Case with Ropes and Rings
However, I felt it my duty to keep Beef’s attention on the case.
“Have you interviewed everybody that you need to interview?” I asked him that afternoon.
“Not quite,” he said. “There are still one or two on my list, and perhaps the most important of all is to come. I’ve been keeping him, though, till I’ve got some of the others out of the way. I’m hoping I shall really learn something from this.”
“Another barmaid?” I asked sarcastically.
“No,” said Beef. “It’s Mr. Danvers, the School Porter, whose place I’m taking.”
“And what do you think he’ll be able to tell you?”
“A great deal, I shouldn’t be surprised. You come along with me and we’ll see.”
I had heard much about Danvers. He was an institution at Penshurst, and one of whom the school might be proud.
He lived in a little bungalow near the Fives Courts, which had been built specially for him by the Governors (The Worshipful Company of Master Tinkers) five years before. It was called Parvum Penshurst, and the door was opened by a bright old person whom we supposed to be his wife. Her clothes were a model of neatness and cleanliness, like those of an old Dutch peasant woman on her way to church on Sunday. She seemed to have expected us, for she shewed no surprise at the fact that Beef was wearing the uniform in which she was accustomed to see her husband. In answer to Beef’s enquiry as to whether he could see Mr. Danvers, she promptly invited us in.
“Danny is sitting up to-day,” she said. “He’s been hoping you would be along to see him.”
We were shewn into a neat little room, the walls of which were crowded with signed photographs of Old Penshurstians, while the mantelpiece and shelves had a remarkable collection of trophies from the school past.
The old man was sitting in an armchair, wearing a thick, fleecy dressing-gown, having two or three rugs tucked round his legs. He looked wasted and frail, and I imagined that his physique, tired by long years of arduous service, had succumbed all too easily to the bout of influenza which had laid him low. His white hair was carefully brushed, however, his thin cheeks well shaved, and his pale face clean and smiling.
“Good afternoon, gentlemen,” he said, courteously waving his hand towards two chairs. “Mr. Knox was good enough to come over himself and tell me what you gentlemen were doing. I do hope you are able to clear up this terrible business.”
Beef gave what I felt was intended to be an encouraging smile, and stretched out his hand to the invalid.
“I’m glad to make your acquaintance, Mr. Danvers,” he said. “I’ve heard a lot about you. I hope you feel well enough to answer a few questions.”
“Certainly, certainly,” said the old man. “If there’s anything I can do to clear up this business, well, you know I’ll be delighted. I knew Lord Alan’s father when he was at the school. I was a young fellow then. I remember how Lord Edenbridge played a clever trick on one of the prefects of his time.” He smiled fondly at the memory. “This prefect was only a little fellow, but, like so many short ones, he was inclined to be uppish, if you know what I mean. Nothing wrong, you understand, Sir, just a little officious perhaps. Well, Lord Edenbridge was a fine, big fellow, like his sons. He wasn’t going to put up with it. Not being a prefect himself, he couldn’t very well fight the other youngster, though he had cause enough to do so. He waited till it was Larkin’s turn—Larkin was the little prefect’s name—to read the First Lesson in Chapel. Then, what do you think? He slipped into Chapel before anyone had taken his place, and turned the great Bible upside down.”
The old man’s eyes shone with happy reminiscence, and there was a broad smile on his face.
“Of course you can imagine the scene that followed. Oh, yes, a regular devil was Lord Edenbridge in his time, and his sons took after him.”
Beef did not seem to be impressed with the garrulity of Danvers, though I felt that the story might have distinct significance.
“In what way was the son mischievous?” he asked. “Young Alan, I mean.”
Danvers shook his head and smiled again, but I fancied that there was a queer glint in his eye, as though he viewed the matter not quite with the tolerance that his words suggested.
“Oh, a regular devil was this one, Sir,” he said. “Of course, I’m getting along in years, and the boys are given to making fun of me a little now and then. Nothing to take exception to, you understand. Well, Lord Alan was the worst of the lot. Always coming into my Lodge with some story or other. But there you are, I’m used to that,” and he wagged his head complacently again.
“Did you know that he used to break out at night?”
“Bless you, yes. There wasn’t much that went on in the school that I didn’t know, though it wouldn’t do for me to repeat all I could about the young gentlemen. In this case, Lord Alan took me straight into his confidence. ‘Danny,’ he said. ’If ever you should see me in the grounds at night you must keep your mouth shut,’ and, of course, I’m not going to pretend that he didn’t shew his appreciation of that. His father was very generous with him, and it wouldn’t have been like him not to reward me.”
“It’s very frank of you to tell us that,” said Beef. “What more do you know?”
Thus encouraged, Danvers continued.
“Well, I had been a little worried lately,” he said, “by stories of what Lord Alan was up to. I had heard that there was a young lady in the town, employed in one of the public-houses, I believe. I did venture to suggest to Lord Alan once that an association of this kind was not very desirable for a gentleman in his position, but he went his own way, as you can well imagine.”
“Did you watch the boxing that evening?” asked Beef.
“No. It’s the first time I’ve missed seeing the championship for seventeen years, but my wife insisted on my going to bed that night. I hadn’t been well for nearly a week then, and when she took my temperature and found it was over a hundred she wouldn’t let me go and see the fights.”
“So when was the last time you saw Lord Alan?” asked Beef.
“It must have been about five o’clock that afternoon. He came into my Lodge, his normal boisterous self, you know, Sir,” One again I thought that I caught that curious flash in the old man’s eye. “‘Ah, Danny,’ he said, ‘boxing to-night,’ and he gave me one of his playful little knocks in the chest. I don’t suppose I should have noticed if at any other time, but feeling as I did that day it upset me rather. However, he went on to tell me that he meant to go out after the boxing, and that I mustn’t be surprised if I heard him coming in late. He generally used to warn me when he was slipping out, because one evening, when I hadn’t known of this, I called out, ‘Who’s there?’ from my bedroom window, and he had to come across and explain. As he said at the time, it might have got him caught, so since then I have always been prepared for his return.”
“Did you hear it that evening?” asked Beef.
The old man’s face grew very serious.
“Yes,” he said. “I heard it, and there was something very strange about it, too.”
“What was that?” asked Beef.
“Well, as I say, I went to bed early that evening with a temperature, but I couldn’t sleep. I lay awake in my little bedroom, on the corner of the house there, long after my wife had gone to bed in the other room, and long after she was asleep. I was thinking of this and that, of old days here at the school, of so many fine young fellows who have passed on, and wondering when my time would come. I really must have been ill that evening, for I had such morbid thoughts you would hardly believe. Do you know, I was thinking of my funeral, Sir. That’s a funny thing to think about, isn’t it? I thought to myself, it might be only the School Porter they were burying, but it would be as big a turn-out as they’ve ever had, bigger than the year before last, when one of the junior masters died of pneumonia in the middle of the winter term. But then he’d only been at the school for a couple of years. So there I lay, twisting and turning, when at about eleven o’clock I heard the little iron gate creak, and I thought to myself: ‘That’s Lord Alan coming home. He’s early to-night.’ You see, he us’n’t generally to get in till midnight, what with having to see the young lady home, and she, working in a bar, wasn’t free till a quarter on an hour after closing time—that’s to say, not till a quarter to eleven in the summer. And besides, she lived right the other end of the town. I used to reckon round about midnight he’d get in, or within ten minutes of it one way or another. But I know this time that it was before eleven. I looked at my watch when I first heard it, and I heard the school clock strike just after he’d gone by.”
“What was there strange about it besides that he was early?” asked Beef.
“Well, I’ll tell you, Sir,” he said. “Every time I heard Lord Alan come in, he would come in walking as he always did, quick and sprightly, but that night there was something very different. He seemed to be dragging something along with him. He would take a step, and there would be a sort of scraping on the gravel, as though he had a sack so heavy that he could only pull it a yard at a time as he walked. It had a queer effect—one, scrape; one, scrape; one, scrape.”
“Mmmm,” said Beef thoughtfully. “How do you know it was him?”
“Well, he called out to me, Sir, like he often did if my light was still on.”
“Sure it was his voice?” asked Beef.
“No doubt about it, Sir. He didn’t just say ‘Good-night’.”
“What did he say, then?”
“Well, first of all he said, ‘Good-night, Danny,’ and then when he heard me answer him he asked if I’d heard the result of the fight. I told him I had, my wife having been out for the news for me. He said: ‘Shame, wasn’t it, winning it on a foul?’ and I called out,’ Yes, Sir, hard luck. But I’m glad you won’.” He says, ‘See you in the morning,’ and off he goes.”
“Still dragging whatever it was?” asked Beef. “Well, I could still hear the noise, Sir, and he went away ever so slowly.”
“Yes, that is interesting,” admitted Beef. “I’m glad you told me all that. You didn’t hear him again that night?”
“No, Sir, not a sound. I think I must have dropped asleep soon after that, and I knew nothing more till it was daylight and my wife was in the room.”
“Well, thank you very much,” nodded Beef. “You may have helped me considerably.”
“I hope so, indeed, Sir,” said Danvers. “How do you like the task, if I may venture to ask?”
“The task?” repeated Beef. “Do you mean detection?”
“Oh, no,” smiled the old man. “Something much more important. My job, which I understand you are doing.”
“Oh, bells and that,” said Beef, almost contemptuously.
“The bells are very important,” was Danvers’ comment. “You know, there’s one that rings in the range just beside me here, and I can follow the whole day right through. Once or twice you’ve been a bit late with them,” he added, with gentle reproof.
“Well, there you are,” countered Beef.
“If you knew the effect that had on me,” went on Danvers, “I’m sure you would manage to be punctual. My wife says it sends my temperature up if the bell’s late. You see, it’s so many years now that I’ve had to ring that bell that it’s become part of my life, you might say.”
“You don’t want to get too taken up with anything like that,” said Beef.
“Ah, but you will try to bear it in mind, won’t you?” pleaded the Porter. “Punctuality, that’s the thing. And I’m sure you’ll enjoy the job till I’m better.”
Beef nodded, and held out his hand.
“Well, good-bye, old chap,” said Beef gruffly.
“Good-bye, Mr. Beef,” returned the Porter, with more dignity, and once again we found ourselves with another interview completed, and, as it seemed to me, no nearer a solution.
I was about to leave Beef when I noticed someone pedalling towards us on a bicycle. I recognised Jones’ matron.
“I had to see you,” she said. “He’s gone.”
“Who’s gone where?” asked Beef as patiently as possible.
“Mr. Jones has gone up to London, I think. He said he would be back in the morning.”
“That’s all right,” said Beef. “He won’t come to no harm.”