The Complete “Father Brown”, by G. K. Chesterton

The Worst Crime in the World

FATHER BROWN was wandering through a picture gallery with an expression that suggested that he had not come there to look at the pictures. Indeed, he did not want to look at the pictures, though he liked pictures well enough. Not that there was anything immoral or improper about those highly modern pictorial designs. He would indeed be of an inflammable temperament who was stirred to any of the more pagan passions by the display of interrupted spirals, inverted cones and broken cylinders with which the art of the future inspired or menaced mankind. The truth is that Father Brown was looking for a young friend who had appointed that somewhat incongruous meeting-place, being herself of a more futuristic turn. The young friend was also a young relative; one of the few relatives that he had. Her name was Elizabeth Fane, simplified into Betty, and she was the child of a sister who had married into a race of refined but impoverished squires. As the squire was dead as well as impoverished, Father Brown stood in the relation of a protector as well as a priest, and in some sense a guardian as well as an uncle. At the moment, however, he was blinking about at the groups in the gallery without catching sight of the familiar brown hair and bright face of his niece. Nevertheless, he saw some people he knew and a number of people he did not know, including some that, as a mere matter of taste, he did not much want to know.

Among the people the priest did not know and who yet aroused his interest was a lithe and alert young man, very beautifully dressed and looking rather like a foreigner, because, while his beard was cut in a spade shape like an old Spaniard’s, his dark hair was cropped so close as to look like a tight black skull-cap. Among the people the priest did not particularly want to know was a very dominant-looking lady, sensationally clad in scarlet, with a mane of yellow hair too long to be called bobbed, but too loose to be called anything else. She had a powerful and rather heavy face of a pale and rather unwholesome complexion, and when she looked at anybody she cultivated the fascinations of a basilisk. She towed in attendance behind her a short man with a big beard and a very broad face, with long sleepy slits of eyes. The expression of his face was beaming and benevolent, if only partially awake; but his bull neck, when seen from behind, looked a little brutal.

Father Brown gazed at the lady, feeling that the appearance and approach of his niece would be an agreeable contrast. Yet he continued to gaze, for some reason, until he reached the point of feeling that the appearance of anybody would be an agreeable contrast. It was therefore with a certain relief, though with a slight start as of awakening, that he turned at the sound of his name and saw another face that he knew.

It was the sharp but not unfriendly face of a lawyer named Granby, whose patches of grey hair might almost have been the powder from a wig, so incongruous were they with his youthful energy of movement. He was one of those men in the City who run about like schoolboys in and out of their offices. He could not run round the fashionable picture gallery quite in that fashion; but he looked as if he wanted to, and fretted as he glanced to left and right, seeking somebody he knew.

“I didn’t know,” said Father Brown, smiling, “that you were a patron of the New Art.”

“I didn’t know that you were,” retorted the other. “I came here to catch a man.”

“I hope you will have good sport,” answered the priest. “I’m doing much the same.”

“Said he was passing through to the Continent,” snorted the solicitor, “and could I meet him in this cranky place.” He ruminated a moment, and said abruptly: “Look here, I know you can keep a secret. Do you know Sir John Musgrave?”

“No,” answered the priest; “but I should hardly have thought he was a secret, though they say he does hide himself in a castle. Isn’t he the old man they tell all those tales about — how he lives in a tower with a real portcullis and drawbridge, and generally refuses to emerge from the Dark Ages? Is he one of your clients?”

“No,” replied Granby shortly: “it’s his son, Captain Musgrave, who has come to us. But the old man counts for a good deal in the affair, and I don’t know him; that’s the point. Look here, this is confidential, as I say, but I can confide in you.“ He dropped his voice and drew his friend apart into a side gallery containing representations of various real objects, which was comparatively empty.

“This young Musgrave,” he said, “wants to raise a big sum from us on a post obit on his old father in Northumberland. The old man’s long past seventy and presumably will obit some time or other; but what about the post, so to speak? What will happen afterwards to his cash and castles and portcullises and all the rest? It’s a very fine old estate, and still worth a lot, but strangely enough it isn’t entailed. So you see how we stand. The question is, as the man said in Dickens, is the old man friendly?”

“If he’s friendly to his son you’ll feel all the friendlier,” observed Father Brown. “No, I’m afraid I can’t help you. I never met Sir John Musgrave, and I understand very few people do meet him nowadays. But it seems obvious you have a right to an answer on that point before you lend the young gentleman your firm’s money. Is he the sort that people cut off with a shilling?”

“Well, I’m doubtful,” answered the other. “He’s very popular and brilliant and a great figure in society; but he’s a great deal abroad, and he’s been a journalist.”

“Well,” said Father Brown, “that’s not a crime. At least not always.”

“Nonsense!” said Granby curtly. “You know what I mean — he’s rather a rolling stone, who’s been a journalist and a lecturer and an actor, and all sorts of things. I’ve got to know where I stand. . . . Why, there he is.”

And the solicitor, who had been stamping impatiently about the emptier gallery, turned suddenly and darted into the more crowded room at a run. He was running towards the tall and well-dressed young man with the short hair and the foreign-looking beard.

The two walked away together talking, and for some moments afterwards Father Brown followed them with his screwed, short-sighted eyes. His gaze was shifted and recalled, however, by the breathless and even boisterous arrival of his niece, Betty. Rather to the surprise of her uncle, she led him back into the emptier room and planted him on a seat that was like an island in that sea of floor.

“I’ve got something I must tell you,” she said. “It’s so silly that nobody else will understand it.”

“You overwhelm me,” said Father Brown. “Is it about this business your mother started telling me about? Engagements and all that; not what the military historians call a general engagement.”

“You know,” she said, “that she wants me to be engaged to Captain Musgrave.”

“I didn’t,” said Father Brown with resignation; “but Captain Musgrave seems to be quite a fashionable topic.”

“Of course we’re very poor,” she said, “and it’s no good saying it makes no difference.”

“Do you want to marry him?” asked Father Brown, looking at her through his half-closed eyes.

She frowned at the floor, and answered in a lower tone:

“I thought I did. At least I think I thought I did. But I’ve just had rather a shock.”

“Then tell us all about it.”

“I heard him laugh,” she said.

“It is an excellent social accomplishment,” he replied.

“You don’t understand,” said the girl. “It wasn’t social at all. That was just the point of it — that it wasn’t social.”

She paused a moment, and then went on firmly: “I came here quite early, and saw him sitting quite alone in the middle of that gallery with the new pictures, that was quite empty then. He had no idea I or anybody was near; he was sitting quite alone, and he laughed.”

“Well, no wonder,” said Father Brown. “I’m not an art critic myself, but as a general view of the pictures taken as a whole —— ”

“Oh, you won’t understand,” she said almost angrily. “It wasn’t a bit like that. He wasn’t looking at the pictures. He was staring right up at the ceiling; but his eyes seemed to be turned inwards, and he laughed so that my blood ran cold.”

The priest had risen and was pacing the room with his hands behind him. “You mustn’t be hasty in a case of this sort,” he began. “There are two kinds of men — but we can hardly discuss him just now, for here he is.”

Captain Musgrave entered the room swiftly and swept it with a smile. Granby, the lawyer, was just behind him, and his legal face bore a new expression of relief and satisfaction.

“I must apologize for everything I said about the Captain,” he said to the priest as they drifted together towards the door. “He’s a thoroughly sensible fellow and quite sees my point. He asked me himself why I didn’t go north and see his old father; I could hear from the old man’s own lips how it stood about the inheritance. Well, he couldn’t say fairer than that, could he? But he’s so anxious to get the thing settled that he offered to take me up in his own car to Musgrave Moss. That’s the name of the estate. I suggested that, if he was so kind, we might go together; and we’re starting to-morrow morning.”

As they spoke Betty and the Captain came through the doorway together, making in that framework at least a sort of picture that some would be sentimental enough to prefer to cones and cylinders. Whatever their other affinities, they were both very good-looking; and the lawyer was moved to a remark on the fact, when the picture abruptly altered.

Captain James Musgrave looked out into the main gallery, and his laughing and triumphant eyes were riveted on something that seemed to change him from head to foot. Father Brown looked round as under an advancing shadow of premonition; and he saw the lowering, almost livid face of the large woman in scarlet under its leonine yellow hair. She always stood with a slight stoop, like a bull lowering its horns, and the expression of her pale pasty face was so oppressive and hypnotic that they hardly saw the little man with the large beard standing beside her.

Musgrave advanced into the centre of the room towards her, almost like a beautifully dressed wax-work wound up to walk. He said a few words to her that could not be heard. She did not answer; but they turned away together, walking down the long gallery as if in debate, the short, bull-necked man with the beard bringing up the rear like some grotesque goblin page.

“Heaven help us!” muttered Father Brown, frowning after them. “Who in the world is that woman?”

“No pal of mine, I’m happy to say,” replied Granby with grim flippancy. “Looks as if a little flirtation with her might end fatally, doesn’t it?”

“I don’t think he’s flirting with her,” said Father Brown.

Even as he spoke the group in question turned at the end of the gallery and broke up, and Captain Musgrave came back to them in hasty strides.

“Look here,” he cried, speaking naturally enough, though they fancied his colour was changed. “I’m awfully sorry, Mr. Granby, but I find I can’t come north with you to-morrow. Of course, you will take the car all the same. Please do; I shan’t want it. I— I have to be in London for some days. Take a friend with you if you like.”

“My friend, Father Brown —— ” began the lawyer.

“If Captain Musgrave is really so kind,” said Father Brown gravely. “I may explain that I have some status in Mr. Granby’s inquiry, and it would be a great relief to my mind if I could go.”

Which was how it came about that a very elegant car, with an equally elegant chauffeur, shot north the next day over the Yorkshire moors, bearing the incongruous burden of a priest who looked rather like a black bundle, and a lawyer who had the habit of running about on his feet instead of racing on somebody else’s wheels.

They broke their journey very agreeably in one of the great dales of the West Riding, dining and sleeping at a comfortable inn, and starting early next day, began to run along the Northumbrian coast till they reached a country that was a maze of sand dunes and rank sea meadows, somewhere in the heart of which lay the old Border castle which had remained so unique and yet so secretive a monument of the old Border wars. They found it at last, by following a path running beside a long arm of the sea that ran inland, and turned eventually into a sort of rude canal ending in the moat of the castle. The castle really was a castle, of the square, embattled plan that the Normans built everywhere from Galilee to the Grampians. It did really and truly have a portcullis and a drawbridge, and they were very realistically reminded of the fact by an accident that delayed their entrance.

They waded amid long coarse grass and thistle to the bank of the moat which ran in a ribbon of black with dead leaves and scum upon it, like ebony inlaid with a pattern of gold. Barely a yard or two beyond the black ribbon was the other green bank and the big stone pillars of the gateway. But so little, it would seem, had this lonely fastness been approached from outside that when the impatient Granby halloed across to the dim figures behind the portcullis, they seemed, to have considerable difficulty even in lowering the great rusty drawbridge. It started on its way, turning over like a great falling tower above them, and then stuck, sticking out in mid-air at a threatening angle.

The impatient Granby, dancing upon the bank, called out to his companion:

“Oh, I can’t stand these stick-in-the-mud ways! Why, it’d be less trouble to jump.”

And with characteristic impetuosity he did jump, landing with a slight stagger in safety on the inner shore. Father Brown’s short legs were not adapted to jumping. But his temper was more adapted than most people’s to falling with a splash into very muddy water. By the promptitude of his companion he escaped falling in very far. But as he was being hauled up the green, slimy bank, he stopped with bent head, peering at a particular point upon the grassy slope.

“Are you botanizing?” asked Granby irritably. “We’ve got no time for you to collect rare plants after your last attempt as a diver among the wonders of the deep. Come on, muddy or no, we’ve got to present ourselves before the baronet.”

When they had penetrated into the castle, they were received courteously enough by an old servant, the only one in sight, and after indicating their business were shown into a long oak-panelled room with latticed windows of antiquated pattern. Weapons of many different centuries hung in balanced patterns on the dark walls, and a complete suit of fourteenth-century armour stood like a sentinel beside the large fireplace. In another long room beyond could be seen, through the half-open door, the dark colours of the rows of family portraits.

“I feel as if I’d got into a novel instead of a house,” said the lawyer. “I’d no idea anybody did really keep up the ‘Mysteries of Udolpho’ in this fashion.”

“Yes; the old gentleman certainly carries out his historical craze consistently,” answered the priest; “and these things are not fakes, either. It’s not done by somebody who thinks all mediaeval people lived at the same time. Sometimes they make up suits of armour out of different bits; but that suit all covered one man, and covered him very completely. You, see it’s the late sort of tilting-armour.”

“I think he’s a late sort of host, if it comes to that,” grumbled Granby. “He’s keeping us waiting the devil of a time.”

“You must expect everything to go slowly in a place like this,” said Father Brown. “I think it’s very decent of him to see us at all: two total strangers come to ask him highly personal questions.”

And, indeed, when the master of the house appeared they had no reason to complain of their reception; but rather became conscious of something genuine in the traditions of breeding and behaviour that could retain their native dignity without difficulty in that barbarous solitude, and after those long years of rustication and moping. The baronet did not seem either surprised or embarrassed at the rare visitation; though they suspected that he had not had a stranger in his house for a quarter of a life-time, he behaved as if he had been bowing out duchesses a moment before. He showed neither shyness nor impatience when they touched on the very private matter of their errand; after a little leisurely reflection he seemed to recognize their curiosity as justified under the circumstances. He was a thin, keen-looking old gentleman, with black eyebrows and a long chin, and though the carefully-curled hair he wore was undoubtedly a wig, he had the wisdom to wear the grey wig of an elderly man.

“As regards the question that immediately concerns you,” he said, “the answer is very simple indeed. I do most certainly propose to hand on the whole of my property to my son, as my father handed it on to me; and nothing — I say advisedly, nothing — would induce me to take any other course.”

“I am most profoundly grateful for the information,” answered the lawyer. “But your kindness encourages me to say that you are putting it very strongly. I would not suggest that it is in the least likely that your son would do anything to make you doubt his fitness for the charge. Still, he might —— ”

“Exactly,” said Sir John Musgrave dryly, “he might. It is rather an under-statement to say that he might. Will you be good enough to step into the next room with me for a moment.”

He led them into the further gallery, of which they had already caught a glimpse, and gravely paused before a row of the blackened and lowering portraits.

“This is Sir Roger Musgrave,” he said, pointing to a long-faced person in a black periwig. “He was one of the lowest liars and rascals in the rascally time of William of Orange, a traitor to two kings and something like the murderer of two wives. That is his father, Sir Robert, a perfectly honest old cavalier. That is his son, Sir James, one of the noblest of the Jacobite martyrs and one of the first men to attempt some reparation to the Church and the poor. Does it matter that the House of Musgrave, the power, the honour, the authority, descended from one good man to another good man through the interval of a bad one? Edward I governed England well. Edward III covered England with glory. And yet the second glory came from the first glory through the infamy and imbecility of Edward II, who fawned upon Gaveston and ran away from Bruce. Believe me, Mr. Granby, the greatness of a great house and history is something more than these accidental individuals who carry it on, even though they do not grace it. From father to son our heritage has come down, and from father to son it shall continue. You may assure yourselves, gentlemen, and you may assure my son, that I shall not leave my money to a home for lost cats. Musgrave shall leave it to Musgrave till the heavens fall.”

“Yes,” said Father Brown thoughtfully; “I see what you mean.”

“And we shall be only too glad,” said the solicitor, “to convey such a happy assurance to your son.”

“You may convey the assurance,” said their host gravely, “He is secure in any event of having the castle, the title, the land and the money. There is only a small and merely private addition to that arrangement. Under no circumstances whatever will I ever speak to him as long as I live.”

The lawyer remained in the same respectful attitude, but he was now respectfully staring.

“Why, what on earth has he —— ”

“I am a private gentleman,” said Musgrave, “as well as the custodian of a great inheritance. And my son did something so horrible that he has ceased to be — I will not say a gentleman — but even a human being. It is the worst crime in the world. Do you remember what Douglas said when Marmion, his guest, offered to shake hands with him?”

“Yes,” said Father Brown.

“‘My castles are my king’s alone, from turret to foundation stone,’” said Musgrave. “‘The hand of Douglas is his own.’”

He turned towards the other room and showed his rather dazed visitors back into it.

“I hope you will take some refreshment,” he said, in the same equable fashion. “If you have any doubt about your movements, I should be delighted to offer you the hospitality of the castle for the night.”

“Thank you, Sir John,” said the priest in a dull voice, “but I think we had better go.”

“I will have the bridge lowered at once,” said their host; and in a few moments the creaking of that huge and absurdly antiquated apparatus filled the castle like the grinding of a mill. Rusty as it was, however, it worked successfully this time, and they found themselves standing once more on the grassy bank beyond the moat.

Granby was suddenly shaken by a shudder.

“What in hell was it that his son did?” he cried.

Father Brown made no answer. But when they had driven off again in their car and pursued their journey to a village not far off, called Graystones, where they alighted at the inn of the Seven Stars, the lawyer learned with a little mild surprise that the priest did not propose to travel much farther; in other words, that he had apparently every intention of remaining in the neighbourhood.

“I cannot bring myself to leave it like this,” he said gravely. “I will send back the car, and you, of course, may very naturally want to go with it. Your question is answered; it is simply whether your firm can afford to lend money on young Musgrave’s prospects. But my question isn’t answered; it is whether he is a fit husband for Betty. I must try to discover whether he’s really done something dreadful, or whether it’s the delusion of an old lunatic.”

“But,” objected the lawyer, “if you want to find out about him, why don’t you go after him? Why should you hang about in this desolate hole where he hardly ever comes?”

“What would be the use of my going after him?” asked the other. There’s no sense in going up to a fashionable young man in Bond Street and saying: ‘Excuse me, but have you committed a crime too horrible for a human being?’ If he’s bad enough to do it, he’s certainly bad enough to deny it. And we don’t even know what it is. No, there’s only one man that knows, and may tell, in some further outburst of dignified eccentricity. I’m going to keep near him for the present.”

And in truth Father Brown did keep near the eccentric baronet, and did actually meet him on more than one occasion, with the utmost politeness on both sides. For the baronet, in spite of his years, was very vigorous and a great walker, and could often be seen stumping through the village, and along the country lanes. Only the day after their arrival, Father Brown, coming out of the inn on to the cobbled market-place, saw the dark and distinguished figure stride past in the direction of the post office. He was very quietly dressed in black, but his strong face was even more arresting in the strong sunlight; with his silvery hair, swarthy eyebrows and long chin, he had something of a reminiscence of Henry Irving, or some other famous actor. In spite of his hoary hair, his figure as well as his face suggested strength, and he carried his stick more like a cudgel than a crutch. He saluted the priest, and spoke with the same air of coming fearlessly to the point which had marked his revelations of yesterday.

“If you are still interested in my son,” he said, using the term with an icy indifference, “you will not see very much of him. He has just left the country. Between ourselves, I might say fled the country.”

“Indeed,” said Father Brown with a grave stare.

“Some people I never heard of, called Grunov, have been pestering me, of all people, about his whereabouts,” said Sir John; “and I’ve just come in to send off a wire to tell them that, so far as I know, he’s living in the Poste Restante, Riga. Even that has been a nuisance. I came in yesterday to do it, but was five minutes too late for the post office. Are you staying long? I hope you will pay me another visit.”

When the priest recounted to the lawyer his little interview with old Musgrave in the village, the lawyer was both puzzled and interested. “Why has the Captain bolted?” he asked. “Who are the other people who want him? Who on earth are the Grunovs?”

“For the first, I don’t know,” replied Father Brown. “Possibly his mysterious sin has come to light. I should rather guess that the other people are blackmailing him about it. For the third, I think I do know. That horrible fat woman with yellow hair is called Madame Grunov, and that little man passes as her husband.”

The next day Father Brown came in rather wearily, and threw down his black bundle of an umbrella with the air of a pilgrim laying down his staff. He had an air of some depression. But it was as it was so often in his criminal investigations. It was not the depression of failure, but the depression of success.

“It’s rather a shock,” he said in a dull voice; “but I ought to have guessed it. I ought to have guessed it when I first went in and saw the thing standing there.”

“When you saw what?” asked Granby impatiently.

“When I saw there was only one suit of armour,” answered Father Brown. There was a silence during which the lawyer only stared at his friend, and then the friend resumed.

“Only the other day I was just going to tell my niece that there are two types of men who can laugh when they are alone. One might almost say the man who does it is either very good or very bad. You see, he is either confiding the joke to God or confiding it to the Devil. But anyhow he has an inner life. Well, there really is a kind of man who confides the joke to the Devil. He does not mind if nobody sees the joke; if nobody can safely be allowed even to know the joke. The joke is enough in itself, if it is sufficiently sinister and malignant.”

“But what are you talking about?” demanded Granby. “Whom are you talking about? Which of them, I mean? Who is this person who is having a sinister joke with his Satanic Majesty?”

Father Brown looked across at him with a ghastly smile.

“Ah,” he said, “that’s the joke.”

There was another silence, but this time the silence seemed to be rather full and oppressive than merely empty; it seemed to settle down on them like the twilight that was gradually turning from dusk to dark. Father Brown went on speaking in a level voice, sitting stolidly with his elbows on the table.

“I’ve been looking up the Musgrave family,” he said. “They are vigorous and long-lived stock, and even in the ordinary way I should think you would wait a good time for your money.”

“We’re quite prepared for that,” answered the solicitor; “but anyhow it can’t last indefinitely. The old man is nearly eighty, though he still walks about, and the people at the inn here laugh and say they don’t believe he will ever die.”

Father Brown jumped up with one of his rare but rapid movements, but remained with his hands on the table, leaning forward and looking his friend in the face.

“That’s it,” he cried in a low but excited voice. “That’s the only problem. That’s the only real difficulty. How will he die? How on earth is he to die?”

“What on earth do you mean?” asked Granby.

“I mean,” came the voice of the priest out of the darkening room, “that I know the crime that James Musgrave committed.”

His tones had such a chill in them that Granby could hardly repress a shiver; he murmured a further question.

“It was really the worst crime in the world,” said Father Brown. “At least, many communities and civilizations have accounted it so. It was always from the earliest times marked out in tribe and village for tremendous punishment. But anyhow, I know now what young Musgrave really did and why he did it.”

“And what did he do?” asked the lawyer.

“He killed his father,” answered the priest.

The lawyer in his turn rose from his seat and gazed across the table with wrinkled brows.

“But his father is at the castle,” he cried in sharp tones.

“His father is in the moat,” said the priest, “and I was a fool not to have known it from the first when something bothered me about that suit of armour. Don’t you remember the look of that room? How very carefully it was arranged and decorated? There were two crossed battle-axes hung on one side of the fire-place, two crossed battle-axes on the other. There was a round Scottish shield on one wall, a round Scottish shield on the other. And there was a stand of armour guarding one side of the hearth, and an empty space on the other. Nothing will make me believe that a man who arranged all the rest of that room with that exaggerated symmetry left that one feature of it lopsided. There was almost certainly another man in armour. And what has become of him?”

He paused a moment, and then went on in a more matter-of-fact tone; “When you come to think of it, it’s a very good plan for a murder, and meets the permanent problem of the disposal of the body. The body could stand inside that complete tilting-armour for hours, or even days, while servants came and went, until the murderer could simply drag it out in the dead of night and lower it into the moat, without even crossing the bridge. And then what a good chance he ran! As soon as the body was at all decayed in the stagnant water there would sooner or later be nothing but a skeleton in fourteenth-century armour, a thing very likely to be found in the moat of an old Border castle. It was unlikely that anybody would look for anything there, but if they did, that would soon be all they would find. And I got some confirmation of that. That was when you said I was looking for a rare plant; it was a plant in a good many senses, if you’ll excuse the jest. I saw the marks of two feet sunk so deep into the solid bank I was sure that the man was either very heavy or was carrying something very heavy. Also, by the way, there’s another moral from that little incident when I made my celebrated graceful and cat-like leap.”

“My brain is rather reeling,” said Granby, “but I begin to have some notion of what all this nightmare is about. What about you and your cat-like leap?”

“At the post office to-day,” said Father Brown, “I casually confirmed the statement the baronet made to me yesterday, that he had been there just after closing-time on the day previous — that is, not only on the very day we arrived, but at the very time we arrived. Don’t you see what that means? It means that he was actually out when we called, and came back while we were waiting; and that was why we had to wait so long. And when I saw that, I suddenly saw a picture that told the whole story.”

“Well,” asked the other impatiently, “and what about it?”

“An old man of eighty can walk,” said Father Brown. “An old man can even walk a good deal, pottering about in country lanes. But an old man can’t jump. He would be an even less graceful jumper than I was. Yet, if the baronet came back while we were waiting, he must have come in as we came in — by jumping the moat — for the bridge wasn’t lowered till later. I rather guess he had hampered it himself to delay inconvenient visitors, to judge by the rapidity with which it was repaired. But that doesn’t matter. When I saw that fancy picture of the black figure with the grey hair taking a flying leap across the moat I knew instantly that it was a young man dressed up as an old man. And there you have the whole story.”

“You mean,” said Granby slowly, “that this pleasing youth killed his father, hid the corpse first in the armour and then in the moat, disguised himself and so on?”

“They happened to be almost exactly alike,” said the priest. “You could see from the family portraits how strong the likeness ran. And then you talk of his disguising himself. But in a sense everybody’s dress is a disguise. The old man disguised himself in a wig, and the young man in a foreign beard. When he shaved and put the wig on his cropped head he was exactly like his father, with a little make-up. Of course, you understand now why he was so very polite about getting you to come up next day here by car. It was because he himself was coming up that night by train. He got in front of you, committed his crime, assumed his disguise, and was ready for the legal negotiations.”

“Ah,” said Granby thoughtfully, “the legal negotiations! You mean, of course, that the real old baronet would have negotiated very differently.

“He would have told you plainly that the Captain would never get a penny,” said Father Brown. “The plot, queer as it sounds, was really the only way of preventing his telling you so. But I want you to appreciate the cunning of what the fellow did tell you. His plan answered several purposes at once. He was being blackmailed by these Russians for some villainy; I suspect for treason during the war. He escaped from them at a stroke, and probably sent them chasing off to Riga after him. But the most beautiful refinement of all was that theory he enunciated about recognizing his son as an heir, but not as a human being. Don’t you see that while it secured the post obit, it also provided some sort of answer to what would soon be the greatest difficulty of all?”

“I see several difficulties,” said Granby; “which one do you mean?”

“I mean that if the son was not even disinherited, it would look rather odd that the father and son never met. The theory of a private repudiation answered that. So there only remained one difficulty, as I say, which is probably perplexing the gentleman now. How on earth is the old man to die?”

“I know how he ought to die,” said Granby.

Father Brown seemed to be a little bemused, and went on in a more abstracted fashion.

“And yet there is something more in it than that,” he said. “There was something about that theory that he liked in a way that is more — well, more theoretical. It gave him an insane intellectual pleasure to tell you in one character that he had committed a crime in another character — when he really had. That is what I mean by the infernal irony; by the joke shared with the Devil. Shall I tell you something that sounds like what they call a paradox? Sometimes it is a joy in the very heart of hell to tell the truth. And above all, to tell it so that everybody misunderstands it. That is why he liked that antic of pretending to be somebody else, and then painting himself as black — as he was. And that was why my niece heard him laughing to himself all alone in the picture gallery.”

Granby gave a slight start, like a person brought back to common things with a bump.

“Your niece,” he cried. “Didn’t her mother want her to marry Musgrave? A question of wealth and position, I suppose.”

“Yes,” said Father Brown dryly; “her mother was all in favour of a prudent marriage.”

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Last updated Thursday, March 13, 2014 at 21:30