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The Failure
by [?]

To the southward of the Chibburn Stream a flat space, covered with rushes and grey grass, stretches away towards the Border. On the seaward side it is walled in by low hills, whilst on the landward side a sudden rise of the ground forms another boundary which makes the waste resemble the bed of an ancient river. It was a favourite place with me in the summer time, because the brackens grow here and there, and to one who wants perfect seclusion nothing can be more delightful than to creep under the green shade and listen, hour after hour, to the wind flying over. I had wanted to spend the whole morning in this lazy way, so I put my Keats in my pocket and walked along the sand until the time came for me to climb the seaward barrier. I often noticed a deserted cottage which stood at the northerly end of the great waste, and which was sometimes used in winter by the rabbit-catchers who had to remain by their traps all night. Twice or thrice I had peeped through the open door and seen the blackened hearthstone, but I had never gone inside. The remains of a turf wall surrounded the cottage, but the low garden that this wall enclosed was overrun with ragwort and nettles and hemlock. My terrier was fond of investigating the garden, because among the thick undergrowth he invariably found either rabbits or water-rats, or a stoat. On this bright morning I was much surprised to find the whole of the enclosure cleared. Outside of the boundary was a great heap of ashes, from which clouds of dust drifted hither and thither. A light smoke arose from the chimney, and as my dog and I approached, a heavy bark came from a mastiff that was chained inside the low wicket. A sudden sense of companionship almost frightened me. It seemed as though the brownie had come from his clump of rushes to set things in order. A chair stood in the centre of a patch of grass that crowned a little hillock near the cottage, and while I waited and wondered a bowed figure stole forth and walked slowly towards the chair. The man did not appear to notice me, but sat down and picked up a book which had lain on the grass. He then took off his hat, drew a deep breath, and I caught sight of his face. His grizzled hair hung over a careworn forehead. The eyes were sunken under deep and wrinkled brows, and the lips were drawn. I felt like an interloper, and determined to rid myself of all unpleasant feeling by stepping forward and speaking at once to the stranger. I could not think of anything better to say than “Good morning, sir. We have another fine day, have we not?” The man looked up, and his tired eyes brightened with a kind smile. I took to him from that first glance. We had a little commonplace chat, and then I said, “I see you are a reader.”

My new friend answered, “Oh, yes, I find books serve well to prevent anyone from thinking.”

“But do you never think, then?”

“Never, when I can help it; I take reading as an opiate. I press other men’s thoughts down upon my own till mine cannot rise.”

The queer smile with which the speaker delivered his paradox made me curious, and I determined to draw him further into conversation.

I continued, “May I ask what book you are using just now to batten down your own thoughts?”

He showed me the “Purgatory,” and I saw that he was reading the Italian. Here was a discovery! In the village I had been regarded as a remarkable being because I could read the Bible at six years old. The only persons who were reputed to possess learning of any sort were the Squire, the Rector, two local preachers, and myself. And now, suddenly, there had descended among us a scholar who positively read Dante for pleasure!