The Queer Feet

If you meet a member of that select club, "The Twelve True

Fishermen," entering the Vernon Hotel for the annual club dinner,

you will observe, as he takes off his overcoat, that his evening

coat is green and not black. If (supposing that you have the

star-defying audacity to address such a being) you ask him why, he

will probably answer that he does it to avoid being mistaken for a

waiter. You will then retire crushed. But you will leave behind

you a mystery as yet unsolved and a tale worth telling.

If (to pursue the same vein of improbable conjecture) you were

to meet a mild, hard-working little priest, named Father Brown,

and were to ask him what he thought was the most singular luck of

his life, he would probably reply that upon the whole his best

stroke was at the Vernon Hotel, where he had averted a crime and,

perhaps, saved a soul, merely by listening to a few footsteps in a

passage. He is perhaps a little proud of this wild and wonderful

guess of his, and it is possible that he might refer to it. But

since it is immeasurably unlikely that you will ever rise high

enough in the social world to find "The Twelve True Fishermen," or

that you will ever sink low enough among slums and criminals to

find Father Brown, I fear you will never hear the story at all

unless you hear it from me.

The Vernon Hotel at which The Twelve True Fishermen held their

annual dinners was an institution such as can only exist in an

oligarchical society which has almost gone mad on good manners.

It was that topsy-turvy product--an "exclusive" commercial

enterprise. That is, it was a thing which paid not by attracting

people, but actually by turning people away. In the heart of a

plutocracy tradesmen become cunning enough to be more fastidious

than their customers. They positively create difficulties so that

their wealthy and weary clients may spend money and diplomacy in

overcoming them. If there were a fashionable hotel in London

which no man could enter who was under six foot, society would

meekly make up parties of six-foot men to dine in it. If there

were an expensive restaurant which by a mere caprice of its

proprietor was only open on Thursday afternoon, it would be

crowded on Thursday afternoon. The Vernon Hotel stood, as if by

accident, in the corner of a square in Belgravia. It was a small

hotel; and a very inconvenient one. But its very inconveniences

were considered as walls protecting a particular class. One

inconvenience, in particular, was held to be of vital importance:

the fact that practically only twenty-four people could dine in

the place at once. The only big dinner table was the celebrated

terrace table, which stood open to the air on a sort of veranda

overlooking one of the most exquisite old gardens in London. Thus

it happened that even the twenty-four seats at this table could

only be enjoyed in warm weather; and this making the enjoyment yet

more difficult made it yet more desired. The existing owner of

the hotel was a Jew named Lever; and he made nearly a million out

of it, by making it difficult to get into. Of course he combined

with this limitation in the scope of his enterprise the most

careful polish in its performance. The wines and cooking were

really as good as any in Europe, and the demeanour of the

attendants exactly mirrored the fixed mood of the English upper

class. The proprietor knew all his waiters like the fingers on

his hand; there were only fifteen of them all told. It was much

easier to become a Member of Parliament than to become a waiter in

that hotel. Each waiter was trained in terrible silence and

smoothness, as if he were a gentleman's servant. And, indeed,

there was generally at least one waiter to every gentleman who


The club of The Twelve True Fishermen would not have consented

to dine anywhere but in such a place, for it insisted on a

luxurious privacy; and would have been quite upset by the mere

thought that any other club was even dining in the same building.

On the occasion of their annual dinner the Fishermen were in the

habit of exposing all their treasures, as if they were in a

private house, especially the celebrated set of fish knives and

forks which were, as it were, the insignia of the society, each

being exquisitely wrought in silver in the form of a fish, and

each loaded at the hilt with one large pearl. These were always

laid out for the fish course, and the fish course was always the

most magnificent in that magnificent repast. The society had a

vast number of ceremonies and observances, but it had no history

and no object; that was where it was so very aristocratic. You

did not have to be anything in order to be one of the Twelve

Fishers; unless you were already a certain sort of person, you

never even heard of them. It had been in existence twelve years.

Its president was Mr. Audley. Its vice-president was the Duke of


If I have in any degree conveyed the atmosphere of this

appalling hotel, the reader may feel a natural wonder as to how I

came to know anything about it, and may even speculate as to how

so ordinary a person as my friend Father Brown came to find himself

in that golden galley. As far as that is concerned, my story is

simple, or even vulgar. There is in the world a very aged rioter

and demagogue who breaks into the most refined retreats with the

dreadful information that all men are brothers, and wherever this

leveller went on his pale horse it was Father Brown's trade to

follow. One of the waiters, an Italian, had been struck down with

a paralytic stroke that afternoon; and his Jewish employer,

marvelling mildly at such superstitions, had consented to send for

the nearest Popish priest. With what the waiter confessed to

Father Brown we are not concerned, for the excellent reason that

that cleric kept it to himself; but apparently it involved him in

writing out a note or statement for the conveying of some message

or the righting of some wrong. Father Brown, therefore, with a

meek impudence which he would have shown equally in Buckingham

Palace, asked to be provided with a room and writing materials.

Mr. Lever was torn in two. He was a kind man, and had also that

bad imitation of kindness, the dislike of any difficulty or scene.

At the same time the presence of one unusual stranger in his hotel

that evening was like a speck of dirt on something just cleaned.

There was never any borderland or anteroom in the Vernon Hotel, no

people waiting in the hall, no customers coming in on chance.

There were fifteen waiters. There were twelve guests. It would

be as startling to find a new guest in the hotel that night as to

find a new brother taking breakfast or tea in one's own family.

Moreover, the priest's appearance was second-rate and his clothes

muddy; a mere glimpse of him afar off might precipitate a crisis

in the club. Mr. Lever at last hit on a plan to cover, since he

might not obliterate, the disgrace. When you enter (as you never

will) the Vernon Hotel, you pass down a short passage decorated

with a few dingy but important pictures, and come to the main

vestibule and lounge which opens on your right into passages

leading to the public rooms, and on your left to a similar passage

pointing to the kitchens and offices of the hotel. Immediately on

your left hand is the corner of a glass office, which abuts upon

the lounge--a house within a house, so to speak, like the old

hotel bar which probably once occupied its place.

In this office sat the representative of the proprietor

(nobody in this place ever appeared in person if he could help

it), and just beyond the office, on the way to the servants'

quarters, was the gentlemen's cloak room, the last boundary of the

gentlemen's domain. But between the office and the cloak room was

a small private room without other outlet, sometimes used by the

proprietor for delicate and important matters, such as lending a

duke a thousand pounds or declining to lend him sixpence. It is a

mark of the magnificent tolerance of Mr. Lever that he permitted

this holy place to be for about half an hour profaned by a mere

priest, scribbling away on a piece of paper. The story which

Father Brown was writing down was very likely a much better story

than this one, only it will never be known. I can merely state

that it was very nearly as long, and that the last two or three

paragraphs of it were the least exciting and absorbing.

For it was by the time that he had reached these that the

priest began a little to allow his thoughts to wander and his

animal senses, which were commonly keen, to awaken. The time of

darkness and dinner was drawing on; his own forgotten little room

was without a light, and perhaps the gathering gloom, as

occasionally happens, sharpened the sense of sound. As Father

Brown wrote the last and least essential part of his document, he

caught himself writing to the rhythm of a recurrent noise outside,

just as one sometimes thinks to the tune of a railway train. When

he became conscious of the thing he found what it was: only the

ordinary patter of feet passing the door, which in an hotel was no

very unlikely matter. Nevertheless, he stared at the darkened

ceiling, and listened to the sound. After he had listened for a

few seconds dreamily, he got to his feet and listened intently,

with his head a little on one side. Then he sat down again and

buried his brow in his hands, now not merely listening, but

listening and thinking also.

The footsteps outside at any given moment were such as one

might hear in any hotel; and yet, taken as a whole, there was

something very strange about them. There were no other footsteps.

It was always a very silent house, for the few familiar guests

went at once to their own apartments, and the well-trained waiters

were told to be almost invisible until they were wanted. One

could not conceive any place where there was less reason to

apprehend anything irregular. But these footsteps were so odd

that one could not decide to call them regular or irregular.

Father Brown followed them with his finger on the edge of the

table, like a man trying to learn a tune on the piano.

First, there came a long rush of rapid little steps, such as a

light man might make in winning a walking race. At a certain

point they stopped and changed to a sort of slow, swinging stamp,

numbering not a quarter of the steps, but occupying about the same

time. The moment the last echoing stamp had died away would come

again the run or ripple of light, hurrying feet, and then again

the thud of the heavier walking. It was certainly the same pair

of boots, partly because (as has been said) there were no other

boots about, and partly because they had a small but unmistakable

creak in them. Father Brown had the kind of head that cannot help

asking questions; and on this apparently trivial question his head

almost split. He had seen men run in order to jump. He had seen

men run in order to slide. But why on earth should a man run in

order to walk? Or, again, why should he walk in order to run?

Yet no other description would cover the antics of this invisible

pair of legs. The man was either walking very fast down one-half

of the corridor in order to walk very slow down the other half; or

he was walking very slow at one end to have the rapture of walking

fast at the other. Neither suggestion seemed to make much sense.

His brain was growing darker and darker, like his room.

Yet, as he began to think steadily, the very blackness of his

cell seemed to make his thoughts more vivid; he began to see as in

a kind of vision the fantastic feet capering along the corridor in

unnatural or symbolic attitudes. Was it a heathen religious dance?

Or some entirely new kind of scientific exercise? Father Brown

began to ask himself with more exactness what the steps suggested.

Taking the slow step first: it certainly was not the step of the

proprietor. Men of his type walk with a rapid waddle, or they sit

still. It could not be any servant or messenger waiting for

directions. It did not sound like it. The poorer orders (in an

oligarchy) sometimes lurch about when they are slightly drunk, but

generally, and especially in such gorgeous scenes, they stand or

sit in constrained attitudes. No; that heavy yet springy step,

with a kind of careless emphasis, not specially noisy, yet not

caring what noise it made, belonged to only one of the animals of

this earth. It was a gentleman of western Europe, and probably

one who had never worked for his living.

Just as he came to this solid certainty, the step changed to

the quicker one, and ran past the door as feverishly as a rat.

The listener remarked that though this step was much swifter it

was also much more noiseless, almost as if the man were walking on

tiptoe. Yet it was not associated in his mind with secrecy, but

with something else--something that he could not remember. He

was maddened by one of those half-memories that make a man feel

half-witted. Surely he had heard that strange, swift walking

somewhere. Suddenly he sprang to his feet with a new idea in his

head, and walked to the door. His room had no direct outlet on

the passage, but let on one side into the glass office, and on the

other into the cloak room beyond. He tried the door into the

office, and found it locked. Then he looked at the window, now a

square pane full of purple cloud cleft by livid sunset, and for an

instant he smelt evil as a dog smells rats.

The rational part of him (whether the wiser or not) regained

its supremacy. He remembered that the proprietor had told him

that he should lock the door, and would come later to release him.

He told himself that twenty things he had not thought of might

explain the eccentric sounds outside; he reminded himself that

there was just enough light left to finish his own proper work.

Bringing his paper to the window so as to catch the last stormy

evening light, he resolutely plunged once more into the almost

completed record. He had written for about twenty minutes, bending

closer and closer to his paper in the lessening light; then

suddenly he sat upright. He had heard the strange feet once more.

This time they had a third oddity. Previously the unknown man

had walked, with levity indeed and lightning quickness, but he had

walked. This time he ran. One could hear the swift, soft,

bounding steps coming along the corridor, like the pads of a

fleeing and leaping panther. Whoever was coming was a very strong,

active man, in still yet tearing excitement. Yet, when the sound

had swept up to the office like a sort of whispering whirlwind, it

suddenly changed again to the old slow, swaggering stamp.

Father Brown flung down his paper, and, knowing the office door

to be locked, went at once into the cloak room on the other side.

The attendant of this place was temporarily absent, probably

because the only guests were at dinner and his office was a

sinecure. After groping through a grey forest of overcoats, he

found that the dim cloak room opened on the lighted corridor in

the form of a sort of counter or half-door, like most of the

counters across which we have all handed umbrellas and received

tickets. There was a light immediately above the semicircular arch

of this opening. It threw little illumination on Father Brown

himself, who seemed a mere dark outline against the dim sunset

window behind him. But it threw an almost theatrical light on the

man who stood outside the cloak room in the corridor.

He was an elegant man in very plain evening dress; tall, but

with an air of not taking up much room; one felt that he could

have slid along like a shadow where many smaller men would have

been obvious and obstructive. His face, now flung back in the

lamplight, was swarthy and vivacious, the face of a foreigner.

His figure was good, his manners good humoured and confident; a

critic could only say that his black coat was a shade below his

figure and manners, and even bulged and bagged in an odd way. The

moment he caught sight of Brown's black silhouette against the

sunset, he tossed down a scrap of paper with a number and called

out with amiable authority: "I want my hat and coat, please; I

find I have to go away at once."

Father Brown took the paper without a word, and obediently

went to look for the coat; it was not the first menial work he had

done in his life. He brought it and laid it on the counter;

meanwhile, the strange gentleman who had been feeling in his

waistcoat pocket, said laughing: "I haven't got any silver; you

can keep this." And he threw down half a sovereign, and caught up

his coat.

Father Brown's figure remained quite dark and still; but in

that instant he had lost his head. His head was always most

valuable when he had lost it. In such moments he put two and two

together and made four million. Often the Catholic Church (which

is wedded to common sense) did not approve of it. Often he did not

approve of it himself. But it was real inspiration--important

at rare crises--when whosoever shall lose his head the same shall

save it.

"I think, sir," he said civilly, "that you have some silver in

your pocket."

The tall gentleman stared. "Hang it," he cried, "if I choose

to give you gold, why should you complain?"

"Because silver is sometimes more valuable than gold," said

the priest mildly; "that is, in large quantities."

The stranger looked at him curiously. Then he looked still

more curiously up the passage towards the main entrance. Then he

looked back at Brown again, and then he looked very carefully at

the window beyond Brown's head, still coloured with the after-glow

of the storm. Then he seemed to make up his mind. He put one hand

on the counter, vaulted over as easily as an acrobat and towered

above the priest, putting one tremendous hand upon his collar.

"Stand still," he said, in a hacking whisper. "I don't want

to threaten you, but--"

"I do want to threaten you," said Father Brown, in a voice

like a rolling drum, "I want to threaten you with the worm that

dieth not, and the fire that is not quenched."

"You're a rum sort of cloak-room clerk," said the other.

"I am a priest, Monsieur Flambeau," said Brown, "and I am

ready to hear your confession."

The other stood gasping for a few moments, and then staggered

back into a chair.

The first two courses of the dinner of The Twelve True

Fishermen had proceeded with placid success. I do not possess a

copy of the menu; and if I did it would not convey anything to

anybody. It was written in a sort of super-French employed by

cooks, but quite unintelligible to Frenchmen. There was a

tradition in the club that the hors d'oeuvres should be various

and manifold to the point of madness. They were taken seriously

because they were avowedly useless extras, like the whole dinner

and the whole club. There was also a tradition that the soup

course should be light and unpretending--a sort of simple and

austere vigil for the feast of fish that was to come. The talk

was that strange, slight talk which governs the British Empire,

which governs it in secret, and yet would scarcely enlighten an

ordinary Englishman even if he could overhear it. Cabinet

ministers on both sides were alluded to by their Christian names

with a sort of bored benignity. The Radical Chancellor of the

Exchequer, whom the whole Tory party was supposed to be cursing

for his extortions, was praised for his minor poetry, or his saddle

in the hunting field. The Tory leader, whom all Liberals were

supposed to hate as a tyrant, was discussed and, on the whole,

praised--as a Liberal. It seemed somehow that politicians were

very important. And yet, anything seemed important about them

except their politics. Mr. Audley, the chairman, was an amiable,

elderly man who still wore Gladstone collars; he was a kind of

symbol of all that phantasmal and yet fixed society. He had never

done anything--not even anything wrong. He was not fast; he was

not even particularly rich. He was simply in the thing; and there

was an end of it. No party could ignore him, and if he had wished

to be in the Cabinet he certainly would have been put there. The

Duke of Chester, the vice-president, was a young and rising

politician. That is to say, he was a pleasant youth, with flat,

fair hair and a freckled face, with moderate intelligence and

enormous estates. In public his appearances were always

successful and his principle was simple enough. When he thought

of a joke he made it, and was called brilliant. When he could not

think of a joke he said that this was no time for trifling, and

was called able. In private, in a club of his own class, he was

simply quite pleasantly frank and silly, like a schoolboy. Mr.

Audley, never having been in politics, treated them a little more

seriously. Sometimes he even embarrassed the company by phrases

suggesting that there was some difference between a Liberal and a

Conservative. He himself was a Conservative, even in private

life. He had a roll of grey hair over the back of his collar,

like certain old-fashioned statesmen, and seen from behind he

looked like the man the empire wants. Seen from the front he

looked like a mild, self-indulgent bachelor, with rooms in the

Albany--which he was.

As has been remarked, there were twenty-four seats at the

terrace table, and only twelve members of the club. Thus they

could occupy the terrace in the most luxurious style of all, being

ranged along the inner side of the table, with no one opposite,

commanding an uninterrupted view of the garden, the colours of

which were still vivid, though evening was closing in somewhat

luridly for the time of year. The chairman sat in the centre of

the line, and the vice-president at the right-hand end of it.

When the twelve guests first trooped into their seats it was the

custom (for some unknown reason) for all the fifteen waiters to

stand lining the wall like troops presenting arms to the king,

while the fat proprietor stood and bowed to the club with radiant

surprise, as if he had never heard of them before. But before the

first chink of knife and fork this army of retainers had vanished,

only the one or two required to collect and distribute the plates

darting about in deathly silence. Mr. Lever, the proprietor, of

course had disappeared in convulsions of courtesy long before. It

would be exaggerative, indeed irreverent, to say that he ever

positively appeared again. But when the important course, the fish

course, was being brought on, there was--how shall I put it? --

a vivid shadow, a projection of his personality, which told that

he was hovering near. The sacred fish course consisted (to the

eyes of the vulgar) in a sort of monstrous pudding, about the size

and shape of a wedding cake, in which some considerable number of

interesting fishes had finally lost the shapes which God had given

to them. The Twelve True Fishermen took up their celebrated fish

knives and fish forks, and approached it as gravely as if every

inch of the pudding cost as much as the silver fork it was eaten

with. So it did, for all I know. This course was dealt with in

eager and devouring silence; and it was only when his plate was

nearly empty that the young duke made the ritual remark: "They

can't do this anywhere but here."

"Nowhere," said Mr. Audley, in a deep bass voice, turning to

the speaker and nodding his venerable head a number of times.

"Nowhere, assuredly, except here. It was represented to me that

at the Cafe Anglais--"

Here he was interrupted and even agitated for a moment by the

removal of his plate, but he recaptured the valuable thread of his

thoughts. "It was represented to me that the same could be done

at the Cafe Anglais. Nothing like it, sir," he said, shaking his

head ruthlessly, like a hanging judge. "Nothing like it."

"Overrated place," said a certain Colonel Pound, speaking (by

the look of him) for the first time for some months.

"Oh, I don't know," said the Duke of Chester, who was an

optimist, "it's jolly good for some things. You can't beat it


A waiter came swiftly along the room, and then stopped dead.

His stoppage was as silent as his tread; but all those vague and

kindly gentlemen were so used to the utter smoothness of the

unseen machinery which surrounded and supported their lives, that

a waiter doing anything unexpected was a start and a jar. They

felt as you and I would feel if the inanimate world disobeyed--

if a chair ran away from us.

The waiter stood staring a few seconds, while there deepened

on every face at table a strange shame which is wholly the product

of our time. It is the combination of modern humanitarianism with

the horrible modern abyss between the souls of the rich and poor.

A genuine historic aristocrat would have thrown things at the

waiter, beginning with empty bottles, and very probably ending

with money. A genuine democrat would have asked him, with

comrade-like clearness of speech, what the devil he was doing.

But these modern plutocrats could not bear a poor man near to

them, either as a slave or as a friend. That something had gone

wrong with the servants was merely a dull, hot embarrassment.

They did not want to be brutal, and they dreaded the need to be

benevolent. They wanted the thing, whatever it was, to be over.

It was over. The waiter, after standing for some seconds rigid,

like a cataleptic, turned round and ran madly out of the room.

When he reappeared in the room, or rather in the doorway, it

was in company with another waiter, with whom he whispered and

gesticulated with southern fierceness. Then the first waiter went

away, leaving the second waiter, and reappeared with a third

waiter. By the time a fourth waiter had joined this hurried

synod, Mr. Audley felt it necessary to break the silence in the

interests of Tact. He used a very loud cough, instead of a

presidential hammer, and said: "Splendid work young Moocher's

doing in Burmah. Now, no other nation in the world could have--"

A fifth waiter had sped towards him like an arrow, and was

whispering in his ear: "So sorry. Important! Might the proprietor

speak to you?"

The chairman turned in disorder, and with a dazed stare saw

Mr. Lever coming towards them with his lumbering quickness. The

gait of the good proprietor was indeed his usual gait, but his

face was by no means usual. Generally it was a genial

copper-brown; now it was a sickly yellow.

"You will pardon me, Mr. Audley," he said, with asthmatic

breathlessness. "I have great apprehensions. Your fish-plates,

they are cleared away with the knife and fork on them!"

"Well, I hope so," said the chairman, with some warmth.

"You see him?" panted the excited hotel keeper; "you see the

waiter who took them away? You know him?"

"Know the waiter?" answered Mr. Audley indignantly. "Certainly


Mr. Lever opened his hands with a gesture of agony. "I never

send him," he said. "I know not when or why he come. I send my

waiter to take away the plates, and he find them already away."

Mr. Audley still looked rather too bewildered to be really the

man the empire wants; none of the company could say anything except

the man of wood--Colonel Pound--who seemed galvanised into an

unnatural life. He rose rigidly from his chair, leaving all the

rest sitting, screwed his eyeglass into his eye, and spoke in a

raucous undertone as if he had half-forgotten how to speak. "Do

you mean," he said, "that somebody has stolen our silver fish


The proprietor repeated the open-handed gesture with even

greater helplessness and in a flash all the men at the table were

on their feet.

"Are all your waiters here?" demanded the colonel, in his low,

harsh accent.

"Yes; they're all here. I noticed it myself," cried the young

duke, pushing his boyish face into the inmost ring. "Always count

'em as I come in; they look so queer standing up against the wall."

"But surely one cannot exactly remember," began Mr. Audley,

with heavy hesitation.

"I remember exactly, I tell you," cried the duke excitedly.

"There never have been more than fifteen waiters at this place,

and there were no more than fifteen tonight, I'll swear; no more

and no less."

The proprietor turned upon him, quaking in a kind of palsy of

surprise. "You say--you say," he stammered, "that you see all

my fifteen waiters?"

"As usual," assented the duke. "What is the matter with that!"

"Nothing," said Lever, with a deepening accent, "only you did

not. For one of zem is dead upstairs."

There was a shocking stillness for an instant in that room.

It may be (so supernatural is the word death) that each of those

idle men looked for a second at his soul, and saw it as a small

dried pea. One of them--the duke, I think--even said with the

idiotic kindness of wealth: "Is there anything we can do?"

"He has had a priest," said the Jew, not untouched.

Then, as to the clang of doom, they awoke to their own

position. For a few weird seconds they had really felt as if the

fifteenth waiter might be the ghost of the dead man upstairs.

They had been dumb under that oppression, for ghosts were to them

an embarrassment, like beggars. But the remembrance of the silver

broke the spell of the miraculous; broke it abruptly and with a

brutal reaction. The colonel flung over his chair and strode to

the door. "If there was a fifteenth man here, friends," he said,

"that fifteenth fellow was a thief. Down at once to the front and

back doors and secure everything; then we'll talk. The twenty-four

pearls of the club are worth recovering."

Mr. Audley seemed at first to hesitate about whether it was

gentlemanly to be in such a hurry about anything; but, seeing the

duke dash down the stairs with youthful energy, he followed with a

more mature motion.

At the same instant a sixth waiter ran into the room, and

declared that he had found the pile of fish plates on a sideboard,

with no trace of the silver.

The crowd of diners and attendants that tumbled helter-skelter

down the passages divided into two groups. Most of the Fishermen

followed the proprietor to the front room to demand news of any

exit. Colonel Pound, with the chairman, the vice-president, and

one or two others darted down the corridor leading to the servants'

quarters, as the more likely line of escape. As they did so they

passed the dim alcove or cavern of the cloak room, and saw a

short, black-coated figure, presumably an attendant, standing a

little way back in the shadow of it.

"Hallo, there!" called out the duke. "Have you seen anyone


The short figure did not answer the question directly, but

merely said: "Perhaps I have got what you are looking for,


They paused, wavering and wondering, while he quietly went to

the back of the cloak room, and came back with both hands full of

shining silver, which he laid out on the counter as calmly as a

salesman. It took the form of a dozen quaintly shaped forks and


"You--you--" began the colonel, quite thrown off his

balance at last. Then he peered into the dim little room and saw

two things: first, that the short, black-clad man was dressed like

a clergyman; and, second, that the window of the room behind him

was burst, as if someone had passed violently through. "Valuable

things to deposit in a cloak room, aren't they?" remarked the

clergyman, with cheerful composure.

"Did--did you steal those things?" stammered Mr. Audley,

with staring eyes.

"If I did," said the cleric pleasantly, "at least I am bringing

them back again."

"But you didn't," said Colonel Pound, still staring at the

broken window.

"To make a clean breast of it, I didn't," said the other, with

some humour. And he seated himself quite gravely on a stool.

"But you know who did," said the, colonel.

"I don't know his real name," said the priest placidly, "but I

know something of his fighting weight, and a great deal about his

spiritual difficulties. I formed the physical estimate when he was

trying to throttle me, and the moral estimate when he repented."

"Oh, I say--repented!" cried young Chester, with a sort

of crow of laughter.

Father Brown got to his feet, putting his hands behind him.

"Odd, isn't it," he said, "that a thief and a vagabond should

repent, when so many who are rich and secure remain hard and

frivolous, and without fruit for God or man? But there, if you

will excuse me, you trespass a little upon my province. If you

doubt the penitence as a practical fact, there are your knives and

forks. You are The Twelve True Fishers, and there are all your

silver fish. But He has made me a fisher of men."

"Did you catch this man?" asked the colonel, frowning.

Father Brown looked him full in his frowning face. "Yes," he

said, "I caught him, with an unseen hook and an invisible line

which is long enough to let him wander to the ends of the world,

and still to bring him back with a twitch upon the thread."

There was a long silence. All the other men present drifted

away to carry the recovered silver to their comrades, or to consult

the proprietor about the queer condition of affairs. But the

grim-faced colonel still sat sideways on the counter, swinging his

long, lank legs and biting his dark moustache.

At last he said quietly to the priest: "He must have been a

clever fellow, but I think I know a cleverer."

"He was a clever fellow," answered the other, "but I am not

quite sure of what other you mean."

"I mean you," said the colonel, with a short laugh. "I don't

want to get the fellow jailed; make yourself easy about that. But

I'd give a good many silver forks to know exactly how you fell

into this affair, and how you got the stuff out of him. I reckon

you're the most up-to-date devil of the present company."

Father Brown seemed rather to like the saturnine candour of

the soldier. "Well," he said, smiling, "I mustn't tell you

anything of the man's identity, or his own story, of course; but

there's no particular reason why I shouldn't tell you of the mere

outside facts which I found out for myself."

He hopped over the barrier with unexpected activity, and sat

beside Colonel Pound, kicking his short legs like a little boy on

a gate. He began to tell the story as easily as if he were

telling it to an old friend by a Christmas fire.

"You see, colonel," he said, "I was shut up in that small room

there doing some writing, when I heard a pair of feet in this

passage doing a dance that was as queer as the dance of death.

First came quick, funny little steps, like a man walking on tiptoe

for a wager; then came slow, careless, creaking steps, as of a big

man walking about with a cigar. But they were both made by the

same feet, I swear, and they came in rotation; first the run and

then the walk, and then the run again. I wondered at first idly

and then wildly why a man should act these two parts at once. One

walk I knew; it was just like yours, colonel. It was the walk of

a well-fed gentleman waiting for something, who strolls about

rather because he is physically alert than because he is mentally

impatient. I knew that I knew the other walk, too, but I could

not remember what it was. What wild creature had I met on my

travels that tore along on tiptoe in that extraordinary style?

Then I heard a clink of plates somewhere; and the answer stood up

as plain as St. Peter's. It was the walk of a waiter--that walk

with the body slanted forward, the eyes looking down, the ball of

the toe spurning away the ground, the coat tails and napkin flying.

Then I thought for a minute and a half more. And I believe I saw

the manner of the crime, as clearly as if I were going to commit


Colonel Pound looked at him keenly, but the speaker's mild grey

eyes were fixed upon the ceiling with almost empty wistfulness.

"A crime," he said slowly, "is like any other work of art.

Don't look surprised; crimes are by no means the only works of art

that come from an infernal workshop. But every work of art, divine

or diabolic, has one indispensable mark--I mean, that the centre

of it is simple, however much the fulfilment may be complicated.

Thus, in Hamlet, let us say, the grotesqueness of the grave-digger,

the flowers of the mad girl, the fantastic finery of Osric, the

pallor of the ghost and the grin of the skull are all oddities in

a sort of tangled wreath round one plain tragic figure of a man in

black. Well, this also," he said, getting slowly down from his

seat with a smile, "this also is the plain tragedy of a man in

black. Yes," he went on, seeing the colonel look up in some

wonder, "the whole of this tale turns on a black coat. In this,

as in Hamlet, there are the rococo excrescences--yourselves, let

us say. There is the dead waiter, who was there when he could not

be there. There is the invisible hand that swept your table clear

of silver and melted into air. But every clever crime is founded

ultimately on some one quite simple fact--some fact that is not

itself mysterious. The mystification comes in covering it up, in

leading men's thoughts away from it. This large and subtle and

(in the ordinary course) most profitable crime, was built on the

plain fact that a gentleman's evening dress is the same as a

waiter's. All the rest was acting, and thundering good acting,


"Still," said the colonel, getting up and frowning at his

boots, "I am not sure that I understand."

"Colonel," said Father Brown, "I tell you that this archangel

of impudence who stole your forks walked up and down this passage

twenty times in the blaze of all the lamps, in the glare of all

the eyes. He did not go and hide in dim corners where suspicion

might have searched for him. He kept constantly on the move in

the lighted corridors, and everywhere that he went he seemed to be

there by right. Don't ask me what he was like; you have seen him

yourself six or seven times tonight. You were waiting with all

the other grand people in the reception room at the end of the

passage there, with the terrace just beyond. Whenever he came

among you gentlemen, he came in the lightning style of a waiter,

with bent head, flapping napkin and flying feet. He shot out on

to the terrace, did something to the table cloth, and shot back

again towards the office and the waiters' quarters. By the time

he had come under the eye of the office clerk and the waiters he

had become another man in every inch of his body, in every

instinctive gesture. He strolled among the servants with the

absent-minded insolence which they have all seen in their patrons.

It was no new thing to them that a swell from the dinner party

should pace all parts of the house like an animal at the Zoo; they

know that nothing marks the Smart Set more than a habit of walking

where one chooses. When he was magnificently weary of walking

down that particular passage he would wheel round and pace back

past the office; in the shadow of the arch just beyond he was

altered as by a blast of magic, and went hurrying forward again

among the Twelve Fishermen, an obsequious attendant. Why should

the gentlemen look at a chance waiter? Why should the waiters

suspect a first-rate walking gentleman? Once or twice he played

the coolest tricks. In the proprietor's private quarters he

called out breezily for a syphon of soda water, saying he was

thirsty. He said genially that he would carry it himself, and he

did; he carried it quickly and correctly through the thick of you,

a waiter with an obvious errand. Of course, it could not have

been kept up long, but it only had to be kept up till the end of

the fish course.

"His worst moment was when the waiters stood in a row; but

even then he contrived to lean against the wall just round the

corner in such a way that for that important instant the waiters

thought him a gentleman, while the gentlemen thought him a waiter.

The rest went like winking. If any waiter caught him away from

the table, that waiter caught a languid aristocrat. He had only

to time himself two minutes before the fish was cleared, become a

swift servant, and clear it himself. He put the plates down on a

sideboard, stuffed the silver in his breast pocket, giving it a

bulgy look, and ran like a hare (I heard him coming) till he came

to the cloak room. There he had only to be a plutocrat again--a

plutocrat called away suddenly on business. He had only to give

his ticket to the cloak-room attendant, and go out again elegantly

as he had come in. Only--only I happened to be the cloak-room


"What did you do to him?" cried the colonel, with unusual

intensity. "What did he tell you?"

"I beg your pardon," said the priest immovably, "that is where

the story ends."

"And the interesting story begins," muttered Pound. "I think

I understand his professional trick. But I don't seem to have got

hold of yours."

"I must be going," said Father Brown.

They walked together along the passage to the entrance hall,

where they saw the fresh, freckled face of the Duke of Chester,

who was bounding buoyantly along towards them.

"Come along, Pound," he cried breathlessly. "I've been looking

for you everywhere. The dinner's going again in spanking style,

and old Audley has got to make a speech in honour of the forks

being saved. We want to start some new ceremony, don't you know,

to commemorate the occasion. I say, you really got the goods back,

what do you suggest?"

"Why," said the colonel, eyeing him with a certain sardonic

approval, "I should suggest that henceforward we wear green coats,

instead of black. One never knows what mistakes may arise when

one looks so like a waiter."

"Oh, hang it all!" said the young man, "a gentleman never looks

like a waiter."

"Nor a waiter like a gentleman, I suppose," said Colonel Pound,

with the same lowering laughter on his face. "Reverend sir, your

friend must have been very smart to act the gentleman."

Father Brown buttoned up his commonplace overcoat to the neck,

for the night was stormy, and took his commonplace umbrella from

the stand.

"Yes," he said; "it must be very hard work to be a gentleman;

but, do you know, I have sometimes thought that it may be almost

as laborious to be a waiter."

And saying "Good evening," he pushed open the heavy doors of

that palace of pleasures. The golden gates closed behind him, and

he went at a brisk walk through the damp, dark streets in search

of a penny omnibus.