Father Brown, a character created by Gilbert Keith Chesterton, deals with many forms of evil. He feels its presence, he figures out how it is operating, and he approaches it with pastoral concern.
In many tales, he succeeds in triumphing over evil. On one occasion, he persuades a murderer to give himself up. On other occasions, he persuades thieves to return stolen goods.
In contrast, “The Sins of Prince Saradine” is shocking. Evil runs rampant. Father Brown observes and eventually understands what is happening, but he is powerless to do anything about it. This story reminds me of the central panel of The Haywain Triptych, a painting of Hieronymous Bosch in which Christ appears in the background observing an evil scene without reacting to it.
Flambeau and Father Brown went to Norfolk, England. Flambeau’s main purpose was to take a vacation, but he sort of hoped that he would encounter Prince Saradine, who lived in Reed House on Reed Island in Norfolk.
Flambeau had been a jewel thief, and some people, including Prince Saradine, admired his clever tactics. In a brief note, Prince Saradine invited Flambeau to visit him if he ever reformed and became respectable. He expressed special admiration for the way Flambeau had tricked one detective into arresting another one.
Flambeau had learned that Prince Saradine had stolen another man’s wife in his youth. This fact may have predisposed Father Brown to suspect that they were going to encounter evil in their impending visit.
Prince Saradine had even killed the husband, but Father Brown did not find out about this fact until later. It was commonly thought that the husband had committed suicide.
Nevertheless, Father Brown seemed to feel the uncomfortable presence of evil even before they caught sight of Prince Saradine’s dwelling. With Flambeau, he was traveling down a small river in a small boat. They slept when evening set in and continued their journey before dawn. Noticing the enchanting moonlight scenery, Flambeau made the remark: “It’s like being in fairyland.” Father Brown immediately crossed himself and pointed out that the things that happen in fairyland are not always nice.”
As they continued their journey in the boat, they met a fat man who gave directions to the island on which Prince Saradine lived. When his directions proved to be accurate, Flambeau said that the fat man must have been a fairy. In reply, Father Brown said: “If he was, he was a bad fairy.”
Prince Saradine was not at home when Father Brown and Flambeau arrived. The butler invited them to come in. In the house were pictures of two boys and a picture of a very young soldier, whom the butler identified as Captain Stephen Saradine, the younger brother of the prince.
The butler served lunch. They ate in a room in which long, low windows alternated with long mirrors. This gave the room an airy and unsubstantial atmosphere, which made Father Brown feel uncomfortable. He said to Flambeau: “We have taken a wrong turning, and come to the wrong place,” but he observed that the right person in the wrong place sometimes can do some good.
Father Brown had a way of eliciting information from people. Mr. Paul, the butler, thought that Stephen Saradine was evil. Later, Mrs. Anthony, the housekeeper, told him that both the prince and his brother were evil. From what the two told him, Father Brown concluded that the prince had done something terrible and that his younger brother was blackmailing him.
When the prince arrived, Father Brown had the odd feeling that he had seen him somewhere before. He thought probably this was because of the way the mirrors were placed between the windows. When the prince entered the room, the mirrors created the illusion that five identical men were entering the room through five identical doors.
Since Flambeau liked to fish, the prince conducted him to a good fishing spot. Then he returned to Father Brown and conversed with him. Father Brown noted several deficiencies in the character of the prince. He seemed restless and unreliable. In contrast, Mr. Paul seemed to be the pillar of the household. The servants feared him, and the housekeeper seemed to wait on him.
As evening approached, Father Brown again felt the presence of evil. He wished that Flambeau would return.
Out of the blue, the prince asked Father Brown whether he believed in doom. Father Brown replied: “No, I believe in Doomsday.” He explained that they were on the wrong side of the tapestry. Elsewhere, retribution would strike the real offender. In this place, it was likely to fall on someone else.
Father Brown had no logical reason for making this statement, and Chesterton did not explain why he made it. Apparently, it was a purely intuitive feeling. It proved to be prophetic.
At this point, Mr. Paul announced the arrival of a boat rowed by six men with a gentleman sitting in the stern.
The gentleman entered the house. When Father Brown saw the visitor, he felt that the face looked familiar. However, he again thought that the mirrors were playing a trick on him.
The visitor told the prince that his name was Antonelli and slapped him in the face. He then offered to make satisfaction for his insult by fighting a duel. He had brought along two rapiers for the purpose.
He accused the prince of killing his father and stealing his mother. He had been a baby at the time, but now he was mature and wanted vengeance. However, he would not imitate the cowardly example of Prince Saradine, who killed his father in an underhanded way.
After some hesitation, the prince grabbed one on the rapiers. Father Brown tried unsuccessfully to prevent the duel. He rushed to call the servants, but he learned that only Mrs. Anthony was in the house. Mr. Paul had given the rest of the servants a holiday.
When Father Brown glanced at the face of Mrs. Anthony, he suddenly knew why the face of Antonelli seemed familiar to him. He resembled Mrs. Anthony, who was obviously his mother. So Father Brown told her that her son was fighting a duel with the prince. The lady fainted.
Mr. Paul was frantically rowing away from the island in a canoe. He said that he was going to get help.
Father Brown thought that there was something wrong about the duel. It was an intuitive feeling, but he proved to be right.
The two duelists were skillful and well matched, so the fight took a long time. Father Brown wondered why Mr. Paul had not yet returned with the police. He wished that Flambeau would return.
After Antonelli finally killed his opponent, Mr. Paul returned with the police. Antonelli was happy. He had no objection to being hanged.
As Father Brown waited for Flambeau to return, he still felt that he did not know what had really happened. He felt that what he saw was a sort of masque or charade.
When Flambeau arrived, Father Brown learned the truth. They noticed that Mr. Paul was calmly eating the dinner that had been prepared for the prince. Flambeau was indignant. He knocked on the window and scolded Mr. Paul for stealing his dead master’s dinner. In replay, the supposed butler told Flambeau that he was Prince Saradine. He explained that he called himself Mr. Paul to distinguish between himself and Mr. Stephen, his brother. He further explained that his brother had led an irregular life. That was why one of his enemies had killed him.
As Father Brown looked at Mr. Paul, he noted that he resembled the dead Stephen. He concluded that this was why the supposed prince looked familiar to him when he first came home.
Mr. Paul then started laughing. Father Brown suggested that they leave this house of evil and return to their honest boat.
Flambeau still did not know what had happened, so Father Brown explained it to him when they were alone. The two brothers were scoundrels, but Mr. Paul was clever enough to enrich himself by his evil deeds, while Mr. Stephen lost everything as a result of his dissipated life. However, Mr. Paul had committed murder, and Mr. Stephen could prove it. So Mr. Paul had to pay him large sums of money to keep him from telling the authorities what he knew.
When the son of the murdered man grew up, he wanted to avenge his father’s death. Mr. Paul became a fugitive, hiding first in one place, then in another. Finally, as a result of the blackmail and his travels, he had little money left.
To get rid of both of his enemies, he gave his address to Antonelli, and he gave his princely title to his brother. He also shaved off his beard so that he would not resemble pictures of himself that Antonelli may have seen. Since the two brothers looked somewhat alike, he killed the wrong man and subsequently died on the gallows.
Mr. Paul had got this idea from Flambeau. Just as Flambeau had tricked one detective into arresting another, so Mr. Paul tricked one of his enemies into killing another.
However, Mr. Paul thought that Antonelli would kill his brother in an underhanded manner. When Antonelli challenged his brother to a duel, he was afraid that his trick would be discovered. When he left the island in a canoe, he was fleeing for his life. He did not bring the police until after his brother had died.
To write these notes, I consulted an online version of the story presented by the Gutenberg Project.
Project Gutenberg: The Innocence of Father Brown