Chapter 1




HE had a mortal dislike, poor Stransom, to lean anniversaries, and
loved them still less when they made a pretence of a figure.
Celebrations and suppressions were equally painful to him, and 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
fixed, and he had lost before fairly tasting it an affection that
promised to fill his life to the brim.

Of that benediction, however, it 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 passions, and 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
never, never forgotten. He had tried to put into his existence
whatever else might take up room in it, but 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 it, but 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 suburb, a part then of Nature's breast, but 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 image, they 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 men, but he had counted his losses more; he hadn't
seen death more closely, but 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
essence, their conscious absence and expressive patience, as
personally there as if they had only been stricken dumb. When all
sense of them failed, all sound of them ceased, it was as if their
purgatory were really still on earth: they asked so little that
they got, poor things, even less, and died again, died every day,
of the hard usage of life. They had no organised service, no
reserved place, no honour, no shelter, no safety. Even ungenerous
people provided for the living, but 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
something, do it, that is, for his own - would perform the great
charity without reproach. Every man HAD his own, and every man
had, to meet this charity, the 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 pensioners, those whom indeed he
always called in his thoughts the Others. He spared them the
moments, he organised the charity. Quite how it had risen he
probably never could have told you, but what came to pass was that
an altar, such as was after all within everybody's compass, lighted
with perpetual candles and dedicated to these secret rites, reared
itself in his spiritual spaces. He had wondered of old, in some
embarrassment, whether he had a religion; being very sure, and not
a little content, that 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 inclination, it
satisfied his spirit, it gave employment to his piety. It answered
his love of great offices, of 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
incense, make them flush with pictures and flowers. The cost, in
the common phrase, of keeping them up fell wholly on the generous
heart.



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