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Stories from Dante by  Mary Macgregor

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THE CLEANSING FIRE

[103] THE three travellers, Virgil, Dante, and Statius, now went on together toward the sixth circle.

At the foot of the steps leading into it stood an angel, who removed yet another letter from Dante's brow. As he did so, those in the circle which the poets were leaving sang, "Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness."

In the sixth circle those who had been gluttonous on earth were being punished.

Gluttons, as you will remember, are those greedy people who are too fond of eating and drinking.

Ere the travellers had walked far they came to a beautiful tree standing in the very middle of the path. Fruit, ripe and fragrant, hung from its topmost branches, but the lower ones [104] were barren. Streaming over a rock above the tree was a stream of crystal water, which fell upon the upper branches and kept them fresh and fruitful.

As the poets lingered beneath the tree a crowd of spirits drew near. These might neither eat of the fruit of the tree, nor drink of the crystal stream. So greatly had they suffered from the pangs of hunger and thirst that they were wasted to shadows.

Yet these penitent ones were willing to suffer until they were purified, and their mouths opened only to utter a wistful cry. "O Lord," they prayed, "open Thou our lips, and our mouth shall shew forth Thy praise."

Passing onward, the travellers came to another tree also laden with fruit. Beneath it stood many thousands of spirits, with hands stretched out to the fruit which yet they knew was beyond their reach.

As the poets lingered, a warning voice from an unseen presence bade them pass on.

They obeyed, walking along silent, thoughtful, saddened, it might be, by the sight of the famished multitude.

[105] Suddenly a voice broke in upon their troubled thoughts. "Wherefore do ye three journey alone, so silent and so sad?"

Dante trembled, even as a timid animal which is fearful of all sounds; then, raising his eyes, he saw before him an angel who glowed more bright than any furnace.

"If ye desire to mount, here must ye turn," said the angel.

Then Dante felt a soft wind blow upon him, a wind soft and fragrant as the breath of May, and he felt the gentle movement of a wing wiping from his brow another scar. And he knew that there was left but one of the letters which the angel had graven upon his brow. And an angel voice sang, "Blessed are they who have learnt to control themselves."

The poets then entered the seventh circle. It seemed to Dante, in spite of all the perils he had come through, that not yet had he seen so dangerous a pathway as that which now lay before him.

On one side of the path was a yawning precipice, on the other a furnace, heated to white flame.

[106] Through this furnace the spirits must pass ere they might enter Paradise. Even as gold is purged from dross by fire, even so, in the flames, were the spirits purged from any evil that still clung to them.

Looking towards the side where lay the precipice, Dante's footsteps wellnigh swerved; turning then in haste to the other side, he feared lest he should fall into the flames. Ever and anon as they trod the perilous path Virgil spoke to his follower words of warning and of cheer.

Amid the flames Dante saw two poets whom he had known on earth.

One, named Guinicelli, he greeted with joy, for ever he had been to him as a father, and Dante had delighted in his "sweet and pleasant rhymes of love." Even as Statius reverenced and loved Virgil, so did Dante reverence and love Guinicelli.

"Wherefore dost thou greet me thus lovingly?" asked the spirit, surprised at Dante's kindly looks and words.

"It is for the wondrous songs thou didst write that I show thee love," said Dante. "Until the beauty of our Italian tongue cloth fade, shall I [107] love even the very ink with which thou didst write thy lays."

"Brother," answered Guinicelli, "here is one whose poems surpass all others," and he pointed to a spirit who stood in the flames close beside him.

"I am Arnault," said Guinicelli's friend, "and as I wade through this ford of fire I sing. But my songs are full of sorrow now for the folly of my life on earth. Yet even in the furnace I see the day for which I long draw nigh."

Then, ere they vanished in the cleansing flames, Guinicelli and Arnault begged Dante to say one prayer for them when he stood at length in the presence of Christ.

Now the sun began to set, and in the glory of its beams an angel of God appeared before the poets. He stood on the edge of the flames, and joy streamed from his face as he sang in a voice of surpassing beauty, "Blessed are the pure in heart." With his wing also he removed the last letter from Dante's brow.

"Go no further," he said to the travellers, "go no further until ye have entered into the purify- [108] ing flames. And as ye enter, listen to the songs ye hear therein."

Hearing the angel's words Dante stood still, as though he were dead. Then, his hands clasped together, he took a step forward and stood on the very brink of the furnace, but there his courage failed. He dared not enter into the flames.

"My son," said Virgil, "pain thou mayest suffer here, but death shall not come nigh thee. Yea, not even a hair of thy head shall perish. If thou dost doubt my words, stretch forth the hem of thy robe and hold it over the flame and thou wilt see that it is not consumed. Oh, lay aside thy dread and come fearless into the cleansing fires."

Yet despite all that Virgil could urge, Dante still stood on the brink. Into the flames he dared not enter.

Then Virgil pleaded with his follower yet again. "Son," he began, "thou art divided from thy lady Beatrice but by this wall of fire—"

There was no need for the Master to say more, the name of Beatrice had been enough.

[109] Dante raised his eyes trustfully to Virgil's face, while he, the Master, smiled as upon a little child, and gently shook his head, saying, "How long shall we linger now?"

Then together Virgil and Dante, followed by Statius, stepped into the flames. And as they passed through them the Master spoke of Beatrice, that Dante's heart might be brave.

From the other side also a voice was heard singing, "Come, come, blessed of my Father," and, guided by the angel's words, the poets came forth from the testing flames on the other side. Before them lay steps that stretched upward to the heights.

But with all their haste to reach the top, darkness overtook them when they had climbed but a little way.

Worn out by all that they had gone through, and stayed by the darkness, the poets lay down to rest, each on a step of the stair.

Above the wearied travellers was the sky, and stars twinkled more bright than was their wont. Dante, gazing at their brightness, fell fast asleep, and his dreams were pleasant to him.

[110] When he awoke Virgil had already arisen and greeted him joyfully, for that very day his follower would see the lady of his love.

Together they climbed the steps, Dante as lightly as though he had wings. At the top-most step Virgil told his follower that he would no longer be his guide, though for yet a little while he would tarry near him.

"Take thy own will for guide," said the Master. "Sit down, wander hither or thither, even as thou wilt, in this land where the sun shines and the flowers bloom. Until Beatrice, with glad eyes, comes to thee, be thou wise, nor look to me for guidance."

Then, Virgil no longer leading but following, the poets went forward into a wood that lay on the borderland of Paradise.

The sunshine of a summer morn stole in and out among the green leaves of the wood. A breeze, soft, fragrant, fanned the tops of the tall trees; birds flitted from branch to branch, warbling their most joyous lays. Amid this woodland joy the poets roamed until they came to a little stream, by the bank of which they flung themselves down to rest. [111] Dante's eyes wandered to the other side of the stream. How the flowers blossomed, how the shrubs bloomed on the other side!

Ah, but more beautiful even than these was the lady who walked among them. Plucking now one, now another of the flowers which spread around her path, she moved onward, singing as she went.

No, she is not Beatrice as you think, though she is now not far away.

"Lady Beautiful," cried Dante, "I beseech thee come nearer to the edge of the stream that I may hear the words of thy song."

At the sound of the poet's voice the lady, whose name was Matilda, came to the brink of the stream, her arms full of the bright flowers she had plucked.

Dante longed to cross over to her side, yet this he could not do though the stream was narrow, for he had yet to be plunged in these waters, which were called Lethe, or the Waters of Forgetfulness. Whoso bathed in this stream forgot all the deeds he had aforetime done, and whoso bathed in the stream of Eunce, which flowed close by, recalled all the good [112] and kind deeds he had done. Dante, as you will see, was plunged into the waters both of Lethe and Eunce.

Now as Dante stood on one side of the stream, and Matilda on the other, he could hear the words of her song.

"Thou, Lord, hast made me glad through Thy work. I will triumph in the work of Thy hands," she sang, as she looked with glowing eyes at the flowers in her arms.

Together, with but the stream between, Dante and the Lady Beautiful walked onward. Then, all at once, Matilda stopped. "My brother," she cried, "behold and hearken!"

And the poet saw a sudden light illumine the wood, and he heard a sound of sweetest song tremble on the air.

In the midst of the light Dante saw seven golden candlesticks in which the candles shone more bright than shines the moon in a cloud-less sky.

"Hosanna! Hosanna!" the song floated clear on the summer air.

Full of wonder Dante turned to Virgil, only to find him as bewildered as himself.

[113] Then Matilda called to them to look beyond the golden candlesticks; and doing as she bade them, they saw a great company, robed in white, and in their midst a triumphal car.

Slowly the procession drew near, until at length it halted where Matilda stood. Over the ground, where the white-robed company had passed, lay trailing clouds of glory.

Raising their voices, the white-robed angels sang each one, "Come, come from Lebanon, O my sister."

Then, as though they saw her to whom they called, their joyous cry rang out, "Blessed, blessed art thou who comest," and as they sang they scattered fadeless lilies over their heads and over and around the triumphal car.

Slowly, amid the shower of flowers which fell into the car, rose a lady. She wore a veil as white as snow, and her head was crowned with an olive wreath. Her mantle was green, and from beneath it shone a robe the colour of flame.

Dante was in the presence of his lady Beatrice.

As a child turns to its mother, even so Dante [114] turned in his awe and wonder to his beloved Master, but Virgil was no longer by his side. Then for all his joy Dante wept when he saw that he had lost his "most sweet father and guide."

"Dante," said Beatrice, "weep not because Virgil hath left thee. Ere long thou shalt have more bitter cause for tears."

And indeed, as she reminded him that after her death his life on earth had not been so pure, so true, as it should have been, Dante, knowing her rebuke was just, wept tears of shame and sorrow.

Ah, how he had longed to stand in his Lady's presence! And now, ah, how unworthy he felt to be near her! In his sorrow his strength failed, and he fell prostrate at his Lady's feet.

He awoke from his swoon to find himself being drawn through the waters of Lethe by the lady Matilda. As he reached the other side all memory of his past deeds vanished from Dante's mind, while angel voices all around him sang, "Wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.


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THEY STOOD BEFORE THE VERY THRONE OF GOD.

[115] Once again was he brought into the presence of Beatrice. And now she no longer wore a veil, and Dante could gaze into her clear eyes and see the love and compassion shining within them. And as she smiled upon him Dante's heart grew glad.

Then by Beatrice's command Matilda led the poet to the river Eunce, and when he had plunged into its waters he came forth, unashamed, remembering only the good deeds he had done on earth.

Thus cleansed and purified by water and by flame Dante was ready to follow Beatrice into Paradise. Nor did they linger until they stood before the very throne of God.

Of all that Dante heard and saw in Paradise I may not tell you in this little book. But some day you will read for yourself, in Dante's great poem, of the wonder and the glory of that land as he saw it in his dream.

Even the great poet's words faltered as he tried to tell of his vision of Paradise.

Feeling his power fail, he cried out to the great God, in whose presence he had stood, to make his poem of some little use to those [116] who should read it in the days to come. Listen to his own words:

"O Thou Light Supreme,

Grant me that those

Great mysteries and wonders I have seen

Return a little to my mind, and make

My lips so potent that some wandering gleam,

Some spark from thy great glory, I may wake

And leave to light the future."

As you read Dante's Divine Comedy for yourself, you will know that God heard the poet's cry and answered it.


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