THE soul of Mr. Peregrine Smart hovered like a fly round one possession and one joke. It might be considered a mild joke, for it consisted merely of asking people if they had seen his goldfish. It might also be considered an expensive joke; but it is doubtful whether he was not secretly more attached to the joke than to the evidence of expenditure. In talking to his neighbours in the little group of new houses that had grown up round the old village green, he lost no time in turning the conversation in the direction of his hobby. To Dr. Burdock, a rising biologist with a resolute chin and hair brushed back like a German’s, Mr. Smart made the easy transition. “You are interested in natural history; have you seen my goldfish?” To so orthodox an evolutionist as Dr. Burdock doubtless all nature was one; but at first sight the link was not close, as he was a specialist who had concentrated entirely upon the primitive ancestry of the giraffe. To Father Brown, from a church in the neighbouring provincial town, he traced a rapid train of thought which touched on the topics of “Rome — St. Peter — fisherman — fish — goldfish.” In talking to Mr. Imlack Smith, the bank manager, a slim and sallow gentleman of dressy appearance but quiet demeanour, he violently wrenched the conversation to the subject of the gold standard, from which it was merely a step to goldfish. In talking to that brilliant Oriental traveller and scholar, Count Yvon de Lara (whose title was French and his face rather Russian, not to say Tartar), the versatile conversationalist showed an intense and intelligent interest in the Ganges and the Indian Ocean, leading naturally to the possible presence of goldfish in those waters.
From Mr. Harry Hartopp, the very rich but very shy and silent young gentleman who had recently come down from London, he had at last extorted the information that the embarrassed youth in question was not interested in fishing, and had then added: “Talking about fishing, have you seen my goldfish?”
The peculiar thing about the goldfish was that they were made of gold. They were part of an eccentric but expensive toy, said to have been made by the freak of some rich Eastern prince, and Mr. Smart had picked it up at some sale or in some curiosity shop, such as he frequented for the purpose of lumbering up his house with unique and useless things. From the other end of the room it looked like a rather unusually large bowl containing rather unusually large living fish; a closer inspection showed it to be a huge bubble of beautifully blown Venetian glass, very thin and delicately clouded with faintly iridescent colour, in the tinted twilight of which hung grotesque golden fishes with great rubies for eyes. The whole thing was undoubtedly worth a great deal in solid material; how much more would depend upon the waves of lunacy passing over the world of collectors. Mr. Smart’s new secretary, a young man named Francis Boyle, though an Irishman and not credited with caution, was mildly surprised at his talking so freely of the gems of his collection to the group of comparative strangers who happened to have alighted in a rather nomadic fashion in the neighbourhood; for collectors are commonly vigilant and sometimes secretive. In the course of settling down to his new duties, Mr. Boyle found he was not alone in this sentiment, and that in others, it passed from a mild wonder to a grave disapproval.
“It’s a wonder his throat isn’t cut,” said Mr. Smart’s valet, Harris, not without a hypothetical relish, almost as if he had said, in a purely artistic sense: “It’s a pity.”
“It’s extraordinary how he leaves things about,” said Mr. Smart’s head clerk, Jameson, who had come up from the office to assist the new secretary, “and he won’t even put up those ramshackle old bars across his ramshackle old door.”
“It’s all very well with Father Brown and the doctor,” said Mr. Smart’s housekeeper, with a certain vigorous vagueness that marked her opinions, “but when it comes to foreigners, I call it tempting providence. It isn’t only the Count, either; that man at the bank looks to me much too yellow to be English.”
“Well, that young Hartopp is English enough,” said Boyle good-humouredly, “to the extent of not having a word to say for himself.”
“He thinks the more,” said the housekeeper. “He may not be exactly a foreigner, but he is not such a fool as he looks. Foreign is as foreign does, I say,” she added darkly.
Her disapproval would probably have deepened if she had heard the conversation, in her master’s drawing-room that afternoon, a conversation of which the goldfish were the text, though the offensive foreigner tended more and more to be the central figure. It was not that he spoke so very much; but even his silences had something positive about them. He looked the more massive for sitting in a sort of heap on a heap of cushions, and in the deepening twilight his wide Mongolian face seemed faintly luminous, like a moon. Perhaps his background brought out something atmospherically Asiatic about his face and figure, for the room was a chaos of more or less costly curiosities, amid which could be seen the crooked curves and burning colours of countless Eastern weapons, Eastern pipes and vessels, Eastern musical instruments and illuminated manuscripts. Anyhow, as the conversation proceeded, Boyle felt more and more that the figure seated on the cushions and dark against the twilight had the exact outline of a huge image of Buddha.
The conversation was general enough, for all the little local group were present. They were, indeed, often in the habit of dropping in at each other’s houses, and by this time constituted a sort of club, of people coming from the four or five houses standing round the green. Of these houses Peregrine Smart’s was the oldest, largest, and most picturesque; it straggled down almost the whole of one side of the square, leaving only room for a small villa, inhabited by a retired colonel named Varney, who was reported to be an invalid, and certainly was never seen to go abroad. At right angles to these stood two or three shops that served the simpler needs of the hamlet, and at the corner the inn of the Blue Dragon, at which Mr. Hartopp, the stranger from London, was staying. On the opposite side were three houses, one rented by the Count de Lara, one by Dr. Burdock, and the third still standing empty. On the fourth side was the bank, with an adjoining house for the bank manager, and a line of fence enclosing some land that was let for building. It was thus a very self-contained group, and the comparative emptiness of the open ground for miles round it threw the members more and more on each other’s society. That afternoon, one stranger had indeed broken into the magic circle: a hatchet-faced fellow with fierce tufts of eyebrows and moustache, and so shabbily dressed that he must have been a millionaire or a duke if he had really (as was alleged) come down to do business with the old collector. But he was known, at the Blue Dragon at least, as Mr. Harmer.
To him had been recounted anew the glories of the gilded fish and the criticisms regarding their custody.
“People are always telling me I ought to lock them up more carefully,” observed Mr. Smart, cocking an eyebrow over his shoulder at the dependant who stood there holding some papers from the office. Smart was a round-faced, round-bodied little old man rather like a bald parrot. “Jameson and Harris and the rest are always at me to bar the doors as if it were a mediaeval fortress, though really these rotten old rusty bars are too mediaeval to keep anybody out, I should think. I prefer to trust to luck and the local police.”
“It is not always the best bars that keep people out,” said the Count. “It all depends on who’s trying to get in. There was an ancient Hindu hermit who lived naked in a cave and passed through the three armies that encircled the Mogul and took the great ruby out of the tyrant’s turban, and went back unscathed like a shadow. For he wished to teach the great how small are the laws of space and time.”
“When we really study the small laws of space and time,” said Dr. Burdock dryly, “we generally find out how those tricks are done. Western science has let in daylight on a good deal of Eastern magic. Doubtless a great deal can be done with hypnotism and suggestion, to say nothing of sleight-of-hand.”
“The ruby was not in the royal tent,” observed the Count in his dream fashion; “but he found it among a hundred tents.”
“Can’t all that be explained by telepathy?” asked the doctor sharply. The question sounded the sharper because it was followed by a heavy silence, almost as if the distinguished Oriental traveller had, with imperfect politeness, gone to sleep.
“I beg your pardon,” he said rousing himself with a sudden smile. “I had forgotten we were talking with words. In the east we talk with thoughts, and so we never misunderstand each other. It is strange how you people worship words and are satisfied with words. What difference does it make to a thing that you now call it telepathy, as you once called it tomfoolery? If a man climbs into the sky on a mango-tree, how is it altered by saying it is only levitation, instead of saying it is only lies. If a medieval witch waved a wand and turned me into a blue baboon, you would say it was only atavism.”
The doctor looked for a moment as if he might say that it would not be so great a change after all. But before his irritation could find that or any other vent, the man called Harmer interrupted gruffly:
“It’s true enough those Indian conjurers can do queer things, but I notice they generally do them in India. Confederates, perhaps, or merely mass psychology. I don’t think those tricks have ever been played in an English village, and I should say our friend’s goldfish were quite safe.”
“I will tell you a story,” said de Lara, in his motionless way, “which happened not in India, but outside an English barrack in the most modernized part of Cairo. A sentinel was standing inside the grating of an iron gateway looking out between the bars on to the street. There appeared outside the gate a beggar, barefoot and in native rags, who asked him, in English that was startlingly distinct and refined, for a certain official document kept in the building for safety. The soldier told the man, of course, that he could not come inside; and the man answered, smiling: ‘What is inside and what is outside?’ The soldier was still staring scornfully through the iron grating when he gradually realized that, though neither he nor the gate had moved, he was actually standing in the street and looking in at the barrack yard, where the beggar stood still and smiling and equally motionless. Then, when the beggar turned towards the building, the sentry awoke to such sense as he had left, and shouted a warning to all the soldiers within the gated enclosure to hold the prisoner fast. ‘You won’t get out of there anyhow,’ he said vindictively. Then the beggar said in his silvery voice: ‘What is outside and what is inside?’ And the soldier, still glaring through the same bars, saw that they were once more between him and the street, where the beggar stood free and smiling with a paper in his hand.”
Mr. Imlack Smith, the bank manager, was looking at the carpet with his dark sleek head bowed, and he spoke for the first time.
“Did anything happen about the paper?” he asked.
“Your professional instincts are correct, sir,” said the Count with grim affability. “It was a paper of considerable financial importance. Its consequences were international.”
“I hope they don’t occur often,” said young Hartopp gloomily.
“I do not touch the political side,” said the Count serenely, “but only the philosophical. It illustrates how the wise man can get behind time and space and turn the levers of them, so to speak, so that the whole world turns round before our eyes. But is it so hard for you people to believe that spiritual powers are really more powerful than material ones.”
“Well,” said old Smart cheerfully, “I don’t profess to be an authority on spiritual powers. What do you say, Father Brown?”
“The only thing that strikes me,” answered the little priest, “is that all the supernatural acts we have yet heard of seem to be thefts. And stealing by spiritual methods seem to me much the same as stealing by material ones.”
“Father Brown is a Philistine,” said the smiling Smith.
“I have a sympathy with the tribe,” said Father Brown. “A Philistine is only a man who is right without knowing why.”
“All this is too clever for me,” said Hartopp heartily.
“Perhaps,” said Father Brown with a smile, “you would like to speak without words, as the Count suggests. He would begin by saying nothing in a pointed fashion, and you would retort with a burst of taciturnity.”
“Something might be done with music,” murmured the Count dreamily. “It would be better than all these words.”
“Yes, I might understand that better,” said the young man in a low voice.
Boyle had followed the conversation with curious attention, for there was something in the demeanour of more than one of the talkers that seemed to him significant or even odd. As the talk drifted to music, with an appeal to the dapper bank manager (who was an amateur musician of some merit), the young secretary awoke with a start to his secretarial duties, and reminded his employer that the head clerk was still standing patiently with the papers in his hand.
“Oh, never mind about those just now, Jameson,” said Smart rather hurriedly. “Only something about my account; I’ll see Mr. Smith about it later. You were saying that the ‘cello, Mr. Smith —— ”
But the cold breath of business had sufficed to disperse the fumes of transcendental talk, and the guests began one after another to say farewell. Only Mr. Imlack Smith, bank manager and musician, remained to the last; and when the rest were gone he and his host went into the inner room, where the goldfish were kept, and closed the door.
The house was long and narrow, with a covered balcony running along the first floor, which consisted mostly of a sort of suite of rooms used by the householder himself, his bedroom and dressing-room, and an inner room in which his very valuable treasures were sometimes stored for the night instead of being left in the rooms below. This balcony, like the insufficiently barred door below it, was a matter of concern to the housekeeper and the head clerk and the others who lamented the carelessness of the collector; but, in truth, that cunning old gentleman was more careful than he seemed. He professed no great belief in the antiquated fastenings of the old house, which the housekeeper lamented to see rusting in idleness, but he had an eye to the more important point of strategy. He always put his favourite goldfish in the room at the back of his bedroom for the night, and slept in front of it, as it were, with a pistol under his pillow. And when Boyle and Jameson, awaiting his return from the tete-a-tete, at length saw the door open and their employer reappear, he was carrying the great glass bowl as reverently as if it had been the relic of a saint.
Outside, the last edges of the sunset still clung to the corners of the green square; but inside, a lamp had already been kindled; and in the mingling of the two lights the coloured globe glowed like some monstrous jewel, and the fantastic outlines of the fiery fishes seemed to give it, indeed, something of the mystery of a talisman, like strange shapes seen by a seer in the crystal of doom. Over the old man’s shoulder the olive face of Imlack Smith stared like a sphinx.
“I am going up to London to-night, Mr. Boyle,” said old Smart, with more gravity than he commonly showed. “Mr. Smith and I are catching the six-forty-five. I should prefer you, Jameson, to sleep upstairs in my room to-night; if you put the bowl in the back room as usual, it will be quite safe then. Not that I suppose anything could possibly happen.”
“Anything may happen anywhere,” said the smiling Mr. Smith. “I think you generally take a gun to bed with you. Perhaps you had better leave it behind in this case.”
Peregrine Smart did not reply, and they passed out of the house on to the road round the village green.
The secretary and the head clerk slept that night as directed in their employer’s bedroom. To speak more strictly, Jameson, the head clerk, slept in a bed in the dressing-room, but the door stood open between, and the two rooms running along the front were practically one. Only the bedroom had a long French window giving on the balcony, and an entrance at the back into the inner apartment where the goldfish bowl had been placed for safety. Boyle dragged his bed right across so as to bar this entrance, put the revolver under his pillow, and then undressed and went to bed, feeling that he had taken all possible precautions against an impossible or improbable event. He did not see why there should be any particular danger of normal burglary; and as for the spiritual burglary that figured in the traveller’s tales of the Count de Lara, if his thoughts ran on them so near to sleep it was because they were such stuff as dreams are made of. They soon turned into dreams with intervals of dreamless slumber. The old clerk was a little more restless as usual; but after fussing about a little longer and repeating some of his favourite regrets and warnings, he also retired to his bed in the same manner and slept. The moon brightened and grew dim again above the green square and the grey blocks of houses in a solitude and silence that seemed to have no human witness; and it was when the white cracks of daybreak had already appeared in the corners of the grey sky that the thing happened.
Boyle, being young, was naturally both the healthier and the heavier sleeper of the two. Though active enough when he was once awake, he always had a load to lift in waking. Moreover, he had dreams of the sort that cling to the emerging minds like the dim tentacles of an octopus. They were a medley of many things, including his last look from the balcony across the four grey roads and the green square. But the pattern of them changed and shifted and turned dizzily, to the accompaniment of a low grinding noise, which sounded somehow like a subterranean river, and may have been no more than old Mr. Jameson snoring in the dressing-room. But in the dreamer’s mind all that murmur and motion was vaguely connected with the words of the Count de Lara, about a wisdom that could hold the levers of time and space and turn the world. In the dream it seemed as if a vast murmuring machinery under the world were really moving whole landscapes hither and thither, so that the ends of the earth might appear in a man’s front-garden, or his own front-garden be exiled beyond the sea.
The first complete impressions he had were the words of a song, with a rather thin metallic accompaniment; they were sung in a foreign accent and a voice that was still strange and yet faintly familiar. And yet he could hardly feel sure that he was not making up poetry in his sleep.
Over the land and over the sea
My flying fishes will come to me,
For the note is not of the world that wakes them,
But in ——
He struggled to his feet and saw that his fellow-guardian was already out of bed; Jameson was peering out of the long window on to the balcony and calling out sharply to someone in the street below.
“Who’s that?” he called out sharply. “What do you want?”
He turned to Boyle in agitation, saying: “There’s somebody prowling about just outside. I knew it wasn’t safe. I’m going down to bar that front door, whatever they say.”
He ran downstairs in a flutter and Boyle could hear the clattering of the bars upon the front door; but Boyle himself stepped out upon the balcony and looked out on the long grey road that led up to the house, and he thought he was still dreaming.
Upon that grey road leading across that empty moor and through that little English hamlet, there had appeared a figure that might have stepped straight out of the jungle or the bazaar — a figure out of one of the Count’s fantastic stories; a figure out of the “Arabian Nights.” The rather ghostly grey twilight which begins to define and yet to discolour everything when the light in the east has ceased to be localized, lifted slowly like a veil of grey gauze and showed him a figure wrapped in outlandish raiment. A scarf of a strange sea-blue, vast and voluminous, went round the head like a turban, and then again round the chin, giving rather the general character of a hood; so far as the face was concerned it had all the effects of a mask. For the raiment round the head was drawn close as a veil; and the head itself was bowed over a queer-looking musical instrument made of silver or steel, and shaped like a deformed or crooked violin. It was played with something like a silver comb, and the notes were curiously thin and keen. Before Boyle could open his mouth, the same haunting alien accent came from under the shadow of the burnous, singing-words of the same sort:
As the golden birds go back to the tree
My golden fishes return to me.
“You’ve no right here,” called out Boyle in exasperation, hardly knowing what he said.
“I have a right to the goldfish,” said the stranger, speaking more like King Solomon than an unsandalled Bedouin in a ragged blue cloak. “And they will come to me. Come!”
He struck his strange fiddle as his voice rose sharply on the word. There was a pang of sound that seemed to pierce the mind, and then there came a fainter sound, like an answer: a vibrant whisper. It came from the dark room behind where the bowl of goldfish was standing.
Boyle turned towards it; and even as he turned the echo in the inner room changed to a long tingling sound like an electric bell, and then to a faint crash. It was still a matter of seconds since he had challenged the man from the balcony; but the old clerk had already regained the top of the stairs, panting a little, for he was an elderly gentleman.
“I’ve locked up the door, anyhow,” he said.
“The stable door,” said Boyle out of the darkness of the inner room.
Jameson followed him into that apartment and found him staring down at the floor, which was covered with a litter of coloured glass like the curved bits of a broken rainbow.
“What do you mean by the stable door?” began Jameson.
“I mean that the steed is stolen,” answered Boyle. “The flying steeds. The flying fishes our Arab friend outside has just whistled to like so many performing puppies.”
“But how could he?” exploded the old clerk, as if such events were hardly respectable.
“Well, they’re gone,” said Boyle shortly. “The broken bowl is here, which would have taken a long time to open properly, but only a second to smash. But the fish are gone, God knows how, though I think our friend ought to be asked.”
“We are wasting time,” said the distracted Jameson. “We ought to be after him at once.”
“Much better be telephoning the police at once,” answered Boyle. “They ought to outstrip him in a flash with motors and telephones that go a good deal farther than we should ever get, running through the village in our nightgowns. But it may be there are things even the police cars and wires won’t outstrip.”
While Jameson was talking to the police-station through the telephone in an agitated voice, Boyle went out again on to the balcony and hastily scanned that grey landscape of daybreak. There was no trace of the man in the turban, and no other sign of life, except some faint stirrings an expert might have recognized in the hotel of the Blue Dragon. Only Boyle, for the first time, noted consciously something that he had all along been noting unconsciously. It was like a fact struggling in the submerged mind and demanding its own meaning. It was simply the fact that the grey landscape had never been entirely grey; there was one gold spot amid its stripes of colourless colour, a lamp lighted in one of the houses on the other side of the green — Something, perhaps irrational, told him that it had been burning through all the hours of the darkness and was only fading with the dawn. He counted the houses, and his calculation brought out a result which seemed to fit in with something, he knew not what. Anyhow, it was apparently the house of the Count Yvon de Lara.
Inspector Pinner had arrived with several policemen, and done several things of a rapid and resolute sort, being conscious that the very absurdity of the costly trinkets might give the case considerable prominence in the newspapers. He had examined everything, measured everything, taken down everybody’s deposition, taken everybody’s finger-prints, put everybody’s back up, and found himself at the end left facing a fact which he could not believe. An Arab from the desert had walked up the public road and stopped in front of the house of Mr. Peregrine Smart, where a bowl of artificial goldfish was kept in an inner room; he had then sung or recited a little poem, and the bowl had exploded like a bomb and the fishes vanished into thin air. Nor did it soothe the inspector to be told by a foreign Count — in a soft, purring voice — that the bounds of experience were being enlarged.
Indeed, the attitude of each member of the little group was characteristic enough. Peregrine Smart himself had come back from London the next morning to hear the news of his loss. Naturally he admitted a shock; but it was typical of something sporting and spirited in the little old gentleman, something that always made his small strutting figure look like a cock-sparrow’s, that he showed more vivacity in the search than depression at the loss. The man named Harmer, who had come to the village on purpose to buy the goldfish, might be excused for being a little testy on learning they were not there to be bought. But, in truth, his rather aggressive moustache and eyebrows seemed to bristle with something more definite than disappointment, and the eyes that darted over the company were bright with a vigilance that might well be suspicion. The sallow face of the bank manager, who had also returned from London though by a later train, seemed again and again to attract those shining and shifting eyes like a magnet. Of the two remaining figures of the original circle, Father Brown was generally silent when he was not spoken to, and the dazed Hartopp was often silent even when he was.
But the Count was not a man to let anything pass that gave an apparent advantage to his views. He smiled at his rationalistic rival, the doctor, in the manner of one who knows how it is possible to be irritating by being ingratiating.
“You will admit, doctor,” he said, “that at least some of the stories you thought so improbable look a little more realistic to-day than they did yesterday. When a man as ragged as those I described is able, by speaking a word, to dissolve a solid vessel inside the four walls of the house he stands outside, it might perhaps be called an example of what I said about spiritual powers and material barriers.”
“And it might be called an example of what I said,” said the doctor sharply, “about a little scientific knowledge being enough to show how the tricks are done.”
“Do you really mean, doctor,” asked Smart in some excitement, “that you can throw any scientific light on this mystery?”
“I can throw light on what the Count calls a mystery,” said the doctor, “because it is not a mystery at all. That part of it is plain enough. A sound is only a wave of vibration, and certain vibrations can break glass, if the sound is of a certain kind and the glass of a certain kind. The man did not stand in the road and think, which the Count tells us is the ideal method when Orientals want a little chat. He sang out what he wanted, quite loud, and struck a shrill note on an instrument. It is similar to many experiments by which glass of special composition has been cracked.”
“Such as the experiment,” said the Count lightly, “by which several lumps of solid gold have suddenly ceased to exist.”
“Here comes Inspector Pinner,” said Boyle. “Between ourselves, I think he would regard the doctor’s natural explanation as quite as much of a fairy tale as the Count’s preternatural one. A very sceptical intellect, Mr. Pinner’s, especially about me. I rather think I am under suspicion.”
“I think we are all under suspicion,” said the Count.
It was the presence of this suspicion in his own case that led Boyle to seek the personal advice of Father Brown. They were walking round the village green together, some hours later in the day, when the priest, who was frowning thoughtfully at the ground as he listened, suddenly stopped.
“Do you see that?” he asked. “Somebody’s been washing the pavement here — just this little strip of pavement outside Colonel Varney’s house. I wonder whether that was done yesterday.”
Father Brown looked rather earnestly at the house, which was high and narrow, and carried rows of striped sun-blinds of gay but already faded colours. The chinks or crannies that gave glimpses of the interior looked all the darker; indeed, they looked almost black in contrast with the facade thus golden in the morning light.
“That is Colonel Varney’s house, isn’t it?” he asked. “He comes from the East, too, I fancy. What sort of man is he?”
“I’ve never even seen him,” answered Boyle. “I don’t think anybody’s seen him, except Dr. Burdock, and I rather fancy the doctor doesn’t see him more than he need.”
“Well, I’m going to see him for a minute,” said Father Brown.
The big front door opened and swallowed the small priest, and his friend stood staring at it in a dazed and irrational manner, as if wondering whether it would ever open again. It opened in a few minutes, and Father Brown emerged, still smiling, and continued his slow and pottering progress round the square of roads. Sometimes he seemed to have forgotten the matter in hand altogether, for he would make passing remarks on historical and social questions, or on the prospects of development in the district. He remarked on the soil used for the beginning of a new road by the bank; he looked across the old village green with a vague expression.
“Common land. I suppose people ought to feed their pigs and geese on it, if they had any pigs or geese; as it is, it seems to feed nothing but nettles and thistles. What a pity that what was supposed to be a sort of large meadow has been turned into a small and petty wilderness. That’s Dr. Burdock’s house opposite, isn’t it?”
“Yes,” answered Boyle, almost jumping at this abrupt postscript.
“Very well,” answered Father Brown, “then I think we’ll go indoors again.”
As they opened the front door of Smart’s house and mounted the stairs, Boyle repeated to his companion many details of the drama enacted there at daybreak.
“I suppose you didn’t doze off again?” asked Father Brown, “giving time for somebody to scale the balcony while Jameson ran down to secure the door.”
“No,” answered Boyle; “I am sure of that. I woke up to hear Jameson challenging the stranger from the balcony; then I heard him running downstairs and putting up the bars, and then in two strides I was on the balcony myself.”
“Or could he have slipped in between you from another angle? Are there any other entrances besides the front entrance?”
“Apparently there are not,” said Boyle gravely.
“I had better make sure, don’t you think?” asked Father Brown apologetically, and scuttled softly downstairs again. Boyle remained in the front bedroom gazing rather doubtfully after him. After a comparatively brief interval the round and rather rustic visage appeared again at the head of the stairs, looking rather like a turnip ghost with a broad grin.
“No; I think that settles the matter of entrances,” said the turnip ghost, cheerfully. “And now, I think, having got everything in a tight box, so to speak, we can take stock of what we’ve got. It’s rather a curious business.”
“Do you think,” asked Boyle, ‘that the Count or the colonel, or any of these Eastern travellers have anything to do with it? Do you think it is — preternatural?”
“I will grant you this,” said the priest gravely, “if the Count, or the colonel, or any of your neighbours did dress up in Arab masquerade and creep up to this house in the dark — then it was preternatural.”
“What do you mean? Why?”
“Because the Arab left no footprints,” answered Father Brown. “The colonel on the one side and the banker on the other are the nearest of your neighbours. That loose red soil is between you and the bank, it would print off bare feet like a plaster cast and probably leave red marks everywhere. I braved the colonel’s curry-seasoned temper to verify the fact that the front pavement was washed yesterday and not to-day; it was wet enough to make wet footprints all along the road. Now, if the visitor were the Count or the doctor in the houses opposite, he might possibly, of course, have come across the common. But he must have found it exceedingly uncomfortable with bare feet, for it is, as I remarked, one mass of thorns and thistles and stinging nettles. He would surely have pricked himself and probably left traces of it. Unless, as you say, he was a preternatural being.”
Boyle looked steadily at the grave and indecipherable face of his clerical friend.
“Do you mean that he was?” he asked, at length.
“There is one general truth to remember,” said Father Brown, after a pause. “A thing can sometimes be too close to be seen, as, for instance, a man cannot see himself. There was a man who had a fly in his eye when he looked through the telescope, and he discovered that there was a most incredible dragon in the moon. And I am told that if a man hears the exact reproduction of his own voice it sounds like the voice of a stranger. In the same way, if anything is right in the foreground of our life we hardly see it, and if we did we might think it quite odd. If the thing in the foreground got into the middle distance, we should probably think it had come from the remote distance. Just come outside the house again for a moment. I want to show you how it looks from another standpoint.”
He had already risen, and as they descended the stairs he continued his remarks in a rather groping fashion as if he were thinking aloud.
“The Count and the Asiatic atmosphere all come in, because, in a case like this, everything depends on the preparation of the mind. A man can reach a condition in which a brick, falling on his head, will seem to be a Babylonian brick carved with cuneiform, and dropped from the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, so that he will never even look at the brick and see it is of one pattern with the bricks of his own house. So in your case — ”
“What does this mean?” interrupted Boyle, staring and pointing at the entrance. “What in the name of wonder does it mean? The door is barred again.”
He was staring at the front door by which they had entered but a little while before, and across which stood, once more, the great dark bands of rusty iron which had once, as he had said, locked the stable door too late. There was something darkly and dumbly ironic in those old fastenings closing behind them and imprisoning them as if of their own motion.
“Oh those!” said Father Brown casually. “I put up those bars myself, just now. Didn’t you hear me?”
“No,” answered Boyle, staring. “I heard nothing.”
“Well, I rather thought you wouldn’t,” said the other equably. “There’s really no reason why anybody upstairs should hear those bars being put up. A sort of hook fits easily into a sort of hole. When you’re quite close you hear a dull click; but that’s all. The only thing that makes any noise a man could hear upstairs, is this.”
And he lifted the bar out of its socket and let it fall with a clang at the side of the door,
“It does make a noise if you unbar the door,” said Father Brown gravely, “even if you do it pretty carefully.”
“You mean — ”
“I mean,” said Father Brown, “that what you heard upstairs was Jameson opening the door and not shutting it. And now let’s open the door ourselves and go outside.”
When they stood outside in the street, under the balcony, the little priest resumed his previous explanation as coolly as if it had been a chemical lecture.
“I was saying that a man may be in the mood to look for something very distant, and not realize that it is something very close, something very close to himself, perhaps something very like himself. It was a strange and outlandish thing that you saw when you looked down at this road. I suppose it never occurred to you to consider what he saw when he looked up at that balcony?”
Boyle was staring at the balcony and did not answer, and the other added:
“You thought it very wild and wonderful that an Arab should come through civilized England with bare feet. You did not remember that at the same moment you had bare feet yourself.”
Boyle at last found words, and it was to repeat words already spoken.
“Jameson opened the door,” he said mechanically.
“Yes,” assented, his friend. “Jameson opened the door and came out into the road in his nightclothes, just as you came out on the balcony. He caught up two things that you had seen a hundred times: the length of old blue curtain that he wrapped round his head, and the Oriental musical instrument you must have often seen in that heap of Oriental curiosities. The rest was atmosphere and acting, very fine acting, for he is a very fine artist in crime.”
“Jameson!” exclaimed Boyle incredulously. “He was such a dull old stick that I never even noticed him.”
“Precisely,” said the priest, “he was an artist. If he could act a wizard or a troubadour for six minutes, do you think he could not act a clerk for six weeks?”
“I am still not quite sure of his object,” said Boyle.
“His object has been achieved,” replied Father Brown, “or very nearly achieved. He had taken the goldfish already, of course, as he had twenty chances of doing. But if he had simply taken them, everybody would have realized that he had twenty chances of doing it. By creating a mysterious magician from the end of the earth, he set everybody’s thoughts wandering far afield to Arabia and India, so that you yourself can hardly believe that the whole thing was so near home. It was too close to you to be seen.”
“If this is true,” said Boyle, “it was an extraordinary risk to run, and he had to cut it very fine. It’s true I never heard the man in the street say anything while Jameson was talking from the balcony, so I suppose that was all a fake. And I suppose it’s true that there was time for him to get outside before I had fully woken up and got out on to the balcony.”
“Every crime depends on somebody not waking up too soon,” replied Father Brown; “and in every sense most of us wake up too late. I, for one, have woken up much too late. For I imagine he’s bolted long ago, just before or just after they took his finger-prints.”
“You woke up before anybody else, anyhow,” said Boyle, “and I should never have woken up in that sense. Jameson was so correct and colourless that I forgot all about him.”
“Beware of the man you forget,” replied his friend; “he is the one man who has you entirely at a disadvantage. But I did not suspect him, either, until you told me how you had heard him barring the door.”
“Anyhow, we owe it all to you,” said Boyle warmly.
“You owe it all to Mrs. Robinson,” said Father Brown with a smile.
“Mrs. Robinson?” questioned the wondering secretary. “You don’t mean the housekeeper?”
“Beware of the woman you forget, and even more,” answered the other. “This man was a very high-class criminal; he had been an excellent actor, and therefore he was a good psychologist. A man like the Count never hears any voice but his own; but this man could listen, when you had all forgotten he was there, and gather exactly the right materials for his romance and know exactly the right note to strike to lead you all astray. But he made one bad mistake in the psychology of Mrs. Robinson, the housekeeper.”
“I don’t understand,” answered Boyle, “what she can have to do with it.”
“Jameson did not expect the doors to be barred,” said Father Brown. “He knew that a lot of men, especially careless men like you and your employer, could go on saying for days that something ought to be done, or might as well be done. But if you convey to a woman that something ought to be done, there is always a dreadful danger that she will suddenly do it.”
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:06