The Closed Gates
Meanwhile the boat drew near to the city of Dis. Through this city the poets must pass ere they reached the lower circles of the Inferno.
From fortress and from castle, lights glowed dully through the dimness, then flashed and flared as though the city were a flame of fire.
Phlegyas steered his boat into the moat which surrounded the city, and Virgil and Dante were close beneath the great walls, strong as iron, which guarded the entrance into Dis. Now the city of Dis was in the sixth circle of the Inferno.
It seemed impossible to find an opening by which to enter the city, but Phlegyas, nothing daunted, rowed round and round the walls, until at length he found a spot on which to land his passengers.
"Go forth," he cried to them roughly, "go forth, the entrance is here!"
The two poets thus bidden landed, but the gates of the city were closed, so there they stood, outside the iron walls, looking up at the towers which glowed red as with fire.
Even as they gazed upwards, thousands of angry spirits crowded to the edge of the turrets, and looking down, cried angrily, "Who is this living man who dares to enter the realms of the dead?"
Virgil, knowing that their wrath was ready to fall upon Dante, begged to talk with them alone, and to this they agreed.
"Yea, come thou alone," they answered the Roman poet; then pointing to his follower, their voices rose again in hate. "Let him go," they screamed, "him who hath been so bold as to enter these regions before his time. Let him find his way himself out of these climes, but as for thee, thou shalt tarry with us."
You can imagine Dante's dismay as he listened to these words. Even with his guide the way was hard and perilous, without him he would certainly be lost.
"O my Master," he cried, "desert me not! If we may not go onward let us retrace our steps together."
"Fear not," said his guide. "Await me here, for I will never leave thee alone in this dread world."
Then Virgil walked onward and the spirits rushed down to the gates, opened them, and came out to meet the Roman poet.
Dante could not hear their voices, but from where he stood he saw that after Virgil had spoken a little while, the spirits turned and hastened back within the gates, leaving the poet still standing without.
Slowly, with downcast eyes, Virgil came towards Dante. As his follower watched him and saw how crestfallen, how hopeless was his Master's appearance, his heart misgave him. Yet though Virgil's looks were despondent his words were brave.
He assured Dante that the demons should yet be vanquished, that indeed one "whose hand was strong" was already on his way to give them aid.
After these words the Master stood listening, silent, expectant. Then he murmured to himself, "We must win this fight, we cannot do otherwise. Yet, how long, how long it seems ere the promised help arrive."
Thus as they stood waiting, Dante raised his eyes again to the summit of a tower. More terrible than ever was the sight that met his eyes.
There, amid the flames, stood three women, women so fearsome that, long before, they had been named the Furies. Around their waists twined a serpent with three heads, while coils of vipers, instead of locks of hair, curled around their brows.
So loudly did the Furies shriek, so cruelly did they smite themselves, that Dante clung in terror to his Master. As they saw his fear the Furies mocked and cried, "Hasten, Medusa, hasten, thou shalt change this mortal into stone."
Now Medusa, upon whom the Furies called, was a woman who had this dread power. She could turn into stone any one who but so much as glanced at her.
When Virgil heard the three Furies call for Medusa, he knew the danger in which his follower stood. He immediately bade Dante turn round, so that even should the awful face of the Gorgon, as Medusa was called, appear, he would see nothing of her.
Then, to make his follower even more secure from the fate which threatened him, his guide laid his own hands across Dante's eyes.
But now, in the moment of their utmost need, a strange sound broke upon their ears. The waters of the lake had risen and the waves crashed loudly upon the shore as though driven onward by a mighty wind.
At the sound Virgil withdrew his hands from Dante's face and bade him look across the lake. And as Dante obeyed, his fears all took flight, and he felt safe and glad as a little child.
For over the dismal waters, moving with unwet feet as though He were on dry land, came a mighty One. His left hand was raised to brush aside the thick fog from His face, but never for a moment did His footsteps linger.
As He drew nearer Dante could see how great His majesty, how holy His anger. Thus when Virgil bade the poet to bend before this Holy Presence, Dante was swiftly on his knees, his head bowed in all humility.
From their towers the spirits too saw the approach of the Heavenly Messenger, and fled, that they might hide themselves from His Presence.
When He reached the gates the Holy One touched them with a wand and they flew open wide. Standing on the threshold of the city the Messenger rebuked the spirits, then with-out a word to the two poets, He turned as though beset with many cares, and Virgil and Dante saw Him cross again to the other shore.
As He vanished from sight the poets turned and entered the wide-open gates of the city of Dis.
Virgil and Dante were now in the sixth circle, where the violent were being punished.
They looked around them, perhaps expecting to see streets and houses in the city. Instead they saw only a desolate waste, throughout which tombs were scattered. From these tombs, as from the towers, flames burst fiercely forth.
Were there spirits suffering in these flaming sepulchres? Dante wondered.
Even as he turned to his guide, the question on his lips, a figure raised itself from out of one of the tombs, and the poet beheld Farinata, a noble of his own city, Florence.
Farinata had been a great soldier, and his prowess had more than once delivered Florence from great evil.
Thus it happened that when the party to which he belonged was in power, it purposed to destroy Florence and all its beautiful buildings. Among all those who loved the city, there was found none that day brave enough to raise his voice on its behalf save Farinata. He boldly forbade the cruel sentence to be carried out, saying that he, for one, had endured many hardships and fought many battles that he might be able to dwell in peace in his own city. And, for he was a noble and a famous soldier, his voice was heard and obeyed. Florence was saved from destruction.
It was with this man then that Dante talked in the city of Dis, talked of that other city which was so dear to them both.
But their words were broken in upon by another spirit, who was the father of one of Dante's great friends. He begged the poet to tell him of his son's welfare, which Dante gladly did ere he was hurried onward by his guide.
The journey that lay before them was still a long one, and Virgil led Dante out of the sixth circle into a deep valley.