Chapter 3




THE next day, in the afternoon, in the great grey suburb, he knew
his long walk had tired him. In the dreadful cemetery alone he had
been on his feet an hour. Instinctively, coming back, they had
taken him a devious course, and 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 day, because, in the former case of the
civil gift of light. By day there was nothing, but by night there
were lamps, and George Stransom was in a mood that made lamps good
in themselves. It wasn't that they could show him anything, it was
only that they could burn clear. To his surprise, however, after a
while, they did show him something: the arch of a high doorway
approached by a low terrace of steps, in 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 up, recognising 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 persuasion, and 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 liked, and 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 about, an old woman coughed, but 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 intrusive, gaining at
last even a sense of community with the only worshipper in his
neighbourhood, the sombre presence of a woman, in mourning
unrelieved, whose 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
sink, like her, to the very bottom, be as motionless, as 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 himself, floating 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 type, set up in a myriad
temples, of the unapproachable shrine he had erected in his mind.
That shrine had begun in vague likeness to church pomps, but the
echo had ended by growing more distinct than the sound. The sound
now rang out, the 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 them, named them, grouped
them - it was the silent roll-call of his Dead. They made together
a brightness vast and intense, a 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 while, at a distance, the black-
robed lady continued prostrate; he was quietly thrilled with his
conception, which at last brought him to his feet in the sudden
excitement of a plan. He wandered softly through the aisles,
pausing in the different chapels, all save one applied to a special
devotion. It was in this clear recess, lampless 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 year, with the sanctifying church round it,
it would always be ready for his offices. There would be
difficulties, but 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
advance, and 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 times, but especially in the indifferent world.
Before withdrawing he drew nearer again to the spot where he had
first sat down, and 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 quickly, and he had only a glimpse of her pale face and her
unconscious, almost sightless eyes. For that instant she looked
faded and handsome.

This was the origin of the rites more public, yet certainly
esoteric, that he at last found himself able to establish. It took
a long time, it took a year, and both the process and the result
would have been - for any who knew - a vivid picture of his good
faith. No one did know, in fact - no one but the bland
ecclesiastics whose acquaintance he had promptly sought, whose
objections he had softly overridden, whose curiosity and sympathy
he had artfully charmed, whose assent to his eccentric munificence
he had eventually won, and who had asked for concessions in
exchange for indulgences. Stransom had of course at an early stage
of his enquiry been referred to the Bishop, and the Bishop had been
delightfully human, the Bishop had been almost amused. Success was
within sight, at 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 it, consecrated to
an ostensible and customary worship, were 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 it, liked 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-caves, and 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 really, his Dead,
something that was indefensibly theirs; and he liked to think that
they might in cases be the Dead of others, as 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 him, and from time to time a new light was
kindled. This was what he had fundamentally agreed for, that 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 usefulness, with a quiet elderly man, for whom
it evidently had a fascination, often 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 ties, the affections, the struggles, the submissions, the
conquests, if there had been such, a 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 death, and the successive phases of the
acquaintance were marked each with a flame.

The flames were gathering thick at present, for 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 it, head by head, till he felt like the
shepherd of a huddled flock, with all a shepherd's vision of
differences imperceptible. He knew his candles apart, up to the
colour of the flame, and 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 than, as it happened, it 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 constellation, for Stransom knew he could
only pretend to act for his own, and 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 death, but some
characters were more sanctified by being forgotten than by being
remembered. The greatest blank in the shining page was the memory
of Acton Hague, of which he inveterately tried to rid himself. For
Acton Hague no flame could ever rise on any altar of his.



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