Francis and his fellow-soldiers were to spend the first night in Spoleto, a city about twenty miles south of Assisi, on the way to Rome. The road ran along at the foot of the mountain, sometimes through forests of oak and beech and walnut trees, sometimes between olive orchards and vineyards. Presently it struck across the plain to Foligno, a busy town lying flat in the valley.
In the square of Foligno, Francis had often stood with his father, selling goods at the fairs. To-day he held his head high as he rode through the familiar market-place. He thought: "I shall come back a famous soldier, and I will never, never sell things at the fair again." He blushed with pride when some one in the street pointed him out to a companion, saying: "That young man, who is dressed and mounted like a lord, is the son of Messer Piero Bernardone, the merchant."
At Foligno the company halted to eat and drink, and to rest through the hottest hours of the day. When they were in the saddle again, and had left the city gates behind them, Francis no longer rode superbly, with his chin in the air. Instead, he went silently, with drooping head, and let his horse lag behind the others along the level stretch of road. He could not himself have told what was the matter; nothing had happened; the woods were as green and the sunshine as bright as in the morning, but he who had been so proud and gay a few hours earlier felt strangely weary and sick at heart. He lingered to let his horse drink from the clear, little river, Clitumnus, that comes dancing down from the mountain and glitters across the plain, but not even the song of the water made him merry. His comrades noticed his silence, but they were all too deeply interested in their own plans and hopes to think of anything else. In the late afternoon they entered the glorious oak forest that filled the ravine where Spoleto lies at the end of the Umbrian valley. Beyond, their way would be through a narrow mountain pass where, over and over again, armies had fought fiercely to hold the road to Rome. Deep in the cool woods, the birds were singing, and, for the first time in his life, it seemed to Francis that they sang not joyfully, but sadly.
Perhaps he had not grown strong after his long illness, and so could not bear the fatigue of the hard saddle ride. Whatever the reason may have been, it is certain that, when the party reached Spoleto, Francis took to his bed with fever, and that his companions rode on, next day, without him.
And Francis had no wish to follow them. As once before, but this time more powerfully and surely, there had come upon him a great horror of a soldier's life. As he lay burning with fever and sleepless with pain, all his dreams of glory faded. Instead of knights, with shining armour and bright banners, he seemed to see women weeping, little children begging for bread, beautiful cities ruined and desolate.
We do not know how he made his way home. It was a strange and sorry journey, and, at the end of it, he met with ridicule from those who had seen him ride away so bravely to seek his fortune as a soldier. But if his thoughtless friends mocked him, and his father and brother reproached him, his mother was glad to welcome and to care for him. Perhaps she, alone, understood the change in him.
The first days after his return were the most sorrowful that Francis had ever known. Though he was sure that he had decided rightly, it pained him sorely to know that his friends thought him weak, or, perhaps, even cowardly. Besides being hurt, he was puzzled, not knowing what he ought to do next. A week ago his path had lain clear before him, like the white road in the valley; now it had lost itself in a tangled forest. We do not know how long his trouble lasted, nor what he was doing in these dreary weeks; but we know that, by and by, he began to see plainly again, and all his doubts, and puzzles vanished. It was as if he had found his way through the forest and saw the path that he must take, a narrow path and rough, a lonely path, but straight to follow. He did not know that in a few years hundreds of fellow-travellers were to come and ask that they might walk with him along that narrow way; that instead of being, as he had dreamed he might, Francis Bernardone, the most famous knight in Italy, he should become Brother Francis, the man whom all men loved. All that Francis knew was that, in the place of his old love for a soldier's life and his old desire to become a great prince, had come a new love and a new desire: a love for all the ragged and hungry and sick and sorrowful folk in the world, and a desire to feed, and clothe, and heal and comfort them all. This new feeling was very different from his former pity for the poor. He had always been pitiful and generous, glad to give gifts like a patron; now he was like a lover, with a love that seemed to him big enough to include everybody in Assisi, everybody in the wide world. And Francis was happy again. His friends who had seen him, after he came back from Spoleto, pale and sick, restless and disappointed, saw his face brighten, and heard him singing as of old. "Francis Bernardone is like himself once more," they thought. But when they found that he no longer cared for their suppers and their games, they said: "How stupid he is!" and they left him to go his own way.