The House of Anxiety
by Georges Sim
She was no competition. Maigret hadn't said three words to her and already she was sobbing, defeated. Yet she still had some vague desire to resist.
"My name's not Ninie."
"Come off it! Forget the fairy tales! I met with Big Irma last night. Lolo was there too..."
She opened her large eyes, a troubled gray from which gleamed a strange curiosity. She seemed at once attracted and fearful.
"Irma..." she repeated mournfully.
"Do you miss her?"
She cried even louder, leaning against the wall, her head hidden in her folded arms.
"What do you want from me?"
"How much did Christian offer you?"
She didn't answer. Her shoulders shook with her sobs. As she didn't have a handkerchief, she wiped her eyes with a corner of her robe, uncovering part of a thin thigh, the lace of her slip.
"Come on! Calm down. I assure you that it's not you that I'm after..."
He regretted this clumsy utterance.
"No one. Come on, sit down quietly here... How old are you?"
She needed some time to pull herself back together. Shiny trails streaked her face. Her lips were a purplish red.
"Nineteen and a half."
"Have you always lived in Paris?"
She shook the head.
"Calcutta." But she regretted her confession, protesting, "I swear I don't know anything..."
"Fine. I know, myself, and that's good enough."
He patted her on the shoulder in a paternal gesture. "What did your parents do?"
No answer. She started to cry again.
"Did you know your father?"
Another negative sign.
"I was sixteen when she died..."
"What did she do?"
"Nothing." And, this time, there was something wild in the look on her face.
"Come on, Ninie! You must be straightforward with me all the way. Your mom had a friend, didn't she?"
Tears ran down her cheeks.
"He came to see her often? And you led a comfortable life?"
"We had twelve house-boys..."
"When your mom died, didn't he want to take care of you?"
Silence. Her features hardened.
"Or did he want to take care of you in a too particular way?"
She let her head fall again on her chest.
"How did you get away?"
"I had a friend..."
"No, French. A marine officer. I wrote to him. He was in Shanghai at the time. He sent me the necessary money and told me to wait for him in Marseille."
She looked Maigret in the face. She was only tears, total distress.
"I don't know! He never came."
"Didn't you run out of money?"
"Yes. I worked as a chambermaid in the hotel where I had stayed. I heard that in Paris one could do better. I took the train..."
"I worked. I had friends. Rooms are expensive. I got in with Irma..."
She had calmed down a little.
"Lolo told me..." murmured Maigret.
"The one who took our room?"
"Irma came by the day before yesterday. She didn't come in. I saw her across the street on the sidewalk, and I went over to meet her."
"When did you meet Christian?"
"Maybe two months ago. It was at the Moulin Rouge. He asked me to dance, and then he asked me the same questions as you."
"Did he ever come on to you?"
"Never! Only, he seemed to be interested in me. He wanted to know where I came from, what I did and all. He met me from time to time at the Cyrano, where I stopped nearly every day for an apéritif before going up to the Rue Tholozé."
Strangely enough, it was at this moment that she suddenly became modest. She noticed that her bathrobe was open, covered her knees with it.
"Didn't he speak to you about anything else?"
"We talked. He'd buy me a drink... Once he gave me a tour of the Bois in his car. Irma said that it had to be true love, seeing as he didn't ask anything of me. But I felt that there was something else..."
"Then? Last Monday..."
"How did you know?"
"Tell me anyway..."
"Yes, it was Monday. I'd been dancing until two in the morning on Sunday, so I didn't want to go to work before noon. He came to the Rue Tholozé. Irma had just left. I was still in bed..."
At the commissioner's look, she answered, "He didn't even look at me. He asked me if I wanted to have a great life, not to have to work anymore, and I don't know what else. He told me a complicated story... that I would take a girl's place who resembled me like two drops of water. That I would marry one of the richest antique dealers in Paris. Loads of things. I was confused. I answered, without even thinking, "Why not?"
"But I didn't believe it was true. He made an appointment with me for that afternoon at the Cyrano..."
"It's since then... "
She became silent.
"That's all. I don't know anymore. There are moments when I want to kill myself..."
"I bet you know it all it as well as me... since you're the police and you saw Irma..."
"He arrived at Place Blanche with the car... His face was all scratched up. He drove me to my room where I was shocked to find a girl who resembled me so much that I would have believed I was looking in a mirror. He had her undress. I put on her clothes. I noticed that he gave Irma some money."
"He brought you here..."
"Yes! All along the way he was coaching me. He explained that I was going to have a father, that I had to speak to him like this and like that, that I would need to dress in such a way, to use such words..."
"You had just arrived when I came by?"
"Yes... I didn't know what to say... and then all the wretchedness began..."
"What else can I call it? I feel like I'm going crazy! Every day, Christian gives me new lessons. I try to think about everything. I do what I can, I swear... But it still doesn't work..."
"What doesn't work?"
"Everything! I can't be specific... There are days when they don't utter ten words out loud in the apartment. Then, at other times, the old one throws something on the floor, a vase or a tureen, and he explodes in a funny laugh while looking at me. I first thought that he suspected something, but when I told Christian, he made fun of me..."
"He's also changed. You could say he's always drunk. And when I speak to him about leaving, he threatens me. He pretends that it was all my idea, that I ought to be happy to have become a girl of a good family. I've already thought about running away, but I know that he's watching me. I swear there really are moments when I believe I'm going mad! They are one more bizarre than the other..."
"They look at me without saying anything. Me, I did this without thinking, just for a lark! I didn't expect it to be so serious, nor especially that it was going to last... In the evening, the three of us sit in the living room without saying a word. The old man and Christian read. I sew. I know that they're both watching me..."
"Tell me, what did Irma say to you?"
"Nothing! She goes to nightspots..."
The girl lowered the head. "She's really not a bad girl!" she whispered.
And suddenly, with unexpected pride, "Not to mention that actually I'd rather be going to nightspots, me too, than what I'm doing! In this house, it's as if one is outside of life. I never hear anyone laugh honestly. Anyway, you've seen it all yourself. If they learn that I spoke to you..."
"They won't learn about it."
Once again, she changed her mind. "After all, I think I'd prefer to get it off my chest. I'll tell them the truth. Yes, even to the old man! I will shout at him that I am not Hélène, that I..."
"Hush!... Take it easy. I'd like you to continue to play your role for just a little longer. Let's say four more days..."
"Must I? And if they... if they kill me?"
He smiled. "Don't worry, it won't go that far. Afterwards, we'll see..."
"Do you honestly imagine that this is a life!"
"Quiet! You'll rouse the whole house!"
"When I think that I was free, that I..."
"Did you hear something?"
"What do you mean?"
"Is there anyone else in the apartment?"
"Only the two of us... Do you want me to...?"
The commissioner jumped up, but without a sound. He remained unmoving an instant, while the girl looked at him with fright.
As she was about to speak, he put a finger to his lips, appeared to get his bearings.
"I think I would like that cup of coffee," he said in a loud voice.
At the same time, he walked toward the kitchen. Ninie stood up. Her features were muddled again by anguish. She'd noticed that Maigret, out of caution, had moved his hand to his pocket-revolver.
But no tragedy occurred. Just as he reached the half-open door of the kitchen, it was pushed open completely.
Évariste Gastambide appeared, his pelisse unbuttoned. He had to have put down his briefcase somewhere. His arms hung down, his face was pallid.
He looked the girl in the eyes, while mumbling, his mouth twisted, with an indefinable accent, "It continues... It continues!"
Maigret didn't take his hand from the revolver in his pocket.
III. 3. The knife