G.K. Chesterton: The Incredulity of Father Brown: The Doom of the Darnaways

April 8, 2023 | By Jim Stovall | Filed in: journalism.

Listen to this story here on LibriVox.org

Two landscape-painters stood looking at one landscape, which was also a seascape, and both were curiously impressed by it, though their impressions were not exactly the same. To one of them, who was a rising artist from London, it was new as well as strange. To the other, who was a local artist but with something more than a local celebrity, it was better known; but perhaps all the more strange for what he knew of it.

In terms of tone and form, as these men saw it, it was a stretch of sands against a stretch of sunset, the whole scene lying in strips of sombre colour, dead green and bronze and brown and a drab that was not merely dull but in that gloaming in some way more mysterious than gold. All that broke these level lines was a long building which ran out from the fields into the sands of the sea, so that its fringe of dreary weeds and rushes seemed almost to meet the seaweed. But its most singular feature was that the upper part of it had the ragged outlines of a ruin, pierced by so many wide windows and large rents as to be a mere dark skeleton against the dying light; while the lower bulk of the building had hardly any windows at all, most of them being blind and bricked up and their outlines only faintly traceable in the twilight. But one window at least was still a window; and it seemed strangest of all that it showed a light.

‘Who on earth can live in that old shell?’ exclaimed the Londoner, who was a big, bohemian-looking man, young but with a shaggy red beard that made him look older; Chelsea knew him familiarly as Harry Payne.

‘Ghosts, you might suppose,’ replied his friend Martin Wood. ‘Well, the people who live there really are rather like ghosts.’

It was perhaps rather a paradox that the London artist seemed almost bucolic in his boisterous freshness and wonder, while the local artist seemed a more shrewd and experienced person, regarding him with mature and amiable amusement; indeed, the latter was altogether a quieter and more conventional figure, wearing darker clothes and with his square and stolid face clean shaven.

‘It is only a sign of the times, of course,’ he went on,’ or of the passing of old times and old families with them. The last of the great Darnaways live in that house, and not many of the new poor are as poor as they are. They can’t even afford to make their own top-storey habitable; but have to live in the lower rooms of a ruin, like bats and owls. Yet they have family portraits that go back to the Wars of the Roses and the first portrait-painting in England, and very fine some of them are; I happen to know, because they asked for my professional advice in overhauling them. There’s one of them especially, and one of the earliest, but it’s so good that it gives you the creeps.’

‘The whole place gives you the creeps, I should think by the look of it,’ replied Payne.

‘Well,’ said his friend, ‘to tell you the truth, it does.’

The silence that followed was stirred by a faint rustle among the rushes by the moat; and it gave them, rationally enough, a slight nervous start when a dark figure brushed along the bank, moving rapidly and almost like a startled bird. But it was only a man walking briskly with a black bag in his hand: a man with a long sallow face and sharp eyes that glanced at the London stranger in a slightly darkling and suspicious manner.

‘It’s only Dr Barnet,’ said Wood with a sort of relief. ‘Good evening, Doctor. Are you going up to the house? I hope nobody’s ill.’

‘Everybody’s always ill in a place like that,’ growled the doctor; ‘only sometimes they’re too ill to know it. The very air of the place is a blight and a pestilence. I don’t envy the young man from Australia.’

‘And who,’ asked Payne abruptly and rather absently, ‘may the young man from Australia be?’

‘Ah!’ snorted the doctor; ‘hasn’t your friend told you about him? As a matter of fact I believe he is arriving today. Quite a romance in the old style of melodrama: the heir back from the colonies to his ruined castle, all complete even down to an old family compact for his marrying the lady watching in the ivied tower. Queer old stuff, isn’t it? but it really happens sometimes. He’s even got a little money, which is the only bright spot there ever was in this business.’

‘What does Miss Darnaway herself, in her ivied tower, think of the business?’ asked Martin Wood dryly.

‘What she thinks of everything else by this time,’ replied the doctor. ‘They don’t think in this weedy old den of superstitions, they only dream and drift. I think she accepts the family contract and the colonial husband as part of the Doom of the Darnaways, don’t you know. I really think that if he turned out to be a humpbacked Negro with one eye and a homicidal mania, she would only think it added a finishing touch and fitted in with the twilight scenery.’

‘You’re not giving my friend from London a very lively picture of my friends in the country,’ said Wood, laughing. ‘I had intended taking him there to call; no artist ought to miss those Darnaway portraits if he gets the chance. But perhaps I’d better postpone it if they’re in the middle of the Australian invasion.’

‘Oh, do go in and see them, for the Lord’s sake,’ said Dr Barnet warmly. ‘Anything that will brighten their blighted lives will make my task easier. It will need a good many colonial cousins to cheer things up, I should think; and the more the merrier. Come, I’ll take you in myself.’

As they drew nearer to the house it was seen to be isolated like an island in a moat of brackish water which they crossed by a bridge. On the other side spread a fairly wide stony floor or embankment with great cracks across it, in which little tufts of weed and thorn sprouted here and there. This rock platform looked large and bare in the grey twilight, and Payne could hardly have believed that such a corner of space could have contained so much of the soul of a wilderness. This platform only jutted out on one side, like a giant door-step and beyond it was the door; a very low-browed Tudor archway standing open, but dark like a cave.

When the brisk doctor led them inside without ceremony, Payne had, as it were, another shock of depression. He could have expected to find himself mounting to a very ruinous tower, by very narrow winding staircases; but in this case the first steps into the house were actually steps downwards. They went down several short and broken stairways into large twilit rooms which but for their lines of dark pictures and dusty bookshelves, might have been the traditional dungeons beneath the castle moat. Here and there a candle in an old candlestick lit up some dusty accidental detail of a dead elegance; but the visitor was not so much impressed or depressed by this artificial light as by the one pale gleam of natural light. As he passed down the long room he saw the only window in that wall—a curious low oval window of a late-seventeenth-century fashion. But the strange thing about it was that it did not look out directly on any space of sky but only on a reflection of sky; a pale strip of daylight merely mirrored in the moat, under the hanging shadow of the bank. Payne had a memory of the Lady of Shallot who never saw the world outside except in a mirror. The lady of this Shallot not only in some sense saw the world in a mirror, but even saw the world upside-down.

‘It’s as if the house of Darnaway were falling literally as well as metaphorically,’ said Wood in a low voice; ‘as if it were sinking slowly into a swamp or a quicksand, until the sea goes over it like a green roof.’

Even the sturdy Dr Barnet started a little at the silent approach of the figure that came to receive them. Indeed, the room was so silent that they were all startled to realize that it was not empty. There were three people in it when they entered: three dim figures motionless in the dim room; all three dressed in black and looking like dark shadows. As the foremost figure drew nearer the grey light from the window, he showed a face that looked almost as grey as its frame of hair. This was old Vine, the steward, long left in loco parentis since the death of that eccentric parent, the last Lord Darnaway. He would have been a handsome old man if he had had no teeth. As it was, he had one which showed every now and then and gave him a rather sinister appearance. He received the doctor and his friends with a fine courtesy and escorted them to where the other two figures in black were seated. One of them seemed to Payne to give another appropriate touch of gloomy antiquity to the castle by the mere fact of being a Roman Catholic priest, who might have come out of a priest’s hole in the dark old days. Payne could imagine him muttering prayers or telling beads, or tolling bells or doing a number of indistinct and melancholy things in that melancholy place. Just then he might be supposed to have been giving religious consolation to the lady; but it could hardly be supposed that the consolation was very consoling, or at any rate that it was very cheering. For the rest, the priest was personally insignificant enough, with plain and rather expressionless features; but the lady was a very different matter. Her face was very far from being plain or insignificant; it stood out from the darkness of her dress and hair and background with a pallor that was almost awful, but a beauty that was almost awfully alive. Payne looked at it as long as he dared; and he was to look at it a good deal longer before he died.

Wood merely exchanged with his friends such pleasant and polite phrases as would lead up to his purpose of revisiting the portraits. He apologized for calling on the day which he heard was to be one of family welcome; but he was soon convinced that the family was rather mildly relieved to have visitors to distract them or break the shock. He did not hesitate, therefore, to lead Payne through the central reception-room into the library beyond, where hung the portrait, for there was one which he was especially bent on showing, not only as a picture but almost as a puzzle. The little priest trudged along with them; he seemed to know something about old pictures as well as about old prayers.

‘I’m rather proud of having spotted this,’ said Wood.’ I believe it’s a Holbein. If it isn’t, there was somebody living in Holbein’s time who was as great as Holbein.’

It was a portrait in the hard but sincere and living fashion of the period, representing a man clad in black trimmed with gold and fur, with a heavy, full, rather pale face but watchful eyes.

‘What a pity art couldn’t have stopped for ever at just that transition stage,’ cried Wood, ‘and never transitioned any more. Don’t you see it’s just realistic enough to be real? Don’t you see the face speaks all the more because it stands out from a rather stiffer framework of less essential things? And the eyes are even more real than the face. On my soul, I think the eyes are too real for the face! It’s just as if those sly, quick eyeballs were protruding out of a great pale mask.’

‘The stiffness extends to the figure a little, I think,’ said Payne. ‘They hadn’t quite mastered anatomy when medievalism ended, at least in the north. That left leg looks to me a good deal out of drawing.’

‘I’m not so sure,’ replied Wood quietly. ‘Those fellows who painted just when realism began to be done, and before it began to be overdone, were often more realistic than we think. They put real details of portraiture into things that are thought merely conventional. You might say this fellow’s eyebrows or eye-sockets are a little lop-sided; but I bet if you knew him you’d find that one of his eyebrows did really stick up more than the other. And I shouldn’t wonder if he was lame or something, and that black leg was meant to be crooked.’

‘What an old devil he looks!’ burst out Payne suddenly. ‘I trust his reverence will excuse my language.’

‘I believe in the devil, thank you,’ said the priest with an inscrutable face. ‘Curiously enough there was a legend that the devil was lame.’

‘I say,’ protested Payne, ‘you can’t really mean that he was the devil; but who the devil was he?’

‘He was the Lord Darnaway under Henry VII and Henry VIII,’ replied his companion. ‘But there are curious legends about him, too; one of them is referred to in that inscription round the frame, and further developed in some notes left by somebody in a book I found here. They are both rather curious reading.’

Payne leaned forward, craning his head so as to follow the archaic inscription round the frame. Leaving out the antiquated lettering and spelling, it seemed to be a sort of rhyme running somewhat thus:

In the seventh heir I shall return: In the seventh hour I shall depart: None in that hour shall hold my hand: And woe to her that holds my heart.

‘It sounds creepy somehow,’ said Payne, ‘but that may be partly because I don’t understand a word of it.’

‘It’s pretty creepy even when you do,’ said Wood in a low voice. ‘The record made at a later date, in the old book I found, is all about how this beauty deliberately killed himself in such a way that his wife was executed for his murder. Another note commemorates a later tragedy, seven successions later—under the Georges—in which another Darnaway committed suicide, having first thoughtfully left poison in his wife’s wine. It’s said that both suicides took place at seven in the evening. I suppose the inference is that he does really return with every seventh inheritor and makes things unpleasant, as the rhyme suggests, for any lady unwise enough to marry him.’

‘On that argument,’ replied Payne, ‘it would be a trifle uncomfortable for the next seventh gentleman.’

Wood’s voice was lower still as he said: ‘The new heir will be the seventh.’

Harry Payne suddenly heaved up his great chest and shoulders like a man flinging off a burden.

‘What crazy stuff are we all talking?’ he cried. ‘We’re all educated men in an enlightened age, I suppose. Before I came into this damned dank atmosphere I’d never have believed I should be talking of such things, except to laugh at them.’

‘You are right,’ said Wood. ‘If you lived long enough in this underground palace you’d begin to feel differently about things. I’ve begun to feel very curiously about that picture, having had so much to do with handling and hanging it. It sometimes seems to me that the painted face is more alive than the dead faces of the people living here; that it is a sort of talisman or magnet: that it commands the elements and draws out the destinies of men and things. I suppose you would call it very fanciful.’

‘What is that noise?’ cried Payne suddenly.

They all listened, and there seemed to be no noise except the dull boom of the distant sea; then they began to have the sense of something mingling with it; something like a voice calling through the sound of the surf, dulled by it at first, but coming nearer and nearer. The next moment they were certain: someone was shouting outside in the dusk.

Payne turned to the low window behind him and bent to look out. It was the window from which nothing could be seen except the moat with its reflection of bank and sky. But that inverted vision was not the same that he had seen before. From the hanging shadow of the bank in the water depended two dark shadows reflected from the feet and legs of a figure standing above upon the bank. Through that limited aperture they could see nothing but the two legs black against the reflection of a pale and livid sunset. But somehow that very fact of the head being invisible, as if in the clouds, gave something dreadful to the sound that followed; the voice of a man crying aloud what they could not properly hear or understand. Payne especially was peering out of the little window with an altered face, and he spoke with an altered voice:

‘How queerly he’s standing!’

‘No, no,’ said Wood, in a sort of soothing whisper. ‘Things often look like that in reflection. It’s the wavering of the water that makes you think that.’

‘Think what?’ asked the priest shortly.

‘That his left leg is crooked,’ said Wood.

Payne had thought of the oval window as a sort of mystical mirror; and it seemed to him that there were in it other inscrutable images of doom. There was something else beside the figure that he did not understand; three thinner legs showing in dark lines against the light, as if some monstrous three-legged spider or bird were standing beside the stranger. Then he had the less crazy thought of a tripod like that of the heathen oracles; and the next moment the thing had vanished and the legs of the human figure passed out of the picture.

He turned to meet the pale face of old Vine, the steward, with his mouth open, eager to speak, and his single tooth showing. ‘He has come,’ he said. ‘The boat arrived from Australia this morning.’

Even as they went back out of the library into the central salon they heard the footsteps of the newcomer clattering down the entrance steps, with various items of light luggage trailed behind him. When Payne saw one of them, he laughed with a reaction of relief. His tripod was nothing but the telescopic legs of a portable camera, easily packed and unpacked; and the man who was carrying it seemed so far to take on equally solid and normal qualities. He was dressed in dark clothes, but of a careless and holiday sort; his shirt was of grey flannel, and his boots echoed uncompromisingly enough in those still chambers. As he strode forward to greet his new circle his stride had scarcely more than the suggestion of a limp. But Payne and his companions were looking at his face, and could scarcely take their eyes from it.

He evidently felt there was something curious and uncomfortable about his reception; but they could have sworn that he did not himself know the cause of it. The lady, supposed to be in some sense already betrothed to him, was certainly beautiful enough to attract him; but she evidently also frightened him. The old steward brought him a sort of feudal homage, yet treated him as if he were the family ghost. The priest still looked at him with a face which was quite indecipherable, and therefore perhaps all the more unnerving. A new sort of irony, more like the Greek irony, began to pass over Payne’s mind. He had dreamed of the stranger as a devil, but it seemed almost worse that he was an unconscious destiny. He seemed to march towards crime with the monstrous innocence of Oedipus. He had approached the family mansion in so blindly buoyant a spirit as to have set up his camera to photograph his first sight of it; and even the camera had taken on the semblance of the tripod of a tragic pythoness.

Payne was surprised, when taking his leave a little while after, at something which showed that the Australian was already less unconscious of his surroundings. He said in a low voice:

‘Don’t go … or come again soon. You look like a human being. This place fairly gives me the jumps.’

When Payne emerged out of those almost subterranean halls and came into the night air and the smell of the sea, he felt as if he had come out of that underworld of dreams in which events jumble on top of each other in a way at once unrestful and unreal.

The arrival of the strange relative had been somehow unsatisfying and, as it were, unconvincing. The doubling of the same face in the old portrait and the new arrival troubled him like a two headed monster. And yet it was not altogether a nightmare; nor was it that face, perhaps, that he saw most vividly.

‘Did you say?’ he asked of the doctor, as they strode together across the striped dark sands by the darkening sea; ‘did you say that young man was betrothed to Miss Darnaway by a family compact or something? Sounds rather like a novel.’

‘But an historical novel,’ answered Dr Barnet. ‘The Darnaways all went to sleep a few centuries ago, when things were really done that we only read of in romances. Yes; I believe there’s some family tradition by which second or third cousins always marry when they stand in a certain relation of age, in order to unite the property. A damned silly tradition, I should say; and if they often married in and in, in that fashion, it may account on principles of heredity for their having gone so rotten.’

‘I should hardly say,’ answered Payne a little stuffily, ‘that they had all gone rotten.’

‘Well,’ replied the doctor, ‘the young man doesn’t look rotten, of course, though he’s certainly lame.’

‘The young man!’ cried Payne, who was suddenly and unreasonably angry. ‘Well, if you think the young lady looks rotten, I think it’s you who have rotten taste.’

The doctor’s face grew dark and bitter. ‘I fancy I know more about it than you do,’ he snapped.

They completed the walk in silence, each feeling that he had been irrationally rude and had suffered equally irrational rudeness; and Payne was left to brood alone on the matter, for his friend Wood had remained behind to attend to some of his business in connexion with the pictures.

Payne took very full advantage of the invitation extended by the colonial cousin, who wanted somebody to cheer him up. During the next few weeks he saw a good deal of the dark interior of the Darnaway home; though it might be said that he did not confine himself entirely to cheering up the colonial cousin. The lady’s melancholy was of longer standing and perhaps needed more lifting; anyhow, he showed a laborious readiness to lift it. He was not without a conscience, however, and the situation made him doubtful and uncomfortable. Weeks went by and nobody could discover from the demeanour of the new Darnaway whether he considered himself engaged according to the old compact or no. He went mooning about the dark galleries and stood staring vacantly at the dark and sinister picture. The shades of that prison-house were certainly beginning to close on him, and there was little of his Australian assurance left. But Payne could discover nothing upon the point that concerned him most. Once he attempted to confide in his friend Martin Wood, as he was pottering about in his capacity of picture-hanger; but even out of him he got very little satisfaction.

‘It seems to me you can’t butt in,’ said Wood shortly, ‘because of the engagement.’

‘Of course I shan’t butt in if there is an engagement,’ retorted his friend; ‘but is there? I haven’t said a word to her of course; but I’ve seen enough of her to be pretty certain she doesn’t think there is, even if she thinks there may be. He doesn’t say there is, or even hint that there ought to be. It seems to me this shillyshallying is rather unfair on everybody.’

‘Especially on you, I suppose,’ said Wood a little harshly. ‘But if you ask me, I’ll tell you what I think—I think he’s afraid.’

‘Afraid of being refused?’ asked Payne.

‘No; afraid of being accepted,’ answered the other. ‘Don’t bite my head off—I don’t mean afraid of the lady. I mean afraid of the picture.’

‘Afraid of the picture!’ repeated Payne.

‘I mean afraid of the curse,’ said Wood. ‘Don’t you remember the rhyme about the Darnaway doom falling on him and her.’

‘Yes, but look here,’ cried Payne; ‘even the Darnaway doom can’t have it both ways. You tell me first that I mustn’t have my own way because of the compact, and then that the compact mustn’t have its own way because of the curse. But if the curse can destroy the compact, why should she be tied to the compact? If they’re frightened of marrying each other, they’re free to marry anybody else, and there’s an end of it. Why should I suffer for the observance of something they don’t propose to observe? It seems to me your position is very unreasonable.’

‘Of course it’s all a tangle,’ said Wood rather crossly, and went on hammering at the frame of a canvas.

Suddenly, one morning, the new heir broke his long and baffling silence. He did it in a curious fashion, a little crude, as was his way, but with an obvious anxiety to do the right thing. He asked frankly for advice, not of this or that individual as Payne had done, but collectively as of a crowd. When he did speak he threw himself on the whole company like a statesman going to the country. He called it ‘a show-down’. Fortunately the lady was not included in this large gesture; and Payne shuddered when he thought of her feelings. But the Australian was quite honest; he thought the natural thing was to ask for help and for information, calling a sort of family council at which he put his cards on the table. It might be said that he flung down his cards on the table, for he did it with a rather desperate air, like one who had been harassed for days and nights by the increasing pressure of a problem. In that short time the shadows of that place of low windows and sinking pavements had curiously changed him, and increased a certain resemblance that crept through all their memories.

The five men, including the doctor, were sitting round a table; and Payne was idly reflecting that his own light tweeds and red hair must be the only colours in the room, for the priest and the steward were in black, and Wood and Darnaway habitually wore dark grey suits that looked almost like black. Perhaps this incongruity had been what the young man had meant by calling him a human being. At that moment the young man himself turned abruptly in his chair and began to talk. A moment after the dazed artist knew that he was talking about the most tremendous thing in the world.

‘Is there anything in it?’ he was saying. ‘That is what I’ve come to asking myself till I’m nearly crazy. I’d never have believed I should come to thinking of such things; but I think of the portrait and the rhyme and the coincidences or whatever you call them, and I go cold. Is there anything in it? Is there any Doom of the Darnaways or only a damned queer accident? Have I got a right to marry, or shall I bring something big and black out of the sky, that I know nothing about, on myself and somebody else?’

His rolling eye had roamed round the table and rested on the plain face of the priest, to whom he now seemed to be speaking. Payne’s submerged practicality rose in protest against the problem of superstition being brought before that supremely superstitious tribunal. He was sitting next to Darnaway and struck in before the priest could answer.

‘Well, the coincidences are curious, I admit,’ he said, rather forcing a note of cheerfulness; ‘but surely we—’ and then he stopped as if he had been struck by lightning. For Darnaway had turned his head sharply over his shoulder at the interruption, and with the movement, his left eyebrow jerked up far above its fellow and for an instant the face of the portrait glared at him with a ghastly exaggeration of exactitude. The rest saw it; and all had the air of having been dazzled by an instant of light. The old steward gave a hollow groan.

‘It is no good,’ he said hoarsely;’ we are dealing with something too terrible.’

‘Yes,’ assented the priest in a low voice, ‘we are dealing with something terrible; with the most terrible thing I know, and the name of it is nonsense.’

‘What did you say?’ said Darnaway, still looking towards him.

‘I said nonsense,’ repeated the priest. ‘I have not said anything in particular up to now, for it was none of my business; I was only taking temporary duty in the neighbourhood and Miss Darnaway wanted to see me. But since you’re asking me personally and point-blank, why, it’s easy enough to answer. Of course there’s no Doom of the Darnaways to prevent your marrying anybody you have any decent reason for marrying. A man isn’t fated to fall into the smallest venial sin, let alone into crimes like suicide and murder. You can’t be made to do wicked things against your will because your name is Darnaway, any more than I can because my name is Brown. The Doom of the Browns,’ he added with relish—’the Weird of the Browns would sound even better.’

‘And you of all people,’ repeated the Australian, staring, ‘tell me to think like that about it.’

‘I tell you to think about something else,’ replied the priest cheerfully. ‘What has become of the rising art of photography? How is the camera getting on? I know it’s rather dark downstairs, but those hollow arches on the floor above could easily be turned into a first-rate photographic studio. A few workmen could fit it out with a glass roof in no time.’

‘Really,’ protested Martin Wood, ‘I do think you should be the last man in the world to tinker about with those beautiful Gothic arches, which are about the best work your own religion has ever done in the world. I should have thought you’d have had some feeling for that sort of art; but I can’t see why you should be so uncommonly keen on photography.’

‘I’m uncommonly keen on daylight,’ answered Father Brown, ‘especially in this dingy business; and photography has the virtue of depending on daylight. And if you don’t know that I would grind all the Gothic arches in the world to powder to save the sanity of a single human soul, you don’t know so much about my religion as you think you do.’

The young Australian had sprung to his feet like a man rejuvenated. ‘By George! that’s the talk,’ he cried; ‘though I never thought to hear it from that quarter. I’ll tell you what, reverend sir, I’ll do something that will show I haven’t lost my courage after all.’

The old steward was still looking at him with quaking watchfulness, as if he felt something fey about the young man’s defiance. ‘Oh,’ he cried, ‘what are you going to do now?’

‘I am going to photograph the portrait,’ replied Darnaway.

Yet it was barely a week afterwards that the storm of the catastrophe seemed to stoop out of the sky, darkening that sun of sanity to which the priest had appealed in vain, and plunging the mansion once more in the darkness of the Darnaway doom. It had been easy enough to fit up the new studio; and seen from inside it looked very like any other such studio, empty except for the fullness of the white light. A man coming from the gloomy rooms below had more than normally the sense of stepping into a more than modern brilliancy, as blank as the future. At the suggestion of Wood, who knew the castle well and had got over his first aesthetic grumblings, a small room remaining intact in the upper ruins was easily turned into a dark room, into which Darnaway went out of the white daylight to grope by the crimson gleams of a red lamp. Wood said, laughing, that the red lamp had reconciled him to the vandalism; as that bloodshot darkness was as romantic as an alchemist’s cave.

Darnaway had risen at daybreak on the day that he meant to photograph the mysterious portrait, and had it carried up from the library by the single corkscrew staircase that connected the two floors. There he had set it up in the wide white daylight on a sort of easel and planted his photographic tripod in front of it. He said he was anxious to send a reproduction of it to a great antiquary who had written on the antiquities of the house; but the others knew that this was an excuse covering much deeper things. It was, if not exactly a spiritual duel between Darnaway and the demoniac picture, at least a duel between Darnaway and his own doubts. He wanted to bring the daylight of photography face to face with that dark masterpiece of painting; and to see whether the sunshine of the new art would not drive out the shadows of the old.

Perhaps this was why he preferred to do it by himself, even if some of the details seemed to take longer and involve more than normal delay. Anyhow, he rather discouraged the few who visited his studio during the day of the experiment, and who found him focusing and fussing about in a very isolated and impenetrable fashion. The steward had left a meal for him, as he refused to come down; the old gentleman also returned some hours afterwards and found the meal more or less normally disposed of; but when he brought it he got no more gratitude than a grunt. Payne went up once to see how he was getting on, but finding the photographer disinclined for conversation came down again. Father Brown had wandered that way in an unobtrusive style to lake Darnaway a letter from the expert to whom the photograph was to be sent. But he left the letter on a tray, and whatever he thought of that great glasshouse full of daylight and devotion to a hobby, a world he had himself in some sense created, he kept it to himself and came down. He had reason to remember very soon that he was the last to come down the solitary staircase connecting the floors, leaving a lonely man and an empty room behind him. The others were standing in the salon that led into the library, just under the great black ebony clock that looked like a titanic coffin.

‘How was Darnaway getting on,’ asked Payne, a little later, ‘when you last went up?’

The priest passed a hand over his forehead. ‘Don’t tell me I’m getting psychic,’ he said with a sad smile. ‘I believe I’m quite dazzled with daylight up in that room and couldn’t see things straight. Honestly, I felt for a flash as if there were something uncanny about Darnaway’s figure standing before that portrait.’

‘Oh, that’s the lame leg,’ said Barnet promptly. ‘We know all about that.’

‘Do you know,’ said Payne abruptly, but lowering his voice, ‘l don’t think we do know all about it or anything about it. What’s the matter with his leg? What was the matter with his ancestor’s leg?’

‘Oh, there’s something about that in the book I was reading in there, in the family archives,’ said Wood; ‘I’ll fetch it for you.’ And he stepped into the library just beyond.

‘I think,’ said Father Brown quietly, ‘Mr Payne must have some particular reason for asking that.’

‘I may as well blurt it out once and for all,’ said Payne, but in a yet lower voice. ‘After all, there is a rational explanation. A man from anywhere might have made up to look like the portrait. What do we know about Darnaway? He is behaving rather oddly—’

The others were staring at him in a rather startled fashion; but the priest seemed to take it very calmly.

‘I don’t think the old portrait’s ever been photographed,’ he said. ‘That’s why he wants to do it. I don’t think there’s anything odd about that.’

‘Quite an ordinary state of things, in fact,’ said Wood with a smile; he had just returned with the book in his hand. And even as he spoke there was a stir in the clockwork of the great dark clock behind him and successive strokes thrilled through the room up to the number of seven. With the last stroke there came a crash from the floor above that shook the house like a thunderbolt; and Father Brown was already two steps up the winding staircase before the sound had ceased.

‘My God!’ cried Payne involuntarily; ‘he is alone up there.’

‘Yes,’ said Father Brown without turning, as he vanished up the stairway. ‘We shall find him alone.’

When the rest recovered from their first paralysis and ran helter-skelter up the stone steps and found their way to the new studio, it was true in that sense that they found him alone. They found him lying in a wreck of his tall camera, with its long splintered legs standing out grotesquely at three different angles; and Darnaway had fallen on top of it with one black crooked leg lying at a fourth angle along the floor. For the moment the dark heap looked as if he were entangled with some huge and horrible spider. Little more than a glance and a touch were needed to tell them that he was dead. Only the portrait stood untouched upon the easel, and one could fancy the smiling eyes shone.

An hour afterwards Father Brown in helping to calm the confusion of the stricken household, came upon the old steward muttering almost as mechanically as the clock had ticked and struck the terrible hour. Almost without hearing them, he knew what the muttered words must be.

In the seventh heir I shall return In the seventh hour I shall depart.

As he was about to say something soothing, the old man seemed suddenly to start awake and stiffen into anger; his mutterings changed to a fierce cry.

‘You!’ he cried; ‘you and your daylight! Even you won’t say now there is no Doom for the Darnaways.’

‘My opinion about that is unchanged,’ said Father Brown mildly. Then after a pause he added: ‘I hope you will observe poor Darnaway’s last wish, and see the photograph is sent off.’

‘The photograph!’ cried the doctor sharply. ‘What’s the good of that? As a matter of fact, it’s rather curious; but there isn’t any photograph. It seems he never took it after all, after pottering about all day.’

Father Brown swung round sharply. ‘Then take it yourselves,’ he said. ‘Poor Darnaway was perfectly right. It’s most important that the photograph should be taken.’

As all the visitors, the doctor, the priest, and the two artists trailed away in a black and dismal procession across the brown and yellow sands, they were at first more or less silent, rather as if they had been stunned. And certainly there had been something like a crack of thunder in a clear sky about the fulfilment of that forgotten superstition at the very time when they had most forgotten it; when the doctor and the priest had both filled their minds with rationalism as the photographer had filled his rooms with daylight. They might be as rationalistic as they liked; but in broad daylight the seventh heir had returned, and in broad daylight at the seventh hour he had perished.

‘I’m afraid everybody will always believe in the Darnaway superstition now,’ said Martin Wood.

‘I know one who won’t,’ said the doctor sharply. ‘Why should I indulge in superstition because somebody else indulges in suicide?’

‘You think poor Mr Darnaway committed suicide?’ asked the priest.

‘I’m sure he committed suicide,’ replied the doctor.

‘It is possible,’ agreed the other.

‘He was quite alone up there, and he had a whole drug-store of poisons in the dark room. Besides, it’s just the sort of thing that Darnaways do.’

‘You don’t think there’s anything in the fulfilment of the family curse?’

‘Yes,’ said the doctor; ‘I believe in one family curse, and that is the family constitution. I told you it was heredity, and they are all half mad. If you stagnate and breed in and brood in your own swamp like that, you’re bound to degenerate whether you like it or not. The laws of heredity can’t be dodged; the truths of science can’t be denied. The minds of the Darnaways are falling to pieces, as their blighted old sticks and stones are falling to pieces, eaten away by the sea and the salt air. Suicide—of course he committed suicide; I dare say all the rest will commit suicide. Perhaps the best thing they could do.’

As the man of science spoke there sprang suddenly and with startling clearness into Payne’s memory the face of the daughter of the Darnaways, a tragic mask pale against an unfathomable blackness, but itself of a blinding and more than mortal beauty. He opened his mouth to speak and found himself speechless.

‘I see,’ said Father Brown to the doctor; ‘so you do believe in the superstition after all?’

‘What do you mean—believe in the superstition? I believe in the suicide as a matter of scientific necessity.’

‘Well,’ replied the priest, ‘I don’t see a pin to choose between your scientific superstition and the other magical superstition. They both seem to end in turning people into paralytics, who can’t move their own legs or arms or save their own lives or souls. The rhyme said it was the Doom of the Darnaways to be killed, and the scientific textbook says it is the Doom of the Darnaways to kill themselves. Both ways they seem to be slaves.’

‘But I thought you said you believed in rational views of these things,’ said Dr Barnet. ‘Don’t you believe in heredity?’

‘I said I believed in daylight,’ replied the priest in a loud and clear voice, ‘and I won’t choose between two tunnels of subterranean superstition that both end in the dark. And the proof of it is this: that you are all entirely in the dark about what really happened in that house.’

‘Do you mean about the suicide?’ asked Payne.

‘I mean about the murder,’ said Father Brown; and his voice, though only slightly lifted to a louder note, seemed somehow to resound over the whole shore.’ It was murder; but murder is of the will, which God made free.’

What the other said at the moment in answer to it Payne never knew. For the word had a rather curious effect on him; stirring him like the blast of a trumpet and yet bringing him to a halt. He stood still in the middle of the sandy waste and let the others go on in front of him; he felt the blood crawling through all his veins and the sensation that is called the hair standing on end; and yet he felt a new and unnatural happiness. A psychological process too quick and too complicated for himself to follow had already reached a conclusion that he could not analyse; but the conclusion was one of relief. After standing still for a moment he turned and went back slowly across the sands to the house of the Darnaways.

He crossed the moat with a stride that shook the bridge, descended the stairs and traversed the long rooms with a resounding tread, till he came to the place where Adelaide Darnaway sat haloed with the low light of the oval window, almost like some forgotten saint left behind in the land of death. She looked up, and an expression of wonder made her face yet more wonderful.

‘What is it?’ she said.’ Why have you come back?’

‘I have come for the Sleeping Beauty,’ he said in a tone that had the resonance of a laugh. ‘This old house went to sleep long ago, as the doctor said; but it is silly for you to pretend to be old. Come up into the daylight and hear the truth. I have brought you a word; it is a terrible word, but it breaks the spell of your captivity.’

She did not understand a word he said, but something made her rise and let him lead her down the long hall and up the stairs and out under the evening sky. The ruins of a dead garden stretched towards the sea, and an old fountain with the figure of a triton, green with rust, remained poised there, pouring nothing out of a dried horn into an empty basin. He had often seen that desolate outline against the evening sky as he passed, and it had seemed to him a type of fallen fortunes in more ways than one. Before long, doubtless, those hollow fonts would be filled, but it would be with the pale green bitter waters of the sea and the flowers would be drowned and strangled in seaweed. So, he had told himself, the daughter of the Darnaways might indeed be wedded; but she would be wedded to death and a doom as deaf and ruthless as the sea. But now he laid a hand on the bronze triton that was like the hand of a giant, and shook it as if he meant to hurl it over like an idol or an evil god of the garden.

‘What do you mean?’ she asked steadily. ‘What is this word that will set us free?’

‘The word is murder,’ he said, ‘and the freedom it brings is as fresh as the flowers of spring. No; I do not mean I have murdered anybody. But the fact that anybody can be murdered is itself good news, after the evil dreams you have been living in. Don’t you understand? In that dream of yours everything that happened to you came from inside you; the Doom of the Darnaways was stored up in the Darnaways; it unfolded itself like a horrible flower. There was no escape even by happy accident; it was all inevitable; whether it was Vine and his old-wives’ tales, or Barnet and his new-fangled heredity. But this man who died was not the victim of a magic curse or an inherited madness. He was murdered; and for us that murder is simply an accident; yes, requiescat in pace: but a happy accident. It is a ray of daylight, because it comes from outside.’

She suddenly smiled. ‘Yes, I believe I understand. I suppose you are talking like a lunatic, but I understand. But who murdered him?’

‘I do not know,’ he answered calmly, ‘but Father Brown knows. And as Father Brown says, murder is at least done by the will, free as that wind from the sea.’

‘Father Brown is a wonderful person,’ she said after a pause; ‘he was the only person who ever brightened my existence in any way at all until—’

‘Until what?’ asked Payne, and made a movement almost impetuous, leaning towards her and thrusting away the bronze monster so that it seemed to rock on its pedestal.

‘Well, until you did,’ she said and smiled again.

So was the sleeping palace awakened, and it is no part of this story to describe the stages of its awakening, though much of it had come to pass before the dark of that evening had fallen upon the shore. As Harry Payne strode homewards once more, across those dark sands that he had crossed in so many moods, he was at the highest turn of happiness that is given in this mortal life,—and the whole red sea within him was at the top of its tide. He would have had no difficulty in picturing all that place again in flower, and the bronze triton bright as a golden god and the fountain flowing with water or with wine. But all this brightness and blossoming had been unfolded for him by the one word ‘murder’, and it was still a word that he did not understand. He had taken it on trust, and he was not unwise; for he was one of those who have a sense of the sound of truth.

It was more than a month later that Payne returned to his London house to keep an appointment with Father Brown, taking the required photograph with him. His personal romance had prospered as well as was fitting under the shadow of such a tragedy, and the shadow itself therefore lay rather more lightly on him; but it was hard to view it as anything but the shadow of a family fatality. In many ways he had been much occupied; and it was not until the Darnaway household had resumed its somewhat stern routine, and the portrait had long been restored to its place in the library, that he had managed to photograph it with a magnesium flare. Before sending it to the antiquary, as originally arranged, he brought it to the priest who had so pressingly demanded it.

‘I can’t understand your attitude about all this. Father Brown,’ he said.’ You act as if you had already solved the problem in some way of your own.’

The priest shook his head mournfully. ‘Not a bit of it,’ he answered. ‘I must be very stupid, but I’m quite stuck; stuck about the most practical point of all. It’s a queer business; so simple up to a point and then—Let me have a look at that photograph, will you?’

He held it close to his screwed, short-sighted eyes for a moment, and then said: ‘Have you got a magnifying glass?’

Payne produced one, and the priest looked through it intently for some time and then said:’ Look at the title of that book at the edge of the bookshelf beside the frame; it’s ‘The History of Pope Joan’. Now, I wonder … yes, by George; and the one above is something or other of Iceland. Lord! what a queer way to find it out! What a dolt and donkey I was not to notice it when I was there!’

‘But what have you found out?’ asked Payne impatiently.

‘The last link,’ said Father Brown, ‘and I’m not stuck any longer. Yes; I think I know how that unhappy story went from first to last now.’

‘But why?’ insisted the other.

‘Why, because,’ said the priest with a smile, ‘the Darnaway library contained books about Pope Joan and Iceland, not to mention another I see with the title beginning ‘The Religion of Frederick’, which is not so very hard to fill up.’ Then, seeing the other’s annoyance, his smile faded and he said more earnestly: ‘As a matter of fact, this last point, though it is the last link, is not the main business. There were much more curious things in the case than that. One of them is rather a curiosity of evidence. Let me begin by saying something that may surprise you. Darnaway did not die at seven o’clock that evening. He had been already dead for a whole day.’

‘Surprise is rather a mild word,’ said Payne grimly, ‘since you and I both saw him walking about afterwards.’

‘No, we did not,’ replied Father Brown quietly. ‘I think we both saw him, or thought we saw him, fussing about with the focusing of his camera. Wasn’t his head under that black cloak when you passed through the room? It was when I did. And that’s why I felt there was something queer about the room and the figure. It wasn’t that the leg was crooked, but rather that it wasn’t crooked. It was dressed in the same sort of dark clothes; but if you see what you believe to be one man standing in the way that another man stands, you will think he’s in a strange and strained attitude.’

‘Do you really mean,’ cried Payne with something like a shudder, ‘that it was some unknown man?’

‘It was the murderer,’ said Father Brown. ‘He had already killed Darnaway at daybreak and hid the corpse and himself in the dark room—an excellent hiding-place, because nobody normally goes into it or can see much if he does. But he let it fall out on the floor at seven o’clock, of course, that the whole thing might be explained by the curse.’

‘But I don’t understand’ observed Payne. ‘Why didn’t he kill him at seven o’clock then, instead of loading himself with a corpse for fourteen hours?’

‘Let me ask you another question,’ said the priest. ‘Why was there no photograph taken? Because the murderer made sure of killing him when he first got up, and before he could take it. It was essential to the murderer to prevent that photograph reaching the expert on the Darnaway antiquities.’

There was a sudden silence for a moment, and then the priest went on in a lower tone: ‘Don’t you see how simple it is? Why, you yourself saw one side of the possibility; but it’s simpler even than you thought. You said a man might be faked to resemble an old picture. Surely it’s simpler that a picture should be faked to resemble a man. In plain words, it’s true in a rather special way that there was no Doom of the Darnaways. There was no old picture; there was no old rhyme; there was no legend of a man who caused his wife’s death. But there was a very wicked and a very clever man who was willing to cause another man’s death in order to rob him of his promised wife.’

The priest suddenly gave Payne a sad smile, as if in reassurance. ‘For the moment I believe you thought I meant you,’ he said,’ but you were not the only person who haunted that house for sentimental reasons. You know the man, or rather you think you do. But there were depths in the man called Martin Wood, artist and antiquary, which none of his mere artistic acquaintances were likely to guess. Remember that he was called in to criticize and catalogue the pictures; in an aristocratic dustbin of that sort that practically means simply to tell the Darnaways what art treasures they had got. They would not be surprised at things turning up they had never noticed before. It had to be done well, and it was; perhaps he was right when he said that if it wasn’t Holbein it was somebody of the same genius.’

‘I feel rather stunned,’ said Payne; ‘and there are twenty things I don’t see yet. How did he know what Darnaway looked like? How did he actually kill him? The doctors seem rather puzzled at present.’

‘I saw a photograph the lady had which the Australian sent on before him,’ said the priest, ‘and there are several ways in which he could have learned things when the new heir was once recognized. We may not know these details; but they are not difficulties. You remember he used to help in the dark room; it seems to me an ideal place, say, to prick a man with a poisoned pin, with the poison’s all handy. No; I say these were not difficulties. The difficulty that stumped me was how Wood could be in two places at once. How could he take the corpse from the dark-room and prop it against the camera so that it would fall in a few seconds, without coming downstairs, when he was in the library looking out a book? And I was such a fool that I never looked at the books in the library; and it was only in this photograph, by very undeserved good luck, that I saw the simple fact of a book about Pope Joan.’

‘You’ve kept your best riddle for the end,’ said Payne grimly. ‘What on earth can Pope Joan have to do with it?’

‘Don’t forget the book about the Something of Iceland,’ advised the priest, ‘or the religion of somebody called Frederick. It only remains to ask what sort of man was the late Lord Darnaway.’

‘Oh, does it?’ observed Payne heavily.

‘He was a cultivated, humorous sort of eccentric, I believe,’ went on Father Brown. ‘Being cultivated, he knew there was no such person as Pope Joan. Being humorous, he was very likely to have thought of the title of ‘The Snakes of Iceland’ or something else that didn’t exist. I venture to reconstruct the third title as ‘The Religion of Frederick the Great’—which also doesn’t exist. Now, doesn’t it strike you that those would be just the titles to put on the backs of books that didn’t exist; or in other words on a bookcase that wasn’t a book-case?’

‘Ah!’ cried Payne; ‘I see what you mean now. There was some hidden staircase—’

‘Up to the room Wood himself selected as a dark room,’ said the priest nodding. ‘I’m sorry. It couldn’t be helped. It’s dreadfully banal and stupid, as stupid as I have been on this pretty banal case. But we were mixed up in a real musty old romance of decayed gentility and a fallen family mansion; and it was too much to hope that we could escape having a secret passage. It was a priest’s hole; and I deserve to be put in it.’

Get a FREE copy of Kill the Quarterback

Get a free digital copy of Jim Stovall's mystery novel, Kill the Quarterback. You will also get Jim's newsletter and advanced notice of publications, free downloads and a variety of information about what he is working on. Jim likes to stay in touch, so sign up today.

Powered by ConvertKit

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *