Case with Ropes and Rings
When we reached the White Horse that evening, as reach it we inevitably did, Freda seemed quite pleased to see us.
“Well, have you got any farther?” she asked when she had drawn Beef’s beer and handed me my glass of sherry.
“I’ll tell you what,” said Beef. “I can go so far as to say without any doubt at all that it wasn’t suicide.”
Freda’s eyes opened wide.
“You mean he was murdered?” she gasped.
“I said so,” said Beef.
“Whoever done it?” asked Freda, with more curiosity than good grammar.
“That’s what we’re in the course of finding out,” Beef told her.
“Wouldn’t have been that Indian?” suggested Freda naively. “Don’t forget he’d just been disqualified and lost the championship.”
“It’s far too early to start naming suspects,” continued Beef. “It’ll all be clear in time.”
At this point Freda was called away, and Beef Insisted on our sitting down. I would have been quite content to remain at the bar, for I found Freda most refreshing, but the Sergeant was adamant.
“Been on my feet all day,” he remarked, and led me to a sort of alcove from which it was no longer possible for me to watch the barmaid or to be seen by anyone entering the bar.
We must have been there about half an hour, and Beef had already been across to the counter to replenish our glasses, when I heard a voice which I recognised at the bar behind us.
“Evening, Freda,” it said gruffly, and I knew that it belonged to the man who had been so very rude to us the other night when we first arrived here. I was about to go forward, when Beef said “’Ush!” and raised a warning hand.
“Have those two been in here again?” asked the man in the same loud, aggressive voice as I remembered.
“Which two?” said Freda innocently.
“Those two nosy-parkers what’s been asking questions about young Alan Foulkes,” explained the fellow, unable to keep the hostility out of his tone.
At this point Freda must have told him by signs that we were seated in the alcove, for he walked straight up to where we were and looked from one to the other. “Oh, I see—eavesdropping, eh?”
Beef spoke with an attempt at dignity which he is not fitted to assume.
“I’d like you to know that I’ve got something better to do than to listen to your conversation.”
“Then why the hell don’t you do it?” asked the man with more logic than good manners. Then, without waiting to say good-night to us or to Freda, he swallowed his drink and walked out of the bar. Beef went across to Freda and I followed.
“What is that man’s name?” he asked.
“That? Don’t you know? He’s Alf Vickers. He’s the head groundsman up at the school.”
“Oh,” said Beef.
“You don’t want to take any notice of him. He’s silly about me. Has been for years. Comes in here night after night and turns nasty if anyone else speaks a civil word to me. There’s no harm in him, though; it’s only his way.”
“Still,” said Beef, “he might learn how to speak to anybody. How did he get on with young Foulkes?”
“Well, can’t you imagine?” asked Freda, pulling out a small mirror and using a lipstick. “With Alan coming down, at night to see me it wasn’t to be expected that they’d be friends, was it? I used to have terrible scenes with Alf Vickers over that. I told him a hundred times that Alan was only a schoolboy imagining he was grown-up, but Alf wouldn’t have it. ’Course, he’s asked me to marry him.”
“Well, I hope you can teach him some manners,” said Beef, “that’s all.” And he ordered two more drinks.
“It’s the inquest to-morrow, isn’t it?” queried Freda.
“Yes, and I shan’t be able to go,” said Beef.
“Why ever not?”
“I have my duties to do as School Porter,” Beef told her. “Besides, it wouldn’t be no help to me. The verdict’s a foregone conclusion already. I shan’t waste my time on it.”
“Seems a funny way of going about investigation,” Freda remarked. Just then she was called away to serve some drinks, and it must have been ten minutes before she spoke to us again.
“Aren’t neither of you going to enter for our darts championship?” she asked amiably.
Beef looked very important.
“I entered for the News of the World singles last year,” he said. “That’s All England, you know. It was only a bit of bad luck over the double five that kept me from the semi-finals. Shouldn’t hardly think it would be worth while entering for this, would it?”
“Depends,” said Freda. “Some of them are good players.”
“When is it?” asked Beef.
“Well, it’s all next week really. We generally play the finals on the Saturday. It gets big crowds here. Of course, it’s only for our customers, this one. Mr. Higgs—that’s the landlord— puts up a pound note as a prize, and there’s a little silver cup that goes with it.”
“Well, I don’t see why I shouldn’t enter,” remarked Beef. “It would help to pass the evenings while I’m working on this case.”
“What about you?” asked Freda, turning to me with a pleasant smile, but before I could answer Beef had once again rudely interrupted.
“He doesn’t hardly play darts.”
“What about the time . . . ?” I began.
“All right. Put him down,” said Beef. “It won’t hurt. Now we must be getting along home.”
My brother was still up when I reached his house, and he asked me what sort of a day we had had.
“You know,” I said, “I’m really afraid Beef’s beaten this time. It’s part of his technique to appear completely bewildered up to the last, but I am sure that he hasn’t a clue yet. Everything he has found out seems negative. It will look very bad for you as well as for me if he turns out a complete failure in this case.”
“I shall survive it,” said my brother coldly. “But in any case he won’t, you know.”
Next morning Beef decided that after all he would attend the inquest.
“It would look bad to Lord Edenbridge if I wasn’t there. I should call it a waste of time myself, but I think I shall have to put in an appearance.”
“Good. I’ll come with you,” I said.
“Oh, no,” said Beef. “You’ll stay here in the Porter’s Lodge and ring the bells and stamp the boys’ passes. I don’t know but what you didn’t ought to wear the uniform,” he said, running his eye over me as if to see if it would fit. “Sort of Deputy Porter, you’ll be.”
“Uniform!” I said contemptuously. “What on earth do you take me for? It would be as well if you’d remember sometimes that I’m a distinguished modern writer, and to suggest that I should dress up in those things is absurd. However, if you feel you should attend this inquest, I will remain here and ring the bells for you. Only please don’t stay away longer than you can help. You must see that this is no task for me.”
Presently I watched him march out of the school gates and down the road and felt myself faced with all the responsibilities of his position. I had scarcely seated myself in his chair when a cheeky-looking boy with red hair and freckles stuck his face in at the door.
“Where’s Boggs?” he asked.
“You mean Mr. Briggs,” I said sharply.
I comforted myself with the reflection that it was too much to expect of the boys that they should feel any great respect for the personality of Beef, and that the use of an irreverent nickname in my presence had probably been involuntary.
“Perhaps,” I added, half sarcastically, “you have been inventive enough to supply a nickname for me as well?”
“Yes; Ticks,” he said quickly.
“Ticks?” I repeated.
“Yes. You know—things that jump,” and he proceeded to perform some saltatory movements in front of my eyes.
I have never been one to deny sympathy to extreme youth, and I flatter myself that I have not so far forgotten my own boyhood as to be unable to appreciate the irresponsibilities of the young. But I felt that in this case I must put my foot down.
“Most unmannerly,” I said. “Now if you want your pass stamped, kindly hand it to me.”
“Good lord, you talk like one of the beaks,” said the boy, suppressing a yawn. “What the hell are you, anyway?”
“At least, I’m old enough to be your father,” I pointed out.
“God! How many times am I to hear that crack?” sighed the boy. “Here’s my pass; hurry up and stamp it because I want to get down the town.”
Odious youngster, I thought, as I saw him disappear.
The whole morning was most unpleasant, particularly when I was unfortunately a few minutes late in dismissing the school for break. A number of boys crowded round the Lodge and became quite threatening and abusive.
“Well,” I pointed out, “you had an extra ten minutes the other morning.”
This, however, though it was both just and logical, made no impression on them, and one of them even went so far as to threaten violence if I did not put the lost three minutes on to the end of their free time. This was, of course, out of the question, as I told them, and there were a number of bitter remarks. I thought it was wiser, however, not to point out to them that I was a brother of their Senior Science Master. I felt that they would have been so taken aback that it might seriously have jeopardised our chances of obtaining information in the future. So I contented myself with an angry silence. I was relieved to find that after ten minutes or so they began to move away.
It was past one o’clock when Beef returned. I told him sharply of the predicament I had been left in, stating that I would never act for him in that capacity again. He, however, seemed more interested in the inquest he had attended, and although it apparently threw no light on the matter we were investigating, he told me at great length how each person had behaved. The cause of death was given as strangulation, which, as he pointed out, got us no farther. Jones had cut a very poor figure. His hands, Beef said, were trembling, and he was certain that he was suffering from delirium tremens. The Headmaster had given his evidence in a pained but dignified way. Lord Edenbridge had been present, but had, of course, shown no emotion.
“So that you’ve really learned nothing?” I asked.
“Only one thing worth mentioning,” said Beef. “The doctor said he judged the boy to have died about midnight.”