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The Altar of the Dead Henry James

Chapter IX

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After a moment he looked round in a despair that made him feel as if the source of life were ebbing. The church had been empty - he was alone; but he wanted to have something done, to make a last appeal. This idea gave him strength for an effort; he rose to his feet with a movement that made him turn, supporting himself by the back of a bench. Behind him was a prostrate figure, a figure he had seen before; a woman in deep mourning, bowed in grief or in prayer. He had seen her in other days - the first time of his entrance there, and he now slightly wavered, looking at her again till she seemed aware he had noticed her. She raised her head and met his eyes: the partner of his long worship had come back. She looked across at him an instant with a face wondering and scared; he saw he had made her afraid. Then quickly rising she came straight to him with both hands out.

"Then you COULD come? God sent you!" he murmured with a happy smile.

"You're very ill - you shouldn't be here," she urged in anxious reply.

"God sent me too, I think. I was ill when I came, but the sight of you does wonders." He held her hands, which steadied and quickened him. "I've something to tell you."

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"Don't tell me!" she tenderly pleaded; "let me tell you. This afternoon, by a miracle, the sweetest of miracles, the sense of our difference left me. I was out - I was near, thinking, wandering alone, when, on the spot, something changed in my heart. It's my confession - there it is. To come back, to come back on the instant - the idea gave me wings. It was as if I suddenly saw something - as if it all became possible. I could come for what you yourself came for: that was enough. So here I am. It's not for my own - that's over. But I'm here for THEM." And breathless, infinitely relieved by her low precipitate explanation, she looked with eyes that reflected all its splendour at the magnificence of their altar.

"They're here for you," Stransom said, "they're present to-night as they've never been. They speak for you - don't you see? - in a passion of light; they sing out like a choir of angels. Don't you hear what they say? - they offer the very thing you asked of me."

"Don't talk of it - don't think of it; forget it!" She spoke in hushed supplication, and while the alarm deepened in her eyes she disengaged one of her hands and passed an arm round him to support him better, to help him to sink into a seat.

He let himself go, resting on her; he dropped upon the bench and she fell on her knees beside him, his own arm round her shoulder. So he remained an instant, staring up at his shrine. "They say there's a gap in the array - they say it's not full, complete. Just one more," he went on, softly - "isn't that what you wanted? Yes, one more, one more."

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The Altar of the Dead
Henry James

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