By: J.B. Toner
When the unclean spirit comes out of a man, it wanders in dry places seeking rest, and finds it not. Then it saith, I will return to the house which I left. And it brings with it seven devils more wicked than itself.
Our own St. Edward, son of that king who bears the mournfully mordant epithet of Aethelred the Unready, is remembered as Edward the Confessor. The nickname is a noble one, evoking as it does the penitence of man and the pardon of the merciful God; and certainly a king will not object if he is better known for hearing others’ faults than for seeing his own kingdom slide into the chasm of 1066. But like the king his father, we were all of us unready for the onward-marching cataclysm that united Angle and Norman in 1914. And I for my part was unprepared for the malevolent genius that turned the very Sacrament of Confession against us.
Let me at once answer to the name of that notorious individual who so disgraces the legacy of Falstaff by the occasional stumbling foray into respectability: Gilbert Keith Chesterton, at your service. I dare to hope that you (gentle reader) may share my fondness for the art of the detective story; but I regret that in the present case, I can offer no better hero than myself. My only defence is that the role was thrust upon me by those most annoying interruptions of murder and war.
My friend Fr. O’Connor and I had accepted an invitation to dine with Professor Wright, philologist, at Exeter College, Oxford. It was April of ’14, and the shades of winter were in full retreat; but other shadows were lengthening over Christendom.
“We owe much to the Germans,” the tiny Professor was saying as I refilled my wine glass once again. “It was their Grimms who rescued the art of fairy stories from the domain of old maids and children, allowing us to take them as seriously as they should be taken. I only grieve that England has no true mythology of her own.”
I waved my glass in protest, deftly catching the overslosh in that selfsame glass. “You forget, sir, the ancient legend of the once and future king!”
Wright smiled sadly. “I fear, Mr. Chesterton, that our own King Arthur is in fact a mishmash of French tales, left over from the Norman Conquest.”
I opened my mouth and found nothing to say. It was like discovering that Santa Claus was not real. (A discovery which, happily, I have yet to make.)
Fr. O’Connor sipped his brandy and remarked in his kind, shrewd voice, “I will cheerfully grant Germany sole custody of any tale they like, if only they will refrain from trying to reenact the Conquest this year.”
An ill-fated observation. Just as he was setting down his brandy, a tall, thin lad burst into the room in evident frenzy. “Professor, it’s horrible! Horrible!”
“John Ronald!” snapped Wright. “Pray compose yourself, sir.”
The young man took a breath. “I’m sorry, but—Professor, it’s Fr. Grey. He’s been murdered!”
We leapt to our feet, and I snatched up my sword-stick. “Young man,” said Fr. O’Connor, “take us to the scene at once, if you please.”
That sharp-eyed lad led us to the chapel at the northern end of campus. Though not at that time a Catholic myself, I instinctively dipped my fingers in the holy water font as we passed through the vestibule to the candlelit sanctuary. There we beheld a gruesome sight: a corpse in clerical black, half-dragged from the confessional and sprawling in a splash of vivid red. Three or four students had gathered nearby, staring like dawn-caught trolls.
“Step back, please, everyone step back,” said Fr. O’Connor. He strode down the aisle and knelt by the twisted body, making the Sign of the Cross. I heard him mutter, “As I feared.”
Now, as you may know, I have been responsible for rather a large number of corpses in my career. My murders, however, transpire on the printed page. Before that night, I had never stood over the remnants of a brutal martyrdom. Between spiritual horror and visceral shock, I found nothing at all to say—a rarity.
Our host, however, kept his wits and tongue. “What do you mean?”
“It’s just like Fr. Damascus. Quickly and efficiently stabbed to death, and then this.” He jabbed his finger at the dead man’s torso. “Carved into the body, just over the heart.”
Through the tatters of Fr. Grey’s vestments, I could see a five-point star slashed into his cooling flesh: a star with the apex pointing downwards. To his feet, to the earth, to the ones beneath the earth. Beneath our feet.
“The seal of Satan,” whispered Wright.
“Do not say that name.”
I have often thanked God for the gift of the telephone. It was mere minutes before the police arrived, summoned by some panicked or solicitous young scholar. Once they had taken charge of the scene, my companions and I returned to Professor Wright’s now somber chambers.
My voice had reawakened, and with it my thirst. I poured myself a tumbler of dark wine and drank it off, then rounded on my friend. “Father, what in mercy’s name is happening? Who is Fr. Damascus?”
He slumped into his dinner chair, retrieving his prandial brandy. “A priest was killed last night in Sussex. The details were kept out of the news, but he was dragged from the confessional and marked with the Pentagram, just like Fr. Grey.”
“That is monstrous.”
“For once, my friend, there is no debate between us.”
Sussex, I thought disconnectedly. Not so far from here. Three hours by train.
“But forgive me, gentlemen,” Fr. O’Connor continued. “I must read my breviary before bed. You’ll pardon me if I retire?”
“Of course, Father,” said our host, and we stood.
The estimable professor and myself chatted for a few more minutes, in a desultory manner, but soon concurred that there was little more to be said on so dire an occasion as this. I withdrew to my chambers and maneuvered my bulk into night-clothes. Then I sat on the bed to ruminate.
An old Anglo-Saxon saying has it that “A man does as he is.” I think perhaps what I am is an old fool who believes too many fairy tales; but in the course of a restless night, my inmost self decided on my course. The next morning, I took leave of my friends and boarded a train to Sussex.
“Fr. Damascus, ’ee say?” grumbled the old gaffer at the bar. (The rigors of my journey had impelled me to begin my investigation at the cheerfully named Wyvern’s Watering-hole.) “Sure’n I ’member ’im. Good fella.”
“Best confessor in the county, they say,” added the barkeep, toweling off a tankard.
“Ayup. Sin’n shame, what ’appened t’im.”
“Devil’s work,” grunted the barkeep.
Agreed. Hastily finishing my drink, I paid my tab and the gaffer’s and headed for Our Lady of Sorrows. There, I had the fortune to encounter the grizzled, gregarious Mrs. O’Feeny, who was in the very act of mopping the confessional.
“Oh, the father was a good father, that he was, the best of fathers. Read a man like a book, he could, read the conscience of a man just like it was an open book right in front of him on the page there, it was. Best confessor since St. John Vianney, best confessor since Fr. Grey! Why, he could just look at a man—”
“Madam!” I inexcusably interrupted. “Did you say Fr. Grey? The priest from—”
“Eh? Oh aye, Fr. Grey, ’nother man of God. Had the sight, they said, best confessor since St. John Vianney himself, him and that other feller, what’s his name now, anyway, best confessor since—”
“Madam. The third priest you mention. This may be a matter of indescribable significance. Can you not recall his name? I beg you to search your memory with the utmost—”
“McKinney, that was it, Fr. McKinney, lovely man by all accounts. Could read a man, he could, just like St.—”
“Many thanks, madam!” I called, already bustling for the distant egress. “May the Lord bless and keep you, and make His face to shine upon—”
“Oh aye, and to you as well, I’m sure!” she called after me as I escaped into the burning light of day. The final word was hers; she had earned it.
Once I reached London, I called Fr. O’Connor from every telephone I could find. It was, of course, entirely possible—nay, overwhelmingly probable—that whatever tenuous connection might exist among the three priests was of no conceivable relevance to the case. It could even be imagined that, per impossible, the venerable cleric had no need or desire for my help. But these were mad fancies. Failing to find the man himself, I left importunate messages with his increasingly courteous secretary.
It took a stop by the offices of my friends at the Illustrated London News and a visit to Westminster Cathedral to track down the parish of Fr. Joseph Meriwether McKinney. I remembered (eventually) to send a telegram to my beloved Frances, explaining my absence in terse but eloquent terms: “Am investigating foul play. Have promising lead.” She cabled back with eerie promptitude: “Request update on case of missing husband.” But it was too late: minutes were now at a premium. I partook swiftly of three courses at the nearest restaurant, lit a cigar, and caught the first omnibus I saw.
The mystic heraldry of dusk was opening from the west when I arrived at Sacred Heart Church. I took a seat near the back, flinging my hat recklessly into a distant pew, and settled down to observe the penitents.
A fair number of people came and went over the next hour or so, but at last the confessional stood open. Quaintly, the church had no electric lights, and soon only a few candles kept the full dark at bay. I rose as quietly as a man of my stature can, and drew closer to the booth. As I did so, a narrow-shouldered man in a shabby coat entered the church. He was glancing about him in sharp, birdlike motions; I happened to be just entering the shadow of a pillar, and a curious notion bade me pause there. The newcomer, apparently satisfied of his solitude, proceeded to the booth of Reconciliation.
Slowly, I paced closer. No gentleman would eavesdrop on a Sacrament, but I could not help overhearing a raised voice, which grew rapidly to a series of anguished moans. I quickened my step, but paused again upon realizing that the anguish was proceeding not from the priest but the penitent.
“Such horrors I have done!” cried the voice, now fully audible in the sanctuary. “Shrive me, Father, you must shrive me of these sins!” A pause, and a lowered voice. Then: “Yes, yes, I swear. I shall go to the police at once and turn myself in, but I beg you to send me forth with my conscience clear!”
I knew that voice, I realized. And something about those darting eyes, glimpsed in the flicker of flame, stirred memories. Who was this raving—wait—could it be—
“Yes, yes!” he suddenly screamed. “The devils within me have once again come out. And when they return, their powers will have grown sevenfold! Thank you for my apotheosis, Father. Thank you for my ascension!”
At that, I lunged forward and ripped the door off the confessional. The man within had drawn a chipped and dirty dagger, and was punching through the wicker screen to seize Fr. McKinney by the cassock. He turned and saw me, and his face twisted in a snarling grin. “Why, Chesterton, of all people! The Dark Ones are funny indeed.”
“Crowley,” I said. “I thought you were in Paris.”
“I am everywhere. And you will finish the mightiest ritual of my career!”
With a ring and clatter, I drew the sword from my cane and tossed the scabbard aside. “I hope you have a keener blade than that one, man of Satan.”
“Satan is nothing! A ladder to be climbed and kicked away. Like this whimpering man of God!”
He made another effort to grab Fr. McKinney. With my free hand, I caught him by the back of the coat and dragged him into the aisle; and with the strength and celerity of a madman, he spun and back-kicked like a mule, catching me just above the solar plexus. I stumbled backwards, tripped over a rug-wrinkle, and smashed the pew behind me as I sprawled. Crowley sprang at me, raising his dagger, and I stomped both feet into his midsection, launching him into the side wall, where he crushed a plaster statue of Our Lord standing before Pilate. I struggled back to my feet as he vaulted the Communion rail to stand on the holy altar, bellowing dark invocations. But as I mounted the marble steps and raised my blade once more, he turned and bashed the tabernacle with both fists, hurling it from its place of sanctity—and some reflex of reverence in my body, wiser than my half-agnostic intellect, made me drop my sword and fumble to catch that plummeting golden Ark. As I did so, Aleister Crowley escaped.
“The wickedest man in the world,” said Fr. McKinney.
I nodded. “So they say.”
Ten years before that night, I had written a review of Mr. Crowley’s brilliantly sinister poem, “The Sword of Song.” I need hardly say that I was not favorable in my views; and Mr. Crowley thereafter challenged me to a public debate. He was, and remains, the one and only man whom I refused to meet in such a battle. Call it pusillanimous if you will; but no good, I knew, would come of soiling the minds of myself and every listener by giving him a forum in which to utter his vileness. King St. Louis IX once said there is a type of man with whom you cannot argue, but must simply “thrust a sword through his body as far as it will go.”
After ascertaining that I was not seriously injured, the good padre had gone at once to ring the police; and upon his return to the sanctuary, he had manfully brought along a drop of spirits to fortify me. Wishing to do full justice to his hospitality, I availed myself heavily of the bottle’s contents before continuing:
“Of course you can’t speak of what was said in a confession, Father, but I may as well say that I heard his remarks about the devils inside of him. What do you suppose that meant?”
He glared up at the domed ceiling, rubbing his chin. “I fear that he has used the Sacrament of Penance as a form of exorcism, expelling demons with the express intent of re-summoning them. Our Lord once said that if a cast-out demon should return, it will bring with it seven more.”
“Then if he’s already done this twice before—”
“Indeed. His name is Legion.”
Ruminatively, I further perused the brandy. “And what do you make of his saying that I would complete his ritual?”
“I have no earthly idea, Mr. Chesterton. Inane babble, perhaps.”
“. . .Perhaps.”
“Mr. Chesterton! Mr. G.K. Chesterton!”
I whirled at the strange new voice: that of a Cockney urchin, incongruous in the extreme. In the vestibule behind us was a lad of some ten summers in a newsboy’s cap, waving a telegram.
“Here, young master. And for the love of decency, lower your voice. This isn’t Fleet Street, you know.”
“Sorry, sir. In a hurry, sir. Oughtta be off ’ome to me mum, but gennelman said this was urgent, like.”
“Off you go, then,” I said, handing him half a crown. “Nothing’s more urgent than one’s mum.”
He beamed. “Yes, sir! Thank you, sir!” And scampered off to keep the keep the memory of Dickens alive.
The cable read: “Corner of Edge and Thornton. AC.”
Ah, reader, I know. I know now, and I knew then, that I should await the coming constabulary. But the call to single combat—the challenge of a dark paladin, to one who wished all his life to be a Knight of the Round—the chance to accept a gauntlet unanswered ten years ago—
“I seem to have affairs to which I must attend,” I said. “Be so good, Father, as to mention me to the Almighty when next you speak with Him.”
He offered his hand. “Now and always, Mr. Chesterton. God be with you.”
The heavy mist was becoming a light rain as I strode through the empty streets with my sword-stick in hand. A boil of emotion swirled in my chest, but my head was clear and light. A man waits a lifetime for such a trial as this, and prays to be worthy of the challenge when it comes. I only hoped that Crowley had found himself a sword.
But when Edge Street intersected Thornton, I saw no sign of my foe. Instead, a moment’s surveillance revealed a bound figure in a nearby doorway, writhing frantically. I ran to its side and recognized, with a horrid shock, the face of Fr. O’Connor. He was turning blue, and his windpipe was weirdly distended. Something had been shoved down his throat.
Freeing my sword from its sheath, I cut the cords about his arms and legs, but he was already losing consciousness. A wild surmise came into my panicked and befuddled mind: perhaps I could save my friend from asphyxiation by risking his exsanguination.
One hears stories—desperate surgeons improvising with rude tools on ship decks or street corners. I had a corncob pipe, its stem easily snapped. I had a keen-tipped blade. And I had the ultimate power of sanity: to do, when necessary, the insane.
With a whispered prayer and a delicate slice, I opened the father’s trachea. Blood spurted out, but he hardly reacted in his stupor. Inserting the hollow pipe-tube, I waited a fretful infinity before hearing the whistle of sucked-in air.
“Great God, he lives!” I muttered.
And from behind me: “Greater gods than yours are watching, Chesterton.”
I sprang to my feet, brandishing my weapon. Crowley was twenty paces away, leering in the moonlit drizzle. “Your depredations end tonight.”
“Oh, I’m the least of your worries now. You see, the spell requires a unique component: forcing a good man to cut an innocent throat. The better the man, the more powerful the magick—but a truly good man would die before doing such a thing. Unless, of course, he had a suffocating friend.”
“You’re a lunatic. What do you think you’ve accomplished?”
“We have accomplished the bursting of the dam. All Europe, all Christendom, will be swallowed in war. The filthy church of that pale Nazarene shall fall at last!”
“Enough talk, Crowley. Draw your blade, and let’s settle this.”
“If you can catch me, fat man!” And he dashed away like a cat.
I had no chance of outrunning that nimble maniac. Besides, Fr. O’Connor needed medical attention at once. Our reckoning would come when the good Lord willed it. On Earth, in Purgatory—even if I had to follow Crowley into Hell.
“Pour the tea, young master Tolkien,” said Professor Wright.
It was late June, and Fr. O’Connor and I had returned to Oxford to fulfill our interrupted dinner invitation. The good father was still speaking in a bit of a whisper, but the prospects looked good for a full recovery. As for me, I fear my only speaking voice remains a moderate stentorian.
“I understand Crowley’s stooges provided him an alibi,” the professor remarked.
“Sadly so,” I said. “Now, why anyone would take the word of self-proclaimed nihilists is a pressing but entirely separate issue.”
“If only McKinney or I had seen his face,” Fr. O’Connor murmured. “As it is, there’s little to be done.”
“Well,” Wright said with an effort at cheer, “if, as you say, he believes he accomplished his aim, then perhaps he’ll let the matter rest.”
“Let us hope.” I partook of some tea and, upon reflection, of some wine as well. “I don’t suppose we believe him.”
“War is coming,” the old priest said gravely. “It needs no work of thaumaturgy.”
“Yet the universe hangs on the tiniest things. What if, in some strange and secret way, Crowley provided the spark that explodes the West? What if I failed to stop it?”
“Nations crest and crash, my friend. Let small minds concern themselves with wars and dynasties that last a few paltry turns about the sun. Now, the soul of the man across from you at the bus stop: that is the business of Eternity.”
A few days later, an Archduke was murdered in Sarajevo.