Case with Ropes and Rings
When I got down to the Porter’s Lodge the next morning I caught Beef in the very act of hanging a dart board on the door of the tall cupboard in which his silk hat was kept.
“What’s this?” I asked.
Beef looked up, I thought a little shamefacedly.
“Must have some practice,” he said, “now I’ve entered for the White Horse championship.”
“And you thought you were going to practise here? Don’t you realise that you are in a position of trust? You are acting as Porter to one of the oldest and greatest of our schools. Do you know that, scattered over the four corners of the world, there are men who look back and remember affectionately the Porter at Penshurst? Yet you were seriously proposing to introduce one of your low public-house games into these precincts?”
“Must get some practice,” repeated Beef obstinately.
“But with whom do you intend to play?” I enquired, not without apprehension.
“I dare say more than one of the lads fancy themselves, and it is just what I want to establish, contact. There’s a lot I’ve got to find out yet.”
I felt so irritated by all this that I marched out of the Porter’s Lodge and went to look for my brother. After all, he more than I had been responsible for the introduction of Beef to Penshurst, and it was his duty at least as much as mine to check this new and dangerous departure. I was told that he was in the laboratories, and, feeling that the matter was urgent, I knocked at the door and entered, to find my brother waving a piece of litmus paper over a hissing retort, while a dozen boys watched critically.
“Hmm,” I said as loudly as possible from the door. “Not just now, Lionel,” he said over the heads of his class. “I’m conducting an experiment.”
I was about to expostulate, to make him realise that Beef might be undermining the discipline of the whole school. But I saw him make an impatient gesture with his hand. I felt that to insist on a hearing then might embarrass him before his class, and decided to postpone the matter.
When I got back to the Porter’s Lodge an hour later a most startling scene met my eyes. Beef had removed both the top-hat and the swallowtail coat of his uniform, and had rolled his sleeves to the elbows, as was his custom when competing in a darts game. At least a dozen boys had crowded into the small room, though their presence there was forbidden by the school rules. It appeared that a four-handed game was in progress, and the youth who had come to the Lodge on the first day, and described the food in Jones’ house as “Agony,” was Beef’s partner against two young men whom I knew to be school prefects.
“Beef!” I remonstrated, for the second time that morning.
An interruption from me seemed to be unwelcome.
“Now don’t come barging in,” begged Beef. “We want seventy-seven to win, and it’s the third leg.”
One of the youths standing near the door turned round also, and said in the most patronising voice: “Go away, Ticks, there’s a good fellow.”
I needed no second invitation. I at least could not stand by and watch the tradition of a great school ruined, even if only indirectly through me. I walked away quickly, wondering whether I had not better go and see the Rev. Horatius Knox.
Unfortunately, as I see now, I did nothing of the sort, and it transpired that the little scene I witnessed in the Porter’s Lodge was the beginning of one of those unaccountable crazes which suddenly sweep through a whole community. From that moment the fatuous game of darts was taken up at Penshurst with a zest I should scarcely have thought possible. Dart boards were purchased and hung in corridors, and blackboards in classrooms kept the ephemeral scores of remarkable games, so that a master would come in the morning and mistake for an interest in arithmetic the record of a “Three-O-One-Up” between two boys in his class. The Headmaster himself, on his way over to Chapel, with his gown billowing round him, overheard an inexplicable piece of conversation between two small boys and stopped to enquire its significance.
“His third arrow was off the island,” he repeated in great perplexity. “What do you mean by that, Jenkinson?”
“It’s a game, Sir,” stuttered the boy.
“Ah, a game,” nodded the Headmaster, and swept on to preach a bright sermon on Ephesians ii. 39.[*]
The changing-rooms became a centre of the pastime, and boys who were due at the nets would stand half-dressed, trying to get their final double. The cricket professional complained that a board had been set up in the pavilion, and that no one seemed to care about his batting average. Nor did my brother, I was glad to notice, escape the onslaught. He arrived in the physics laboratory one morning to find a most extraordinary apparatus constructed, the object of which, it appeared, was to magnetise certain wires of a dart board to attract the darts into the more profitable doubles.
At all this Beef did no more than chuckle complacently.
“Just shows,” he said, “doesn’t it?”
“Shows what?” I asked angrily. “It shows you’ve succeeded in undermining the peace and progress of the school, if that’s what you mean.”
“Ah, well,” said Beef. “They’re only young once,” and he proceeded himself to practise the double seven, a number on which he had often told me he was weak.
Just then young Barricharan came into the Lodge, and challenged Beef to “Three hundred and one up, start and finish on a double, best two legs out of three.”
“On,” said Beef. “You score, Townsend.”
“You know perfectly well,” I told him, “that Barricharan ought to be in class.”
“Oh, shut up,” said Barricharan, with an amiable smile. “It’s only Divinity,” and he began to fix the flights in his own set of heavy brass darts.
Beef had whipped off the archaic coat of his uniform and rolled his shirtsleeves to the elbow.
“Nearest the centre,” he shouted, and threw a dart into the circle of the bull.
Wishing to show that I cannot be considered a spoil-sport, however low an opinion I have of the game, I picked up pencil and paper in preparation for my task of scoring. It was soon evident that Barricharan excelled in this as in other games, for he kept close on the Sergeant’s heels from the start, in spite of the other’s years of practice. Although Beef won the first leg, the Indian needed a double when the Sergeant finished, and I found myself anticipating the second leg not without interest.
They had only just started this, however, when there was a sudden interruption. The door of the Porter’s Lodge was pushed open, and Herbert Jones, looking even more of a sick man now that his jaundiced face was framed by a mortar-board, came in. It was evident that he was surprised and shocked to find the Indian with us.
“You . . . . here! ” he said, staring at Barricharan in bewilderment.
I felt at once that this was very much more than a matter of school discipline, and that however these two had come into contact there was something strange between them. Beef said nothing, though I thought that he looked uncomfortable. There was a silence of perhaps three-quarters of a minute before Jones seemed to pull himself together and remember that whatever else he was he was a master at Penshurst.
“You should be in class,” he snapped, “not wasting your time here. Please go to your class immediately.”
“Very well, Sir,” said Barricharan, but I thought that there was contempt in his voice.
When we were alone, Jones rounded on Beef.
“This is disgraceful,” he said. “You are disrupting the whole organisation of the school. I shall report the matter to the Headmaster.”
Beef had a foolish grin on his face, but he did not answer, and Jones stamped out of the Porter’s Lodge.
I found that I had guiltily concealed the scoring-paper and pencil. It is strange how in such a situation one reverts to the reactions one would have felt in boyhood. I was about to reprove Beef for putting me in this absurd position, when we heard voices through the side window of the Porter’s Lodge.
“It is monstrous, Headmaster,” said Herbert Jones. “I find boys in the Lodge at all times. There is no respect for the curriculum at all.”
The Rev. Horatius Knox answered gently.
“Yes, yes,” he said. “It’s a pity that Danvers is ill. Not always easy for a new porter . . .”
“New porter!” shouted Jones. “This man ought never to have been allowed inside the school gates. A drunken, useless fellow, who teaches the boys taproom language and pastimes. Do you know, only five minutes ago I found one of the school prefects, who ought to have been in school, playing some public-house game in there? I feel I must protest, Headmaster.”
“Yes, yes,” said Mr. Knox mildly. “Most unfortunate.”
Through the lace curtain of Beef’s side window I could see him pulling nervously at his lapels.
“However, as I say, it will not be for many days, Jones.”
Jones turned on his heel and left the Headmaster. For a moment I was afraid that the latter would come in to reprimand Beef and I tried to make him understand by gestures that he should put on his coat again, but this he would not at once understand. It was therefore a relief when I saw Mr. Knox slowly walking away with his head bent, as if in deep thought.
“You see what you’ve done,” I said to Beef.
“Well, I don’t see anything wrong,” he replied truculently. “It’s as good a game as any of their fancy rackets and that. Besides, Herbert Jones isn’t, rightly speaking, all there. At least, I don’t think so. Well, I must get some practice in. We’ve got the second round of the championship to-night.”
“Yes, you know, at the White Horse,” explained Beef.
“Where your expenses are paid, I suppose,” I put in ironically, “by Lord Edenbridge?”
“That’s right,” said Beef cheerfully.
Just then a small boy dashed in breathlessly.
“I say, Briggs,” he asked. “What’s the ruling on this? Two fellows are throwing for the centre to decide who starts. One puts his arrow about an inch from the centre; the second throws his arrow, which hits a wire and comes back. Does the second have another throw for the bull or not?”
Appealed to in this way on a matter on which he considered himself an authority, Beef became extremely ponderous.
“Strictly speaking,” he said, “he shouldn’t. A dart which fails to stick in during a game doesn’t give the thrower another shot, does it? So why should it when you’re throwing for the middle? But for some reason or other it usually does, the opponent giving the second thrower the courtesy of an extra dart.”
“Thanks, Briggs,” said the small boy, and hurried off to carry this important decision to the quarters which were awaiting it.
“All of which,” I said, “doesn’t seem to be going very far towards solving the mystery of Alan Foulkes’ death. It is for that, after all, that you are employed.”
“Don’t you be too sure it doesn’t,” said Beef. “Once before, in the Sydenham business, as I told you. Afterwards, the key to the whole thing had to do with darts. You keep your eyes open and watch me.”
[* Ephesians has no verse ii: 39; perhaps Mr. Townsend meant iv: 39: “Let no corrupt communication proceed out of your mouth, but that which is good to the use of edifying, that it may minister grace unto the hearers.”]