The House of Anxiety
by Georges Sim
THE DRUNKEN MAN
The calendar on the Louis XVI desk showed Monday, the 17th of November.
It had been eight days since Captain Truffier's murder. For seven of them Maigret, on leaving the house in Montreuil-sous-bois in the evening, had had the impression that his investigation was progressing. Since then, however, events had started to take on an unhappy rhythm.
Tuesday morning, arriving fresh and full of energy at his office, having decided to attack the mystery head on, the commissioner had phoned the Maison Demassis Antique Shop in the Rue du Faubourg-Saint-Honoré.
He had asked for M. Henry Demassis, but had been told that he wasn't there. Three calls in the space of two hours. The third time, Mme Demassis herself came to the phone and betrayed her concerns about her son.
At the last moment, Henry had decided not to go to Nice, in spite of the importance of their business there. He had spent Monday away from the shop, returning in the evening, but hadn't remained at home more than a few minutes. And since then there had been no news of him. He had left with the car.
His mother didn't know anything else. She feared an accident.
She asked Maigret if the Captain's funeral could be held on Thursday. As the Medico-Legal Institute had no more need of the body, permission for the burial was granted.
At four o'clock in the afternoon there was still no news of Henry.
At five o'clock, a notice appeared in the second edition of the evening newspapers, asking for anyone who could provide information regarding a blue car, large sports type, license plate number 777-1133 B, to address themselves to the Prefecture.
It was the description and number of the Demassis auto. The results of this announcement were unexpectedly quick in coming. Shortly before eight o'clock, a mechanic in Saint-Cloud phoned that he had the car in question at his garage. It had been brought in the previous evening by an elegant young man who had refused to fill out any forms, and proclaimed that he would pick up the machine the following morning.
At nine o'clock, Maigret was in Saint-Cloud, examining the blue automobile, which showed no trace of anything unusual. It was in perfect condition, with no signs of any struggle, nor of an accident.
He had then visited the main hotels in Saint-Cloud, where Demassis had not been seen. However, in a café close to the station, someone answering his description had, the night before, waited for a quarter of an hour for the last Paris train.
However, Monday, at eight o'clock in the evening, Henry had been in front of 111 Avenue de Paris, in Montreuil.
What could have caused him to decide to go to Saint-Cloud, and to abandon his car there, apparently voluntarily? And why, since his car functioned perfectly, with tires that were in excellent condition, would he have gone to Paris by train?
He had been alone at the station café. The waiter had noticed his jumpiness. He had paid for a glass of rum with a ten franc note and hadn't picked up his change. It was because of this detail that he'd remembered him.
Wednesday, nothing! Thursday, nothing! Maigret had hoped that the young man would attend his uncle's funeral. But he was disappointed.
After the ceremony, Mme Demassis confessed to the commissioner that her son's running away had to have been premeditated, since he had only stopped at home briefly that Monday evening, to pick up some forty thousand francs, and a travel bag containing some linens, toilet articles, and a change of clothes.
"That was the third time he'd ignored his instincts!" raged Maigret. The first had been when he'd wanted to lock his office and, for lack of this precaution, the girl in black had escaped him; the second was when he'd failed to open the door, behind which someone had watched his arrival at the scene of the crime; and finally, Monday evening, when he'd been about to confront Demassis. However, at that moment, he told himself, the young man had already stopped at home and prepared everything for his departure.
Friday nothing! The commissioner spent the day observing the comings and goings of his hosts on the first floor of the Montreuil house.
For three hours he followed Gastambide who, in the Picpus district, went from house to house with his famous sample encyclopedia, gloomy and ironic as if he had not believed himself there. Hélène didn't leave the apartment except to do her shopping in the neighborhood. She appeared dejected. The policeman noted that she'd lost weight.
And Christian, perfectly regular at his work, his cheeks decorated with sticking plaster.
And now it was Monday the 17th. The Louis XVI desk on which the calendar rested, was in a room muffled in a delicate intimacy. By a Judas hole, one could see the store, which looked like a vast living room, and in which were exhibited the most beautiful pieces of the Maison Demassis.
Mme Demassis, in a full mourning dress that made her appear even pinker and chubbier, sat before Maigret, a handkerchief between her nervous, but carefully manicured, fingers.
In spite of the stylishness of her dress which was for her a professional necessity she was indeed downcast. She didn't cry, but sometimes she dabbed at her eyes.
"I don't understand any of this. Even less again since yesterday evening, when Albert, my son's valet, decided to speak up. Our apartment, on the first floor, is very large. Since his father died, Henry has occupied three independent rooms there. That's his home. I give him total freedom, which, considering his age, is natural enough."
"Has he had many affairs?"
"On the contrary I found him rather too serious. Toward the age of twenty, there was an eventful period. He went out every night. In the morning, it wasn't unusual to see young men and women leaving the house furtively. From time to time he confessed to me of debts."
"And since then?"
"That lasted about two years. He became more serious. It's a little more than a year now, and only yesterday that I learned of it. I felt that Albert wanted to tell me something. He was hanging around me... It was to reveal the true reason for my son's visits to Montreuil."
As Maigret smiled, she questioned, "You know?"
"I can guess."
"Wait! First I must tell you the reason for our quarrel with my poor brother. A ridiculous enough story. My husband was an enterprising, daring man. Two times his business had failed, when he had the idea to get settled here. But at that moment, we had just a few thousand francs. I asked my brother..."
"...to help you. And he refused!"
"Yes... He had no confidence in my husband. We had to borrow from strangers. The business succeeded even beyond our hopes. I wasn't angry at Georges for long, but, after that incident, we fell into the habit of not seeing each other. A fortuitous meeting would have been enough to put things back in order. Unfortunately, that didn't happen."
"Nevertheless, Henry went to see his uncle."
"Without our knowledge. He was his godfather. He liked him a lot. However, if he went by so regularly, it was actually because he had met a girl there. Albert told me everything. Henry didn't hide anything from him. It seems she lives in the same building as my brother did. But there is a confused enough story. I think I understand that she comes from a ruined family and that her father, soured by disappointments, has become a kind of maniac misanthrope. At the thought that his daughter could leave him, he enters into terrifying furies. He would have been able to threaten to kill the man who would dare to present himself to ask for the girl's hand..."
"You see that this is not very clear... Henry saw her at his uncle's, who was an accomplice. They spent the evening together, all three, once or twice a week."
"I suppose that the Saturday of the crime, Henry had gone to warn my brother of his journey to Nice, which would have kept him away for at least a week..."
"Didn't Albert show you a photograph of the girl?"
"I looked for one myself, in my son's apartment. There were several." She offered one, murmuring with a jealous mother's pout, "She isn't bad, but..." One felt that to her eyes she was hardly sufficient for her son.
"Doesn't his valet know anything else?"
"Nothing! He is as astonished as I am. On his own initiative, he visited most of Henry's friends. He even went to his club, but he didn't learn anything..."
And Mme Demassis concluded with a trace of a smile, "We were so happy, the two us!" She looked at the vast and elegant store, and wiped her eyes with her handkerchief.
"Did the girl never come here? Did you put this question to the valet?"
"I believe I asked all questions that you could imagine. She didn't come, no... But sometimes he got a phone call. On the other hand, my son, not satisfied to see her only two times a week, wrote her a letter every day to the poste restante."
"How did you know?"
"It doesn't matter... His writing paper is bluish, isn't it?"
"Yes... But why didn't he tell me anything? He could have trusted me! I'd never forbid him anything..."
"Do you have a country house?"
"A small villa, in Étretat. I thought of that also, and phoned the gardener. He hadn't seen Henry..." She became more nervous. "If only I'd known..." she murmured suddenly.
He looked at her questioningly.
"Yes, if I was sure that this girl knew something more than I did! But alas, that's not possible. I've been thinking of that since yesterday evening. I was thinking of going to see her, to question her. I wonder if she may know where he is..."
"It would be better to avoid that path."
"Do you think so?"
It was for her both a disillusionment and a relief. It was clear that she had been waiting for this interview, which was for him, none the less painful. Her relations with Maigret were filled with trust. And, yet, he didn't put himself out. He was almost as surly with her as he had been with Hélène Gastambide.
But she had to appreciate his straightforwardness, his unflagging spirit that moved persistently towards his goal. He had formed the habit of coming to see her every day. He stayed with her for a quarter of an hour in the small office behind the store, where a gas stove cast a soft heat, and at the same time a reddish glow.
They spoke little of the crime. Mme Demassis didn't even imagine that her son could be a suspect. And Maigret hadn't done anything quite the opposite to change her mind on this topic.
Wasn't Henry rich? Not only could he sign for the Maison Demassis, and his mother would never ask him to account, but he possessed a personal fortune, inherited from his father, invested in the antique business. It was difficult to imagine a plausible motive for murder.
Certainly the center of the investigation had shifted. In the beginning, it was Hélène Gastambide. However, she no longer attracted Maigret's attention. She led the regular existence of a suburban housekeeper. In a week, she hadn't even gone to Paris once. She no longer went to the poste restante. Did she know that there was nothing for her in the Bureau 42? Or was she merely mistrustful of the police?
Leaving Mme Demassis that day, Maigret felt the need to sit down somewhere. There was no café nearby, but he spotted an American bar and went in.
It was ten-thirty in the morning, an hour when establishments of this kind are desolate and the barman is polishing his counter. However the commissioner was surprised to see, on a high stool, a young man whose clumsy hand seized a glass of whisky. His look was vague, his gestures feeble, his lips turned down. He was obviously intoxicated. The barman gave Maigret an amused look that meant, "He starts early."
The young man took a drink, spilled some of the alcohol on his tie, was shaken by a hiccup. He stared at the newcomer with stupor, must have made an effort to pronounce: "Ah! It's you... Well, my old friend..."
His right cheek was decorated with a large cross of sticking plaster that had shifted to uncover some swollen flesh at the base of his nose. He hiccuped again, almost fell off his stool while trying to aim his hand toward Maigret.
It was Christian Gastambide, who repeated three or four times, "Well, my old friend..."
II. 2. A Character