The Altar of the Dead HTML version

Chapter 1
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