Story type: Literature
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!
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.
She sang the “Flowers of the Forest.” Where she had learnt her art I do not know, and the imposing musician from London could not guess. As she sang, Desborough fancied he could hear the cry of bereaved women. When the last verse came, the singer seemed to harden her voice to a martial tone, and the young man felt as though he must rise to his feet. As the last sound died, the great musician himself stepped forward and escorted the girl to the improvised seat at the rear of the platform. The audience had heard nothing of the kind before.
They did not think Mrs. Blanchflower’s girl could work musical miracles. They clamoured until the singer came forward and sang them, “What’s a the steer, Kimmer?” and she finished the song with triumphant archness. In the interval between the first and the second part of the concert, Sir John imperatively demanded that the young lady should be brought to him, and he grumbled out words of approval which he considered very valuable.
Desborough went home and sat thinking hour after hour. His table was covered with papers. He looked at one sheet of manuscript and said, “What a fool I must have been to think that I could write! I have never begun to live until now. I will burn this last chapter and open a new one.”
Tho other young men who had heard the songs were pleased, but they soon forgot, and thought only of Miss Blanchflower as a pretty girl who had a nice voice. Desborough was weak. His passion took complete command of him, and he was ready for any of those things that mad lovers do, and that staid people find so incredible. Within a month he had managed to meet the girl. Within two months she had learned that he was her slave. With the intuition that the most commonplace girls possess, she saw that he was never the man to be master, and she amused herself with him. The acquaintance ripened as the summer came on, and before the autumn the young fellow was ready to fetch and carry for his idol, and had surrendered his soul to her with tragic completeness.
There is something a little gross in this descent into slavery, but poor Desborough did not see it, for he was not given to self-introspection. He only knew that he was happy. A word exalted him, and he never felt a rebuff.
Miss Blanchflower’s mother was a commonplace woman, who looked with a business eye upon the odd courtship that was passing in her household day after day. One evening she said to her daughter, “Marion, had not you better settle matters one way or the other?” The girl needed no explanation of particulars. She very well knew what were the matters referred to. She tossed her head and quietly replied, “Not with him, mother. When I marry a man, I marry my master. I like that poor fellow well enough. He looks nice and he talks prettily, but I always associate him with a poodle.”
“But don’t you think a man had better use his knees to kneel to you than use them to walk away from you?”
The girl said no more. Her mother had told her Desborough’s income, and she knew that to break off the connection would bring about an ugly family quarrel.
On the very next night after this conversation Desborough called as usual, and began the ordinary pleasant and trifling gossip with which the simple people passed the evenings. Towards nine o’clock the mother rose.
“I shall have to leave you for about half an hour,” she said, and the girl at once knew that that half hour was meant for decision. A few awkward minutes passed, and then Desborough made up his mind to speak, “I won’t hint, and I won’t spend time in words with you, Marion. You know all that I could say, and I should only vulgarize love if I talked.”
The girl replied very quietly, “Well, we will take that as understood,” and gave him her hand.
She liked him at that moment.
Everybody in the town had known what was coming, and the engagement was taken as a matter of course.
When things had gone too far to allow of drawing back, Miss Blanchflower set herself to act a part. She did not really care for the man to whom she was engaged. In her heart she despised him a little, yet her artistic instinct allowed her to play at being in love, and she carried the comedy through with dexterity. The unequal companionship grew closer and closer, and Desborough was drawn deeper and deeper into forgetting himself, and forgetting all finer ambitions. He only sought to please the creature to whom he was slave, and the recognition which the girl now gave him made his happiness too deep for words.
But all the time Miss Blanchflower was weary. She cared for gaiety, and Desborough’s mind was of a sombre cast; her artistic temperament made her sensuous, and Desborough’s reserve was almost forbidding. He never spoke out, and the girl, who was always longing for violence of sentiment and sudden changes of emotion, found herself condemned to a dull, level life. Desborough would talk to her about poetry, but their tastes did not agree. He would even tease her with futile metaphysical talk until she scarcely knew whether to laugh or to flout him.
Another winter wore on, and the time for the wedding drew near. It happened that in the Spring a ball was given on the eve of a general election. A quarter of a mile of carriages stood in front of the Town Hall, and the county gentry mingled on terms of affability with the tradespeople and farmers of the neighbourhood. Desborough and Miss Blanchflower were there, and the girl was strangely attractive, in spite of her somewhat faulty taste in dress. She gave Desborough one dance, and spent the rest of the evening in distributing favours. A quiet conversation passed in one corner of the room which would have interested Miss Blanchflower very much could she have heard. Two men were standing together. One was a young fellow of about twenty-five. He was unspeakably slim, yet he carried himself with an air of lithe strength. His face looked as though it were carven out of steel, so smooth and clean cut were his features. His hair was of unfashionable length, and his dress was negligent, and yet no one could have mistaken him for anything but a man of high breeding. His eyes were brown, and had that velvety texture of the iris which one sometimes sees among the women of the New Forest, and sometimes among the girls of the district round Bordeaux. His whole appearance was feminine, and the unstable glance that he flashed from side to side spoke of vanity. He said to his companion, “Who is the prim virgin with the fair hair?”
“She is the daughter of a widow in the town. Blanchflower, I think the name is.”
“Do you think you could contrive an introduction? There is a sort of savage innocence about that dress which rather attracts me.”
Within half an hour Miss Blanchflower was conversing easily with the slim young gentleman who had criticized her so pleasantly.
The girl was pleased to find this young fellow, who was a sort of literary celebrity in his way, talking to her on equal terms. When he proposed a stroll in the improvised conservatory after the next dance, she was glad, although she felt that Desborough must be ill pleased.
When the last of the carriages had rolled away, and when the Town Hall was darkened, Marion Blanchflower was still sitting and thinking about the slim young man. Desborough was forgotten, and the girl only had thoughts of this new acquaintance who suggested to her mind nothing but vivacity, and colour, and brilliant life. In four days from that time Miss Blanchflower was strolling down a deep hollow which was known as the Dene.
The whole place was ablaze with hyacinths. Far as one could see along the deep cliff, where the murmuring stream had carved itself a bed, the flowers spread like sheets of blue fire. In the more distant hollows the delicate masses of colour lay like clouds of gorgeous mist. Shooting straight up from the beds of hyacinths, tall elms met overhead, and the rooks kept up a clamour that dulled the senses without causing anything like irritation. The girl stepped down the path, and the light from the green leaves floated around her and touched her face and figure with delicate shadows and flickering brightness. She looked a joyous and beautiful creature, and the slim young man who met her by accident thought that he had never seen any picture so full of youth and delight.
The meeting was a pure coincidence.
The days passed on, and again and again Miss Blanchflower walked in the Dene amid the flame of the hyacinths. Her mother trusted her greatly, and Desborough was too simple to have any afterthought when he found that his morning visits were discouraged. He was grateful for every moment of her company, and he placidly looked forward to the time when his quiet life should be crowned. Sometimes he chatted quite contentedly with Mrs. Blanchflower until Marion returned. Several people in the town could have told him things that would have surprised him, but he held so much aloof from all company that nobody ventured on familiar talk with him. The one man who had his confidence was the Wesleyan local preacher; but Musgrave lived a long way from the town, and Desborough saw him seldom.
One morning Desborough went down by the end of the stream. The water was low, and underneath the roots of a great tree there was a deep hollow that had been scooped out by the torrents of winter. An odd fancy made Desborough climb down and creep into this cavity under the network of roots. From the place where he was seated he could not only see the clear water running away seaward, but he could look right up the path that ran among the tall elms.
He was gazing mechanically on the ripples, and had allowed his mind to be hushed into complete vacuity by the delicate babble of the water over the pebbles, when suddenly a flash of colour seemed to grow upon his consciousness, and he saw a man and woman walking together down the very path that led to the cave where he had been dreaming. He placed his hand to his forehead and tried to think. It seemed as though his heart had been touched with ice. He would have called out, but he was stupefied. After a few long minutes he saw Miss Blanchflower make a sudden movement and give both her hands to her companion. The two stood face to face, and seemed to be speaking passionately. Desborough covered his eyes, and would see no more.
How long he sat he never knew; but when he was able to realize his place and to realize the fact of existence, he was alone. He moaned, and then by one of those revolutions of feeling common to men of his temperament, he broke into laughter.
As he climbed out from his retreat his sense of the tragic turn of things left him, and he laughed still more.
“And I am an eaves-dropper, am I? Mr. Hamlet Desborough. And Ophelia’s not talking to her father this time. What a nice young Polonius we have got–ambrosial curls Polonius has–And Ophelia! Oh! Ophelia’s very fair–chaste as an icicle, and pure as snow.”
He walked towards a deep pool that lay further down towards the sea. The pool was very sullen and cool under the dank shadow of the hanging trees. Desborough looked a minute into the dark depths.
“Now, Hamlet, let us finish up. Let me see. What are the puzzles that I have to solve? Death? That’s soon done. Three minutes, they say, it takes under water. And that other country where the travellers go and never return? Well, I don’t see particularly why I should return, and oh! Ophelia, Ophelia.”
He sat down and looked at the water until gradually his impulse wore off, and his face grew stern. He muttered no more as he walked home; he passed people in the street, but made no sign; he had revenge, fear, rage, pity, and love in his heart, and his passions were too strong for his will. Had he not been able to gain solitude there is no knowing what he might have done, for no man does such terrible things, and no man is so utterly reckless as a thoroughly weak individual who is suddenly cast adrift from all his mental holdfasts.
Before night he had written a little note. These were the words that he wrote:–
“My dearest, I have been thinking bad thoughts of you all day. Now I have come to myself. I know where you were this morning, and I know that my life is broken. I will not thrust my claim upon you, and I cannot ask you for pity. You will not see me again. I give you up without one reproach. I only reproach myself for wearying you, and for trying to entrap you into a life that would have been misery to you. I was meant for a failure; I was meant to pass through the world unknown and unheeded, saving by those near to me. You require larger interests. I am glad I have loved you, I am sorry I led you into treachery. Good-bye.”
The town’s folk missed Desborough for a long while after this, and then it gradually oozed out that he had broken off his engagement. Anyone who knows what the gossip of a provincial town is like, will understand the wrath and indignation that followed this proceeding. Poor Desborough fancied he had been sacrificing himself, and, if the truth must be told, felt a little proud of his own nobility. Yet all the while many tongues were tearing his reputation to shreds.
He had come to London, thinking the rush and hurry of crowded life would brighten his thoughts, and he was walking dreamily down the turbulent Strand one evening when he met a man from his own town. He stepped up to his acquaintance and stopped. The man looked him in the face and passed on. Desborough turned and walked alongside, saying with quick breathing, “Why do you refuse me your hand? I have not seen a face I know for days, weeks–I don’t know how long.”
The man replied, “Look here, Desborough, I don’t like cutting any fellow, but I wish you had not tried to speak to me.”
“What do you mean?”
“It is very shabby of you to ask what I mean. I do not pretend to be a saint at all, but there are things no fellow can stand. I wish you would let me say good day.”
“But I insist upon knowing.”
“Knowing what? You know what you have done, and I should think that ought to be enough to serve you. I shall tell you nothing more.”
“Turn down into one of the quiet streets; and for pity’s sake tell me what you mean.”
They walked into the Adelphi, and Desborough’s friend said, “I thought you had a bit of the man about you. Why do you thrust yourself on me? You pretend to know nothing about the girl, and I call it shabby, there now!”
Presently Desborough found himself standing alone.
The whole position flashed upon him. He could not go back. He saw that his character was gone, and he saw that he was blamed for destroying a character that he had held more precious than his own. He went to his chambers and wrote to a relation for money. He intended to sell all that he owned, and he simply asked for an advance so that he might get out of the country quickly, and place the greatest possible distance between himself and his home before he finally parted with all that belonged to him. He waited for two days, and the reply came:–
“Referring to your letter of the 20th, I beg to state that I cannot do what you wish. I am sorry that you have been in any way connected with me, and I can only ask you now not to remind me of an intimacy and of a relationship which I have cause to consider disgraceful. Your name is mixed with the worst scandal that we have had in the town for years. The girl would not speak a word against you, but her mother has said enough.”
The same relation furnished Desborough’s address to Mrs. Blanchflower, and a letter from the lady reached him: “I have no reproaches to make, excepting that I am sorry you should think that we would pursue you.”
Desborough wrote back: “I cannot do more than guess the accusation you lay against me. I acted as I thought was best, and I give you my word that I would die before hurting you or yours. I have a suspicion of the real cause of your cruel letter, and the suspicion almost kills me. I cannot come back to mix myself with the sordid scandal, and I can only say that, whatever you may think of me, I deserve nothing but your kindest thoughts.”
His innocent precipitancy had involved the poor fellow in a web which he had not nerve or insight enough to break. He saw that the woman he loved had allowed an accusation to be laid against him, and he saw that she wanted to shield her real lover, yet he would not baulk her by clearing himself.
How he spent the next year of his life it would be useless to tell. At first he drank, but the blank misery that follows the wretched exaltation of drunkenness was too much for him, and he tried no more to seek relief that way. It was then said that he tramped the country for many months, and that he worked as a common blacksmith with a man who travelled the roads in Cheshire. Then one of his letters bore the post-mark of a small Norman town, and so from time to time rumours of him reached the place where his name was mentioned with anger by women and contempt by men.
Marion Blanchflower died, and the news of her death reached Desborough by the merest chance while he was prosecuting one of his aimless journeys among the hamlets of the Black Forest. But it was then too late for him to go back. For ten years all news of him ceased. He never told anyone what he had done during these years of his life. One after another the people who had known him in the old town died off, and when, at last, an impulse that he could not restrain forced him to see the place where his happiness had blossomed and died, no one knew that the bent figure with grizzled hair was that of Desborough.
The same indecision prompted him at last to hire the old cottage that stood on our moor, and thus it was that I came to see him.
A year afterwards I heard Desborough speak some very simple and touching words to a rough audience of fishermen. The gnarled faces looked placid as the clever, broken man talked on, and Desborough’s own face seemed to have grown spiritual. His eye had an expression of quiet sadness, but I liked him better as a preacher than as a philosopher.
He seemed to be happier too, and before death came on him, like a summer night falling over the stress of daytime, he had become very reverend, and very lovable.