Along a seaside parade on a sunny afternoon, a person with the depressing name of Muggleton was moving with suitable gloom. There was a horseshoe of worry in his forehead, and the numerous groups and strings of entertainers stretched along the beach below looked up to him in vain for applause. Pierrots turned up their pale moon faces, like the white bellies of dead fish, without improving his spirits; niggers with faces entirely grey with a sort of grimy soot were equally unsuccessful in filling his fancy with brighter things. He was a sad and disappointed man. His other features, besides the bald brow with its furrow, were retiring and almost sunken; and a certain dingy refinement about them made more incongruous the one aggressive ornament of his face. It was an outstanding and bristling military moustache; and it looked suspiciously like a false moustache. It is possible, indeed, that it was a false moustache. It is possible, on the other hand, that even if it was not false it was forced. He might almost have grown it in a hurry, by a mere act of will; so much was it a part of his job rather than his personality.
For the truth is that Mr Muggleton was a private detective in a small way, and the cloud on his brow was due to a big blunder in his professional career; anyhow it was connected with something darker than the mere possession of such a surname. He might almost, in an obscure sort of way, have been proud of his surname; for he came of poor but decent Nonconformist people who claimed some connection with the founder of the Muggletonians; the only man who had hitherto had the courage to appear with that name in human history.
The more legitimate cause of his annoyance (at least as he himself explained it) was that he had just been present at the bloody murder of a world-famous millionaire, and had failed to prevent it, though he had been engaged at a salary of five pounds a week to do so. Thus we may explain the fact that even the languorous singing of the song entitled, ‘Won’t You Be My Loodah Doodah Day?’ failed to fill him with the joy of life.
For that matter, there were others on the beach, who might have had more sympathy with his murderous theme and Muggletonian tradition. Seaside resorts are the chosen pitches, not only of pierrots appealing to the amorous emotions, but also of preachers who often seem to specialize in a correspondingly sombre and sulphurous style of preaching. There was one aged ranter whom he could hardly help noticing, so piercing were the cries, not to say shrieks of religious prophecy that rang above all the banjos and castanets. This was a long, loose, shambling old man, dressed in something like a fisherman’s jersey; but inappropriately equipped with a pair of those very long and drooping whiskers which have never been seen since the disappearance of certain sportive Mid-Victorian dandies. As it was the custom for all mountebanks on the beach to display something, as if they were selling it, the old man displayed a rather rotten-looking fisherman’s net, which he generally spread out invitingly on the sands, as if it were a carpet for queens; but occasionally whirled wildly round his head with a gesture almost as terrific as that of the Roman Retiarius, ready to impale people on a trident. Indeed, he might really have impaled people, if he had had a trident. His words were always pointed towards punishment; his hearers heard nothing except threats to the body or the soul; he was so far in the same mood as Mr. Muggleton, that he might almost have been a mad hangman addressing a crowd of murderers. The boys called him Old Brimstone; but he had other eccentricities besides the purely theological. One of his eccentricities was to climb up into the nest of iron girders under the pier and trail his net in the water, declaring that he got his living by fishing; though it is doubtful whether anybody had ever seen him catching fish. Worldly trippers, however, would sometimes start at a voice in their ear, threatening judgement as from a thundercloud, but really coming from the perch under the iron roof where the old monomaniac sat glaring, his fantastic whiskers hanging like grey seaweed.
The detective, however, could have put up with Old Brimstone much better than with the other parson he was destined to meet. To explain this second and more momentous meeting, it must be pointed out that Muggleton, after his remarkable experience in the matter of the murder, had very properly put all his cards on the table. He told his story to the police and to the only available representative of Braham Bruce, the dead millionaire; that is, to his very dapper secretary, a Mr Anthony Taylor. The Inspector was more sympathetic than the secretary; but the sequel of his sympathy was the last thing Muggleton would normally have associated with police advice. The Inspector, after some reflection, very much surprised Mr Muggleton by advising him to consult an able amateur whom he knew to be staying in the town. Mr Muggleton had read reports and romances about the Great Criminologist, who sits in his library like an intellectual spider, and throws out theoretical filaments of a web as large as the world. He was prepared to be led to the lonely chateau where the expert wore a purple dressing-gown, to the attic where he lived on opium and acrostics, to the vast laboratory or the lonely tower. To his astonishment he was led to the very edge of the crowded beach by the pier to meet a dumpy little clergyman, with a broad hat and a broad grin, who was at that moment hopping about on the sands with a crowd of poor children; and excitedly waving a very little wooden spade.
When the criminologist clergyman, whose name appeared to be Brown, had at last been detached from the children, though not from the spade, he seemed to Muggleton to grow more and more unsatisfactory. He hung about helplessly among the idiotic side-shows of the seashore, talking about random topics and particularly attaching himself to those rows of automatic machines which are set up in such places; solemnly spending penny after penny in order to play vicarious games of golf, football, cricket, conducted by clockwork figures; and finally contenting himself with the miniature exhibition of a race, in which one metal doll appeared merely to run and jump after the other. And yet all the time he was listening very carefully to the story which the defeated detective poured out to him. Only his way of not letting his right hand know what his left hand was doing, with pennies, got very much on the detective’s nerves.
‘Can’t we go and sit down somewhere,’ said Muggleton impatiently. ‘I’ve got a letter you ought to see, if you’re to know anything at all of this business.’
Father Brown turned away with a sigh from the jumping dolls, and went and sat down with his companion on an iron seat on the shore; his companion had already unfolded the letter and handed it silently to him.
It was an abrupt and queer sort of letter, Father Brown thought. He knew that millionaires did not always specialize in manners, especially in dealing with dependants like detectives; but there seemed to be something more in the letter than mere brusquerie.
I never thought I should come down to wanting help of this sort; but I’m about through with things. It’s been getting more and more intolerable for the last two years. I guess all you need to know about the story is this. There is a dirty rascal who is a cousin of mine, I’m ashamed to say. He’s been a tout, a tramp, a quack doctor, an actor, and all that; even has the brass to act under our name and call himself Bertrand Bruce. I believe he’s either got some potty job at the theatre here, or is looking for one. But you may take it from me that the job isn’t his real job. His real job is running me down and knocking me out for good, if he can. It’s an old story and no business of anybody’s; there was a time when we started neck and neck and ran a race of ambition — and what they call love as well. Was it my fault that he was a rotter and I was a man who succeeds in things? But the dirty devil swears he’ll succeed yet; shoot me and run off with my — never mind. I suppose he’s a sort of madman, but he’ll jolly soon try to be some sort of murderer. I’ll give you £5 a week if you’ll meet me at the lodge at the end of the pier, just after the pier closes tonight — and take on my job. It’s the only safe place to meet — if anything is safe by this time.
J. BRAHAM BRUCE
‘Dear me,’ said Father Brown mildly. ‘Dear me. A rather hurried letter.’
Muggleton nodded; and after a pause began his own story; in an oddly refined voice contrasting with his clumsy appearance. The priest knew well the hobbies of concealed culture hidden in many dingy lower and middle class men; but even he was startled by the excellent choice of words only a shade too pedantic; the man talked like a book.
‘I arrived at the little round-house at the end of the pier before there was any sign of my distinguished client. I opened the door and went inside, feeling that he might prefer me, as well as himself, to be as inconspicuous as possible. Not that it mattered very much; for the pier was too long for anybody to have seen us from the beach or the parade, and, on glancing at my watch, I saw by the time that the pier entrance must have already closed. It was flattering, after a fashion, that he should thus ensure that we should be alone together at the rendezvous, as showing that he did really rely on my assistance or protection. Anyhow, it was his idea that we should meet on the pier after closing time, so I fell in with it readily enough. There were two chairs inside the little round pavilion, or whatever you call it; so I simply took one of them and waited. I did not have to wait long. He was famous for his punctuality, and sure enough, as I looked up at the one little round window opposite me I saw him pass slowly, as if making a preliminary circuit of the place.
‘I had only seen portraits of him, and that was a long time ago; and naturally he was rather older than the portraits, but there was no mistaking the likeness. The profile that passed the window was of the sort called aquiline, after the beak of the eagle; but he rather suggested a grey and venerable eagle; an eagle in repose; an eagle that has long folded its wings. There was no mistaking, however, that look of authority, or silent pride in the habit of command, that has always marked men who, like him, have organized great systems and been obeyed. He was quietly dressed, what I could see of him; especially as compared with the crowd of seaside trippers which had filled so much of my day; but I fancied his overcoat was of that extra elegant sort that is cut to follow the line of the figure, and it had a strip of astrakhan lining showing on the lapels. All this, of course, I took in at a glance, for I had already got to my feet and gone to the door. I put out my hand and received the first shock of that terrible evening. The door was locked. Somebody had locked me in.
‘For a moment I stood stunned, and still staring at the round window, from which, of course, the moving profile had already passed; and then I suddenly saw the explanation. Another profile, pointed like that of a pursuing hound, flashed into the circle of vision, as into a round mirror. The moment I saw it, I knew who it was. It was the Avenger; the murderer or would-be murderer, who had trailed the old millionaire for so long across land and sea, and had now tracked him to this blind-alley of an iron pier that hung between sea and land. And I knew, of course, that it was the murderer who had locked the door.
‘The man I saw first had been tall, but his pursuer was even taller; an effect that was only lessened by his carrying his shoulders hunched very high and his neck and head thrust forward like a true beast of the chase. The effect of the combination gave him rather the look of a gigantic hunchback. But something of the blood relationship that connected this ruffian with his famous kinsman showed in the two profiles as they passed across the circle of glass. The pursuer also had a nose rather like the beak of a bird; though his general air of ragged degradation suggested the vulture rather than the eagle. He was unshaven to the point of being bearded, and the humped look of his shoulders was increased by the coils of a coarse woollen scarf. All these are trivialities, and can give no impression of the ugly energy of that outline, or the sense of avenging doom in that stooping and striding figure. Have you ever seen William Blake’s design, sometimes called with some levity, “The Ghost of a Flea,” but also called, with somewhat greater lucidity, “A Vision of Blood Guilt,” or something of that kind? That is just such a nightmare of a stealthy giant, with high shoulders, carrying a knife and bowl. This man carried neither, but as he passed the window the second time, I saw with my own eyes that he loosened a revolver from the folds of the scarf and held it gripped and poised in his hand. The eyes in his head shifted and shone in the moonlight, and that in a very creepy way; they shot forward and back with lightning leaps; almost as if he could shoot them out like luminous horns, as do certain reptiles.
‘Three times the pursued and the pursuer passed in succession outside the window, treading their narrow circle, before I fully awoke to the need of some action, however desperate. I shook the door with rattling violence; when next I saw the face of the unconscious victim I beat furiously on the window; then I tried to break the window. But it was a double window of exceptionally thick glass, and so deep was the embrasure that I doubted if I could properly reach the outer window at all. Anyhow, my dignified client took no notice of my noise or signals; and the revolving shadow-pantomime of those two masks of doom continued to turn round and round me, till I felt almost dizzy as well as sick. Then they suddenly ceased to reappear. I waited; and I knew that they would not come again. I knew that the crisis had come.
‘I need not tell you more. You can almost imagine the rest, even as I sat there helpless, trying to imagine it; or trying not to imagine it. It is enough to say that in that awful silence, in which all sounds of footsteps had died away, there were only two other noises besides the rumbling undertones of the sea. The first was the loud noise of a shot and the second the duller noise of a splash.
‘My client had been murdered within a few yards of me, and I could make no sign. I will not trouble you with what I felt about that. But even if I could recover from the murder, I am still confronted with the mystery.’
‘Yes,’ said Father Brown very gently, ‘which mystery?’
‘The mystery of how the murderer got away,’ answered the other. ‘The instant people were admitted to the pier next morning, I was released from my prison and went racing back to the entrance gates, to inquire who had left the pier since they were opened. Without bothering you with details, I may explain that they were, by a rather unusual arrangement, real full-size iron doors that would keep anybody out (or in) until they were opened. The officials there had seen nobody in the least resembling the assassin returning that way. And he was a rather unmistakable person. Even if he had disguised himself somehow, he could hardly have disguised his extraordinary height or got rid of the family nose. It is extraordinarily unlikely that he tried to swim ashore, for the sea was very rough; and there are certainly no traces of any landing. And, somehow, having seen the face of that fiend even once, let alone about six times, something gives me an overwhelming conviction that he did not simply drown himself in the hour of triumph.’
‘I quite understand what you mean by that,’ replied Father Brown. ‘Besides, it would be very inconsistent with the tone of his original threatening letter, in which he promised himself all sorts of benefits after the crime . . . there’s another point it might be well to verify. What about the structure of the pier underneath? Piers are very often made with a whole network of iron supports, which a man might climb through as a monkey climbs through a forest.’
‘Yes, I thought of that,’ replied the private investigator; ‘but unfortunately this pier is oddly constructed in more ways than one. It’s quite unusually long, and there are iron columns with all that tangle of iron girders; only they’re very far apart and I can’t see any way a man could climb from one to the other.’
‘I only mentioned it,’ said Father Brown thoughtfully, ‘because that queer fish with the long whiskers, the old man who preaches on the sand, often climbs up on to the nearest girder. I believe he sits there fishing when the tide comes up. And he’s a very queer fish to go fishing.’
‘Why, what do you mean?’
‘Well,’ said Father Brown very slowly, twiddling with a button and gazing abstractedly out to the great green waters glittering in the last evening light after the sunset. ‘Well ... I tried to talk to him in a friendly sort of way — friendly and not too funny, if you understand, about his combining the ancient trades of fishing and preaching; I think I made the obvious reference; the text that refers to fishing for living souls. And he said quite queerly and harshly, as he jumped back on to his iron perch, ‘Well, at least I fish for dead bodies.”’
‘Good God!’ exclaimed the detective, staring at him.
‘Yes,’ said the priest. ‘It seemed to me an odd remark to make in a chatty way, to a stranger playing with children on the sands.’
After another staring silence his companion eventually ejaculated: ‘You don’t mean you think he had anything to do with the death.’
‘I think,’ answered Father Brown, ‘that he might throw some light on it.’
‘Well, it’s beyond me now,’ said the detective. ‘It’s beyond me to believe that anybody can throw any light on it. It’s like a welter of wild waters in the pitch dark; the sort of waters that he ... that he fell into. It’s simply stark staring unreason; a big man vanishing like a bubble; nobody could possibly ... Look here!’ He stopped suddenly, staring at the priest, who had not moved, but was still twiddling with the button and staring at the breakers. ‘What do you mean? What are you looking like that for? You don’t mean to say that you . . . that you can make any sense of it?’
‘It would be much better if it remained nonsense,’ said Father Brown in a low voice. ‘Well, if you ask me right out — yes, I think I can make some sense of it.’
There was a long silence, and then the inquiry agent said with a rather singular abruptness: ‘Oh, here comes the old man’s secretary from the hotel. I must be off. I think I’ll go and talk to that mad fisherman of yours.’
‘Post hoc propter hoc?’ asked the priest with a smile.
‘Well,’ said the other, with jerky candour, ‘the secretary don’t like me and I don’t think I like him. He’s been poking around with a lot of questions that didn’t seem to me to get us any further, except towards a quarrel. Perhaps he’s jealous because the old man called in somebody else, and wasn’t content with his elegant secretary’s advice. See you later.’
And he turned away, ploughing through the sand to the place where the eccentric preacher had already mounted his marine nest; and looked in the green gloaming rather like some huge polyp or stinging jelly-fish trailing his poisonous filaments in the phosphorescent sea.
Meanwhile the priest was serenely watching the serene approach of the secretary; conspicuous even from afar, in that popular crowd, by the clerical neatness and sobriety of his top-hat and tail-coat. Without feeling disposed to take part in any feuds between the secretary and the inquiry agent, Father Brown had a faint feeling of irrational sympathy with the prejudices of the latter. Mr Anthony Taylor, the secretary, was an extremely presentable young man, in countenance, as well as costume; and the countenance was firm and intellectual as well as merely good-looking. He was pale, with dark hair coming down on the sides of his head, as if pointing towards possible whiskers; he kept his lips compressed more tightly than most people. The only thing that Father Brown’s fancy could tell itself in justification sounded queerer than it really looked. He had a notion that the man talked with his nostrils. Anyhow, the strong compression of his mouth brought out something abnormally sensitive and flexible in these movements at the sides of his nose, so that he seemed to be communicating and conducting life by snuffling and smelling, with his head up, as does a dog. It somehow fitted in with the other features that, when he did speak, it was with a sudden rattling rapidity like a gatling-gun, which sounded almost ugly from so smooth and polished a figure.
For once he opened the conversation, by saying: ‘No bodies washed ashore, I imagine.’
‘None have been announced, certainly,’ said Father Brown.
‘No gigantic body of the murderer with the woollen scarf,’ said Mr Taylor.
‘No,’ said Father Brown.
Mr Taylor’s mouth did not move any more for the moment; but his nostrils spoke for him with such quick and quivering scorn, that they might almost have been called talkative.
When he did speak again, after some polite commonplaces from the priest, it was to say curtly: ‘Here comes the Inspector; I suppose they’ve been scouring England for the scarf.’
Inspector Grinstead, a brown-faced man with a grey pointed beard, addressed Father Brown rather more respectfully than the secretary had done.
‘I thought you would like to know, sir,’ he said, ‘that there is absolutely no trace of the man described as having escaped from the pier.’
‘Or rather not described as having escaped from the pier,’ said Taylor. ‘The pier officials, the only people who could have described him, have never seen anybody to describe.’
‘Well,’ said the Inspector, ‘we’ve telephoned all the stations and watched all the roads, and it will be almost impossible for him to escape from England. It really seems to me as if he couldn’t have got out that way. He doesn’t seem to be anywhere.’
‘He never was anywhere,’ said the secretary, with an abrupt grating voice, that sounded like a gun going off on that lonely shore.
The Inspector looked blank; but a light dawned gradually on the face of the priest, who said at last with almost ostentatious unconcern:
‘Do you mean that the man was a myth? Or possibly a lie?’
‘Ah,’ said the secretary, inhaling through his haughty nostrils, ‘you’ve thought of that at last.’
‘I thought of that at first,’ said Father Brown. ‘It’s the first thing anybody would think of, isn’t it, hearing an unsupported story from a stranger about a strange murderer on a lonely pier. In plain words, you mean that little Muggleton never heard anybody murdering the millionaire. Possibly you mean that little Muggleton murdered him himself.’
‘Well,’ said the secretary, ‘Muggleton looks a dingy down-and-out sort of cove to me. There’s no story but his about what happened on the pier, and his story consists of a giant who vanished; quite a fairy-tale. It isn’t a very creditable tale, even as he tells it. By his own account, he bungled his case and let his patron be killed a few yards away. He’s a pretty rotten fool and failure, on his own confession.’
‘Yes,’ said Father Brown. ‘I’m rather fond of people who are fools and failures on their own confession.’
‘I don’t know what you mean,’ snapped the other.
‘Perhaps,’ said Father Brown, wistfully, ‘it’s because so many people are fools and failures without any confession.’
Then, after a pause, he went on: ‘But even if he is a fool and a failure, that doesn’t prove he is a liar and a murderer. And you’ve forgotten that there is one piece of external evidence that does really support history. I mean the letter from the millionaire, telling the whole tale of his cousin and his vendetta. Unless you can prove that the document itself is actually a forgery, you have to admit there was some probability of Bruce being pursued by somebody who had a real motive. Or rather, I should say, the one actually admitted and recorded motive.’
‘I’m not quite sure that I understand you,’ said the Inspector, ‘about the motive.’
‘My dear fellow,’ said Father Brown, for the first time stung by impatience into familiarity, ‘everybody’s got a motive in a way. Considering the way that Bruce made his money, considering the way that most millionaires make their money, almost anybody in the world might have done such a perfectly natural thing as throw him into the sea. In many, one might almost fancy, it would be almost automatic. To almost all it must have occurred at some time or other. Mr Taylor might have done it.’
‘What’s that?’ snapped Mr Taylor, and his nostrils swelled visibly.
‘I might have done it,’ went on Father Brown, ‘nisi me constringeret ecclesiae auctoritas. Anybody, but for the one true morality, might be tempted to accept so obvious, so simple a social solution. I might have done it; you might have done it; the Mayor or the muffin-man might have done it. The only person on this earth I can think of, who probably would not have done it, is the private inquiry agent whom Bruce had just engaged at five pounds a week, and who hadn’t yet had any of his money.’
The secretary was silent for a moment; then he snorted and said: ‘If that’s the offer in the letter, we’d certainly better see whether it’s a forgery. For really, we don’t know that the whole tale isn’t as false as a forgery. The fellow admits himself that the disappearance of his hunch-backed giant is utterly incredible and inexplicable.’
‘Yes,’ said Father Brown; ‘that’s what I like about Muggleton. He admits things.’
‘All the same,’ insisted Taylor, his nostrils vibrant with excitement. ‘All the same, the long and the short of it is that he can’t prove that his tall man in the scarf ever existed or does exist; and every single fact found by the police and the witnesses proves that he does not exist. No, Father Brown. There is only one way in which you can justify this little scallywag you seem to be so fond of. And that is by producing his Imaginary Man. And that is exactly what you can’t do.’
‘By the way,’ said the priest, absent-mindedly, ‘I suppose you come from the hotel where Bruce has rooms, Mr Taylor?’
Taylor looked a little taken aback, and seemed almost to stammer. ‘Well, he always did have those rooms; and they’re practically his. I haven’t actually seen him there this time.’
‘I suppose you motored down with him,’ observed Brown; ‘or did you both come by train?’
‘I came by train and brought the luggage,’ said the secretary impatiently. ‘Something kept him, I suppose. I haven’t actually seen him since he left Yorkshire on his own a week or two ago.’
‘So it seems,’ said the priest very softly, ‘that if Muggleton wasn’t the last to see Bruce by the wild sea-waves, you were the last to see him, on the equally wild Yorkshire moors.’
Taylor had turned quite white, but he forced his grating voice to composure: ‘I never said Muggleton didn’t see Bruce on the pier.’
‘No; and why didn’t you?’ asked Father Brown. ‘If he made up one man on the pier, why shouldn’t he make up two men on the pier? Of course we do know that Bruce did exist; but we don’t seem to know what has happened to him for several weeks. Perhaps he was left behind in Yorkshire.’
The rather strident voice of the secretary rose almost to a scream. All his veneer of society suavity seemed to have vanished.
‘You’re simply shuffling! You’re simply shirking! You’re trying to drag in mad insinuations about me, simply because you can’t answer my question.’
‘Let me see,’ said Father Brown reminiscently. ‘What was your question?’
‘You know well enough what it was; and you know you’re damned well stumped by it. Where is the man with the scarf? Who has seen him? Whoever heard of him or spoke of him, except that little liar of yours? If you want to convince us, you must produce him. If he ever existed, he may be hiding in the Hebrides or off to Callao. But you’ve got to produce him, though I know he doesn’t exist. Well then! Where is he?’
‘I rather think he is over there,’ said Father Brown, peering and blinking towards the nearer waves that washed round the iron pillars of the pier; where the two figures of the agent and the old fisher and preacher were still dark against the green glow of the water. ‘I mean in that sort of net thing that’s tossing about in the sea.’
With whatever bewilderment, Inspector Grinstead took the upper hand again with a flash, and strode down the beach.
‘Do you mean to say,’ he cried, ‘that the murderer’s body is in the old boy’s net?’
Father Brown nodded as he followed down the shingly slope; and, even as they moved, little Muggleton the agent turned and began to climb the same shore, his mere dark outline a pantomime of amazement and discovery.
‘It’s true, for all we said,’ he gasped. ‘The murderer did try to swim ashore and was drowned, of course, in that weather. Or else he did really commit suicide. Anyhow, he drifted dead into Old Brimstone’s fishing-net, and that’s what the old maniac meant when he said he fished for dead men.’
The Inspector ran down the shore with an agility that outstripped them all, and was heard shouting out orders. In a few moments the fishermen and a few bystanders, assisted by the policemen, had hauled the net into shore, and rolled it with its burden on to the wet sands that still reflected the sunset. The secretary looked at what lay on the sands and the words died on his lips. For what lay on the sands was indeed the body of a gigantic man in rags, with the huge shoulders somewhat humped and bony eagle face; and a great red ragged woollen scarf or comforter, sprawled along the sunset sands like a great stain of blood. But Taylor was staring not at the gory scarf or the fabulous stature, but at the face; and his own face was a conflict of incredulity and suspicion.
The Inspector instantly turned to Muggleton with a new air of civility.
‘This certainly confirms your story,’ he said. And until he heard the tone of those words, Muggleton had never guessed how almost universally his story had been disbelieved. Nobody had believed him. Nobody but Father Brown.
Therefore, seeing Father Brown edging away from the group, he made a movement to depart in his company; but even then he was brought up rather short by the discovery that the priest was once more being drawn away by the deadly attractions of the funny little automatic machines. He even saw the reverend gentleman fumbling for a penny. He stopped, however, with the penny poised in his finger and thumb, as the secretary spoke for the last time in his loud discordant voice.
‘And I suppose we may add,’ he said, ‘that the monstrous and imbecile charges against me are also at an end.’
‘My dear sir,’ said the priest, ‘I never made any charges against you. I’m not such a fool as to suppose you were likely to murder your master in Yorkshire and then come down here to fool about with his luggage. All I said was that I could make out a better case against you than you were making out so vigorously against poor Mr Muggleton. All the same, if you really want to learn the truth about his business (and I assure you the truth isn’t generally grasped yet), I can give you a hint even from your own affairs. It is rather a rum and significant thing that Mr Bruce the millionaire had been unknown to all his usual haunts and habits for weeks before he was really killed. As you seem to be a promising amateur detective, I advise you to work on that line.’
‘What do you mean?’ asked Taylor sharply.
But he got no answer out of Father Brown, who was once more completely concentrated on jiggling the little handle of the machine, that made one doll jump out and then another doll jump after it.
‘Father Brown,’ said Muggleton, his old annoyance faintly reviving: ‘Will you tell me why you like that fool thing so much?’
‘For one reason,’ replied the priest, peering closely into the glass puppet-show. ‘Because it contains the secret of this tragedy.’
Then he suddenly straightened himself; and looked quite seriously at his companion.
‘I knew all along,’ he said, ‘that you were telling the truth and the opposite of the truth.’
Muggleton could only stare at a return of all the riddles.
‘It’s quite simple,’ added the priest, lowering his voice. ‘That corpse with the scarlet scarf over there is the corpse of Braham Bruce the millionaire. There won’t be any other.’
‘But the two men — ’ began Muggleton, and his mouth fell open.
‘Your description of the two men was quite admirably vivid,’ said Father Brown. ‘I assure you I’m not at all likely to forget it. If I may say so, you have a literary talent; perhaps journalism would give you more scope than detection. I believe I remember practically each point about each person. Only, you see, queerly enough, each point affected you in one way and me in exactly the opposite way. Let’s begin with the first you mentioned. You said that the first man you saw had an indescribable air of authority and dignity. And you said to yourself, “That’s the Trust Magnate, the great merchant prince, the ruler of markets.” But when I heard about the air of dignity and authority, I said to myself, “That’s the actor; everything about this is the actor, “ You don’t get that look by being President of the Chain Store Amalgamation Company. You get that look by being Hamlet’s Father’s Ghost, or Julius Caesar, or King Lear, and you never altogether lose it. You couldn’t see enough of his clothes to tell whether they were really seedy, but you saw a strip of fur and a sort of faintly fashionable cut; and I said to myself again, “The actor.”
‘Next, before we go into details about the other man, notice one thing about him evidently absent from the first man. You said the second man was not only ragged but unshaven to the point of being bearded. Now we have all seen shabby actors, dirty actors, drunken actors, utterly disreputable actors. But such a thing as a scrub-bearded actor, in a job or even looking round for a job, has scarcely been seen in this world. On the other hand, shaving is often almost the first thing to go, with a gentleman or a wealthy eccentric who is really letting himself go to pieces. Now we have every reason to believe that your friend the millionaire was letting himself go to pieces. His letter was the letter of a man who had already gone to pieces. But it wasn’t only negligence that made him look poor and shabby. Don’t you understand that the man was practically in hiding? That was why he didn’t go to his hotel; and his own secretary hadn’t seen him for weeks. He was a millionaire; but his whole object was to be a completely disguised millionaire. Have you ever read “The Woman in White”? Don’t you remember that the fashionable and luxurious Count Fosco, fleeing for his life before a secret society, was found stabbed in the blue blouse of a common French workman? Then let us go back for a moment to the demeanour of these men. You saw the first man calm and collected and you said to yourself, “That’s the innocent victim”; though the innocent victim’s own letter wasn’t at all calm and collected. I heard he was calm and collected; and I said to myself, “That’s the murderer.” Why should he be anything else but calm and collected? He knew what he was going to do. He had made up his mind to do it for a long time; if he had ever had any hesitation or remorse he had hardened himself against them before he came on the scene — in his case, we might say, on the stage. He wasn’t likely to have any particular stage-fright. He didn’t pull out his pistol and wave it about; why should he? He kept it in his pocket till he wanted it; very likely he fired from his pocket. The other man fidgeted with his pistol because he was nervous as a cat, and very probably had never had a pistol before. He did it for the same reason that he rolled his eyes; and I remember that, even in your own unconscious evidence, it is particularly stated that he rolled them backwards. In fact, he was looking behind him. In fact, he was not the pursuer but the pursued. But because you happened to see the first man first, you couldn’t help thinking of the other man as coming up behind him. In mere mathematics and mechanics, each of them was running after the other — just like the others.’
‘What others?’ inquired the dazed detective.
‘Why, these,’ cried Father Brown, striking the automatic machine with the little wooden spade, which had incongruously remained in his hand throughout these murderous mysteries. ‘These little clockwork dolls that chase each other round and round for ever. Let us call them Mr Blue and Mr Red, after the colour of their coats. I happened to start off with Mr Blue, and so the children said that Mr Red was running after him; but it would have looked exactly the contrary if I had started with Mr Red.’
‘Yes, I begin to see,’ said Muggleton; ‘and I suppose all the rest fits in. The family likeness, of course, cuts both ways, and they never saw the murderer leaving the pier — ’
‘They never looked for the murderer leaving the pier,’ said the other. ‘Nobody told them to look for a quiet clean-shaven gentleman in an astrakhan coat. All the mystery of his vanishing revolved on your description of a hulking fellow in a red neckcloth. But the simple truth was that the actor in the astrakhan coat murdered the millionaire with the red rag, and there is the poor fellow’s body. It’s just like the red and blue dolls; only, because you saw one first, you guessed wrong about which was red with vengeance and which was blue with funk.’
At this point two or three children began to straggle across the sands, and the priest waved them to him with the wooden spade, theatrically tapping the automatic machine. Muggleton guessed that it was mainly to prevent their straying towards the horrible heap on the shore.
‘One more penny left in the world,’ said Father Brown, ‘and then we must go home to tea. Do you know, Doris, I rather like those revolving games, that just go round and round like the Mulberry-Bush. After all, God made all the suns and stars to play Mulberry-Bush. But those other games, where one must catch up with another, where runners are rivals and run neck and neck and outstrip each other; well — much nastier things seem to happen. I like to think of Mr Red and Mr Blue always jumping with undiminished spirits; all free and equal; and never hurting each other. “Fond lover, never, never, wilt thou kiss — or kill.” Happy, happy Mr Red!
He cannot change; though thou hast not thy bliss,
For ever will thou jump; and he be Blue.
Reciting this remarkable quotation from Keats, with some emotion, Father Brown tucked the little spade under one arm, and giving a hand to two of the children, stumped solemnly up the beach to tea.
Last updated on Tue Feb 8 09:01:27 2005 for eBooks@Adelaide.