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James Duffy, a middle-aged bachelor without family or friends, is a cashier in a private bank and lives a spartan existence in a Dublin suburb. He dislikes physical and mental disorder, ignores beggars’ pleas for alms, and does not attend church. His only luxuries are playing Mozart’s music on his landlady’s piano and attending an opera or concert. At three such concerts, he sees Emily Sinico, the wife of a ship captain who has “dismissed [her] from his gallery of pleasures.” The pair begin meeting for evening walks, but because Duffy objects to stealth, he convinces Emily to invite him to her home. Thinking that Duffy is interested in his daughter, Captain Sinico welcomes the visits. Now, for the first time in his life, Duffy has an audience for his political and social ideas, and he lends Mrs. Sinico books and explains them to her. A good listener, she also encourages him to talk about himself, but she fails to persuade him to publish his thoughts, for he eschews both competition and criticism.

Their solitary meetings, often in darkness, inevitably bring them closer together. A sense of companionship develops, and the union eventually begins to smooth the rough edges of his character and even “emotionalize[s] his mental life.” At the same time, he continues to assert the soul’s incurable loneliness, believing that every person is an island, which ultimately is alone. When one night Mrs. Sinico presses his hand to her cheek, he is surprised and disillusioned, and a week later breaks off their relationship—an action that greatly disappoints her.

Duffy reverts to his even way of life, but avoids concerts to forestall encounters with Mrs. Sinico. Four years pass, and one day he sees a headline in the newspaper: “Death of a Lady at Sydney Parade.” Subtitled “A Painful Case,” it reports the outcome of an inquest regarding the body of forty-three-year-old Mrs. Emily Sinico, who was killed by a train engine while crossing the tracks at Sydney Parade Station. Captain Sinico and his daughter have testified, the former stating that his wife and he had been happily married until about two years ago, when she became rather intemperate of her habits, and the latter reporting that recently her mother had begun going out at night to buy spirits. The jury has exonerated the engine driver from all blame, the deputy coroner has called it a most painful case, and the news item closes with the statement that no blame was attached to anyone.

Profoundly affected, Duffy reads the story over and over again, at one point “moving his lips as a priest does when he reads the prayers Secreto.” He is repelled by what he considers a commonplace, vulgar death, and thinks at first that by so dying Mrs. Sinico has degraded not only herself but also him: He sees the “squalid tract of her vice, miserable and malodorous.” Is it possible that he has deceived himself so utterly about her? Later, he wonders if he is to blame and whether he should have acted differently toward her. He begins to appreciate how lonely her life was and admits to himself that he also is lonely and unlikely to be remembered after he dies. Feeling that his moral nature is collapsing and that he is an outcast from the joys of life, he wonders why he withheld life from her. He had met someone who had seemed to love him, but fears he had denied her life and happiness and sentenced her to a death of shame.

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