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Stories from Dante by  Mary Macgregor

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THE GATE OF PURGATORY

[86] LEADING up to the gate of Purgatory were three steps. On the top of the steps sat one who watched the poets as they drew near, then asked them wherefore they came without an angel guide.

"Lucia, the heavenly Dame, bade us come hither to the gate," said Virgil.

"May she prosper thy ascent," said the angel courteously, for he was pleased it was she who had guided them thither.

The first step was of pure white marble, polished until it was so bright that Dante could see himself in it as plain as in a mirror. The second step was of rough purple stone, split both lengthways and across; while the third was of red stone, that flashed and flamed in the light.


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'MAY SHE PROSPER THY ASCENT,' SAID THE ANGEL.

[87] It was above these steps, on a great rock, that the Angel sat, his feet on the flaming stone. He wore a dull, ash-coloured robe, and in his hand he waved a sword blunted at the point.

With a cheerful countenance Virgil drew Dante up the three strange steps, then he bade him ask the angel, in all humility, to unbar the gate.

Throwing himself at the angel's feet Dante beat three times upon his breast, as he besought the angel, for mercy's sake, to open the portal, that he might enter in.

Then the angel bent toward the suppliant at his feet, and with his sword he drew upon his forehead seven times over the letter P. This he did because P is the first letter of Peccate, which is the Italian word for sin.

See that these scars are washed away within the gate," said the angel. Then from beneath his ash-coloured robe he drew forth two keys, one of gold and one of silver, and with these he unlocked the gate.

"Enter!" cried the angel, "yet beware that thou look not behind thee, else shalt thou again be cast without."

[88] Loud as a peal of thunder the gate rolled back upon its hinges, and Dante and his guide entered and stood upon the threshold of Purgatory.

Slowly the grating hinges ceased their grinding noise, while the air around the poets seemed to quiver with a song of joy.

"We praise Thee, O God!" The words of the great Te Deum grew clear, then died away and silence closed around the poets.

Remembering the angel's warning Dante had not looked backward when the gates of Purgatory closed behind him. Now, as the song of praise died away, Virgil led his charge toward a narrow pass through which they climbed until they reached a plain which ran round the side of the mountain. This was the first of the seven circles of Purgatory.

The plain was bounded by a great rock of pure white marble, and on this marble beautiful figures had been carved Dante looked at them in wonder. So lifelike did the sculptured forms appear that he found himself listening for their voices.

But only Virgil's voice was heard, bidding [89] Dante look at the crowd of spirits which was coming slowly toward them.

To Dante, as he gazed, the shapes he saw seemed no human creatures. Yet such they were, but on their shoulders they bore stones of such great weight that they were bent to the ground beneath them. From the bent forms rose voices. The spirits were praying petition after petition from the Lord's Prayer.

It was for the pride which had been their greatest fault on earth that these spirits suffered thus. It was to teach them humility that they were bent in such lowly guise.

As the band of spirits drew nearer, Virgil asked them the shortest way to the next circle, adding that his follower found the ascent steep on account of his human body.

Then one of the band bade the two poets follow him and he would show them a path that a living man might easily ascend.

Fain would the spirits have looked upon the face of one who had come among them in his human body, and who would ere long return to earth, but the weight upon their shoulders made it impossible for them to raise their heads.

[90] One of them, however, Omberto by name, began to speak, and by stooping, Dante could just catch his words. He was telling the poet that on earth his pride had been so great that all men hated him, and at last so greatly did his haughtiness provoke his countrymen that they put him to death.

Now Dante had stooped so low that another spirit, twisting himself round, caught a glimpse of the poet's face.

At once he knew him and called him by his name, while Dante in delight exclaimed, "Thou art Oderigi!" For he had known Oderigi the artist on earth and admired his work.

But now, as the poet began to praise Oderigi's work, the artist, who had been too proud and boastful of his skill on earth, would not listen to Dante's flattering words. Instead, he begged him to think of those whose work had far surpassed his own. "Yet," added Oderigi truthfully, "when I lived on earth I did not honour others" handiwork thus, for my heart was ever set on excelling all men. But here am I being set free from the taint of pride."

[91] Virgil now drew his charge away from Oderigi, bidding him look at the wonderful pictures drawn on the pavement at his feet.

These were beautiful as the sculpture on the wall of white marble. It may be that some day, when you are older, you will read for yourself about the strange pictures which Dante saw in his dream on the pavement of the first circle in Purgatory.


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