G.K. Chesterton.

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Produced by Martin Ward





THE WISDOM OF FATHER BROWN

By G. K. Chesterton



To

LUCIAN OLDERSHAW



CONTENTS


1. The Absence of Mr Glass
2. The Paradise of Thieves
3. The Duel of Dr Hirsch
4. The Man in the Passage
5. The Mistake of the Machine
6. The Head of Caesar
7. The Purple Wig
8. The Perishing of the Pendragons
9. The God of the Gongs
10. The Salad of Colonel Cray
11. The Strange Crime of John Boulnois
12. The Fairy Tale of Father Brown





ONE - The Absence of Mr Glass


THE consulting-rooms of Dr Orion Hood, the eminent criminologist and
specialist in certain moral disorders, lay along the sea-front at
Scarborough, in a series of very large and well-lighted french windows,
which showed the North Sea like one endless outer wall of blue-green
marble. In such a place the sea had something of the monotony of a
blue-green dado: for the chambers themselves were ruled throughout by a
terrible tidiness not unlike the terrible tidiness of the sea. It must
not be supposed that Dr Hood's apartments excluded luxury, or even
poetry. These things were there, in their place; but one felt that they
were never allowed out of their place. Luxury was there: there stood
upon a special table eight or ten boxes of the best cigars; but they
were built upon a plan so that the strongest were always nearest the
wall and the mildest nearest the window. A tantalus containing three
kinds of spirit, all of a liqueur excellence, stood always on this table
of luxury; but the fanciful have asserted that the whisky, brandy, and
rum seemed always to stand at the same level. Poetry was there: the
left-hand corner of the room was lined with as complete a set of
English classics as the right hand could show of English and foreign
physiologists. But if one took a volume of Chaucer or Shelley from that
rank, its absence irritated the mind like a gap in a man's front teeth.
One could not say the books were never read; probably they were, but
there was a sense of their being chained to their places, like the
Bibles in the old churches. Dr Hood treated his private book-shelf as
if it were a public library. And if this strict scientific intangibility
steeped even the shelves laden with lyrics and ballads and the tables
laden with drink and tobacco, it goes without saying that yet more
of such heathen holiness protected the other shelves that held the
specialist's library, and the other tables that sustained the frail and
even fairylike instruments of chemistry or mechanics.

Dr Hood paced the length of his string of apartments, bounded - as the
boys' geographies say - on the east by the North Sea and on the west by
the serried ranks of his sociological and criminologist library. He was
clad in an artist's velvet, but with none of an artist's negligence; his
hair was heavily shot with grey, but growing thick and healthy; his face
was lean, but sanguine and expectant. Everything about him and his room
indicated something at once rigid and restless, like that great northern
sea by which (on pure principles of hygiene) he had built his home.

Fate, being in a funny mood, pushed the door open and introduced into
those long, strict, sea-flanked apartments one who was perhaps the most
startling opposite of them and their master. In answer to a curt but
civil summons, the door opened inwards and there shambled into the room
a shapeless little figure, which seemed to find its own hat and umbrella
as unmanageable as a mass of luggage. The umbrella was a black and
prosaic bundle long past repair; the hat was a broad-curved black hat,
clerical but not common in England; the man was the very embodiment of
all that is homely and helpless.

The doctor regarded the new-comer with a restrained astonishment, not
unlike that he would have shown if some huge but obviously harmless
sea-beast had crawled into his room. The new-comer regarded the doctor
with that beaming but breathless geniality which characterizes a
corpulent charwoman who has just managed to stuff herself into an
omnibus. It is a rich confusion of social self-congratulation and bodily
disarray. His hat tumbled to the carpet, his heavy umbrella slipped
between his knees with a thud; he reached after the one and ducked
after the other, but with an unimpaired smile on his round face spoke
simultaneously as follows:

"My name is Brown. Pray excuse me. I've come about that business of the
MacNabs. I have heard, you often help people out of such troubles. Pray
excuse me if I am wrong."

By this time he had sprawlingly recovered the hat, and made an odd
little bobbing bow over it, as if setting everything quite right.

"I hardly understand you," replied the scientist, with a cold intensity
of manner. "I fear you have mistaken the chambers. I am Dr Hood, and my
work is almost entirely literary and educational. It is true that I have
sometimes been consulted by the police in cases of peculiar difficulty
and importance, but - "

"Oh, this is of the greatest importance," broke in the little man called
Brown. "Why, her mother won't let them get engaged." And he leaned back
in his chair in radiant rationality.

The brows of Dr Hood were drawn down darkly, but the eyes under them
were bright with something that might be anger or might be amusement.
"And still," he said, "I do not quite understand."

"You see, they want to get married," said the man with the clerical hat.
"Maggie MacNab and young Todhunter want to get married. Now, what can be
more important than that?"

The great Orion Hood's scientific triumphs had deprived him of many
things - some said of his health, others of his God; but they had not
wholly despoiled him of his sense of the absurd. At the last plea of the
ingenuous priest a chuckle broke out of him from inside, and he threw
himself into an arm-chair in an ironical attitude of the consulting
physician.

"Mr Brown," he said gravely, "it is quite fourteen and a half years
since I was personally asked to test a personal problem: then it was
the case of an attempt to poison the French President at a Lord Mayor's
Banquet. It is now, I understand, a question of whether some friend of
yours called Maggie is a suitable fiancee for some friend of hers called
Todhunter. Well, Mr Brown, I am a sportsman. I will take it on. I will
give the MacNab family my best advice, as good as I gave the French
Republic and the King of England - no, better: fourteen years better. I
have nothing else to do this afternoon. Tell me your story."

The little clergyman called Brown thanked him with unquestionable
warmth, but still with a queer kind of simplicity. It was rather as
if he were thanking a stranger in a smoking-room for some trouble in
passing the matches, than as if he were (as he was) practically thanking
the Curator of Kew Gardens for coming with him into a field to find a
four-leaved clover. With scarcely a semi-colon after his hearty thanks,
the little man began his recital:

"I told you my name was Brown; well, that's the fact, and I'm the
priest of the little Catholic Church I dare say you've seen beyond those
straggly streets, where the town ends towards the north. In the last and
straggliest of those streets which runs along the sea like a sea-wall
there is a very honest but rather sharp-tempered member of my flock, a
widow called MacNab. She has one daughter, and she lets lodgings, and
between her and the daughter, and between her and the lodgers - well, I
dare say there is a great deal to be said on both sides. At present she
has only one lodger, the young man called Todhunter; but he has given
more trouble than all the rest, for he wants to marry the young woman of
the house."

"And the young woman of the house," asked Dr Hood, with huge and silent
amusement, "what does she want?"

"Why, she wants to marry him," cried Father Brown, sitting up eagerly.
"That is just the awful complication."

"It is indeed a hideous enigma," said Dr Hood.

"This young James Todhunter," continued the cleric, "is a very decent
man so far as I know; but then nobody knows very much. He is a bright,
brownish little fellow, agile like a monkey, clean-shaven like an actor,
and obliging like a born courtier. He seems to have quite a pocketful of
money, but nobody knows what his trade is. Mrs MacNab, therefore (being
of a pessimistic turn), is quite sure it is something dreadful, and
probably connected with dynamite. The dynamite must be of a shy and
noiseless sort, for the poor fellow only shuts himself up for several
hours of the day and studies something behind a locked door. He declares
his privacy is temporary and justified, and promises to explain before
the wedding. That is all that anyone knows for certain, but Mrs MacNab
will tell you a great deal more than even she is certain of. You know
how the tales grow like grass on such a patch of ignorance as that.
There are tales of two voices heard talking in the room; though, when
the door is opened, Todhunter is always found alone. There are tales of
a mysterious tall man in a silk hat, who once came out of the sea-mists
and apparently out of the sea, stepping softly across the sandy fields
and through the small back garden at twilight, till he was heard talking
to the lodger at his open window. The colloquy seemed to end in a
quarrel. Todhunter dashed down his window with violence, and the man in
the high hat melted into the sea-fog again. This story is told by the
family with the fiercest mystification; but I really think Mrs MacNab
prefers her own original tale: that the Other Man (or whatever it is)
crawls out every night from the big box in the corner, which is kept
locked all day. You see, therefore, how this sealed door of Todhunter's
is treated as the gate of all the fancies and monstrosities of the
'Thousand and One Nights'. And yet there is the little fellow in his
respectable black jacket, as punctual and innocent as a parlour clock.
He pays his rent to the tick; he is practically a teetotaller; he is
tirelessly kind with the younger children, and can keep them amused
for a day on end; and, last and most urgent of all, he has made himself
equally popular with the eldest daughter, who is ready to go to church
with him tomorrow."

A man warmly concerned with any large theories has always a relish
for applying them to any triviality. The great specialist having
condescended to the priest's simplicity, condescended expansively. He
settled himself with comfort in his arm-chair and began to talk in the
tone of a somewhat absent-minded lecturer:

"Even in a minute instance, it is best to look first to the main
tendencies of Nature. A particular flower may not be dead in early
winter, but the flowers are dying; a particular pebble may never be
wetted with the tide, but the tide is coming in. To the scientific eye
all human history is a series of collective movements, destructions or
migrations, like the massacre of flies in winter or the return of birds
in spring. Now the root fact in all history is Race. Race produces
religion; Race produces legal and ethical wars. There is no stronger
case than that of the wild, unworldly and perishing stock which we
commonly call the Celts, of whom your friends the MacNabs are specimens.
Small, swarthy, and of this dreamy and drifting blood, they accept
easily the superstitious explanation of any incidents, just as they
still accept (you will excuse me for saying) that superstitious
explanation of all incidents which you and your Church represent. It is
not remarkable that such people, with the sea moaning behind them
and the Church (excuse me again) droning in front of them, should put
fantastic features into what are probably plain events. You, with your
small parochial responsibilities, see only this particular Mrs MacNab,
terrified with this particular tale of two voices and a tall man out of
the sea. But the man with the scientific imagination sees, as it
were, the whole clans of MacNab scattered over the whole world, in its
ultimate average as uniform as a tribe of birds. He sees thousands
of Mrs MacNabs, in thousands of houses, dropping their little drop of
morbidity in the tea-cups of their friends; he sees - "

Before the scientist could conclude his sentence, another and more
impatient summons sounded from without; someone with swishing skirts was
marshalled hurriedly down the corridor, and the door opened on a young
girl, decently dressed but disordered and red-hot with haste. She had
sea-blown blonde hair, and would have been entirely beautiful if her
cheek-bones had not been, in the Scotch manner, a little high in relief
as well as in colour. Her apology was almost as abrupt as a command.

"I'm sorry to interrupt you, sir," she said, "but I had to follow Father
Brown at once; it's nothing less than life or death."

Father Brown began to get to his feet in some disorder. "Why, what has
happened, Maggie?" he said.

"James has been murdered, for all I can make out," answered the girl,
still breathing hard from her rush. "That man Glass has been with him
again; I heard them talking through the door quite plain. Two separate
voices: for James speaks low, with a burr, and the other voice was high
and quavery."

"That man Glass?" repeated the priest in some perplexity.

"I know his name is Glass," answered the girl, in great impatience.
"I heard it through the door. They were quarrelling - about money, I
think - for I heard James say again and again, 'That's right, Mr Glass,'
or 'No, Mr Glass,' and then, 'Two or three, Mr Glass.' But we're talking
too much; you must come at once, and there may be time yet."

"But time for what?" asked Dr Hood, who had been studying the young
lady with marked interest. "What is there about Mr Glass and his money
troubles that should impel such urgency?"

"I tried to break down the door and couldn't," answered the girl
shortly, "Then I ran to the back-yard, and managed to climb on to the
window-sill that looks into the room. It was all dim, and seemed to be
empty, but I swear I saw James lying huddled up in a corner, as if he
were drugged or strangled."

"This is very serious," said Father Brown, gathering his errant hat and
umbrella and standing up; "in point of fact I was just putting your case
before this gentleman, and his view - "

"Has been largely altered," said the scientist gravely. "I do not think
this young lady is so Celtic as I had supposed. As I have nothing else
to do, I will put on my hat and stroll down town with you."

In a few minutes all three were approaching the dreary tail of the
MacNabs' street: the girl with the stern and breathless stride of the
mountaineer, the criminologist with a lounging grace (which was
not without a certain leopard-like swiftness), and the priest at an
energetic trot entirely devoid of distinction. The aspect of this edge
of the town was not entirely without justification for the doctor's
hints about desolate moods and environments. The scattered houses stood
farther and farther apart in a broken string along the seashore; the
afternoon was closing with a premature and partly lurid twilight; the
sea was of an inky purple and murmuring ominously. In the scrappy
back garden of the MacNabs which ran down towards the sand, two black,
barren-looking trees stood up like demon hands held up in astonishment,
and as Mrs MacNab ran down the street to meet them with lean hands
similarly spread, and her fierce face in shadow, she was a little like a
demon herself. The doctor and the priest made scant reply to her shrill
reiterations of her daughter's story, with more disturbing details
of her own, to the divided vows of vengeance against Mr Glass for
murdering, and against Mr Todhunter for being murdered, or against
the latter for having dared to want to marry her daughter, and for not
having lived to do it. They passed through the narrow passage in the
front of the house until they came to the lodger's door at the back,
and there Dr Hood, with the trick of an old detective, put his shoulder
sharply to the panel and burst in the door.

It opened on a scene of silent catastrophe. No one seeing it, even for a
flash, could doubt that the room had been the theatre of some thrilling
collision between two, or perhaps more, persons. Playing-cards lay
littered across the table or fluttered about the floor as if a game had
been interrupted. Two wine glasses stood ready for wine on a side-table,
but a third lay smashed in a star of crystal upon the carpet. A few feet
from it lay what looked like a long knife or short sword, straight, but
with an ornamental and pictured handle, its dull blade just caught a
grey glint from the dreary window behind, which showed the black trees
against the leaden level of the sea. Towards the opposite corner of
the room was rolled a gentleman's silk top hat, as if it had just been
knocked off his head; so much so, indeed, that one almost looked to see
it still rolling. And in the corner behind it, thrown like a sack of
potatoes, but corded like a railway trunk, lay Mr James Todhunter,
with a scarf across his mouth, and six or seven ropes knotted round his
elbows and ankles. His brown eyes were alive and shifted alertly.

Dr Orion Hood paused for one instant on the doormat and drank in the
whole scene of voiceless violence. Then he stepped swiftly across the
carpet, picked up the tall silk hat, and gravely put it upon the head
of the yet pinioned Todhunter. It was so much too large for him that it
almost slipped down on to his shoulders.

"Mr Glass's hat," said the doctor, returning with it and peering into
the inside with a pocket lens. "How to explain the absence of Mr Glass
and the presence of Mr Glass's hat? For Mr Glass is not a careless man
with his clothes. That hat is of a stylish shape and systematically
brushed and burnished, though not very new. An old dandy, I should
think."

"But, good heavens!" called out Miss MacNab, "aren't you going to untie
the man first?"

"I say 'old' with intention, though not with certainty" continued the
expositor; "my reason for it might seem a little far-fetched. The hair
of human beings falls out in very varying degrees, but almost always
falls out slightly, and with the lens I should see the tiny hairs in a
hat recently worn. It has none, which leads me to guess that Mr Glass is
bald. Now when this is taken with the high-pitched and querulous
voice which Miss MacNab described so vividly (patience, my dear lady,
patience), when we take the hairless head together with the tone common
in senile anger, I should think we may deduce some advance in years.
Nevertheless, he was probably vigorous, and he was almost certainly
tall. I might rely in some degree on the story of his previous
appearance at the window, as a tall man in a silk hat, but I think I
have more exact indication. This wineglass has been smashed all over
the place, but one of its splinters lies on the high bracket beside the
mantelpiece. No such fragment could have fallen there if the vessel
had been smashed in the hand of a comparatively short man like Mr
Todhunter."

"By the way," said Father Brown, "might it not be as well to untie Mr
Todhunter?"

"Our lesson from the drinking-vessels does not end here," proceeded the
specialist. "I may say at once that it is possible that the man Glass
was bald or nervous through dissipation rather than age. Mr Todhunter,
as has been remarked, is a quiet thrifty gentleman, essentially an
abstainer. These cards and wine-cups are no part of his normal habit;
they have been produced for a particular companion. But, as it
happens, we may go farther. Mr Todhunter may or may not possess this
wine-service, but there is no appearance of his possessing any wine.
What, then, were these vessels to contain? I would at once suggest
some brandy or whisky, perhaps of a luxurious sort, from a flask in the
pocket of Mr Glass. We have thus something like a picture of the man, or
at least of the type: tall, elderly, fashionable, but somewhat frayed,
certainly fond of play and strong waters, perhaps rather too fond of
them. Mr Glass is a gentleman not unknown on the fringes of society."

"Look here," cried the young woman, "if you don't let me pass to untie
him I'll run outside and scream for the police."

"I should not advise you, Miss MacNab," said Dr Hood gravely, "to be
in any hurry to fetch the police. Father Brown, I seriously ask you to
compose your flock, for their sakes, not for mine. Well, we have seen
something of the figure and quality of Mr Glass; what are the chief
facts known of Mr Todhunter? They are substantially three: that he is
economical, that he is more or less wealthy, and that he has a secret.
Now, surely it is obvious that there are the three chief marks of the
kind of man who is blackmailed. And surely it is equally obvious that
the faded finery, the profligate habits, and the shrill irritation of Mr
Glass are the unmistakable marks of the kind of man who blackmails him.
We have the two typical figures of a tragedy of hush money: on the one
hand, the respectable man with a mystery; on the other, the West-end
vulture with a scent for a mystery. These two men have met here today
and have quarrelled, using blows and a bare weapon."

"Are you going to take those ropes off?" asked the girl stubbornly.

Dr Hood replaced the silk hat carefully on the side table, and went
across to the captive. He studied him intently, even moving him a little
and half-turning him round by the shoulders, but he only answered:

"No; I think these ropes will do very well till your friends the police
bring the handcuffs."

Father Brown, who had been looking dully at the carpet, lifted his round
face and said: "What do you mean?"

The man of science had picked up the peculiar dagger-sword from the
carpet and was examining it intently as he answered:

"Because you find Mr Todhunter tied up," he said, "you all jump to the
conclusion that Mr Glass had tied him up; and then, I suppose, escaped.
There are four objections to this: First, why should a gentleman so
dressy as our friend Glass leave his hat behind him, if he left of his
own free will? Second," he continued, moving towards the window, "this
is the only exit, and it is locked on the inside. Third, this blade
here has a tiny touch of blood at the point, but there is no wound on Mr
Todhunter. Mr Glass took that wound away with him, dead or alive. Add
to all this primary probability. It is much more likely that the
blackmailed person would try to kill his incubus, rather than that the
blackmailer would try to kill the goose that lays his golden egg. There,
I think, we have a pretty complete story."

"But the ropes?" inquired the priest, whose eyes had remained open with
a rather vacant admiration.

"Ah, the ropes," said the expert with a singular intonation. "Miss
MacNab very much wanted to know why I did not set Mr Todhunter free from
his ropes. Well, I will tell her. I did not do it because Mr Todhunter
can set himself free from them at any minute he chooses."

"What?" cried the audience on quite different notes of astonishment.

"I have looked at all the knots on Mr Todhunter," reiterated Hood
quietly. "I happen to know something about knots; they are quite a
branch of criminal science. Every one of those knots he has made himself
and could loosen himself; not one of them would have been made by an
enemy really trying to pinion him. The whole of this affair of the
ropes is a clever fake, to make us think him the victim of the struggle
instead of the wretched Glass, whose corpse may be hidden in the garden
or stuffed up the chimney."

There was a rather depressed silence; the room was darkening, the
sea-blighted boughs of the garden trees looked leaner and blacker than
ever, yet they seemed to have come nearer to the window. One could
almost fancy they were sea-monsters like krakens or cuttlefish, writhing
polypi who had crawled up from the sea to see the end of this tragedy,
even as he, the villain and victim of it, the terrible man in the tall
hat, had once crawled up from the sea. For the whole air was dense with
the morbidity of blackmail, which is the most morbid of human things,
because it is a crime concealing a crime; a black plaster on a blacker
wound.

The face of the little Catholic priest, which was commonly complacent
and even comic, had suddenly become knotted with a curious frown. It
was not the blank curiosity of his first innocence. It was rather that
creative curiosity which comes when a man has the beginnings of an idea.
"Say it again, please," he said in a simple, bothered manner; "do you


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