MOON CRESCENT was meant in a sense to be as romantic as its name; and the things that happened there were romantic enough in their way. At least it had been an expression of that genuine element of sentiment — historic and almost heroic — which manages to remain side by side with commercialism in the elder cities on the eastern coast of America. It was originally a curve of classical architecture really recalling that eighteenth-century atmosphere in which men like Washington and Jefferson had seemed to be all the more republicans for being aristocrats. Travellers faced with the recurrent query of what they thought of our city were understood to be specially answerable for what they thought of our Moon Crescent. The very contrasts that confuse its original harmony were characteristic of its survival. At one extremity or horn of the crescent its last windows looked over an enclosure like a strip of a gentleman’s park, with trees and hedges as formal as a Queen Anne garden. But immediately round the corner, the other windows, even of the same rooms, or rather ‘apartments’, looked out on the blank, unsightly wall of a huge warehouse attached to some ugly industry. The apartments of Moon Crescent itself were at that end remodelled on the monotonous pattern of an American hotel, and rose to a height, which, though lower than the colossal warehouse, would have been called a skyscraper in London. But the colonnade that ran round the whole frontage upon the street had a grey and weather-stained stateliness suggesting that the ghosts of the Fathers of the Republic might still be walking to and fro in it. The insides of the rooms, however, were as neat and new as the last New York fittings could make them, especially at the northern end between the neat garden and the blank warehouse wall. They were a system of very small flats, as we should say in England, each consisting of a sitting-room, bedroom, and bathroom, as identical as the hundred cells of a hive. In one of these the celebrated Warren Wynd sat at his desk sorting letters and scattering orders with wonderful rapidity and exactitude. He could only be compared to a tidy whirlwind.
Warren Wynd was a very little man with loose grey hair and a pointed beard, seemingly frail but fierily active. He had very wonderful eyes, brighter than stars and stronger than magnets, which nobody who had ever seen them could easily forget. And indeed in his work as a reformer and regulator of many good works he had shown at least that he had a pair of eyes in his head. All sorts of stories and even legends were told of the miraculous rapidity with which he could form a sound judgement, especially of human character. It was said that he selected the wife who worked with him so long in so charitable a fashion, by picking her out of a whole regiment of women in uniform marching past at some official celebration, some said of the Girl Guides and some of the Women Police. Another story was told of how three tramps, indistinguishable from each other in their community of filth and rags, had presented themselves before him asking for charity. Without a moment’s hesitation he had sent one of them to a particular hospital devoted to a certain nervous disorder, had recommended the second to an inebriates’ home, and had engaged the third at a handsome salary as his own private servant, a position which he filled successfully for years afterwards. There were, of course, the inevitable anecdotes of his prompt criticisms and curt repartees when brought in contact with Roosevelt, with Henry Ford, and with Mrs Asquith and all other persons with whom an American public man ought to have a historic interview, if only in the newspapers. Certainly he was not likely to be overawed by such personages; and at the moment here in question he continued very calmly his centrifugal whirl of papers, though the man confronting him was a personage of almost equal importance.
Silas T. Vandam, the millionaire and oil magnate, was a lean man with a long, yellow face and blue-black hair, colours which were the less conspicuous yet somehow the more sinister because his face and figure showed dark against the window and the white warehouse wall outside it; he was buttoned up tight in an elegant overcoat with strips of astrakhan. The eager face and brilliant eyes of Wynd, on the other hand, were in the full light from the other window over-looking the little garden, for his chair and desk stood facing it; and though the face was preoccupied, it did not seem unduly preoccupied about the millionaire. Wynd’s valet or personal servant, a big, powerful man with flat fair hair, was standing behind his master’s desk holding a sheaf of letters; and Wynd’s private secretary, a neat, red-haired youth with a sharp face, had his hand already on the door handle, as if guessing some purpose or obeying some gesture of his employer. The room was not only neat, but austere to the point of emptiness; for Wynd, with characteristic thoroughness, had rented the whole floor above, and turned it into a loft or storeroom, where all his other papers and possessions were stacked in boxes and corded bales.
‘Give these to the floor-clerk, Wilson,’ said Wynd to the servant holding the letters, ‘and then get me the pamphlet on the Minneapolis Night Clubs; you’ll find it in the bundle marked ‘G’. I shall want it in half an hour, but don’t disturb me till then. Well, Mr Vandam, I think your proposition sounds very promising; but I can’t give a final answer till I’ve seen the report. It ought to reach me to-morrow afternoon, and I’ll phone you at once. I’m sorry I can’t say anything more definite just now.’
Mr Vandam seemed to feel that this was something like a polite dismissal; and his sallow, saturnine face suggested that he found a certain irony in the fact.
‘Well, I suppose I must be going,’ he said.
‘Very good of you to call, Mr Vandam,’ said Wynd, politely; ‘you will excuse my not coming out, as I’ve something here I must fix at once. Fenner,’ he added to the secretary,’ show Mr Vandam to his car, and don’t come back again for half an hour. I’ve something here I want to work out by myself; after that I shall want you.’
The three men went out into the hallway together, closing the door behind them. The big servant, Wilson, was turning down the hallway in the direction of the floor-clerk, and the other two moving in the opposite direction towards the lift; for Wynd’s apartment was high up on the fourteenth floor. They had hardly gone a yard from the closed door when they became conscious that the corridor was filled with a marching and even magnificent figure. The man was very tall and broad-shouldered, his bulk being the more conspicuous for being clad in white, or a light grey that looked like it, with a very wide white panama hat and an almost equally wide fringe or halo of almost equally white hair. Set in this aureole his face was strong and handsome, like that of a Roman emperor, save that there was something more than boyish, something a little childish, about the brightness of his eyes and the beatitude of his smile. ‘Mr Warren Wynd in?’ he asked, in hearty tones.
‘Mr Warren Wynd is engaged,’ said Fenner; ‘he must not be disturbed on any account. I may say I am his secretary and can take any message.’
‘Mr Warren Wynd is not at home to the Pope or the Crowned Heads,’ said Vandam, the oil magnate, with sour satire. ‘Mr Warren Wynd is mighty particular. I went in there to hand him over a trifle of twenty thousand dollars on certain conditions, and, he told me to call again like as if I was a call-boy.’
‘It’s a fine thing to be a boy,’ said the stranger, ‘and a finer to have a call; and I’ve got a call he’s just got to listen to. It’s a call of the great good country out West, where the real American is being made while you’re all snoring. Just tell him that Art Alboin of Oklahoma City has come to convert him.’
‘I tell you nobody can see him,’ said the red-haired secretary sharply. ‘He has given orders that he is not to be disturbed for half an hour.’
‘You folks down East are all against being disturbed,’ said the breezy Mr Alboin, ‘but I calculate there’s a big breeze getting up in the West that will have to disturb you. He’s been figuring out how much money must go to this and that stuffy old religion; but I tell you any scheme that leaves out the new Great Spirit movement in Texas and Oklahoma, is leaving out the religion of the future.’
‘Oh; I’ve sized up those religions of the future,’ said the millionaire, contemptuously. ‘I’ve been through them with a tooth-comb and they’re as mangy as yellow dogs. There was that woman called herself Sophia: ought to have called herself Sapphira, I reckon. Just a plum fraud. Strings tied to all the tables and tambourines. Then there were the Invisible Life bunch; said they could vanish when they liked, and they did vanish, too, and a hundred thousand of my dollars vanished with them. I knew Jupiter Jesus out in Denver; saw him for weeks on end; and he was just a common crook. So was the Patagonian Prophet; you bet he’s made a bolt for Patagonia. No, I’m through with all that; from now on I only believe what I see. I believe they call it being an atheist.’
‘I guess you got me wrong,’ said the man from Oklahoma, almost eagerly. ‘I guess I’m as much of an atheist as you are. No supernatural or superstitious stuff in our movement; just plain science. The only real right science is just health, and the only real right health is just breathing. Fill your lungs with the wide air of the prairie and you could blow all your old eastern cities into the sea. You could just puff away their biggest men like thistledown. That’s what we do in the new movement out home: we breathe. We don’t pray; we breathe.’
‘Well, I suppose you do,’ said the secretary, wearily. He had a keen, intelligent face which could hardly conceal the weariness; but he had listened to the two monologues with the admirable patience and politeness (so much in contrast with the legends of impatience and insolence) with which such monologues are listened to in America.
‘Nothing supernatural,’ continued Alboin, ‘just the great natural fact behind all the supernatural fancies. What did the Jews want with a God except to breathe into man’s nostrils the breath of life? We do the breathing into our own nostrils out in Oklahoma. What’s the meaning of the very word Spirit? It’s just the Greek for breathing exercises. Life, progress, prophecy; it’s all breath.’
‘Some would allow it’s all wind,’ said Vandam; ‘but I’m glad you’ve got rid of the divinity stunt, anyhow.’
The keen face of the secretary, rather pale against his red hair, showed a flicker of some odd feeling suggestive of a secret bitterness.
‘I’m not glad,’ he said, ‘I’m just sure. You seem to like being atheists; so you may be just believing what you like to believe. But. I wish to God there were a God; and there ain’t. It’s just my luck.’
Without a sound or stir they all became almost creepily conscious at this moment that the group, halted outside Wynd’s door, had silently grown from three figures to four. How long the fourth figure had stood there none of the earnest disputants could tell, but he had every appearance of waiting respectfully and even timidly for the opportunity to say something urgent. But to their nervous sensibility he seemed to have sprung up suddenly and silently like a mushroom. And indeed, he looked rather like a big, black mushroom, for he was quite short and his small, stumpy figure was eclipsed by his big, black clerical hat; the resemblance might have been more complete if mushrooms were in the habit of carrying umbrellas, even of a shabby and shapeless sort.
Fenner, the secretary, was conscious of a curious additional surprise at recognizing the figure of a priest; but when the priest turned up a round face under the round hat and innocently asked for Mr Warren Wynd, he gave the regular negative answer rather more curtly than before. But the priest stood his ground.
‘I do really want to see Mr Wynd,’ he said. ‘It seems odd, but that’s exactly what I do want to do. I don’t want to speak to him. I just want to see him. I just want to see if he’s there to be seen.’
‘Well, I tell you he’s there and can’t be seen,’ said Fenner, with increasing annoyance. ‘What do you mean by saying you want to see if he’s there to be seen? Of course he’s there. We all left him there five minutes ago, and we’ve stood outside this door ever since.’
‘Well, I want to see if he’s all right,’ said the priest.
‘Why?’ demanded the secretary, in exasperation. ‘Because I have a serious, I might say solemn, reason,’ said the cleric, gravely, ’for doubting whether he is all right.’
‘Oh, Lord!’ cried Vandam, in a sort of fury; ‘not more superstitions.’
‘I see I shall have to give my reasons,’ observed the little cleric, gravely. ‘I suppose I can’t expect you even to let me look through the crack of a door till I tell you the whole story.’ He was silent a moment as in reflection, and then went on without noticing the wondering faces around him. ‘I was walking outside along the front of the colonnade when I saw a very ragged man running hard round the corner at the end of the crescent. He came pounding along the pavement towards me, revealing a great raw-boned figure and a face I knew. It was the face of a wild Irish fellow I once helped a little; I will not tell you his name. When he saw me he staggered, calling me by mine and saying, ‘Saints alive, it’s Father Brown; you’re the only man whose face could frighten me to-day.’
‘I knew he meant he’d been doing some wild thing or other, and I don’t think my face frightened him much, for he was soon telling me about it. And a very strange thing it was. He asked me if I knew Warren Wynd, and I said no, though I knew he lived near the top of these flats. He said, ‘That’s a man who thinks he’s a saint of God; but if he knew what I was saying of him he should be ready to hang himself.’ And he repeated hysterically more than once, ‘Yes, ready to hang himself.’ I asked him if he’d done any harm to Wynd, and his answer was rather a queer one. He said: ‘I took a pistol and I loaded it with neither shot nor slug, but only with a curse.’ As far as I could make out, all he had done was to go down that little alley between this building and the big warehouse, with an old pistol loaded with a blank charge, and merely fire it against the wall, as if that would bring down the building. ‘But as I did it,’ he said, ‘I cursed him with the great curse, that the justice of God should take him by the hair and the vengeance of hell by the heels, and he should be torn asunder like Judas and the world know him no more.’
‘Well, it doesn’t matter now what else I said to the poor, crazy fellow; he went away quieted down a little, and I went round to the back of the building to inspect. And sure enough, in the little alley at the foot of this wall there lay a rusty antiquated pistol; I know enough about pistols to know it had been loaded only with a little powder, there were the black marks of powder and smoke on the wall, and even the mark of the muzzle, but not even a dent of any bullet. He had left no trace of destruction; he had left no trace of anything, except those black marks and that black curse he had hurled into heaven. So I came back here to ask for this Warren Wynd and find out if he’s all right.’
Fenner the secretary laughed. ‘I can soon settle that difficulty for you. I assure you he’s quite all right; we left him writing at his desk only a few minutes ago. He was alone in his flat; it’s a hundred feet up from the street, and so placed that no shot could have reached him, even if your friend hadn’t fired blank. There’s no other entrance to this place but this door, and we’ve been standing outside it ever since.’
‘All the same,’ said Father Brown, gravely, ‘I should like to look in and see.’
‘Well, you can’t,’ retorted the other. ‘Good Lord, you don’t tell me you think anything of the curse.’
‘You forget,’ said the millionaire, with a slight sneer, ‘the reverend gentleman’s whole business is blessings and cursings. Come, sir, if he’s been cursed to hell, why don’t you bless him back again? What’s the good of your blessings if they can’t beat an Irish larrykin’s curse?’
‘Does anybody believe such things now?’ protested the Westerner.
‘Father Brown believes a good number of things, I take it,’ said Vandam, whose temper was suffering from the past snub and the present bickering. ’Father Brown believes a hermit crossed a river on a crocodile conjured out of nowhere, and then he told the crocodile to die, and it sure did. Father Brown believes that some blessed saint or other died, and had his dead body turned into three dead bodies, to be served out to three parishes that were all intent on figuring as his home-town. Father Brown believes that a saint hung his cloak on a sunbeam, and another used his for a boat to cross the Atlantic. Father Brown believes the holy donkey had six legs and the house of Loretto flew through the air. He believes in hundreds of stone virgins winking and weeping all day long. It’s nothing to him to believe that a man might escape through the keyhole or vanish out of a locked room. I reckon he doesn’t take much stock of the laws of nature.’
‘Anyhow, I have to take stock in the laws of Warren Wynd,’ said the secretary, wearily, ‘and it’s his rule that he’s to be left alone when he says so. Wilson will tell you just the same,’ for the large servant who had been sent for the pamphlet, passed placidly down the corridor even as he spoke, carrying the pamphlet, but serenely passing the door. ‘He’ll go and sit on the bench by the floor-clerk and twiddle his thumbs till he’s wanted; but he won’t go in before then; and nor will I. I reckon we both know which side our bread is buttered, and it’d take a good many of Father Brown’s saints and angels to make us forget it.’
‘As for saints and angels — ’ began the priest.
‘It’s all nonsense,’ repeated Fenner. ‘I don’t want to say anything offensive, but that sort of thing may be very well for crypts and cloisters and all sorts of moonshiny places. But ghosts can’t get through a closed door in an American hotel.’
‘But men can open a door, even in an American hotel,’ replied Father Brown, patiently. ‘And it seems to me the simplest thing would be to open it.’
‘It would be simple enough to lose me my job,’ answered the secretary, ‘and Warren Wynd doesn’t like his secretaries so simple as that. Not simple enough to believe in the sort of fairy tales you seem to believe in.’
‘Well,’ said the priest gravely, ‘it is true enough that I believe in a good many things that you probably don’t. But it would take a considerable time to explain all the things I believe in, and all the reasons I have for thinking I’m right. It would take about two seconds to open that door and prove I am wrong.’
Something in the phrase seemed to please the more wild and restless spirit of the man from the West.
‘I’ll allow I’d love to prove you wrong,’ said Alboin, striding suddenly past them, ‘and I will.’
He threw open the door of the flat and looked in. The first glimpse showed that Warren Wynd’s chair was empty. The second glance showed that his room was empty also.
Fenner, electrified with energy in his turn, dashed past the other into the apartment.
‘He’s in his bedroom,’ he said curtly, ‘he must be.’
As he disappeared into the inner chamber the other men stood in the empty outer room staring about them. The severity and simplicity of its fittings, which had already been noted, returned on them with a rigid challenge. Certainly in this room there was no question of hiding a mouse, let alone a man. There were no curtains and, what is rare in American arrangements, no cupboards. Even the desk was no more than a plain table with a shallow drawer and a tilted lid. The chairs were hard and high-backed skeletons. A moment after the secretary reappeared at the inner door, having searched the two inner rooms. A staring negation stood in his eyes, and his mouth seemed to move in a mechanical detachment from it as he said sharply: ‘He didn’t come out through here?’
Somehow the others did not even think it necessary to answer that negation in the negative. Their minds had come up against something like the blank wall of the warehouse that stared in at the opposite window, gradually turning from white to grey as dusk slowly descended with the advancing afternoon. Vandam walked over to the window-sill against which he had leant half an hour before and looked out of the open window. There was no pipe or fire-escape, no shelf or foothold of any kind on the sheer fall to the little by-street below, there was nothing on the similar expanse of wall that rose many stories above. There was even less variation on the other side of the street; there was nothing whatever but the wearisome expanse of whitewashed wall. He peered downwards, as if expecting to see the vanished philanthropist lying in a suicidal wreck on the path. He could see nothing but one small dark object which, though diminished by distance, might well be the pistol that the priest had found lying there. Meanwhile, Fenner had walked to the other window, which looked out from a wall equally blank and inaccessible, but looking out over a small ornamental park instead of a side street. Here a clump of trees interrupted the actual view of the ground; but they reached but a little way up the huge human cliff. Both turned back into the room and faced each other in the gathering twilight where the last silver gleams of daylight on the shiny tops of desks and tables were rapidly turning grey. As if the twilight itself irritated him, Fenner touched the switch and the scene sprang into the startling distinctness of electric light.
‘As you said just now,’ said Vandam grimly, ‘there’s no shot from down there could hit him, even if there was a shot in the gun. But even if he was hit with a bullet he wouldn’t have just burst like a bubble.’
The secretary, who was paler than ever, glanced irritably at the bilious visage of the millionaire. ‘What’s got you started on those morbid notions? Who’s talking about bullets and bubbles? Why shouldn’t he be alive?’
‘Why not indeed?’ replied Vandam smoothly. ‘If you’ll tell me where he is, I’ll tell you how he got there.’
After a pause the secretary muttered, rather sulkily: ‘I suppose you’re right. We’re right up against the very thing we were talking about. It’d be a queer thing if you or I ever came to think there was anything in cursing. But who could have harmed Wynd shut up in here?’
Mr Alboin, of Oklahoma, had been standing rather astraddle in the middle of the room, his white, hairy halo as well as his round eyes seeming to radiate astonishment. At this point he said, abstractedly, with something of the irrelevant impudence of an enfant terrible: ‘You didn’t cotton to him much, did you, Mr Vandam?’
Mr Vandam’s long yellow face seemed to grow longer as it grew more sinister, while he smiled and answered quietly: ‘If it comes to these coincidences, it was you, I think, who said that a wind from the West would blow away our big men like thistledown.’
‘I know I said it would,’ said the Westerner, with candour; ’but all the same, how the devil could it?’
The silence was broken by Fenner saying with an abruptness amounting to violence: ‘There’s only one thing to say about this affair. It simply hasn’t happened. It can’t have happened.’
‘Oh, yes,’ said Father Brown out of the corner; ‘it has happened all right.’
They all jumped; for the truth was they had all forgotten the insignificant little man who had originally induced them to open the door. And the recovery of memory went with a sharp reversal of mood; it came back to them with a rush that they had all dismissed him as a superstitious dreamer for even hinting at the very thing that had since happened before their eyes.
‘Snakes!’ cried the impetuous Westerner, like one speaking before he could stop himself; ’suppose there were something in it, after all!’
‘I must confess,’ said Fenner, frowning at the table, ‘that his reverence’s anticipations were apparently well founded. I don’t know whether he has anything else to tell us.’
‘He might possibly tell us,’ said Vandam, sardonically, ‘what the devil we are to do now.’
The little priest seemed to accept the position in a modest, but matter-of-fact manner. ‘The only thing I can think of,’ he said, ‘is first to tell the authorities of this place, and then to see if there were any more traces of my man who let off the pistol. He vanished round the other end of the Crescent where the little garden is. There are seats there, and it’s a favourite place for tramps.’
Direct consultations with the headquarters of the hotel, leading to indirect consultations with the authorities of the police, occupied them for a considerable time; and it was already nightfall when they went out under the long, classical curve of the colonnade. The crescent looked as cold and hollow as the moon after which it was named, and the moon itself was rising luminous but spectral behind the black tree-tops when they turned the corner by the little public garden. Night veiled much of what was merely urban and artificial about the place, and as they melted into the shadows of the trees they had a strange feeling of having suddenly travelled many hundred miles from their homes. When they had walked in silence for a little, Alboin, who had something elemental about him, suddenly exploded.
‘I give up,’ he cried; ‘I hand in my checks. I never thought I should come to such things; but what happens when the things come to you? I beg your pardon, Father Brown; I reckon I’ll just come across, so far as you and your fairy-tales are concerned. After this, it’s me for the fairy-tales. Why, you said yourself, Mr Vandam, that you’re an atheist and only believe what you see. Well, what was it you did see? Or rather, what was it you didn’t see?’
‘I know,’ said Vandam and nodded in a gloomy fashion.
‘Oh, it’s partly all this moon and trees that get on one’s nerves,’ said Fenner obstinately. ‘Trees always look queer by moonlight, with their branches crawling about. Look at that — ’
‘Yes,’ said Father Brown, standing still and peering at the moon through a tangle of trees. ‘That’s a very queer branch up there.’
When he spoke again he only said: ‘I thought it was a broken branch.’
But this time there was a catch in his voice that unaccountably turned his hearers cold. Something that looked rather like a dead branch was certainly dependent in a limp fashion from the tree that showed dark against the moon; but it was not a dead branch. When they came close to it to see what it was Fenner sprang away again with a ringing oath. Then he ran in again and loosened a rope from the neck of the dingy little body dangling with drooping plumes of grey hair. Somehow he knew that the body was a dead body before he managed to take it down from the tree. A very long coil of rope was wrapped round and round the branches, and a comparatively short length of it hung from the fork of the branch to the body. A long garden tub was rolled a yard or so from under the feet, like the stool kicked away from the feet of a suicide.
‘Oh, my God!’ said Alboin, so that it seemed as much a prayer as an oath. ‘What was it that man said about him? — “If he knew, he would be ready to hang himself.” Wasn’t that what he said, Father Brown?’
‘Yes,’ said Father Brown.
‘Well,’ said Vandam in a hollow voice, ‘I never thought to see or say such a thing. But what can one say except that the curse has worked?’
Fenner was standing with hands covering his face; and the priest laid a hand on his arm and said, gently, ’Were you very fond of him?’
The secretary dropped his hands and his white face was ghastly under the moon.
‘I hated him like hell,’ he said; ‘and if he died by a curse it might have been mine.’
The pressure of the priest’s hand on his arm tightened; and the priest said, with an earnestness he had hardly yet shown: ‘It wasn’t your curse; pray be comforted.’
The police of the district had considerable difficulty in dealing with the four witnesses who were involved in the case. All of them were reputable, and even reliable people in the ordinary sense; and one of them was a person of considerable power and importance: Silas Vandam of the Oil Trust. The first police-officer who tried to express scepticism about his story struck sparks from the steel of that magnate’s mind very rapidly indeed.
‘Don’t you talk to me about sticking to the facts,’ said the millionaire with asperity. ‘I’ve stuck to a good many facts before you were born and a few of the facts have stuck to me. I’ll give you the facts all right if you’ve got the sense to take ’em down correctly.’
The policeman in question was youthful and subordinate, and had a hazy idea that the millionaire was too political to be treated as an ordinary citizen; so he passed him and his companions on to a more stolid superior, one Inspector Collins, a grizzled man with a grimly comfortable way of talking; as one who was genial but would stand no nonsense.
‘Well, well,’ he said, looking at the three figures before him with twinkling eyes, ‘this seems to be a funny sort of a tale.’
Father Brown had already gone about his daily business; but Silas Vandam had suspended even the gigantic business of the markets for an hour or so to testify to his remarkable experience. Fenner’s business as secretary had ceased in a sense with his employer’s life; and the great Art Alboin, having no business in New York or anywhere else, except the spreading of the Breath of Life religion or the Great Spirit, had nothing to draw him away at the moment from the immediate affair. So they stood in a row in the inspector’s office, prepared to corroborate each other.
‘Now I’d better tell you to start with,’ said the inspector cheerfully, ‘that it’s no good for anybody to come to me with any miraculous stuff. I’m a practical man and a policeman, and that sort of thing is all very well for priests and parsons. This priest of yours seems to have got you all worked up about some story of a dreadful death and judgement; but I’m going to leave him and his religion out of it altogether. If Wynd came out of that room, somebody let him out. And if Wynd was found hanging on that tree, somebody hung him there.’
‘Quite so,’ said Fenner; ‘but as our evidence is that nobody let him out, the question is how could anybody have hung him there?’
‘How could anybody have a nose on his face?’ asked the inspector. ‘He had a nose on his face, and he had a noose round his neck. Those are facts; and, as I say, I’m a practical man and go by the facts. It can’t have been done by a miracle, so it must have been done by a man.’
Alboin had been standing rather in the background; and indeed his broad figure seemed to form a natural background to the leaner and more vivacious men in front of him. His white head was bowed with a certain abstraction; but as the inspector said the last sentence, he lifted it, shaking his hoary mane in a leonine fashion, and looking dazed but awakened. He moved forward into the centre of the group, and they had a vague feeling that he was even vaster than before. They had been only too prone to take him for a fool or a mountebank; but he was not altogether wrong when he said that there was in him a certain depth of lungs and life, like a west wind stored up in its strength, which might some day puff lighter things away.
‘So you’re a practical man, Mr Collins,’ he said, in a voice at once soft and heavy. ‘It must be the second or third time you’ve mentioned in this little conversation that you are a practical man; so I can’t be mistaken about that. And a very interesting little fact it is for anybody engaged in writing your life, letters, and table-talk, with portrait at the age of five, daguerreotype of your grandmother and views of the old home-town; and I’m sure your biographer won’t forget to mention it along with the fact that you had a pug nose with a pimple on it, and were nearly too fat to walk. And as you’re a practical man, perhaps you would just go on practising till you’ve brought Warren Wynd to life again, and found out exactly how a practical man gets through a steel door. But I think you’ve got it wrong. You’re not a practical man. You’re a practical joke; that’s what you are. The Almighty was having a bit of fun with us when he thought of you.’
With a characteristic sense of drama he went sailing towards the door before the astonished inspector could reply; and no after-recriminations could rob him of a certain appearance of triumph.
‘I think you were perfectly right,’ said Fenner. ‘If those are practical men, give me priests.’
Another attempt was made to reach an official version of the event when the authorities fully realized who were the backers of the story, and what were the implications of it. Already it had broken out in the Press in its most sensationally and even shamelessly psychic form. Interviews with Vandam on his marvellous adventure, articles about Father Brown and his mystical intuitions, soon led those who feel responsible for guiding the public, to wish to guide it into a wiser channel. Next time the inconvenient witnesses were approached in a more indirect and tactful manner. They were told, almost in an airy fashion, that Professor Vair was very much interested in such abnormal experiences; was especially interested in their own astonishing case. Professor Vair was a psychologist of great distinction; he had been known to take a detached interest in criminology; it was only some little time afterwards that they discovered that he was in any way connected with the police.
Professor Vair was a courteous gentleman, quietly dressed in pale grey clothes, with an artistic tie and a fair, pointed beard; he looked more like a landscape painter to anyone not acquainted with a certain special type of don. He had an air not only of courtesy, but of frankness.
‘Yes, yes, I know,’ he said smiling; ‘I can guess what you must have gone through. The police do not shine in inquiries of a psychic sort, do they? Of course, dear old Collins said he only wanted the facts. What an absurd blunder! In a case of this kind we emphatically do not only want the facts. It is even more essential to have the fancies.’
‘Do you mean,’ asked Vandam gravely, ‘that all that we thought facts were merely fancies?’
‘Not at all,’ said the professor; ‘I only mean that the police are stupid in thinking they can leave out the psychological element in these things. Well, of course, the psychological element is everything in everything, though it is only just beginning to be understood. To begin with, take the element called personality. Now I have heard of this priest, Father Brown, before; and he is one of the most remarkable men of our time. Men of that sort carry a sort of atmosphere with them; and nobody knows how much his nerves and even his very senses are affected by it for the time being. People are hypnotized — yes, hypnotized; for hypnotism, like everything else, is a matter of degree; it enters slightly into all daily conversation: it is not necessarily conducted by a man in evening-dress on a platform in a public hall. Father Brown’s religion has always understood the psychology of atmospheres, and knows how to appeal to everything simultaneously; even, for instance, to the sense of smell. It understands those curious effects produced by music on animals and human beings; it can — ’
‘Hang it,’ protested Fenner, ‘you don’t think he walked down the corridor carrying a church organ?’
‘He knows better than to do that,’ said Professor Vair laughing. ‘He knows how to concentrate the essence of all these spiritual sounds and sights, and even smells, in a few restrained gestures; in an art or school of manners. He could contrive so to concentrate your minds on the supernatural by his mere presence, that natural things slipped off your minds to left and right unnoticed. Now you know,’ he proceeded with a return to cheerful good sense, ‘that the more we study it the more queer the whole question of human evidence becomes. There is not one man in twenty who really observes things at all. There is not one man in a hundred who observes them with real precision; certainly not one in a hundred who can first observe, then remember, and finally describe. Scientific experiments have been made again and again showing that men under strain have thought a door was shut when it was open, or open when it was shut. Men have differed about the number of doors or windows in a wall just in front of them. They have suffered optical illusions in broad daylight. They have done this even without the hypnotic effect of personality; but here we have a very powerful and persuasive personality bent upon fixing only one picture on your minds; the picture of the wild Irish rebel shaking his pistol at the sky and firing that vain volley, whose echoes were the thunders of heaven.’
‘Professor,’ cried Fenner, ‘I’d swear on my deathbed that door never opened.’
‘Recent experiments,’ went on the professor, quietly, ‘have suggested that our consciousness is not continuous, but is a succession of very rapid impressions like a cinema; it is possible that somebody or something may, so to speak, slip in or out between the scenes. It acts only in the instant while the curtain is down. Probably the patter of conjurors and all forms of sleight of hand depend on what we may call these black flashes of blindness between the flashes of sight. Now this priest and preacher of transcendental notions had filled you with a transcendental imagery; the image of the Celt like a Titan shaking the tower with his curse. Probably he accompanied it with some slight but compelling gesture, pointing your eyes and minds in the direction of the unknown destroyer below. Or perhaps something else happened, or somebody else passed by.’
‘Wilson, the servant,’ grunted Alboin, ‘went down the hallway to wait on the bench, but I guess he didn’t distract us much.’
‘You never know how much,’ replied Vair; ‘it might have been that or more likely your eyes following some gesture of the priest as he told his tale of magic. It was in one of those black flashes that Mr Warren Wynd slipped out of his door and went to his death. That is the most probable explanation. It is an illustration of the new discovery. The mind is not a continuous line, but rather a dotted line.’
‘Very dotted,’ said Fenner feebly. ‘Not to say dotty.’
‘You don’t really believe,’ asked Vair, ’that your employer was shut up in a room like a box?’
‘It’s better than believing that I ought to be shut up in a room like a padded cell,’ answered Fenner. ‘That’s what I complain of in your suggestions, professor. I’d as soon believe in a priest who believes in a miracle, as disbelieve in any man having any right to believe in a fact. The priest tells me that a man can appeal to a God I know nothing about to avenge him by the laws of some higher justice that I know nothing about. There’s nothing for me to say except that I know nothing about it. But, at least, if the poor Paddy’s prayer and pistol could be heard in a higher world, that higher world might act in some way that seems odd to us. But you ask me to disbelieve the facts of this world as they appear to my own five wits. According to you, a whole procession of Irishmen carrying blunderbusses may have walked through this room while we were talking, so long as they took care to tread on the blind spots in our minds. Miracles of the monkish sort, like materializing a crocodile or hanging a cloak on a sunbeam, seem quite sane compared to you.’
‘Oh, well,’ said Professor Vair, rather curtly, ‘if you are resolved to believe in your priest and his miraculous Irishman I can say no more. I’m afraid you have not had an opportunity of studying psychology.’
‘No,’ said Fenner dryly; ‘but I’ve had an opportunity of studying psychologists.’
And, bowing politely, he led his deputation out of the room and did not speak till he got into the street; then he addressed them rather explosively.
‘Raving lunatics!’ cried Fenner in a fume. ‘What the devil do they think is to happen to the world if nobody knows whether he’s seen anything or not? I wish I’d blown his silly head off with a blank charge, and then explained that I did it in a blind flash. Father Brown’s miracle may be miraculous or no, but he said it would happen and it did happen. All these blasted cranks can do is to see a thing happen and then say it didn’t. Look here, I think we owe it to the padre to testify to his little demonstration. We’re all sane, solid men who never believed in anything. We weren’t drunk. We weren’t devout. It simply happened just as he said it would.’
‘I quite agree,’ said the millionaire. ‘It may be the beginning of mighty big things in the spiritual line; but anyhow, the man who’s in the spiritual line himself, Father Brown, has certainly scored over this business.’
A few days afterwards Father Brown received a very polite note signed Silas T. Vandam, and asking him if he would attend at a stated hour at the apartment which was the scene of the disappearance, in order to take steps for the establishment of that marvellous occurrence. The occurrence itself had already begun to break out in the newspapers, and was being taken up everywhere by the enthusiasts of occultism. Father Brown saw the flaring posters inscribed ‘Suicide of Vanishing Man’, and ‘Man’s Curse Hangs Philanthropist’, as he passed towards Moon Crescent and mounted the steps on the way to the elevator. He found the little group much as he left it, Vandam, Alboin, and the secretary; but there was an entirely new respectfulness and even reverence in their tone towards himself. They were standing by Wynd’s desk, on which lay a large paper and writing materials; they turned to greet him.
‘Father Brown,’ said the spokesman, who was the white-haired Westerner, somewhat sobered with his responsibility, ‘we asked you here in the first place to offer our apologies and our thanks. We recognize that it was you that spotted the spiritual manifestation from the first. We were hard-shell sceptics, all of us; but we realize now that a man must break that shell to get at the great things behind the world. You stand for those things; you stand for the super-normal explanation of things; and we have to hand it to you. And in the second place, we feel that this document would not be complete without your signature. We are notifying the exact facts to the Psychical Research Society, because the newspaper accounts are not what you might call exact. We’ve stated how the curse was spoken out in the street; how the man was sealed up here in a room like a box; how the curse dissolved him straight into thin air, and in some unthinkable way materialized him as a suicide hoisted on a gallows. That’s all we can say about it; but all that we know, and have seen with our own eyes. And as you were the first to believe in the miracle, we all feel that you ought to be the first to sign.’
‘No, really,’ said Father Brown, in embarrassment. ‘I don’t think I should like to do that.’
‘You mean you’d rather not sign first?’
‘I mean I’d rather not sign at all,’ said Father Brown, modestly. ‘You see, it doesn’t quite do for a man in my position to joke about miracles.’
‘But it was you who said it was a miracle,’ said Alboin, staring.
‘I’m so sorry,’ said Father Brown; ‘I’m afraid there’s some mistake. I don’t think I ever said it was a miracle. All I said was that it might happen. What you said was that it couldn’t happen, because it would be a miracle if it did. And then it did. And so you said it was a miracle. But I never said a word about miracles or magic, or anything of the sort from beginning to end.’
‘But I thought you believed in miracles,’ broke out the secretary.
‘Yes,’ answered Father Brown, ‘I believe in miracles. I believe in man-eating tigers, but I don’t see them running about everywhere. If I want any miracles, I know where to get them.’
‘I can’t understand your taking this line, Father Brown,’ said Vandam, earnestly. ‘It seems so narrow; and you don’t look narrow to me, though you are a parson. Don’t you see, a miracle like this will knock all materialism endways? It will just tell the whole world in big print that spiritual powers can work and do work. You’ll be serving religion as no parson ever served it yet.’
The priest had stiffened a little and seemed in some strange way clothed with unconscious and impersonal dignity, for all his stumpy figure. ‘Well,’ he said, ‘you wouldn’t suggest I should serve religion by what I know to be a lie? I don’t know precisely what you mean by the phrase; and, to be quite candid, I’m not sure you do. Lying may be serving religion; I’m sure it’s not serving God. And since you are harping so insistently on what I believe, wouldn’t it be as well if you had some sort of notion of what it is?’
‘I don’t think I quite understand,’ observed the millionaire, curiously.
‘I don’t think you do,’ said Father Brown, with simplicity. ‘You say this thing was done by spiritual powers. What spiritual powers? You don’t think the holy angels took him and hung him on a garden tree, do you? And as for the unholy angels — no, no, no. The men who did this did a wicked thing, but they went no further than their own wickedness; they weren’t wicked enough to be dealing with spiritual powers. I know something about Satanism, for my sins; I’ve been forced to know. I know what it is, what it practically always is. It’s proud and it’s sly. It likes to be superior; it loves to horrify the innocent with things half understood, to make children’s flesh creep. That’s why it’s so fond of mysteries and initiations and secret societies and all the rest of it. Its eyes are turned inwards, and however grand and grave it may look, it’s always hiding a small, mad smile.’ He shuddered suddenly, as if caught in an icy draught of air. ‘Never mind about them; they’ve got nothing to do with this, believe me. Do you think that poor, wild Irishman of mine, who ran raving down the street, who blurted out half of it when he first saw my face, and ran away for fear he should blurt out more, do you think Satan confides any secrets to him? I admit he joined in a plot, probably in a plot with two other men worse than himself; but for all that, he was just in an everlasting rage when he rushed down the lane and let off his pistol and his curse.’
‘But what on earth does all this mean?’ demanded Vandam. ‘Letting off a toy pistol and a twopenny curse wouldn’t do what was done, except by a miracle. It wouldn’t make Wynd disappear like a fairy. It wouldn’t make him reappear a quarter of a mile away with a rope round his neck.’
‘No,’ said Father Brown sharply; ‘but what would it do?’
‘And still I don’t follow you,’ said the millionaire gravely.
‘I say, what would it do?’ repeated the priest; showing, for the first time, a sort of animation verging on annoyance. ‘You keep on repeating that a blank pistol-shot wouldn’t do this and wouldn’t do that; that if that was all, the murder wouldn’t happen or the miracle wouldn’t happen. It doesn’t seem to occur to you to ask what would happen. What would happen to you if a lunatic let off a firearm without rhyme or reason right under your window? What’s the very first thing that would happen?’
Vandam looked thoughtful. ‘I guess I should look out of the window,’ he said.
‘Yes,’ said Father Brown, ‘you’d look out of the window. That’s the whole story. It’s a sad story, but it’s finished now; and there were extenuating circumstances.’
‘Why should looking out of the window hurt him?’ asked Alboin. ‘He didn’t fall out, or he’d have been found in the lane.’
‘No,’ said Father Brown, in a low voice. ‘He didn’t fall. He rose.’
There was something in his voice like the groan of a gong, a note of doom, but otherwise he went on steadily: ‘He rose, but not on wings; not on the wings of any holy or unholy angels. He rose at the end of a rope, exactly as you saw him in the garden; a noose dropped over his head the moment it was poked out of the window. Don’t you remember Wilson, that big servant of his, a man of huge strength, while Wynd was the lightest of little shrimps? Didn’t Wilson go to the floor above to get a pamphlet, to a room full of luggage corded in coils and coils of rope? Has Wilson been seen since that day? I fancy not.’
‘Do you mean,’ asked the secretary, ‘that Wilson whisked him clean out of his own window like a trout on a line?’
‘Yes,’ said the other, ‘and let him down again out of the other window into the park, where the third accomplice hooked him on to a tree. Remember the lane was always empty; remember the wall opposite was quite blank; remember it was all over in five minutes after the Irishman gave the signal with the pistol. There were three of them in it of course; and I wonder whether you can all guess who they were.’
They were all three staring at the plain, square window and the blank, white wall beyond; and nobody answered.
‘By the way,’ went on Father Brown, ‘don’t think I blame you for jumping to preternatural conclusions. The reason’s very simple, really. You all swore you were hard-shelled materialists; and as a matter of fact you were all balanced on the very edge of belief — of belief in almost anything. There are thousands balanced on it today; but it’s a sharp, uncomfortable edge to sit on. You won’t rest till you believe something; that’s why Mr Vandam went through new religions with a tooth-comb, and Mr Alboin quotes Scripture for his religion of breathing exercises, and Mr Fenner grumbles at the very God he denies. That’s where you all split; it’s natural to believe in the supernatural. It never feels natural to accept only natural things. But though it wanted only a touch to tip you into preternaturalism about these things, these things really were only natural things. They were not only natural, they were almost unnaturally simple. I suppose there never was quite so simple a story as this.’
Fenner laughed and then looked puzzled. ‘I don’t understand one thing,’ he said. ‘If it was Wilson, how did Wynd come to have a man like that on such intimate terms? How did he come to be killed by a man he’d seen every day for years? He was famous as being a judge of men.’
Father Brown thumped his umbrella on the ground with an emphasis he rarely showed.
‘Yes,’ he said, almost fiercely; ‘that was how he came to be killed. He was killed for just that. He was killed for being a judge of men.’
They all stared at him, but he went on, almost as if they were not there.
‘What is any man that he should be a judge of men?’ he demanded. ‘These three were the tramps that once stood before him and were dismissed rapidly right and left to one place or another; as if for them there were no cloak of courtesy, no stages of intimacy, no free-will in friendship. And twenty years has not exhausted the indignation born of that unfathomable insult in that moment when he dared to know them at a glance.’
‘Yes,’ said the secretary; ‘I understand ... and I understand how it is that you understand — all sorts of things.’
‘Well, I’m blamed if I understand,’ cried the breezy Western gentleman boisterously. ‘Your Wilson and your Irishman seem to be just a couple of cut-throat murderers who killed their benefactor. I’ve no use for a black and bloody assassin of that sort, in my morality, whether it’s religion or not.’
‘He was a black and bloody assassin, no doubt,’ said Fenner quietly. ‘I’m not defending him; but I suppose it’s Father Brown’s business to pray for all men, even for a man like — ’
‘Yes,’ assented Father Brown, ‘it’s my business to pray for all men, even for a man like Warren Wynd.’
Last updated on Tue Feb 8 09:01:26 2005 for eBooks@Adelaide.