The Altar of the Dead by Henry James.
Scanned and proofed by David Price
The Altar of the Dead
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.