Read an Excerpt
The Blue Cross
Between the silver ribbon of morning and the green glittering ribbon of sea, the boat touched Harwich and let loose a swarm of human-like flies, among whom the man we must follow was by no means conspicuous — nor did he wish to be. There was nothing notable about him, except a slight contrast between the holiday gaiety of his clothes and the official gravity of his outlook. His clothes included a pale grey jacket, a white waistcoat, and a silver straw hat with a grey-blue ribbon. His lean face was dark by contrast, and ended in a short black beard that looked Spanish and suggested an Elizabethan collar. He was smoking a cigarette with the deliberateness of an idler. There was nothing about him to indicate the fact that the grey jacket covered a loaded revolver, that the white waistcoat covered a police card, or that the straw hat hid one of the most powerful intellects in Europe. For this was Valentin himself, the head of the Paris police and the most famous investigator in the world; and he was coming from Brussels to London to make the greatest arrest of the century.
Flambeau was in England. The police of three countries had tracked the notorious criminal at last from Ghent to Brussels, from Brussels to the Hook of Holland; and it was conjectured that he would take some advantage of the unfamiliarity and confusion of the Eucharistic Congress then taking place in London. Probably he would travel as some minor clerk or secretary connected with it; but, of course, Valentin could not be certain; nobody could be certain about Flambeau.
It is many years now since this colossus of crime suddenly ceased keeping the world in a turmoil; and when he ceased, as they said after the death of the French military leader Roland, there was a great silence upon the earth. But in his best days (I mean, of course, his worst), Flambeau was a figure as statuesque and international as the Kaiser, leader of Germany. Almost every morning the daily newspaper announced that he had escaped the consequences of one extraordinary crime by committing another. He was from Gascony in France and of gigantic stature and bodily daring; and the wildest tales were told of his outbursts of athletic humor; how he turned the judge of inquiry upside down and stood him on his head, "to clear his mind"; how he ran down the Rue de Rivoli with a policeman under each arm. He would say that his fantastic physical strength was generally employed in such bloodless though undignified scenes; his real crimes were chiefly those of ingenious and large scale robbery. But each of his thefts was almost a new venture in evil, and would make a story in itself.
It was he who ran the great Tyrolean Dairy Company in London, with no dairies, cows, carts, nor milk, but with around a thousand subscribers. These he served by the simple operation of moving the little milk cans outside people's doors to the doors of his own customers. It was he who had kept up an unaccountable and close correspondence with a young lady whose whole letter-bag was intercepted, by the extraordinary trick of photographing his messages infinitesimally small upon the slides of a microscope. A sweeping simplicity marked many of his experiments in ill-doing. It is said that he once repainted all the numbers in a street in the dead of night merely to divert one traveler into a trap. It is quite certain that he invented a portable pillar-box, which he put up at corners in quiet suburbs on the chance of strangers dropping postal orders into it. Lastly, he was known to be a startling acrobat; despite his huge figure, he could leap like a grasshopper and melt into the treetops like a monkey. Hence the great Valentin, when he set out to find the great Flambeau, was perfectly aware that his adventures would not end by merely finding him.
But how was he to find him? On this the great Valentin's ideas were still in process of settlement.
There was one thing which Flambeau, with all his dexterity of disguise, could not cover, and that was his singular height. If Valentin's quick eye had caught a tall apple-woman, a tall grenadier, or even a tolerably tall duchess, he might have arrested them on the spot. But all along his train there was nobody that could be a disguised Flambeau, any more than a cat could be a disguised giraffe. He had already satisfied himself about the people on the boat; and the people picked up at Harwich or on the journey limited themselves with certainty to six. There was a short railway official travelling up to the terminus, three fairly short vegetable gardeners picked up two stations afterwards, one very short widow lady going up from a small Essex town, and a very short Roman Catholic priest going up from a small Essex village.
When it came to the last case, Valentin gave it up and almost laughed. The little priest was so much the essence of those Eastern flatlands; he had a face as round and dull as a Norfolk dumpling; he had eyes as empty as the North Sea; he had several brown-paper parcels, which he was quite incapable of holding together. The Eucharistic Congress had doubtless sucked out many such creatures from their local stagnation, blind and helpless, like dug-up moles. Valentin was a skeptic in the severe style of France, and could have no love for priests. But he could have pity for them, and this one might have provoked pity in anybody. He had a large, shabby umbrella, which constantly fell on the floor. He did not seem to know which was the right end of his return ticket. He explained with a moon-calf simplicity to everybody in the carriage that he had to be careful, because he had something made of real silver "with blue stones" in one of his brown-paper parcels. His quaint blending of Essex flatness with saintly simplicity continuously amused the Frenchman till the priest arrived (somehow) at Tottenham station with all his parcels, and came back for his umbrella. When he did the last, Valentin even had the good nature to warn him not to protect the silver by telling everybody about it. But to whomever he talked, Valentin kept his eye open for someone else; he looked out steadily for anyone, rich or poor, male or female, who was well up to six feet; for Flambeau was four inches above it.
He landed at Liverpool Street, however, quite conscientiously convinced that he had not missed the criminal so far. He then went to Scotland Yard to confirm his position and arrange for help in case of need; he then lit another cigarette and went for a long stroll in the streets of London. As he was walking in the streets and squares beyond Victoria, he paused suddenly and stood. It was a quaint, quiet square, very typical of London, full of an accidental stillness. The tall, flat houses looked at once prosperous and uninhabited; the square of shrubbery in the center looked as deserted as a green Pacific island. One of the four sides was much higher than the rest, like a dais; and the line of one side was broken by one of London's admirable accidents — a restaurant that looked as if it had strayed from Soho. It was an unreasonably attractive edifice, with dwarf plants in pots and long, striped blinds of lemon yellow and white. It stood conspicuously high above the street, and in the usual patchwork way of London, a flight of steps from the street ran up to meet the front door almost as a fire escape might run up to a first-floor window. Valentin stood and smoked in front of the yellow-white blinds and considered them a long while.
The most incredible thing about miracles is that they happen. A few clouds in heaven do come together into the staring shape of one human eye. A tree does stand up in the landscape of a doubtful journey in the exact and elaborate shape of a question mark. I have seen both these things myself within the last few days. Admiral Nelson does die in the instant of victory; and a man named Williams does quite accidentally murder a man named Williamson, which sounds like a type of infanticide. In short, there is in life an element of elvish-like coincidence which people reckoning on the normal may perpetually miss. As it has been well expressed in the paradox of Poe, wisdom should reckon on the unforeseen.
Aristide Valentin was unfathomably French, and the French intelligence is especially grand intelligence. He was not "a thinking machine," for that is a brainless phrase of modern fatalism and materialism. A machine only is a machine because it cannot think. But he was a thinking man, and a straightforward man at the same time. All his wonderful successes that looked like magic tricks had been gained by plodding logic, by clear and commonplace French thought. The French electrify the world not by engaging in paradox, but by carrying out a platitude. They carry a platitude so far — as in the French Revolution. But exactly because Valentin understood reason, he understood the limits of reason. Only a man who knows nothing of motors talks of motoring without petrol; only a man who knows nothing of reason talks of reasoning without strong, undisputed first principles. Here he had no strong first principles. Flambeau had been missed at Harwich; and if he was in London at all, he might be anything from a tall tramp on Wimbledon Common to a tall toastmaster at the Hotel Metropole. In such a naked state of ignorance, Valentin had a plan and a method of his own.
In such cases, he counted on the unforeseen. When he could not follow the train of the reasonable, he coldly and carefully followed the train of the unreasonable. Instead of going to the right places — banks, police stations — he systematically went to the wrong places: knocked at every empty house; turned down every cul-de-sac; went up every lane blocked with rubbish; went round every crescent that led him uselessly out of the way. He defended this crazy course quite logically. He said that if one had a clue, this was the worst way; but if one had no clue at all, it was the best, because there was just the chance that any oddity that caught the eye of the pursuer might be the same that had caught the eye of the pursued. Somewhere a person must begin, and it had better be just where another person might stop.
And something about that flight of steps up to the shop, something about the serenity and quaintness of the restaurant, roused all the detective's rare romantic fancy and made him resolve to strike at random. He went up the steps, and sitting down at a table by the window, asked for a cup of black coffee.
It was halfway through the morning, and he had not breakfasted; the small litter of other breakfasts stood about on the table to remind him of his hunger; and adding a poached egg to his order, he proceeded musingly to shake some white sugar into his coffee, thinking all the time about Flambeau. He remembered how Flambeau had escaped, once by a pair of nail scissors, and once by a house on fire; once by having to pay for an unstamped letter, and once by getting people to look through a telescope at a comet that might destroy the world. He thought his detective brain as good as the criminal's, which was true, but he fully realized the disadvantage. "The criminal is the creative artist; the detective only the critic," he said with a sour smile, and lifted his coffee cup to his lips slowly, and put it down very quickly. He had put salt in it.
He looked at the vessel from which the silvery powder had come; it was certainly a sugar container, as unmistakably meant for sugar as a champagne bottle for champagne. He wondered why they should keep salt in it. He looked to see if there were any more orthodox vessels. Yes; there were two salt cellars quite full. Perhaps there was some specialty in the condiment in the salt shakers. He tasted it; it was sugar. Then he looked round at the restaurant with a renewed air of interest, to see if there were any other traces of that singular artistic taste which puts the sugar in the salt shakers and the salt in the sugar basin. Except for an odd splash of some dark fluid on one of the white-papered walls, the whole place appeared neat, cheerful, and ordinary. He rang the bell for the waiter.
When that official hurried up, fuzzy-haired and somewhat bleary-eyed at that early hour, the detective (who was not without an appreciation of the simpler forms of humor) asked him to taste the sugar and see if it was up to the high reputation of the hotel. The result was that the waiter yawned suddenly and woke up.
"Do you play this delicate joke on your customers every morning?" inquired Valentin. "Does changing the salt and sugar never fail you as a jest?"
The waiter, when this irony grew clearer, stutteringly assured him that the establishment had certainly no such intention; it must be a most curious mistake. He picked up the sugar basin and looked at it; he picked up the salt shaker and looked at that, his face growing more and more bewildered. At last he abruptly excused himself, and hurrying away, returned in a few seconds with the proprietor. The proprietor also examined the sugar basin and then the salt shaker; the proprietor also looked bewildered.
Suddenly the waiter seemed to grow inarticulate with a rush of words.
"I zink," he stuttered eagerly, "I zink it is those two clergymen."
"What two clergymen?"
"The two clergymen," said the waiter, "that threw soup at the wall."
"Threw soup at the wall?" repeated Valentin, feeling sure this must be some unique Italian metaphor.
"Yes, yes," said the attendant excitedly, and pointed at the dark splash on the white paper; "threw it over there on the wall."
Valentin looked his query at the proprietor, who came to his rescue with fuller reports.
"Yes, sir," he said, "it's quite true, though I don't suppose it has anything to do with the sugar and salt. Two clergymen came in and drank soup here very early, as soon as the shutters were taken down. They were both very quiet, respectable people; one of them paid the bill and went out; the other, who seemed a slower cleric altogether, was some minutes longer getting his things together. But he went at last. Only, the instant before he stepped into the street, he deliberately picked up his cup, which he had only half emptied, and threw the soup on the wall. I was in the back room myself, and so was the waiter; so I could only rush out in time to find the wall splashed and the shop empty. It didn't do any particular damage, but it was confoundedly rude; and I tried to catch the men in the street. They were too far off though; I only noticed they went round the next corner into Carstairs Street."
The detective was on his feet, hat settled and stick in hand. He had already decided that in the universal darkness of his mind he could only follow the first odd finger that pointed, and this finger was odd enough. Paying his bill and slamming the glass doors behind him, he was soon swinging around into the other street.
It was fortunate that even in such fevered moments his mind was cool and quick. Something in a shop-front went by him like a mere flash; so he went back to look at it. The shop was a popular grocer and fruit seller's, an array of goods set out in the open air and plainly ticketed with their names and prices. In the two most prominent bins were two heaps of oranges and nuts. On the heap of nuts lay a scrap of cardboard on which was written in bold, blue chalk, "Best tangerine oranges, two for a penny." On the oranges was the equally clear and exact description, "Finest Brazil nuts, 4 pennies a pound."
Valentin looked at these two placards and fancied he had met this highly subtle form of humor before, and somewhat recently. He drew the attention of the red-faced fruit seller, who was looking rather sullenly up and down the street, to this inaccuracy in his advertisements. The fruit seller said nothing, but sharply put each card into its proper place. The detective, leaning elegantly on his walking cane, continued to scrutinize the shop. At last he said, "Excuse my apparent interruption, my good sir, but I should like to ask you a question in experimental psychology and the association of ideas."
The red-faced shopkeeper regarded him with an eye of suspicion, but he continued nonchalantly, swinging his cane. "Why," he pursued, "are two tickets wrongly placed in a grocer's shop like a top hat that has come to London for a holiday? Or, in case I do not make myself clear, what is the mystical association which connects the idea of nuts marked as oranges with the idea of two clergymen, one tall and the other short?"
The eyes of the tradesman stood out of his head like a snail's; he really seemed for an instant likely to fling himself upon the stranger. At last he stammered angrily, "I don't know what you have to do with it, but if you're one of their friends, you can tell them from me that I'll knock their silly heads off, parsons or no parsons, if they upset my apples again."
Excerpted from "The Innocence of Father Brown"
Copyright © 2018 Gilead Publishing, LLC.
Excerpted by permission of Gilead Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.