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The Altar of the Dead

Chapter 2
He had this year, on the eve of his anniversary, as happened, an emotion not
unconnected with that range of feeling. Walking home at the close of a busy day
he was arrested in the London street by the particular effect of a shop-front that
lighted the dull brown air with its mercenary grin and before which several
persons were gathered. It was the window of a jeweller whose diamonds and
sapphires seemed to laugh, in flashes like high notes of sound, with the mere joy
of knowing how much more they were "worth" than most of the dingy pedestrians
staring at them from the other side of the pane. Stransom lingered long enough
to suspend, in a vision, a string of pearls about the white neck of Mary Antrim,
and then was kept an instant longer by the sound of a voice he knew. Next him
was a mumbling old woman, and beyond the old woman a gentleman with a lady
on his arm. It was from him, from Paul Creston, the voice had proceeded: he was
talking with the lady of some precious object in the window. Stransom had no
sooner recognised him than the old woman turned away; but just with this growth
of opportunity came a felt strangeness that stayed him in the very act of laying
his hand on his friend's arm. It lasted but the instant, only that space sufficed for
the flash of a wild question. Was NOT Mrs. Creston dead?--the ambiguity met
him there in the short drop of her husband's voice, the drop conjugal, if it ever
was, and in the way the two figures leaned to each other. Creston, making a step
to look at something else, came nearer, glanced at him, started and exclaimed--
behaviour the effect of which was at first only to leave Stransom staring, staring
back across the months at the different face, the wholly other face, the poor man
had shown him last, the blurred ravaged mask bent over the open grave by
which they had stood together. That son of affliction wasn't in mourning now; he
detached his arm from his companion's to grasp the hand of the older friend. He
coloured as well as smiled in the strong light of the shop when Stransom raised a
tentative hat to the lady. Stransom had just time to see she was pretty before he
found himself gaping at a fact more portentous. "My dear fellow, let me make you
acquainted with my wife."
Creston had blushed and stammered over it, but in half a minute, at the rate we
live in polite society, it had practically become, for our friend, the mere memory of
a shock. They stood there and laughed and talked; Stransom had instantly
whisked the shock out of the way, to keep it for private consumption. He felt
himself grimace, he heard himself exaggerate the proper, but was conscious of
turning not a little faint. That new woman, that hired performer, Mrs. Creston?
Mrs. Creston had been more living for him than any woman but one. This lady
had a face that shone as publicly as the jeweller's window, and in the happy
candour with which she wore her monstrous character was an effect of gross
immodesty. The character of Paul Creston's wife thus attributed to her was
monstrous for reasons Stransom could judge his friend to know perfectly that he
knew. The happy pair had just arrived from America, and Stransom hadn't
needed to be told this to guess the nationality of the lady. Somehow it deepened
the foolish air that her husband's confused cordiality was unable to conceal.
 
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