Last Updated February 6, 2024.
Published in the July 23, 1910, issue of the Saturday Evening Post, “The Blue Cross” was G.K. Chesterton’s first Father Brown story. The first of fifty-three subsequent installations, "The Blue Cross" introduces a recurring cast of characters who swirl through a series of puzzling mysteries. Chesterton's work is set in the early 1900s (contemporaneous to himself), and the action primarily takes place in London, as Father Brown and Flambeau lead Aristide Valentin on a strange chase.
The story opens with Valentin, a French inspector, stepping off a boat in England. He is on the trail of criminal mastermind Flambeau, who, rumor has it, has arrived in England and is taking advantage of “the unfamiliarity and confusion of the Eucharistic Congress” happening in London. Flambeau has earned notoriety for his wild, often comical, criminal antics and for escaping his pursuers in the most creative and unorthodox ways.
Valentin now has the task of tracking down Flambeau. As he does so, he examines every person he encounters with a keen eye, hoping to find the distinctive criminal who, at well over six feet tall, stands out in a crowd—even the criminal’s knack for disguise cannot hide that. No one on the train fits the description, but Valentin notices a short and rather clumsy Catholic priest who cannot keep hold of all his parcels and his umbrella. The inspector chuckles at the priest’s “moon-calf simplicity,” warning him to stop announcing that he is carrying a valuable silver object with him.
In London, Valentin keeps his eyes wide open for anything unusual that might suggest Flambeau’s presence. He uncovers no real clues but is open to any sign or intuition that might guide him to the man he seeks. Fortuitously, he stops for breakfast at a small restaurant and, when he goes to put sugar in his coffee, finds that it has been replaced with salt. Someone has switched the containers. Someone has also splattered soup all over the wall, and the bewildered waiter tells Valentin that two clergymen were responsible for the mess.
This is exactly the odd occurrence the inspector has been watching for. He leaves the restaurant and notices something else. At a grocer’s shop, the signs for oranges and nuts have been mixed up; the grocer complains of a priest who knocked over all his apples and then hurried onto a bus. With these strange events continuing to compound, Valentin is now more confident he is on the right trail. Certain he is close to Flambeau, he recruits two police officers to back him up.
The trio gets on a bus, and Valentin tells his companions: “All we can do is to keep our eyes skinned for a queer thing.” They travel a long way until Valentin suddenly jumps up and yells at the driver to stop, having noticed a broken window at a restaurant. While he admits that the smashed glass is a “wild possibility,” it is the only thing he has to go on.
A waiter reports that two clergymen had come in. The smaller changed the bill to make it more expensive than the original before saying: “It’ll pay for the window.” Then he broke the window and left, heading up Bullock Street.
Valentin and the others hurry up the street toward Hampstead Heath, and the inspector notices a “little garish sweetstuff shop.” Something nudges him to go in, and the shop lady tells him that if they have come for the parcel, they are too late, as she has already mailed it off. Seeing their confusion, she explains that a clergyman came in and bought peppermints....
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Shortly after he left, he came back, wondering if he had lost a parcel, and gave her an address to which to mail it if she found it. She found the parcel and sent it at once.
Valentin and the officers continue to the heath, where they see two priests, one very short and one very tall. They are in deep conversation, and Valentin soon recognizes Father Brown, the little priest he met on the train that morning. The inspector is certain that the other man is Flambeau and that the thief is trying to steal the “blue-and-silver cross” Father Brown is carrying.
As Valentin and his companions sneak up on the two, they can hear their conversation, which is all about reason and faith, truth and justice. The tall “priest” questions reason and wonders if there may be places where “reason is utterly unreasonable.” Father Brown denies this immediately, stating that “reason is always reasonable” and that “Alone on earth, the Church affirms that God himself is bound by reason.” Valentin begins to doubt his confidence that the tall priest is the criminal he seeks.
Shortly later, though, the inspector hears that taller man say, “Come, will you give me that cross?” Father Brown replies negatively. Flambeau laughs and says that he could not anyway, for the cross is already in his pocket. Father Brown merely replies with “Are you sure?” He has already noticed that Flambeau switched parcels with him—without the criminal noticing, he had switched them back.
Father Brown, as a priest, has heard many confessions, and he is aware of all the old tricks. He has a few of his own, too, for he has already mailed the proper parcel to safety through the sweetshop lady. He has also been testing his companion all along with the switched sugar and salt and the increased bill and, in doing so, has been laying a trail for the police. Despite his initial appearance, the little priest is far cleverer than he appeared and is even aware that Valentin and his companions are right behind a tree. Flambeau, for his part, is stunned.
As Valentin steps forward, Father Brown adds one last comment. He realized, he says, that Flambeau could not be a real priest when he “attacked reason.” That is simply “bad theology.” Flambeau bows to Valentin, but the inspector tells him to “bow to our master” instead. They both look at Father Brown.