Case with Ropes and Rings
We were just reaching the front gate when a stoutish, red-haired woman panted up to us.
“Have you come about the murder?” she said.
This brought out all Beef’s dignity.
“What do you mean, murder?” he asked severely.
“Well, isn’t it?” was the woman’s query.
Her big brown eyes were opened innocently.
“Nobody ought to jump to conclusions,” returned Beef. “And might one ask your connection with the case?”
“Gracious, yes,” said the woman, all smiles and good nature. “I’m the matron here. I’ve worked for Mr. Jones ever since he’s had the house, and I don’t mind telling you,” she added garrulously, “that young Alan was my favourite. A nicer boy we never had in the house, nor a more handsome one.”
“Is there anything you think you can tell us?” asked Beef.
“Yes, but I can’t stand about here under the window talking,” said the matron. “I’ll tell you what; I’ll meet you in the Orange Cafe in half-an-hour’s time.”
Beef coughed, and I was afraid this indicated his dislike of being rushed into something, so I answered for him.
“We shall be delighted,” I said, and hurried the Sergeant out of the gates.
The Orange Cafe had been started by a number of ladies who had found themselves in reduced circumstances, but with a flair for making plain cakes. They had taken some old premises down in the town, and hung a great deal of miscellaneous brass around the room. There they dispensed tea and cakes at somewhat exorbitant prices, justified, I always felt, by the pleasantly quaint surroundings.
Beef, however, detested this kind of thing; he snorted with indignation when a hard if old-world chair was indicated to him, and he found himself in front of an antique table, under which it was quite impossible for him to stretch his legs.
“Horrible places, these,” he exclaimed, though he was well within earshot of one of the ladies, who was just then diffidently acting as a waitress.
She loomed over us, somewhat condescendingly, I must own. “What can I get for you?” she enquired, and when I had given the order, and she had gone to fulfil it, Beef whispered to me:
“Has she got a plum in her mouth?” he asked.
I turned round to him sharply.
“What do you mean?”
“The way she talked,” explained Beef. “Anyone would think she’d burned her throat.”
The situation was eased, however, by the prompt appearance of Mr. Jones’ matron, who bustled into the room, and throwing aside her macintosh came up to our table.
“There you are,” she said. “I mustn’t stay long, because I’ve got two cases of influenza on my hands. But I’ll tell you what I can in the time.”
“Have a cup of tea?” asked Beef.
The matron seemed too eager to begin her story to give much attention to this, so Beef ordered it without her assent. Then she began.
“Yes,” she said, “I’ve been with him ever since he’s had a house, six years now. Poor fellow, with a wife like that what would you expect? Not that it’s all her fault, and I can’t blame the Headmaster. But what a disgrace! I’ve done what I can, but you know what it is when they get like that. You’re done for really, and they say he had so much promise. His name’s remembered to this day as a cricketer, I’m told, and his father was a Housemaster before him.”
“Now, steady, steady,” said Beef. “What we want to know are hard facts. What can you tell me about his private life?”
“What can’t I?” said the matron. “It was the greatest scandal in the history of the school. Drink, women, everything.”
“Funny,” said Beef. “They don’t often go together.”
“Well, they did in this case,” returned the matron. “It was terrible to see. I’ve known him take a whole bottle of whisky to his study, and when I’ve gone to look round in the morning it was empty. As for women, look at the way he was always running up to town.”
“Still,” explained Beef, “there are other things to do in town besides chase women.”
“Not for him there weren’t. I know all about it. Why, at one time he used to keep a room up there to go to in the holidays, and nobody in the house knew where it was. I don’t know to this day, except that he had his letters sent to the Post Office at Marble Arch. Besides, if there weren’t any women, what would he have been blackmailed for?”
She poured out a cup of tea, and looked up from doing so in a rather challenging way.
“Blackmailed?” repeated Beef, his jaw dropping.
“Yes, blackmailed,” said the matron, “and pretty regularly, too.”
“What evidence have you got for that?”
The matron stirred her tea, and I sat examining her very carefully. She seemed a loquacious, good-natured sort of a woman, a bit of a gossip, perhaps, but with no malice in her. Her large, thick-lipped mouth and the honest good nature in her face augured that she was too kindly to nurture a grievance, and I felt that she was giving us this information partly in the hope of clearing up the mystery of Alan Foulkes, partly because she loved talking, and partly because she felt that it was her duty. I imagined that she was immensely popular among the boys, and had done her best to look after them in spite of all the difficulties she was having with Jones.
“I know,” she said, nodding. “It’s only too obvious. Where does his money go to otherwise?”
“If you knew as much about money as I do,” said Beef grandly, “you would know that that’s not a question to ask anyone. There’s ways of getting rid of money what you and I could scarcely dream of. Speculating, for instance.” Beef waved his hand. “Horse-racing. Drinking can cost a bit, too.”
“I know all that,” said the matron. “But it wasn’t any of those with him. He never touched stocks and shares, nor backed horses in his life. And as for drink; well, I dare say he did spend a bit on it, but not enough to get him into the mess he was in.”
“But you’ve just said that women were his trouble. Don’t you suppose they cost anything?”
The matron bridled.
“You must take it from me,” she said. “He was being blackmailed. Besides, I’ve seen proof.”
“What have you seen?” asked Beef.
The matron seemed for the first time to be a little uncomfortable.
“Well,” she began volubly, “I’m not one to poke into other people’s letters and papers, but what I saw I couldn’t help seeing.”
“What was that?” asked Beef.
“Well, it was a letter, a blackmailing letter. Typewritten, it was, with ever so many mistakes in the typing.”
“Did you read it?”
“Well, no,” she said. “I didn’t like to. Besides, I hadn’t the time. It was lying on Mr. Jones’ desk while I was waiting to see him one morning, but I saw one bit which told me all I wanted to know.”
“What was that?” asked Beef.
“These were the words as far as I can remember them: ’I may be no more than a boy, as you say, but you’re not going to treat me as you like. Unless you pay . . .’ I forget how much it was, but it was more than he had at the time.”
Suddenly the matron’s face grew more serious, and her voice took on an earnestness which had not previously been in it.
“You know,” she said, “I’m not telling you this to make trouble. I’ve had a lot to put up with from Jones, but I don’t really bear him any malice, poor fellow. Not now he’s going anyway. I’m telling you this because I can’t bear to think of then) saying young Alan committed suicide. It’s terrible to think of it, isn’t it? One of the nicest boys we’ve ever had in the school, and hanging there in the gymnasium . . . I can’t bear it!”
Beef touched her arm with his hand.
“We know how you feel,” he said. “Only you shouldn’t take it like that. We’ll try and clear this mystery up, and that will be something. If I can prove that it wasn’t suicide, you’d feel happier, wouldn’t you?”
“I suppose so,” she said, and I thought that she was not far off tears. “But it won’t get him back for us, will it? Such a jolly young fellow he always was.”
“I wonder if you realize,” he asked, “what might be thought from what you have told us?”
The matron looked up.
“I mean,” explained Beef, “do you think it’s possible that Jones himself had anything to do with young Foulkes’ death?”
Watching the matron I was convinced that this was the first time the idea had entered her mind. She was taken off her guard, and stared at us helplessly.
“You don’t think that, do you?” she asked.
“I haven’t come to any conclusions,” said Beef. “These are just preliminary investigations, but we have to bear in mind all the possibilities, don’t we?”
“Oh, isn’t it terrible?” she repeated. “To think of Mr. Jones! No, I really can’t believe that. Only I do know,” she added, “that he had some demand on his money again at that time.”
“How do you know that?” asked Beef.
“Well, the finances of the house have been in a terrible state for a long time. The local tradesmen are all getting impatient for their money, and one or two of them have refused to supply us any further. That’s been going on for terms now, but it has never before reached the point where he could not find the cash for ordinary everyday expenses. Even the servants’ wages have got behind. All I could get out of him when I asked him about it was that he had heavy demands being made on him.”
“Has he been up to London since the evening of the boxing?”
“How has he been behaving? Does he shew anything different from usual?”
“Well, he’s nearly off his head with worry; everyone can see that. First of all there’s his own trouble and the blackmail that’s been going on for all this time. Then there’s the financial difficulties into which he’s got his house. Then you know he’s got to leave at the end of the term, and right on top of that comes the tragic business with all the publicity it’s had. No wonder that he shuts himself up night after night with a bottle of whisky.”
Beef shook his head.
“What about Mrs. Jones?” he asked.
“She? Well, you met her. You saw what she’s like. She’s no help to him, nor to anyone else for that matter. She won’t go near the boys, or speak to any of us. She just shuts herself up in her room, and nobody knows what she does there. You know, I’m really frightened at being in that house sometimes. It’s all so queer, and since we’ve lost young Alan—well, I don’t know.”
Beef touched her arm again.
“You must cheer up,” he said. “It’ll all be over in time, and Mr. Townsend’s brother is taking on the house next term.”
She smiled at me.
“Oh, are you Mr. Vincent Townsend’s brother?” she said. “That is nice.”
I decided privately to recommend my brother to retain her services when he took over the house. A most sensible woman, I considered.
“Yes, I’m looking forward to that,” she went on. “He’ll pull the place up again, I’ve no doubt. The boys have been so splendid over all this. You’ve no idea how good they are, and they don’t take advantage one little bit.”
“Ah,” said Beef, bringing the conversation to a close. “So that’s all you can tell me? You know that Jones was being blackmailed by a boy, you know he had to find money at that time . . .”
“I know that there was no love lost between him and Alan Foulkes, and I don’t know where he was that evening. But really,” she added sincerely, “I can’t believe he had anything to do with it. Can you?”
“I can believe anything of anybody till I’ve found out to the contrary,” postulated Beef heavily, and together the three of us left the Orange Cafe.
“And if there’s anything else I can tell you at any other time that can help you, you have only to ask me,” said the matron.
“All right,” returned Beef ungraciously, and raising his hat he led me off towards the school.
“Are you beginning to form any idea?” I said at last.
“No,” said Beef. “I’m all at sea. Tell you what, though,” he added brightly, “we’ll go and have a talk with the fellow who found the body. That might be interesting, mightn’t it?”
On enquiry, Beef was told that Alan Foulkes’ body had been found by a man called Stringer, who was responsible for cleaning the gymnasium and also the school quad. Beef found him that evening just finishing work, and about to leave a little shed at the end of a long shelter where the day-boys kept their bicycles.
“Is your name Stringer?” asked Beef.
The man, who was a short, wizened fellow with a violent squint, answered sharply: “I’m responsible to the head groundsman for my work, not the School Porter.”
“Never mind your work,” said Beef. “I’m investigating something more important than that, and I want to ask you one or two questions about the body you found in the gymnasium.”
Stringer sighed with an affectation of impatience.
“I’ve had all that out with the police,” he said. “I don’t see why I should go over it again.”
Beef ignored this attitude, and pulled out his notebook.
“What time did you arrive that morning?” he said.
“I’ve told them once that I was late,” said Stringer. “It wasn’t my fault. Up half the night I’d been. The wife just had her seventh.”
“Well, what time was it?” Beef asked.
“Near enough nine when I got in here, and as soon as I saw it . . .”
“Half a minute, half a minute,” said Beef. “Don’t go rushing ahead. Have you got your own key of the gymnasium?”
“Of course I have,” said Stringer.
“Did you open the door with it that day?”
The man nodded.
“Quite sure it wasn’t open already?”
“Quite sure. Why?”
“Never mind why. Nothing had been broken?”
“All the windows intact?”
“Certainly they were; I’d have reported it otherwise.”
“Now tell us what you saw.”
“Well, you know the rings what hang from the beam and are used for exercises? One of the ropes of those had been taken down and the ring thrown over a beam. Then the other end of the rope was slipped through the ring and pulled tight so that it was hanging from the beam itself. Then a slip-knot was made at the other end, and the young fellow must have stood on a chair with that round his neck. Then he kicked the chair away, and there you are. All he was wearing was a pair of boxing shorts and one shoe. As soon as I touched it I felt his flesh was as cold as ice. Of course I ran for help at once, and Vickers and me got him down while the police were sent for. It was terrible finding him like that. Such a bright young spark he was, too.”
“Now there’s one other thing I want to ask you,” said Beef, “and perhaps it’s the most important of all. All round the gymnasium is hard asphalt, isn’t it?”
“How far back does it go, would you say?”
“Twelve yards or more, I shouldn’t be surprised. There’s the music school up at the far end.”
“Whose job is it to sweep that asphalt?”
“Mine,” said Stringer.
“How often do you do it?”
“About twice a week.”
“How soon after you found the body did you do the job?”
“That very day. I always do it on a Tuesday.”
“Did you find anything?”
“Find anything?” repeated Stringer.
“Yes, anything at all? Think hard now.”
“No, I didn’t.”
“And would you have if there had been anything there? I mean, do you sweep over the whole area?”
“Every inch of it,” said Stringer.
“Is there anything else you can tell us?” asked Beef vaguely.
“Well, there is one little matter,” said Stringer, “but I don’t know if it has anything to do with the case.”
“Let’s have it,” said Beef.
“It was on the day of the boxing championship,” Stringer said. “I was out in the yard here in the morning, when a stranger came up to me.”
“What did he look like?”
“He was tall, but not much to him, if you take my meaning. A mean face, I thought. Nasty complexion. And he began asking me about young Alan Foulkes, what he was doing and where he went and that. I told him about the White Horse, and said he was down there as often as not in the evening. He seemed satisfied with that, and went off.”
“Well, that’s all right then, that’s all I wanted to know. You can go now,” said Beef grandly.
Stringer gave a grunt, jumped on his bicycle, and pedalled away.
“Ah, well,” said Beef, “there’s another day’s work done.”
“Yes, but has it got us anywhere?” I asked.
“I can’t honestly say it has,” said Beef. “Still, we must still keep on trying.” And he left me in order to seek for himself the comfort of the Porter’s Lodge.