Case with Ropes and Rings
Penhurst School, as half the world knows, stands near the Essex coast in the small town of Gorridge. It is one of the many old schools erroneously attributed to the foundation of King Edward VI. Unlike many similar foundations which have grown to the status of great public schools from a purely local foundation, it has from the start attracted boys from a far wider area than its own. For nearly three centuries it furnished the needs of the local inhabitants, for whom it was primarily intended, while also receiving “commoners,” boys not on the foundation, until the appointment of a Headmaster in 1820, under whose lax discipline and lack of interest the numbers of the school dwindled from nearly two hundred boys to forty, nearly all of whom were local, entitled to free education under the old statutes. His successor, however, a certain William Butler, was a man of different calibre; he was young for a Headmaster in those days, and his energy quickly re-established the school both in numbers and scholarship. At the end of his thirty years’ tenure of office, Penshurst had come to be considered as one of the half-dozen leading public schools.
We arrived at Gorridge about two o’clock that afternoon and made our way straight to the school. I pulled my car into the kerb opposite the main gates, and since I already knew the place well I left Beef to form his impressions himself.
Penshurst School may not possess the beauty of Winchester, but it has a certain charm of its own. The original buildings of the sixteenth century remain untouched, and form a small quadrangle of mellow red brick, leading off from which is the old chapel, now used as a library. To the left are the school buildings proper, which are constructed on utilitarian rather than aesthetic lines. But even they have been toned down by time and do not appear to clash with the old part of the school. The huge hall is a memorial to the efforts of Butler, and it stands isolated, on the east of the main group. At the back of the school are the wide, terraced playing-fields, flanked by scattered buildings, one of which stands out prominently. This is the gymnasium, which was built as a memorial to Old Penshurstiai, who fell in the Great War. The gymnasium is an unusually well-equipped building, far superior to those usually found in schools, and Penshurstians make full use of it. Of late years the school has had a great boxing tradition, and it is unusual not to find more than two representatives in the Oxford and Cambridge teams. In fact, in 1932 there were no fewer than seven Blues in the two teams who were Penshurstians.
The Chapel is unfortunate. It is certainly impressive in size, and seen from a distance after sunset its proportions are good, but it was built at that unhappy architectural period when Butterfield-worship was at its height. Fifty years have not dimmed its garishness. Most of the boarding-houses are in the town itself, except for the old School House, the Second Master’s House, and two others, which form part of the old block.
“I suppose there’s something to it,” said Beef. “I mean, I don’t say I should want a son of mine to learn his lessons here; it might give him ideas. All the same, you can’t help seeing it’s all right, can you?”
I nodded curtly, for I have always considered the public school system to be an integral part of the great tradition of English superiority to every other race and regime in the entire world.
I then decided to drive round to my brother’s house.
I need scarcely say that this was a very difficult and nervous moment for me. It was several years since I had seen Vincent, and his caustic way of talking both irritated and embarrassed me at all times. I could scarcely bear to wonder what he would say about Beef, and when his servant said that he was in, and shewed us into a stuffy, book-lined room, I wished heartily that we were somewhere else.
“Well, well,” he said in that mocking voice of his. “My long-lost brother. And how are you, Lionel?”
I coughed, and took his proffered hand.
“How do you do?” I said as politely as possible, and proceeded to introduce Beef.
To my amazement, my brother seemed delighted to meet the Sergeant.
“The Sergeant Beef?” he said. “I’m really honoured now. I’ve been watching your career for years. I would like to tell you straight away and without any reservation that I consider you to be the greatest investigator of our time.”
Now I knew my brother sufficiently well to realise that in spite of all his sarcasm he was speaking with sincerity. Beef himself, of course, was grinning with childish pleasure.
“Thank you, Sir,” he said.
“I speak quite in earnest,” my brother went on. “I read every detective novel that appears. I am intimately cognisant of the work of all the investigators solving crimes to-day, and I have even gone so far as to examine the clumsy efforts of Scotland Yard. But no one, let me tell you, has exhibited such sureness of touch, such incredible astuteness, such feeling for a correct solution as yourself. You are a master, Sir, a master.”
Beef, like a schoolboy receiving a prize from the hands of one of the Governors, stood first on one leg and then on the other.
“I’m sure it’s very good of you to say so,” he returned.
“Of course,” went on my brother, in his maddening cold voice, “I don’t know that you have found quite the right chronicler. My brother Lionel is, no doubt, an excellent penman, but when it comes to genius such as yours, Sergeant, you need a light touch and a real gift for writing prose. You should have approached E.M. Forster or Aldous Huxley, my dear Sergeant. Only novelists of their calibre could really do you justice.”
I saw that Beef, his vanity swelling ridiculously, was agreeing with him.
“Yes, I’ve often said . . .” he began, but I interrupted. “Nonsense,” I said. “What you both seem to have overlooked is that from an obscure police sergeant in a country town I’ve raised Beef to the status of a famous investigator. I have made Beef,” I snapped decisively. The two of them exchanged glances.
“My dear Lionel,” said my brother, “genius like that of the Sergeant needs to bush. And now what can I do for you?” Beef, of course, began clumsily to assert himself. “It’s about this young fellow that was found hanged in your gym yesterday morning.”
My brother nodded with decided interest. “Yes,” he said. “Young Alan Foulkes.”
“It looks interesting to me,” announced Beef. “It is interesting,” said my brother. “But I don’t know whether it’s interesting enough for you, Sergeant.”
“Well, that’s what I’m wondering,” returned Beef conceitedly. “How do you think they would take it if I was to shew my hand in this matter?”
“Well, of course,” my brother surprised me by saying, “we should all be honoured. I have no doubt that the Headmaster will appreciate it profoundly.”
“ Ah,” said Beef, nodding, “but what about Lord Edenbridge?”
“Lord Edenbridge is here this afternoon,” Vincent went on. “I think perhaps the best thing I can do is to go over to the Headmaster’s house and explain that you are considering taking the case up.”
I did not know what to think at finding Beef treated in this respectful way. It would have been gratifying had it not been for my brother’s attitude towards my own literary efforts.
Vincent rose, went to a cupboard, and produced, rather rashly, I felt, a decanter, siphon, and three glasses. Had he known the Sergeant as I did he would have delayed this until the evening, but he poured out three generous portions. Vincent and I drank in silence; Beef made loud smacking noises with his lips in appreciation of what he had been given.
“Came in just right, this,” he exclaimed. “I’ll go and see the Headmaster. You two make yourselves at home. And take another drink when you’re ready for it.”
When we were left together, Beef summed up my brother’s attitude with one of his ambiguities.
“Just shews,” he said, “doesn’t it?” And he reached out for the decanter.
“Do you really think you ought to?” I enquired. “We have to interview the Headmaster, and perhaps Lord Edenbridge as well.”
“You leave it to me,” advised Beef. “I know what’s best.” And he poured out, as I thought, recklessly.
We had sat silently for perhaps ten minutes when Vincent returned.
“The Headmaster is most interested,” he announced. “Lord Edenbridge is with him now, and I do hope you will take the case, Sergeant.”
“If it’s given to you,” I added.
He then led us out into the quad.
A number of boys were lounging about and saw us walking across. I could not help wondering what sort of a figure I would cut in this procession, and when I heard a young voice remark, “Definitely not Old Penshurstians,” I could have wished that the Sergeant was less conspicuous. His bowler hat seemed to me to be the cynosure of the boys’ glances. But Vincent was leading us into the Headmaster’s reception-room.
The Rev. Horatius Knox rose to greet us. He was a tall, handsome man in the late fifties. His hair was a thick, bright silver, and he had a fine, aquiline profile. There seemed to me to be great goodness and gentleness in his face, but I wondered whether he had quite the worldliness necessary for his difficult job. Looking at him, you would have said that he was a saint rather than a great administrator.
His face just now was lined and unhappy, and I felt that here was someone who was feeling the tragedy profoundly. I knew that for this man it must have a double horror, the loss of a young life, and an inevitable scar on the good name of the school. But just now, sitting as he had been with the bereaved father, it was the humanist in him whose emotions were most roused.
“I’ll introduce you both to Lord Edenbridge,” he said in a low voice, and led us down the length of his dignified room.
At the end of this march down an endless carpet, he brought us to a man who had been sitting in a deep armchair, who rose to greet us. I examined Lord Edenbridge with some care. He was a tall, powerfully built man of about sixty, well dressed, though not with precision. He was good-looking in a heavy way, with steel-blue eyes set under a pair of prominent eyebrows. But it was his expression which struck me at once. This was completely immobile and one could not help wondering how emotion could be shewn on such a lifeless mask of a face. “This,” explained the Headmaster, “is Mr. Beef. I understand from my Senior Science Master that he is one of the ablest private detectives at present engaged in the investigation of crime. And this is Mr. Townsend, his secretary and assistant.”
The Marquess bowed gravely as a Marquess should, and I was pleased to see that he was conforming so nicely to type. Though I had not admitted it to Beef, I felt that there was some truth in his suggestion that a few distinguished people and large incomes in one of our books would not be a bad thing at all, and if Anything was going to come of this, it would be “handy” (in one of Beef’s own words) to have such an obviously genuine nobleman figuring in it. “Very sorry to hear about your youngster,” said Beef gruffly.
Lord Edenbridge gave no sign of having heard. His face remained quite mask-like, and I began to hope that I would be able to apply the term “Spartan” to his character. I always feel that it goes well with our House of Lords.
But Beef had not finished his clumsiness yet.
“It wasn’t suicide,” he said suddenly.
I noticed that both the Headmaster and Lord Edenbridge looked up suddenly at this, and when Horatius Knox spoke it was with a chill in his voice.
“Really? And what makes you state that so confidently? The police hold a contrary opinion.”
“I have my reasons,” said Beef.
I felt as I heard him say that how hopelessly out of place was my old friend in these surroundings. Such a reply might have satisfied me or one of the ordinary people concerned in Beef’s other cases, but was calculated to do no more than irritate the Headmaster of Penshurst. My brother, however, rashly put in his spoke.
“You know, Sir, detectives are like doctors. They like to keep their secrets to themselves, and Sergeant Beef assuredly has good reasons for thinking as he does.”
I felt that I should say my word in defence of the Sergeant. “In spite of his appearance, he really has,” I said, “a way of solving these cases.”
Horatius Knox coughed, and clutched the lapels of his coat, then tugged them up and down two or three times. As I watched him, I guessed that this was an idiosyncrasy of his, and I imagined that every small boy in the school who wished to imitate the Headmaster would make this the first step in doing so. At that moment, to everyone’s surprise, Lord Edenbridge’s expression relaxed sufficiently for him to speak.
“Will you undertake to clear my son of the stigma of suicide?” he asked.
“Can’t make no promises,” returned Beef, shaking his head. “But I think it’s odds on.”
I tried to nudge him to make him realise that this was no way to address a distinguished man who had just lost his son. But Beef was uncontrollable.
“I should like to have a go at it, anyway,” he persisted. “That satisfies me,” was all that the Marquess said, and his face at once relapsed into immobility. What, I wonder, was going on behind those steel-grey eyes? Perhaps there was such grief as an ordinary man like me could never imagine. Perhaps there was great bitterness against the world. Perhaps . . . But we shall never know.
Meanwhile I snatched the opportunity of examining the sanctum of one of our great Headmasters. Not since I was a boy at St. Lawrence College, Ramsgate, had I entered such a place, and then it was on no very happy occasion. The high-pitched ceiling, crossed by massive oak beams, was discoloured with the tobacco smoke of years. The desk was a litter of papers, and books were piled on the floor in a hopeless jumble. The entire walls were lined with bookcases, and the shelves were filled with books of all sorts and sizes, placed there at random, and with no regard for order or subject. No attempt had been made to relieve the heaviness of the room, and the windows did not appear to have been opened for months. It was easy to imagine that in this room had been conceived monuments of classical erudition which would eventually be found in studies similar to this, and the man seemed to be in keeping with the room.
I had already judged this Headmaster to be a man of most distinguished mind and character. Beef, however, seemed to think otherwise, for his manner of speaking to Mr. Knox lacked the elements of courtesy and respect.
“Putting me on to it is one thing,” he said. “Helping me to get at the truth is another. Now, can you suggest any way of introducing me to the life of the school in a manner which won’t attract attention?”
We all gazed rather forlornly at the burly figure of the Sergeant, and seeing that his merely crossing the quad had called forth remarks from the junior boys, it scarcely seemed likely that he could become an integral part of the life of Penshurst without producing a sensation in the school. My brother, however, once again stepped forward. “If I might suggest it, Headmaster, Danvers is on the sick list. Perhaps Mr. Beef could take his place for a day or two? Danvers,” he added to Lord Edenbridge and me,” is the School Porter.”
Horatius Knox tugged violently at his lapels, and seemed to be addressing Lord Edenbridge more than anyone.
“A great deal of the efficiency of Penshurst School,” he said, “depends on the School Porter. It needs a man of experience, tact, and unfailing punctuality. If Mr. Beef has these qualities in addition to his gifts as a distinguished detective, I am quite prepared to allow him to fill the post while he is making his enquiries.”
“What do I have to do?” asked Beef bluntly. The Headmaster waved this away as a matter too trivial for his attention.
“That will be explained to you,” he said. “You must in any case be fitted immediately with a porter’s uniform.”
We stood up, and after Beef had made an abortive and unsuccessful attempt to shake hands with Lord Edenbridge, who neither moved nor spoke, we managed to get ourselves out of the room.