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Poem by Amy Lowell
The Book of Hours of Sister Clotilde
The Bell in the convent tower swung. High overhead the great sun hung, A navel for the curving sky. The air was a blue clarity. Swallows flew, And a cock crew. The iron clanging sank through the light air, Rustled over with blowing branches. A flare Of spotted green, and a snake had gone Into the bed where the snowdrops shone In green new-started, Their white bells parted. Two by two, in a long brown line, The nuns were walking to breathe the fine Bright April air. They must go in soon And work at their tasks all the afternoon. But this time is theirs! They walk in pairs. First comes the Abbess, preoccupied And slow, as a woman often tried, With her temper in bond. Then the oldest nun. Then younger and younger, until the last one Has a laugh on her lips, And fairly skips. They wind about the gravel walks And all the long line buzzes and talks. They step in time to the ringing bell, With scarcely a shadow. The sun is well In the core of a sky Domed silverly. Sister Marguerite said: ”The pears will soon bud.” Sister Angelique said she must get her spud And free the earth round the jasmine roots. Sister Veronique said: ”Oh, look at those shoots! There’s a crocus up, With a purple cup.” But Sister Clotilde said nothing at all, She looked up and down the old grey wall To see if a lizard were basking there. She looked across the garden to where A sycamore Flanked the garden door. She was restless, although her little feet danced, And quite unsatisfied, for it chanced Her morning’s work had hung in her mind And would not take form. She could not find The beautifulness For the Virgin’s dress. Should it be of pink, or damasked blue? Or perhaps lilac with gold shotted through? Should it be banded with yellow and white Roses, or sparked like a frosty night? Or a crimson sheen Over some sort of green? But Clotilde’s eyes saw nothing new In all the garden, no single hue So lovely or so marvellous That its use would not seem impious. So on she walked, And the others talked. Sister Elisabeth edged away From what her companion had to say, For Sister Marthe saw the world in little, She weighed every grain and recorded each tittle. She did plain stitching And worked in the kitchen. ”Sister Radegonde knows the apples won’t last, I told her so this Friday past. I must speak to her before Compline.” Her words were like dust motes in slanting sunshine. The other nun sighed, With her pleasure quite dried. Suddenly Sister Berthe cried out: ”The snowdrops are blooming!” They turned about. The little white cups bent over the ground, And in among the light stems wound A crested snake, With his eyes awake. His body was green with a metal brightness Like an emerald set in a kind of whiteness, And all down his curling length were disks, Evil vermilion asterisks, They paled and flooded As wounds fresh-blooded. His crest was amber glittered with blue, And opaque so the sun came shining through. It seemed a crown with fiery points. When he quivered all down his scaly joints, From every slot The sparkles shot. The nuns huddled tightly together, fear Catching their senses. But Clotilde must peer More closely at the beautiful snake, She seemed entranced and eased. Could she make Colours so rare, The dress were there. The Abbess shook off her lethargy. ”Sisters, we will walk on,” said she. Sidling away from the snowdrop bed, The line curved forwards, the Abbess ahead. Only Clotilde Was the last to yield. When the recreation hour was done Each went in to her task. Alone In the library, with its great north light, Clotilde wrought at an exquisite Wreath of flowers For her Book of Hours. She twined the little crocus blooms With snowdrops and daffodils, the glooms Of laurel leaves were interwoven With Stars-of-Bethlehem, and cloven Fritillaries, Whose colour varies. They framed the picture she had made, Half-delighted and half-afraid. In a courtyard with a lozenged floor The Virgin watched, and through the arched door The angel came Like a springing flame. His wings were dipped in violet fire, His limbs were strung to holy desire. He lowered his head and passed under the arch, And the air seemed beating a solemn march. The Virgin waited With eyes dilated. Her face was quiet and innocent, And beautiful with her strange assent. A silver thread about her head Her halo was poised. But in the stead Of her gown, there remained The vellum, unstained. Clotilde painted the flowers patiently, Lingering over each tint and dye. She could spend great pains, now she had seen That curious, unimagined green. A colour so strange It had seemed to change. She thought it had altered while she gazed. At first it had been simple green; then glazed All over with twisting flames, each spot A molten colour, trembling and hot, And every eye Seemed to liquefy. She had made a plan, and her spirits danced. After all, she had only glanced At that wonderful snake, and she must know Just what hues made the creature throw Those splashes and sprays Of prismed rays. When evening prayers were sung and said, The nuns lit their tapers and went to bed. And soon in the convent there was no light, For the moon did not rise until late that night, Only the shine Of the lamp at the shrine. Clotilde lay still in her trembling sheets. Her heart shook her body with its beats. She could not see till the moon should rise, So she whispered prayers and kept her eyes On the window-square Till light should be there. The faintest shadow of a branch Fell on the floor. Clotilde, grown staunch With solemn purpose, softly rose And fluttered down between the rows Of sleeping nuns. She almost runs. She must go out through the little side door Lest the nuns who were always praying before The Virgin’s altar should hear her pass. She pushed the bolts, and over the grass The red moon’s brim Mounted its rim. Her shadow crept up the convent wall As she swiftly left it, over all The garden lay the level glow Of a moon coming up, very big and slow. The gravel glistened. She stopped and listened. It was still, and the moonlight was getting clearer. She laughed a little, but she felt queerer Than ever before. The snowdrop bed Was reached and she bent down her head. On the striped ground The snake was wound. For a moment Clotilde paused in alarm, Then she rolled up her sleeve and stretched out her arm. She thought she heard steps, she must be quick. She darted her hand out, and seized the thick Wriggling slime, Only just in time. The old gardener came muttering down the path, And his shadow fell like a broad, black swath, And covered Clotilde and the angry snake. He bit her, but what difference did that make! The Virgin should dress In his loveliness. The gardener was covering his new-set plants For the night was chilly, and nothing daunts Your lover of growing things. He spied Something to do and turned aside, And the moonlight streamed On Clotilde, and gleamed. His business finished the gardener rose. He shook and swore, for the moonlight shows A girl with a fire-tongued serpent, she Grasping him, laughing, while quietly Her eyes are weeping. Is he sleeping? He thinks it is some holy vision, Brushes that aside and with decision Jumps -- and hits the snake with his stick, Crushes his spine, and then with quick, Urgent command Takes her hand. The gardener sucks the poison and spits, Cursing and praying as befits A poor old man half out of his wits. ”Whatever possessed you, Sister, it’s Hatched of a devil And very evil. It’s one of them horrid basilisks You read about. They say a man risks His life to touch it, but I guess I’ve sucked it Out by now. Lucky I chucked it Away from you. I guess you’ll do.” ”Oh, no, Francois, this beautiful beast Was sent to me, to me the least Worthy in all our convent, so I Could finish my picture of the Most High And Holy Queen, In her dress of green. He is dead now, but his colours won’t fade At once, and by noon I shall have made The Virgin’s robe. Oh, Francois, see How kindly the moon shines down on me! I can’t die yet, For the task was set.” ”You won’t die now, for I’ve sucked it away,” Grumbled old Francois, ”so have your play. If the Virgin is set on snake’s colours so strong, --” ”Francois, don’t say things like that, it is wrong.” So Clotilde vented Her creed. He repented. ”He can’t do no more harm, Sister,” said he. ”Paint as much as you like.” And gingerly He picked up the snake with his stick. Clotilde Thanked him, and begged that he would shield Her secret, though itching To talk in the kitchen. The gardener promised, not very pleased, And Clotilde, with the strain of adventure eased, Walked quickly home, while the half-high moon Made her beautiful snake-skin sparkle, and soon In her bed she lay And waited for day. At dawn’s first saffron-spired warning Clotilde was up. And all that morning, Except when she went to the chapel to pray, She painted, and when the April day Was hot with sun, Clotilde had done. Done! She drooped, though her heart beat loud At the beauty before her, and her spirit bowed To the Virgin her finely-touched thought had made. A lady, in excellence arrayed, And wonder-souled. Christ’s Blessed Mould! From long fasting Clotilde felt weary and faint, But her eyes were starred like those of a saint Enmeshed in Heaven’s beatitude. A sudden clamour hurled its rude Force to break Her vision awake. The door nearly leapt from its hinges, pushed By the multitude of nuns. They hushed When they saw Clotilde, in perfect quiet, Smiling, a little perplexed at the riot. And all the hive Buzzed ”She’s alive!” Old Francois had told. He had found the strain Of silence too great, and preferred the pain Of a conscience outraged. The news had spread, And all were convinced Clotilde must be dead. For Francois, to spite them, Had not seen fit to right them. The Abbess, unwontedly trembling and mild, Put her arms round Clotilde and wept, ”My child, Has the Holy Mother showed you this grace, To spare you while you imaged her face? How could we have guessed Our convent so blessed! A miracle! But Oh! My Lamb! To have you die! And I, who am A hollow, living shell, the grave Is empty of me. Holy Mary, I crave To be taken, Dear Mother, Instead of this other.” She dropped on her knees and silently prayed, With anguished hands and tears delayed To a painful slowness. The minutes drew To fractions. Then the west wind blew The sound of a bell, On a gusty swell. It came skipping over the slates of the roof, And the bright bell-notes seemed a reproof To grief, in the eye of so fair a day. The Abbess, comforted, ceased to pray. And the sun lit the flowers In Clotilde’s Book of Hours. It glistened the green of the Virgin’s dress And made the red spots, in a flushed excess, Pulse and start; and the violet wings Of the angel were colour which shines and sings. The book seemed a choir Of rainbow fire. The Abbess crossed herself, and each nun Did the same, then one by one, They filed to the chapel, that incensed prayers Might plead for the life of this sister of theirs. Clotilde, the Inspired! She only felt tired. * * * * * The old chronicles say she did not die Until heavy with years. And that is why There hangs in the convent church a basket Of osiered silver, a holy casket, And treasured therein A dried snake-skin.
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