CERTAIN OF THE GREAT ROADS going north out of London continue far into the country a sort of attenuated and interrupted specter of a street, with great gaps in the building, but preserving the line. Here will be a group of shops, followed by a fenced field or paddock, and then a famous public-house, and then, perhaps a market garden or a nursery garden, and then one large private house, and then another field and another inn, and so on. If any one walks along one of these roads he will pass a house which will probably catch his eye, though he may not be able to explain its attraction. It is a long, low house, running parallel with the road, painted mostly white and pale green, with a veranda and sun blinds and porches capped with that quaint sort of cupolas like wooden umbrellas that one sees in some old-fashioned houses. In fact, it is an old-fashioned house, very English and very suburban in the good old wealthy Clapham sense. And yet the house has a look of having been built chiefly for the hot weather; looking at its white paint and sun blinds one thinks vaguely of pugrees and even of palm trees. I cannot trace the feeling to its root; perhaps the place was built by an Anglo-Indian.
Any one passing this house, I say, would be namelessly fascinated by it; would feel that it was a place about which some story was to be told. And he would have been right, as you shall shortly hear; for this is the story—the story of the strange things that did really happen in it in the Whitsuntide of the year 18——.
Anyone passing the house on the Thursday before Whitsunday at about half-past four P. M. would have seen the front door open and Father Brown, of the Community of St. Mungo, come out smoking a large pipe in company with a very tall French friend of his called Flambeau, who was smoking a very small cigarette. These persons may or may not be of interest to the reader, but the truth is that they were not the only interesting things that were displayed when the front door of the white-and-green house was opened. There are further peculiarities about this house which must be described to start with, not only that the reader may understand this tragic tale, but also that he may realize what it was that the opening of the door revealed.
The whole house was built upon the plan of a T, but a T with a very long cross piece and a very short tail piece. The long cross-piece was the frontage that ran along in face of the street with the front door in the middle; it was two stories high and contained nearly all the important rooms. The short tail-piece, which ran out at the back immediately opposite the front door, was one story high and consisted only of two long rooms, the one leading into the other. The first of these two rooms was the study in which the celebrated Mr. Quinton wrote his wild Oriental poems and romances. The farther room was a glass conservatory full of tropical blossoms of quite unique and almost monstrous beauty, and on such afternoons as these glowing with gorgeous sunlight. Thus when the hall door was open, many a passer-by literally stopped to stare and gasp; for he looked down a perspective of rich apartments to something really like a transformation scene in a fairy play: purple clouds and golden suns and crimson stars that were at once scorchingly vivid and yet transparent and far away.
Leonard Quinton, the poet, had himself most carefully arranged this effect; and it is doubtful whether he so perfectly expressed his personality in any of his poems. For he was a man who drank and bathed in colors, who indulged his lust for color somewhat to the neglect of form, even of good form. This it was that had turned his genius so wholly to Eastern art and imagery; to those bewildering carpets or blinding embroideries in which all the colors seem fallen into a fortunate chaos, having nothing to typify or to teach. He had attempted, not, perhaps, with complete artistic success, but with acknowledged imagination and invention, to compose epics and love stories reflecting the riot of violent and even cruel color; tales of tropical heavens of burning gold or blood-red copper; of Eastern heroes who rode with twelve-turbaned miters upon elephants painted purple or peacock green; of gigantic jewels that a hundred negroes could not carry but which burned with ancient and strange-hued fires.
In short—to put the matter from the more common point of view—he dealt much in Eastern heavens, rather worse than most Western hells; in Eastern monarchs whom we might possibly call maniacs; and in Eastern jewels which a Bond Street jeweler—if the hundred staggering negroes brought them into his shop—might possibly not regard as genuine. Quinton was a genius, if a morbid one; and even his morbidity appeared more in his life than in his work. In temperament he was weak and waspish, and his health had suffered heavily from Eastern experiments with opium.
His wife, a handsome, hard-working and indeed over-worked woman, objected to the opium, but objected much more to a live Indian fakir in white and yellow robes whom her husband insisted on entertaining for months together, a Vergil to guide his spirit through the heavens and the hells of the East.
IT WAS OUT OF THIS artistic household that Father Brown and his friend stepped on to the door-step; and to judge from their faces they stepped out of it with much relief. Flambeau had known Quinton in wild student days in Paris, and they had renewed the acquaintance for a week-end; but apart from Flambeau’s more responsible developments of late, he did not get on well with the poet now; choking oneself with opium and writing little erotic verses on vellum was not his notion of how a gentleman should go to the devil. As the two paused on the door-step before taking a turn in the garden, the front garden gate was thrown open with violence, and a young man with a billycock hat on the back of his head tumbled up the steps in his eagerness. He was a dissipated-looking youth with a gorgeous red necktie all awry as if he had slept in it, and he kept fidgeting and lashing about with one of those little pointed canes.
“I say,” he said breathlessly, “I want to see old Quinton. I must see him. Has he gone?”
“Mr. Quinton is in, I believe,” said Father Brown, cleaning his pipe, “but I do not know if you can see him. The doctor is with him at present.”
The young man, who seemed not to be perfectly sober, stumbled into the hall, and at the same moment the doctor came out of Quinton’s study, shutting the door and beginning to put on his gloves.
“See Mr. Quinton?” said the doctor coolly. “No, I’m afraid you can’t. In fact, you mustn’t on any account. Nobody must see him; I’ve just given him his sleeping draught.”
“No, but look here, old chap,” said the youth in the red tie, trying affectionately to capture the doctor by the lapels of his coat. “Look here. I’m simply sewn up, I tell you. I—”
“It’s no good, Mr. Atkinson,” said the doctor, forcing him to fall back. “When you can alter the effects of a drug I’ll alter my decision,” and settling on his hat he stepped out into the sunlight with the other two. He was a bull-necked, good-tempered little man with a small mustache, inexpressibly ordinary, yet giving an impression of capacity.
The young man in the billycock, who did not seem to be gifted with any tact in dealing with people beyond the general idea of clutching hold of their coats, stood outside the door as dazed as if he had been thrown out bodily, and silently watched the other three walk away together through the garden.
“That was a sound spanking lie I told just now,” remarked the medical man, laughing. “In point of fact, poor Quinton doesn’t have his sleeping draught for nearly half an hour. But I’m not going to have him bothered with that little beast, who only wants to borrow money that he wouldn’t pay back if he could. He’s a dirty little scamp, though he is Mrs. Quinton’s brother, and she’s as fine a woman as ever walked.”
“Yes,” said Father Brown. “She’s a good woman.”
“So I propose to hang about the garden till the creature has cleared off,” went on the doctor; “and then I’ll go in to Quinton with the medicine. Atkinson can’t get in, because I locked the door.”
“In that case, Dr. Harris,” said Flambeau, “we might as well walk round at the back by the end of the conservatory. There’s no entrance to it that way, but it’s worth seeing even from the outside.”
“Yes, and I might get a squint at my patient,” laughed the doctor; “for he prefers to lie on an ottoman right at the end of the conservatory amid all those blood-red poinsettias. It would give me the creeps. But what are you doing, Father Brown?”
Father Brown had stopped for a moment and picked up out of the long grass, where it had almost been wholly hidden, a queer, crooked, Oriental knife, inlaid exquisitely in colored stones and metals.
“What is this?” asked Father Brown, regarding it with some disfavor.
“Oh, Quinton’s, I suppose,” said Dr. Harris carelessly. “He has all sorts of Chinese knickknacks about the place. Or, perhaps, it belongs to that mild Hindu of his whom he keeps on a string.”
“What Hindu?” asked Father Brown, still staring at the dagger in his hand.
“Oh, some Indian conjurer,” said the doctor lightly; “a fraud, of course.”
“You don’t believe in magic?” asked Father Brown without looking up.
“Oh, crikey! magic!” said the doctor.
“It’s very beautiful,” said the priest in a low voice; “the colors are very beautiful. But it’s the wrong shape.”
“What for?” asked Flambeau, staring.
“For anything. It’s the wrong shape in the abstract. Don’t you ever feel that about Eastern art? The colors are intoxicatingly lovely; but the shapes are mean and bad—deliberately mean and bad. I have seen wicked things in a Turkey carpet.”
“Mon Dieu!” cried Flambeau, laughing.
“They are letters and symbols in a language I don’t know, but I know they stand for evil words,” said the priest, his voice growing lower and lower. “The lines go wrong on purpose—like serpents doubling to escape.”
“What the devil are you talking about?” said the doctor with a loud laugh.
Flambeau spoke quietly to him in answer: “The Father sometimes gets this mystic’s cloud on him,” he said; “but I give you fair warning that I have never known him to have it except when there was some evil quite near.”
“Oh, rats!” said the scientist.
“Why, look at it!” cried Father Brown, holding out the crooked knife at arm’s length as if it were some glittering snake. “Don’t you see that it is the wrong shape? Don’t you see that it has no hearty and plain purpose? It does not point like a spear. It has not the sweep of a scythe. It does not look like a weapon. It looks like an instrument of torture.”
“Well, as you don’t seem to like it,” said the jolly Harris, “it had better be taken back to its owner. Haven’t we come to the end of this confounded conservatory yet? This house is the wrong shape, if you like.”
“You don’t understand,” said Father Brown, shaking his head. “The shape of this house is quaint, it is even laughable. But there is nothing wrong about it.”
AS THEY SPOKE they came round the curve of glass that ended the conservatory, an uninterrupted curve, for there was neither door nor window by which to enter at that end. The glass, however, was clear, and the sun still bright though beginning to set, and they could see not only the flamboyant blossoms inside but the frail figure of the poet in a brown velvet coat lying languidly on the sofa, having apparently fallen half asleep over a book. He was a pale, slight man, with loose chestnut hair and a fringe of beard that was the paradox of his face, for the beard made him look less manly. These traits were well known to all three of them; but even had it not been so it may be doubted whether they would have looked at Quinton just then. Their eyes were riveted on another object.
Exactly in their path, immediately outside the round end of the glass building, was standing a tall man, whose drapery fell to his feet in faultless white, and whose bare, brown skull, face, and neck gleamed in the setting sun like splendid bronze. He was looking through the glass at the sleeper and he was more motionless than a mountain.
“Who is that?” cried Father Brown, stepping back with a hissing intake of his breath.
“Oh, it is only that Hindu humbug,” growled Harris. “But I don’t know what the deuce he’s doing here.”
“It looks like hypnotism,” said Flambeau, biting his black mustache.
“Why are you unmedical fellows always talking bosh about hypnotism?” cried the doctor. “It looks a deal more like burglary.”
“Well, we will speak to it, at any rate,” said Flambeau, who was always for action. One long stride took him to the place where the Indian stood. Bowing from his great height, which overtopped even the Oriental’s, he said with placid impudence:
“Good evening, sir. Do you want anything?”
Quite slowly, like a great ship turning into a harbor, the great yellow face turned, and looked at last over its white shoulder. They were startled to see that its yellow eyelids were quite sealed as in sleep. “Thank you,” said the face in excellent English. “I want nothing.” Then, half opening the lids so as to show a slit of opalescent eyeball, he repeated: “I want nothing.” Then he opened his eyes wide with a startling stare and said: “I want nothing,” and went rustling away into the rapidly darkening garden.
“The Christian is more modest,” muttered Father Brown. “He wants something.”
“What on earth was he doing?” asked Flambeau, knitting his black brows and lowering his voice.
“I should like to talk to you later,” said Father Brown.
The sunlight was still a reality, but it was the red light of evening, and the bulk of the garden trees and bushes grew blacker and blacker against it. They turned around the end of the conservatory and walked in silence down the other side to get round to the front door. As they went they seemed to wake something as one startles a bird, in the deeper corner between the study and the main building; and again they saw the white-robed fakir slide out of the shadow and slip around toward the front door. To their surprise, however, he had not been alone. They found themselves abruptly pulled up and forced to banish their bewilderment by the appearance of Mrs. Quinton, with her heavy golden hair and square, pale face, advancing on them out of the twilight. She looked a little stern, but was entirely courteous.
“Good evening, Dr. Harris,” was all she said.
“Good evening, Mrs. Quinton,” said the little doctor heartily. “I am just going to give your husband his sleeping draught.”
“Yes,” she said in a clear voice. “I think it is quite time.” And she smiled at them and went sweeping into the house.
“That woman’s over-driven,” said Father Brown; “That’s the kind of woman that does her duty for twenty years and then does something dreadful.”
The little doctor looked at him for the first time with an eye of interest. “Did you ever study medicine?” he asked.
“You have to know something of the mind as well as the body,” answered the priest. “We have to know something of the body as well as the mind.”
“Well,” said the doctor, “I think I’ll go and give Quinton his stuff.”
They had turned the corner of the front facade and were approaching the front doorway. As they turned into it they saw the man in the white robe for the third time. He came so straight towards the front door that it seemed quite incredible that he had not just come out of the study opposite to it. Yet they knew that the study door was locked.
Father Brown and Flambeau, however, kept this weird contradiction to themselves, and Dr. Harris was not a man to waste his thoughts on the impossible. He permitted the omnipresent Asiatic to make his exit and then stepped briskly into the hall. There he found a figure which he had already forgotten. The inane Atkinson was still hanging about, humming and poking things with his rushy cane. The doctor’s face had a spasm of disgust and decision, and he whispered rapidly to his companion: “I must lock the door again or this rat will get in. But I shall be out again in two minutes.”
He rapidly unlocked the door and locked it again behind him, just balking a blundering charge from the young man in the billycock. The young man threw himself impatiently on a hall chair. Flambeau looked at a Persian illumination on the wall; Father Brown, who seemed in a sort of daze, dully eyed the door. In about four minutes the door was opened again. Atkinson was quicker this time. He sprang forward, held the door open for an instant, and called out, “Oh, I say, Quinton, I want—”
From the other end of the study came the clear voice of Quinton, in something between a yawn and a yell of weary laughter.
“Oh, I know what you want. Take it, and leave me in peace. I’m writing a song about peacocks.”
Before the door closed half a sovereign came flying through the aperture, and Atkinson, stumbling forward, caught it with singular dexterity.
“So that’s settled,” said the doctor, and, locking the door savagely, he led the way out into the garden.
“Poor Leonard can get a little peace now,” he added to Father Brown. “He’s locked in all by himself for an hour or two.”
“Yes,” answered the priest, “and his voice sounded jolly enough when we left him.” Then he looked gravely round the garden and saw the loose figure of Atkinson standing and jingling the half-sovereign in his pocket, and beyond, in the purple twilight, the figure of the Indian sitting bolt upright upon a bank of grass with his face turned toward the setting sun. Then he said abruptly, “Where is Mrs. Quinton?”
“She has gone up to her room,” said the doctor. “That is her shadow on the blind.”
Father Brown looked up, and frowningly scrutinized a dark outline at the gas-lit window.
“Yes,” he said, “that is her shadow,” and he walked a yard or two and threw himself upon a garden seat.
Flambeau sat down beside him, but the doctor was one of those energetic people who live naturally on their legs. He walked away, smoking, into the twilight, and the two friends were left together.
“My Father,” said Flambeau in French, “what is the matter with you?”
Father Brown was silent and motionless for half a minute; then he said: “Superstition is irreligious, but there is something in the air of this place. I think it’s that Indian—at least, partly.”
He sank into silence, and watched the distant outline of the Indian, who still sat rigid, as if in prayer. At first sight he seemed motionless, but as Flambeau watched him he saw that the man swayed ever so slightly with a rhythmic movement, just as the dark treetops swayed ever so slightly in the little wind that was creeping up the dim garden paths and shuffling the fallen leaves.
THE LANDSCAPE was growing rapidly dark, as if for a storm, but they could still see all the figures in their various places. Atkinson was leaning against a tree with a listless face; Quinton’s wife was still at her window; the doctor had gone strolling round the end of the conservatory; they could see his cigar like a will-o’-the-wisp, and the fakir still sat, rigid and yet rocking, while the trees above him began to rock and almost to roar. Storm was certainly coming.
“When that Indian spoke to us,” went on Brown in a conversational undertone, “I had a sort of vision, a vision of him and all his universe. Yet he only said the same thing three times. When first he said ‘I want nothing,’ it meant only that he was impenetrable, that Asia does not give itself away. Then he said again, ‘I want nothing,’ and I knew that he meant that he was sufficient to himself, like a cosmos that needed no God, neither admitted any sins. And when he said the third time, ‘I want nothing,’ he said it with blazing eyes. And I knew that he meant literally what he said; that Nothing was his desire and his home; that he was weary for Nothing as for wine; that annihilation, the mere destruction of everything or anything—”
Two drops of rain fell; and for some reason Flambeau started and looked up, as if they had stung him. And the same instant the doctor down by the end of the conservatory began running towards them, calling out something as he ran.
As he came among them, like a bombshell, the restless Atkinson happened to be taking a turn nearer to the house front; and the doctor clutched him by the collar in a convulsive grip. “Foul play!” he cried. “What have you been doing to him, you dog?”
The priest had sprung erect and had the voice of steel of a soldier in command.
“No fighting!” he cried coolly. “We are enough to hold anyone we want to. What is the matter, Doctor?:
“Things are not right with Quinton,” said the doctor, quite white. “I could just see him through the glass, and I don’t like the way he’s lying. It’s not as I left him, anyhow.”
“Let us go in to him,” said Father Brown shortly. “You can leave Mr. Atkinson alone. I have had him in sight since we heard Quinton’s voice.”
“I will stop here and watch him,” said Flambeau hurriedly. “You go in and see.”
The doctor and the priest flew at the study door, unlocked it and fell into the room. In doing so they nearly fell over the large mahogany table in the centre at which the poet usually wrote, for the place was lit only by a small fire kept for the invalid. In the middle of this table lay a single sheet of paper evidently left there on purpose. The doctor snatched it up, glanced at it, handed it to Father Brown, and crying, “Good God, look at that!” plunged toward the glass room beyond, where the terrible tropic flowers still seemed to keep a crimson memory of the sunset.
Father Brown read the words three times before he put down the paper. The words were: “I die by my own hand, yet I die murdered!” They were in the quite inimitable, not to say illegible, handwriting of Leonard Quinton.
Then Father Brown, still keeping the paper in his hand, strode towards the conservatory, only to meet his medical friend coming back with a face of assurance and collapse. “He’s done it!” said Harris.
They went together through the gorgeous, unnatural beauty of cactus and azalea and found Leonard Quinton, poet and romancer, with his head hanging downward off his ottoman and his red curls sweeping the ground. Into his left side was thrust the queer dagger that they had picked up in the garden and his limp hand still rested on the hilt.
OUTSIDE, THE STORM had come at one stride, like the night in Coleridge, and garden and glass roof were darkened with driving rain. Father Brown seemed to be studying the paper more than the corpse; he held it close to his eyes and seemed trying to read it in the twilight. Then he held it up against the faint light, and, as he did so, lightning stared at them for an instant so white that the paper looked black against it.
Darkness full of thunder followed, and after the thunder Father Brown’s voice said out of the dark: “Doctor, this paper is the wrong shape!”
“What do you mean?” asked Doctor Harris with a frowning stare.
“It isn’t square,” answered Brown. “It has a sort of edge snipped off at the corner. What does it mean?”
“How the deuce should I know?” growled the doctor. “Shall we move this poor chap, do you think? He’s quite dead.”
“No,” answered the priest; “we must leave him as he lies and send for the police.” But he was still scrutinizing the paper.
As they went back through the study he stopped by the table and picked up a small pair of nail scissors. “Ah!” he said with a sort of relief; “this is what he did it with. But yet—” and he knitted his brows.
“Oh, stop fooling with that scrap of paper,” said the doctor emphatically. “It was a fad of his. He had hundreds of them. He cut all his paper like that.” And he pointed to a stack of sermon paper still unused, on another and smaller table. Father Brown went up to it and held up a sheet. It was the same irregular shape.
“Quite so,” he said. “And here I see the corners that were snipped off.” And to the indignation of his colleague he began to count them.
“That’s all right,” he said, with an apologetic smile. “Twenty-three sheets cut and twenty-two corners cut off them. And, as I see you are impatient, we will rejoin the others.”
“Who is to tell his wife?” said Dr. Harris. “Will you go and tell her now, while I send a servant for the police?”
“As you will,” said Father Brown indifferently. And he went out to the hall door.
Here also he found a drama, though of a more grotesque sort. It showed nothing less than his big friend Flambeau in an attitude to which he had long been unaccustomed, while upon the pathway at the bottom of the steps was sprawling with his boots in the air the amiable Atkinson, his billycock hat and walking-cane sent flying in opposite directions along the path. Atkinson had at length wearied of Flambeau’s almost paternal custody and had endeavoured to knock him down, which was no smooth game to play with the Roi des Apaches, even after that monarch’s abdication.
Flambeau was about to leap upon his enemy and secure him once more when the priest patted him easily on the shoulder.
“Make it up with Mr. Atkinson, my friend,” he said. “Beg a mutual pardon and say good night. We need not detain him any longer.” Then, as Atkinson rose somewhat doubtfully and gathered his hat and stick and went towards the garden gate, Father Brown said in a more serious voice: “Where is that Indian?”
They all three—for the doctor had joined them—turned involuntarily towards the dim, grassy bank amid the tossing trees purple with twilight, where they had last seen the brown man swaying in his strange prayer. The Indian was gone.
“Blast him!” cried the doctor, stamping furiously. “Now I know that it was that nigger that did it.”
“I thought you didn’t believe in magic,” said Father Brown quietly.
“No more I did,” said the doctor, rolling his eyes. “I only know that I loathed that yellow devil when I thought he was a sham wizard. And I shall loathe him more if I come to think he was a real one.”
“Well, his having escaped is nothing,” said Flambeau. “For we could have proved nothing and done nothing against him. One hardly goes to the parish constable with a story of suicide imposed by witchcraft or auto-suggestion.”
Meanwhile Father Brown had made his way into the house, and now went to break the news to the wife of the dead man.
WHEN HE CAME OUT AGAIN he looked a little pale and tragic, but what passed between them in that interview was never known, even when all else was known.
Flambeau, who was talking quietly with the doctor, was surprised to see his friend reappear so soon at his elbow; but Brown took no notice and merely drew the doctor apart. “You have sent for the police, haven’t you?” he asked.
“Yes,” answered Harris. “They ought to be here in ten minutes.”
“Will you do me a favour?” said the priest quickly. “The truth is, I make a collection of these curious stories, which often contain, as in the case of our Hindu friend, elements which can hardly be put into a police report. Now I want you to write out a report of this case for my private use. Yours is a clever trade,” he said, looking the doctor gravely and steadily in the face. “I sometimes think that you know some details of this matter which you have not thought fit to mention. Mine is a confidential trade, like yours, and I will treat anything you write for me in strict confidence. But write the whole.”
The doctor, who had been listening thoughtfully, with his head a little on one side, looked the priest in the face for an instant, said “All right,” and went into the study, closing the door behind him.
“Flambeau,” said Father Brown, “there is a long seat there under the veranda where we can smoke out of the rain. You are my only friend, and I want to talk to you. Or, perhaps, be silent with you.”
They established themselves comfortably in the veranda seat; Father Brown, against his common habit, accepted a good cigar and smoked it steadily in silence, while the rain shrieked and rattled on the roof of the veranda.
“My friend,” he said at length, “this is a very queer case. A very queer case.”
“I should think it was,” said Flambeau with something like a shudder.
“You call it queer, and I call it queer,” said the other, “and yet we mean quite opposite things. The modern mind always mixes up two different ideas: mystery in the sense of what is marvelous, and mystery in the sense of what is complicated. That is half its difficulty about miracles. A miracle is startling, but it is simple. It is simple because it is a miracle. It is power coming directly from God—or the devil—instead of indirectly through nature or human wills. Now, you mean that this business is marvelous because it is miraculous, because it is witchcraft worked by a wicked Indian. Understand, I do not say that it was not spiritual or diabolic; Heaven and hell only know by what surrounding influences strange sins come into the lives of men. But for the present my point is this: If it was pure magic, as you think, then it is marvelous; but it is not mysterious; that is, it is not complicated. The quality of a miracle is mysterious, but its manner is simple. Now, the manner of this business has been the reverse.”
The storm that had slackened for a little seemed to be swelling again and there came heavy movements as of faint thunder. Father Brown broke off the ash of his cigar and went on:
“There has been in this incident,” he said, “a twisted, ugly, coupled quality that does not belong to the straight bolts either of Heaven or hell. As one knows the crooked track of a snail, I know the crooked track of a man—or of a woman.”
The white lightning opened its enormous eye in one wink, the sky shut up again, and the priest went on:
“Of all these crooked things, the crookedest was the shape of that piece of paper. It was crookeder than the dagger that killed him.”
“You mean the paper on which Quinton confessed his suicide?” said Flambeau.
“I mean the paper on which Quinton wrote, ‘I die by my own hand,’ ” answered Father Brown. “The shape of that paper, my friend, was the wrong shape; the wrong shape if ever I have seen it in this wicked world.”
“It only had a corner snipped off,” said Flambeau, “and I understand that all Quinton’s paper was cut that way.”
“It was a very odd way,” said the other, “and a very bad way, to my taste and fancy. Look here, Flambeau! This Quinton, God receive his soul, was, perhaps, a bit of a cur in some ways, but he really was an artist, with the pencil as well as the pen. His handwriting, though hard to read, was bold and beautiful. I can’t prove what I say; I can’t prove anything. But I tell you with the full force of conviction that he could never have cut that mean little piece off a sheet of paper. If he had wanted to cut down paper for some purpose of fitting in, or binding up, or what not, he would have made quite a different slash with the scissors. Do you remember the shape? It was a mean shape. It was a wrong shape. Like this. Don’t you remember?”
And he waved his burning cigar before him in the darkness, making irregular squares so rapidly that Flambeau really seemed to see them as fiery hieroglyphics upon the darkness; hieroglyphics such as his friend had spoken of, which are undecipherable yet can have no good meaning.
“But,” said Flambeau, as the priest put his cigar in his mouth again and leaned back staring at the roof, “suppose somebody else did use the scissors. Why should somebody else by cutting pieces off his sermon paper make Quinton commit suicide?”
Father Brown was still leaning back and staring at the roof, but he took his cigar out of his mouth and said: “Quinton never did commit suicide.”
Flambeau stared at him. “Why, confound it all,” he cried, “then why did he confess to suicide?”
The priest leant forward again, settled his elbows on his knees, looked at the ground and said in a loud, distinct voice: “He never did confess to suicide.”
“You mean,” Flambeau said, “that the writing was forged?”
“No,” said Father Brown. “Quinton wrote it all right.”
“Well, there you are,” said the aggravated Flambeau. “Quinton wrote, ‘I die by my own hand,’ with his own hand, on a plain piece of paper.”
“Of the wrong shape,” said the priest calmly.
“Oh, the shape be damned!” cried Flambeau. “What has the shape to do with it?”
“There were twenty-three snipped papers,” resumed Brown unmoved, “and only twenty-two pieces snipped off. Therefore, one of the pieces had been destroyed, probably that from the written paper. Does that suggest anything to you?”
A light dawned on Flambeau’s face and he said: “There was something else written by Quinton; some other words.—‘They will tell you I die by my own hand,’ or ‘Do not believe that——’ ”
“Hotter, as the children say,” said his friend. “But the piece was hardly half an inch across; there was no room for one word, let alone five. Can you think of anything hardly bigger than a comma which the man with hell in his heart had to tear away as a testimony against him?”
“I can think of nothing,” said Flambeau.
“What about quotation marks?”
All words had left the other man’s mouth, and Father Brown said, like one going back to fundamentals:
“Leonard Quinton was a romancer and was writing an Oriental romance about wizardry and hypnotism. He——”
At this moment the door opened briskly behind them and the doctor came out. He put a long envelope into the priest’s hands.
“That’s the document you wanted,” he said, “and I must be getting home.”
“Good night,” said Father Brown, as the doctor walked briskly to the gate. He had left the front door open,so that a shaft of gaslight fell upon them. In the light of this Brown read the following words:
“Dear Father Brown: Vicisti Galilee. Otherwise, damn your eyes, which are very penetrating ones. Can it be possible that there is something in all that stuff of yours, after all?
“I am a man who has, ever since boyhood, believed in Nature and in all natural functions and instincts, whether men called them moral or immoral. Long before I became a doctor, when I was a schoolboy keeping mice and spiders, I believed that to be a good animal is the best thing in the world. But just now I am shaken. I have believed in Nature; but it seems as if Nature could betray a man. Can there be anything in your bosh?
“I loved Quinton’s wife. What was there wrong in that? I also thought that she would be happier with a clean animal like me than with that tormenting little lunatic. What was there wrong in that? I was only facing facts, like a man of science. She would have been happier.
“According to my own creed I was quite free to kill Quinton, which was the best thing for everybody, even himself. But as a healthy animal I had no notion of killing myself. I resolved, therefore, that I would never do it until I saw a chance that would leave me scot free. I saw that chance this morning.
“I have been three times, all told, into Quinton’s study today. The first time I went in he would talk about nothing but the weird tale called The Curse of a Saint which he was writing and which was all about how some Indian hermit made an English colonel kill himself by thinking about him. He showed me the last sheets and even read me the last paragraph, which was something like this: ‘The Conqueror of the Punjaub, a mere yellow skeleton, but still gigantic, managed to lift himself on his elbow and gasp in his nephew’s ear, “I die by my own hand, yet I die murdered!” ’ It so happened, by one chance out of a hundred, that those last words were written at the top of a new sheet of paper. I went out into the garden intoxicated with a frightful opportunity.
“We walked round the house, and two more things happened in my favor. You suspected an Indian, and you found a dagger which the Indian might most probably use. Taking the opportunity to stuff it in my pocket, I went back to Quinton’s study, locked the door and gave him his sleeping-draught. He was against answering Atkinson at all, but I urged him to call out and quiet the fellow, because I wanted a clear proof that Quinton was alive when I left the room for the second time. Quinton lay down in the conservatory and I came through the study. I am a quick man with my hands, and in a minute and a half I had done what I wanted to do. I had emptied all the first part of Quinton’s romance into the fireplace, where it burned to ashes. Then I saw that the quotation marks wouldn’t do, so I snipped them off, and to make it seem likelier snipped the whole quire to match. Then I came out with the knowledge that Quinton’s confession of suicide lay on the front table, while Quinton lay alive, but asleep, in the conservatory.
“The last act was a desperate one; you can guess it: I pretended to have seen Quinton dead and rushed to his room. I delayed you with the paper and killed Quinton while you were looking at his confession of suicide. He was half asleep, being drugged, and I put his own hand to the knife and drove it into his body. The knife was of so queer a shape that no one but an anatomist could have calculated the angle that would reach his heart. I wonder if you noticed this.
“When I had done it, the extraordinary thing happened. Nature deserted me. I felt ill. I felt just as if I had done something wrong. I think my brain is breaking up; I feel some sort of desperate pleasure in thinking I have told the thing to somebody; that I shall not have to be alone with it, if I marry and have children. What is the matter with me?...Madness...or can one have remorse, just as if one were in Byron’s poems! I cannot write any more.“JAMES ERSKINE HARRIS.”
FATHER BROWN CAREFULLY folded up the letter and put it in his breast pocket, just as there came a loud peal at the gate bell and the wet waterproofs of several policemen gleamed in the road outside.
(Note: The original printing of the story included the following text at the end: “Editor’s Note—This is the fifth of Mr. Chesterton’s series of stories. The sixth and last story will be printed in an early issue.)