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Authors: Margery Allingham

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BOOK: The White Cottage Mystery
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W.T. smiled.

‘That's very good of you, sir,' he said. ‘If you wouldn't mind, that's just what I should like.'

M. Barthés bowed, smiled faintly, and wafted himself and the sturdy and somewhat disappointed Marbeuf out of the room and down the stairs.

The Italian, who had not caught the drift of the conversation, looked after them wildly.

‘Are they going?' he demanded hysterically. ‘Going before they have heard me. Shall I be dragged off to prison without being heard? What is to become of me? Why am I not allowed to explain?' His voice rose almost to a scream on the last word, and Jerry noticed his long, tapering fingers as they clutched nervously at the tablecloth … delicate, sensitive fingers.

Old W.T. sat down. He was at his most fatherly, and his expression was innocent and benign.

‘Now, calm yourself,' he said, and his voice was soothing. ‘Those gentlemen are waiting for me downstairs. If you would care to reserve your story for the Court to hear, I am quite ready, but if you wish to tell me anything now – here I am.'

The terrified Italian became visibly calmer under the influence of the unemotional voice, and suddenly he dropped into a chair by the table. For some moments he sat silent, his long ivory white hands clasped in front of him and his eyes dull and impenetrable.

At last his lips moved.

‘I kill him?
I
?' he murmured, and a thin trickle of laughter escaped him. ‘For seven years – seven years I long to kill him. I
think and plan and dream of killing him, but always I am afraid. He know that; that is why he not fear me.'

Jerry glanced at his father – his eyes wide with astonishment. The old man signalled him to be silent, and looked across at the Italian.

‘Go on,' he said softly.

The man hesitated.

‘I – I didn't kill him,' he burst out. ‘Whoever it was it was not I – I would never dare. I lived with him for seven years as a prisoner.'

Old W.T. was frowning: the mystery was not becoming clearer. He leant across the table and regarded the Italian steadily.

‘Cellini,' he said, ‘why did you bolt like that – suddenly?'

The Italian looked at him blankly.

‘Because he was dead,' he said. ‘Because at last I was free.'

‘How did you know Crowther was dead?'

Cellini's reply was disarming.

‘Because I saw him,' he said simply. ‘I followed him into the house of the Christensens, as he bade me – as I entered the front door I heard the report. I rushed into the room …' He paused and lowered his eyes.

‘Yes?' said W.T.

‘Then,' said Cellini, ‘I saw he was dead, and I knew I was free. Something sang in my brain – my one desire was to get away. I hurried out of the room the way I had come. As I reached the hall I heard someone coming. I did not wish to be seen lest I should be delayed. There was not time to get out of the door, so I hid behind the coat-stand – I was there for some time while the police came. Then as soon as the hall was clear I ran out into the garden and returned to my room, where I packed a bag. Then I took the car and went.' He paused and returned the detective's stare.

W.T. hesitated, then he spoke.

‘There was blood on the wall behind the coat-stand, Cellini,' he said slowly.

The man's face paled visibly until his round eyes seemed to glow against the livid flesh.

‘What did you take from the dead man?' W.T. continued. ‘What did you turn him over on his back and wrench his shirt open to find?'

‘You know?' The words were uttered in a stifled scream, and the Italian started up from the table, his expression a masterpiece of fear and amazement.

W.T. nodded wearily.

‘Of course I know,' he said. ‘Sit down.'

Cellini obeyed him; he was trembling.

‘What was it?'

The Italian folded his arms on the table and hid his face on them.

‘I can't,' he said piteously. ‘I can't … I … daren't.'

There was no question that his anguish was sincere. The man had literally gone to pieces before their eyes.

For a minute W.T. let him remain there quiet, his face hidden. Then he spoke deliberately.

‘Cellini,' he said, ‘have you ever heard of the
Society of the Undenied
?' He spoke very softly, but the effect upon the Italian was electrical. He sat up at the table, his long, thin body rigid, his nostrils dilated like those of a frightened animal.

‘Who are you?' he demanded, and his voice was breathy and out of control.

W.T. smiled at him, his eyes narrow beneath his thick white brows.

‘I don't think there's any need to go into that,' he said gently. ‘Let it be enough that I know.'

There was silence for a moment in the room while the Italian still stared at the detective.

Finally W.T. leant back in his chair.

‘Now that we understand each other, let us go into the matter afresh,' he said easily. ‘You see, my only desire is to find the murderer of Eric Crowther. I have in my pocket a warrant for your arrest on that charge, but if you tell me the truth I will listen to it. I give you one word of advice … If you are innocent, do
not be afraid to tell the whole truth. I am not likely to bring any charges against you save this one that I have mentioned.'

The Italian raised his heavy eyes and spoke wearily.

‘I will tell you,' he said.

8 The Torturer

Once having made up his mind to speak, the Italian's whole attitude changed as completely as it had done before. His weariness left him – he became voluble, excited. As he talked he gesticulated, his sensitive hands emphasizing his points – driving them home.

‘Monsieur,' he said, ‘seven years ago, in the service of the society by which I was employed, it became necessary for me to spend some months in a tenement building in the worst quarter of this city …' He paused and looked at the old detective keenly. ‘I had to wipe out my own personality and become for a time a beggar in the streets of Paris – a real beggar. I lived on what I earned. I spoke to no one whom I knew in my own life – not even my wife … not even she would have recognized me.'

‘Your wife? Is that the lady who showed us in?' Jerry spoke involuntarily.

The Italian nodded.

‘Yesterday I saw her for the first time for seven years,' he said simply. ‘But monsieur shall hear … However one can disguise the body and force the mind into a new shape and quality, one cannot control one's powers of resisting disease. The beggars of Paris live hard lives. From children they are inured to cold but I was not – I became ill.' He stopped for a moment and regarded W.T. solemnly.

The detective nodded comprehendingly, and the Italian went on. ‘I caught some cold which laid me open to an attack of fever brought by another beggar from the East. It overcame me completely. I dare not return to my home, however, for I knew I was being watched, and bring suspicion upon the society I dare not … as you will understand, monsieur?'

‘Yes,' said W.T., ‘I understand.'

The Italian looked at him gratefully. ‘So I crawled back to my tenement attic,' he continued, ‘and lay upon my bed. Then began the tortures of long fits of delirium, from which I used to awake gasping with fear, icy cold and convinced in my mind that I was about to die. This misery continued for some time – how long I never knew – it may have been days or merely hours. But as I awakened from one of the worst fits of delirium, my mind frozen with the fear of death and the purgatory to come, I saw a man bending over me. A big man, wide-shouldered and heavy-faced, with small bright eyes round and cruel and a little mad …'

He paused, and W.T. spoke. ‘That was Eric Crowther?'

The Italian nodded, and there came into his face the same indescribable expression of mingled fear and loathing that Jerry had noticed on the faces of Christensen and Gale and old Estah when they had spoken of the dead man.

‘It was he,' he said. ‘The devil in man's guise. But I will tell you – you shall judge. When I saw him I cried out to him that I was dying, and he nodded. I was terrified – I am a member of the true Church, monsieur – a good Catholic, and in the hour of death I was afraid to die unabsolved. I begged him therefore to fetch a priest to me, and in my madness I said there was much I had to confess. I can see his face now as he looked at me. I was very ill, monsieur; mad with fever and the awful fear of dying with my sins unconfessed.'

The man was speaking passionately, his dull eyes glowing, and the two men who listened had a sudden insight into his superstitious soul. They saw a little of his belief – his faith that absolution would protect him from the fire and everlasting torment of the damned.

‘He laughed at me,' the Italian continued, his voice sinking into a monotone. ‘I saw him grinning down at me. “There is not time,” he said. “You will die before he comes.” This was the one thing needed to drive the last sane thought out of my mind. I became raving – hysterical – and he – as though to quiet me – suddenly offered to hear my confession. “I will be secret,” he said, “and I will pray for you.” ‘Cellini paused to draw breath
for a moment, but went on again immediately, his words gathering speed. ‘I was mad,' he said; ‘the fever had heated my brain until I could think of nothing clearly; my whole being was frozen with the terror of death. I confessed,' he added slowly, while W.T. stared at him, a glimmer of understanding in his face. ‘I confessed everything.'

W.T. stirred, and his voice sounded dry and quiet after the Italian's emotional outburst.

‘About the society?'

Cellini bowed his head.

‘I thought they were my last words on earth,' he said after a pause. ‘I looked upon him as a confessor. I was too ill to …' W.T. nodded.

‘And then?' he said.

‘He took it down.' The Italian spoke so simply that for a moment Jerry did not grasp the full significance of the words.

‘He took it down,' Cellini repeated, a gathering hatred in his tone. ‘I spoke haltingly, naturally, for I was very weak – there was plenty of time for him to write, and when he had done he made me sign.'

W.T. stared at the man before him, his eyes narrowed with incredulous amazement.

‘He made you sign?' he repeated.

The Italian nodded. ‘I was ill,' he said gently. ‘Dying – and I was afraid.'

The old detective leant back in his chair and folded his arms. He was beginning to see things more clearly.

‘What exactly had you confessed?'

‘Everything,' said the Italian.

W.T. frowned. ‘Names?' he inquired.

‘Everything,' repeated Cellini, and his tone told more than the most elaborate explanation could have done.

W.T. whistled softly.

‘I see,' he said gravely. ‘I see. And then – you didn't die.'

The Italian nodded.

‘He saved my life,' he said. ‘I never forgave him for that. He was a monster, monsieur – a fiend unleashed.'

W.T. rose to his feet, and crossing over to the hearth-rug stood there, his hands in his pockets.

‘You must go on,' he said at last. ‘All this you have told me only compromises you more.'

The Italian nodded eagerly. ‘I know,' he said, ‘I know. There is still more to explain. But yet – monsieur did not know the dead man – perhaps he could not understand.'

‘Suppose you try to tell me,' said W.T. ‘If it's true I shall understand.'

The Italian leant his elbows on the table and rested his chin on his hands. His unnatural pallor and dry, longish black hair gave him a weird, almost ghost-like appearance in the yellow light.

‘Monsieur,' he began, ‘Eric Crowther, though in all other respects an ordinary, self-centred, middle-aged man of rather fine intellect, was, on one point, mad – insane.' He looked across at the detective doubtfully, as if he feared he would not be believed, but W.T. regarded him solemnly, nothing but a deep interest betrayed in his expression. The Italian went on, still speaking more slowly than his wont, and with a meticulousness of diction that betrayed his anxiety to be understood.

‘He had a mania,' he said, ‘a passion for inflicting pain. Pain interested him. He loved to cause it, to watch his victim writhing, realizing and enjoying to the full with a sensuous pleasure each little twinge and stab.'

W.T. bowed his head.

‘I am familiar with that type of obsession,' he said.

The Italian glanced at him sharply. ‘You will understand, then,' he said, ‘that was Crowther's madness, but he had it with a difference – the only pain that interested him was
mental
pain.'

Jerry caught his breath and leant forward.

‘
Mental
pain,' the Italian repeated. ‘He had studied medicine in Germany and was a great student of the brain – any kind of mental suffering thrilled him. At first it was just a secret trait in
his character, I think, but it grew into a mania. At the time of which I speak his whole life was dominated by it as a man is dominated by a fiend.'

Both W.T. and Jerry were alert now, watching him eagerly. This revelation explained much that had been hitherto incomprehensible.

‘It was difficult for him to gratify this mania,' the Italian continued. ‘One must inspire love first before one can hurt with a word or a look; or else one must know something about someone – something they are anxious not to reveal to the world. Then one can play upon the feelings of the victim as a child plays upon a guitar …'

‘My God – blackmail!' Jerry spoke without knowing it.

Cellini looked at him and nodded.

‘That is the word,' he said. ‘Blackmail – blackmail with the payments in pain.'

Jerry looked at his father questioningly. The old man was looking intently at the Italian, his forehead puckered and his face animated with new interest.

BOOK: The White Cottage Mystery
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