Joining what he perceives as men and woman who hide their "fallen fortunes and dead hopes" in the twilight as they sit on benches or stroll in Hyde Park, Norman Grotsby is "in a mood to count himself among the defeated." While he does not suffer from money troubles, Grotsby has "failed in a more subtle ambition." Content to sit with others who are disillusioned, Grotsby takes a "certain cynical pleasure" in watching the people who wander in the twilight, and he enjoys labelling their personalities as they stroll past him as he sits upon a bench.
Since Grotsby is "heartsore and disillusioned" from having failed "at a more subtle ambition," the reader wonders if he has been defeated in love. As the omniscient narrator, Saki makes no specific mention of what really troubles Grotsby, but the word subtle suggests a venture into a realm less definitive than that of the financial. Also, Grotsby's being "cynical" suggests something involving people because often after one is hurt emotionally, cynicism appears as the person who has been rejected loses some of his/her idealism.
As evidence that Grotsby is an idealist who has recently been disappointed in his perception of others, he is cynical about the young man's tale of having forgotten to note where his hotel is located when he stepped out to buy some soap. Yet, later, when he finds a bar of soap under the bench upon which he and the young man have been sitting, Grotsby's faith is quickly restored and he chases after the youth to give him the soap that he believes belongs to him. Sadly, he is again defeated in "a subtle ambition."