Father Brown's figure remained quite dark and still; but in that instant he had lost his head. His head was always most valuable when he had lost it. In such moments he put two and two together and made four million. Often the Catholic Church (which is wedded to common sense) did not approve of it. Often he did not approve of it himself. But it was real inspiration--important at rare crises--when whosoever shall lose his head the same shall save it.
"I think, sir," he said civilly, "that you have some silver in your pocket."
The tall gentleman stared. "Hang it," he cried, "if I choose to give you gold, why should you complain?"
"Because silver is sometimes more valuable than gold," said the priest mildly; "that is, in large quantities."
The stranger looked at him curiously. Then he looked still more curiously up the passage towards the main entrance. Then he looked back at Brown again, and then he looked very carefully at the window beyond Brown's head, still coloured with the after-glow of the storm. Then he seemed to make up his mind. He put one hand on the counter, vaulted over as easily as an acrobat and towered above the priest, putting one tremendous hand upon his collar.
"Stand still," he said, in a hacking whisper. "I don't want to threaten you, but--"
"I do want to threaten you," said Father Brown, in a voice like a rolling drum, "I want to threaten you with the worm that dieth not, and the fire that is not quenched."
"You're a rum sort of cloak-room clerk," said the other.
"I am a priest, Monsieur Flambeau," said Brown, "and I am ready to hear your confession."
The other stood gasping for a few moments, and then staggered back into a chair.
"Hallo, there!" called out the duke. "Have you seen anyone pass?"
The short figure did not answer the question directly, but merely said: "Perhaps I have got what you are looking for, gentlemen."
They paused, wavering and wondering, while he quietly went to the back of the cloak room, and came back with both hands full of shining silver, which he laid out on the counter as calmly as a salesman. It took the form of a dozen quaintly shaped forks and knives.
"You--you--" began the colonel, quite thrown off his balance at last. Then he peered into the dim little room and saw two things: first, that the short, black-clad man was dressed like a clergyman; and, second, that the window of the room behind him was burst, as if someone had passed violently through. "Valuable things to deposit in a cloak room, aren't they?" remarked the clergyman, with cheerful composure.
"Did--did you steal those things?" stammered Mr. Audley, with staring eyes.
"If I did," said the cleric pleasantly, "at least I am bringing them back again."
"But you didn't," said Colonel Pound, still staring at the broken window.
"To make a clean breast of it, I didn't," said the other, with some humour. And he seated himself quite gravely on a stool. "But you know who did," said the, colonel.
"I don't know his real name," said the priest placidly, "but I know something of his fighting weight, and a great deal about his spiritual difficulties. I formed the physical estimate when he was trying to throttle me, and the moral estimate when he repented."
"Oh, I say--repented!" cried young Chester, with a sort of crow of laughter.
Father Brown got to his feet, putting his hands behind him. "Odd, isn't it," he said, "that a thief and a vagabond should repent, when so many who are rich and secure remain hard and frivolous, and without fruit for God or man? But there, if you will excuse me, you trespass a little upon my province. If you doubt the penitence as a practical fact, there are your knives and forks. You are The Twelve True Fishers, and there are all your silver fish. But He has made me a fisher of men."
"Did you catch this man?" asked the colonel, frowning.
Father Brown looked him full in his frowning face. "Yes," he said, "I caught him, with an unseen hook and an invisible line which is long enough to let him wander to the ends of the world, and still to bring him back with a twitch upon the thread."
--from The Queer Feet, by G.K. Chesterton