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, surrounding 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 moustache 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 an hotel. The arrival of these quaint companions 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 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 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 an Inspector of Police in plain clothes; in 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 him preaching on the sands.
These travellers 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; or 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 honourably known as a Bar Parlour 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, tulwards 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 travellers 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 good-humouredly. ‘You’ve had 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 what not. That isn’t where the snag of a murder comes in.’
Father Brown seemed to recall his rambling thoughts in some bewilderment; and said that 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 damned 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. A 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 tie-pin, brought the eager and obsequious manager running like a dog to the whistle, with a rapidity which 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 manager. Mr Jukes was a traveller 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 very decisively to intervene.
For the next thing 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 Noncomformist 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 sceptics say, were due to perfectly natural causes. The man with the mane of yellow hair and the semi-clerical clothes was not only familiar as a preacher on the sands, but as a propagandist throughout the modern world. He was no less a person than the Rev. David Pryce-Jones, whose far-resounding slogan was Prohibition and Purification for Our Land and the Britains Overseas. He as 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 honour is due to the Prophet who was perhaps the first Prohibitionist. He had corresponded with the leaders of Mahommedan 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 travellers, 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 tie-pin to produce more refined humour, 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 deal 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 Christians in truly Christian self-control and brotherhood? Why does he stand here as a model of true Christianity, of real refinement, of genuine gentlemanly behaviour, 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 man who writes letters to the newspaper, which generally do not appear in the newspaper; but which do appear afterwards as pamphlets, printed (or misprinted) at his own expense; and circulated to a hundred waste-paper baskets. He had quarrelled alike with the Tory squires and the Radical County Councils; he hated Jews; 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 a least a disposition to avoid quarrelling 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. ‘Damn it, 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 Pryce-Jones showed a certain failure in tact; though it was a virtue he almost worshipped. 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 endeavoured 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.
‘God damn your soul!’ roared Mr Raggley, with a less broad theological outlook. ‘Do you mean that Englishmen mustn’t drink English beer, because wine was forbidden in a damned 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 demeanour 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 exactly 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, 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 understood 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 twenty 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 to God 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 travellers, and they adjourned to it, the potboy carrying a new round of drinks after them on a tray. Father Brown stood for a moment gazing at the glasses left on the counter; recognizing at once the ill-omened glass of milk, and another which smelt of whisky; and then turned just in time to see the parting between those two quaint figures, fanatics of the East and West. Raggley was still ferociously genial; there was still something a little darkling and sinister about the Moslem, which was perhaps natural; but he bowed himself out with grave gestures of dignified reconciliation; and there was every indication that the trouble was really over.
Some importance, however, continued attached, 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 next morning, to perform his religious duties in the neighbourhood, he found the long saloon bar, with its fantastic Asiatic decoration, 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 and crushed into a corner of the room, with the heavy-hilted crooked dagger rammed through his heart.
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 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 honour 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 finger-prints; 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 Mahommedan,’ 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 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 twenty-four 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 thirty 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 very clear to report. Until the amazing 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 travellers 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 travellers 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 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 whisky. Well, you and I had no whisky. 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 whisky-drinker disguised in a green turban; or that the Rev. David Pryce-Jones managed to drink whisky and milk together, without noticing it.’
‘Most of the commercial travellers took whisky,’ 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 afterwards.’
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 missus and the kids; some of them might be blackguards; might have had several missuses; or even murdered several missuses. But most of them are simple men; and, mark you, just the least tiny 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 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 whisky left behind had been nearly emptied by somebody else; somebody we haven’t thought about yet.’
‘But can you think of any such person?’ ask 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 well may 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 whisky 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 drag-net 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 has 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 and 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 sign-posts, 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 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 hundred places, in order to track the flying trail of that ghostly figure, without face or name, with an Inverness cape and an Edinburgh ticket.
Meanwhile, of course, the other lines of investigation were not neglected. The full report of the post-mortem had not yet come in; but everybody seemed certain that it was a case of poisoning. This naturally threw the primary suspicion upon the cherry brandy; and this again naturally threw the primary suspicion on the hotel.
‘Most probably on the manager of the hotel,’ said Greenwood gruffly. ‘He looks a nasty little worm to me. Of course it might be something to do with some servant, like the barman; he seems rather a sulky specimen, and Raggley might have cursed him a bit, having a flaming temper, though he was generally generous enough afterwards. But, after all, as I say, the primary responsibility, and therefore the primary suspicion, rests on the manager.’
‘Oh, I knew the primary suspicion would rest on the manager,’ said Father Brown. ‘That was why I didn’t suspect him. You see, I rather fancied somebody else must have known that the primary suspicion would rest on the manager; or the servants of the hotel. That is why I said it would be easy to kill anybody in the hotel . . . But you’d better go and have it out with him, I suppose.’
The Inspector went; but came back again after a surprisingly short interview, and found his clerical friend turning over some papers that seemed to be a sort of dossier of the stormy career of John Raggley.
‘This is a rum go,’ said the Inspector. ‘I thought I should spend hours cross-examining that slippery little toad there, for we haven’t legally got a thing against him. And instead of that, he went to pieces all at once, and I really think he’s told me all he knows in sheer funk.’
‘I know,’ said Father Brown. ‘That’s the way he went to pieces when he found Raggley’s corpse apparently poisoned in his hotel. That’s why he lost his head enough to do such a clumsy thing as decorate the corpse with a Turkish knife, to put the blame on the nigger, as he would say. There never is anything the matter with him but funk; he’s the very last man that ever would really stick a knife into a live person. I bet he had to nerve himself to stick it into a dead one. But he’s the very first person to be frightened of being charged with what he didn’t do; and to make a fool of himself, as he did.’
‘I suppose I must see the barman too,’ observed Greenwood.
‘I suppose so,’ answered the other. ‘I don’t believe myself it was any of the hotel people — well, because it was made to look as if it must be the hotel people . . . But look here, have you seen any of this stuff they’ve got together about Raggley? He had a jolly interesting life; I wonder whether anyone will write his biography.’
‘I took a note of everything likely to affect an affair like this,’ answered the official. ‘He was a widower; but he did once have a row with a man about his wife; a Scotch land-agent then in these parts; and Raggley seems to have been pretty violent. They say he hated Scotchmen; perhaps that’s the reason . . . Oh, I know what you are smiling grimly about. A Scotchman . . . Perhaps an Edinburgh man.’
‘Perhaps,’ said Father Brown. ‘It’s quite likely, though, that he did dislike Scotchmen, apart from private reasons. It’s an odd thing, but all that tribe of Tory Radicals, or whatever you call them, who resisted the Whig mercantile movement, all of them did dislike Scotchmen. Cobbett did; Dr Johnson did; Swift described their accent in one of his deadliest passages; even Shakespeare has been accused of the prejudice. But the prejudices of great men generally have something to do with principles. And there was a reason, I fancy. The Scot came from a poor agricultural land, that became a rich industrial land. He was able and active; he thought he was bringing industrial civilization from the north; he simply didn’t know that there had been for centuries a rural civilization in the south. His own grandfather’s land was highly rural but not civilized . . . Well, well, I suppose we can only wait for more news.’
‘I hardly think you’ll get the latest news out of Shakespeare and Dr Johnson,’ grinned the police officer. ‘What Shakespeare thought of Scotchmen isn’t exactly evidence.’
Father Brown cocked an eyebrow, as if a new thought had surprised him. ‘Why, now I come to think of it,’ he said, ‘there might be better evidence, even out of Shakespeare. He doesn’t often mention Scotchmen. But he was rather fond of making fun of Welshmen.’
The Inspector was searching his friend’s face; for he fancied he recognized an alertness behind its demure expression. ‘By Jove,’ he said. ‘Nobody thought of turning the suspicions that way, anyhow.’
‘Well,’ said Father Brown, with broad-minded calm, ‘you started by talking about fanatics; and how a fanatic could do anything. Well, I suppose we had the honour of entertaining in this bar-parlour yesterday, about the biggest and loudest and most fat-headed fanatic in the modern world. If being a pig-headed idiot with one idea is the way to murder, I put in a claim for my reverend brother Pryce-Jones, the Prohibitionist, in preference to all the fakirs in Asia, and it’s perfectly true, as I told you, that his horrible glass of milk was standing side by side on the counter with the mysterious glass of whisky.’
‘Which you think was mixed up with the murder,’ said Greenwood, staring. ‘Look here, I don’t know whether you’re really serious or not.’
Even as he was looking steadily in his friend’s face, finding something still inscrutable in its expression, the telephone rang stridently behind the bar. Lifting the flap in the counter Inspector Greenwood passed rapidly inside, unhooked the receiver, listened for an instant, and then uttered a shout; not addressed to his interlocutor, but to the universe in general. Then he listened still more attentively and said explosively at intervals, ‘Yes, yes . . . Come round at once; bring him round if possible . . . Good piece of work . . . Congratulate you.’
Then Inspector Greenwood came back into the outer lounge, like a man who has renewed his youth, sat down squarely on his seat, with his hands planted on his knees, stared at his friend, and said:
‘Father Brown, I don’t know how you do it. You seem to have known he was a murderer before anybody else knew he was a man. He was nobody; he was nothing; he was a slight confusion in the evidence; nobody in the hotel saw him; the boy on the steps could hardly swear to him; he was just a fine shade of doubt founded on an extra dirty glass. But we’ve got him, and he’s the man we want.’
Father Brown had risen with the sense of the crisis, mechanically clutching the papers destined to be so valuable to the biographer of Mr Raggley; and stood staring at his friend. Perhaps this gesture jerked his friend’s mind to fresh confirmations.
‘Yes, we’ve got The Quick One. And very quick he was, like quicksilver, in making his get-away; we only just stopped him — off on a fishing trip to Orkney, he said. But he’s the man, all right; he’s the Scotch land-agent who made love to Raggley’s wife; he’s the man who drank Scotch whisky in this bar and then took a train to Edinburgh. And nobody would have known it but for you.’
‘Well, what I meant,’ began Father Brown, in a rather dazed tone; and at that instant there was a rattle and rumble of heavy vehicles outside the hotel; and two or three other and subordinate policemen blocked the bar with their presence. One of them, invited by his superior to sit down, did so in an expansive manner, like one at once happy and fatigued; and he also regarded Father Brown with admiring eyes.
‘Got the murderer. Sir, oh yes,’ he said: ‘I know he’s a murderer, ‘cause he bally nearly murdered me. I’ve captured some tough characters before now; but never one like this — hit me in the stomach like the kick of a horse and nearly got away from five men. Oh, you’ve got a real killer this time. Inspector.’
‘Where is he?’ asked Father Brown, staring.
‘Outside in the van, in handcuffs,’ replied the policeman, ‘and, if you’re wise, you’ll leave him there — for the present.’
Father Brown sank into a chair in a sort of soft collapse; and the papers he had been nervously clutching were shed around him, shooting and sliding about the floor like sheets of breaking snow. Not only his face, but his whole body, conveyed the impression of a punctured balloon.
‘Oh . . . Oh,’ he repeated, as if any further oath would be inadequate. ‘Oh . . .I’ve done it again.’
‘If you mean you’ve caught the criminal again,’ began Greenwood. But his friend stopped him with a feeble explosion, like that of expiring soda-water.
‘I mean,’ said Father Brown, ‘that it’s always happening; and really, I don’t know why. I always try to say what I mean. But everybody else means such a lot by what I say.’
‘What in the world is the matter now?’ cried Greenwood, suddenly exasperated.
‘Well, I say things,’ said Father Brown in a weak voice, which could alone convey the weakness of the words. ‘I say things, but everybody seems to know they mean more than they say. Once I saw a broken mirror and said “Something has happened” and they all answered, “Yes, yes, as you truly say, two men wrestled and one ran into the garden,” and so on. I don’t understand it, “Something happened,” and “Two men wrestled,” don’t seem to me at all the same; but I dare say I read old books of logic. Well, it’s like that here. You seem to be all certain this man is a murderer. But I never said he was a murderer. I said he was the man we wanted. He is. I want him very much. I want him frightfully. I want him as the one thing we haven’t got in the whole of this horrible case — a witness!’
They all stared at him, but in a frowning fashion, like men trying to follow a sharp new turn of the argument; and it was he who resumed the argument.
‘From the first minute I entered that big empty bar or saloon, I knew what was the matter with all this business was emptiness; solitude; too many chances for anybody to be alone. In a word, the absence of witnesses. All we knew was that when we came in, the manager and the barman were not in the bar. But when were they in the bar? What chance was there of making any sort of time-table of when anybody was anywhere? The whole thing was blank for want of witnesses. I rather fancy the barman or somebody was in the bar just before we came; and that’s how the Scotchman got his Scotch whisky. He certainly didn’t get it after we came. But we can’t begin to inquire whether anybody in the hotel poisoned poor Raggley’s cherry brandy, till we really know who was in the bar and when. Now I want you to do me another favour, in spite of this stupid muddle, which is probably all my fault. I want you to collect all the people involved in this room — I think they’re all still available, unless the Asiatic has gone back to Asia — and then take the poor Scotchman out of his handcuffs, and bring him in here, and let him tell us who did serve him with whisky, and who was in the bar, and who else was in the room, and all the rest. He’s the only man whose evidence can cover just that period when the crime was done. I don’t see the slightest reason for doubting his word.’
‘But look here,’ said Greenwood. ‘This brings it all back to the hotel authorities; and I thought you agreed that the manager isn’t the murderer. Is it the barman, or what?’
‘I don’t know,’ said the priest blankly. ‘I don’t know for certain even about the manager. I don’t know anything about the barman. I fancy the manager might be a bit of a conspirator, even if he wasn’t a murderer. But I do know there’s one solitary witness on earth who may have seen something; and that’s why I set all your police dogs on his trail to the ends of the earth.’
The mysterious Scotchman, when he finally appeared before the company thus assembled, was certainly a formidable figure; tall, with a hulking stride and a long sardonic hatchet face, with tufts of red hair; and wearing not only an Inverness cape but a Glengarry bonnet, he might well be excused for a somewhat acrid attitude; but anybody could see he was of the sort to resist arrest, even with violence. It was not surprising that he had come to blows with a fighting fellow like Raggley. It was not even surprising that the police had been convinced, by the mere details of capture, that he was a tough and a typical killer. But he claimed to be a perfectly respectable farmer, in Aberdeenshire, his name being James Grant; and somehow not only Father Brown, but Inspector Greenwood, a shrewd man with a great deal of experience, was pretty soon convinced that the Scot’s ferocity was the fury of innocence rather than guilt.
‘Now what we want from you, Mr Grant,’ said the Inspector gravely, dropping without further parley into tones of courtesy, ‘is simply your evidence on one very important fact. I am greatly grieved at the misunderstanding by which you have suffered, but I am sure you wish to serve the ends of justice. I believe you came into this bar just after it opened, at half-past five, and were served with a glass of whisky. We are not certain what servant of the hotel, whether the barman or the manager or some subordinate, was in the bar at the time. Will you look round the room, and tell me whether the bar-attendant who served you is present here.’
‘Aye, he’s present,’ said Mr Grant, grimly smiling, having swept the group with a shrewd glance. ‘I’d know him anywhere; and ye’ll agree he’s big enough to be seen. Do ye have all your inn-servants as grand as yon?’
The Inspector’s eye remained hard and steady, and his voice colourless and continuous; the face of Father Brown was a blank; but on many other faces there was a cloud; the barman was not particularly big and not at all grand; and the manager was decidedly small.
‘We only want the barman identified,’ said the Inspector calmly. ‘Of course we know him; but we should like you to verify it independently. You mean . . .?’ And he stopped suddenly.
‘Weel, there he is plain enough,’ said the Scotchman wearily; and made a gesture, and with that gesture the gigantic Jukes, the prince of commercial travellers, rose like a trumpeting elephant; and in a flash had three policemen fastened on him like hounds on a wild beast.
‘Well, all that was simple enough,’ said Father Brown to his friend afterwards. ‘As I told you, the instant I entered the empty bar-room, my first thought was that, if the barman left the bar unguarded like that, there was nothing in the world to stop you or me or anybody else lifting the flap and walking in, and putting poison in any of the bottles standing waiting for customers. Of course, a practical poisoner would probably do it as Jukes did, by substituting a poisoned bottle for the ordinary bottle; that could be done in a flash. It was easy enough for him, as he travelled in bottles, to carry a flask of cherry brandy prepared and of the same pattern. Of course, it requires one condition; but it’s a fairly common condition. It would hardly do to start poisoning the beer or whisky that scores of people drink; it would cause a massacre. But when a man is well known as drinking only one special thing, like cherry brandy, that isn’t very widely drunk, it’s just like poisoning him in his own home. Only it’s a jolly sight safer. For practically the whole suspicion instantly falls on the hotel, or somebody to do with the hotel; and there’s no earthly argument to show that it was done by anyone out of a hundred customers that might come into the bar: even if people realized that a customer could do it. It was about as absolutely anonymous and irresponsible a murder as a man could commit.’
‘And why exactly did the murderer commit it?’ asked his friend.
Father Brown rose and gravely gathered the papers which he had previously scattered in a moment of distraction.
‘May I recall your attention,’ he said smiling, ‘to the materials of the forthcoming Life and Letters of the Late John Raggley? Or, for that matter, his own spoken words? He said in this very bar that he was going to expose a scandal about the management of hotels; and the scandal was the pretty common one of a corrupt agreement between hotel proprietors and a salesman who took and gave secret commissions, so that his business had a monopoly of all the drink sold in the place. It wasn’t even an open slavery like an ordinary tied house; it was a swindle at the expense of everybody the manager was supposed to serve. It was a legal offence. So the ingenious Jukes, taking the first moment when the bar was empty, as it often was, stepped inside and made the exchange of bottles; unfortunately at that very moment a Scotchman in an Inverness cape came in harshly demanding whisky. Jukes saw his only chance was to pretend to be the barman and serve the customer. He was very much relieved that the customer was a Quick One.’
‘I think you’re rather a Quick One yourself,’ observed Greenwood; ‘if you say you smelt something at the start, in the mere air of an empty room. Did you suspect Jukes at all at the start?’
‘Well, he sounded rather rich somehow,’ answered Father Brown vaguely. ‘You know when a man has a rich voice. And I did sort of ask myself why he should have such a disgustingly rich voice, when all those honest fellows were fairly poor. But I think I knew he was a sham when I saw that big shining breast-pin.’
‘You mean because it was sham?’ asked Greenwood doubtfully.
‘Oh, no; because it was genuine,’ said Father Brown.
Last updated on Tue Feb 8 09:01:27 2005 for eBooks@Adelaide.