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The quick one; Father Brown and the invisible witness.



Synopsis: In Part I of "The Quick One," Father Brown and his friend Inspector Greenwood witness a curious incident in the Oriental-decorated saloon lounge of the Maypole and Garland, a Sussex-coast hotel Father Brown had innocently suggested would be an easy place to commit murder. John Raggley--a quarrelsome political activist and chronic complainer who claims to have uncovered a nationwide swindle in the liquor, wine, and beer trade--is nearly killed by a dagger-wielding Moslem incensed by Raggley's reference to the prophet Mahomet as a "dirty old humbug." The Moslem is traveling with the prominent prohibitionist Rev. David Pryce-Jones, who had been sipping milk at the bar while expounding on the evils of drink. Also present at the bar at the time is a loud-mouthed liquor-company representative, Mr. Jukes, and a group of salesmen. Instead of pressing charges against the assailant, Raggley compliments the man for standing up for his religion, and all seems forgiven for the moment. Next morning, however, Father Brown, up early to perform his religious duties, discovers Raggley lying dead in a corner of the saloon, a dagger plunged through his heart. Part II: Father Brown went very softly upstairs again and summoned his friend the inspector, and the two stood beside the corpse in a house in which no one else was, as yet, stirring.

"We mustn't either assume or avoid the obvious," said Inspector Greenwood, after a silence, "but it is well to remember, I think, what I was saying to you yesterday afternoon. It's rather odd, by the way, that I should have said it yesterday afternoon."

"I know," said the priest, nodding with an owlish stare.

"I said," observed Greenwood, "that the one sort of murder we can't stop is murder by somebody like a religious fanatic. That brown fellow probably thinks that if he's hanged, he'll go straight to paradise for defending the honor of the Prophet."

"There is that, of course," said Father Brown. "It would be very reasonable, so to speak, of our Moslem friend to have stabbed him. And you may say we don't know of anybody else yet who could at all reasonably have stabbed him. But--but I was thinking--" And his round face suddenly went blank again and all speech died on his lips.

"What's the matter now?" asked the other.

"Well, I know it sounds funny," said Father Brown in a forlorn voice. "But I was thinking--I was thinking, in a way, it doesn't much matter who stabbed him."

"Is this the new morality?" asked his friend. "Or the old casuistry perhaps. Are the Jesuits really going in for murder?"

"I didn't say it didn't matter who murdered him," said Father Brown. "Of course, the man who stabbed him might possibly be the man who murdered him. But it might be quite a different man. Anyhow, it was done at quite a different time. I suppose you'll want to work on the hilt for fingerprints, but don't take too much notice of them. I can imagine other reasons for other people sticking this knife in the poor old boy. Not very edifying reasons, of course, but quite distinct from the murder. You'll have to put some more knives into him before you find out about that."

"You mean--" began the other, watching him keenly.

"I mean the autopsy," said the priest, "to find the real cause of death."

"You're quite right, I believe," said the inspector, "--about the stabbing anyhow. We must wait for the doctor, but I'm pretty sure he'll say you're right. There isn't blood enough. This knife was stuck in the corpse when it had been cold for hours. But why?"

"Possibly to put the blame on the Mohammedan," answered Father Brown. "Pretty mean, I admit, but not necessarily murder. I fancy there are people in this place trying to keep secrets who are not necessarily the murderers."

"I haven't speculated on that line yet," said Greenwood. "What makes you think so?"

"What I said yesterday, when we first came into this horrible room. I said it would be easy to commit a murder here. But I wasn't thinking about all those stupid weapons: though you thought I was. About something quite different."

For the next few hours the inspector and his friend conducted a close and thorough investigation into the goings and comings of everybody for the last 24 hours, the way the drinks had been distributed, the glasses that were washed or unwashed, and every detail about every individual involved, or apparently not involved. One might have supposed they thought that 30 people had been poisoned, as well as one.

It seemed certain that nobody had entered the building except by the big entrance that adjoined the bar; all the others were blocked in one way or another by the repairs. A boy had been cleaning the steps outside this entrance, but he had nothing to report. Until the entry of the Turk in the turban, with his teetotal lecturer, there did not seem to have been much custom of any kind, except for the commercial travelers who came in to take what they called "quick ones"; and they seemed to have moved together, like Wordsworth's Cloud; there was a slight difference of opinion between the boy outside and the men inside about whether one of them had not been abnormally quick in obtaining a quick one, and come out on the doorstep by himself; but the manager and the barman had no memory of any such independent individual. The manager and the barman knew all the travelers quite well, and there was no doubt about their movements as a whole. They had stood at the bar chaffing and drinking; they had been involved, through their lordly leader, Mr. Jukes, in a not very serious altercation with Mr. Pryce-Jones; and they had witnessed the sudden and very serious altercation between Mr. Akbar and Mr. Raggley. Then they were told they could adjourn to the commercial room, and did so, their drinks being borne after them like a trophy.

"There's precious little to go on," said Inspector Greenwood. "Of course, a lot of officious servants must do their duty as usual, and must wash out all the glasses; including old Raggley's glass. If it weren't for everybody else's efficiency, we detectives might be quite efficient."

"I know," said Father Brown, and his mouth took on again the twisted smile. "I sometimes think criminals invented hygiene. Or perhaps hygienic reformers invented crime; they look like it, some of them. Everybody talks about foul dens and filthy slums in which crime can run riot, but it's just the other way. They are called foul, not because crimes are committed but because crimes are discovered. It's in the neat, spotless, clean and tidy places that crime can run riot; no mud to make footprints; no dregs to contain poison; kind servants washing out all traces of the murder; and the murderer killing and cremating six wives--and all for want of a little Christian dirt. Perhaps I express myself with too much warmth--But look here. As it happens, I do remember one glass, which has doubtless been cleaned since, but I should like to know more about it."

"Do you mean Raggley's glass?" asked Greenwood.

"No, I mean nobody's glass," replied the priest. "It stood near that glass of milk and it still held an inch or two of whiskey. Well, you and I had no whiskey. I happen to remember that the manager, when treated by the jovial Jukes, had a drop of gin. I hope you don't suggest that our Moslem was a whiskey drinker disguised in a green turban or that the Rev. David Pryce-Jones managed to drink whiskey and milk together without our noticing it."

"Most of the commercial travelers took whiskey," said the inspector. "They generally do."

"Yes, and they generally see they get it too," answered Father Brown. "In this case, they had it all carefully carted after them to their own room. But this glass was left behind."

"An accident, I suppose," said Greenwood doubtfully. "The man could easily get another in the commercial room afterward."

Father Brown shook his head. "You've got to see people as they are. Now, these sort of men--well, some call them vulgar and some common, but that's all likes and dislikes. I'd be content to say that they are mostly simple men. Lots of them very good men, very glad to go back to the missis and the kids; some of them might be blackguards, might have had several missises, or even murdered several missises. But most of them are simple men, and, mark you, just the least tiny little bit drunk. Not much; there's many a duke or don at Oxford drunker, but when that sort of man is at that stage of conviviality, he simply can't help noticing things, and noticing them very loud. Don't you observe that the least little incident jerks them into speech; if the beer froths over, they froth over with it, and have to say, `Whoa, Emma,' or `Doing me proud, aren't you?' Now, I should say it's flatly impossible for five of these festive beings to sit round a table in the commercial room and have only four glasses set before them, the fifth man being left out, without making a shout about it. Probably they would all make a shout about it. Certainly he would make a shout about it. He wouldn't wait, like an Englishman of another class, till he could get a drink quietly later. The air would resound with things like, `And what about little me?' or, `Here, George; have I joined the Band of Hope?' or, `Do you see any green in my turban, George?' But the barman heard no such complaints. I take it as certain that the glass of whiskey left behind had been nearly emptied by somebody else; somebody we haven't thought about yet."

"But can you think of any such person?" asked the other.

"It's because the manager and the barman won't hear of any such person that you dismiss the one really independent piece of evidence--the evidence of that boy outside cleaning the steps. He says that a man, who may well have been a bagman, but who did not, in fact, stick to the other bagmen, went in and came out again almost immediately. The manager and the barman never saw him, or say they never saw him. But he got a glass of whiskey from the bar somehow. Let us call him, for the sake of argument, The Quick One. Now, you know I don't often interfere with your business, which I know you do better than I should do it, or should want to do it. I've never had anything to do with setting police machinery at work, or running down criminals, or anything like that. But, for the first time in my life, I want to do it now. I want you to find The Quick One; to follow The Quick One to the ends of the earth; to set the whole infernal official machinery at work like a dragnet across the nations, and jolly well recapture The Quick One. Because he is the man we want."

Greenwood made a despairing gesture. "Has he face or form or any visible quality except quickness?" he inquired.

"He was wearing a sort of Inverness cape," said Father Brown, "and he told the boy outside he must reach Edinburgh by next morning. That's all the boy outside remembers. But I know your organization has got on to people with less clue than that."

"You seem very keen on this," said the inspector, a little puzzled.

The priest looked puzzled also, as if at his own thoughts; he sat with knotted brow and then said abruptly:

"You see, it's so easy to be misunderstood. All men matter. You matter. I matter. It's the hardest thing in theology to believe."

The inspector stared at him without comprehension, but he proceeded:

"We matter to God--God only knows why. But that's the only possible justification of the existence of policemen." The policeman did not seem enlightened as to his own cosmic justification. "Don't you see, the law really is right in a way, after all. If all men matter, all murders matter. That which He so mysteriously created, we must not suffer to be mysteriously destroyed. But--"

He said the last word sharply, like one taking a new step in decision.

"--But when once I step off that mystical level of equality, I don't see that most of your important murders are particularly important. You are always telling me that this case or that is important. As a plain, practical man of the world, I must realize that it is the prime minister who has been murdered. As a plain, practical man of the world, I don't think that the prime minister matters at all. As a mere matter of human importance, I should say he hardly exists at all. Do you suppose if he and the other public men were shot dead tomorrow, there wouldn't be other people to stand up and say that every avenue was being explored, or that the government had the matter under the gravest consideration? The masters of the modern world don't matter. Even the real masters don't matter much. Hardly anybody you ever read about in a newspaper matters at all."

He stood up, giving the table a small rap--one of his rare gestures--and his voice changed again:

"But Raggley did matter. He was one of a great line of some half a dozen men who might have saved England. They stand up stark and dark like disregarded signposts, down all that smooth descending road which has ended in this swamp of merely commercial collapse. Dean Swift and Dr. Johnson and old William Cobbett--they had all without exception the name of being surly or savage, and they were all loved by their friends, and they all deserved to be. Didn't you see how that old man, with the heart of a lion, stood up and forgave his enemy as only fighters can forgive? He jolly well did do what that greasy temperance lecturer talked about--he set an example to us Christians and was a model of Christianity. And when there is foul and secret murder of a man like that, then I do think it matters--matters so much that even the modern machinery of police will be a thing that any respectable person may make use of.... Oh, don't mention it. And so, for once in a way, I really do want to make use of you." And so, for some stretch of those strange days and nights, we might almost say that the little figure of Father Brown drove before him into action all the armies and engines of the police forces of the Crown, as the little figure of Napoleon drove the batteries and the battle lines of the vast strategy that covered Europe. Police stations and post offices worked all night, traffic was stopped, correspondence was intercepted, inquiries were made in a million places, in order to track the flying trail of that ghostly figure, without face or name, with an Inverness cape and an Edinburg ticket.

PHOTO : Inquiries were made in a million places, in order to track the flying trail of that

PHOTO : ghostly figure.
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Title Annotation:Part 2; fiction
Author:Chesterton, G.K.
Publication:Saturday Evening Post
Date:Oct 1, 1989
Previous Article:Coming up: new heads and tails.
Next Article:Reversing heart disease.

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