Case with Ropes and Rings
“That was interesting, wasn’t it?” said Beef. “That bit about the reporter.”
“I can’t see why,” I dutifully returned.
“No, you wouldn’t,” said Beef.
We drove on in silence.
We stayed that night in town, and next day returned to Penshurst. Fortunately the school whole-holiday had been on the previous day. I felt that had it not been finished the presence of Beef would have been an aggravation to Mr. Knox and the other masters. As it was, we were greeted amicably, though without enthusiasm, by Barricharan, who, hands in pockets, was strolling down the town.
“Did you have a nice day?” asked Beef, smiling.
“Fair,” said the Indian. “It rained, of course. Are you still on the scent?”
“Yes, and approaching the kill,” said Beef.
The Indian seemed unmoved by this piece of information.
“Jones did it, I suppose?” he suggested casually.
“Now don’t go jumping to conclusions,” the Sergeant told him. “You never know but what it might be someone you’ve never heard of.”
“That’s true,” admitted Barricharan. “But the behaviour of Jones since you’ve been away does make one think there’s something very odd in the air.”
Beef was interested at once by this information.
“Behaviour?” he repeated enquiringly.
“Yes. Haven’t you heard? He’s practically ready for an asylum.”
“I thought that before I went away,” I put in eagerly. “I was the first to see, weeks ago, an expression on his face which I perceived to be insane.”
“Ah,” said Beef, “what’s he been up to?”
“Well, I should call it religious mania,” said the Indian with the same assumption of casualness. “He talks an awful lot about God.”
I knew that Beef was shamefully unorthodox, not to say irreligious, in his views, and I feared for what he might say in reply to this confidence.
“God, eh?” he repeated. “Well, there’s plenty of people who spend their lives talking about God without anyone being able to put them in an asylum. Parsons and that, I mean.”
“Yes, but there are certain ways of doing it,” Barricharan pointed out. “I mean, Jones writes ‘God’ on his blackboard every morning, and he suddenly walked up to a group of boys in the quad yesterday afternoon and told them that God was watching them.”
“Well,” said Beef defensively, “look what parsons do. They threaten people with Him, don’t they? Tell them He’ll be after them if they don’t come off the booze. It’s just as silly.”
“Yes, I dare say,” said Barricharan. “But that’s not all. He gave his class a scripture exam, yesterday, and kept them back twenty minutes after school finishing their papers. When they handed them in he suddenly started tearing them into tiny little pieces in front of the boys, shouting: ‘Works of the devil! Works of the devil!’ Then he told me . . .
“Oh, never mind. You’ll hear all about it later, I expect.” And before we could ask any more questions he walked abruptly away.
When we reached my brother’s house we certainly heard a great deal more, and my brother complicated the matter by suggesting that Jones’ behaviour made him think that the unfortunate Housemaster was not so much insane as determined to ape insanity.
“The things he’s doing,” said Vincent, “don’t look to me like the actions of a madman; they are too deliberately calculated to appear mad. For instance, he marched into Chapel on Sunday wearing the music-master’s D.Mus. hood, an elaborate affair of mauve silk and white fur. It caused a great sensation at the time, because the boys all knew to whom it belonged.”
“Yes, it does sound as if he’s clowning,” said Beef. “What else has he done?”
“Well, most of his efforts seem to be connected with dressing-up. Yesterday morning he came across to the school in a clerical collar. Fortunately Mr. Knox met him before any of the boys had seen him, and prevailed on him to remove it. He explained in quite reasonable language to the Headmaster that as a matter of fact he had been in Holy Orders for many years, and he saw no reason why he should not wear the garb of his profession. The Headmaster pretended to accept this statement, but deterred him by pointing out that the boys would be so astonished by his sudden assumption of the collar that it would prejudice his chances of discipline. What do you make of that?”
“It’s hard to say,” said Beef, “until I’ve had a word with him.”
“Naturally,” said my brother, “it has produced an alarming effect on the school. No one knows what Jones is going to do next, and the boys, of course, are thoroughly enjoying the situation.”
“I am surprised to hear that,” I put in. “I should have thought that the boys of Penshurst School would have been too gentlemanly to have taken pleasure in the misfortunes of one of their masters.”
“You don’t know boys,” said Beef. “I remember when the organist at the first village I was constable in gave his wife twins. They carried on so disgracefully that I was called in to keep them in check. It was only their idea of fun.”
“All the same,” said my brother, “things have really gone too far, and I understand that the Headmaster suggested to Jones that he should go away immediately. But Jones broke down, wept like a six-year-old, and said that there was a conspiracy to get him away from his old school. For the moment the Headmaster has consented to his remaining in his post, but it has meant anxious times for all of us.”
“Well,” said Beef, “it sounds important to me. I think we’d better nip across to the Headmaster’s house, and get him to have Jones up for a little interview.”
I very rarely found myself in sympathy with Beef’s suggestions of “nipping,” “popping,” or “hopping” to this place or that, particularly as these more than often betokened a visit to a public-house; and I did not now feel that the Rev. Horatius Knox, bound down by the cares of a school in such a state of flux and tension, would very warmly welcome my ingenuous old friend. But as usual I put aside my own convictions, and followed his lead.
Actually the Headmaster showed no signs of displeasure when we were shown into his study.
“Ah, Mr. Beef,” he said. “And Mr. Townsend. I am glad to see you. I have been wanting to consult you for some days. My Senior Science Master has such complete faith in your ability to unravel this hideous affair that I cannot but trust you to help me. You must understand that for us here all this is terrible indeed. You are, no doubt, accustomed to dealing with crime and criminals. We continue ‘Along the cool, sequestered vale of life,’ and have no experience of such things.”
“You don’t half know your Shakespeare,” said Beef appreciatively.
“Tennyson,” I whispered. “Tennyson.”
“I was quoting Gray,” smiled the Headmaster. “But the point of my remark is that all this has been supremely shocking to us. So much so that the Housemaster of the poor boy who was found dead has been showing signs of acute mental strain. Acute mental strain,” he repeated expressively.
“So I’ve heard,” said Beef. “Been dressing up, hasn’t he?”
The Headmaster cleared his throat.
“You might call it that,” he admitted. “I only trust that it may go no farther.”
“I shouldn’t be surprised if it didn’t,” said Beef.
I saw the Headmaster recoil, though whether from the prospect of further costume displays by Herbert Jones, or from the excruciating grammar of Beef’s sentence, I was unable to decide.
“Do you know what I wouldn’t be surprised at?” continued Beef conversationally. “I wouldn’t be surprised if he was to pop up dressed as a woman. They generally do when it gets them that way.”
The Rev. Horatius Knox looked more distressed than ever.
“I trust not,” he said. “Indeed, I trust not.”
“Well, it would be awkward,” said Beef. “I mean, it would set the boys off, wouldn’t it?”
“If there’s any danger of that,” said the Headmaster, “I feel that we must take every step to circumvent it.”
“I was going to ask you, Sir,” said Beef, who had evidently been working towards this suggestion, “whether we couldn’t have him in for a few minutes. I’ve had cases like this to deal with before, and I think I should know how to handle it.”
The Headmaster considered for a moment, then said that considering that Beef was acting for Lord Edenbridge, and that he, Mr. Knox, owed it to the boy’s father to leave no stone unturned, he could not very well refuse. He thereupon rose from his place and pressed an electric bell.
When Jones eventually entered I could not decide what was the change in him, though I was aware of some difference in his appearance. It took me a few minutes of careful thinking to realise that he was no longer wearing the colours of the M.C.C., but had donned a sober black tie. He looked startled and offended at our presence, and addressed himself pointedly to the Headmaster, as if determined to ignore us.
“Now, Jones,” said Mr. Knox, pulling violently at his lapels, “I have been considering things. I really think that in your own interests you should take a holiday.”
Jones blinked uncomfortably.
“I assure you, Headmaster,” he said, “that I am in no need of such pity. I have work to do here at Penshurst before I leave the school for ever. The school is under a cloud of evil.”
Beef was watching the Headmaster closely.
“What sort of evil?” he asked him.
“Suspicion, envy, malice and sudden death,” returned Jones. “It is my duty to watch and pray. The troops of Midian prowl and prowl around.”
“But,” said Mr. Knox, “I am sure, my dear fellow, that you are not yourself. You have overtaxed your strength lately.”
“In this,” said Jones, “I have the strength of ten men. Do you know how Foulkes was killed?” he asked suddenly, addressing himself to Beef and me. Beef stared at him without speaking.
“He was stooping down,” he said, “and he was strangled from behind. Something was passed round his neck, and before he could realise it it was squeezed tighter and tighter until the life was gone.”
“How do you know that?” asked Beef. “I see it every night,” said Jones. “And I shall see it every night of my life.”
So, I thought, we were approaching the end of this riddle, and my suspicions were confirmed. No unexpected murderer was being brought forward by Beef’s ingenuity, but the most obvious suspect of all was being proved guilty. Nor did Jones’ behaviour during the next few minutes do anything to reassure me. He rose from his place, and made a curious motion with his hands, as though he were in the act of strangling someone. Then, without speaking, he hurried from the room. The Headmaster looked at both of us in great distress, and my original estimate of him was confirmed. I had thought him a good, unpractical man, and I now saw that he was little able to deal with such an emergency as this.
“I suppose,” he said sadly, “that this is now a matter for the official police.”
Beef became quite animated.
“Don’t do anything like that, Sir,” he asked urgently. “It might spoil the whole case.”
“But the poor fellow virtually made a confession,” said the Headmaster. “I don’t see how I can let that pass.”
“That wasn’t a confession,” said Beef. “All he said was that he saw it every night. So he might well do, whoever done the job.”
It was my duty to intervene.
“Beef,” I said, “you know quite well you’re quibbling. Mr. Knox, you were quite right. This is a matter for the police. There should be no delay about it.”
However, Beef rebuked me. He seemed determined that Jones should remain at his post, while he, Beef, made what he called “further investigations.” Privately I considered that he was following some misguided notion to help me in my task as chronicler by preventing an early arrest, which would damage the form of my novel. But although I am very ambitious as a writer, and hoped for great things from this case, I did not feel that he was justified in following his present course of action. After all, Jones might be dangerous, and for all I knew would be guilty of other murders before Beef consented to his arrest. I made no further protest in the Headmaster’s presence but decided privately to use what influence I had with Beef later on in order to persuade him to a more reasonable course of action. Nor did Beef’s final words to the Headmaster reassure me, though they were carefully calculated to restore Mr. Knox’s confidence.
“Now don’t you worry your head about all this, Sir,” he said in a kindly way. “We’ll soon have this little matter cleared up, and your school will be right as a trivet again. We can’t give you back the poor young fellow who’s lost his life, but we can get the murderer under lock and key. Only leave it to me, and let me go my own way about it. I’ve handled worse cases than this, and I’ll do everything I can not to let the school be upset.”
With that, he held out his hand to the Headmaster, who responded with quiet dignity. “I trust you will, Mr. Beef,” he said, and so dismissed us.