Case with Ropes and Rings
Beef had not forgotten, it seemed, that his main field of enquiry was among the boys, and next morning I found that he had started on the process which he called “settling down.” I had had cause before now to marvel at Beef’s facility for making himself at home among all classes of people. I remembered how the circus hands with Jacob’s Circus had seemed to accept him as one of themselves, and how more than once his matiness and good-fellowship in the local public-house had put him in touch with a clue. But this, I felt, would be different. At other times I had been precluded, by the fact that I happen to be a gentleman, from such close fellowship as Beef achieved. But now, I felt sure, it would be I who made the necessary contacts. A public-school boy myself, I should be accepted where Beef would be a joke, and my three and a half years at St. Lawrence College, Ramsgate, would stand me in good stead among the boys at Penshurst.
I hinted at this to Beef.
“You never know,” was his only reply, as he hung his silk hat carefully on a peg. “We shall just have to see how things go.”
Just then a youth of about sixteen, with his hair plastered rigidly in position, and his suit far too well cut for the use of a schoolboy, sauntered up.
“A leave chit,” he drawled, “to go down to the dentist. Do you mind stamping it?”
“Don’t half tie you down, don’t they?” said Beef. “Anybody would think you were in prison.”
“We are, practically,” said the boy, in a voice so casual that I wanted to smack him. “Though I should imagine that the food’s rather better in gaol.”
“Don’t they do you too well, then?” asked Beef with a grin.
“Agony,” drawled the boy. “I eat mostly at a restaurant in the town.”
“That’s bad,” said Beef. “And I dare say your Papa pays out a decent bit one way and another for you to be here.”
I imagined that this piece of vulgarity would offend the young man. But no, he seemed to enjoy the conversation.
“I suppose so,” he said wearily. “It’s probably only the House I’m in.”
“Whose is that?” asked Beef.
“Jones’. Quite remarkable that in our condition of semi-starvation we win most of the athletic events. See you later,” and he sauntered off casually.
During the morning there was a perpetual stream of boys coming for one reason or another to the Porter’s Lodge, for if any of them had to go down town it was Beef’s duty to stamp their passes both on leaving and returning, writing in the times at which they re-entered the school.
It was not till after lunch, however, that he was able to secure an interview which I felt could have any direct bearing on the case. We were sitting in the stuffy Lodge over a cup of tea which the Sergeant had brewed, and he was enjoying his pipe, when the door opened, and an extremely handsome young Indian walked in. He spoke with none of the soft chi-chi pronunciation of his race, but in a quite normal English way. “Sergeant Beef, I believe,” he said. Beef started.
“Briggs is the name,” he admonished him. The Indian smiled.
“Oh, yes,” he said. “I know all about that. But I happen to have read your previous cases. I might not have recognised you, Sergeant, but your friend here is quite unmistakable. There couldn’t be two pair of men like you, anyway, could there?” he asked blandly.
This was all rather discomforting, particularly as the young man seemed completely at home.
“Does anyone else know about this?” asked Beef.
“I don’t suppose so,” said Barricharan. “I noticed that I was the only person to have taken your book out of the Library.”
I could not resist a gentle reproof to Beef.
“I told you that this would happen,” I said.
“You needn’t worry,” he said. “I shan’t give you away. Only when I saw you established here I gathered that you would probably want to ask me questions, so I dropped in.”
Beef was rapidly recovering himself.
“Yes,” he said, “I do want to ask you some questions, and I hope you’ll answer frankly and to the point.” And he fixed Barricharan with his most severe village constable’s look. “What did you think about young Alan Foulkes?”
Think about him?” said Barricharan. “I really don’t know. We didn’t have a lot to do with one another—apart from sport, that is.”
“Did you like him?” asked Beef pointedly.
“Yes, I suppose so. I don’t like or dislike people very much,” explained Barricharan.
“You never had any real trouble with him?”
“Endless trouble all the time. But only,” he added sweetly, “because I couldn’t beat him always.”
“I see,” said Beef. “Sort of rivals. Now what about the boxing championship?”
“Well, I hoped to win it.”
“Oh, you did?”
“Yes. We’d both trained pretty hard and I think that the betting was about level.”
“Oh, betting, was there?” said Beef.
“I believe so. A man in Williamson’s house usually made a book on these events.”
“And how did you fancy your own chances?” asked Beef.
“I thought that they were pretty good,” said Barricharan. “You see, Foulkes didn’t get all the sleep he might have.”
“How’s that?” asked Beef quickly.
“Oh, up and about,” smiled the Indian, “up and about. His friends will give you all the details, I expect.”
Beef nodded, and made a heavy pencil note in his book.
“And yet,” he said, “you didn’t win, did you?”
“No,” said Barricharan, quite equably. “I was disqualified in the third round for hitting low.”
“And did you hit low?”
“I suppose I must have done. It was quite unconscious, of course, but I discussed it with Whitehead afterwards, and he’s quite certain that there was no doubt about it, so there you are.” He shrugged his broad shoulders and smiled.
“It was a great disappointment to you?” Beef asked.
“Well, yes, it was. Life’s full of disappointments, isn’t it?”
“Do you like being in the school?” asked Beef suddenly.
“You never feel sort of . . . out of place, in any way?”
“Out of place?” repeated Barricharan, quite honestly perplexed.
“I mean, being a different colour, and that?”
“Good lord, no. They’re a good crowd here.”
“Just one or two more questions,” said Beef, as though he were a dentist promising that his work was nearly done. “Did you see Foulkes again after the fight?”
“Oh, yes. He was in the dressing-room, and we had quite a long chat.”
“He was very sympathetic. He said that Whitehead had no business to give a decision against me, and he didn’t feel that he’d won the championship at all. We parted on the best of terms.”
“And that was the last you saw of him?” I thought that there was a moment’s hesitation before Barricharan answered.
“Yes, that was the last,” he said.
“Well, thank you very much,” said Beef. “Now I hope I can depend on you to keep quiet about That Other.” Then, when he saw an enquiring glance from Barricharan, he added, “Me being a detective, I mean.” The Indian reassured him.
“Oh, yes, that’s all right,” he said, and with a friendly nod he left the Porter’s Lodge.
“Well, what did you think of him?” Beef asked me.
“I thought he was a very nice chap,” I replied. “Didn’t you?”
“I don’t hardly know what to say,” returned Beef. “The Oriental mind is a mystery to me.”
“And yet there didn’t seem very much Oriental about him,” I pointed out. “He was just like an English schoolboy.”
“Ah, that’s what I thought,” returned Beef. “And that’s what I don’t altogether like. Still, you never know,” and he gave a great gaping yawn which I thought ill-timed and not very polite.
I decided to take a stroll round the school grounds. It was a lovely early June day, and the school buildings were almost deserted, save for a boy here and there who was going about his own business. All the others were apparently on the cricket field, either playing in House games or at the nets.
I met my brother by the Fives Courts, and I remarked on what I had just noticed.
“Well, after all, what can we do?” he said. “The ‘Dead March’ was played in Chapel the other morning. We have to leave it to the boys themselves to do their own mourning. But I don’t make the mistake of supposing that because the boys are playing cricket this afternoon the thing is forgotten. On the contrary, it has made a terribly deep impression, and one which may affect the future life and character of many of them. How’s Beef getting on?”
“Since you read my books,” I replied, “you should know I’m never told how Beef is getting on. He had a long talk with Barricharan this morning.”
“Oh, yes. But it’s Caspar he should get in touch with. Felix Caspar was Foulkes’ great friend, and can probably tell you more than anyone.”
“I’ll remind Beef of that,” I promised, and left my brother to return to the Porter’s Lodge. When I reached this, however, I found Beef deep in conversation with a small, dark, intelligent-looking boy, who appeared to be older than any of the others I had met at Penshurst.
“Ah,” said Beef, as I came into the room. “I’ll introduce you two. Mr. Caspar—Mr. Townsend. Mr. Caspar hasn’t half been telling me something,” he added. “I’ve had to explain to him what we’re here for.”
Caspar was sitting in Beef’s arm-chair, and had not risen as I had entered the room. I thought that this was somewhat ill-mannered in a schoolboy. I tried to indicate my displeasure by nodding very curtly.
“That makes two boys who know already,” I pointed out. “It won’t be very long before this information is right through the school.”
“I don’t think so,” said Beef. “Not unless you or your brother give it away. Now, Mr. Caspar, will you begin all over again, otherwise Mr. Townsend will be asking me questions.”
“Certainly,” said Caspar. “I’d better begin by telling you that Foulkes and I have been friends ever since we entered the school. We came the same term, and started in the same form. Although I got my removes much quicker than he did, we never lost touch, and this year we met again in school in the Sixth Form, where I have been for two years now. Of course, being in the same house made a difference. It was funny in a way that we were such friends, because to all intents and purposes we had very little in common. You would have thought that Alan would have wanted to be among the bloods of the athletic world, for he was, as you know, marvellous at all games, while I had little interest in games as games, though I was compelled to play them. I think that he respected my brains, not being an intellectual himself. Anyhow, we always got on very well together, and, probably in consequence of our diversity of interests, we never had a row of any kind. Just lately, however, Foulkes has had other interests, outside the school.”
This seemed to interest Beef, who leaned forward.
“What kind of interests?” he asked.
“I really don’t like telling you this part of the story, but if it will help you at all I suppose that I shall have to. I mean, I don’t believe that Alan committed suicide either.”
“You don’t?” said Beef seriously.
“No. He wasn’t at all the sort of chap to do that, and I think it’s rotten that it should be said about him. That’s why I’m anxious to tell you all I can.”
I felt as I looked at this young man that he was the first of all the boys who made one think that he felt any profound or personal grief over the death of young Foulkes. Everyone was shocked, everyone was sorry, but with this youth it was a real grief. I was glad to find one touch of such human feeling in an atmosphere which seemed to me all too casual.
“I’m afraid I don’t know very much, but I can tell you enough for you to find out the rest. There was a girl in the town, a barmaid, whom Alan used to meet at night . . .”
“Name of Freda,” put in Beef. “So you knew then?” said Caspar.
“I didn’t know she was a barmaid and I didn’t know he used to meet her, but I did know that there was a young lady.”
“Mind you,” said Caspar, “I don’t know that there was very much in it. I think Alan rather liked to consider himself sophisticated, and thought it was rather grand to have a girl in the town. He used to talk to me about it, but what he said was nearly all conventional. She was pretty, she had lovely eyes, she danced well, all that sort of thing. But I don’t think there was much more to it than that, as I expect you will find out for yourself.”
“What pub did she work in?” asked Beef.
“I don’t know,” Caspar told him. “But I know that Alan used to meet her in a pub. When he came back he would always have had a drink or two, but never enough to make him the worse for it.”
“I see,” said Beef. “Did he go there on the evening of the fight?”
“I was coming to that,” said Caspar. “On evenings when he was going to meet her, I always used to slip down and unlock the back door of the house. I would wait till about eleven-thirty, when everything was quiet and Jones was asleep. Then I would go down by the servants’ staircase to the back door, unbolt it and unlock it, and go back to sleep. Alan would come in, bolt it and lock it after him. Then nothing would be known about it.”
“But how would he have got out in the first place?” Beef questioned.
There was for the first time a faint smile on Caspar’s face.
“Very simple,” he said. “He wouldn’t come in at all. If he was on duty as a prefect I would do it for him, and even if Jones did go round the Junior dormitories he would never have dared to look in our cubicles. In any case, he would generally be too tight to walk round at all.”
Beef sighed rather hypocritically.
“As bad as that?” he said.
There was genuine disgust in Caspar’s voice when he replied. “Quite as bad as that.”
“So that evening you were to let him in?”
“Yes,” said Caspar. “He said he might be a bit late.”
“When did he tell you he was going?”
“Oh, quite early in the evening, before the boxing had begun.”
“Did he mention it again?”
“Yes, on our way over from the gym. He’d been speaking to his brother then, I believe, for a few minutes.”
“And how did he feel about this breaking out?”
“Oh, the same as usual; he never turned a hair. He was quite cheerful and casual about it. He just told me to make the usual arrangements in the house. About eight o’clock he left me.”
“You never saw him again?” asked Beef.
Caspar seemed to have some difficulty in replying, but there was no doubt in his voice.
“No, I never saw him again.”
There was silence in the little Porter’s Lodge for some minutes, and then Caspar said:
“I say, oughtn’t you to ring the big bell? It’s five o’clock.”
Beef made no reply, but ambled over to the rope which swung the large bell in the turret. At this he tugged vigorously for about half a minute, and as if by magic a stream of boys came rushing from the playing-fields, all hurrying to get changed from their white flannels into their school uniform before their evening meal and Chapel. A few who had not been playing lolled in the quad watching them with satisfaction, for they had not to bother about being in time. When Beef had finished his ministration with the rope, he returned to the Lodge to deal with the few boys who were waiting for him to sign their late passes.
“Caspar stood up, as if about to go, but Beef stopped him.
“Just a moment, please,” he said. “I hope you don’t mind waiting till I’ve dealt with the routine.”
“Not a bit,” said Caspar, and resumed his seat.
When the last boy had disappeared, Beef turned once more to Caspar.
“Was you or Foulkes head of Jones’ house?” he asked.
“Well,” said Caspar, “I was head of the house, but Alan was captain of games. It’s rather odd that you should ask that, because normally the captain of games is ex-officio head of the house, especially in a professionally games-playing house like Jones’. To everyone’s surprise, Jones made me head, although I am not even a colour. There was actually very little in it as far as seniority went, but with Alan’s record it caused a certain amount of ill-feeling, though neither of us cared a damn about it. It certainly did look like a slap in the face for Alan, though, because he was almost automatically the choice.”
“So it looked as if Jones really did have a grievance against Foulkes?” asked Beef.
“Yes, it certainly did look like it.”
I felt that it was time that I intervened.
“Well,” I said, “we’re very grateful to you, Caspar, for your information, and appreciate the way in which you’ve come forward. I can see how you feel about it, and I assure you that what you have done may help us in clearing up this unfortunate business. Perhaps you will be good enough to let us know if anything else occurs to you.”
The boy nodded, but Beef clumsily interrupted by saying:
“I’ll see to that.”