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Gilbert Keith Chesterton

The Flying Inn

To Hugh Riviere



THE sea was a pale elfin green and the afternoon had already felt the fairy touch of evening as a young woman with dark hair, dressed in a crinkly copper-coloured sort of dress of the artistic order, was walking rather listlessly along the parade of Pebblewick-on-Sea, trailing a parasol and looking out upon the sea’s horizon. She had a reason for looking instinctively out at the sea-line; a reason that many young women have had in the history of the world. But there was no sail in sight.

On the beach below the parade were a succession of small crowds, surrounding the usual orators of the seaside; whether niggers or socialists, whether clowns or clergymen. Here would stand a man doing something or other with paper boxes; and the holiday makers would watch him for hours in the hope of some time knowing what it was that he was doing with them. Next to him would be a man in a top hat with a very big Bible and a very small wife, who stood silently beside him, while he fought with his clenched fist against the heresy of Milnian Sublapsarianism so wide-spread in fashionable watering-places. It was not easy to follow him, he was so very much excited; but every now and then the words “our Sublapsarian friends” would recur with a kind of wailing sneer. Next was a young man talking of nobody knew what (least of all himself), but apparently relying for public favour mainly on having a ring of carrots round his hat. He had more money lying in front of him than the others. Next were niggers. Next was a children’s service conducted by a man with a long neck who beat time with a little wooden spade. Farther along there was an atheist, in a towering rage, who pointed every now and then at the children’s service and spoke of Nature’s fairest things being corrupted with the secrets of the Spanish Inquisition–by the man with the little spade, of course. The atheist (who wore a red rosette) was very withering to his own audience as well. “Hypocrites!” he would say; and then they would throw him money. “Dupes and dastards!” and then they would throw him more money. But between the atheist and the children’s service was a little owlish man in a red fez, weakly waving a green gamp umbrella. His face was brown and wrinkled like a walnut, his nose was of the sort we associate with Judaea, his beard was the sort of black wedge we associate rather with Persia. The young woman had never seen him before; he was a new exhibit in the now familiar museum of cranks and quacks. The young woman was one of those people in whom a real sense of humour is always at issue with a certain temperamental tendency to boredom or melancholia; and she lingered a moment, and leaned on the rail to listen.

It was fully four minutes before she could understand a word the man was saying; he spoke English with so extraordinary an accent that she supposed at first that he was talking in his own oriental tongue. All the noises of that articulation were odd; the most marked was an extreme prolongation of the short “u” into “oo”; as in “poo-oot” for “put.” Gradually the girl got used to the dialect, and began to understand the words; though some time elapsed even then before she could form any conjecture of their subject matter. Eventually it appeared to her that he had some fad about English civilisation having been founded by the Turks; or, perhaps by the Saracens after their victory in the Crusades. He also seemed to think that Englishmen would soon return to this way of thinking; and seemed to be urging the spread of teetotalism as an evidence of it. The girl was the only person listening to him.

“Loo-ook,” he said, wagging a curled brown finger, “loo-ook at your own inns” (which he pronounced as “ince”). “Your inns of which you write in your boo-ooks! Those inns were not poo-oot up in the beginning to sell ze alcoholic Christian drink. They were put up to sell ze non-alcoholic Islamic drinks. You can see this in the names of your inns. They are eastern names, Asiatic names. You have a famous public house to which your omnibuses go on the pilgrimage. It is called the Elephant and Castle. That is not an English name. It is an Asiatic name. You will say there are castles in England, and I will agree with you. There is the Windsor Castle. But where,” he cried sternly, shaking his green umbrella at the girl in an angry oratorical triumph, “where is the Windsor Elephant? I have searched all Windsor Park. No elephants.”

The girl with the dark hair smiled, and began to think that this man was better than any of the others. In accordance with the strange system of concurrent religious endowment which prevails at watering-places, she dropped a two shilling piece into the round copper tray beside him. With honourable and disinterested eagerness, the old gentleman in the red fez took no notice of this, but went on warmly, if obscurely, with his argument.

“Then you have a place of drink in this town which you call The Bool!”

“We generally call it The Bull,” said the interested young lady, with a very melodious voice.

“You have a place of drink, which you call The Bool,” he reiterated in a sort of abstract fury, “and surely you see that this is all vary ridiculous!”

“No, no!” said the girl, softly, and in deprecation.

“Why should there be a Bull?” he cried, prolonging the word in his own way. “Why should there be a Bull in connection with a festive locality? Who thinks about a Bull in gardens of delight? What need is there of a Bull when we watch the tulip-tinted maidens dance or pour the sparkling sherbert? You yourselves, my friends?” And he looked around radiantly, as if addressing an enormous mob. “You yourselves have a proverb, ‘It is not calculated to promote prosperity to have a Bull in a china shop.’ Equally, my friends, it would not be calculated to promote prosperity to have a Bull in a wine shop. All this is clear.”

He stuck his umbrella upright in the sand and struck one finger against another, like a man getting to business at last.

“It iss as clear as the sun at noon,” he said solemnly. “It iss as clear as the sun at noon that this word Bull, which is devoid of restful and pleasurable associations, is but the corruption of another word, which possesses restful and pleasurable associations. The word is not Bull; it is the Bul-Bul!” His voice rose suddenly like a trumpet and he spread abroad his hands like the fans of a tropic palm-tree.

After this great effect he was a little more subdued and leaned gravely on his umbrella. “You will find the same trace of Asiatic nomenclature in the names of all your English inns,” he went on. “Nay, you will find it, I am almost certain, in all your terms in any way connected with your revelries and your reposes. Why, my good friends, the very name of that insidious spirit by which you make strong your drinks is an Arabic word: alcohol. It is obvious, is it not, that this is the Arabic article ‘Al,’ as in Alhambra, as in Algebra; and we need not pause here to pursue its many appearances in connection with your festive institutions, as in your Alsop’s beer, your Ally Sloper, and your partly joyous institution of the Albert Memorial. Above all, in your greatest feasting day–your Christmas day–which you so erroneously suppose to be connected with your religion, what do you say then? Do you say the names of the Christian Nations? Do you say, ‘I will have a little France. I will have a little Ireland. I will have a little Scotland. I will have a little Spain?’ No–o.” And the noise of the negative seemed to waggle as does the bleating of a sheep. “You say, ‘I will have a little Turkey,’ which is your name for the Country of the Servant of the Prophet!”

And once more he stretched out his arms sublimely to the east and west and appealed to earth and heaven. The young lady, looking at the sea-green horizon with a smile, clapped her grey gloved hands softly together as if at a peroration. But the little old man with the fez was far from exhausted yet.