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Authors: Margery Allingham

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BOOK: The White Cottage Mystery
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Jerry looked at his father.

‘Cellini!' he said faintly. ‘He was there the whole time – waiting.'

W.T. nodded.

‘As he came out of the dining-room he must have heard Kathreen coming, and so took shelter in this corner until he had an opportunity to escape. He must have been there until the inspector arrived and herded everyone into the drawing-room. Then he saw his chance and slipped out.'

Morning brought no news from the ports, and the detective was clearly disappointed. The inquest had been fixed for the following afternoon, and since they would both have to attend it, Jerry and his father spent the day in the village making what inquiries they could about the dead man.

The curious atmosphere of secrecy in the Christensen household also was too strong to be ignored. W.T. was puzzled.

‘Cellini may have done the murder,' he said, ‘but I can't help feeling that some interesting facts about all sorts of people will come to light before he is sentenced.'

Jerry sighed.

‘I hope not,' he said involuntarily.

The older man smiled wryly.

‘I know,' he said. ‘That is often the real tragedy of a case like this. The whole of our civilization is one network of little intrigues, some harmless, others serious, all going on in the dark just under the surface. A crime calls the attention of the community to one point, and the searchlight of public interest is switched on to this particular section of the network. The trouble is that the light does not fall upon one spot alone, but shows up all the surrounding knots and tangles, making them out of all proportion by their proximity to the murder.'

‘Foul!' said Jerry, whose thoughts were dwelling almost entirely upon Norah this morning, and they walked on in silence.

Inquiries in the village were not altogether helpful. The detective
discovered little that he did not know already. The dead man had not been liked by the countryfolk because, as they said, ‘he kept himself to himself'. Of Cellini no one knew anything save that he seemed to have followed his employer like a shadow, the one hardly ever being seen abroad without the other.

The day passed without any discovery of any importance, and W.T. began to get restless. He and Jerry were seated in the private room in the ‘Blue Boar', having their evening meal, when a phone call disturbed them. W.T. left the table eagerly and returned five minutes later, a more satisfied expression on his face than it had worn all day.

‘At last,' he said, reseating himself, ‘they've found the car. Cellini left it in a Folkestone garage just before six o'clock last night. A boat for Boulogne left the harbour at six-fifteen, and Inspector Deadwood is of the opinion that he probably caught it and got across before the general call was put out to the ports.'

Jerry looked up.

‘That's pretty serious, isn't it? I mean, there's not much chance of getting him now, is there?'

‘Oh dear me, yes!' W.T. was brightening up visibly, and the gloom which had enveloped him all day now began to disperse like fog before the sun. ‘You can chase a man in one country as well as another,' he said. ‘The French police have been informed of course, and will doubtless render us every assistance in their power … Feel like a trip to the Continent, Jerry?'

‘Why, is it likely?'

‘Very,' said the old man. ‘I must get an extradition order.'

Late the following afternoon, as father and son walked back to the ‘Blue Boar' from the inquest they were met with a message.

Cellini located in Paris. French police report arrest impossible at the moment. M. le Gris of the Intelligence Department will explain by word of mouth alone. – Deadwood.

W.T. and Jerry exchanged glances.

‘What does it mean?' the boy demanded, his forehead puckering.

W.T. thrust his fingers through his white hair till it stood up on his head like a cockatoo's crest.

‘Goodness only knows,' he said. ‘There's something very odd about this case, Jerry.'

6 The Explanation of M. le Gris

‘If messieurs would permit …' The tall fair-haired young Frenchman with the irreproachable English accent bowed deferentially as he spoke, and wafted rather than led the detective and his son into the sleek black car drawn up against the kerb outside the Gare du Nord.

He had met their train, and singling them out immediately from the other passengers, presented his card – M. Maurice Barthés, 18 rue des Soldats.

‘I am Monsieur le Gris' private secretary,' he explained. ‘He sends you this letter and begs that you will excuse him that he does not meet you himself.'

Old W.T. took the note and opened it, passing it immediately afterwards to Jerry.

My dear Mr Challoner, Would you be so good as to accompany my secretary to my house, where I shall await you? Please excuse this informality, but there are circumstances in the business on which you are come which make an unofficial meeting between us imperative.

René le Gris.

During the drive, which carried them through the heart of the city to the quiet squares on the other side of the river, M. Barthés talked continually upon trivial subjects. From his behaviour he might quite easily have been escorting two English business men to a house-party at the home of a member of an allied firm.

W.T. was not surprised. The boy was afraid of questions, he realized; he had been warned to say nothing, no doubt. This was understandable, but yet mystifying; and the old man sat silent, his hands folded.

Jerry therefore was left to bear the brunt of M. Barthés' small-talk, and the two young men chatted dutifully together for some
fifteen minutes, until the car turned suddenly out of a noisy thoroughfare into a quiet old-fashioned avenue where the trees, green and dusty in the heat, nodded together before tall brown houses.

They came to a standstill before a house whose windows were hung with old-fashioned looped plush curtains and showed the gleam of polished mahogany in their shadowed depths.

A sedate manservant admitted them, leading them upstairs to a room on the first floor. Here M. Barthés paused and bowed.

‘Monsieur le Gris awaits you, messieurs,' he said, and turning, left them on the threshold.

Jerry followed his father into a cool dim room whose atmosphere was redolent of leather and the faint dusty smell of books.

A slight figure rose from the shadows behind a desk as they came in, and moved towards them with outstretched hand.

M. René le Gris was a Frenchman of the dapper type. He was scarcely five feet six in height, with a grey vandyke beard, iron-grey hair, and black-brown eyes.

He smiled affably as he greeted the two, showing his perfect teeth, and reseated himself as soon as they sat down, drawing his chair nearer to theirs.

There was something about him, however, which made Jerry vaguely uncomfortable. There was a hint of restraint in his manner in spite of all his apparent friendliness.

W.T. noticed it also, and the faintly puzzled expression that had been lurking at the back of his eyes ever since he first set foot in Paris grew momentarily more intense.

The Frenchman was the first to touch on the business in hand.

‘Monsieur,' he said, in his quiet, well-modulated voice, ‘I understand from a letter I have received from London that you have come to France to find an Italian called Latte Cellini.'

W.T. nodded.

‘I have come to arrest him, monsieur,' he said simply. ‘We want him in England on a charge of murder.'

‘So I understand,' said le Gris, and was silent for a moment or so, evidently deliberating his next remark.

‘This is a very difficult matter,' he said at last. ‘Monsieur
knows, of course, that the French police are always most anxious to assist their colleagues over the Channel – '

W.T. bowed and was silent. This was all very well, but it was not to the point.

The little Frenchman folded his hands and smiled.

‘This must all seem very extraordinary to you,' he said suddenly – ‘asking you to come here unofficially like this.'

The old detective looked at him squarely.

‘To be truthful, it does,' he said. ‘I don't understand it at all. We hear from you that a man wanted on a charge of murder has been located in your city. Why can't we proceed in the ordinary way – as in the case of Chalmers – Ruth Buller – Dorrington, and many others?'

The Frenchman paused, and when at last he spoke there was an air of hesitancy in his manner, as if he were feeling his way very cautiously.

‘Chalmers was a man in an ordinary position,' he said at last. ‘So was the woman Ruth Buller – so was Dorrington. But Latte Cellini is not so ordinary. That is – I mean, monsieur, there are
circumstances
…' And again he paused and looked at the Englishman questioningly.

W.T. remained stolid, however, his eyes fixed on the Frenchman's face. After a while the man continued.

‘Monsieur,' he said, ‘Latte Cellini is not unknown to us. He left France seven years ago, and since then all trace of him has been lost. Before that time, however, he was a subject of great interest to us. As soon as he entered France two days ago he was recognized by our men and a note made of his return. That is why we were able to reply to your inquiries about him so soon.'

W.T. nodded. ‘I understand,' he said. ‘But really, monsieur, I fail to see why the fact that seven years ago he was known to your police should prevent me from arresting him now.'

‘Oh, my dear Monsieur Challoner, you misunderstand me.' M. le Gris was loud in his protest. ‘We do not object at all to your arresting Cellini – even hanging him if you see fit; on the contrary, if you have sufficient evidence to bring him to justice there is
nothing that would suit us more admirably. That is why – to be frank – we replied so promptly to your inquiries.'

W.T. stirred uneasily in his chair.

‘Monsieur le Gris,' he said simply, ‘I am an Englishman, and we like our facts like our food – without subtlety. If you will honour me with your trust you will find that I shall respect your confidence.'

The Frenchman coloured faintly.

‘The affair is not easy,' he murmured. ‘The facts, monsieur, are these – we know where Cellini is at the moment, but he is in a place where you cannot be permitted to arrest him. I can only suggest that you remain in Paris until we are able to give you more satisfactory information.'

W.T.'s eyes narrowed for an instant, but the next moment he was smiling, benign as ever.

‘Monsieur,' he said gently, ‘we are both servants of the established order. Let us work together. It seems to me that here is a man an offender against the public. If by cooperation we can bring him to justice, surely we ought to do so. In plain words, monsieur, let us each tell all we know.'

René le Gris frowned.

‘Monsieur will understand the extremely confidential nature of the information for which he asks?' he said at last.

‘My dear sir' – W.T.'s tone was eloquent – ‘every police force in the world has its secrets. There are times when a strict adherence to the letter of the law is not advisable in the law's own interests.'

A faint smile spread over the little Frenchman's face. ‘Monsieur comprehends,' he said, and then, turning, looked pointedly at Jerry.

‘My son is my most valued assistant,' said old W.T. quickly. ‘Please regard him as trustworthy as myself – I will answer for him.'

Le Gris shrugged his shoulders.

‘As monsieur wishes,' he said, and leaning forward he began to speak, his elbows resting on his chair-arms, his white fingers meeting across his breast.

‘As monsieur has said,' he began, ‘every police force in the world has its secrets – information which it is not politic to use.' His bright eyes rested upon W.T.'s stolid face questioningly.

The old detective nodded emphatically and the Frenchman continued. ‘We are not exceptions to the general rule. There has been for many years in this city the headquarters of a society of thieves. The police know of it, naturally, but always their hands have been tied.' Again he paused and looked at the Englishman shrewdly, and again the older man nodded gravely.

‘The difficulty is a peculiar one,' le Gris went on. ‘This “society” is composed of several American millionaires, one English nobleman, an Austrian whose name is famous all over the world, three Frenchmen, and one woman, whose names are so illustrious that even among friends it would be unwise to mention them. Besides – even we do not know the entire member roll.'

W.T. nodded imperturbably. ‘I understand perfectly, monsieur,' he said. ‘Please go on.'

‘This society has one great peculiarity,' le Gris continued slowly. ‘It never steals anything that can be bought.'

Jerry looked up in surprise, not grasping his meaning at first.

‘Nothing that money will buy,' the Frenchman repeated. ‘The members are all collectors of rare jewellery and pictures. If the object desired by any one of them is on the market, then he is bound to buy it, paying whatever may be asked for it without question; but if, on the other hand, the treasure is not to be got by just means and he is still anxious to get it, he calls in the help of this society and it is obtained for him.'

‘Stolen?'

Le Gris shrugged his shoulders.

‘Acquired,' he murmured gently. ‘Wherever it is – the Imperial Palace of China or a back attic in your Mile End Road – it is found and removed. Nothing can save it.'

‘The society has good servants,' remarked W.T.

The Frenchman nodded.

‘All the experts of the world,' he said with something akin to regret in his tone. ‘Every criminal who is at the height of his or
her particular line is sought out and employed by them. Cracksmen – confidence men – pickpockets – besides a small army of jewellers and picture experts.'

The English detective looked up.

BOOK: The White Cottage Mystery
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