G. K. Chesterton

The Complete "Father Brown"

The Secret of Flambeau

“ — the sort of murders in which I played the part of the murderer,” said Father Brown, putting down the wineglass. The row of red pictures of crime had passed before him in that moment.

“It is true,” he resumed, after a momentary pause, “that somebody else had played the part of the murderer before me and done me out of the actual experience. I was a sort of understudy; always in a state of being ready to act the assassin. I always made it my business, at least, to know the part thoroughly. What I mean is that, when I tried to imagine the state of mind in which such a thing would be done, I always realized that I might have done it myself under certain mental conditions, but not under others; and not generally under the obvious ones. And then, of course, I knew who really had done it; and he was not generally the obvious person.

“For instance, it seemed obvious to say that the revolutionary poet had killed the old judge who saw red about red revolutionaries. But that isn’t really a reason for the revolutionary poet killing him. It isn’t, if you think what it would really be like to be a revolutionary poet. Now I set myself conscientiously down to be a revolutionary poet. I mean that particular sort of pessimistic anarchial lover of revolt, not as reform, but rather as destruction. I tried to clear my mind of such elements of sanity and constructive common sense as I have had the luck to learn or inherit. I shut down and darkened all the skylights through which comes the good daylight out of heaven; I imagined a mind lit only by a red light from below; a fire rending rocks and cleaving abysses upwards. And even with the vision at its wildest and worst, I could not see why such a visionary should cut short his own career by colliding with a common policeman, for killing one out of a million conventional old fools, as he would have called them. He wouldn’t do it; however much he wrote songs of violence. He wouldn’t do it, because he wrote songs of violence. A man who can express himself in song need not express himself in suicide. A poem was an event to him; and he would want to have more of them. Then I thought of another sort of heathen; the sort that is not destroying the world but entirely depending on the world. I thought that, save for the grace of God, I might have been a man for whom the world was a blaze of electric lights, with nothing but utter darkness beyond and around it. The worldly man, who really lives only for this world and believes in no other, whose worldly success and pleasure are all he can ever snatch out of nothingness — that is the man who will really do anything, when he is in danger of losing the whole world and saving nothing. It is not the revolutionary man but the respectable man who would commit any crime — to save his respectability. Think what exposure would mean to a man like that fashionable barrister; and exposure of the one crime still really hated by his fashionable world — treason against patriotism. If I had been in his position, and had nothing better than his philosophy, heaven alone knows what I might have done. That is just where this little religious exercise is so wholesome.”

“Some people would think it was rather morbid,” said Grandison Chace dubiously.

“Some people,” said Father Brown gravely, “undoubtedly do think that charity and humility are morbid. Our friend the poet probably would. But I’m not arguing those questions; I’m only trying to answer your question about how I generally go to work. Some of your countrymen have apparently done me the honour to ask how I managed to frustrate a few miscarriages of justice. Well, you can go back and tell them that I do it by morbidity. But I most certainly don’t want them to think I do it by magic.”

Chace continued to look at him with a reflective frown; he was too intelligent not to understand the idea; he would also have said that he was too healthy-minded to like it. He felt as if he were talking to one man and yet to a hundred murderers. There was something uncanny about that very small figure, perched like a goblin beside the goblin stove; and the sense that its round head had held such a universe of wild unreason and imaginative injustice. It was as if the vast void of dark behind it were a throng of dark gigantic figures, the ghosts of great criminals held at bay by the magic circle of the red stove, but ready to tear their master in pieces.

“Well, I’m afraid I do think it’s morbid,” he said frankly. “And I’m not sure it isn’t almost as morbid as magic. But morbidity or no, there’s one thing to be said; it must be an interesting experience.” Then he added, after reflection: “I don’t know whether you would make a really good criminal. But you ought to make a rattling good novelist.”

“I only have to deal with real events,” said Father Brown. “But it’s sometimes harder to imagine real things than unreal ones.”

“Especially,” said the other, “when they are the great crimes of the world.”

“It’s not the great crimes but the small crimes that are really hard to imagine,” replied the priest.

“I don’t quite know what you mean by that,” said Chace.

“I mean commonplace crimes like stealing jewels,” said Father Brown; “like that affair of the emerald necklace or the Ruby of Meru or the artificial goldfish. The difficulty in those cases is that you’ve got to make your mind small. High and mighty humbugs, who deal in big ideas, don’t do those obvious things. I was sure the Prophet hadn’t taken the ruby; or the Count the goldfish; though a man like Bankes might easily take the emeralds. For them, a jewel is a piece of glass: and they can see through the glass. But the little, literal people take it at its market value.

“For that you’ve got to have a small mind. It’s awfully hard to get; like focusing smaller and sharper in a wobbling camera. But some things helped; and they threw a lot of light on the mystery, too. For instance, the sort of man who brags about having ‘shown up’ sham magicians or poor quacks of any sort — he’s always got a small mind. He is the sort of man who ‘sees through’ tramps and trips them up in telling lies. I dare say it might sometimes be a painful duty. It’s an uncommonly base pleasure. The moment I realized what a small mind meant, I knew where to look for it — in the man who wanted to expose the Prophet — and it was he that sneaked the ruby; in the man who jeered at his sister’s psychic fancies — and it was he who nabbed the emeralds. Men like that always have their eye on jewels; they never could rise, with the higher humbugs, to despising jewels. Those criminals with small minds are always quite conventional. They become criminals out of sheer conventionality.

“It takes you quite a long time to feel so crudely as that, though. It’s quite a wild effort of imagination to be so conventional. To want one potty little object as seriously as all that. But you can do it. ... You can get nearer to it. Begin by thinking of being a greedy child; of how you might have stolen a sweet in a shop; of how there was one particular sweet you wanted … then you must subtract the childish poetry; shut off the fairy light that shone on the sweet-stuff shop; imagine you really think you know the world and the market value of sweets … you contract your mind like the camera focus … the thing shapes and then sharpens ... and then, suddenly, it comes!”

He spoke like a man who had once captured a divine vision. Grandison Chace was still looking at him with a frown of mingled mystification and interest. It must be confessed that there did flash once beneath his heavy frown a look of something almost like alarm. It was as if the shock of the first strange confession of the priest still thrilled faintly through him like the last vibration of a thunderclap in the room. Under the surface he was saying to himself that the mistake had only been a temporary madness; that, of course. Father Brown could not really be the monster and murderer he had beheld for that blinding and bewildering instant. But was there not something wrong with the man who talked in that calm way about being a murderer? Was it possible that the priest was a little mad?

“Don’t you think,” he said, abruptly; “that this notion of yours, of a man trying to feel like a criminal, might make him a little too tolerant of crime?”

Father Brown sat up and spoke in a more staccato style.

“I know it does just the opposite. It solves the whole problem of time and sin. It gives a man his remorse beforehand.”

There was a silence; the American looked at the high and steep roof that stretched half across the enclosure; his host gazed into the fire without moving; and then the priest’s voice came on a different note, as if from lower down.

“There are two ways of renouncing the devil,” he said; “and the difference is perhaps the deepest chasm in modern religion. One is to have a horror of him because he is so far off; and the other to have it because he is so near. And no virtue and vice are so much divided as those two virtues.”

They did not answer and he went on in the same heavy tone, as if he were dropping words like molten lead.

“You may think a crime horrible because you could never commit it. I think it horrible because I could commit it. You think of it as something like an eruption of Vesuvius; but that would not really be so terrible as this house catching fire. If a criminal suddenly appeared in this room — — ”

“If a criminal appeared in this room,” said Chace, smiling, “I think you would be a good deal too favourable to him. Apparently you would start by telling him that you were a criminal yourself and explaining how perfectly natural it was that he should have picked his father’s pocket or cut his mother’s throat. Frankly, I don’t think it’s practical. I think that the practical effect would be that no criminal would ever reform. It’s easy enough to theorize and take hypothetical cases; but we all know we’re only talking in the air. Sitting here in M. Duroc’s nice, comfortable house, conscious of our respectability and all the rest of it, it just gives us a theatrical thrill to talk about thieves and murderers and the mysteries of their souls. But the people who really have to deal with thieves and murderers have to deal with them differently. We are safe by the fireside; and we know the house is not on fire. We know there is not a criminal in the room.”

The M. Duroc to whom allusion had been made rose slowly from what had been called his fireside, and his huge shadow flung from the fire seemed to cover everything and darken even the very night above him.

“There is a criminal in this room,” he said. “I am one. I am Flambeau, and the police of two hemispheres are still hunting for me.”

The American remained gazing at him with eyes of a stony brightness; he seemed unable to speak or move.

“There is nothing mystical, or metaphorical, or vicarious about my confession,” said Flambeau. “I stole for twenty years with these two hands; I fled from the police on these two feet. I hope you will admit that my activities were practical. I hope you will admit that my judges and pursuers really had to deal with crime. Do you think I do not know all about their way of reprehending it? Have I not heard the sermons of the righteous and seen the cold stare of the respectable; have I not been lectured in the lofty and distant style, asked how it was possible for anyone to fall so low, told that no decent person could ever have dreamed of such depravity? Do you think all that ever did anything but make me laugh? Only my friend told me that he knew exactly why I stole; and I have never stolen since.”

Father Brown made a gesture as of deprecation; and Grandison Chace at last let out a long breath like a whistle.

“I have told you the exact truth,” said Flambeau; “and it is open to you to hand me over to the police.”

There was an instant of profound stillness, in which could be faintly heard the belated laughter of Flambeau’s children in the high, dark house above them, and the crunching and snorting of the great, grey pigs in the twilight. And then it was cloven by a high voice, vibrant and with a touch of offence, almost surprising for those who do not understand the sensitive American spirit, and how near, in spite of commonplace contrasts, it can sometimes come to the chivalry of Spain.

“Monsieur Duroc,” he said rather stiffly. “We have been friends, I hope, for some considerable period; and I should be pretty much pained to suppose you thought me capable of playing you such a trick while I was enjoying your hospitality and the society of your family, merely because you chose to tell me a little of your own autobiography of your own free will. And when you spoke merely in defence of your friend — no, sir, I can’t imagine any gentleman double-crossing another under such circumstances; it would be a damned sight better to be a dirty informer and sell men’s blood for money. But in a case like this — — ! Could you conceive any man being such a Judas?”

“I could try.” said Father Brown.

Last updated on Tue Feb 8 09:01:26 2005 for eBooks@Adelaide.