Thomas Hood wrote some excellent humorous poetry characterized by admirable puns. For some reason or other, critics do not regard these poems very highly, and not many of them appear in anthologies.
When I was a student, I happened to read one of his humorous poems before I read any of his other works. Since puns are my favorite type of humor, I eagerly looked for more of his works. I was disappointed with what I found.
Comic figures often have a serious side. Humor may serve as a superficial veneer, while a somber personality lurks beneath. At times, hilarious cheerfulness may masque feelings of emptiness or even despair. Sir Aaron Armstrong is a case in point.
Sir Aaron lay dead, apparently murdered. Two policemen were investigating the case, and one of them asked Father Brown to help.
Sir Aaron was a popular after dinner speaker, and the policemen wondered who would want to kill such a cheerful humorist. Father Brown thought otherwise. He claimed that a permanent smile could be exasperating to people who lived with him.
It was a strange case. Sir Aaron died when his head hit the earth as he fell from an upper story window. A severed rope was tied to his leg, and the other half of the rope was dangling out the window from which he fell. Suspicion first fell on Magnus, the man-servant, since he fled with his master’s money.
However, it was later learned that Magnus had taken the money to the police station because he was afraid that Alice Armstrong, the daughter of Sir Aaron, would run away with it. Magnus thought that Alice was the murderess. He had entered the room shortly after Sir Aaron fell from the window. He saw Alice with a knife in her hand. In addition, she had a motive. She wanted to marry Patrick Royce, the secretary of Sir Aaron, but her father disapproved of the match.
Patrick Royce, the secretary of Sir Aaron, then complicated matters. He claimed that he had killed Sir Aaron and told the police that Alice had the knife in her hands because she was trying to defend her father.
Patrick led them to the room from which Sir Aaron had fallen. He said that he was drunk when he killed Sir Aaron. To corroborate his statement, he pointed to a whiskey bottle that was half empty. He also directed their attention to a revolver that lay on the carpet. He said that the revolver and the rope around Sir Aaron’s leg were his.
Father Brown was not satisfied. He noted that there were three murder weapons but none of them had been used. There was a rope, but Sir Aaron had not been strangled or hanged. There was a knife, but Sir Aaron had not been stabbed. There was a revolver, but Sir Aaron had not been shot.
Father Brown also noted various factors that conflicted with Patrick’s confession. For example, all the bullets in the revolver had been shot into the carpet. If Patrick were trying to kill Sir Aaron, he would have aimed at Sir Aaron’s head instead of shooting at the floor. After pointing out some other inconsistencies, he said to Patrick: “I am awfully sorry, my dear sir, but your tale is really rubbish.”
Alice asked to speak with Father Brown in private. When they were alone, she told Father Brown that his misguided attempt to defend Patrick was doing him more harm than good. She explained exactly what happened. Someone in the next room screamed the word “hell” three times. Then she heard shots. She rushed into the room and saw Patrick with a smoking pistol in his hand. Patrick then took a rope and tried to put it around her father’s neck, but it slipped over his shoulders and became fastened to one of his legs. While Patrick was dragging her father like a maniac, she rushed between them and managed to cut the rope with a knife before she fainted.
As she related these things to Father Brown, the strain was too much for her. She fainted a second time.
With this information at his disposal, Father Brown knew exactly what had happened. Alice was telling the truth, but she misinterpreted what she saw and heard.
While Alice was unconscious, Father Brown returned to Patrick and the two policemen. He tried to persuade Patrick to tell the truth. Since Patrick refused, Father Brown explained what happened.
The three deadly weapons were not used to kill Sir Aaron, but to save him from himself. The emptiness and despair that underlay Sir Aaron’s cheerful façade finally caused him to resume a drinking habit that he had abandoned long ago. Since Sir Aaron had repeatedly warned others about the evils of drinking, his own drunkenness burdened his soul with an oppressive feeling of guilt. He thought that he was in hell and wanted to die. He collected three instruments of death and placed them on the floor.
Patrick entered the room and acted decisively. He threw the knife behind him and shot all the bullets of the revolver into the carpet. Then Sir Aaron tried to kill himself by jumping out the window. Patrick ran after him with the rope and tried to tie him up. In the ensuing struggle, the rope got tied around his leg.
Then Alice entered the room. Since she thought that Patrick was trying to kill her father, she took the knife and tried to cut her father loose. First, she accidentally cut Patrick’s knuckles; then she succeeded in cutting the rope before she fainted. As a result, her father crashed through the window into eternity.
Patrick did not want Alice to know that she had killed her father. That is why he had made that false confession. Father Brown encouraged him to tell her the truth. Her fatal mistake would not grieve her nearly as much as the belief that Patrick had committed murder.
Father Brown left before the coroner arrived. The policemen had all the information that the coroner needed.
Since I no longer have access to the book, I refreshed my memory by consulting an online version of this tale presented by Project Gutenberg.
Gutenberg Project: The Innocence of Father Brown