The Altar of the Dead, by Henry James

Chapter 7

He learned in that instant two things: one being that even in so long a time she had gathered no knowledge of his great intimacy and his great quarrel; the other that in spite of this ignorance, strangely enough, she supplied on the spot a reason for his stupor. “How extraordinary,” he presently exclaimed, “that we should never have known!”

She gave a wan smile which seemed to Stransom stranger even than the fact itself. “I never, never spoke of him.”

He looked again about the room. “Why then, if your life had been so full of him?”

“Mayn’t I put you that question as well? Hadn’t your life also been full of him?”

“Any one’s, every one’s life who had the wonderful experience of knowing him. I never spoke of him,” Stransom added in a moment, “because he did me — years ago — an unforgettable wrong.” She was silent, and with the full effect of his presence all about them it almost startled her guest to hear no protest escape her. She accepted his words, he turned his eyes to her again to see in what manner she accepted them. It was with rising tears and a rare sweetness in the movement of putting out her hand to take his own. Nothing more wonderful had ever appeared to him than, in that little chamber of remembrance and homage, to see her convey with such exquisite mildness that as from Acton Hague any injury was credible. The clock ticked in the stillness — Hague had probably given it to her — and while he let her hold his hand with a tenderness that was almost an assumption of responsibility for his old pain as well as his new, Stransom after a minute broke out: “Good God, how he must have used YOU!”

She dropped his hand at this, got up and, moving across the room, made straight a small picture to which, on examining it, he had given a slight push. Then turning round on him with her pale gaiety recovered, “I’ve forgiven him!” she declared.

“I know what you’ve done,” said Stransom “I know what you’ve done for years.” For a moment they looked at each other through it all with their long community of service in their eyes. This short passage made, to his sense, for the woman before him, an immense, an absolutely naked confession; which was presently, suddenly blushing red and changing her place again, what she appeared to learn he perceived in it. He got up and “How you must have loved him!” he cried.

“Women aren’t like men. They can love even where they’ve suffered.”

“Women are wonderful,” said Stransom. “But I assure you I’ve forgiven him too.”

“If I had known of anything so strange I wouldn’t have brought you here.”

“So that we might have gone on in our ignorance to the last?”

“What do you call the last?” she asked, smiling still.

At this he could smile back at her. “You’ll see — when it comes.”

She thought of that. “This is better perhaps; but as we were — it was good.”

He put her the question. “Did it never happen that he spoke of me?”

Considering more intently she made no answer, and he then knew he should have been adequately answered by her asking how often he himself had spoken of their terrible friend. Suddenly a brighter light broke in her face and an excited idea sprang to her lips in the appeal: “You HAVE forgiven him?”

“How, if I hadn’t, could I linger here?”

She visibly winced at the deep but unintended irony of this; but even while she did so she panted quickly: “Then in the lights on your altar —?”

“There’s never a light for Acton Hague!”

She stared with a dreadful fall, “But if he’s one of your Dead?”

“He’s one of the world’s, if you like — he’s one of yours. But he’s not one of mine. Mine are only the Dead who died possessed of me. They’re mine in death because they were mine in life.”

“HE was yours in life then, even if for a while he ceased to be. If you forgave him you went back to him. Those whom we’ve once loved —”

“Are those who can hurt us most,” Stransom broke in.

“Ah it’s not true — you’ve NOT forgiven him!” she wailed with a passion that startled him.

He looked at her as never yet. “What was it he did to you?”

“Everything!” Then abruptly she put out her hand in farewell. “Good-bye.”

He turned as cold as he had turned that night he read the man’s death. “You mean that we meet no more?”

“Not as we’ve met — not THERE!”

He stood aghast at this snap of their great bond, at the renouncement that rang out in the word she so expressively sounded. “But what’s changed — for you?”

She waited in all the sharpness of a trouble that for the first time since he had known her made her splendidly stern. “How can you understand now when you didn’t understand before?”

“I didn’t understand before only because I didn’t know. Now that I know, I see what I’ve been living with for years,” Stransom went on very gently.

She looked at him with a larger allowance, doing this gentleness justice. “How can I then, on this new knowledge of my own, ask you to continue to live with it?”

“I set up my altar, with its multiplied meanings,” Stransom began; but she quietly interrupted him.

“You set up your altar, and when I wanted one most I found it magnificently ready. I used it with the gratitude I’ve always shown you, for I knew it from of old to be dedicated to Death. I told you long ago that my Dead weren’t many. Yours were, but all you had done for them was none too much for MY worship! You had placed a great light for Each — I gathered them together for One!”

“We had simply different intentions,” he returned. “That, as you say, I perfectly knew, and I don’t see why your intention shouldn’t still sustain you.”

“That’s because you’re generous — you can imagine and think. But the spell is broken.”

It seemed to poor Stransom, in spite of his resistance, that it really was, and the prospect stretched grey and void before him. All he could say, however, was: “I hope you’ll try before you give up.”

“If I had known you had ever known him I should have taken for granted he had his candle,” she presently answered. “What’s changed, as you say, is that on making the discovery I find he never has had it. That makes MY attitude”— she paused as thinking how to express it, then said simply —“all wrong.”

“Come once again,” he pleaded.

“Will you give him his candle?” she asked.

He waited, but only because it would sound ungracious; not because of a doubt of his feeling. “I can’t do that!” he declared at last.

“Then good-bye.” And she gave him her hand again.

He had got his dismissal; besides which, in the agitation of everything that had opened out to him, he felt the need to recover himself as he could only do in solitude. Yet he lingered — lingered to see if she had no compromise to express, no attenuation to propose. But he only met her great lamenting eyes, in which indeed he read that she was as sorry for him as for any one else. This made him say: “At least, in any case, I may see you here.”

“Oh yes, come if you like. But I don’t think it will do.”

He looked round the room once more, knowing how little he was sure it would do. He felt also stricken and more and more cold, and his chill was like an ague in which he had to make an effort not to shake. Then he made doleful reply: “I must try on my side — if you can’t try on yours.” She came out with him to the hall and into the doorway, and here he put her the question he held he could least answer from his own wit. “Why have you never let me come before?”

“Because my aunt would have seen you, and I should have had to tell her how I came to know you.”

“And what would have been the objection to that?”

“It would have entailed other explanations; there would at any rate have been that danger.”

“Surely she knew you went every day to church,” Stransom objected.

“She didn’t know what I went for.”

“Of me then she never even heard?”

“You’ll think I was deceitful. But I didn’t need to be!”

He was now on the lower door-step, and his hostess held the door half-closed behind him. Through what remained of the opening he saw her framed face. He made a supreme appeal. “What DID he do to you?”

“It would have come out — SHE would have told you. That fear at my heart — that was my reason!” And she closed the door, shutting him out.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/j/james/henry/altar_of_the_dead/chapter7.html

Last updated Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 20:38