"The olives they were not blind to him,
The little grey leaves were kind to him
When into the woods he came."
"Take henceforth Francis and Poverty for lovers. Their concord and glad semblances made love, and wonder and sweet regard to be the cause of holy thoughts."—Dante.
After these things, Francis found himself without home, or clothing, or money. Scantily clad in an old cloak, lent to him by the bishop's gardener, he wandered outside the city gate on the mountain side. It was early spring, and the snow lay white in the ravines above him, and on all the far-off peaks across the valley. But the sky was blue and, on the stony slopes, the yellow broom was in full flower. Francis threw himself down on the sunny side of a great olive tree. He leaned against the warm grey trunk, and looked and listened. A tiny lizard darted across the ground close to his hand, and shot up the tree like a green flame. The wind in the dry, silvery olive leaves whispered like a kindly voice, and in every thicket the birds were singing. It seemed to Francis that the wind spoke to him, and that the birds sang to him. He forgot his sorrows and sang also the gay old Troubadour songs, which were the only ones he knew. He did not sing battle songs, but those that told of April, of nightingales, of roses and of fair ladies. Like a courtly minstrel he sang:
" 'O nightingale, go where my lady dwells,
And bear her news of me;
Then listen while she truly tells
Her tales to thee;
And she, if she doth not forget
My love and pain,
Will bid thee swiftly turn again
Where I wait yet
To know how pass my lady's days,
To learn of all her words and ways.' "
The nightingales were not yet come from the South, but the sparrows made merrier than ever in the bright broom, and a wood-dove, hidden in an oak tree, was calling to his mate; and Francis sang again, the song that he had loved best in the days when he dreamed of fighting splendid battles for the sake of a golden-haired princess:
" 'Great lady, who art fairest
Men say, of all things fair,
The noble name thou bearest
None may so fitly bear;
Clear fountain of all beauty
That gladdens the green earth,
Thy deeds of love and duty
Are more than blood and birth.' "
Even as he sang, he thought: "The Lady whom I shall serve has no other suitor, no poet has ever sung her praises, and no knight has ever fought her battles; for I will be the faithful lover of the Lady Poverty, whom all men else despise."
Little by little, the good people of Assisi became accustomed to seeing Francis Bernardone dressed in a dust-coloured robe, with a cord about his waist. He went barefooted and bareheaded. Many still thought him mad, and the street children shouted at him and threw mud and stones. The young men with whom he had eaten so many suppers and sung so many songs, now jeered at him, and even his brother joined in the cruel sport. Francis was too tender-hearted not to be hurt by all this, but he never answered angrily. He thought: "It is because they do not understand." But, if his rich friends were unkind, the poor folk who had loved him for his gentle words and for his gifts, when he was the proud young merchant, loved him the better now that he had given them all his money, and was ready to share his crust of bread with any hungry man. At the little hospital where Francis had gone first in splendid clothes, with a full purse at his side, the lepers wondered to see him come so poorly dressed, with no horse and no money. But, when they saw how gently he took care of those who were most sick and helpless, they called him "Brother Francis"; and they forgot their suffering while he talked and sang to them.
One by one new friends came to Francis asking that they might live as he lived, wear a coarse robe and go bare-footed, and work with him for the poor and the sick. The first of all was a former friend, a rich gentleman of Assisi, named Bernardo di Quintevalle. This man gave away his riches and came to live with Francis in the service of the Lady Poverty. He was called Brother Bernardo, and Francis loved him dearly and, because he was the first of the little company of Brothers, used to call him "my oldest son." The second of the new friends was named Piero, and the third Sylvester. Sylvester had been a selfish man, greedy of gold, but when he saw Francis and, after him, Bernardo give away their wealth so gladly, and live so happily without it, he wanted for himself that joy that his money could not buy, and he ended by coming to be one of the Brothers.
When there were several in the company of Brothers, Francis named them "The Little Poor Men of God." Three of them who were most with Francis, and who afterward wrote down the story of his life, were Brother Egidio, Brother Ruffino and Brother Leone. Brother Leone's name means Lion, but he was so gentle and so unlike his name that Francis used to call him "God's Little Lamb." Of Brother Egidio, who loved long, dangerous journeys, and who was always ready for any adventure, Francis would say: "He is one of the knights of my Round Table."
The new Brothers were without money, and without even a house in which to live. In the summer it seemed to them to matter little. They slept out under the wide sky, as the shepherds still sleep in Italy, and the moon, rising over Monte Subasio, flooded all the valley with white light; and the nightingales filled the forest with wonderful music. But when the autumn nights grew cold, when the moonlight fell upon a valley thick with mist, the Brothers looked about for shelter. Their refuge was a little building, scarcely more than a hovel, falling to ruin, and abandoned. It had once been a retreat for lepers, but the lepers had been moved to that hospital nearer the city which Francis had so many times visited. The older building had been called Rivo Torto, Crooked Brook, from the little stream beside which it stood. Here the Brothers lived all through the winter, and, when spring came, so many had joined the Brotherhood that they had not room to sleep. Miserable as it was, Francis and his first Brothers loved their little hovel, and were happy there, and from its scant shelter they went out to carry joy and healing to the sad and to the sick. The ruined hospital long ago disappeared and, to-day, it is not easy to find even the place where it stood. In among fields, where the corn grows so tall that one walks as if in a forest, there is a tiny chapel with an old well and a hut or two. Even the name has been changed, and if one asks a peasant the way to Rivo Torto, he will point out a great church far away; yet, in spite of years and changes, the memory of Francis and his little Brotherhood still shines over the spot, warm and bright, like the August sunshine on the corn.
Straight across the plain, not far from Rivo Torto, in the midst of tall forest trees, stood a little chapel where Francis and his few Brothers had often gone to rest and to pray. A rich abbot, seeing that the Little Poor Men had no place to sleep, made them a present of this chapel and the ground about it. Here they built rude huts and planted a hedge and made for themselves a home, which they called the Portiuncula, the little portion. A great church, called Santa Maria degli Angeli, has been built upon this spot and the little old chapel still stands under its dome.
The life of the Poor Brothers does not seem a gay one, as we read about it, yet they were most happy-hearted. There was no work too humble nor too hard for them to do. They helped at ploughing in the spring, at reaping and threshing in the summer. In autumn they gathered grapes or nuts, and in winter olives, for in Umbria the olive harvest is in the winter. When the Brothers were paid for their work, they gave away everything except what was needed for the day's food.
They often made long journeys, working their way from place to place. Thus it happened, one day, that Brother Egidio, the "Knight of the Round Table," was standing in a public square in Rome, when a countryman came by, asking for a laborer to go and gather nuts from a very tall tree. The men who stood about said: "No: we remember your tree. It is too high and we do not want to break our necks." "I will go, gladly," said Egidio, "if you will give me half the nuts I gather." The bargain was made, and Brother Egidio climbed to the highest branches and beat down all the nuts. His share he gathered up in his robe, and went merrily through the streets of Rome, throwing nuts to the poor folk whom he met, till all were gone.
Wherever the Little Poor Men came they brought help and comfort, and people came to love them and to welcome them, even those who, at first, had mocked at them and thrown stones. For love and joy and helpfulness and gentle words make most of the happiness of life, and all these gifts the Brothers had to give, even when they had not a penny, nor a loaf of bread.