"Not a bird upon the tree but half forgave his being human."
The brothers who knew Francis best in these years, who shared his joys and sorrows, and even his thoughts, have many stories to tell of his love for flowers and birds and animals. When they were planting their little pieces of ground around the poor huts in the plain, he used to bid them leave a corner of good earth for "our little sisters, the flowers." Once, in the market-place of Siena, he rescued a pair of doves from being sold. He gathered them up in his robe, saying: "Little sister-doves, you are simple, and good, and pure. Why have they captured you? I will save you from death and make you nests for your little ones."
There is a pretty story of the friendship of Francis with a family of red-throats who used to come and pick up crumbs on the table where the Brothers were eating. Another story is of a frightened hare which some one had caught in a trap. "Come to me, Brother Hare," said Francis, and the trembling little beast fled to him and let itself be caressed by his kind hands. It even refused to run away, on being set down, so that Francis was obliged to carry it into the woods and leave it free to find its way home.
One day Francis was in a little boat, being ferried across the lake of Rieti, when a boatman made him a present of an uncommonly large fish, just caught and gasping for breath. The gift was accepted gladly, but, in a minute, the astonished giver saw Francis drop the creature back into the water, bidding it thank God. Probably neither the fish nor the fisherman understood the tender heart that could not bear to see anything suffer pain; yet, doubtless, in its own way, the poor fish was grateful to feel the cool water again, and it is to be hoped that it kept away from nets and hooks for ever after.
With birds Francis felt himself always among dear and happy friends. Once these little companions were even too noisy in their merry-making. It was on a day when Francis stood up to speak to a great crowd of men and women gathered out of doors. Hundreds of swallows were wheeling all about, as one often sees them of a spring afternoon, twittering and calling with shrill voices while they hunt their supper on the wing. This time the birds flew so low, and were so many and so loud, that Francis could not make himself heard. Suddenly he turned from his audience and spoke into the air: "It is time that I should have my turn to talk, little sister Swallows," he said; "be quiet and listen until I have finished"; and, so says the old story, the swallows obeyed his voice.
A short time after, Francis went on his way toward Bevagna, a small town on the southwestern side of the Umbrian valley. Looking off from Assisi, one may still see the road by which he must have walked. Two or three of his Brothers were with him, but Francis was not talking. His head was bent and he seemed to be thinking so hard that he had forgotten all about his comrades. Suddenly, as it is written in an old book called "The Little Flowers of St. Francis," "he lifted up his eyes and saw many trees along the side of the road and in their branches an almost countless number of birds; so that Francis wondered, and said to his companions: 'Wait for me here, and I will go and preach to my sisters the birds.' And he went into the field and began to preach to the birds that were on the ground, and, quickly, those that were up in the trees came to him, and they all kept quiet while Francis finished his sermon, and, even then, they did not go away until he had given them his blessing. And, when Francis went among them touching their heads, not one of them moved. The substance of the sermon that Francis made was this: 'My bird sisters, you are much beloved by God your Master, and always, in every place, you ought to praise Him, because He has given you liberty to fly everywhere; and He has given you also clothing double and triple. You are loved also by the air which He has given to you; and moreover, you neither sow nor reap, and God feeds you, and gives you the rivers and the fountains to drink from; He gives you the mountains and the valleys for your refuge, and the tall trees for your nests, and, although you do not know how to spin nor sew, God clothes you and your children. God must love you much, since He gives you so many blessings, and therefore, be careful, my sisters, of the sin of ingratitude, and always seek to praise God.' While Francis said these words, all those birds began to open their beaks, and stretch out their necks, and spread their wings, and bend their heads reverently toward the earth, and, with acts and songs, they showed that the Holy Father gave them great pleasure. And Francis rejoiced and made merry together with them, and he wondered much at such a multitude of birds, and at their beauty and at their attention and tameness, and he devoutly thanked God for them." The old story goes on to tell how, after the sermon, the great flock of birds rose into the air with wonderful songs and flew away North and South and East and West, even as the Poor Brothers must go, who, like the birds, had nothing of their own, but depended only on God's care of them.
This story of the birds was so much loved and so often told that, years afterward, the painters liked to paint it on the walls of the churches. You may still see, in the great Church of St. Francis in Assisi, a picture by the painter Giotto, of the grey-robed Brother, standing among the birds, and telling them, so simply that it really seemed as if a bird might understand, of the Father without whose love not even a sparrow falls.
One night Brother Francis and Brother Leone, "God's Little Lamb," were alone together. It was May, and in a great ilex tree near them a nightingale was singing sweet and clear, in the stillness. To Francis the song seemed all joy and praise. "Come, Brother Leone," he cried, "let us sing, too, and see which will tire first, our voices or that of the nightingale." But Brother Leone, who was, perhaps, tired and sleepy, excused himself, saying that he had no voice. Then Francis, his heart filled with the gladness of the beautiful spring-time, went out into the darkness, and, all night long, the man and the bird sang wonderful songs of love and praise. But even God's Troubadour could not outdo the little unseen singer in the ilex tree, and, at last, Francis owned merrily that Brother Nightingale was victor in this strange singing-match.