The Man in the Queue, by Josephine Tey

16

Miss Dinmont Assists

Gowbridge police court is at no time a cheerful building. It has the mouldering atmosphere of a mausoleum combined with the disinfected and artificial cheerfulness of a hospital, the barrenness of a schoolroom, the stuffiness of a tube, and the ugliness of a meeting-house. Grant knew it well, and he never entered it without an unconscious groan, not for the sorrows that hung about it like invisible webs, but for his own sorrow in having to pass a morning in such surroundings. It was on occasions such as a morning in Gowbridge Police Court that he was wont to refer to his profession as a dog’s life. And today he was in a bad mood. He found himself looking with a jaundiced eye on the rank and file of the force as represented by those on duty in the court, on the hearty and self-sufficient magistrate, on the loafers on the public benches. Conscious of his nauseated mental condition, he hunted round as usual for the reason with a view of banishing it and, after a little cogitation, ran it to earth. He was unhappy about giving his evidence! At the bottom of his heart he wanted to say, “Wait a bit! There’s something here that I don’t understand. Just wait till I find out a little more.” But, being a police inspector with perfectly good evidence and the countenance of his superiors, he could not do that. He could not qualify what he had to say with any remarks of that sort. He glanced across the court to where the lawyer who had Lamont’s case was sitting. Lamont would want some bigger guns than that when he came up for his trial at the Old Bailey or he wouldn’t have a dog’s chance. But big guns cost money, and lawyers are professional men, not philanthropists.

Two cases were summarily dealt with, and then Lamont was brought into court. He looked ill, but was perfectly collected. He even acknowledged the inspector’s presence with a slight smile. His arrival created a stir in the public part of the court. There had been no press warning that the case would be dealt with there today, and all those present were either curious idlers or friends of principles in other cases. Grant had looked for Mrs. Everett, but she was not there. Lamont’s sole friend in court seemed to be the paid one who had charge of his interests. Nevertheless, Grant looked again now for a sign of personal interest on any face. He had found before now that useful information can be obtained from the expressions of presumed strangers in the body of a court. But a careful scrutiny revealed nothing; nothing but curiosity was apparent on any countenance in the audience. But as he left the box, after giving his evidence, he saw a newcomer at the back of the court, and the newcomer was Miss Dinmont. Now Miss Dinmont’s holiday did not finish for a week yet, and she had said at that fateful manse tea that since she had holidays only once a year she spent them all at home; and as he sat down Inspector Grant was marvel-ling at the girl who would not soften towards a man she believed to be guilty of a terrible thing, but who would cut short her holiday and travel five hundred miles to hear the evidence for herself. Lamont had his back to her, and it was unlikely, unless he deliberately looked round the room as he went out, that he would be aware of her presence. She caught the inspector’s eye upon her, and bowed to him, unperturbed. In her neat, dark tailor-made and small hat she looked the complete, self-possessed, charming woman of the world. She might have been a writer looking for copy, for all the emotion she showed. Even when Lamont was remanded and led out of court, her good-looking face was not stirred. They were very alike, aunt and niece, Grant thought; that was probably why they did not like each other. He went up to her as she was leaving and greeted her.

“Are you doing anything, Miss Dinmont? Come and have lunch with me, will you?”

“I thought inspectors lived on tablets of condensed beef extract, or something like that, during the day. Do they really have time to sit down to a meal?”

“Not only that, but they have a very good one. Come and see!” And she smiled and came.

He took her to Laurent’s, and over the meal she was quite frank about her change of plans. “I couldn’t stay in Carninnish after what happened,” she said. “And I had an itch to hear the court proceedings, so I just came. I have never been in a court of law in my life before. It isn’t an impressive spectacle.”

“Not a police court, perhaps,” he admitted; “but wait till you see a big trial.”

“I hope I never shall — but it seems that I’m going to. You have a beautiful case, haven’t you?”

“That is the word my chief uses about it.”

“And don’t you agree?” she asked quickly.

“Oh, yes, certainly.” To admit to Mrs. Everett that he was not satisfied was one thing, but he was not going to blazon it abroad. And this independent girl was certainly “abroad.”

Presently she mentioned Lamont directly. “He looks bad,” she said judicially, using “bad” in her professional sense. “Will they look after him in prison?”

“Oh, yes,” said Grant; “they take very good care of them.”

“Is there any chance of their badgering him? Because I warn you he won’t stand any badgering as he is now. Either he’ll be seriously ill or he’ll say that he did it.”

“Then you don’t believe he did?”

“I think it’s unlikely, but I’m quite aware that the fact that I think so doesn’t make it so. I just want him to get a fair deal.”

Grant remarked on her matter-of-fact acceptance of his word at Carninnish as to the man’s guilt.

“Well,” she said, “you knew much more about it than I did. I never saw him till three days previously. I liked him — but that didn’t make him guilty or innocent. Besides, I’d rather be a brute than a fool.”

Grant considered this unfeminine pronouncement in silence, and she repeated her question.

“Oh, no,” Grant said; “this isn’t America. And in any case, he has made his statement, as you heard, and he is not likely to change his mind or make another.”

“Has he any friends?”

“Only your aunt, Mrs. Everett.”

“And who will pay for his defence?”

Grant explained.

“Then he can’t have any of the good ones. That doesn’t seem to me particularly fair — for the law to keep famous lawyers to do their prosecuting and not famous lawyers to defend poor criminals.”

Grant grinned. “Oh, he’ll have a fair deal, don’t you worry. It is the police who are harried round in a murder case.”

“Did you never, in all your experience, know a case where the law made a mistake?”

“Yes, several,” Grant admitted cheerfully. “But they were all cases of mistaken identity. And that’s not in question here.”

“No; but there must be cases where the evidence is nothing but a lot of things that have nothing to do with each other put together until they look like something. Like a patchwork bedcover.”

She was getting too “hot” to be comfortable in her search after enlightenment, and Grant reassured her and unostentatiously changed the subject — and presently fell silent; a sudden idea had occurred to him. If he went down to Eastbourne alone, Mrs. Ratcliffe, however casual his appearance, might be suspicious of his bona fides. But if he appeared with a woman companion he would be accepted at once as off duty, and any suspicion his presence might arouse would be lulled until he could get Mrs. Ratcliffe completely off her guard. And the whole success of the expedition depended on that — that she should be unprepared for any demonstration on his part.

“Look here,” he said, “are you doing anything this afternoon?”

“No; why?”

“Have you done your good deed for the day?”

“No, I think I’ve been entirely selfish today.”

“Well, get it off your chest by coming down to Eastbourne with me this afternoon as my cousin, and being my cousin till dinner. Will you?”

She considered him gravely. “I don’t think so. Are you on the track of some other unhappy person?”

“Not exactly. I’m on the track of something, I think.”

“I don’t think so,” she said slowly. “If it were just fun, I’d do it like a shot. But when it means something I don’t know for someone I’ve never met — you see?”

“I say, I can’t tell you about it, but if I give you my word that you’ll never regret it, will you believe me and come?”

“But why should I believe you?” she said sweetly.

The inspector was rather staggered. He had commended her lack of faith in Lamont, but her logical application of it to himself disconcerted him.

“I don’t know why,” he admitted. “I suppose police officers are just as capable of fibbing as any one.”

“And considerably more unscrupulous than most,” she added dryly.

“Well, it’s just a matter for your own decision, then. You won’t regret coming. I’ll swear to that, if you like — and police officers are not given to perjury, however unscrupulous they may be.”

She laughed. “That got you, didn’t it?” she said delightedly. And after a pause, “Yes, I’ll come and be your cousin with pleasure. None of my cousins are half as good-looking.” But the mockery in her tone was too apparent for Grant to find much pleasure in the compliment.

They went down through the green countryside to the sea, however, in perfect amity, and when Grant looked up suddenly and saw the downs he was surprised. There they stood in possession of the landscape, like some one who has tiptoed into a room unheard, and startles the occupant by appearing in the middle of the floor. He had never known a journey to the south coast pass so quickly. They were alone in the compartment, and he proceeded to give her her bearings.

“I am staying down at Eastbourne — no, I can’t be, I’m not dressed for the part — we’ve both come down for the afternoon, then. I am going to get into conversation with two women who know me already in my professional capacity. When the talk turns on hat brooches I want you to produce this from your bag, and say that you have just bought it for your sister. Your name, by the way, is Eleanor Raymond, and your sister’s is Mary. That is all. Just leave the brooch lying round until I arrange my tie. That will be the signal that I have had all I want.”

“All right. What is your first name, by the way?”

“Alan.”

“All right, Alan. I nearly forgot to ask you that. It would have been a joke if I had not known my cousin’s name! . . . It’s a queer world, isn’t it? Look at those primroses in the sun and think of all the people in terrible trouble this minute.”

“No, don’t. That way madness lies. Think of the pleasantly deserted beach we’re going to see in a few minutes.”

“Do you ever go to the Old Vic?” she asked, and they were still telling each other how wonderful Miss Baylis was when they ran into the station; and Grant said, “Come on, Eleanor,” and, grabbing her by the arm, picked her from the carriage like a small boy, impatient to try a spade on the sands.

The beach, as Grant had prophesied, was in that pleasantly deserted condition that makes the south-coast resorts so attractive out of the season. It was sunny and very warm, and a few groups lay about on the shingle, basking in the sun in an aristocratic isolation unknown to summer visitors.

“We’ll go along the front and come back along the beach,” Grant said. “They are bound to be out on a day like this.”

“Heaven send they aren’t on the downs,” she said. “I don’t mind walking, but it would take till tomorrow to quarter these.”

“I think the downs are ruled out. The lady I am interested in isn’t much of a walker, I should say.”

“What is her name?”

“No, I won’t tell you that until I introduce you. You are supposed not to have heard of her, and it will be better if you really haven’t.”

They walked in silence along the trim front towards Holywell. Everything was trim, with that well-ordered trimness that is so typically Eastbourne. Even the sea was trim — and slightly exclusive. And Beachy Head had the air of having been set down there as a good finish off to the front, and of being perfectly conscious of the fact. They had not been walking for more than ten minutes when Grant said, “We’ll go down to the beach now. I’m almost certain we passed the couple I want some time ago. They are down on the shingle.”

They left the pavement and began a slow foot-slipping stroll back to the piers again. Presently they approached two women who were reclining in deck-chairs facing the sea. One, the slighter one, was curled up with her back to Miss Dinmont and the inspector, and was apparently reading. The other was snowed round with magazines, writing-pad, sunshade, and all the other recognized paraphernalia of an afternoon on the beach, but she was doing nothing and appeared to be half asleep. As they came abreast of the chairs the inspector let his glance fall casually on them and then stopped.

“Why, Mrs. Ratcliffe!” he said. “Are you down here recuperating? What glorious weather!”

Mrs. Ratcliffe, after one startled glance, welcomed him. “You remember my sister, Miss Lethbridge?”

Grant shook hands and said, “I don’t think you know my cousin —”

But the gods were good to Grant that day. Before he could commit himself, Miss Lethbridge said in her pleasant drawl:

“Good heavens, if it isn’t Dandie Dinmont! How are you, my dear woman?”

“Do you know each other, then?” asked Grant, feeling like a man who has opened his eyes to find that one more step would have taken him over a precipice.

“Rather!” said Miss Lethbridge. “I had my appendicitis in a room at St. Michael’s, and Dandie Dinmont held my head and my hand alternately. And she held them very well, I will say that for her. Shake hands with Miss Dinmont, Meg. My sister, Mrs. Ratcliffe. Who’d have thought you had cousins in the force!”

“I suppose you are recuperating too, Inspector?” Mrs. Ratcliffe said.

“You could call it that, I suppose,” the inspector said. “My cousin is on holiday from Mike’s, and I have finished my case, so we are making a day of it.”

“Well, it isn’t teatime yet,” said Miss Lethbridge. “Sit down and talk to us for a little. I haven’t seen Dandie for ages.”

“You’ll be glad to have that awful case off your hands, Inspector,” her sister said as they subsided on the shingle. She spoke as though the murder had been just as much of an event in Grant’s life as it had been in hers, but the inspector let it pass, and presently the talk veered away from the murder and went via health, restaurants, hotels, and food to dress, or the lack of it.

“I love your hat brooch,” said Miss Dinmont idly to her friend. “I can think of nothing but hat brooches this afternoon, because we’ve just been buying one for a mutual cousin who is getting married. You know — like getting a new coat and seeing people’s coats as you never saw them before. I have it here somewhere.” She reached for her bag without altering her reclining position, and rummaged in it until she produced the blue velvet box. “What do you think of it?” She opened it and extended it to them.

“Oh, lovely!” said Miss Lethbridge, but Mrs. Ratcliffe said nothing for a little.

“M. R.,” she said at last. “Why, the initials are the same as mine. What is your cousin’s name?”

“Mary Raymond.”

“Sounds like a goody-goody heroine out of a book,” remarked Miss Lethbridge. “Is she goody?”

“No, not particularly, though she’s marrying an awful stodge. You like it, then?”

“Rather!” said Miss Lethbridge.

“Beautiful!” said her sister. “May I have a look at it?” She took the case in her hands, examined the brooch back and front, and handed it back. “Beautiful!” she said again. “And most uncommon. Can you get them ready-made, so to speak?”

Grant’s infinitesimal shake of the head answered Miss Dinmont’s cry for help. “No, we had it made,” she said.

“Well, she’s a lucky devil, Mary Raymond, and if she doesn’t like it, she has very poor taste.”

“Oh, if she doesn’t like it,” said Grant, “she can just fib and say she does, and we’ll never be a bit the wiser. All women are expert fibbers.”

“‘Ark at ’im!” said Miss Lethbridge. “Poor disillusioned creature!”

“Well, isn’t it true? Your social-life is one long series of fibs. You are very sorry — You are not at home — You would have come, but — You wish some one would stay longer. If you aren’t fibbing to your friends, you are fibbing to your maids.”

“I may fib to my friends,” said Mrs. Ratcliffe, “but I most certainly do not fib to my maids!”

“Don’t you?” said Grant, turning idly to look at her. No one, to see him there, with his hat tilted over his eyes and his body lounging, would have said that Inspector Grant was on duty. “You were going to the United States the day after the murder, weren’t you?” She nodded calmly. “Well, why did you tell your maid that you were going to Yorkshire?”

Mrs. Ratcliffe made a movement to sit erect and then sank back again. “I don’t know what you’re talking about. I most certainly never told my maid I was going to Yorkshire. I said New York.”

That was so patently possible that Grant hastened to get in first with, “Well, she thinks you said Yorkshire,” before Mrs. Ratcliffe inevitably said, “How do you know?”

“There isn’t anything a police inspector doesn’t know,” he said.

“There isn’t anything he won’t do, you mean,” she said angrily. “Have you been walking out with Annie? I shouldn’t be surprised if you suspected me of having done the murder myself.”

“I shouldn’t wonder,” said Grant. “Inspectors suspect all the world.”

“Well, I suppose I can only give thanks that your suspicions led to nothing worse than walking out my maid.”

Grant caught Miss Dinmont’s eyes on him under the short brim of her hat, and there was a new expression in them. The conversation had given away the fact that Mrs. Ratcliffe had some connexion with the queue murder, and Miss Dinmont was being given furiously to think. Grant smiled reassuringly at her. “They don’t think I’m nice to know,” he said. “But at least you can stick up for me. Justice is the thing I live for.” Surely she must see, if she thought about it, that his inquiries in this direction could not be very incriminating to Lamont. The chances must be the other way about.

“Let’s go and have tea,” Miss Lethbridge said. “Come along to our hotel. Or shall we go somewhere else, Meg? I’m sick of anchovy sandwiches and currant cake.”

Grant suggested a tea-shop which had a reputation for cakes, and began to bundle Mrs. Ratcliffe’s scattered belongings together. As he did so, he let the writing-pad drop so that it fell open on the sand, the first sheet exhibiting a half-written letter. Staring up at him in the bright sunlight were the round large letters of Mrs. Ratcliffe’s script. “Sorry!” he said, and restored the block to the pile of papers and magazines.

Tea as a gastronomic function might have been a success, but as a social occasion Grant felt that it failed miserably. Two out of his three companions regarded him with a distrust of which he could not fail to be conscious, and the third — Miss Lethbridge — was so cheerfully determined to pretend that she was not aware of her sister’s ill humour that she tacitly confessed her own awareness of tension. When they had taken leave of each other, and Grant and his companion were on their way to the station in the fading light, he said, “You’ve been a brick, Miss Dinmont. I’ll never forget it.” But she did not answer. She was so quiet on the way home that his already discontented thoughts were further distracted. Why couldn’t the girl trust him? Did she think him an ogre to make such unscrupulous use of her as she suspected. And all the time his looker-on half was smiling sardonically and saying, “You, a police inspector, asking for trust! Why, Machiavelli was fastidious compared with a C.I.D. man.”

When Grant was at war with himself his mouth had a slight twist in it, and tonight the twist was very marked. He had found not one definite answer to the problems that troubled him. He did not know whether Mrs. Ratcliffe had recognized the brooch or not. He did not know whether she had said New York to her maid or not. And though he had seen her writing, that helped to no conclusion; a large percentage of women wrote large and very round hands. Her pause at the sight of the brooch might have been merely the pause while she read the twined initial. Her veiled questions as to its origin might have been entirely innocent. On the other hand, they most emphatically might not. If she had anything to do with the murder, it must be recognized that she was clever and not likely to give herself away. She had already fooled him once when he dismissed her so lightly from his mind on the first day of the investigations. There was nothing to prevent her from going on fooling him unless he found a damning fact that could not be explained away.

“What do you think of Mrs. Ratcliffe?” he asked Miss Dinmont. They were alone in the compartment except for a country yokel and his girl.

“Why?” she asked. “Is this merely making conversation, or is it more investigation?”

“I say, Miss Dinmont, are you sore with me?”

“I don’t think that is the correct expression for what I feel,” she said. “It isn’t often I feel a fool, but I do tonight.” And he was dismayed at the bitterness in her voice.

“But there’s not the slightest need,” he said, genuinely distressed. “You did the job like a professional, and there was nothing in it to make you feel like that. I’m up against something I don’t understand, and I wanted you to help me. That’s all. That’s why I asked you about Mrs. Ratcliffe just now. I want a women’s opinion to help me — an unbiased woman’s opinion.”

“Well, if you want my candid opinion, I think the woman is a fool.”

“Oh? You don’t think she’s clever, deep down?”

“I don’t think she has a deep down.”

“You think she’s just shallow? But surely —” He considered.

“Well, you asked me what I thought, and I’ve told you. I think she’s a shallow fool.”

“And her sister?” Grant asked, though that had nothing to do with the investigations.

“Oh, she is different. She has any amount of brain and personality, though you mightn’t think so.”

“Would you say that Mrs. Ratcliffe would commit a murder?”

“No, certainly not!”

“Why not?”

“Because she hasn’t got the guts,” said Miss Dinmont elegantly. “She might do the thing in a fit of temper, but all the world would know it the next minute, and ever afterwards as long as she lived.”

“Do you think she might know about one and keep the knowledge to herself?”

“You mean the knowledge of who was guilty?”

“Yes.”

Miss Dinmont sat looking searchingly at the inspector’s impassive face. The lights of station lamps moved slowly over and past it as the train slid to a halt. “Eridge! Eridge!” called the porter, clumping down the deserted platform. The unexpectant voice had died into the distance, and the train had gathered itself into motion again before she spoke.

“I wish I could read what you are thinking,” she said desperately. “Am I being your fool for the second time in one day?”

“Miss Dinmont, believe me, so far I have never known you do a foolish thing, and I’m willing to take a large bet I never shall.”

“That might do for Mrs. Ratcliffe,” she said. “But I’ll tell you. I think she might keep quiet about a murder, but there would have to be a reason that mattered to herself overwhelmingly. That’s all.”

He was not sure whether the last two words meant that that was all that she could tell him, or whether it was an indication that pumping was to cease; but she had given him food for thought, and he was quiet until they ran into Victoria. “Where are you living?” he asked. “Not at the hospital?”

“No; I’m staying at my club in Cavendish Square.”

He accompanied her there against her wish, and said good night on the doorstep, since she would not be persuaded to dine with him.

“You have some days of holiday yet,” he said, with kindly intention. “How are you going to fill them in?”

“In the first place, I’m going to see my aunt. I have come to the conclusion that the evils one knows are less dreadful than the evils one doesn’t know.”

But the inspector caught the glint of the hall light on her teeth, and went away feeling less a martyr to injustice than he had for some hours past.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/t/tey/josephine/man_in_the_queue/chapter16.html

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