We may reconstruct the past on our own terms – indeed, doing so on the definitions of others is nearly impossible – but we cannot overcome the sensation, captured in many a platitude, about time and pain. However much we have suffered, however wickedly the world has rendered us a disservice, however hollow the special moments desired turned out to be, over time we immerse ourselves in the favorable aspects of memory. A shade despised and now deceased will become the object of our pity; one loved but lost will resonate not because that era ended the way it did, but because it ended at all: overcoming time and mortality remains the greatest obstacle to happiness. And what applies to that narrow pocket of humanity we know is equally valid for those we only know of, which brings us to this tale.
Our story is about the past, but in the present waft two figures, "one man ... enormously big, and the other (perhaps by contrast) almost startlingly small," both thoroughly versed in the mutability of man. They also know, however, that each person possesses some inherent characteristics that will never change; the stronger that person's willpower, the more adamant his mind. Such logic attends the curious case of two soldiers, one British and one Brazilian:
'Sir Arthur St Clare was a soldier of the old religious type .... he was always more for duty than for dash; and with all his personal courage was decidedly a prudent commander, particularly indignant at any needless waste of soldiers. Yet in this last battle he attempted something that a baby could see was absurd. One need not be a strategist to see it was as wild as wind; just as one need not be a strategist to keep out of the way of a motor-bus. Well, that is the first mystery; what had become of the English general's head? The second riddle is, what had become of the Brazilian general's heart? President Olivier might be called a visionary or a nuisance; but even his enemies admitted that he was magnanimous to the point of knight errantry. Almost every other prisoner he had ever captured had been set free or even loaded with benefits. Men who had really wronged him came away touched by his simplicity and sweetness. Why the deuce should he diabolically revenge himself only once in his life; and that for the one particular blow that could not have hurt him? Well, there you have it. One of the wisest men in the world acted like an idiot for no reason. One of the best men in the world acted like a fiend for no reason.'
Hyperbole aside, our sober subject is a one-sided skirmish between British and Brazilian forces on Black River in Olivier's South American territory. And while there are few topics more dull or moribund than battle descriptions, the event was noteworthy for two reasons: the discrepancy in troop numbers and the mercy granted to all members of the conquered but one. St. Clare, a man renowned for his cunning and caution, led an impetuous assault on an enemy vastly superior in number; Olivier, a man renowned for his lenity, hanged that dauntless commander and spared his underlings. What seems to be a question of history becomes a question a character, and for that reason the two men prowl about in search of a plinth's revealing inscription.
Chesterton has a particular relationship to history, which for him is more a study of what kinds of man have existed than of mankind as an amorphous, decision-making collective. As he comments in a somewhat different context:
The only history that is worth knowing, or worth striving to know, is the history of the human head and the human heart, and of what great loves it has been enamoured: truth in the sense of the absolute justice is a thing for which fools look in history and wise men in the Day of Judgment.
And what history lies in the heart of men? According to Chesterton, each person might not be substantially different from any other – let us leave this codswallop to the relativists and their cretinous and insincere games of oneupmanship – but each person does have a different concept of the world. Perhaps no two people have exactly the same memories, but it is even less likely that two people will have matching ideas of who they are in the realities that greet them upon waking. Father Brown reviews the extant details, including a memoir by a certain Captain Keith who would posthumously become St. Clare's son-in-law, the accounts from soldiers and related narratives that describe the oddly broken sword with which the general is immortalized and petrified, and then a few observations that could only be made by someone who knows what untruths may lurk behind flaunted virtue and good reputation. He also knows what harm can befall those who attempt poliorcetics with unwhole weapons. Perhaps broken words would be more like it.