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The Mercenary | Susan Peek | From Chapter 1 of A Soldier Surrenders: The Conversion of St. Camillus de Lellis (A Novel)

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The novel, A Soldier Surrenders, is the story of the dramatic conversion and inspiring goodness of the soldier Camillus de Lellis who lived in the late 1500's, and became the founder of the religious order known then as "Ministers of the Sick", and today now called the "Hospitallers". The story of St. Camillus is one that is filled with an intriguing combination of drama, military battles, sickness and disease, conversion to God, and great charity for countless suffering people, be they dying soldiers, prisoners or patients in the hospitals that he founded.

Camillus is a saint that anyone can identitfy with since he was a very worldly man, a huge man at 6 foot 6 inches height, a soldier who fought against the Turks, and one who had a terrible addiction to gambling that continually reduced him to poverty and shame. He also suffered tremendously throughout his life from various ongoing ailments including a crippling leg disease for 46 years, a rupture for 38 years, chronically painful feet problems, and a distaste for food that caused him an inability to retain it. None of his own great sufferings kept him from always thinking of others first, and striving to serve the many sick and dying people under his care.

He eventually conquered his personal weaknesses like gambling, but not without a long and constant struggle, an example of perseverance that will inspire anyone with their own personal moral, spiritual or physical struggles. God rewarded him with many followers who joined his order to serve the sick and dying, as well as great spiritual gifts including prophecy and miracles. St. Camillus was a forerunner of the work of the International Red Cross, and he used that same symbol for his own religious order. Camillus was canonized by Pope Benedict XIV in 1746, and was proclaimed patron of the sick and of hospitals in 1886 by Pope Leo XIII.

This excerpt is from the opening pages of A Soldier Surrenders.


ITALY; 1570 / Snow swirled around the two tired soldiers as they trudged along the deserted country road. Dusk was falling rapidly, and with it the temperature was likewise dropping. The one in the lead pulled his cloak tighter around him, for whatever scant protection it could afford, and stopped to take a drink from his flask.

The other, several yards behind, was having difficulty keeping up with his robust young son, all six foot six of him with the muscle to match, but he was unwilling to let on. Giovanni de Lellis had always been a strong man himself, but these last few days of traveling had taxed his endurance nearly to the limit. His chest ached, and every breath was becoming harder. Well, he thought with impatience, he wasn't growing any younger, and plowing into this relentless wind mile after mile certainly wasn't helping matters.

To his annoyance, a bout of coughing suddenly seized him, and he was forced to step off the road and lean against a tree to steady himself.

His son spun around and eyed him with concern. "Are you all right, Father?" he asked.

But de Lellis only dismissed the question with an impatient gesture, and the harsh coughing eventually subsided. With an effort he moved back onto the road, determined to carry on.

His son, however, remained standing still, obviously thinking otherwise. "Father, you don't look well. Maybe we should rest for a while."

"There's nothing the matter with me, Camillus!" the toughened old soldier protested. But his staggering steps and drawn face belied his words.

Camillus ignored the familiar pain that had started throbbing once again in his own right leg. He reached his father in a few strides and gently but firmly steered him off the road to a fallen log. Quickly dusting the snow from it, he helped the older man sit down. Then he crouched in front of him, trying to decide what to do.

Another violent round of coughing overtook the elder de Lellis, and he struggled with the effort to breathe. Camillus waited until the attack had ceased, then passed him the flask.

"I think, Father, we should veer off up ahead and make a little detour to Signor Vitali's inn. There's no point being in such a hurry these days with nowhere to go. A warm fire and a real bed is what you need tonight."

"A bed! Ahh... it's been so long since I've slept in one of those contraptions, I've almost forgotten what it is." De Lellis drank, then returned the flask to Camillus, who drained its contents and grinned. "To be honest, Father, my motives are somewhat tainted. Actually, I wouldn't mind taking advantage of Signor Vitali's well-stocked wine cellar as well."

The thought brought a smile to the sick man's face. "Nor I, my boy", he assured his son with a wink. "Besides, I suppose the inn's as good a place as any to find out if there's an army looking for a couple of spare swords." Camillus nodded and pulled off his cloak. He stood up, but winced as the motion sent a painful jab through his right leg. Nonetheless, gritting his teeth, he carefully draped his own cloak around his shivering father.

"That leg of yours bothering you again, Son?" "It's nothing. Just the cold." "We really ought to take you to a hospital one of these days. Get a doctor to look at it. Should've done that ages ago."

Camillus shrugged. "It's not that bad. Don't worry about it." He cast a look at the darkening woods around them, then offered his father his shoulder. His father gratefully accepted, and the two men moved back out onto the road.

* * *

"Well, if it isn't Giovanni de Lellis and his incorrigible offspring resurfacing after all these months!" Signor Vitali remarked with pleasant surprise as the door was flung open and a gust of icy wind admitted the snow-dusted pair. He moved forward and heartily shook hands with them both. "Looks like I'll have to mitigate my usual policy tonight and serve drinks on the house for such a special occasion."

The only other occupants remaining in the room at that late hour were two more young soldiers. They glanced up from their game of cards, and one of them smiled with recognition. "Aw!" he called out with mock dismay. "Why is it that every time I happen to be on one of my rare winning streaks, you two always have to show up and spoil it for me?"

Camillus grinned and moved over to join them. "Come on, Antoni", he teased. "You didn't think you could get away with a card game without us smelling it halfway across the border, did you?"

Antoni shook his head ruefully. "Should've known better by now, I guess", he admitted. Then, indicating his oppo- nent, he introduced, "Dario Tellini... Camillus de Lellis."

Tellini rose and extended his hand. The two shook hands.

"Haven't seen you and your father in circulation for a while, Camillus", Antoni commented mildly. "What've you been doing with yourselves lately?"

Camillus shrugged evasively. "More or less the same as you." He pulled up a chair and wearily sat down. "Only this time, well ... in a way we've just been doing it for the other side, that's all."

Antoni cocked a surprised eyebrow, but refrained from comment. Tellini, however, shot Camillus a look of veiled contempt. But before either had further chance to speak, they were joined by the two older men, laden with drinks. "So, Giovanni," the innkeeper was asking, "what high and mighty commander was it this time who could no longer bear you two scoundrels in his ranks?"

De Lellis shook his head. "Ahh... the very sultan himself!" he boasted with amusement. "The heathenish Turk--doesn't recognize a couple of decent soldiers when they're staring him straight in the face!"

Tellini lowered the goblet in his hand and eyed the two with open disgust. "No Catholic soldier may be deemed decent, signors," he ventured steadily, "who is willing to take up arms with the Infidel against God and His people."

The elder De Lellis, not in the least bit perturbed, dismissed the implication with a shrug and poured himself a drink. Camillus, however, looked Tellini in the eye with amused defiance and countered, "God and His people didn't pay us enough. The Turks did."

There was an uneasy silence, as the two sized each other up.

Antoni knew Camillus' temper was one to flare easily. In an attempt, therefore, to divert any possible unpleasantness between his two friends, he quickly cleared his throat and cut in. "If it's high-paying soldiering you're after," he said, "why don't you join us in Venice? Dario and I are headed there now. My uncle's captain of a barracks stationed in that area, and would surely know how to pay handsomely two mercenaries of... uh... such broad experience." He smiled ingratiatingly and added, "As a matter of fact, he just happens to be preparing to do battle with the sultan's army come spring."

De Lellis' eyes brightened, and he glanced at his son. "Hmm. . . the sultan. Perhaps he may regret his rashness yet."

"Well, Father?" Camillus queried. "To Venice then?" The older man considered, then nodded with approval. "To Venice!" he answered.

The two de Lellises looked at each other and smiled. Then both raised their drinks and silently toasted their new destination.


Camillus could have taken his musket and shot himself. Why on earth had he been so stupid as to let his father continue traveling in such a weakened state? He should have recognized the signs for what they were and insisted on remaining at the inn for a few more days.

He could hear the hardening snow crunching beneath their boots as the two of them staggered on alone through the woods in the frozen darkness. He tightened his grip around his father's exhausted frame, hoping against hope that they would come across a farmhouse soon. The shallow breathing and faltering steps warned him that his father was just barely conscious. Camillus had seen those same signs countless times before upon wounded comrades in the battlefield and knew with a sinking heart there was little he could do. That feeling of bitter helplessness be always experienced at seeing the devastation after a battle swept over him now.

He knew he should be hardened against witnessing suffering. He had certainly seen more than enough of it in his twenty years! After all, men lived and they died, and pain was an inevitable part of all that. Especially in his job. But for some reason, Camilus had never been able to overcome his sorrow at beholding another man's misery. Even if the fallen man at his side had been a Turk. There was still some room for sympathy at seeing one of those dogs in the throes of death.

Maybe he and his father shouldn't have hired themselves out to the enemy, he reflected with some remorse. He'd never felt comfortable about it himself. But his father had seen nothing wrong with the idea. Times had been hard, and they had needed the money badly. A job was a job, after all. Besides, it had only been for a short while. The Muslims themselves were loath to keep Catholic mercenaries in their ranks for very long. Camillus sighed. Oh, well... what was done was done and mattered little now. Suddenly his wandering thoughts were jerked back to the present by a low moan from his father. He scanned the countryside with growing desperation and was relieved to spot a faint light through the trees.

"There's a building not too far up ahead", he encouraged. "Just a few more minutes, Father." With a final burst of effort, Camillus half-carried, half-dragged him the remaining distance and started pounding on the door. It seemed an eternity before the sound of a bolt was heard, and the door cracked open a fraction. A sleepy woman peered out at them.

"What do you want, at this hour?" she yawned. "My father's sick. I need to find shelter for him." The woman hesitated.

"Look, I've got money", Camillus persuaded. "I can pay you for your trouble."

At that moment a man came up behind her and drowsily took in the situation. Camillus' father, as if to confirm his unhealthy status, suddenly collapsed to the ground. Pushing past his wife, the man rushed out to help. Together he and Camillus carried the weakened soldier in to what little warmth remained from the dying fire.

Camillus could see that the farmer's suspicions had been aroused. "Traveling in such weather?" he asked warily. "With your father in this condition?"

Camillus thought, None of your business. But seeing his situation, he said, "It all started, you see, during a battle with the Turks . . ."

There was no need to continue. His deliberate deception hit the target instantly. Both the farmer and his wife broke into eager smiles, and the man exclaimed excitedly, "Against the Turks? Ah, God bless you! Mama, bring some blankets-yes! Yes! Quick, woman!"

"Si, Papa!" she agreed, with equal delight.

"And bring some wine, and some pasta, too!" added her husband, clapping his hands to accentuate the order.

"And we'll accept not a lira for it!" the woman assured Camillus in a maternal tone, as she dashed from the room.

Camillus bit his tongue to keep from laughing. To his surprise, a shadow of a smile flickered across his father's face as well, as if he, too, was amused by the irony of it. "Signor and Signora Rocci--at your service!" introduced the man proudly. "Defenders of the Holy Church! God bless you! God bless you!"

Read the rest of story: Order A Solder Surrenders today.

Susan Peek attended St. Mary's Academy in Kansas, and after graduation entered the Carmelite convent for a short period, where she learned about St. Camillus and developed a lifelong devotion to him. She later realized her calling to marriage and now lives in New Zealand where she and her husband Jeff home school their ten children. She is the author of another historical novel, Crusader King.

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