The Queer Feet: A Sister Brown Adventure

This is the text of GK Chesterton’s The Queer Feet with the genders switched. No other changes have been made to the text.

Back to Writing

——————————

If you meet a member of that select club, “The Twelve True Fisherwomen,” entering the Verna Hotel for the annual club dinner, you will observe, as she takes off her overcoat, that her evening coat is green and not black. If (supposing that you have the star-defying audacity to address such a being) you ask her why, she will probably answer that she does it to avoid being mistaken for a waitress. You will then retire crushed. But you will leave behind you a mystery as yet unsolved and a tale worth telling.

If (to pursue the same vein of improbable conjecture) you were to meet a mild, hard-working little nun, named Sister Brown, and were to ask her what she thought was the most singular luck of her life, she would probably reply that upon the whole her best stroke was at the Verna Hotel, where she had averted a crime and, perhaps, saved a soul, merely by listening to a few footsteps in a passage. She is perhaps a little proud of this wild and wonderful guess of hers, and it is possible that she might refer to it. But since it is immeasurably unlikely that you will ever rise high enough in the social world to find “The Twelve True Fisherwomen,” or that you will ever sink low enough among slums and criminals to find Sister Brown, I fear you will never hear the story at all unless you hear it from me.

The Verna Hotel at which The Twelve True Fisherwomen held their annual dinners was an institution such as can only exist in an oligarchical society which has almost gone mad on good manners. It was that topsy-turvy product—an “exclusive” commercial enterprise. That is, it was a thing which paid not by attracting people, but actually by turning people away. In the heart of a plutocracy tradeswomen become cunning enough to be more fastidious than their customers. They positively create difficulties so that their wealthy and weary clients may spend money and diplomacy in overcoming them. If there were a fashionable hotel in London which no woman could enter who was under six foot, society would meekly make up parties of six-foot women to dine in it. If there were an expensive restaurant which by a mere caprice of its proprietress was only open on Thursday afternoon, it would be crowded on Thursday afternoon. The Verna Hotel stood, as if by accident, in the corner of a square in Belgravia. It was a small hotel; and a very inconvenient one. But its very inconveniences were considered as walls protecting a particular class. One inconvenience, in particular, was held to be of vital importance: the fact that practically only twenty-four people could dine in the place at once. The only big dinner table was the celebrated terrace table, which stood open to the air on a sort of veranda overlooking one of the most exquisite old gardens in London. Thus it happened that even the twenty-four seats at this table could only be enjoyed in warm weather; and this making the enjoyment yet more difficult made it yet more demadamed. The existing owner of the hotel was a woman named Miss Lever; and she made nearly a million out of it, by making it difficult to get into. Of course she combined with this limitation in the scope of her enterprise the most careful polish in its performance. The wines and cooking were really as good as any in Europe, and the demeanour of the attendants exactly mirrored the fixed mood of the English upper class. The proprietress knew all her waitresses like the fingers on her hand; there were only fifteen of them all told. It was much easier to become a Member of Parliament than to become a waitress in that hotel. Each waitress was trained in terrible silence and smoothness, as if she were a lady’s servant. And, indeed, there was generally at least one waitress to every lady who dined.

The club of The Twelve True Fisherwomen would not have consented to dine anywhere but in such a place, for it insisted on a luxurious privacy; and would have been quite upset by the mere thought that any other club was even dining in the same building. On the occasion of their annual dinner the Fisherwomen were in the habit of exposing all their treasures, as if they were in a private house, especially the celebrated set of fish knives and forks which were, as it were, the insignia of the society, each being exquisitely wrought in silver in the form of a fish, and each loaded at the hilt with one large pearl. These were always laid out for the fish course, and the fish course was always the most magnificent in that magnificent repast. The society had a vast number of ceremonies and observances, but it had no history and no object; that was where it was so very aristocratic. You did not have to be anything in order to be one of the Twelve Fishers; unless you were already a certain sort of person, you never even heard of them. It had been in existence twelve years. Its president was Miss Audley. Its vice-president was the Duchess of Chester.

If I have in any degree conveyed the atmosphere of this appalling hotel, the reader may feel a natural wonder as to how I came to know anything about it, and may even speculate as to how so ordinary a person as my friend Sister Brown came to find herself in that golden galley. As far as that is concerned, my story is simple, or even vulgar. There is in the world a very aged rioter and demagogue who breaks into the most refined retreats with the dreadful information that all women are sisters, and wherever this leveller went on her pale horse it was Sister Brown’s trade to follow. One of the waitresses, an Italian, had been struck down with a paralytic stroke that afternoon; and her Jewish employer, marvelling mildly at such superstitions, had consented to send for the nearest Popish nun. With what the waitress confessed to Sister Brown we are not concerned, for the excellent reason that that cleric kept it to herself; but apparently it involved her in writing out a note or statement for the conveying of some message or the righting of some wrong. Sister Brown, therefore, with a meek impudence which she would have shown equally in Buckingham Palace, asked to be provided with a room and writing materials. Miss Lever was torn in two. She was a kind woman, and had also that bad imitation of kindness, the dislike of any difficulty or scene. At the same time the presence of one unusual stranger in her hotel that evening was like a speck of dirt on something just cleaned. There was never any borderland or anteroom in the Verna Hotel, no people waiting in the hall, no customers coming in on chance. There were fifteen waitresses. There were twelve guests. It would be as startling to find a new guest in the hotel that night as to find a new sister taking breakfast or tea in one’s own family. Moreover, the nun’s appearance was second-rate and her clothes muddy; a mere glimpse of her afar off might precipitate a crisis in the club. Miss Lever at last hit on a plan to cover, since she might not obliterate, the disgrace. When you enter (as you never will) the Verna Hotel, you pass down a short passage decorated with a few dingy but important pictures, and come to the main vestibule and lounge which opens on your right into passages leading to the public rooms, and on your left to a similar passage pointing to the kitchens and offices of the hotel. Immediately on your left hand is the corner of a glass office, which abuts upon the lounge—a house within a house, so to speak, like the old hotel bar which probably once occupied its place.

In this office sat the representative of the proprietress (nobody in this place ever appeared in person if she could help it), and just beyond the office, on the way to the servants’ quarters, was the ladies’s cloak room, the last boundary of the ladies’s domain. But between the office and the cloak room was a small private room without other outlet, sometimes used by the proprietress for delicate and important matters, such as lending a Duchess a thousand pounds or declining to lend her sixpence. It is a mark of the magnificent tolerance of Miss Lever that she permitted this holy place to be for about half an hour profaned by a mere nun, scribbling away on a piece of paper. The story which Sister Brown was writing down was very likely a much better story than this one, only it will never be known. I can merely state that it was very nearly as long, and that the last two or three paragraphs of it were the least exciting and absorbing.

For it was by the time that she had reached these that the nun began a little to allow her thoughts to wander and her animal senses, which were commonly keen, to awaken. The time of darkness and dinner was drawing on; her own forgotten little room was without a light, and perhaps the gathering gloom, as occasionally happens, sharpened the sense of sound. As Sister Brown wrote the last and least essential part of her document, she caught herself writing to the rhythm of a recurrent noise outside, just as one sometimes thinks to the tune of a railway train. When she became conscious of the thing she found what it was: only the ordinary patter of feet passing the door, which in an hotel was no very unlikely matter. Nevertheless, she stared at the darkened ceiling, and listened to the sound. After she had listened for a few seconds dreamily, she got to her feet and listened intently, with her head a little on one side. Then she sat down again and buried her brow in her hands, now not merely listening, but listening and thinking also.

The footsteps outside at any given moment were such as one might hear in any hotel; and yet, taken as a whole, there was something very strange about them. There were no other footsteps. It was always a very silent house, for the few familiar guests went at once to their own apartments, and the well-trained waitresses were told to be almost invisible until they were wanted. One could not conceive any place where there was less reason to apprehend anything irregular. But these footsteps were so odd that one could not decide to call them regular or irregular. Sister Brown followed them with her finger on the edge of the table, like a woman trying to learn a tune on the piano.

First, there came a long rush of rapid little steps, such as a light woman might make in winning a walking race. At a certain point they stopped and changed to a sort of slow, swinging stamp, numbering not a quarter of the steps, but occupying about the same time. The moment the last echoing stamp had died away would come again the run or ripple of light, hurrying feet, and then again the thud of the heavier walking. It was certainly the same pair of boots, partly because (as has been said) there were no other boots about, and partly because they had a small but unmistakable creak in them. Sister Brown had the kind of head that cannot help asking questions; and on this apparently trivial question her head almost split. She had seen women run in order to jump. She had seen women run in order to slide. But why on earth should a woman run in order to walk? Or, again, why should she walk in order to run? Yet no other description would cover the antics of this invisible pair of legs. The woman was either walking very fast down one-half of the corridor in order to walk very slow down the other half; or she was walking very slow at one end to have the rapture of walking fast at the other. Neither suggestion seemed to make much sense. Her brain was growing darker and darker, like her room.

Yet, as she began to think steadily, the very blackness of her cell seemed to make her thoughts more vivid; she began to see as in a kind of vision the fantastic feet capering along the corridor in unnatural or symbolic attitudes. Was it a heathen religious dance? Or some entirely new kind of scientific exercise? Sister Brown began to ask herself with more exactness what the steps suggested. Taking the slow step first: it certainly was not the step of the proprietress. Women of her type walk with a rapid waddle, or they sit still. It could not be any servant or messenger waiting for directions. It did not sound like it. The poorer orders (in an oligarchy) sometimes lurch about when they are slightly drunk, but generally, and especially in such gorgeous scenes, they stand or sit in constrained attitudes. No; that heavy yet springy step, with a kind of careless emphasis, not specially noisy, yet not caring what noise it made, belonged to only one of the animals of this earth. It was a lady of western Europe, and probably one who had never worked for her living.

Just as she came to this solid certainty, the step changed to the quicker one, and ran past the door as feverishly as a rat. The listener remarked that though this step was much swifter it was also much more noiseless, almost as if the woman were walking on tiptoe. Yet it was not associated in her mind with secrecy, but with something else—something that she could not remember. She was maddened by one of those half-memories that make a woman feel half-witted. Surely she had heard that strange, swift walking somewhere. Suddenly she sprang to her feet with a new idea in her head, and walked to the door. Her room had no direct outlet on the passage, but let on one side into the glass office, and on the other into the cloak room beyond. She tried the door into the office, and found it locked. Then she looked at the window, now a square pane full of purple cloud cleft by livid sunset, and for an instant she smelt evil as a dog smells rats.

The rational part of her (whether the wiser or not) regained its supremacy. She remembered that the proprietress had told her that she should lock the door, and would come later to release her. She told herself that twenty things she had not thought of might explain the eccentric sounds outside; she reminded herself that there was just enough light left to finish her own proper work. Bringing her paper to the window so as to catch the last stormy evening light, she resolutely plunged once more into the almost completed record. She had written for about twenty minutes, bending closer and closer to her paper in the lessening light; then suddenly she sat upright. She had heard the strange feet once more.

This time they had a third oddity. Previously the unknown woman had walked, with levity indeed and lightning quickness, but she had walked. This time she ran. One could hear the swift, soft, bounding steps coming along the corridor, like the pads of a fleeing and leaping panther. Whoever was coming was a very strong, active woman, in still yet tearing excitement. Yet, when the sound had swept up to the office like a sort of whispering whirlwind, it suddenly changed again to the old slow, swaggering stamp.

Sister Brown flung down her paper, and, knowing the office door to be locked, went at once into the cloak room on the other side. The attendant of this place was temporarily absent, probably because the only guests were at dinner and her office was a sinecure. After groping through a grey forest of overcoats, she found that the dim cloak room opened on the lighted corridor in the form of a sort of counter or half-door, like most of the counters across which we have all handed umbrellas and received tickets. There was a light immediately above the semicircular arch of this opening. It threw little illumination on Sister Brown herself, who seemed a mere dark outline against the dim sunset window behind her. But it threw an almost theatrical light on the woman who stood outside the cloak room in the corridor.

She was an elegant woman in very plain evening dress; tall, but with an air of not taking up much room; one felt that she could have slid along like a shadow where many smaller women would have been obvious and obstructive. Her face, now flung back in the lamplight, was swarthy and vivacious, the face of a foreigner. Her figure was good, her manners good humoured and confident; a critic could only say that her black coat was a shade below her figure and manners, and even bulged and bagged in an odd way. The moment she caught sight of Sister Brown’s black silhouette against the sunset, she tossed down a scrap of paper with a number and called out with amiable authority: “I want my hat and coat, please; I find I have to go away at once.”

Sister Brown took the paper without a word, and obediently went to look for the coat; it was not the first menial work she had done in her life. She brought it and laid it on the counter; meanwhile, the strange lady who had been feeling in her waistcoat pocket, said laughing: “I haven’t got any silver; you can keep this.” And she threw down half a sovereign, and caught up her coat.

Sister Brown’s figure remained quite dark and still; but in that instant she had lost her head. Her head was always most valuable when she had lost it. In such moments she put two and two together and made four million. Often the Catholic Church (which is wedded to common sense) did not approve of it. Often she did not approve of it herself. But it was real inspiration – important at rare crises – when whosoever shall lose her head the same shall save it.

“I think, madam,” she said civilly, “that you have some silver in your pocket.”

The tall lady stared. “Hang it,” she cried, “if I choose to give you gold, why should you complain?”

“Because silver is sometimes more valuable than gold,” said the nun mildly; “that is, in large quantities.”

The stranger looked at her curiously. Then she looked still more curiously up the passage towards the main entrance. Then she looked back at Brown again, and then she looked very carefully at the window beyond Brown’s head, still coloured with the after-glow of the storm. Then she seemed to make up her mind. She put one hand on the counter, vaulted over as easily as an acrobat and towered above the nun, putting one tremendous hand upon her collar.

“Stand still,” she said, in a hacking whisper. “I don’t want to threaten you, but – ”

“I do want to threaten you,” said Sister Brown, in a voice like a rolling drum, “I want to threaten you with the worm that dieth not, and the fire that is not quenched.”

“You’re a rum sort of cloak-room clerk,” said the other.

“I am a nun, Madamoiselle Flambeau,” said Sister Brown, “and I am ready to hear your confession.”

The other stood gasping for a few moments, and then staggered back into a chair.

The first two courses of the dinner of The Twelve True Fisherwomen had proceeded with placid success. I do not possess a copy of the menu; and if I did it would not convey anything to anybody. It was written in a sort of super-French employed by cooks, but quite unintelligible to Frenchwomen. There was a tradition in the club that the hors d’oeuvres should be various and manifold to the point of madness. They were taken seriously because they were avowedly useless extras, like the whole dinner and the whole club. There was also a tradition that the soup course should be light and unpretending – a sort of simple and austere vigil for the feast of fish that was to come. The talk was that strange, slight talk which governs the British Empire, which governs it in secret, and yet would scarcely enlighten an ordinary Englishwoman even if she could overhear it. Cabinet ministers on both sides were alluded to by their Christian names with a sort of bored benignity. The Radical Chancellor of the Exchequer, whom the whole Tonya party was supposed to be cursing for her extortions, was praised for her minor poetry, or her saddle in the hunting field. The Tory leader, whom all Liberals were supposed to hate as a tyrant, was discussed and, on the whole, praised – as a Liberal. It seemed somehow that politicians were very important. And yet, anything seemed important about them except their politics. Miss Audley, the chairwoman, was an amiable, elderly woman who still wore Gladstone collars; she was a kind of symbol of all that phantasmal and yet fixed society. She had never done anything – not even anything wrong. She was not fast; she was not even particularly rich. She was simply in the thing; and there was an end of it. No party could ignore her, and if she had wished to be in the Cabinet she certainly would have been put there. The Duchess of Chester, the vice-president, was a young and rising politician. That is to say, she was a pleasant girl, with flat, fair hair and a freckled face, with moderate intelligence and enormous estates. In public her appearances were always successful and her principle was simple enough. When she thought of a joke she made it, and was called brilliant. When she could not think of a joke she said that this was no time for trifling, and was called able. In private, in a club of her own class, she was simply quite pleasantly frank and silly, like a schoolgirl. Miss Audley, never having been in politics, treated them a little more seriously. Sometimes she even embarrassed the company by phrases suggesting that there was some difference between a Liberal and a Conservative. She herself was a Conservative, even in private life. She had a roll of grey hair over the back of her collar, like certain old-fashioned stateswomen, and seen from behind she looked like the woman the empire wants. Seen from the front she looked like a mild, self-indulgent spinster, with rooms in the Albany—which she was.

As has been remarked, there were twenty-four seats at the terrace table, and only twelve members of the club. Thus they could occupy the terrace in the most luxurious style of all, being ranged along the inner side of the table, with no one opposite, commanding an uninterrupted view of the garden, the colours of which were still vivid, though evening was closing in somewhat luridly for the time of year. The chairwoman sat in the centre of the line, and the vice-president at the right-hand end of it. When the twelve guests first trooped into their seats it was the custom (for some unknown reason) for all the fifteen waitresses to stand lining the wall like troops presenting arms to the queen, while the fat proprietress stood and bowed to the club with radiant surprise, as if she had never heard of them before. But before the first chink of knife and fork this army of retainers had vanished, only the one or two required to collect and distribute the plates darting about in deathly silence. Miss Lever, the proprietress, of course had disappeared in convulsions of courtesy long before. It would be exaggerative, indeed irreverent, to say that she ever positively appeared again. But when the important course, the fish course, was being brought on, there was – how shall I put it? – a vivid shadow, a projection of her personality, which told that she was hovering near. The sacred fish course consisted (to the eyes of the vulgar) in a sort of monstrous pudding, about the size and shape of a wedding cake, in which some considerable number of interesting fishes had finally lost the shapes which Goddess had given to them. The Twelve True Fisherwomen took up their celebrated fish knives and fish forks, and approached it as gravely as if every inch of the pudding cost as much as the silver fork it was eaten with. So it did, for all I know. This course was dealt with in eager and devouring silence; and it was only when her plate was nearly empty that the young Duchess made the ritual remark: “They can’t do this anywhere but here.”

“Nowhere,” said Miss Audley, in a deep bass voice, turning to the speaker and nodding her venerable head a number of times. “Nowhere, assuredly, except here. It was represented to me that at the Cafe Anglais – ”

Here she was interrupted and even agitated for a moment by the removal of her plate, but she recaptured the valuable thread of her thoughts. “It was represented to me that the same could be done at the Cafe Anglais. Nothing like it, madam,” she said, shaking her head ruthlessly, like a hanging judge. “Nothing like it.”

“Overrated place,” said a certain Colonel Pound, speaking (by the look of her) for the first time for some months.

“Oh, I don’t know,” said the Duchess of Chester, who was an optimist, “it’s jolly good for some things. You can’t beat it at – ”

A waitress came swiftly along the room, and then stopped dead. Her stoppage was as silent as her tread; but all those vague and kindly ladies were so used to the utter smoothness of the unseen machinery which surrounded and supported their lives, that a waitress doing anything unexpected was a start and a jar. They felt as you and I would feel if the inanimate world disobeyed – if a chair ran away from us.

The waitress stood staring a few seconds, while there deepened on every face at table a strange shame which is wholly the product of our time. It is the combination of modern humanitarianism with the horrible modern abyss between the souls of the rich and poor. A genuine historic aristocrat would have thrown things at the waitress, beginning with empty bottles, and very probably ending with money. A genuine democrat would have asked her, with comrade-like clearness of speech, what the devil she was doing. But these modern plutocrats could not bear a poor woman near to them, either as a slave or as a friend. That something had gone wrong with the servants was merely a dull, hot embarrassment. They did not want to be brutal, and they dreaded the need to be benevolent. They wanted the thing, whatever it was, to be over. It was over. The waitress, after standing for some seconds rigid, like a cataleptic, turned round and ran madly out of the room.

When she reappeared in the room, or rather in the doorway, it was in company with another waitress, with whom she whispered and gesticulated with southern fierceness. Then the first waitress went away, leaving the second waitress, and reappeared with a third waitress. By the time a fourth waitress had joined this hurried synod, Miss Audley felt it necessary to break the silence in the interests of Tact. She used a very loud cough, instead of a presidential hammer, and said: “Splendid work young Moocher’s doing in Burmah. Now, no other nation in the world could have – ”

A fifth waitress had sped towards her like an arrow, and was whispering in her ear: “So sorry. Important! Might the proprietress speak to you?”

The chairwoman turned in disorder, and with a dazed stare saw Miss Lever coming towards them with her lumbering quickness. The gait of the good proprietress was indeed her usual gait, but her face was by no means usual. Generally it was a genial copper-brown; now it was a sickly yellow.

“You will pardon me, Miss Audley,” she said, with asthmatic breathlessness. “I have great apprehensions. Your fish-plates, they are cleared away with the knife and fork on them!”

“Well, I hope so,” said the chairwoman, with some warmth.

“You see her?” panted the excited hotel keeper; “you see the waitress who took them away? You know her?”

“Know the waitress?” answered Miss Audley indignantly. “Certainly not!”

Miss Lever opened her hands with a gesture of agony. “I never send her,” she said. “I know not when or why she come. I send my waitress to take away the plates, and she find them already away.”

Miss Audley still looked rather too bewildered to be really the woman the empire wants; none of the company could say anything except the woman of wood – Colonel Pound – who seemed galvanised into an unnatural life. She rose rigidly from her chair, leaving all the rest sitting, screwed her eyeglass into her eye, and spoke in a raucous undertone as if she had half-forgotten how to speak. “Do you mean,” she said, “that somebody has stolen our silver fish service?”

The proprietress repeated the open-handed gesture with even greater helplessness and in a flash all the women at the table were on their feet.

“Are all your waitresses here?” demanded the colonel, in her low, harsh accent.

“Yes; they’re all here. I noticed it myself,” cried the young Duchess, pushing her girlish face into the inmost ring. “Always count ‘em as I come in; they look so queer standing up against the wall.”

“But surely one cannot exactly remember,” began Miss Audley, with heavy hesitation.

“I remember exactly, I tell you,” cried the Duchess excitedly. “There never have been more than fifteen waitresses at this place, and there were no more than fifteen tonight, I’ll swear; no more and no less.”

The proprietress turned upon her, quaking in a kind of palsy of surprise. “You say—you say,” she stammered, “that you see all my fifteen waitresses?”

“As usual,” assented the Duchess. “What is the matter with that!”

“Nothing,” said Lever, with a deepening accent, “only you did not. For one of zem is dead upstairs.”

There was a shocking stillness for an instant in that room. It may be (so supernatural is the word death) that each of those idle women looked for a second at her soul, and saw it as a small dried pea. One of them – the Duchess, I think – even said with the idiotic kindness of wealth: “Is there anything we can do?”

“She has had a nun,” said the woman, not untouched.

Then, as to the clang of doom, they awoke to their own position. For a few weird seconds they had really felt as if the fifteenth waitress might be the ghost of the dead woman upstairs. They had been dumb under that oppression, for ghosts were to them an embarrassment, like beggars. But the remembrance of the silver broke the spell of the miraculous; broke it abruptly and with a brutal reaction. The colonel flung over her chair and strode to the door. “If there was a fifteenth woman here, friends,” she said, “that fifteenth woman was a thief. Down at once to the front and back doors and secure everything; then we’ll talk. The twenty-four pearls of the club are worth recovering.”

Miss Audley seemed at first to hesitate about whether it was ladylike to be in such a hurry about anything; but, seeing the Duchess dash down the stairs with youthful energy, she followed with a more mature motion.

At the same instant a sixth waitress ran into the room, and declared that she had found the pile of fish plates on a sideboard, with no trace of the silver.

The crowd of diners and attendants that tumbled helter-skelter down the passages divided into two groups. Most of the Fisherwomen followed the proprietress to the front room to demand news of any exit. Colonel Pound, with the chairwoman, the vice-president, and one or two others darted down the corridor leading to the servants’ quarters, as the more likely line of escape. As they did so they passed the dim alcove or cavern of the cloak room, and saw a short, black-coated figure, presumably an attendant, standing a little way back in the shadow of it.

“Hallo, there!” called out the Duchess. “Have you seen anyone pass?”

The short figure did not answer the question directly, but merely said: “Perhaps I have got what you are looking for, ladies.”

They paused, wavering and wondering, while she quietly went to the back of the cloak room, and came back with both hands full of shining silver, which she laid out on the counter as calmly as a saleswoman. It took the form of a dozen quaintly shaped forks and knives.

“You – you – ” began the colonel, quite thrown off her balance at last. Then she peered into the dim little room and saw two things: first, that the short, black-clad woman was dressed like a nun; and, second, that the window of the room behind her was burst, as if someone had passed violently through. “Valuable things to deposit in a cloak room, aren’t they?” remarked the nun, with cheerful composure.

“Did – did you steal those things?” stammered Miss Audley, with staring eyes.

“If I did,” said the nun pleasantly, “at least I am bringing them back again.”

“But you didn’t,” said Colonel Pound, still staring at the broken window.

“To make a clean breast of it, I didn’t,” said the other, with some humour. And she seated herself quite gravely on a stool.

“But you know who did,” said the colonel.

“I don’t know her real name,” said the nun placidly, “but I know something of her fighting weight, and a great deal about her spiritual difficulties. I formed the physical estimate when she was trying to throttle me, and the moral estimate when she repented.”

“Oh, I say – repented!” cried the young Duchess, with a sort of crow of laughter.

Sister Brown got to her feet, putting her hands behind her. “Odd, isn’t it,” she said, “that a thief and a vagabond should repent, when so many who are rich and secure remain hard and frivolous, and without fruit for Goddess or woman? But there, if you will excuse me, you trespass a little upon my province. If you doubt the penitence as a practical fact, there are your knives and forks. You are The Twelve True Fishers, and there are all your silver fish. But She has made me a fisher of women.”

“Did you catch this woman?” asked the colonel, frowning.

Sister Brown looked her full in her frowning face. “Yes,” she said, “I caught her, with an unseen hook and an invisible line which is long enough to let her wander to the ends of the world, and still to bring her back with a twitch upon the thread.”

There was a long silence. All the other women present drifted away to carry the recovered silver to their comrades, or to consult the proprietress about the queer condition of affairs. But the grim-faced colonel still sat sideways on the counter, swinging her long, lank legs and biting her dark hair.

At last she said quietly to the nun: “She must have been a clever woman, but I think I know a cleverer.”

“She was a clever woman,” answered the other, “but I am not quite sure of what other you mean.”

“I mean you,” said the colonel, with a short laugh. “I don’t want to get the woman jailed; make yourself easy about that. But I’d give a good many silver forks to know exactly how you fell into this affair, and how you got the stuff out of her. I reckon you’re the most up-to-date devil of the present company.”

Sister Brown seemed rather to like the saturnine candour of the soldier. “Well,” she said, smiling, “I mustn’t tell you anything of the woman’s identity, or her own story, of course; but there’s no particular reason why I shouldn’t tell you of the mere outside facts which I found out for myself.”

She hopped over the barrier with unexpected activity, and sat beside Colonel Pound, kicking her short legs like a little girl on a gate. She began to tell the story as easily as if she were telling it to an old friend by a Christmas fire.

“You see, colonel,” she said, “I was shut up in that small room there doing some writing, when I heard a pair of feet in this passage doing a dance that was as queer as the dance of death. First came quick, funny little steps, like a woman walking on tiptoe for a wager; then came slow, careless, creaking steps, as of a big woman walking about with a cigar. But they were both made by the same feet, I swear, and they came in rotation; first the run and then the walk, and then the run again. I wondered at first idly and then wildly why a woman should act these two parts at once. One walk I knew; it was just like yours, colonel. It was the walk of a well-fed lady waiting for something, who strolls about rather because she is physically alert than because she is mentally impatient. I knew that I knew the other walk, too, but I could not remember what it was. What wild creature had I met on my travels that tore along on tiptoe in that extraordinary style? Then I heard a clink of plates somewhere; and the answer stood up as plain as St. Peggy’s. It was the walk of a waitress – that walk with the body slanted forward, the eyes looking down, the ball of the toe spurning away the ground, the coat tails and napkin flying. Then I thought for a minute and a half more. And I believe I saw the manner of the crime, as clearly as if I were going to commit it.”

Colonel Pound looked at her keenly, but the speaker’s mild grey eyes were fixed upon the ceiling with almost empty wistfulness.

“A crime,” she said slowly, “is like any other work of art. Don’t look surprised; crimes are by no means the only works of art that come from an infernal workshop. But every work of art, divine or diabolic, has one indispensable mark – I mean, that the centre of it is simple, however much the fulfilment may be complicated. Thus, in Hamlet, let us say, the grotesqueness of the grave-digger, the flowers of the mad boy, the fantastic finery of Osric, the pallor of the ghost and the grin of the skull are all oddities in a sort of tangled wreath round one plain tragic figure of a woman in black. Well, this also,” she said, getting slowly down from her seat with a smile, “this also is the plain tragedy of a woman in black. Yes,” she went on, seeing the colonel look up in some wonder, “the whole of this tale turns on a black coat. In this, as in Hamlet, there are the rococo excrescences – yourselves, let us say. There is the dead waitress, who was there when she could not be there. There is the invisible hand that swept your table clear of silver and melted into air. But every clever crime is founded ultimately on some one quite simple fact – some fact that is not itself mysterious. The mystification comes in covering it up, in leading women’s thoughts away from it. This large and subtle and (in the ordinary course) most profitable crime, was built on the plain fact that a lady’s evening dress is the same as a waitress’s. All the rest was acting, and thundering good acting, too.”

“Still,” said the colonel, getting up and frowning at her boots, “I am not sure that I understand.”

“Colonel,” said Sister Brown, “I tell you that this archangel of impudence who stole your forks walked up and down this passage twenty times in the blaze of all the lamps, in the glare of all the eyes. She did not go and hide in dim corners where suspicion might have searched for her. She kept constantly on the move in the lighted corridors, and everywhere that she went she seemed to be there by right. Don’t ask me what she was like; you have seen her yourself six or seven times tonight. You were waiting with all the other grand people in the reception room at the end of the passage there, with the terrace just beyond. Whenever she came among you ladies, she came in the lightning style of a waitress, with bent head, flapping napkin and flying feet. She shot out on to the terrace, did something to the table cloth, and shot back again towards the office and the waitresses’ quarters. By the time she had come under the eye of the office clerk and the waitresses she had become another woman in every inch of her body, in every instinctive gesture. She strolled among the servants with the absent-minded insolence which they have all seen in their patrons. It was no new thing to them that a swell from the dinner party should pace all parts of the house like an animal at the Zoo; they know that nothing marks the Smart Set more than a habit of walking where one chooses. When she was magnificently weary of walking down that particular passage she would wheel round and pace back past the office; in the shadow of the arch just beyond she was altered as by a blast of magic, and went hurrying forward again among the Twelve Fisherwomen, an obsequious attendant. Why should the ladies look at a chance waitress? Why should the waitresses suspect a first-rate walking lady? Once or twice she played the coolest tricks. In the proprietress’s private quarters she called out breezily for a syphon of soda water, saying she was thirsty. She said genially that she would carry it herself, and she did; she carried it quickly and correctly through the thick of you, a waitress with an obvious errand. Of course, it could not have been kept up long, but it only had to be kept up till the end of the fish course.

“Her worst moment was when the waitresses stood in a row; but even then she contrived to lean against the wall just round the corner in such a way that for that important instant the waitresses thought her a lady, while the ladies thought her a waitress. The rest went like winking. If any waitress caught her away from the table, that waitress caught a languid aristocrat. She had only to time herself two minutes before the fish was cleared, become a swift servant, and clear it herself. She put the plates down on a sideboard, stuffed the silver in her breast pocket, giving it a bulgy look, and ran like a hare (I heard her coming) till she came to the cloak room. There she had only to be a plutocrat again – a plutocrat called away suddenly on business. She had only to give her ticket to the cloak-room attendant, and go out again elegantly as she had come in. Only – only I happened to be the cloak-room attendant.”

“What did you do to her?” cried the colonel, with unusual intensity. “What did she tell you?”

“I beg your pardon,” said the nun immovably, “that is where the story ends.”

“And the interesting story begins,” muttered Pound. “I think I understand her professional trick. But I don’t seem to have got hold of yours.”

“I must be going,” said Sister Brown.

They walked together along the passage to the entrance hall, where they saw the fresh, freckled face of the Duchess of Chester, who was bounding buoyantly along towards them.

“Come along, Pound,” she cried breathlessly. “I’ve been looking for you everywhere. The dinner’s going again in spanking style, and old Audley has got to make a speech in honour of the forks being saved. We want to start some new ceremony, don’t you know, to commemorate the occasion. I say, you really got the goods back, what do you suggest?”

“Why,” said the colonel, eyeing her with a certain sardonic approval, “I should suggest that henceforward we wear green coats, instead of black. One never knows what mistakes may arise when one looks so like a waitress.”

“Oh, hang it all!” said the young woman, “a lady never looks like a waitress.”

“Nor a waitress like a lady, I suppose,” said Colonel Pound, with the same lowering laughter on her face. “Reverend madam, your friend must have been very smart to act the lady.”

Sister Brown buttoned up her commonplace overcoat to the neck, for the night was stormy, and took her commonplace umbrella from the stand.

“Yes,” she said; “it must be very hard work to be a lady; but, do you know, I have sometimes thought that it may be almost as laborious to be a waitress.”

And saying “Good evening,” she pushed open the heavy doors of that palace of pleasures. The golden gates closed behind her, and she went at a brisk walk through the damp, dark streets in search of a penny omnibus.

This is actually 19th century nun Sister Elizabeth Prout. But that's what Sister Brown looks like in my head.

 

 

Leave a Reply