The Paradoxes of Mr. Pond/Chapter VII
|Chapter VI||The Paradoxes of Mr. Pond
Chapter VII. The Terrible Troubadour
written by Gilbert Keith Chesterton
"In nature you must go very low to find things that go so high."
This was commonly included by collectors among the Paradoxes of Mr. Pond; for it came towards the end of a rather dull and eminently sensible discourse, and it made no sense. And these were recognized as the stigmata of the stylistic methods of Mr. Pond. But in this case, as a fact, he had plagiarized from his old acquaintance Dr. Paul Green, author of The Dog or the Monkey, Studies in the Domestication of Anthropoids, Notes on Neanderthal Development, etc., etc.
Dr. Paul Green was a smallish man, pale, slender and slightly lame; but his activity, even in bodily movement, was relatively remarkable, and his mind moved as quickly as a quick-firing gun.
It was this old acquaintance who, on one sunny afternoon, came out of Mr. Pond's past to bring him shocking and even nerve-shattering news; a report as alarming as the report of a gun.
But when Mr. Pond was told, on such very solid authority, that his friend Captain Gahagan was an escaped murderer, after all, he said, "Tut, tut." He was given to what is called understatement; of which he knew the Greek name, but did not employ it needlessly. The conversation, indeed, had opened casually enough, turning from the doctor's health to the doctor's hobby of studying animal habits. A little light talk about Eohippus; some airy badinage about Homo Kanensis; a little bright back-chat about Vialleton's Études sur les Reflexes des Animaux Tétrapodes; rising to a certain sharpness of dialogue, for on this point of Darwin and Natural Selection the two friends had never agreed.
"I never can see," said Mr. Pond, "how a change, that might have helped an animal if it came quickly, could have helped him if it came slowly. And came to his great-grandchild, long after he ought to have perished without leaving any grandchildren. It might be better if I had three legs, say, in order to stand firmly on two while kicking a fellow bureaucrat with the third. It might be better if I had three legs; but it wouldn't be better if I only had a rudimentary leg."
"It might be better if I had two legs," said the doctor grimly, "instead of one lame leg that is hardly a leg at all. And yet I find it fairly useful."
Mr. Pond, who was commonly very tactful, chid himself softly for tactlessness in forgetting that his old acquaintance was lame. But, at least, he was far too tactful to apologize, or even too obviously to change the subject.
He proceeded in his mild and fluent way: "I mean that till a leg is long enough to run or climb, it would only be an extra weight for the runner or climber to carry."
"It's pretty queer," said the doctor, "that we should have started off talking about running and climbing. I didn't come here to discuss Darwinism or anything half so sane and sensible. But if you think I'm suspect, as the atrocious atheist, I may explain that I don't want you just now to listen to me, but to my friend the vicar of Hanging Burgess, the Reverend Cyprian Whiteways, whose views are probably quite as anti-scientific as your own. I don't suppose he's a Darwinian; but, anyhow, I promised to introduce him to you, and he wants to tell you about things that happened rather later than the later Stone Age."
"Then, what do you mean," asked Pond, "by talking about running and climbing?"
"I meant, I am sorry to say," replied Dr. Green, "that the vicar has a pretty bad story about that friend of yours, Captain Gahagan, whose legs seem to be very good at climbing, and still better at running away."
"It's a serious thing," said Pond, gravely, "to accuse a soldier of running away."
"It's a much more serious thing of which the vicar accuses him," said Green. "He accuses him of climbing a balcony and shooting a rival, and then running away. But it's not my story; I'm not the story, but only the introduction."
"Climbing a balcony," mused Mr. Pond; "for a vicar it sounds rather a romantic story."
"I know," said the doctor, "the sort of story that begins with a rope-ladder and ends with a rope."
Mr. Pond, as he heard the unequal step of his lame friend echoing away down the paved paths of the garden, relapsed into a gloomy mood. He was quite willing to accept his medical friend merely as a letter of introduction. But it was a rather black-edged and tragic sort of letter of introduction. Whatever story the Rev. Cyprian was going to tell, it was another story against his unfortunate friend Peter Gahagan. And Gahagan was so very unfortunate as to suggest to some a wild doubt about whether he was merely unfortunate. Some had the sudden and horrible thought that, perhaps, he was fortunate. Twice before, he had been mixed up in matters involving a mysterious and violent death; with, at least, a savour of murder. In both cases he had been cleared. But three is an unlucky number.
Finally, the Rev. Cyprian Whiteways was a shock; a shock because of his frankness and fair-mindedness.
Mr. Pond would never, at any time, have stooped to the stupid idea that clergymen are stupid. He did not take his ideas of real life from farces like The Private Secretary. But the Rev. Cyprian was so very much the reverse of stupid; a man with a rugged face like old red sandstone; and, indeed, he suggested a rock of that rich colouring which glows with the past; he carried his English countryside with him in an indescribable suggestion of depth and background; he could not talk of common things without, somehow, suggesting the weather or the turn of night or day; he was a born descriptive writer who only talked. But nobody could doubt that it was truth; or, at least, truthfulness.
It was so substantial a witness who told Mr. Pond in considerable detail the black and bloody story of Gahagan's hidden sin. And the curious effect of all this on Mr. Pond was to make him jump up briskly with a broad smile of relief on his bearded and somewhat owlish visage; declaring with unusual cheeriness that it was quite all right, they had only to ask Gahagan himself, and he would tell them all about it. Confrontation, it was sometimes called.
As for Dr. Green, with the letter of introduction, his job was done, and he was somewhat impatient of Pond's formalities; he stumped off, merely warning the vicar that he had better have a lawyer, if he was to confront that plausible Irish rogue.
So, when the scientist was already far away, reabsorbed in the study of a pithecanthropos as a pet, all that remained of his intervention was a solicitor named Luke Little, very much on the spot.
Mr. Pond's friend, Sir Hubert Wotton, the well-known diplomatist, took the chair; but Mr. Little did not mind who took chairs so long as he took charge.
"This is a very irregular inquiry, gentlemen," he said. "Only a special assurance would have induced me to place my client's case before it. Sir Hubert and Mr. Pond declare, I understand, that an explanation will be demanded here and now."
Then he added: "It is a painful matter, as I think Mr. Pond will agree."
"It is a very painful matter, indeed," replied Pond, gravely, "that an old friend of mine should be under suspicion of a horrible action."
His friend, Wotton, looked at Pond for a moment with a frosty stare of surprise; but he stared a great deal more when he was startled by Gahagan himself, speaking, suddenly, for the first and last time in all the first hours of the interview.
"Yes," he said, with a grim and inscrutable visage. "It is certainly a horrible story."
"In any case, then," resumed the lawyer, "I can now ask my client, without prejudice, to repeat the story."
"It's an ugly story," said the clergyman in his honest way, "and I'll tell it as shortly as I can."
Pond had heard the story, already, told in a way at once looser and more elaborate, and allowing of more descriptive detail or inference than the statement made under such very legal supervision. But even as he heard it again in more exact form, he could not get rid of a feeling that the scene described was unnaturally vivid to him, but with the vividness of a nightmare.
There was no particular reason, at that stage, for comparing the story to a nightmare; except that the two principal incidents happened at night.
They happened in the vicar's garden, close to the balcony of the vicar's house; and perhaps the impression, which was rather like an oppression, was somehow connected with another night darkening the night; a living night of vegetation; for it was suggested, throughout, that the balcony was loaded with pots and palms and clutched by climbing plants with heavy and pendent leaves.
Perhaps, after all, it was only some vague, verbal association with the name of Hanging Burgess; as if the mystery were somehow associated with the hanging gardens of Babylon. Perhaps, again, it was partly the irrational trail of the talk with Dr. Green, with his creed of blind growth and a groping life-force in a godless dark; for Green developed his view of development with every fancy from botany as well as biology.
On the whole, however, Mr. Pond concluded that his own queer mood was the result of the one fact, which it had really been necessary to describe in detail. For the vicar had been obliged to explain, on both occasions, in order to make his tale intelligible, that the front of the balcony was scaled from below by a titanic, tropical creeper, with ribbed and interlaced limbs and large, fantastic leaves. It is not altogether an exaggeration to say that the creeper was the principal character in the story.
"This business happened during the Great War," explained the clergyman, "when my daughter and I were living in my house at Hanging Burgess. But the two houses on each side of us were empty, due to the drainage of human material common at the time. At least, they were both empty for a considerable period, though they were handsome houses with large gardens, sloping down to the river. Then my friend Dr. Green came down to be my next-door neighbour and prosecute his scientific researches in a quiet place. He was writing a book, you know, on the domestication of animals; dogs and cats and pet marmosets and monkeys, and so on; and my daughter, who is interested in such pets, helped him a little with his work.
"It is a happy time to look back upon, for us who were old cronies; perhaps because it was a quiet time.
"And then our solitude was broken, as it seemed by accident, and all the trouble and tragedy began.
"First of all, a young artist of the name of Albert Ayres rented the house next door, though he seemed to want it mostly for a base in which to leave his baggage, for he was wandering over the country making sketches; and it is only fair, as you will see presently, to admit that he did say, once, that he would start straight away next morning on one of his sketching tours. I mean that we cannot, in any case, actually prove what became of him. Unfortunately, I know only too well what became of him.
"He was an interesting individual; perhaps a little too like the old notion of an artist; the sort one can hardly call either carelessly or carefully picturesque; with a halo of yellow hair which the sympathetic might connect with Galahad and the unsympathetic with Struwwelpeter. Mind you, there was nothing about him effeminate, and nothing false about his position in relation to the war. He had been invalided out, and what he was doing was a necessary job and not a funk-hole; and, at the moment, he was enjoying a short and very well-earned holiday.
"It is only fair to Captain Gahagan to say that, even in their subsequent quarrel, even in the last, blackest days of hatred, and, I hope, of madness, which ended in murder, the Captain never sneered at his rival upon that point, or assumed anything like the swagger of khaki. But, at the time, Captain Gahagan was still in khaki, having a very short leave from the front, which he was supposed to spend at the neighbouring inn, but did spend mostly in my house.
"You will understand my reluctance in speaking of the matter; the fact that he was on short leave may have given a certain impatience to his rather headlong courtship of my daughter, for it could be called nothing else. Some say that women do not specially object to that; but I would much prefer not to presume on any speculations about that matter. But to deal entirely with the facts. They are as follows:
"One evening, just after sunset, or about dusk, I was walking in my garden with the doctor, and we were joined, shortly afterwards, by Albert Ayres. I had just asked my friend Green to drop in and take some dinner with us; but he happened to be rather exhausted with a heavy day of his scientific work; he looked pale and tired; and he declined in a rather distant and distracted manner. In fact, I thought he was looking ill."
"He has not very good health," interposed Mr. Pond, suddenly. "He doesn't go about very much. You must remember he is lame." The others stared at him again, as if not seeing any importance in the interruption; and again they were still more puzzled by his further comment; for he added quite calmly:
"The clue to all this mystery is the fact that Dr. Green is lame."
"I have not the wildest notion what you mean," said the vicar of Hanging Burgess briskly. "But, anyhow, I had better get on and tell you what really happened; and you will see that it certainly had nothing to do with either lameness or Dr. Green.
"In strolling round the garden we had paused under the giant creeper that grows out of the flower-bed and shoots right up to the balcony; and Ayres was just remarking on its unique strength and luxuriousness, when we all had a sort of a shock. For we saw the whole creeper move and twist like a monstrous serpent, in that still garden; every limb of it heaved and writhed and the whole framework of its foliage was shaken as by some impossibly localized earthquake. Then we saw that long legs like a giant's were swinging downwards and kicking wildly above our heads; and Captain Gahagan, missing his last foothold, fell on his feet on the gravel path and faced us with a broad grin.
"'Pray forgive me,' he said,' I have been paying an afternoon call. I dropped in to tea, or perhaps I should say, hopped up to tea; and I have just dropped out again.'
"I told him, perhaps a little frigidly, that we were always pleased to receive visitors, but that they generally came in by the front door. He asked me, in a rather brazen way, if I had no poetic sympathy with Romeo and the romance of climbing balconies. I preferred not to reply; but my friend, the doctor, was staring curiously at the creeper, probably in some freak of his merely botanical curiosity; and he said, with his faintly acid humour: 'Isn't there rather a satire on Romeo in the fact that a weed like that can climb a balcony? It isn't quite so common to see a tropical plant ringing the bell and coming in at the front door. Climbing doesn't seem a safe way of classifying. In nature, you must go very low to find things that go so high.'"
Mr. Pond sat up abruptly and seemed to exhale a breath; but all he said was, "I thought so."
"The artist named Ayres," continued the vicar, "seemed more annoyed than either of us at this absurd adventure; and his comment was really much more provocative, though he only said, coolly: 'Well, it looks an easy thing to climb; as easy as a great, green ladder. I fancy I could climb it myself, if it came to that.'
"Then I realized for the first lime, for I'm rather slow in these things, that Gahagan was glaring at him, as he answered sharply: 'Am I to understand that it may come to that?' And then I realized that they were both glaring at each other; and I guessed, for the first time, why they hated each other; and what was the meaning of that scene in my quiet garden.
"Well, I will get on as quickly as I can to the culmination of these rash boasts, or challenges, of the two tragic rivals. For, indeed, I do not know which of them had the worst tragedy. Night had fallen and the moon had risen, though it was not very much later, cutting up the shady garden into a new pattern of shadows, when I happened to look out of my study window, which is on an upper floor.
"I was smoking and reading a book, when a noise like a dog barking, or rather howling, made me put my head, more or less carelessly, out of the window; I assumed that it was one of Dr. Green's dogs and did not think much of the matter; subconsciously, perhaps, something spectral about the moonstruck garden and the mood that it stirred, or some more mysterious premonition of what was to follow, made the howl sound more hollow and even horrible than it really was.
"A clear moon was rising high behind me; most of the shady garden was in all the denser shade; but there were large, pale patches and squares of moonshine on the paths and the wall in front of me, cut out as sharply as the pasteboard frame of some shadow-pantomime. Perhaps the parallel seized on my fancy, partly because light and shadow were thus bent or doubled into different planes, vertical or horizontal, like the black and white paper from which children cut out the figures for such a play. Anyhow, I did think, instantly and very vividly, of a shadow-pantomime; and, the next instant, I saw one of the pantomime figures passing in black silhouette across the wall.
"I knew at once whose shadow it was. Of course, it was drawn out and distorted; you know how deceptive shadows are; but I could see the straggling tufts that reminded one of Struwwelpeter; and I think I told you before that Ayres, the artist, was a little too like the traditional artist who hasn't had his hair cut. Also, he affected that sort of languid stoop that such artists assume; and there was the high-shouldered stoop exaggerated, as shadows do exaggerate.
"The next moment, another of these dark caricatures had appeared on the wall; and it was even more unmistakable. It was also more active; it was not only a shadow-pantomime but--in a pretty creepy sense--a knockabout pantomime."
"Shadows are very deceptive," said Mr. Pond; and again his friends stared at him, not because his intervention was important, but because it seemed trivial and totally unnecessary. But before he relapsed again into silence, he added:
"The most deceptive thing about a shadow is that it may be quite accurate."
"Well, really!" exploded Wotton; but his moderately mild explosion was overshadowed by one of the abrupt movements which once or twice moved the gigantic Gahagan to overwhelming but rather baffling gestures, to detached and yet outrageous interventions. He turned to his accuser with a bow of overbearing courtesy, or even courtliness, and said:
"You need not be alarmed, sir. That is one of Mr. Pond's paradoxes. We are all very proud of our Pond and of his paradoxes. Try them in your bath. Pond's paradoxes are in every home. What would Mother do without Pond's--"
"Don't be a fool, Gahagan!" said Hubert Wotton; and his voice had a ring of steel which his friends had always respected. There was a silence, in which Mr. Pond said simply:
"I never uttered a paradox in my life. What I said was a truism."
The vicar of Hanging Burgess looked considerably baffled, but did not lose his composure, and continued his story.
"I'm afraid all this seems to me rather off the point; especially as I haven't come to the point. I mean the point of my story. Of course, it doesn't matter whether the shadows were deceptive or not; because I saw the real people a minute or two afterwards. It's true I only saw one of them for a minute, you might say for a flash; but the other I saw plainly enough.
"The first figure, the long-haired figure I had already identified with the artist, ran very quickly across the moonlit patch and vanished into the vast shadow of the creeper that climbed the balcony; but there is no doubt that he began to climb the creeper.
"The second figure stood for a moment, staring, in the full stare of the moon; and there was no doubt about him at all. It was Captain Gahagan, in khaki, and he already had his big service revolver in his hand. In a high, unnatural voice he cried after and cursed the other unfortunate troubadour, who had climbed his romantic rope-ladder of leaves, exactly as he had climbed it himself.
"At that instant the whole situation became finally clear; for I saw the hairy head of the unfortunate artist rising out of the tangle of tropical leaves, in shadow, but all the more unmistakable for being haloed in the moonshine. But the same moonshine fell full on the face of the Captain, as glaring as a photographic portrait; and it glared with a frightful grin or grimace of hatred."
Mr. Pond again interposed gently, but with the general effect of a jerk: "You say it was hatred. Are you sure it was not horror?"
The vicar was very intelligent, and thought before he answered, even when he did not in the least understand. Then he said: "I think so. Besides, why should Captain Gahagan be horrified merely at seeing Mr. Ayres?"
"Perhaps," said Pond, after a pause, "because he had not had his hair cut."
"Pond!" said Wotton very sharply. "Do you fancy this is a case for jokes? You seem to have forgotten that you said, yourself, it was a painful matter."
"I said it was a painful matter," said Pond, "to think a horrible thing was done by an old friend." Then he said, after one of his sudden pauses: "But I wasn't thinking of Gahagan."
The stupefied vicar seemed to have given up everything but the stubborn pursuit of his story.
"As I have told you, Captain Gahagan cursed his rival from below, and called on him to come down; but he did not attempt to climb the creeper himself, though he had already shown how quickly he could do it. Unfortunately, he did something else; which he could do much more quickly. I saw the blue flash of the pistol-barrel in the moon, as he lifted it; and then the red flash; and then a puff of smoke detached itself and climbed the sky, like a cloud; and the man on the green ladder fell crashing like a stone through the thrashing great leaves to the dark space below.
"I could not see so clearly what was happening in that dark space; but I knew, for all practical purposes, that the man was dead; for his slayer laid hold of one leg of the corpse and dragged it away down the darkling and descending paths of the garden. And when I heard a distant splash, I knew he had thrown the corpse into the river.
"Well, as I told you before, that is my very serious testimony to what I saw and knew; but I give it only from a sense of social duty to any individuals who may be involved; I admit the circumstances are such that legal proof would be very difficult now.
"Albert Ayres had entirely disappeared by next morning; but it is true, as I have said, that he had once spoken of going off on a sketching-tour very early.
"Captain Gahagan had also entirely disappeared by next morning; but I believe it is true that his leave was practically up, that in any case he had to return to the front; and it was utterly hopeless to raise a question--which would, already, be called a doubtful question--at a moment when every man was needed, when common convicts were already working out their expiation in the field; and when all information had to be hampered, and a veil hung between us and all that vast labyrinth called 'somewhere in France.' But hearing that, for personal reasons, it was essential that Captain Gahagan should be asked to clear or explain his record, I have brought the matter up again now. And I have stated nothing that I did not see."
"You have stated it very clearly," said Mr. Pond. "More clearly than you know. But even on the clearest moonlight night, as we agreed, shadows can be very deceptive."
"You've said that before," said Sir Hubert rather irritably.
"And, as I have also said before," observed the unruffled Mr. Pond, "a shadow is most misleading when it is precisely correct."
Silence suddenly fell on the group; and the silence became more and more tense, for, after these random shots, which seemed so very random, fired by Mr. Pond as he retired from the argument, everyone felt that nothing could now delay the main action. For some time it looked rather like inaction; for Gahagan, who had been growing gloomier and gloomier, still sat kicking his heels, as if he had nothing to say. And indeed, when sharply called on by Sir Hubert for his statement, he was, at first, understood to declare seriously, not to say grimly, that he had nothing to say.
"What can I say, except what they call pleading guilty? What can I say, except that I did do a horrible thing; I did commit a hateful crime; and my sin is ever before me."
The solicitor seemed suddenly to bristle with electric needles of a sort of cold excitement.
"Pardon me, pardon me!" he cried. "Before you say any more, before you say a word more, it must be understood that it may be necessary to take note of it in a legal manner. On some minor matters we are permitted a certain discretion; but if we are to listen to an actual confession of murder--"
Gahagan shouted; he shouted so loud that the others were almost too surprised to notice that it was a shout of laughter, but not very genial laughter.
"What!" he cried. "Do you think I'm confessing to a murder? Oh, this is getting tiresome! Of course I never committed any murder. I said I committed a crime; but it's not to any damned little lawyer that I have to apologize for it."
He swung round, facing the clergyman; and his whole bodily and mental attitude seemed to alter; so that, when he spoke at last, it was like a new man speaking.
"I mean, it's for you. What can I say to you? It's personal for you; I mean, it's real. It's no good talking at large about such things. It's no good hiding in a crowd; or saying that the crime was committed by a lot of poor devils on leave from hell; to whom a holiday was heaven; only it was a very earthly paradise; a little too like a Moslem paradise. I did make love to your daughter when I had no right to, for I didn't really know my own mind. None of us had any mind on those holidays from hell. And it's true that I did have a rival. It's true I was in a rage with my rival; I'm still in a rage with him, when I think of what he did. Only--" He paused, as with a new embarrassment.
"Go on," said Mr. Pond gently.
"Only my rival wasn't the artist with the long hair," said Gahagan.
Hubert Wotton again looked up sharply, with a frowning stare; but he spoke quietly as he directed Gahagan to tell his story properly from the start.
"I had better start," said Gahagan, "where the other story started: just about the time when we both heard the howl of a dog in the dark garden. I may explain that I was actually staying with Ayres, the artist, for that night; we had become quite good friends, really; though there may have been a bit of romantic swagger about the troubadour business at an earlier time.
"I was packing up and sorting out some of my light luggage; that is how I happened to be cleaning my service revolver. Ayres was looking through some of his sketch-books; and I left him at it when I went out, just as Mr. Whiteways looked out, in casual curiosity, over that sudden noise in the night. Only I heard what he did not hear. I not only heard what sounded like the howl of a dog, but I also heard a whistle, such as a man uses when calling a dog.
"Also, I saw what he did not see. For an instant, in a gap in the trellis and tracery of a vine, I saw, very white in the moonlight, the face of Paul Green, that distinguished man of science. He is distinguished and he looks distinguished; I remember thinking, at the time, what a fine head he had, and that the silver moulding of his features under the moon made them quite beautiful. I had a reason for having my attention thus arrested by that silvery mask, for, at that precise moment, it wore a sort of smile of hatred that turned one's blood cold.
"Then the face vanished; and again my experience was much like the vicar's, except that I did not see everything which happened just behind my back. But I swung round in time to see that somebody had run across the path, and begun to climb the creeper. He climbed it very quickly, much quicker than I had done, but it was not easy to see him or recognize him in the dark shadow of the leaves.
"I had an idea that he was long in the limbs and had the sort of high-shouldered stoop that has been described; then I saw, as the vicar did, the head emerge clear of the foliage, only outlined by the moon with a sort of bristly halo of hair. Only then, for the second time that night, I saw what the vicar did not see. The Romeo, the climbing troubadour, turned his head, and, for a moment, I saw it in profile, a black shape against the moon. And I said to myself: 'My God! It's a dog, after all.'"
The vicar echoed the invocation faintly; the lawyer made a sharp movement as if to intervene; and Wotton told his friend rather brusquely to go on; which had the effect of producing a sort of abrupt languor, alarmingly like a disposition to leave off.
"Rather interesting man, Marco Polo," said Captain Gahagan, in a vaguely conversational tone. "I think it was Marco Polo, the Venetian; anyhow, it was one of those early mediæval travellers. You know everybody used to say they told nothing but tall stories about mandrakes and mermaids; but, in many cases, it has been found since that their tall tales were true. Anyhow, this chap said there were men walking about with the heads of dogs. Now, if you'll look at one of the larger apes, like the baboon, you'll see that his head really is very like a dog's; not nearly so much like a man's as the head of one of the smaller monkeys."
Mr. Little, the lawyer, was rapidly turning over some of his papers, with a shrewd frown and a sharp, alert manner.
"One moment, Captain Gahagan," he interposed. "I have a fancy that you are rather a traveller, yourself; and have picked up travellers' tales in many different places. It looks to me as if you had picked up this one in the Rue Morgue."
"I wish I had," replied the Captain.
"In the story there," pursued the solicitor, "I think there was an escaped anthropoid ape who disobeyed his master and would not return."
"Yes," said Mr. Pond, in a low voice, rather like a groan. "But in this case it was not disobeying its master."
"You had better tell the rest of this story, Pond," said the Captain, with one of his curious collapses into irresponsible repose. "You evidently guessed the real story, I don't know how, before I began to tell it."
Mr. Little appeared to be somewhat annoyed, and snapped out: "I consider the Captain told this curious tale, for what it is worth, in a very melodramatic and misleading manner. I have it, in my notes, that he certainly said that 'Somebody ran across the path and began to climb the creeper.'"
"I was quite pedantically correct," said Gahagan, waving his hand, condescendingly. "I was careful to state that some body ran and climbed. I attempted no theological or metaphysical speculations about the soul of an ape."
"But this is perfectly ghastly!" cried the clergyman, who was deeply shaken. "Are you sure the thing I saw was an ape?"
"I was quite close," said the Captain. "I saw the shape and you only saw the shadow."
"No," said Pond softly, "he saw the shape and could not believe it because it was the shadow. That is what I meant by saying a shadow can deceive by accuracy. Nine times out of ten, a shadow is out of drawing. But it can happen, in special circumstances, that it is an exact silhouette. Only we always expect it to be distorted; and so we are deceived by its not being distorted. The vicar was not surprised that the hairy, high-shouldered Mr. Ayres should throw a shadow looking like a shambling hunchback or a bristly, humped figure. But in reality it was a bristly, humped figure. I guessed that when he first said, just afterwards, that your own figure was much more unmistakable. Why should it be unmistakable, unless the other was a mistake?"
"From where I was, there could be no mistake," said Gahagan. "I knew it was an ape, and I guessed it was from the cages or kennels of the eminent biologist next door. I had a wild hope it might have been meant as some ghastly joke; but I wasn't taking any risks; I happen to know that sort of anthropoid is no joke. At the best, he might easily bite and then--well, there were all sorts of nightmare notions half-formed in one's mind.
"There was another side to your biological friend's interest in pets; vivisection, inoculation, intoxication, drugs--Lord knows what might be mixed up in it. So I shot the brute dead, and I'm afraid I can't apologize. I threw the body into the river; as you know, it's a very rapid and rushing river, and, so far as I know, nothing more was ever heard of it. Certainly, Dr. Paul Green did not venture to advertise for it in the papers."
The solid and deep-chested rustic parson suddenly shuddered from head to foot. The spasm passed and he said, heavily, that it was an awful business.
"And that is what I meant," said Mr. Pond, "by saying how bad it is to hear an old acquaintance accused of a horrible action. It was, also, what I meant by saying that the key to all this riddle is the fact that Dr. Green is lame."
"Even now," muttered the vicar, "I'm not so clear what you mean by that."
"It's all ugly enough," answered Pond, "but I suppose we may fairly say that the doctor is, in a rather literal sense, a mad doctor. The point is that I think I know what finally drove him mad. He had a remarkable personality; he was in love with the lady at the Vicarage and had got a good deal of influence there; as Gahagan truly says, he's really a very fine-looking fellow and, naturally, quite active; only everything was conditioned by the accident that he was lame.
"What put the finishing touch to his madness, on that terrible summer night under the moon, was something that I think one can partly understand, with a little imagination; something not altogether unnatural, if anything ending in such insanity can be anything but unnatural. He heard his rivals boasting about doing the one thing he could not do. First, one of the young men swaggered about having done it--you do swagger, Gahagan, and it's no good saying you don't. And the other young man was worse; for he actually sneered at doing it because it was so easy to do when, for Green, it was impossible to do.
"Naturally, a mind like his leapt, as we know it did leap, even in conversation, to the retort that climbing is no great sign of superiority; that a brainless creeper can climb; that an ape can climb better than a man. 'You have to go very low to find things that go so high.' Considered as a logical repartee, it was quite a good one. But his mind was not running merely on logic and repartee; he was blind and boiling with jealousy and passion, and he was a little cracked. Let's hope he only meant to make a sort of demonstration; but, anyhow, that was what he was trying to demonstrate."
Mr. Little, the lawyer, still turned a flinty face to the company; he had obviously taken a dislike to Gahagan, who had a way of irritating legal and law-abiding persons.
"I do not know if we are required to accept this extraordinary story, on the strength of Mr. Pond's ingenious hypothesis," he said rather sharply; "but there is one more question I should like to ask."
He looked down at his papers, as if consulting them, and then looked up again, saying, still more sharply, in the style he had learnt from cross-examinations: "Is it not true, Captain Gahagan, that you are rather famous for telling remarkable stories? I have it in my notes that you once delighted the company by saying you had seen six great sea-serpents, each swallowing the last. You reported a remarkable little incident of a giant who was buried up to the eyebrows in Muswell Hill; and you are supposed to have given a very vivid description of a water-spout frozen all the way up to the sky. Your interesting account of the discovery of the ruins of the Tower of Babel--"
Sir Hubert Wotton, with all his apparent simplicity, had a quality of sense that sometimes struck like a sledge-hammer. He had preserved the silence of perfect impartiality throughout; but he suddenly stopped the last splutter of the solicitor's spitefulness, as if he had struck him physically dumb.
"I cannot have all this," he said. "We know Gahagan; and his yarns are all nonsense, and your trying to turn them against him is worse nonsense. So long as you had a serious charge to bring, we gave you every opportunity to prove it. If you are going to talk about things that nobody alive ever took seriously, least of all Gahagan, I rule them out."
"Very well," snapped Mr. Little, "my last question shall be a very practical one. If Captain Gahagan only did what he says he did, why the devil didn't he say so? Why did he disappear? Why did he do a bolt early next morning?"
Peter Gahagan lifted his large figure laboriously out of the seat; he did not even look at the lawyer; but his eyes were fixed on the old clergyman, with a profound expression of sorrow.
"There is an answer to that," he said. "But I would much rather give it to anybody except Mr. Whiteways."
And, strangely enough perhaps, the moment Mr. Whiteways heard this refusal he rose also and held out his hand to Gahagan.
"I believe you," he said. "It's just that last sentence that has made me believe you."
The scornful solicitor, being thus deserted by his own client, stuffed his papers back into his little black bag; and the irregular conference broke up.
Gahagan did tell the truth about the last question afterwards, to the person to whom he told everything, to Joan Varney, to whom he was engaged. And, queer as it sounded, she seemed to understand.
"If you like to put it so," he said, "I didn't run away from the police; I ran away from the girl. And I know it sounds mad; but I really felt at the moment I was doing my best for her, in a beastly situation and among a lot of beastly alternatives. I knew by next morning that the vicar was saying he had seen me commit murder. Suppose I contradicted it--well, to begin with, she would have to know that her old friend, the friend of her pets, was a horrible lunatic who had offered her a sort of disgusting insult at the best.
"But it wasn't only that. I had behaved as badly as anybody; I was in a shamefully false position; and, if I remained, there was nothing before us but crawling through all that mire of miserable explanation and hopeless remorse, in which it is hard to say whether the man or the woman has the worst of it. And then a queer thought came to me--a secret, almost subconscious thought; but I couldn't get rid of the notion. Suppose she went on thinking, and remembered afterwards, in calmer times, that one man had killed another for her. She would be horrified; but she would not be humiliated. A mad whisper kept on repeating to me that in the long run she would be--a little proud."
"I think you're right about her," said Joan, in her straight way. "But, all the same, you ought to have told her the truth."
"Joan," he said, "I simply hadn't the courage."
"I know," she said. "I also know all about your having the D.S.O.; and I've seen you, myself, jump a chasm it made me sick to look at. But that's what's the matter with all you fine, fighting gentlemen." Her head lifted very slightly. "You haven't the courage."