Three men came out from under the lowbrowed Tudor arch in the mellow facade of Mandeville College, into the strong evening sunlight of a summer day which seemed as if it would never end; and in that sunlight they saw something that blasted like lightning; well-fitted to be the shock of their lives.
Even before they had realized anything in the way of a catastrophe, they were conscious of a contrast. They themselves, in a curious quiet way, were quite harmonious with their surroundings. Though the Tudor arches that ran like a cloister round the College gardens had been built four hundred years ago, at that moment when the Gothic fell from heaven and bowed, or almost crouched, over the cosier chambers of Humanism and the Revival of Learning — though they themselves were in modern clothes (that is in clothes whose ugliness would have amazed any of the four centuries) yet something in the spirit of the place made them all at one. The gardens had been tended so carefully as to achieve the final triumph of looking careless; the very flowers seemed beautiful by accident, like elegant weeds; and the modern costumes had at least any picturesqueness that can be produced by being untidy. The first of the three, a tall, bald, bearded maypole of a man, was a familiar figure in the Quad in cap and gown; the gown slipped off one of his sloping shoulders. The second was very square-shouldered, short and compact, with a rather jolly grin, commonly clad in a jacket, with his gown over his arm. The third was even shorter and much shabbier, in black clerical clothes. But they all seemed suitable to Mandeville College; and the indescribable atmosphere of the two ancient and unique Universities of England. They fitted into it and they faded into it; which is there regarded as most fitting.
The two men seated on garden chairs by a little table were a sort of brilliant blot on this grey-green landscape. They were clad mostly in black and yet they glittered from head to heel, from their burnished top-hats to their perfectly polished boots. It was dimly felt as an outrage that anybody should be so well-dressed in the well-bred freedom of Mandeville College. The only excuse was that they were foreigners. One was an American, a millionaire named Hake, dressed in the spotlessly and sparklingly gentlemanly manner known only to the rich of New York. The other, who added to all these things the outrage of an astrakhan overcoat (to say nothing of a pair of florid whiskers), was a German Count of great wealth, the shortest part of whose name was Von Zimmern. The mystery of this story, however, is not the mystery of why they were there. They were there for the reason that commonly explains the meeting of incongruous things; they proposed to give the College some money. They had come in support of a plan supported by several financiers and magnates of many countries, for founding a new Chair of Economics at Mandeville College. They had inspected the College with that tireless conscientious sightseeing of which no sons of Eve are capable except the American and the German. And now they were resting from their labours and looking solemnly at the College gardens. So far so good.
The three other men, who had already met them, passed with a vague salutation; but one of them stopped; the smallest of the three, in the black clerical clothes.
‘I say,’ he said, with rather the air of a frightened rabbit, ‘I don’t like the look of those men.’
‘Good God! Who could?’ ejaculated the tall man, who happened to be the Master of Mandeville. ‘At least we have some rich men who don’t go about dressed up like tailors’ dummies.’
‘Yes,’ hissed the little cleric, ‘that’s what I mean. Like tailors’ dummies.’
‘Why, what do you mean?’ asked the shorter of the other men, sharply.
‘I mean they’re like horrible waxworks,’ said the cleric in a faint voice. ‘I mean they don’t move. Why don’t they move?’
Suddenly starting out of his dim retirement, he darted across the garden and touched the German Baron on the elbow. The German Baron fell over, chair and all, and the trousered legs that stuck up in the air were as stiff as the legs of the chair.
Mr Gideon P. Hake continued to gaze at the College gardens with glassy eyes; but the parallel of a waxwork confirmed the impression that they were like eyes made of glass. Somehow the rich sunlight and the coloured garden increased the creepy impression of a stiffly dressed doll; a marionette on an Italian stage. The small man in black, who was a priest named Brown, tentatively touched the millionaire on the shoulder, and the millionaire fell sideways, but horribly all of a piece, like something carved in wood.
‘Rigor mortis,’ said Father Brown, ‘and so soon. But it does vary a good deal.’
The reason the first three men had joined the other two men so late (not to say too late) will best be understood by noting what had happened just inside the building, behind the Tudor archway, but a short time before they came out. They had all dined together in Hall, at the High Table; but the two foreign philanthropists, slaves of duty in the matter of seeing everything, had solemnly gone back to the chapel, of which one cloister and a staircase remained unexamined; promising to rejoin the rest in the garden, to examine as earnestly the College cigars. The rest, in a more reverent and right-minded spirit, had adjourned as usual to the long narrow oak table, round which the after-dinner wine had circulated, for all anybody knew, ever since the College had been founded in the Middle Ages by Sir John Mandeville, for the encouragement of telling stories. The Master, with the big fair beard and bald brow, took the head of the table, and the squat man in the square jacket sat on his left; for he was the Bursar or business man of the College. Next to him, on that side of the table, sat a queer-looking man with what could only be called a crooked face; for its dark tufts of moustache and eyebrow, slanting at contrary angles, made a sort of zig-zag, as if half his face were puckered or paralysed. His name was Byles; he was the lecturer in Roman History, and his political opinions were founded on those of Coriolanus, not to mention Tarquinius Superbus. This tart Toryism, and rabidly reactionary view of all current problems, was not altogether unknown among the more old-fashioned sort of dons; but in the case of Byles there was a suggestion that it was a result rather than a cause of his acerbity. More than one sharp observer had received the impression that there was something really wrong with Byles; that some secret or some great misfortune had embittered him; as if that half-withered face had really been blasted like a storm-stricken tree. Beyond him again sat Father Brown and at the end of the table a Professor of Chemistry, large and blond and bland, with eyes that were sleepy and perhaps a little sly. It was well known that this natural philosopher regarded the other philosophers, of a more classical tradition, very much as old logics. On the other side of the table, opposite Father Brown, was a very swarthy and silent young man, with a black pointed beard, introduced because somebody had insisted on having a Chair of Persian; opposite the sinister Byles was a very mild-looking little Chaplain, with a head like an egg. Opposite the Bursar and at the right hand of the Master, was an empty chair; and there were many there who were glad to see it empty.
‘I don’t know whether Craken is coming,’ said the Master, not without a nervous glance at the chair, which contrasted with the usual languid freedom of his demeanour. ‘I believe in giving people a lot of rope myself; but I confess I’ve reached the point of being glad when he is here, merely because he isn’t anywhere else.’
‘Never know what he’ll be up to next,’ said the Bursar, cheerfully, ‘especially when he’s instructing the young.’
‘A brilliant fellow, but fiery of course,’ said the Master, with a rather abrupt relapse into reserve.
‘Fireworks are fiery, and also brilliant,’ growled old Byles, ‘but I don’t want to be burned in my bed so that Craken can figure as a real Guy Fawkes.’
‘Do you really think he would join a physical force revolution, if there were one,’ asked the Bursar smiling.
‘Well, he thinks he would,’ said Byles sharply. ‘Told a whole hall full of undergraduates the other day that nothing now could avert the Class War turning into a real war, with killing in the streets of the town; and it didn’t matter, so long as it ended in Communism and the victory of the working-class.’
‘The Class War,’ mused the Master, with a sort of distaste mellowed by distance; for he had known William Morris long ago and been familiar enough with the more artistic and leisurely Socialists. ‘I never can understand all this about the Class War. When I was young, Socialism was supposed to mean saying that there are no classes.’
‘Nother way of saying that Socialists are no class,’ said Byles with sour relish.
‘Of course, you’d be more against them than I should,’ said the Master thoughtfully, ‘but I suppose my Socialism is almost as old-fashioned as your Toryism. Wonder what our young friends really think. What do you think, Baker?’ he said abruptly to the Bursar on his left.
‘Oh, I don’t think, as the vulgar saying is,’ said the Bursar laughing. ‘You must remember I’m a very vulgar person. I’m not a thinker. I’m only a business man; and as a business man I think it’s all bosh. You can’t make men equal and it’s damned bad business to pay them equal; especially a lot of them not worth paying for at all. Whatever it is, you’ve got to take the practical way out, because it’s the only way out. It’s not our fault if nature made everything a scramble.’
‘I agree with you there,’ said the Professor of Chemistry, speaking with a lisp that seemed childish in so large a man. ‘Communism pretends to be oh so modern; but it is not. Throwback to the superstitions of monks and primitive tribes. A scientific government, with a really ethical responsibility to posterity, would be always looking for the line of promise and progress; not levelling and flattening it all back into the mud again. Socialism is sentimentalism; and more dangerous than a pestilence, for in that at least the fittest would survive.’
The Master smiled a little sadly. ‘You know you and I will never feel quite the same about differences of opinion. Didn’t somebody say up here, about walking with a friend by the river, “Not differing much, except in opinion.” Isn’t that the motto of a university? To have hundreds of opinions and not be opinionated. If people fall here, it’s by what they are, not what they think. Perhaps I’m a relic of the eighteenth century; but I incline to the old sentimental heresy, “For forms of faith let graceless zealots fight; he can’t be wrong whose life is in the right.” What do you think about that, Father Brown?’
He glanced a little mischievously across at the priest and was mildly startled. For he had always found the priest very cheerful and amiable and easy to get on with; and his round face was mostly solid with good humour. But for some reason the priest’s face at this moment was knotted with a frown much more sombre than any the company had ever seen on it; so that for an instant that commonplace countenance actually looked darker and more ominous than the haggard face of Byles. An instant later the cloud seemed to have passed; but Father Brown still spoke with a certain sobriety and firmness.
‘I don’t believe in that, anyhow,’ he said shortly. ‘How can his life be in the right, if his whole view of life is wrong? That’s a modern muddle that arose because people didn’t know how much views of life can differ. Baptists and Methodists knew they didn’t differ very much in morality; but then they didn’t differ very much in religion or philosophy. It’s quite different when you pass from the Baptists to the Anabaptists; or from the Theosophists to the Thugs. Heresy always does affect morality, if it’s heretical enough. I suppose a man may honestly believe that thieving isn’t wrong. But what’s the good of saying that he honestly believes in dishonesty?’
‘Damned good,’ said Byles with a ferocious contortion of feature, believed by many to be meant for a friendly smile. ‘And that’s why I object to having a Chair of Theoretical Thieving in this College.’
‘Well, you’re all very down on Communism, of course,’ said the Master, with a sigh. ‘But do you really think there’s so much of it to be down on? Are any of your heresies really big enough to be dangerous?’
‘I think they have grown so big,’ said Father Brown gravely, ‘that in some circles they are already taken for granted. They are actually unconscious. That is, without conscience.’
‘And the end of it,’ said Byles, ‘will be the ruin of this country.’
‘The end will be something worse,’ said Father Brown.
A shadow shot or slid rapidly along the panelled wall opposite, as swiftly followed by the figure that had flung it; a tall but stooping figure with a vague outline like a bird of prey; accentuated by the fact that its sudden appearance and swift passage were like those of a bird startled and flying from a bush. It was only the figure of a long-limbed, high-shouldered man with long drooping moustaches, in fact, familiar enough to them all; but something in the twilight and candlelight and the flying and streaking shadow connected it strangely with the priest’s unconscious words of omen; for all the world, as if those words had indeed been an augury, in the old Roman sense; and the sign of it the flight of a bird. Perhaps Mr Byles might have given a lecture on such Roman augury; and especially on that bird of ill-omen.
The tall man shot along the wall like his own shadow until he sank into the empty chair on the Master’s right, and looked across at the Bursar and the rest with hollow and cavernous eyes. His hanging hair and moustache were quite fair, but his eyes were so deep-set that they might have been black. Everyone knew, or could guess, who the newcomer was; but an incident instantly followed that sufficiently illuminated the situation. The Professor of Roman History rose stiffly to his feet and stalked out of the room, indicating with little finesse his feelings about sitting at the same table with the Professor of Theoretical Thieving, otherwise the Communist, Mr Craken.
The Master of Mandeville covered the awkward situation with nervous grace. ‘I was defending you, or some aspects of you, my dear Craken,’ he said smiling, ‘though I am sure you would find me quite indefensible. After all, I can’t forget that the old Socialist friends of my youth had a very fine ideal of fraternity and comradeship. William Morris put it all in a sentence, “Fellowship is heaven; and lack of fellowship is hell.”
‘Dons as Democrats; see headline,’ said Mr Craken rather disagreeably. ‘And is Hard-Case Hake going to dedicate the new Commercial Chair to the memory of William Morris?’
‘Well,’ said the Master, still maintaining a desperate geniality, ‘I hope we may say, in a sense, that all our Chairs are Chairs of good-fellowship.’
‘Yes; that’s the academic version of the Morris maxim,’ growled Craken. ‘“A Fellowship is heaven; and lack of a Fellowship is hell.”’
‘Don’t be so cross, Craken,’ interposed the Bursar briskly. ‘Take some port. Tenby, pass the port to Mr Craken.’
‘Oh well, I’ll have a glass,’ said the Communist Professor a little less ungraciously. ‘I really came down here to have a smoke in the garden. Then I looked out of the window and saw your two precious millionaires were actually blooming in the garden; fresh, innocent buds. After all, it might be worth while to give them a bit of my mind.’
The Master had risen under cover of his last conventional cordiality, and was only too glad to leave the Bursar to do his best with the Wild Man. Others had risen, and the groups at the table had begun to break up; and the Bursar and Mr Craken were left more or less alone at the end of the long table. Only Father Brown continued to sit staring into vacancy with a rather cloudy expression.
‘Oh, as to that,’ said the Bursar. ‘I’m pretty tired of them myself, to tell the truth; I’ve been with them the best part of a day going into facts and figures and all the business of this new Professorship. But look here, Craken,’ and he leaned across the table and spoke with a sort of soft emphasis, ‘you really needn’t cut up so rough about this new Professorship. It doesn’t really interfere with your subject. You’re the only Professor of Political Economy at Mandeville and, though I don’t pretend to agree with your notions, everybody knows you’ve got a European reputation. This is a special subject they call Applied Economics. Well, even today, as I told you, I’ve had a hell of a lot of Applied Economics. In other words, I’ve had to talk business with two business men. Would you particularly want to do that? Would you envy it? Would you stand it? Isn’t that evidence enough that there is a separate subject and may well be a separate Chair?’
‘Good God,’ cried Craken with the intense invocation of the atheist. ‘Do you think I don’t want to apply Economics? Only, when we apply it, you call it red ruin and anarchy; and when you apply it, I take the liberty of calling it exploitation. If only you fellows would apply Economics, it’s just possible that people might get something to eat. We are the practical people; and that’s why you’re afraid of us. That’s why you have to get two greasy Capitalists to start another Lectureship; just because I’ve let the cat out of the bag.’
‘Rather a wild cat, wasn’t it?’ said the Bursar smiling, ‘that you let out of the bag?’
‘And rather a gold-bag, wasn’t it,’ said Craken, ‘that you are tying the cat up in again?’
‘Well, I don’t suppose we shall ever agree about all that,’ said the other. ‘But those fellows have come out of their chapel into the garden; and if you want to have your smoke there, you’d better come.’ He watched with some amusement his companion fumbling in all his pockets till he produced a pipe, and then, gazing at it with an abstracted air, Craken rose to his feet, but even in doing so, seemed to be feeling all over himself again. Mr Baker the Bursar ended the controversy with a happy laugh of reconciliation. ‘You are the practical people, and you will blow up the town with dynamite. Only you’ll probably forget the dynamite, as I bet you’ve forgotten the tobacco. Never mind, take a fill of mine. Matches?’ He threw a tobacco-pouch and its accessories across the table; to be caught by Mr Craken with that dexterity never forgotten by a cricketer, even when he adopts opinions generally regarded as not cricket. The two men rose together; but Baker could not forbear remarking, ‘Are you really the only practical people? Isn’t there anything to be said for the Applied Economics, that remembers to carry a tobacco-pouch as well as a pipe?’
Craken looked at him with smouldering eyes; and said at last, after slowly draining the last of his wine: ‘Let’s say there’s another sort of practicality. I dare say I do forget details and so on. What I want you to understand is this’ — he automatically returned the pouch; but his eyes were far away and jet-burning, almost terrible — ‘because the inside of our intellect has changed, because we really have a new idea of right, we shall do things you think really wrong. And they will be very practical.’
‘Yes,’ said Father Brown, suddenly coming out of his trance. ‘That’s exactly what I said.’
He looked across at Craken with a glassy and rather ghastly smile, saying: ‘Mr Craken and I are in complete agreement.’
‘Well,’ said Baker, ‘Craken is going out to smoke a pipe with the plutocrats; but I doubt whether it will be a pipe of peace.’
He turned rather abruptly and called to an aged attendant in the background. Mandeville was one of the last of the very old-fashioned Colleges; and even Craken was one of the first of the Communists; before the Bolshevism of today. ‘That reminds me,’ the Bursar was saying, ‘as you won’t hand round your peace pipe, we must send out the cigars to our distinguished guests. If they’re smokers they must be longing for a smoke; for they’ve been nosing about in the chapel since feeding-time.’
Craken exploded with a savage and jarring laugh. ‘Oh, I’ll take them their cigars,’ he said. ‘I’m only a proletarian.’
Baker and Brown and the attendant were all witnesses to the fact that the Communist strode furiously into the garden to confront the millionaires; but nothing more was seen or heard of them until, as is already recorded, Father Brown found them dead in their chairs.
It was agreed that the Master and the priest should remain to guard the scene of tragedy, while the Bursar, younger and more rapid in his movements, ran off to fetch doctors and policemen. Father Brown approached the table on which one of the cigars had burned itself away all but an inch or two; the other had dropped from the hand and been dashed out into dying sparks on the crazy-pavement. The Master of Mandeville sat down rather shakily on a sufficiently distant seat and buried his bald brow in his hands. Then he looked up at first rather wearily; and then he looked very startled indeed and broke the stillness of the garden with a word like a small explosion of horror.
There was a certain quality about Father Brown which might sometimes be called blood-curdling. He always thought about what he was doing and never about whether it was done; he would do the most ugly or horrible or undignified or dirty things as calmly as a surgeon. There was a certain blank, in his simple mind, of all those things commonly associated with being superstitious or sentimental. He sat down on the chair from which the corpse had fallen, picked up the cigar the corpse had partially smoked, carefully detached the ash, examined the butt-end and then stuck it in his mouth and lit it. It looked like some obscene and grotesque antic in derision of the dead; and it seemed to him to be the most ordinary common sense. A cloud floated upwards like the smoke of some savage sacrifice and idolatry; but to Father Brown it appeared a perfectly self-evident fact that the only way to find out what a cigar is like is to smoke it. Nor did it lessen the horror for his old friend, the Master of Mandeville, to have a dim but shrewd guess that Father Brown was, upon the possibilities of the case, risking his own life.
‘No; I think that’s all right,’ said the priest, putting the stump down again. ‘Jolly good cigars. Your cigars. Not American or German. I don’t think there’s anything odd about the cigar itself; but they’d better take care of the ashes. These men were poisoned somehow with the sort of stuff that stiffens the body quickly ... By the way, there goes somebody who knows more about it than we do.’
The Master sat up with a curiously uncomfortable jolt; for indeed the large shadow which had fallen across the pathway preceded a figure which, however heavy, was almost as soft-footed as a shadow. Professor Wadham, eminent occupant of the Chair of Chemistry, always moved very quietly in spite of his size, and there was nothing odd about his strolling in the garden; yet there seemed something unnaturally neat in his appearing at the exact moment when chemistry was mentioned.
Professor Wadham prided himself on his quietude; some would say his insensibility. He did not turn a hair on his flattened flaxen head, but stood looking down at the dead men with a shade of something like indifference on his large froglike face. Only when he looked at the cigar-ash, which the priest had preserved, he touched it with one finger; then he seemed to stand even stiller than before; but in the shadow of his face his eyes for an instant seemed to shoot out telescopically like one of his own microscopes. He had certainly realized or recognized something; but he said nothing.
‘I don’t know where anyone is to begin in this business,’ said the Master.
‘I should begin,’ said Father Brown, ‘by asking where these unfortunate men had been most of the time today.’
‘They were messing about in my laboratory for a good time,’ said Wadham, speaking for the first time. ‘Baker often comes up to have a chat, and this time he brought his two patrons to inspect my department. But I think they went everywhere; real tourists. I know they went to the chapel and even into the tunnel under the crypt, where you have to light candles; instead of digesting their food like sane men. Baker seems to have taken them everywhere.’
‘Were they interested in anything particular in your department?’ asked the priest. ‘What were you doing there just then?’
The Professor of Chemistry murmured a chemical formula beginning with ‘sulphate’, and ending with something that sounded like ‘silenium’; unintelligible to both his hearers. He then wandered wearily away and sat on a remote bench in the sun, closing his eyes, but turning up his large face with heavy forbearance.
At his point, by a sharp contrast, the lawns were crossed by a brisk figure travelling as rapidly and as straight as a bullet; and Father Brown recognized the neat black clothes and shrewd doglike face of a police-surgeon whom he had met in the poorer parts of town. He was the first to arrive of the official contingent.
‘Look here,’ said the Master to the priest, before the doctor was within earshot. ‘I must know something. Did you mean what you said about Communism being a real danger and leading to crime?’
‘Yes,’ said Father Brown smiling rather grimly, ‘I have really noticed the spread of some Communist ways and influences; and, in one sense, this is a Communist crime.’
‘Thank you,’ said the Master. ‘Then I must go off and see to something at once. Tell the authorities I’ll be back in ten minutes.’
The Master had vanished into one of the Tudor archways at just about the moment when the police-doctor had reached the table and cheerfully recognized Father Brown. On the latter’s suggestion that they should sit down at the tragic table, Dr Blake threw one sharp and doubtful glance at the big, bland and seemingly somnolent chemist, who occupied a more remote seat. He was duly informed of the Professor’s identity, and what had so far been gathered of the Professor’s evidence; and listened to it silently while conducting a preliminary examination of the dead bodies. Naturally, he seemed more concentrated on the actual corpses than on the hearsay evidence, until one detail suddenly distracted him entirely from the science of anatomy.
‘What did the Professor say he was working at?’ he inquired.
Father Brown patiently repeated the chemical formula he did not understand.
‘What?’ snapped Dr Blake, like a pistol-shot. ‘Gosh! This is pretty frightful!’
‘Because it’s poison?’ inquired Father Brown.
‘Because it’s piffle,’ replied Dr Blake. ‘It’s simply nonsense. The Professor is quite a famous chemist. Why is a famous chemist deliberately talking nonsense?’
‘Well, I think I know that one,’ answered Father Brown mildly. ‘He is talking nonsense, because he is telling lies. He is concealing something; and he wanted specially to conceal it from these two men and their representatives.’
The doctor lifted his eyes from the two men and looked across at the almost unnaturally immobile figure of the great chemist. He might almost have been asleep; a garden butterfly had settled upon him and seemed to turn his stillness into that of a stone idol. The large folds of his froglike face reminded the doctor of the hanging skins of a rhinoceros.
‘Yes,’ said Father Brown, in a very low voice. ‘He is a wicked man.’
‘God damn it all!’ cried the doctor, suddenly moved to his very depths. ‘Do you mean that a great scientific man like that deals in murder?’
‘Fastidious critics would have complained of his dealing in murder,’ said the priest dispassionately. ‘I don’t say I’m very fond of people dealing in murder in that way myself. But what’s much more to the point — I’m sure that these poor fellows were among his fastidious critics.’
‘You mean they found his secret and he silenced them?’ said Blake frowning. ‘But what in hell was his secret? How could a man murder on a large scale in a place like this?’
‘I have told you his secret,’ said the priest. ‘It is a secret of the soul. He is a bad man. For heaven’s sake don’t fancy I say that because he and I are of opposite schools or traditions. I have a crowd of scientific friends; and most of them are heroically disinterested. Even of the most sceptical, I would only say they are rather irrationally disinterested. But now and then you do get a man who is a materialist, in the sense of a beast. I repeat he’s a bad man. Much worse than — ’ And Father Brown seemed to hesitate for a word.
‘You mean much worse than the Communist?’ suggested the other.
‘No; I mean much worse than the murderer,’ said Father Brown.
He got to his feet in an abstracted manner; and hardly realized that his companion was staring at him.
‘But didn’t you mean,’ asked Blake at last, ‘that this Wadham is the murderer?’
‘Oh, no,’ said Father Brown more cheerfully. ‘The murderer is a much more sympathetic and understandable person. He at least was desperate; and had the excuses of sudden rage and despair.’
‘Why,’ cried the doctor, ‘do you mean it was the Communist after all?’
It was at this very moment, appropriately enough, that the police officials appeared with an announcement that seemed to conclude the case in a most decisive and satisfactory manner. They had been somewhat delayed in reaching the scene of the crime, by the simple fact that they had already captured the criminal. Indeed, they had captured him almost at the gates of their own official residence. They had already had reason to suspect the activities of Craken the Communist during various disorders in the town; when they heard of the outrage they felt it safe to arrest him; and found the arrest thoroughly justified. For, as Inspector Cook radiantly explained to dons and doctors on the lawn of Mandeville garden, no sooner was the notorious Communist searched, than it was found that he was actually carrying a box of poisoned matches.
The moment Father Brown heard the word ‘matches’, he jumped from his seat as if a match had been lighted under him.
‘Ah,’ he cried, with a sort of universal radiance, ‘and now it’s all clear.’
‘What do you mean by all clear?’ demanded the Master of Mandeville, who had returned in all the pomp of his own officialism to match the pomp of the police officials now occupying the College like a victorious army. ‘Do you mean you are convinced now that the case against Craken is clear?’
‘I mean that Craken is cleared,’ said Father Brown firmly, ‘and the case against Craken is cleared away. Do you really believe Craken is the kind of man who would go about poisoning people with matches?’
‘That’s all very well,’ replied the Master, with the troubled expression he had never lost since the first sensation occurred. ‘But it was you yourself who said that fanatics with false principles may do wicked things. For that matter, it was you yourself who said that Communism is creeping up everywhere and Communistic habits spreading.’
Father Brown laughed in a rather shamefaced manner.
‘As to the last point,’ he said, ‘I suppose I owe you all an apology. I seem to be always making a mess of things with my silly little jokes.’
‘Jokes!’ repeated the Master, staring rather indignantly.
‘Well,’ explained the priest, rubbing his head. ‘When I talked about a Communist habit spreading, I only meant a habit I happen to have noticed about two or three times even today. It is a Communist habit by no means confined to Communists. It is the extraordinary habit of so many men, especially Englishmen, of putting other people’s matchboxes in their pockets without remembering to return them. Of course, it seems an awfully silly little trifle to talk about. But it does happen to be the way the crime was committed.’
‘It sounds to me quite crazy,’ said the doctor.
‘Well, if almost any man may forget to return matches, you can bet your boots that Craken would forget to return them. So the poisoner who had prepared the matches got rid of them on to Craken, by the simple process of lending them and not getting them back. A really admirable way of shedding responsibility; because Craken himself would be perfectly unable to imagine where he had got them from. But when he used them quite innocently to light the cigars he offered to our two visitors, he was caught in an obvious trap; one of those too obvious traps. He was the bold bad Revolutionist murdering two millionaires.’
‘Well, who else would want to murder them?’ growled the doctor.
‘Ah, who indeed?’ replied the priest; and his voice changed to much greater gravity. ‘There we come to the other thing I told you; and that, let me tell you, was not a joke. I told you that heresies and false doctrines had become common and conversational; that everybody was used to them; that nobody really noticed them. Did you think I meant Communism when I said that? Why, it was just the other way. You were all as nervous as cats about Communism; and you watched Craken like a wolf. Of course. Communism is a heresy; but it isn’t a heresy that you people take for granted. It is Capitalism you take for granted; or rather the vices of Capitalism disguised as a dead Darwinism. Do you recall what you were all saying in the Common Room, about life being only a scramble, and nature demanding the survival of the fittest, and how it doesn’t matter whether the poor are paid justly or not? Why, that is the heresy that you have grown accustomed to, my friends; and it’s every bit as much a heresy as Communism. That’s the anti-Christian morality or immorality that you take quite naturally. And that’s the immorality that has made a man a murderer today.’
‘What man?’ cried the Master, and his voice cracked with a sudden weakness.
‘Let me approach it another way,’ said the priest placidly. ‘You all talk as if Craken ran away; but he didn’t. When the two men toppled over, he ran down the street, summoned the doctor merely by shouting through the window, and shortly afterwards was trying to summon the police. That was how he was arrested. But doesn’t it strike you, now one comes to think of it, that Mr Baker the Bursar is rather a long time looking for the police?’
‘What is he doing then?’ asked the Master sharply.
‘I fancy he’s destroying papers; or perhaps ransacking these men’s rooms to see they haven’t left us a letter. Or it may have something to do with our friend Wadham. Where does he come in? That is really very simple and a sort of joke too. Mr Wadham is experimenting in poisons for the next war; and has something of which a whiff of flame will stiffen a man dead. Of course, he had nothing to do with killing these men; but he did conceal his chemical secret for a very simple reason. One of them was a Puritan Yankee and the other a cosmopolitan Jew; and those two types are often fanatical Pacifists. They would have called it planning murder and probably refused to help the College. But Baker was a friend of Wadham and it was easy for him to dip matches in the new material.’
Another peculiarity of the little priest was that his mind was all of a piece, and he was unconscious of many incongruities; he would change the note of his talk from something quite public to something quite private, without any particular embarrassment. On this occasion, he made most of the company stare with mystification, by beginning to talk to one person when he had just been talking to ten; quite indifferent to the fact that only the one could have any notion of what he was talking about.
‘I’m sorry if I misled you, doctor, by that maundering metaphysical digression on the man of sin,’ he said apologetically. ‘Of course it had nothing to do with the murder; but the truth is I’d forgotten all about the murder for the moment. I’d forgotten everything, you see, but a sort of vision of that fellow, with his vast unhuman face, squatting among the flowers like some blind monster of the Stone Age. And I was thinking that some men are pretty monstrous, like men of stone; but it was all irrelevant. Being bad inside has very little to do with committing crimes outside. The worst criminals have committed no crimes. The practical point is why did the practical criminal commit this crime. Why did Baker the Bursar want to kill these men? That’s all that concerns us now. The answer is the answer to the question I’ve asked twice. Where were these men most of the time, apart from nosing in chapels or laboratories? By the Bursar’s own account, they were talking business with the Bursar.
‘Now, with all respect to the dead, I do not exactly grovel before the intellect of these two financiers. Their views on economics and ethics were heathen and heartless. Their views on Peace were tosh. Their views on Port were even more deplorable. But one thing they did understand; and that was business. And it took them a remarkably short time to discover that the business man in charge of the funds of this College was a swindler. Or shall I say, a true follower of the doctrine of the unlimited struggle for life and the survival of the fittest.’
‘You mean they were going to expose him and he killed them before they could speak,’ said the doctor frowning. ‘There are a lot of details I don’t understand.’
‘There are some details I’m not sure of myself,’ said the priest frankly. ‘I suspect all that business of candles underground had something to do with abstracting the millionaires’ own matches, or perhaps making sure they had no matches. But I’m sure of the main gesture, the gay and careless gesture of Baker tossing his matches to the careless Craken. That gesture was the murderous blow.’
‘There’s one thing I don’t understand,’ said the Inspector. ‘How did Baker know that Craken wouldn’t light up himself then and there at the table and become an unwanted corpse?’
The face of Father Brown became almost heavy with reproach; and his voice had a sort of mournful yet generous warmth in it.
‘Well, hang it all,’ he said, ‘he was only an atheist.’
‘I’m afraid I don’t know what you mean,’ said the Inspector, politely.
‘He only wanted to abolish God,’ explained Father Brown in a temperate and reasonable tone. ‘He only wanted to destroy the Ten Commandments and root up all the religion and civilization that had made him, and wash out all the common sense of ownership and honesty; and let his culture and his country be flattened out by savages from the ends of the earth. That’s all he wanted. You have no right to accuse him of anything beyond that. Hang it all, everybody draws the line somewhere! And you come here and calmly suggest that a Mandeville Man of the old generation (for Craken was of the old generation, whatever his views) would have begun to smoke, or even strike a match, while he was still drinking the College Port, of the vintage of ’08 — no, no; men are not so utterly without laws and limits as all that! I was there; I saw him; he had not finished his wine, and you ask me why he did not smoke! No such anarchic question has ever shaken the arches of Mandeville College Funny place, Mandeville College. Funny place, Oxford. Funny place, England.’
‘But you haven’t anything particular to do with Oxford?’ asked the doctor curiously.
‘I have to do with England,’ said Father Brown. ‘I come from there. And the funniest thing of all is that even if you love it and belong to it, you still can’t make head or tail of it.’
Last updated on Tue Feb 8 09:01:27 2005 for eBooks@Adelaide.