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Tuesday
Jan272015

The Arrow of Heaven

He's a mystagogue .... there are quite a lot of them about; the sort of men about town who hint to you in Paris cafés that they've lifted the veil of Isis or know the secret of Stonehenge. In a case like this they're sure to have some sort of mystical explanations  ..... [Yet] real mystics don't hide mysteries, they reveal them. They set a thing up in broad daylight, and when you've seen it it's still a mystery. But the mystagogues hide a thing in darkness and secrecy, and when you find it, it's a platitude.

You will have heard much in recent years about our having solved a number of centuries-old mysteries, and you may wonder how on earth or beyond did we become so adept at deciphering the cryptic riddles that have plagued thinkers for thousands of years. The short answer is, of course, that we really haven't; the long answer involves what can be economically called arrogance and more properly called modernity's love affair with itself. The technological breakthroughs of the last one hundred fifty years have indeed been remarkable. Yet what is even more remarkable is how much our lives have improved considering that we still know precious little about our universe. Pundits of the new religion, the grizzled, shabby makers and breakers of theories that don't seem to make much sense even to the people who propound them, will give you specific data on thousands of stars and planets, their proximity to us at every moment, the chances that an asteroid will raze a major city in minutes, the brightness of a comet, and so forth, but think that miracles or divine intervention are patently absurd. They will oppose all forms of religious dogma while insisting that they have scientific proof for all their statements, which makes them to a great degree irrefutable. And since most actions and emotions can be stripped down to and explained by their chemical motives, they will scoff at those who still employ a deep and wide knowledge of human nature and personality evaluations to make their decisions. Fine logic all of that, if the blackness of the skies seems to you more logical than the blackness of our hearts; and logical except for the fact that little thought and a lot of assumptions do not really inform us about our destiny. Which brings us to this tale of motives, revenge, and a man named Brown.

From the story's first line we are duly aware of a layer of irony that should rid us of any sympathy for the three victims whose fates are described famously and cruelly:

It is to be feared that about a hundred detective stories have begun with the discovery that an American millionaire has been murdered; an event which is, for some reason, treated as a sort of calamity. This story, I am happy to say, has to begin with a murdered millionaire; in one sense, indeed, it has to begin with three murdered millionaires, which some may regard as an embarras de richesse.

The triptych in question boast some rather ridiculous names that Chesterton did not so much make up as cobble together to sound as ridiculous as possible: Titus Trant (suggesting a despotic Roman); Brian Horder (a nasty Celt); and finally, we are told and then shown, Brander Merton, who at one point in my edition is referred to as "Brandon," a more average name immediately eschewed for the Germanic oddness fit only for a robber baron. These three men have more than death in common: they all were in possession of a fantastic treasure called the Coptic Cup. If you know what a Copt is you can imagine that this name was never one used by the natives; what makes the nomenclature even more laughable is the worship inflicted upon that jewelled chalice which seems, like gold itself, to reflect at once everything and nothing. Idolatry gives way to bloodlust, and soon enough, Merton has himself barricaded in an impossible mansion that cannot be entered or quit without inspection, with only fifteen minutes a day to consecrate to the adoration of his ancient prize. And that's where, naturally, we get our arrow.

I should mention there is also a man called Crake, Hickory Crake as it were, which is ridiculous even among this cast, another man called Wilton, although his last name is revealed to be something else, Blake, an attorney (not to be confused with Crake, who has "a brown face that looked almost too brown to have ever been white"), a pilot named Wain, an Asian-looking fellow who goes by Drage, and an African mountain with the plain name of Harris. There is also one other character, whose name has much to do with his function: Daniel Doom. Daniel Doom is so clearly someone who does not believe in his cause that we wonder, apart from the two and then swiftly three cadavers, whether a person that serious about death would take the very serious matter of pseudonyms so lightly. Doom writes a few letters to Trant and, upon his decease, to Horder, and "it soon became clear that the writer of the threatening letter did not confine himself to threatening." Merton is struck down by an arrow that modern forensics might find rather fascinating, and Father Brown, being suspiciously open-minded, has little to go on until Crake – who resembles the stereotype of a Red Indian in demeanor and appearance – nonchalantly utters the following:

I've seen an Indian stand under a hundred guns with nothing but a little scalping-knife and kill a white man standing on the top of a fort ....[he] threw it [the knife], threw it in a flash before a shot could be fired. I don't know where he learnt the trick.

The moral here would be lost were it not for the unwanted interference of Drage, who is neither to be trusted nor disbelieved. It is Drage who picks up the small, lumpy priest on the latter's first trip across the pond to the now-most populous Anglophone country in the world; it is also Drage who seems to partake in a secret that he cannot share. As he brings Brown to a place that "was obviously their destination" (a magnificently pithy description), there is something so mandarin about his person and mannerisms that leads our protagonist to wonder why a gentleman so off-putting would also be sufficiently versed in the Bible as to try and impress him. He wonders and wonders and then thinks of Red Indians, airplanes, millionaires, frontier morality, and that allegedly Egyptian cup, and it all becomes horrifically clear. The only thing that never gains in clarity is why Daniel Doom did not call himself Daniel Scratch.

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