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Authors: Margery Allingham

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BOOK: The White Cottage Mystery
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‘Yes,' said Joan Alice, with sudden enthusiasm, ‘an' I put the weeds in my pail, didn't I?'

The woman sighed with relief, and the detective continued to question the child.

‘Joan Alice,' he said, ‘now try to remember hard. When you were in the garden with your mamma did you hear a big bang somewhere inside the house?'

The child did not answer him, having apparently lost interest in the proceedings; she was playing with the fountain-pen sticking out of his coat pocket.

‘Joan,
darling
' – the woman's voice was frantic – ‘try to remember – did you hear the bang?'

‘Yes,' said the child.

‘And were you with your mamma in the garden then?'

‘You were, weren't you, baby?' The fear in the woman's voice was terrible to hear.

The child looked up solemnly and shook her head.

‘No,' she said suddenly and distinctly. ‘I was by the bonfire, entying my pail – you remember, Mumma, you sent me to.'

‘Where was the bonfire?'

‘Oh, down the garden a long way,' said the child, her careless tones uncanny in the tension-hung room.

‘You couldn't see your mamma when you heard the bang?' The detective spoke hesitantly, as if loath to continue the inquiry.

‘Oh no.'

‘Joan!' There was reproach, appeal and terror in the woman's voice, and the child looked at her, frightened.

The detective rose to his feet and handed the child back to the nurse, his face very grave.

‘Mrs Christensen,' he began gently, ‘I'm sorry but I'm afraid I must ask you – '

The remainder of his sentence was never uttered, however, for at that moment the door was flung open unceremoniously, and Clarry Gale, his ignoble face pink with excitement, appeared breathless on the threshold.

‘'E's gone!' he announced explosively.

‘Gone? Who's gone?' demanded the detective.

‘Cellini, of course!' The words tumbled over one another in Gale's excitement to get them out.' Mrs Fisher said that as soon as I come over here the first time she saw him come rushin' into the house and go up to his room. 'E was up there ten minutes; then she heard him come runnin' downstairs, go out again. Lookin' out o' the kitchen windy she saw 'im get out the guvnor's car and set off down the Folkstone road as 'ard as 'e could go. I've been up to 'is room, and 'is things are gone – 'e's bolted!'

3 The Tablecloth

‘Now, my boy, they'll see to that. I think I'll return to my inquiries in the next room.' W.T. replaced the telephone receiver as he spoke.

He had just ‘phoned for a general call to be put out concerning the missing Cellini.

For a moment Jerry did not speak, but looked round the room and shuddered.

‘Mrs Christensen –?' began Jerry doubtfully.

‘Well, yes,' said the old man. ‘She's got a secret, you know – it may be important, but it may not. That's the worst of women in a case like this, Jerry. What they think is serious and worth hiding may be the most idiotic damn' silly thing in the world, and yet they'll go and run their heads straight into a noose rather than give it away.'

He paused, staring moodily in front of him. When he spoke again his tone was like some old lawyer's vexed over a moot point.

‘And there's that,' he said suddenly. ‘Did you ever see anything so absurd as that?'

Jerry followed the direction of his gaze and saw that he was looking at the gun still lying on the table.

‘Look at it!' W.T. repeated. ‘Just look at it.'

Jerry frowned. ‘I don't see…' he began.

‘No?' said W.T. in surprise. ‘Look at that tablecloth – it's blown to pieces just like Crowther's chest. That gun was fired from where it is now – it wasn't raised shoulder-high, it wasn't even fired at arm's length, as an ignorant terrified woman might have held it; it was fired from the table. At least, the butt was on the table – the barrel was raised slightly … A man kneeling
behind the table might have done it, but then, since he had the point of vantage with the table between him and his unarmed, unsuspecting enemy, why should he kneel?'

Jerry nodded. ‘That's true,' he said. ‘There's nothing in the room to give any clue, I suppose?'

W.T. shook his head. ‘Nothing of much use, the photographs may show something, but I'm not hopeful. No, we can't do anything more in here yet. As soon as the doctors have finished consulting we'll have that mess removed. But now we'll return to the questions. I want to have a chat with that nurse – there's a flight of stairs leading down from the nursery to the lawn just outside these french windows. Send her in to me, will you? … I'll be with the others.'

As Jerry hurried off to obey him W.T. went back to the morning-room, and resumed his seat behind the table as the heavy-faced inspector from New Campington was saying, ‘The woman didn't do it, Mrs Christensen didn't do it.'

‘Ah,' said W.T. ‘You don't think so … Tell me why?'

‘Yes,' said the inspector.

‘Had she done it, her sending the child to the bonfire at the far end of the garden would have been a deliberate act and she would not have forgotten it. Yet when she begged you to send for the child she had forgotten that it was not with her when she fired the shot.'

‘That's an interesting point, Inspector. It's very true.'

The inspector nodded but W.T. was interrupted by the entrance of Jerry and Estah Phillips, the nurse.

As soon as the detective saw the woman he again experienced the feeling that his presence was bitterly resented.

Now that he had more leisure in which to consider her he saw that she was a personality. Tall and gaunt, she bore her years well, and her small, sloe-black eyes glowered at him.

Her black, unshapely frock was fastened high up at her throat, and her face, rugged and hard, showed parchment pale above it.

She followed Jerry into the room with the dignity of a captured general, and brusquely declined the chair the detective offered her.

‘Now,' he said, smiling at her in the most affable way imaginable – ‘now, Miss Phillips, I want you to do all you can to help me in this matter.'

A sharp gust of contemptuous laughter escaped the woman, and for the fraction of a second her graven face splintered into a derisive smile.

‘You'll get no help from me, so don't expect it,' she said in a voice that was harsh and vibrant.

Unexpected as this reply was, W.T. was unmoved by it. He looked at the woman shrewdly.

‘You come from the Essex coast, don't you?' he said. ‘Colchester way?'

It was now her turn to be surprised, and her small dark eyes flickered.

‘Yes,' she said at last, her tone sullen and begrudging. ‘I was born at Goldhanger near there. My folks lived there for lifetimes.'

‘So I thought,' said W.T. ‘Do you want to know how I told?'

‘No,' said she.

‘
That's
how I told,' said W.T., and smiled to himself with pardonable pleasure. ‘Now,' he said, suddenly assuming an almost magisterial air, ‘how long have you been in Mrs Christensen's employ?'

‘Ever since she was able to pay me.'

W.T. frowned. He had no patience with literal witnesses.

‘What I mean is, how long have you known her?' he said severely.

‘Since she was born. I was her nurse.'

‘Oh, I see.' The ‘Greyhound's' tone grew more sympathetic. ‘And you're very fond of her.'

‘As if she were my own child.' The intensity of the words was so strong that W.T. looked up. He only caught a glimpse of the fleeting expression in the black eyes, but it was enough. He realized that he had touched on the one ruling passion of her life – deep and primitive and unbelievably strong, the mother instinct of a childless woman centred upon one creature only.

‘I see,' he said quietly. ‘You must do your best to help me to help her now, then.'

‘Help her!' the woman burst out contemptuously. ‘All you've done since you set foot in this house is to drive the poor girl nearly out of her mind – as if she hadn't enough to worry her before all this shooting set-out.'

W.T. pricked up his ears.

‘
Before
the shooting?' he inquired.

The old woman paused and looked at him suspiciously.

‘How much has she told you?' she demanded.

‘About Mr Crowther? Everything,' said W.T. swiftly. ‘Why should she hide it?'

The woman's expression did not change. The suspicion still shone in her eyes.

‘No,' she said at last, ‘that's true enough. He was always hanging round her. It nigh drove her off her head. He was a devil, that man.'

‘No one seems to have liked him, certainly,' said W.T.

‘No one had any cause,' said the old woman. ‘There's no one in this house nor in his own that isn't glad to hear of his death – no one.'

‘Isn't that a little sweeping, Miss Phillips?' said W.T. mildly. ‘You, for instance – why should you be glad of his death?'

‘Why? Wasn't he making her life a hell on earth?' said the old creature, allowing her sullen temper to flare. ‘I was glad of his death. It's what I've been praying for upon my knees every night of my life for the past five years. I
am
glad of his death.'

‘Think what you're saying,' protested W.T. ‘The man has just been murdered. You can't go about saying things like this. What can you expect me to think?'

‘It isn't anything to me what you think,' said the old woman stubbornly. ‘I'm telling the truth, and the Lord in His mercy takes care of the innocent. Had I had the opportunity I won't say I wouldn't have done it.'

W.T. sat back in his chair and passed his hand over his forehead.

‘I can only repeat that you're behaving very unwisely, Miss
Phillips,' he said stiffly. ‘How long ago was it that Mr Crowther came to the “Dene”?'

The old woman shrugged her shoulders.

‘I don't know – maybe four years, maybe five.'

‘Can't you remember exactly?' W.T. insisted gently. ‘Fix it by some other event in your mind.'

The woman shot a shrewd, suspicious glance at him.

‘It was just over six years ago,' she said at last.

‘How do you know?'

‘By Jo-an's age,' she said, splitting the name with a faint trace of a country accent. ‘He came just over a year afore she was born.'

‘Before?' W.T. raised his eyebrows on the word. ‘I thought Mrs Christensen said a year
after
'

The old woman's eyelids flickered for an instant, but she answered stolidly, ‘No, it was before. She forgot, I reckon.'

‘Tell me,' said W.T. ‘When Mr Crowther first came to the “Dene”, were he and Mrs Christensen more – er – friendly than they were – yesterday, for instance?'

The old woman looked him squarely in the eyes.

‘I know what you're thinking,' she said, ‘but you're wrong. Him that's dead wasn't
that
sort of a man – he had great sins to his credit, but that wasn't one of them.'

‘I see,' said W.T. ‘Thank you. There's just one more thing – it's a little point, but I want everything quite clear … that sporting-gun in the next room, it belonged to the house, I suppose – was it always kept loaded? Who used it as a rule?'

The old woman looked at him curiously.

‘He did,' she said. ‘It was his gun.'

‘He?' W.T. looked mystified.

The old woman regarded him stolidly. ‘Him that's dead,' she said at last.

‘The dead man's own gun?' exclaimed the detective, surprised out of his usual calm. ‘Who brought it over? Was it in the house before today?'

The gaunt old creature hesitated, and her beady black eyes surveyed him doubtfully.

‘I'm not sure if I ought to tell you,' she said at last.

W.T. leant forward across the table. ‘Be sure you ought,' he said. ‘I haven't come here as an enemy, Miss Phillips. I'm only doing the best I can to find out the guilty so that the innocent may be spared distress.'

The old woman looked at him gravely.

‘I believe you,' she said. ‘Maybe I'll tell you all I know about the gun.' She paused, and W.T. signalled to Jerry to take down what she said.

‘Well,' he said at last, ‘I'm listening …'

The old woman took a deep breath.

‘Maybe you know there's a balcony outside the nursery, just above the french windows in the dining-room,' she began. ‘I sit out there sometimes of an afternoon. Two days ago I was there sewing. About four o'clock it was, and I saw him that's dead coming across the lawn with the gun under his arm like as if he'd just come in from the woods. He didn't see me, though,' she went on, smiling sourly to herself; ‘his mind was on the dining-room, and he passed right under me without knowing. Mr Roger was in the room,' she went on. ‘Mr Christensen that is – I always call him Mr Roger – and I heard him that's dead speak to him. “Hallo, you,” he said, and added on a word I'm not repeatin' to you or anyone – suggesting that
she
was unfaithful to him, as it did.' She paused.

‘Go on. What did Mr Roger say?'

Old Estah hesitated.

‘I'm only telling you because I believe you're acting for the good,' she said at last. ‘I haven't told a word of this to another soul.'

‘That's right,' said the detective encouragingly. ‘You can trust us.'

‘Mr Roger, he turned on him,' the old woman continued. ‘Told him he ought to be ashamed of himself. Then him that's dead began to laugh – a terrible laugh he had – there's only one word for it, and that's gloating – gloating – as if he was enjoying himself. Then he said – and I heard him upon my balcony as plainly as if I'd been in there with him – “You hate me,
don't you, Christensen? And you're afraid of me too, aren't you?”'

BOOK: The White Cottage Mystery
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