed the bowed head of the Merciful Knight.