CHESTERTON-THE INNOCENT OF FR BROWN - The Flying Stars
"The most beautiful crime I ever committed," Flambeau would say in
his highly moral old age, "was also, by a singular coincidence, my
last. It was committed at Christmas. As an artist I had always
attempted to provide crimes suitable to the special season or
landscapes in which I found myself, choosing this or that terrace
or garden for a catastrophe, as if for a statuary group. Thus
squires should be swindled in long rooms panelled with oak; while
Jews, on the other hand, should rather find themselves unexpectedly
penniless among the lights and screens of the Cafe Riche. Thus,
in England, if I wished to relieve a dean of his riches (which is
not so easy as you might suppose), I wished to frame him, if I
make myself clear, in the green lawns and grey towers of some
cathedral town. Similarly, in France, when I had got money out of
a rich and wicked peasant (which is almost impossible), it
gratified me to get his indignant head relieved against a grey
line of clipped poplars, and those solemn plains of Gaul over
which broods the mighty spirit of Millet.
"Well, my last crime was a Christmas crime, a cheery, cosy,
English middle-class crime; a crime of Charles Dickens. I did it
in a good old middle-class house near Putney, a house with a
crescent of carriage drive, a house with a stable by the side of
it, a house with the name on the two outer gates, a house with a
monkey tree. Enough, you know the species. I really think my
imitation of Dickens's style was dexterous and literary. It seems
almost a pity I repented the same evening."
Flambeau would then proceed to tell the story from the inside;
and even from the inside it was odd. Seen from the outside it was
perfectly incomprehensible, and it is from the outside that the
stranger must study it. From this standpoint the drama may be
said to have begun when the front doors of the house with the
stable opened on the garden with the monkey tree, and a young girl
came out with bread to feed the birds on the afternoon of Boxing
Day. She had a pretty face, with brave brown eyes; but her figure
was beyond conjecture, for she was so wrapped up in brown furs
that it was hard to say which was hair and which was fur. But for
the attractive face she might have been a small toddling bear.
The winter afternoon was reddening towards evening, and
already a ruby light was rolled over the bloomless beds, filling
them, as it were, with the ghosts of the dead roses. On one side
of the house stood the stable, on the other an alley or cloister
of laurels led to the larger garden behind. The young lady, having
scattered bread for the birds (for the fourth or fifth time that
day, because the dog ate it), passed unobtrusively down the lane
of laurels and into a glimmering plantation of evergreens behind.
Here she gave an exclamation of wonder, real or ritual, and looking
up at the high garden wall above her, beheld it fantastically
bestridden by a somewhat fantastic figure.
"Oh, don't jump, Mr. Crook," she called out in some alarm;
"it's much too high."
The individual riding the party wall like an aerial horse was
a tall, angular young man, with dark hair sticking up like a hair
brush, intelligent and even distinguished lineaments, but a sallow
and almost alien complexion. This showed the more plainly because
he wore an aggressive red tie, the only part of his costume of
which he seemed to take any care. Perhaps it was a symbol. He
took no notice of the girl's alarmed adjuration, but leapt like a
grasshopper to the ground beside her, where he might very well
have broken his legs.
"I think I was meant to be a burglar," he said placidly, "and
I have no doubt I should have been if I hadn't happened to be born
in that nice house next door. I can't see any harm in it, anyhow."
"How can you say such things!" she remonstrated.
"Well," said the young man, "if you're born on the wrong side
of the wall, I can't see that it's wrong to climb over it."
"I never know what you will say or do next," she said.
"I don't often know myself," replied Mr. Crook; "but then I am
on the right side of the wall now."
"And which is the right side of the wall?" asked the young
"Whichever side you are on," said the young man named Crook.
As they went together through the laurels towards the front
garden a motor horn sounded thrice, coming nearer and nearer, and
a car of splendid speed, great elegance, and a pale green colour
swept up to the front doors like a bird and stood throbbing.
"Hullo, hullo!" said the young man with the red tie, "here's
somebody born on the right side, anyhow. I didn't know, Miss
Adams, that your Santa Claus was so modern as this."
"Oh, that's my godfather, Sir Leopold Fischer. He always
comes on Boxing Day."
Then, after an innocent pause, which unconsciously betrayed
some lack of enthusiasm, Ruby Adams added:
"He is very kind."
John Crook, journalist, had heard of that eminent City magnate;
and it was not his fault if the City magnate had not heard of him;
for in certain articles in The Clarion or The New Age Sir Leopold
had been dealt with austerely. But he said nothing and grimly
watched the unloading of the motor-car, which was rather a long
process. A large, neat chauffeur in green got out from the front,
and a small, neat manservant in grey got out from the back, and
between them they deposited Sir Leopold on the doorstep and began
to unpack him, like some very carefully protected parcel. Rugs
enough to stock a bazaar, furs of all the beasts of the forest,
and scarves of all the colours of the rainbow were unwrapped one
by one, till they revealed something resembling the human form;
the form of a friendly, but foreign-looking old gentleman, with a
grey goat-like beard and a beaming smile, who rubbed his big fur
Long before this revelation was complete the two big doors of
the porch had opened in the middle, and Colonel Adams (father of
the furry young lady) had come out himself to invite his eminent
guest inside. He was a tall, sunburnt, and very silent man, who
wore a red smoking-cap like a fez, making him look like one of the
English Sirdars or Pashas in Egypt. With him was his
brother-in-law, lately come from Canada, a big and rather
boisterous young gentleman-farmer, with a yellow beard, by name
James Blount. With him also was the more insignificant figure of
the priest from the neighbouring Roman Church; for the colonel's
late wife had been a Catholic, and the children, as is common in
such cases, had been trained to follow her. Everything seemed
undistinguished about the priest, even down to his name, which was
Brown; yet the colonel had always found something companionable
about him, and frequently asked him to such family gatherings.
In the large entrance hall of the house there was ample room
even for Sir Leopold and the removal of his wraps. Porch and
vestibule, indeed, were unduly large in proportion to the house,
and formed, as it were, a big room with the front door at one end,
and the bottom of the staircase at the other. In front of the
large hall fire, over which hung the colonel's sword, the process
was completed and the company, including the saturnine Crook,
presented to Sir Leopold Fischer. That venerable financier,
however, still seemed struggling with portions of his well-lined
attire, and at length produced from a very interior tail-coat
pocket, a black oval case which he radiantly explained to be his
Christmas present for his god-daughter. With an unaffected
vain-glory that had something disarming about it he held out the
case before them all; it flew open at a touch and half-blinded
them. It was just as if a crystal fountain had spurted in their
eyes. In a nest of orange velvet lay like three eggs, three white
and vivid diamonds that seemed to set the very air on fire all
round them. Fischer stood beaming benevolently and drinking deep
of the astonishment and ecstasy of the girl, the grim admiration
and gruff thanks of the colonel, the wonder of the whole group.
"I'll put 'em back now, my dear," said Fischer, returning the
case to the tails of his coat. "I had to be careful of 'em coming
down. They're the three great African diamonds called `The Flying
Stars,' because they've been stolen so often. All the big
criminals are on the track; but even the rough men about in the
streets and hotels could hardly have kept their hands off them.
I might have lost them on the road here. It was quite possible."
"Quite natural, I should say," growled the man in the red tie.
"I shouldn't blame 'em if they had taken 'em. When they ask for
bread, and you don't even give them a stone, I think they might
take the stone for themselves."
"I won't have you talking like that," cried the girl, who was
in a curious glow. "You've only talked like that since you became
a horrid what's-his-name. You know what I mean. What do you call
a man who wants to embrace the chimney-sweep?"
"A saint," said Father Brown.
"I think," said Sir Leopold, with a supercilious smile, "that
Ruby means a Socialist."
"A radical does not mean a man who lives on radishes," remarked
Crook, with some impatience; "and a Conservative does not mean a
man who preserves jam. Neither, I assure you, does a Socialist
mean a man who desires a social evening with the chimney-sweep. A
Socialist means a man who wants all the chimneys swept and all the
chimney-sweeps paid for it."
"But who won't allow you," put in the priest in a low voice,
"to own your own soot."
Crook looked at him with an eye of interest and even respect.
"Does one want to own soot?" he asked.
"One might," answered Brown, with speculation in his eye.
"I've heard that gardeners use it. And I once made six children
happy at Christmas when the conjuror didn't come, entirely with
"Oh, splendid," cried Ruby. "Oh, I wish you'd do it to this
The boisterous Canadian, Mr. Blount, was lifting his loud
voice in applause, and the astonished financier his (in some
considerable deprecation), when a knock sounded at the double
front doors. The priest opened them, and they showed again the
front garden of evergreens, monkey-tree and all, now gathering
gloom against a gorgeous violet sunset. The scene thus framed was
so coloured and quaint, like a back scene in a play, that they
forgot a moment the insignificant figure standing in the door. He
was dusty-looking and in a frayed coat, evidently a common
messenger. "Any of you gentlemen Mr. Blount?" he asked, and held
forward a letter doubtfully. Mr. Blount started, and stopped in
his shout of assent. Ripping up the envelope with evident
astonishment he read it; his face clouded a little, and then
cleared, and he turned to his brother-in-law and host.
"I'm sick at being such a nuisance, colonel," he said, with
the cheery colonial conventions; "but would it upset you if an old
acquaintance called on me here tonight on business? In point of
fact it's Florian, that famous French acrobat and comic actor; I
knew him years ago out West (he was a French-Canadian by birth),
and he seems to have business for me, though I hardly guess what."
"Of course, of course," replied the colonel carelessly--"My
dear chap, any friend of yours. No doubt he will prove an
"He'll black his face, if that's what you mean," cried Blount,
laughing. "I don't doubt he'd black everyone else's eyes. I don't
care; I'm not refined. I like the jolly old pantomime where a man
sits on his top hat."
"Not on mine, please," said Sir Leopold Fischer, with dignity.
"Well, well," observed Crook, airily, "don't let's quarrel.
There are lower jokes than sitting on a top hat."
Dislike of the red-tied youth, born of his predatory opinions
and evident intimacy with the pretty godchild, led Fischer to say,
in his most sarcastic, magisterial manner: "No doubt you have found
something much lower than sitting on a top hat. What is it, pray?"
"Letting a top hat sit on you, for instance," said the
"Now, now, now," cried the Canadian farmer with his barbarian
benevolence, "don't let's spoil a jolly evening. What I say is,
let's do something for the company tonight. Not blacking faces or
sitting on hats, if you don't like those--but something of the
sort. Why couldn't we have a proper old English pantomime--
clown, columbine, and so on. I saw one when I left England at
twelve years old, and it's blazed in my brain like a bonfire ever
since. I came back to the old country only last year, and I find
the thing's extinct. Nothing but a lot of snivelling fairy plays.
I want a hot poker and a policeman made into sausages, and they
give me princesses moralising by moonlight, Blue Birds, or
something. Blue Beard's more in my line, and him I like best when
he turned into the pantaloon."
"I'm all for making a policeman into sausages," said John
Crook. "It's a better definition of Socialism than some recently
given. But surely the get-up would be too big a business."
"Not a scrap," cried Blount, quite carried away. "A
harlequinade's the quickest thing we can do, for two reasons.
First, one can gag to any degree; and, second, all the objects are
household things--tables and towel-horses and washing baskets,
and things like that."
"That's true," admitted Crook, nodding eagerly and walking
about. "But I'm afraid I can't have my policeman's uniform?
Haven't killed a policeman lately."
Blount frowned thoughtfully a space, and then smote his thigh.
"Yes, we can!" he cried. "I've got Florian's address here, and he
knows every costumier in London. I'll phone him to bring a police
dress when he comes." And he went bounding away to the telephone.
"Oh, it's glorious, godfather," cried Ruby, almost dancing.
"I'll be columbine and you shall be pantaloon."
The millionaire held himself stiff with a sort of heathen
solemnity. "I think, my dear," he said, "you must get someone
else for pantaloon."
"I will be pantaloon, if you like," said Colonel Adams, taking
his cigar out of his mouth, and speaking for the first and last
"You ought to have a statue," cried the Canadian, as he came
back, radiant, from the telephone. "There, we are all fitted.
Mr. Crook shall be clown; he's a journalist and knows all the
oldest jokes. I can be harlequin, that only wants long legs and
jumping about. My friend Florian 'phones he's bringing the police
costume; he's changing on the way. We can act it in this very
hall, the audience sitting on those broad stairs opposite, one row
above another. These front doors can be the back scene, either
open or shut. Shut, you see an English interior. Open, a moonlit
garden. It all goes by magic." And snatching a chance piece of
billiard chalk from his pocket, he ran it across the hall floor,
half-way between the front door and the staircase, to mark the
line of the footlights.
How even such a banquet of bosh was got ready in the time
remained a riddle. But they went at it with that mixture of
recklessness and industry that lives when youth is in a house; and
youth was in that house that night, though not all may have
isolated the two faces and hearts from which it flamed. As always
happens, the invention grew wilder and wilder through the very
tameness of the bourgeois conventions from which it had to create.
The columbine looked charming in an outstanding skirt that
strangely resembled the large lamp-shade in the drawing-room. The
clown and pantaloon made themselves white with flour from the cook,
and red with rouge from some other domestic, who remained (like
all true Christian benefactors) anonymous. The harlequin, already
clad in silver paper out of cigar boxes, was, with difficulty,
prevented from smashing the old Victorian lustre chandeliers, that
he might cover himself with resplendent crystals. In fact he
would certainly have done so, had not Ruby unearthed some old
pantomime paste jewels she had worn at a fancy dress party as the
Queen of Diamonds. Indeed, her uncle, James Blount, was getting
almost out of hand in his excitement; he was like a schoolboy. He
put a paper donkey's head unexpectedly on Father Brown, who bore
it patiently, and even found some private manner of moving his
ears. He even essayed to put the paper donkey's tail to the
coat-tails of Sir Leopold Fischer. This, however, was frowned
down. "Uncle is too absurd," cried Ruby to Crook, round whose
shoulders she had seriously placed a string of sausages. "Why is
he so wild?"
"He is harlequin to your columbine," said Crook. "I am only
the clown who makes the old jokes."
"I wish you were the harlequin," she said, and left the string
of sausages swinging.
Father Brown, though he knew every detail done behind the
scenes, and had even evoked applause by his transformation of a
pillow into a pantomime baby, went round to the front and sat
among the audience with all the solemn expectation of a child at
his first matinee. The spectators were few, relations, one or two
local friends, and the servants; Sir Leopold sat in the front
seat, his full and still fur-collared figure largely obscuring the
view of the little cleric behind him; but it has never been
settled by artistic authorities whether the cleric lost much. The
pantomime was utterly chaotic, yet not contemptible; there ran
through it a rage of improvisation which came chiefly from Crook
the clown. Commonly he was a clever man, and he was inspired
tonight with a wild omniscience, a folly wiser than the world,
that which comes to a young man who has seen for an instant a
particular expression on a particular face. He was supposed to be
the clown, but he was really almost everything else, the author
(so far as there was an author), the prompter, the scene-painter,
the scene-shifter, and, above all, the orchestra. At abrupt
intervals in the outrageous performance he would hurl himself in
full costume at the piano and bang out some popular music equally
absurd and appropriate.
The climax of this, as of all else, was the moment when the
two front doors at the back of the scene flew open, showing the
lovely moonlit garden, but showing more prominently the famous
professional guest; the great Florian, dressed up as a policeman.
The clown at the piano played the constabulary chorus in the
"Pirates of Penzance," but it was drowned in the deafening
applause, for every gesture of the great comic actor was an
admirable though restrained version of the carriage and manner of
the police. The harlequin leapt upon him and hit him over the
helmet; the pianist playing "Where did you get that hat?" he faced
about in admirably simulated astonishment, and then the leaping
harlequin hit him again (the pianist suggesting a few bars of
"Then we had another one"). Then the harlequin rushed right into
the arms of the policeman and fell on top of him, amid a roar of
applause. Then it was that the strange actor gave that celebrated
imitation of a dead man, of which the fame still lingers round
Putney. It was almost impossible to believe that a living person
could appear so limp.
The athletic harlequin swung him about like a sack or twisted
or tossed him like an Indian club; all the time to the most
maddeningly ludicrous tunes from the piano. When the harlequin
heaved the comic constable heavily off the floor the clown played
"I arise from dreams of thee." When he shuffled him across his
back, "With my bundle on my shoulder," and when the harlequin
finally let fall the policeman with a most convincing thud, the
lunatic at the instrument struck into a jingling measure with some
words which are still believed to have been, "I sent a letter to
my love and on the way I dropped it."
At about this limit of mental anarchy Father Brown's view was
obscured altogether; for the City magnate in front of him rose to
his full height and thrust his hands savagely into all his pockets.
Then he sat down nervously, still fumbling, and then stood up
again. For an instant it seemed seriously likely that he would
stride across the footlights; then he turned a glare at the clown
playing the piano; and then he burst in silence out of the room.
The priest had only watched for a few more minutes the absurd
but not inelegant dance of the amateur harlequin over his
splendidly unconscious foe. With real though rude art, the
harlequin danced slowly backwards out of the door into the garden,
which was full of moonlight and stillness. The vamped dress of
silver paper and paste, which had been too glaring in the
footlights, looked more and more magical and silvery as it danced
away under a brilliant moon. The audience was closing in with a
cataract of applause, when Brown felt his arm abruptly touched,
and he was asked in a whisper to come into the colonel's study.
He followed his summoner with increasing doubt, which was not
dispelled by a solemn comicality in the scene of the study. There
sat Colonel Adams, still unaffectedly dressed as a pantaloon, with
the knobbed whalebone nodding above his brow, but with his poor
old eyes sad enough to have sobered a Saturnalia. Sir Leopold
Fischer was leaning against the mantelpiece and heaving with all
the importance of panic.
"This is a very painful matter, Father Brown," said Adams.
"The truth is, those diamonds we all saw this afternoon seem to
have vanished from my friend's tail-coat pocket. And as you--"
"As I," supplemented Father Brown, with a broad grin, "was
sitting just behind him--"
"Nothing of the sort shall be suggested," said Colonel Adams,
with a firm look at Fischer, which rather implied that some such
thing had been suggested. "I only ask you to give me the
assistance that any gentleman might give."
"Which is turning out his pockets," said Father Brown, and
proceeded to do so, displaying seven and sixpence, a return
ticket, a small silver crucifix, a small breviary, and a stick of
The colonel looked at him long, and then said, "Do you know, I
should like to see the inside of your head more than the inside of
your pockets. My daughter is one of your people, I know; well,
she has lately--" and he stopped.
"She has lately," cried out old Fischer, "opened her father's
house to a cut-throat Socialist, who says openly he would steal
anything from a richer man. This is the end of it. Here is the
richer man--and none the richer."
"If you want the inside of my head you can have it," said
Brown rather wearily. "What it's worth you can say afterwards.
But the first thing I find in that disused pocket is this: that
men who mean to steal diamonds don't talk Socialism. They are
more likely," he added demurely, "to denounce it."
Both the others shifted sharply and the priest went on:
"You see, we know these people, more or less. That Socialist
would no more steal a diamond than a Pyramid. We ought to look at
once to the one man we don't know. The fellow acting the policeman
--Florian. Where is he exactly at this minute, I wonder."
The pantaloon sprang erect and strode out of the room. An
interlude ensued, during which the millionaire stared at the
priest, and the priest at his breviary; then the pantaloon
returned and said, with staccato gravity, "The policeman is still
lying on the stage. The curtain has gone up and down six times;
he is still lying there."
Father Brown dropped his book and stood staring with a look of
blank mental ruin. Very slowly a light began to creep in his grey
eyes, and then he made the scarcely obvious answer.
"Please forgive me, colonel, but when did your wife die?"
"Wife!" replied the staring soldier, "she died this year two
months. Her brother James arrived just a week too late to see
The little priest bounded like a rabbit shot. "Come on!" he
cried in quite unusual excitement. "Come on! We've got to go and
look at that policeman!"
They rushed on to the now curtained stage, breaking rudely past
the columbine and clown (who seemed whispering quite contentedly),
and Father Brown bent over the prostrate comic policeman.
"Chloroform," he said as he rose; "I only guessed it just now."
There was a startled stillness, and then the colonel said
slowly, "Please say seriously what all this means."
Father Brown suddenly shouted with laughter, then stopped, and
only struggled with it for instants during the rest of his speech.
"Gentlemen," he gasped, "there's not much time to talk. I must
run after the criminal. But this great French actor who played
the policeman--this clever corpse the harlequin waltzed with and
dandled and threw about--he was--" His voice again failed him,
and he turned his back to run.
"He was?" called Fischer inquiringly.
"A real policeman," said Father Brown, and ran away into the
There were hollows and bowers at the extreme end of that leafy
garden, in which the laurels and other immortal shrubs showed
against sapphire sky and silver moon, even in that midwinter, warm
colours as of the south. The green gaiety of the waving laurels,
the rich purple indigo of the night, the moon like a monstrous
crystal, make an almost irresponsible romantic picture; and among
the top branches of the garden trees a strange figure is climbing,
who looks not so much romantic as impossible. He sparkles from
head to heel, as if clad in ten million moons; the real moon
catches him at every movement and sets a new inch of him on fire.
But he swings, flashing and successful, from the short tree in
this garden to the tall, rambling tree in the other, and only
stops there because a shade has slid under the smaller tree and
has unmistakably called up to him.
"Well, Flambeau," says the voice, "you really look like a
Flying Star; but that always means a Falling Star at last."
The silver, sparkling figure above seems to lean forward in
the laurels and, confident of escape, listens to the little figure
"You never did anything better, Flambeau. It was clever to
come from Canada (with a Paris ticket, I suppose) just a week after
Mrs. Adams died, when no one was in a mood to ask questions. It
was cleverer to have marked down the Flying Stars and the very day
of Fischer's coming. But there's no cleverness, but mere genius,
in what followed. Stealing the stones, I suppose, was nothing to
you. You could have done it by sleight of hand in a hundred other
ways besides that pretence of putting a paper donkey's tail to
Fischer's coat. But in the rest you eclipsed yourself."
The silvery figure among the green leaves seems to linger as
if hypnotised, though his escape is easy behind him; he is staring
at the man below.
"Oh, yes," says the man below, "I know all about it. I know
you not only forced the pantomime, but put it to a double use. You
were going to steal the stones quietly; news came by an accomplice
that you were already suspected, and a capable police officer was
coming to rout you up that very night. A common thief would have
been thankful for the warning and fled; but you are a poet. You
already had the clever notion of hiding the jewels in a blaze of
false stage jewellery. Now, you saw that if the dress were a
harlequin's the appearance of a policeman would be quite in
keeping. The worthy officer started from Putney police station to
find you, and walked into the queerest trap ever set in this world.
When the front door opened he walked straight on to the stage of a
Christmas pantomime, where he could be kicked, clubbed, stunned
and drugged by the dancing harlequin, amid roars of laughter from
all the most respectable people in Putney. Oh, you will never do
anything better. And now, by the way, you might give me back
The green branch on which the glittering figure swung, rustled
as if in astonishment; but the voice went on:
"I want you to give them back, Flambeau, and I want you to give
up this life. There is still youth and honour and humour in you;
don't fancy they will last in that trade. Men may keep a sort of
level of good, but no man has ever been able to keep on one level
of evil. That road goes down and down. The kind man drinks and
turns cruel; the frank man kills and lies about it. Many a man
I've known started like you to be an honest outlaw, a merry robber
of the rich, and ended stamped into slime. Maurice Blum started
out as an anarchist of principle, a father of the poor; he ended a
greasy spy and tale-bearer that both sides used and despised.
Harry Burke started his free money movement sincerely enough; now
he's sponging on a half-starved sister for endless brandies and
sodas. Lord Amber went into wild society in a sort of chivalry;
now he's paying blackmail to the lowest vultures in London.
Captain Barillon was the great gentleman-apache before your time;
he died in a madhouse, screaming with fear of the "narks" and
receivers that had betrayed him and hunted him down. I know the
woods look very free behind you, Flambeau; I know that in a flash
you could melt into them like a monkey. But some day you will be
an old grey monkey, Flambeau. You will sit up in your free forest
cold at heart and close to death, and the tree-tops will be very
Everything continued still, as if the small man below held the
other in the tree in some long invisible leash; and he went on:
"Your downward steps have begun. You used to boast of doing
nothing mean, but you are doing something mean tonight. You are
leaving suspicion on an honest boy with a good deal against him
already; you are separating him from the woman he loves and who
loves him. But you will do meaner things than that before you
Three flashing diamonds fell from the tree to the turf. The
small man stooped to pick them up, and when he looked up again the
green cage of the tree was emptied of its silver bird.
The restoration of the gems (accidentally picked up by Father
Brown, of all people) ended the evening in uproarious triumph; and
Sir Leopold, in his height of good humour, even told the priest
that though he himself had broader views, he could respect those
whose creed required them to be cloistered and ignorant of this
In the cool blue twilight of two steep streets in Camden Town, the
shop at the corner, a confectioner's, glowed like the butt of a
cigar. One should rather say, perhaps, like the butt of a firework,
for the light was of many colours and some complexity, broken up
by many mirrors and dancing on many gilt and gaily-coloured cakes
and sweetmeats. Against this one fiery glass were glued the noses
of many gutter-snipes, for the chocolates were all wrapped in
those red and gold and green metallic colours which are almost
better than chocolate itself; and the huge white wedding-cake in
the window was somehow at once remote and satisfying, just as if
the whole North Pole were good to eat. Such rainbow provocations
could naturally collect the youth of the neighbourhood up to the
ages of ten or twelve. But this corner was also attractive to
youth at a later stage; and a young man, not less than twenty-four,
was staring into the same shop window. To him, also, the shop was
of fiery charm, but this attraction was not wholly to be explained
by chocolates; which, however, he was far from despising.
He was a tall, burly, red-haired young man, with a resolute
face but a listless manner. He carried under his arm a flat, grey
portfolio of black-and-white sketches, which he had sold with more
or less success to publishers ever since his uncle (who was an
admiral) had disinherited him for Socialism, because of a lecture
which he had delivered against that economic theory. His name was
John Turnbull Angus.
Entering at last, he walked through the confectioner's shop to
the back room, which was a sort of pastry-cook restaurant, merely
raising his hat to the young lady who was serving there. She was
a dark, elegant, alert girl in black, with a high colour and very
quick, dark eyes; and after the ordinary interval she followed him
into the inner room to take his order.
His order was evidently a usual one. "I want, please," he
said with precision, "one halfpenny bun and a small cup of black
coffee." An instant before the girl could turn away he added,
"Also, I want you to marry me."
The young lady of the shop stiffened suddenly and said, "Those
are jokes I don't allow."
The red-haired young man lifted grey eyes of an unexpected
"Really and truly," he said, "it's as serious--as serious as
the halfpenny bun. It is expensive, like the bun; one pays for
it. It is indigestible, like the bun. It hurts."
The dark young lady had never taken her dark eyes off him, but
seemed to be studying him with almost tragic exactitude. At the
end of her scrutiny she had something like the shadow of a smile,
and she sat down in a chair.
"Don't you think," observed Angus, absently, "that it's rather
cruel to eat these halfpenny buns? They might grow up into penny
buns. I shall give up these brutal sports when we are married."
The dark young lady rose from her chair and walked to the
window, evidently in a state of strong but not unsympathetic
cogitation. When at last she swung round again with an air of
resolution she was bewildered to observe that the young man was
carefully laying out on the table various objects from the
shop-window. They included a pyramid of highly coloured sweets,
several plates of sandwiches, and the two decanters containing
that mysterious port and sherry which are peculiar to pastry-cooks.
In the middle of this neat arrangement he had carefully let down
the enormous load of white sugared cake which had been the huge
ornament of the window.
"What on earth are you doing?" she asked.
"Duty, my dear Laura," he began.
"Oh, for the Lord's sake, stop a minute," she cried, "and
don't talk to me in that way. I mean, what is all that?"
"A ceremonial meal, Miss Hope."
"And what is that?" she asked impatiently, pointing to the
mountain of sugar.
"The wedding-cake, Mrs. Angus," he said.
The girl marched to that article, removed it with some
clatter, and put it back in the shop window; she then returned,
and, putting her elegant elbows on the table, regarded the young
man not unfavourably but with considerable exasperation.
"You don't give me any time to think," she said.
"I'm not such a fool," he answered; "that's my Christian
She was still looking at him; but she had grown considerably
graver behind the smile.
"Mr. Angus," she said steadily, "before there is a minute more
of this nonsense I must tell you something about myself as shortly
as I can.'"
"Delighted," replied Angus gravely. "You might tell me
something about myself, too, while you are about it."
"Oh, do hold your tongue and listen," she said. "It's nothing
that I'm ashamed of, and it isn't even anything that I'm specially
sorry about. But what would you say if there were something that
is no business of mine and yet is my nightmare?"
"In that case," said the man seriously, "I should suggest that
you bring back the cake."
"Well, you must listen to the story first," said Laura,
persistently. "To begin with, I must tell you that my father
owned the inn called the `Red Fish' at Ludbury, and I used to
serve people in the bar."
"I have often wondered," he said, "why there was a kind of a
Christian air about this one confectioner's shop."
"Ludbury is a sleepy, grassy little hole in the Eastern
Counties, and the only kind of people who ever came to the `Red
Fish' were occasional commercial travellers, and for the rest, the
most awful people you can see, only you've never seen them. I
mean little, loungy men, who had just enough to live on and had
nothing to do but lean about in bar-rooms and bet on horses, in
bad clothes that were just too good for them. Even these wretched
young rotters were not very common at our house; but there were
two of them that were a lot too common--common in every sort of
way. They both lived on money of their own, and were wearisomely
idle and over-dressed. But yet I was a bit sorry for them, because
I half believe they slunk into our little empty bar because each
of them had a slight deformity; the sort of thing that some yokels
laugh at. It wasn't exactly a deformity either; it was more an
oddity. One of them was a surprisingly small man, something like
a dwarf, or at least like a jockey. He was not at all jockeyish
to look at, though; he had a round black head and a well-trimmed
black beard, bright eyes like a bird's; he jingled money in his
pockets; he jangled a great gold watch chain; and he never turned
up except dressed just too much like a gentleman to be one. He
was no fool though, though a futile idler; he was curiously clever
at all kinds of things that couldn't be the slightest use; a sort
of impromptu conjuring; making fifteen matches set fire to each
other like a regular firework; or cutting a banana or some such
thing into a dancing doll. His name was Isidore Smythe; and I can
see him still, with his little dark face, just coming up to the
counter, making a jumping kangaroo out of five cigars.
"The other fellow was more silent and more ordinary; but
somehow he alarmed me much more than poor little Smythe. He was
very tall and slight, and light-haired; his nose had a high bridge,
and he might almost have been handsome in a spectral sort of way;
but he had one of the most appalling squints I have ever seen or
heard of. When he looked straight at you, you didn't know where
you were yourself, let alone what he was looking at. I fancy this
sort of disfigurement embittered the poor chap a little; for while
Smythe was ready to show off his monkey tricks anywhere, James
Welkin (that was the squinting man's name) never did anything
except soak in our bar parlour, and go for great walks by himself
in the flat, grey country all round. All the same, I think Smythe,
too, was a little sensitive about being so small, though he carried
it off more smartly. And so it was that I was really puzzled, as
well as startled, and very sorry, when they both offered to marry
me in the same week.
"Well, I did what I've since thought was perhaps a silly thing.
But, after all, these freaks were my friends in a way; and I had a
horror of their thinking I refused them for the real reason, which
was that they were so impossibly ugly. So I made up some gas of
another sort, about never meaning to marry anyone who hadn't
carved his way in the world. I said it was a point of principle
with me not to live on money that was just inherited like theirs.
Two days after I had talked in this well-meaning sort of way, the
whole trouble began. The first thing I heard was that both of
them had gone off to seek their fortunes, as if they were in some
silly fairy tale.
"Well, I've never seen either of them from that day to this.
But I've had two letters from the little man called Smythe, and
really they were rather exciting."
"Ever heard of the other man?" asked Angus.
"No, he never wrote," said the girl, after an instant's
hesitation. "Smythe's first letter was simply to say that he had
started out walking with Welkin to London; but Welkin was such a
good walker that the little man dropped out of it, and took a rest
by the roadside. He happened to be picked up by some travelling
show, and, partly because he was nearly a dwarf, and partly
because he was really a clever little wretch, he got on quite well
in the show business, and was soon sent up to the Aquarium, to do
some tricks that I forget. That was his first letter. His second
was much more of a startler, and I only got it last week."
The man called Angus emptied his coffee-cup and regarded her
with mild and patient eyes. Her own mouth took a slight twist of
laughter as she resumed, "I suppose you've seen on the hoardings
all about this `Smythe's Silent Service'? Or you must be the only
person that hasn't. Oh, I don't know much about it, it's some
clockwork invention for doing all the housework by machinery. You
know the sort of thing: `Press a Button--A Butler who Never
Drinks.' `Turn a Handle--Ten Housemaids who Never Flirt.' You
must have seen the advertisements. Well, whatever these machines
are, they are making pots of money; and they are making it all for
that little imp whom I knew down in Ludbury. I can't help feeling
pleased the poor little chap has fallen on his feet; but the plain
fact is, I'm in terror of his turning up any minute and telling me
he's carved his way in the world--as he certainly has."
"And the other man?" repeated Angus with a sort of obstinate
Laura Hope got to her feet suddenly. "My friend," she said,
"I think you are a witch. Yes, you are quite right. I have not
seen a line of the other man's writing; and I have no more notion
than the dead of what or where he is. But it is of him that I am
frightened. It is he who is all about my path. It is he who has
half driven me mad. Indeed, I think he has driven me mad; for I
have felt him where he could not have been, and I have heard his
voice when he could not have spoken."
"Well, my dear," said the young man, cheerfully, "if he were
Satan himself, he is done for now you have told somebody. One
goes mad all alone, old girl. But when was it you fancied you
felt and heard our squinting friend?"
"I heard James Welkin laugh as plainly as I hear you speak,"
said the girl, steadily. "There was nobody there, for I stood
just outside the shop at the corner, and could see down both
streets at once. I had forgotten how he laughed, though his laugh
was as odd as his squint. I had not thought of him for nearly a
year. But it's a solemn truth that a few seconds later the first
letter came from his rival."
"Did you ever make the spectre speak or squeak, or anything?"
asked Angus, with some interest.
Laura suddenly shuddered, and then said, with an unshaken
voice, "Yes. Just when I had finished reading the second letter
from Isidore Smythe announcing his success. Just then, I heard
Welkin say, `He shan't have you, though.' It was quite plain, as
if he were in the room. It is awful, I think I must be mad."
"If you really were mad," said the young man, "you would think
you must be sane. But certainly there seems to me to be something
a little rum about this unseen gentleman. Two heads are better
than one--I spare you allusions to any other organs and really,
if you would allow me, as a sturdy, practical man, to bring back
the wedding-cake out of the window--"
Even as he spoke, there was a sort of steely shriek in the
street outside, and a small motor, driven at devilish speed, shot
up to the door of the shop and stuck there. In the same flash of
time a small man in a shiny top hat stood stamping in the outer
Angus, who had hitherto maintained hilarious ease from motives
of mental hygiene, revealed the strain of his soul by striding
abruptly out of the inner room and confronting the new-comer. A
glance at him was quite sufficient to confirm the savage guesswork
of a man in love. This very dapper but dwarfish figure, with the
spike of black beard carried insolently forward, the clever
unrestful eyes, the neat but very nervous fingers, could be none
other than the man just described to him: Isidore Smythe, who made
dolls out of banana skins and match-boxes; Isidore Smythe, who
made millions out of undrinking butlers and unflirting housemaids
of metal. For a moment the two men, instinctively understanding
each other's air of possession, looked at each other with that
curious cold generosity which is the soul of rivalry.
Mr. Smythe, however, made no allusion to the ultimate ground
of their antagonism, but said simply and explosively, "Has Miss
Hope seen that thing on the window?"
"On the window?" repeated the staring Angus.
"There's no time to explain other things," said the small
millionaire shortly. "There's some tomfoolery going on here that
has to be investigated."
He pointed his polished walking-stick at the window, recently
depleted by the bridal preparations of Mr. Angus; and that
gentleman was astonished to see along the front of the glass a
long strip of paper pasted, which had certainly not been on the
window when he looked through it some time before. Following the
energetic Smythe outside into the street, he found that some yard
and a half of stamp paper had been carefully gummed along the
glass outside, and on this was written in straggly characters,
"If you marry Smythe, he will die."
"Laura," said Angus, putting his big red head into the shop,
"you're not mad."
"It's the writing of that fellow Welkin," said Smythe gruffly.
"I haven't seen him for years, but he's always bothering me. Five
times in the last fortnight he's had threatening letters left at my
flat, and I can't even find out who leaves them, let alone if it is
Welkin himself. The porter of the flats swears that no suspicious
characters have been seen, and here he has pasted up a sort of dado
on a public shop window, while the people in the shop--"
"Quite so," said Angus modestly, "while the people in the shop
were having tea. Well, sir, I can assure you I appreciate your
common sense in dealing so directly with the matter. We can talk
about other things afterwards. The fellow cannot be very far off
yet, for I swear there was no paper there when I went last to the
window, ten or fifteen minutes ago. On the other hand, he's too
far off to be chased, as we don't even know the direction. If
you'll take my advice, Mr. Smythe, you'll put this at once in the
hands of some energetic inquiry man, private rather than public.
I know an extremely clever fellow, who has set up in business five
minutes from here in your car. His name's Flambeau, and though
his youth was a bit stormy, he's a strictly honest man now, and
his brains are worth money. He lives in Lucknow Mansions,
"That is odd," said the little man, arching his black
eyebrows. "I live, myself, in Himylaya Mansions, round the
corner. Perhaps you might care to come with me; I can go to my
rooms and sort out these queer Welkin documents, while you run
round and get your friend the detective."
"You are very good," said Angus politely. "Well, the sooner
we act the better."
Both men, with a queer kind of impromptu fairness, took the
same sort of formal farewell of the lady, and both jumped into the
brisk little car. As Smythe took the handles and they turned the
great corner of the street, Angus was amused to see a gigantesque
poster of "Smythe's Silent Service," with a picture of a huge
headless iron doll, carrying a saucepan with the legend, "A Cook
Who is Never Cross."
"I use them in my own flat," said the little black-bearded
man, laughing, "partly for advertisements, and partly for real
convenience. Honestly, and all above board, those big clockwork
dolls of mine do bring your coals or claret or a timetable quicker
than any live servants I've ever known, if you know which knob to
press. But I'll never deny, between ourselves, that such servants
have their disadvantages, too."
"Indeed?" said Angus; "is there something they can't do?"
"Yes," replied Smythe coolly; "they can't tell me who left
those threatening letters at my flat."
The man's motor was small and swift like himself; in fact,
like his domestic service, it was of his own invention. If he was
an advertising quack, he was one who believed in his own wares.
The sense of something tiny and flying was accentuated as they
swept up long white curves of road in the dead but open daylight
of evening. Soon the white curves came sharper and dizzier; they
were upon ascending spirals, as they say in the modern religions.
For, indeed, they were cresting a corner of London which is almost
as precipitous as Edinburgh, if not quite so picturesque. Terrace
rose above terrace, and the special tower of flats they sought,
rose above them all to almost Egyptian height, gilt by the level
sunset. The change, as they turned the corner and entered the
crescent known as Himylaya Mansions, was as abrupt as the opening
of a window; for they found that pile of flats sitting above
London as above a green sea of slate. Opposite to the mansions,
on the other side of the gravel crescent, was a bushy enclosure
more like a steep hedge or dyke than a garden, and some way below
that ran a strip of artificial water, a sort of canal, like the
moat of that embowered fortress. As the car swept round the
crescent it passed, at one corner, the stray stall of a man
selling chestnuts; and right away at the other end of the curve,
Angus could see a dim blue policeman walking slowly. These were
the only human shapes in that high suburban solitude; but he had
an irrational sense that they expressed the speechless poetry of
London. He felt as if they were figures in a story.
The little car shot up to the right house like a bullet, and
shot out its owner like a bomb shell. He was immediately
inquiring of a tall commissionaire in shining braid, and a short
porter in shirt sleeves, whether anybody or anything had been
seeking his apartments. He was assured that nobody and nothing
had passed these officials since his last inquiries; whereupon he
and the slightly bewildered Angus were shot up in the lift like a
rocket, till they reached the top floor.
"Just come in for a minute," said the breathless Smythe. "I
want to show you those Welkin letters. Then you might run round
the corner and fetch your friend." He pressed a button concealed
in the wall, and the door opened of itself.
It opened on a long, commodious ante-room, of which the only
arresting features, ordinarily speaking, were the rows of tall
half-human mechanical figures that stood up on both sides like
tailors' dummies. Like tailors' dummies they were headless; and
like tailors' dummies they had a handsome unnecessary humpiness in
the shoulders, and a pigeon-breasted protuberance of chest; but
barring this, they were not much more like a human figure than any
automatic machine at a station that is about the human height.
They had two great hooks like arms, for carrying trays; and they
were painted pea-green, or vermilion, or black for convenience of
distinction; in every other way they were only automatic machines
and nobody would have looked twice at them. On this occasion, at
least, nobody did. For between the two rows of these domestic
dummies lay something more interesting than most of the mechanics
of the world. It was a white, tattered scrap of paper scrawled
with red ink; and the agile inventor had snatched it up almost as
soon as the door flew open. He handed it to Angus without a word.
The red ink on it actually was not dry, and the message ran, "If
you have been to see her today, I shall kill you."
There was a short silence, and then Isidore Smythe said
quietly, "Would you like a little whiskey? I rather feel as if I
"Thank you; I should like a little Flambeau," said Angus,
gloomily. "This business seems to me to be getting rather grave.
I'm going round at once to fetch him."
"Right you are," said the other, with admirable cheerfulness.
"Bring him round here as quick as you can."
But as Angus closed the front door behind him he saw Smythe
push back a button, and one of the clockwork images glided from
its place and slid along a groove in the floor carrying a tray
with syphon and decanter. There did seem something a trifle weird
about leaving the little man alone among those dead servants, who
were coming to life as the door closed.
Six steps down from Smythe's landing the man in shirt sleeves
was doing something with a pail. Angus stopped to extract a
promise, fortified with a prospective bribe, that he would remain
in that place until the return with the detective, and would keep
count of any kind of stranger coming up those stairs. Dashing
down to the front hall he then laid similar charges of vigilance
on the commissionaire at the front door, from whom he learned the
simplifying circumstances that there was no back door. Not
content with this, he captured the floating policeman and induced
him to stand opposite the entrance and watch it; and finally
paused an instant for a pennyworth of chestnuts, and an inquiry as
to the probable length of the merchant's stay in the
The chestnut seller, turning up the collar of his coat, told
him he should probably be moving shortly, as he thought it was
going to snow. Indeed, the evening was growing grey and bitter,
but Angus, with all his eloquence, proceeded to nail the chestnut
man to his post.
"Keep yourself warm on your own chestnuts," he said earnestly.
"Eat up your whole stock; I'll make it worth your while. I'll
give you a sovereign if you'll wait here till I come back, and
then tell me whether any man, woman, or child has gone into that
house where the commissionaire is standing."
He then walked away smartly, with a last look at the besieged
"I've made a ring round that room, anyhow," he said. "They
can't all four of them be Mr. Welkin's accomplices."
Lucknow Mansions were, so to speak, on a lower platform of
that hill of houses, of which Himylaya Mansions might be called
the peak. Mr. Flambeau's semi-official flat was on the ground
floor, and presented in every way a marked contrast to the
American machinery and cold hotel-like luxury of the flat of the
Silent Service. Flambeau, who was a friend of Angus, received him
in a rococo artistic den behind his office, of which the ornaments
were sabres, harquebuses, Eastern curiosities, flasks of Italian
wine, savage cooking-pots, a plumy Persian cat, and a small
dusty-looking Roman Catholic priest, who looked particularly out
"This is my friend Father Brown," said Flambeau. "I've often
wanted you to meet him. Splendid weather, this; a little cold for
Southerners like me."
"Yes, I think it will keep clear," said Angus, sitting down on
a violet-striped Eastern ottoman.
"No," said the priest quietly, "it has begun to snow."
And, indeed, as he spoke, the first few flakes, foreseen by the
man of chestnuts, began to drift across the darkening windowpane.
"Well," said Angus heavily. "I'm afraid I've come on business,
and rather jumpy business at that. The fact is, Flambeau, within a
stone's throw of your house is a fellow who badly wants your help;
he's perpetually being haunted and threatened by an invisible enemy
--a scoundrel whom nobody has even seen." As Angus proceeded to
tell the whole tale of Smythe and Welkin, beginning with Laura's
story, and going on with his own, the supernatural laugh at the
corner of two empty streets, the strange distinct words spoken in
an empty room, Flambeau grew more and more vividly concerned, and
the little priest seemed to be left out of it, like a piece of
furniture. When it came to the scribbled stamp-paper pasted on
the window, Flambeau rose, seeming to fill the room with his huge
"If you don't mind," he said, "I think you had better tell me
the rest on the nearest road to this man's house. It strikes me,
somehow, that there is no time to be lost."
"Delighted," said Angus, rising also, "though he's safe enough
for the present, for I've set four men to watch the only hole to
They turned out into the street, the small priest trundling
after them with the docility of a small dog. He merely said, in a
cheerful way, like one making conversation, "How quick the snow
gets thick on the ground."
As they threaded the steep side streets already powdered with
silver, Angus finished his story; and by the time they reached the
crescent with the towering flats, he had leisure to turn his
attention to the four sentinels. The chestnut seller, both before
and after receiving a sovereign, swore stubbornly that he had
watched the door and seen no visitor enter. The policeman was
even more emphatic. He said he had had experience of crooks of
all kinds, in top hats and in rags; he wasn't so green as to
expect suspicious characters to look suspicious; he looked out for
anybody, and, so help him, there had been nobody. And when all
three men gathered round the gilded commissionaire, who still
stood smiling astride of the porch, the verdict was more final
"I've got a right to ask any man, duke or dustman, what he
wants in these flats," said the genial and gold-laced giant, "and
I'll swear there's been nobody to ask since this gentleman went
The unimportant Father Brown, who stood back, looking modestly
at the pavement, here ventured to say meekly, "Has nobody been up
and down stairs, then, since the snow began to fall? It began
while we were all round at Flambeau's."
"Nobody's been in here, sir, you can take it from me," said
the official, with beaming authority.
"Then I wonder what that is?" said the priest, and stared at
the ground blankly like a fish.
The others all looked down also; and Flambeau used a fierce
exclamation and a French gesture. For it was unquestionably true
that down the middle of the entrance guarded by the man in gold
lace, actually between the arrogant, stretched legs of that
colossus, ran a stringy pattern of grey footprints stamped upon
the white snow.
"God!" cried Angus involuntarily, "the Invisible Man!"
Without another word he turned and dashed up the stairs, with
Flambeau following; but Father Brown still stood looking about him
in the snow-clad street as if he had lost interest in his query.
Flambeau was plainly in a mood to break down the door with his
big shoulders; but the Scotchman, with more reason, if less
intuition, fumbled about on the frame of the door till he found
the invisible button; and the door swung slowly open.
It showed substantially the same serried interior; the hall
had grown darker, though it was still struck here and there with
the last crimson shafts of sunset, and one or two of the headless
machines had been moved from their places for this or that
purpose, and stood here and there about the twilit place. The
green and red of their coats were all darkened in the dusk; and
their likeness to human shapes slightly increased by their very
shapelessness. But in the middle of them all, exactly where the
paper with the red ink had lain, there lay something that looked
like red ink spilt out of its bottle. But it was not red ink.
With a French combination of reason and violence Flambeau
simply said "Murder!" and, plunging into the flat, had explored,
every corner and cupboard of it in five minutes. But if he
expected to find a corpse he found none. Isidore Smythe was not
in the place, either dead or alive. After the most tearing search
the two men met each other in the outer hall, with streaming faces
and staring eyes. "My friend," said Flambeau, talking French in
his excitement, "not only is your murderer invisible, but he makes
invisible also the murdered man."
Angus looked round at the dim room full of dummies, and in
some Celtic corner of his Scotch soul a shudder started. One of
the life-size dolls stood immediately overshadowing the blood
stain, summoned, perhaps, by the slain man an instant before he
fell. One of the high-shouldered hooks that served the thing for
arms, was a little lifted, and Angus had suddenly the horrid fancy
that poor Smythe's own iron child had struck him down. Matter had
rebelled, and these machines had killed their master. But even
so, what had they done with him?
"Eaten him?" said the nightmare at his ear; and he sickened
for an instant at the idea of rent, human remains absorbed and
crushed into all that acephalous clockwork.
He recovered his mental health by an emphatic effort, and said
to Flambeau, "Well, there it is. The poor fellow has evaporated
like a cloud and left a red streak on the floor. The tale does
not belong to this world."
"There is only one thing to be done," said Flambeau, "whether
it belongs to this world or the other. I must go down and talk to
They descended, passing the man with the pail, who again
asseverated that he had let no intruder pass, down to the
commissionaire and the hovering chestnut man, who rigidly
reasserted their own watchfulness. But when Angus looked round
for his fourth confirmation he could not see it, and called out
with some nervousness, "Where is the policeman?"
"I beg your pardon," said Father Brown; "that is my fault. I
just sent him down the road to investigate something--that I
just thought worth investigating."
"Well, we want him back pretty soon," said Angus abruptly,
"for the wretched man upstairs has not only been murdered, but
"How?" asked the priest.
"Father," said Flambeau, after a pause, "upon my soul I believe
it is more in your department than mine. No friend or foe has
entered the house, but Smythe is gone, as if stolen by the fairies.
If that is not supernatural, I--"
As he spoke they were all checked by an unusual sight; the big
blue policeman came round the corner of the crescent, running. He
came straight up to Brown.
"You're right, sir," he panted, "they've just found poor Mr.
Smythe's body in the canal down below."
Angus put his hand wildly to his head. "Did he run down and
drown himself?" he asked.
"He never came down, I'll swear," said the constable, "and he
wasn't drowned either, for he died of a great stab over the heart."
"And yet you saw no one enter?" said Flambeau in a grave voice.
"Let us walk down the road a little," said the priest.
As they reached the other end of the crescent he observed
abruptly, "Stupid of me! I forgot to ask the policeman something.
I wonder if they found a light brown sack."
"Why a light brown sack?" asked Angus, astonished.
"Because if it was any other coloured sack, the case must
begin over again," said Father Brown; "but if it was a light brown
sack, why, the case is finished."
"I am pleased to hear it," said Angus with hearty irony. "It
hasn't begun, so far as I am concerned."
"You must tell us all about it," said Flambeau with a strange
heavy simplicity, like a child.
Unconsciously they were walking with quickening steps down the
long sweep of road on the other side of the high crescent, Father
Brown leading briskly, though in silence. At last he said with an
almost touching vagueness, "Well, I'm afraid you'll think it so
prosy. We always begin at the abstract end of things, and you
can't begin this story anywhere else.
"Have you ever noticed this--that people never answer what
you say? They answer what you mean--or what they think you
mean. Suppose one lady says to another in a country house, `Is
anybody staying with you?' the lady doesn't answer `Yes; the
butler, the three footmen, the parlourmaid, and so on,' though the
parlourmaid may be in the room, or the butler behind her chair.
She says `There is nobody staying with us,' meaning nobody of the
sort you mean. But suppose a doctor inquiring into an epidemic
asks, `Who is staying in the house?' then the lady will remember
the butler, the parlourmaid, and the rest. All language is used
like that; you never get a question answered literally, even when
you get it answered truly. When those four quite honest men said
that no man had gone into the Mansions, they did not really mean
that no man had gone into them. They meant no man whom they could
suspect of being your man. A man did go into the house, and did
come out of it, but they never noticed him."
"An invisible man?" inquired Angus, raising his red eyebrows.
"A mentally invisible man," said Father Brown.
A minute or two after he resumed in the same unassuming voice,
like a man thinking his way. "Of course you can't think of such a
man, until you do think of him. That's where his cleverness comes
in. But I came to think of him through two or three little things
in the tale Mr. Angus told us. First, there was the fact that
this Welkin went for long walks. And then there was the vast lot
of stamp paper on the window. And then, most of all, there were
the two things the young lady said--things that couldn't be true.
Don't get annoyed," he added hastily, noting a sudden movement of
the Scotchman's head; "she thought they were true. A person can't
be quite alone in a street a second before she receives a letter.
She can't be quite alone in a street when she starts reading a
letter just received. There must be somebody pretty near her; he
must be mentally invisible."
"Why must there be somebody near her?" asked Angus.
"Because," said Father Brown, "barring carrier-pigeons,
somebody must have brought her the letter."
"Do you really mean to say," asked Flambeau, with energy,
"that Welkin carried his rival's letters to his lady?"
"Yes," said the priest. "Welkin carried his rival's letters
to his lady. You see, he had to."
"Oh, I can't stand much more of this," exploded Flambeau.
"Who is this fellow? What does he look like? What is the usual
get-up of a mentally invisible man?"
"He is dressed rather handsomely in red, blue and gold,"
replied the priest promptly with precision, "and in this striking,
and even showy, costume he entered Himylaya Mansions under eight
human eyes; he killed Smythe in cold blood, and came down into the
street again carrying the dead body in his arms--"
"Reverend sir," cried Angus, standing still, "are you raving
mad, or am I?"
"You are not mad," said Brown, "only a little unobservant.
You have not noticed such a man as this, for example."
He took three quick strides forward, and put his hand on the
shoulder of an ordinary passing postman who had bustled by them
unnoticed under the shade of the trees.
"Nobody ever notices postmen somehow," he said thoughtfully;
"yet they have passions like other men, and even carry large bags
where a small corpse can be stowed quite easily."
The postman, instead of turning naturally, had ducked and
tumbled against the garden fence. He was a lean fair-bearded man
of very ordinary appearance, but as he turned an alarmed face over
his shoulder, all three men were fixed with an almost fiendish
* * * * * *
Flambeau went back to his sabres, purple rugs and Persian cat,
having many things to attend to. John Turnbull Angus went back to
the lady at the shop, with whom that imprudent young man contrives
to be extremely comfortable. But Father Brown walked those
snow-covered hills under the stars for many hours with a murderer,
and what they said to each other will never be known.
CHESTERTON-THE INNOCENT OF FR BROWN - The Flying Stars