Monday, April 28, 2014

A Narrow Escape

            It was natural that Sherlock Holmes and Father Brown should eventually meet.   Either had of course heard of the exemplary casework of the other, and regarded it with respect, if not perhaps with total comprehension, their habitual modus of approach to problems of what the newspapers call crimes, being so disparate  or even occasionally at variance.  And Brown  having once replied to the great sleuth’s standing invitation to drop by for a visit, should chance or industry ever take him up to London, that he would be pleased to do so, it was only natural that, when fate eventually did so send him (not upon any detectival matter, but merely to attend a clerical conference at Westminster), he should telegram the time of his expected arrival, and prove as good as his word.
            What was much less natural, on the plain secular face of it, though in the end it seemed to have been fated (and this by a Fate, that tempers the wind, to the full-wooled lamb  as well as the shorn), was that, during what had been intended to be a largely social visit, with exchange of anecdotes over refreshments (English stout for the priest, and some sort of white powder for the host) and sharing of professional particulars,  a sudden inruption of circumstances  should have ordained that the two of them should collaborate on a delicate and highly enigmatic case, involving life and death -- indeed, tied up with something more serious than either of these.

            They were both relaxing comfortably in their respective chairs, and Holmes was about to entertain his clerical visitor (who seemed not to be inclined, unprompted, to make show of any little adventures of his own) with the remarkable Case of the Speckled Penguin (withheld from Watson’s published record, as being too choice for vulgar consumption) when there came a knock upon the oak, faint at first, then firmer, then quickly overloud.    With a glance of annoyance, Holmes rose and strode over, and flung open the door.  There upon the threshold stood a young man of perhaps six-and-twenty winters, of something above medium height, not badly made, and of muscular build.   His attire was sober, even plain,  his head uncovered.  Yet after a moment’s hesitation, he drew himself up to his full stature, and made his entrance, casting only the most cursory glances on either side.  Holmes waved him on, with a controlled approximation of courtesy, despite his pique at the interruption, to the rather stiff and elegant formal seat that was reserved for visitors; but this visitor just shook his head.
            “I shall avail myself of the comfortable chair, if you don’t mind,” he said, on a tone that implied:  and even if you do.  Then, suiting deed to the word, he settled himself upon the very chair that Holmes himself had just now been occupying.  And then, glancing about for a hassock and finding none, with no further words but a Cheshire smile, planted his polished boots upon the little display table of Chinese curios, knocking two or three of them aside in the process.   And finally, taking his time, and without taking his gaze off Holmes’ now astonished face,  slowly and deliberately  lit a cigarette.
            Holmes knew better than to display any temper, or even to allow any emotion within himself, to distract him from the task at hand;  but concentrated all of his considerable energies  into observation of the keenest sort, reading clues off, one upon the other, from the most insignificant details:  the way a physician (such as his friend and amanuensis Doctor Watson, presently out of town) may, from the most minute murmurs and smudges, deduce the presence of a fatal illness.   Meanwhile, from the antique clock on the mantelpiece, the seconds, in their measured way, ticked by.

                        Holmes, saying nothing, giving nothing away, waited for the stranger to find his own moment to speak.  At length he did.
            “I come to you about the matter of the kidnapping of young lord Euston.”
            Though accustomed to illustrious cases, Holmes was inwardly surprised that this unprepossessing specimen of an English lout should be in any way connected to this one.
            “I have heard of it, of course,” replied Holmes coolly, “although it has not yet appeared in the papers.  The only son and heir to the dukedom, snatched while on an outing with his careless, or possibly complicit nurse.”
            The stranger nodded meaningfully.  “She has since been sent away.”
            “A curly blond boy, dressed in the suit of Her Majesty’s navy, about six years of age --“
            “Not quite;  still five.”
            “And so, what -- you come on behalf of the duke?  You are engaging my services on his authority?”   Rather an insolent emissary, if so, but no doubt some of the innate aristocratic arrogance of his ducal Grace  had rubbed off on his subordinate.
            “In a sense I do,” the other returned, with a smirk.  “I do, in the sense that I wish him well -- wish him well in the sense, that I desire him to see his young son again, alive and unharmed.  I am empowered, on my own authority, to oversee the transfer of funds -- no, not to yourself, as your finder’s fee, should you succeed in locating the lad (which you shall not, for reasons to be explained):  but to an account that I control, in a place to be named:  as a ransom.” 
            In the face of Holmes’ uncharacteristic speechlessness, the astonishing stranger’s glance passed from the imposing aquiline visage of the great London detective, to the round, blinking face of the little priest.   At sight of the latter, he startled, and his look became less certain, and lingered longer upon this  to all appearances  insignificant object, than one might have expected.   Holmes he had been mocking;  but he did not now mock the priest.
            Wrenching his attention back to the Baker Street shamus, though with a bit less bravado than before, he resumed.
            “You may wonder, that I make so bold, as baldly to present myself, unaccompanied and unarmed, at the lion’s very den.”
            “I do wonder.”
            “The gr-reat lion of detection.”
            Holmes mastered himself.
            “And yet I feel myself to be in as complete security, as were I -- as were I --“  Here he groped for a word.
            “In the right;  which you are not,” supplied the priest.
            The visitor hurriedly continued.  “I feel so because -- to make the thing explicit -- should you fail to follow my elaborate instructions to the letter, the Duke will never again see his son. -- Or not,” he added, with a curiously nervous glance at the priest, “not for a very long while, anyhow.”  Then, again glaring at the frigid Holmes:  “And should you yourself prove so foolish (as all the world knows you not to be) as to attempt to have me arrested, or to pursue this case on your own, not only do you not get the boy back, but you personally would be morally responsible for the loss, and for any harm that might come to the lad at the hands of my accomplices who are holding him, and would be, further, societally answerable to the wrath and long arm of the Duke.  Moreover, at some future time of their own choosing, my bloodthirsty accomplices in the field  might swoop down when you least anticipate, and exact a further, physical retribution, beyond any that the Duke might impose.”

            At this point, the priest, who unaccountably  seemed to have been enjoying this narrative, put in:
            “And these accomplices of yours, in the field as you say, -- are they quite as ruthless as you are?”
            The young man appeared perplexed at the intervention, and seemed actually to shrink in his chair;  but then puffed out his chest.  “More so!”
            At this, the little priest actually grinned.  “Like pirates!”
            Surprise, and then an answering expression of pleasure.  “Like the very worst!”    And, grinning back, he bared his teeth.
            Father Brown clapped his little round hands, and fell silent, having nothing to add.

            At the impudent challenge from his visitor, Holmes’ jaw had tightened, but the insult only steeled him in his resolve.
            “And how do I know, thou worse than worthless, that you have the least involvement or knowledge of this affair, which would appear to be far above your miserable attainments and low station?   Perhaps you merely overheard a leak from police headquarters, where I have no doubt you have often been a visitor, though not in any adjuvant capacity, the same as I did early this morning  from the good Lestrade.   Perchance you are a vulgar little guttersnipe, having no connection to the case, attempting to extract by guile  what you would by no means have had the simple manly courage to obtain by bolder action.”
            But here Holmes was mistaken, for that action had indeed been taken, and there was no fraud.   As authentication, the visitor silently tended, with the air of a bridge-player laying down trumps, two items:  a photograph;  and a small cloth cap which (so the stranger asserted) belonged to the small boy’s bear.   Holmes impatiently waved the puny article aside (“It could be anything,” he muttered to himself), but stared at the photo:  It showed the unmistakable likeness of their visitor, in the company of little lord Euston himself.
            At this point, unaccountably, and for reasons best known to himself, the little priest put in:   “Why just the cap, and not the bear itself?”
            The stranger seemed taken aback, and stammered an indecipherable reply;  but the priest seemed satisfied, and did not oblige the young man to continue.

            With that, the extortionist turned his attention back to Holmes, handing him a slip with bank instructions, and a large though not actually overly large figure written across the top, payable in pounds sterling.   “Now if you’ll excuse me,” he said, rising, and bowing slightly with mock, or perhaps actual politeness,  “I’ll be off, for I am in need of some refreshment.  Once my financial agents notify me of the successful transfer, you’ll get back the boy.”   With that, he bid them good day, and Holmes showed him to the door.

            So soon as they were alone, Holmes, who had been curt and subdued throughout the interview, came suddenly to a feverish life.  Bending down, he scraped from the Persian carpet a bit of dirt that had flaked off from their visitor’s boots upon entry;  and carefully assembled the cigarette-ash.   Each sample successively, he crumbled between his fingers, and sniffed.
            “It is as I thought,” he said.   “Clay of a sort found only around the Levonshire coal-pits -- quite possibly that is where they are holding the boy.   The cigarettes -- simple Woodbines, of the sort available to any laborer:   but scented with a hint of London porter, with which he had no doubt been steeling his courage before coming to us.   Further--  although this detail may have escaped your vigilance, Brown -- his dialect betrays his origin among the the hamlets of the Levonshire hills;  the burr is unmistakable.”    (Oddly, this latter fact had not indeed eluded the observation of the little priest, who, though quite insensible to the attractions of dirt and cigarettes, did pay close attention to what men said, and to how they said it, and had on occasion attended to the rustic flock of that unprosperous province, patiently hearing them out, for all their uncouth burr.)  More than a little tickled at his own brilliance, Holmes twirled to his inspection  a minute nit which had adhered to their visitor’s costume and then come off against the fabric of the chair, swiftly identifying it as belonging to the insect Archiformia levonensis, native to Levonshire.

It must be conceded that the short detective had signally failed to be instructed by the spectacle of his more celebrated colleague in full forensic pursuit; for, instead of producing (Watson-like) a memorandum book, and assiduously noting down every detail of the Holmian analysis and technique, for the admiration of future generations, or even listening very closely to what was said,  Brown apparently reverted to his inner six-year-old, which was never far from the surface (and which indeed showed plainly  at all times  in the shape of his blinking moonface), as though oblivious to the pageant of deduction playing itself out before his eyes,  fell to examining the little cap, turning it this way and that, eventually placing it upon his own round head, where it perched uncertainly.   And there he sat, blissful yet thoughtful, as though it were his Thinking Cap.
            Though not a vain man, Holmes -- well, to be sure, he was a very vain man, crackling with insight and wit and the pride of it, but at all events, not vain about the sort of things that minor men are vain over -- his dress, his looks, the expense of his trinkets;  and though in no measure could he ever be considered as intellectually insecure, for he believed himself -- quite accurately, indeed anything less would have been false modesty (a vice of which Holmes was pleasingly and completely free) -- to be quite simply the most brilliant man in all the British Isles (not excluding Scotland and Wales;  Ireland  of course  might be safely left quite out of account in this regard), with no near rival whose advancing pre-eminence he need fear, least of all this modest and simple, perhaps even simple-minded little priest:  still and despite all that, Holmes did here experience a twinge or tic of something like resentment, as his splendor of ratiocination had been on full display, yet scarce remarked by the little provincial.   (It pains us to relate, that perhaps just for an instant, the mean thought did enter the great detective’s head, that perhaps that just went to show why, despite undeniable though difficult-to-characterize gifts, Brown was no more, at the end of the day, and on cold early-rising country mornings, than an obscure provincial priest.)
            “So-o, you have examined the hat,” remarked Holmes with a touch of acid.  (“The cap,” said Brown to himself.)  “Goo-ood.  And have you reached any conclusions?”
            Brown blinked, and then remembering where the item lay, gently removed it from his head.   He beheld it anew  with a kind of reverence.
            “It is homemade,” he said.  “Probably by the boy’s own mother.”
            Holmes snorted.  “One can see at a glance that the material is one of simple English wool, such as any shopgirl might have access to.  Neither silk, nor velvet, nor any lacework or damask.  And from this you conclude that it is the product of industry at the dukedom, a fit offering for the young heir himself?”
            “No,” said Brown, as mildly as can be.  “From this I conclude that it was made by a mother.”
            He shook the item gently, at which point a small and crumpled paper-napkin, of the sort that accompanies a drink or a dish of savouries  rather than a full meal, fluttered down from where it had been wadded in the crown.  It had stuck there, possibly owing to a trace of some reddish-brownish sticky substance.   Holmes regarded it sharply, but it was not blood.
            At that point,  Holmes largely lost interest;  some sort of spot of foodstuff, such as one might expect on a napkin, nothing more.   The object otherwise apparently yielded no clues, for it was imprinted with no writing evidencing its provenience, whether from Levonshire or elsewhere, only the commonplace, workmanlike design of a British lion together with that fanciful beast (actually believed-in by the medieval peasantry) known as the “unicorn”, the two of them solemnly engaged in something even more fanciful, a sort of dance.
            “Hmm,” mused Holmes.  “Not much of a clue.  That could come from anywhere in England.   If there were time, I might have the organic residue chemographically analyzed, to ascertain whether it may contain any trace of contact with Gorsica herbalensis (which grows only in East Levonshire) or  Herbaria furzonaria (largely confined to the west of that region -- consult my monograph on the subject). “
            Brown, meanwhile, had thoughtfully licked the tip of his finger.  “It’s chocolate,” he announced, brightening;  and then, as though whetted, he dipped it again in the sample, and repeated the assay.   “Rather good chocolate, too, and quite fresh.”
            Holmes could not repress a shudder of impatience at this imbecility.    “Well, enjoy your repast,” he said;  and then, as though partly repenting of his curtness to an inoffensive invited guest, by way of reconciliation  tendered the photograph, and sollicited his colleague’s professional assessment.  Brown stared at it a bit, then shuddered.  “He looks frightened,” he said.
            Surprised at the remark, Holmes snatched back the photo, and studied it briefly.  “Not unduly, I should say, considering that his life was and remains in danger.   In fact, if anything, he seems to regard it as something of a lark, like the countryside outing itself;  too young, perhaps, and too sheltered, to understand it as anything but another adventure.”
            “I didn’t mean the small boy,” said Brown.  “I meant the other  one.”
            Holmes could make nothing of the remark, but moved on to better business.  From inside his jacket, he flourished-forth a piece of paper of a more substantial and official sort than paper napkins from some pub.  “For myself, I concern myself with a much more revealing clue, one which even you, with your inveterate predilection for shadowy and spiritual concerns, to the exclusion of hard facts, will confess, possesses …”
            Here he paused;  and Brown placidly completed, “… certain features of interest.”
            “While escorting our amiable visitor to the door,” Holmes went on drolly, “I took the liberty of extracting, from his greatcoat pocket, this document;  which, as you can observe --“  (here Holmes held it forth to the near-sighted priest) “is a train schedule, upon which the name of a certain provincial station is circled in pencil:  one located no otherwhere than in … Levonshire!  Whither I am off, incontinently, before it shall be too late!”
            And on this note of triumph, he gathered his pistol, stuck on his deerstalker, then strode purposefully out the door.


            Like his colleague Freud, Holmes was minutely observant in his way, and able to winkle out clues from cigar-ash as readily as the great alienist could read an entire psyche in a wisp of dream or slip of the tongue;  still he was not truly what can be called a menschenkenner. (Freud, on the testimony of his intimates, suffered from the same defect.)  For one thing, he lacked all commonality of interest with his beer-and-skittles-relishing, wench-bottom-pinching fellow men:  going further in this regard,  even than the intensely cerebral Viennese physician, who at least had entered into ordinary matrimony.   Brown, by contrast, enjoyed a game of skittles as well as anything or anyone, though he had seldom had time for this in later years;  and though his clerical collar had of necessity kept him from the wenches (Holmes abstaining likewise, though for different reasons), still he looked very kindly upon the youthful exuberance, with its occasional indiscretions, which, please Providence, might lead on to marriage.

            Alone now, as he so often was after his exertions, Father Brown sat awhile in silence in the great man’s room.    He did not move to examine the many strange and curious objets d’art, crowding the mantelpiece and strewn strategically about the room, with which a more inquisitive visitor, or one more versed in the rarified pleasures of virtù,  would have eagerly occupied himself;  but rather sat contemplating the mystery -- the real one -- not the mystery of the lad’s location, for that was evident enough, but that of the young man, who had committed a rash and criminal act,  and who would sin so far as to separate the poor bear from its cap, yet not so far as to separate the boy from his bear.  Tired now, with a more than human weariness, Father Brown shut his eyes, and for a time appeared to nap.  Yet then, opening them completely refreshed, he said aloud:  “You know, I am feeling peckish.  I think I shall have some more of that chocolate.”


            Some hours passed;  and there passed as well, events, and confessions, words uttered in confidence, which we have no authority to relate.   Big Ben in the distance was tolling the onset of evening, when a dusty and defeated Holmes  trudged in at the door.   “Not a trail -- not a trace!  And the villain will by now be over the border.   I may have to turn the whole thing over to Lestrade.  How he will laugh at me!”
            He glanced irritably towards the chair in which he had left his guest, but, finding him not there, looked further about, and then, in astonishment, and something like consternation, beheld him at the other end of the room, seated at a little round table, which had been set with saucers each bearing a chocolate, and three fresh little napkins with the heraldic dancing beasts.  This modest feast Brown was enjoying in the company of little lord Euston, and (making a third) the bear (who so far had not touched his plate; quite possibly the young master must finish it for him).
            Noticing his host’s return, and breaking off the animated festivities which he had been enjoying with his two commensals, Brown welcomed the new arrival, generously offering him part of his own chocolate-bar.   Then, realizing that some explanation was in order, he added:  “Oh, I spoke to the man, and he told me where he had hidden the boy.  Just in the back room, actually, where he was being entertained by the barmaid.”
            “And where,” uttered Holmes, with difficulty maintaining his composure, “was that?”
            Here Father Brown lowered his eyes in some confusion.  “The pub just round the corner, in the next street over.  The, er, ‘Unicorn and Lion’;  I noticed it as I was walking to your lodgings.”
            Here Holmes had the unaccustomed weakness, or perhaps it was decency, actually to color slightly.
            “Well, good, that will count in his favor at his sentencing.”
            Father Brown shrugged.
            “But -- Surely you called a policeman!  Don’t tell me you let him get away.  Great Scott, man, did he escape?”
            Father Brown returned gravely:   “He had a very narrow escape indeed.”
            “But -- But why did he do it in the first place, only to then go and blow the whole game?    And his dangerous accomplices are still at large!  Tell me everything he said, man, it may contain vital clues as to their whereabouts.”
            Father Brown seemed unconcerned.  “Oh, I shouldn’t worry about any ‘accomplices’.  What matters is that two souls for now are safe, that had been in peril.   As for the details of his Confession, that is under Seal.”
            It took Holmes a moment to react.  Two?  Was there -- a second hostage?”  He looked uncertainly about the room, but encountered only that most unlikely kidnapee or object of ransom, the bear.    Between each of these, his attention flitted, until, admitting defeat, it came to rest -- like the very meerschaum in its stand --upon the mantelpiece, chocked with all varieties of Oriental knick-knacks, which no longer, just at present, had power to exert any sort of  charm, then rose to the glass in self-reflection.  And then he became very quiet.
            “Perhaps indeed three,” said Father Brown.

The key that cracked the case

            Holmes sighed, regaining his wry good humor.  “Well, the fellow’s off with his own skin, for now at any rate --“
            “For now, at any rate,” agreed Father Brown.  “The road ahead is full of peril, both for him and more especially for the duke-to-be.”
            “-- and though he managed to avoid capture, still at least he is no shilling the richer for all his efforts and elaborate schemes.”
            “Actually, two shillings the poorer, “said Brown.  “You see, he paid for the chocolates.”

Noch seltsamer -- Sherlock Holmes begegnet Sigmund Freud:
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For additional fine detective fiction, try this site:


This little exercise is in the spirit of Maurice Leblanc’s Arsène Lupin contre Herlock Sholmès (1906 f.)

“Euh… C’est élémentaire, mon cher …”

For an alternate rapprochement,  try this:


The essence of that narrative, is the yin-yang complementarity between the brain and the heart -- the mind and the soul.   And the reason that Father Brown was able to penetrate to the heart of this case, where it eluded the brilliant insights of Holmes, is that he was able to detect that saving grace -- that pinpoint of light -- in the heart of darkness of this particular sinner.   Such was the immortal portrait we had, of the Bishop and Jean Valjean;  and such is the import of

(Click here, to hear the author reading  this telling fragment of Murphy on the Mount.)

1 comment:

  1. I love it! That's a perfect ending. Thank you so much for sharing this work. I look forward to the sequel.