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Canto XXIV

Eighth Circle. The poets climb from the sixth pit.—Seventh pit, filled with serpents, by which thieves are tormented.—Vanni Fucci.—Prophecy of calamity to Dante.

In that part of the young year when the sun tempers his locks beneath Aquarius,[1] and now the nights decrease toward half the day,[2] when the hoar frost copies on the ground the image of her white sister,[3] but the point of her pen lasts little while, the rustic, whose provision fails "gets up up and sees the plain all whitened o'er, whereat he strikes his thigh, returns indoors, and grumbles here and there, like the poor wretch who knows not what to do; again goes out and picks up hope again, seeing the world to have changed face in short while, and takes his crook and drives forth his flock to pasture: in like manner the Master made me dismayed, when I saw his front so disturbed, and in like manner speedily arrived the plaster for the hurt. For when we came to the ruined bridge, the Leader turned to me with that sweet look which I first saw at the foot of the mount.[4] He opened his arms, after some counsel taken with himself, looking first well at the ruin, and laid hold of me. And as one who acts and considers, who seems always to be ready beforehand, so lifting me up toward the top of a great rock, he took note of another splinter, saying, "Seize hold next on that, but try first if it is such that it may support thee." It was no way for one clothed in a cloak, for we with difficulty, he light and I pushed up, could mount from jag to jag. And had it not been that on that precinct the bank was shorter than on the other side, I do not know about him, but I should have been completely overcome. But because all Malebolge slopes toward the opening of the lowest abyss, the site of each valley is such that one side rises and the other sinks.[5] We came, however, at length, up to the point where the last stone is broken off. The breath was so milked from my lungs when I was up that I could no farther, but sat me down on first arrival.

[1] Toward the end of winter.

[2] Half of the twenty-four hours.

[3] The frost copies the look of the snow, but her pen soon loses its cut, that is, the white frost soon vanishes.

[4] The hill of the first Canto, at the foot of which Virgil had appeared to Dante.

[5] The level of the whole circle slopes toward the central deep, so that the inner side of each pit is of less height than the outer.

"Now it behoves thee thus to put off sloth," said the Master, "for, sitting upon down or under quilt, one attains not fame, without which he who consumes his life leaves of himself such trace on earth as smoke in air, or in water the foam. And therefore rise up, conquer the exhaustion with the spirit that conquers every battle, if by its heavy body it be not dragged down. A longer stairway needs must be ascended; it is not enough from these to have departed; if thou understandest me, now act so that it avail thee." Then I rose up, showing myself furnished better with breath than I felt, and said, "Go on, for I am strong and resolute."

Up along the crag we took the way, which was rugged, narrow, and difficult, and far steeper than the one before. I was going along speaking in order not to seem breathless, and a voice, unsuitable for forming words, came out from the next ditch. I know not what it said, though I was already upon the back of the arch that crosses here; but he who was speaking seemed moved to anger. I had turned downwards, but living eyes could not go to the bottom, because of the obscurity. Wherefore I said, "Master, see that thou go on to the next girth, and let us descend the wall, for as from hence I hear and do not understand, so I look down and shape out nothing." "Other reply," he said, "I give thee not than doing, for an honest request ought to be followed by the deed in silence."

We descended the bridge at its head, where it joins on with the eighth bank, and then the pit was apparent to me. And I saw therewithin a terrible heap of serpents, and of such hideous look that the memory still curdles my blood. Let Libya with her sand vaunt herself no more; for though she brings forth chelydri, jaculi, and phareae, and cenchri with amphisboena, she never, with all Ethiopia, nor with the land that lies on the Red Sea, showed either so many plagues or so evil.

Amid this cruel and most dismal store were running people naked and in terror, without hope of hole or heliotrope.[1] They had their hands tied behind with serpents, which fixed through the reins their tail and their head, and were knotted up in front.

[1] A precious stone, of green color, spotted with red, supposed to make its wearer invisible.

And lo! at one, who was on our side, darted a serpent that transfixed him there where the neck is knotted to the shoulders. Nor _O_ nor _I_ was ever so quickly written as he took fire and burned, and all ashes it behoved him to become in falling. And when upon the ground he lay thus destroyed, the dust drew together of itself, and into that same one instantly returned. Thus by the great sages it is affirmed that the Phoenix dies, and then is reborn when to her five hundredth year she draws nigh. Nor herb nor grain she feeds on in her life, but only on tears of incense and on balsam, and nard and myrrh are her last winding-sheet.

And as he who falls and knows not how, by force of demon that drags him to ground, or of other attack that seizeth the man; when he arises and around him gazes, all bewildered by the great anguish that he has suffered, and in looking sighs, such was that sinner after he had risen. Oh power of God! how just thou art that showerest down such blows for vengeance!

The Leader asked him then who he was; whereon he answered, "I rained from Tuscany short time ago into this fell gullet. Bestial life, and not human, pleased me, like a mule that I was. I am Vanni Fucci, beast, and Pistoia was my fitting den." And I to my Leader, "Tell him not to budge, and ask what sin thrust him down here, for I have seen him a man of blood and rages." And the sinner who heard dissembled not, but directed toward me his mind and his face, and was painted with dismal shame. Then he said, "More it grieves me, that thou hast caught me in the misery where thou seest me, than when I was taken from the other life. I cannot refuse that which thou demandest. I am put so far down because I was robber of the sacristy with the fair furnishings, and falsely hitherto has it been ascribed to another.[1] But that thou enjoy not this sight, if ever thou shalt be forth of these dark places, open thine ears to my announcement and hear.[2] Pistoia first strips itself of the Black, then Florence renovates her people and her customs. Mars draws a flame from Val di Magra wrapped in turbid clouds, and with impetuous and bitter storm shall it be opposed upon Campo Piceno, where it shall suddenly rend the mist, so that every White shall thereby be smitten. And this have I said because it must grieve thee."

[1] Vanni Fucci robbed the rich sacristy of the Church of St. James, the cathedral of Pistoia. Suspicion of the crime fell upon others, who, though innocent, were put to torture and hung for it.

[2] The following verses refer under their dark imagery to the two parties, the Black and the White, introduced from Pistoia, by which Florence was divided in the early years of the fourteenth century, and to their fightings. The prophecy is dismal to Dante, because it was with the Whites, whose overthrow Vanni Fucci foretells, that his own fortunes were linked.

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