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« Máscaras venecianas (part 1) | Main | Cuento sin moraleja »
Friday
Feb272009

The Secret Garden

This tale is one of the first of these beloved stories, and one where the style that would make Chesterton famous was not yet developed: there are too many characters and too much idle chatter.  We are introduced to a large grouping in Paris and then somewhat impertinently asked to distinguish them from one another based on features far too commonly incident to short fiction.  Our dramatis personae include: Aristide Valentin, the host, head of the Paris police department and a militant atheist; Lord Galloway, the English Ambassador to France; Lady Galloway, currently the ambassador's wife and once upon a time someone else's; Lady Margaret Graham, "a pale and pretty girl with an elfish face and copper-colored hair," as well as Lady Galloway's daughter; the Duchess of Mont St. Michel – a title which may or may not refer to this phenomenal location; Doctor Simon, "a typical French scientist, with glasses, a pointed brown beard, and a forehead barred with those parallel wrinkles which are the penalty of superciliousness"; Commandant O'Brien, a tall, dark and handsome Irish graduate of the French Foreign Legion who "had left his country after some crash of debts"; Julius K. Brayne, an American multimillionaire "ready to pour money into any intellectual vessel, so long as it was an untried vessel"; Valentin's unctuous assistant, Ivan; and last but not least, a man described only as "Father Brown of Cobhole, in Essex."

Before we get to our murder – and The Secret Garden most certainly contains the coldest and bloodiest of murders – we should examine our guest list once more.  We have a diplomat, a young, pretty girl, a few aristocrats, a doctor, a policeman, a young, pretty man, and a man of the cloth who is neither young nor pretty; we have an atheist and a priest, a very rich philanthropist and a very humble servant of God, a soldier and a policeman, a priest and a scientist, an Irishman, and a couple of Englishmen and a couple of Frenchman; most of all, however, we have a set of people who for varying reasons might be considered or consider themselves above the law; only Ivan, a sniveling lackey completely at Valentin's bidding, could be thought of as in any way obedient to authority.  What is more, the home of Valentin possesses a peculiar addition:

It was an old house, with high walls and tall poplars almost overhanging the Seine; but the oddity – and perhaps the police value – of its architecture was this: that there was no ultimate exit at all except through the front door, which was guarded by Ivan and the armory.  The garden was large and elaborate, and there were many exits from the house into the garden.  But there was no exit from the garden into the world outside; all round it ran a tall smooth unscalable wall with special spikes at the top; no bad garden, perhaps, for a man to reflect in whom some hundred criminals had sworn to kill.

However you wish to interpret this passage, one should recall that the same threats were made at Holmes and Watson and, still, these detectives did little to protect themselves from the waves of lawbreakers who would have loved to end their days.  In fact, 221b Baker street differs from Valentin's urban fortress the way acceptance differs from self-importance.  Whereas one may impute the lack of threats to Holmes and Watson as a mere plot device so that they would not become people actively hunted by underworld mercenaries (with the exception of this story), Valentin's residence in the middle of Paris with no way out but a guarded gate suggests either pride or madness – or a touch of both.  And if indeed we are dealing with pride, we should recall the myriad forms that pride assumes: a castle that no one can egress or ingress; a mountain of riches which render its owner moribund and perpetually terrified; a sensation of rising above the demotic elements into a realm of unadulterated righteousness; and the worst crime of all, that of lying solely for your own benefit.

The crime in Chesterton's tale is not so much ingenious as recondite, bordering in its details on the positively insane.  Accusations are hurled at everyone, including the priest, when a body is found in the previously impenetrable garden with its head severed, and more than one investigation proceeds at the same time. The ensuing chaos would not become characteristic of the Father Brown stories; yet the wildness in the storytelling is a sure sign of a writer testing himself to see whether he really loves his cast of fictionalized men and women although he often doesn't really get to see them.  The story also contains magnificent details, setting the precedent for the artistry of so many other Father Brown excursions:

Lady Galloway screamed.  Everyone else sat tingling at the touch of those satanic tragedies that have been between lovers before now.  They saw the proud, white face of the Scottish aristocrat and her lover, the Irish adventurer, like old portraits in a dark house.  The long silence was full of formless historical memories of murdered husbands and poisonous paramours.

A "satanic tragedy" with every single character (except one) besieged by pride, by self-importance, by vanity?  That would need a secret garden and its fruit.

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