Weaver, “The Power of the Word”

…Words, each containing its universal, are our reminders of knowledge. […] Language …appears as a great storehouse of universal memory.[…] Words, because of their common currency, acquire a significance greater than can be imparted to them by a single user and greater than can be applied to a single situation. In this way the word is evocative of ideal aspects, which by our premises are the only aspects constituting knowledge. [Ideas Have Consequences, 158]

Father Brown, Emma, and Truth

“I will read the inventory,” began Craven gravely, picking up one of the papers, “the inventory of what we found loose and unexplained in the castle. You are to understand that the place generally was dismantled and neglected; but one or two rooms had plainly been inhabited in a simple but not squalid style by somebody; somebody who was not the servant Gow. The list is as follows:

First item. A very considerable hoard of precious stones, nearly all diamonds, and all of them loose, without any setting whatever. Of course, it is natural that the Ogilvies should have family jewels; but those are exactly the jewels that are almost always set in particular articles of ornament. The Ogilvies would seem to have kept theirs loose in their pockets, like coppers.

Second item. Heaps and heaps of loose snuff, not kept in a horn, or even a pouch, but lying in heaps on the mantelpieces, on the sideboard, on the piano, anywhere. It looks as if the old gentleman would not take the trouble to look in a pocket or lift a lid.

Third item. Here and there about the house curious little heaps of minute pieces of metal, some like steel springs and some in the form of microscopic wheels. As if they had gutted some mechanical toy.

Fourth item. The wax candles, which have to be stuck in bottle necks because there is nothing else to stick them in. Now I wish you to note how very much queerer all this is than anything we anticipated. For the central riddle we are prepared; we have all seen at a glance, that there was something wrong about the last earl. We have come here to find out whether he really lived here, whether he really died here, whether that red-haired scarecrow who did his burying had anything to do with his dying. But suppose the worst in all this, the most lurid or melodramatic solution you like. Suppose the servant really killed the master, or suppose the master isn’t really dead, or suppose the master is dressed up as the servant, or suppose the servant is buried for the master; invent what Wilkie Collins’s tragedy you like, and you still have not explained a candle without a candlestick, or why an elderly gentleman of good family would habitually spill snuff on the piano. The core of the tale we could imagine; it is the fringes that are mysterious. By no stretch of fancy can the human mind connect together snuff and diamonds and wax and loose clockwork.”

“I think I see the connexion,” said the priest. “This Glengyle was mad against the French Revolution. He was an enthusiast for the ancien régime, and was trying to re-enact literally the family life of the last Bourbons. He had snuff because it was the eighteenth century luxury; wax candles because they were the eighteenth century lighting; the mechanical bits of iron represent the locksmith hobby of Louis XVI; the diamond are for the Diamond Necklace of Marie Antoinette.”

Both the other men were staring at him with round eyes. “What a perfectly extraordinary notion!” cried Flambeau. “Do you really think that is the truth?”

“I am perfectly sure it isn’t,” answered Father Brown, “only you said that nobody could connect snuff and diamonds and clockwork and candles. I give you that connexion off-hand. The real truth, I am very sure, lies deeper.”

He paused a moment and listened to the wailing of the wind in the turrets. Then he said: “The late Earl of Glengyle was a thief. He lived a second and darker life as a desperate house-breaker. He did not have any candlesticks because he only used these candles cut short in the lantern he carried. The snuff he employed as the fiercest French criminals have used pepper: to fling it suddenly in dense masses in the face of a captor or pursuer. But the final proof is in the curious coincidence of the diamonds and the small steel wheels. Surely that makes everything plain to you? Diamonds and the small steel wheels are the only two instruments with which you can cut out a pane of glass.”

The bough of a broken pine tree lashed heavily in the blast against the window-pane behind them, as if in parody of a burglar, but they did not turn around. Their eyes were fastened on Father Brown.

“Diamonds and small wheels,” repeated Craven ruminating. “Is that all that makes you think it the true explanation?”

“I don’t think it the true explanation,” replied the priest placidly; “but you said that nobody could connect the four things. The true tale, of course, is something much more humdrum. Glengyle had found, or thought he had found precious stones on his estate. Somebody had bamboozled him with those loose brilliants, saying they were found in the castle caverns. The little wheels are some diamond-cutting affair. He had to do the thing very roughly and in a small way, with the help of a few shepherds or rude fellows on these hills. Snuff is the one great luxury of such Scotch shepherds; it’s the one thing with which you can bribe them. They didn’t have candlesticks because they didn’t want them; they held the candles in their hands when they explored the caves.”

“Is that all?” asked Flambeau, after a long pause. “Have we got to the dull truth at last?”

“Oh, no,” said Father Brown.

As the wind died in the most distant pine woods with a long hoot as of mockery, Father Brown, with an utterly impassive face, went on:

“I only suggested that because you said one could not plausibly connect snuff with clockwork or candles with bright stones. Ten false philosophies will fit the universe; ten false theories will fit Glengyle Castle. But we want the real explanation of the castle and the universe.” [The Complete Father Brown, G. K. Chesterton, p. 80-82]

Father Brown, always concerned with knowing people rather than gathering facts, seems to have an odd view of reality and truth for our generation. As he adroitly shows to Flambeau, facts can be explained by numerous false theories, but “the truth lies deeper.”

Indeed, Emma seems to arrive at the same conclusion, but not without leaving behind her a trail of humbling moments and diverse mistaken notions. Emma learns the hard way that facts do not always inevitably lead to truth. Thus, when truth is discovered, Jane Austen comments:

Seldom, very seldom, does complete truth belong to any human disclosure; seldom can it happen that something is not a little disguised, or a little mistaken; but where, as in this case, though the conduct is mistaken, the feelings are not, it may not be very material. [Emma, Jane Austen, p. 399]

Both Jane Austen and G. K. Chesterton understand that truth is not merely a collection of facts. No one can scientifically come to the truth in a laboratory. Truth resides with individuals, and in this sense, it is subjective.