Chapter 6




SHE was always in mourning, yet 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 church, so that postponing his own entrance he
instantly offered to turn round and walk away with her. She
considered, then she said: "Go in now, but come and see me in an
hour." He knew the small vista of her street, closed at the end
and as dreary as an empty pocket, where the pairs of shabby little
houses, semi-detached but indissolubly united, were like married
couples on bad terms. Often, however, as he had gone to the
beginning he had never gone beyond. Her aunt was dead - that he
immediately guessed, as well as that it made a difference; but when
she had for the first time mentioned her number he found himself,
on her leaving him, not a little agitated by this sudden
liberality. She wasn't a person with whom, after all, one got on
so very fast: it had taken him months and months to learn her
name, years and years to learn her address. If she had looked, on
this reunion, so much older to him, how in the world did he look to
her? She had reached the period of life he had long since reached,
when, after separations, the marked clock-face of the friend we
meet announces the hour we have tried to forget. He couldn't have
said what he expected as, at the end of his waiting, he turned the
corner where for years he had always paused; simply not to pause
was a efficient cause for emotion. It was an event, somehow; and
in all their long acquaintance there had never been an event. This
one grew larger when, five minutes later, in the faint elegance of
her little drawing-room, she 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 them, nothing save that they were at one
on their great point, which had long ago become a magnificent
matter of course. It was true that after she had said "You can
always come now, you 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
present, as he looked about him, in the small complacencies of the
room, the beaded velvet and the fluted moreen; and though, as we
know, he had the worship of the Dead, he found himself not
definitely regretting this lady. If she wasn't in his long list,
however, she was in her niece's short one, and Stransom presently
observed to the latter that now at least, in the place they haunted
together, she would have another object of devotion.

"Yes, I shall have another. She was very kind to me. It's that
that's the difference."

He judged, wondering a good deal before he made any motion to leave
her, that the difference would somehow be very great and would
consist of still other things than her having let him come in. It
rather chilled him, for they had been happy together as they were.
He extracted from her at any rate an intimation that she should now
have means less limited, that her aunt's tiny fortune had come to
her, so 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 way, abounding 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 ceremonial, and this at a time
when he himself had begun wearily to feel that, having set it in
motion, he 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 hall, as he found, to pass quite
into another air. When she had closed the door of the second room,
as she called it, he 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-colours, scraps 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 worked, and
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 nearer, and 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 place, and a strange irony reached her
lips as she echoed: "Knew him?"

Then Stransom understood, while the room heaved like the cabin of a
ship, that its whole contents cried out with him, that it was a
museum in his honour, that 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 shock, but 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.



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