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The Failure
by [?]

I continued the talk. “You will not think me rude if I ask why you should choose that book.”

“I am afraid I must be more confidential than is seemly if I answer your question. Promise not to think me a babbler, and I will tell you. Dante is the poet for failures. I happen to be a failure, and as my life is broken I go to him for consolation.”

This was a new vision of life to me, for generally our village talk was of crops, and the Squire’s latest eccentricities.

When we had gossiped for a while about poetry and books in general, and when I had found that my acquaintance was far my superior in every possible respect, I prepared to move. He stopped me by saying “May I ask you, in turn, what book you are carrying?”

“I read Keats. He is my Sunday luxury. I do not read him on the week-days for fear I should get him by heart, and every Sunday I start as though I were dipping into a new book.”

“Ah! then you still care for beauty. I used to feel positive physical luxury years agone while I read Keats, but now it seems as if the thought of beauty came between me and the grave. I am, like all the failures, a student of deformity. Strong men love beauty, futile men care only for ugliness. I am one of the futile sort, and so I care most for terror and darkness. Come inside, and perhaps I shall not talk quite so madly then.”

The mastiff civilly let us pass, and I went into the low room of the cottage. One side was entirely taken up with books, and amongst the books were five editions of Dante. The fire blazed on the clean hearth, and everything looked neat and well-kept. A narrow trestle bed stood in the corner, and a table and chair completed the furniture of the room.

I said, “You will find it horrible here when the winter comes on. The wind comes down from Chibburn Hollow, and when I was a boy I used to like to sit on the leeward side of the hills only to hear it scream.”

“The wind will serve me for company.”

I began to doubt my companion’s sanity a little, and I said, “I am afraid talking has disturbed you. I must say good-bye.”

I did not read that day, and the strange face with its bitter mouth and keen eyes was in my memory for a week after. I set myself to inquire how this man, who could talk with such evident intelligence, came to have chosen the moor for an abiding-place, and it happened that by chance I learned his whole history.

I was walking across the moor with my friend the district local preacher, when a sudden whim prompted me to ask him to meet the strange creature whom I had seen. We went to the cottage, and were received by the deep baying of the dog. The stooping figure came out into the sunlight, and my friend the preacher said, “Bless my soul! Henry Desborough! What in the name of mercy has brought you here?”

Not a sign of emotion crossed the face of the Failure.

He said, “You ought to know, Musgrave. I was always a creature of whims.”

“That is exactly what I do not know,” said Musgrave.

“You are thinking of the times before I was twenty-five. Several centuries have passed over me since then.”

Musgrave seemed unable to carry on the talk. He only said, “I take it very unkindly that you did not let me know you were here. I will come back and see you alone the next time. You have given me a sad heart for this day.”

I knew now that there was a history in the case, and I learned it all from the man most concerned.

A long time ago a concert had been given in a small town somewhere down the coast. An imposing musician had been brought from London especially to train the choir, and the rustic mind was awed by preparations. On the night of the concert Desborough, who was the son of a man of independent means, strolled in and took a seat on one of the front benches. Chairs had been pressed into the service from all over the town, and the platform, with its decorations, was a fine imaginative effort. The Squire was there, and Sir John, the county member, brought his wife and her diamonds. After the imposing musician had conducted one or two glees, there was a little rustle of preparation, and a girl stepped forth to sing. To the tradesmen of the town she was simply Polly Blanchflower, but to the thinking of one young man, who sat within a few yards of her, she ought to have been throned among stars. He had mixed little in company, and from the first time that the girl’s eyes fell upon him he was a changed man.