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Stories from Dante by  Mary Macgregor


 

 

THE TREMBLING MOUNT

[92] NOW as Dante's head was bent over the pictures on the pavement, lo, an angel drew near. He was clad in a robe white as snow, and his face shone as the morning star.

Standing close to Dante he opened his arms and spread wide his wings, saying, "Come, for the steps are near, and now the ascent is without difficulty."

Then he led the poets on to a steep stair, and turning lightly, brushed Dante's forehead with his wings. As the poets climbed the steps, and approached the second circle, they heard a voice chanting, more sweet than any voice on earth, "Blessed are the poor in spirit."

"Master," said Dante, "hath some burden been lifted from my shoulders, for no longer do I feel it a toil to ascend these steps, yet they appear steep to my sight."

"When all the scars are taken away from thy [93] brow, as already one hath been," said Virgil, "then thy feet shall know no weariness, but the upward path shall be to thee a joy."

Bewildered, Dante raised his hand, and passing it across his brow, he found that of the seven letters engraven there by the angel, but six were left. Pride, one of the seven deadly sins, had been wiped away ere the poet entered the second circle.

Dante closed his eyes, remembering with grateful heart the touch of the angel's pinions as they swept across his forehead.

The poets were now within the circle where envy was being purged away from those who had been envious on earth.

For a mile they walked on alone, seeing no spirits, yet hearing all around them voices which sang of love and of unselfish deeds. Ere long Virgil bade Dante look more closely before him. There, huddled close together, clad in garments dark as the rock against which they leaned, Dante saw a pitiful sight. A band of spirits clothed in rough sackcloth, with threads of wire closing their eyelids, turned their faces wistfully toward him.

[94] To Dante it seemed a cruel thing to gaze at those who themselves could see nothing, and he turned to Virgil to ask what he should do.

The Master understood his perplexity. "Speak to these suffering ones," he said, "yet tarry not long by their side."

At the sound of Dante's voice the crowd of sightless spirits listened eagerly. Then one and another begged him to draw closer to them, while they told him of the envy which on earth had spoiled their lives.

Guido was the name of one of the spirits, and he talked to Dante of Florence, the city they both loved well. But the memory of the days he had dwelt within her walls made the spirit weep, and he begged the poet to leave him and go on his way.

"It likes me more to weep than speak, so much my heart is rent with thoughts of yore," he cried.

And Dante understood Guido's tears and went quietly away, and all the spirits heard his footsteps as he left them, though they could not see him go.

It was evening now, but brighter than the [95] rays of the setting sun a radiant presence shone upon the weary travellers.

Dante was forced to shield his eyes from the dazzling light, but Virgil cried with joy, "Behold, it is an angel come hither to lead us onward!"

"Here shalt thou enter on a path less steep than any ye have yet trodden," cried the angel voice. As his words ceased an unseen choir sang softly, "Blessed are the merciful," and once again Dante felt soft wings brush across his face. Only five letters were left upon the poet's forehead.

Entering into the third circle Virgil and Dante found themselves in a region dim with fog, which was bitter to the taste and made the eyes smart with pain.

Here those who had given way to anger on earth were being cleansed from their sin.

So thick was the fog, it mattered not to Dante whether his eyes were shut or open, he could not, in either case, see the path before him.

Virgil, seeing him stumble, came near and bade his son, as he would sometimes call him, lean upon his shoulder, that thus he might walk safely.

[96] Soon, muffled by the thickness of the air, the voices of those who sang fell faint upon the poets" ears.

They were the voices of those who had erred through anger, singing together to the Lamb of God to grant them now His peace.

As their voices died away Dante and his guide struggled forward until they saw a glimmering of light.

Then, in a flash, the glimmer was changed into a splendour of brightness, a splendour unseen before by Dante or his guide.

An angel had come once more to guide the travellers upward. As they followed him into the next circle voices sang softly, "Blessed are the peacemakers," and at the same moment a wing waved faintly across Dante's brow. He knew the meaning of the touch and raised his hand to find a third letter had been taken away.

Evening overtook the poets as they entered the fourth circle, and they sat down to rest until the morning dawned.

In the circle into which they had now entered, those who had been lazy, slothful, on earth, were learning how to be active, diligent.

[97] Thus Dante, who had fallen into a light sleep, was roused by a crowd of spirits, as they came rushing along in great haste.

"O tarry not, tarry not!" they cried, "let not the time be lost through lack of love."

Virgil, as they hastened by, besought them to show him the pathway which would lead them to the next circle.

"Come, follow us; we may not linger to speak with thee," the spirits cried in answer, so anxious were they to atone for the sloth and ease of their life on earth.

As they flitted past, the poets could catch now a word, and then another of the spirits" converse. They knew that they were calling to one another to speed onward. Warnings too they uttered, lest any one should be tempted to loiter as they had done in other days.

Amid the sounds of hurrying feet Dante grew drowsy, confused, and ere long he fell asleep.

When he awoke the sun was high in the heavens and Virgil's voice fell reproachfully upon Dante's ears, for three times he had tried in vain to rouse his follower from slumber.

"Rise, now," said the Master, "we must begone [98] to find the steps which lead us into the next circle."

Dante rose at Virgil's words and walked onward, his head bent forward in deep thought. Then suddenly he heard a sound, more soft and mild than mortal voice, saying, "Come, enter here." Before them lay the steps for which they sought, and as they mounted upward an angel waved his wings, and Dante knew that the fourth letter had vanished from his brow.

"Blessed are they that mourn," sang the glad voice of an angel, "for they shall be comforted."

Thus Virgil and Dante entered the fifth circle.

In this circle were those who on earth had loved money too well. They were bent prostrate on the ground and, weeping, they cried aloud, "Our souls cleave unto the dust."

With some of these weeping spirits Dante talked as he moved onward.

But soon he was struck dumb with fear and wonder, and turned quickly to his Master, for the whole mountain began to tremble, while from all the different circles the spirits cried as with one voice, "Glory to God in the Highest."

[99] Before that glorious burst of song the poets stood quite still, even as had the shepherds who long before had heard the same song on the hills of Bethlehem.

"Glory to God in the Highest!" Then as the song died into silence, the trembling of the mountain ceased, and all was as it had been. Only the poets moved on in thoughtfulness and dread, while Dante was filled with a great desire to know the meaning of the shaking of the mountain and of the glorious burst of praise.

And soon his desire was fulfilled, for ere long the travellers were greeted by a spirit. "God give you peace, my brethren," he said.

Virgil answered his greeting with courteous words. Then he begged the spirit to tell them wherefore the mount had trembled, and wherefore the spirits had rejoiced together in songs of praise.

"There are no storms in this realm," answered the spirit; "no showers of hail or snow, no cruel frosts. Wind, however strong, cannot shake the mountain, yet when one soul in Purgatory is purified, and knows it is free to pass on into [100] Paradise, then the mountain trembles, while the spirits throughout the realm rejoice.

"For me was it that the spirits sung the song which you have heard, for me, who, after five hundred years and more, am purged from sin."

"And who art thou?" said Virgil to the glad-hearted spirit.

"On earth I was a Roman poet, and my name was Statius, as still it is," answered the spirit.

Now Statius had lived during the reign of the Emperor Titus, one hundred years after Virgil. And so "passing sweet" were the poems he had written, that he had been invited to the capital, even to Rome itself, where a wreath of myrtle had been placed upon his brow. In those days no greater honour could be paid to a poet than to confer on him such a garland.

But Statius was telling the poets of his life on earth. It was through studying the works of Virgil, he said, that he himself had been inspired to write. Ever he had bowed before the ancient poet's works as before a master.

Now the spirit did not know that one of his listeners was Virgil himself, for he could not [101] recognise one whom he had never seen on earth.

"Might I but have lived when Virgil did," said Statius, "I would, for the sake of such joy, have endured without complaint another year in Purgatory."

Now Dante listened with delight to his beloved Master's praise, and he longed to tell Statius that it was Virgil himself who now stood before him.

But at that moment he caught a glance from Virgil which seemed to say, "Be silent."

Dante, meeting thus his Master's eyes, smiled, to show that he understood his wish.

But Statius too had seen the smile which had flitted swift across Dante's face, and he turned to him, demanding what it meant.

Dante sighed, perplexed. What was he to do? His Master bade him be silent. Statius bade him speak.

He sighed, perplexed, and Virgil hearing his sigh said gently, "Thou shalt speak and tell Statius that which he wishes to hear."

Then eagerly did Dante speak. "O ancient spirit," he cried, "behold, he of whom thou hast [102] spoken stands before thee. He, my Master, my Guide, is none other than the Virgil whom thou hast longed to see."

In wonder, mixed with reverence and awe, Statius stooped to embrace the feet of him whom he had ever owned his Master.


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