Case with Ropes and Rings
About lunch-time I went into Beef’s lodge, and complained to him of the headache I had had all the morning.
“I can see what you want,” he said. “A hair of the dog that bit you. Nothing like it the next day.”
I thought that a glass of soda-water with a few drops of brandy in it would be refreshing.
“We’ll go straight down to the White Horse. We’ll soon get you right.”
And as soon as he had rung the bell we set out.
This time the bar was empty, except for Freda herself, who was reading the paper.
“Oh, it’s you two!” she said without enthusiasm. “Nearly got yourselves into trouble last night, didn’t you?”
“I don’t know about that,” said Beef. “If there had been any trouble it wouldn’t have been for us.”
“He’s funny, is Alf,” Freda confided. “I’ve known him for a couple of years now, and you never know what he’s going to do next. He works up at the school, you know.”
“Oh, so that’s where I’ve seen him before,” I exclaimed rather rashly.
Freda looked up.
“Are you something to do with the school?” she asked.
“I’ll tell you what I am,” said Beef. “Let’s have no mystery about it. I’m a detective, and I’m acting for Lord Edenbridge. Investigating his son’s death.”
Freda stared at the two of us.
“Well, what have you come here for?” she asked.
“You know very well,” said Beef. “There’s no sense in prevaricating. I’ve got a photograph of you, what you give to the boy, and what’s more, I know that he was coming in to meet you of nights.”
Freda seemed extremely upset by this clumsy attack by Beef. She stood quite still for a moment, and turned rather pale. Beef’s face, however, broke into a smile.
“All right, Freda,” he said. “I’m not supposing you done him in. Have a drink and we’ll talk about it.”
“I will have a small white port,” she said faintly.
“Do you know who I think did it?” was her opening and promising remark, when she had swallowed half the sticky liquid. “I think it was that Jones. You know, the master there.”
“Whatever makes you think that?” I asked, but without very much hope of securing useful information. I am too accustomed to these random guesses from people connected with murder cases to attach much importance to them. Still, I thought I might as well hear what she had to say.
“Well,” she said, “he’s a nasty piece of work, that Jones. I’ve heard a lot about him.”
“Does he ever come in here?” asked Beef.
“He never does anything on his own doorstep. I’ve heard he goes up to town when he wants to misbehave himself.”
“You don’t know him by sight, then?” asked Beef.
“Not that I know of,” Freda told him. “Only, of course, we get a good many in and out of this bar.”
“Have you any reason for thinking—what you said about him?”
“Well, Alf thinks so, only don’t tell him I told you. He says that that Jones had been against young Alan ever since he went to the Headmaster about him. Alf says it’s terrible the way they’ve been at one another, though. Alf says Jones has lost his job in any case, and might easily have done something like that. Alf doesn’t reckon he’s all there, rightly speaking.”
“I see. He seems to be a gentleman of strong opinions, your friend Alfred Vickers.”
“Oh, yes,” said Freda. “When he makes up his mind about a thing there’s no shifting him. He says that he’s going to marry me, and I shan’t be surprised if I say yes in the end.”
Beef’s notebook was out once more.
“How long have you known young Alan Foulkes?” he asked Freda.
“Well, since the beginning of last term, you might say. It was only through him coming in here one day to have a drink that I got to know him at all, and I don’t think he wanted a drink really. It was just to be grown-up.”
“Did he come in often?” asked Beef.
“Depends on what you call often,” Freda told him. “They keep them so shut up in that place that he couldn’t have come in often if he had wanted. Once or twice a week he used to come down and see me, and perhaps take me home after closing time.”
I was busy making a study of Freda, and my impressions on the whole were favourable. I believed that she was genuinely distressed by what had happened, and that what friendship had been between her and Alan Foulkes had been a harmless if perhaps silly affair. She did not strike me as being designing or dishonest. In fact, I liked her wide-apart, frank eyes, and thought she was rather good-looking, in spite of the intricate bad taste of her coiffure. She seemed ready to give us all the information she could, and, provided she was speaking the truth, it was a good sign.
Beef’s cross-examination was assuming a more intimate character.
“I wonder if you can tell me,” he asked her brazenly, “just what was between you two?”
“That’s easy,” said Freda. “There was nothing really to speak of. I mean, he was only a kid, and I suppose he took to me, and that’s all there was to it. I mean, he used to kiss me good-night and that, if that’s what you mean, but then you know what a schoolboy is at that age. He thinks it’s grown-up to behave that way. Certainly he never tried to go too far,” she added with a slight lift of her chin.
“I see,” said Beef. “Do you think he was in love with you?”
“Oh, well, you know what it is. He used to say a lot of silly things, but I never took much notice of them.”
“There was a school holiday between the time you first met him and now,” Beef said.
“Oh, yes, he went home for Christmas and Easter.”
“And did he write to you?”
For the first time Freda hesitated.
“Well, yes,” she said at last.
“What sort of letters?”
“Oh, a bit soppy, nothing special.”
“And you kept them?”
She appeared to be very indignant, though I could not help feeling that it was forced.
“Certainly not,” she said. “What should I want to keep them for?”
Beef put on his most innocent expression.
“I have no idea,” he said.
His eyes went up to the ceiling in a most foolish and exaggerated way. There was a long pause, and I found myself trying to work out this odd relationship. Everything, as Freda had said it, might well have been true, and I wanted to think that it was so. Her relationship with Vickers and her very different friendship with Alan Foulkes were completely understandable. She would probably end by marrying the groundsman; in the meantime she had been flattered and amused by a flippant flirtation with the boy. If this were true—and I saw no reason to doubt it—there was nothing very sinister to be looked for at the White Horse.
Beef, however, did not seem to be at all satisfied. He fixed the young barmaid with a stern eye.
“Was he coming down for you that evening?” he said.
“Did he come?” asked Beef.
“Well, yes, he did,” Freda said. “But before we go any farther, I’d like to ask you one or two things. Do you really think he did do himself in that evening?”
Beef appeared rather shocked.
“I mean,” went on Freda, “I don’t believe it. I think there’s some dirty work in this. If I thought that anyone had gone for that young fellow . . .”
“Well, that’s what we’re trying to find out,” said Beef. “And if you can tell us anything to help us in the investigation—well, there you are.”
Freda seemed to be making up her mind.
“Well,” she said at last, “I’ll tell you all that I can, even if it doesn’t amount to much. He promised to come down that evening to tell me how he got on in the boxing. He seemed to set a lot of store by that. He was hoping to beat the Indian fellow, and I really believe the championship meant more to him than anything else. ‘Freda,’ he said, ‘I’ll be down when it’s over,’ he said. ‘If I’ve won I shall want a special kiss!’ That was the way he talked. See? And sure as fate it wasn’t hardly ten o’clock that evening before he was down.”
“And did he take you home?” asked Beef.
“No,” said Freda. “That’s the funny part about it. There was a man standing in the bar when he got in, who, as I realized afterwards, must have been waiting for him for the last half-hour or so.”
“What sort of a man?” interrupted Beef.
“Well, it’s hard to explain,” answered Freda. “He was tall, a bit narrow, with a little thin mouth, and he leaned on the bar as though he needed its support. It must have been just before closing time when Alan came across to see me. He told me he would be in the next night, and without waiting to hear what I had to say, led the stranger out.”
“Ever seen him before?”
“No, never. Well, he must have been waiting for young Foulkes, for he’d been looking around and looking at the clock for an hour when Alan got in, and no sooner were they together than this stranger drew young Foulkes into the corner and they started talking confidential.”
“What about you?” said Beef.
“Well, I don’t mind admitting I felt rather cross. I mean, Alan only came in here to see me, and there they were, gossiping away twenty to the dozen, till I wanted to know what it was all about.”
“Have you any reason to suppose,” asked Beef, “that he wasn’t a local man?”
“No, none at all,” Freda admitted. “He might well have been for all I know. All I can say is I had never seen him before.”
“You don’t know, for instance,” queried Beef, “that it wasn’t Herbert Jones, his Housemaster?”
Freda stared at him for a moment rather blankly.
“Well, I don’t think it was. As you say, you can’t tell. I mean, he didn’t look like a schoolmaster.”
“Well, from your account,” Beef pointed out, “Jones doesn’t behave like one, does he, so what’s the odds?”
“Well, I don’t know,” she said. “All I can say is, if anyone has done the dirty on him I hope you catch him, that’s all.”
“I shall,” said Beef, “if they have. You didn’t overhear anything those two said to one another, did you?”
“No; only a young fellow who stood next to them did tell me afterwards that they were discussing boxing.”
“Boxing, eh?” said Beef, making rapid notes in his notebook.
“Yes. So young Walters said.”
“So he never took you out that evening after all?”
Freda shook her head.
“You never saw him again from the time he left the bar?”
This time she whispered: