Last of all, the crouching plague leaped upon the Count Angelo (whose women and boon companions already lay dead around him in his castle of Montefeltro), and dragged him from the banquet-hall of many delights into the dim alley of the grave. There he looked, as it were through a door half open, into the shapeless horror of the face of Death, which turns all desires into stone. But even while he looked, the teeth of the black beast that gripped him were loosened, and he crept back into life as one returning from a far country.
His castle was empty save for the few terror-stricken servants who lingered because they knew not whither to flee. In the garden withered the rose and the lily, untended and unplucked. The chairs and couches where he had seen the faces of his friends were vacant. On the pillows of his great bed there were no curls of tangled gold, nor plaited tresses of long black spread out beside him in the morning light.
The world in which he had revelled away his youth was void; and in the unknown world, from whose threshold he had painfully escaped, but whither he knew he must one day return, there dwelt only a horrible fear and a certain looking for of judgment.
So Count Angelo came to life again. But all desires and passions which had hitherto warmed or burned him were like dead embers. For the flame of them all had gone into one desire–the resolve to die in the odour of sanctity, and so to pass into Paradise safely and unafraid.
Therefore he put aside the fine garments which his trembling servants brought, and clad himself in sackcloth with a girdle of rope about his loins. Thus apparelled he climbed on foot to the holy mountain of La Verna, above the Val d’Arno, which mountain the Count Rolando of Montefeltro had given, many years before, to St. Francis the minstrel of God and his poor little disciples of the cross, for a refuge and a sanctuary near the sky. At the door of the Friary built upon the land of his forefathers the Count Angelo knocked humbly as a beggar.
“Who is there?” said the door-keeper from his loophole.
“A poor sinner,” answered Angelo, “who has no wish left in life but to die in the odour of sanctity.”
At this the door-keeper opened grudgingly, supposing he had to do with some outcast seeking the house of religion as a last resort. But when he saw the stranger he knew that it was the rich and generous Count of Montefeltro.
“May it please your lordship to enter,” he cried; “the guest-chamber awaits you, and the friars minor of St. Francis will rejoice in the presence of their patron.”
“Not so,” replied Angelo; “but in the meanest of your cells will I lodge. For I am come not to bestow, but to beg, and my request is the lowest place among the little servants of poverty.”
Whereupon the door-keeper was greatly astonished, and led Angelo to the Warden, to whom he unfolded his purpose to strip himself of all worldly gear and possessions and give his remnant of life solely to the preparation of a saintly death. This proposal the Warden and the other brethren duly considered, not without satisfaction, and Angelo was received as a penitent and a novice.
The first year of his probation he passed as a servant of the cattle and the beasts of burden, cleansing their stables and conversing only with them. “For,” said he, “the ox and the ass knew their Lord in the manger, but I in my castle was deaf to his voice.”
The second year of his probation he laboured in the kitchen, washing the dishes and preparing the food for the friars, but he himself ate sparingly and only of the crusts and crumbs which the others had despised. “For,” said he, “I am less worthy than that lad who brought the few loaves and small fishes to feed the multitude, and for me it is enough to eat of the fragments that remain.”
In all this he was so diligently humble and self-denying that in the third year he was admitted fully to the order and given the honourable office of sweeping and cleansing the sacred places.
In this duty Angelo showed an extraordinary devotion. Not content with this, he soon began to practise upon himself particular and extreme asperities and macerations. He slept only upon the ground and never beyond an hour at one space, rising four and twenty times a day to his prayers. He fasted thrice in the week from matins to matins, and observed the rule of silence every six days, speaking only on the seventh. He wore next to his naked skin a breastplate of iron, and a small leather band with sharp points about his loins, and rings of iron under his arms, whereby his flesh was wasted and frayed from his bones like a worn garment with holes in it, and he bled secretly. By reason of these things his face fell away into a dolorous sadness, and the fame of his afflictions spread through the Friary and to other houses where the little brothers of St. Francis were assembled.
But the inward gladness of Angelo did not increase in measure with his outward sadness and the renown of his piety. For the ray and the flame of divine Consolation were diminished within him, and he no longer felt that joy which he had formerly in the cleansing of the stables, in the washing of the dishes, and in the sweeping of the holy places, from which he was now relieved by reason of bodily weakness. He was tormented with the fear that his penances might not sufficiently atone for the sinful pleasures of his past life, of which he had a vivid and growing remembrance. The thought was ever present with him that he might not be predestined to die in the odour of sanctity.
In this anguish of heart he went forth one day into the wood which lies on the top of the mountain of La Verna, beyond the Friary, and ran up and down, stumbling among the roots of the trees and calling aloud with sighs and tears, “Little wretch, thou art lost! Abominable sinner Angelo, how shalt thou find a holy death?”
To him, in this distraction, comes the Warden with three of the elder friars and asks him what has befallen him.
“The fear of dying in my sins,” cries Angelo.
“You have the comfort of the Gospel, my son,” says the Warden.
“It is not enough for me,” sobs Angelo, beating his wounded breast. “You know not how great were my pleasures in the world!”
With that he starts away again to wander through the wood, but the Warden restrains him, and soothes him, and speaks comfortably to him; and at last Angelo makes his request that he may have a certain cave in the woods for his dwelling and be enclosed there as a recluse to await the coming of a holy death.
“But, my son,” objects the Warden, “what will the Friary do without the example of your devotion and your service?”
“I will pray for you all,” says Angelo; “night and day I will give myself to intercession for the order of friars minor.”
So the Warden consents, and Angelo, for the time, is satisfied.
Now, the top of the mountain of La Verna is full of rude clefts and caverns, with broken and jagged rocks. Truly, it were a frightful place to behold but for the tall trees that have grown up among the rocks, clasping them with their roots, and the trailing vines and gentle wild flowers and green ferns that spring abundantly around them as if in token of kindness and good-will and bounty.
All these were much beloved of St. Francis, who heard every creature cry aloud, saying “God made me for thee, O man.” So great was his affection for them that he would not have his little friars cut down a whole tree for firewood, but bade them only lop the branches and let the tree live in joy. And he taught them to make no garden of pot-herbs only, but to leave room always for the flowers, for love of One who was called “the rose of Sharon,” and “the lily of the valley.”
But this was not the mind of Angelo, who stumbled to his reclusery blindly, intent only on the thought of his death, and never marking the fine lace-work of the ferns that were broken by his passing nor the sweet fragrance of the flowers crushed beneath his feet.
The cave which he had chosen lay a little beyond that most sacred cavern where St. Francis had fasted and where the falcon had visited him every morning, beating her wings and singing to rouse him softly to matins, and where at last he had received in his body the marks of the Holy Cross.
It was on the side of the mountain looking toward the west, and in front of it was a narrow, deep, and terrible chasm, which could only be crossed by a log laid in the manner of a bridge. But the cave itself looked out beyond into the wide and fruitful Val d’Arno, with the stream of silver coiling through it, and on the other side the wooded mountains of Valombrosa and Pratomagno.
Of this Angelo saw nothing, as he passed by the log bridge into the cave. The three friars who went with him walled up the entrance with stones, except for an opening at the height of a man’s breast; and they returned, taking away the log at his request and casting it down the cliff. After that the food of Angelo was thrown across the chasm into the opening of the cave, and to drink he had a small spring of water trickling among the rocks a drop at a time, and he lived as a recluse considering only how to make a saintly end.
His thoughts were thus fixed and centred upon his own great concern, to a degree that made the world turn to nothing around him. Even the Friary seemed to lie at an infinite distance, and the prayers which he had promised to offer for it were more in word than in desire. There was no warmth in them, for all the fire of his soul had burned into one thought which consumed him. Day and night he cried, “O wicked life, let me go into a holy death!”
But he came no nearer to his goal, nor could he find any assurance that he was elect and chosen to attain it. On the contrary his anxiety increased and misery became his companion. For this reason: in his dreams he dwelt continually upon the most sinful pleasures of his past life, and they grew upon him; but in his waking hours he considered and measured the greatness of his penances, yet without ever arriving at the certainty that they balanced his offences.
Now, you are not to suppose that the past life of Angelo, though vain and worldly and streaked with evil, had been altogether woven of black threads. For he had been of an open and kindly heart, ready to share with others in the joy of living, greatly pleased to do a good turn to his neighbours, compassionate and gentle-natured, a lover of music and of little children. So there were many things in his youth of which he had no need to be ashamed, since they were both innocent and merry, and the white and golden threads of a pure and grateful happiness were not wanting in the fabric of his loom.
But of these he would not think, being set upon recalling only the sinful hours that needed repentance. And of these he thought so constantly that in the visions of the night they lived again, twining their limbs about him and pressing their burning lips upon his. But when he awoke he was filled with terror, and fell to counting the severities and privations which he had endured for an atonement. So it came to pass that he was strangely and dreadfully merry dreaming, but strangely and desperately sad waking. And between the two he found no peace, nor ever escaped from the trouble and anguish of himself.
After a twelvemonth or more of this life, very early in the morning he awoke from a hot dream with horror, and groaned aloud, “If I die, I am damned.”
“How so, little sheep of God,” said a voice near at hand; “who has led thee into the wilderness?”
Fra Angelo lifted his head and looked at the opening of the cave, but there was no one there. Then he looked behind him, and on both sides, but he saw no one. Yet so clear and certain was the sound of the voice that he could not rest, but went to the entrance and thrust out his head.
On the shelf of the rock in front of the cave he saw a short and spare brother dressed in the habit of a friar minor, with a thin black beard, and dark simple eyes, kindled with gentle flames. In his right hand he held a stick of wood, as it were the bow of a viol, and this he drew across his left arm, singing the while in French a hymn of joy for the sun, his brother, and for the wind, his companion, and for the water, his sister, and for the earth, his mother.
At this Fra Angelo was astonished and confused, for these songs had not been heard in the Friary since many years, and it seemed as if some foreign brother must have come from France with strange customs. But when he looked more closely he saw that the long and delicate hands of the little brother were pierced in the palm, and his feet were wounded as if a nail had passed through them. Then he knew that he saw St. Francis, and he was so ashamed and afraid that he clung to the rocks and could not speak.
Then the little brother turned from looking out upon the morning in Val d’Arno and looked at Fra Angelo. After a long while he said, very softly, “What doest thou here in the cave, dearest?”
“Blessed father,” stammered the recluse, “I dwell in solitude, to atone for my worldly life and find a holy death.”
“That is for thyself,” said the little brother in the sun; “but for others what doest thou?”
Angelo thought a moment and answered, humbly, “I give them an ensample of holiness.”
“They need more,” said the little brother smiling, “and thou must give it.”
“Blessed father,” cried Angelo, “command me and I will obey thee, for thou art in heaven and I am near to hell.”
“Listen, then, thou lost sheep,” said the little brother, “and I will show thee the way. Climb over the wall. Lay aside the breastplate and rings of iron–they hinder thee. Come near and sit beside me. In a certain city there is a poor widow whose child is sick even unto death. Go unto her with this box of electuary, and give it to the child that he may recover. I command thee by Obedience.”
So saying he laid in the hand of Angelo a box of olive-wood, filled with an electuary so sweet that the fragrance of it went through the wood. But Angelo was confused.
“How shall I know the way,” said he, “when I know not the city?”
“Stand up,” answered the little brother with the wounded hands, “and close thine eyes firmly. Now turn round and round as children do, until I bid thee stop.”
So Fra Angelo, fearing a little because the shelf of rock was narrow, shut tight his eyes and, stretching out his arms, turned round and round until he was dizzy. Then he fell to the ground, and when he looked up the little brother of the sun was gone.
But the head of Fra Angelo lay toward the city of Poppi on the other side of the valley, so he knew that this was the way, and he went down from the mountain.
As he went, his bodily weakness departed and the pains of his worn flesh left him, and he rejoiced in the brightness of the world. The linnets and blackbirds that sang in the thickets were the children of those that had been brothers of the air to St. Francis, and the larks that bubbled up from the fields wore the same sad-coloured garments and chanted the same joyous music that he had commended. The primroses and the violets and the cyclamens had not forgotten to bloom because of sin, and the pure incense of their breath went forth unto gladness.
So Fra Angelo made his journey with a light heart, quickly, and came to the city of Poppi. There he found the poor widow with her child sick unto death, and he gave them the olive-wood box. The child took the electuary eagerly, for it was pleasant to the taste, and it did him good more than if it had been bitter. So presently the fever left him, and the mother rejoiced and blessed St. Francis and Fra Angelo. And he said, “I must be going.”
Now, as he went and returned toward La Verna, he passed through a village, and in the field at the side of it he saw many children quarrelling.
“Why do you fight,” said Angelo, laying hands on two of them, “when you might be playing?”
“Because we know not what to play,” they answered; and some shouted one thing and some another.
“Let the older ones play at Fox and Geese,” said Angelo; “and look, here is a plank! We will put it over this great stone and I will play at seesaw with the little ones.”
Then the children all laughed when they saw a friar playing at seesaw; but he went up and down merrily, and they were all glad together. After a while they grew weary of the games, and Angelo asked what they would do next.
“Dance,” cried the children; “dance and sing!”
“But where is the music?” said Angelo.
So one of the boys ran away to a house in the village and came back presently with an old viol and a bow. Angelo fingered the instrument, and tuned it, for he had been a skilful musician.
“Now I will teach you,” said he, “a very sweet music that I heard this morning. And do you all sing as I teach you, and between the songs take hands and dance around.”
Then he sat down upon a grassy hillock, with the children in a circle about him, and he taught them the songs that were sung by the little brother of the sun and of the wind and of the water and of the birds–even by that minstrel of God who came to the cave with the morning light. Between the verses the children, holding hands, danced in a ring around Fra Angelo, while he played upon the old viol.
As he played thus, he was aware of a hand upon his shoulder, and supposed it to be one of the children.
“Go back,” he said, “go back to your place, dearest naughty one; the song is not finished.”
“It is finished,” said a voice behind him. “This is the right ending of the song.”
And Angelo, looking up in amazement, saw the face of an angel, and the bow dropped from his fingers.
When the music ceased, the children broke their ring and ran to Angelo where he lay upon the grass. They wondered to see him so still and pale, yet because his face was smiling they were not afraid.
“He is weary,” they cried; “the good friar has fallen asleep–perhaps he has fainted. Let us run and call help for him.”
But they did not understand that the messenger of Holy Death had passed among them and called Angelo in the odour of sanctity.