Case with Ropes and Rings
But any chance that Beef may have hoped to have for peaceful thinking was quickly dissipated by the news with which my brother met us at his house.
“Have you seen this?” he said, with an assumption of carelessness as he threw down on the table a copy of an evening paper. Beef picked it up and I looked over his shoulder. There was not a great deal of space devoted to the matter, and the headlines were not imposing, but to us the material was of the greatest interest.
It appeared that a young professional boxer called Stanley Beecher had been found hanged in a Camden Town gymnasium. What startled us were the points of similarity between this incident and the one we were examining. In the first place the two boys were of the same age; and though Beecher boxed lightweight under professional rules, and Lord Alan Foulkes had been a heavyweight at the school, there was not actually much difference in their weights. Then again, the thing had been done at night, and in each case had followed a boxing match. A gymnasium had been the scene of both tragedies. It was impossible not to conclude that the two cases had some connection, though the great difference in background and in the social status of the boys concerned made it difficult to guess what link there could possibly be. I pointed out this remarkable parallel to Beef.
“There mightn’t be anything in that,” he said rather sulkily. “Whenever you have one of these cases there’s always ten that follow it. When you read in the papers of some poor lad who has tied himself up with ropes and is found next morning by his father, there’s nearly always a lot more boys doing the same after they’ve read about it.”
“Why?” I said.
“Don’t ask me. You’re the psychologist,” returned Beef.
“So you think this is nothing more than a suicide by a young man who has read the case we’re investigating?” “Well, that’s all it might be,” said Beef.
“Still, don’t you think you ought to look into it?” I suggested. “It looks to me as though it’s the same murderer in each case. Perhaps he’s a madman with an idée fixe about boxers.”
“I’d far rather stay here and give more thought to this business. I haven’t finished working out one case yet, not by a long chalk.”
I rashly appealed to my brother.
“Don’t you think Beef ought to go up to London?”
I might have known that his attitude would be one of priggish respect for Beef’s opinion.
“I think he should know best,” he said. “I might mention, however, that Danvers will be well enough to come on duty next week, so that it will not be easy to account for the Sergeant’s presence after that.”
“There you are,” I said. “We ought to leave at once.”
Beef shook his head.
“All you’re worried about is your book. You think a boxer in Camden Town will make a nice contrast to what we’ve got already. I know you. But I’m acting for Lord Edenbridge, and I have to think what’s best for him.”
I turned away in exasperation.
“I give it up, Beef,” I said. “You’re impossible.”
But I found that he was chuckling gently.
“All right,” he said, as though he were humouring a fractious child. “We’ll have a look into it. Only not till to-morrow. I’ve got something to do here before we go.”
“What’s that?” I asked sceptically, remembering that the final of the “White Horse” darts championship was to be that evening.
“Ah,” said Beef inevitably, and marched into his lodge with an air of great abstraction.
Owing to the ridiculous state of enthusiasm for the game of darts into which Beef had led the whole of Penshurst School, there was tremendous interest in his chances that evening. All the boys seemed to be aware of the fact that his opponent, a porter from the station called Entwhistle, was “mustard on the nineteen,” but that once you had got him” Up in Annie’s room,” he was “as good as finished,” and that he was considered to be the best player in the district. All these details, as can be well understood, struck me as uninteresting and unworthy of Penshurst. I thought that the Sergeant would have displayed better taste if he had resisted the temptation to introduce his low forms of amusement here. But I could not help feeling impressed by the boys’ partisan excitement over the match. It gave me, once again, cause to wonder at the Sergeant’s facility for being accepted in many different circumstances and by many different kinds of people.
Barricharan himself had been in while I was there that morning to wish Beef luck, and there wasn’t a smile on his face as he said: “You keep plugging at the treble twenty and you’ll be all right.”
“I’ll see what I can do,” said Beef, with an assumption of modesty.
Later, when Felix Caspar came in on much the same errand, he made a similar reply, and added, “I ought to win, you know.”
I felt rather aggrieved about it, because for the whole of that day I do not believe he gave a thought to the case in hand. The Sergeant kept walking up to the dart board in his lodge, pulling out his darts, and throwing them adroitly, with comments dropped all the time. “I’ll have to do better than that,” he would say, or, “Be all right if I could pull this off this evening, wouldn’t it?” while two or three of the boys stood by and watched.
When the evening came at last and we entered the White Horse for what Beef described as “the big event,” there was a silence in the bar which I thought rather hostile. It was evident on whose side the sympathies of most of Freda’s customers were.
I have no intention of demeaning myself, or lowering my prestige as a writer, or of irritating the reader of this book, by a long account of that plebeian encounter. I must grudgingly admit that Beef played extremely well, and beat his opponent in a somewhat spectacular manner. During the game I noticed Vickers standing in a corner, watching sardonically, and when Freda made a few encouraging remarks to the Sergeant at the end of the second leg I saw him turn towards her quite savagely. But the whole thing passed off without any remarkable incident, and when Beef received from the landlord the pound note and the cup he had won there was mild cheering in the bar, directed, I felt, hopefully towards a prompt spending of the prize, rather than with any wish to congratulate.
Beef, I must say, had the grace to invite all the customers present to drink with him, and the place became so noisy that I felt it wiser to leave the Sergeant and to make for home. As I approached the school, however, a figure emerged from the darkness of an archway, and I realised that I had been waylaid. It was, I soon discovered, one of the boys in School House, who asked breathlessly whether Briggs had won.
“You ought to be in bed,” I said sharply. “You boys seem to wander about the town as you please at night. I feel inclined to report the matter to the Headmaster.”
“Oh, don’t be a bore, Ticks,” replied the youth. “What was the result?”
I told him curtly that Beef had won, and feeling nervous lest I should be seen in conversation with him, and so be suspected of contenancing such a flagrant breach of school rules, I hurried past him, and did not pause again till I reached my brother’s house. Next morning it was only too evident that the news had spread through the whole network of Penshurst life, and Beef complained that his right arm had been almost pulled out of its socket by schoolboys eager to congratulate him. Sometime during morning school it was Beef’s duty to take round a number of notices from the Headmaster, and to-day I saw that he was preparing to leave his lodge with one or more of these. I did hope that his entering the classrooms while lessons were proceeding would not cause any interruption or disturbance. He was due to hand over his duties at lunch-time that day, and it would be a pity, I felt, if he so far forgot himself as to do anything which might finally blacken his name with the masters as well as with the Headmaster. But there was a self-satisfied grin on his face as he set off with his notices which dissuaded me from voicing my opinions.
It must have been nearly an hour later when Beef got back to the lodge and with a triumphant sigh dropped into his armchair. Out of curiosity I picked up the notice he had just carried to every classroom in the school, and which had been read aloud by each master in turn.
“In recognition of the distinction just achieved by one closely associated with Penshurst, the Headmaster is giving a whole holiday on Tuesday next.”
For a moment a fantastic idea came into my mind. Was it conceivable that the Rev. Horatius Knox had heard of Beef’s triumph and was honouring it? Impossible, I realised at once.
“For whom is the whole holiday?” I asked Beef.
“For me,” he returned placidly.
“Yes. Didn’t I win last night?”
“I suppose so. But I can hardly understand how Mr. Knox would think of recognising such foolery.”
“He hasn’t,” said Beef. “He doesn’t know nothing about it.”
I stared aghast.
“You mean to say . . .” I began, but Beef held up his hand.
“Won’t hurt them to have a day off,” he said. “Something to remember me by, too. They weren’t half interested in the match, were they?”
This was getting worse and worse.
“Is this a forgery?” I asked, tapping the Headmaster’s notice.
“Forgery? Good heavens, no. Don’t you know me better than that? I wouldn’t forge a man’s name, not if you paid me a thousand pounds.”
“Then . . .”
“It’s an old one,” explained Beef. “I found it in a drawer. You look at the date on it.” Horrified, I did so, and found that it was nearly a year old.
“That,” explained Beef complacently, “was when a parson who had been Chaplain here was made Bishop of Egypt.”
“Good God, Beef!” I said. “You’ve completely disgraced us this time. Do you realise what will happen when Mr. Knox hears of this?”
“I hadn’t really thought,” said Beef. “And anyhow, we shall be in London before then, I hope.”
But in that the Sergeant was mistaken. I had still hardly taken in the situation when the door opened and the Headmaster himself swept in.
“I want a word with you,” he said sternly to Beef, who afterwards described him to me as behaving “rather like the Chief Constable done over the little business of the Fox and Hounds.”
“Yes, Sir?” said Beef.
“Apparently you took round a notice which purported to come from me.”
Beef’s face showed a skilfully assumed innocence.
“Well, didn’t it, Sir? I found it on the table where your man always puts your notices for me.” And he handed Mr. Knox the fatal sheet of paper.
The Headmaster’s usually kindly eyes ran over it.
“But this is for last year,” he said. “When Wilson was made a Bishop.”
Beef stared blankly at the Headmaster, and there was a long and awkward pause.
“I can only suppose,” Beef mumbled at last, “that Mr. Townsend, in turning over the old papers in that drawer, must have left this one out.”
I was about to deny the suggestion most indignantly, but the Headmaster, his normal, kindly manner returning, spoke again.
“I am quite prepared to believe,” he said, “that the mistake is a genuine one, but the really unfortunate aspect of it is that I feel unable to rescind it. The boys have begun to anticipate the holiday and it really would be most inconsiderate to disappoint them in that way. On the other hand, the occasion is meaningless.”
Beef coughed, and for a moment I was afraid that he would point out that in the minds of the boys it was anything but meaningless. All he said, however, was: “I’m very sorry, Sir, about it.”
“It is indeed most unfortunate,” said Mr. Knox. “Most unfortunate.” And without bidding good-bye to either of us he left the Lodge.
“A bit awkward, wasn't it?” grinned Beef to me. “Still, they'll have their day off, and nothing will ever make them believe it wasn't my winning the championship as did it,” And he guffawed loudly.
Our departure from Penshurst was marked by scenes which I will remember with shame to the end of my life. Beef had become, it appeared, little less than a popular hero. Whether it was the senior boys who guessed that he had manœuvred their whole holiday by this most underhand means and had taken advantage of the kindness and credulity of Mr. Knox, or whether it was the juniors who really believed that the whole holiday had been given in recognition of his success in the ridiculous field of darts, they all seemed to regard him as a person to be admired and respected rather than one whose conduct as Porter had not been unexceptionable. My sympathies went even to Herbert Jones in his frank disapproval of Beef, and when I discussed the matter with my brother, and he affected to laugh at Beef’s subterfuge with the Headmaster’s notice, I lost all patience.
A crowd of boys accompanied us with our suitcases to where my car stood in the quad, and, to my acute embarrassment, we were loudly cheered from the premises. Throughout all of this Beef maintained the attitude of one whose achievements are receiving just recognition. I felt it wiser on the whole to refrain from comment, and drove, without speaking, towards London. Beef was slumbering beside me.