Father Brown always declared that he solved this problem in his sleep. And this was true, though in rather an odd fashion; because it occurred at a time when his sleep was rather disturbed. It was disturbed very early in the morning by the hammering that began in the huge building, or half-building, that was in process of erection opposite to his rooms; a colossal pile of flats still mostly covered with scaffolding and with boards announcing Messrs Swindon & Sand as the builders and owners. The hammering was renewed at regular intervals and was easily recognizable: because Messrs Swindon & Sand specialized in some new American system of cement flooring which, in spite of its subsequent smoothness, solidity, impenetrability and permanent comfort (as described in the advertisements), had to be clamped down at certain points with heavy tools. Father Brown endeavoured, however, to extract exiguous comfort from it; saying that it always woke him up in time for the very earliest Mass, and was therefore something almost in the nature of a carillon. After all, he said, it was almost as poetic that Christians should be awakened by hammers as by bells. As a fact, however, the building operations were a little on his nerves, for another reason. For there was hanging like a cloud over the half-built skyscraper the possibility of a Labour crisis, which the newspapers doggedly insisted on describing as a Strike. As a matter of fact, if it ever happened, it would be a Lock-out. But he worried a good deal about whether it would happen. And it might be questioned whether hammering is more of a strain on the attention because it may go on for ever, or because it may stop at any minute.
“As a mere matter of taste and fancy,” said Father Brown, staring up at the edifice with his owlish spectacles, “I rather wish it would stop. I wish all houses would stop while they still have the scaffolding up. It seems almost a pity that houses are ever finished. They look so fresh and hopeful with all that fairy filigree of white wood, all light and bright in the sun; and a man so often only finishes a house by turning it into a tomb.”
As he turned away from the object of his scrutiny, he nearly ran into a man who had just darted across the road towards him. It was a man whom he knew slightly, but sufficiently to regard him (in the circumstances) as something of a bird of ill-omen. Mr Mastyk was a squat man with a square head that looked hardly European, dressed with a heavy dandyism that seemed rather too consciously Europeanized. But Brown had seen him lately talking to young Sand of the building firm; and he did not like it. This man Mastyk was the head of an organization rather new in English industrial politics; produced by extremes at both ends; a definite army of non-Union and largely alien labour hired out in gangs to various firms; and he was obviously hovering about in the hope of hiring it out to this one. In short, he might negotiate some way of out-manoeuvring the Trade Union and flooding the works with blacklegs. Father Brown had been drawn into some of the debates, being in some sense called in on both sides. And as the Capitalists all reported that, to their positive knowledge, he was a Bolshevist; and as the Bolshevists all testified that he was a reactionary rigidly attached to bourgeois ideologies, it may be inferred that he talked a certain amount of sense without any appreciable effect on anybody. The news brought by Mr Mastyk, however, was calculated to jerk everybody out of the ordinary rut of the dispute.
“They want you to go over there at once,” said Mr Mastyk, in awkwardly accented English. “There is a threat to murder.”
Father Brown followed his guide in silence up several stairways and ladders to a platform of the unfinished building, on which were grouped the more or less familiar figures of the heads of the building business. They included even what had once been the head of it; though the head had been for some time rather a head in the clouds. It was at least a head in a coronet, that hid it from human sight like a cloud. Lord Stanes, in other words, had not only retired from the business but been caught up into the House of Lords and disappeared. His rare reappearances were languid and somewhat dreary; but this one, in conjunction with that of Mastyk, seemed none the less menacing. Lord Stanes was a lean, long-headed, hollow-eyed man with very faint fair hair fading into baldness; and he was the most evasive person the priest had ever met. He was unrivalled in the true Oxford talent of saying, “No doubt you’re right,” so as to sound like, “No doubt you think you’re right,” or of merely remarking, “You think so?” so as to imply the acid addition, “You would.” But Father Brown fancied that the man was not merely bored but faintly embittered, though whether at being called down from Olympus to control such trade squabbles, or merely at not being really any longer in control of them, it was difficult to guess.
On the whole, Father Brown rather preferred the more bourgeois group of partners. Sir Hubert Sand and his nephew Henry; though he doubted privately whether they really had very many ideologies. True, Sir Hubert Sand had obtained considerable celebrity in the newspapers; both as a patron of sport and as a patriot in many crises during and after the Great War. He had won notable distinction in France, for a man of his years, and had afterwards been featured as a triumphant captain of industry overcoming difficulties among the munition-workers. He had been called a Strong Man; but that was not his fault. He was in fact a heavy, hearty Englishman; a great swimmer; a good squire; an admirable amateur colonel. Indeed, something that can only be called a military makeup pervaded his appearance. He was growing stout, but he kept his shoulders set back; his curly hair and moustache were still brown while the colours of his face were already somewhat withered and faded. His nephew was a burly youth of the pushing, or rather shouldering, sort with a relatively small head thrust out on a thick neck, as if he went at things with his head down; a gesture somehow rendered rather quaint and boyish by the pince-nez that were balanced on his pugnacious pug-nose.
Father Brown had looked at all these things before; and at that moment everybody was looking at something entirely new. In the centre of the wood-work there was nailed up a large loose flapping piece of paper on which something was scrawled in crude and almost crazy capital letters, as if the writer were either almost illiterate or were affecting or parodying illiteracy. The words actually ran: “The Council of the Workers warns Hubert Sand that he will lower wages and lock out workmen at his peril. If the notices go out tomorrow, he will be dead by the justice of the people.”
Lord Stanes was just stepping back from his examination of the paper, and, looking across at his partner, he said with rather a curious intonation: “Well, it’s you they want to murder. Evidently I’m not considered worth murdering.”
One of those still electric shocks of fancy that sometimes thrilled Father Brown’s mind in an almost meaningless way shot through him at that particular instant. He had a queer notion that the man who was speaking could not now be murdered, because he was already dead. It was, he cheerfully admitted, a perfectly senseless idea. But there was something that always gave him the creeps about the cold disenchanted detachment of the noble senior partner; about his cadaverous colour and inhospitable eyes. “The fellow,” he thought in the same perverse mood, “has green eyes and looks as if he had green blood.”
Anyhow, it was certain that Sir Hubert Sand had not got green blood. His blood, which was red enough in every sense, was creeping up into his withered or weather-beaten cheeks with all the warm fullness of life that belongs to the natural and innocent indignation of the good-natured.
“In all my life,” he said, in a strong voice and yet shakily, “I have never had such a thing said or done about me. I may have differed——”
“We can none of us differ about this,” struck in his nephew impetuously. “I’ve tried to get on with them, but this is a bit too thick.”
“You don’t really think,” began Father Brown, “that your workmen——”
“I say we may have differed,” said old Sand, still a little tremulously, “God knows I never like the idea of threatening English workmen with cheaper labour——”
“We none of us liked it,” said the young man, “but if I know you, uncle, this has about settled it.”
Then after a pause he added, “I suppose, as you say, we did disagree about details; but as to real policy——”
“My dear fellow,” said his uncle, comfortably. “I hoped there would never be any real disagreement.” From which anybody who understands the English nation may rightly infer that there had been very considerable disagreement. Indeed the uncle and nephew differed almost as much as an Englishman and an American. The uncle had the English ideal of getting outside the business, and setting up a sort of an alibi as a country gentleman. The nephew had the American ideal of getting inside the business; of getting inside the very mechanism like a mechanic. And, indeed, he had worked with most of the mechanics and was familiar with most of the processes and tricks of the trade. And he was American again, in the fact that he did this partly as an employer to keep his men up to the mark, but in some vague way also as an equal, or at least with a pride in showing himself also as a worker. For this reason he had often appeared almost as a representative of the workers, on technical points which were a hundred miles away from his uncle’s popular eminence in politics or sport. The memory of those many occasions, when young Henry had practically come out of the workshop in his shirt-sleeves, to demand some concession about the conditions of the work, lent a peculiar force and even violence to his present reaction the other way.
“Well, they’ve damned-well locked themselves out this time,” he cried. “After a threat like that there’s simply nothing left but to defy them. There’s nothing left but to sack them all now; instanter; on the spot. Otherwise we’ll be the laughing-stock of the world.”
Old Sand frowned with equal indignation, but began slowly: “I shall be very much criticized——”
“Criticized!” cried the young man shrilly. “Criticized if you defy a threat of murder! Have you any notion how you’ll be criticized if you don’t defy it? Won’t you enjoy the headlines? ‘Great Capitalist Terrorized’—‘Employer Yields to Murder Threat.’
“Particularly,” said Lord Stanes, with something faintly unpleasant in his tone. “Particularly when he has been in so many headlines already as ‘The Strong Man of Steel-Building.’ ”
Sand had gone very red again and his voice came thickly from under his thick moustache. “Of course you’re right there. If these brutes think I’m afraid——”
At this point there was an interruption in the conversation of the group; and a slim young man came towards them swiftly. The first notable thing about him was that he was one of those whom men, and women too, think are just a little too nice-looking to look nice. He had beautiful dark curly hair and a silken moustache and he spoke like a gentleman, but with almost too refined and exactly modulated an accent. Father Brown knew him at once as Rupert Rae, the secretary of Sir Hubert, whom he had often seen pottering about in Sir Hubert’s house; but never with such impatience in his movements or such a wrinkle on his brow.
“I’m sorry, sir,” he said to his employer, “but there’s a man been hanging about over there. I’ve done my best to get rid of him. He’s only got a letter, but he swears he must give it to you personally.”
“You mean he went first to my house?” said Sand, glancing swiftly at his secretary. “I suppose you’ve been there all the morning.”
“Yes, sir,” said Mr Rupert Rae.
There was a short silence; and then Sir Hubert Sand curtly intimated that the man had better be brought along; and the man duly appeared.
Nobody, not even the least fastidious lady, would have said that the newcomer was too nice-looking. He had very large ears and a face like a frog, and he stared before him with an almost ghastly fixity, which Father Brown attributed to his having a glass eye. In fact, his fancy was tempted to equip the man with two glass eyes; with so glassy a stare did he contemplate the company. But the priest’s experience, as distinct from his fancy, was able to suggest several natural causes for that unnatural waxwork glare; one of them being an abuse of the divine gift of fermented liquor. The man was short and shabby and carried a large bowler hat in one hand and a large sealed letter in the other.
Sir Hubert Sand looked at him; and then said quietly enough, but in a voice that somehow seemed curiously small, coming out of the fullness of his bodily presence: “Oh—it’s you.”
He held out his hand for the letter; and then looked around apologetically, with poised finger, before ripping it open and reading it. When he had read it, he stuffed it into his inside pocket and said hastily and a little harshly: “Well, I suppose all this business is over, as you say. No more negotiations possible now; we couldn’t pay the wages they want anyhow. But I shall want to see you again, Henry, about—about winding things up generally.”
“All right,” said Henry, a little sulkily perhaps, as if he would have preferred to wind them up by himself. “I shall be up in number 188 after lunch; got to know how far they’ve got up there.”
The man with the glass eye, if it was a glass eye, stumped stiffly away; and the eye of Father Brown (which was by no means a glass eye) followed him thoughtfully as he threaded his way through the ladders and disappeared into the street.
It was on the following morning that Father Brown had the unusual experience of over-sleeping himself; or at least of starting from sleep with a subjective conviction that he must be late. This was partly due to his remembering, as a man may remember a dream, the fact of having been half-awakened at a more regular hour and fallen asleep again; a common enough occurrence with most of us, but a very uncommon occurrence with Father Brown. And he was afterwards oddly convinced, with that mystic side of him which was normally turned away from the world, that in that detached dark islet of dreamland, between the two wakings, there lay like buried treasure the truth of this tale.
As it was, he jumped up with great promptitude, plunged into his clothes, seized his big knobby umbrella and bustled out into the street, where the bleak white morning was breaking like splintered ice about the huge black building facing him. He was surprised to find that the streets shone almost empty in the cold crystalline light; the very look of it told him it could hardly be so late as he had feared. Then suddenly the stillness was cloven by the arrowlike swiftness of a long grey car which halted before the big deserted flats. Lord Stanes unfolded himself from within and approached the door, carrying (rather languidly) two large suitcases. At the same moment the door opened, and somebody seemed to step back instead of stepping out into the street. Stanes called twice to the man within, before that person seemed to complete his original gesture by coming out on to the doorstep; then the two held a brief colloquy, ending in the nobleman carrying his suitcases upstairs, and the other coming out into full daylight and revealing the heavy shoulders and peering head of young Henry Sand.
Father Brown made no more of this rather odd meeting, until two days later the young man drove up in his own car, and implored the priest to enter it. “Something awful has happened,” he said, “and I’d rather talk to you than Stanes. You know Stanes arrived the other day with some mad idea of camping in one of the flats that’s just finished. That’s why I had to go there early and open the door to him. But all that will keep. I want you to come up to my uncle’s place at once.”
“Is he ill?” inquired the priest quickly.
“I think he’s dead,” answered the nephew.
“What do you mean by saying you think he’s dead?” asked Father Brown a little briskly. “Have you got a doctor?”
“No,” answered the other. “I haven’t got a doctor or a patient either . . .It’s no good calling in doctors to examine the body; because the body has run away. But I’m afraid I know where it has run to . . . the truth is—we kept it dark for two days; but he’s disappeared.”
“Wouldn’t it be better,” said Father Brown mildly, “if you told me what has really happened from the beginning?”
“I know,” answered Henry Sand; “it’s an infernal shame to talk flippantly like this about the poor old boy; but people get like that when they’re rattled. I’m not much good at hiding things; the long and the short of it is—well, I won’t tell you the long of it now. It’s what some people would call rather a long shot; shooting suspicions at random and so on. But the short of it is that my unfortunate uncle has committed suicide.”
They were by this time skimming along in the car through the last fringes of the town and the first fringes of the forest and park beyond it; the lodge gates of Sir Hubert Sand’s small estate were about a half mile farther on amid the thickening throng of the beeches. The estate consisted chiefly of a small park and a large ornamental garden, which descended in terraces of a certain classical pomp to the very edge of the chief river of the district. As soon as they arrived at the house, Henry took the priest somewhat hastily through the old Georgian rooms and out upon the other side; where they silently descended the slope, a rather steep slope embanked with flowers, from which they could see the pale river spread out before them almost as flat as in a bird’s-eye view. They were just turning the corner of the path under an enormous classical urn crowned with a somewhat incongruous garland of geraniums, when Father Brown saw a movement in the bushes and thin trees just below him, that seemed as swift as a movement of startled birds.
In the tangle of thin trees by the river two figures seemed to divide or scatter; one of them glided swiftly into the shadows and the other came forward to face them; bringing them to a halt and an abrupt and rather unaccountable silence. Then Henry Sand said in his heavy way: “I think you know Father Brown . . . Lady Sand.”
Father Brown did know her; but at that moment he might almost have said that he did not know her. The pallor and constriction of her face was like a mask of tragedy; she was much younger than her husband, but at that moment she looked somehow older than everything in that old house and garden. And the priest remembered, with a subconscious thrill, that she was indeed older in type and lineage and was the true possessor of the place. For her own family had owned it as impoverished aristocrats, before she had restored its fortunes by marrying a successful business man. As she stood there, she might have been a family picture, or even a family ghost. Her pale face was of that pointed yet oval type seen in some old pictures of Mary Queen of Scots; and its expression seemed almost to go beyond the natural unnaturalness of a situation, in which her husband had vanished under suspicion of suicide. Father Brown, with the same subconscious movement of the mind, wondered who it was with whom she had been talking among the trees.
“I suppose you know all this dreadful news,” she said, with a comfortless composure. “Poor Hubert must have broken down under all this revolutionary persecution, and been just maddened into taking his own life. I don’t know whether you can do anything; or whether these horrible Bolsheviks can be made responsible for hounding him to death.”
“I am terribly distressed, Lady Sand,” said Father Brown. “And still, I must own, a little bewildered. You speak of persecution; do you think that anybody could hound him to death merely by pinning up that paper on the wall?”
“I fancy,” answered the lady, with a darkening brow, “that there were other persecutions besides the paper.”
“It shows what mistakes one may make,” said the priest sadly. “I never should have thought he would be so illogical as to die in order to avoid death.”
“I know,” she answered, gazing at him gravely. “I should never have believed it, if it hadn’t been written with his own hand.”
“What?” cried Father Brown, with a little jump like a rabbit that has been shot at.
“Yes,” said Lady Sand calmly. “He left a confession of suicide; so I fear there is no doubt about it.” And she passed on up the slope alone, with all the inviolable isolation of the family ghost.
The spectacles of Father Brown were turned in mute inquiry to the eyeglasses of Mr Henry Sand. And the latter gentleman, after an instant’s hesitation, spoke again in his rather blind and plunging fashion: “Yes, you see, it seems pretty clear now what he did. He was always a great swimmer and used to come down in his dressing-gown every morning for a dip in the river. Well, he came down as usual, and left his dressing-gown on the bank; it’s lying there still. But he also left a message saying he was going for his last swim and then death, or something like that.”
“Where did he leave the message?” asked Father Brown.
“He scrawled it on that tree there, overhanging the water, I suppose the last thing he took hold of; just below where the dressing-gown’s lying. Come and see for yourself.”
Father Brown ran down the last short slope to the shore and peered under the hanging tree, whose plumes were almost dipping in the stream. Sure enough, he saw on the smooth bark the words scratched conspicuously and unmistakably: “One more swim and then drowning. Good-bye. Hubert Sand.” Father Brown’s gaze travelled slowly up the bank till it rested on a gorgeous rag of raiment, all red and yellow with gilded tassels. It was the dressing-gown and the priest picked it up and began to turn it over. Almost as he did so he was conscious that a figure had flashed across his field of vision; a tall dark figure that slipped from one clump of trees to another, as if following the trail of the vanishing lady. He had little doubt that it was the companion from whom she had lately parted. He had still less doubt that it was the dead man’s secretary, Mr Rupert Rae.
“Of course, it might be a final afterthought to leave the message,” said Father Brown, without looking up, his eye riveted on the red and gold garment. “We’ve all heard of love-messages written on trees; and I suppose there might be death-messages written on trees too.”
“Well, he wouldn’t have anything in the pockets of his dressing-gown, I suppose,” said young Sand. “And a man might naturally scratch his message on a tree if he had no pens, ink or paper.”
“Sounds like French exercises,” said the priest dismally. “But I wasn’t thinking of that.” Then, after a silence, he said in a rather altered voice:
“To tell the truth, I was thinking whether a man might not naturally scratch his message on a tree, even if he had stacks of pens, and quarts of ink, and reams of paper.”
Henry was looking at him with a rather startled air, his eyeglasses crooked on his pug-nose. “And what do you mean by that?” he asked sharply.
“Well,” said Father Brown slowly, “I don’t exactly mean that postmen will carry letters in the form of logs, or that you will ever drop a line to a friend by putting a postage stamp on a pinetree. It would have to be a particular sort of position—in fact, it would have to be a particular sort of person, who really preferred this sort of arboreal correspondence. But, given the position and the person, I repeat what I said. He would still write on a tree, as the song says, if all the world were paper and all the sea were ink; if that river flowed with everlasting ink or all these woods were a forest of quills and fountain-pens.”
It was evident that Sand felt something creepy about the priest’s fanciful imagery; whether because he found it incomprehensible or because he was beginning to comprehend.
“You see,” said Father Brown, turning the dressing-gown over slowly as he spoke, “a man isn’t expected to write his very best handwriting when he chips it on a tree. And if the man were not the man, if I make myself clear—Hullo!”
He was looking down at the red dressing-gown, and it seemed for the moment as if some of the red had come off on his finger; but both the faces turned towards it were already a shade paler.
“Blood!” said Father Brown; and for the instant there was a deadly stillness save for the melodious noises of the river.
Henry Sand cleared his throat and nose with noises that were by no means melodious. Then he said rather hoarsely: “Whose blood?”
“Oh, mine,” said Father Brown; but he did not smile.
A moment after he said: “There was a pin in this thing and I pricked myself. But I don’t think you quite appreciate the point . . . the point of the pin. I do”; and he sucked his finger like a child.
“You see,” he said after another silence, “the gown was folded up and pinned together; nobody could have unfolded it—at least without scratching himself. In plain words, Hubert Sand never wore this dressing-gown. Any more than Hubert Sand ever wrote on that tree. Or drowned himself in that river.”
The pince-nez tilted on Henry’s inquiring nose fell off with a click; but he was otherwise motionless, as if rigid with surprise.
“Which brings us back,” went on Father Brown cheerfully, “to somebody’s taste for writing his private correspondence on trees, like Hiawatha and his picture-writing. Sand had all the time there was, before drowning himself. Why didn’t he leave a note for his wife like a sane man? Or, shall we say . . . Why didn’t the Other Man leave a note for the wife like a sane man? Because he would have had to forge the husband’s handwriting; always a tricky thing now that experts are so nosey about it. But nobody can be expected to imitate even his own handwriting, let alone somebody else’s when he carves capital letters in the bark of a tree. This is not a suicide, Mr Sand. If it’s anything at all, it’s a murder.”
The bracken and bushes of the undergrowth snapped and crackled as the big young man rose out of them like a leviathan, and stood lowering, with his thick neck thrust forward.
“I’m no good at hiding things,” he said, “and I half-suspected something like this—expected it, you might say, for a long time. To tell the truth, I could hardly be civil to the fellow—to either of them, for that matter.”
“What exactly do you mean?” asked the priest, looking him gravely full in the face.
“I mean,” said Henry Sand, “that you have shown me the murder and I think I could show you the murderers.”
Father Brown was silent and the other went on rather jerkily.
“You said people sometimes wrote love-messages on trees. Well, as a fact, there are some of them on that tree; there are two sort of monograms twisted together up there under the leaves—I suppose you know that Lady Sand was the heiress of this place long before she married; and she knew that damned dandy of a secretary even in those days. I guess they used to meet here and write their vows upon the trysting-tree. They seem to have used the trysting-tree for another purpose later on. Sentiment, no doubt, or economy.”
“They must be very horrible people,” said Father Brown.
“Haven’t there been any horrible people in history or the police-news?” demanded Sand with some excitement. “Haven’t there been lovers who made love seem more horrible than hate? Don’t you know about Bothwell and all the bloody legends of such lovers?”
“I know the legend of Bothwell,” answered the priest. “I also know it to be quite legendary. But of course it’s true that husbands have been sometimes put away like that. By the way, where was he put away? I mean, where did they hide the body?”
“I suppose they drowned him, or threw him in the water when he was dead,” snorted the young man impatiently.
Father Brown blinked thoughtfully and then said: “A river is a good place to hide an imaginary body. It’s a rotten bad place to hide a real one. I mean, it’s easy to say you’ve thrown it in, because it might be washed away to sea. But if you really did throw it in, it’s about a hundred to one it wouldn’t; the chances of it going ashore somewhere are enormous. I think they must have had a better scheme for hiding the body than that—or the body would have been found by now. And if there were any marks of violence——”
“Oh, bother hiding the body,” said Henry, with some irritation; “haven’t we witness enough in the writing on their own devilish tree?”
“The body is the chief witness in every murder,” answered the other. “The hiding of the body, nine times out of ten, is the practical problem to be solved.”
There was a silence; and Father Brown continued to turn over the red dressing-gown and spread it out on the shining grass of the sunny shore; he did not look up. But, for some time past he had been conscious that the whole landscape had been changed for him by the presence of a third party; standing as still as a statue in the garden.
“By the way,” he said, lowering his voice, “how do you explain that little guy with the glass eye, who brought your poor uncle a letter yesterday? It seemed to me he was entirely altered by reading it; that’s why I wasn’t surprised at the suicide, when I thought it was a suicide. That chap was a rather low-down private detective, or I’m much mistaken.”
“Why,” said Henry in a hesitating manner, “why, he might have been—husbands do sometimes put on detectives in domestic tragedies like this, don’t they? I suppose he’d got the proofs of their intrigue; and so they——”
“I shouldn’t talk too loud,” said Father Brown, “because your detective is detecting us at this moment, from about a yard beyond those bushes.”
They looked up, and sure enough the goblin with the glass eye was fixing them with that disagreeable optic, looking all the more grotesque for standing among the white and waxen blooms of the classical garden.
Henry Sand scrambled to his feet again with a rapidity that seemed breathless for one of his bulk, and asked the man very angrily and abruptly what he was doing, at the same time telling him to clear out at once.
“Lord Stanes,” said the goblin of the garden, “would be much obliged if Father Brown would come up to the house and speak to him.”
Henry Sand turned away furiously; but the priest put down his fury to the dislike that was known to exist between him and the nobleman in question. As they mounted the slope, Father Brown paused a moment as if tracing patterns on the smooth tree-trunk, glanced upwards once at the darker and more hidden hieroglyph said to be a record of romance; and then stared at the wider and more sprawling letters of the confession, or supposed confession of suicide.
“Do those letters remind you of anything?” he asked. And when his sulky companion shook his head, he added: “They remind me of the writing on that placard that threatened him with the vengeance of the strikers.”
“This is the hardest riddle and the queerest tale I have ever tackled,” said Father Brown, a month later, as he sat opposite Lord Stanes in the recently furnished apartment of No. 188, the end flat which was the last to be finished before the interregnum of the industrial dispute and the transfer of work from the Trade Union. It was comfortably furnished; and Lord Stanes was presiding over grog and cigars, when the priest made his confession with a grimace. Lord Stanes had become rather surprisingly friendly, in a cool and casual way.
“I know that is saying a good deal, with your record,” said Stanes, “but certainly the detectives, including our seductive friend with the glass eye, don’t seem at all able to see the solution.”
Father Brown laid down his cigar and said carefully: “It isn’t that they can’t see the solution. It is that they can’t see the problem.”
“Indeed,” said the other, “perhaps I can’t see the problem either.”
“The problem is unlike all other problems, for this reason,” said Father Brown. “It seems as if the criminal deliberately did two different things, either of which might have been successful; but which, when done together, could only defeat each other. I am assuming, what I firmly believe, that the same murderer pinned up the proclamation threatening a sort of Bolshevik murder, and also wrote on the tree confessing to an ordinary suicide. Now you may say it is after all possible that the proclamation was a proletarian proclamation; that some extremist workmen wanted to kill their employer, and killed him. Even if that were true, it would still stick at the mystery of why they left, or why anybody left, a contrary trail of private self-destruction. But it certainly isn’t true. None of these workmen, however, bitter, would have done a thing like that. I know them pretty well; I know their leaders quite well. To suppose that people like Tom Bruce or Hogan would assassinate somebody they could go for in the newspapers, and damage in all sorts of different ways, is the sort of psychology that sensible people call lunacy. No; there was somebody, who was not an indignant workman, who first played the part of an indignant workman, and then played the part of a suicidal employer. But, in the name of wonder, why? If he thought he could pass it off smoothly as a suicide, why did he first spoil it all by publishing a threat of murder? You might say it was an afterthought to fix up the suicide story, as less provocative than the murder story. But it wasn’t less provocative after the murder story. He must have known he had already turned our thoughts towards murder, when it should have been his whole object to keep our thoughts away from it. If it was an after-thought, it was the after-thought of a very thoughtless person. And I have a notion that this assassin is a very thoughtful person. Can you make anything of it?”
“No; but I see what you mean,” said Stanes, “by saying that I didn’t even see the problem. It isn’t merely who killed Sand; it’s why anybody should accuse somebody else of killing Sand and then accuse Sand of killing himself.”
Father Brown’s face was knotted and the cigar was clenched in his teeth; the end of it plowed and darkened rhythmically like the signal of some burning pulse of the brain. Then he spoke as if to himself:
“We’ve got to follow very closely and very clearly. It’s like separating threads of thought from each other; something like this. Because the murder charge really rather spoilt the suicide charge, he wouldn’t normally have made the murder charge. But he did make it; so he had some other reason for making it. It was so strong a reason that perhaps it reconciled him even to weakening his other line of defence; that it was a suicide. In other words, the murder charge wasn’t really a murder charge. I mean he wasn’t using it as a murder charge; he wasn’t doing it so as to shift to somebody else the guilt of murder; he was doing it for some other extraordinary reason of his own. His plan had to contain a proclamation that Sand would be murdered; whether it threw suspicion on other people or not. Somehow or other the mere proclamation itself was necessary. But why?”
He smoked and smouldered away with the same volcanic concentration for five minutes before he spoke again. “What could a murderous proclamation do, besides suggesting that the strikers were the murderers? What did it do? One thing is obvious; it inevitably did the opposite of what it said. It told Sand not to lock out his men; and it was perhaps the only thing in the world that would really have made him do it. You’ve got to think of the sort of man and the sort of reputation. When a man has been called a Strong Man in our silly sensational newspapers, when he is fondly regarded as a Sportsman by all the most distinguished asses in England, he simply can’t back down because he is threatened with a pistol. It would be like walking about at Ascot with a white feather stuck in his absurd white hat. It would break that inner idol or ideal of oneself, which every man not a downright dastard does really prefer to life. And Sand wasn’t a dastard; he was courageous; he was also impulsive. It acted instantly like a charm: his nephew, who had been more or less mixed up with the workmen, cried out instantly that the threat must be absolutely and instantly defied.”
“Yes,” said Lord Stanes, “I noticed that.” They looked at each other for an instant, and then Stanes added carelessly: “So you think the thing the criminal wanted was…”
“The Lock-out!” cried the priest energetically. “The Strike or whatever you call it; the cessation of work, anyhow. He wanted the work to stop at once; perhaps the blacklegs to come in at once; certainly the Trade Unionists to go out at once. That is what he really wanted; God knows why. And he brought that off, I think, really without bothering much about its other implication of the existence of Bolshevist assassins. But then . . . then I think something went wrong. I’m only guessing and groping very slowly here; but the only explanation I can think of is that something began to draw attention to the real seat of the trouble; to the reason, whatever it was, of his wanting to bring the building to a halt. And then belatedly, desperately, and rather inconsistently, he tried to lay the other trail that led to the river, simply and solely because it led away from the flats.”
He looked up through his moonlike spectacles, absorbing all the quality of the background and furniture; the restrained luxury of a quiet man of the world; and contrasting it with the two suitcases with which its occupant had arrived so recently in a newly-finished and unfurnished flat. Then he said rather abruptly: “In short, the murderer was frightened of something or somebody in the flats. By the way, why did you come to live in the flats? . . . Also by the way, young Henry told me you made an early appointment with him when you moved in. Is that true?”
“Not in the least,” said Stanes. “I got the key from his uncle the night before. I’ve no notion why Henry came here that morning.”
“Ah,” said Father Brown, “then I think I have some notion of why he came . . . I thought you startled him by coming in just when he was coming out.”
“And yet,” said Stanes, looking across with a glitter in his grey-green eyes, “you do rather think that I also am a mystery.”
“I think you are two mysteries,” said Father Brown. “The first is why you originally retired from Sand’s business. The second is why you have since come back to live in Sand’s buildings.”
Stanes smoked reflectively, knocked out his ash, and rang a bell on the table before him. “If you’ll excuse me,” he said, “I will summon two more to the council. Jackson, the little detective you know of, will answer the bell; and I’ve asked Henry Sand to come in a little later.”
Father Brown rose from his seat, walked across the room and looked down frowning into the fire-place.
“Meanwhile,” continued Stanes, “I don’t mind answering both your questions. I left the Sand business because I was sure there was some hanky-panky in it and somebody was pinching all the money. I came back to it, and took this flat, because I wanted to watch for the real truth about old Sand’s death—on the spot.”
Father Brown faced round as the detective entered the room; he stood staring at the hearthrug and repeated: “On the spot.”
“Mr Jackson will tell you,” said Stanes, “that Sir Hubert commissioned him to find out who was the thief robbing the firm; and he brought a note of his discoveries the day before old Hubert disappeared.”
“Yes,” said Father Brown, “and I know now where he disappeared to. I know where the body is.”
“Do you mean——?” began his host hastily.
“It is here,” said Father Brown, and stamped on the hearthrug. “Here, under the elegant Persian rug in this cosy and comfortable room.”
“Where in the world did you find that?”
“I’ve just remembered,” said Father Brown, “that I found it in my sleep.”
He closed his eyes as if trying to picture a dream, and went on dreamily:
“This is a murder story turning on the problem of How to Hide the Body; and I found it in my sleep. I was always woken up every morning by hammering from this building. On that morning I half-woke up, went to sleep again and woke once more, expecting to find it late; but it wasn’t. Why? Because there had been hammering that morning, though all the usual work had stopped; short, hurried hammering in the small hours before dawn. Automatically a man sleeping stirs at such a familiar sound. But he goes to sleep again, because the usual sound is not at the usual hour. Now why did a certain secret criminal want all the work to cease suddenly; and only new workers come in? Because, if the old workers had come in next day, they would have found a new piece of work done in the night. The old workers would have known where they left off; and they would have found the whole flooring of this room already nailed down. Nailed down by a man who knew how to do it; having mixed a good deal with the workmen and learned their ways.”
As he spoke, the door was pushed open and a head poked in with a thrusting motion; a small head at the end of a thick neck and a face that blinked at them through glasses.
“Henry Sand said,” observed Father Brown, staring at the ceiling, “that he was no good at hiding things. But I think he did himself an injustice.”
Henry Sand turned and moved swiftly away down the corridor.
“He not only hid his thefts from the firm quite successfully for years,” went on the priest with an air of abstraction, “but when his uncle discovered them, he hid his uncle’s corpse in an entirely new and original manner.”
At the same instant Stanes again rang a bell, with a long strident steady ringing; and the little man with the glass eye was propelled or shot along the corridor after the fugitive, with something of the rotatory motion of a mechanical figure in a zoetrope. At the same moment, Father Brown looked out of the window, leaning over a small balcony, and saw five or six men start from behind bushes and railings in the street below and spread out equally mechanically like a fan or net; opening out after the fugitive who had shot like a bullet out of the front door. Father Brown saw only the pattern of the story; which had never strayed from that room; where Henry had strangled Hubert and hid his body under impenetrable flooring, stopping the whole work on the building to do it. A pin-prick had started his own suspicions; but only to tell him he had been led down the long loop of a lie. The point of the pin was that it was pointless.
He fancied he understood Stanes at last, and he liked to collect queer people who were difficult to understand. He realized that this tired gentleman, whom he had once accused of having green blood, had indeed a sort of cold green flame of conscientiousness or conventional honour, that had made him first shift out of a shady business, and then feel ashamed of having shifted it on to others; and come back as a bored laborious detective; pitching his camp on the very spot where the corpse had been buried; so that the murderer, finding him sniffing so near the corpse, had wildly staged the alternative drama of the dressing-gown and the drowned man. All that was plain enough, but, before he withdrew his head from the night air and the stars, Father Brown threw one glance upwards at the vast black bulk of the cyclopean building heaved far up into the night, and remembered Egypt and Babylon, and all that is at once eternal and ephemeral in the work of man.
“I was right in what I said first of all,” he said. “It reminds one of Coppee’s poem about the Pharaoh and the Pyramid. This house is supposed to be a hundred houses; and yet the whole mountain of building is only one man’s tomb.”
Last updated Friday, May 27, 2016 at 16:09