The Altar of the Dead HTML version

Chapter 3
The next day, in the afternoon, in the great grey suburb, he knew his long walk
had tired him. In the dreadful cemetery alone he had been on his feet an hour.
Instinctively, coming back, they had taken him a devious course, and it was a
desert in which no circling cabman hovered over possible prey. He paused on a
corner and measured the dreariness; then he made out through the gathered
dusk that he was in one of those tracts of London which are less gloomy by night
than by day, because, in the former case of the civil gift of light. By day there was
nothing, but by night there were lamps, and George Stransom was in a mood
that made lamps good in themselves. It wasn't that they could show him
anything, it was only that they could burn clear. To his surprise, however, after a
while, they did show him something: the arch of a high doorway approached by a
low terrace of steps, in the depth of which--it formed a dim vestibule--the raising
of a curtain at the moment he passed gave him a glimpse of an avenue of gloom
with a glow of tapers at the end. He stopped and looked up, recognising the
place as a church. The thought quickly came to him that since he was tired he
might rest there; so that after a moment he had in turn pushed up the leathern
curtain and gone in. It was a temple of the old persuasion, and there had
evidently been a function--perhaps a service for the dead; the high altar was still
a blaze of candles. This was an exhibition he always liked, and he dropped into a
seat with relief. More than it had ever yet come home to him it struck him as good
there should be churches.
This one was almost empty and the other altars were dim; a verger shuffled
about, an old woman coughed, but it seemed to Stransom there was hospitality
in the thick sweet air. Was it only the savour of the incense or was it something of
larger intention? He had at any rate quitted the great grey suburb and come
nearer to the warm centre. He presently ceased to feel intrusive, gaining at last
even a sense of community with the only worshipper in his neighbourhood, the
sombre presence of a woman, in mourning unrelieved, whose back was all he
could see of her and who had sunk deep into prayer at no great distance from
him. He wished he could sink, like her, to the very bottom, be as motionless, as
rapt in prostration. After a few moments he shifted his seat; it was almost
indelicate to be so aware of her. But Stransom subsequently quite lost himself,
floating away on the sea of light. If occasions like this had been more frequent in
his life he would have had more present the great original type, set up in a
myriad temples, of the unapproachable shrine he had erected in his mind. That
shrine had begun in vague likeness to church pomps, but the echo had ended by
growing more distinct than the sound. The sound now rang out, the type blazed
at him with all its fires and with a mystery of radiance in which endless meanings
could glow. The thing became as he sat there his appropriate altar and each
starry candle an appropriate vow. He numbered them, named them, grouped
them--it was the silent roll-call of his Dead. They made together a brightness vast
and intense, a brightness in which the mere chapel of his thoughts grew so dim