Chapter 9




AND yet this was no solution, especially 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 days, and she had responded with a
frankness qualified only by a courteous reluctance, a reluctance
that touched him, to linger on the question of his death. She had
then practically accepted the charge, suffered 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 tenderer, for it expressed
the compassion of her own sense that he was abandoned. Her terms,
however, remained the same, and 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 future, but she missed it
most, because 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 standing, and 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.

Practically, at the end of six months, he had renounced the
friendship once so charming and comforting. His privation had two
faces, and 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 more, one more - only just
one." Certainly he was going down; he often felt it when he caught
himself, over his work, staring 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 melancholy, and his
melancholy that of the conviction that his health had quite failed.
His altar moreover had ceased to exist; his chapel, in 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 them, since
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 place, and 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 presence, her presence, their 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 there, as he had left them, in
their tall radiance, the bright cluster that had already made him,
on occasions when he was willing to compare small things with
great, liken them to a group of sea-lights on the edge of the ocean
of life. It was a relief to him, after a while, as he sat there,
to feel they had still a virtue. He was more and more easily
tired, and 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 again, returned several
times, and finally, during six months, haunted the place with a
renewal of frequency and a strain of impatience. In winter the
church was unwarmed and exposure to cold forbidden him, but 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
churches, there were other altars, there 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 argued, but
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 regular, he
found a sharper and sharper pang in the imagination of her
darkness; for never so much as in these weeks had his rites been
real, never had his gathered company seemed so to respond and even
to invite. He lost himself in the large lustre, which 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 passed, among the tall tapers, from tier to
tier, from fire to fire, from name to name, from the white
intensity of one clear emblem, of one saved soul, to another. It
was in the quiet sense of having saved his souls that his deep
strange instinct rejoiced. This was no dim theological rescue, no
boon of a contingent world; they were saved better than faith or
works could save them, saved for the warm world they had shrunk
from dying to, for actuality, for continuity, for the certainty of
human remembrance.

By this time he had survived all his friends; the last straight
flame was three years old, there was no one to add to the list.
Over and over he called his roll, and it appeared to him compact
and complete. Where should he put in another, where, if there were
no other objection, would it stand in its place in the rank? He
reflected, with a want of sincerity of which he was quite
conscious, that it would be difficult to determine that place.
More and more, besides, face to face with his little legion, over
endless histories, handling 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 companions, his 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
was, however, himself 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 them, that plea for just
one more. There came a day when, for simple exhaustion, if
symmetry should demand just one he was ready so far to meet
symmetry. Symmetry was harmony, and the idea of harmony began to
haunt him; he said to himself that harmony was of course
everything. He took, in fancy, his composition to pieces,
redistributing it into other lines, making other juxtapositions and
contrasts. He shifted this and that candle, he made the spaces
different, he effaced the disfigurement of a possible gap. There
were subtle and complex relations, a scheme of cross-reference, and
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. Finally, in this way,
he arrived at a conception of the total, the ideal, which left a
clear opportunity for just another figure. "Just one more - to
round it off; just one more, just one," continued to hum in his
head. There was a strange confusion in the thought, for 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 him, since they only
mattered to the living? Even as one of the Dead what would his
altar matter to him, since 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
bed, and 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 so, he drove
to see the lady who had come to ask about him. She was not at
home; but this gave him the opportunity, before his strength should
fall again, to take his way to the church. He entered it alone; he
had declined, in a happy manner he possessed of being able to
decline effectively, the company of his servant or of a nurse. He
knew now perfectly what these good people thought; they had
discovered his clandestine connexion, the magnet that had drawn him
for so many years, and 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
weakness, his 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; then, with the failing belief in the power, the
very desire to move gradually left him. He had come, as he always
came, to lose himself; the fields of light were still there to
stray in; only this time, in straying, he would never come back.
He had given himself to his Dead, and 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 unusually, strangely
splendid, but the one that always drew him most had an
unprecedented lustre. It was the central voice of the choir, the
glowing heart of the brightness, and on this occasion it seemed to
expand, to spread great wings of flame. The whole altar flared -
dazzling and blinding; but the source of the vast radiance burned
clearer than the rest, gathering itself into form, and the form was
human beauty and human charity, was 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 done, to make a last
appeal. This idea gave him strength for an effort; he rose to his
feet with a movement that made him turn, supporting himself by the
back of a bench. Behind him was a prostrate figure, a figure he
had seen before; a woman in deep mourning, bowed in grief or in
prayer. He had seen her in other days - the first time of his
entrance there, and he now slightly wavered, looking 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 too, I think. I was ill when I came, but the sight of
you does wonders." He held her hands, which steadied and quickened
him. "I've something to tell you."

"Don't tell me!" she tenderly pleaded; "let me tell you. This
afternoon, by a miracle, the sweetest of miracles, the sense of our
difference left me. I was out - I was near, thinking, wandering
alone, when, on the spot, something changed in my heart. It's my
confession - there it is. To come back, to 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 explanation, she looked
with eyes that reflected all its splendour at the magnificence of
their altar.

"They're here for you," Stransom said, "they're present to-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 supplication, and while the alarm deepened in her eyes she
disengaged one of her hands and passed an arm round him to support
him better, to help him to sink into a seat.

He let himself go, resting on her; he dropped upon the bench and
she fell on her knees beside him, his own arm round her shoulder.
So he remained an instant, staring up at his shrine. "They say
there's a gap in the array - they say it's not full, complete.
Just one more," he went on, softly - "isn't that what you wanted?
Yes, one more, one more."

"Ah no more - no more!" she wailed, as with a quick new horror of
it, under her breath.

"Yes, one more," he repeated, simply; "just one!" And with 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 happen, for his face had the
whiteness of death.



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