The Man in the Queue, by Josephine Tey


Marking Time

Grant did not sleep well that night. There was every reason why he should have slept in all the sublime peace of the righteous man of good digestion. He had finished the work he had come to do, and his case was complete. He had had a hard day in the open, in air that was at once a stimulant and a narcotic. The dinner provided by Drysdale had been all that either a hungry man or an epicure could have wished for. The sea outside his window breathed in long, gentle sighs that were the apotheosis of content. The turf fire glowed soothingly as no flickering bonfire of wood or coals ever does. But Grant slept badly. Moreover, there was discomfort in his mind somewhere, and like all self-analytical people, he was conscious of it and wanted to locate it, so that he could drag it out to the light and say, “Goodness, is that all!” and find relief and comfort as he had so often done before. He knew quite well how that uneasiness which ruined the comfort of his twelve mattresses of happiness proved on investigation to be merely the pea of the fairy-tale. But, rout round as he would, he could find no reason for his lack of content. He produced several reasons, examined them, and threw them away. Was it the girl? Was he being sorry for her because of her pluck and decency? But he had no real reason to think that she cared for the man other than as a friend. Her undeniable interest in him at tea might have been due merely to his being the only interesting man from her point of view in a barren countryside. Was he overtired, then? It was a long time since he had had a whole day’s fishing followed by a burst across country at a killing pace. Or was it fear that his man would even yet slip through his fingers? But Dr. Anderson had said that there was no fracture and the man would be able to travel in a day or two. And his chances of escape now weren’t worth considering, even as hypothesis.

There was nothing in all the world, apparently, to worry him, and yet he had that vague uneasiness in his mind. During one of his periodical tossings and turnings he heard the nurse go along the corridor, and decided that he would get up and see if he could be of any use. He put on his dressing-gown and made for the wedge of light that came from the door she had left ajar. As he went, she came behind him with a candle.

“He’s quite safe, Inspector,” she said, and the mockery in her tone stung him as being unfair.

“I wasn’t asleep, and I heard you moving and thought I might be of some use,” he said, with as much dignity as one can achieve in the déshabillé of the small hours.

She relented a little. “No, thank you,” she said; “there’s nothing to do. He’s still unconscious.” She pushed open the door and led him in.

There was a lamp at the bedside, but otherwise the room was dark and filled with the sound of the sea — the gentle hushzsh which is so different from the roar of breakers on an open coast. The man, as she said, was still unconscious, and Grant examined him critically in the light of the lamp. He looked better, and his breathing was better. “He’ll be conscious before morning,” she said, and it sounded more like a promise than a statement.

“I can’t tell you how sorry I am,” Grant said suddenly, “that you should have had all this — that you should have been brought into this.”

“Don’t worry, Inspector; I’m not at all fragile. But I’d like to keep my mother and uncle from knowing about it. Can you manage that?”

“Oh, I think so. We can get Dr. Anderson to prescribe some treatment for him.”

She moved abruptly, and he was conscious of the unhappiness of his phrase, but could see no way of remedying it, and was silent.

“Is he a bad lot?” she asked suddenly. “I mean, apart from —”

“No,” said Grant, “not as far as we know.” And then, afraid that the green growth he had burned out last night might begin to shoot again, and more pain be in store for her, he added, “But he stuck his friend in the back.”

“The man in the queue?” she said, and Grant nodded. Even yet he was waiting momentarily for the “I don’t believe it.” But it did not come. He had at last met a woman whose common sense was greater than her emotions. She had known the man only three days, he had lied to her every hour of these days, and the police wanted him for murder. That was sufficient evidence in her clear eyes to prevent her taking any brief in his favour.

“I have just put the kettle on the gas-ring in the bathroom for tea,” she said. “Will you have some?” and Grant accepted and they drank the scalding liquid by the open window, the sea heaving below them in the strangely balmy west-coast night. And Grant went to bed again quite sure that it was not Miss Dinmont’s emotions that worried him, but still uneasy about something, And now, writing triumphant telegrams to Barker in the golden morning, with the comfortable smell of bacon and eggs con-tending amiably with the fragrance of sea-weed, he was still not as happy as he should have been. Miss Dinmont had come in, still in the white overall that made her look half surgeon, half religieuse, to say that her patient was conscious, but would Grant not come to him until Dr. Anderson had been? — she was afraid of the excitement; and Grant had thought that eminently reasonable.

“Has he just come round?” he asked,

No, she said; he had been conscious for some hours, and she went serenely away, leaving Grant wondering what had passed between patient and nurse in those few hours. Drysdale joined him at breakfast, with his queer mixture of taciturnity and amiability, and arranged that he should have a real day’s fishing as an offset to the distracted flogging of the water which had occupied him Yesterday. Grant said that, once Anderson had been and he had heard a report of his man, he would go. He supposed any telegrams could be sent down to him.

“Oh, yes; there’s nothing Pidgeon likes like being important. He’s in his element at the moment.”

Dr. Anderson, a little man in ancient and none too clean tweeds, said that the patient was very well indeed — even his memory was unimpaired — but he would advise Grant, whom he took to be the man’s nearest friend, not to see him until this evening. It would be best to give him a day to be quiet in. And since Miss Dinmont seemed determined to look after him, they need have no fear about him. She was an excellent nurse.

“When can he travel?” asked Grant. “We’re in a hurry to get south.”

“If it is very important, the day after to-morrow, perhaps.” And seeing Grant look disappointed, “Or even tomorrow, if the journey were made comfortable. It all depends on the comfort of the travel. But I wouldn’t recommend it till the day after to-morrow at the earliest.”

“What’s the hurry?” Drysdale said. “Why spoil the ship for a ha’p’orth of tar?”

“Afraid of loose moorings,” Grant said.

“Don’t worry. The excellent Pidgeon will dote on being head warder.”

Then Grant turned to the surprised doctor and explained the truth of the situation. “There’s no chance of his getting away if we let him stay here till he is stronger?”

“He’s safe enough today,” Anderson said. “The man isn’t fit to lift a little finger at the moment. He’d have to be carried if he escaped, and I don’t suppose there’s any one here who would be willing to carry him.”

So Grant, conscious of being entirely unreasonable and at sea with himself, agreed, wrote a second report to Barker to supplement the one he had written on the previous night, and departed to the river with Drysdale.

After a day of wide content, broken only by the arrival of Pidgeon’s subordinate, a youth with a turned-up nose and ears that stuck out like handles, with telegrams from Barker, they came back to the house between tea and dinner; and Grant, after a wash, knocked at the door that sheltered Lamont. Miss Dinmont admitted him, and he met the black eyes of the man on the bed with a distinct feeling of relief; he was still there.

Lamont was the first to speak. “Well, you’ve got me,” he said, drawling a little.

“Looks like it,” said Grant. “But you had a good run for your money.”

“Yes,” agreed the man, his eyes going to Miss Dinmont and coming back at once. “Tell me, what made you dive off the boat? What was the idea?”

“Because swimming and diving is the thing I’m best at. If I hadn’t slipped, I could have got to the rocks under water and lain there with only my nose and my mouth out until you got tired looking for me, or the dark came. But you won — by a head.” The pun seemed to please him.

There was a little silence, and Miss Dinmont said in her clear, deliberate voice, “I think, Inspector, he’s well enough to be left now. At least, he won’t need professional services any longer. Perhaps some one in the house would look after him to-night?”

Grant deduced that this was her way of saying that the man was strong enough now to have a more adequate guard, and thankfully agreed. “Do you want to go now?”

“Just as soon as some one can take my place without any one being upset.”

Grant rang, and explained the situation to the maid that came. “I’ll stay if you would like to go now,” he said when the maid had gone, and she agreed.

Grant went to the window and stood looking out at the loch, so that, if she wanted to say anything to Lamont, the way was clear, and she began to collect her things. There was no sound of conversation, and, looking round, he saw that she was apparently quite absorbed in the task of leaving nothing behind her, and the man was watching her unblinkingly, his whole being waiting for the moment of her leave-taking. Grant turned back to the sea, and presently he heard her say, “Shall I see you again before you go?” There was no answer to that, and Grant turned round to find that she was addressing himself.

“Oh, yes, I hope so,” he said. “I’ll call at the manse if I don’t see you otherwise — if I may.”

“All right,” she said, “then I needn’t say goodbye just now.” And she went out of the room with her bundle.

Grant glanced at his captive and looked away at once. It is indecent to pry too far into even a murderer’s soul. When he looked back again, the man’s eyes were closed and his face was a mask of such un-speakable misery that Grant was unexpectedly moved. He had cared for her, then — it had not been merely opportunism.

“Can I do anything for you, Lamont?” he asked presently.

The black eyes opened and considered him unseeingly. “I suppose it is too much to expect any one to believe that I didn’t do it,” he said at length.

“It is, rather,” said Grant dryly.

“But I didn’t, you know.”

“No? Well, we hardly expected you to say you did.”

“That’s what she said.”

“Who?” asked Grant, surprised.

“Miss Dinmont. When I told her I hadn’t done it.”

“Oh? Well, it’s a simple process of elimination, you see. And everything fits in too well for the possibility of a mistake. Even down to this.” And picking up Lamont’s hand from where it lay on the counterpane, he indicated the scar on the inside of his thumb. “Where did you get that?”

“I got it carrying my trunk up the stairs to my new rooms in Brixton — that morning.”

“Well, well,” said Grant indulgently, “we won’t argue the affair now, and you’re not well enough to make a statement. If I took one now, they’d hold it up to me that I had got it from you when you weren’t compos mentis.”

“My statement’ll be the same whenever you take it,” the man said; “only, no one will believe it. If they would have believed it, I wouldn’t have run.”

Grant had heard that tale before. It was a favourite gambit with criminals who had no case. When a man plays injured innocence, the layman immediately considers the possibility of a mistake; but the police officer, who has a long acquaintance with the doubtedly guilty, is less impressionable — in fact, is not impressed at all. A police officer who was impressed with a hard-luck story, however well told, would be little use in a force designed for the suppression of that most plausible of creatures, the criminal. So Grant merely smiled and went back to the window. The loch was like glass this evening, the hills on either side reflected to their last detail in the still water. Master Robert rode below the boathouse —“a painted ship”— only that no paint could reproduce the translucence of the sea as it was now.

Presently Lamont said, “How did you find where I had come to?”

“Fingerprints,” said Grant succinctly.

“Have you got fingerprints of mine?”

“No, not yours. I’m going to take them in a minute.”

“Whose, then?”

“Mrs. Everett’s.”

“What has Mrs. Everett got to do with it?” the man said, with the first hint of defiance.

“I expect you know more about that than I do. Don’t talk. I want you to be able to travel tomorrow or the next day.”

“But look here, you haven’t done any-thing to Mrs. Everett, have you?”

Grant grinned. “No; I think it’s what Mrs. Everett’s done to us.”

“What do you mean? You haven’t arrested her, have you?”

There was obviously no hope of the man being quiet until he knew how they had traced him, so Grant told him. “We found a fingerprint of Mrs. Everett’s in your rooms, and as Mrs. Everett had told us she didn’t know where your new rooms were, it was a fair conclusion that she had a finger in the pie. We found that her relations stayed here, and then we found the man you fooled at King’s Cross, and his description of Mrs. Everett made things sure. We only just missed you at the Brixton place.”

“Mrs. Everett won’t get into trouble over it, will she?”

“Probably not — now that we’ve got you.”

“I was a fool to run, in the first place. If I’d come and told the truth in the beginning, it couldn’t be any worse than it is now, and I’d have saved all the hell between.” He was lying with his eyes on the sea. “Funny to think that, if some one hadn’t killed Bert, I’d never have seen this place or — or anything.”

The “anything” the inspector took to be the manse. “M’m! And who do you think killed him?”

“I don’t know. There wasn’t any one I know of who’d do that to Bert. I think perhaps some one did it by mistake.”

“Not looking what they were doing with the needle, as it were?”

“No, in mistake for some one else.”

“And you’re the left-handed man with a scar on his thumb who quarrelled with Sorrell just before his death, and who has all the money Sorrell had in the world, but you’re quite innocent.”

The man turned his head wearily away. “I know,” he said. “You don’t need to tell me how bad it is.”

A knock came to the door, and the boy with the protruding ears appeared in the doorway and said that he had been sent to relieve Mr. Grant, if that was what Mr. Grant wanted. Grant said, “I’ll want you in five minutes or so. Come back when I ring.” And the boy melted, grin last, into the dark of the passage like a Cheshire cat. Grant took something out of his pocket and fiddled with it at the washstand. Then he came over to the bedside and said, “Fingerprints, please. It’s quite a painless process, so you needn’t mind.” He took prints of both hands on the prepared sheets of paper, and the man submitted with an indifference tinged with the interest one shows in experiencing something, however mild, for the first time. Grant knew even as he pressed the fingertips on the paper that the man had no Scotland Yard record. The prints would be of value only in relation to the other prints in the case.

As he laid them aside to dry, Lamont said, “Are you the star turn at Scotland Yard?”

“Not yet,” said grant. “You flatter yourself.”

“Oh, I only thought — seeing your photograph in the paper.”

“That was why you ran last Saturday night in the Strand.”

“Was it only last Saturday? I wish the traffic had done for me then!”

“Well, it very nearly did for me.”

“Yes; I got an awful jolt when I saw you behind me so soon.”

“If it’s any comfort to you, I got a much worse one when I saw you arriving back in the Strand. What did you do then?”

“Took a taxi. There was one passing.”

“Tell me,” the inspector said, his curiosity getting the better of him, “were you planning the boat escape all the time at the manse tea?”

“No; I had no plans at all. I thought of the boat afterwards only because I’m used to boats, and I thought you’d think of them last. I was going to try to escape somehow, but I didn’t think of it until I saw the pepper-pot as I was going out. It was the only way I could think of, you see. Bert had my gun.”

“Your gun? Was that your gun in his pocket?”

“Yes; that’s what I went to the queue for.”

But Grant did not want statements of that sort tonight. “Don’t talk!” he said, and rang for the boy. “I’ll take any statement you want to give me tomorrow. If there’s any-thing I can do for you tonight, tell the boy and he’ll let me know.”

“There isn’t anything, thank you. You’ve been awfully decent — far more decent than I thought the police ever were — to criminals.”

That was so obviously an English version of Raoul’s gentil that Grant smiled involuntarily, and the shadow of a smile was reflected on Lamont’s swarthy face. “I say,” he said, “I’ve thought a lot about Bert, and it’s my belief that, if it wasn’t a mistake, it was a woman.”

“Thanks for the tip,” said Grant dryly, and left him to the tender mercies of the grinning youth. But as he made his way downstairs he was wondering why he had thought of Mrs. Ratcliffe.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:01