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Authors: Margery Allingham

The White Cottage Mystery (5 page)

BOOK: The White Cottage Mystery
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As might be imagined, the inspector and the red-headed policeman raised no objections and within ten minutes Jerry and his father were alone.

5 The Only Alternative

‘Well,' said the old man, looking across at his son, ‘found the murderer, Jerry?'

The boy grimaced. ‘It's pretty obvious, isn't it?'

W.T. raised his eyebrows. ‘That poor devil in the chair is responsible,' said Jerry. ‘Look here, Dad, this is how it happened …'

Hastily he gave a short outline of the theory he had formed in his brief sojourn in the drawing-room. ‘Did you notice that door?' he finished eagerly. ‘It's always kept unlocked; the whole household use it. What could have been simpler than for the chap to nip in there, whip up the gun from the corner, fire from the table, and then bolt back again into the drawing-room and get out through the main door into the hall? It's as plain as print – he's given himself away.'

W.T. sighed.

‘Jerry,' he said, ‘you have a quick eye, a fertile imagination, and the gift of application, but you'll never make a detective – you've no ground-work. Did you notice anything about that door besides the fact that it wasn't locked?'

‘No,' admitted Jerry, ‘nothing particular – why?'

The old detective produced his memo book and turned over the pages.

‘Here,' he said at last – ‘here it is. That door, Jerry, is barely twenty-six inches across – and our friend Mr Christensen's chair is an exceptionally wide one. See his wheel-tracks on that sheet of newspaper on the floor down there – measure them for me.'

Jerry took the tape he proffered and went down on his hands and knees to obey him.

‘Twenty-seven and a half inches,' he said at last.

W.T. nodded. ‘And that's without the wheel-hubs,' he said. ‘He couldn't have got through your door, Jerry – so bang goes that little theory, my boy. No, Roger Christensen's only way of committing that murder was to hurry out of the drawing-room as soon as he heard Crowther enter the hall, get past the man on the other side of the table, take the gun from the corner, kill him, and then double back out of the dining-room, taking care to avoid the body, which lay right across the inside of it – a very ticklish piece of work – and then hurry through the hall and back into the drawing-room, all before Kathreen arrived on the scene – she saw him coming out of the room, not going
it, remember. Pretty sharp work for a man hampered with a chair in three minutes, eh? The girl told us he had to “edge” his way through the drawing-room door as it was. By the way, you'll notice if you look that all the door-frames in the house are scratched where he passes in and out of them. No, Jerry, my boy, I don't think that's our man.'

Jerry sat back on his heels and looked at his father – his natural expression of faint bewilderment intensified.

‘Then who – who … ?' he began.

W.T. nodded and passed his hands over his shaggy white head. ‘That's just the point. They all behave as if they were innocent, and yet each one is hiding something. Each has a motive for killing Crowther, and admits it freely. No sane person would dare to do that unless they felt safe. Let's take them one at a time. There's Mrs Christensen. She found the body – that is to say she was the first person seen coming from the room where the body lay. She admits freely – that's the devil of it – that she hated Crowther and her life was made unbearable by him. He came over here today to see her – we know that … Then she says that her husband was jealous of the man – and we afterwards find that to be untrue. She was hiding something – some secret that she shared with Crowther, the nature of which we do not yet know.'

The detective paused and eyed his son. ‘So far things look very black against her,' he went on, ‘but I swear that her cry when she realized the inference I was drawing from her words was one of
as much as of horror; and then again she sent for the child –
sent for it, mark you, not I – and it destroyed her only alibi.

‘Then there is her husband.' W.T. frowned as he spoke. ‘On the face of the facts – the gun being where it was and this admitted hatred – he might quite as easily have done it as his wife. Yet apart from the difficulties of time and movement I am inclined to believe his story on its own account – it sounded true.'

Jerry nodded. ‘It did,' he agreed. ‘He really seemed to be trying to help.'

W.T. smiled wryly.

‘That's often a sign of guilt,' he said. ‘When a man says he is anxious to help and tells us long yarns about other people, he's usually hiding something. This fellow talked all about himself, though, which was odd if he was guilty.'

‘Then there's Estah,' said Jerry.

‘I know,' said the detective. ‘There's another problem. Estah might have killed Crowther – nothing is more likely. She hated him – she tells us he ought to be dead – she even goes so far as to say that she prayed that he might die – there is no one to prove what she was doing at the time of the murder. She even had just time after Kathreen left her to cross the upper hall to the nursery, come down the garden steps, enter the french windows and fire at the incoming Crowther, returning the way she came before Mrs Christensen hurried round the side of the house. All that is possible, I say, but on the other hand, is it probable? Why should she know the exact moment when Crowther entered the house? Her window overlooked the garden. Why should she fire the gun from the table? Whoever committed that murder must have done it on the spur of the moment; there was no time for a quarrel before the shot. On his own servant's evidence Crowther left his house at fifteen minutes past four; five minutes later he was dead. They all know something about it, Jerry, but we've no more proof of the actual murder against them than we have against Kathreen or that sister of Mrs Christensen's I spoke to, or that old rascal Clarry Gale, whose very presence is a mystery …'

Jerry sat silent for a moment or so, then he looked up gravely.

‘And the only other alternative …' he began.

‘Is Cellini,' finished W.T. ‘We shall hear news of him soon – he's the most likely person now; and yet,' he added with a sudden explosive laugh – ‘and yet if he hadn't bolted we shouldn't have any more evidence against him than we have against any of the others.'

Hardly had the words left his lips than the door opened to admit a man whose eyes peered at the world suspiciously from beneath bushy eyebrows. This was Evelyn Cave – one of the most useful medical men Scotland Yard possessed.

The detective rose to meet him. The two were good friends and had been on many cases together in their time.

‘Nothing new, I suppose?' There was something approaching wistfulness in the detective's tone.

The doctor hesitated.

‘Well,' he said. ‘I don't know … The body did not fall as it was found. I suspected that at first, although it seemed natural enough that the fellow should fall flat on his back away from an explosion like that – but from various little evidences which I have since discovered I have now confirmed my first suspicion.'

W.T. stared at him.

‘What do you mean?' he said sharply. ‘The man rolled over after he touched the ground, or – someone moved him after he was dead?'

Doctor Cave thrust his hands deep in his pockets and raised himself on his toes, his head jerked back a little to survey his colleague's face.

‘Someone moved him,' he said. ‘Someone rolled him right over on his back. Come and have a look.'

Jerry followed his father and the doctor into the room where the blood-covered corpse still lay.

The sight of it turned the boy sick again, as it had done before, but the doctor and old W.T. bent over it curiously.

‘You see,' Cave was saying, his calm ruffled a little in his enthusiasm – ‘you see, Will, when he fell his right shoulder struck this dresser-leg, and that pitched him forward on to his
face, which accounts for this great pool of blood here – he must have remained like that for several seconds bleeding like a pig the whole time. See, the stain spreads all round him – had he fallen on his back the blood must have remained for the most part in the body.'

Jerry turned away, his gorge rising, but the detective leant forward, his eyes narrowing and the lines on his broad forehead deepening.

‘I see,' he said slowly. ‘Then you think someone turned him over after he fell – someone who – who wanted to see his face, for instance? …'

‘Yes,' said Cave simply, ‘or someone who wanted to get at his breast pocket.'

For a moment there was silence after the doctor had spoken. At last the detective straightened himself and paced slowly down the room.

‘Nothing was missing though,' he said. ‘The notecase was found intact save for the shot-holes – the body was not robbed of money …'

‘Yet I believe it was robbed,' the doctor persisted. ‘Look at the way this shirt is torn – it is so saturated with blood that I didn't notice it at first – but no shot-gun made a rip like that – that was

W.T. nodded. ‘You're right, Cave,' he said quietly. ‘This makes all the difference … It was no ordinary robbery. The murderer wanted something Crowther kept very carefully – something that he was so afraid of losing that he kept it buttoned under his shirt – now at last I think we're coming to something, thank God.'

Once again he relapsed into silence.

‘Of course,' he said. ‘Of course – naturally.'

‘What?' said Jerry, who was bewildered by this new development and the possibilities it suggested.

‘Why,' said W.T., ‘whoever moved that body after the shot was fired must have had his – or her – hands covered with blood. There is no other alternative – the cleverest creature alive could not have wrenched open that shirt and extracted a package from
the man's breast without being contaminated – you can see for yourself it's impossible. That brings us nearer to facts at once. Within three minutes of the shot the entire crowd of suspects were gathered together in the hall. Bloodstains are not easy to hide, and the chances are a hundred to one against anyone getting away with them unnoticed at a time when everyone is instinctively looking at his neighbour and asking, “Is it you?”'

‘Not everyone,' said Jerry suddenly. ‘Not everyone was in the hall, Dad.'

W.T. nodded.

‘That's it,' he said. ‘Cellini … No one saw him in the house, though, mind you. You fancied he turned in at the gate after he passed you but you didn't see him – you can't prove it. The cook at the “Dene” says he came into the house and went off again in the car after Clarry Gale had come over here – that was after the inspector arrived – quite fifteen minutes after the crime … If he came here, as you fancied, where was he during that fifteen minutes between the shot and the moment when he returned to the “Dene” and was seen by the cook?' He was silent for a moment, and then went on again, speaking in a slow, meticulous way as if he were thinking each word out for himself for the first time.

‘He was not in here,' he said. ‘There is nowhere here for him to hide, and Mrs Christensen entered the room from the french windows almost immediately after she heard the shot. No, he must have gone out of the door – not having time to wipe his hands or to examine the package, or whatever it was that he had taken from the body. Kathreen did not see him as she came from the kitchen. Did he go out of the open front door, then, on to the veranda – or …?' He paused and looked at Jerry and the doctor.

‘I think,' he said suddenly, ‘that I shall make a detailed examination of the hall. I've been round this room and there's no sign of anything unusual, but the hall I have not yet had the opportunity to examine thoroughly. I had it photographed, but that was all. I thought it was going to prove such an ordinary case.' He sighed on the last word, and Cave smiled.

‘Losing your dash, Will?' he said slyly.

The old detective grimaced at him.

‘None of us gets younger,' he grumbled, ‘and I never did like my job – spending one's life prying into other people's affairs – faugh!'

The doctor laughed – to Jerry's somewhat nerve-stricken imagination he looked like some odd ghoul in the yellow light.

‘Oh, I enjoy my work,' he said, speaking the verb as if he meant it. ‘They'll have to carry me to cases in a bath-chair when I'm too old to walk to them – I shall never give up.'

W.T. sighed.

‘Every man to his taste,' he said. ‘Jerry, my boy, in my coat in the next room you'll find my torch – bring it to me, will you?'

When Jerry returned with the torch, W.T. was standing before the miscellaneous collection of coats and mackintoshes that every English family seems to accumulate somewhere near its front door. The stand was set across the corner of the room between the dining-room door and the veranda. It was heavy with a mirror at the top and umbrellas at the bottom.

W.T. pulled aside the bundle of coats that draped the near side of the mirror.

‘Look,' he said.

The stand, which by the overflowing burden of garments looked to be set close up against the wall, was, in fact, some eight inches away from it.

‘A man could slip behind there easily,' said W.T. quietly, ‘and out the other side again when the time came … Besides, see this?'

As he spoke he switched his torch on to the sleeve of the outermost coat, which until now had been hidden against the wall. Jerry caught his breath. There was a stain upon it – brown and sinister and unmistakable.

‘It is new, too,' said W.T. ‘And here also, see?'

Once again the torch's bright blade of light cut through the darkness of the corner and fell this time upon a spot on the wall about two and a half feet from the ground. There again was the same brown stain only more distinct this time – two oval smears
of it side by side – one a little higher than the other. Fingermarks of a hand pressed lightly against the wall to preserve a man's balance as he flattened himself there.

BOOK: The White Cottage Mystery
6.48Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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