The Actor and the Alibi - Gilbert Chesterton story

MR. MUNDON MANDEVILLE, the theatrical manager, walked briskly through the passages behind the scenes, or rather below the scenes. His attire was smart and festive, perhaps a little too festive; the flower in his buttonhole was festive; the very varnish on his boots was festive; but his face was not at all festive. He was a big, bull-necked, black-browed man, and at the moment his brow was blacker than usual. He had in any case, of course, the hundred botherations that besiege a man in such a position; and they ranged from large to small and from new to old. It annoyed him to pass through the passages where the old pantomime scenery was stacked; because he had successfully begun his career at that theatre with very popular pantomimes, and had since been induced to gamble in more serious and classical drama over which he had dropped a good deal of money. Hence, to see the sapphire Gates of Bluebeard’s Blue Palace, or portions of the Enchanted Grove of Golden Orange Trees, leaning up against the wall to be festooned with cobwebs or nibbled by mice, did not give him that soothing sense of a return to simplicity which we all ought to have when given a glimpse of that wonderland of our childhood. Nor had he any time to drop a tear where he had dropped the money, or to dream of this Paradise of Peter Pan; for he had been summoned hurriedly to settle a practical problem, not of the past but of the moment. It was the sort of thing that does sometimes happen in that strange world behind the scenes; but it was big enough to be serious. Miss Maroni, the talented young actress of Italian parentage, who had undertaken to act an important part in the play that was to be rehearsed that afternoon and performed that evening, had abruptly and even violently refused at the last moment to do anything of the kind. He had not even seen the exasperating lady yet; and as she had locked herself up in her dressing-room and defied the world through the door, it seemed unlikely, for the present, that he would. Mr. Mundon Mandeville was sufficiently British to explain it by murmuring that all foreigners were mad; but the thought of his good fortune in inhabiting the only sane island of the planet did not suffice to soothe him any more than the memory of the Enchanted Grove. All these things, and many more, were annoying; and yet a very intimate observer might have suspected that something was wrong with Mr. Mandeville that went beyond annoyance.

If it be possible for a heavy and healthy man to look haggard, he looked haggard. His face was full, but his eye-sockets were hollow; his mouth twitched as if it were always trying to bite the black strip of moustache that was just too short to be bitten. He might have been a man who had begun to take drugs; but even on that assumption there was something that suggested that he had a reason for doing it; that the drug was not the cause of the tragedy, but the tragedy the cause of the drug. Whatever was his deeper secret, it seemed to inhabit that dark end of the long passage where was the entrance to his own little study; and as he went along the empty corridor, he threw back a nervous glance now and then.

However, business is business; and he made his way to the opposite end of the passage where the blank green door of Miss Maroni defied the world. A group of actors and other people involved were already standing in front of it, conferring and considering, one might almost fancy, the advisability of a battering-ram. The group contained one figure, at least, who was already well enough known; whose photograph was on many mantelpieces and his autograph in many albums. For though Norman Knight was playing the hero in a theatre that was still a little provincial and old-fashioned and capable of calling him the first walking gentleman, he, at least, was certainly on the way to wider triumphs. He was a good-looking man with a long cleft chin and fair hair low on his forehead, giving him a rather Neronian look that did not altogether correspond to his impulsive and plunging movements. The group also contained Ralph Randall, who generally acted elderly character parts, and had a humorous hatchet face, blue with shaving, and discoloured with grease paint. It contained Mandeville’s second walking gentleman, carrying on the not yet wholly vanished tradition of Charles’s Friend, a dark, curly-haired youth of somewhat Semitic profile bearing the name of Aubrey Vernon.

It included Mr. Mundon Mandeville’s wife’s maid or dresser, a very powerful-looking person with tight red hair and a hard wooden face. It also, incidentally, included Mandeville’s wife, a quiet woman in the background, with a pale, patient face, the lines of which had not lost a classical symmetry and severity, but which looked all the paler because her very eyes were pale, and her pale yellow hair lay in two plain bands like some very archaic Madonna. Not everybody knew that she had once been a serious and successful actress in Ibsen and the intellectual drama. But her husband did not think much of problem plays; and certainly at the moment was more interested in the problem of getting a foreign actress out of a locked room; a new version of the conjuring trick of the Vanishing Lady.

“Hasn’t she come out yet?” he demanded, speaking to his wife’s business-like attendant rather than to his wife.

“No, sir,” answered the woman—who was known as Mrs. Sands—in a sombre manner.

“We are beginning to get a little alarmed,” said old Randall. “She seemed quite unbalanced, and we’re afraid she might even do herself some mischief.”

“Hell!” said Mandeville in his simple and artless way. “Advertisement’s very good, but we don’t want that sort of advertisement. Hasn’t she any friends here? Has nobody any influence with her?”

“Jarvis thinks the only man who might manage her is her own priest round the corner,” said Randall; “and in case she does start hanging herself on a hat peg, I really thought perhaps he’d better be here. Jarvis has gone to fetch him … and, as a matter of fact, here he comes.”

Two more figures appeared in that subterranean passage under the stage: the first was Ashton Jarvis, a jolly fellow who generally acted villains, but who had surrendered that high vocation for the moment to the curly-headed youth with the nose. The other figure was short and square and clad all in black; it was Father Brown from the church round the corner.

Father Brown seemed to take it quite naturally and even casually, that he should be called in to consider the queer conduct of one of his flock, whether she was to be regarded as a black sheep or only as a lost lamb. But he did not seem to think much of the suggestion of suicide.

“I suppose there was some reason for her flying off the handle like that,” he said. “Does anybody know what it was?”

“Dissatisfied with her part, I believe,” said the older actor.

“They always are,” growled Mr. Mundon Mandeville. “And I thought my wife would look after those arrangements.”

“I can only say,” said Mrs. Mundon Mandeville rather wearily, “that I gave her what ought to be the best part. It’s supposed to be what stage-struck young women want, isn’t it—to act the beautiful young heroine and marry the beautiful young hero in a shower of bouquets and cheers from the gallery? Women of my age naturally have to fall back on acting respectable matrons, and I was careful to confine myself to that.”

“It would be devilish awkward to alter the parts now, anyhow,” said Randall.

“It’s not to be thought of,” declared Norman Knight firmly. “Why, I could hardly act—but anyhow it’s much too late.”

Father Brown had slipped forward and was standing outside the locked door listening.

“Is there no sound?” asked the manager anxiously; and then added in a lower voice: “Do you think she can have done herself in?”

“There is a certain sound,” replied Father Brown calmly. “I should be inclined to deduce from the sound that she is engaged in breaking windows or looking-glasses, probably with her feet. No; I do not think there is much danger of her going on to destroy herself. Breaking looking-glasses with your feet is a very unusual prelude to suicide. If she had been a German, gone away to think quietly about metaphysics and weltschmerz, I should be all for breaking the door down. These Italians don’t really die so easily; and are not liable to kill themselves in a rage. Somebody else, perhaps—yes, possibly—it might be well to take ordinary precautions if she comes out with a leap.”

“So you’re not in favour of forcing the door?” asked Mandeville.

“Not if you want her to act in your play,” replied Father Brown. “If you do that, she’ll raise the roof and refuse to stay in the place; if you leave her alone—she’ll probably come out from mere curiosity. If I were you, I should just leave somebody to guard the door, more or less, and trust to time for an hour or two.”

“In that case,” said Mandeville, “we can only get on with rehearsing the scenes where she doesn’t appear. My wife will arrange all that is necessary for scenery just now. After all, the fourth act is the main business. You had better get on with that.”

“Not a dress rehearsal,” said Mandeville’s wife to the others.

“Very well,” said Knight, “not a dress rehearsal, of course. I wish the dresses of the infernal period weren’t so elaborate.”

“What is the play?” asked the priest with a touch of curiosity.

“The School for Scandal,” said Mandeville. “It may be literature, but I want plays. My wife likes what she calls classical comedies. A long sight more classic than comic.”

At this moment, the old doorkeeper known as Sam, and the solitary inhabitant of the theatre during off-hours, came waddling up to the manager with a card, to say that Lady Miriam Marden wished to see him. He turned away, but Father Brown continued to blink steadily for a few seconds in the direction of the manager’s wife, and saw that her wan face wore a faint smile; not altogether a cheerful smile.

Father Brown moved off in company with the man who had brought him in, who happened, indeed, to be a friend and person of a similar persuasion, which is not uncommon among actors. As he moved off, however, he heard Mrs. Mandeville give quiet directions to Mrs. Sands that she should take up the post of watcher beside the closed door.

“Mrs. Mandeville seems to be an intelligent woman,” said the priest to his companion, “though she keeps so much in the background.”

“She was once a highly intellectual woman,” said Jarvis sadly; “rather washed-out and wasted, some would say, by marrying a bounder like Mandeville. She has the very highest ideals of the drama, you know; but, of course, it isn’t often she can get her lord and master to look at anything in that light. Do you know, he actually wanted a woman like that to act as a pantomime boy? Admitted that she was a fine actress, but said pantomimes paid better. That will give you about a measure of his psychological insight and sensibility. But she never complained. As she said to me once: ‘Complaint always comes back in an echo from the ends of the world; but silence strengthens us.’ If only she were married to somebody who understood her ideas she might have been one of the great actresses of the age; indeed, the highbrow critics still think a lot of her. As it is, she is married to that.”

And he pointed to where the big black bulk of Mandeville stood with his back to them, talking to the ladies who had summoned him forth into the vestibule. Lady Miriam was a very long and languid and elegant lady, handsome in a recent fashion largely modelled on Egyptian mummies; her dark hair cut low and square, like a sort of helmet, and her lips very painted and prominent and giving her a permanent expression of contempt. Her companion was a very vivacious lady with an ugly attractive face and hair powdered with grey. She was a Miss Theresa Talbot and she talked a great deal, while her companion seemed too tired to talk at all. Only, just as the two men passed. Lady Miriam summoned up the energy to say:

“Plays are a bore; but I’ve never seen a rehearsal in ordinary clothes. Might be a bit funny. Somehow, nowadays, one can never find a thing one’s never seen.”

“Now, Mr. Mandeville,” said Miss Talbot, tapping him on the arm with animated persistence, “you simply must let us see that rehearsal. We can’t come to-night, and we don’t want to. We want to see all the funny people in the wrong clothes.”

“Of course I can give you a box if you wish it,” said Mandeville hastily. “Perhaps your ladyship would come this way.” And he led them off down another corridor.

“I wonder,” said Jarvis in a meditative manner, “whether even Mandeville prefers that sort of woman.”

“Well,” asked his clerical companion, “have you any reason to suppose that Mandeville does prefer her?”

Jarvis looked at him steadily for an instant before answering.

“Mandeville is a mystery,” he said gravely. “Oh, yes, I know that he looks about as commonplace a cad as ever walked down Piccadilly. But he really is a mystery for all that. There’s something on his conscience. There’s a shadow in his life. And I doubt whether it has anything more to do with a few fashionable flirtations than it has with his poor neglected wife. If it has, there’s something more in them than meets the eye. As a matter of fact, I happen to know rather more about it than anyone else does, merely by accident. But even I can’t make anything of what I know, except a mystery.”

He looked around him in the vestibule to see that they were alone and then added, lowering his voice:

“I don’t mind telling you, because I know you are a tower of silence where secrets are concerned. But I had a curious shock the other day; and it has been repeated several times since. You know that Mandeville always works in that little room at the end of the passage, just under the stage. Well, twice over I happened to pass by there when everyone thought he was alone; and what’s more, when I myself happened to be able to account for all the women in the company, and all the women likely to have to do with him, being absent or at their usual posts.”

“All the women?” remarked Father Brown inquiringly.

“There was a woman with him,” said Jarvis almost in a whisper. “There is some woman who is always visiting him; somebody that none of us knows. I don’t even know how she comes there, since it isn’t down the passage to the door; but I think I once saw a veiled or cloaked figure passing out into the twilight at the back of the theatre, like a ghost. But she can’t be a ghost. And I don’t believe she’s even an ordinary ‘affair’. I don’t think it’s love-making. I think it’s blackmail.”

“What makes you think that?” asked the other.

“Because,” said Jarvis, his face turning from grave to grim, “I once heard sounds like a quarrel; and then the strange woman said in a metallic, menacing voice, four words: ‘I am your wife.’”

“You think he’s a bigamist,” said Father Brown reflectively. “Well, bigamy and blackmail often go together, of course. But she may be bluffing as well as blackmailing. She may be mad. These theatrical people often have monomaniacs running after them. You may be right, but I shouldn’t jump to conclusions. . . . And talking about theatrical people, isn’t the rehearsal going to begin, and aren’t you a theatrical person?”

“I’m not on in this scene,” said Jarvis with a smile. “They’re only doing one act, you know, until your Italian friend comes to her senses.”

“Talking about my Italian friend,” observed the priest, “I should rather like to know whether she has come to her senses.”

“We can go back and see, if you like,” said Jarvis; and they descended again to the basement and the long passage, at one end of which was Mandeville’s study and at the other the closed door of Signora Maroni. The door seemed to be still closed; and Mrs. Sands sat grimly outside it, as motionless as a wooden idol.

Near the other end of the passage they caught a glimpse of some of the other actors in the scene mounting the stairs to the stage just above. Vernon and old Randall went ahead, running rapidly up the stairs; but Mrs. Mandeville went more slowly, in her quietly dignified fashion, and Norman Knight seemed to linger a little to speak to her. A few words fell on the ears of the unintentional eavesdroppers as they passed.

“I tell you a woman visits him,” Knight was saying violently.

“Hush!” said the lady in her voice of silver that still had in it something of steel. “You must not talk like this. Remember, he is my husband.”

“I wish to God I could forget it,” said Knight, and rushed up the stairs to the stage.

The lady followed him, still pale and calm, to take up her own position there.

“Somebody else knows it,” said the priest quietly; “but I doubt whether it is any business of ours.”

“Yes,” muttered Jarvis; “it seems as if everybody knows it and nobody knows anything about it.”

They proceeded along the passage to the other end, where the rigid attendant sat outside the Italian’s door.

“No; she ain’t come out yet,” said the woman in her sullen way; “and she ain’t dead, for I heard her moving about now and then. I dunno what tricks she’s up to.”

“Do you happen to know, ma’am,” said Father Brown with abrupt politeness, “where Mr. Mandeville is just now?”

“Yes,” she replied promptly. “Saw him go into his little room at the end of the passage a minute or two ago; just before the prompter called and the curtain went up—Must be there still, for I ain’t seen him come out.”

“There’s no other door to his office, you mean,” said Father Brown in an off-hand way. “Well, I suppose the rehearsal’s going in full swing now, for all the Signora’s sulking.”

“Yes,” said Jarvis after a moment’s silence; “I can just hear the voices on the stage from here. Old Randall has a splendid carrying voice.”

They both remained for an instant in a listening attitude, so that the booming voice of the actor on the stage could indeed be heard rolling faintly down the stairs and along the passage. Before they had spoken again or resumed their normal poise, their ears were filled with another sound. It was a dull but heavy crash and it came from behind the closed door of Mundon Mandeville’s private room.

Father Brown went racing along the passage like an arrow from the bow and was struggling with the door-handle before Jarvis had wakened with a start and begun to follow him.

“The door is locked,” said the priest, turning a face that was a little pale. “And I am all in favour of breaking down this door.”

“Do you mean,” asked Jarvis with a rather ghastly look, “that the unknown visitor has got in here again? Do you think it’s anything serious?” After a moment he added: “I may be able to push back the bolt; I know the fastening on these doors.”

He knelt down and pulled out a pocket-knife with a long steel implement, manipulated it for a moment, and the door swung open on the manager’s study. Almost the first thing they noticed was that there was no other door and even no window, but a great electric lamp stood on the table. But it was not quite the first thing that they noticed; for even before that they had seen that Mandeville was lying flat on his face in the middle of the room and the blood was crawling out from under his fallen face like a pattern of scarlet snakes that glittered evilly in that unnatural subterranean light.

They did not know how long they had been staring at each other when Jarvis said, like one letting loose something that he had held back with his breath:

“If the stranger got in somehow, she has gone somehow.”

“Perhaps we think too much about the stranger,” said Father Brown. “There are so many strange things in this strange theatre that you rather tend to forget some of them.”

“Why, which things do you mean?” asked his friend quickly.

“There are many,” said the priest. “There is the other locked door, for instance.”

“But the other door is locked,” cried Jarvis staring.

“But you forgot it all the same,” said Father Brown. A few moments afterwards he said thoughtfully: “That Mrs. Sands is a grumpy and gloomy sort of card.”

“Do you mean,” asked the other in a lowered voice, “that she’s lying and the Italian did come out?”

“No,” said the priest calmly; “I think I meant it more or less as a detached study of character.”

“You can’t mean,” cried the actor, “that Mrs. Sands did it herself?”

“I didn’t mean a study of her character,” said Father Brown.

While they had been exchanging these abrupt reflections, Father Brown had knelt down by the body and ascertained that it was beyond any hope or question a dead body. Lying beside it, though not immediately visible from the doorway, was a dagger of the theatrical sort; lying as if it had fallen from the wound or from the hand of the assassin. According to Jarvis, who recognized the instrument, there was not very much to be learned from it, unless the experts could find some finger-prints. It was a property dagger; that is, it was nobody’s property; it had been kicking about the theatre for a long time, and anybody might have picked it up. Then the priest rose and looked gravely round the room.

“We must send for the police,” he said; “and for a doctor, though the doctor comes too late. Looking at this room, by the way, I don’t see how our Italian friend could manage it.”

“The Italian!” cried his friend; “I should think not. I should have thought she had an alibi, if anybody had. Two separate rooms, both locked, at opposite ends of a long passage, with a fixed witness watching it.”

“No,” said Father Brown. “Not quite. The difficulty is how she could have got in this end. I think she might have got out the other end.”

“And why?” asked the other.

“I told you,” said Father Brown, “that it sounded as if she was breaking glass—mirrors or windows. Stupidly enough I forgot something I knew quite well; that she is pretty superstitious. She wouldn’t be likely to break a mirror; so I suspect she broke a window. It’s true that all this is under the ground floor; but it might be a skylight or a window opening on an area. But there don’t seem to be any skylights or areas here.” And he stared at the ceiling very intently for a considerable time.

Suddenly he came back to conscious life again with a start. “We must go upstairs and telephone and tell everybody. It is pretty painful . . . My God, can you hear those actors still shouting and ranting upstairs? The play is still going on. I suppose that’s what they mean by tragic irony.”

When it was fated that the theatre should be turned into a house of mourning, an opportunity was given to the actors to show many of the real virtues of their type and trade. They did, as the phrase goes, behave like gentlemen; and not only like first walking gentlemen. They had not all of them liked or trusted Mandeville, but they knew exactly the right things to say about him; they showed not only sympathy but delicacy in their attitude to his widow. She had become, in a new and very different sense, a tragedy queen—her lightest word was law and while she moved about slowly and sadly, they ran her many errands.

“She was always a strong character,” said old Randall rather huskily; “and had the best brains of any of us. Of course poor Mandeville was never on her level in education and so on; but she always did her duty splendidly. It was quite pathetic the way she would sometimes say she wished she had more intellectual life; but Mandeville—well, nil nisi bonum, as they say.” And the old gentleman went away wagging his head sadly.

“Nil nisi bonum indeed,” said Jarvis grimly. “I don’t think Randall at any rate has heard of the story of the strange lady visitor. By the way, don’t you think it probably was the strange woman?”

“It depends,” said the priest, “whom you mean by the strange woman.”

“Oh! I don’t mean the Italian woman,” said Jarvis hastily. “Though, as a matter of fact, you were quite right about her, too. When they went in the skylight was smashed and the room was empty; but so far as the police can discover, she simply went home in the most harmless fashion. No, I mean the woman who was heard threatening him at that secret meeting; the woman who said she was his wife. Do you think she really was his wife?”

“It is possible,” said Father Brown, staring blankly into the void, “that she really was his wife.”

“That would give us the motive of jealousy over his bigamous remarriage,” reflected Jarvis, “for the body was not robbed in any way. No need to poke about for thieving servants or even impecunious actors. But as for that, of course, you’ve noticed the outstanding and peculiar thing about the case?”

“I have noticed several peculiar things,” said Father Brown. “Which one do you mean?”

“I mean the corporate alibi,” said Jarvis gravely. “It’s not often that practically a whole company has a public alibi like that; an alibi on a lighted stage and all witnessing to each other. As it turns out it is jolly lucky for our friends here that poor Mandeville did put those two silly society women in the box to watch the rehearsal. They can bear witness that the whole act was performed without a hitch, with the characters on the stage all the time. They began long before Mandeville was last seen going into his room. They went on at least five or ten minutes after you and I found his dead body. And, by a lucky coincidence, the moment we actually heard him fall was during the time when all the characters were on the stage together.”

“Yes, that is certainly very important and simplifies everything,” agreed Father Brown. “Let us count the people covered by the alibi. There was Randall: I rather fancy Randall practically hated the manager, though he is very properly covering his feelings just now. But he is ruled out; it was his voice we heard thundering over our heads from the stage. There is our jeune premier, Mr. Knight: I have rather good reason to suppose he was in love with Mandeville’s wife and not concealing that sentiment so much as he might; but he is out of it, for he was on the stage at the same time, being thundered at. There was that amiable Jew who calls himself Aubrey Vernon, he’s out of it; and there’s Mrs. Mandeville, she’s out of it. Their corporate alibi, as you say, depends chiefly on Lady Miriam and her friend in the box; though there is the general common-sense corroboration that the act had to be gone through and the routine of the theatre seems to have suffered no interruption. The legal witnesses, however, are Lady Miriam and her friend, Miss Talbot. I suppose you feel sure they are all right?”

“Lady Miriam?” said Jarvis in surprise. “Oh, yes. . . . I suppose you mean that she looks a queer sort of vamp. But you’ve no notion what even the ladies of the best families are looking like nowadays. Besides, is there any particular reason for doubting their evidence?”

“Only that it brings us up against a blank wall,” said Father Brown. “Don’t you see that this collective alibi practically covers everybody? Those four were the only performers in the theatre at the time; and there were scarcely any servants in the theatre; none indeed, except old Sam, who guards the only regular entrance, and the woman who guarded Miss Maroni’s door. There is nobody else left available but you and me. We certainly might be accused of the crime, especially as we found the body. There seems nobody else who can be accused. You didn’t happen to kill him when I wasn’t looking, I suppose?”

Jarvis looked up with a slight start and stared a moment, then the broad grin returned to his swarthy face. He shook his head.

“You didn’t do it,” said Father Brown; “and we will assume for the moment, merely for the sake of argument, that I didn’t do it. The people on the stage being out of it, it really leaves the Signora behind her locked door, the sentinel in front of her door, and old Sam. Or are you thinking of the two ladies in the box? Of course they might have slipped out of the box.”

“No,” said Jarvis; “I am thinking of the unknown woman who came and told Mandeville she was his wife.”

“Perhaps she was,” said the priest; and this time there was a note in his steady voice that made his companion start to his feet once more and lean across the table.

“We said,” he observed in a low, eager voice, “that this first wife might have been jealous of the other wife.”

“No,” said Father Brown; “she might have been jealous of the Italian girl, perhaps, or of Lady Miriam Marden. But she was not jealous of the other wife.”

“And why not?”

“Because there was no other wife,” said Father Brown. “So far from being a bigamist, Mr. Mandeville seems to me to have been a highly monogamous person. His wife was almost too much with him; so much with him that you all charitably suppose that she must be somebody else. But I don’t see how she could have been with him when he was killed, for we agree that she was acting all the time in front of the footlights. Acting an important part, too. . . . ”

“Do you really mean,” cried Jarvis, “that the strange woman who haunted him like a ghost was only the Mrs. Mandeville we know?” But he received no answer; for Father Brown was staring into vacancy with a blank expression almost like an idiot’s. He always did look most idiotic at the instant when he was most intelligent.

The next moment he scrambled to his feet, looking very harassed and distressed. “This is awful,” he said. “I’m not sure it isn’t the worst business I ever had; but I’ve got to go through with it. Would you go and ask Mrs. Mandeville if I may speak to her in private?”

“Oh, certainly,” said Jarvis, as he turned towards the door. “But what’s the matter with you?”

“Only being a born fool,” said Father Brown; “a very common complaint in this vale of tears. I was fool enough to forget altogether that the play was The School For Scandal.”

He walked restlessly up and down the room until Jarvis re-appeared at the door with an altered and even alarmed face.

“I can’t find her anywhere,” he said. “Nobody seems to have seen her.”

“They haven’t seen Norman Knight either, have they?” asked Father Brown dryly. “Well, it saves me the most painful interview of my life. Saving the grace of God, I was very nearly frightened of that woman. But she was frightened of me, too; frightened of something I’d seen or said. Knight was always begging her to bolt with him. Now she’s done it; and I’m devilish sorry for him.”

“For him?” inquired Jarvis.

“Well, it can’t be very nice to elope with a murderess,” said the other dispassionately. “But as a matter of fact she was something very much worse than a murderess.”

“And what is that?”

“An egoist,” said Father Brown. “She was the sort of person who had looked in the mirror before looking out of the window, and it is the worst calamity of mortal life. The looking-glass was unlucky for her, all right; but rather because it wasn’t broken.”

“I can’t understand what all this means,” said Jarvis. “Everybody regarded her as a person of the most exalted ideals, almost moving on a higher spiritual plane than the rest of us. . . . ”

“She regarded herself in that light,” said the other; “and she knew how to hypnotize everybody else into it. Perhaps I hadn’t known her long enough to be wrong about her. But I knew the sort of person she was five minutes after I clapped eyes on her.”

“Oh, come.” cried Jarvis; “I’m sure her behaviour about the Italian was beautiful.”

“Her behaviour always was beautiful,” said the other. “I’ve heard from everybody here all about her refinements and subtleties and spiritual soarings above poor Mandeville’s head. But all these spiritualities and subtleties seem to me to boil themselves down to the simple fact that she certainly was a lady and he most certainly was not a gentleman. But, do you know, I have never felt quite sure that St. Peter will make that the only test at the gate of heaven.

“As for the rest,” he went on with increasing animation, “I knew from the very first words she said that she was not really being fair to the poor Italian, with all her fine airs of frigid magnanimity. And again, I realized it when I knew that the play was The School for Scandal.’

“You are going rather too fast for me,” said Jarvis in some bewilderment. “What does it matter what the play was?”

“Well,” said the priest, “she said she had given the girl the part of the beautiful heroine and had retired into the background herself with the older part of a matron. Now that might have applied to almost any play; but it falsifies the facts about that particular play. She can only have meant that she gave the other actress the part of Maria, which is hardly a part at all. And the part of the obscure and self-effacing married woman, if you please, must have been the part of Lady Teazle, which is the only part any actress wants to act. If the Italian was a first-rate actress who had been promised a first-rate part, there was really some excuse, or at least some cause, for her mad Italian rage. There generally is for mad Italian rages: Latins are logical and have a reason for going mad. But that one little thing let in daylight for me on the meaning of her magnanimity. And there was another thing, even then. You laughed when I said that the sulky look of Mrs. Sands was a study in character; but not in the character of Mrs. Sands. But it was true. If you want to know what a lady is really like, don’t look at her; for she may be too clever for you. Don’t look at the men round her, for they may be too silly about her. But look at some other woman who is always near to her, and especially one who is under her. You will see in that mirror her real face, and the face mirrored in Mrs. Sands was very ugly.

“And as for all the other impressions, what were they? I heard a lot about the unworthiness of poor old Mandeville; but it was all about his being unworthy other, and I am pretty certain it came indirectly from her. And, even so, it betrayed itself. Obviously, from what every man said, she had confided in every man about her confounded intellectual loneliness. You yourself said she never complained; and then quoted her about how her uncomplaining silence strengthened her soul. And that is just the note; that’s the unmistakable style. People who complain are just jolly, human Christian nuisances; I don’t mind them. But people who complain that they never complain are the devil. They are really the devil; isn’t that swagger of stoicism the whole point of the Byronic cult of Satan? I heard all this; but for the life of me I couldn’t hear of anything tangible she had to complain of. Nobody pretended that her husband drank, or beat her, or left her without money, or even was unfaithful, until the rumour about the secret meetings, which were simply her own melodramatic habit of pestering him with curtain-lectures in his own business office. And when one looked at the facts, apart from the atmospheric impression of martyrdom she contrived to spread, the facts were really quite the other way. Mandeville left off making money on pantomimes to please her; he started losing money on classical drama to please her. She arranged the scenery and furniture as she liked. She wanted Sheridan’s play and she had it; she wanted the part of Lady Teazle and she had it; she wanted a rehearsal without costume at that particular hour and she had it. It may be worth remarking on the curious fact that she wanted that.”

“But what is the use of all this tirade?” asked the actor, who had hardly ever heard his clerical friend, make so long a speech before. “We seem to have got a long way from the murder in all this psychological business. She may have eloped with Knight; she may have bamboozled Randall; she may have bamboozled me. But she can’t have murdered her husband—for everyone agrees she was on the stage through the whole scene. She may be wicked; but she isn’t a witch.”

“Well, I wouldn’t be so sure,” said Father Brown, with a smile. “But she didn’t need to use any witchcraft in this case. I know now that she did it, and very simply indeed.”

“Why are you so sure of that?” asked Jarvis, looking at him in a puzzled way.

“Because the play was The School for Scandal,” replied Father Brown, “and that particular act of The School for Scandal. I should like to remind you, as I said just now, that she always arranged the furniture how she liked. I should also like to remind you that this stage was built and used for pantomimes; it would naturally have trap-doors and trick exits of that sort. And when you say that witnesses could attest to having seen all the performers on the stage, I should like to remind you that in the principal scene of The School for Scandal one of the principal performers remains for a considerable time on the stage, but is not seen. She is technically ‘on,’ but she might practically be very much ‘off.’ That is the Screen of Lady Teazle and the Alibi of Mrs. Mandeville.”

There was a silence and then the actor said: “You think she slipped through a trap-door behind a screen down to the floor below, where the manager’s room was?”

“She certainly slipped away in some fashion; and that is the most probable fashion,” said the other. “I think it all the more probable because she took the opportunity of an undress rehearsal, and even indeed arranged for one. It is a guess; but I fancy if it had been a dress rehearsal it might have been more difficult to get through a trap-door in the hoops of the eighteenth century. There are many little difficulties, of course, but I think they could all be met in time and in turn.”

“What I can’t meet is the big difficulty,” said Jarvis, putting his head on his hand with a sort of groan. “I simply can’t bring myself to believe that a radiant and serene creature like that could so lose, so to speak, her bodily balance, to say nothing of her moral balance. Was any motive strong enough? Was she very much in love with Knight?”

“I hope so,” replied his companion; “for really it would be the most human excuse. But I’m sorry to say that I have my doubts. She wanted to get rid of her husband, who was an old-fashioned, provincial hack, not even making much money. She wanted to have a career as the brilliant wife of a brilliant and rapidly-rising actor. But she didn’t want in that sense to act in The School for Scandal. She wouldn’t have run away with a man except in the last resort. It wasn’t a human passion with her, but a sort of hellish respectability. She was always dogging her husband in secret and badgering him to divorce himself or otherwise get out of the way; and as he refused he paid at last for his refusal. There’s another thing you’ve got to remember. You talk about these highbrows having a higher art and a more philosophical drama. But remember what a lot of the philosophy is! Remember what sort of conduct those highbrows often present to the highest! All about the Will to Power and the Right to Live and the Right to Experience—damned nonsense and more than damned nonsense—nonsense that can damn.”

Father Brown frowned, which he did very rarely; and there was still a cloud on his brow as he put on his hat and went out into the night.