The Paradoxes of Mr. Pond/Chapter IV
|Chapter III||The Paradoxes of Mr. Pond
Chapter IV. Pond the Pantaloon
written by Gilbert Keith Chesterton
"No, no, no," said Mr. Pond, with a gentle shrillness which he occasionally showed, when any doubt was thrown on the prosaic precision of his statements or arguments. "I did not say it was a red pencil, and that was why it made such black marks. I said it was relatively a red pencil, or resembled a red pencil, as compared with Wotton's view in regarding it as a blue pencil; and that was why it made such black marks. The distinction may seem a small one; but I assure you the most enormous errors arise out of this habit of taking a remark out of its context, and then stating it not quite correctly. The most ordinary and obvious truths, when reported in that way, may be made to sound almost absurd."
"Almost," said Captain Gahagan, nodding gravely and gazing at the little man opposite him, rather as if he were a mysterious monster in a tank.
Mr. Pond was in his private tank, or private office, in a hive of Government offices, sitting at a desk and busy at the work of blue-pencilling the proofs of some official report; whence had arisen the talk about the colour of the pencil. Pond, in short, was doing his morning's work as usual; Peter Gahagan was doing nothing, also as usual; his large figure lounged in a chair that looked too small for him; he was attached to Mr. Pond and even more attached to watching other people work.
"I may resemble Polonius," said Pond, modestly; and, indeed, his old-fashioned beard, owlish expression and official courtliness made the comparison almost apt. "I may be like Polonius; but I am not Polonius--which is just the point I wish to illustrate. Hamlet told Polonius that a cloud in the sky was like a camel. The effect would have been somewhat different if Hamlet had stated, seriously and scientifically, that he had seen a camel in the sky. In that case, Polonius might have been pardoned in regarding the Prince's madness as finally proved. Touchy officials have been known to express the view that you, my dear Gahagan, come into this office like a buffalo, and there 'lie wallowing through the long summer day,' as an outmoded poet puts it. But if the authorities of the Zoo sent for you on the ground that you actually were a buffalo, the department would hardly move in the matter without further inquiries."
"No doubt you have my dossier," said Gahagan, "with official calculations and statistics about the number of my legs, not to mention my horns; all annotated with blue and red pencil--and most certainly with some very black marks against my name. But that brings me back to the original subject of my simple wonder. You hardly seem to have noticed what was really peculiar in your own remark. In any case, I do not quite understand what you mean by a pencil being relatively red. . . ."
"Even that phrase might be defended," observed Mr. Pond, with a faint smile. "You would say, for instance, that my notes on this proof are in blue pencil; and yet--" He held out a pencil with its red chalk point towards the other. It looked like a mild conjuring trick, until he twiddled it so as to show it was one of those pencils sold by most stationers, with red at one end and blue at the other. "Now suppose I wear down the blue point till it has nearly gone (and really the misprints they can put into a simple report on Baluchistan Bimetallism are incredible), then you would say the pencil was relatively red, though still perhaps rather blue. If the red end were worn away, you would say it was mostly blue, though a little red."
"I should say nothing of the sort," exclaimed Gahagan with abrupt impatience. "I should say what I said before; that the queer thing about you is that you are quite blind to what was really mad in your statement. You can't see the paradox in your own remark. You can't see the point of your own remark."
"The point of my remark," said Mr. Pond, with dignity, "which I thought I had made sufficiently clear, was that people are very inexact in reporting statements, as in cases like a camel and 'something like a camel.'"
Peter Gahagan continued to stare with round eyes at his friend, like a buffalo in a very ruminant phase; and eventually heaved himself up, collecting his grey top-hat and walking-stick with a sort of clatter.
"No," he said, "I will not point out the point. It would be breaking a crystal or shattering a perfectly rounded soap-bubble. To pierce the pure and spherical perfection of your maniacal calm would be like invading the innocence of a child. If you really and truly do not know when you are talking nonsense, if you do not even notice what part of it is nonsense, I feel I must leave your nonsensical intellect intact. I will go and talk it over with Wotton. As he has often breezily observed, there is no nonsense about him."
And he sauntered out of the room, swinging his stick, in the direction of the very important department presided over by Sir Hubert Wotton; that he might enjoy the inspiriting spectacle of another friend doing his day's work and being interrupted by an idle man.
Sir Hubert Wotton, however, was of a type somewhat different from Mr. Pond; in that, even if he was busy, he was never fussy. Mr. Pond was bent over the poised point of his blue pencil; Sir Hubert was first visible behind the red end of a cigar, which he was puffing, with a frown of reflection, as he turned over the papers on his desk. He recognized the entry of the beaming Captain with a grim but not ungracious smile, and waved him to a seat.
Gahagan sat down with his hands crossed on his stick and thumped it on the floor.
"Wotton," he said, "I've solved the problem of the Paradoxes of Pond. He doesn't know when he's said these crazy things. There's a blind spot on his excellent brain, or a cloud comes over his mind for a moment; and he forgets that he's even said anything peculiar. He goes on arguing about the reasonable part of his speech; he never stops to explain the only thing that was really unreasonable. He talked to me quite sensibly about a pencil that was bright red, or something like it, and therefore marked very black on the paper. I tried to nail him to that piece of inconsequence; and he completely eluded me. He went on talking about when a blue pencil was not a blue pencil; but he somehow forgot all about the black marks."
"Black marks!" said Wotton; and sat up so abruptly that he spilt the ash of his cigar over his usually immaculate waistcoat. He dusted off the defilement with a frown; and then, after a pause, spoke in the staccato fashion that occasionally revealed that he was much less conventional than he looked.
"Most fellows who talk paradoxes are only trying to show off. It's not like that with Pond; he does it because he's trying not to show off. You see--he looks a very sedentary, scientific little cuss, as if he'd never been unhooked from a desk or a typewriter; but he's really had some very extraordinary experiences. He doesn't talk about them; he doesn't want to talk about them; but he does want to talk about reason and philosophy and theoretical things in books; you know he loves reading all the rational eighteenth-century literature. But when, in the course of talking in the abstract, he comes on some concrete thing that he has actually done--well, I can only say he crumples it up. He tries to crush it into a small space and it simply sounds contradictory. Almost every one of those crazy sentences simply stands for one of the adventures in what would be called by most people a very unadventurous life."
"I think I see what you mean," said Gahagan, after a pause of radiant reflection. "Yes, you're right. You can't expect me to be taken in, mind you, by most of your swagger of stoicism in the English public-school man. Half the time they are simply showing off by not showing off. But in Pond it's genuine. He really does hate the limelight; in that way you may say he was made for the Secret Service. And you mean that he only becomes mysterious, in this particular manner, when he really does want to keep the secret of his services. In other words, you mean there is a story behind every paradox of Pond. Certainly that is true--of all those cases when I have been told the story."
"I know all about this story," said Wotton, "and it was one of the most remarkable things that Pond ever did. It was a matter of immense importance--the sort of public affair that has to be kept a very private affair. Pond gave two pieces of advice, which some thought very odd and which turned out exactly right; and he ended by making a rather extraordinary discovery. I don't know how he came to mention it just now; but I'm pretty sure it was by accident. When it turned up, he tried to tuck it away again in a hurry and change the subject. But he certainly saved England; also he nearly got killed."
"What!" exclaimed Gahagan with some astonishment.
"The fellow must have fired five times at him," said Wotton reminiscently, "before he turned the sixth shot on himself."
"Well, I'm blowed," said the Captain elegantly. "I always thought Pond the most charming of tea-table comedies; I never knew he figured in a melodrama. I should as soon have thought of his figuring in a fairy-pantomime. But he seems somehow associated with theatrical things at the moment. He asked me himself if he was like Polonius; and I suppose some malicious people would say he was more like Pantaloon. I like the notion of you and he magically transplanted to a Christmas pantomime: 'Harlequin Hubert and the Fairies' Pond,' all ending with a real Harlequinade, with red fire and the Pantaloon falling over the Policeman. Pardon my talking nonsense--you know my unfortunate mind only becomes fertile about impossible things."
"It's curious you should call it impossible," said Sir Hubert Wotton, knitting his brows, "because that's almost exactly what really happened to us."
Sir Hubert Wotton showed a certain reticence and deliberate vagueness about the official details of the story; even in telling it after so many years to an intimate friend. In England especially, there are enormous events which never get into the newspapers, and are apparently intended never to get into the history-books. It may be enough to say here that there was at one time under the surface, but very near to the surface, a conspiracy aiming at a coup d'état, which was backed by a Continental Power of similar leanings. Gun-running, secret drilling and plans for stealing State documents were involved; and it was feared that a certain number of minor officials had been corrupted or converted by the conspirators. Hence, when it was a question of sending certain very private official documents (about the nature of which Wotton remained somewhat hazy to the end) from one of the great northern ports to a particular Government department in London, the first Council was a very small and select one, presided over by Sir Hubert and held in the smaller office of Mr. Pond. Indeed, Mr. Pond was the official in charge of the job. The only other person permanently present was one of the first officials from Scotland Yard; Wotton had brought his clerk with him to arrange and explain certain matters; but had later made an excuse for sending the man out on an errand. Dyer, the detective from the Yard, a heavy-shouldered, hard-headed person with a toothbrush moustache, explained methodically, if a little mechanically, the precautions and arrangements he would consider necessary for protecting the transport of the papers to their destination. He wanted an armoured car with a machine-gun, a certain number of men carrying concealed arms, a police search of everybody involved in first dispatching and in finally receiving the box or parcel--and several other conditions of the kind.
"Pond will think all this terribly expensive," said Wotton, with a sad smile. "Pond is quite the Old Liberal in the matter of economy and retrenchment. But he will agree that we are all bound to show particular care in this case."
"N-no," said Mr. Pond, pursing his lips dubiously. "I don't think I should show any particular care in this case."
"Not show any particular care!" repeated the astonished Wotton.
"I certainly shouldn't show it," said Mr. Pond. "In such cases, nobody of sense would take such particular precautions, any more than anybody would send an important letter by registered post."
"Well, you must pardon my dullness," said Sir Hubert, "but, as a matter of fact, I have heard of people sending an important letter by registered post."
"It is done, I believe," said Mr. Pond, with distant disparagement. "But that is when you are trying to prevent a letter being lost. Just now you are trying to prevent a letter being found."
"That sounds rather interesting," said Dyer, with some restrained amusement.
"Don't you see? It's quite simple," answered Pond. "If you want to prevent a document from being dropped down a drain, or thrown into a dustbin, or used to light the fire or to make a bird's nest, or any other accident of neglect, then it is a good thing to draw attention to it, by stamping or sealing or safeguarding it in some particular way. But if you want to prevent it from being tracked and spotted and snatched out of your hands, by violence or stratagem, then it's the worst thing in the world to mark it in a particular way. Registration, for instance, doesn't mean that your messenger can't be knocked on the head or have his pocket picked. It only means that your messenger or his department can be held responsible; may have to apologize or compensate. But you don't want apologies or compensations; you want the letter. I should say it would be far safer from a watchful enemy, if it were unmarked and sent along with a thousand others looking exactly the same."
It is a tribute to the essential shrewdness, underlying the apparent woodenness of Wotton and Dyer, that the paradox of Pond prevailed. The documents, however, were too bulky to be treated as ordinary letters; and after some discussion, they were placed in one of a large number of white wooden boxes, light and not very large, which were in general use for sending chocolate and other provisions to the army or navy or some branches of the public service. The only part of his original program on which the hard-headed Dyer continued to insist was that of putting guards and searchers at essential points of the route of travel.
"I suppose there'll be some damned fuss about it afterwards," he said, "and people will pester us about interfering with the liberty of the subject. We're handicapped in this confounded constitutional country. Now if we were in--"
He shut his mouth rather sharply, as a discreet knock sounded on the door, and Sir Hubert's clerk glided in to say he had discharged his commission. Sir Hubert did not see him at first, his frowning gaze being fixed on the railway-map of the route to be pursued; and Dyer happened at the moment to be examining very closely the white deal box, which had already been selected and sent in as a sample. But Mr. Pond noticed the clerk; and could not help thinking that he was rather worth noticing. He was a young man named Franks, with fair hair correctly flattened, and neat enough in figure and costume; but his wide face had that indescribable look which is sometimes seen, of which we can only say that it suggests the large head on the little figure of a dwarf, or perhaps that sunken between the shoulders of a hunchback; the face is not normal, even upon a normal figure. But the other causes which arrested Mr. Pond's eye for a moment were, first, the fact that the clerk was noticeably ill at ease when he silently handed papers to his superior; and, last but not least, that he had started visibly when he saw the detective from Scotland Yard.
The second Council, if it may be called so, was held in what all agreed was the strategical centre of the whole manœuvre: a certain railway-junction in the Midlands. It so happened that the consignment of boxes, along with mailbags and similar things, had to be shifted here from one train to another, which came up afterwards to the same platform. It was at this point that there was most possibility of any interference from outside; and it is to be feared that Dyer stretched several points in his reluctant compromise with the British Constitution, in the matter of police orders which stopped, detained or examined persons attempting to enter or leave the station.
"I have told our people they mustn't even let us out of the station," he said, "without close examination, for fear somebody should have a fancy for dressing up as Mr. Pond."
"It has quite a festive sound, so near Christmas," said Mr. Pond dolefully. "So I take it that for the present we must stay on the station; and one can hardly say it looks particularly festive."
Nothing, indeed, can well look more desolate than one of the numerous side platforms of an empty railway-station on a dreary winter day; unless it is the empty Third Class Waiting-Room which is provided to be a human refuge from the winter blast. Somehow the waiting-room looks even less human than the platform from which it is a refuge; hung with a few printed notices that nobody could possibly read, tables of trains or dusty plans of railways, equipped in one corner with broken pens with which nobody could write, and dried inkstands containing no ink to write with; with one dab of dull colours, the faded advertisement of an insurance company. It certainly seemed to the casual mind a godforsaken place to be spending any part of Christmas; but Mr. Pond had a stoical cheerfulness under such circumstances which rather surprised those who only knew his catlike love of comfortable domestic routine.
He entered this empty and unsightly apartment with a brisk step, stopping for a moment to stare reflectively at the dried ink and broken pens on the corner table.
"Well," he said, turning away, "they couldn't do very much with those, anyhow; but, of course, they might have pencils or fountain-pens. I'm rather glad I did it, on the whole."
"Pond," said Wotton gravely, "this is in your department anyhow; and I'm sure that Dyer will agree that we've done well to follow your advice so far. But I hope you don't mind my having a mild curiosity about what it is that you've done."
"Not at all," replied Pond. "Perhaps I ought to have told you about it before. Very likely I ought to have done it before. But just after you'd been good enough to let me have my own way, about sending it along with all the other stuff in plain identical boxes, I sat down and had a hard think about what would be the next best precaution following on that. I'm pretty certain that if it had been taken in a special car by armed men, that car would have been wrecked and those armed men perhaps robbed by force of arms; anyhow, there was too much of a risk of it. There's a much more elaborate gangster organization working against us already than most people have any notion of; and to multiply purchases and preparations is to multiply clues and transactions for their spies to trail. But I don't think the gangs could possibly get in here, especially now that the police are holding the gates of all these stations like fortresses. An isolated man or so could do very little against them. But what could an isolated man do?"
"Well," said Wotton rather impatiently. "What could he do?"
"As I say," continued Mr. Pond calmly, "I sat down and had a good think about what a spy or stray intruder might do, in a quiet way without any noise of battle, murder or sudden death, if he did manage somehow to spot the right box. So I got on to the private telephone to headquarters; and told them to see that the postal and transport authorities held up every one of the boxes or packages on which the address seemed to have been altered; anything crossed out or anything substituted. A man might conceivably snatch a moment to re-direct a box to some of his friends in London; though he could never take the box out of the station without being searched. That's what I did; and it was these broken-down penholders that reminded me of it. It's a pretty broken-down place to spend Christmas in, as you say; they have given us a sort of a fire, which is more than some waiting-rooms do; but it looks as if it were dying of depression; and I don't wonder."
He stirred up the neglected fire, making quite a creditable blaze, with his usual instinct for the comforts of life; then he added: "I hope you don't disagree with that second precaution of mine."
"No; I think that also is a very sensible precaution; though I hope there is no chance of anybody hitting on the right box, even by accident." Hubert Wotton frowned a moment at the renewed flame and the dancing sparks, and then said gloomily, "This is about the time when people at Christmas are going to the pantomime. Or, at any rate, to the pictures."
Mr. Pond nodded; he seemed to be suddenly smitten with a fit of abstraction. At last he said:
"I sometimes wonder whether things weren't better when pictures meant the pictures in the fire, instead of the pictures on the film."
Sir Hubert Wotton gruffly suggested, in a general way, that the dingy fire in a Third Class Waiting-Room was not one in which he would prefer to look for pictures.
"The fire pictures, like the cloud pictures," went on Mr. Pond, "are just incomplete enough to call out the imagination to complete them. Besides," he added, cheerfully poking the fire, "you can stick a poker into the coals and break them up into a different picture; whereas, if you push a great pole through the screen because you don't like the face of a film-star, there is all sorts of trouble."
Dyer, who had stamped out on to the platform during this imaginative interlude, returned at this moment with highly practical news. By exploring many tunnels, and scouring many platforms on that labyrinthine junction, he had found that there really was a remote refreshment-room, in which it was possible to have some sort of lunch; which had been a silent problem for all three of the officials involved.
"I'll stay on this platform," he said; "in fact I shall stay on this platform all night if necessary. This is my particular job. But you go and get your lunch first and come back; and I'll see if I can get some afterwards. Never mind about the trains; I've arranged for all that; and, anyhow, I shall be there when the only possible moment of danger comes."
In fact, his last words were almost drowned in the throb and racket of the approach of the first train. They all saw the mailbags and boxes and packages duly put out on the platform; and then Wotton, a man of regular habits, who was beginning to feel rather peckish, was easily persuaded by Dyer to accept his arrangement and go in search of a bite of food. Wotton and Pond dispatched their rather meagre lunch with reasonable rapidity; but even so had occasion to quicken their footsteps as they came within sight of their own original platform; since a train, which was apparently the second train, was beginning to shift and puff out of the station; and when they rejoined their companion, the platform was already bare.
"All safe," said Dyer, with satisfaction. "I saw all the boxes and things into the van myself; and nobody's been here to interfere with them. Our main trouble is really over; and I shouldn't mind having a little lunch myself."
He grinned at them, rubbing his hands in a congratulatory manner; and as he turned towards the subterranean passages, they turned once more with the intention of returning to the hollow and smoky cell of the waiting-room.
"It does seem as if there were nothing more for us to do here," said Wotton. "It rather increases the freezing futility of this shack."
"I consider it quite a Christmas triumph," said Mr. Pond, with undiminished cheerfulness, "that we have managed to keep the fire in, anyhow. . . . Why, I believe it's begun to snow."
For some time they had noted that the afternoon, already darkening towards the early winter evening, had something of that lurid greenish light which often glows under the load of snow-clouds; a sprinkling began to fall as they went along the apparently interminable platform; and by the time they reached the austere waiting-room, its roof and doorway were powdered with silver. The fire was burning briskly inside; Dyer had evidently been keeping himself warm.
"It's devilish queer," said Wotton, "but the whole thing is really beginning to look like a Christmas card. Our dismal salle d'attente will soon be a parody of Father Christmas's cottage in a pantomime."
"The whole thing is like the parody of a pantomime," said Pond in a lower and more disquieted tone, "and as you say, it is very queer."
After a pause, Wotton added abruptly:
"What is worrying you, Pond?"
"I'm wondering, if not worrying," answered Pond, "about exactly what a man would do to intercept or misdirect that box, in a place like this, with no pens or anything. . . . Of course, there's not much in that; he might have a fountain-pen or a pencil."
"Oh, you've settled all that; you seem to be mad on pencils," said Wotton impatiently. "It comes of always blue-pencilling those everlasting proofs of yours."
"It wouldn't be a blue pencil," said Pond, shaking his head. "I was thinking of something more like a red pencil; which would mark very black indeed. But what bothers me is that there are always more ways of doing anything than you'd fancy, even in a place like this."
"But you've blocked all that already," insisted the other; "by telephoning as you did."
"Well," said Pond obstinately, "and what would they do then; if they knew I'd telephoned?"
Wotton looked puzzled; and Pond sat down in silence, stirring the fire and staring at it.
After a silence he said abruptly: "I wish Dyer were back."
"What do you want him now for?" asked his friend. "I should say he'd earned a little late lunch. As far as I can see, he's finished the business; and it's all over here."
"I fear," said Pond, without taking his head out of the fireplace, "that it's only just going to begin."
There was another silence of growing mystification, like the gathering darkness outside. And then Pond observed suddenly:
"I suppose we've come back to the right platform."
Wotton's face only expressed the stolid stupefaction natural under the circumstances; but in his depths, which were deeper than some supposed, an unearthly chill touched him for the first time. Nightmare stirred in its sleep; not the mere practical perplexity of a problem, but all those doubts beyond reason which revolve round place and time. Before he could speak, Pond added:
"This is a different shaped poker."
"What the devil do you mean?" exploded Wotton at last. "They have locked up the station; and there is nobody on it but ourselves; except that girl in the bar. You don't imagine she has put a new set of furniture and fire-irons in all the waiting-rooms?"
"No," said Mr. Pond. "I didn't say a new poker. I said a new shape of poker."
Almost as he spoke, he leapt away from the fireplace, leaving the poker in the fire, and ran to the doorway, craning out his head and listening. His companion listened also; and recognized as an objective reality, which was no nightmare, a noise of scrambling footsteps somewhere on the platform. But, when they ran out, the platform appeared to be perfectly empty, now a blank and solid table of snow; and they began to realize that the noise came from underneath their feet. Looking over the railing, they saw that the whole raised woodwork of the station was intercepted at one point by a belt of grassy embankment, very grey and discoloured with the smoke; they were just in time to see a dark lean figure scramble up this bank and dive under the platform, in such a manner that he was able the next moment to crawl out on the line. Then he calmly mounted the platform, and stood there like a passenger waiting for a train.
Apart from the fact that the stranger had practically burgled the station, against such very special difficulties, Wotton's mind, already full of suspicions, decided at a glance that he was very much of a dark horse. Curiously enough, he looked a little like a horse, having a long equine visage and a strange sort of stoop; he was swarthy and haggard and his hollow eyes were such dense patches of shadow that it was a sort of shock to realize that the eyes within were glaring. He was dressed with the last extreme of shabbiness, in a long threadbare and almost ragged waterproof; and they thought they had never seen before a face and figure so symbolic of desolation and dreary tragedy. It seemed to Wotton that he himself had his first real glimpse of those depths in which despair manufactures the many revolutionary movements which it had been his duty to combat; but, of necessity, his duty prevailed.
He stepped up to the man, asking him who and what he was, and why he had thus evaded the police blockade. The man appeared to ignore the other questions for the moment; but in answer to the question about what he was, his tragic lantern-jaw moved and emitted a very unexpected reply.
"I am a Clown," he said in a depressed voice.
At this answer Mr. Pond seemed to start with altogether a new sort of surprise. He had ruminated on the puzzles hitherto, like one pursuing the study of things which some might find surprising, but at which he himself was no longer very much surprised. But he gaped helplessly at this as a man does at a miracle; or still more, in a case like this, at a coincidence. Then another and yet more undignified change came over him. It can only be said that, having begun by goggling, he ended by giggling.
"Oh, Lord, this is an extra!" he exclaimed, and seemed once more broken up by almost senile laughter. "This has nothing to do with the story; but it is a marvellous addition to the pantomime. I always noticed that the chief features in the pantomime had nothing to do with the story."
But Sir Hubert Wotton was having no more for the moment of Mr. Pond's fanciful mysteries; least of all, of the last and most mysterious, the mystery of his mirth. He had already begun to cross-examine the stranger in the style of the police; and the stranger stood up to him with gloomy but unshaken lucidity. His name, by his own account, was Hankin, and he was a public entertainer who also gave private entertainments; who was, indeed, only too glad to give any entertainments, in the depressed condition of his state of livelihood. He had an engagement to perform as clown at a children's party that evening, and had insisted on the necessity of catching a particular train; nor had he been cheered by the assurance of the police at the entrance that regular trains for passengers would be running again in an hour, at a time that would make him too late for his appointment; and lose him the first few shillings he had earned in many months. He had done what many such people would probably have been glad to do, if they had had the activity and audacity, and had climbed into the station by an unguarded loophole. This statement was made with firmness and simplicity, and Pond evidently believed it; but Wotton was still smouldering with some suspicions.
"I must ask you to come with us to the waiting-room," he said. "Have you anything about you to confirm your story?"
"I haven't got my visiting-card," said the sombre Mr. Hankin. "I lost it along with my Rolls-Royce and my little castle in Scotland. But you can see me in my resplendent and fashionable evening-dress, if you like. I think that ought to convince you."
The man was carrying a shabby and misshapen bag, which he lugged along to the waiting-room; and there, before the staring eyes of Wotton, he stripped off his waterproof and appeared in a sort of white circus dress, but for retaining his shabby boots and trousers. Then he dived into the bag and brought out a monstrous grinning and glaring white mask, picked out with red ornaments, and fitted it on his head. And there, solid and seemingly incredible before their eyes, was the genuine clown of the old-fashioned pantomime, such as they had been discussing.
"He came up through a trapdoor, I suppose we must say," murmured the awestruck Mr. Pond. "But I feel as if he had fallen out of the sky like the snow. Fate or the fairies have added this final touch; see how they built up gradually round us the whole palace of pantomime in this wilderness; first the firelight and then the snow and now the only original 'Here We Are Again!' Such a cosy happy Christmas! Screams of joy from all the tiny tots. . . . Oh, my God, how ghastly it all is!"
His friend looked at him and received a second shock in realizing that the bearded face, though it still wore the elfish look of its first amusement at the accident, was in fact terribly pale.
"And the ghastliest part of it," said Mr. Pond, "is that I am going to complete your costume, Sir."
He suddenly plucked out the poker, from where it was standing in the fire, and it emerged already red-hot. He handed it politely to the Clown.
"I may look like a pantaloon," he said, "but this will obviously be more suitable to the Clown. This is the red-hot poker, with which you make the Policeman jump."
Wotton stared at a scene to which he had now entirely lost the clue; and in the silence that followed, the long platform outside resounded with a firm and heavy stride coming nearer and nearer. The large figure of Dyer the detective appeared framed in the doorway; and he stood as if turned to stone by what he saw.
Wotton was not astonished at his astonishment. He presumed that it was an astonishment like his own, at the irrelevant intrusion of the pantomime figure. But Pond was watching more closely; and for Pond that moment was the confirmation of the creeping suspicion that had worked its way into his mind for the last hour or so. Nobody could have been surprised at Dyer staring at the Clown. But Dyer was not staring at the Clown. Nor was Dyer merely astonished; perhaps the most astonishing thing was that he was not exactly astonished. He was staring only at the poker; and he obviously saw nothing funny about it. His face was distorted by almost demoniac fear and fury; and he looked at the red pantomime poker rather as if it had been the flaming sword of an accusing angel.
"Yes, it's the red-hot poker," said Pond, in a low and almost forced voice, "and it does make the policeman jump."
The policeman jumped; he jumped back three paces, and as he leapt he loosened a big official revolver and fired at Mr. Pond again and again; the shocks of explosion shaking the thin shanty in which they stood. The first shot buried itself in the wall about an inch from Mr. Pond's dome-like forehead; the other four went rather wild; for Wotton and the stranger had woken up to the situation and were struggling with the would-be assassin, and forcing his hand away. Finally, he managed to wrench his hand loose again and twist the pistol inwards upon himself; the body of the big man stiffened in their arms; and Dyer of the detective service lay dead on the floor before the dancing fire.
The explanation of events was given by Mr. Pond some time later; for his first action after the catastrophe left no time for explanations. He had repeatedly, at intervals, looked at the clock in the waiting-room, and seemed satisfied; but he was leaving nothing to chance. He darted out of the door, raced down the platform, and found his way to the telephone-box he had used earlier in the day. He came out wiping his brow, in spite of the cold; but wearing a smile of relative relief in the midst of the tragedy. When asked what he was doing, he answered simply: "I was telephoning a description of the package. It'll be all right now; they will hold it up."
"Do you mean the package?" asked Wotton. "I thought that was just like all the rest."
"I'll tell you all about it presently," replied Pond. "Let us go and take a polite farewell of the public entertainer, who has given us such a delightful entertainment. I really think we ought to give him a fiver or so in compensation."
Wotton was very much the gentleman, in the more generous sense, and he heartily agreed to this; and, though it was difficult for the melancholy man with the horse-face to produce anything nearer to a laugh than a neigh, he was manifestly much cheered internally and his gaunt face was cracked with a crooked smile. Then, by way of finishing their Christmas feast on this curious scene of festivity, the two friends adjourned to the one and only refreshment-room and sat down behind two tall glasses of beer; having no taste for warming their hands at that rather too blood-red fire that still burned in the sinister waiting-room.
"It was curious you were able to corner Dyer like that," said Wotton. "I never had a thought of him."
"I never had a thought of him either," said Pond, "and he cornered himself, just as he killed himself. I fancy many conspirators are really chasing themselves into corners like that. Don't you see that he locked himself into a logical prison, when he would empty and close the whole station, to impress us with his efficiency. By the way, I ought to have guessed there was a double meaning in his dictatorial ways and demands to override the Constitution; he was talking exactly as our enemies and their foreign friends talk. But the point is this. I wasn't thinking about him particularly; I never thought of him at all until I found him wandering about inside the logical square or enclosure, like a rectangle in geometry. I was thinking all the time about one thing: what would these people probably do to divert or intercept the box, now that they could hardly do it by direct attack or anything that made a noise? I was more and more convinced they would try to redirect it somehow, so that its going normally through the post would serve them and not us. So I warned the authorities to stop all altered addresses on suspicion; and I said to myself: What will the enemy do now? What can he do, shut up in this enormous shed, bare of all conveniences and appliances? But don't you see that with that very thought came the overpowering suspicion of who the enemy was?
"Nobody was there but you and Dyer when I said I had 'phoned to stop all altered addresses. I know in a mystery story I should have to allow for the station being thronged with silent eavesdroppers, a spy up the chimney and another crawling out of the luggage; but in practical life it doesn't happen. We heard the one and only intruder, when he began to scramble up from the street. The man who did hear it was Dyer; and notice that he almost immediately wandered away up the platform, professing to find our luncheon place for us; but really striding up and down and brooding upon what the devil he should do next, for I am sure his original plan had been to alter the address as I suggested. Was there anything else in that bare beastly place he could use for the same purpose, or another similar purpose? There was. But I never guessed what it was, until I came back to the waiting-room and happened to look at the poker. I saw it was twisted at a slightly different angle; that could only mean it had been red-hot and hammered half crooked like a horseshoe on the anvil. And then, of course, I realized that a red-hot poker would serve as well as a pen or pencil, or rather better, for altering an inscription on a wooden box. A pen could only cross it out; but a poker could burn it out. Managed neatly, it might well remove all trace of there ever having been any label or previous inscription at all. But it would do a great deal more than that. The clown is not the only artist who wields a poker; there is the whole elegant craft called poker-work. It would be quite easy to change the whole appearance of a white deal box, so that it would no longer be classed with the other boxes; running a black border round it, covering it with a pattern, perhaps blackening it almost entirely. Then in one blank space left he would brand the address he wanted it to reach, very plain in black block letters, avoiding incidentally all the dangers of being traced by handwriting. The thing would have gone through the post to that address as a separate thing in an ordinary way; and our scheme for posting it in an ordinary way would have recoiled on our heads. As it was, I was just in time to describe the poker-work box and stop it. I made a silly joke about a red pencil marking black; but even then I had barely begun to suspect Dyer; I'm ashamed to say the only person I began by suspecting was your unfortunate clerk Franks, who is rather exceptionally innocent."
"Franks!" exclaimed Wotton. "Why on earth did you suspect him?"
"Because I was an ass," said Pond, "and much more like a Pantaloon than you may imagine. He's a queer-looking fellow; but I ought to have known that suffering sort of look is more often conscientiousness than unconscientiousness. But where I was a priceless ass was when I looked at the suspect instead of looking at the detective. At that moment, Dyer was holding the box up, looking at it very closely; and Franks, from the other side, could see that he made a minute mark on it, very unobtrusively; so that he would know it again. Franks knew about the box scheme; and seeing that very swift and furtive act, he started and stared; and I don't wonder. In fact, Franks was the real detective and was far ahead of me, for I hadn't suspected Dyer at all. Not till, so to speak, I actually found him like a burglar on the premises. I might say on the logical premises." He coughed slightly. "Pray excuse the pun."
"Well," said Captain Gahagan, when Wotton had told him the story long afterwards. "My favourite character in your drama is the Clown. He is so irrelevant. I am like that myself. I am so irrelevant."
"You are," said Sir Hubert Wotton, and resumed the study of his documents.
"He is like the Clown in Shakespeare," went on Gahagan with unchanged buoyancy. "The Clown in Shakespeare seems to be there by accident unconnected with the story and yet he is the chorus of the tragedy. The Fool is like a fantastic dancing flame lighting up the features and furniture of the dark house of death. Perhaps we may connect Pond and Polonius after all." And he continued to illustrate his theory of the buffoons in Shakespeare, a dramatic poet to whom he was fervently devoted, quoting large portions of the plays in question in the old oratorical Irish fashion, to the no small aid and acceleration of the business of the department, busy at the moment with oppressing and delicate problems about American claims concerning the commerce of Vancouver.