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

The Insoluble Problem

This queer incident, in some ways perhaps the queerest of the many that came his way, happened to Father Brown at the time when his French friend Flambeau had retired from the profession of crime and had entered with great energy and success on the profession of crime investigator. It happened that both as a thief and a thief-taker, Flambeau had rather specialized in the matter of jewel thefts, on which he was admitted to be an expert, both in the matter of identifying jewels and the equally practical matter of identifying jewel-thieves. And it was in connection with his special knowledge of this subject, and a special commission which it had won for him, that he rang up his friend the priest on the particular morning on which this story begins.

Father Brown was delighted to hear the voice of his old friend, even on the telephone; but in a general way, and especially at that particular moment, Father Brown was not very fond of the telephone. He was one who preferred to watch people’s faces and feel social atmospheres, and he knew well that without these things, verbal messages are apt to be very misleading, especially from total strangers. And it seemed as if, on that particular morning, a swarm of total strangers had been buzzing in his ear with more or less unenlightening verbal messages; the telephone seemed to be possessed of a demon of triviality. Perhaps the most distinctive voice was one which asked him whether he did not issue regular permits for murder and theft upon the payment of a regular tariff hung up in his church; and as the stranger, on being informed that this was not the case, concluded the colloquy with a hollow laugh, it may be presumed that he remained unconvinced. Then an agitated, rather inconsequent female voice rang up requesting him to come round at once to a certain hotel he had heard of some forty-five miles on the road to a neighbouring cathedral town; the request being immediately followed by a contradiction in the same voice, more agitated and yet more inconsequent, telling him that it did not matter and that he was not wanted after all. Then came an interlude of a Press agency asking him if he had anything to say on what a Film Actress had said about Moustaches for Men; and finally yet a third return of the agitated and inconsequent lady at the hotel, saying that he was wanted, after all. He vaguely supposed that this marked some of the hesitations and panics not unknown among those who are vaguely veering in the direction of Instruction, but he confessed to a considerable relief when the voice of Flambeau wound up the series with a hearty threat of immediately turning up for breakfast.

Father Brown very much preferred to talk to a friend sitting comfortably over a pipe, but it soon appeared that his visitor was on the warpath and full of energy, having every intention of carrying off the little priest captive on some important expedition of his own. It was true that there was a special circumstance involved which might be supposed to claim the priest’s attention. Flambeau had figured several times of late as successfully thwarting a theft of famous precious stones; he had torn the tiara of the Duchess of Dulwich out of the very hand of the bandit as he bolted through the garden. He laid so ingenious a trap for the criminal who planned to carry off the celebrated Sapphire Necklace that the artist in question actually carried off the copy which he had himself planned to leave as a substitute.

Such were doubtless the reasons that had led to his being specially summoned to guard the delivery of a rather different sort of treasure; perhaps even more valuable in its mere materials, but possessing also another sort of value. A world-famous reliquary, supposed to contain a relic of St. Dorothy the martyr, was to be delivered at the Catholic monastery in a cathedral town; and one of the most famous of international jewel-thieves was supposed to have an eye on it; or rather presumably on the gold and rubies of its setting, rather than its purely hagiological importance. Perhaps there was something in this association of ideas which made Flambeau feel that the priest would be a particularly appropriate companion in his adventure; but anyhow, he descended on him, breathing fire and ambition and very voluble about his plans for preventing the theft.

Flambeau indeed bestrode the priest’s hearth gigantically and in the old swaggering musketeer attitude, twirling his great moustaches.

‘You can’t,’ he cried, referring to the sixty-mile road to Casterbury. ‘You can’t allow a profane robbery like that to happen under your very nose.’

The relic was not to reach the monastery till the evening; and there was no need for its defenders to arrive earlier; for indeed a motor-journey would take them the greater part of the day. Moreover, Father Brown casually remarked that there was an inn on the road, at which he would prefer to lunch, as he had been already asked to look in there as soon as was convenient.

As they drove along through a densely wooded but sparsely inhabited landscape, in which inns and all other buildings seemed to grow rarer and rarer, the daylight began to take on the character of a stormy twilight even in the heat of noon; and dark purple clouds gathered over dark grey forests. As is common under the lurid quietude of that kind of light, what colour there was in the landscape gained a sort of secretive glow which is not found in objects under the full sunlight; and ragged red leaves or golden or orange fungi seemed to burn with a dark fire of their own. Under such a half-light they came to a break in the woods like a great rent in a grey wall, and saw beyond, standing above the gap, the tall and rather outlandish-looking inn that bore the name of the Green Dragon.

The two old companions had often arrived together at inns and other human habitations, and found a somewhat singular state of things there; but the signs of singularity had seldom manifested themselves so early. For while their car was still some hundreds of yards from the dark green door, which matched the dark green shutters of the high and narrow building, the door was thrown open with violence and a woman with a wild mop of red hair rushed to meet them, as if she were ready to board the car in full career. Flambeau brought the car to a standstill but almost before he had done so, she thrust her white and tragic face into the window, crying:

‘Are you Father Brown?’ and then almost in the same breath; ‘who is this man?’

‘This gentleman’s name is Flambeau,’ said Father Brown in a tranquil manner, ‘and what can I do for you?’

‘Come into the inn,’ she said, with extraordinary abruptness even under the circumstances. ‘There’s been a murder done.’

They got out of the car in silence and followed her to the dark green door which opened inwards on a sort of dark green alley, formed of stakes and wooden pillars, wreathed with vine and ivy, showing square leaves of black and red and many sombre colours. This again led through an inner door into a sort of large parlour hung with rusty trophies of Cavalier arms, of which the furniture seemed to be antiquated and also in great confusion, like the inside of a lumber-room. They were quite startled for the moment; for it seemed as if one large piece of lumber rose and moved towards them; so dusty and shabby and ungainly was the man who thus abandoned what seemed like a state of permanent immobility.

Strangely enough, the man seemed to have a certain agility of politeness, when once he did move; even if it suggested the wooden joints of a courtly step-ladder or an obsequious towel-horse. Both Flambeau and Father Brown felt that they had hardly ever clapped eyes on a man who was so difficult to place. He was not what is called a gentleman; yet he had something of the dusty refinement of a scholar; there was something faintly disreputable or declasse about him; and yet the smell of him was rather bookish than Bohemian. He was thin and pale, with a pointed nose and a dark pointed beard; his brow was bald, but his hair behind long and lank and stringy; and the expression of his eyes was almost entirely masked by a pair of blue spectacles. Father Brown felt that he had met something of the sort somewhere, and a long time ago; but he could no longer put a name to it. The lumber he sat among was largely literary lumber; especially bundles of seventeenth-century pamphlets.

‘Do I understand the lady to say,’ asked Flambeau gravely, ‘that there is a murder here?’

The lady nodded her red ragged head rather impatiently; except for those flaming elf-locks she had lost some of her look of wildness; her dark dress was of a certain dignity and neatness; her features were strong and handsome; and there was something about her suggesting that double strength of body and mind which makes women powerful, particularly in contrast with men like the man in blue spectacles. Nevertheless, it was he who gave the only articulate answer, intervening with a certain antic gallantry.

‘It is true that my unfortunate sister-in-law,’ he explained, ‘has almost this moment suffered a most appalling shock which we should all have desired to spare her. I only wish that I myself had made the discovery and suffered only the further distress of bringing the terrible news. Unfortunately it was Mrs Flood herself who found her aged grandfather, long sick and bedridden in this hotel, actually dead in the garden; in circumstances which point only too plainly to violence and assault. Curious circumstances, I may say, very curious circumstances indeed.’ And he coughed slightly, as if apologizing for them.

Flambeau bowed to the lady and expressed his sincere sympathies; then he said to the man: ‘I think you said, sir, that you are Mrs Flood’s brother-in-law.’

‘I am Dr Oscar Flood,’ replied the other. ‘My brother, this lady’s husband, is at present away on the Continent on business, and she is running the hotel. Her grandfather was partially paralysed and very far advanced in years. He was never known to leave his bedroom; so that really these extraordinary circumstances . . .’

‘Have you sent for a doctor or the police?’ asked Flambeau.

‘Yes,’ replied Dr Flood, ‘we rang up after making the dreadful discovery; but they can hardly be here for some hours. This roadhouse stands so very remote. It is only used by people going to Casterbury or even beyond. So we thought we might ask for your valuable assistance until — ’

‘If we are to be of any assistance,’ said Father Brown, interrupting in too abstracted a manner to seem uncivil, ‘I should say we had better go and look at the circumstances at once.’

He stepped almost mechanically towards the door; and almost ran into a man who was shouldering his way in; a big, heavy young man with dark hair unbrushed and untidy, who would nevertheless have been rather handsome save for a slight disfigurement of one eye, which gave him rather a sinister appearance.

‘What the devil are you doing?’ he blurted out, ‘telling every Tom, Dick and Harry — at least you ought to wait for the police.’

‘I will be answerable to the police,’ said Flambeau with a certain magnificence, and a sudden air of having taken command of everything. He advanced to the doorway, and as he was much bigger than the big young man, and his moustaches were as formidable as the horns of a Spanish bull, the big young man backed before him and had an inconsequent air of being thrown out and left behind, as the group swept out into the garden and up the flagged path towards the mulberry plantation. Only Flambeau heard the little priest say to the doctor: ‘He doesn’t seem to love us really, does he? By the way, who is he?’

‘His name is Dunn,’ said the doctor, with a certain restraint of manner. ‘My sister-in-law gave him the job of managing the garden, because he lost an eye in the War.’

As they went through the mulberry bushes, the landscape of the garden presented that rich yet ominous effect which is found when the land is actually brighter than the sky. In the broken sunlight from behind, the tree-tops in front of them stood up like pale green flames against a sky steadily blackening with storm, through every shade of purple and violet. The same light struck strips of the lawn and garden beds; and whatever it illuminated seemed more mysteriously sombre and secret for the light. The garden bed was dotted with tulips that looked like drops of dark blood, and some of which one might have sworn were truly black; and the line ended appropriately with a tulip tree; which Father Brown was disposed, if partly by some confused memory, to identify with what is commonly called the Judas tree. What assisted the association was the fact that there was hanging from one of the branches, like a dried fruit, the dry, thin body of an old man, with a long beard that wagged grotesquely in the wind.

There lay on it something more than the horror of darkness, the horror of sunlight; for the fitful sun painted tree and man in gay colours like a stage property; the tree was in flower and the corpse was hung with a faded peacock-green dressing-gown, and wore on its wagging head a scarlet smoking-cap. Also it had red bedroom-slippers, one of which had fallen off and lay on the grass like a blot of blood.

But neither Flambeau or Father Brown was looking at these things as yet. They were both staring at a strange object that seemed to stick out of the middle of the dead man’s shrunken figure; and which they gradually perceived to be the black but rather rusty iron hilt of a seventeenth-century sword, which had completely transfixed the body. They both remained almost motionless as they gazed at it; until the restless Dr Flood seemed to grow quite impatient with their stolidity.

‘What puzzles me most,’ he said, nervously snapping his fingers, ‘is the actual state of the body. And yet it has given me an idea already.’

Flambeau had stepped up to the tree and was studying the sword-hilt through an eye-glass. But for some odd reason, it was at that very instant that the priest in sheer perversity spun round like a teetotum, turned his back on the corpse, and looked peeringly in the very opposite direction. He was just in time to see the red head of Mrs Flood at the remote end of the garden, turned towards a dark young man, too dim with distance to be identified, who was at that moment mounting a motor-bicycle; who vanished, leaving behind him only the dying din of that vehicle. Then the woman turned and began to walk towards them across the garden, just as Father Brown turned also and began a careful inspection of the sword-hilt and the hanging corpse.

‘I understand you only found him about half an hour ago,’ said Flambeau. ‘Was there anybody about here just before that? I mean anybody in his bedroom, or that part of the house, or this part of the garden — say for an hour beforehand?’

‘No,’ said the doctor with precision. ‘That is the very tragic accident. My sister-in-law was in the pantry, which is a sort of out-house on the other side; this man Dunn was in the kitchen garden, which is also in that direction; and I myself was poking about among the books, in a room just behind the one you found me in. There are two female servants, but one had gone to the post and the other was in the attic.’

‘And were any of these people,’ asked Flambeau, very quietly, ‘I say any of these people, at all on bad terms with the poor old gentleman?’

‘He was the object of almost universal affection,’ replied the doctor solemnly. ‘If there were any misunderstandings, they were mild and of a sort common in modern times. The old man was attached to the old religious habits; and perhaps his daughter and son-in-law had rather wider views. All that can have had nothing to do with a ghastly and fantastic assassination like this.’

‘It depends on how wide the modern views were,’ said Father Brown, ‘or how narrow.’

At this moment they heard Mrs Flood hallooing across the garden as she came, and calling her brother-in-law to her with a certain impatience. He hurried towards her and was soon out of earshot; but as he went he waved his hand apologetically and then pointed with a long finger to the ground.

‘You will find the footprints very intriguing,’ he said; with the same strange air, as of a funereal showman.

The two amateur detectives looked across at each other. ‘I find several other things intriguing,’ said Flambeau.

‘Oh, yes,’ said the priest, staring rather foolishly at the grass.

‘I was wondering,’ said Flambeau, ‘why they should hang a man by the neck till he was dead, and then take the trouble to stick him with a sword.’

‘And I was wondering,’ said Father Brown, ‘why they should kill a man with a sword thrust through his heart, and then take the trouble to hang him by the neck.’

‘Oh, you are simply being contrary,’ protested his friend. ‘I can see at a glance that they didn’t stab him alive. The body would have bled more and the wound wouldn’t have closed like that.’

‘And I could see at a glance,’ said Father Brown, peering up very awkwardly, with his short stature and short sight, ‘that they didn’t hang him alive. If you’ll look at the knot in the noose, you will see it’s tied so clumsily that a twist of rope holds it away from the neck, so that it couldn’t throttle a man at all. He was dead before they put the rope on him; and he was dead before they put the sword in him. And how was he really killed?’

‘I think,’ remarked the other, ‘that we’d better go back to the house and have a look at his bedroom — and other things.’

‘So we will,’ said Father Brown. ‘But among other things perhaps we had better have a look at these footprints. Better begin at the other end, I think, by his window. Well, there are no footprints on the paved path, as there might be; but then again there mightn’t be. Well, here is the lawn just under his bedroom window. And here are his footprints plain enough.’

He blinked ominously at the footprints; and then began carefully retracing his path towards the tree, every now and then ducking in an undignified manner to look at something on the ground. Eventually he returned to Flambeau and said in a chatty manner:

‘Well, do you know the story that is written there very plainly? Though it’s not exactly a plain story.’

‘I wouldn’t be content to call it plain,’ said Flambeau. ‘I should call it quite ugly — ’

‘Well,’ said Father Brown, ‘the story that is stamped quite plainly on the earth, with exact moulds of the old man’s slippers, is this. The aged paralytic leapt from the window and ran down the beds parallel to the path, quite eager for all the fun of being strangled and stabbed; so eager that he hopped on one leg out of sheer lightheartedness; and even occasionally turned cartwheels — ’

‘Stop!’ cried Flambeau, angrily. ‘What the hell is all this hellish pantomime?’

Father Brown merely raised his eyebrows and gestured mildly towards the hieroglyphs in the dust. ‘About half the way there’s only the mark of one slipper; and in some places the mark of a hand planted all by itself.’

‘Couldn’t he have limped and then fallen?’ asked Flambeau.

Father Brown shook his head. ‘At least he’d have tried to use his hands and feet, or knees and elbows, in getting up. There are no other marks there of any kind. Of course the flagged path is quite near, and there are no marks on that; though there might be on the soil between the cracks; it’s a crazy pavement.’

‘By God, it’s a crazy pavement; and a crazy garden; and a crazy story!’ And Flambeau looked gloomily across the gloomy and storm-stricken garden, across which the crooked patchwork paths did indeed give a queer aptness to the quaint old English adjective.

‘And now,’ said Father Brown, ‘let us go up and look at his room.’ They went in by a door not far from the bedroom window; and the priest paused a moment to look at an ordinary garden broomstick, for sweeping up leaves, that was leaning against the wall. ‘Do you see that?’

‘It’s a broomstick,’ said Flambeau, with solid irony.

‘It’s a blunder,’ said Father Brown; ‘the first blunder that I’ve seen in this curious plot.’

They mounted the stairs and entered the old man’s bedroom; and a glance at it made fairly clear the main facts, both about the foundation and disunion of the family. Father Brown had felt from the first that he was in what was, or had been, a Catholic household; but was, at least partly, inhabited by lapsed or very loose Catholics. The pictures and images in the grandfather’s room made it clear that what positive piety remained had been practically confined to him; and that his kindred had, for some reason or other, gone Pagan. But he agreed that this was a hopelessly inadequate explanation even of an ordinary murder; let alone such a very extraordinary murder as this. ‘Hang it all,’ he muttered, ‘the murder is really the least extra-ordinary part of it.’ And even as he used the chance phrase, a slow light began to dawn upon his face.

Flambeau had seated himself on a chair by the little table which stood beside the dead man’s bed. He was frowning thoughtfully at three or four white pills or pellets that lay in a small tray beside a bottle of water.

‘The murderer or murderess,’ said Flambeau, ‘had some incomprehensible reason or other for wanting us to think the dead man was strangled or stabbed or both. He was not strangled or stabbed or anything of the kind. Why did they want to suggest it? The most logical explanation is that he died in some particular way which would, in itself, suggest a connection with some particular person. Suppose, for instance, he was poisoned. And suppose somebody is involved who would naturally look more like a poisoner than anybody else.’

‘After all,’ said Father Brown softly, ‘our friend in the blue spectacles is a doctor.’

‘I’m going to examine these pills pretty carefully,’ went on Flambeau. ‘I don’t want to lose them, though. They look as if they were soluble in water.’

‘It may take you some time to do anything scientific with them,’ said the priest, ‘and the police doctor may be here before that. So I should certainly advise you not to lose them. That is, if you are going to wait for the police doctor.’

‘I am going to stay here till I have solved this problem,’ said Flambeau.

‘Then you will stay here for ever,’ said Father Brown, looking calmly out of the window. ‘I don’t think I shall stay in this room, anyhow.’

‘Do you mean that I shan’t solve the problem?’ asked his friend. ‘Why shouldn’t I solve the problem?’

‘Because it isn’t soluble in water. No, nor in blood,’ said the priest; and he went down the dark stairs into the darkening garden. There he saw again what he had already seen from the window.

The heat and weight and obscurity of the thunderous sky seemed to be pressing yet more closely on the landscape; the clouds had conquered the sun which, above, in a narrowing clearance, stood up paler than the moon. There was a thrill of thunder in the air, but now no more stirring of wind or breeze; and even the colours of the garden seemed only like richer shades of darkness. But one colour still glowed with a certain dusky vividness; and that was the red hair of the woman of that house, who was standing with a sort of rigidity, staring, with her hands thrust up into her hair. That scene of eclipse, with something deeper in his own doubts about its significance, brought to the surface the memory of haunting and mystical lines; and he found himself murmuring: ‘A secret spot, as savage and enchanted as e’er beneath a waning moon was haunted by woman wailing for her demon lover.’ His muttering became more agitated. ‘Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners . . . that’s what it is; that’s terribly like what it is; woman wailing for her demon lover.’

He was hesitant and almost shaky as he approached the woman; but he spoke with his common composure. He was gazing at her very steadily, as he told her earnestly that she must not be morbid because of the mere accidental accessories of the tragedy, with all their mad ugliness. ‘The pictures in your grandfather’s room were truer to him than that ugly picture that we saw,’ he said gravely. ‘Something tells me he was a good man; and it does not matter what his murderers did with his body.’

‘Oh, I am sick of his holy pictures and statues!’ she said, turning her head away. ‘Why don’t they defend themselves, if they are what you say they are? But rioters can knock off the Blessed Virgin’s head and nothing happens to them. Oh, what’s the good? You can’t blame us, you daren’t blame us, if we’ve found out that Man is stronger than God.’

‘Surely,’ said Father Brown very gently, ‘it is not generous to make even God’s patience with us a point against Him.’

‘God may be patient and Man impatient,’ she answered, ‘and suppose we like the impatience better. You call it sacrilege; but you can’t stop it.’

Father Brown gave a curious little jump. ‘Sacrilege!’ he said; and suddenly turned back to the doorway with a new brisk air of decision. At the same moment Flambeau appeared in the doorway, pale with excitement, with a screw of paper in his hands. Father Brown had already opened his mouth to speak, but his impetuous friend spoke before him.

‘I’m on the track at last!’ cried Flambeau. ‘These pills look the same, but they’re really different. And do you know that, at the very moment I spotted them, that one-eyed brute of a gardener thrust his white face into the room; and he was carrying a horse-pistol. I knocked it out of his hand and threw him down the stairs, but I begin to understand everything. If I stay here another hour or two, I shall finish my job.’

‘Then you will not finish it,’ said the priest, with a ring in his voice very rare in him indeed. ‘We shall not stay here another hour. We shall not stay here another minute. We must leave this place at once!’

‘What!’ cried the astounded Flambeau. ‘Just when we are getting near the truth! Why, you can tell that we’re getting near the truth because they are afraid of us.’

Father Brown looked at him with a stony and inscrutable face, and said: ‘They are not afraid of us when we are here. They will only be afraid of us when we are not here.’

They had both become conscious that the rather fidgety figure of Dr Flood was hovering in the lurid haze; now it precipitated itself forward with the wildest gestures.

‘Stop! Listen!’ cried the agitated doctor. ‘I have discovered the truth!’

‘Then you can explain it to your own police,’ said Father Brown, briefly. ‘They ought to be coming soon. But we must be going.’

The doctor seemed thrown into a whirlpool of emotions, eventually rising to the surface again with a despairing cry. He spread out his arms like a cross, barring their way.

‘Be it so!’ he cried. ‘I will not deceive you now, by saying I have discovered the truth. I will only confess the truth.’

‘Then you can confess it to your own priest,’ said Father Brown, and strode towards the garden gate, followed by his staring friend. Before he reached the gate, another figure had rushed athwart him like the wind; and Dunn the gardener was shouting at him some unintelligible derision at detectives who were running away from their job. Then the priest ducked just in time to dodge a blow from the horse-pistol, wielded like a club. But Dunn was just not in time to dodge a blow from the fist of Flambeau, which was like the club of Hercules. The two left Mr Dunn spread flat behind them on the path, and, passing out of the gate, went out and got into their car in silence. Flambeau only asked one brief question and Father Brown only answered: ‘Casterbury.’

At last, after a long silence, the priest observed: ‘I could almost believe the storm belonged only to that garden, and came out of a storm in the soul.’

‘My friend,’ said Flambeau. ‘I have known you a long time, and when you show certain signs of certainty, I follow your lead. But I hope you are not going to tell me that you took me away from that fascinating job, because you did not like the atmosphere.’

‘Well, it was certainly a terrible atmosphere,’ replied Father Brown, calmly. ‘Dreadful and passionate and oppressive. And the most dreadful thing about it was this — that there was no hate in it at all.’

‘Somebody,’ suggested Flambeau, ‘seems to have had a slight dislike of grandpapa.’

‘Nobody had any dislike of anybody,’ said Father Brown with a groan. ‘That was the dreadful thing in that darkness. It was love.’

‘Curious way of expressing love — to strangle somebody and stick him with a sword,’ observed the other.

‘It was love,’ repeated the priest, ‘and it filled the house with terror.’

‘Don’t tell me,’ protested Flambeau, ‘that that beautiful woman is in love with that spider in spectacles.’

‘No,’ said Father Brown and groaned again. ‘She is in love with her husband. It is ghastly.’

‘It is a state of things that I have often heard you recommend,’ replied Flambeau. ‘You cannot call that lawless love.’

‘Not lawless in that sense,’ answered Father Brown; then he turned sharply on his elbow and spoke with a new warmth: ‘Do you think I don’t know that the love of a man and a woman was the first command of God and is glorious for ever? Are you one of those idiots who think we don’t admire love and marriage? Do I need to be told of the Garden of Eden or the wine of Cana? It is just because the strength in the thing was the strength of God, that it rages with that awful energy even when it breaks loose from God. When the Garden becomes a jungle, but still a glorious jungle; when the second fermentation turns the wine of Cana into the vinegar of Calvary. Do you think I don’t know all that?’

‘I’m sure you do,’ said Flambeau, ‘but I don’t yet know much about my problem of the murder.’

‘The murder cannot be solved,’ said Father Brown.

‘And why not?’ demanded his friend.

‘Because there is no murder to solve,’ said Father Brown.

Flambeau was silent with sheer surprise; and it was his friend who resumed in a quiet tone:

‘I’ll tell you a curious thing. I talked with that woman when she was wild with grief; but she never said anything about the murder. She never mentioned murder, or even alluded to murder. What she did mention repeatedly was sacrilege.’ Then, with another jerk of verbal disconnection, he added: ‘Have you ever heard of Tiger Tyrone?’

‘Haven’t I!’ cried Flambeau. ‘Why, that’s the very man who’s supposed to be after the reliquary, and whom I’ve been commissioned specially to circumvent. He’s the most violent and daring gangster who ever visited this country; Irish, of course, but the sort that goes quite crazily anti-clerical. Perhaps he’s dabbled in a little diabolism in these secret societies; anyhow, he has a macabre taste for playing all sorts of wild tricks that look wickeder than they are. Otherwise he’s not the wickedest; he seldom kills, and never for cruelty; but he loves doing anything to shock people, especially his own people; robbing churches or digging up skeletons or what not.’

‘Yes,’ said Father Brown, ‘it all fits in. I ought to have seen it all long before.’

‘I don’t see how we could have seen anything, after only an hour’s investigation,’ said the detective defensively.

‘I ought to have seen it before there was anything to investigate,’ said the priest. ‘I ought to have known it before you arrived this morning.’

‘What on earth do you mean?’

‘It only shows how wrong voices sound on the telephone,’ said Father Brown reflectively. ‘I heard all three stages of the thing this morning; and I thought they were trifles. First, a woman rang me up and asked me to go to that inn as soon as possible. What did that mean? Of course it meant that the old grandfather was dying. Then she rang up to say that I needn’t go, after all. What did that mean? Of course it meant that the old grandfather was dead. He had died quite peaceably in his bed; probably heart failure from sheer old age. And then she rang up a third time and said I was to go, after all. What did that mean? Ah, that is rather more interesting!’

He went on after a moment’s pause: ‘Tiger Tyrone, whose wife worships him, took hold of one of his mad ideas, and yet it was a crafty idea, too. He had just heard that you were tracking him down, that you knew him and his methods and were coming to save the reliquary; he may have heard that I have sometimes been of some assistance. He wanted to stop us on the road; and his trick for doing it was to stage a murder. It was a pretty horrible thing to do; but it wasn’t a murder. Probably he bullied his wife with an air of brutal common sense, saying he could only escape penal servitude by using a dead body that couldn’t suffer anything from such use. Anyhow, his wife would do anything for him; but she felt all the unnatural hideousness of that hanging masquerade; and that’s why she talked about sacrilege. She was thinking of the desecration of the relic; but also of the desecration of the death-bed. The brother’s one of those shoddy “scientific” rebels who tinker with dud bombs; an idealist run to seed. But he’s devoted to Tiger; and so is the gardener. Perhaps it’s a point in his favour that so many people seem devoted to him.

‘There was one little point that set me guessing very early. Among the old books the doctor was turning over, was a bundle of seventeeth-century pamphlets; and I caught one title: True Declaration of the Trial and Execution of My Lord Stafford. Now Stafford was executed in the Popish Plot business, which began with one of history’s detective stories; the death of Sir Edmund Berry Godfrey. Godfrey was found dead in a ditch, and part of the mystery was that he had marks of strangulation, but was also transfixed with his own sword. I thought at once that somebody in the house might have got the idea from here. But he couldn’t have wanted it as a way of committing a murder. He can only have wanted it as a way of creating a mystery. Then I saw that this applied to all the other outrageous details. They were devilish enough; but it wasn’t mere devilry; there was a rag of excuse; because they had to make the mystery as contradictory and complicated as possible, to make sure that we should be a long time solving it — or rather seeing through it. So they dragged the poor old man off his deathbed and made the corpse hop and turn cartwheels and do everything that it couldn’t have done. They had to give us an Insoluble Problem. They swept their own tracks off the path, leaving the broom. Fortunately we did see through it in time.’

‘You saw through it in time,’ said Flambeau. ‘I might have lingered a little longer over the second trail they left, sprinkled with assorted pills.’

‘Well, anyhow, we got away,’ said Father Brown, comfortably.

‘And that, I presume,’ said Flambeau, ‘is the reason I am driving at this rate along the road to Casterbury.’

That night in the monastery and church at Casterbury there were events calculated to stagger monastic seclusion. The reliquary of St Dorothy, in a casket gorgeous with gold and rubies, was temporarily placed in a side room near the chapel of the monastery, to be brought in with a procession for a special service at the end of Benediction. It was guarded for the moment by one monk, who watched it in a tense and vigilant manner; for he and his brethren knew all about the shadow of peril from the prowling of Tiger Tyrone. Thus it was that the monk was on his feet in a flash, when he saw one of the low-latticed windows beginning to open and a dark object crawling like a black serpent through the crack. Rushing across, he gripped it and found it was the arm and sleeve of a man, terminating with a handsome cuff and a smart dark-grey glove. Laying hold of it, he shouted for help, and even as he did so, a man darted into the room through the door behind his back and snatched the casket he had left behind him on the table. Almost at the same instant, the arm wedged in the window came away in his hand, and he stood holding the stuffed limb of a dummy.

Tiger Tyrone had played that trick before, but to the monk it was a novelty. Fortunately, there was at least one person to whom the Tiger’s tricks were not a novelty; and that person appeared with militant moustaches, gigantically framed in the doorway, at the very moment when the Tiger turned to escape by it. Flambeau and Tiger Tyrone looked at each other with steady eyes and exchanged something that was almost like a military salute.

Meanwhile Father Brown had slipped into the chapel, to say a prayer for several persons involved in these unseemly events. But he was rather smiling than otherwise, and, to tell the truth, he was not by any means hopeless about Mr Tyrone and his deplorable family; but rather more hopeful than he was for many more respectable people. Then his thoughts widened with the grander perspectives of the place and the occasion. Against black and green marbles at the end of the rather rococo chapel, the dark-red vestments of the festival of a martyr were in their turn a background for a fierier red; a red like red-hot coals; the rubies of the reliquary; the roses of St Dorothy. And he had again a thought to throw back to the strange events of that day, and the woman who had shuddered at the sacrilege she had helped. After all, he thought, St Dorothy also had a Pagan lover; but he had not dominated her or destroyed her faith. She had died free and for the truth; and then had sent him roses from Paradise.

He raised his eyes and saw through the veil of incense smoke and of twinkling lights that Benediction was drawing to its end while the procession waited. The sense of accumulated riches of time and tradition pressed past him like a crowd moving in rank after rank, through unending centuries; and high above them all, like a garland of unfading flames, like the sun of our mortal midnight, the great monstrance blazed against the darkness of the vaulted shadows, as it blazed against the black enigma of the universe. For some are convinced that this enigma also is an Insoluble Problem. And others have equal certitude that it has but one solution.

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