This works on many levels – it’s a well-written, if dated, crime story and it also makes a timeless point about prejudice and hypocrisy. The focus here, since it’s Chesterton, is on anti-Catholicism, but the moral hypocrisy described is a part of the human condition and so has wide application, even today.
This version is from “The Complete ‘Father Brown.’“
The Chief Mourner of Marne
A blaze of lightning blanched the grey woods tracing all the wrinkled foliage down to the last curled leaf, as if every detail were drawn in silverpoint or graven in silver. The same strange trick of lightning by which it seems to record millions of minute things in an instant of time, picked out everything, from the elegant litter of the picnic spread under the spreading tree to the pale lengths of winding road, at the end of which a white car was waiting. In the distance a melancholy mansion with four towers like a castle, which in the grey evening had been but a dim and distant huddle of walls like a crumbling cloud, seemed to spring into the foreground, and stood up with all its embattled, roofs and blank and staring windows. And in this, at least, the light had something in it of revelation. For to some of those grouped under the tree that castle was, indeed, a thing faded and almost forgotten, which was to prove its power to spring up again in the foreground of their lives.
The light also clothed for an instant, in the same silver splendour, at least one human figure that stood up as motionless as one of the towers. It was that of a tall man standing on a rise of ground above the rest, who were mostly sitting on the grass or stooping to gather up the hamper and crockery. He wore a picturesque short cloak or cape clasped with a silver clasp and chain, which blazed like a star when the flash touched it; and something metallic in his motionless figure was emphasized by the fact that his closely-curled hair was of the burnished yellow that can be really called gold; and had the look of being younger than his face, which was handsome in a hard aquiline fashion, but looked, under the strong light, a little wrinkled and withered. Possibly it had suffered from wearing a mask of make-up, for Hugo Romaine was the greatest actor of his day. For that instant of illumination the golden curls and ivory mask and silver ornament made his figure gleam like that of a man in armour; the next instant his figure was a dark and even black silhouette against the sickly grey of the rainy evening sky.
But there was something about its stillness, like that of a statue, that distinguished it from the group at his feet. All the other figures around him had made the ordinary involuntary movement at the unexpected shock of light; for though the skies were rainy it was the first flash of the storm. The only lady present, whose air of carrying grey hair gracefully, as if she were really proud of it, marked her a matron of the United States, unaffectedly shut her eyes and uttered a sharp cry. Her English husband, General Outram, a very stolid Anglo-Indian, with a bald head and black moustache and whiskers of antiquated pattern, looked up with one stiff movement and then resumed his occupation of tidying up. A young man of the name of Mallow, very big and shy, with brown eyes like a dog’s, dropped a cup and apologized awkwardly. A third man, much more dressy, with a resolute head, like an inquisitive terrier’s, and grey hair brushed stiffly back, was no other than the great newspaper proprietor, Sir John Cockspur; he cursed freely, but not in an English idiom or accent, for he came from Toronto. But the tall man in the short cloak stood up literally like a statue in the twilight; his eagle face under the full glare had been like the bust of a Roman Emperor, and the carved eyelids had not moved.
A moment after, the dark dome cracked across with thunder, and the statue seemed to come to life. He turned his head over his shoulder and said casually;
“About a minute and half between the flash and the bang, but I think the storm’s coming nearer. A tree is not supposed to be a good umbrella for the lightning, but we shall want it soon for the rain. I think it will be a deluge.”
The young man glanced at the lady a little anxiously and said: “Can’t we get shelter anywhere? There seems to be a house over there.”
“There is a house over there,” remarked the general, rather grimly; “but not quite what you’d call a hospitable hotel.”
“It’s curious,” said his wife sadly, “that we should be caught in a storm with no house near but that one, of all others.”
Something in her tone seemed to check the younger man, who was both sensitive and comprehending; but nothing of that sort daunted the man from Toronto.
“What’s the matter with it?” he asked. “Looks rather like a ruin.”
“That place,” said the general dryly, “belongs to the Marquis of Marne.”
“Gee!” said Sir John Cockspur. “I’ve heard all about that bird, anyhow; and a queer bird, too. Ran him as a front-page mystery in the Comet last year. ‘The Nobleman Nobody Knows.’”
“Yes, I’ve heard of him, too,” said young Mallow in a low voice. “There seem to be all sorts of weird stories about why he hides himself like that. I’ve heard that he wears a mask because he’s a leper. But somebody else told me quite seriously that there’s a curse on the family; a child born with some frightful deformity that’s kept in a dark room.”
“The Marquis of Marne has three heads,” remarked Romaine quite gravely. “Once in every three hundred years a three-headed nobleman adorns the family tree. No human being dares approach the accursed house except a silent procession of hatters, sent to provide an abnormal number of hats. But,” — and his voice took one of those deep and terrible turns, that could cause such a thrill in the theatre — “my friends, those hats are of no human shape.”
The American lady looked at him with a frown and a slight air of distrust, as if that trick of voice had moved her in spite of herself.
“I don’t like your ghoulish jokes,” she said; “and I’d rather you didn’t joke about this, anyhow.”
“I hear and obey,” replied the actor; “but am I, like the Light Brigade, forbidden even to reason why?”
“The reason,” she replied, “is that he isn’t the Nobleman Nobody Knows. I know him myself, or, at least, I knew him very well when he was an attache at Washington thirty years ago, when we were all young. And he didn’t wear a mask, at least, he didn’t wear it with me. He wasn’t a leper, though he may be almost as lonely. And he had only one head and only one heart, and that was broken.”
“Unfortunate love affair, of course,” said Cockspur. “I should like that for the Comet.”
“I suppose it’s a compliment to us,” she replied thoughtfully, “that you always assume a man’s heart is broken by a woman. But there are other kinds of love and bereavement. Have you never read ‘In Memoriam’? Have you never heard of David and Jonathan? What broke poor Marne up was the death of his brother; at least, he was really a first cousin, but had been brought up with him like a brother, and was much nearer than most brothers. James Mair, as the marquis was called when I knew him, was the elder of the two, but he always played the part of worshipper, with Maurice Mair as a god. And, by his account, Maurice Mair was certainly a wonder. James was no fool, and very good at his own political job; but it seems that Maurice could do that and everything else; that he was a brilliant artist and amateur actor and musician, and all the rest of it. James was very good-looking himself, long and strong and strenuous, with a high-bridged nose; though I suppose the young people would think he looked very quaint with his beard divided into two bushy whiskers in the fashion of those Victorian times. But Maurice was clean-shaven, and, by the portraits shown to me, certainly quite beautiful; though he looked a little more like a tenor than a gentleman ought to look. James was always asking me again and again whether his friend was not a marvel, whether any woman wouldn’t fall in love with him, and so on, until it became rather a bore, except that it turned so suddenly into a tragedy. His whole life seemed to be in that idolatry, and one day the idol tumbled down, and was broken like any china doll. A chill caught at the seaside, and it was all over.”
“And after that,” asked the young man, “did he shut himself up like this?”
“He went abroad at first,” she answered; “away to Asia and the Cannibal Islands and Lord knows where. These deadly strokes take different people in different ways. It took him in the way of an utter sundering or severance from everything, even from tradition and as far as possible from memory. He could not bear a reference to the old tie; a portrait or an anecdote or even an association. He couldn’t bear the business of a great public funeral. He longed to get away. He stayed away for ten years. I heard some rumour that he had begun to revive a little at the end of the exile; but when he came back to his own home he relapsed completely. He settled down into religious melancholia, and that’s practically madness.”
“The priests got hold of him, they say,” grumbled the old general. “I know he gave thousands to found a monastery, and lives himself rather like a monk — or, at any rate, a hermit. Can’t understand what good they think that will do.”
“Goddarned superstition,” snorted Cockspur; “that sort of thing ought to be shown up. Here’s a man that might have been useful to the Empire and the world, and these vampires get hold of him and suck him dry. I bet with their unnatural notions they haven’t even let him marry.”
“No, he has never married,” said the lady. “He was engaged when I knew him, as a matter of fact, but I don’t think it ever came first with him, and I think it went with the rest when everything else went. Like Hamlet and Ophelia — he lost hold of love because he lost hold of life. But I knew the girl; indeed, I know her still. Between ourselves, it was Viola Grayson, daughter of the old admiral. She’s never married either.”
“It’s infamous! It’s infernal!” cried Sir John, bounding up. “It’s not only a tragedy, but a crime. I’ve got a duty to the public, and I mean to see all this nonsensical nightmare. In the twentieth century — ”
He was almost choked with his own protest, and then, after a silence, the old soldier said:
“Well, I don’t profess to know much about those things, but I think these religious people need to study a text which says: ‘Let the dead bury their dead.’”
“Only, unfortunately, that’s just what it looks like,” said his wife with a sigh. “It’s just like some creepy story of a dead man burying another dead man, over and over again for ever.”
“The storm has passed over us,” said Romaine, with a rather inscrutable smile. “You will not have to visit the inhospitable house after all.”
She suddenly shuddered.
“Oh, I’ll never do that again!” she exclaimed.
Mallow was staring at her.
“Again! Have you tried it before?” he cried.
“Well, I did once,” she said, with a lightness not without a touch of pride; “but we needn’t go back on all that. It’s not raining now, but I think we’d better be moving back to the car.”
As they moved off in procession, Mallow and the general brought up the rear; and the latter said abruptly, lowering his voice:
“I don’t want that little cad Cockspur to hear but as you’ve asked you’d better know. It’s the one thing I can’t forgive Marne; but I suppose these monks have drilled him that way. My wife, who had been the best friend he ever had in America, actually came to that house when he was walking in the garden. He was looking at the ground like a monk, and hidden in a black hood that was really as ridiculous as any mask. She had sent her card in, and stood there in his very path. And he walked past her without a word or a glance, as if she had been a stone. He wasn’t human; he was like some horrible automaton. She may well call him a dead man.”
“It’s all very strange,” said the young man rather vaguely. “It isn’t like — like what I should have expected.”
Young Mr. Mallow, when he left that rather dismal picnic, took himself thoughtfully in search of a friend. He did not know any monks, but he knew one priest, whom he was very much concerned to confront with the curious revelations he had heard that afternoon. He felt he would very much like to know the truth about the cruel superstition that hung over the house of Marne, like the black thundercloud he had seen hovering over it.
After being referred from one place to another, he finally ran his friend Father Brown to earth in the house of another friend, a Roman Catholic friend, with a large family. He entered somewhat abruptly to find Father Brown sitting on the floor with a serious expression, and attempting to pin the somewhat florid hat belonging to a wax doll on to the head of a teddy bear.
Mallow felt a faint sense of incongruity; but he was far too full of his problem to put off the conversation if he could help it. He was staggering from a sort of set-back in a subconscious process that had been going on for some time. He poured out the whole tragedy of the house of Marne as he had heard it from the general’s wife, along with most of the comments of the general and the newspaper proprietor. A new atmosphere of attention seemed to be created with the mention of the newspaper proprietor.
Father Brown neither knew nor cared that his attitudes were comic or commonplace. He continued to sit on the floor, where his large head and short legs made him look very like a baby playing with toys. But there came into his great grey eyes a certain expression that has been seen in the eyes of many men in many centuries through the story of nineteen hundred years; only the men were not generally sitting on floors, but at council tables, or on the seats of chapters, or the thrones of bishops and cardinals; a far-off, watchful look, heavy with the humility of a charge too great for men. Something of that anxious and far-reaching look is found in the eyes of sailors and of those who have steered through so many storms the ship of St. Peter.
“It’s very good of you to tell me this,” he said. “I’m really awfully grateful, for we may have to do something about it. If it were only people like you and the general, it might be only a private matter; but if Sir John Cockspur is going to spread some sort of scare in his papers — well, he’s a Toronto Orangeman, and we can hardly keep out of it.”
“But what will you say about it?” asked Mallow anxiously.
“The first thing I should say about it,” said Father Brown, “is that, as you tell it, it doesn’t sound like life. Suppose, for the sake of argument, that we are all pessimistic vampires blighting all human happiness. Suppose I’m a pessimistic vampire.” He scratched his nose with the teddy bear, became faintly conscious of the incongruity, and put it down. “Suppose we do destroy all human and family ties. Why should we entangle a man again in an old family tie just when he showed signs of getting loose from it? Surely it’s a little unfair to charge us both with crushing such affection and encouraging such infatuation. I don’t see why even a religious maniac should be that particular sort of monomaniac, or how religion could increase that mania, except by brightening it with a little hope.”
Then he said, after a pause: “I should like to talk to that general of yours.”
“It was his wife who told me,” said Mallow.
“Yes,” replied the other; “but I’m more interested in what he didn’t tell you than in what she did.”
“You think he knows more than she does?”
“I think he knows more than she says,” answered Father Brown. “You tell me he used a phrase about forgiving everything except the rudeness to his wife. After all, what else was there to forgive?”
Father Brown had risen and shaken his shapeless clothes, and stood looking at the young man with screwed up eyes and slightly quizzical expression. The next moment he had turned, and picking up his equally shapeless umbrella and large shabby hat, went stumping down the street.
He plodded through a variety of wide streets and squares till he came to a handsome old-fashioned house in the West End, where he asked the servant if he could see General Outram. After some little palaver he was shown into a study, fitted out less with books than with maps and globes, where the bald-headed, black-whiskered Anglo-Indian sat smoking a long, thin, black cigar and playing with pins on a chart.
“I am sorry to intrude,” said the priest, “and all the more because I can’t help the intrusion looking like interference. I want to speak to you about a private matter, but only in the hope of keeping it private. Unfortunately, some people are likely to make it public. I think, general, that you know Sir John Cockspur.”
The mass of black moustache and whisker served as a sort of mask for the lower half of the old general’s face; it was always hard to see whether he smiled, but his brown eyes often had a certain twinkle.
“Everybody knows him, I suppose,” he said. “I don’t know him very well.”
“Well, you know everybody knows whatever he knows,” said Father Brown, smiling, “when he thinks it convenient to print it. And I understand from my friend Mr. Mallow, whom, I think, you know, that Sir John is going to print some scorching anti-clerical articles founded on what he would call the Marne Mystery. ‘Monks Drive Marquis Mad,’ etc.”
“If he is,” replied the general, “I don’t see why you should come to me about it. I ought to tell you I’m a strong Protestant.”
“I’m very fond of strong Protestants,” said Father Brown. “I came to you because I was sure you would tell the truth. I hope it is not uncharitable to feel less sure of Sir John Cockspur.”
The brown eyes twinkled again, but the general said nothing.
“General,” said Father Brown, “suppose Cockspur or his sort were going to make the world ring with tales against your country and your flag. Suppose he said your regiment ran away in battle, or your staff were in the pay of the enemy. Would you let anything stand between you and the facts that would refute him? Wouldn’t you get on the track of the truth at all costs to anybody? Well, I have a regiment, and I belong to an army. It is being discredited by what I am certain is a fictitious story; but I don’t know the true story. Can you blame me for trying to find it out?”
The soldier was silent, and the priest continued:
“I have heard the story Mallow was told yesterday, about Marne retiring with a broken heart through the death of his more than brother. I am sure there was more in it than that. I came to ask you if you know any more.”
“No,” said the general shortly; “I cannot tell you any more.”
“General,” said Father Brown with a broad grin, “you would have called me a Jesuit if I had used that equivocation.”
The soldier laughed gruffly, and then growled with much greater hostility.
“Well, I won’t tell you, then,” he said. “What do you say to that?”
“I only say,” said the priest mildly, “that in that case I shall have to tell you.”
The brown eyes stared at him; but there was no twinkle in them now. He went on:
“You compel me to state, less sympathetically perhaps than you could, why it is obvious that there is more behind. I am quite sure the marquis has better cause for his brooding and secretiveness than merely having lost an old friend. I doubt whether priests have anything to do with it; I don’t even know if he’s a convert or merely a man comforting his conscience with charities; but I’m sure he’s something more than a chief mourner. Since you insist, I will tell you one or two of the things that made me think so.
“First, it was stated that James Mair was engaged to be married, but somehow became unattached again after the death of Maurice Mair. Why should an honourable man break off his engagement merely because he was depressed by the death of a third party? He’s much more likely to have turned for consolation to it; but, anyhow, he was bound in decency to go through with it.”
The general was biting his black moustache, and his brown eyes had become very watchful and even anxious, but he did not answer.
“A second point,” said Father Brown, frowning at the table. “James Mair was always asking his lady friend whether his cousin Maurice was not very fascinating, and whether women would not admire him. I don’t know if it occurred to the lady that there might be another meaning to that inquiry.”
The general got to his feet and began to walk or stamp about the room.
“Oh, damn it all,” he said, but without any air of animosity.
“The third point,” went on Father Brown, “is James Mair’s curious manner of mourning — destroying all relics, veiling all portraits, and so on. It does sometimes happen, I admit; it might mean mere affectionate bereavement. But it might mean something else.”
“Confound you,” said the other. “How long are you going on piling this up?”
“The fourth and fifth points are pretty conclusive,” said the priest calmly, “especially if you take them together. The first is that Maurice Mair seems to have had no funeral in particular, considering he was a cadet of a great family. He must have been buried hurriedly; perhaps secretly. And the last point is, that James Mair instantly disappeared to foreign parts; fled, in fact, to the ends of the earth.
“And so,” he went on, still in the same soft voice, “when you would blacken my religion to brighten the story of the pure and perfect affection of two brothers, it seems — — ”
“Stop!” cried Outram in a tone like a pistol shot. “I must tell you more, or you will fancy worse. Let me tell you one thing to start with. It was a fair fight.”
“Ah,” said Father Brown, and seemed to exhale a huge breath.
“It was a duel,” said the other. “It was probably the last duel fought in England, and it is long ago now.”
“That’s better,” said Father Brown. “Thank God; that’s a great deal better.”
“Better than the ugly things you thought of, I suppose?” said the general gruffly. “Well, it’s all very well for you to sneer at the pure and perfect affection; but it was true for all that. James Mair really was devoted to his cousin, who’d grown up with him like a younger brother. Elder brothers and sisters do sometimes devote themselves to a child like that, especially when he’s a sort of infant phenomenon. But James Mair was the sort of simple character in whom even hate is in a sense unselfish. I mean that even when his tenderness turns to rage it is still objective, directed outwards to its object; he isn’t conscious of himself. Now poor Maurice Mair was just the opposite. He was far more friendly and popular; but his success had made him live in a house of mirrors. He was first in every sort of sport and art and accomplishment; he nearly always won and took his winning amiably. But if ever, by any chance, he lost, there was just a glimpse of something not so amiable; he was a little jealous. I needn’t tell you the whole miserable story of how he was a little jealous of his cousin’s engagement; how he couldn’t keep his restless vanity from interfering. It’s enough to say that one of the few things in which James Mair was admittedly ahead of him was marksmanship with a pistol; and with that the tragedy ended.”
“You mean the tragedy began,” replied the priest. “The tragedy of the survivor. I thought he did not need any monkish vampires to make him miserable.”
“To my mind he’s more miserable than he need be,” said the general. “After all, as I say, it was a ghastly tragedy, but it was a fair fight. And Jim had great provocation.”
“How do you know all this?” asked the priest.
“I know it because I saw it,” answered Outram stolidly. “I was James Mair’s second, and I saw Maurice Mair shot dead on the sands before my very eyes.”
“I wish you would tell me more about it,” said Father Brown reflectively. “Who was Maurice Mair’s second?”
“He had a more distinguished backing,” replied the general grimly. “Hugo Romaine was his second; the great actor, you know. Maurice was mad on acting and had taken up Romaine (who was then a rising but still a struggling man), and financed the fellow and his ventures in return for taking lessons from the professional in his own hobby of amateur acting. But Romaine was then, I suppose, practically dependent on his rich friend; though he’s richer now than any aristocrat. So his serving as second proves very little about what he thought of the quarrel. They fought in the English fashion, with only one second apiece; I wanted at least to have a surgeon, but Maurice boisterously refused it, saying the fewer people who knew, the better; and at the worst we could immediately get help. ‘There’s a doctor in the village not half a mile away,’ he said; ‘I know him and he’s got the fastest horse in the country. He could be brought here in no time; but there’s no need to bring him here till we know.’ Well, we all knew that Maurice ran most risk, as the pistol was not his weapon; so when he refused aid nobody liked to ask for it. The duel was fought on a flat stretch of sand on the east coast of Scotland; and both the sight and sound of it were masked from the hamlets inland by a long rampart of sandhills patched with rank grass; probably part of the links, though in those days no Englishman had heard of golf. There was one deep, crooked cranny in the sandhills through which we came out on the sands. I can see them now; first a wide strip of dead yellow, and beyond, a narrower strip of dark red; a dark red that seemed already like the long shadow of a deed of blood.
“The thing itself seemed to happen with horrible speed; as if a whirlwind had struck the sand. With the very crack of sound Maurice Mair seemed to spin like a teetotum and pitch upon his face like a ninepin. And queerly enough, while I’d been worrying about him up to that moment, the instant he was dead all my pity was for the man who killed him; as it is to this day and hour. I knew that with that, the whole huge terrible pendulum of my friend’s life-long love would swing back; and that whatever cause others might find to pardon him, he would never pardon himself for ever and ever. And so, somehow, the really vivid thing, the picture that burns in my memory so that I can’t forget it, is not that of the catastrophe, the smoke and the flash and the falling figure. That seemed to be all over, like the noise that wakes a man up. What I saw, what I shall always see, is poor Jim hurrying across towards his fallen friend and foe; his brown beard looking black against the ghastly pallor of his face, with its high features cut out against the sea; and the frantic gestures with which he waved me to run for the surgeon in the hamlet behind the sandhills. He had dropped his pistol as he ran; he had a glove in one hand and the loose and fluttering fingers of it seemed to elongate and emphasize his wild pantomime of pointing or hailing for help. That is the picture that really remains with me; and there is nothing else in that picture, except the striped background of sands and sea and the dark, dead body lying still as a stone, and the dark figure of the dead man’s second standing grim and motionless against the horizon.”
“Did Romaine stand motionless?” asked the priest. “I should have thought he would have run even quicker towards the corpse.”
“Perhaps he did when I had left,” replied the general. “I took in that undying picture in an instant and the next instant I had dived among the sandhills, and was far out of sight of the others. Well, poor Maurice had made a good choice in the matter of doctors; though the doctor came too late, he came quicker than I should have thought possible. This village surgeon was a very remarkable man, redhaired, irascible, but extraordinarily strong in promptitude and presence of mind. I saw him but for a flash as he leapt on his horse and went thundering away to the scene of death, leaving me far behind. But in that flash I had so strong a sense of his personality that I wished to God he had really been called in before the duel began; for I believe on my soul he would have prevented it somehow. As it was, he cleaned up the mess with marvellous swiftness; long before I could trail back to the sea-shore on my two feet his impetuous practicality had managed everything; the corpse was temporarily buried in the sandhills and the unhappy homicide had been persuaded to do the only thing he could do — to flee for his life. He slipped along the coast till he came to a port and managed to get out of the country. You know the rest; poor Jim remained abroad for many years; later, when the whole thing had been hushed up or forgotten, he returned to his dismal castle and automatically inherited the title. I have never seen him from that day to this, and yet I know what is written in red letters in the inmost darkness of his brain.”
“I understand,” said Father Brown, “that some of you have made efforts to see him?”
“My wife never relaxed her efforts,” said the general. “She refuses to admit that such a crime ought to cut a man off for ever; and I confess I am inclined to agree with her. Eighty years before it would have been thought quite normal; and really it was manslaughter rather than murder. My wife is a great friend of the unfortunate lady who was the occasion of the quarrel and she has an idea that if Jim would consent to see Viola Grayson once again, and receive her assurance that old quarrels are buried, it might restore his sanity. My wife is calling a sort of council of old friends to-morrow, I believe. She is very energetic.”
Father Brown was playing with the pins that lay beside the general’s map; he seemed to listen rather absent-mindedly. He had the sort of mind that sees things in pictures; and the picture which had coloured even the prosaic mind of the practical soldier took on tints yet more significant and sinister in the more mystical mind of the priest. He saw the dark-red desolation of sand, the very hue of Aceldama, and the dead man lying in a dark heap, and the slayer, stooping as he ran, gesticulating with a glove in demented remorse, and always his imagination came back to the third thing that he could not yet fit into any human picture: the second of the slain man standing motionless and mysterious, like a dark statue on the edge of the sea. It might seem to some a detail; but for him it was that stiff figure that stood up like a standing note of interrogation.
Why had not Romaine moved instantly? It was the natural thing for a second to do, in common humanity, let alone friendship. Even if there were some double-dealing or darker motive not yet understood, one would think it would be done for the sake of appearances. Anyhow, when the thing was all over, it would be natural for the second to stir long before the other second had vanished beyond the sandhills.
“Does this man Romanic move very slowly?” he asked.
“It’s queer you should ask that,” answered. Outram, with a sharp glance. “No, as a matter of fact he moves very quickly when he moves at all. But, curiously enough, I was just thinking that only this afternoon I saw him stand exactly like that, during the thunderstorm. He stood in that silver-clasped cape of his, and with one hand on his hip, exactly and in every line as he stood on those bloody sands long ago. The lightning blinded us all, but he did not blink. When it was dark again he was standing there still.”
“I suppose he isn’t standing there now?” inquired Father Brown. “I mean, I suppose he moved sometime?”
“No, he moved quite sharply when the thunder came,” replied the other. “He seemed to have been waiting for it, for he told us the exact time of the interval. Is anything the matter?”
“I’ve pricked myself with one of your pins,” said Father Brown. “I hope I haven’t damaged it.” But his eyes had snapped and his mouth abruptly shut.
“Are you ill?” inquired the general, staring at him.
“No,” answered the priest; “I’m only not quite so stoical as your friend Romaine. I can’t help blinking when I see light.”
He turned to gather up his hat and umbrella; but when he had got to the door he seemed to remember something and turned back. Coming up close to Outram, he gazed up into his face with a rather helpless expression, as of a dying fish, and made a motion as if to hold him by the waistcoat.
“General,” he almost whispered, “for God’s sake don’t let your wife and that other woman insist on seeing Marne again. Let sleeping dogs lie, or you’ll unleash all the hounds of hell.”
The general was left alone with a look of bewilderment in his brown eyes, as he sat down again to play with his pins.
Even greater, however, was the bewilderment which attended the successive stages of the benevolent conspiracy of the general’s wife, who had assembled her little group of sympathizers to storm the castle of the misanthrope. The first surprise she encountered was the unexplained absence of one of the actors in the ancient tragedy. When they assembled by agreement at a quiet hotel quite near the castle, there was no sign of Hugo Romaine, until a belated telegram from a lawyer told them that the great actor had suddenly left the country. The second surprise, when they began the bombardment by sending up word to the castle with an urgent request for an interview, was the figure which came forth from those gloomy gates to receive the deputation in the name of the noble owner. It was no such figure as they would have conceived suitable to those sombre avenues or those almost feudal formalities. It was not some stately steward or major-domo, nor even a dignified butler or tall and ornamental footman. The only figure that came out of the cavernous castle doorway was the short and shabby figure of Father Brown.
“Look here,” he said, in his simple, bothered fashion. “I told you you’d much better leave him alone. He knows what he’s doing and it’ll only make everybody unhappy.”
Lady Outram, who was accompanied by a tall and quietly-dressed lady, still very handsome, presumably the original Miss Grayson, looked at the little priest with cold contempt.
“Really, sir,” she said; “this is a very private occasion, and I don’t understand what you have to do with it.’
“Trust a priest to have to do with a private occasion,” snarled Sir John Cockspur. “Don’t you know they live behind the scenes like rats behind a wainscot burrowing their way into everybody’s private rooms. See how he’s already in possession of poor Marne.” Sir John was slightly sulky, as his aristocratic friends had persuaded him to give up the great scoop of publicity in return for the privilege of being really inside a Society secret. It never occurred to him to ask himself whether he was at all like a rat in a wainscot.
“Oh, that’s all right,” said Father Brown, with the impatience of anxiety. “I’ve talked it over with the marquis and the only priest he’s ever had anything to do with; his clerical tastes have been much exaggerated. I tell you he knows what he’s about; and I do implore you all to leave him alone.”
“You mean to leave him to this living death of moping and going mad in a ruin!” cried Lady Outram, in a voice that shook a little. “And all because he had the bad luck to shoot a man in a duel more than a quarter of a century ago. Is that what you call Christian charity?”
“Yes,” answered the priest stolidly; “that is what I call Christian charity.”
“It’s about all the Christian charity you’ll ever get out of these priests,” cried Cockspur bitterly. “That’s their only idea of pardoning a poor fellow for a piece of folly; to wall him up alive and starve him to death with fasts and penances and pictures of hell-fire. And all because a bullet went wrong.”
“Really, Father Brown,” said General Outram, “do you honestly think he deserves this? Is that your Christianity?”
“Surely the true Christianity,” pleaded his wife more gently, “is that which knows all and pardons all; the love that can remember — and forget.”
“Father Brown,” said young Mallow, very earnestly, “I generally agree with what you say; but I’m hanged if I can follow you here. A shot in a duel, followed instantly by remorse, is not such an awful offence.”
“I admit.” said Father Brown dully, “that I take a more serious view of his offence.”
“God soften your hard heart,” said the strange lady speaking for the first time. “I am going to speak to my old friend.”
Almost as if her voice had raised a ghost in that great grey house, something stirred within and a figure stood in the dark doorway at the top of the great stone flight of steps. It was clad in dead black, but there was something wild about the blanched hair and something in the pale features that was like the wreck of a marble statue.
Viola Grayson began calmly to move up the great flight of steps; and Outram muttered in his thick black moustache: “He won’t cut her dead as he did my wife, I fancy.”
Father Brown, who seemed in a collapse of resignation, looked up at him for a moment.
“Poor Marne has enough on his conscience,” he said. “Let us acquit him of what we can. At least he never cut your wife.”
“What do you mean by that?”
“He never knew her,” said Father Brown.
As they spoke, the tall lady proudly mounted the last step and came face to face with the Marquis of Marne. His lips moved, but something happened before he could speak.
A scream rang across the open space and went wailing away in echoes along those hollow walls. By the abruptness and agony with which it broke from the woman’s lips it might have been a mere inarticulate cry. But it was an articulated word; and they all heard it with a horrible distinctness.
“What is it, dear?” cried Lady Outram, and began to run up the steps; for the other woman was swaying as if she might fall down the whole stone flight. Then she faced about and began to descend, all bowed and shrunken and shuddering. “Oh, my God,” she was saying. “Oh, my God, it isn’t Jim at all. it’s Maurice!”
“I think, Lady Outram,” said the priest gravely, “you had better go with your friend.”
As they turned, a voice fell on them like a stone from the top of the stone stair, a voice that might have come out of an open grave. It was hoarse and unnatural, like the voices of men who are left alone with wild birds on desert islands. It was the voice of the Marquis of Marne, and it said: “Stop!”
“Father Brown,” he said, “before your friends disperse I authorize you to tell them all I have told you. Whatever follows, I will hide from it no longer.”
“You are right,” said the priest, “and it shall be counted to you.”
“Yes,” said Father Brown quietly to the questioning company afterwards. “He has given me the right to speak; but I will not tell it as he told me, but as I found it out for myself. Well, I knew from the first that the blighting monkish influence was all nonsense out of novels. Our people might possibly, in certain cases, encourage a man to go regularly into a monastery, but certainly not to hang about in a mediaeval castle. In the same way, they certainly wouldn’t want him to dress up as a monk when he wasn’t a monk. But it struck me that he might himself want to wear a monk’s hood or even a mask. I had heard of him as a mourner, and then as a murderer; but already I had hazy suspicions that his reason for hiding might not only be concerned with what he was, but with who he was.
“Then came the general’s vivid description of the duel; and the most vivid thing in it to me was the figure of Mr. Romaine in the background; it was vivid because it was in the background. Why did the general leave behind him on the sand a dead man, whose friend stood yards away from him like a stock or a stone? Then I heard something, a mere trifle, about a trick habit that Romaine has of standing quite still when he is waiting for something to happen; as he waited for the thunder to follow the lightning. Well, that automatic trick in this case betrayed everything. Hugo Romaine on that old occasion, also, was waiting for something.”
“But it was all over,” said the general. “What could he have been waiting for?”
“He was waiting for the duel,” said Father Brown.
“But I tell you I saw the duel!” cried the general.
“And I tell you you didn’t see the duel,” said the priest.
“Are you mad?” demanded the other. “Or why should you think I am blind?”
“Because you were blinded — that you might not see,” said the priest. “Because you are a good man and God had mercy on your innocence, and he turned your face away from that unnatural strife. He set a wall of sand and silence between you and what really happened on that horrible red shore, abandoned to the raging spirits of Judas and of Cain.”
“Tell us what happened!” gasped the lady impatiently.
“I will tell it as I found it,” proceeded the priest. “The next thing I found was that Romaine the actor had been training Maurice Mair in all the tricks of the trade of acting. I once had a friend who went in for acting. He gave me a very amusing account of how his first week’s training consisted entirely of falling down; of learning how to fall flat without a stagger, as if he were stone dead.”
“God have mercy on us!” cried the general, and gripped the arms of his chair as if to rise.
“Amen,” said Father Brown. “You told me how quickly it seemed to come; in fact, Maurice fell before the bullet flew, and lay perfectly still, waiting. And his wicked friend and teacher stood also in the background, waiting.”
“We are waiting,” said Cockspur, “and I feel as if I couldn’t wait.”
“James Mair, already broken with remorse, rushed across to the fallen man and bent over to lift him up. He had thrown away his pistol like an unclean thing; but Maurice’s pistol still lay under his hand and it was undischarged. Then as the elder man bent over the younger, the younger lifted himself on his left arm and shot the elder through the body. He knew he was not so good a shot, but there was no question of missing the heart at that distance.”
The rest of the company had risen and stood staring down at the narrator with pale faces. “Are you sure of this?” asked Sir John at last, in a thick voice.
“I am sure of it,” said Father Brown, “and now I leave Maurice Mair, the present Marquis of Marne, to your Christian charity. You have told me something to-day about Christian charity. You seemed to me to give it almost too large a place; but how fortunate it is for poor sinners like this man that you err so much on the side of mercy, and are ready to be reconciled to all mankind.”
“Hang it all,” exploded the general; “if you think I’m going to be reconciled to a filthy viper like that, I tell you I wouldn’t say a word to save him from hell. I said I could pardon a regular decent duel, but of all the treacherous assassins — — ”
“He ought to be lynched,” cried Cockspur excitedly. “He ought to burn alive like a nigger in the States. And if there is such a thing as burning for ever, he jolly well — — ”
“I wouldn’t touch him with a barge-pole myself,” said Mallow.
“There is a limit to human charity,” said Lady Outram, trembling all over.
“There is,” said Father Brown dryly; “and that is the real difference between human charity and Christian charity. You must forgive me if I was not altogether crushed by your contempt for my uncharitableness to-day; or by the lectures you read me about pardon for every sinner. For it seems to me that you only pardon the sins that you don’t really think sinful. You only forgive criminals when they commit what you don’t regard as crimes, but rather as conventions. So you tolerate a conventional duel, just as you tolerate a conventional divorce. You forgive because there isn’t anything to be forgiven.”
“But, hang it all,” cried Mallow, “you don’t expect us to be able to pardon a vile thing like this?”
“No,” said the priest; “but we have to be able to pardon it.”
He stood up abruptly and looked round at them.
“We have to touch such men, not with a bargepole, but with a benediction,” he said. “We have to say the word that will save them from hell. We alone are left to deliver them from despair when your human charity deserts them. Go on your own primrose path pardoning all your favourite vices and being generous to your fashionable crimes; and leave us in the darkness, vampires of the night, to console those who really need consolation; who do things really indefensible, things that neither the world nor they themselves can defend; and none but a priest will pardon. Leave us with the men who commit the mean and revolting and real crimes; mean as St. Peter when the cock crew, and yet the dawn came.”
“The dawn,” repeated Mallow doubtfully. “You mean hope — for him?”
“Yes,” replied the other. “Let me ask you one question. You are great ladies and men of honour and secure of yourselves; you would never, you can tell yourselves, stoop to such squalid reason as that. But tell me this. If any of you had so stooped, which of you, years afterwards, when you were old and rich and safe, would have been driven by conscience or confessor to tell such a story of yourself? You say you could not commit so base a crime. Could you confess so base a crime?” The others gathered their possessions together and drifted by twos and threes out of the room in silence. And Father Brown, also in silence, went back to the melancholy castle of Marne.
Categories: Thursday Lit