Case With Ropes and Rings

Leo Bruce

The following is an exclusive excerpt from Case With Ropes and Rings, the fifth in Leo Bruce’s long out-of-print Sergeant Beef series. When a promising young athlete is found hanged in the gymnasium, Beef’s brother, a school master, hires him to investigate the suspicious suicide while posing as a caretaker.

“It strikes me,” said Sergeant Beef to my brother when we three had returned to his little house, “as you would be a gentleman who would be able to give me the outlines of this pretty clear.”

My brother smiled.

“Yes,” he admitted. “I flatter myself that my reading of the classics of modern detection has not been wasted. I find, unfortunately, that I have no flair for elucidation. But facts, ah, yes; I can give you facts.”

Out came Beef’s notebook at once.

“Let’s have them, then.”

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“First of all,” began Vincent, leaning back in his chair, and bringing his finger-tips together like a parson considering the difficulties of a churchwarden, “I had better tell you something about the family from which the boy came. Lord Edenbridge is the eighth Marquess, and for two centuries at least the family has been extremely wealthy. Lord Edenbridge, as you have seen, is a man of frigid disposition. He lost his wife some years ago, and has never spoken in the House of Lords since. He still rides to hounds, however, and is Master of the Grathurst. His main interest in life has always been the welfare of his two sons and his horses. He won the Grand National three years ago, and his Tobermory is reputed to have a good chance for the Derby.

“We’ve had both his boys here; Lord Hadlow, the elder, left six years ago, and I must say that it was rather a relief to everyone. He was a most charming lad, but he richly earned the adjective traditionally applied to noblemen in their youth—he was ‘wild.’ There are legends of him which persist to this day. We never seemed able, however, to pin anything on him. He was supposed to break out of the school and go up to night clubs in London, returning in time for chapel the next morning. He was credited with having won and lost large sums on horses, and at one time with having an affair with a well-known actress, whose name escapes me at the moment. Despite his apparently wild life—drinking was one of his vices—he was, like his brother, an outstanding athlete, and at the same time he managed to do just sufficient work to avoid detection. Since then, I gather, he has given his father a good deal of trouble. He has had difficulties with moneylenders, one of whom came into Court. A man named Steinberg had lent him a hundred pounds while he was still a minor, at a rate of interest which would have shocked a usurers’ conference, and when Lord Edenbridge heard of it he took action, and the man lost his licence. I tell you this to give you an idea of the sort of story about Hadlow which has reached us down here at Penshurst.”

Beef nodded.

“I know the kind,” he said. “I remember old Murdock, who kept the ‘Green Dragon’ when I was a constable years ago. He had a son who done the same thing. He got through about £70 or £80 of the old man’s money before they realised where it was going at week-ends. Still, you go on with your story.”

“Alan had been here about four years, and it would be no exaggeration to say that he was one of the most popular boys we have ever had. His disposition was charming, irresponsible, and generous. He was an extremely handsome boy, and a magnificent athlete. Boxing was, perhaps, his chief love, but he seemed to excel at all other sports without taking very much trouble about them. He was in both the cricket and football teams, a brilliant rather than a sound player, and had been Victor Ludorum in the Sports for the last two years. You may remember that he won the Hurdles at the Public School Sports at the White City last April. Perhaps he had faults. They were those that might be expected in a young man of his temperament and disposition. He was something of an enfant gâté, with a suggestion of petulance and wilfulness, but without any real egotism or malice. In a word, a popular school hero such as has been described by Vachell in The Hill, and by Austin Harrison in Lifting Mist.

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“He had one great friend, a boy called Felix Caspar, son of the great Harley Street specialist, whose name, no doubt, you know. Caspar contrasted with young Foulkes. He was one of our most brilliant classical scholars, and had already won a scholarship at Balliol, where he will go next October. As you know, I’m myself a science man, and think that the study of the minor lyric poets of Rome in its more decadent days, and droning labours over the commonplace adventures of Odysseus, are grossly overdone. Whether this is so or not, young Caspar excelled in these things, and a remarkable career was predicted for him.

“The two boys spent most of their time together, and since each was pre-eminent in his own world and not in that of the other, there was no disagreeable jealousy between them, and they seemed to appreciate one another’s qualities in a way that is not often given to boys of their years.”

I was watching Beef at work with his pencil and notebook. He did not look up from his task, to him no light one, of making his illiterate notes keep pace with my brother’s circuitous narrative. Personally, I could not help wondering why Vincent should think it necessary to go into all these trivial details of school and friendship, but I remembered that he had always liked the sound of his own irritating voice.

Personally, I could not help wondering why Vincent should think it necessary to go into all these trivial details of school and friendship, but I remembered that he had always liked the sound of his own irritating voice.

He continued.

“There are two other people whom I must introduce to your attention,” he said, “and I speak now not as a master at Penshurst, but as one assisting in an investigation so important that it transcends questions of loyalty and convention. One is the young man who was Foulkes’ rival for the school Heavyweight Boxing Championship, the other his Housemaster. The boy, whom, as you will have heard, he eventually beat, was called Barricharan, and is the son of a fabulously rich merchant, an Indian. You will have, of course, an interview with him later and form your own conclusions about him, but as a matter of mere fact I must tell you that he was Foulkes’ rival in more than this particular championship. In appearance the two made an astonishing contrast; they were of exactly the same height, and both were extremely well-built, though perhaps the Indian was of more perfectly classical proportions. However, as Barricharan was black and brown, Alan was flaxen and pink; as Barricharan was dour and aquiline, Alan was broad-faced with a happy grin. They were rivals in every form of sport. Both were excellent boxers, as you know, and Barricharan was runner-up to Foulkes in the Victor Ludorum in athletics. We anticipated a close contest between them for the individual batting cup this term, while in rackets there was little to choose between them. But it must be added that this rivalry had never given rise to any kind of incident. It seemed, on the contrary, to be entirely good-natured. The two boys were not together a great deal, but no one remembered an ugly disagreement between them.

“The Housemaster . . . (I must be quite frank with you over this, and forget that I am speaking of a colleague), Herbert Jones, has been one of the misfortunes of Penshurst, and it is no secret that he has been asked to resign by the Headmaster. He is due to leave us at the end of this term, and you will, I am sure, congratulate me when I tell you that I am to have his house.”

Beef interrupted.

“Why, what’s the matter with this one?” he asked.

My brother, patiently, with much detail, explained to Beef the privileges of being a Housemaster.

“Oh, I see,” said Beef, nodding. “Is that how you do it? Sort of seaside landlady, eh? I suppose there’s quite a lot of money in it?”

Vincent coughed.

“I believe that it is possible to produce a small credit margin,” he admitted. “But, of course, the welfare of the boys comes first.”

“Still,” said Beef, “catering’s all right if you know how to handle it. I’ve often thought I’d like a little Free House somewhere where we could do dinners, teas, suppers and that. Where you’ve got your customers there for a certain eight months in the year and can reckon out ahead what you need of everything, it ought to be a good business. I’m very glad they’ve given you one of the houses, and I hope you do well with it.”

Vincent smiled.

“But I was telling you about Herbert Jones.”

“Ah, yes,” said Beef. “Herbert Jones. What was the trouble, drink?”

“I’m afraid so,” said my brother. “But there were other things as well. A most unsteady person. He is Modern Language Master here, but there have been stories in the school for years now of his association with disreputable women in neighbouring districts, and on more than one occasion I believe the prefects in his house have had to carry him up and put him to bed in a state of hopeless intoxication. What brought matters to a head, however, was an incident last term, when Jones, returning to his house half drunk, lost his temper with a small boy, and struck him without any real reason across the side of the head. Young Alan Foulkes led a deputation to the Headmaster, and explained that for the good of the school they wished to give him certain details of Herbert Jones’ conduct. It was on the strength of this that the Headmaster took action. Mr. Knox, you will perhaps have noticed, is a somewhat unworldly man, a great scholar and a great gentleman, but not perhaps a great administrator, because he has such faith in the goodness of everybody that he finds it hard to see the minor evils going on under his nose. A saint himself, he assumes the saintliness of others, and it must have been a terrible shock to him when these boys arrived with the story they had to tell.

“Jones, you see, was more than one of our Housemasters. He was, in theory, at any rate, a part of the Penshurstian tradition. His father had been a Housemaster here, and Jones had come down straight from the University to be an assistant master. He was, though you would not think it to look at him, one of the best fast bowlers the school has ever produced. He got his Blue at Cambridge, and played for England against the Australians in 1906. If you follow the annals of cricket you will remember his 7 for 46 against them in the last innings of the Test match at Lord’s. This made it more hard than ever for the Headmaster to realise that he was dealing with a degenerate drunk, a man more suited to teach at Narkover than at Penshurst. There has even been some doubt expressed lately of Jones’ sanity, and his eyes have certainly an odd look in them. All this, of course, you will see for yourself.

What brought matters to a head, however, was an incident last term, when Jones, returning to his house half drunk, lost his temper with a small boy, and struck him without any real reason across the side of the head.

“You can imagine that after young Alan Foulkes had made these representations to the Headmaster his position with Jones was a difficult one. He was Head of Jones’ house, and therefore often in contact with his Housemaster. And the school was full of stories of the hostility between them. Alan seemed to bear no grudge, but Jones was forever attempting to humiliate the boy in front of his fellows, and more than once succeeded in doing so. His hatred of Foulkes might almost be described as insane, a hatred incidentally which was to some extent shared by his wife. There you have the situation up to the evening of the school boxing championships.”

Once again my brother cleared his throat like someone picking at a tight wire.

“Ve-ry interesting,” said Beef, “ve-ry interesting. You certainly have a clear way of putting the facts forward.” He glanced rudely across at me.

“This boxing championship,” Vincent resumed, “was a great event. Penshurst has always been a boxing school. We take it much more seriously than most places. We have had most of the best-known champions down here to give exhibitions, and it would be no exaggeration to say that the Heavyweight Champion of the School is a bigger noise among the boys than the Captain of Cricket. The championship is normally held at the end of the Lent term, but we had a measles epidemic last March which disorganised everything, and the fights had been postponed. There was nothing to choose between young Foulkes and Barricharan, though some critics among the boys used to say that Foulkes had more stamina. I don’t know a great deal about boxing, but I do gather that they were most equally matched.

“The minor fights went off without incident. There were some very good scraps among the lighter weights, and Whitehead, the games master, who was the referee, has told me since that the school has never reached a higher standard. The first two rounds of the Foulkes-Barricharan fight were terrific. There were good boxing and hard hitting. Each took punishment, but neither went down. Then suddenly, in the third round, a most unexpected thing happened. Barricharan hit low, and was at once disqualified by Whitehead, so that Foulkes automatically became champion. But it wasn’t quite as simple as that. Alan himself, though in great pain, protested that he had not been hit low, and the general opinion in the gymnasium was that if it were a foul it was in no way deliberate. However, Whitehead was satisfied, and the decision was given. Barricharan appeared to take it quite well. He congratulated Foulkes and if he did not do so effusively, it must be remembered that he was not an effusive person. They shook hands, and Alan seemed very distressed that he had won the championship in this inconclusive and unsatisfactory way.

“The routine of the school continued as usual that evening. The boys did their preparation and went to bed. I myself had some papers to correct and brought them over here at about nine o’clock. I settled down to work and went to bed at eleven o’clock. Nothing abnormal about the movements of anybody for the rest of the evening has been discovered. Next morning, however, Foulkes’ cubicle was found to be empty. Felix Caspar, who made the discovery, appears to have thought that Alan had slipped up to London, come in by an early train, and would be in time for Chapel, so that he made no report. It transpires that young Hadlow had come down to see the boxing, driving his own car, a very old Bentley, in which he did some remarkable speeds. I gather that Caspar seems to have imagined that Alan had accompanied Hadlow to London in it.

“It was a man named Stringer who made the discovery. It was his duty to sweep out the gymnasium. He should have been there at seven, but for some reason which he has not explained he was late. He went in at eight-thirty and found young Foulkes hanging from a beam.

“There were several curious features about this, however. First of all, he was wearing boxing kit, one of his black boxing boots was on and laced up, the other was not. The rope which had been used was one of the ropes from the rings which had been taken down the previous evening, and there was an overturned chair which, if it was suicide, he had certainly used. The gymnasium was locked, and no door had been forced, or window broken, but as young Foulkes was known to have a key by special permission of the gym instructor it was not remarkable that he should have entered. The rest of the details you will doubtless gather for yourself. So far as any of us here can possibly imagine there was no conceivable reason for suicide. The boy was immensely happy, and as far as we know had no worries at all. On the other hand, it is equally hard to imagine that anyone could have a motive for murdering him. However, all that is for you to discover.”

Beef closed his notebook.

“Well,” he said, “I think I’ve got that clear. Now what about this porter’s job?”

Vincent smiled.

“So far as any of us here can possibly imagine there was no conceivable reason for suicide. The boy was immensely happy, and as far as we know had no worries at all.”

“I think you will find it a little exacting,” he said. “The uniform is a traditional one. You wear a silk hat with gold braid on it, a yellow and black waistcoat, and a coat with gilt buttons.”

At this point I laughed loudly, and Beef turned round to me.

“Whatever’s the matter?” he said.

I looked across at my brother.

“I may have no sense of humour,” I said, “but I can’t help finding the thought of Beef dressed up in this gear which you describe something supremely ridiculous!” And I laughed again, defiantly this time, and in despite of their solemn faces.

“I don’t see why,” said Beef. “There’s worse things worn outside cinemas. If it’s an old custom of the school, well, we must follow it, that’s all. I believe in old customs.”

“Don’t you think that the boys will laugh at you?” I asked.

“If they do, they’ll feel the weight of my hand,” promised Beef with futile emphasis.

Vincent went on to explain what Beef’s other duties would be—the ringing of the electric bell which sounds in every corner of the building and marks the beginning and end of school periods, the taking round during class of the Headmaster’s notices to be read out by each master to the boys he is teaching, and the supervision of the locking of the classrooms. He then offered to take Beef across and show him the Porter’s Lodge which would be in future his headquarters. This turned out to be a cosy little room inside the main arch, where a fire was burning, and an enormous key-rack showed a great diversity of polished steel keys.

Beef gazed about him with some satisfaction.

“Nice wall for a dart board,” he commented, and proceeded to try on the ornate top-hat which hung there. It fitted him perfectly, and he stood for a moment examining his large face. He stared at his straggling ginger moustache, his rather liquid blue eyes, and his highly coloured nose with evident satisfaction.

“Well,” he said, “I never thought that I should ever be taking on a job like this. But there you are, you never know,” and he sat down heavily on the porter’s chair.

When Vincent had left us, I thought it my duty to show some disapproval of his levity.

“You know, Beef,” I said, “you seem to show very little appreciation of the fact that a promising young boy has lost his life.”

He stared up at me with innocent surprise.

“I don’t?” he said. “You don’t know me, that’s all. I was very sorry to hear about the young fellow. As soon as I read it in the papers this morning, I said to Mrs. Beef—‘It’s a shame, I said, that’s what it is.’ With his whole life before him. And if I can do anything to make it easier for his Dad, I shall do it. You mustn’t run away with the idea that I’m heartless, because I have to dress up to do my job. It’s a serious matter this, and I’m the last to forget it.”

He spoke so earnestly that I was genuinely impressed.

“All right, Beef,” I said. “You get at the truth, and I won’t grumble at your methods.”


Reprinted from CASE WITH ROPES AND RINGS by Leo Bruce with permission from Chicago Review Press, copyright © 2019. Original copyright © 1949. All Rights Reserved.

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