Book of Saints and Heroes - Andrew Lang

The Servant of the Poor

San Juan de Dios—Saint John of God—this was the name by which a baby, born in a Portuguese town in 1495, afterwards became known throughout the whole of Christendom. His father and mother were so poor that they could not afford to send him to school, and though this was a great grief to them, it was a joy to little John, who thought how much better off he was than his companions in not having to learn all sorts of tiresome things. To be sure, he was now and then called away from his play to receive some simple teaching from his father, but it was little indeed that the good man knew, and the boy was soon free to roam into the country and watch the birds flying and the flowers growing.

Luckily, John was not a stupid child; he used his eyes and ears, and picked up, one way and another, a surprising deal of knowledge, and his parents took care that he went regularly to church.

Things went on in this manner till John was nine, and then one day a knock was heard at the house door, and he was bidden by his mother to open it. A priest was standing there—well, there was nothing very unusual in that, and the boy little guessed that his whole future depended on whether his mother would grant the traveller's prayer for food and shelter, or whether she would bid him seek them elsewhere.

But the moment she knew that it was a priest who was asking hospitality, John's mother left the soup she was stirring and hurried to give him welcome.

'Come in, come in,' she said. 'It is little enough we have, but gladly will we share it with you.' And the priest entered the house, and seemed in no hurry to leave it.

Now the father was out all day at his work, and his wife had a thousand things to do at home—cooking and washing and cleaning and mending—and well-pleased they both felt when they saw their little son passing whole hours by the side of the priest, and caught sight of him lying in the sun on the slope of the hill, listening earnestly to the words of the holy man.

'Ah! in a few years he will be such another,' they whispered, their hearts swelling with pride; but the talk between the two was very different from what they imagined.

There was nothing at all about heavenly things, or the church, or the privileges of being a priest, but a great deal concerning the wonderful adventures the holy man had met with during his travels; and the distant lands, with their strange customs, in which he had dwelt.

'Can't I go there too?' asked the boy. 'Nothing ever happens down here, and, perhaps, if I went to those places I  might be able to save people from robbers, or wolves, or drowning, like you,' for the priest had made himself out a great hero.

'Oh, yes, you can go. I will take you with me, for next month I shall have business elsewhere,' replied the priest, who was getting very tired of the little town of Monte-Mayor; 'but mind, not a word to your parents, or they are sure to forbid it and lock you up. We will steal away secretly, and when your father and mother know that you are seeing the world, they will soon forget all about you.'

John made no answer to this. He was not quite sure that he wanted his mother to forget all about him, but he comforted himself by thinking that he would soon become rich and famous, and counted up all the beautiful jewels he would bring back to her. They should be finer even than those worn by the wife of the governor on a feast-day.

Perhaps John would have understood that there was something his mother cared for more than jewels if he could have looked back one morning when he and the priest were several miles on the road to Madrid.

'John! John! Little John!' she cried, running distractedly from place to place, and bursting into the neighbours' houses to know if they had news of him. Many were the journeys she took, because someone had passed a boy whose description sounded like hers, only to return exhausted in body and sick at heart, when she found that she had been deceived once more. At last there came a day when she was too weak to leave the house, or even to do her work inside it. Her husband, who had scarcely spoken since the child had left them, watched her with eyes of despair, and his strength, too, was fast failing. Then the neighbours missed them, and sought them out in their cottage; but it was too late. Only one thing could save them, and that was the return of the boy; and who could tell if he was not dead also?

And where was John during these months? And had he met with the adventures he had been so anxious to find? Well, if the truth is to be told, he had only had one adventure, and that one was not at all to his liking. His friend, the priest, had become weary of having to look after a little boy whose short legs could not keep up with his own long strides; and when John opened his eyes one fine morning in a little inn at Oropesa he found that the priest had gone, and had left him to shift for himself.

At first John felt desolate indeed, yet still he never thought of going home again. He would manage somehow, and, perhaps, the landlady would help him. Fortunately she was a kind-hearted woman, and full of pity for the deserted child, who forced back his tears, and declared that he was ready to do any work that was offered him. Thanks to the landlady he heard that a boy was wanted to help a shepherd whose flocks were grazing on the meadows outside the town. He got the place, and for several years he led a quiet life with his sheep, and, to all seeming, the love of adventure had died within him.

But after all it was not dead, only sleeping, while he grew, daily taller and stronger, and, at length, it sprang into life at the tales of an old soldier who was going to join the army of the Emperor Charles V. in his wars with the French king, Francis I. This, John knew at once, was the chance he had been waiting for. He, too, would go with the man and enlist under the banner of the king, Charles I. in Spain, though 'emperor' to the rest of Europe. Very soon the shepherd-boy became a byword among his comrades for his reckless daring, and, if ever a man was needed for some special service of danger, John was the first to apply. In general, the wounds he received were few and slight, yet once he was left for dead on the battlefield; and on another occasion he almost lost his life, in a less honourable way.

From a child, John had been subject to fits of dreaming, and then he became quite unconscious of what was going on around him. It happened that after a battle, where he had been placed as sentry over a great heap of spoils which had been taken from the enemy, he suddenly fell into one of these day-dreams, and neither heard nor saw a man creep stealthily up and load himself with as much of the booty as he could carry. Shortly after, the captain of the troop came by, and seeing the big heap of valuable things which had been piled up under his directions reduced to a few utterly useless articles, he fell into a violent rage and dragged the dreaming sentry to his feet.

'Hang him on the spot,' he cried furiously to some soldiers who were with him, and in a few seconds a rope was being knotted round John's neck, when luckily for the future saint the colonel happened to pass on the way to his quarters.

'What is the matter? What has the man done to be hanged?' asked he.

'I placed him as sentry over the booty we had taken, and he went to sleep and suffered it to be stolen,' answered the captain, stammering in his anger.

'It is a grave charge,' replied the colonel, 'but he is young, and—well, we will let him off this time. Only his Majesty can have no soldiers in his army who sleep at their posts, so he must quit the camp.'

Downcast and ashamed, John retraced his steps along the road which it seemed only yesterday that he had trodden with a gay heart, and returned to his old master, the shepherd of Oropesa. His pride and wounded feelings were quickly soothed by the warm welcome given him by everyone, and the quiet hours on the wide plains gave him a sense of rest. But after two or three years he began to grow weary of the sameness of the days, and when at last the Count of Oropesa came to his estates to raise levies for the war in Hungary, John bade farewell to his old master and marched away to the war. On this campaign we hear nothing of dreams, so perhaps he had outgrown them. At any rate he remained with the army till peace was made and the troops were disbanded, when he started on a pilgrimage to the shrine of Santiago (or St. James) of Compostella, in the province of Galicia. Then he took the road southwards to Monte-Mayor, with prize money in his pockets to give to his parents.

Of course no one recognised the pale little boy of nine in the rough, bronzed soldier, who walked quickly up the village street, looking eagerly into every face he passed. The people turned and watched him as he went along, curious to know where he was going. At length he stopped before a tiny house and gave a sharp knock at the door. It was opened by a woman who inquired what he wanted.

'My mother—my father. They lived here once. Where are they now?' he faltered, a strange feeling of terror coming over him as he spoke.

'Was it long ago? Many people have had this house. What were their names?' asked the woman, bending forward to catch his answer, which was given almost in a whisper.

'Ah, poor souls! They died of grief, so I have heard, when their little boy ran off with a priest, and that  must have been the year before I was married. But it surely can't be you?'  she continued, as his first words came back to her. 'Ah! how time does fly, to be sure. Come in and rest, your clothes are dusty as if you had travelled far, and perhaps a wound you have got in the wars troubles you?'

John looked at her with eyes that seemed to see nothing. Then, without speaking, he turned away, and went slowly down the road.

Where he slept that night he never could tell, nor how he lived for the next few weeks. At length he knew how great had been their love, and how deep must have been their suffering. He did not try to make excuses for himself—that he was only a child; that he was tempted by the priest, on whose shoulders the blame really lay. Remorse filled every part of him, and he vowed that he would wipe out his sin with his life.

Meanwhile he must find some work. There were only two trades he understood, fighting and keeping sheep, so he walked southwards, asking if anyone wanted a shepherd, and took service with a rich widow who owned a large farm near Seville. Here, alone with his flock, he had time, not only to pray but to think about things, which he never had done before. He saw that the peasants passed their lives in poverty so great that the horses in the stables of the rich nobles, or even his own sheep, were better cared for than they. Many among them had sons or husbands captive in Morocco, and they would pause sadly in their work and tell him how hardly the poor prisoners were treated, and how faint was the chance that they would ever return to their homes. And with each fresh story the heart of John would grow more and more sore within him, till at last he went to his mistress and begged her to find a fresh shepherd, for he was going to Morocco to do what he could for the men who were imprisoned there.

It is not a very long journey from Seville to Gibraltar, which was not to become English for another hundred and seventy or eighty years, and on his arrival John went at once to the harbour to see what ships were about to sail for Africa. On the quay he fell in with a fellow-countryman—a Portuguese noble—who, with his wife and four daughters, had been banished to Ceuta, on the opposite coast. All their possessions were taken from them, and they were in desperate poverty. John was filled with pity for their condition, and at once offered himself as their servant. The poor people brightened at the thought that there was one person at least who was ready to help them, but they refused his aid, as they had no money to pay him.

'I want none,' answered John, 'my only wish is to try and make things better for those who need it, and where shall I meet a family in greater distress than yours?'

At this they resisted no longer, and they all crossed over to their place of exile, the burning Ceuta.

No sooner had they reached Ceuta than a fresh misfortune befell them. The journey through Portugal in the heat, their agony at parting with the home where so many of their forefathers had dwelt, and the hunger and thirst they had endured on the way, proved too much for them. One after another they fell ill, and the girls were forced to sell their clothes to save them from starvation. Even so they would have died had not John nursed them day and night till they were able to get up again. Then he got work as a day labourer, and gave all the money he earned to support them.

At last things improved. Either the king allowed some part of the rent of their estates to be paid to them, or their friends collected enough money to keep them in comfort. But, at any rate, they were richer and happier than they ever expected to be again, and John felt that this part of his task was done.

Bidding a sorrowful farewell to the Portuguese exiles for whose sakes he had struggled so long, John returned to Spain, and went about the country selling religious books and little statues of the saints, finding all the while time to look after any sick and poor people whom he might hear of in distress.

One night he walked back very weary after a hard day's work to the rough shed where he was living, and no sooner did he lie down than he fell sound asleep. In his sleep he had a vision of a child standing before him, holding a pomegranate and saying, 'Thou shalt bear the cross in Granada!'

This John took to be the sign that he must go at once to the beautiful Moorish city, where he arrived on the feast-day of the martyr San Sebastian which was being celebrated with much splendour, great crowds having assembled to listen to some famous preacher. John pressed into the church and listened with the rest, till the preacher's words urging repentance for sin so moved him that he fled shrieking into the streets, crying 'Mercy! mercy!' The people, thinking he was possessed by a devil, seized hold of him, and scourged him, hoping by this means to set the evil spirit free. But John still flung himself on the stones and bewailed his sins, and prayed for 'mercy' till the preacher, hearing of his sad state, took pity on him and visited him. His soothing words were more powerful against the evil spirit than railings or scourgings, and, with a soul strengthened and comforted, John returned to his life-work among the poor. We do not know exactly who gave the money necessary for his purpose, and, of course, he had not a penny of his own, but in those days men and women were very generous in bestowing whatever was asked for by anyone whom they considered holy, though in many ways they were harsh and unkind to their labourers and servants. So when John came round to their castles to beg for food and clothes, or anything he could get, they were showered on him willingly, and he carried them back joyfully to the deserted shed which he called his home. Then he would go in search of some poor man whom he knew to be alone, naked and almost dying, and bear him on his back to the shed—a burden often far lighter than the one he had dragged from the rich man's house. After he had collected three or four such cases the shed was full, and at night John lay outside on the ground, ready at any moment to jump up at the first moan from his charges. Soon the fame of his little hospital began to spread abroad. Help was offered him of different kinds, and he accepted it all gladly. One would sit by a wounded man bathing his sores, and giving him now and then a little milk to drink; a woman would look over a bundle of garments sent by some rich noble and take them home to mend; a third would bring eggs or chickens for the patients' dinner, and if anyone ever went hungry, it was John and not his people; and at last, best of all, a large round house was given him, a great big hall perhaps more than a house, with a huge fire in the middle of it, and sometimes as many as two hundred travellers would bask contentedly in the light and warmth, till the dawn beckoned them to continue their journey.

In this way began the first of the shelters for homeless people, which afterwards spread over Europe. For ten years John laboured at his work, and was never too tired or never too busy to give help when he was asked for it. But the best machine will not go on for ever, and at length men whispered to each other that 'The Father of the Poor'—for that was what they called him—seemed weak and ill. Very gradually he faded from them, and he was spared the pain which so many feel, that as far as could be seen, the task of his life would fall to pieces when his hand was removed. Most likely John would always have known that if it appeared to die, it would be carried on in some other way; but now he could rejoice from his heart that the seed he had sown was spreading under his eyes into a great tree, whose branches promised to cover the earth.

He was only fifty-five when he died in Granada, in 1550, and, in spite of his humility, pictures of him hung in every hospital that counted him as its founder. You may always know him from any other saint, for he is dressed in a dark, brown tunic with a hood and cape, holding a pomegranate (or 'apple of Granada') with a cross on it. At his feet a beggar is generally kneeling, and in the distance is a hospital. In the church of the Caridad (or Charity) in Seville he is represented again, this time with a man on his back, whom he is bearing to the hospital, while an angel by his side is whispering to him strengthening words. That angel must often have been there, and John would have known it and worked all the harder, though 'his eyes were holden' and he could only guess why his burdens seemed so light and easy to bear.