Case with Ropes and Rings
“May as well get all the talking over while we’re about it,” confided Beef to me as we walked back to the school. “I’ll have a go at this Jones this evening. They all seem to have something to say about him.”
“But on what basis?” I said. “So far as he’s concerned you’re the School Porter.”
Beef considered this point for a moment.
“I shall have to tell him,” he said shortly, and left it at that.
At four o’clock that afternoon we presented ourselves at the front door of Jones’ house. This was a grim-looking building. It was not so much that it needed a coat of paint; there did not seem to be any paint on the place at all. I found it difficult to understand why any parent could possibly consider sending a son to a house like this, which looked worse than a prison. The garden in front was, oddly enough, neatly kept, but this was no doubt due to the energies of the ground staff, and not on account of the orders of the Housemaster. Perhaps it was unfair to criticise it too harshly, for it would look like a prison in the best of circumstances, and the iron bars in front of each window in the boys’ part did nothing to dispel the illusion.
A bedraggled maidservant presented herself with the listless monosyllable “Ye-es?” pronounced in a weary voice.
“Mr. Jones in?” asked Beef briskly.
“I don’t know,” said the girl. “I’ll go and see, if you’ll wait here,” and without asking our names, she walked lazily away.
“Quite extraordinary,” I said to Beef, “that one of the houses of a school like this should treat visitors in such a manner. I should have expected the greatest courtesy. I know that at St. Lawrence College, Ramsgate, such a thing would never have happened.”
“Oh, well,” said Beef, whose tolerance is apt to irritate me sometimes, “it may be the right one’s day off.”
Presently the girl reappeared, followed by a man whom I assumed rightly, as it transpired, to be Jones himself. He was about six feet tall, and may once have had some pretensions to an athletic build, but now appeared stooping and round-shouldered. His face was of a greasy, yellow texture except for the nose, which stood out, a monument in veined scarlet. His eyes were rheumy and weak, and his whole presence shambling and uncertain, but when I looked at his neck, in which the cords of forgotten strength still stood out, and his wrists, which were thick and bony, I realised that however decayed the fellow might be he was not negligible as a physical force.
“Yes?” he queried blandly, blinking at Beef. Then, as though recognising him, he added: “You’re the School Porter, aren’t you?”
“Acting as such,” answered Beef pompously, “but in reality investigating the murder of Lord Alan Foulkes on behalf of his father, and with the connivance of the Headmaster.”
“Murder?” repeated Jones, looking shiftily from Beef to me.’’ What do you mean, murder?”
“You heard what I said,” repeated Beef. “Now, we would like a word with you if you don’t mind.”
“With me?” said Jones.
“Well, you were the boy’s Housemaster, weren’t you?”
Jones seemed to consider this.
“I see,” he said at last. “Come in.” And he led us into a musty room which led out of a tiled hall.
Jones’ study had none of the character of a scholar’s den. True, it was crammed full of books, but these all seemed to be textbooks from which he had to teach unwillingly to unreceptive small boys. The atmosphere of the study appeared to derive from the stale fumes of whisky and a particularly foul brand of tobacco. All the windows were tightly shut, though had they been open they would have been able to do little to combat the gloom of the place. On the mantelpiece there was an imposing array of tarnished silver cups, which had obviously not been touched for months, and now looked more like brass, and on the walls not occupied by shelves there were old cricket groups of his Cambridge and England days, and even these were blurred with the accumulated dust and nicotine of ages.
So this, I thought, looking round me, represented the present quarters of H. R. D. Jones, who had once skittled the Australians out for less than a hundred at Lord’s. Well (and I remembered last night’s exploits) it is strange what drink will do for you.
He was dressed in the seedy sports-coat and slate grey flannel trousers and clumsy shoes which are the almost invariable uniform of the schoolmaster, and round his neck, inconsequentially it would seem, a frayed ribbon of the gaudy tie of the M.C.C.
“Now, Sir,” said Beef. “I understand you didn’t get on too well with this young gentleman.”
“I don’t know in the least what you mean,” said Jones. “He was by no means the most satisfactory of my prefects, but I had no specific cause to grumble.”
“Not when he split on you to the Headmaster?”
Jones turned to me.
“I find this person intolerably rude,” he said, and I noticed that his hands were trembling. “You seem to be a gentleman, Sir. Perhaps you will tell me by what authority he asks these questions?”
I tried to explain.
“Sergeant Beef’s methods are a little crude, but his heart is in the right place. I think that if you will give him the information he requires you will not regret it.”
“Well, nobody cares for slander,” he said, “and it was nothing but slander in this case. I had gone so far as to consult my solicitors in the matter. It was only the persuasion of the Headmaster which made me desist from action. I may say that he has done his best to safeguard my future after I resign my post here, so that I no longer feel bound to take the matter to Court.” Beef nodded without apparent interest.
“So you had it in for young Foulkes, all right,” he persisted.
“That is completely untrue,” snapped Jones.
I could see that he was in an extreme state of nervous tension, and I was quite prepared for it to break out in some violent way.
“Was it your custom to go round the house at night and see that it was all locked up?” asked Beef.
“It was my invariable custom at one time,” Jones told him. “But just lately I haven’t been well. A great deal of worry, you know. It may have escaped my notice once or twice.” “So that if one of the boys was in the habit of breaking out, you wouldn’t know anything about it?”
Jones sat bolt upright, as if he had received a serious shock.
“Breaking out?” he repeated. “I should hope not. I mean, I hope I should know; I mean, I don’t think such a thing is possible. One of my prefects would have reported it to me.”
“Ah, but supposing it was one of your prefects?” said Beef triumphantly.
Jones looked bewildered.
“Do you mean to say . . . ?” he began. “Not young Foulkes?”
“At any rate, you didn’t know nothing about it?”
“Nothing at all,” said Jones. “Certainly not.”
“When was the last time you saw Alan Foulkes?”
Watching Jones, I thought that the question had done more than embarrass him. He looked plainly frightened.
“The last time I saw him? Let me think. It must have been in the gymnasium after the championship fight. I went up to congratulate him, of course. I couldn’t have seen him again because . . .”
“Because what?” asked Beef. “What did you do that evening?”
Jones hesitated, and his hands trembled on the table in front of him.
“I . . . I returned to my room.”
“To this room?”
“I . . . had work to do.”
“Do you mind giving me details of these?”
Jones suddenly jumped to his feet.
“This is monstrous,” he said. “I will not be questioned in this way. I’m not a junior boy. I am quite willing to tell you anything to help you in your investigation, but I am not to be treated as a child.”
“You look as if what you need is a livener,” said Beef stodgily.
“Well, yes,” said Jones, and went with some alacrity to a cupboard on the far side of the room, from which he drew a bottle of whisky and some glasses.
“I’ll get some water,” he said, and left us.
Beef picked up one of the glasses and held it to the light.
“Not polished,” he commenced. “Did you ever see such a house? I can’t see why your brother wants to leave that nice little place of his for this. It’s a regular churchyard.”
Jones, returning, interrupted. The neck of the bottle rattled on the rim of the glass as with trembling hand he poured out three portions. He did not look as if he could stand much more. “What else do you want to know?” he asked when he had drunk.
“I was just asking you about that evening. You say you never saw Alan Foulkes after you congratulated him in the gymnasium?”
Beef was leaning forward and speaking with tremendous emphasis.
This time, as if encouraged by the alcohol, Jones replied with more firmness.
“That is correct,” he said.
“You didn’t, for instance, run into him in a little public-house called the White Horse, I suppose?”
“Public-house? Certainly not. I never enter public-houses.”
“Not in the town?” mentioned Beef.
Jones evaded the point.
“I certainly didn’t enter any such place that night or see the boy after the championship. I came straight to this room and remained here till I retired to bed, working, as I told you.”
“All right, Mr. Jones,” said Beef, standing up. “That’s all I need ask you at present. And now I should like a word with Mrs. Jones, if you would be so good.”
At first I thought that this would lead to another outbreak, but after staring at Beef for a moment Jones gave a sudden, high-pitched laugh, and said: “Mrs. Jones? By all means.” After which he hurried from the room.
We sat uncomfortably for a few minutes, until the door opened again and Mrs. Jones came in alone. She was a thin woman, dressed in rather old-fashioned, severe clothes, with black leather boots made to some curative design, and thin grey hair knotted unbecomingly on her head. Her face was rather shiny and unhealthy-looking, the flesh dropping loosely round her jowls, but the lips pulled in tightly to an expression of uncompromising disapproval.
“Ah,” said Beef with an ill-timed attempt at heartiness, “Mrs. Jones, I think?”
If she inclined her head it was so slightly that I could scarcely accept the gesture as affirmative. However, she did not deny her identity, so Beef decided to proceed.
“Did you have much to do with the young fellow who’s dead?” asked Beef.
“No,” was Mrs. Jones’ reply.
“Did you know that there was trouble between him and your husband?
“No,” she repeated, without unclasping her hands from beneath her bosom.
“You weren’t aware that he’d had to complain to the Headmaster about Mr. Jones last term?”
There was no surprise and no resentment in Mrs. Jones’ monosyllable.
“No,” she said once again.
“Did you see the boxing that evening?”
This time she did not even speak, but merely gave the suggestion of a head-shake.
“When was the last time you saw Alan Foulkes, then?” asked Beef.
“Monday,” said Mrs. Jones, without hesitation.
The boxing had taken place on Tuesday night, so this meant she was denying that she had seen Alan on the day of his death.
“Did you like the boy?” asked Beef. “Yes,” was the Housemaster’s wife’s reply, in such a voice that I found myself wondering what sort of a ‘home from home’Jones’ house must be.
“Is there anything you can tell us that will help us to clear this business up?” Beef persisted.
“No,” said Mrs. Jones.
“Do you think he committed suicide?”
“I don’t know.”
“You don’t know of any reason why he might have done?”
She shook her head, a little impatiently this time.
“Nor anyone as might have wished to do him in?”
Again the answer was monosyllabic and negative.
I sighed impatiently, and even Beef seemed to have reached the end of his patience.
“Well, thank you for all you’ve told us,” he said with clumsy sarcasm.
To my astonishment, the vestige of a smile passed across the woman’s face.
“Don’t mention it,” she said.
I had the uncomfortable feeling that she was waiting to shew us out of the house, and since even during the throes of investigation I feel that some show of good manners is not out of place, I stood up and tried to indicate to Beef by a jerk of the head that it was time we left. He slowly realised this, pulled the elastic band over his notebook with a snap, and rose. Mrs. Jones silently saw us to the door, and we set off down the drive.