Poetry Explorer- Classic Contemporary Poetry, DOMESDAY BOOK: THE CONVENT, by EDGAR LEE MASTERS



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DOMESDAY BOOK: THE CONVENT, by             Poet's Biography
First Line: Elenor murray stole away from nice
Last Line: Out of a curious but hardened heart.
Subject(s): Convents; Italy; Letters; Life; Nuns; Prayer; Italians


Elenor Murray stole away from Nice
Before her furlough ended, tense to see
Something of Italy, and planned to go
To Genoa, explore the ancient town
Of Christopher Columbus, if she might
Elude the regulation, as she did,
In leaving Nice for Italy. But for her
Always the dream, and always the defeat
Of what she dreamed.

She found herself in Florence
And saw the city. But the weariness
Of labor and her illness came again
At intervals, and on such days she lay
And heard the hours toll, wished for death and wept,
Being alone and sorrowful.

On a morning
She rose and looked for galleries, came at last
Into the Via Gino Capponi
And saw a little church and entered in,
And saw amid the darkness of the church
A woman kneeling, knelt beside the woman,
And put her hand upon the woman's forehead
To find that it was wrinkled, strange to say
A scar upon the forehead, like a cross. . . .
Elenor Murray rose and walked away,
Sobs gathering in her throat, her body weak,
And reeled against the wall, for so it seemed,
Against which hung thick curtains, velvet, red,
A little grimed and worn. And as she leaned
Against the curtains, clung to them, she felt
A giving, parted them, and found a door,
Pushed on the door which yielded, opened it
And saw a yard before her.

It was walled.
A garden of old urns and ancient growths,
Some flowering plants around the wall.

Before her
And in the garden's center stood a statue,
With outstretched arms, the Virgin without the child.
And suddenly on Elenor Murray came
Great sorrow like a madness, seeing there
The pitying Virgin, stretching arms to her.
And so she ran along the pebbly walk,
Fell fainting at the Virgin's feet and lay
Unconscious in the garden.

When she woke
Two nuns were standing by, and one was dressed
In purest white, and held within her hands
A tray of gold, and on the tray of gold
There was a glass of wine, and in a cup
Some broth of beef, and on a plate of gold
A wafer.

And the other nun was dressed
In purest white, but over her shoulders lay
A cape of blue, blue as the sky of Florence
Above the garden wall.

Then as she saw
The nuns before her, in the interval
Of gathering thought, re-limning life again
From wonder if she had not died, and these
Were guides or ministrants of another world,
The nun with cape of blue to Elenor
Said: "Drink this wine, this broth;" and Elenor
Drank and arose, being lifted up by them,
And taken through the convent door and given
A little room as white and clean as light,
And a bed of snowy linen.

Then they said:
"This is the Convent where we send up prayers,
Prayers for the souls who do not pray for self --
Rest, child, and be at peace; and if there be
Friends you would tell that you are here, then we
Will send the word for you, sleep now and rest."
And listening to their voices Elenor slept.
And when she woke a nurse was at her side,
And food was served her, broths and fruit. Each day
A doctor came to tell her all was well,
And health would soon return.

So for a month
Elenor Murray lay and heard the bells,
And breathed the fragrance of the flowering city
That floated through her window, in the stillness
Of the convent dreamed, and said to self: This place
Is good to die in, who is there to tell
That I am here? There was no one. To them
She gave her name, but said: "Till I am well
Let me remain, and if I die, some place
Must be for me for burial, put me there.
And if I live to go again to France
And join my unit, let me have a writing
That I did not desert, was stricken here
And could not leave. For while I stole away
From Nice to get a glimpse of Italy,
I might have done so in my furlough time,
And not stayed over it." And to Elenor
The nuns said: "We will help you, but for now
Rest and put by anxieties."

On a day
Elenor Murray made confessional.
And to the nuns told bit by bit her life,
Her childhood, schooling, travels, work in the war,
What fate had followed her, what sufferings.
And Sister Mary, she who saw her first,
And held the tray of gold with wine and broth,
Sat often with her, read to her, and said:
"Letters will go ahead of you to clear
Your absence over time -- be not afraid,
All will be well."

And so when Elenor Murray
Arose to leave she found all things prepared:
A cab to take her to the train, compartments
Reserved for her from place to place, her fare
And tickets paid for, till at last she came
To Brest and joined her unit, in three days
Looked at the rolling waters as the ship
Drove to America -- such a coming home!
To what and whom?

Loveridge Chase returned and brought the letters
To Coroner Merival from New York. That day
The chemical analysis was finished, showed
No ricin and no poison. Elenor Murray
Died how? What were the circumstances? Then
When Coroner Merival broke the seals of wax,
And cut the twine that bound the package, found
The man was Barrett Bays who wrote the letters --
There were a hundred -- then he cast about
To lay his hands on Barrett Bays, and found
That Barrett Bays lived in Chicago, taught,
Was a professor, aged some forty years.
Why did this Barrett Bays emerge not, speak,
Come forward? Was it simply to conceal
A passion written in these letters here
For his sake or his wife's? Or was it guilt
For some complicity in Elenor's death?
And on this day the coroner had a letter
From Margery Camp which said: "Where's Barrett Bays?
Why have you not arrested him? He knows
Something, perhaps about the death of Elenor."
So Coroner Merival sent process forth
To bring in Barrett Bays, non est inventus.
He had not visited his place of teaching,
Been seen in haunts accustomed for some days --
Not since the death of Elenor Murray, none
Knew where to find him, and none seemed to know
What lay between this man and Elenor Murray.
This was the more suspicious. Then the Times
Made headlines of the letters, published some
Wherein this Barrett Bays had written Elenor:
"You are my hope in life, my morning star,
My love at last, my all." From coast to coast
The word was flashed about this Barrett Bays;
And Mrs. Bays at Martha's Vineyard read,
Turned up her nose, continued on the round
Of gaieties, but to a chum relieved
Her loathing with these words: "Another woman,
He's soiled himself at last."

And Barrett Bays,
Who roughed it in the Adirondacks, hoped
The inquest's end would leave him undisclosed
In Elenor Murray's life, though wracked with fear
About the letters in the vault, some day
To be unearthed, or taken, it might be,
By Margery Camp for uses sinister --
He reading that the letters had been given
To Coroner Merival, and seeing his name
Printed in every sheet, saw no escape
In any nook of earth, returned and walked
In Merival's office: trembling, white as snow.

So Barrett Bays was sworn, before the jury
Sat and replied to questions, said he knew
Elenor Murray in the fall before
She went to France, saw much of her for weeks;
Had written her these letters before she left.
Had followed her in the war, and gone to France,
Had seen her for some days in Paris when
She had a furlough. Had come back and parted
With Elenor Murray, broken with her, found
A cause for crushing out his love for her.
Came back to win forgetfulness, had written
No word to her since leaving Paris -- let
Her letters lie unanswered; brought her letters,
And gave them to the coroner. Then he told
Of the day before her death, and how she came
By motor to Chicago with her aunt,
Named Irma Leese, and telephoned him, begged
An hour for talk. "Come meet me by the river,"
She had said. And so went to meet her. Then he told
Why he relented, after he had left her
In Paris with no word beside this one:
"This is the end." Now he was curious
To know what she would say, what could be said
Beyond what she had written -- so he went
Out of a curious but hardened heart.





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