FATHER BROWN always regarded the case as the queerest example of the theory of an alibi: the theory by which it is maintained, in defiance of the mythological Irish bird, that it is impossible for anybody to be in two places at once. To begin with, James Byrne, being an Irish journalist, was perhaps the nearest approximation to the Irish bird. He came as near as anybody could to being in two places at once: for he was in two places at the opposite extremes of the social and political world within the space of twenty minutes. The first was in the Babylonian halls of the big hotel, which was the meeting place of the three commercial magnates concerned with arranging for a coal lock-out and denouncing it as a coal-strike, the second was in a curious tavern, having the facade of a grocery store, where met the more subterranean triumvirate of those who would have been very glad to turn the lock-out into a strike—and the strike into a revolution. The reporter passed to and fro between the three millionaires and the three Bolshevist leaders with the immunity of the modern herald or the new ambassador.
He found the three mining magnates hidden in a jungle of flowering plants and a forest of fluted and florid columns of gilded plaster; gilded birdcages hung high under the painted domes amid the highest leaves of the palms; and in them were birds of motley colours and varied cries. No bird in the wilderness ever sang more unheeded, and no flower ever wasted its sweetness on the desert air more completely than the blossoms of those tall plants wasted theirs upon the brisk and breathless business men, mostly American, who talked and ran to and fro in that place. And there, amid a riot of rococo ornament that nobody ever looked at, and a chatter of expensive foreign birds that nobody ever heard, and a mass of gorgeous upholstery and a labyrinth of luxurious architecture, the three men sat and talked of how success was founded on thought and thrift and a vigilance of economy and self-control.
One of them indeed did not talk so much as the others; but he watched with very bright and motionless eyes, which seemed to be pinched together by his pince-nez, and the permanent smile under his small black moustache was rather like a permanent sneer. This was the famous Jacob P. Stein, and he did not speak till he had something to say. But his companion, old Gallup the Pennsylvanian, a huge fat fellow with reverend grey hair but a face like a pugilist, talked a great deal. He was in a jovial mood and was half rallying, half bullying the third millionaire, Gideon Wise—a hard, dried, angular old bird of the type that his countrymen compare to hickory, with a stiff grey chin-beard and the manners and clothes of any old farmer from the central plains. There was an old argument between Wise and Gallup about combination and competition. For old Wise still retained, with the manners of the old backwoodsman, something of his opinions of the old individualist; he belonged, as we should say in England, to the Manchester School; and Gallup was always trying to persuade him to cut out competition and pool the resources of the world.
‘You’ll have to come in, old fellow, sooner or later,’ Gallup was saying genially as Byrne entered. ‘It’s the way the world is going, and we can’t go back to the one-man-business now. We’ve all got to stand together.’
‘If I might say a word,’ said Stein, in his tranquil way, ‘I would say there is something a little more urgent even than standing together commercially. Anyhow, we must stand together politically; and that’s why I’ve asked Mr Byrne to meet us here today. On the political issue we must combine; for the simple reason that all our most dangerous enemies are already combined.’
‘Oh, I quite agree about political combination,’ grumbled Gideon Wise.
‘See here,’ said Stein to the journalist; ‘I know you have the run of these queer places, Mr Byrne, and I want you to do something for us unofficially. You know where these men meet; there are only two or three of them that count, John Elias and Jake Halket, who does all the spouting, and perhaps that poet fellow Home.’
‘Why Home used to be a friend of Gideon,’ said the jeering Mr Gallup; ‘used to be in his Sunday School class or something.’
‘He was a Christian, then,’ said old Gideon solemnly; ‘but when a man takes up with atheists you never know. I still meet him now and then. I was quite ready to back him against war and conscription and all that, of course, but when it comes to all the goddam bolshies in creation—’
‘Excuse me,’ interposed Stein, ‘the matter is rather urgent, so I hope you will excuse me putting it before Mr Byrne at once. Mr Byrne, I may tell you in confidence that I hold information, or rather evidence that would land at least two of those men in prison for long terms, in connexion with conspiracies during the late war. I don’t want to use that evidence. But I want you to go to them quietly and tell them that I shall use it, and use it tomorrow, unless they alter their attitude.’
‘Well,’ replied Byrne, ‘what you propose would certainly be called compounding a felony and might be called blackmail, Don’t you think it is rather dangerous?’
‘I think it is rather dangerous for them,’ said Stein with a snap; ‘and I want you to go and tell them so.’
‘Oh, very well,’ said Byrne standing up, with a half humorous sigh. ‘It’s all in the day’s work; but if I get into trouble, I warn you I shall try to drag you into it.’
‘You will try, boy,’ said old Gallup with a hearty laugh.
For so much still lingers of that great dream of Jefferson and, the thing that men have called Democracy that in his country, while the rich rule like tyrants, the poor do not talk like slaves; but there is candour between the oppressor and the oppressed.
The meeting-place of the revolutionists was a queer, bare, whitewashed place, on the walls of which were one or two distorted uncouth sketches in black and white, in the style of something that was supposed to be Proletarian Art, of which not one proletarian in a million could have made head or tail. Perhaps the one point in common to the two council chambers was that both violated the American Constitution by the display of strong drink. Cocktails of various colours had stood before the three millionaires. Halket, the most violent of the Bolshevists, thought it only appropriate to drink vodka. He was a long, hulking fellow with a menacing stoop, and his very profile was aggressive like a dog’s, the nose and lips thrust out together, the latter carrying a ragged red moustache and the whole curling outwards with perpetual scorn. John Elias was a dark watchful man in spectacles, with a black pointed beard; and he had learnt in many European cafes a taste for absinthe. The journalist’s first and last feeling was how very like each other, after all, were John Elias and Jacob P. Stein. They were so like in face and mind and manner, that the millionaire might have disappeared down a trap-door in the Babylon Hotel and come up again in the stronghold of the Bolshevists.
The third man also had a curious taste in drinks, and his drink was symbolic of him. For what stood in front of the poet Home was a glass of milk, and its very mildness seemed in that setting to have something sinister about it, as if its opaque and colourless colour were of some leprous paste more poisonous than the dead sick green of absinthe. Yet in truth the mildness was so far genuine enough; for Henry Home came to the camp of revolution along a very different road and from very different origins from those of Jake, the common tub-thumper, and Elias, the cosmopolitan wire-puller. He had had what is called a careful upbringing, had gone to chapel in his childhood, and carried through life a teetotalism which he could not shake off when he cast away such trifles as Christianity and marriage. He had fair hair and a fine face that might have looked like Shelley, if he had not weakened the chin with a little foreign fringe of beard. Somehow the beard made him look more like a woman; it was as if those few golden hairs were all he could do.
When the journalist entered, the notorious Jake was talking, as he generally was. Home had uttered some casual and conventional phrase about ‘Heaven forbid’ something or other, and this was quite enough to set Jake off with a torrent of profanity.
‘Heaven forbid! and that’s about all it bally well does do,’ he said. ‘Heaven never does anything but forbid this, that and the other; forbids us to strike, and forbids us to fight, and forbids us to shoot the damned usurers and blood-suckers where they sit. Why doesn’t Heaven forbid them something for a bit? Why don’t the damned priests and parsons stand up and tell the truth about those brutes for a change? Why doesn’t their precious God—’
Elias allowed a gentle sigh, as of faint fatigue, to escape him.
‘Priests,’ he said, ‘belonged, as Marx has shown, to the feudal stage of economic development and are therefore no longer really any part of the problem. The part once played by the priest is now played by the capitalist expert and—’
‘Yes,’ interrupted the journalist, with his grim and ironic implacability, ‘and it’s about time you knew that some of them are jolly expert in playing it.’ And without moving his own eyes from the bright but dead eyes of Elias, he told him of the threat of Stein.
‘I was prepared for something of that sort,’ said the smiling Elias without moving; ‘I may say quite prepared.’
‘Dirty dogs!’ exploded Jake. ‘If a poor man said a thing like that he’d go to penal servitude. But I reckon they’ll go somewhere worse before they guess. If they don’t go to hell, I don’t know where the hell they’ll go to—’
Home made a movement of protest, perhaps not so much at what the man was saying as at what he was going to say, and Elias cut the speech short with cold exactitude.
‘It is quite unnecessary for us,’ he said, looking at Byrne steadily through his spectacles, ‘to bandy threats with the other side. It is quite sufficient that their threats are quite ineffective so far as we are concerned. We also have made all our own arrangements, and some of them will not appear until they appear in motion. So far as we are concerned, an immediate rupture and an extreme trial of strength will be quite according to plan.’
As he spoke in a quite quiet and dignified fashion, something in his motionless yellow face and his great goggles started a faint fear creeping up the journalist’s spine. Halket’s savage face might seem to have a snarl in its very silhouette when seen sideways; but when seen face to face, the smouldering rage in his eyes had also something of anxiety, as if the ethical and economic riddle were after all a little too much for him; and Home seemed even more hanging on wires of worry and self-criticism. But about this third man with the goggles, who spoke so sensibly and simply, there was something uncanny; it was like a dead man talking at the table.
As Byrne went out with his message of defiance, and passed along the very narrow passage beside the grocery store, he found the end of it blocked by a strange though strangely familiar figure: short and sturdy, and looking rather quaint when seen in dark outline with its round head and wide hat.
‘Father Brown!’ cried the astonished journalist. ‘I think you must have come into the wrong door. You’re not likely to be in this little conspiracy.’
‘Mine is a rather older conspiracy,’ replied Father Brown smiling,’ but it is quite a widespread conspiracy.’
‘Well,’ replied Byrne,’ you can’t imagine any of the people here being within a thousand miles of your concern.’
‘It is not always easy to tell,’ replied the priest equably; ‘but as a matter of fact, there is one person here who’s within an inch of it.’
He disappeared into the dark entrance and the journalist went on his way very much puzzled. He was still more puzzled by a small incident that happened to him as he turned into the hotel to make his report to his capitalist clients. The bower of blossoms and bird-cages in which those crabbed old gentlemen were embosomed was approached by a flight of marble steps, flanked by gilded nymphs and tritons. Down these steps ran an active young man with black hair, a snub nose, and a flower in his buttonhole, who seized him and drew him aside before he could ascend the stair.
‘I say,’ whispered the young man, ‘I’m Potter—old Gid’s secretary, you know: now, between ourselves, there is a sort of a thunderbolt being forged, isn’t there, now?’
‘I came to the conclusion,’ replied Byrne cautiously, ‘that the Cyclops had something on the anvil. But always remember that the Cyclops is a giant, but he has only one eye. I think Bolshevism is—’
While he was speaking the secretary listened with a face that had a certain almost Mongolian immobility, despite the liveliness of his legs and his attire. But when Byrne said the word ‘Bolshevism’, the young man’s sharp eyes shifted and he said quickly:
‘What has that—oh yes, that sort of thunderbolt; so sorry, my mistake. So easy to say anvil when you mean ice-box.’
With which the extraordinary young man disappeared down the steps and Byrne continued to mount them, more and more mystification clouding his mind.
He found the group of three augmented to four by the presence of a hatchet-faced person with very thin straw-coloured hair and a monocle, who appeared to be a sort of adviser to old Gallup, possibly his solicitor, though he was not definitely so called. His name was Nares, and the questions which he directed towards Byrne referred chiefly, for some reason or other, to the number of those probably enrolled in the revolutionary organization. Of this, as Byrne knew little, he said less; and the four men eventually rose from their seats, the last word being with the man who had been most silent.
‘Thank you, Mr Byrne,’ said Stein, folding up his eyeglasses. ‘It only remains to say that everything is ready; on that point I quite agree with Mr Elias. Tomorrow, before noon, the police will have arrested Mr Elias, on evidence I shall by then have put before them, and those three at least will be in jail before night. As you know, I attempted to avoid this course. I think that is all, gentlemen.’
But Mr Jacob P. Stein did not lay his formal information next day, for a reason that has often interrupted the activities of such industrious characters. He did not do it because he happened to be dead; and none of the rest of the programme was carried out, for a reason which Byrne found displayed in gigantic letters when he opened his morning paper: ‘Terrific Triple Murder: Three Millionaires Slain in One Night.’ Other exclamatory phrases followed in smaller letters, only about four times the size of normal type, which insisted on the special feature of the mystery: the fact that the three men had been killed not only simultaneously but in three widely separated places—Stein in his artistic and luxurious country seat a hundred miles inland, Wise outside the little bungalow on the coast where he lived on sea breezes and the simple life, and old Gallup in a thicket just outside the lodge-gates of his great house at the other end of the county. In all three cases there could be no doubt about the scenes of violence that had preceded death, though the actual body of Gallup was not found till the second day, where it hung, huge and horrible, amid the broken forks and branches of the little wood into which its weight had crashed, like a bison rushing on the spears: while Wise had clearly been flung over the cliff into the sea, not without a struggle, for his scraping and slipping footprints could still be traced upon the very brink. But the first signal of the tragedy had been the sight of his large limp straw hat, floating far out upon the waves and conspicuous from the cliffs above. Stein’s body also had at first eluded search, till a faint trail of blood led the investigators to a bath on the ancient Roman model he had been constructing in his garden; for he had been a man of an experimental turn of mind with a taste for antiquities.
Whatever he might think, Byrne was bound to admit that there was no legal evidence against anybody as things stood. A motive for murder was not enough. Even a moral aptitude for murder was not enough. And he could not conceive that pale young pacifist, Henry Home, butchering another man by brutal violence, though he might imagine the blaspheming Jake and even the sneering Jew as capable of anything. The police, and the man who appeared to be assisting them (who was no other than the rather mysterious man with the monocle, who had been introduced as Mr Nares), realized the position quite as clearly as the journalist.
They knew that at the moment the Bolshevist conspirators could not be prosecuted and convicted, and that it would be a highly sensational failure if they were prosecuted and acquitted. Nares started with an artful candour by calling them in some sense to the council, inviting them to a private conclave and asking them to give their opinions freely in the interests of humanity. He had started his investigations at the nearest scene of tragedy, the bungalow by the sea; and Byrne was permitted to be present at a curious scene, which was at once a peaceful parley of diplomatists and a veiled inquisition or putting of suspects to the question. Rather to Byrne’s surprise the incongruous company, seated round the table in the seaside bungalow, included the dumpy figure and owlish head of Father Brown, though his connexion with the affair did not appear until some time afterwards. The presence of young Potter, the dead man’s secretary, was more natural; yet somehow his demeanour was not quite so natural. He alone was quite familiar with their meeting-place, and was even in some grim sense their host; yet he offered little assistance or information. His round snub-nosed face wore an expression more like sulks than sorrow.
Jake Halket as usual talked most; and a man of his type could not be expected to keep up the polite fiction that he and his friends were not accused. Young Home, in his more refined way, tried to restrain him when he began to abuse the men who had been murdered; but Jake was always quite as ready to roar down his friends as his foes. In a spout of blasphemies he relieved his soul of a very unofficial obituary notice of the late Gideon Wise. Elias sat quite still and apparently indifferent behind those spectacles that masked his eyes.
‘It would be useless, I suppose,’ said Nares coldly, ‘to tell you that your remarks are indecent. It may affect you more if I tell you they are imprudent. You practically admit that you hated the dead man.’
‘Going to put me in quod for that, are you?’ jeered the demagogue. ‘All right. Only you’ll have to build a prison for a million men if you’re going to jail all the poor people who had reason to hate Gid Wise. And you know it’s God truth as well as I do.’
Nares was silent; and nobody spoke until Elias interposed with his clear though faintly lisping drawl.
‘This appears to me to be a highly unprofitable discussion on both sides,’ he said. ‘You have summoned us here either to ask us for information or to subject us to cross-examination. If you trust us, we tell you we have no information. If you distrust us, you must tell us of what we are accused, or have the politeness to keep the fact to yourselves. Nobody has been able to suggest the faintest trace of evidence connecting any one of us with these tragedies any more than with the murder of Julius Caesar. You dare not arrest us, and you will not believe us. What is the good of our remaining here?’
And he rose, calmly buttoning his coat, his friends following his example. As they went towards the door, young Home turned back and faced the investigators for a moment with his pale fanatical face.
‘I wish to say,’ he said, ‘that I went to a filthy jail during the whole war because I would not consent to kill a man.’
With that they passed out, and the members of the group remaining looked grimly at each other.
‘I hardly think,’ said Father Brown, ‘that we remain entirely victorious, in spite of the retreat.’
‘I don’t mind anything,’ said Nares, ‘except being bullyragged by that blasphemous blackguard Halket. Home is a gentleman, anyhow. But whatever they say, I am dead certain they know; they are in it, or most of them are. They almost admitted it. They taunted us with not being able to prove we’re right, much more than with being wrong. What do you think, Father Brown?’
The person addressed looked across at Nares with a gaze almost disconcertingly mild and meditative.
‘It is quite true,’ he said, ‘that I have formed an idea that one particular person knows more than he has told us. But I think it would be well if I did not mention his name just yet.’
Nares’ eyeglass dropped from his eye, and he looked up sharply. ‘This is unofficial so far,’ he said. ‘I suppose you know that at a later stage if you withhold information, your position may be serious.’
‘My position is simple,’ replied the priest. ‘I am here to look after the legitimate interests of my friend Halket. I think it will be in his interest, under the circumstances, if I tell you I think he will before long sever his connexion with this organization, and cease to be a Socialist in that sense. I have every reason to believe he will probably end as a Catholic.’
‘Halket!’ exploded the other incredulously. ‘Why he curses priests from morning till night!’
‘I don’t think you quite understand that kind of man,’ said Father Brown mildly. ‘He curses priests for failing (in his opinion) to defy the whole world for justice. Why should he expect them to defy the whole world for justice, unless he had already begun to assume they were— what they are? But we haven’t met here to discuss the psychology of conversion. I only mention this because it may simplify your task— perhaps narrow your search.’
‘If it is true, it would jolly well narrow it to that narrow-faced rascal Elias—and I shouldn’t wonder, for a more creepy, coldblooded, sneering devil I never saw.’
Father Brown sighed. ‘He always reminded me of poor Stein,’ he said, ‘in fact I think he was some relation.’
‘Oh, I say,’ began Nares, when his protest was cut short by the door being flung open, revealing once more the long loose figure and pale face of young Home; but it seemed as if he had not merely his natural, but a new and unnatural pallor.
‘Hullo,’ cried Nares, putting up his single eyeglass, ‘why have you come back again?’
Home crossed the room rather shakily without a word and sat down heavily in a chair. Then he said, as in a sort of daze: ‘I missed the others … I lost my way. I thought I’d better come back.’
The remains of evening refreshments were on the table, and Henry Home, that lifelong Prohibitionist, poured himself out a wine-glassful of liqueur brandy and drank it at a gulp. ‘You seem upset,’ said Father Brown.
Home had put his hands to his forehead and spoke as from under the shadow of it: he seemed to be speaking to the priest only, in a low voice.
‘I may as well tell you. I have seen a ghost.’
‘A ghost!’ repeated Nares in astonishment. ‘Whose ghost?’
‘The ghost of Gideon Wise, the master of this house,’ answered Home more firmly, ‘standing over the abyss into which he fell.’
‘Oh, nonsense!’ said Nares; ‘no sensible person believes in ghosts.’
‘That is hardly exact,’ said Father Brown, smiling a little. ‘There is really quite as good evidence for many ghosts as there is for most crimes.’
‘Well, it’s my business to run after the criminals,’ said Nares rather roughly, ‘and I will leave other people to run away from the ghosts. If anybody at this time of day chooses to be frightened of ghosts it’s his affair.’
‘I didn’t say I was frightened of them, though I dare say I might be,’ said Father Brown. ‘Nobody knows till he tries. I said I believed in them, at any rate, enough to want to hear more about this one. What, exactly, did you see, Mr Home?’
‘It was over there on the brink of those crumbling cliffs; you know there is a sort of gap or crevice just about the spot where he was thrown over. The others had gone on ahead, and I was crossing the moor towards the path along the cliff. I often went that way, for I liked seeing the high seas dash up against the crags. I thought little of it to-night, beyond wondering that the sea should be so rough on this sort of clear moonlight night. I could see the pale crests of spray appear and disappear as the great waves leapt up at the headland. Thrice I saw the momentary flash of foam in the moonlight and then I saw something inscrutable. The fourth flash of the silver foam seemed to be fixed in the sky. It did not fall; I waited with insane intensity for it to fall. I fancied I was mad, and that time had been for me mysteriously arrested or prolonged. Then I drew nearer, and then I think I screamed aloud. For that suspended spray, like unfallen snowflakes, had fitted together into a face and a figure, white as the shining leper in a legend, and terrible as the fixed lightning.’
‘And it was Gideon Wise, you say?’
Home nodded without speech. There was a silence broken abruptly by Nares rising to his feet; so abruptly indeed that he knocked a chair over.
‘Oh, this is all nonsense,’ he said, ‘but we’d better go out and see.’
‘I won’t go,’ said Home with sudden violence. ‘I’ll never walk by that path again.’
‘I think we must all walk by that path tonight,’ said the priest gravely; ‘though I will never deny it has been a perilous path … to more people than one.’
‘I will not… God, how you all goad me,’ cried Home, and his eyes began to roll in a strange fashion. He had risen with the rest, hut he made no motion towards the door.
‘Mr Home,’ said Nares firmly, ‘I am a police-officer, and this house, though you may not know it, is surrounded by the police. I have tried to investigate in a friendly fashion, but I must investigate everything, even anything so silly as a ghost. I must ask you to take me to the spot you speak of.’
There was another silence while Home stood heaving and panting as with indescribable fears. Then he suddenly sat down on his chair again and said with an entirely new and much more composed voice:
‘I can’t do it. You may just as well know why. You will know it sooner or later. I killed him.’
For an instant there was the stillness of a house struck by a thunderbolt and full of corpses. Then the voice of Father Brown sounded in that enormous silence strangely small like the squeak of a mouse.
‘Did you kill him deliberately?’ he asked.
‘How can one answer such a question?’ answered the man in the chair, moodily gnawing his finger. ‘I was mad, I suppose. He was intolerable and insolent, I know. I was on his land and I believe he struck me; anyhow, we came to a grapple and he went over the cliff. When I was well away from the scene it burst upon me that I had done a crime that cut me off from men; the brand of Cain throbbed on my brow and my very brain; I realized for the first time that I had indeed killed a man. I knew I should have to confess it sooner or later.’ He sat suddenly erect in his chair. ‘But I will say nothing against anybody else. It is no use asking me about plots or accomplices—I will say nothing.’
‘In the light of the other murders,’ said Nares, ‘it is difficult to believe that the quarrel was quite so unpremeditated. Surely somebody sent you there?’
‘I will say nothing against anybody I worked with,’ said Home proudly. ‘I am a murderer, but I will not be a traitor.’
Nares stepped between the man and the door and called out in an official fashion to someone outside.
‘We will all go to the place, anyhow,’ he said in a low voice to the secretary; ‘but this man must go in custody.’
The company generally felt that to go spook-hunting on a seacliff was a very silly anti-climax after the confession of the murderer. But Nares, though the most sceptical and scornful of all, thought it his duty to leave no stone unturned; as one might say, no gravestone unturned. For, after all, that crumbling cliff was the only gravestone over the watery grave of poor Gideon Wise. Nares locked the door, being the last out of the house, and followed the rest across the moor to the cliff, when he was astonished to see young Potter, the secretary, coming back quickly towards them, his face in the moonlight looking white as a moon.
‘By God, sir,’ he said, speaking for the first time that night, ‘there really is something there. It—it’s just like him.’
‘Why, you’re raving,’ gasped the detective. ‘Everybody’s raving.’
‘Do you think I don’t know him when I see him?’ cried the secretary with singular bitterness. ‘I have reason to.’
‘Perhaps,’ said the detective sharply, ‘you are one of those who had reason to hate him, as Halket said.’
‘Perhaps,’ said the secretary; ‘anyhow, I know him, and I tell you I can see him standing there stark and staring under this hellish moon.’
And he pointed towards the crack in the cliffs, where they could already see something that might have been a moonbeam or a streak of foam, but which was already beginning to look a little more solid. They had crept a hundred yards nearer, and it was still motionless; but it looked like a statue in silver.
Nares himself looked a little pale and seemed to stand debating what to do. Potter was frankly as much frightened as Home himself; and even Byrne, who was a hardened reporter, was rather reluctant to go any nearer if he could help it. He could not help considering it a little quaint, therefore, that the only man who did not seem to be frightened of a ghost was the man who had said openly that he might be. For Father Brown was advancing as steadily, at his stumping pace, as if he were going to consult a notice-board.
‘It don’t seem to bother you much,’ said Byrne to the priest; ‘and yet I thought you were the only one who believed in spooks.’
‘If it comes to that,’ replied Father Brown, ‘I thought you were one who didn’t believe in them. But believing in ghosts is one thing, and believing in a ghost is quite another.’
Byrne looked rather ashamed of himself, and glanced almost covertly at the crumbling headlands in the cold moonlight which were the haunts of the vision or delusion. ‘I didn’t believe in it till I saw it,’ he said.
‘And I did believe in it till I saw it,’ said Father Brown. The journalist stared after him as he went stumping across the great waste ground that rose towards the cloven headland like the sloping side of a hill cut in two. Under the discolouring moon the grass looked like long grey hair all combed one way by the wind, and seeming to point towards the place where the breaking cliff showed pale gleams of chalk in the grey-green turf, and where stood the pale figure or shining shade that none could yet understand. As yet that pale figure dominated a desolate landscape that was empty except for the black square back and business-like figure of the priest advancing alone towards it. Then the prisoner Home broke suddenly from his captors with a piercing cry and ran ahead of the priest, falling on his knees before the spectre.
‘I have confessed,’ they heard him crying. ‘Why have you come to tell them I killed you?’
‘I have come to tell them you did not,’ said the ghost, and stretched forth a hand to him. Then the kneeling man sprang up with quite a new kind of scream; and they knew it was the hand of flesh.
It was the most remarkable escape from death in recent records, said the experienced detective and the no less experienced journalist. Yet, in a sense, it had been very simple after all. Flakes and shards of the cliff were continually falling away, and some had caught in the gigantic crevice, so as to form what was really a ledge or pocket in what was supposed to be a sheer drop through darkness to the sea. The old man, who was a very tough and wiry old man, had fallen on this lower shoulder of rock and had passed a pretty terrible twenty-four hours in trying to climb back by crags that constantly collapsed under him, but at length formed by their very ruins a sort of stairway of escape. This might be the explanation of Home’s optical illusion about a white wave that appeared and disappeared, and finally came to stay. But anyhow there was Gideon Wise, solid in bone and sinew, with his white hair and white dusty country clothes and harsh country features, which were, however, a great deal less harsh than usual. Perhaps it is good for millionaires to spend twenty-four hours on a ledge of rock within a foot of eternity. Anyhow, he not only disclaimed all malice against the criminal, but gave an account of the matter which considerably modified the crime. He declared that Home had not thrown him over at all; that the continually breaking ground had given way under him, and that Home had even made some movement as of attempted rescue.
‘On that providential bit of rock down there,’ he said solemnly, ‘I promised the Lord to forgive my enemies; and the Lord would think it mighty mean if I didn’t forgive a little accident like that.’
Home had to depart under police supervision, of course, but the detective did not disguise from himself that the prisoner’s detention would probably be short, and his punishment, if any, trifling. It is not every murderer who can put the murdered man in the witness-box to give him a testimonial.
‘It’s a strange case,’ said Byrne, as the detective and the others hastened along the cliff path towards the town.
‘It is,’ said Father Brown. ‘It’s no business of ours; but I wish you’d stop with me and talk it over.’
There was a silence and then Byrne complied by saying suddenly: ‘I suppose you were thinking of Home already, when you said somebody wasn’t telling all he knew.’
‘When I said that,’ replied his friend, ‘I was thinking of the exceedingly silent Mr Potter, the secretary of the no longer late or (shall we say) lamented Mr Gideon Wise.’
‘Well, the only time Potter ever spoke to me I thought he was a lunatic,’ said Byrne, staring, ‘but I never thought of his being a criminal. He said something about it all having to do with an icebox.’
‘Yes, I thought he knew something about it,’ said Father Brown reflectively. ‘I never said he had anything to do with it … I suppose old Wise really is strong enough to have climbed out of that chasm.’
‘What do you mean?’ asked the astonished reporter. ‘Why, of course he got out of that chasm; for there he is.’
The priest did not answer the question but asked abruptly: ‘What do you think of Home?’
‘Well, one can’t call him a criminal exactly,’ answered Byrne. ‘He never was at all like any criminal I ever knew, and I’ve had some experience; and, of course, Nares has had much more. I don’t think we ever quite believed him a criminal.’
‘And I never believed in him in another capacity,’ said the priest quietly. ‘You may know more about criminals. But there’s one class of people I probably do know more about than you do, or even Nares for that matter. I’ve known quite a lot of them, and I know their little ways.’
‘Another class of people,’ repeated Byrne, mystified.’ Why, what class do you know about?’
‘Penitents,’ said Father Brown.
‘I don’t quite understand,’ objected Byrne. ‘Do you mean you don’t believe in his crime?’
‘I don’t believe in his confession,’ said Father Brown. ‘I’ve heard a good many confessions, and there was never a genuine one like that. It was romantic; it was all out of books. Look how he talked about having the brand of Cain. That’s out of books. It’s not what anyone would feel who had in his own person done a thing hitherto horrible to him. Suppose you were an honest clerk or shop-boy shocked to feel that for the first time you’d stolen money. Would you immediately reflect that your action was the same as that of Barabbas? Suppose you’d killed a child in some ghastly anger. Would you go back through history, till you could identify your action with that of an Idumean potentate named Herod? Believe me, our own crimes are far too hideously private and prosaic to make our first thoughts turn towards historical parallels, however apt. And why did he go out of his way to say he would not give his colleagues away? Even in saying so, he was giving them away. Nobody had asked him so far to give away anything or anybody. No; I don’t think he was genuine, and I wouldn’t give him absolution. A nice state of things, if people started getting absolved for what they hadn’t done.’ And Father Brown, his head turned away, looked steadily out to sea.
‘But I don’t understand what you’re driving at,’ cried Byrne. ‘What’s the good of buzzing round him with suspicions when he’s pardoned? He’s out of it anyhow. He’s quite safe.’
Father Brown spun round like a teetotum and caught his friend by the coat with unexpected and inexplicable excitement.
‘That’s it,’ he cried emphatically.’ Freeze on to that! He’s quite safe. He’s out of it. That’s why he’s the key of the whole puzzle.’
‘Oh, help,’ said Byrne feebly.
‘I mean,’ persisted the little priest, ‘he’s in it because he’s out of it. That’s the whole explanation.’
‘And a very lucid explanation too,’ said the journalist with feeling.
They stood looking out to sea for a time in silence, and then Father Brown said cheerfully: ‘And so we come back to the ice-box. Where you have all gone wrong from the first in this business is where a good many of the papers and the public men do go wrong. It’s because you assumed that there is nothing whatever in the modern world to fight about except Bolshevism. This story has nothing whatever to do with Bolshevism; except perhaps as a blind.’
‘I don’t see how that can be,’ remonstrated Byrne. ‘Here you have the three millionaires in that one business murdered—’
‘No!’ said the priest in a sharp ringing voice. ‘You do not. That is just the point. You do not have three millionaires murdered. You have two millionaires murdered; and you have the third millionaire very much alive and kicking and quite ready to kick. And you have that third millionaire freed for ever from the threat that was thrown at his head before your very face, in playfully polite terms, and in that conversation you described as taking place in the hotel. Gallup and Stein threatened the more old-fashioned and independent old huckster that if he would not come into their combine they would freeze him out. Hence the ice-box, of course.’
After a pause he went on. ‘There is undoubtedly a Bolshevist movement in the modern world, and it must undoubtedly be resisted, though I do not believe very much in your way of resisting it. But what nobody notices is that there is another movement equally modern and equally moving: the great movement towards monopoly or the turning of all trades into trusts. That also is a revolution. That also produces what all revolutions produce. Men will kill for that and against that, as they do for and against Bolshevism. It has its ultimatums and its invasions and its executions. These trust magnates have their courts like kings; they have their bodyguard and bravos; they have their spies in the enemy camp. Home was one of old Gideon’s spies in one of the enemy camps; but he was used here against another enemy: the rivals who were ruining him for standing out.’
‘I still don’t quite see how he was used,’ said Byrne, ‘or what was the good of it.’
‘Don’t you see,’ cried Father Brown sharply, ‘that they gave each other an alibi?’
Byrne still looked at him a little doubtfully, though understanding was dawning on his face.
‘That’s what I mean,’ continued the other, ‘when I say they were in it because they were out of it. Most people would say they must be out of the other two crimes, because they were in this one. As a fact, they were in the other two because they were out of this one; because this one never happened at all. A very queer, improbable sort of alibi, of course; improbable and therefore impenetrable. Most people would say a man who confesses a murder must be sincere; a man who forgives his murderer must be sincere. Nobody would think of the notion that the thing never happened, so that one man had nothing to forgive and the other nothing to fear. They were fixed here for that night by a story against themselves. But they were not here that night; for Home was murdering old Gallup in the Wood, while Wise was strangling that little Jew in his Roman bath. That’s why I ask whether Wise was really strong enough for the climbing adventure.’
‘It was quite a good adventure,’ said Byrne regretfully. ‘It fitted into the landscape, and was really very convincing.’
‘Too convincing to convince,’ said Father Brown, shaking his head. ‘How very vivid was that moonlit foam flung up and turning to a ghost. And how very literary! Home is a sneak and a skunk, but do not forget that, like many other sneaks and skunks in history, he is also a poet.’
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