Case with Ropes and Rings
Just as I was going home to tea at my brother’s house, Beef said: “Can you manage to be here at ten to six?”
“Why ten to six?” I asked.
“They open at six,” Beef explained.
“Now look here, Beef; this won’t do, you know. In some of our other cases there may have been a certain amount of excuse for you to spend your time in a public-house, but not, with this one. Penshurst is a public school for the sons of gentlemen, and we are not going to do a lot of sordid bar-crawling.”
Beef looked hurt.
“We’ve got to find this young lady,” he protested. Once again it seemed that he had the advantage of me.
“Do you seriously suppose that she has anything to do with the case?” I asked.
“How am I to tell? I don’t know everything, do I? But I’ve certainly got to find her and see.”
“ How will you do that?” I asked.
“Well, I know she’s a barmaid, and I’ve seen the photograph.” I saw my opportunity.
“How do you know it’s her photograph?” I said. “There’s no reason to suppose that Alan Foulkes was only interested in one young woman.”
“Ah, but it’s got a local photographer’s name on it,” said Beef triumphantly. “According to the date she’s written on it, it was only took about ten days ago. I don’t think there’s much doubt about it being her.”
“But how will you go about finding her?” I enquired.
“Well,” said Beef, leaning forward, and speaking in his most conspiratorial and boyish voice, “I’ve got a list here of all the public-houses in the town. It was given me by one of the groundsmen, and looking at him I should say it was pretty comprehensive.”
“But do you know that this place is famous for the multiplicity of its inns? They say that there are more in proportion to the population than in any other town in Great Britain.”
“That’s right,” said Beef contentedly, “and we shall have to try them all in turn.”
“Good God!” I could not forbear from exclaiming.
“Lord Edenbridge is paying all expenses, isn’t he?” said Beef, nudging me painfully in the ribs.
I saw what we were in for.
“All right. I’ll be here at ten to six.”
I was. I found the Sergeant already changed into his familiar blue suit and bowler hat, eager to set out on this most unnecessary adventure.
“We’ll start with a little place round the corner,” he said gleefully. “It’s called the Crown, and it’ll just about start the tour.”
Beef led the way briskly out of the school gates and down the road towards a dingy little drinking house. He pushed open the door of the public bar, strode up to the counter, and demanded to know what I was going to have. Having just finished my tea I felt that a dry ginger would be all that was necessary, but Beef, obstinately ordering a pint for himself, asked for a gin and ginger ale for me. The man behind the bar, a surly, middle-aged Londoner, poured out our drinks.
“You wouldn’t hardly employ a barmaid here, I suppose?” suggested Beef.
“Certainly not,” snapped the man. “There’s not enough in the business. If I’d known when I took this place that there was scarcely a pub in the whole town that could be said to pay, I’d have thought twice about it.”
“Ah,” commiserated Beef, and we found ourselves in the fresh air again.
The White Lion was no more fruitful. The landlord’s daughter helped in the bar, but she was a woman in her late thirties who wore pince-nez and discussed the weather in a refined voice. It was quite inconceivable that young Foulkes could have applied the adjectives mentioned by Caspar to her. At the Rose and Crown there did seem to be more possibility, for the landlord remarked that it was the young lady’s night off.
“Not name of Freda by any chance?” suggested Beef.
“No—Poppy,” said the landlord curtly, and moved away to discuss cricket with a regular customer.
From there we went to the Foresters Arms, which was the smartest hotel in the town, and had a staff of three spruce young barmen in white coats.
“You don’t go in for young ladies here then?” Beef asked one of them.
“Don’t we!” said the youth, grinning coarsely.
“I mean, not working here?” suggested Beef.
“Well, there’s the kitchen staff,” said the young man, with a wink.
“I mean behind the bar,” explained Beef.
“Used to,” said the barman informatively, “up to about a year ago we had nothing else, but then there was trouble.”
“Yes. Well, you know what it is, two or three of them in here. The boss got rid of the lot. He’s never had anything but barmen since.”
When we were out in the fresh air I felt it my duty to point out to Beef that the best way to find Freda, if there was such a person working in one of the bars in the town, was to make enquiries as to what bars employed barmaids, and limit our visits to these. I was already beginning to feel the effects of the alcohol which Beef was so inconsiderately forcing me to consume, and I did not like the prospect of an indefinite number of visits to more and more licensed premises.
“There you go,” said Beef. “Trying to spoil everything. I’m enjoying this. Besides, it would never do to ask questions like that. Everyone would know what we were after.”
“Would that matter?”
“You leave it to me,” said Beef.
Really, I had no option.
I thought at first that we had reached our goal when we got to the “Four Horseshoes,” for the young lady pulling the beer levers was just the same type of fluffy-haired female as the one depicted in Alan’s photograph. It seemed that Beef shared this impression, for, emboldened by the beer he had drunk, he strode up to the bar and said, “Good evening, Freda,” in a loud voice.
“Who are you talking to?” asked the young lady.
“You,” said the Sergeant.
“Well, my name isn’t Freda, it’s Violet,” she retorted, “and in any case it’s Miss Richards to you, if you have to call me something.”
“I’m sorry,” said Beef. “I was mistaking you for someone else.”
“I’ve heard that one before,” said the young lady, adjusting her back hair. “I know there are persons behind bars who put up with any familiarity, but I don’t happen to be one of them. What may I get for you?”
“Told orf,” whispered Beef to me while she was drawing our beer. I saw him surreptitiously examining the young lady’s features before he said: “She’s quite right. It’s not her.”
After which he opened his gullet, poured down the beer in a way which I hope I may never have cause to emulate, and turned towards the door, almost before I had time to swallow the small pale sherry which I had accepted as being the least dangerous of the choices open to me.
When we got to the Bull, which we visited next, it was quite evident that Beef was feeling the effects of the liquor he had drunk. I knew that he had a strong head and never in our relationship, in spite of much time spent in public bare, had he been describable as drunk. On the contrary, although he seemed to like the atmosphere of bare boards, whiskery old men, pint glasses, clay pipes, darts and dominoes, which may still be found in the better kind of country inn, he was in practice a most temperate person, and it shocked me severely to see him getting in this condition. But he stuck to his pints, and I found myself with another sherry in front of me in a bar served by an elderly man.
Beef’s enquiries had got shorter and shorter. “Barmaid name of Freda?” he asked the publican laconically.
“Never ’eard of her,” the man said, and pointedly went up to the far end of the bar to start a conversation with a commercial traveller.
“You know, Beef,” I said when we were alone, “this really won’t do. You’re becoming quite intoxicated, and the room is performing the most extraordinary revolutions round my head.”
I saw Beef grin.
“I wouldn’t half laugh to see you cock-eyed. We may have to go to half a dozen or a dozen yet before we find her,” he added hopefully.
Our next call was at a dingy little house called the Fox, and as soon as Beef found that Freda did not work there and had never worked there, he began to behave in the most outrageous fashion.
“Who likes a song?” he asked of the tired-looking men drinking near us, and before anyone could stop him he had broken out in his noisy baritone voice into some rustic ditty which he must have remembered from his boyhood:
For I can plough or milk a cow,
And I can reap and mow.
And I can reap and mow.
“Beef!” I protested, but he completely ignored me.
“I’m as fresh as the daisies in the field! ” he shouted untruthfully, “And they call I Buttercup Joe.”
The publican was saying, “No singing, please,” in a brisk voice, and though some of the other drinkers were grinning at Beef’s efforts, it was obvious that they met with no very great approval.
“You’ll get arrested,” I cautioned him.
“Arrest the Sergeant?” he laughed. “Not likely.”
“But you’re not a sergeant now,” I said.
“Near enough,” he returned enigmatically, and led the way out into the street.
My recollections of the next two or three public-houses were somewhat hazy, but I do remember more sherry, more enquiries for Freda, and another attempt by Beef, fortunately abortive this time, to break into song. It must have been very near closing-time when I remember him saying, “There’s only two more now,” and leading me down a side street to a little inn called the White Horse. As soon as we had entered the private bar I knew that we had found what we were looking for. The girl behind the bar was almost too obviously Freda.
“Evening,” said Beef, and I must say that he seemed to have sobered himself remarkably well.
“Good evening,” I repeated, smiling at the young woman whom it had taken so much trouble to find.
“What can I get for you?” she asked.
Beef gave the order, and as she brought the drink added: “Your name’s Freda, isn’t it?”
“S’right,” said the young woman, about whom it might fairly be said there was no nonsense.
“I thought so,” grinned Beef.
“Well, what about it?” asked Freda.
“Oh, nothing. I just wanted to know.”
I had not paid much attention to the other people in the room, but at this point our notice was rudely attracted to one of them, a man who had been leaning on a corner of the bar. He stepped forward, and pulling me round to face him said: “Are you two trying to be funny?”
Beef came to my rescue.
“Who are you?” he asked the man.
“Never mind who I am, but don’t try anything with this young lady.”
“It’s all right, Alf,” she said. “They were only just being pleasant.”
The man addressed as Alf was a sour-looking fellow of forty-five, with a thin trap of a mouth and a big bony jaw. His eyes were set rather close together, and the brick-coloured tan of his face argued that his work was out of doors. He relapsed into his corner and refused a drink when Beef offered him one, at which I was somewhat relieved. I had not liked the look of the fellow and had the queer feeling that I had met him before somewhere. I tried to explain this to Beef, but he only grinned speciously.
“You’re boozed!” he said coarsely, and broke into a loud guffaw.
I do not know how we got home that evening, and I know that my brother’s comments next morning at breakfast were most caustic. When I tried to explain the necessity which had taken us into so many licensed premises, he professed to be incredulous. I had a most violent headache, and altogether it was a most unpleasant meal.