The Blast of the Book - Gilbert Chesterton story

Professor Openshaw always lost his temper, with a loud bang, if anybody called him a Spiritualist; or a believer in Spiritualism. This, however, did not exhaust his explosive elements; for he also lost his temper if anybody called him a disbeliever in Spiritualism. It was his pride to have given his whole life to investigating Psychic Phenomena; it was also his pride never to have given a hint of whether he thought they were really psychic or merely phenomenal. He enjoyed nothing so much as to sit in a circle of devout Spiritualists and give devastating descriptions of how he had exposed medium after medium and detected fraud after fraud; for indeed he was a man of much detective talent and insight, when once he had fixed his eye on an object, and he always fixed his eye on a medium, as a highly suspicious object. There was a story of his having spotted the same Spiritualist mountebank under three different disguises: dressed as a woman, a white-bearded old man, and a Brahmin of a rich chocolate brown. These recitals made the true believers rather restless, as indeed they were intended to do; but they could hardly complain, for no Spiritualist denies the existence of fraudulent mediums; only the Professor’s flowing narrative might well seem to indicate that all mediums were fraudulent.

But woe to the simple-minded and innocent Materialist (and Materialists as a race are rather innocent and simple-minded) who, presuming on this narrative tendency, should advance the thesis that ghosts were against the laws of nature, or that such things were only old superstitions; or that it was all tosh, or, alternatively, bunk. Him would the Professor, suddenly reversing all his scientific batteries, sweep from the field with a cannonade of unquestionable cases and unexplained phenomena, of which the wretched rationalist had never heard in his life, giving all the dates and details, stating all the attempted and abandoned natural explanations; stating everything, indeed, except whether he, John Oliver Openshaw, did or did not believe in Spirits, and that neither Spiritualist nor Materialist could ever boast of finding out.

Professor Openshaw, a lean figure with pale leonine hair and hypnotic blue eyes, stood exchanging a few words with Father Brown, who was a friend of his, on the steps outside the hotel where both had been breakfasting that morning and sleeping the night before. The Professor had come back rather late from one of this grand experiments, in general exasperation, and was still tingling with the fight that he always waged alone and against both sides.

“Oh, I don’t mind you,” he said laughing. “You don’t believe in it even if it’s true. But all these people are perpetually asking me what I’m trying to prove. They don’t seem to understand that I’m a man of science. A man of science isn’t trying to prove anything. He’s trying to find out what will prove itself.”

“But he hasn’t found out yet,” said Father Brown.

“Well, I have some little notions of my own, that are not quite so negative as most people think,” answered the Professor, after an instant of frowning silence; “anyhow, I’ve begun to fancy that if there is something to be found, they’re looking for it along the wrong line. It’s all too theatrical; it’s showing off, all their shiny ectoplasm and trumpets and voices and the rest; all on the model of old melodramas and mouldy historical novels about the Family Ghost. If they’d go to history instead of historical novels, I’m beginning to think they’d really find something. But not Apparitions.”

“After all,” said Father Brown, “Apparitions are only Appearances. I suppose you’d say the Family Ghost is only keeping up appearances.”

The Professor’s gaze, which had commonly a fine abstracted character, suddenly fixed and focused itself as it did on a dubious medium. It had rather the air of a man screwing a strong magnifying-glass into his eye. Not that he thought the priest was in the least like a dubious medium; but he was startled into attention by his friend’s thought following so closely on his own.

“Appearances!” he muttered, “crikey, but it’s odd you should say that just now. The more I learn, the more I fancy they lose by merely looking for appearances. Now if they’d look a little into Disappearances——”

“Yes,” said Father Brown, “after all, the real fairy legends weren’t so very much about the appearance of famous fairies; calling up Titania or exhibiting Oberon by moonlight. But there were no end of legends about people disappearing, because they were stolen by the fairies. Are you on the track of Kilmeny or Thomas the Rhymer?”

“I’m on the track of ordinary modern people you’ve read of in the newspapers,” answered Openshaw. “You may well stare; but that’s my game just now; and I’ve been on it for a long time. Frankly, I think a lot of psychic appearances could be explained away. It’s the disappearances I can’t explain, unless they’re psychic. These people in the newspaper who vanish and are never found—if you knew the details as I do . . . and now only this morning I got confirmation; an extraordinary letter from an old missionary, quite a respectable old boy. He’s coming to see me at my office this morning. Perhaps you’d lunch with me or something; and I’d tell the results—in confidence.”

“Thanks; I will—unless,” said Father Brown modestly, “the fairies have stolen me by then.”

With that they parted and Openshaw walked round the corner to a small office he rented in the neighbourhood; chiefly for the publication of a small periodical, of psychical and psychological notes of the driest and most agnostic sort. He had only one clerk, who sat at a desk in the outer office, totting up figures and facts for the purposes of the printed report; and the Professor paused to ask if Mr Pringle had called. The clerk answered mechanically in the negative and went on mechanically adding up figures; and the Professor turned towards the inner room that was his study. “Oh, by the way, Berridge,” he added, without turning round, “if Mr Pringle comes, send him straight in to me. You needn’t interrupt your work; I rather want those notes finished tonight if possible. You might leave them on my desk tomorrow, if I am late.”

And he went into his private office, still brooding on the problem which the name of Pringle had raised; or rather, perhaps, had ratified and confirmed in his mind. Even the most perfectly balanced of agnostics is partially human; and it is possible that the missionary’s letter seemed to have greater weight as promising to support his private and still tentative hypothesis. He sat down in his large and comfortable chair, opposite the engraving of Montaigne; and read once more the short letter from the Rev. Luke Pringle, making the appointment for that morning. No man knew better than Professor Openshaw the marks of the letter of the crank; the crowded details; the spidery handwriting; the unnecessary length and repetition. There were none of these things in this case; but a brief and businesslike typewritten statement that the writer had encountered some curious cases of Disappearance, which seemed to fall within the province of the Professor as a student of psychic problems. The Professor was favourably impressed; nor had he any unfavourable impression, in spite of a slight movement of surprise, when he looked up and saw that the Rev. Luke Pringle was already in the room.

“Your clerk told me to come straight in,” said Mr Pringle apologetically, but with a broad and rather agreeable grin. The grin was partly masked by masses of reddish-grey beard and whiskers; a perfect jungle of a beard, such as is sometimes grown by white men living in the jungles; but the eyes above the snub nose had nothing about them in the least wild or outlandish. Openshaw had instantly turned on them that concentrated spotlight or burning-glass of sceptical scrutiny which he turned on many men to see if they were mountebanks or maniacs; and, in this case, he had a rather unusual sense of reassurance. The wild beard might have belonged to a crank, but the eyes completely contradicted the beard; they were full of that quite frank and friendly laughter which is never found in the faces of those who are serious frauds or serious lunatics. He would have expected a man with those eyes to be a Philistine, a jolly sceptic, a man who shouted out shallow but hearty contempt of ghosts and spirits; but anyhow, no professional humbug could afford to look as frivolous as that. The man was buttoned up to the throat in a shabby old cape, and only his broad limp hat suggested the cleric; but missionaries from wild places do not always bother to dress like clerics.

“You probably think all this another hoax. Professor,” said Mr Pringle, with a sort of abstract enjoyment, “and I hope you will forgive my laughing at your very natural air of disapproval. All the same, I’ve got to tell my story to somebody who knows, because it’s true. And, all joking apart, it’s tragic as well as true. Well, to cut it short, I was missionary in Nya-Nya, a station in West Africa, in the thick of the forests, where almost the only other white man was the officer in command of the district, Captain Wales; and he and I grew rather thick. Not that he liked missions; he was, if I may say so, thick in many ways; one of those square-headed, square-shouldered men of action who hardly need to think, let alone believe.

That’s what makes it all the queerer. One day he came back to his tent in the forest, after a short leave, and said he had gone through a jolly rum experience, and didn’t know what to do about it. He was holding a rusty old book in a leather binding, and he put it down on a table beside his revolver and an old Arab sword he kept, probably as a curiosity. He said this book had belonged to a man on the boat he had just come off; and the man swore that nobody must open the book, or look inside it; or else they would be carried off by the devil, or disappear, or something. Wales said this was all nonsense, of course; and they had a quarrel; and the upshot seems to have been that this man, taunted with cowardice or superstition, actually did look into the book; and instantly dropped it; walked to the side of the boat——”

“One moment,” said the Professor, who had made one or two notes. “Before you tell me anything else. Did this man tell Wales where he had got the book, or who it originally belonged to?”

“Yes,” replied Pringle, now entirely grave. “It seems he said he was bringing it back to Dr Hankey, the Oriental traveller now in England, to whom it originally belonged, and who had warned him of its strange properties. Well, Hankey is an able man and a rather crabbed and sneering sort of man; which makes it queerer still. But the point of Wales’s story is much simpler. It is that the man who had looked into the book walked straight over the side of the ship, and was never seen again.”

“Do you believe it yourself?” asked Openshaw after a pause.

“Well, I do,” replied Pringle. “I believe it for two reasons. First, that Wales was an entirely unimaginative man; and he added one touch that only an imaginative man could have added. He said that the man walked straight over the side on a still and calm day; but there was no splash.”

The Professor looked at his notes for some seconds in silence; and then said: “And your other reason for believing it?”

“My other reason,” answered the Rev. Luke Pringle, “is what I saw myself.”

There was another silence; until he continued in the same matter-of-fact way. Whatever he had, he had nothing of the eagerness with which the crank, or even the believer, tried to convince others.

“I told you that Wales put down the book on the table beside the sword. There was only one entrance to the tent; and it happened that I was standing in it, looking out into the forest, with my back to my companion. He was standing by the table grumbling and growling about the whole business; saying it was tomfoolery in the twentieth century to be frightened of opening a book; asking why the devil he shouldn’t open it himself. Then some instinct stirred in me and I said he had better not do that, it had better be returned to Dr Hankey. ‘What harm could it do?’ he said restlessly. ‘What harm did it do?’ I answered obstinately. ‘What happened to your friend on the boat?’ He didn’t answer, indeed I didn’t know what he could answer; but I pressed my logical advantage in mere vanity. ‘If it comes to that,’ I said, ‘what is your version of what really happened on the boat?’ Still he didn’t answer; and I looked round and saw that he wasn’t there.

“The tent was empty. The book was lying on the table; open, but on its face, as if he had turned it downwards. But the sword was lying on the ground near the other side of the tent; and the canvas of the tent showed a great slash, as if somebody had hacked his way out with the sword. The gash in the tent gaped at me; but showed only the dark glimmer of the forest outside. And when I went across and looked through the rent I could not be certain whether the tangle of the tall plants and the undergrowth had been bent or broken; at least not farther than a few feet. I have never seen or heard of Captain Wales from that day.

“I wrapped the book up in brown paper, taking good care not to look at it; and I brought it back to England, intending at first to return it to Dr Hankey. Then I saw some notes in your paper suggesting a hypothesis about such things; and I decided to stop on the way and put the matter before you; as you have a name for being balanced and having an open mind.”

Professor Openshaw laid down his pen and looked steadily at the man on the other side of the table; concentrating in that single stare all his long experience of many entirely different types of humbug, and even some eccentric and extraordinary types of honest men. In the ordinary way, he would have begun with the healthy hypothesis that the story was a pack of lies. On the whole he did incline to assume that it was a pack of lies. And yet he could not fit the man into his story; if it were only that he could not see that sort of liar telling that sort of lie. The man was not trying to look honest on the surface, as most quacks and impostors do; somehow, it seemed all the other way; as if the man was honest, in spite of something else that was merely on the surface. He thought of a good man with one innocent delusion; but again the symptoms were not the same; there was even a sort of virile indifference; as if the man did not care much about his delusion, if it was a delusion.

“Mr Pringle,” he said sharply, like a barrister making a witness jump, “where is this book of yours now?”

The grin reappeared on the bearded face which had grown grave during the recital. “I left it outside,” said Mr Pringle. “I mean in the outer office. It was a risk, perhaps; but the less risk of the two.”

“What do you mean?” demanded the Professor. “Why didn’t you bring it straight in here?”

“Because,” answered the missionary, “I knew that as soon as you saw it, you’d open it—before you had heard the story. I thought it possible you might think twice about opening it—after you’d heard the story.”

Then after a silence he added: “There was nobody out there but your clerk; and he looked a stolid steady-going specimen, immersed in business calculations.”

Openshaw laughed unaffectedly. “Oh, Babbage,” he cried, “your magic tomes are safe enough with him, I assure you. His name’s Berridge—but I often call him Babbage; because he’s so exactly like a Calculating Machine. No human being, if you can call him a human being, would be less likely to open other people’s brown paper parcels. Well, we may as well go and bring it in now; though I assure you I will consider seriously the course to be taken with it. Indeed, I tell you frankly,” and he stared at the man again, “that I’m not quite sure whether we ought to open it here and now, or send it to this Dr Hankey.”

The two had passed together out of the inner into the outer office; and even as they did so, Mr Pringle gave a cry and ran forward towards the clerk’s desk. For the clerk’s desk was there; but not the clerk. On the clerk’s desk lay a faded old leather book, torn out of its brown-paper wrappings, and lying closed, but as if it had just been opened. The clerk’s desk stood against the wide window that looked out into the street; and the window was shattered with a huge ragged hole in the glass; as if a human body had been shot through it into the world without. There was no other trace of Mr Berridge.

Both the two men left in the office stood as still as statues; and then it was the Professor who slowly came to life. He looked even more judicial than he had ever looked in his life, as he slowly turned and held out his hand to the missionary.

“Mr Pringle,” he said, “I beg your pardon. I beg your pardon only for thoughts that I have had; and half-thoughts at that. But nobody could call himself a scientific man and not face a fact like this.”

“I suppose,” said Pringle doubtfully, “that we ought to make some inquiries. Can you ring up his house and find out if he has gone home?”

“I don’t know that he’s on the telephone,” answered Openshaw, rather absently; “he lives somewhere up Hampstead way, I think. But I suppose somebody will inquire here, if his friends or family miss him.”

“Could we furnish a description,” asked the other, “if the police want it?”

“The police!” said the Professor, starting from his reverie. “A description . . . Well, he looked awfully like everybody else, I’m afraid, except for goggles. One of those clean-shaven chaps. But the police . . . look here, what are we to do about this mad business?”

“I know what I ought to do,” said the Rev. Mr Pringle firmly, “I am going to take this book straight to the only original Dr Hankey, and ask him what the devil it’s all about. He lives not very far from here, and I’ll come straight back and tell you what he says.”

“Oh, very well,” said the Professor at last, as he sat down rather wearily; perhaps relieved for the moment to be rid of the responsibility. But long after the brisk and ringing footsteps of the little missionary had died away down the street, the Professor sat in the same posture, staring into vacancy like a man in a trance.

He was still in the same seat and almost in the same attitude, when the same brisk footsteps were heard on the pavement without and the missionary entered, this time, as a glance assured him, with empty hands.

“Dr Hankey,” said Pringle gravely, “wants to keep the book for an hour and consider the point. Then he asks us both to call, and he will give us his decision. He specially desired, Professor, that you should accompany me on the second visit.”

Openshaw continued to stare in silence; then he said, suddenly: “Who the devil is Dr Hankey?”

“You sound rather as if you meant he was the devil,” said Pringle smiling, “and I fancy some people have thought so. He had quite a reputation in your own line; but he gained it mostly in India, studying local magic and so on, so perhaps he’s not so well known here. He is a yellow skinny little devil with a lame leg, and a doubtful temper; but he seems to have set up in an ordinary respectable practice in these parts, and I don’t know anything definitely wrong about him—unless it’s wrong to be the only person who can possibly know anything about all this crazy affair.”

Professor Openshaw rose heavily and went to the telephone; he rang up Father Brown, changing the luncheon engagement to a dinner, that he might hold himself free for the expedition to the house of the Anglo-Indian doctor; after that he sat down again, lit a cigar and sank once more into his own unfathomable thoughts.

Father Brown went round to the restaurant appointed for dinner, and kicked his heels for some time in a vestibule full of mirrors and palms in pots; he had been informed of Openshaw’s afternoon engagement, and, as the evening closed-in dark and stormy round the glass and the green plants, guessed that it had produced something unexpected and unduly prolonged. He even wondered for a moment whether the Professor would turn up at all; but when the Professor eventually did, it was clear that his own more general guesses had been justified. For it was a very wild-eyed and even wild-haired Professor who eventually drove back with Mr Pringle from the expedition to the North of London, where suburbs are still fringed with heathy wastes and scraps of common, looking more sombre under the rather thunderstorm sunset. Nevertheless, they had apparently found the house, standing a little apart though within hail of other houses; they had verified the brass-plate duly engraved: “J. I. Hankey, MD, MRCS.” Only they did not find J. I. Hankey, MD, MRCS. They found only what a nightmare whisper had already subconsciously prepared them to find: a commonplace parlour with the accursed volume lying on the table, as if it had just been read; and beyond, a back door burst open and a faint trail of footsteps that ran a little way up so steep a garden-path that it seemed that no lame man could have run up so lightly. But it was a lame man who had run; for in those few steps there was the misshapen unequal mark of some sort of surgical boot; then two marks of that boot alone (as if the creature had hopped) and then nothing. There was nothing further to be learnt from Dr J. I. Hankey, except that he had made his decision. He had read the oracle and received the doom.

When the two came into the entrance under the palms, Pringle put the book down suddenly on a small table, as if it burned his fingers. The priest glanced at it curiously; there was only some rude lettering on the front with a couplet:

They that looked into this book
Them the Flying Terror took;

and underneath, as he afterwards discovered, similar warnings in Greek, Latin and French. The other two had turned away with a natural impulsion towards drinks, after their exhaustion and bewilderment; and Openshaw had called to the waiter, who brought cocktails on a tray.

“You will dine with us, I hope,” said the Professor to the missionary; but Mr Pringle amiably shook his head.

“If you’ll forgive me,” he said, “I’m going off to wrestle with this book and this business by myself somewhere. I suppose I couldn’t use your office for an hour or so?”

“I suppose—I’m afraid it’s locked,” said Openshaw in some surprise.

“You forget there’s a hole in the window.” The Rev. Luke Pringle gave the very broadest of all broad grins and vanished into the darkness without.

“A rather odd fellow, that, after all,” said the Professor, frowning.

He was rather surprised to find Father Brown talking to the waiter who had brought the cocktails, apparently about the waiter’s most private affairs; for there was some mention of a baby who was now out of danger. He commented on the fact with some surprise, wondering how the priest came to know the man; but the former only said, “Oh, I dine here every two or three months, and I’ve talked to him now and then.”

The Professor, who himself dined there about five times a week, was conscious that he had never thought of talking to the man; but his thoughts were interrupted by a strident ringing and a summons to the telephone. The voice on the telephone said it was Pringle, it was rather a muffled voice, but it might well be muffled in all those bushes of beard and whisker. Its message was enough to establish identity.

“Professor,” said the voice, “I can’t stand it any longer. I’m going to look for myself. I’m speaking from your office and the book is in front of me. If anything happens to me, this is to say good-bye. No—it’s no good trying to stop me. You wouldn’t be in time anyhow. I’m opening the book now. I . . . ”

Openshaw thought he heard something like a sort of thrilling or shivering yet almost soundless crash; then he shouted the name of Pringle again and again; but he heard no more. He hung up the receiver, and, restored to a superb academic calm, rather like the calm of despair, went back and quietly took his seat at the dinner-table. Then, as coolly as if he were describing the failure of some small silly trick at a seance, he told the priest every detail of this monstrous mystery.

“Five men have now vanished in this impossible way,” he said. “Every one is extraordinary; and yet the one case I simply can’t get over is my clerk, Berridge. It’s just because he was the quietest creature that he’s the queerest case.”

“Yes,” replied Father Brown, “it was a queer thing for Berridge to do, anyway. He was awfully conscientious. He was also so jolly careful to keep all the office business separate from any fun of his own. Why, hardly anybody knew he was quite a humorist at home and——”

“Berridge!” cried the Professor. “What on earth are you talking about? Did you know him?”

“Oh no,” said Father Brown carelessly, “only as you say I know the waiter. I’ve often had to wait in your office, till you turned up; and of course I passed the time of day with poor Berridge. He was rather a card. I remember he once said he would like to collect valueless things, as collectors did the silly things they thought valuable. You know the old story about the woman who collected valueless things.”

“I’m not sure I know what you’re talking about,” said Openshaw. “But even if my clerk was eccentric (and I never knew a man I should have thought less so), it wouldn’t explain what happened to him; and it certainly wouldn’t explain the others.”

“What others?” asked the priest.

The Professor stared at him and spoke distinctly, as if to a child: “My dear Father Brown, Five Men have disappeared.”

“My dear Professor Openshaw, no men have disappeared.”

Father Brown gazed back at his host with equal steadiness and spoke with equal distinctness. Nevertheless, the Professor required the words repeated, and they were repeated as distinctly. “I say that no men have disappeared.”

After a moment’s silence, he added, “I suppose the hardest thing is to convince anybody that 0+0+0=0. Men believe the oddest things if they are in a series; that is why Macbeth believed the three words of the three witches; though the first was something he knew himself; and the last something he could only bring about himself. But in your case the middle term is the weakest of all.”

“What do you mean?”

“You saw nobody vanish. You did not see the man vanish from the boat. You did not see the man vanish from the tent. All that rests on the word of Mr Pringle, which I will not discuss just now. But you’ll admit this; you would never have taken his word yourself, unless you had seen it confirmed by your clerk’s disappearance; just as Macbeth would never have believed he would be king, if he had not been confirmed in believing he would be Cawdor.”

“That may be true,” said the Professor, nodding slowly. “But when it was confirmed, I knew it was the truth. You say I saw nothing myself. But I did; I saw my own clerk disappear. Berridge did disappear.”

“Berridge did not disappear,” said Father Brown. “On the contrary.”

“What the devil do you mean by ‘on the contrary’?”

“I mean,” said Father Brown, “that he never disappeared. He appeared.”

Openshaw stared across at his friend, but the eyes had already altered in his head, as they did when they concentrated on a new presentation of a problem. The priest went on: “He appeared in your study, disguised in a bushy red beard and buttoned up in a clumsy cape, and announced himself as the Rev. Luke Pringle. And you had never noticed your own clerk enough to know him again, when he was in so rough-and-ready a disguise.”

“But surely,” began the Professor.

“Could you describe him for the police?” asked Father Brown. “Not you. You probably knew he was clean-shaven and wore tinted glasses; and merely taking off those glasses was a better disguise than putting on anything else. You had never seen his eyes any more than his soul; jolly laughing eyes. He had planted his absurd book and all the properties; then he calmly smashed the window, put on the beard and cape and walked into your study; knowing that you had never looked at him in your life.”

“But why should he play me such an insane trick?” demanded Openshaw.

“Why, because you had never looked at him in your life,” said Father Brown; and his hand slightly curled and clinched, as if he might have struck the table, if he had been given to gesture. “You called him the Calculating Machine, because that was all you ever used him for. You never found out even what a stranger strolling into your office could find out, in five minutes’ chat: that he was a character; that he was full of antics; that he had all sorts of views on you and your theories and your reputation for ‘spotting’ people. Can’t you understand his itching to prove that you couldn’t spot your own clerk? He has nonsense notions of all sorts. About collecting useless things, for instance. Don’t you know the story of the woman who bought the two most useless things: an old doctor’s brass-plate and a wooden leg? With those your ingenious clerk created the character of the remarkable Dr Hankey; as easily as the visionary Captain Wales. Planting them in his own house——”

“Do you mean that place we visited beyond Hampstead was Berridge’s own house?” asked Openshaw.

“Did you know his house—or even his address?” retorted the priest. “Look here, don’t think I’m speaking disrespectfully of you or your work. You are a great servant of truth and you know I could never be disrespectful to that. You’ve seen through a lot of liars, when you put your mind to it. But don’t only look at liars. Do, just occasionally, look at honest men—like the waiter.”

“Where is Berridge now?” asked the Professor, after a long silence.

“I haven’t the least doubt,” said Father Brown, “that he is back in your office. In fact, he came back into your office at the exact moment when the Rev. Luke Pringle read the awful volume and faded into the void.”

There was another long silence and then Professor Openshaw laughed; with the laugh of a great man who is great enough to look small. Then he said abruptly:

“I suppose I do deserve it; for not noticing the nearest helpers I have. But you must admit the accumulation of incidents was rather formidable. Did you never feel just a momentary awe of the awful volume?”

“Oh, that,” said Father Brown. “I opened it as soon as I saw it lying there. It’s all blank pages. You see, I am not superstitious.”