The Man in the Queue, by Josephine Tey

8

Mrs. Everett

Brightling Crescent was a terrace of red-brick three-story houses of the Nottingham lace and pot-plant type of decoration. Their stone steps were coaxed into cleanliness and hideousness by liberal applications of coloured pipeclay. Some blushed at finding themselves so conspicuous, some were evidently jaundiced by the unwelcome attention, and some stared in pallid horror as at an outrage. But all of them wore that Nemo me impune lacessit air. You might pull the bright brass bell-handles — indeed, their high polish winked an urgent invitation to do so — but you passed the threshold only at the cost of a wide-stepping avoidance of these constantly refurbished traps of pipeclayed step. Grant walked up the street that Sorrell had trodden so often, and wondered if the Levantine knew it too. Mrs. Everett, a bony, short-sighted woman of fifty or so, herself opened the door of 98 to him, and Grant inquired for Sorrell.

Mr. Sorrell was no longer there, she said. He had left just a week ago to go to America.

So that was the tale some one had told.

Who said he had gone to America?

“Mr. Sorrell, of course.”

Yes, Sorrell might have told the tale to mask his suicide.

Had he lived alone there?

“Who are you, and what do you want to know for?” she asked, and Grant said that he was a plain-clothes officer and would like to come in and talk to her for a moment. She looked a little staggered, but took the news calmly, and ushered him into a ground-floor sitting-room. “This used to be Mr. Sorrell’s,” she said. “A young lady teacher has it now, but she won’t mind us using it for once. Mr. Sorrell hasn’t done anything wrong, has he? I wouldn’t believe it of him. A quiet young man like him.”

Grant reassured her, and asked again if Sorrell had lived alone.

No, she said; he shared his rooms with another gentleman, but when Mr. Sorrell had gone to America the other gentleman had had to look out for other rooms because he couldn’t afford these alone, and a young lady had wanted to come into them. She was sorry to lose both of them. Nice young men, they were, and great friends.

“What was his friend’s name?”

“Gerald Lamont,” she said. Mr. Sorrell had been a bookmaker on his own account, and Mr. Lamont was in his office. Oh, no, not a partner, but they were great friends.

“What other friends had Sorrell?”

He had had very few, she said. He and Jerry Lamont went everywhere together. After some strenuous thinking she recollected two men who had once come to the house, and described them well enough to make it certain that neither was the Levantine.

“Have you any photographs of Sorrell or his friend?”

She thought she had some snapshots somewhere, if the inspector wouldn’t mind waiting while she hunted. Grant had had hardly enough time to examine the room before she came back with two amateur photographs of postcard size. “These were taken last summer when they were on the river,” she said.

The snapshots had been taken obviously on the same occasion. They both showed the same willowy background of Thames bank and the same piece of punt. One was a photograph of Sorrell in flannels, a pipe in one hand and a cushion in the other. The other was also a photograph of a young man in flannels, and the man was the foreigner.

Grant sat a long time looking at that dark face. The photograph was a good one. The eyes were not a mere shadow as in most snapshots; they were eyes. And Grant could see again the sudden horror that had lit them as they lighted on him in the Strand. Even in the pleasant repose of the moment on the river the eyes had an inimical look. There was no friendliness in the hard-boned face.

“Where did you say Lamont had gone?” he asked matter-of-factly.

Mrs. Everett did not know.

Grant examined her minutely. Was she telling the truth? As if conscious of his suspicion, she supplemented her statement with another. He had got rooms somewhere on the south side of the river.

Suspicion filled him. Did she know more than she was telling? Who had sent the money to bury Sorrell? His friend and the Levantine were one, and the Levantine, who had had two hundred and twenty-three pounds from him, had certainly not sent the money. He looked at the woman’s hard face. She would probably write like a man; the handwriting experts were not infallible. But then, the person who had sent the money had owned the revolver. No, he corrected himself; the person who had posted the money had had the revolver.

Had either of the men owned a revolver? he asked.

No; she had never seen such a thing with either of them. They weren’t that type.

There she was again, harping on their quietness. Was it mere partisanship, or was it a feeble attempt to head him off the track? He wanted to ask if Lamont were left-handed, but something held him back. If she were not being straight with him, that question in relation to Lamont would alarm her immediately. It would give away the whole extent of his investigations. She would give warning and flush the bird from cover long before they were ready to shoot. And it was not vital at the moment. The man of the photograph was the man who had lived with Sorrell, was the man who had fled at sight of him in the Strand, was the man who had had all Sorrell’s money, and was almost certainly the man of the queue. Legarde could identify him. It was more important at the moment to keep Mrs. Everett in the dark as to how much they knew.

“When did Sorrell leave for America?”

“His boat sailed on the 14th,” she said, “but he left here on the 13th.”

“Unlucky day!” said Grant, hoping to bring the conversation to a less formal and less antagonistic level.

“I don’t believe in superstition,” she said. “One day is very like another.”

But Grant was thinking hard. The 13th was the night of the murder.

“Did Lamont leave with him?” he asked.

Yes, they had left together in the morning. Mr. Lamont was going to take his things to his new rooms and then to meet Mr. Sorrell. Mr. Sorrell was going down to Southampton with a boat train at night. She had wanted to go to see him off, but he had been very insistent that she shouldn’t.

“Why?” asked Grant.

“He said it was too late, and in any case he didn’t like being seen off.”

“Had he any relations?”

No, none that she had ever heard of. And Lamont, had he any?

Yes, he had a father and mother and one brother, but they had emigrated to New Zealand directly after the War and he had not seen them since.

How long had the two men stayed with her?

Mr. Sorrell had been with her for nearly eight years and Mr. Lamont for four.

Who shared the rooms with Sorrell for the four years previous to Lamont’s arrival?

There had been various people, but most of the time it was a nephew of her own, who was now in Ireland. Yes, Mr. Sorrell had always been on good terms with all of them.

“Was he always bright and cheerful?” asked Grant.

Well, no, she said bright and cheery didn’t describe Mr. Sorrell at all. That was Mr. Lamont, if he liked. Mr. Lamont was the bright and cheery one. Mr. Sorrell was quiet, but pleasant. Sometimes he’d be a bit mopy, and Mr. Lamont would be extra bright to cheer him up.

Grant, remembering how grateful one is when some one deliberately attempts to take the black dog from one’s back, wondered why it hadn’t been the other way about, and Sorrell had murdered Lamont.

Did they ever quarrel?

No, never that she had known of, and she would have known quick enough.

“Well,” said Grant at last, “I suppose you have no objections to lending me these snapshots for a day or two?”

“You’ll let me have them back safe, will you?” she said. “They’re the only ones I have, and I was very fond of both of them.”

Grant promised, and put them carefully away in his pocketbook, praying that they were covered with valuable fingerprints.

“You’re not going to get them into trouble, are you?” she asked again as he was going. “They never did a wrong thing in their lives.”

“Well, if that’s so, they’re quite safe,” Grant said.

He hurried back to Scotland Yard and, while the fingerprints on the photographs were being recorded, heard Williams’ report of an unproductive day among the bookmaking offices of London. As soon as the snapshots were again in his possession, he repaired to Laurent’s. It was very late and the place was deserted. A solitary waiter was absentmindedly assembling the crumbs from a table, and the air smelt of rich gravy, wine, and cigarette smoke. The distrait minion laid away the crumb-scoop and bent to hear his pleasure with that air of having hoped for nothing, and of having the melancholy pleasure of being right, which a waiter presents to the foolhardy one who attempts to dine when others have finished. As he recognized Grant he reassembled his features in a new combination intended to read, “What a pleasure to serve a favourite customer!” but which in reality was unfortunately clear as “Good heavens, that was a bloomer! It’s that pet of Marcel’s.”

Grant asked after Marcel, and heard that he had that morning departed for France in a hurry. His father had died and he was an only son, and there was, it was understood, a matter of a good business and a vineyard to be settled. Grant was not particularly desolated at the thought of not seeing Marcel again. The manners on which Marcel had always prided himself had left Grant invariably slightly nauseated. He ordered a dish, and asked if Raoul Legarde was on the premises and, if so, would he be allowed to come and speak to him for a moment. Several minutes later, Raoul’s tall figure, clad in white linen overall and cap, emerged from the screens by the door and followed the waiter diffidently to Grant’s table. He had an air of a shy child going up for a prize which it knows it has earned.

“Good evening, Legarde,” Grant said amiably. “You’ve been a great help to me. I want you to look at these and see if you can recognize any of them.” He spread twelve photographs roughly fanwise on the table and left Raoul to examine them. The boy took his time — in fact, the pause was so long that Grant had time to wonder if the boy’s statement that he would recognize the man he had seen had been merely a boast. But when Raoul spoke there was no hesitation about him.

“That,” he said, laying a slender forefinger on the photograph of Sorrell, “is the man who was beside me in the queue. And that”— this time the forefinger descended on Lamont’s photograph —“is the man who came to talk to him.”

“Will you swear to that?” Grant asked.

Raoul knew all about swearing to a thing this time. “Oh, yes,” he said; “I take my oath any time.”

That was all Grant wanted. “Thank you, Legarde,” he said gratefully. “When you are maître d’hôtel, I’ll come and stay and bring half the aristocracy in Britain.”

Raoul smiled broadly at him. “It may never come,” he said, “the maître d’hôtel. They offer very much on the movies, and it is easy just to be photographed and look —” He sought for a word. “You know!” he said, and suddenly let his beautiful but intelligent face slip into an expression of idiotic languishing which was so unexpected that some of Grant’s duck and green peas went the wrong way. “I think I try that first,” he said, “and after, when I grow”— he moved his hands to indicate a corporation —“I can buy a hotel.”

Grant smiled benevolently as he watched the graceful figure making its way back to the spoons and the silver-cleaning rags. Typically French he was, he thought, in his shrewd recognition of the commercial worth of his beauty, in his humour, in his opportunism. It was sad to think that embonpoint would ever mar his slenderness and his good looks. Grant hoped that in the midst of his adipose tissue he would keep his humour. When he himself got back to the Yard it was to obtain a warrant for the arrest of Gerald Lamont for the murder of Albert Sorrell, outside the Woffington Theatre, on the evening of the 13th of March.

When she closed the door behind the inspector, the woman in Brightling Crescent remained for a long time motionless, her eyes on the brown-patterned linoleum that covered the floor of the lobby. Her tongue came out and ran along her thin lips in a contemplative way. She did not appear agitated, but her whole being seemed concentrated in an effort of thought; she vibrated with thought as a dynamo vibrates. For perhaps two minutes she stood there quite motionless, still as a piece of furniture, in the clock-ticking silence. Then she turned and went back to the sitting-room. She plumped up the cushions which had been depressed by the inspector’s weight — she herself had taken the wholly instinctive precaution of seating herself on a hard chair — as if that were the most immediately important thing in life. She took a white tablecloth from a drawer in the sideboard and began to set a meal, coming and going between the sitting-room and the kitchen in an unhurrying deliberation, laying knives and forks exactly parallel in a painstaking fashion that was evidently habit. Before she had finished a key rattled in the lock, and a drab woman of twenty-eight or so let herself in, her grey-drab coat, fawn-drab scarf, timidly fashionable green-drab hat, and unexpectant air proclaiming her profession. She removed her galoshes in the hall and came into the sitting-room, with an artificially cheerful remark about the wet day. Mrs. Everett agreed and said, “I was thinking, as it’s cold supper, you mightn’t mind if I left it set and went out. I’d like to run over and see a friend, if it makes no difference to you.” Her boarder assured her that it made no difference whatever, and Mrs. Everett thanked her and retired to the kitchen. There she took from the larder a roast of beef, from which she cut thick slices, and proceeded to make sandwiches. She wrapped them neatly in white paper and put them into a basket. Into the basket with them she put some cooked sausage, some meat lozenges, and a packet of chocolate. She stoked the fire, filled the kettle, and set it on the side of the hearth so that it would be hot when she came back, and proceeded upstairs. In her bedroom she made a deliberate toilet for the street, tucking stray strands of hair carefully under her uncompromising hat. She took a key from one drawer and opened another, withdrew a roll of notes and counted them, and put them into her purse. She opened a blotter worked in canvas and silks and wrote a short note, which she sealed in an envelope and put into her pocket. She came downstairs again, pulling on her gloves, and, taking the small basket from the kitchen table, let herself out at the back door, locking it behind her. She went down the street, looking neither right nor left, her flat back, lifted chin, and resolute walk proclaiming the citizen with a good conscience. In the Fulham Road she waited at a bus stop and took such casual interest in her fellow-attendants as does a woman who knows what is what and keeps herself to herself. So entirely orthodox was she that when she left the bus only the bus conductor, whose power of observation was entirely instinctive, could have said that she had been a passenger. And in the bus that took her to Brixton she was equally inconspicuous; her fellow-travellers noticed her no more than if she had been a sparrow or a lamp-post. Sometime before Brixton became Streatham Hill she got off the bus and disappeared into the foggy evening, and no one remembered that she had been there; no one had been disturbed by the terrific pent urgency that her passive exterior hid.

Up a long street where the street-lamps hung like misty moons she went, and down another its exact replica — flat fronts, foggy lamplight, deserted roadway; along another and yet another. Halfway along this last she turned abruptly and walked back to the nearest lamp-post. A girl hurried past her, late for some appointment, and a small boy came jingling two pennies in his joined palms. But no one else. She made a pretence of looking at her watch in the light and went on again in the original direction. To her left was a terrace of the high, imposing-looking houses which the social descent of Brixton has left high and dry, the plaster peeling in large flakes from the walls, and the variegated window-curtaining proclaiming the arrival of the flat-dweller. Nothing could be seen at this hour of the detail of the mass; only a chink of light here and there and the recurrent fanlights of the doors told of human habitation. Into one of these she disappeared, the door closing softly behind her. Up two flights of stairs, dimly lighted and shabby, she went, and came to the third flight, where there was no light. She glanced up into the dark above and listened. But only the stealthy creaking of the old wood sounded in all the house. Slowly, feeling her way step by step, she climbed, negotiated the turn without a stumble, and came to rest at the top of the house on an unlighted landing, breathless. With the assurance of one who knows her way, she put out her hand to locate the invisible door, and having found it, knocked gently. There was no answer, and no streak of light below the door betrayed a presence beyond. But she knocked again and said softly, with her lips to the crack where the door met the upright, “Jerry! It’s me.” Almost immediately something was kicked away from inside the door, and it opened to show a lamp-lit room, with a man’s figure silhouetted crucifix-wise against the light.

“Come in,” said the man, and drew her quickly in and shut the door and locked it. She set her basket on the table by the curtained window and turned to face him as he came from the door.

“You shouldn’t have come!” he said. “Why did you?”

“I came because there was no time to write to you, and I had to see you. They’ve found out who he was. A man from Scotland Yard came this evening and wanted to know all about you both. I did everything I could for him. Told him everything he wanted to know, except where you were. I even gave him snaps of you and him. But he knows you are in London, and it’s only a matter of time if you stay here. You’ve got to go.”

“What did you give him the photographs for?”

“Well, I thought about it when I went away to pretend to look for them, and I knew I couldn’t go back and say I couldn’t find them and make him believe me. I mean, I was afraid I wouldn’t do it well enough. And then I thought, since they had got so far — finding out all about you two — a photograph wouldn’t make much difference one way or another.”

“Wouldn’t it?” said the man. “Tomorrow every policeman in London will know exactly what I look like. A description’s one thing and that’s bad enough, God knows — but a photograph is the very devil. That’s torn it!”

“Yes, it might have if you were going to stay in London. But if you stayed in London you’d be caught in any case. It would only be a matter of time. You’ve got to get out of London tonight.”

“There’s nothing I’d like better,” he said bitterly, “but how, and where to? If I leave this house, it’s fifty to one I walk straight into the police, and with a mug like mine it wouldn’t be very easy to convince them that I wasn’t myself. This last week’s been ten thousand hells. God, what a fool I was! — and for so little reason. To put a rope round my neck for next to nothing!”

“Well, you’ve done it,” she said coolly. “Nothing can alter that. What you’ve got to consider now is how to get away. And as quickly as you can.”

“Yes, you said that before — but how, and where to?”

“Have some food and I’ll tell you. Have you had a proper meal today?”

“Yes, I had breakfast,” he said. But he did not appear to be hungry, and his angry, feverish eyes watched her unwaveringly.

“What you want,” she said, “is to get out of this district, where every one’s talking about the thing, to a place where no one’s ever heard of it.”

“If you mean abroad, it isn’t the slightest good trying. I tried to get taken on a boat as a hand four days ago, and they asked if I was Union or something, and wouldn’t look at me. And as for the Channel boats, I might as well give myself up.”

“I’m not talking about abroad at all. You’re not as famous as you think. I’m talking about the Highlands. Do you think the people in my home on the west coast ever heard of you or what happened last Tuesday night. Take my word for it, they haven’t. They never read anything but a local paper, and local papers report London affairs in one line. The place is thirty-six miles from a railway station, and the policeman lives in the next village, four miles miles away, and has never seen anything more criminal than a salmon poacher. That’s where you are going. I have written a letter, saying that you are coming because you are in bad health. Your name is George Lowe, and you are a journalist. There is a train for Edinburgh from King’s Cross at ten-fifteen and you are catching that tonight. There isn’t much time, so hurry.”

“And what the police are catching is me at the platform barrier.”

“There isn’t a barrier at King’s Cross. I haven’t gone up and down to Scotland for nearly thirty years without knowing that. The Scotch platform is open to any one who wants to walk on. And even if there are detectives there, the train is about half a mile long. You’ve got to risk something if you’re going to get away. You can’t just stay here and let them get you! I should have thought that gamble would have been quite in your line.

“Think I’m afraid, do you?” he said. “Well, I am. Scared stiff. To go out into the street tonight would be like walking into no-man’s-land with Fritz machine-gunning.”

“You’ve either got to pull yourself together or go and give yourself up. You can’t sit still and let them come and take you.”

“Bert was right when he christened you Lady Macbeth,” he said.

“Don’t!” she said sharply.

“All right,” he muttered. “I’m sort of crazy.” There was a thick silence. “All right, let’s try this as a last stunt.”

“There’s very little time,” she reminded him. “Put something into a suitcase quickly — a suitcase that you can carry yourself — you don’t want porters.”

He moved at her bidding into the bedroom that led off the sitting-room, and began to fling things into a suitcase, while she put neat parcels of food into the pockets of the coat that hung behind the door.

“What’s the good?” he said suddenly. “It’s no use. How do you think I can take a main-line train out of London without being stopped and questioned?”

“You couldn’t if you were alone,” she said, “but with me it’s a different matter. Look at me. Do I look the sort who would be helping you to get away?”

The man stood in the doorway contemplating her for a moment, and a sardonic smile twisted his mouth as he took her in all her upright orthodoxy. “I believe you’re right,” he said. He gave a short, mirthless laugh and thereafter put no difficulties in the way of her plans. In ten minutes they were ready for departure.

“Have you any money?” she asked.

“Yes,” he said; “plenty.”

She seemed about to ask a question.

“No, not that,” he said. “My own.”

She carried a rug and an extra coat: “You mustn’t suggest hurry in any way; you must look as though you were going a long journey and didn’t care who knew it.” And he carried the suitcase and a golf-bag. There was to be no hole-and-corner business. This was bluff, and the bigger the bluff, the more chance there was of carrying it off. As they stepped into the foggy road, she said, “We’ll go to Brixton High Street and get a bus or a taxi.”

As it happened, it was a taxi that offered itself first. It swelled out of the dark before they had reached a main thoroughfare, and as the man heaved what they were carrying aboard the woman gave the address of their destination.

“Cost you something, lady,” said the driver.

“Well, well,” she said, “isn’t every day my son has a holiday.”

The driver grunted good-naturedly. “That’s the stuff! Feast and famine. Nothing like it.” And she climbed in, and the taxi ceased its agitated throbbing and slid into action.

After a silence the man said, “Well, you couldn’t do more for me if I were.”

“I’m glad you’re not.” she said. There was another long silence.

“What is your name?” she asked suddenly.

He thought for a moment. “George Lowe,” he said.

“Yes,” she said; “but don’t think next time. There is a train north to Inverness that leaves Waverly at ten o’clock tomorrow morning. You’ll have to spend tomorrow night in Inverness. I have written down on a paper what you do after that.”

“You seem to be perfectly sure that nothing’s going to happen at King’s Cross.”

“No, I’m not,” she said. “The police are not fools — that Scotland Yard man didn’t believe half I said — but they’re just human. All the same, I’m not going to give you that bit of paper until the train’s going.”

“I wish I had that revolver now!” he said.

“I’m glad you haven’t. You’ve made a big enough fool of yourself already.

“I wouldn’t use it. It would just give me courage.”

“For goodness’ sake, be sensible, Jerry. Don’t do anything silly and spoil things.”

They fell to silence again, the woman sitting upright and alert, the man shrunk in the corner, almost invisible. Into the west of London they went like that, through the dark squares north of Oxford Street, out into the Euston Road and with a sharp left-handed turn into King’s Cross. The moment had come.

“You pay the taxi and I’ll get the ticket,” she said.

As Lamont paid the taxi-man the shadow of his turned-down hat hid his face, so that his retreating back was all that the incurious gaze of the driver noted. A porter came and took his things from him, and he surrendered them willingly. Now that the time had come, his “nerves” had gone. It was neck or nothing, and he could afford to play the part well. When the woman joined him from the booking-office, the change in him was evident in the approbation on her cold face. Together they went on to the platform and followed the porter down it, looking for a corner seat. They made a sufficiently convincing picture — the man with the rug and the golf-bag and the wraps, and the woman in attendance with the man’s extra coat.

The porter dived into a corridor and came out again saying, “Got you a corner, sir. Probably have the side to yourself all the way. It’s quiet tonight.”

Lamont tipped him and inspected his quarters. The occupant of the other side had staked his claims, but was not present other than in spirit. He went back to the doorway with the woman and talked to her. Footsteps came down the corridor at his back, and he said to her, “Have they any fishing, do you think?”

“Only sea-fishing in the loch,” she said, and continued the subject until the steps had moved on. But before they faded out of earshot they stopped. Lamont cast as casual a glance as he could achieve down the corridor, and found that the owner of the steps had halted at the open door of his compartment and was examining the luggage on the rack. And then he remembered, too late, that the porter had put his suitcase up with the initials outside. The G. L. was plain for all the world to read. He saw the man stir preparatory to coming back. “Talk!” he said quickly to the woman.

“There’s a burn, of course,” she said, “where you can catch what they call beelans. They are about three inches long.”

“Well, I’ll send you a beelan,” he said, and managed a low laugh that earned the woman’s admiration just as the man stopped behind him.

“Excuse me, sir, is your name Lorrimer?”

“No,” said Lamont, turning round and facing the man squarely. “My name is Lowe.”

“Oh, sorry!” the man said. “Is that your luggage in the compartment, then?”

“Yes.”

“Oh, thank you. I am looking for a man Lorrimer, and I was hoping that it might be his. It’s a cold night to be hanging round for people who aren’t here.”

“Yes,” said the woman; “my son’s grumbling already at the thought of his first night journey. But he’ll grumble a lot more before he’s in Edinburgh, won’t he?”

The man smiled. “Can’t say I’ve ever travelled all night, myself,” he said. “Sorry to have bothered you,” he added, and moved on.

“You should have let me take that other rug, George,” she said as he moved out of earshot.

“Oh, rug be blowed!” said George, as to the manner born. “It will probably be like an oven before we’ve been going an hour.”

A long, shrill whistle sounded. The last door was banged.

“This is for expenses,” she said, and put a packet into his hand, “and this is what I promised you. The man’s on the platform. It’s all right.”

“We’ve left out one thing,” he said. He took off his hat and bent and kissed her.

The long train pulled slowly out into the darkness.

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