The deeper Dante penetrated into the Inferno, the more terrible it grew.
Virgil had now brought his follower to a fearful chasm, at the foot of which lay Malebolge, where fraud and deceit were punished. Malebolge was in the eighth circle.
Over the chasm fell a stream that plunged into the gulf beneath with a deafening din.
Virgil bade Dante loosen the girdle which was round his waist and give it to him. Then when his follower had obeyed, Virgil flung the girdle down into "the abyss, and stood watching, watching.
Slowly, as he gazed, out of the gloom, a shape came swimming upward, a shape which, Dante tells us, might well have made the stoutest heart fearful.
The name of the terrible monster that approached was Geryon. Virgil signed to him to come to the land, and Geryon obeyed, laying his head and body on the edge of the precipice, while his tail still swung over the gulf up which he had ascended.
Sending Dante farther along the plain, Virgil strove to pacify the monster, and persuade him to carry Dante and himself down into the abyss.
He succeeded in his plan, and when Dante came back to the spot where he had left Virgil, it was to find him standing there no longer, but already seated on the back of Geryon, the formidable monster.
"Be thou brave!" the Master cried to his dismayed follower. "Be thou brave, and mount, for down into this abyss must we descend. Mount thou before me, that so the Geryon's tail shall leave thee unharmed."
One had no need to be a coward to tremble before this new peril. Even the bravest might well quail if ordered to mount so fearsome a steed, and Dante shivered as though seized by an ague fit.
He plunged into the gulf.
Then, ashamed thus to fail in courage before his Master, the poet conquered his fear and leaped upon Geryon's huge shoulders.
Fain would he have cried to Virgil, "Look that thou clasp me firm," yet his trembling lips refused to form the words.
But words were needless, for no sooner had Dante seated himself in front of his Master than he, clasping his charge firmly in his arms, bade the monster start on his perilous descent.
Slowly Geryon moved out from the land, and turning, until his head was where his tail had been, he plunged into the gulf.
Beating the air with his huge claws, Geryon sailed down, down, until at length he landed his burden on a rock at the foot of the abyss.
Darkness and wailing surrounded the two poets who had now reached the lower depths of the Inferno, called, as I have told you, Malebolge.
Malebolge means ugly pits or holes, and as Virgil and Dante walked along a rough and difficult path, they looked down into many of these holes. In each they saw many thousands of spirits who were suffering for the deceits and frauds they had practised on earth.
Virgil even took Dante into one of these pits, and so terrible were the sights he saw that the poet wept bitterly.
When the Master saw his dismay he caught his charge up in his arms and carried him, as though he were a child, up to the cliff that spanned the gulf between the pits of Malebolge.
In the next hole into which the poets looked those were punished who, on earth, had cheated with money which belonged to the State or with that which belonged to their friends.
Those guilty of this sin were plunged into a ditch of boiling pitch, from which there seemed no escape. For demons, with hooks in their hands, stood over the pit and dragged the spirits back, did they try to flee from their punishment.
As Dante gazed down at the black pitch he heard Virgil give a sharp cry. Turning round he saw a demon behind him, on whose shoulders sat one who had been a cheat, and as Dante turned, he saw the demon throw his victim into the ditch and rush back for yet another.
Then his Master bade Dante hide behind a rock, while he went forward to speak to the demons alone, even as he had done before the gates of Dis.
As the Roman poet advanced, the demons sprang toward him, their hooks poised, ready to seize a new prey.
But Virgil faced them without flinching, and bade them not dare to touch him, at the same time demanding that he might speak with one of their number.
Cowed by the courage of the Roman, the demons sent Malaconda to listen to his words.
"Malaconda," said Virgil, "it is Heaven's decree that I should lead another through this wilderness. Hinder us not."
Then the demon dropped his weapons at his feet and submitted to Virgil's power.
Turning to the other demons Malaconda said, "We have no power to strike this man."
When Virgil heard these words he called to Dante, who was still crouching behind a rock, to come to him.
As Dante moved swiftly toward his Master the demons pressed around him, and the poet feared lest after all Malaconda had no power to stay their wrath.
He did indeed reach Virgil's side in safety, yet ever and anon he heard the demons whisper one to the other, "Wilt thou that I touch him with my hook?" And others would answer, "Even so, even so, miss not thy aim."
But Malaconda too had heard the whispers of his demons and bade them stay their mischievous plans. Then, calling ten, he sent them with Virgil and Dante to show the poets the way by which they should go.
Dante could scarce follow their guides, so fearful was he of their ways, for as they walked along they baited the miserable spirits with their hooks.
Then as one of them escaped from his tormentors, the demons, seeing no other prey, turned upon Dante with threatening looks.
The poet saw them drawing closer and yet more close to him, their hooks ready to entangle him. Escape seemed impossible, for before him lay a steep and rocky precipice.
At the sight of his peril, however, Virgil flew to his follower's aid.
Listen to the beautiful words in which Dante, writing his poem in after years, tells of the love and tenderness of his Master.
"Suddenly," wrote Dante, "my leader took hold upon me, as a mother woke by the noise of fire, seeing the flames near her, seizes her child, and flies, nor waits to think that only her night-gown covers her."
Virgil, indeed, bearing Dante safe in his arms, sped swiftly down the steep precipice and the demons were left far behind.
Now in the next pit the poets saw a strange procession of Hypocrites. These "painted people," as Dante calls them, had large cloaks flung around their shoulders. These cloaks had hoods such as monks would wear. The Hypocrites wore them drawn over their heads, and they looked bright, being overlaid with gold, but in reality they were made of lead and their weight was hard to bear.
Indeed so heavy were they that those who wore them could walk but slowly and painfully, and as they moved along they wept. Also they seemed faint as though from toil.
A strange procession of Hypocrites.
Virgil and Dante seemed to these Hypocrites to be walking at a great pace, though, in truth, their steps were slow.
Two of the spirits besought them to pause until they reached them. Then as the poets lingered they drew near, and begged Dante to tell them who he was who had entered the dwelling of the Hypocrites.
Dante answered that he was a Florentine who had been born and bred in the beautiful city of Florence; that he still wore the body which had been his since he was born though he was passing through the world of spirits. "But tell me who are ye?" he added.
"We were joyous Friars," answered one of the spirits sadly. And Dante needed to be told no more, for well did he know the order to which they belonged.
Clad in robes of white, with sable mantles and arms on which were wrought a red cross with two stars, the joyous Friars had often walked along the narrow streets of Florence.
Their work was to care for widows and orphans who had none other to protect them and their property. But the robes of the Friars were but a mask under which hid ofttimes greed and selfishness. Their lives were full of ease, and they grew rich on the gold that should have belonged to the widows and orphans. Such had been the lives lived by the two joyous Friars who had spoken to Dante from one of the pits of Malebolge.
On and on through the pain and terror of this eighth circle the poets passed, until at length all the pits were left behind, and they were ready for the descent into the last circle of the Inferno.
As they waited to find a way into the lowest depths a horn pealed long and loud; so loud it pealed that, compared with it, a blast of thunder would have made but a slight noise.
Dante's eyes tried to pierce the mist that he might see who blew the horn, but nothing could he see, save, as he thought, a city of mighty towers.
"Master!" he cried, "what land is this?"
"Thou seest not clearly," said the Master; "these are not towers but giants who loom through the mist," and as he spoke Virgil caught his charge gently by the hand to comfort his fear.
"When they were close to the great giants Virgil spoke to one of them and begged him to bring them to the ninth circle.
Then the giant stooped, and stretching out his hands lifted Virgil up in them, while he, the Master, at the same moment seized Dante in his arms. Thus the two poets, making but one burden, were gently lowered by the mighty giant and placed upon a frozen lake. The poets had reached the lowest circle.
Of the terrible sights which they saw in this place I will not stay to tell you, save that here, among other traitors, the poet saw the Arch-traitor Judas, who had betrayed Jesus with a kiss.
Then slowly advancing toward them came the banners of the monarch of this awful realm, and behind the banners was the monarch Lucifer himself.
And now the journey through the Inferno was ended. It needed but to find a way out of the depths into which they had descended.
Virgil did not hesitate. Bidding Dante cling fast to him, the Master boldly made a ladder for himself of the monarch of the realm.
The poets had reached the lowest circle.
He scaled up the tremendous limbs and body of Lucifer, and lo! stepping free of him the two poets found themselves at the opening of a cavern, into which streamed the glad light of day. Through the cavern Virgil and Dante hastened, until they stood once more under the blue sky, the sparkling stars.
And to the wearied poets, vexed with the sight of sin and suffering, the light was good, and a pleasant sight it was to behold the stars.