Case with Ropes and Rings
I was to stay at my brother’s house, an arrangement which did not altogether suit my taste. On the very first morning at breakfast he began to make invidious comparisons between his life and mine, ending up by saying that he supposed the precariousness of a writer’s life was in my case counterbalanced by a small annuity which had been left me by an aunt, whose favourite nephew I was. This annuity had already caused considerable bitterness and jealousy on my brother’s part, for he failed to realise that having sneered at the Victorian furniture in her house, and told her to her face that the playing of a small harmonium which she kept in her drawing-room was “disastrous,” he was scarcely likely to benefit from her generosity.
He proceeded then to congratulate me on my discovery of Beef, which I thought a very back-handed compliment.
“You really have got something there,” he said. “That old policeman’s a genius in his way. His scope is limited, of course; he would be no good in some great international espionage case, but for commonplace murders and so on he’s excellent.”
“I am interested in the fact that you find it necessary to tell me this,” I retorted curtly.
“My dear Lionel,” my brother replied, “it seems only too necessary to tell you. However, when your friend has unravelled this mystery, perhaps you will have more faith in him. We must now go over to school.”
My first impression of Beef in the Porter’s Lodge was an unfortunate one. Dressed in the garish costume which, we had been told, was the traditional one for his office, he was standing in the doorway looking so self-conscious that he might have been posing for a photograph, while several mildly interested boys stood round with their hands in their pockets.
“I wonder what it’s called?” I heard one boy say to another.
“I don’t know. Looks a boozer to me,” replied his friend, moving away as though bored.
I approached the Sergeant.
“Better say your name’s Briggs,” I told him in an undertone. “Some of them have probably read my book, which would give the whole game away.”
“Shouldn’t hardly think it’s likely,” sniffed Beef. “They don’t sell enough to get down here, and boys like something exciting.”
He was watching the clock above his head studiously, and when it had reached the hour he moved hurriedly across to the button of the school bell. I saw his wide thumbnail whiten with the energy he put into the ringing of this. It was the first time that he had done it, and it was evident that he enjoyed the sense of authority it gave him.
He seemed to do fairly well during the early part of that morning, for as I walked about the school I noticed classes changing regularly at their appointed times. But after the Eleven O’clock Break there appeared to be some confusion. Small groups of boys hung about with furtive looks on their faces, fearing that if they spoke this extension sent from heaven would be snatched away from them. A master or two looked up surprised at the big clock in the quad, and went away apparently muttering, as if the whole matter was much too deep for them to understand. Never had such a thing happened before. There was a strange feeling of uncertainty about the place, and not liking the appearance of the situation, I dashed down to the Porter’s Lodge, extremely perturbed myself. But I saw Beef lethargically glancing at the morning paper.
“Beef!” I exclaimed. “It’s ten minutes past the bell!”
“I know, I know,” said Beef, and yawned.
“Then why don’t you ring it?”
“Give them a bit of extra time off,” explained Beef. “I know I would have liked it when I was a nipper.”
“But, Beef, you don’t seem to realise that this isn’t a kindergarten. It’s a great public school. It’s tradition . . .”
“Can’t see what difference that makes,” said Beef. “Boys is boys all the world over. I saw then crowding into the tuckshop just now. I said to myself, ‘They shall have ten minutes extra this morning.’ Now there are six hundred of them. So I reckon I’ve given over four days’ holiday one way and another. And that’s something in a hard-working world.”
“Beef!” I exclaimed desperately. “Ring that bell!”
With maddening slowness he did eventually press the button, and the school curriculum was resumed.
It was not, however, until the afternoon that Beef began the more serious business of investigation.
“Come on,” he said to me, “we’re going to have a look at the gymnasium,” and I found myself marching across the quad beside a silk-hatted Beef, who looked rather like one of the attendants at the doors of the Stock Exchange.
“They promise me nothing’s been touched,” he said as he unlocked the door. “So we can have a good look round. Lock that up again, and we’ll have the place to ourselves for a bit.”
The gymnasium at Penshurst, as I have said, appeared from the outside to be a large building, but from the inside, deserted as it was, it seemed huge. It was about three times as long as it was broad, with a wooden floor covering the length of the building. About twenty feet from the ground, above the wall bars which surrounded the walls, were the long, narrow windows which lighted the building. There was the usual apparatus to be found in buildings of this kind: vaulting-horses, large coconut-matting squares, parallel and horizontal bars, ropes and rings. At one end was a large wooden gallery, below which were the doors leading to the changing rooms and shower-baths.
After a glance around him in which he might have been a prospective tenant examining the front room of a new house, Beef started a very minute examination of every foot of floor space. He walked slowly up and down, his eyes travelling left and right till he had thoroughly covered the whole expanse of timber which made the floor. Having done that he started on the apparatus, even going under the leather of the vaulting-horses as if to see if there were any cuts or tears in which something might have been concealed. He looked at the ropes which were used for climbing, at the one rope left of the rings, and at the other which had been used for the fatal purpose we knew, and which was lying on one of the benches.
On the ground was the one soft leather boot which Alan Foulkes had not been wearing. Beef picked this up and pushed his fingers down to the toe, then examined its marking, the tape which had been stitched inside and bore the name A. Foulkes in printed red letters. He picked up a pair of boxing-gloves which were beside the boot, and made an equally thorough examination of these. Then, moving over to the chair, which now stood forlornly in the centre of the gymnasium, he ran his eye over it. I began to get impatient, not only because I felt that this was a waste of time, but also because I was convinced that Beef was behaving in this way with the deliberate intention either of exasperating or impressing me—I could not be sure which. I imagined that he had read of detectives making ‘searching examinations’ or ‘minute investigations’ of this or that, and now supposed that he must do his part.
“Oh, come on, Beef,” I said, when he had gone on all fours to examine the thick coconut-matting in front of a vaulting-horse. “Surely that is not necessary?”
I felt that nothing more like an ‘amateur sleuth’ could be imagined than the old Sergeant, kneeling there with his gold-braided silk hat tipped on the back of his head and his face close to the matting.
“We’re only just beginning yet,” he told me, and proceeded to lift the heavy mat to look under it. I approached to help him, and as I did so he dropped it back into place, covering with dust the new blue serge suit which I had purchased out of the meagre proceeds of Case with Four Clowns.
“Really, Beef,” I expostulated. But he gave only a coarse laugh and moved over towards the changing-rooms.
He opened every cupboard, his hand went into every locker. It took him perhaps an hour to go through the changing-rooms alone, and I was threatening to leave him to it when he moved on to the shower-baths. Here he examined the outlets for water. These were small, square brass fittings, and to my amazement each one of these had to be levered from its place while the Sergeant’s hand groped down into the space below.
“What are you looking for?” I beseeched him, but he only proceeded with his search. He went upstairs and spent twenty minutes on the gallery. It was teatime before he walked out into the main body of the gymnasium, and sat down in the chair for a moment as though exhausted.
Just then there came a knocking on the door of the gymnasium, and I went over to find my brother standing there with a stranger. I was growing extremely irritated with Vincent’s officiousness in this matter, and that, combined with a long and tiring search in the gymnasium, had rendered me short-tempered.
“Is Sergeant Beef here?” asked Vincent.
“He’s very busy at the moment,” I replied shortly, but my words were tactlessly belied by Beef himself, who lunged forward and asked what he was wanted for.
“This is the Coroner’s Officer,” explained my brother, indicating the jaundiced individual who stood beside him, picking his teeth, and looking as if he wanted a cup of tea.
“So you’re Sergeant Beef?” he said. “Well, I heard that you’d been put on to this by Lord Edenbridge, and I thought it was only etiquette to come across and make your acquaintance.”
“I take that very kindly,” said Beef.
“Anything you want to know?” asked the other.
“Only one thing,” Beef assured him, “and I can tell you that straight away. What was in that lad’s pockets when you carried him away?”
“He hadn’t got any pockets,” said the Coroner’s Officer.
“And nothing on him at all except boxing knickers and one boot?”
“Nothing at all. His other clothes are over there.”
“Yes, I’m just coming to those,” said Beef. “I really wanted to know whether anything had been found on the lad himself.”
“Well, I’ve told you that,” said the man, then added curiously: “Are you trying to make out that it wasn’t suicide?”
“I’m just having a look round,” explained Beef vaguely. ’It doesn’t hurt to make sure, does it?”
The Coroner’s Officer shook his head.
“We’ve made up our minds,” he assured us. “That’s right,” said Beef. “Well, I’m very pleased to have met you, but I must get on.” He turned back to the gymnasium without waiting for my brother or the Coroner’s Officer to leave the room. Indifferent to our bewildered glances, he began to walk right round the walls, running his hand along a narrow shelf formed by the top of the varnished panelling. I turned to the others and met the perplexed gaze of the Coroner’s Officer, and the insincere glint of interest in my brother’s eye. “Extraordinary!” said the Coroner’s Officer. “He’s an extraordinary man,” said Vincent. And the two of them made for the door.
When I rejoined Beef, he had begun to turn out the pockets of the dead boy’s clothes. In them he found the usual jumble of articles that are to be found on the average schoolboy—fountain-pens, games lists, a knife, a small sum in silver, and a pocket-case. When Beef reached the pocket-case his attention became more fixed. He examined each paper in turn, and finally pulled out the photograph of a girl with frizzy hair and a pert expression.
“Ah!” said Beef. “Nice, isn’t she?”
Personally, I thought the young woman rather common, and could not pretend to take much interest. “She may suit your taste,” I said.
“Now, now,” cautioned Beef. “You know my days for that sort of thing are over. My interest in this young lady is purely professional.”
He then pushed the photograph back into the case, the case back into the pocket of the jacket, and hung the jacket back on the peg where he had found it.
“Well, I don’t know what you think,” he said, “but I should call it time for a cup of tea.”
“I should just like to know,” I asked sarcastically, “whether you think you’ve found anything?”
Beef put on his most mysterious expression. “I’ll go so far as to say,” he murmured, “that I haven’t found exactly what I was expecting not to find.” And with that characteristically bovine remark he led the way out of the gymnasium.