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The Wisdom of Father Brown
by G. K. Chesterton
February, 1995 Etext #223
The Project Gutenberg Etext of The Wisdom of Father Brown by Chesterton
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The Project Gutenberg Etext of The Wisdom of Father Brown by Chesterton
G. K. CHESTERTON
OF FATHER BROWN
2. The Paradise of Thieves
3. The Duel of Dr Hirsch
4. The Man in the Passage
5. The Mistake of the Machine
6. The Head of Caesar
7. The Purple Wig
8. The Perishing of the Pendragons
9. The God of the Gongs
10. The Salad of Colonel Cray
11. The Strange Crime of John Boulnois
12. The Fairy Tale of Father Brown
THE consulting-rooms of Dr Orion Hood, the eminent criminologist
and specialist in certain moral disorders, lay along the sea-front
at Scarborough, in a series of very large and well-lighted french windows,
which showed the North Sea like one endless outer wall of blue-green marble.
In such a place the sea had something of the monotony of a blue-green dado:
for the chambers themselves were ruled throughout by a terrible tidiness
not unlike the terrible tidiness of the sea. It must not be supposed
that Dr Hood's apartments excluded luxury, or even poetry.
These things were there, in their place; but one felt that
they were never allowed out of their place. Luxury was there:
there stood upon a special table eight or ten boxes of the best cigars;
but they were built upon a plan so that the strongest were always
nearest the wall and the mildest nearest the window. A tantalum
containing three kinds of spirit, all of a liqueur excellence,
stood always on this table of luxury; but the fanciful have asserted
that the whisky, brandy, and rum seemed always to stand at the same level.
Poetry was there: the left-hand corner of the room was lined with
as complete a set of English classics as the right hand could show
of English and foreign physiologists. But if one took a volume
of Chaucer or Shelley from that rank, its absence irritated the mind
like a gap in a man's front teeth. One could not say the books
were never read; probably they were, but there was a sense of their
being chained to their places, like the Bibles in the old churches.
Dr Hood treated his private book-shelf as if it were a public library.
And if this strict scientific intangibility steeped even the shelves
laden with lyrics and ballads and the tables laden with drink and tobacco,
it goes without saying that yet more of such heathen holiness
protected the other shelves that held the specialist's library,
and the other tables that sustained the frail and even fairylike
instruments of chemistry or mechanics.
Dr Hood paced the length of his string of apartments, bounded--
as the boys' geographies say--on the east by the North Sea and on the west
by the serried ranks of his sociological and criminologist library.
He was clad in an artist's velvet, but with none of an artist's negligence;
his hair was heavily shot with grey, but growing thick and healthy;
his face was lean, but sanguine and expectant. Everything about him
and his room indicated something at once rigid and restless,
like that great northern sea by which (on pure principles of hygiene)
he had built his home.
Fate, being in a funny mood, pushed the door open and
introduced into those long, strict, sea-flanked apartments
one who was perhaps the most startling opposite of them and their master.
In answer to a curt but civil summons, the door opened inwards
and there shambled into the room a shapeless little figure,
which seemed to find its own hat and umbrella as unmanageable as
a mass of luggage. The umbrella was a black and prosaic bundle
long past repair; the hat was a broad-curved black hat, clerical
but not common in England; the man was the very embodiment of all
that is homely and helpless.
not unlike that he would have shown if some huge but obviously
harmless sea-beast had crawled into his room. The new-comer
regarded the doctor with that beaming but breathless geniality
which characterizes a corpulent charwoman who has just managed
to stuff herself into an omnibus. It is a rich confusion of
social self-congratulation and bodily disarray. His hat tumbled
to the carpet, his heavy umbrella slipped between his knees with a thud;
he reached after the one and ducked after the other, but with
an unimpaired smile on his round face spoke simultaneously as follows:
"My name is Brown. Pray excuse me. I've come about
that business of the MacNabs. I have heard, you often help people
out of such troubles. Pray excuse me if I am wrong."
By this time he had sprawlingly recovered the hat, and made
an odd little bobbing bow over it, as if setting everything quite right.
a cold intensity of manner. "I fear you have mistaken the chambers.
I am Dr Hood, and my work is almost entirely literary and educational.
It is true that I have sometimes been consulted by the police
in cases of peculiar difficulty and importance, but--"
"Oh, this is of the greatest importance," broke in the little man
called Brown. "Why, her mother won't let them get engaged."
And he leaned back in his chair in radiant rationality.
The brows of Dr Hood were drawn down darkly, but the eyes
under them were bright with something that might be anger or
might be amusement. "And still," he said, "I do not quite understand."
"You see, they want to get married," said the man with the
clerical hat. "Maggie MacNab and young Todhunter want to get married.
Now, what can be more important than that?"
The great Orion Hood's scientific triumphs had deprived him
of many things--some said of his health, others of his God;
but they had not wholly despoiled him of his sense of the absurd.
At the last plea of the ingenuous priest a chuckle broke out of him
from inside, and he threw himself into an arm-chair in an ironical attitude
of the consulting physician.
since I was personally asked to test a personal problem: then it was
the case of an attempt to poison the French President at
a Lord Mayor's Banquet. It is now, I understand, a question of whether
some friend of yours called Maggie is a suitable fiancee for some friend
of hers called Todhunter. Well, Mr Brown, I am a sportsman.
I will take it on. I will give the MacNab family my best advice,
as good as I gave the French Republic and the King of England--no, better:
fourteen years better. I have nothing else to do this afternoon.
Tell me your story."
The little clergyman called Brown thanked him with
unquestionable warmth, but still with a queer kind of simplicity.
It was rather as if he were thanking a stranger in a smoking-room
for some trouble in passing the matches, than as if he were (as he was)
practically thanking the Curator of Kew Gardens for coming with him
into a field to find a four-leaved clover. With scarcely a semi-colon
after his hearty thanks, the little man began his recital:
"I told you my name was Brown; well, that's the fact,
and I'm the priest of the little Catholic Church I dare say you've seen
beyond those straggly streets, where the town ends towards the north.
In the last and straggliest of those streets which runs along the sea
like a sea-wall there is a very honest but rather sharp-tempered
member of my flock, a widow called MacNab. She has one daughter,
and she lets lodgings, and between her and the daughter,
and between her and the lodgers--well, I dare say there is a great deal
to be said on both sides. At present she has only one lodger,
the young man called Todhunter; but he has given more trouble
than all the rest, for he wants to marry the young woman of the house."
"And the young woman of the house," asked Dr Hood, with huge and
silent amusement, "what does she want?"
"That is just the awful complication."
"is a very decent man so far as I know; but then nobody knows very much.
He is a bright, brownish little fellow, agile like a monkey,
clean-shaven like an actor, and obliging like a born courtier.
He seems to have quite a pocketful of money, but nobody knows what
his trade is. Mrs MacNab, therefore (being of a pessimistic turn),
is quite sure it is something dreadful, and probably connected with dynamite.
The dynamite must be of a shy and noiseless sort, for the poor fellow
only shuts himself up for several hours of the day and studies something
behind a locked door. He declares his privacy is temporary and justified,
and promises to explain before the wedding. That is all that anyone knows
for certain, but Mrs MacNab will tell you a great deal more than
even she is certain of. You know how the tales grow like grass on
such a patch of ignorance as that. There are tales of two voices
heard talking in the room; though, when the door is opened,
Todhunter is always found alone. There are tales of a mysterious
tall man in a silk hat, who once came out of the sea-mists and
apparently out of the sea, stepping softly across the sandy fields and
through the small back garden at twilight, till he was heard
talking to the lodger at his open window. The colloquy seemed to end
in a quarrel. Todhunter dashed down his window with violence,
and the man in the high hat melted into the sea-fog again.
This story is told by the family with the fiercest mystification;
but I really think Mrs MacNab prefers her own original tale:
that the Other Man (or whatever it is) crawls out every night from the
big box in the corner, which is kept locked all day. You see,
therefore, how this sealed door of Todhunter's is treated as the gate
of all the fancies and monstrosities of the `Thousand and One Nights'.
And yet there is the little fellow in his respectable black jacket,
as punctual and innocent as a parlour clock. He pays his rent to the tick;
he is practically a teetotaller; he is tirelessly kind with
the younger children, and can keep them amused for a day on end; and,
last and most urgent of all, he has made himself equally popular with
the eldest daughter, who is ready to go to church with him tomorrow."
a relish for applying them to any triviality. The great specialist
having condescended to the priest's simplicity, condescended expansively.
He settled himself with comfort in his arm-chair and began to talk in
the tone of a somewhat absent-minded lecturer:
"Even in a minute instance, it is best to look first to
the main tendencies of Nature. A particular flower may not be dead
in early winter, but the flowers are dying; a particular pebble
may never be wetted with the tide, but the tide is coming in.
To the scientific eye all human history is a series of collective movements,
destructions or migrations, like the massacre of flies in winter
or the return of birds in spring. Now the root fact in all history is Race.
Race produces religion; Race produces legal and ethical wars.
There is no stronger case than that of the wild, unworldly and
perishing stock which we commonly call the Celts, of whom your friends
the MacNabs are specimens. Small, swarthy, and of this dreamy and
drifting blood, they accept easily the superstitious explanation of
any incidents, just as they still accept (you will excuse me for saying)
that superstitious explanation of all incidents which you
and your Church represent. It is not remarkable that such people,
with the sea moaning behind them and the Church (excuse me again)
droning in front of them, should put fantastic features into what are
probably plain events. You, with your small parochial responsibilities,
see only this particular Mrs MacNab, terrified with this particular tale
of two voices and a tall man out of the sea. But the man with
the scientific imagination sees, as it were, the whole clans of MacNab