A Ballad of a Nun

From Eastertide to Eastertide1
For ten long years her patient knees2
Engraved the stones—the fittest bride3
Of Christ in all the diocese.4
She conquered every earthly lust ;5
The abbess loved her more and more ;6
And, as a mark of perfect trust,7
Made her the keeper of the door.8
High on a hill the convent hung9
Across a duchy looking down,10
Where everlasting mountains flung11
Their shadows over tower and town.12
The jewels of their lofty snows13
In constellations flashed at night ;14
Above their crests the moon arose ;15
The deep earth shuddered with delight.16
Long ere she left her cloudy bed,17
Still dreaming in the orient land,18
On many a mountain’s happy head19
Dawn lightly laid her rosy hand.20
The adventurous sun took Heaven by storm ;21
Clouds scattered largesses of rain ;22
The sounding cities rich and warm,23
Smouldered and glittered in the plain.24
Sometimes it was a wandering wind,25
Sometimes the fragrance of the pine,26
Sometimes the thought how others sinned,27
That turned her sweet blood into wine.28
Sometimes she heard a serenade29
Complaining sweetly far away :30
She said, “ A young man woos a maid ”;31
And dreamt of love till break of day.32
Then would she ply her knotted scourge33
Until she swooned ; but evermore34
She had the same red sin to purge,35
Poor, passionate keeper of the door !36
For still night’s starry scroll unfurled,37
And still the day came like a flood :38
It was the greatness of the world39
That made her long to use her blood.40
In winter-time when Lent drew nigh,41
And hill and plain were wrapped in snow,42
She watched beneath the frosty sky43
The nearest city nightly glow.44
Like peals of airy bells outworn45
Faint laughter died above her head46
In gusts of broken music borne :47
They keep the Carnival,” she said.48
Her hungry heart devoured the town :49
Heaven save me by a miracle !50
Unless God sends an angel down,51
Thither I go though it were Hell.”52
She dug her nails deep in her breast,53
Sobbed, shrieked, and straight withdrew the bar :54
A fledgling flying from the nest,55
A pale moth rushing to a star.56
Fillet and veil in strips she tore ;57
Her golden tresses floated wide ;58
The ring and bracelet that she wore59
As Christ’s betrothed, she cast aside.60
Life’s dearest meaning I shall probe ;61
Lo ! I shall taste of love at last !62
Away !”  She doffed her outer robe,63
And sent it sailing down the blast.64
Her body seemed to warm the wind ;65
With bleeding feet o’er ice she ran :66
I leave the righteous God behind ;67
I go to worship sinful man.”68
She reached the sounding city’s gate ;69
No question did the warder ask :70
He passed her in : “ Welcome, wild mate ! ”71
He thought her some fantastic mask.72
Half-naked through the town she went ;73
Each footstep left a bloody mark ;74
Crowds followed her with looks intent ;75
Her bright eyes made the torches dark.76
Alone and watching in the street77
There stood a grave youth nobly dressed ;78
To him she knelt and kissed his feet ;79
Her face her great desire confessed.80
Straight to his house the nun he led :81
Strange lady, what would you with me ? ”82
Your love, your love, sweet lord,” she said ;83
I bring you my virginity.”84
He healed her bosom with a kiss ;85
She gave him all her passion’s hoard ;86
And sobbed and murmured ever. “ This87
Is life’s great meaning, dear, my lord.”88
I care not for my broken vow,89
Though God should come in thunder soon ;90
I am sister to the mountains now,91
And sister to the sun and moon.”92
Through all the towns of Belmarie,93
She made a progress like a queen.94
She is,” they said, “ whate’er she be,95
The strangest woman ever seen.96
From fairyland she must have come,97
Or else she is a mermaiden.”98
Some said she was a ghoul, and some99
A heathen goddess born again.100
But soon her fire to ashes burned ;101
Her beauty changed to haggardness ;102
Her golden hair to silver turned ;103
The hour came of her last caress.104
At midnight from her lonely bed105
She rose, and said : “ I have had my will.”106
The old ragged robe she donned, and fled107
Back to the convent on the hill.108
Half-naked as she went before,109
She hurried to the city wall,110
Unnoticed in the rush and roar111
And splendour of the Carnival.112
No question did the warder ask :113
Her ragged robe, her shrunken limb,114
Her dreadful eyes !  “ It is no mask ;115
It is a she-wolf, gaunt and grim ! ”116
She ran across the icy plain ;117
Her worn blood curdled in the blast ;118
Each footstep left a crimson stain ;119
The white-faced moon looked on aghast.120
She said between her chattering jaws,121
Deep peace is mine, I cease to strive ;122
Oh, comfortable convent laws,123
That bury foolish nuns alive !124
A trowel for my passing-bell,125
A little bed within the wall,126
A coverlet of stone ; how well127
I there shall keep the Carnival ! ”128
Like tired bells chiming in their sleep,129
The wind faint peals of laughter bore ;130
She stopped her ears and climbed the steep,131
And thundered at the convent door.132
It opened straight : she entered in,133
And at the wardress’ feet fell prone :134
I come to purge away my sin,135
Bury me, close me up in stone.”136
The wardress raised her tenderly ;137
She touched her wet and fast-shut eyes ;138
Look, sister ; sister, look at me ;139
Look ; can you see through my disguise ? ”140
She looked and saw her own sad face,141
And trembled, wondering, “ Who art though ? ”142
God sent me down to fill your place :143
I am the Virgin Mary now.”144
And with the word, God’s mother shone :145
The wanderer whispered, “ Mary, hail ! ”146
The vision helped her to put on147
Bracelet and fillet, ring and veil.148
You are sister to the mountains now,149
And sister to the day and night ;150
Sister to God ; ” and on the brow151
She kissed her thrice, and left her sight.152
While dreaming in her cloudy bed,153
Far in the crimson orient land,154
On many a mountain’s happy head155
Dawn lightly laid her rosy hand.156