A young man in knickerbockers, with an eager sanguine profile, was playing golf against himself on the links that lay parallel to the sand and sea, which were all growing grey with twilight. He was not carelessly knocking a ball about, but rather practising particular strokes with a sort of microscopic fury; like a neat and tidy whirlwind. He had learned many games quickly, but he had a disposition to learn them a little more quickly than they can be learnt. He was rather prone to be a victim of those remarkable invitations by which a man may learn the Violin in Six Lessons — or acquire a perfect French accent by a Correspondence Course. He lived in the breezy atmosphere of such hopeful advertisement and adventure. He was at present the private secretary of Admiral Sir Michael Craven, who owned the big house behind the park abutting on the links. He was ambitious, and had no intention of continuing indefinitely to be private secretary to anybody. But he was also reasonable; and he knew that the best way of ceasing to be a secretary was to be a good secretary. Consequently he was a very good secretary; dealing with the ever-accumulating arrears of the Admiral’s correspondence with the same swift centripetal concentration with which he addressed the golf-ball. He had to struggle with the correspondence alone and at his own discretion at present; for the Admiral had been with his ship for the last six months, and, though now returning, was not expected for hours, or possibly days.
With an athletic stride, the young man, whose name was Harold Harker, crested the rise of turf that was the rampart of the links and, looking out across the sands to the sea, saw a strange sight. He did not see it very clearly; for the dusk was darkening every minute under stormy clouds; but it seemed to him, by a sort of momentary illusion, like a dream of days long past or a drama played by ghosts, out of another age in history.
The last of the sunset lay in long bars of copper and gold above the last dark strip of sea that seemed rather black than blue. But blacker still against this gleam in the west, there passed in sharp outline, like figures in a shadow pantomime, two men with three-cornered cocked hats and swords; as if they had just landed from one of the wooden ships of Nelson. It was not at all the sort of hallucination that would have come natural to Mr Harker, had he been prone to hallucinations. He was of the type that is at once sanguine and scientific; and would be more likely to fancy the flying-ships of the future than the fighting ships of the past. He therefore very sensibly came to the conclusion that even a futurist can believe his eyes.
His illusion did not last more than a moment. On the second glance, what he saw was unusual but not incredible. The two men who were striding in single file across the sands, one some fifteen yards behind the other, were ordinary modern naval officers; but naval officers wearing that almost extravagant full-dress uniform which naval officers never do wear if they can possibly help it; only on great ceremonial occasions such as the visits of Royalty. In the man walking in front, who seemed more or less unconscious of the man walking behind, Harker recognized at once the high-bridged nose and spike-shaped beard of his own employer the Admiral. The other man following in his tracks he did not know. But he did know something about the circumstances connected with the ceremonial occasion. He knew that when the Admiral’s ship put in at the adjacent port, it was to be formally visited by a Great Personage; which was enough, in that sense, to explain the officers being in full dress. But he did also know the officers; or at any rate the Admiral. And what could have possessed the Admiral to come on shore in that rig-out, when one could swear he would seize five minutes to change into mufti or at least into undress uniform, was more than his secretary could conceive. It seemed somehow to be the very last thing he would do. It was indeed to remain for many weeks one of the chief mysteries of this mysterious business. As it was, the outline of these fantastic court uniforms against the empty scenery, striped with dark sea and sand, had something suggestive of comic opera; and reminded the spectator of Pinafore.
The second figure was much more singular; somewhat singular in appearance, despite his correct lieutenant’s uniform, and still more extraordinary in behaviour. He walked in a strangely irregular and uneasy manner; sometimes quickly and sometimes slowly; as if he could not make up his mind whether to overtake the Admiral or not. The Admiral was rather deaf and certainly heard no footsteps behind him on the yielding sand; but the footsteps behind him, if traced in the detective manner, would have given rise to twenty conjectures from a limp to a dance. The man’s face was swarthy as well as darkened with shadow, and every now and then the eyes in it shifted and shone, as if to accent his agitation. Once he began to run and then abruptly relapsed into a swaggering slowness and carelessness. Then he did something which Mr Harker could never have conceived any normal naval officer in His Britannic Majesty’s Service doing, even in a lunatic asylum. He drew his sword.
It was at this bursting-point of the prodigy that the two passing figures disappeared behind a headland on the shore. The staring secretary had just time to notice the swarthy stranger, with a resumption of carelessness, knock off a head of sea-holly with his glittering blade. He seemed then to have abandoned all idea of catching the other man up. But Mr Harold Harker’s face became very thoughtful indeed; and he stood there ruminating for some time before he gravely took himself inland, towards the road that ran past the gates of the great house and so by a long curve down to the sea.
It was up this curving road from the coast that the Admiral might be expected to come, considering the direction in which he had been walking, and making the natural assumption that he was bound for his own door. The path along the sands, under the links, turned inland just beyond the headland and solidifying itself into a road, returned towards Craven House. It was down this road, therefore, that the secretary darted, with characteristic impetuosity, to meet his patron returning home. But the patron was apparently not returning home. What was still more peculiar, the secretary was not returning home either; at least until many hours later; a delay quite long enough to arouse alarm and mystification at Craven House.
Behind the pillars and palms of that rather too palatial country house, indeed, there was expectancy gradually changing to uneasiness. Gryce the butler, a big bilious man abnormally silent below as well as above stairs, showed a certain restlessness as he moved about the main front-hall and occasionally looked out of the side windows of the porch, on the white road that swept towards the sea. The Admiral’s sister Marion, who kept house for him, had her brother’s high nose with a more sniffy expression; she was voluble, rather rambling, not without humour, and capable of sudden emphasis as shrill as a cockatoo. The Admiral’s daughter Olive was dark, dreamy, and as a rule abstractedly silent, perhaps melancholy; so that her aunt generally conducted most of the conversation, and that without reluctance. But the girl also had a gift of sudden laughter that was very engaging.
‘I can’t think why they’re not here already,’ said the elder lady. ‘The postman distinctly told me he’d seen the Admiral coming along the beach; along with that dreadful creature Rook. Why in the world they call him Lieutenant Rook — ’
‘Perhaps,’ suggested the melancholy young lady, with a momentary brightness, ‘perhaps they call him Lieutenant because he is a Lieutenant.’
‘I can’t think why the Admiral keeps him,’ snorted her aunt, as if she were talking of a housemaid. She was very proud of her brother and always called him the Admiral; but her notions of a commission in the Senior Service were inexact.
‘Well, Roger Rook is sulky and unsociable and all that,’ replied Olive, ‘but of course that wouldn’t prevent him being a capable sailor.’
‘Sailor!’ cried her aunt with one of her rather startling cockatoo notes, ‘he isn’t my notion of a sailor. The Lass that Loved a Sailor, as they used to sing when I was young . . . Just think of it! He’s not gay and free and whats-its-name. He doesn’t sing chanties or dance a hornpipe.’
‘Well,’ observed her niece with gravity. ‘The Admiral doesn’t very often dance a hornpipe.’
‘Oh, you know what I mean — he isn’t bright or breezy or anything,’ replied the old lady. ‘Why, that secretary fellow could do better than that.’
Olive’s rather tragic face was transfigured by one of her good and rejuvenating waves of laughter.
‘I’m sure Mr Harker would dance a hornpipe for you,’ she said, ‘and say he had learnt it in half an hour from the book of instructions. He’s always learning things of that sort.’
She stopped laughing suddenly and looked at her aunt’s rather strained face.
‘I can’t think why Mr Harker doesn’t come,’ she added.
‘I don’t care about Mr Harker,’ replied the aunt, and rose and looked out of the window.
The evening light had long turned from yellow to grey and was now turning almost to white under the widening moonlight, over the large flat landscape by the coast; unbroken by any features save a clump of sea-twisted trees round a pool and beyond, rather gaunt and dark against the horizon, the shabby fishermen’s tavern on the shore that bore the name of the Green Man. And all that road and landscape was empty of any living thing. Nobody had seen the figure in the cocked hat that had been observed, earlier in the evening, walking by the sea; or the other and stranger figure that had been seen trailing after him. Nobody had even seen the secretary who saw them.
It was after midnight when the secretary at last burst in and aroused the household; and his face, white as a ghost, looked all the paler against the background of the stolid face and figure of a big Inspector of Police. Somehow that red, heavy, indifferent face looked, even more than the white and harassed one, like a mask of doom. The news was broken to the two women with such consideration or concealments as were possible. But the news was that the body of Admiral Craven had been eventually fished out of the foul weeds and scum of the pool under the trees; and that he was drowned and dead.
Anybody acquainted with Mr Harold Harker, secretary, will realize that, whatever his agitation, he was by morning in a mood to be tremendously on the spot. He hustled the Inspector, whom he had met the night before on the road down by the Green Man, into another room for private and practical consultation. He questioned the Inspector rather as the Inspector might have questioned a yokel. But Inspector Burns was a stolid character; and was either too stupid or too clever to resent such trifles. It soon began to look as if he were by no means so stupid as he looked; for he disposed of Harker’s eager questions in a manner that was slow but methodical and rational.
‘Well,’ said Harker (his head full of many manuals with titles like ‘Be a Detective in Ten Days’). ‘Well, it’s the old triangle, I suppose. Accident, Suicide or Murder.’
‘I don’t see how it could be accident,’ answered the policeman. ‘It wasn’t even dark yet and the pool’s fifty yards from the straight road that he knew like his own doorstep. He’d no more have got into that pond than he’d go and carefully lie down in a puddle in the street. As for suicide, it’s rather a responsibility to suggest it, and rather improbable too. The Admiral was a pretty spry and successful man and frightfully rich, nearly a millionaire in fact; though of course that doesn’t prove anything. He seemed to be pretty normal and comfortable in his private life too; he’s the last man I should suspect of drowning himself.’
‘So that we come,’ said the secretary, lowering his voice with the thrill, ‘I suppose we come to the third possibility.’
‘We won’t be in too much of a hurry about that,’ said the Inspector to the annoyance of Harker, who was in a hurry about everything. ‘But naturally there are one or two things one would like to know. One would like to know — about his property, for instance. Do you know who’s likely to come in for it? You’re his private secretary; do you know anything about his will?’
‘I’m not so private a secretary as all that,’ answered the young man. ‘His solicitors are Messrs Willis, Hardman and Dyke, over in Suttford High Street; and I believe the will is in their custody.’
‘Well, I’d better get round and see them pretty soon,’ said the Inspector.
‘Let’s get round and see them at once,’ said the impatient secretary.
He took a turn or two restlessly up and down the room and then exploded in a fresh place.
‘What have you done about the body, Inspector?’ he asked.
‘Dr Straker is examining it now at the Police Station. His report ought to be ready in an hour or so.’
‘It can’t be ready too soon,’ said Harker. ‘It would save time if we could meet him at the lawyer’s.’ Then he stopped and his impetuous tone changed abruptly to one of some embarrassment.
‘Look here,’ he said, ‘I want ... we want to consider the young lady, the poor Admiral’s daughter, as much as possible just now. She’s got a notion that may be all nonsense; but I wouldn’t like to disappoint her. There’s some friend of hers she wants to consult, staying in the town at present. Man of the name of Brown; priest or parson of some sort — she’s given me his address. I don’t take much stock in priests or parsons, but — ’
The Inspector nodded. ‘I don’t take any stock in priests or parsons; but I take a lot of stock in Father Brown,’ he said. ‘I happened to have to do with him in a queer sort of society jewel case. He ought to have been a policeman instead of parson.’
‘Oh, all right,’ said the breathless secretary as he vanished from the room. ‘Let him come to the lawyer’s too.’
Thus it happened that, when they hurried across to the neighbouring town to meet Dr Straker at the solicitor’s office, they found Father Brown already seated there, with his hands folded on his heavy umbrella, chatting pleasantly to the only available member of the firm. Dr Straker also had arrived, but apparently only at that moment, as he was carefully placing his gloves in his top-hat and his top-hat on a side-table. And the mild and beaming expression of the priest’s moonlike face and spectacles, together with the silent chuckles of the jolly old grizzled lawyer, to whom he was talking, were enough to show that the doctor had not yet opened his mouth to bring the news of death.
‘A beautiful morning after all,’ Father Brown was saying. ‘That storm seems to have passed over us. There were some big black clouds, but I notice that not a drop of rain fell.’
‘Not a drop,’ agreed the solicitor toying with a pen; he was the third partner, Mr. Dyke; ‘there’s not a cloud in the sky now. It’s the sort of day for a holiday.’ Then he realized the newcomers and looked up, laying down the pen and rising. ‘Ah, Mr. Harker, how are you? I hear the Admiral is expected home soon.’ Then Harker spoke, and his voice rang hollow in the room.
‘I am sorry to say we are the bearers of bad news. Admiral Craven was drowned before reaching home.’
There was a change in the very air of the still office, though not in the attitudes of the motionless figures; both were staring at the speaker as if a joke had been frozen on their lips. Both repeated the word ‘drowned’ and looked at each other, and then again at their informant. Then there was a small hubbub of questions.
‘When did this happen?’ asked the priest.
‘Where was he found?’ asked the lawyer.
‘He was found,’ said the Inspector, ‘in that pool by the coast, not far from the Green Man, and dragged out all covered with green scum and weeds so as to be almost unrecognizable. But Dr Straker here has — What is the matter. Father Brown? Are you ill?’
‘The Green Man,’ said Father Brown with a shudder. ‘I’m so sorry ... I beg your pardon for being upset.’
‘Upset by what?’ asked the staring officer.
‘By his being covered with green scum, I suppose,’ said the priest, with a rather shaky laugh. Then he added rather more firmly, ‘I thought it might have been seaweed.’
By this time everybody was looking at the priest, with a not unnatural suspicion that he was mad; and yet the next crucial surprise was not to come from him. After a dead silence, it was the doctor who spoke.
Dr Straker was a remarkable man, even to look at. He was very tall and angular, formal and professional in his dress; yet retaining a fashion that has hardly been known since Mid-Victorian times. Though comparatively young, he wore his brown beard, very long and spreading over his waistcoat; in contrast with it, his features, which were both harsh and handsome, looked singularly pale. His good looks were also diminished by something in his deep eyes that was not squinting, but like the shadow of a squint. Everybody noticed these things about him, because the moment he spoke, he gave forth an indescribable air of authority. But all he said was:
‘There is one more thing to be said, if you come to details, about Admiral Craven being drowned.’ Then he added reflectively, ‘Admiral Craven was not drowned.’
The Inspector turned with quite a new promptitude and shot a question at him.
‘I have just examined the body,’ said Dr Straker, ‘the cause of death was a stab through the heart with some pointed blade like a stiletto. It was after death, and even some little time after, that the body was hidden in the pool.’
Father Brown was regarding Dr Straker with a very lively eye, such as he seldom turned upon anybody; and when the group in the office began to break up, he managed to attach himself to the medical man for a little further conversation, as they went back down the street. There had not been very much else to detain them except the rather formal question of the will. The impatience of the young secretary had been somewhat tried by the professional etiquette of the old lawyer. But the latter was ultimately induced, rather by the tact of the priest than the authority of the policeman, to refrain from making a mystery where there was no mystery at all. Mr Dyke admitted, with a smile, that the Admiral’s will was a very normal and ordinary document, leaving everything to his only child Olive; and that there really was no particular reason for concealing the fact.
The doctor and the priest walked slowly down the street that struck out of the town in the direction of Craven House. Harker had plunged on ahead of him with all his native eagerness to get somewhere; but the two behind seemed more interested in their discussion than their direction. It was in rather an enigmatic tone that the tall doctor said to the short cleric beside him:
‘Well, Father Brown, what do you think of a thing like this?’
Father Brown looked at him rather intently for an instant, and then said:
‘Well, I’ve begun to think of one or two things; but my chief difficulty is that I only knew the Admiral slightly; though I’ve seen something of his daughter.’
‘The Admiral,’ said the doctor with a grim immobility of feature, ‘was the sort of man of whom it is said that he had not an enemy in the world.’
‘I suppose you mean,’ answered the priest, ‘that there’s something else that will not be said.’
‘Oh, it’s no affair of mine,’ said Straker hastily but rather harshly. ‘He had his moods, I suppose. He once threatened me with a legal action about an operation; but I think he thought better of it. I can imagine his being rather rough with a subordinate.’
Father Brown’s eyes were fixed on the figure of the secretary striding far ahead; and as he gazed he realized the special cause of his hurry. Some fifty yards farther ahead the Admiral’s daughter was dawdling along the road towards the Admiral’s house. The secretary soon came abreast of her; and for the remainder of the time Father Brown watched the silent drama of two human backs as they diminished into the distance. The secretary was evidently very much excited about something; but if the priest guessed what it was, he kept it to himself. When he came to the corner leading to the doctor’s house, he only said briefly: ‘I don’t know if you have anything more to tell us.’
‘Why should I?’ answered the doctor very abruptly; and striding off, left it uncertain whether he was asking why he should have anything to tell, or why he should tell it.
Father Brown went stumping on alone, in the track of the two young people; but when he came to the entrance and avenues of the Admiral’s park, he was arrested by the action of the girl, who turned suddenly and came straight towards him; her face unusually pale and her eyes bright with some new and as yet nameless emotion.
‘Father Brown,’ she said in a low voice, ‘I must talk to you as soon as possible. You must listen to me, I can’t see any other way out.’
‘Why certainly,’ he replied, as coolly as if a gutter-boy had asked him the time. ‘Where shall we go and talk?’
The girl led him at random to one of the rather tumbledown arbours in the grounds; and they sat down behind a screen of large ragged leaves. She began instantly, as if she must relieve her feelings or faint.
‘Harold Harker,’ she said, ‘has been talking to me about things. Terrible things.’
The priest nodded and the girl went on hastily. ‘About Roger Rook. Do you know about Roger?’
‘I’ve been told,’ he answered, ‘that his fellow-seamen call him The Jolly Roger, because he is never jolly; and looks like the pirate’s skull and crossbones.’
‘He was not always like that,’ said Olive in a low voice. ‘Something very queer must have happened to him. I knew him well when we were children; we used to play over there on the sands. He was harum-scarum and always talking about being a pirate; I dare say he was the sort they say might take to crime through reading shockers; but there was something poetical in his way of being piratical. He really was a Jolly Roger then. I suppose he was the last boy who kept up the old legend of really running away to sea; and at last his family had to agree to his joining the Navy. Well . . . ’
‘Yes,’ said Father Brown patiently.
‘Well,’ she admitted, caught in one of her rare moments of mirth, ‘I suppose poor Roger found it disappointing. Naval officers so seldom carry knives in their teeth or wave bloody cutlasses and black flags. But that doesn’t explain the change in him. He just stiffened; grew dull and dumb, like a dead man walking about. He always avoids me; but that doesn’t matter. I supposed some great grief that’s no business of mine had broken him up. And now — well, if what Harold says is true, the grief is neither more nor less than going mad; or being possessed of a devil.’
‘And what does Harold say?’ asked the priest.
‘It’s so awful I can hardly say it,’ she answered. ‘He swears he saw Roger creeping behind my father that night; hesitating and then drawing his sword . . . and the doctor says father was stabbed with a steel point ... I can’t believe Roger Rook had anything to do with it. His sulks and my father’s temper sometimes led to quarrels; but what are quarrels? I can’t exactly say I’m standing up for an old friend; because he isn’t even friendly. But you can’t help feeling sure of some things, even about an old acquaintance. And yet Harold swears that he — ’
‘Harold seems to swear a great deal,’ said Father Brown.
There was a sudden silence; after which she said in a different tone: ‘Well, he does swear other things too. Harold Harker proposed to me just now.’
‘Am I to congratulate you, or rather him?’ inquired her companion.
‘I told him he must wait. He isn’t good at waiting.’ She was caught again in a ripple of her incongruous sense of the comic: ‘He said I was his ideal and his ambition and so on. He has lived in the States; but somehow I never remember it when he is talking about dollars; only when he is talking about ideals.’
‘And I suppose,’ said Father Brown very softy, ‘that it is because you have to decide about Harold that you want to know the truth about Roger.’
She stiffened and frowned, and then equally abruptly smiled, saying: ‘Oh, you know too much.’
‘I know very little, especially in this affair,’ said the priest gravely. ‘I only know who murdered your father.’ She started up and stood staring down at him stricken white. Father Brown made a wry face as he went on: ‘I made a fool of myself when I first realized it; when they’d just been asking where he was found, and went on talking about green scum and the Green Man.’
Then he also rose; clutching his clumsy umbrella with a new resolution, he addressed the girl with a new gravity.
‘There is something else that I know, which is the key to all these riddles of yours; but I won’t tell you yet. I suppose it’s bad news; but it’s nothing like so bad as the things you have been fancying.’ He buttoned up his coat and turned towards the gate. ‘I’m going to see this Mr Rook of yours. In a shed by the shore, near where Mr Harker saw him walking. I rather think he lives there.’ And he went bustling off in the direction of the beach.
Olive was an imaginative person; perhaps too imaginative to be safely left to brood over such hints as her friend had thrown out; but he was in rather a hurry to find the best relief for her broodings. The mysterious connection between Father Brown’s first shock of enlightenment and the chance language about the pool and the inn, hag-rode her fancy in a hundred forms of ugly symbolism. The Green Man became a ghost trailing loathsome weeds and walking the countryside under the moon; the sign of the Green Man became a human figure hanging as from a gibbet; and the tarn itself became a tavern, a dark subaqueous tavern for the dead sailors. And yet he had taken the most rapid method to overthrow all such nightmares, with a burst of blinding daylight which seemed more mysterious than the night.
For before the sun had set, something had come back into her life that turned her whole world topsy-turvy once more; something she had hardly known that she desired until it was abruptly granted; something that was, like a dream, old and familiar, and yet remained incomprehensible and incredible. For Roger Rook had come striding across the sands, and even when he was a dot in the distance, she knew he was transfigured; and as he came nearer and nearer, she saw that his dark face was alive with laughter and exultation. He came straight toward her, as if they had never parted, and seized her shoulders saying: ‘Now I can look after you, thank God.’
She hardly knew what she answered; but she heard herself questioning rather wildly why he seemed so changed and so happy.
‘Because I am happy,’ he answered. ‘I have heard the bad news.’
All parties concerned, including some who seemed rather unconcerned, found themselves assembled on the garden-path leading to Craven House, to hear the formality, now truly formal, of the lawyer’s reading of the will; and the probable, and more practical sequel of the lawyer’s advice upon the crisis. Besides the grey-haired solicitor himself, armed with the testamentary document, there was the Inspector armed with more direct authority touching the crime, and Lieutenant Rook in undisguised attendance on the lady; some were rather mystified on seeing the tall figure of the doctor, some smiled a little on seeing the dumpy figure of the priest. Mr Harker, that Flying Mercury, had shot down to the lodge-gates to meet them, led them back on to the lawn, and then dashed ahead of them again to prepare their reception. He said he would be back in a jiffy; and anyone observing his piston-rod of energy could well believe it; but, for the moment, they were left rather stranded on the lawn outside the house.
‘Reminds me of somebody making runs at cricket,’ said the Lieutenant.
‘That young man,’ said the lawyer, ‘is rather annoyed that the law cannot move quite so quickly as he does. Fortunately Miss Craven understands our professional difficulties and delays. She has kindly assured me that she still has confidence in my slowness.’
‘I wish,’ said the doctor, suddenly, ‘that I had as much confidence in his quickness.’
‘Why, what do you mean?’ asked Rook, knitting his brows; ‘do you mean that Harker is too quick?’
‘Too quick and too slow,’ said Dr Straker, in his rather cryptic fashion. ‘I know one occasion at least when he was not so very quick. Why was he hanging about half the night by the pond and the Green Man, before the Inspector came down and found the body? Why did he meet the Inspector? Why should he expect to meet the Inspector outside the Green Man?’
‘I don’t understand you,’ said Rook. ‘Do you mean that Harker wasn’t telling the truth?’
Dr Straker was silent. The grizzled lawyer laughed with grim good humour. ‘I have nothing more serious to say against the young man,’ he said, ‘than that he made a prompt and praiseworthy attempt to teach me my own business.’
‘For that matter, he made an attempt to teach me mine,’ said the Inspector, who had just joined the group in front. ‘But that doesn’t matter. If Dr Straker means anything by his hints, they do matter. I must ask you to speak plainly, doctor. It may be my duty to question him at once.’
‘Well, here he comes,’ said Rook, as the alert figure of the secretary appeared once more in the doorway.
At this point Father Brown, who had remained silent and inconspicuous at the tail of the procession, astonished everybody very much; perhaps especially those who knew him. He not only walked rapidly to the front, but turned facing the whole group with an arresting and almost threatening expression, like a sergeant bringing soldiers to the halt.
‘Stop!’ he said almost sternly. ‘I apologize to everybody; but it’s absolutely necessary that I should see Mr Harker first. I’ve got to tell him something I know; and I don’t think anybody else knows; something he’s got to hear. It may save a very tragic misunderstanding with somebody later on.’
‘What on earth do you mean?’ asked old Dyke the lawyer.
‘I mean the bad news,’ said Father Brown.
‘Here, I say,’ began the Inspector indignantly; and then suddenly caught the priest’s eye and remembered strange things he had seen in other days. ‘Well, if it were anyone in the world but you I should say of all the infernal cheek — ’
But Father Brown was already out of hearing, and a moment afterwards was plunged in talk with Harker in the porch. They walked to and fro together for a few paces and then disappeared into the dark interior. It was about twelve minutes afterwards that Father Brown came out alone.
To their surprise he showed no dispostion to re-enter the house, now that the whole company were at last about to enter it. He threw himself down on the rather rickety seat in the leafy arbour, and as the procession disappeared through the doorway, lit a pipe and proceeded to stare vacantly at the long ragged leaves about his head and to listen to the birds. There was no man who had a more hearty and enduring appetite for doing nothing.
He was, apparently, in a cloud of smoke and a dream of abstraction, when the front doors were once more flung open and two or three figures came out helter-skelter, running towards him, the daughter of the house and her young admirer Mr Rook being easily winners in the race. Their faces were alight with astonishment; and the face of Inspector Burns, who advanced more heavily behind them, like an elephant shaking the garden, was inflamed with some indignation as well.
‘What can all this mean?’ cried Olive, as she came panting to a halt. ‘He’s gone!’
‘Bolted!’ said the Lieutenant explosively. ‘Harker’s just managed to pack a suitcase and bolted! Gone clean out of the back door and over the garden-wall to God knows where. What did you say to him?’
‘Don’t be silly!’ said Olive, with a more worried expression. ‘Of course you told him you’d found him out, and now he’s gone. I never could have believed he was wicked like that!’
‘Well!’ gasped the Inspector, bursting into their midst. ‘What have you done now? What have you let me down like this for?’
‘Well,’ repeated Father Brown, ‘what have I done?’
‘You have let a murderer escape,’ cried Burns, with a decision that was like a thunderclap in the quiet garden; ‘you have helped a murderer to escape. Like a fool I let you warn him; and now he is miles away.’
‘I have helped a few murderers in my time, it is true,’ said Father Brown; then he added, in careful distinction, ‘not, you will understand, helped them to commit the murder.’
‘But you knew all the time,’ insisted Olive. ‘You guessed from the first that it must be he. That’s what you meant about being upset by the business of finding the body. That’s what the doctor meant by saying my father might be disliked by a subordinate.’
‘That’s what I complain of,’ said the official indignantly. ‘You knew even then that he was the — ’
‘You knew even then,’ insisted Olive, ‘that the murderer was — ’
Father Brown nodded gravely. ‘Yes,’ he said. ‘I knew even then that the murderer was old Dyke.’
‘Was who?’ repeated the Inspector and stopped amid, a dead silence; punctuated only by the occasional pipe of birds.
‘I mean Mr Dyke, the solicitor,’ explained Father Brown, like one explaining something elementary to an infant class. ‘That gentleman with grey hair who’s supposed to be going to read the will.’
They all stood like statues staring at him, as he carefully filled his pipe again and struck a match. At last Burns rallied his vocal powers to break the strangling silence with an effort resembling violence.
‘But, in the name of heaven, why?’
‘Ah, why?’ said the priest and rose thoughtfully, puffing at his pipe. ‘As to why he did it ... Well, I suppose the time has come to tell you, or those of you who don’t know, the fact that is the key of all this business. It’s a great calamity; and it’s a great crime; but it’s not the murder of Admiral Craven.’
He looked Olive full in the face and said very seriously: ‘I tell you the bad news bluntly and in few words; because I think you are brave enough, and perhaps happy enough, to take it well. You have the chance, and I think the power, to be something like a great woman. You are not a great heiress.’
Amid the silence that followed it was he who resumed his explanation.
‘Most of your father’s money, I am sorry to say, has gone. It went by the financial dexterity of the grey-haired gentleman named Dyke, who is (I grieve to say) a swindler. Admiral Craven was murdered to silence him about the way in which he was swindled. The fact that he was ruined and you were disinherited is the single simple clue, not only to the murder, but to all the other mysteries in this business.’ He took a puff or two and then continued.
‘I told Mr Rook you were disinherited and he rushed back to help you. Mr Rook is a rather remarkable person.’
‘Oh, chuck it,’ said Mr Rook with a hostile air.
‘Mr Rook is a monster,’ said Father Brown with scientific calm. ‘He is an anachronism, an atavism, a brute survival of the Stone Age. If there was one barbarous superstition we all supposed to be utterly extinct and dead in these days, it was that notion about honour and independence. But then I get mixed up with so many dead superstitions. Mr Rook is an extinct animal. He is a plesiosaurus. He did not want to live on his wife or have a wife who could call him a fortune-hunter. Therefore he sulked in a grotesque manner and only came to life again when I brought him the good news that you were ruined. He wanted to work for his wife and not be kept by her. Disgusting, isn’t it? Let us turn to the brighter topic of Mr Harker.
‘I told Mr Harker you were disinherited and he rushed away in a sort of panic. Do not be too hard on Mr Harker. He really had better as well as worse enthusiasms; but he had them all mixed up. There is no harm in having ambitions; but he had ambitions and called them ideals. The old sense of honour taught men to suspect success; to say, “This is a benefit; it may be a bribe.” The new nine-times-accursed nonsense about Making Good teaches men to identify being good with making money. That was all that was the matter with him; in every other way he was a thoroughly good fellow, and there are thousands like him. Gazing at the stars and rising in the world were all Uplift. Marrying a good wife and marrying a rich wife were all Making Good. But he was not a cynical scoundrel; or he would simply have come back and jilted or cut you as the case might be. He could not face you; while you were there, half of his broken ideal was left.
‘I did not tell the Admiral; but somebody did. Word came to him somehow, during the last grand parade on board, that his friend the family lawyer had betrayed him. He was in such a towering passion that he did what he could never have done in his sense; came straight on shore in his cocked hat and gold lace to catch the criminal; he wired to the police station, and that was why the Inspector was wandering round the Green Man. Lieutenant Rook followed him on shore because he suspected some family trouble and had half a hope he might help and put himself right. Hence his hesitating behaviour. As for his drawing his sword when he dropped behind and thought he was alone, well that’s a matter of imagination. He was a romantic person who had dreamed of swords and run away to sea; and found himself in a service where he wasn’t even allowed to wear a sword except about once in three years. He thought he was quite alone on the sands where he played as a boy. If you don’t understand what he did, I can only say, like Stevenson, “you will never be a pirate.” Also you will never be a poet; and you have never been a boy.’
‘I never have,’ answered Olive gravely, ‘and yet I think I understand.’
‘Almost every man,’ continued the priest musing, ‘will play with anything shaped like a sword or dagger, even if it is a paper knife. That is why I thought it so odd when the lawyer didn’t.’
‘What do you mean?’ asked Burns, ‘didn’t what?’
‘Why, didn’t you notice,’ answered Brown, ‘at that first meeting in the office, the lawyer played with a pen and not with a paper-knife; though he had a beautiful bright steel paper-knife in the pattern of a stiletto? The pens were dusty and splashed with ink; but the knife had just been cleaned. But he did not play with it. There are limits to the irony of assassins.’
After a silence the Inspector said, like one waking from a dream: ‘Look here ... I don’t know whether I’m on my head or my heels; I don’t know whether you think you’ve got to the end; but I haven’t got to the beginning. Where do you get all this lawyer stuff from? What started you out on that trail?’
Father Brown laughed curtly and without mirth.
‘The murderer made a slip at the start,’ he said, ‘and I can’t think why nobody else noticed it. When you brought the first news of the death to the solicitor’s office, nobody was supposed to know anything there, except that the Admiral was expected home. When you said he was drowned, I asked when it happened and Mr Dyke asked where the corpse was found.’
He paused a moment to knock out his pipe and resumed reflectively: ‘Now when you are simply told of a seaman, returning from the sea, that he had drowned, it is natural to assume that he had been drowned at sea. At any rate, to allow that he may have been drowned at sea. If he had been washed overboard, or gone down with his ship, or had his body “committed to the deep”, there would be no reason to expect his body to be found at all. The moment that man asked where it was found, I was sure he knew where it was found. Because he had put it there. Nobody but the murderer need have thought of anything so unlikely as a seaman being drowned in a landlocked pool a few hundred yards from the sea. That is why I suddenly felt sick and turned green, I dare say; as green as the Green Man. I never can get used to finding myself suddenly sitting beside a murderer. So I had to turn it off by talking in parables; but the parable meant something, after all. I said that the body was covered with green scum, but it might just as well have been seaweed.’
It is fortunate that tragedy can never kill comedy and that the two can run side by side; and that while the only acting partner of the business of Messrs Willis, Hardman and Dyke blew his brains out when the Inspector entered the house to arrest him, Olive and Roger were calling to each other across the sands at evening, as they did when they were children together.
Last updated on Tue Feb 8 09:01:27 2005 for eBooks@Adelaide.