Gateway to the Classics: Stories from Dante Told to the Children by Mary Macgregor
Stories from Dante Told to the Children by  Mary Macgregor

The Dismal Swamp

Leaving the first circle of the Inferno Virgil now led Dante down into the second. Though it was smaller in size than Limbo, yet it held within it more of suffering and despair.

At the entrance stood a monster called Minos. Half man half beast he seemed to Dante as he gazed, now upon the face, which was twisted into a horrible grin, now upon the tail with which he lashed his victims.

For as the spirits flitted before him, Minos passed sentence upon them. Were they doomed to punishment in the second circle, the terrible judge gave them two strokes with his tail. If it was the third, fourth, fifth, sixth circle in which they were to dwell, three, four, five, six times would the dread lash descend upon them.

Or, as there were nine circles in the Inferno, there were times when seven, eight, or nine strokes fell upon the unhappy victims before they knew to which circle they were condemned.

Now as Dante continued to gaze upon Minos, the monster stayed his task to shout angrily to the stranger that he should not enter the second circle.

"Beware that thou trust not him who seeks to lead thee hither," he cried. "Be not deceived, for it is no easy matter to enter here, though the entrance is wide."

"Thou canst not bar the pilgrim's way," said Virgil, as he heard the angry words of Minos. Then, even as he had subdued Charon, the old white-haired ferryman, so now he quieted the monster Minos.

"Torment thyself not," he continued, "for it is willed in Heaven that my follower should pass through thy domain. And in Heaven, as thou dost know, both will and power are one."

Then Minos, grinning more horribly than ever, let the poets enter.

In the second circle a great storm was raging. The wind blew the spirits hither and thither, knocking them helpless to the ground, from whence arose groans as of a sea risen and tempest-tossed.

Here, as in Limbo, were many of whom Dante had read when he studied history in his beautiful city of Florence.

Cleopatra, a great Queen of Egypt, was here; Helen of Sparta too, for whose sake a great war, called the Trojan war, was waged. Dido, the Queen of Carthage, was here. It was in a great poem written by Virgil himself that Dante had read about this Queen. As he looked at her now he remembered how well she had loved the hero Æneas. So well indeed had she loved him that when the hero sailed away to win renown, leaving her behind at Carthage, she commanded a great funeral pyre to be built, and flinging herself upon it, was burned to death.

Virgil pointed out these spirits to Dante and many more. Name after name he recalled to his follower, telling him too their history, but by the time his Master had told him, it might be a thousand, Dante's attention began to wander.

With a sudden quick interest he was watching two out of all the crowd of spirits. So frail they seemed to him, so fond, even as doves driven before the wind, yet ever desiring to wing their flight homeward to some sweet long lost nest.

"Bard," cried Dante, "fain would I speak with these, who, borne by the wind, come so swiftly toward us."

Virgil bade him call to them as they drew nearer.

"O wearied spirits," cried Dante, "come hither to speak with us, if this ye may do unhindered."

Paolo and Francesca, for these were the names of the spirits to whom Dante called, stayed their flight. They were Italians, Dante's own countrymen, whom he might easily have known on earth, for he was no longer a boy when they were put to death.

"Since thou hast pity for our evil plight," they answered, "we would pray for thy peace were the Great King our friend. Then as they told their sad story Dante wept for pity, and ere they ended, so great was his compassion, that he sank fainting to the ground. Thus grievous to him seemed their woeful tale.

When Dante opened his eyes once more he found that the wind-swept spirits were no longer within sight, while he himself was with Virgil in the third circle. Here the greedy, the gluttonous were being punished. As their sin was a horrible one, so also was their doom.

They were forced, these greedy ones, to lie in the mire, while on them descended an endless storm of hail and snow and heavy rain.

Cerberus, a dog with three huge heads, in which glared eyes crimson with rage, Cerberus trampled upon these wretched spirits, bit them, barked at them, until they would fain have lost their power to feel, to hear.

When Cerberus saw the two poets it seemed that they would be destroyed. For the huge dog opened wide his jaws and seemed ready to spring upon them. But Virgil, stooping to the ground, lifted great handfuls of earth which he flung into the beast's mouth, and thus they passed him by in safety.

As the two poets moved onward, one of the spirits raised himself from the mire and with a cry recognised Dante. This was Ciacco, which is the Italian name for hog, and by this name he had been called in loathing of his greed.

Ciacco was a Florentine, though indeed he had never been a worthy citizen of so fair a city as Florence.

Dante, though filled with horror at his sin of gluttony, stopped at his cry, and for a short time they talked together.

Then Virgil called to his follower to leave Ciacco, and together they passed on into the fourth circle.

At its entrance, Pluto, the god of riches, was stationed, muttering foolish words in a hoarse voice, which made Dante fear.

But Virgil turned upon the monster crying, "Peace," and at his voice Pluto fell to the ground and the poets passed into his domain unharmed.

It was a strange sight which met Dante's eyes here, where both those who loved money too well and those who spent it too lavishly were punished.

The misers and spendthrifts were divided into two companies, which ceaselessly hurled great stones against each other.

Those who had hoarded their money cried as they dashed their stones against the spendthrifts, "Why cast away?" to which the spendthrifts ever answered, "Why hold fast?" And this they said in mockery of each other's actions when on earth.

But time was fleeting and Virgil hurried Dante on towards the fifth circle, in which lay a dismal swamp, the waters of which were thick with mud. Sluggishly the waters of the swamp ran into a lake called Styx.

Under the marsh Dante could see the forms of innumerable spirits, who struck and beat at one another, while their faces were distorted with rage.

These were they who on earth were overcome by anger and pride. Fixed in the muddy swamp, they cry out in their misery, "Sad once were we, in the sweet air made gladsome by the sun, because in our hearts we carried angry tempers. Now in these murky waters are we sad."

The two poets walked along the side of the dismal swamp, until they came to a tower, built on the edge of the lake called Styx.

As they stood beside the tower, they saw flame signals flash from the battlements, and soon these were answered by the same signals from a tower on the farther side of the lake.

No sooner was this done, than the poets saw a boat coming swiftly over the water, rowed by a fierce ferryman, who seemed eager to greet some fated spirit.

"Phlegyas, Phlegyas," cried Virgil, "the prey for which thou hopest awaits thee not. Thou shalt ferry us across the lake, but we come not to tarry in thy dark abode."

The ferryman concealed his wrath as well as he was able, while Virgil stepped into his boat, bidding Dante follow closely at his side. Only when he, the living man, entered the boat, did it seem weighted as it should be. Then swift as an arrow Phlegyas sped the boat across the lake.

In this lake, which was part of the fifth circle, dwelt those who on earth had been proud and quarrelsome.

Now as the boat went on its way, one of these spirits who was being punished for his pride and angry temper rose from the water and cried to Dante, " Who art thou, who comest thither while still clothed in thy body?"

" I come but to pass through this region," answered Dante. " But who art thou thus disguised by the mud of this dismal lake?"

"One, as thou seest, who mourns," answered the spirit sadly.

Then all at once Dante recognised the man. He had been a Florentine noted for his pride and quarrelsome ways. In his pride he had often ridden through the narrow streets of Florence, with his horse's feet shod with silver. And as he rode he would carelessly crush against the walls man, woman, or child who crossed his path. By the people he was named Argenti, which means silver, because his horse's feet were shod with that metal.

"I know thee well," cried Dante, but in his voice was scorn and loathing of the man he remembered.

Argenti's evil temper was roused by Dante's tone, and he stretched out his cruel hands toward the bark. Perchance he hoped to drag his fellow-citizen down with himself into the mire.

But ere he could find vent for his anger Virgil thrust his hands away and pushed him down again into the water. Then turning to his follower he flung his arms around his neck and kissed his cheek, telling him that the scorn he had shown to Argenti was well deserved.

"Master," answered Dante, "fain would I behold that spirit plunged more deeply in the mire, before we reach the other side."

Dante's words strike a chill to our heart, so harsh they seem, so cruel, but to his guide they were nor unpleasing. And almost at once a tumult arose in the waters, and as the boat sped onward the two poets heard voices crying, "To Argenti, to Argenti."

Looking back, they could dimly see angry spirits rushing up to the proud Florentine and dragging him down, down into the depths of the lake.

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