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Tuesday, May 17, 2016

On sinners and saints - The Broken sword -Abridged short story -1

by Gilbert Keith Chesterton

First published in The Saturday Evening Post, Jan 7, 1911

«The Sign of the Broken Sword» is a short story by G. K. Chesterton featuring his famous characters Father Brown and former criminal Flambeau. In the centre of a story is a mysterious death of General Sir Arthur St. Clare. It is a detective story and throughout it Father Brown reveals to us the mystery of General St. Clare.

The thousand arms of the forest were grey, and its million fingers silver. All that thickly wooded and sparsely tenanted countryside was stiff with a bitter and brittle frost. The black hollows between the trunks of the trees looked like bottomless, black caverns of that Scandinavian hell, a hell of incalculable cold. It was a queer night for anyone to explore a churchyard. But, on the other hand, perhaps it was worth exploring.
Most of the graves were on a slant, and the path leading up to the church was as steep as a staircase. On the top of the hill, in the one flat and prominent place, was the monument for which the place was famous. It contrasted strangely with the featureless graves all round, for it was the work of one of the greatest sculptors of modern Europe; and yet his fame was at once forgotten in the fame of the man whose image he had made.
 It showed, by touches of the small silver pencil of starlight, the massive metal figure of a soldier recumbent, the strong hands sealed in an everlasting worship, the great head pillowed upon a gun. The venerable face was bearded, or rather whiskered, in the old, heavy Colonel Newcome fashion. The uniform, though suggested with the few strokes of simplicity, was that of modern war. By his right side lay a sword, of which the tip was broken off; on the left side lay a Bible.
On glowing summer afternoons wagonettes came full of Americans and cultured suburbans to see the sepulchre; but even then they felt the vast forest land with its one dumpy dome of churchyard and church as a place oddly dumb and neglected. Nevertheless, in the stillness of those stiff woods a wooden gate creaked, and two dim figures dressed in black climbed up the little path to the tomb.
They went up to the great graven tomb of the historic warrior, and stood for a few minutes staring at it. There was no human, perhaps no living, thing for a wide circle; and a morbid fancy might well have wondered if they were human themselves. In any case, the beginning of their conversation might have seemed strange. After the first silence the small man said to the other:
"Where does a wise man hide a pebble?"
And the tall man answered in a low voice: "On the beach."
The small man nodded, and after a short silence said: "Where does a wise man hide a leaf?"
And the other answered: "In the forest."
There was another stillness, and then the tall man resumed:
 "Do you mean that when a wise man has to hide a real diamond he has been known to hide it among sham ones?"
"No, no," said the little man with a laugh, "we will let bygones be bygones."
He stamped his cold feet for a second or two, and then said:
"I'm not thinking of that at all, but of something else; something rather peculiar. Just strike a match, will you?"
The big man fumbled in his pocket, and soon a scratch and a flare painted gold the whole flat side of the monument. On it was cut in black letters the well-known words which so many Americans had reverently read:  

"Sacred to the Memory of General Sir Arthur St. Clare,
Hero and Martyr,
who Always Vanquished his Enemies and Always Spared Them,
and Was Treacherously Slain by Them At Last.
May God in Whom he Trusted both Reward and Revenge him."

The match burnt the big man's fingers, blackened, and dropped.
 "That's all right, Flambeau, old man; I saw what I wanted. Or, rather, I didn't see what I didn't want. And now we must walk a mile and a half along the road to the next inn, and I will try to tell you all about it. For Heaven knows a man should have a fire and ale when he dares tell such a story."
They descended the precipitous path, they relatched the rusty gate, and set off at a ringing walk down the frozen forest road. The smaller man spoke again.
He said: "Yes; the wise man hides a pebble on the beach. But what does he do if there is no beach? Do you know anything of that great St. Clare trouble?"
"I know nothing about English generals, Father Brown," answered the large man, laughing, "One would think he got buried in six different places. I've seen a memorial to General St. Clare in Westminster Abbey;  a ramping equestrian statue of General St. Clare on the Embankment;  a medallion of St. Clare in the street he was born in, and another in the street he lived in; and now you drag me after dark to his coffin in the village churchyard. I am beginning to be a bit tired of his magnificent personality. What are you hunting for in all these crypts and effigies?"
"I am only looking for one word," said Father Brown. "A word that isn't there."
"Well," asked Flambeau; "are you going to tell me anything about it?"
"I must divide it into two parts," remarked the priest. "First there is what everybody knows; and then there is what I know. Now, what everybody knows is short and plain enough. It is also entirely wrong."
"Right you are," said the big man called Flambeau cheerfully. "Let's begin at the wrong end. Let's begin with what everybody knows, which isn't true."
"If not wholly untrue, it is at least very inadequate," continued Brown; "for in point of fact, all that the public knows amounts precisely to this: The public knows that Arthur St. Clare was a great and successful English general.
It knows that after splendid yet careful campaigns both in India and Africa he was in command against Brazil when the great Brazilian patriot Olivier issued his ultimatum. It knows that on that occasion St. Clare with a very small force attacked Olivier with a very large one, and was captured after heroic resistance. And it knows that after his capture, and to the abhorrence of the civilised world, St. Clare was hanged on the nearest tree. He was found swinging there after the Brazilians had retired, with his broken sword hung round his neck."
"And that popular story is untrue?" suggested Flambeau.
"No," said his friend quietly, "that story is quite true, so far as it goes."
"Well, I think it goes far enough!" said Flambeau; "but if the popular story is true, what is the mystery?"
They had passed many hundreds of grey and ghostly trees before the little priest answered. Then he bit his finger and said:
"Why, the mystery is a mystery of two psychologies. In that Brazilian business two of the most famous men of modern history acted flat against their characters. Mind you, Olivier and St. Clare were both heroes—the old thing, and no mistake; it was like the fight between Hector and Achilles. Now, what would you say to an affair in which Achilles was timid and Hector was treacherous?"
"Sir Arthur St. Clare was a soldier of the old religious type" continued Brown. "He was always more for duty than for dash; and with all his personal courage was decidedly a prudent commander, particularly indignant at any needless waste of soldiers. Yet in this last battle he attempted something that a baby could see was absurd. One need not be a strategist to see it was as wild as wind.
"Well, that is the first mystery; " continued Father Brown, "what had become of the English general's head? The second riddle is, what had become of the Brazilian general's heart? President Olivier might be called a visionary or a nuisance; but even his enemies admitted that he was magnanimous. Almost every other prisoner he had ever captured had been set free or even loaded with benefits. Men who had really wronged him came away touched by his simplicity and sweetness. Why the deuce should he diabolically revenge himself only once in his life; and that for the one particular blow that could not have hurt him? Well, there you have it. One of the wisest men in the world acted like an idiot for no reason. One of the best men in the world acted like a fiend for no reason. That's the long and the short of it; and I leave it to you, my boy."
"No, you don't," said the other with a snort. "I leave it to you; and you jolly well tell me all about it."
"Well," resumed Father Brown, " two things have happened since. I can't say they threw a new light; for nobody can make sense of them. But they threw a new kind of darkness; they threw the darkness in new directions. The first was this. The family physician of the St. Clares quarrelled with that family, and began publishing a violent series of articles, in which he said that the late general was a religious maniac; but as far as the tale went, this seemed to mean little more than a religious man. Anyhow, the story fizzled out. Everyone knew, of course, that St. Clare had some of the eccentricities of puritan piety.
"The second incident was much more arresting. In the luckless and unsupported regiment which made that rash attempt at the Black River there was a certain Captain Keith, who was at that time engaged to St. Clare's daughter, and who afterwards married her. He was one of those who were captured by Olivier, and, like all the rest except the general, appears to have been bounteously treated and promptly set free. Some twenty years afterwards this man, then Lieutenant-Colonel Keith, published a sort of autobiography called 'A British Officer in Burmah and Brazil.'
"On the account of the mystery of St. Clare's disaster may be found the following words: 'Everywhere else in this book I have narrated things exactly as they occurred, holding as I do the old-fashioned opinion that the glory of England is old enough to take care of itself. The exception I shall make is in this matter of the defeat by the Black River; and my reasons, though private, are honourable and compelling. I will, however, add this in justice to the memories of two distinguished men. General St. Clare has been accused of incapacity on this occasion; I can at least testify that this action, properly understood, was one of the most brilliant and sagacious of his life. President Olivier by similar report is charged with savage injustice. I think it due to the honour of an enemy to say that he acted on this occasion with even more than his characteristic good feeling. To put the matter popularly, I can assure my countrymen that St. Clare was by no means such a fool nor Olivier such a brute as he looked. This is all I have to say; nor shall any earthly consideration induce me to add a word to it.' "
A large frozen moon like a lustrous snowball began to show in front of them, and by its light the narrator had been able to refresh his memory of Captain Keith's text from a scrap of printed paper. As he folded it up and put it back in his pocket Flambeau threw up his hand with a French gesture.
"Wait a bit, wait a bit," he cried excitedly. "I believe I can guess it at the first go."

He strode on, breathing hard. The little priest, amused and interested, had some trouble in trotting beside him. (....)

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