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The Altar of the Dead

by Henry James

 

 

CHAPTER I.

 

 

HE had a mortal dislikepoor Stransomto lean anniversariesand

loved them still less when they made a pretence of a figure.

Celebrations and suppressions were equally painful to himand but

one of the former found a place in his life. He had kept each year

in his own fashion the date of Mary Antrim's death. It would be

more to the point perhaps to say that this occasion kept HIM: it

kept him at least effectually from doing anything else. It took

hold of him again and again with a hand of which time had softened

but never loosened the touch. He waked to his feast of memory as

consciously as he would have waked to his marriage-morn. Marriage

had had of old but too little to say to the matter: for the girl

who was to have been his bride there had been no bridal embrace.

She had died of a malignant fever after the wedding-day had been

fixedand he had lost before fairly tasting it an affection that

promised to fill his life to the brim.

Of that benedictionhoweverit would have been false to say this

life could really be emptied: it was still ruled by a pale ghost

still ordered by a sovereign presence. He had not been a man of

numerous passionsand even in all these years no sense had grown

stronger with him than the sense of being bereft. He had needed no

priest and no altar to make him for ever widowed. He had done many

things in the world - he had done almost all but one: he had

nevernever forgotten. He had tried to put into his existence

whatever else might take up room in itbut had failed to make it

more than a house of which the mistress was eternally absent. She

was most absent of all on the recurrent December day that his

tenacity set apart. He had no arranged observance of itbut his

nerves made it all their own. They drove him forth without mercy

and the goal of his pilgrimage was far. She had been buried in a

London suburba part then of Nature's breastbut which he had

seen lose one after another every feature of freshness. It was in

truth during the moments he stood there that his eyes beheld the

place least. They looked at another imagethey opened to another

light. Was it a credible future? Was it an incredible past?

Whatever the answer it was an immense escape from the actual.

It's true that if there weren't other dates than this there were

other memories; and by the time George Stransom was fifty-five such

memories had greatly multiplied. There were other ghosts in his

life than the ghost of Mary Antrim. He had perhaps not had more

losses than most menbut he had counted his losses more; he hadn't

seen death more closelybut had in a manner felt it more deeply.

He had formed little by little the habit of numbering his Dead: it

had come to him early in life that there was something one had to

do for them. They were there in their simplified intensified

essencetheir conscious absence and expressive patienceas

personally there as if they had only been stricken dumb. When all

sense of them failedall sound of them ceasedit was as if their

purgatory were really still on earth: they asked so little that

they gotpoor thingseven lessand died againdied every day

of the hard usage of life. They had no organised serviceno

reserved placeno honourno shelterno safety. Even ungenerous

people provided for the livingbut even those who were called most

generous did nothing for the others. So on George Stransom's part

had grown up with the years a resolve that he at least would do

somethingdo itthat isfor his own - would perform the great

charity without reproach. Every man HAD his ownand every man

hadto meet this charitythe ample resources of the soul.

It was doubtless the voice of Mary Antrim that spoke for them best;

as the years at any rate went by he found himself in regular

communion with these postponed pensionersthose whom indeed he

always called in his thoughts the Others. He spared them the

momentshe organised the charity. Quite how it had risen he

probably never could have told youbut what came to pass was that

an altarsuch as was after all within everybody's compasslighted

with perpetual candles and dedicated to these secret ritesreared

itself in his spiritual spaces. He had wondered of oldin some

embarrassmentwhether he had a religion; being very sureand not

a little contentthat he hadn't at all events the religion some of

the people he had known wanted him to have. Gradually this

question was straightened out for him: it became clear to him that

the religion instilled by his earliest consciousness had been

simply the religion of the Dead. It suited his inclinationit

satisfied his spiritit gave employment to his piety. It answered

his love of great officesof a solemn and splendid ritual; for no

shrine could be more bedecked and no ceremonial more stately than

those to which his worship was attached. He had no imagination

about these things but that they were accessible to any one who

should feel the need of them. The poorest could build such temples

of the spirit - could make them blaze with candles and smoke with

incensemake them flush with pictures and flowers. The costin

the common phraseof keeping them up fell wholly on the generous

heart.

 

 

CHAPTER II.

 

 

HE had this yearon the eve of his anniversaryas happenedan

emotion not unconnected with that range of feeling. Walking home

at the close of a busy day he was arrested in the London street by

the particular effect of a shop-front that lighted the dull brown

air with its mercenary grin and before which several persons were

gathered. It was the window of a jeweller whose diamonds and

sapphires seemed to laughin flashes like high notes of sound

with the mere joy of knowing how much more they were "worth" than

most of the dingy pedestrians staring at them from the other side

of the pane. Stransom lingered long enough to suspendin a

visiona string of pearls about the white neck of Mary Antrimand

then was kept an instant longer by the sound of a voice he knew.

Next him was a mumbling old womanand beyond the old woman a

gentleman with a lady on his arm. It was from himfrom Paul

Crestonthe voice had proceeded: he was talking with the lady of

some precious object in the window. Stransom had no sooner

recognised him than the old woman turned away; but just with this

growth of opportunity came a felt strangeness that stayed him in

the very act of laying his hand on his friend's arm. It lasted but

the instantonly that space sufficed for the flash of a wild

question. Was NOT Mrs. Creston dead? - the ambiguity met him there

in the short drop of her husband's voicethe drop conjugalif it

ever wasand in the way the two figures leaned to each other.

Crestonmaking a step to look at something elsecame nearer

glanced at himstarted and exclaimed - behaviour the effect of

which was at first only to leave Stransom staringstaring back

across the months at the different facethe wholly other facethe

poor man had shown him lastthe blurred ravaged mask bent over the

open grave by which they had stood together. That son of

affliction wasn't in mourning now; he detached his arm from his

companion's to grasp the hand of the older friend. He coloured as

well as smiled in the strong light of the shop when Stransom raised

a tentative hat to the lady. Stransom had just time to see she was

pretty before he found himself gaping at a fact more portentous.

"My dear fellowlet me make you acquainted with my wife."

Creston had blushed and stammered over itbut in half a minuteat

the rate we live in polite societyit had practically becomefor

our friendthe mere memory of a shock. They stood there and

laughed and talked; Stransom had instantly whisked the shock out of

the wayto keep it for private consumption. He felt himself

grimacehe heard himself exaggerate the properbut was conscious

of turning not a little faint. That new womanthat hired

performerMrs. Creston? Mrs. Creston had been more living for him

than any woman but one. This lady had a face that shone as

publicly as the jeweller's windowand in the happy candour with

which she wore her monstrous character was an effect of gross

immodesty. The character of Paul Creston's wife thus attributed to

her was monstrous for reasons Stransom could judge his friend to

know perfectly that he knew. The happy pair had just arrived from

Americaand Stransom hadn't needed to be told this to guess the

nationality of the lady. Somehow it deepened the foolish air that

her husband's confused cordiality was unable to conceal. Stransom

recalled that he had heard of poor Creston's havingwhile his

bereavement was still freshcrossed the sea for what people in

such predicaments call a little change. He had found the little

change indeedhe had brought the little change back; it was the

little change that stood there and thatdo what he wouldhe

couldn'twhile he showed those high front teeth of hislook other

than a conscious ass about. They were going into the shopMrs.

Creston saidand she begged Mr. Stransom to come with them and

help to decide. He thanked heropening his watch and pleading an

engagement for which he was already lateand they parted while she

shrieked into the fog"Mind now you come to see me right away!"

Creston had had the delicacy not to suggest thatand Stransom

hoped it hurt him somewhere to hear her scream it to all the

echoes.

He felt quite determinedas he walked awaynever in his life to

go near her. She was perhaps a human beingbut Creston oughtn't

to have shown her without precautionsoughtn't indeed to have

shown her at all. His precautions should have been those of a

forger or a murdererand the people at home would never have

mentioned extradition. This was a wife for foreign service or

purely external use; a decent consideration would have spared her

the injury of comparisons. Such was the first flush of George

Stransom's reaction; but as he sat alone that night - there were

particular hours he always passed alone - the harshness dropped

from it and left only the pity. HE could spend an evening with

Kate Crestonif the man to whom she had given everything couldn't.

He had known her twenty yearsand she was the only woman for whom

he might perhaps have been unfaithful. She was all cleverness and

sympathy and charm; her house had been the very easiest in all the

world and her friendship the very firmest. Without accidents he

had loved herwithout accidents every one had loved her: she had

made the passions about her as regular as the moon makes the tides.

She had been also of course far too good for her husbandbut he

never suspected itand in nothing had she been more admirable than

in the exquisite art with which she tried to keep every one else

(keeping Creston was no trouble) from finding it out. Here was a

man to whom she had devoted her life and for whom she had given it

up - dying to bring into the world a child of his bed; and she had

had only to submit to her fate to haveere the grass was green on

her graveno more existence for him than a domestic servant he had

replaced. The frivolitythe indecency of it made Stransom's eyes

fill; and he had that evening a sturdy sense that he alonein a

world without delicacyhad a right to hold up his head. While he

smokedafter dinnerhe had a book in his lapbut he had no eyes

for his page: his eyesin the swarming void of thingsseemed to

have caught Kate Creston'sand it was into their sad silences he

looked. It was to him her sentient spirit had turnedknowing it

to be of her he would think. He thought for a long time of how the

closed eyes of dead women could still live - how they could open

againin a quiet lamplit roomlong after they had looked their

last. They had looks that survived - had them as great poets had

quoted lines.

The newspaper lay by his chair - the thing that came in the

afternoon and the servants thought one wanted; without sense for

what was in it he had mechanically unfolded and then dropped it.

Before he went to bed he took it upand this timeat the top of a

paragraphhe was caught by five words that made him start. He

stood staringbefore the fireat the "Death of Sir Acton Hague

K.C.B." the man who ten years earlier had been the nearest of his

friends and whose deposition from this eminence had practically

left it without an occupant. He had seen him after their rupture

but hadn't now seen him for years. Standing there before the fire

he turned cold as he read what had befallen him. Promoted a short

time previous to the governorship of the Westward IslandsActon

Hague had diedin the bleak honour of this exileof an illness

consequent on the bite of a poisonous snake. His career was

compressed by the newspaper into a dozen linesthe perusal of

which excited on George Stransom's part no warmer feeling than one

of relief at the absence of any mention of their quarrelan

incident accidentally tainted at the timethanks to their joint

immersion in large affairswith a horrible publicity. Public

indeed was the wrong Stransom hadto his own sensesufferedthe

insult he had blankly taken from the only man with whom he had ever

been intimate; the friendalmost adoredof his University years

the subjectlaterof his passionate loyalty: so public that he

had never spoken of it to a human creatureso public that he had

completely overlooked it. It had made the difference for him that

friendship too was all overbut it had only made just that one.

The shock of interests had been privateintensely so; but the

action taken by Hague had been in the face of men. To-day it all

seemed to have occurred merely to the end that George Stransom

should think of him as "Hague" and measure exactly how much he

himself could resemble a stone. He went coldsuddenly and

horribly coldto bed.

 

 

CHAPTER III.

 

 

THE next dayin the afternoonin the great grey suburbhe knew

his long walk had tired him. In the dreadful cemetery alone he had

been on his feet an hour. Instinctivelycoming backthey had

taken him a devious courseand it was a desert in which no

circling cabman hovered over possible prey. He paused on a corner

and measured the dreariness; then he made out through the gathered

dusk that he was in one of those tracts of London which are less

gloomy by night than by daybecausein the former case of the

civil gift of light. By day there was nothingbut by night there

were lampsand George Stransom was in a mood that made lamps good

in themselves. It wasn't that they could show him anythingit was

only that they could burn clear. To his surprisehoweverafter a

whilethey did show him something: the arch of a high doorway

approached by a low terrace of stepsin the depth of which - it

formed a dim vestibule - the raising of a curtain at the moment he

passed gave him a glimpse of an avenue of gloom with a glow of

tapers at the end. He stopped and looked uprecognising the place

as a church. The thought quickly came to him that since he was

tired he might rest there; so that after a moment he had in turn

pushed up the leathern curtain and gone in. It was a temple of the

old persuasionand there had evidently been a function - perhaps a

service for the dead; the high altar was still a blaze of candles.

This was an exhibition he always likedand he dropped into a seat

with relief. More than it had ever yet come home to him it struck

him as good there should be churches.

This one was almost empty and the other altars were dim; a verger

shuffled aboutan old woman coughedbut it seemed to Stransom

there was hospitality in the thick sweet air. Was it only the

savour of the incense or was it something of larger intention? He

had at any rate quitted the great grey suburb and come nearer to

the warm centre. He presently ceased to feel intrusivegaining at

last even a sense of community with the only worshipper in his

neighbourhoodthe sombre presence of a womanin mourning

unrelievedwhose back was all he could see of her and who had sunk

deep into prayer at no great distance from him. He wished he could

sinklike herto the very bottombe as motionlessas rapt in

prostration. After a few moments he shifted his seat; it was

almost indelicate to be so aware of her. But Stransom subsequently

quite lost himselffloating away on the sea of light. If

occasions like this had been more frequent in his life he would

have had more present the great original typeset up in a myriad

templesof the unapproachable shrine he had erected in his mind.

That shrine had begun in vague likeness to church pompsbut the

echo had ended by growing more distinct than the sound. The sound

now rang outthe type blazed at him with all its fires and with a

mystery of radiance in which endless meanings could glow. The

thing became as he sat there his appropriate altar and each starry

candle an appropriate vow. He numbered themnamed themgrouped

them - it was the silent roll-call of his Dead. They made together

a brightness vast and intensea brightness in which the mere

chapel of his thoughts grew so dim that as it faded away he asked

himself if he shouldn't find his real comfort in some material act

some outward worship.

This idea took possession of him whileat a distancethe black-

robed lady continued prostrate; he was quietly thrilled with his

conceptionwhich at last brought him to his feet in the sudden

excitement of a plan. He wandered softly through the aisles

pausing in the different chapelsall save one applied to a special

devotion. It was in this clear recesslampless and unapplied

that he stood longest - the length of time it took him fully to

grasp the conception of gilding it with his bounty. He should

snatch it from no other rites and associate it with nothing

profane; he would simply take it as it should be given up to him

and make it a masterpiece of splendour and a mountain of fire.

Tended sacredly all the yearwith the sanctifying church round it

it would always be ready for his offices. There would be

difficultiesbut from the first they presented themselves only as

difficulties surmounted. Even for a person so little affiliated

the thing would be a matter of arrangement. He saw it all in

advanceand how bright in especial the place would become to him

in the intermissions of toil and the dusk of afternoons; how rich

in assurance at all timesbut especially in the indifferent world.

Before withdrawing he drew nearer again to the spot where he had

first sat downand in the movement he met the lady whom he had

seen praying and who was now on her way to the door. She passed

him quicklyand he had only a glimpse of her pale face and her

unconsciousalmost sightless eyes. For that instant she looked

faded and handsome.

This was the origin of the rites more publicyet certainly

esotericthat he at last found himself able to establish. It took

a long timeit took a yearand both the process and the result

would have been - for any who knew - a vivid picture of his good

faith. No one did knowin fact - no one but the bland

ecclesiastics whose acquaintance he had promptly soughtwhose

objections he had softly overriddenwhose curiosity and sympathy

he had artfully charmedwhose assent to his eccentric munificence

he had eventually wonand who had asked for concessions in

exchange for indulgences. Stransom had of course at an early stage

of his enquiry been referred to the Bishopand the Bishop had been

delightfully humanthe Bishop had been almost amused. Success was

within sightat any rate from the moment the attitude of those

whom it concerned became liberal in response to liberality. The

altar and the sacred shell that half encircled itconsecrated to

an ostensible and customary worshipwere to be splendidly

maintained; all that Stransom reserved to himself was the number of

his lights and the free enjoyment of his intention. When the

intention had taken complete effect the enjoyment became even

greater than he had ventured to hope. He liked to think of this

effect when far from itliked to convince himself of it yet again

when near. He was not often indeed so near as that a visit to it

hadn't perforce something of the patience of a pilgrimage; but the

time he gave to his devotion came to seem to him more a

contribution to his other interests than a betrayal of them. Even

a loaded life might be easier when one had added a new necessity to

it.

How much easier was probably never guessed by those who simply knew

there were hours when he disappeared and for many of whom there was

a vulgar reading of what they used to call his plunges. These

plunges were into depths quieter than the deep sea-cavesand the

habit had at the end of a year or two become the one it would have

cost him most to relinquish. Now they had reallyhis Dead

something that was indefensibly theirs; and he liked to think that

they might in cases be the Dead of othersas well as that the Dead

of others might be invoked there under the protection of what he

had done. Whoever bent a knee on the carpet he had laid down

appeared to him to act in the spirit of his intention. Each of his

lights had a name for himand from time to time a new light was

kindled. This was what he had fundamentally agreed forthat there

should always be room for them all. What those who passed or

lingered saw was simply the most resplendent of the altars called

suddenly into vivid usefulnesswith a quiet elderly manfor whom

it evidently had a fascinationoften seated there in a maze or a

doze; but half the satisfaction of the spot for this mysterious and

fitful worshipper was that he found the years of his life there

and the tiesthe affectionsthe strugglesthe submissionsthe

conquestsif there had been sucha record of that adventurous

journey in which the beginnings and the endings of human relations

are the lettered mile-stones. He had in general little taste for

the past as a part of his own history; at other times and in other

places it mostly seemed to him pitiful to consider and impossible

to repair; but on these occasions he accepted it with something of

that positive gladness with which one adjusts one's self to an ache

that begins to succumb to treatment. To the treatment of time the

malady of life begins at a given moment to succumb; and these were

doubtless the hours at which that truth most came home to him. The

day was written for him there on which he had first become

acquainted with deathand the successive phases of the

acquaintance were marked each with a flame.

The flames were gathering thick at presentfor Stransom had

entered that dark defile of our earthly descent in which some one

dies every day. It was only yesterday that Kate Creston had

flashed out her white fire; yet already there were younger stars

ablaze on the tips of the tapers. Various persons in whom his

interest had not been intense drew closer to him by entering this

company. He went over ithead by headtill he felt like the

shepherd of a huddled flockwith all a shepherd's vision of

differences imperceptible. He knew his candles apartup to the

colour of the flameand would still have known them had their

positions all been changed. To other imaginations they might stand

for other things - that they should stand for something to be

hushed before was all he desired; but he was intensely conscious of

the personal note of each and of the distinguishable way it

contributed to the concert. There were hours at which he almost

caught himself wishing that certain of his friends would now die

that he might establish with them in this manner a connexion more

charming thanas it happenedit was possible to enjoy with them

in life. In regard to those from whom one was separated by the

long curves of the globe such a connexion could only be an

improvement: it brought them instantly within reach. Of course

there were gaps in the constellationfor Stransom knew he could

only pretend to act for his ownand it wasn't every figure passing

before his eyes into the great obscure that was entitled to a

memorial. There was a strange sanctification in deathbut some

characters were more sanctified by being forgotten than by being

remembered. The greatest blank in the shining page was the memory

of Acton Hagueof which he inveterately tried to rid himself. For

Acton Hague no flame could ever rise on any altar of his.

 

 

CHAPTER IV.

 

 

EVERY yearthe day he walked back from the great graveyardhe

went to church as he had done the day his idea was born. It was on

this occasionas it happenedafter a year had passedthat he

began to observe his altar to be haunted by a worshipper at least

as frequent as himself. Others of the faithfuland in the rest of

the churchcame and wentappealing sometimeswhen they

disappearedto a vague or to a particular recognition; but this

unfailing presence was always to be observed when he arrived and

still in possession when he departed. He was surprisedthe first

timeat the promptitude with which it assumed an identity for him

- the identity of the lady whom two years beforeon his

anniversaryhe had seen so intensely bowedand of whose tragic

face he had had so flitting a vision. Given the time that had

passedhis recollection of her was fresh enough to make him

wonder. Of himself she had of course no impressionor rather had

had none at first: the time came when her manner of transacting

her business suggested her having gradually guessed his call to be

of the same order. She used his altar for her own purpose - he

could only hope that sad and solitary as she always struck himshe

used it for her own Dead. There were interruptionsinfidelities

all on his partcalls to other associations and duties; but as the

months went on he found her whenever he returnedand he ended by

taking pleasure in the thought that he had given her almost the

contentment he had given himself. They worshipped side by side so

often that there were moments when he wished he might be sureso

straight did their prospect stretch away of growing old together in

their rites. She was younger than hebut she looked as if her

Dead were at least as numerous as his candles. She had no colour

no soundno faultand another of the things about which he had

made up his mind was that she had no fortune. Always black-robed

she must have had a succession of sorrows. People weren't poor

after allwhom so many losses could overtake; they were positively

rich when they had had so much to give up. But the air of this

devoted and indifferent womanwho always madein any attitudea

beautiful accidental lineconveyed somehow to Stransom that she

had known more kinds of trouble than one.

He had a great love of music and little time for the joy of it; but

occasionallywhen workaday noises were muffled by Saturday

afternoonsit used to come back to him that there were glories.

There were moreover friends who reminded him of this and side by

side with whom he found himself sitting out concerts. On one of

these winter afternoonsin St. James's Hallhe became aware after

he had seated himself that the lady he had so often seen at church

was in the place next him and was evidently aloneas he also this

time happened to be. She was at first too absorbed in the

consideration of the programme to heed himbut when she at last

glanced at him he took advantage of the movement to speak to her

greeting her with the remark that he felt as if he already knew

her. She smiled as she said "Oh yesI recognise you"; yet in

spite of this admission of long acquaintance it was the first he

had seen of her smile. The effect of it was suddenly to contribute

more to that acquaintance than all the previous meetings had done.

He hadn't "taken in" he said to himselfthat she was so pretty.

Laterthat evening - it was while he rolled along in a hansom on

his way to dine out - he added that he hadn't taken in that she was

so interesting. The next morning in the midst of his work he quite

suddenly and irrelevantly reflected that his impression of her

beginning so far backwas like a winding river that had at last

reached the sea.

His work in fact was blurred a little all that day by the sense of

what had now passed between them. It wasn't muchbut it had just

made the difference. They had listened together to Beethoven and

Schumann; they had talked in the pausesand at the endwhen at

the doorto which they moved togetherhe had asked her if he

could help her in the matter of getting away. She had thanked him

and put up her umbrellaslipping into the crowd without an

allusion to their meeting yet again and leaving him to remember at

leisure that not a word had been exchanged about the usual scene of

that coincidence. This omission struck him now as natural and then

again as perverse. She mightn't in the least have allowed his

warrant for speaking to herand yet if she hadn't he would have

judged her an underbred woman. It was odd that when nothing had

really ever brought them together he should have been able

successfully to assume they were in a manner old friends - that

this negative quantity was somehow more than they could express.

His successit was truehad been qualified by her quick escape

so that there grew up in him an absurd desire to put it to some

better test. Save in so far as some other poor chance might help

himsuch a test could be only to meet her afresh at church. Left

to himself he would have gone to church the very next afternoon

just for the curiosity of seeing if he should find her there. But

he wasn't left to himselfa fact he discovered quite at the last

after he had virtually made up his mind to go. The influence that

kept him away really revealed to him how little to himself his Dead

EVER left him. He went only for THEM - for nothing else in the

world.

The force of this revulsion kept him away ten days: he hated to

connect the place with anything but his offices or to give a

glimpse of the curiosity that had been on the point of moving him.

It was absurd to weave a tangle about a matter so simple as a

custom of devotion that might with ease have been daily or hourly;

yet the tangle got itself woven. He was sorryhe was

disappointed: it was as if a long happy spell had been broken and

he had lost a familiar security. At the lasthoweverhe asked

himself if he was to stay away for ever from the fear of this

muddle about motives. After an interval neither longer nor shorter

than usual he re-entered the church with a clear conviction that he

should scarcely heed the presence or the absence of the lady of the

concert. This indifference didn't prevent his at once noting that

for the only time since he had first seen her she wasn't on the

spot. He had now no scruple about giving her time to arrivebut

she didn't arriveand when he went away still missing her he was

profanely and consentingly sorry. If her absence made the tangle

more intricatethat was all her own doing. By the end of another

year it was very intricate indeed; but by that time he didn't in

the least careand it was only his cultivated consciousness that

had given him scruples. Three times in three months he had gone to

church without finding herand he felt he hadn't needed these

occasions to show him his suspense had dropped. Yet it was

incongruouslynot indifferencebut a refinement of delicacy that

had kept him from asking the sacristanwho would of course

immediately have recognised his description of herwhether she had

been seen at other hours. His delicacy had kept him from asking

any question about her at any timeand it was exactly the same

virtue that had left him so free to be decently civil to her at the

concert.

This happy advantage now served him anewenabling him when she

finally met his eyes - it was after a fourth trial - to

predetermine quite fixedly his awaiting her retreat. He joined her

in the street as soon as she had movedasking her if he might

accompany her a certain distance. With her placid permission he

went as far as a house in the neighbourhood at which she had

business: she let him know it was not where she lived. She lived

as she saidin a mere slumwith an old aunta person in

connexion with whom she spoke of the engrossment of humdrum duties

and regular occupations. She wasn'tthe mourning niecein her

first youthand her vanished freshness had left something behind

thatfor Stransomrepresented the proof it had been tragically

sacrificed. Whatever she gave him the assurance of she gave

without references. She might have been a divorced duchess - she

might have been an old maid who taught the harp.

 

 

CHAPTER V.

 

 

THEY fell at last into the way of walking together almost every

time they metthough for a long time still they never met but at

church. He couldn't ask her to come and see himand as if she

hadn't a proper place to receive him she never invited her friend.

As much as himself she knew the world of Londonbut from an

undiscussed instinct of privacy they haunted the region not mapped

on the social chart. On the return she always made him leave her

at the same corner. She looked with himas a pretext for a pause

at the depressed things in suburban shop-fronts; and there was

never a word he had said to her that she hadn't beautifully

understood. For long ages he never knew her nameany more than

she had ever pronounced his own; but it was not their names that

matteredit was only their perfect practice and their common need.

These things made their whole relation so impersonal that they

hadn't the rules or reasons people found in ordinary friendships.

They didn't care for the things it was supposed necessary to care

for in the intercourse of the world. They ended one day - they

never knew which of them expressed it first - by throwing out the

idea that they didn't care for each other. Over this idea they

grew quite intimate; they rallied to it in a way that marked a

fresh start in their confidence. If to feel deeply together about

certain things wholly distinct from themselves didn't constitute a

safetywhere was safety to be looked for? Not lightly nor often

not without occasion nor without emotionany more than in any

other reference by serious people to a mystery of their faith; but

when something had happened to warmas it werethe air for it

they came as near as they could come to calling their Dead by name.

They felt it was coming very near to utter their thought at all.

The word "they" expressed enough; it limited the mentionit had a

dignity of its ownand ifin their talkyou had heard our

friends use ityou might have taken them for a pair of pagans of

old alluding decently to the domesticated gods. They never knew -

at least Stransom never knew - how they had learned to be sure

about each other. If it had been with each a question of what the

other was there forthe certitude had come in some fine way of its

own. Any faithafter allhas the instinct of propagationand it

was as natural as it was beautiful that they should have taken

pleasure on the spot in the imagination of a following. If the

following was for each but a following of one it had proved in the

event sufficient. Her debthoweverof course was much greater

than hisbecause while she had only given him a worshipper he had

given her a splendid temple. Once she said she pitied him for the

length of his list - she had counted his candles almost as often as

himself - and this made him wonder what could have been the length

of hers. He had wondered before at the coincidence of their

lossesespecially as from time to time a new candle was set up.

On some occasion some accident led him to express this curiosity

and she answered as if in surprise that he hadn't already

understood. "Oh for meyou knowthe more there are the better -

there could never be too many. I should like hundreds and hundreds

- I should like thousands; I should like a great mountain of

light."

Then of course in a flash he understood. "Your Dead are only One?"

She hung back at this as never yet. "Only One" she answered

colouring as if now he knew her guarded secret. It really made him

feel he knew less than beforeso difficult was it for him to

reconstitute a life in which a single experience had so belittled

all others. His own liferound its central hollowhad been

packed close enough. After this she appeared to have regretted her

confessionthough at the moment she spoke there had been pride in

her very embarrassment. She declared to him that his own was the

largerthe dearer possession - the portion one would have chosen

if one had been able to choose; she assured him she could perfectly

imagine some of the echoes with which his silences were peopled.

He knew she couldn't: one's relation to what one had loved and

hated had been a relation too distinct from the relations of

others. But this didn't affect the fact that they were growing old

together in their piety. She was a feature of that pietybut even

at the ripe stage of acquaintance in which they occasionally

arranged to meet at a concert or to go together to an exhibition

she was not a feature of anything else. The most that happened was

that his worship became paramount. Friend by friend dropped away

till at last there were more emblems on his altar than houses left

him to enter. She was more than any other the friend who remained

but she was unknown to all the rest. Once when she had discovered

as they called ita new starshe used the expression that the

chapel at last was full.

"Oh no" Stransom replied"there is a great thing wanting for

that! The chapel will never be full till a candle is set up before

which all the others will pale. It will be the tallest candle of

all."

Her mild wonder rested on him. "What candle do you mean?"

"I meandear ladymy own."

He had learned after a long time that she earned money by her pen

writing under a pseudonym she never disclosed in magazines he never

saw. She knew too well what he couldn't read and what she couldn't

writeand she taught him to cultivate indifference with a success

that did much for their good relations. Her invisible industry was

a convenience to him; it helped his contented thought of herthe

thought that rested in the dignity of her proud obscure lifeher

little remunerated art and her little impenetrable home. Lost

with her decayed relativein her dim suburban worldshe came to

the surface for him in distant places. She was really the

priestess of his altarand whenever he quitted England he

committed it to her keeping. She proved to him afresh that women

have more of the spirit of religion than men; he felt his fidelity

pale and faint in comparison with hers. He often said to her that

since he had so little time to live he rejoiced in her having so

much; so glad was he to think she would guard the temple when he

should have been called. He had a great plan for thatwhich of

course he told her tooa bequest of money to keep it up in

undiminished state. Of the administration of this fund he would

appoint her superintendentand if the spirit should move her she

might kindle a taper even for him.

"And who will kindle one even for me?" she then seriously asked.

 

 

CHAPTER VI.

 

 

SHE was always in mourningyet the day he came back from the

longest absence he had yet made her appearance immediately told him

she had lately had a bereavement. They met on this occasion as she

was leaving the churchso that postponing his own entrance he

instantly offered to turn round and walk away with her. She

consideredthen she said: "Go in nowbut come and see me in an

hour." He knew the small vista of her streetclosed at the end

and as dreary as an empty pocketwhere the pairs of shabby little

housessemi-detached but indissolubly unitedwere like married

couples on bad terms. Oftenhoweveras he had gone to the

beginning he had never gone beyond. Her aunt was dead - that he

immediately guessedas well as that it made a difference; but when

she had for the first time mentioned her number he found himself

on her leaving himnot a little agitated by this sudden

liberality. She wasn't a person with whomafter allone got on

so very fast: it had taken him months and months to learn her

nameyears and years to learn her address. If she had lookedon

this reunionso much older to himhow in the world did he look to

her? She had reached the period of life he had long since reached

whenafter separationsthe marked clock-face of the friend we

meet announces the hour we have tried to forget. He couldn't have

said what he expected asat the end of his waitinghe turned the

corner where for years he had always paused; simply not to pause

was a efficient cause for emotion. It was an eventsomehow; and

in all their long acquaintance there had never been an event. This

one grew larger whenfive minutes laterin the faint elegance of

her little drawing-roomshe quavered out a greeting that showed

the measure she took of it. He had a strange sense of having come

for something in particular; strange because literally there was

nothing particular between themnothing save that they were at one

on their great pointwhich had long ago become a magnificent

matter of course. It was true that after she had said "You can

always come nowyou know" the thing he was there for seemed

already to have happened. He asked her if it was the death of her

aunt that made the difference; to which she replied: "She never

knew I knew you. I wished her not to." The beautiful clearness of

her candour - her faded beauty was like a summer twilight -

disconnected the words from any image of deceit. They might have

struck him as the record of a deep dissimulation; but she had

always given him a sense of noble reasons. The vanished aunt was

presentas he looked about himin the small complacencies of the

roomthe beaded velvet and the fluted moreen; and thoughas we

knowhe had the worship of the Deadhe found himself not

definitely regretting this lady. If she wasn't in his long list

howevershe was in her niece's short oneand Stransom presently

observed to the latter that now at leastin the place they haunted

togethershe would have another object of devotion.

"YesI shall have another. She was very kind to me. It's that

that's the difference."

He judgedwondering a good deal before he made any motion to leave

herthat the difference would somehow be very great and would

consist of still other things than her having let him come in. It

rather chilled himfor they had been happy together as they were.

He extracted from her at any rate an intimation that she should now

have means less limitedthat her aunt's tiny fortune had come to

herso that there was henceforth only one to consume what had

formerly been made to suffice for two. This was a joy to Stransom

because it had hitherto been equally impossible for him either to

offer her presents or contentedly to stay his hand. It was too

ugly to be at her side that wayabounding himself and yet not able

to overflow - a demonstration that would have been signally a false

note. Even her better situation too seemed only to draw out in a

sense the loneliness of her future. It would merely help her to

live more and more for their small ceremonialand this at a time

when he himself had begun wearily to feel thathaving set it in

motionhe might depart. When they had sat a while in the pale

parlour she got up - "This isn't my room: let us go into mine."

They had only to cross the narrow hallas he foundto pass quite

into another air. When she had closed the door of the second room

as she called ithe felt at last in real possession of her. The

place had the flush of life - it was expressive; its dark red walls

were articulate with memories and relics. These were simple things

- photographs and water-coloursscraps of writing framed and

ghosts of flowers embalmed; but a moment sufficed to show him they

had a common meaning. It was here she had lived and workedand

she had already told him she would make no change of scene. He

read the reference in the objects about her - the general one to

places and times; but after a minute he distinguished among them a

small portrait of a gentleman. At a distance and without their

glasses his eyes were only so caught by it as to feel a vague

curiosity. Presently this impulse carried him nearerand in

another moment he was staring at the picture in stupefaction and

with the sense that some sound had broken from him. He was further

conscious that he showed his companion a white face when he turned

round on her gasping: "Acton Hague!"

She matched his great wonder. "Did you know him?"

"He was the friend of all my youth - of my early manhood. And YOU

knew him?"

She coloured at this and for a moment her answer failed; her eyes

embraced everything in the placeand a strange irony reached her

lips as she echoed: "Knew him?"

Then Stransom understoodwhile the room heaved like the cabin of a

shipthat its whole contents cried out with himthat it was a

museum in his honourthat all her later years had been addressed

to him and that the shrine he himself had reared had been

passionately converted to this use. It was all for Acton Hague

that she had kneeled every day at his altar. What need had there

been for a consecrated candle when he was present in the whole

array? The revelation so smote our friend in the face that he

dropped into a seat and sat silent. He had quickly felt her shaken

by the force of his shockbut as she sank on the sofa beside him

and laid her hand on his arm he knew almost as soon that she

mightn't resent it as much as she'd have liked.

 

 

CHAPTER VII.

 

 

HE learned in that instant two things: one being that even in so

long a time she had gathered no knowledge of his great intimacy and

his great quarrel; the other that in spite of this ignorance

strangely enoughshe supplied on the spot a reason for his stupor.

"How extraordinary" he presently exclaimed"that we shouldnever

have known!"

She gave a wan smile which seemed to Stransom stranger even than

the fact itself. "I nevernever spoke of him."

He looked again about the room. "Why thenif your life had been

so full of him?"

"Mayn't I put you that question as well? Hadn't your life also

been full of him?"

"Any one'severy one's life who had the wonderful experience of

knowing him. I never spoke of him" Stransom added in a moment

"because he did me - years ago - an unforgettable wrong." She was

silentand with the full effect of his presence all about them it

almost startled her guest to hear no protest escape her. She

accepted his wordshe turned his eyes to her again to see in what

manner she accepted them. It was with rising tears and a rare

sweetness in the movement of putting out her hand to take his own.

Nothing more wonderful had ever appeared to him thanin that

little chamber of remembrance and homageto see her convey with

such exquisite mildness that as from Acton Hague any injury was

credible. The clock ticked in the stillness - Hague had probably

given it to her - and while he let her hold his hand with a

tenderness that was almost an assumption of responsibility for his

old pain as well as his newStransom after a minute broke out:

"Good Godhow he must have used YOU!"

She dropped his hand at thisgot up andmoving across the room

made straight a small picture to whichon examining ithe had

given a slight push. Then turning round on him with her pale

gaiety recovered"I've forgiven him!" she declared.

"I know what you've done" said Stransom "I know what you'vedone

for years." For a moment they looked at each other through it all

with their long community of service in their eyes. This short

passage madeto his sensefor the woman before himan immense

an absolutely naked confession; which was presentlysuddenly

blushing red and changing her place againwhat she appeared to

learn he perceived in it. He got up and "How you must have loved

him!" he cried.

"Women aren't like men. They can love even where they've

suffered."

"Women are wonderful" said Stransom. "But I assure you I've

forgiven him too."

"If I had known of anything so strange I wouldn't have brought you

here."

"So that we might have gone on in our ignorance to the last?"

"What do you call the last?" she askedsmiling still.

At this he could smile back at her. "You'll see - when it comes."

She thought of that. "This is better perhaps; but as we were - it

was good."

He put her the question. "Did it never happen that he spoke of

me?"

Considering more intently she made no answerand he then knew he

should have been adequately answered by her asking how often he

himself had spoken of their terrible friend. Suddenly a brighter

light broke in her face and an excited idea sprang to her lips in

the appeal: "You HAVE forgiven him?"

"Howif I hadn'tcould I linger here?"

She visibly winced at the deep but unintended irony of this; but

even while she did so she panted quickly: "Then in the lights on

your altar - ?"

"There's never a light for Acton Hague!"

She stared with a dreadful fall"But if he's one of your Dead?"

"He's one of the world'sif you like - he's one of yours. But

he's not one of mine. Mine are only the Dead who died possessed of

me. They're mine in death because they were mine in life."

"HE was yours in life theneven if for a while he ceased to be.

If you forgave him you went back to him. Those whom we've once

loved - "

"Are those who can hurt us most" Stransom broke in.

"Ah it's not true - you've NOT forgiven him!" she wailed with a

passion that startled him.

He looked at her as never yet. "What was it he did to you?"

"Everything!" Then abruptly she put out her hand in farewell.

"Good-bye."

He turned as cold as he had turned that night he read the man's

death. "You mean that we meet no more?"

"Not as we've met - not THERE!"

He stood aghast at this snap of their great bondat the

renouncement that rang out in the word she so expressively sounded.

"But what's changed - for you?"

She waited in all the sharpness of a trouble that for the first

time since he had known her made her splendidly stern. "How can

you understand now when you didn't understand before?"

"I didn't understand before only because I didn't know. Now that I

knowI see what I've been living with for years" Stransom went on

very gently.

She looked at him with a larger allowancedoing this gentleness

justice. "How can I thenon this new knowledge of my ownask you

to continue to live with it?"

"I set up my altarwith its multiplied meanings" Stransom began;

but she quietly interrupted him.

"You set up your altarand when I wanted one most I found it

magnificently ready. I used it with the gratitude I've always

shown youfor I knew it from of old to be dedicated to Death. I

told you long ago that my Dead weren't many. Yours werebut all

you had done for them was none too much for MY worship! You had

placed a great light for Each - I gathered them together for One!"

"We had simply different intentions" he returned. "Thatasyou

sayI perfectly knewand I don't see why your intention shouldn't

still sustain you."

"That's because you're generous - you can imagine and think. But

the spell is broken."

It seemed to poor Stransomin spite of his resistancethat it

really wasand the prospect stretched grey and void before him.

All he could sayhoweverwas: "I hope you'll try before you give

up."

"If I had known you had ever known him I should have taken for

granted he had his candle" she presently answered. "What's

changedas you sayis that on making the discovery I find he

never has had it. That makes MY attitude" - she paused as thinking

how to express itthen said simply - "all wrong."

"Come once again" he pleaded.

"Will you give him his candle?" she asked.

He waitedbut only because it would sound ungracious; not because

of a doubt of his feeling. "I can't do that!" he declared at last.

"Then good-bye." And she gave him her hand again.

He had got his dismissal; besides whichin the agitation of

everything that had opened out to himhe felt the need to recover

himself as he could only do in solitude. Yet he lingered -

lingered to see if she had no compromise to expressno attenuation

to propose. But he only met her great lamenting eyesin which

indeed he read that she was as sorry for him as for any one else.

This made him say: "At leastin any caseI may see you here."

"Oh yescome if you like. But I don't think it will do."

He looked round the room once moreknowing how little he was sure

it would do. He felt also stricken and more and more coldand his

chill was like an ague in which he had to make an effort not to

shake. Then he made doleful reply: "I must try on my side - if

you can't try on yours." She came out with him to the hall and

into the doorwayand here he put her the question he held he could

least answer from his own wit. "Why have you never let me come

before?"

"Because my aunt would have seen youand I should have had to tell

her how I came to know you."

"And what would have been the objection to that?"

"It would have entailed other explanations; there would at any rate

have been that danger."

"Surely she knew you went every day to church" Stransom objected.

"She didn't know what I went for."

"Of me then she never even heard?"

"You'll think I was deceitful. But I didn't need to be!"

He was now on the lower door-stepand his hostess held the door

half-closed behind him. Through what remained of the opening he

saw her framed face. He made a supreme appeal. "What DID he do to

you?"

"It would have come out - SHE would have told you. That fear at my

heart - that was my reason!" And she closed the doorshutting him

out.

 

 

CHAPTER VIII.

 

 

HE had ruthlessly abandoned her - that of course was what he had

done. Stransom made it all out in solitudeat leisurefitting

the unmatched pieces gradually together and dealing one by one with

a hundred obscure points. She had known Hague only after her

present friend's relations with him had wholly terminated;

obviously indeed a good while after; and it was natural enough that

of his previous life she should have ascertained only what he had

judged good to communicate. There were passages it was quite

conceivable that even in moments of the tenderest expansion he

should have withheld. Of many facts in the career of a man so in

the eye of the world there was of course a common knowledge; but

this lady lived apart from public affairsand the only time

perfectly clear to her would have been the time following the dawn

of her own drama. A man in her place would have "looked up" the

past - would even have consulted old newspapers. It remained

remarkable indeed that in her long contact with the partner of her

retrospect no accident had lighted a train; but there was no

arguing about that; the accident had in fact come: it had simply

been that security had prevailed. She had taken what Hague had

given herand her blankness in respect of his other connexions was

only a touch in the picture of that plasticity Stransom had supreme

reason to know so great a master could have been trusted to

produce.

This picture was for a while all our friend saw: he caught his

breath again and again as it came over him that the woman with whom

he had had for years so fine a point of contact was a woman whom

Acton Hagueof all men in the worldhad more or less fashioned.

Such as she sat there to-day she was ineffaceably stamped with him.

Beneficentblameless as Stransom held herhe couldn't rid himself

of the sense that he had beenas who should sayswindled. She

had imposed upon him hugelythough she had known it as little as

he. All this later past came back to him as a time grotesquely

misspent. Such at least were his first reflexions; after a while

he found himself more divided and onlyas the end of itmore

troubled. He imaginedrecalledreconstitutedfigured out for

himself the truth she had refused to give him; the effect of which

was to make her seem to him only more saturated with her fate. He

felt her spiritthrough the whole strangenessfiner than his own

to the very degree in which she might have beenin which she

certainly had beenmore wronged. A womenwhen wrongedwas

always more wronged than a manand there were conditions when the

least she could have got off with was more than the most he could

have to bear. He was sure this rare creature wouldn't have got off

with the least. He was awestruck at the thought of such a

surrender - such a prostration. Moulded indeed she had been by

powerful handsto have converted her injury into an exaltation so

sublime. The fellow had only had to die for everything that was

ugly in him to be washed out in a torrent. It was vain to try to

guess what had taken placebut nothing could be clearer than that

she had ended by accusing herself. She absolved him at every

pointshe adored her very wounds. The passion by which he had

profited had rushed back after its ebband now the tide of

tendernessarrested for ever at floodwas too deep even to

fathom. Stransom sincerely considered that he had forgiven him;

but how little he had achieved the miracle that she had achieved!

His forgiveness was silencebut hers was mere unuttered sound.

The light she had demanded for his altar would have broken his

silence with a blare; whereas all the lights in the church were for

her too great a hush.

She had been right about the difference - she had spoken the truth

about the change: Stransom was soon to know himself as perversely

but sharply jealous. HIS tide had ebbednot flowed; if he had

"forgiven" Acton Haguethat forgiveness was a motive with a broken

spring. The very fact of her appeal for a material signa sign

that should make her dead lover equal there with the others

presented the concession to her friend as too handsome for the

case. He had never thought of himself as hardbut an exorbitant

article might easily render him so. He moved round and round this

onebut only in widening circles - the more he looked at it the

less acceptable it seemed. At the same time he had no illusion

about the effect of his refusal; he perfectly saw how it would make

for a rupture. He left her alone a weekbut when at last he again

called this conviction was cruelly confirmed. In the interval he

had kept away from the churchand he needed no fresh assurance

from her to know she hadn't entered it. The change was complete

enough: it had broken up her life. Indeed it had broken up his

for all the fires of his shrine seemed to him suddenly to have been

quenched. A great indifference fell upon himthe weight of which

was in itself a pain; and he never knew what his devotion had been

for him till in that shock it ceased like a dropped watch. Neither

did he know with how large a confidence he had counted on the final

service that had now failed: the mortal deception was that in this

abandonment the whole future gave way.

These days of her absence proved to him of what she was capable;

all the more that he never dreamed she was vindictive or even

resentful. It was not in anger she had forsaken him; it was in

simple submission to hard realityto the stern logic of life.

This came home to him when he sat with her again in the room in

which her late aunt's conversation lingered like the tone of a

cracked piano. She tried to make him forget how much they were

estrangedbut in the very presence of what they had given up it

was impossible not to be sorry for her. He had taken from her so

much more than she had taken from him. He argued with her again

told her she could now have the altar to herself; but she only

shook her head with pleading sadnessbegging him not to waste his

breath on the impossiblethe extinct. Couldn't he see that in

relation to her private need the rites he had established were

practically an elaborate exclusion? She regretted nothing that had

happened; it had all been right so long as she didn't knowand it

was only that now she knew too much and that from the moment their

eyes were open they would simply have to conform. It had doubtless

been happiness enough for them to go on together so long. She was

gentlegratefulresigned; but this was only the form of a deep

immoveability. He saw he should never more cross the threshold of

the second roomand he felt how much this alone would make a

stranger of him and give a conscious stiffness to his visits. He

would have hated to plunge again into that well of remindersbut

he enjoyed quite as little the vacant alternative.

After he had been with her three or four times it struck him that

to have come at last into her house had had the horrid effect of

diminishing their intimacy. He had known her betterhad liked her

in greater freedomwhen they merely walked together or kneeled

together. Now they only pretended; before they had been nobly

sincere. They began to try their walks againbut it proved a lame

imitationfor these thingsfrom the firstbeginning or ending

had been connected with their visits to the church. They had

either strolled away as they came out or gone in to rest on the

return. Stransombesidesnow faltered; he couldn't walk as of

old. The omission made everything false; it was a dire mutilation

of their lives. Our friend was frank and monotonousmaking no

mystery of his remonstrance and no secret of his predicament. Her

responsewhatever it wasalways came to the same thing - an

implied invitation to him to judgeif he spoke of predicamentsof

how much comfort she had in hers. For him indeed was no comfort

even in complaintsince every allusion to what had befallen them

but made the author of their trouble more present. Acton Hague was

between them - that was the essence of the matterand never so

much between them as when they were face to face. Then Stransom

while still wanting to banish himhad the strangest sense of

striving for an ease that would involve having accepted him.

Deeply disconcerted by what he knewhe was still worse tormented

by really not knowing. Perfectly aware that it would have been

horribly vulgar to abuse his old friend or to tell his companion

the story of their quarrelit yet vexed him that her depth of

reserve should give him no opening and should have the effect of a

magnanimity greater even than his own.

He challenged himselfdenounced himselfasked himself if he were

in love with her that he should care so much what adventures she

had had. He had never for a moment allowed he was in love with

her; therefore nothing could have surprised him more than to

discover he was jealous. What but jealousy could give a man that

sore contentious wish for the detail of what would make him suffer?

Well enough he knew indeed that he should never have it from the

only person who to-day could give it to him. She let him press her

with his sombre eyesonly smiling at him with an exquisite mercy

and breathing equally little the word that would expose her secret

and the word that would appear to deny his literal right to

bitterness. She told nothingshe judged nothing; she accepted

everything but the possibility of her return to the old symbols.

Stransom divined that for her too they had been vividly individual

had stood for particular hours or particular attributes -

particular links in her chain. He made it clear to himselfas he

believedthat his difficulty lay in the fact that the very nature

of the plea for his faithless friend constituted a prohibition;

that it happened to have come from HER was precisely the vice that

attached to it. To the voice of impersonal generosity he felt sure

he would have listened; he would have deferred to an advocate who

speaking from abstract justiceknowing of his denial without

having known Hagueshould have had the imagination to say: "Ah

remember only the best of him; pity him; provide for him." To

provide for him on the very ground of having discovered another of

his turpitudes was not to pity but to glorify him. The more

Stransom thought the more he made out that whatever this relation

of Hague's it could only have been a deception more or less finely

practised. Where had it come into the life that all men saw? Why

had one never heard of it if it had had the frankness of honourable

things? Stransom knew enough of his other tiesof his obligations

and appearancesnot to say enough of his general characterto be

sure there had been some infamy. In one way or another this

creature had been coldly sacrificed. That was why at the last as

well as the first he must still leave him out and out.

 

 

CHAPTER IX.

 

 

AND yet this was no solutionespecially after he had talked again

to his friend of all it had been his plan she should finally do for

him. He had talked in the other daysand she had responded with a

frankness qualified only by a courteous reluctancea reluctance

that touched himto linger on the question of his death. She had

then practically accepted the chargesuffered him to feel he could

depend upon her to be the eventual guardian of his shrine; and it

was in the name of what had so passed between them that he appealed

to her not to forsake him in his age. She listened at present with

shining coldness and all her habitual forbearance to insist on her

terms; her deprecation was even still tendererfor it expressed

the compassion of her own sense that he was abandoned. Her terms

howeverremained the sameand scarcely the less audible for not

being uttered; though he was sure that secretly even more than he

she felt bereft of the satisfaction his solemn trust was to have

provided her. They both missed the rich futurebut she missed it

mostbecause after all it was to have been entirely hers; and it

was her acceptance of the loss that gave him the full measure of

her preference for the thought of Acton Hague over any other

thought whatever. He had humour enough to laugh rather grimly when

he said to himself: "Why the deuce does she like him so much more

than she likes me?" - the reasons being really so conceivable. But

even his faculty of analysis left the irritation standingand this

irritation proved perhaps the greatest misfortune that had ever

overtaken him. There had been nothing yet that made him so much

want to give up. He had of course by this time well reached the

age of renouncement; but it had not hitherto been vivid to him that

it was time to give up everything.

Practicallyat the end of six monthshe had renounced the

friendship once so charming and comforting. His privation had two

facesand the face it had turned to him on the occasion of his

last attempt to cultivate that friendship was the one he could look

at least. This was the privation he inflicted; the other was the

privation he bore. The conditions she never phrased he used to

murmur to himself in solitude: "One moreone more - only just

one." Certainly he was going down; he often felt it when he caught

himselfover his workstaring at vacancy and giving voice to that

inanity. There was proof enough besides in his being so weak and

so ill. His irritation took the form of melancholyand his

melancholy that of the conviction that his health had quite failed.

His altar moreover had ceased to exist; his chapelin his dreams

was a great dark cavern. All the lights had gone out - all his

Dead had died again. He couldn't exactly see at first how it had

been in the power of his late companion to extinguish themsince

it was neither for her nor by her that they had been called into

being. Then he understood that it was essentially in his own soul

the revival had taken placeand that in the air of this soul they

were now unable to breathe. The candles might mechanically burn

but each of them had lost its lustre. The church had become a

void; it was his presenceher presencetheir common presence

that had made the indispensable medium. If anything was wrong

everything was - her silence spoiled the tune.

Then when three months were gone he felt so lonely that he went

back; reflecting that as they had been his best society for years

his Dead perhaps wouldn't let him forsake them without doing

something more for him. They stood thereas he had left themin

their tall radiancethe bright cluster that had already made him

on occasions when he was willing to compare small things with

greatliken them to a group of sea-lights on the edge of the ocean

of life. It was a relief to himafter a whileas he sat there

to feel they had still a virtue. He was more and more easily

tiredand he always drove now; the action of his heart was weak

and gave him none of the reassurance conferred by the action of his

fancy. None the less he returned yet againreturned several

timesand finallyduring six monthshaunted the place with a

renewal of frequency and a strain of impatience. In winter the

church was unwarmed and exposure to cold forbidden himbut the

glow of his shrine was an influence in which he could almost bask.

He sat and wondered to what he had reduced his absent associate and

what she now did with the hours of her absence. There were other

churchesthere were other altarsthere were other candles; in one

way or another her piety would still operate; he couldn't

absolutely have deprived her of her rites. So he arguedbut

without contentment; for he well enough knew there was no other

such rare semblance of the mountain of light she had once mentioned

to him as the satisfaction of her need. As this semblance again

gradually grew great to him and his pious practice more regularhe

found a sharper and sharper pang in the imagination of her

darkness; for never so much as in these weeks had his rites been

realnever had his gathered company seemed so to respond and even

to invite. He lost himself in the large lustrewhich was more and

more what he had from the first wished it to be - as dazzling as

the vision of heaven in the mind of a child. He wandered in the

fields of light; he passedamong the tall tapersfrom tier to

tierfrom fire to firefrom name to namefrom the white

intensity of one clear emblemof one saved soulto another. It

was in the quiet sense of having saved his souls that his deep

strange instinct rejoiced. This was no dim theological rescueno

boon of a contingent world; they were saved better than faith or

works could save themsaved for the warm world they had shrunk

from dying tofor actualityfor continuityfor the certainty of

human remembrance.

By this time he had survived all his friends; the last straight

flame was three years oldthere was no one to add to the list.

Over and over he called his rolland it appeared to him compact

and complete. Where should he put in anotherwhereif there were

no other objectionwould it stand in its place in the rank? He

reflectedwith a want of sincerity of which he was quite

consciousthat it would be difficult to determine that place.

More and morebesidesface to face with his little legionover

endless historieshandling the empty shells and playing with the

silence - more and more he could see that he had never introduced

an alien. He had had his great companionshis indulgences - there

were cases in which they had been immense; but what had his

devotion after all been if it hadn't been at bottom a respect? He

washoweverhimself surprised at his stiffness; by the end of the

winter the responsibility of it was what was uppermost in his

thoughts. The refrain had grown old to themthat plea for just

one more. There came a day whenfor simple exhaustionif

symmetry should demand just one he was ready so far to meet

symmetry. Symmetry was harmonyand the idea of harmony began to

haunt him; he said to himself that harmony was of course

everything. He tookin fancyhis composition to pieces

redistributing it into other linesmaking other juxtapositions and

contrasts. He shifted this and that candlehe made the spaces

differenthe effaced the disfigurement of a possible gap. There

were subtle and complex relationsa scheme of cross-referenceand

moments in which he seemed to catch a glimpse of the void so

sensible to the woman who wandered in exile or sat where he had

seen her with the portrait of Acton Hague. Finallyin this way

he arrived at a conception of the totalthe idealwhich left a

clear opportunity for just another figure. "Just one more - to

round it off; just one morejust one" continued to hum in his

head. There was a strange confusion in the thoughtfor he felt

the day to be near when he too should be one of the Others. What

in this event would the Others matter to himsince they only

mattered to the living? Even as one of the Dead what would his

altar matter to himsince his particular dream of keeping it up

had melted away? What had harmony to do with the case if his

lights were all to be quenched? What he had hoped for was an

instituted thing. He might perpetuate it on some other pretext

but his special meaning would have dropped. This meaning was to

have lasted with the life of the one other person who understood

it.

In March he had an illness during which he spent a fortnight in

bedand when he revived a little he was told of two things that

had happened. One was that a lady whose name was not known to the

servants (she left none) had been three times to ask about him; the

other was that in his sleep and on an occasion when his mind

evidently wandered he was heard to murmur again and again: "Just

one more - just one." As soon as he found himself able to go out

and before the doctor in attendance had pronounced him sohe drove

to see the lady who had come to ask about him. She was not at

home; but this gave him the opportunitybefore his strength should

fall againto take his way to the church. He entered it alone; he

had declinedin a happy manner he possessed of being able to

decline effectivelythe company of his servant or of a nurse. He

knew now perfectly what these good people thought; they had

discovered his clandestine connexionthe magnet that had drawn him

for so many yearsand doubtless attached a significance of their

own to the odd words they had repeated to him. The nameless lady

was the clandestine connexion - a fact nothing could have made

clearer than his indecent haste to rejoin her. He sank on his

knees before his altar while his head fell over on his hands. His

weaknesshis life's weariness overtook him. It seemed to him he

had come for the great surrender. At first he asked himself how he

should get away; thenwith the failing belief in the powerthe

very desire to move gradually left him. He had comeas he always

cameto lose himself; the fields of light were still there to

stray in; only this timein strayinghe would never come back.

He had given himself to his Deadand it was good: this time his

Dead would keep him. He couldn't rise from his knees; he believed

he should never rise again; all he could do was to lift his face

and fix his eyes on his lights. They looked unusuallystrangely

splendidbut the one that always drew him most had an

unprecedented lustre. It was the central voice of the choirthe

glowing heart of the brightnessand on this occasion it seemed to

expandto spread great wings of flame. The whole altar flared -

dazzling and blinding; but the source of the vast radiance burned

clearer than the restgathering itself into formand the form was

human beauty and human charitywas the far-off face of Mary

Antrim. She smiled at him from the glory of heaven - she brought

the glory down with her to take him. He bowed his head in

submission and at the same moment another wave rolled over him.

Was it the quickening of joy to pain? In the midst of his joy at

any rate he felt his buried face grow hot as with some communicated

knowledge that had the force of a reproach. It suddenly made him

contrast that very rapture with the bliss he had refused to

another. This breath of the passion immortal was all that other

had asked; the descent of Mary Antrim opened his spirit with a

great compunctious throb for the descent of Acton Hague. It was as

if Stransom had read what her eyes said to him.

After a moment he looked round in a despair that made him feel as

if the source of life were ebbing. The church had been empty - he

was alone; but he wanted to have something doneto make a last

appeal. This idea gave him strength for an effort; he rose to his

feet with a movement that made him turnsupporting himself by the

back of a bench. Behind him was a prostrate figurea figure he

had seen before; a woman in deep mourningbowed in grief or in

prayer. He had seen her in other days - the first time of his

entrance thereand he now slightly waveredlooking at her again

till she seemed aware he had noticed her. She raised her head and

met his eyes: the partner of his long worship had come back. She

looked across at him an instant with a face wondering and scared;

he saw he had made her afraid. Then quickly rising she came

straight to him with both hands out.

"Then you COULD come? God sent you!" he murmured with a happy

smile.

"You're very ill - you shouldn't be here" she urged in anxious

reply.

"God sent me tooI think. I was ill when I camebut the sight of

you does wonders." He held her handswhich steadied and quickened

him. "I've something to tell you."

"Don't tell me!" she tenderly pleaded; "let me tell you. This

afternoonby a miraclethe sweetest of miraclesthe sense of our

difference left me. I was out - I was nearthinkingwandering

alonewhenon the spotsomething changed in my heart. It's my

confession - there it is. To come backto come back on the

instant - the idea gave me wings. It was as if I suddenly saw

something - as if it all became possible. I could come for what

you yourself came for: that was enough. So here I am. It's not

for my own - that's over. But I'm here for THEM." And breathless

infinitely relieved by her low precipitate explanationshe looked

with eyes that reflected all its splendour at the magnificence of

their altar.

"They're here for you" Stransom said"they're presentto-night as

they've never been. They speak for you - don't you see? - in a

passion of light; they sing out like a choir of angels. Don't you

hear what they say? - they offer the very thing you asked of me."

"Don't talk of it - don't think of it; forget it!" She spoke in

hushed supplicationand while the alarm deepened in her eyes she

disengaged one of her hands and passed an arm round him to support

him betterto help him to sink into a seat.

He let himself goresting on her; he dropped upon the bench and

she fell on her knees beside himhis own arm round her shoulder.

So he remained an instantstaring up at his shrine. "They say

there's a gap in the array - they say it's not fullcomplete.

Just one more" he went onsoftly - "isn't that what you wanted?

Yesone moreone more."

"Ah no more - no more!" she wailedas with a quick new horror of

itunder her breath.

"Yesone more" he repeatedsimply; "just one!" Andwith this

his head dropped on her shoulder; she felt that in his weakness he

had fainted. But alone with him in the dusky church a great dread

was on her of what might still happenfor his face had the

whiteness of death.