As Dante set out with Virgil on his wonderful journey the shadows of evening fell around them. On earth the long day's work was ended, and weary men and women were laying down their burdens that they might rest until a new morning dawned. But for Dante there was to be no rest that night.
He had set out bravely, eagerly, as you know, to follow his guide, but ere he had taken many steps the pilgrim's courage began to ebb.
What if after all he was not worthy to undertake this pilgrimage through the Eternal land? What if he was not worthy to follow so wise a guide as the ancient Roman poet? Ah, he had been rash to attempt a journey so full of unknown perils, Dante thought to himself, foolish even to dream of it.
Now this way, now that, his thoughts swayed him, until his purpose to follow Virgil grew weak, and he called out to him to stay his steps.
"Master," cried the perplexed traveller, "Master, if I venture on this journey I begin to fear that it will end in folly. Thou art wise and canst understand my doubts. Tell me, then, what shall I do?"
"Fear has fallen upon thy soul," answered his guide, "craven fear, which makes thee afraid to go forward. Yet if thou wilt hearken to my words thy terror may vanish, even as the mist vanishes before the sun."
But there was little need to bid Dante be attentive to the words of his guide, for even as Virgil began to speak the pilgrim knew that it was of Beatrice, of his beloved lady, that he was to hear.
"Ere I came to thine aid," said the ancient poet, "I sat in my place in the eternal world. Suddenly I heard a voice, gentle, soft, call to me. Turning I saw a fair and radiant lady by my side. Her eyes shone brighter than the morning star as she begged me to go to the aid of her friend. He was in a desert place she said, bestead by sore dangers. Even now she feared lest she had sought my help too late.
"Hasten thou then to save him from his fate," cried the lady. "Thus shalt thou comfort me, for I am Beatrice, who thus entreat thine aid. If thou wilt do my will then shall thy name be often on my lips when I kneel at the feet of my dear Lord."
"As her words ceased the lady turned aside her head, and lo! tears were glistening in her starry eyes. Then did I hasten to thee that I might do her behest. I have saved thee from the beasts, why dost thou now fear to follow me? Doth not courage spring up in thy heart since so blessed a lady, even Beatrice, Gareth for thy safety?
And indeed Dante had forgotten all his fears. His beloved lady had thought of him, had sent to rescue him from danger! What room was there left in his heart for fear?
In a loud undaunted voice he cried, "O full of pity she who thus succoured me, and courteous thou who so obeyed her call. No longer do I dally with vain fears. Lead on, O Master, for I follow with unfaltering steps."
Thus in steadfast mood did Dante follow his guide along the dark and wooded path.
Ere they had journeyed far they came to a large gateway. Over the gate was engraved an inscription which the pilgrim stayed to read.
Surely never a sadder line has been written than the last line which Dante read as he stood thus without the gate.
"All hope abandon, ye who enter here." As the words sank into his mind he glanced timidly at his guide. Virgil would surely not lead him within the gloomy portal.
"This gate," said his guide, "is the entrance into the Inferno." Now Inferno is the Italian name for Hell.
"Master," said Dante, "these are hard words that are inscribed above the entrance."
Virgil saw the fear that was in Dante's heart steal up over his pale cheeks, and he answered:
"Here thou must leave distrust behind thee," but as he spoke he cast a look of encouragement upon his follower, and stretching out his hand held Dante's firmly in his own. Thus the poet entered the Inferno.
Even as he stepped within the portal, groans and cries seemed to fill the air. So doleful were the sounds that the pilgrim himself wept for very pity. Around him pressed a great crowd of spirits as they hurried hither and thither, wringing their hands or smiting them loudly together.
"What race is this, O Master?" cried Dante, "bewildered by the tumult around him.
"These," answered Virgil, "are those who, when they lived on earth, were too indolent to be either good or bad. They let the years slip by unheeding, serving neither God nor the Evil one, but thinking only of themselves."
Then as Dante watched them, with less pity now than scorn in his eyes, he saw that many of the crowd were rushing after a banner that floated aimlessly in the air. And he knew that just in such a way on earth their empty lives had drifted, now here, now there.
One spirit amid the crowd Dante recognised. He had been a simple priest until the people raised him to the high honour of Pope.
But Pope Celestine had no wish to face the duties and the dangers of so great a position, and ere long, Dante tells us, he, "from cowardice, made the great refusal." Slipping from the Pope's chair he resigned his post that he might live his life in lazy ease.
But here, on the outskirts of the Inferno, Virgil would not linger. He hastened his companion onward through the crowd of spirits, until they came to the bank of a river named Acheron.
There by the side of the river stood another group of spirits, waiting, watching. Dante too watched, and ere long he saw coming towards them a boat, in which sat a ferryman. He was an old, white-haired man named Charon. His was a task that never ended, for ever and for ever he must ply his bark from shore to shore.
At Charon's approach the crowd of downcast spirits huddled more close together.
Then the old ferryman mocked at them with cruel words, telling them that he would row them across the river to a land from which they would never return, nor need they ever expect to see the light of the sun shining upon the other shore. Henceforth they would dwell in darkness, while bitter cold or burning heat would torment their spirits.
The miserable crowd, wailing as they listened to Charon's words, stepped into the boat, which was now fastened to the bank.
Nor dared any of them linger, for should they do so, well they knew that the old ferryman would seize his oar, and beating them with it, would speedily drive them into the bark.
Now when Charon's eyes fell upon Dante, who was still dwelling in the body which was his on earth, his anger knew no bounds. Sternly he bade his strange visitor to begone, for he was used to ferry only evil spirits across the river.
But as Dante did not stir from the spot on which he stood, Charon shouted to him again to begone.
By some other passage must thou reach the opposite side," he cried; "a swifter, lighter bark must carry thee across."
"Nay," said Virgil, speaking now for the first time since they had reached the river-bank, "nay, anger not thyself; Charon, for it is willed in Heaven that thou shalt take this pilgrim across the river in thy bark."
Sullenly, on hearing these words, the old man made room for his strange passenger, and Dante, with Virgil by his side, entered the boat. Charon then began to row toward the other bank.
'son," said Virgil to Dante, "wonder not at the ferryman's rough words. Never before hath a good spirit passed across this river, therefore it is that Charon dislikes to have thee in his bark."
As Virgil ceased speaking a flash of lightning lit up the gloomy region, then the ground around them trembled violently. Dante, over-powered with fear, lay in the bottom of the boat as though sunk in sleep. Nought more did he know of the passage across the river.
When at length he was roused by a terrible peal of thunder, he was no longer in Charon's boat, but standing on the edge of a great abyss.
This borderland of the Inferno was called Limbo, and in this place Dante saw some strange sights, heard some strange voices.