"For pitie renneth sone in gentil herte."—Chaucer.
As Francis Bernardone grew from a boy to a man, he made friends with a company of gay youths, the sons of the greatest and richest families of Assisi. Their fathers were counts, and dukes, and princes, and the lads were vain of the names they bore, and of the palaces where they lived. It was a lawless company, bent on having a good time, and thinking nothing of the comfort of other people. The pranks of these young nobles were so reckless and, sometimes, so wicked that the good people of Assisi lived in terror of what they might do next.
The youths welcomed Francis into their fellowship because, though he had not a noble name, he had splendid clothes to wear, and much money to spend; and because, among them all, no one laughed so merrily or sang so sweetly as the merchant's son. The hours always went more gaily when Francis was of the party, for it made one feel happy just to look at his bright face. Piero Bernardone was proud that his son should be the friend and pet of these young lords, but the lad's gentle mother grieved that her kind-hearted little boy should come to be a wild and wicked man. Her heart ached in the night, when the noisy group went laughing and shouting through the streets, and she could hear the voice of Francis, sweeter and louder than the rest, singing a bit of Troubadour song that he had learned as a child:
"My heart is glad in spring-time,
When April turns to May;
When nightingales sing in the dark,
And thrushes sing by day."
The mother would listen till the laughter and singing were far away and faint, and the last sound was always the voice of her boy, which, indeed, she seemed to hear long after all was silent in the narrow street. When the neighbours complained that the conduct of the boys was too bad to be endured, the merchant only laughed. "It is the way of the world," he said. "Francis is no worse than the others. Boys must be boys. What would you have?" But his wife would speak softly, with tears in her gentle eyes: "Wait, I have great hope that he will yet become a good Christian." The mother knew all that was best in the boy. She thought: "However careless and wild he may be, he has a kind and loving heart." And she was right. In his gayest moments Francis was always quick to pity any one who was poor or in pain.
But one who is thoughtless is always in danger of being cruel. One day a man, ragged and hungry, crept in at the open door of Piero Bernardone's shop. Piero was absent, but Francis was spreading out beautiful silks and velvets before two customers, for he sometimes sold goods for his father. Standing in his dirty, brown rags among the red and purple stuffs and the gold embroideries, the beggar cried: "In the name of God, give me something, for I am starving!" Francis, whose mind was intent on his bargain, impatiently sent the man away. A moment later, he was sorry. "What would I have done," he said to himself, "if that man had asked me for money in the name of a count or baron? What ought I to do when he comes in the name of God?" Leaving the astonished customers in the shop, the boy ran out into the street, found the beggar and gave him all the money he had in his purse.
Despite his gay life, Francis had times of being thoughtful, and dissatisfied with himself. As he went up and down the streets of Assisi, well dressed and well fed, he saw people sick and hungry and ragged, glad to receive a crust of bread or an old cloak. "These people," thought Francis, "would live for months on the money that I waste in one day." Sometimes he would throw his purse to a starving man, or his bright cloak to a ragged one, and his merry friends would laugh and jest at him for his folly. Then they would all ride away gaily, and even Francis would forget.
He did not forget his old love for the stories of King Arthur and the Round Table. He disliked more and more the thought of being a merchant. He wanted to travel, to see far-away countries, but he wanted to go as a soldier, not as a tradesman. He wanted to storm great castles, to rescue fair ladies, to ride at the head of a fearless band of knights. He loved the knights of the old stories, not alone because they were strong in battle, but because they were gracious in speech, true of their word, and kind to all the unfortunate and weak. Perhaps it was his love for gentle manners and brave deeds that kept Francis from becoming altogether hard-hearted and selfish in these days.
Besides the songs of love and of battle, he had learned wise little verses about the duties of knighthood, and sometimes, when he and his friends had been most rude and unknightly, the old rhymes came back to his mind like a reproachful voice:
"Nowhere is such a noble name
As that of chivalry;
Of coward acts and words of shame
It is the enemy;
But wisdom, truth, valour in fight,
Pity and purity,
These are the gifts that make a knight,
My friend, as you may see."