EVERYONE agreed that the bazaar at Mallowood Abbey (by kind permission of Lady Mounteagle) was a great success; there were roundabouts and swings and side-shows, which the people greatly enjoyed; I would also mention the Charity, which was the excellent object of the proceedings, if any of them could tell me what it was. However, it is only with a few of them that we are here concerned; and especially with three of them, a lady and two gentlemen, who passed between two of the principal tents or pavilions, their voices high in argument. On their right was the tent of the Master of the Mountain, that world-famous fortune-teller by crystals and chiromancy; a rich purple tent, all over which were traced, in black and gold, the sprawling outlines of Asiatic gods waving any number of arms like octopods. Perhaps they symbolized the readiness of divine help to be had within; perhaps they merely implied that the ideal being of a pious palmist would have as many hands as possible. On the other side stood the plainer tent of Phroso the Phrenologist; more austerely decorated with diagrams of the heads of Socrates and Shakespeare, which were apparently of a lumpy sort. But these were presented merely in black and white, with numbers and notes, as became the rigid dignity of a purely rationalistic science. The purple tent had an opening like a black cavern, and all was fittingly silent within. But Phroso the Phrenologist, a lean, shabby, sunburnt person, with an almost improbably fierce black moustache and whiskers, was standing outside his own temple, and talking, at the top of his voice, to nobody in particular, explaining that the head of any passer-by would doubtless prove, on examination, to be every bit as knobbly as Shakespeare’s. Indeed, the moment the lady appeared between the tents, the vigilant Phroso leapt on her and offered, with a pantomime of old-world courtesy, to feel her bumps.
She refused with civility that was rather like rudeness; but she must be excused, because she was in the middle of an argument. She also had to be excused, or at any rate was excused, because she was Lady Mounteagle. She was not a nonentity, however, in any sense; she was at once handsome and haggard, with a hungry look in her deep, dark eyes and something eager and almost fierce about her smile. Her dress was bizarre for the period; for it was before the Great War had left us in our present mood of gravity and recollection. Indeed, the dress was rather like the purple tent; being of a semi-oriental sort, covered with exotic and esoteric emblems. But everyone knew that the Mounteagles were mad; which was the popular way of saying that she and her husband were interested in the creeds and culture of the East.
The eccentricity of the lady was a great contrast to the conventionality of the two gentlemen, who were braced and buttoned up in all the stiffer fashion of that far-off day, from the tips of their gloves to their bright top hats. Yet even here there was a difference; for James Hardcastle managed at once to look correct and distinguished, while Tommy Hunter only looked correct and commonplace. Hardcastle was a promising politician; who seemed in society to be interested in everything except politics. It may be answered gloomily that every politician is emphatically a promising politician. But to do him justice, he had often exhibited himself as a performing politician. No purple tent in the bazaar, however, had been provided for him to perform in.
“For my part,” he said, screwing in the monocle that was the only gleam in his hard, legal face, “I think we must exhaust the possibilities of mesmerism before we talk about magic. Remarkable psychological powers undoubtedly exist, even in apparently backward peoples. Marvellous things have been done by fakirs.”
“Did you say done by fakers?” asked the other young man, with doubtful innocence.
“Tommy, you are simply silly,” said the lady. “Why will you keep barging in on things you don’t understand? You’re like a schoolboy screaming out that he knows how a conjuring trick is done. It’s all so Early Victorian—that schoolboy scepticism. As for mesmerism, I doubt whether you can stretch it to——— ”
At this point Lady Mounteagle seemed to catch sight of somebody she wanted; a black stumpy figure standing at a booth where children were throwing hoops at hideous table ornaments. She darted across and cried:
“Father Brown, I’ve been looking for you. I want to ask you something: Do you believe in fortune-telling?”
The person addressed looked rather helplessly at the little hoop in his hand and said at last:
“I wonder in which sense you’re using the word ‘believe.’ Of course, if it’s all a fraud——— ”
“Oh, but the Master of the Mountain isn’t a bit of a fraud,” she cried. “He isn’t a common conjurer or a fortune-teller at all. It’s really a great honour for him to condescend to tell fortunes at my parties; he’s a great religious leader in his own country; a Prophet and a Seer. And even his fortune-telling isn’t vulgar stuff about coming into a fortune. He tells you great spiritual truths about yourself, about your ideals.”
“Quite so,” said Father Brown. “That’s what I object to. I was just going to say that if it’s all a fraud, I don’t mind it so much. It can’t be much more of a fraud than most things at fancy bazaars; and there, in a way, it’s a sort of practical joke. But if it’s a religion and reveals spiritual truths—then it’s all as false as hell and I wouldn’t touch it with a bargepole.”
“That is something of a paradox,” said Hardcastle, with a smile.
“I wonder what a paradox is,” remarked the priest in a ruminant manner. “It seems to me obvious enough. I suppose it wouldn’t do very much harm if somebody dressed up as a German spy and pretended to have told all sorts of lies to the Germans. But if a man is trading in the truth with the Germans—well! So I think if a fortune-teller is trading in truth like that——— ”
“You really think,” began Hardcastle grimly.
“Yes,” said the other; “I think he is trading with the enemy.”
Tommy Hunter broke into a chuckle. “Well,” he said, “if Father Brown thinks they’re good so long as they’re frauds, I should think he’d consider this copper-coloured prophet a sort of saint.”
“My cousin Tom is incorrigible,” said Lady Mounteagle. “He’s always going about showing up adepts, as he calls it. He only came down here in a hurry when he heard the Master was to be here, I believe. He’d have tried to show up Buddha or Moses.”
“Thought you wanted looking after a bit,” said the young man, with a grin on his round face. “So I toddled down. Don’t like this brown monkey crawling about.”
“There you go again!” said Lady Mounteagle. “Years ago, when I was in India, I suppose we all had that sort of prejudice against brown people. But now I know something about their wonderful spiritual powers, I’m glad to say I know better.”
“Our prejudices seem to cut opposite ways,” said Father Brown. “You excuse his being brown because he is brahminical; and I excuse his being brahminical because he is brown. Frankly, I don’t care for spiritual powers much myself. I’ve got much more sympathy with spiritual weaknesses. But I can’t see why anybody should dislike him merely because he is the same beautiful colour as copper, or coffee, or nut-brown ale, or those jolly peat-streams in the North. But then,” he added, looking across at the lady and screwing up his eyes, “I suppose I’m prejudiced in favour of anything that’s called brown.”
“There now!” cried Lady Mounteagle with a sort of triumph. “I knew you were only talking nonsense!”
“Well,” grumbled the aggrieved youth with the round face. “When anybody talks sense you call it schoolboy scepticism. When’s the crystal-gazing going to begin?”
“Any time you like, I believe,” replied the lady. “It isn’t crystal-gazing, as a matter of fact, but palmistry; I suppose you would say it was all the same sort of nonsense.”
“I think there is a via media between sense and nonsense,” said Hardcastle, smiling. “There are explanations that are natural and not at all nonsensical; and yet the results are very amazing. Are you coming in to be operated on? I confess I am full of curiosity.”
“Oh, I’ve no patience with such nonsense,” spluttered the sceptic, whose round face had become rather a red face with the heat of his contempt and incredulity. “I’ll let you waste your time on your mahogany mountebank; I’d rather go and throw at coco-nuts.”
The Phrenologist, still hovering near, darted at the opening.
“Heads, my dear sir,” he said, “human skulls are of a contour far more subtle than that of coco-nuts. No coco-nut can compare with your own most——— ”
Hardcastle had already dived into the dark entry of the purple tent; and they heard a low murmur of voices within. As Tom Hunter turned on the Phrenologist with an impatient answer, in which he showed a regrettable indifference to the line between natural and preternatural sciences, the lady was just about to continue her little argument with the little priest, when she stopped in some surprise. James Hardcastle had come out of the tent again, and in his grim face and glaring monocle, surprise was even more vividly depicted. “He’s not there,” remarked the politician abruptly. “He’s gone. Some aged nigger, who seems to constitute his suite, jabbered something to me to the effect that the Master had gone forth rather than sell sacred secrets for gold.”
Lady Mounteagle turned radiantly to the rest. “There now,” she cried. “I told you he was a cut above anything you fancied! He hates being here in a crowd; he’s gone back to his solitude.”
“I am sorry,” said Father Brown gravely. “I may have done him an injustice. Do you know where he has gone?”
“I think so,” said his hostess equally gravely. “When he wants to be alone, he always goes to the cloisters, just at the end of the left wing, beyond my husband’s study and private museum, you know. Perhaps you know this house was once an abbey.”
“I have heard something about it,” answered the priest, with a faint smile.
“We’ll go there, if you like,” said the lady, briskly. “You really ought to see my husband’s collection; or the Red Moon at any rate. Haven’t you ever heard of the Red Moon of Meru? Yes, it’s a ruby.”
“I should be delighted to see the collection,” said Hardcastle quietly, “including the Master of the Mountain, if that prophet is one exhibit in the museum.” And they all turned towards the path leading to the house.
“All the same,” muttered the sceptical Thomas, as he brought up the rear, “I should very much like to know what the brown beast did come here for, if he didn’t come to tell fortunes.”
As he disappeared, the indomitable Phroso made one more dart after him, almost snatching at his coat-tails. “The bump——— ” he began.
“No bump,” said the youth, “only a hump. Hump I always have when I come down to see Mounteagle.” And he took to his heels to escape the embrace of the man of science.
On their way to the cloisters the visitors had to pass through the long room that was devoted by Lord Mounteagle to his remarkable private museum of Asiatic charms and mascots. Through one open door, in the length of the wall opposite, they could see the Gothic arches and the glimmer of daylight between them, marking the square open space, round the roofed border of which the monks had walked in older days. But they had to pass something that seemed at first sight rather more extraordinary than the ghost of a monk.
It was an elderly gentleman, robed from head to foot in white, with a pale green turban, but a very pink and white English complexion and the smooth white moustaches of some amiable Anglo-Indian colonel. This was Lord Mounteagle, who had taken his Oriental pleasures more sadly, or at least more seriously than his wife. He could talk of nothing whatever, except Oriental religion and philosophy; and had thought it necessary even to dress in the manner of an Oriental hermit. While he was delighted to show his treasures, he seemed to treasure them much more for the truths supposed to be symbolized in them than for their value in collections, let alone cash. Even when he brought out the great ruby, perhaps the only thing of great value in the museum, in a merely monetary sense, he seemed to be much more interested in its name than in its size, let alone its price.
The others were all staring at what seemed a stupendously large red stone, burning like a bonfire seen through a rain of blood. But Lord Mounteagle rolled it loosely in his palm without looking at it; and staring at the ceiling, told them a long tale about the legendary character of Mount Meru, and how, in the Gnostic mythology, it had been the place of the wrestling of nameless primeval powers.
Towards the end of the lecture on the Demiurge of the Gnostics (not forgetting its connexion with the parallel concept of Manichaeus), even the tactful Mr. Hardcastle thought it time to create a diversion. He asked to be allowed to look at the stone; and as evening was closing in, and the long room with its single door was steadily darkening, he stepped out in the cloister beyond, to examine the jewel by a better light. It was then that they first became conscious, slowly and almost creepily conscious, of the living presence of the Master of the Mountain.
The cloister was on the usual plan, as regards its original structure; but the line of Gothic pillars and pointed arches that formed the inner square was linked together all along by a low wall, about waist high, turning the Gothic doors into Gothic windows and giving each a sort of flat window-sill of stone. This alteration was probably of ancient date; but there were other alterations of a quainter sort, which witnessed to the rather unusual individual ideas of Lord and Lady Mounteagle. Between the pillars hung thin curtains, or rather veils, made of beads or light canes, in a continental or southern manner; and on these again could be traced the lines and colours of Asiatic dragons or idols, that contrasted with the grey Gothic framework in which they were suspended. But this, while it further troubled the dying light of the place, was the least of the incongruities of which the company, with very varying feelings, became aware.
In the open space surrounded by the cloisters, there ran, like a circle in a square, a circular path paved with pale stones and edged with some sort of green enamel like an imitation lawn. Inside that, in the very centre, rose the basin of a dark-green fountain, or raised pond, in which water-lilies floated and goldfish flashed to and fro; and high above these, its outline dark against the dying light, was a great green image. Its back was turned to them and its face so completely invisible in the hunched posture that the statue might almost have been headless. But in that mere dark outline, in the dim twilight, some of them could see instantly that it was the shape of no Christian thing.
A few yards away, on the circular path, and looking towards the great green god, stood the man called the Master of the Mountain. His pointed and finely-finished features seemed moulded by some skilful craftsman as a mask of copper. In contrast with this, his dark-grey beard looked almost blue like indigo; it began in a narrow tuft on his chin, and then spread outwards like a great fan or the tail of a bird. He was robed in peacock green and wore on his bald head a high cap of uncommon outline: a head-dress none of them had ever seen before; but it looked rather Egyptian than Indian. The man was standing with staring eyes; wide open, fish-shaped eyes, so motionless that they looked like the eyes painted on a mummy-case. But though the figure of the Master of the Mountain was singular enough, some of the company, including Father Brown, did not look at him; they still looked at the dark-green idol at which he himself was looking.
“This seems a queer thing,” said Hardcastle, frowning a little, “to set up in the middle of an old abbey cloister.”
“Now, don’t tell me you’re going to be silly,” said Lady Mounteagle. “That’s just what we meant; to link up the great religions of East and West; Buddha and Christ. Surely you must understand that all religions are really the same.”
“If they are,” said Father Brown mildly, “it seems rather unnecessary to go into the middle of Asia to get one.”
“Lady Mounteagle means that they are different aspects or facets, as there are of this stone,” began Hardcastle; and becoming interested in the new topic, laid the great ruby down on the stone sill or ledge under the Gothic arch. “But it does not follow that we can mix the aspects in one artistic style. You may mix Christianity and Islam, but you can’t mix Gothic and Saracenic, let alone real Indian.”
As he spoke, the Master of the Mountain seemed to come to life like a cataleptic, and moved gravely round another quarter segment of the circle, and took up his position outside their own row of arches, standing with his back to them and looking now towards the idol’s back. It was obvious that he was moving by stages round the whole circle, like a hand round a clock; but pausing for prayer or contemplation.
“What is his religion?” asked Hardcastle, with a faint touch of impatience.
“He says,” replied Lord Mounteagle, reverently, “that it is older than Brahminism and purer than Buddhism.”
“Oh,” said Hardcastle, and continued to stare through his single eyeglass, standing with both his hands in his pockets.
“They say,” observed the nobleman in his gentle but didactic voice, “that the deity called the God of Gods is carved in a colossal form in the cavern of Mount Meru——— ”
Even his lordship’s lecturing serenity was broken abruptly by the voice that came over his shoulder. It came out of the darkness of the museum they had just left, when they stepped out into the cloister. At the sound of it the two younger men looked first incredulous, then furious, and then almost collapsed into laughter.
“I hope I do not intrude,” said the urbane and seductive voice of Professor Phroso, that unconquerable wrestler of the truth, “but it occurred to me that some of you might spare a little time for that much despised science of Bumps, which——— ”
“Look here,” cried the impetuous Tommy Hunter, “I haven’t got any bumps; but you’ll jolly well have some soon, you——— ”
Hardcastle mildly restrained him as he plunged back through the door; and for the moment all the group had turned again and were looking back into the inner room.
It was at that moment that the thing happened. It was the impetuous Tommy, once more, who was the first to move, and this time to better effect. Before anyone else had seen anything, when Hardcastle had barely remembered with a jump that he had left the gem on the stone sill, Tommy was across the cloister with the leap of a cat and, leaning with his head and shoulders out of the aperture between two columns, had cried out in a voice that rang down all the arches: “I’ve got him!”
In that instant of time, just after they turned, and just before they heard his triumphant cry, they had all seen it happen. Round the corner of one of the two columns, there had darted in and out again a brown or rather bronze-coloured hand, the colour of dead gold; such as they had seen elsewhere. The hand had struck as straight as a striking snake; as instantaneous as the flick of the long tongue of an ant-eater. But it had licked up the jewel. The stone slab of the window-sill shone bare in the pale and fading light.
“I’ve got him,” gasped Tommy Hunter; “but he’s wriggling pretty hard. You fellows run round him in front—he can’t have got rid of it, anyhow.”
The others obeyed, some racing down the corridor and some leaping over the low wall, with the result that a little crowd, consisting of Hardcastle, Lord Mounteagle, Father Brown, and even the undetachable Mr. Phroso of the bumps, had soon surrounded the captive Master of the Mountain, whom Hunter was hanging on to desperately by the collar with one hand, and shaking every now and then in a manner highly insensible to the dignity of Prophets as a class.
“Now we’ve got him, anyhow,” said Hunter, letting go with a sigh. “We’ve only got to search him. The thing must be here.”
Three-quarters of an hour later. Hunter and Hardcastle, their top-hats, ties, gloves, slips and spats somewhat the worse for their recent activities, came face to face in the cloister and gazed at each other.
“Well,” asked Hardcastle with restraint, “have you any views on the mystery?”
“Hang it all,” replied Hunter; “you can’t call it a mystery. Why, we all saw him take it ourselves.”
“Yes,” replied the other, “but we didn’t all see him lose it ourselves. And the mystery is, where has he lost it so that we can’t find it?”
“It must be somewhere,” said Hunter. “Have you searched the fountain and all round that rotten old god there?”
“I haven’t dissected the little fishes,” said Hardcastle, lifting his eyeglass and surveying the other. “Are you thinking of the ring of Polycrates?”
Apparently the survey, through the eye-glass, of the round face before him, convinced him that it covered no such meditation on Greek legend.
“It’s not on him, I admit,” repeated Hunter, suddenly, “unless he’s swallowed it.”
“Are we to dissect the Prophet, too?” asked the other smiling. “But here comes our host.”
“This is a most distressing matter,” said Lord Mounteagle, twisting his white moustache with a nervous and even tremulous hand. “Horrible thing to have a theft in one’s house, let alone connecting it with a man like the Master. But, I confess, I can’t quite make head or tail of the way in which he is talking about it. I wish you’d come inside and see what you think.”
They went in together, Hunter falling behind and dropping into conversation with Father Brown, who was kicking his heels round the cloister.
“You must be very strong,” said the priest pleasantly. “You held him with one hand; and he seemed pretty vigorous, even when we had eight hands to hold him, like one of those Indian gods.”
They took a turn or two round the cloister, talking; and then they also went into the inner room, where the Master of the Mountain was seated on a bench, in the capacity of a captive, but with more of the air of a king.
It was true, as Lord Mounteagle said, that his air and tone were not very easy to understand. He spoke with a serene, and yet secretive sense of power. He seemed rather amused at their suggestions about trivial hiding-places for the gem; and certainly he showed no resentment whatever. He seemed to be laughing, in a still unfathomable fashion at their efforts to trace what they had all seen him take.
“You are learning a little,” he said, with insolent benevolence, “of the laws of time and space; about which your latest science is a thousand years behind our oldest religion. You do not even know what is really meant by hiding a thing. Nay, my poor little friends, you do not even know what is meant by seeing a thing; or perhaps you would see this as plainly as I do.”
“Do you mean it is here?” demanded Hardcastle harshly.
“Here is a word of many meanings, also,” replied the mystic. “But I did not say it was here. I only said I could see it.”
There was an irritated silence, and he went on sleepily.
“If you were to be utterly, unfathomably, silent, do you think you might hear a cry from the other end of the world? The cry of a worshipper alone in those mountains, where the original image sits, itself like a mountain. Some say that even Jews and Moslems might worship that image; because it was never made by man. Hark! Do you hear the cry with which he lifts his head and sees in that socket of stone, that has been hollow for ages, the one red and angry moon that is the eye of the mountain?”
“Do you really mean,” cried Lord Mounteagle, a little shaken, “that you could make it pass from here to Mount Meru? I used to believe you had great spiritual powers, but——— ”
“Perhaps,” said the Master, “I have more than you will ever believe.”
Hardcastle rose impatiently and began to pace the room with his hands in his pockets.
“I never believed so much as you did; but I admit that powers of a—certain type may . . . Good God!”
His high, hard voice had been cut off in mid-air, and he stopped staring; the eye-glass fell out of his eye. They all turned their faces in the same direction; and on every face there seemed to be the same suspended animation.
The Red Moon of Meru lay on the stone window-sill, exactly as they had last seen it. It might have been a red spark blown there from a bonfire, or a red rose-petal tossed from a broken rose; but it had fallen in precisely the same spot where Hardcastle had thoughtlessly laid it down.
This time Hardcastle did not attempt to pick it up again; but his demeanour was somewhat notable. He turned slowly and began to stride about the room again; but there was in his movements something masterful, where before it had been only restless. Finally, he brought himself to a standstill in front of the seated Master, and bowed with a somewhat sardonic smile.
“Master,” he said, “we all owe you an apology and, what is more important, you have taught us all a lesson. Believe me, it will serve as a lesson as well as a joke. I shall always remember the very remarkable powers you really possess, and how harmlessly you use them. Lady Mounteagle,” he went on, turning towards her, “you will forgive me for having addressed the Master first; but it was to you I had the honour of offering this explanation some time ago. I may say that I explained it before it had happened. I told you that most of these things could be interpreted by some kind of hypnotism. Many believe that this is the explanation of all those Indian stories about the mango plant and the boy who climbs a rope thrown into the air. It does not really happen; but the spectators are mesmerized into imagining that it happened. So we were all mesmerized into imagining this theft had happened. That brown hand coming in at the window, and whisking away the gem, was a momentary delusion; a hand in a dream. Only, having seen the stone vanish, we never looked for it where it was before. We plunged into the pond and turned every leaf of the water lilies; we were almost giving emetics to the goldfish. But the ruby has been here all the time.”
And he glanced across at the opalescent eyes and smiling bearded mouth of the Master, and saw that the smile was just a shade broader. There was something in it that made the others jump to their feet with an air of sudden relaxation and general, gasping relief.
“This is a very fortunate escape for us all,” said Lord Mounteagle, smiling rather nervously. “There cannot be the least doubt it is as you say. It has been a most painful episode and I really don’t know what apologies——— ”
“I have no complaints,” said the Master or the Mountain, still smiling. “You have never touched Me at all.”
While the rest went off rejoicing, with Hardcastle for the hero of the hour, the little Phrenologist with the whiskers sauntered back towards his preposterous tent. Looking over his shoulder he was surprised to find Father Brown following him.
“Can I feel your bumps?” asked the expert, in his mildly sarcastic tone.
“I don’t think you want to feel any more, do you?” said the priest good-humouredly. “You’re a detective, aren’t you?”
“Yep,” replied the other. “Lady Mounteagle asked me to keep an eye on the Master, being no fool, for all her mysticism; and when he left his tent, I could only follow by behaving like a nuisance and a monomaniac. If anybody had come into my tent, I’d have had to look up Bumps in an encyclopaedia.”
“Bumps, What Ho She; see Folk-Lore,” observed Father Brown, dreamily. “Well, you were quite in the part in pestering people—at a bazaar.”
“Rum case, wasn’t it?” remarked the fallacious Phrenologist. “Queer to think the thing was there all the time.”
“Very queer,” said the priest.
Something in his voice made the other man stop and stare.
“Look here!” he cried; “what’s the matter with you? What are you looking like that for! Don’t you believe that it was there all the time?”
Father Brown blinked rather as if he had received a buffet; then he said slowly and with hesitation: “No, the fact is . . . I can’t—I can’t quite bring myself to believe it.”
“You’re not the sort of chap,” said the other shrewdly, “who’d say that without reason. Why don’t you think the ruby had been there all the time?”
“Only because I put it back myself,” said Father Brown.
The other man stood rooted to the spot, like one whose hair was standing on end. He opened his mouth without speech.
“Or rather,” went on the priest, “I persuaded the thief to let me put it back. I told him what I’d guessed and showed him there was still time for repentance. I don’t mind telling you in professional confidence; besides, I don’t think the Mounteagles would prosecute, now they’ve got the thing back, especially considering who stole it.”
“Do you mean the Master?” asked the late Phroso.
“No,” said Father Brown, “the Master didn’t steal it.”
“But I don’t understand,” objected the other. “Nobody was outside the window except the Master; and a hand certainly came from outside.”
“The hand came from outside, but the thief came from the inside,” said Father Brown.
“We seem to be back among the mystics again. Look here, I’m a practical man; I only wanted to know if it is all right with the ruby——— ”
“I knew it was all wrong,” said Father Brown, “before I even knew there was a ruby.”
After a pause he went on thoughtfully. “Right away back in that argument of theirs, by the tents, I knew things were going wrong. People will tell you that theories don’t matter and that logic and philosophy aren’t practical. Don’t you believe them. Reason is from God, and when things are unreasonable there is something the matter. Now, that quite abstract argument ended with something funny. Consider what the theories were. Hardcastle was a trifle superior and said that all things were perfectly possible; but they were mostly done merely by mesmerism, or clairvoyance; scientific names for philosophical puzzles, in the usual style. But Hunter thought it all sheer fraud and wanted to show it up. By Lady Mounteagle’s testimony, he not only went about showing up fortune-tellers and such like, but he had actually come down specially to confront this one. He didn’t often come; he didn’t get on with Mounteagle, from whom, being a spendthrift, he always tried to borrow; but when he heard the Master was coming, he came hurrying down. Very well. In spite of that, it was Hardcastle who went to consult the wizard and Hunter who refused. He said he’d waste no time on such nonsense; having apparently wasted a lot of his life on proving it to be nonsense. That seems inconsistent. He thought in this case it was crystal-gazing; but he found it was palmistry.”
“Do you mean he made that an excuse?” asked his companion, puzzled.
“I thought so at first,” replied the priest; “but I know now it was not an excuse, but a reason. He really was put off by finding it was a palmist, because——— ”
“Well,” demanded the other impatiently.
“Because he didn’t want to take his glove off,” said Father Brown.
“Take his glove off?” repeated the inquirer.
“If he had,” said Father Brown mildly, “we should all have seen that his hand was painted pale brown already. . . . Oh, yes, he did come down specially because the Master was here. He came down very fully prepared.”
“You mean,” cried Phroso, “that it was Hunter’s hand, painted brown, that came in at the window? Why, he was with us all the time!”
“Go and try it on the spot and you’ll find it’s quite possible,” said the priest. “Hunter leapt forward and leaned out of the window; in a flash he could tear off his glove, tuck up his sleeve, and thrust his hand back round the other side of the pillar, while he gripped the Indian with the other hand and halloed out that he’d caught the thief. I remarked at the time that he held the thief with one hand, where any sane man would have used two. But the other hand was slipping the jewel into his trouser pocket.”
There was a long pause and then the ex-Phrenologist said slowly. “Well, that’s a staggerer. But the thing stumps me still. For one thing, it doesn’t explain the queer behaviour of the old magician himself. If he was entirely innocent, why the devil didn’t he say so? Why wasn’t he indignant at being accused and searched? Why did he only sit smiling and hinting in a sly way what wild and wonderful things he could do?”
“Ah!” cried Father Brown, with a sharp note in his voice: “there you come up against it! Against everything these people don’t and won’t understand. All religions are the same, says Lady Mounteagle. Are they, by George! I tell you some of them are so different that the best man of one creed will be callous, where the worst man of another will be sensitive. I told you I didn’t like spiritual power, because the accent is on the word power. I don’t say the Master would steal a ruby, very likely he wouldn’t; very likely he wouldn’t think it worth stealing. It wouldn’t be specially his temptation to take jewels; but it would be his temptation to take credit for miracles that didn’t belong to him any more than the jewels. It was to that sort of temptation, to that sort of stealing that he yielded today. He liked us to think that he had marvellous mental powers that could make a material object fly through space; and even when he hadn’t done it, he allowed us to think he had. The point about private property wouldn’t occur primarily to him at all. The question wouldn’t present itself in the form: ‘Shall I steal this pebble?’ but only in the form: ‘Could I make a pebble vanish and re-appear on a distant mountain?’ The question of whose pebble would strike him as irrelevant. That is what I mean by religious being different. He is very proud of having what he calls spiritual powers. But what he calls spiritual doesn’t mean what we call moral. It means rather mental; the power of the mind over matter; the magician controlling the elements. Now we are not like that, even when we are no better; even when we are worse. We, whose fathers at least were Christians, who have grown up under those mediaeval arches even if we bedizen them with all the demons in Asia—we have the very opposite ambition and the very opposite shame. We should all be anxious that nobody should think we had done it. He was actually anxious that everybody should think he had—even when he hadn’t. He actually stole the credit of stealing. While we were all casting the crime from us like a snake, he was actually luring it to him like a snake-charmer. But snakes are not pets in this country! Here the traditions of Christendom tell at once under a test like this. Look at old Mounteagle himself, for instance! Ah, you may be as Eastern and esoteric as you like, and wear a turban and a long robe and live on messages from Mahatmas; but if a bit of stone is stolen in your house, and your friends are suspected, you will jolly soon find out that you’re an ordinary English gentleman in a fuss. The man who really did it would never want us to think he did it, for he also was an English gentleman. He was also something very much better; he was a Christian thief. I hope and believe he was a penitent thief.”
“By your account,” said his companion laughing, “the Christian thief and the heathen fraud went by contraries. One was sorry he’d done it and the other was sorry he hadn’t.”
“We mustn’t be too hard on either of them,” said Father Brown. “Other English gentlemen have stolen before now, and been covered by legal and political protection; and the West also has its own way of covering theft with sophistry. After all, the ruby is not the only kind of valuable stone in the world that has changed owners; it is true of other precious stones; often carved like cameos and coloured like flowers.” The other looked at him inquiringly; and the priest’s finger was pointed to the Gothic outline of the great Abbey. “A great graven stone,” he said, “and that was also stolen.”
Last updated Friday, May 27, 2016 at 16:09