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The Return

CHAPTER TWENTY-THREE
Lawford sat on in the darkness, and now one sentence and now another of their talk
would repeat itself in his memory, in much the same way as one listlessly turns over an
antiquated diary, to read here and there a flattened and almost meaningless sentiment.
Sometimes a footstep passed echoing along the path under the trees, then his thoughts
would leave him, and he would listen and listen till it had died quite out. It was all so
very far away. And they too--these talkers--so very far away; as remote and yet as clear
as the characters in a play when they have made their final bow, and have left the
curtained stage, and one is standing uncompanioned and nearly the last of the spectators,
and the lights that have summoned back reality again are being extinguished. It was only
by painful effort of mind that he kept recalling himself to himself--why he was here; what
it all meant; that this was indeed actuality.
Yet, after all, this by now was his customary loneliness: there was little else he desired
for the present than the hospitality of the dark. He glanced around him in the clear, black,
stirless air. Here and there, it seemed, a humped or spindled form held against all comers
its passive place. Here and there a tiny faintness of light played. Night after night these
chairs and tables kept their blank vigil. Why, he thought, pleased as an overtired child
with the fancy, in a sense they were always alone, shut up in a kind of senselessness--just
like us all. But what--what, he had suddenly risen from his chair to ask himself--what on
earth are they alone with? No precise answer had been forthcoming to that question. But
as in turning in the doorway, he looked out into the night, flashing here and there in dark
spaces of the sky above the withering apple leaves--the long dark wall and quiet
untrodden road--with the tumultuous beating of the stars--one thing at least he was
conscious of having learned in these last few days: he knew what kind of a place he was
alone IN.
It seemed to weave a spell over him, to call up a nostalgia he had lost all remembrance of
since childhood. And that queer homesickness, at any rate, was all Sabathier's doing, he
thought, smiling in his rather careworn fashion. Sabathier! It was this mystery, bereft now
of all fear, and this beauty together, that made life the endless, changing and yet
changeless, thing it was. And yet mystery and loveliness alike were only really
appreciable with one's legs, as it were, dangling down over into the grave.
Just with one's lantern lit, on the edge of the whispering unknown, and a reiterated going
back out of the solitude into the light and warmth, to the voices and glancing of eyes, to
say good-bye:--that after all was this life on earth for those who watched as well as acted.
What if one's earthly home were empty?--still the restless fretted traveller must tarry; 'for
the horrible worst of it is, my friend,' he said, as if to some silent companion listening
behind him, 'the worst of it is, YOUR way was just simply, solely suicide.' What was it
Herbert had called it? Yes, a cul-de-sac--black, lofty, immensely still and old and
picturesque, but none the less merely a contemptible cul-de-sac; no abiding place,
 
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