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The quick one; Father Brown and the invisible witness.

The strange story of the incongruous strangers is still remembered along that strip of the Sussex coast where the large and quiet hotel called the Maypole and Garland looks across its own gardens to the sea. Two quaintly assorted figures did, indeed, enter that quiet hotel on that sunny afternoon; one being conspicuous in the sunlight, and visible over the whole shore, by the fact of wearing a lustrous green turban, surmounting a brown face and a black beard; the other would have seemed to some even more wild and weird, by reason of his wearing a soft black clergyman's hat, with a yellow mustache and yellow hair of leonine length. He, at least, had often been seen preaching on the sands or conducting Band of Hope services with a little wooden spade; only he had certainly never been seen going into the bar of a hotel. The arrival of these quaint com anions was the climax of the story, but not the beginning of it; and, in order to make a rather mysterious story as clear as possible, it is much better to begin at the beginning.

Half an hour before those two conspicuous figures entered the hotel and were noticed by everybody, two other very inconspicuous figures had also entered it, and been noticed by nobody. One was, indeed, a large man, and handsome in a heavy style, but he had a knack of taking up very little room, like a background; only an almost morbidly suspicious examination of his boots would have told anybody that he was in fact an inspector of police in plain clothes-very plain clothes. The other was a drab and insignificant little man, also in plain clothes, only that they happened to be clerical clothes; but nobody had ever seen this man preaching on the sands.

These travelers also found themselves in a sort of large smoking room with a bar, for a reason which determined all the events of that tragic afternoon. The truth is that the respectable hotel called the Maypole and Garland was being done up. Those who had liked it in the past were moved to say that it was being done down, possibly done in. This was the opinion of the local grumbler, Mr. Raggley, the eccentric old gentleman who drank cherry brandy in a corner and cursed. Anyhow, it was being carefully stripped of all the stray indications that it had once been an English inn, and being busily turned, yard by yard and room by room, into something resembling the sham palace of a Levantine usurer in an American film. It was, in short, being decorated, but the only part where the decoration was complete and where customers could yet be made comfortable was this large room leading out of the hall. It had once been honorably known as a bar parlor and was now mysteriously known as a saloon lounge; and was newly decorated, in the manner of an Asiatic divan. For Oriental ornament pervaded the new scheme; and where there had once been a gun hung on hooks and sporting prints and a stuffed fish in a glass case, there were now festoons of Eastern drapery and trophies of scimitars, tulwars, and yataghans, as if in unconscious preparation for the coming of the gentleman with the turban. The practical point was, however, that the few guests who did arrive had to be shepherded into this lounge, now swept and garnished, because all the more regular and refined parts of the hotel were still in a state of transition.

Perhaps that was also the reason why even those few guests were somewhat neglected, the manager and others being occupied with explanations or exhortations elsewhere. Anyhow, the first two travelers who arrived had to kick their heels for some time unattended.

The bar was at the moment entirely empty, and the inspector rang and rapped impatiently on the counter; but the little clergyman had already dropped into a lounge seat and seemed in no hurry for anything. Indeed his friend, the policeman, turning his head, saw that the round face of the. little cleric had gone quite blank, as it had a way of doing sometimes; he seemed to be staring through his moonlike spectacles at the newly decorated wall.

"I may as well offer you a penny for your thoughts," said Inspector Greenwood, turning from the counter with a sigh, "as nobody seems to want my pennies for anything else. This seems to be the only room in the house that isn't full of ladders and whitewash; and this is so empty that there isn't even a potboy to give me a pot of beer."

"Oh, my thoughts are not worth a penny, let alone a pot of beer," answered the cleric, wiping his spectacles. "I don't know why, but I was thinking how easy it would be to commit a murder here."

"It's all very well for you, Father Brown," said the inspector goodhumoredly. "You'vehad a lot more murders than your fair share, and we poor policemen sit starving all our lives, even for a little one. But why should you say--Oh, I see. You're looking at all those Turkish daggers on the wall. There are plenty of things to commit a murder with, if that's what you mean. But not more than there are in any ordinary kitchen; carving knives or pokers or whatnot. That isn't where the snag of a murder comes in."

Father Brown seemed to recall his thoughts in some bewilderment, and said he supposed so.

"Murder is always easy," said Inspector Greenwood. "There can't possibly be anything more easy than murder. I could murder you at this minute-more easily than I can get a drink in this bar. The only difficulty is committing a murder without committing oneself as a murderer. It's this shyness about owning up to a murder; it's this silly modesty of murderers about their own masterpieces, that makes the trouble. They will stick to this extraordinary fixed idea of killing people without being found out; and that's what restrains them, even in a room full of daggers. Otherwise every cutler's shop would be piled with corpses. And that, by the way, explains the one kind of murder that really can't be prevented. Which is why, of course, we poor bobbies are always blamed for not preventing it. When a madman murders a king or a president, it can't be prevented. You can't make a king live in a coal cellar or carry about a president in a steel box. Anybody can murder him who does not mind being a murderer. That is where the madman is like the martyr-sort of beyond this world. The real fanatic can always kill anybody he likes."

Before the priest could reply, a joyous band of bagmen rolled into the room like a shoal of porpoises; and the magnificent bellow of a big, beaming man, with an equally big and beaming tiepin, brought the eager and obsequious manager running, with a rapidity the police in plain clothes had failed to inspire.

"I'm sure I'm very sorry, Mr. Jukes," said the manager, who wore a rather agitated smile and a wave or curl of very varnished hair across his forehead, "we're rather understaffed at present, and I had to attend to something in the hotel, Mr. Jukes."

Mr. Jukes was magnanimous, but in a noisy way, and ordered drinks all round, conceding one even to the almost cringing proprietor. Mr. Jukes was a traveler for a very famous and fashionable wine-and-spirits firm, and may have conceived himself as lawfully the leader in such a place. Anyhow, he began a boisterous monologue, rather tending to tell the manager how to manage his hotel, and the others seemed to accept him as an authority. The policeman and the priest had retired to a low bench and small table in the background, from which they watched events, up to that rather remarkable moment when the policeman had to intervene very decisively.

For the next thin that happened, as already narrated, was the astonishing apparition of a brown Asiatic in a green turban, accompanied by the-if possible-more astonishing apparition of a Nonconformist minister-omens such as appear before a doom. In this case there was no doubt about evidence for the portent. A taciturn but observant boy cleaning the steps, for the last hour-being a leisurely worker-the dark, fat, bulky bar attendant, even the diplomatic but distracted manager, all bore witness to the miracle.

The apparitions, as the skeptics say, were due to perfectly natural causes. The man with the mane of hair and the semiclerical clothes was familiar not only as a preacher on the sands but as a propagandist throughout the modern world. He was no less a person than the Rev. David PryceJones, whose resounding slogan was Prohibition and Purification for Our Land and the Britains Overseas. He was an excellent public speaker and organizer; and an idea had occurred to him that ought to have occurred to prohibitionists long ago. It was the simple idea that, if prohibition is right, some honor is due to the prophet who was perhaps the first prohibitionist. He had corresponded with the leaders of Mohammedan religious thought, and had finally induced a distinguished Moslem-one of whose names was Akbar and the rest an untranslatable ululation of Allah with attributes-to come and lecture in England on the ancient Moslem veto on wine. Neither of them, certainly, had been in a public-house bar before, but they had come there by the process already described; driven from the genteel tea rooms, shepherded into the newly decorated saloon. Probably all would have been well, if the great prohibitionist, in his innocence, had not advanced to the counter and asked for a glass of milk.

The commercial travelers, though a kindly race, emitted involuntary noises of pain; a murmur of suppressed jests was heard, as "Shun the bowl," or "Better bring out the cow." But the magnificent Mr. Jukes, feeling it due to his wealth and tiepin to produce more refined humor, fanned himself as one about to faint, and said pathetically"They know they can knock me down with a feather. They know a breath will blow me away. They know my doctor says I'm not to have these shocks. And they come and drink cold milk in cold blood, before my very eyes."

The Rev. David Pryce-Jones, accustomed to dealing with hecklers at public meetings, was so unwise as to venture on remonstrance and recrimination, in this very different and much more popular atmosphere. The Oriental total abstainer abstained from speech as well as spirits, and certainly gained in dignity by doing so. In fact, so far as he was concerned, the Moslem culture certainly scored a silent victory; he was obviously so much more of a gentleman than the commercial gentlemen that a faint irritation began to arise against his aristocratic aloofness; and when Mr. Pryce-Jones began to refer in argument to something of the kind, the tension became very acute indeed.

"I ask you, friends," said Mr. Pryce-Jones, with expansive platform gestures, "why does our friend here set an example to us Christia-is in truly Christian selfcontrol and brotherhood? Why does he stand here as a model of true Christianity, of real refinement, of genuine gentlemanly behavior, amid all the quarrels and riots of such places as these? Because, whatever the doctrinal differences between us, at least in his soil the evil plant, the accursed hop or vine, has never-"

At this crucial moment of the controversy it was that John Raggley, the stormy petrel of a hundred storms of controversy, red-faced, white-haired, his antiquated top hat on the back of his head, his stick swinging like a club, entered the house like an invading army.

John Raggley was generally regarded as a crank. He was the sort of person who writes letters to the newspaper which generally do not appear in the newspaper, but which do appear afterward as pamphlets, printed-or misprinted-at his own expense, and circulated to a hundred wastepaper baskets. He had quarreled alike with the Tory squires and the radical county councils; and he distrusted nearly everything that is sold in shops, or even in hotels. But there was a backing of facts behind his fads; he knew the county in every corner and curious detail, and he was a sharp observer. Even the manager, a Mr. Wills, had a shadowy respect for Mr. Raggley, having a nose for the sort of lunacy allowed in the gentry; not indeed the prostrate reverence which he had for the jovial magnificence of Mr. Jukes, who was really good for trade, but at least a disposition to avoid quarreling with the old grumbler, partly, perhaps, out of fear of the old grumbler's tongue.

"And you will have your usual, sir?" said Mr. Wills, leaning and leering across the counter.

"It's the only decent stuff you've still got," snorted Mr. Raggley, slapping down his queer and antiquated hat. "I sometimes think the only English thing left in England is cherry brandy. Cherry brandy does taste of cherries. Can you find me any beer that tastes of hops, or any cider that tastes of apples, or any wine that has the remotest indication of being made out of grapes? There's an infernal swindle going on now in every inn in the country that would have raised a revolution in any other country. I've found out a thing or two about it, I can tell you. You wait till I can get it printed, and people will sit up. If I could stop our people being poisoned with all this bad drink--"

Here again the Rev. David PryceJones showed a certain failure in tact; though it was a virtue he almost worshiped. He was so unwise as to attempt to establish an alliance with Mr. Raggley, by a fine confusion between the idea of bad drink and the idea that drink is bad. Once more he endeavored to drag his stiff and stately Eastern friend into the argument, as a refined foreigner superior to our rough English ways. He was even so foolish as to talk of a broad theological outlook, and ultimately to mention the name of Mahomet, which was echoed in a sort of explosion.

"Do you mean," roared Mr. Raggley, with a less broad theological outlook, "that Englishmen mustn't drink English beer, because wine was forbidden in a d- desert by that dirty old humbug Mahomet."

In an instant, the inspector of police had reached the middle of the room with a stride. For, the instant before that, a remarkable change had taken place in the demeanor of the Oriental gentleman, who had hitherto stood perfectly still, with steady and shining eyes. He now proceeded, as his friend had said, to set an example in truly Christian self-control and brotherhood by reaching the wall with the bound of a tiger, tearing down one of the heavy knives hanging there and sending it smack like a stone from a sling, so that it stuck quivering in the wall half an inch above Mr. Raggley's ear. It would undoubtedly have stuck quivering in Mr. Raggley, if Inspector Greenwood had not been just in time to jerk the arm and deflect the aim.

Father Brown continued in his seat at the table, watching the scene with screwed-up eyes and a screw of something almost like a smile at the corners of his mouth, as if he saw something beyond the mere momentary violence of the quarrel.

And then the quarrel took a curious turn; which may not be undastood by everybody until men like Mr. John Raggley are better understood than they are. For the red-faced old fanatic was standing up and laughing uproariously, as if it were the best joke he had ever heard. All his snapping vituperation and bitterness seemed to have gone out of him; and he regarded the other fanatic, who had just tried to murder him, with a sort of boisterous benevolence.

"Blast your eyes!" he said. "You're the first man I've met in 20 years!"

"Do you charge this man, sir?" said the inspector, looking doubtful.

"Charge him? Of course not," said Raggley. "I'd stand him a drink if he were allowed any drinks. I hadn't any business to insult his religion, and I wish all you skunks had the guts to kill a man-I won't say for insulting your religion, because you haven't got any, but for insulting anything-even your beer."

"Now he's called us all skunks," said Father Brown to Greenwood, "peace and harmony seem to be restored. I wish that teetotal lecturer could get himself impaled on his friend's knife; it was he who made all the mischief."

As he spoke, the odd groups in the room were already beginning to break up; it had been found possible to clear the commercial room for the commercial travelers, and they adjourned to it, the potboy carrying all their tumblers after them on a tray. Father Brown stood for a moment gazing at the glasses left on the counter-recognizing at once the illomened glass of milk and another, which smelled of whisky-and then turned just in time to see the parting between those two quaint figures, fanatics of the East and West. There was still something a little darkling and sinister about the Moslem, but he bowed himself out with grave gestures of dignified reconciliation, and there was every indication that the trouble was really over.

But some importance continued to attach, in the mind of Father Brown at least, to the memory and interpretation of those last courteous salutes between the combatants. Because, curiously enough, when Father Brown came down very early the next morning, he found the long saloon bar filled with a dead white light of daybreak in which every detail was distinct; and one of the details was the dead body of John Raggley, bent into a corner of the room, with the heavy-hilted, crooked dagger rammed through his heart.
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Title Annotation:part 1; fiction
Author:Chesterton, G.K.
Publication:Saturday Evening Post
Date:Sep 1, 1989
Words:3012
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