"There is a limit to human charity," said Lady Outram, trembling all over.
"There is," said Father Brown dryly, "and that is the real difference between human charity and Christian charity."
G.K. Chesterton, The Chief Mourner of Marne
|Gilbert Keith Chesterton|
G.K. Chesterton's Father Brown is an amateur detective, an inconspicuous and simple little English priest who somehow manages to get mixed up in more murders and thefts than the average Scotland Yard police inspector.
Father Brown's adventures are recounted, in five collections: The Innocence of Father Brown, The Wisdom of Father Brown, The Incredulity of Father Brown, The Secret of Father Brown, and The Scandal of Father Brown. The story I'm talking about is in The Secret of Father Brown, and it's called "The Chief Mourner of Marne."
It involves a dark castle and a reclusive nobleman, an old tragedy and a terrible secret.
Many years ago, James and Maurice Mair were cousins, brought up as brothers. James Mair, the elder and the Marquis of Marne, practically worshipped Maurice. The story is that Maurice died in a sudden illness and James, heartbroken, broke off all communication with the world, including his fiancee, and left the country, traveling for years before coming home to shut himself in his family castle and, apparently encouraged by priests, became a religious hermit.
When Sir. John Cockspur, a newspaper man, hears the story from the General and Lady Outram, old friends of James Mair's, he determines to write it up in his newspaper as a scathing representation of the way the Church ruins people's lives. Mr. Mallow, a young friend of the Outrams, hears the story at the same time and is shaken by the allegations against religion. He goes to see his friend Father Brown and recounts the story, telling him that Cockspur intends to write an anti-clerical article about it.
Father Brown is unwilling to allow his creed to be so slandered and goes to see General Outram, who, he suspects, knows that there is more to the story. He points out that in a tragedy, a man would be more likely to turn to his fiancee for comfort, not break off the engagement. He reminds the general that Maurice Mair was buried without a funeral, rather hurriedly, perhaps even secretly. And James Mair instantly left, you might say fled, the country. There's more to the story than the General told his wife.
Of course there is more to the story, but I'm not telling either. Mysteries are much more fun to read when you don't know what's going to happen next. The Father Brown mysteries are extremely well written, engaging, and thought-provoking. I highly recommend them.
My favorite part about this and the other Father Brown stories, is Father Brown's attitude towards the culprit. While he never condones the crime, often times he almost sympathizes with the criminal, trying to bring the thief or the murderer to repentance. In the Chief Mourner of Marne, Lady Outram chastises him for his seemingly cruel and unforgiving attitude towards the Marquis of Marne. But when she finds out the whole story, she shudderingly says that there is a limit to human charity. Someone else says that he wouldn't touch the sinner with a barge pole.
"We have to touch such men, not with a bargepole, but with a benediction," Father Brown says. The Church has not condemned a man to live alone, buried in the past, for the remainder of his life. Instead, the Church is the only place where such a "vile thing" can find forgiveness.