The Man in the Queue, by Josephine Tey

14

The Statement

It was not at Carninnish, however, that Lamont gave his statement to the inspector, but on the journey south. Dr. Anderson, on hearing what was mooted, pleaded for one more day’s rest for his patient. “You don’t want the man to have inflammation of the brain, do you?”

Grant, who was dying to have a statement down in black and white, explained that the man himself was anxious to give one, and that giving it would surely harm him less than having it simmering in his brain.

“It would be all right at the beginning,” Anderson said, “but by the time he had finished he would need another day in bed. Take my advice and leave it for the mean-time.” So Grant had given way and let his captive have still longer time to burnish the tale he was no doubt concocting. No amount of burnish, he thought thankfully, would rub out the evidence. That was there unalterable, and nothing the man might say could upset the facts. It was as much curiosity on his part, he told himself, as fear for his case that made him so eager to hear what Lamont had to say. So he bullied himself into some show of patience. He went sea-fishing in Master Robert with Drysdale, and every chug of the motor reminded him of the fish he had landed two nights ago. He went to tea at the manse, and with Miss Dinmont’s imperturbable face opposite him and an odd pepper-pot alongside the salt on the table, his thoughts were almost wholly of Lamont. He went to church afterwards, partly to please his host, but mainly to avoid what was evidently going to be a tête-à-tête with Miss Dinmont if he stayed behind, and sat through a sermon in which Mr. Logan proved to his own and his congregation’s satisfaction that the King of kings had no use for the fox-trot; and thought continually of the statement Lamont would give him. When the incredibly dreary noise of Highland “praise” had faded into silence for the last time and Mr. Logan had pronounced an unctuous benediction, his one thought was that now he could go back and be near Lamont. It was rapidly becoming an obsession with him, and he recognized the fact and resented it. When Mrs. Dinmont — Miss Dinmont had not come to church — reminded him as she was saying good-night that on the morrow the car would stop at the manse gate to allow them to say goodbye to Mr. Lowe, it came as a shock to him that there was more play-acting to be done before he departed from Carninnish. But things proved easier than he had anticipated. Lamont played up as he had played up during the fateful tea, and neither his host nor his hostess suspected that there was anything more serious amiss than the matter of his health. Miss Dinmont was not present. “Dandy said she had already said goodbye to you, and it is unlucky to say goodbye twice,” her mother said. “She said you had been unlucky enough already. Are you a very unlucky person, then?”

“Very,” said Lamont, with an admirable smile and as the car moved away, Grant took out the handcuffs.

“Sorry,” he said brusquely. “It’s only till we reach the railway.” But Lamont merely repeated the word “Unlucky!” as if, surprisingly, he liked the sound of it. At the station they were joined by a plainclothes man, and at Inverness had a compartment to themselves. And it was after dinner that night, when the last light was going on the hills, that Lamont, pale and rather ill-looking, offered again to tell them all he knew.

“It isn’t much,” he said. “But I want you to know.”

“You realize that what you say may be used against you?” Grant said. “Your lawyer would probably want you to say nothing. You see, it’s putting your line of defence into our hands.” And even while he was saying it, he was wondering: Why am I so punctilious? I’ve told him already that anything he says may be used against him. But Lamont wanted to talk, and so the constable produced his notebook.

“Where shall I begin?” Lamont asked. “It’s difficult to know where to start.”

“Suppose you tell us how you spent the day Sorrell was murdered that’s a week last Tuesday — the 13th.”

“Well, in the morning we packed — Bert was leaving for America that night and I took my things to my new room in Brixton and he took his to Waterloo.”

Here the inspector’s heart missed a beat. Fool! He’d forgotten all about the man’s luggage. He had been so hot on the false scent of the Ratcliffes and then on the trail of Lamont that he hadn’t had time to see the thing under his nose. Not that it was of supreme importance, in any case.

“That took us till lunchtime. We had lunch in the Coventry Street Lyons —”

“Whereabouts?”

“In a corner table on the first floor.”

“Yes; go on.”

“All the time we were having lunch we argued as to whether I was going to see him off or not. I wanted to go down to Southampton with him and see him sail, but he wouldn’t let me come even to the boat-train at Waterloo. He said there wasn’t any-thing in the world he hated like being seen off, especially when he was going a long way. I remember he said, ‘If a chap’s not going far, then there’s no need, and if he’s going to the other side of the world, then there’s no good. What’s a few minutes more or less?’ Then in the afternoon we went to the Woffington to see Didn’t You Know?

“What!” said Grant. “You went to the show at the Woffington in the afternoon?”

“Yes; that was arranged a long time beforehand. Bert had booked seats. Stalls. It was a sort of final do — celebration. At the interval he told me that he was going to join the pit queue for the evening performance as soon as we got out — he had gone a lot to Didn’t You Know? It was a sort of craze; in fact, we both went a lot — and said that we’d say goodbye then. It seemed a poor way to me to say goodbye to a pal you’d known as well as I knew Bert, but he was always a bit unaccountable, and anyhow, if he didn’t want me, I wasn’t going to insist on being with him. So we said goodbye outside the front of the Woffington, and I went back to Brixton to unpack my things. I was feeling awfully fed up, because Bert and I had been such pals that I hadn’t any others worth mentioning, and it was lonely at Brixton after Mrs. Everett’s.”

“Didn’t you think of going with Sorrell?”

“I wanted to, all right, but I hadn’t the money. I hoped for a while that he’d offer to lend me it. He knew that I’d pay him back all right. But he never did. I was a bit sore about that too. Every way I was pretty fed up. And Bert himself didn’t appear to be happy about it. He hung on to my hand like anything when we were saying goodbye. And he gave me a little packet and said I was to promise not to open it till the day after to-morrow — that was the day after he sailed. I thought it was a sort of farewell present, and didn’t think anything more about it. It was a little white packet done up in paper like jewellers use, and as a matter of fact I thought it was a watch. My watch was always going crazy. He used to say, ‘If you don’t get a new watch, Jerry, you won’t be in time for kingdom come even.’”

Lamont choked suddenly and stopped. He carefully wiped away the steam on the window and then resumed:

“Well, when I was unpacking my things in Brixton, I missed my revolver. I never used the thing, of course. It was just a war souvenir. I had a commission, though you mightn’t think it. And I tell you straight I’d rather a thousand times be for it wire-cutting, or anything else like that, than be hunted round London by the police. It isn’t so bad in the open. More like a game, somehow. But in London it’s like being in a trap. Didn’t you feel that it wasn’t so deadly awful out in the country somehow?”

“Yes,” admitted the inspector; “I did. But I didn’t expect you to. I thought you’d be happier in town.”

“Happy! God!” said Lamont, and was silent, evidently living it over again.

“Well,” prompted the inspector, “you missed your revolver?”

“Yes; I missed it. And though I didn’t use it — it used to be kept locked in a drawer at Mrs. Everett’s — I knew exactly where I had put it when I was packing. Whereabouts in the trunk, I mean. And as it was only that morning I had packed, I was just taking things out in the reverse order from the way I’d put them in, and so I missed it at once. And then I grew frightened somehow — though even yet I can’t tell you why. I began to remember how quiet Bert had been lately. He was always quiet, but lately he had been more so. Then I thought he might just have wanted a gun going to a strange country. But then I thought he might have asked for it. He knew I’d have given it to him if he asked for it. Anyway, I was sort of frightened, though I couldn’t tell you just why, and I went straight back to the queue and found him. He had a good place, about a third of the way down, so I think he had had a boy to keep his place for him. He must have meant all the time to go back on his last night. He was sentimental, Bert. I asked him if he had taken my revolver, and he admitted it. I don’t know why I grew so scared then all of a sudden. Looking back, it doesn’t seem to be anything to be scared about — your pal having taken your revolver. But I was, and I lost my head and said, ‘Well, I want it back right now.’ And he said, ‘Why?’ And I said, ‘Because it’s my property and I want it.’ He said, ‘You’re a mean skunk, Jerry. Can’t I borrow anything of yours even when I’m going half round the world and you’re going to stay in little safe old London?’ But I stuck to having it back. Then he said, ‘Well, you’ll have a sweet time unpacking my things for it, but I’ll give you the key and the ticket.’ It was only then that it occurred to me that I had taken it for granted that he had the revolver on him. I began to feel small and to feel I’d made a fool of myself. I always did things first and thought afterwards, and Bert always thought for ages about a thing, and then would do exactly as he had intended to. We were opposites in lots of ways. So I told him to keep his ticket and the revolver too, and went away.”

Now there had been no cloakroom ticket found in Sorrell’s possession.

“Did you see the ticket?”

“No; he only offered to give it to me.

“Next morning I was late because I wasn’t used to doing for myself, and I had to make my own breakfast and tidy up, but I didn’t hurry because I had no job. I was hoping to get a clerk’s place when the ‘flat’ started. It was nearly twelve when I went out, and I wasn’t thinking of anything but Bert. I was so fed up with the way we’d parted and the fool I’d made of myself that I went to a post office and sent a wire to Bert addressed to the Queen of Arabia, saying, ‘Sorry. — JERRY.’”

“What post office did you send the telegram from?”

“The one on Brixton High Street.”

“All right; go on.”

“I bought a paper and went back to my rooms, and then I saw about the queue murder. It didn’t give any description of the man except that he was young and fair, and I didn’t connect him with Bert. When I thought of Bert, I always thought of him aboard ship by this time d’you see? If the man had been shot, I’d have been alarmed at once. But stuck with a knife was different.”

At this stage Grant looked with increduous astonishment at Lamont. Was the man by any remotest possibility telling the truth? If not, he was the most cold-blooded wretch Grant had ever had the unhappy lot to meet. But the man appeared unconscious of Grant’s scrutiny; he seemed wholly absorbed in his story. If this was acting, it was the best Grant had ever seen; and he deemed himself a connoisseur.

“On Thursday morning when I was clearing up, I remembered Bert’s parcel, and opened it. And inside was all Bert’s cash. I was flabbergasted, and somehow I was scared again. If anything had happened to Bert, I’d have heard about it — I mean, I thought I would have — but I didn’t like it. There was no note with it. He had said when he handed it over, ‘This is for you,’ and made me promise not to open it till the time he said. I didn’t know what to do about it because I still thought of Bert as being on the way to New York. I went out and got a paper. They had all big headlines about the queue murder, and this time there was a full description of the man and his clothes and the contents of his pockets. That was in black type, and I knew at once it was Bert, got on a bus, feeling sick all over, but meaning to go to Scotland Yard right away and tell them all I knew about it. On the bus I read the rest of the thing. It said that the murder had been done by some one left-handed, and wanted to know who had left the queue. Then I remembered that we had had an argument that any one might have overheard, and that I had all Bert’s money without a single thing to show how I got it. I got off the bus in an awful sweat, and walked about thinking what was to be done. The more I thought about it, the more it seemed that I couldn’t go to Scotland Yard with a tale like that. I was torn between that and letting Bert lie there while the —— skunk that killed him went free. I was about crazy that day. I thought that, if I didn’t go, perhaps they’d get on to the track of the right man. And then I’d wonder if I was using that as an excuse for not going — funking, you know. My thoughts went round and round like that, and I couldn’t come to any decision. On Friday they said the inquest was to be that day, and that no one had claimed to know Bert. There was one time during that day that I very nearly went to the police station, and then, just when the thought of Bert had got my courage up, I remembered what a thin yarn I had about myself. So instead I sent some of Bert’s money to bury him. I’d have liked to say who he was, but I knew that would bring them all about me in a minute. And then next morning I saw they had my description. They were looking for me. I’d have gone then of my own accord. Only, in the description it said that the man had a scar on the inside of his finger or thumb. That tore it. I got that scar”— he extended his hand —“as I told you — carrying my trunk up the stairs to my room. The buckle caught me as I was letting it down. But that tore it all right. Who would believe me now? I waited till it was late afternoon, and then I went to Mrs. Everett. She was the only real friend I had, and she knew me. I told her every last thing about it. She believed me because she knew me, you see, but even she saw that no one who didn’t know me would believe me. She called me a fool, or as good as, for not going straight away to tell what I knew. She would have. She ruled us both. Bert used to call her Lady Macbeth, because she was Scotch and used to screw us up to doing things when we were wavering about them. She said all I could do now was to lie low. If they didn’t find me, there was always the chance of their getting on to the right man, and afterwards she would give me the money to go abroad. I couldn’t use Bert’s, somehow. When I left her I went all the way into town because I couldn’t bear the thought of going back to my rooms with nothing to do but listen for feet on the stairs. I thought I would be safest in a movie show, and I meant to go up to the Haymarket. And then I looked back in the Strand and saw you behind me. You know that bit. I went back to my rooms at once, and didn’t stir out of them till Mrs. Everett came on Monday and told me you’d been to her. She came to King’s Cross with me and gave me the introduction to the people at Carninnish. You know the rest. After I’d been a day in Carninnish I began to think I had a chance, until I saw you come into the room for tea.”

He lapsed into silence. Grant noticed that his hands were trembling.

“What made you think that the money you say Sorrell left with you was all he had?”

“Because it was the amount he had in his own private account at the bank. It was I who drew it for him more than a week before he was due to sail. He drew it all but a pound.”

“Were you in the habit of drawing money for him?”

“No; hardly ever. But that week he was terribly busy settling affairs at the office and clearing up generally.”

“Why did he draw it so soon if he did not need it to pay his fare, as he evidently didn’t?”

“I don’t know, unless he was afraid he wouldn’t have enough in the business account to pay off all the accounts. But he had. He didn’t leave a ha’penny owing.”

“Was business good?”

“Yes; not bad. As good as it ever is in the winter. We do very little National Hunt betting — did, I mean. During the ‘flat’ it was good enough.”

“At the end of the winter would be a lean season with Sorrell, then?”

“Yes.”

“And you handed the money to Sorrell — when?”

“Directly I got back from the bank.”

“You say you quarrelled with Sorrell about the revolver. Can you prove the revolver was yours?”

“No; how can I? No one knew about it because it was locked up — no one but Bert, I mean. It was loaded, just the way it was when the Armistice came. It wasn’t a thing to leave about.”

“And what do you suggest that Sorrell wanted it for?”

“I don’t know. I haven’t the remotest idea. I did think of suicide. It looked like that. But then there was no reason for it.”

“When you said to me at Carninnish that in your opinion a woman had killed Sorrell, what did you mean?”

“Well, you see, I knew all Bert’s men friends, and he didn’t have any girl ones — I mean girls that are more than acquaintances. But I always thought there might have been a woman before I knew him. He was very quiet about the things he cared about, and he wouldn’t have told me in any case. I have seen him sometimes get letters in a woman’s handwriting, but he never remarked about them, and Bert wasn’t the kind you teased about that sort of thing.”

“Has a letter of that sort arrived for him lately — within the past six months, say?”

Lamont thought for a while and said yes, he thought so.

“What kind of writing?”

“Biggish, with very round letters.”

“You have read the description of the dagger that killed Sorrell. Have you ever handled one like it?”

“I not only never handled one but I never saw one.

“Have you any suggestions as to who or what this hypothetical woman might have been?”

“No.”

“Do you mean to say that you were this man’s intimate friend for years — actually lived with him for four years — and yet know nothing of his past?”

“I know quite a lot about his past, but not that. You didn’t know Bert or you wouldn’t expect him to tell me. He wasn’t secretive in ordinary things — only in special things.”

“Why was he going to America?”

“I don’t know. I told you I thought he hadn’t been happy lately. He never was exactly bubbling over, but lately — well, it’s been more of an atmosphere than anything you could give a name to.”

“Was he going alone?”

“Yes.”

“Not with a woman?”

“Certainly not,” said Lamont sharply, as if Grant had insulted him or his friend.

“How do you know?”

Lamont hunted round in his mind, evidently at a loss. He was quite obviously facing the possibility for the first time that his friend had intended to go abroad with some one and had not told him. Grant could see him considering the proposition and rejecting it. “I don’t know how I know, but I do know. He would have told me that.”

“Then you deny having any knowledge as to how Sorrell met his end?”

“I do. Don’t you think, if I had any knowledge, I’d tell you all I knew?”

“I expect you would!” said Grant. “The very vagueness of your suspicions is a bad feature in your line of defence.” He asked the constable to read out what he had written, and Lamont agreed that it coincided with what he had said, and signed each page with a none too steady hand. As he signed the last he said, “I’m feeling rotten. Can I lie down now?” Grant gave him a draught which he had cadged from the doctor, and in fifteen minutes the prisoner was sleeping the sleep of utter exhaustion, while his captor stayed awake and thought the statement over.

It was an extraordinarily plausible one. It fitted and dovetailed beautifully. Except for its fundamental improbability, it was difficult to fault it. The man had had an explanation for everything. Times and places, even motives fitted. His account of his supposed emotions, from the discovery of the loss of the revolver onwards, was a triumph of verisimilitude. Was it possible, even remotely possible, that the man’s statement was true? Was this that thousandth case where circumstantial evidence, complete in every particular, was merely a series of accidents, completely unrelated and lying colossally in consequence? But then, the thinness of the man’s story — that fundamental improbability! After all, he had had nearly a fortnight to carve out his explanation, plane it, polish it, and make it fit in every particular. It would be a poor wit that would not achieve a tolerably acceptable tale with life itself at stake. That there was no one to check the truth or otherwise of the vital points was at once his misfortune and his advantage. It occurred to Grant that the only way to check Lamont’s explanation was to unearth Sorrell’s story, for story, Grant felt, there must be. If he could dis-cover that Sorrell really intended suicide, it would go far to substantiate Lamont’s story of the purloined revolver and the gift of money. And there Grant pulled himself up. Substantiate Lamont’s story? Was there a possibility of such a thing coming to pass? If that were so, his whole case went up in smoke, Lamont was not guilty, and he had arrested the wrong man. But was there within the bounds of possibility a coincidence which would put in one theatre queue two men, both left-handed, both scarred on a finger of that hand, and both acquaintances of the dead man, and therefore his potential murderers? He refused to believe it. It was not the credibility of the man’s tale that had thrown dust in his eyes, but the extraordinary credibility of the manner of telling it. And what was that but plausibility!

His mind continued to go round and round the thing. In the man’s favour — there he was again! — was the fact that the fingerprints on the revolver and those on the letter containing the money were the same. If the prints he had sent from Carninnish proved to be the same as these, then the man’s story was true to that extent. The tale of Sorrell’s letters from the feminine source could be checked by application to Mrs. Everett. Mrs. Everett evidently believed Lamont innocent, and had gone to considerable lengths in support of her conviction; but then she was prejudiced, and therefore not a competent judge.

Supposing, then, that the man’s tale was a concocted one, what combination of circumstances would explain his murdering Sorrell? Was it possible that he had resented his friend’s departure without offering to help him, so much that he could commit murder for it? But he had Sorrell’s money in his possession. If he had obtained that money before Sorrell died, he would have no reason for killing him. And if he had not, then the money would have been found in Sorrell’s possession. Or suppose he had obtained the money by stealing his friend’s pocketbook during that afternoon, he would still have no urge to murder, and there would have been every reason to keep away from the queue. The more Grant thought of it, the more impossible it became to invent a really good theory as to why Lamont should have murdered Sorrell. Most of all in his favour was that he should have come to so public a place as a theatre queue to expostulate with his friend about something. It was not a usual preliminary to intended murder. But perhaps the murder had not been intended. Lamont did not give the impression of a man who would intend murder for very long at a time. Had the quarrel been not over the revolver at all but about something more bitter? Was there a woman in the case after all, for instance? For no reason Grant had a momentary recollection of Lamont’s face when the Dinmont girl had gone out of the room as if he was not there, and the tones of his voice when he was telling of Sorrell’s suspected romance, and he dismissed that theory.

But about business? Lamont had evidently felt his comparative poverty very keenly, and had resented his friend’s lack of sympathy. Was his “fed up” a euphemism for a smouldering resentment that had blazed into hatred? But — after having had two hundred and twenty-three pounds — no, of course, he didn’t know about that until afterwards. That might have been true, that tale of the packet, and he had taken it for granted that it contained the expected watch. After all, one does not expect to be handed two hundred and twenty-three pounds by a departing friend whose whole fortune it is. That was possible to the point of probability. He had said goodbye, and afterwards — but what did he argue about? If he had come back to stab Sorrell, he would not have called attention to himself. And what had Sorrell intended to do? If Lamont’s story were true, then the only explanation of Sorrell’s conduct was intended suicide. The more Grant thought, the more certain he became that only light on Sorrell’s history would elucidate the problem and prove Lamont’s guilt or — incredible! — innocence. His first business when he was back in town would be to do what he had neglected in his hurry to get Lamont — find Sorrell’s luggage and go through it. And if that yielded nothing, he would see Mrs. Everett again. He would like to meet Mrs. Everett once more!

He took a last look at the calmly sleeping Lamont, and said a last word to the stolidly wakeful constable, and composed himself to sleep, worried, but filled with resolution. This business was not going to be left where it was.

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Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 20:04