The House of Anxiety
by Georges Sim
For the first time, Maigret had the impression that Gastambide was putting on an act. Or rather he'd had this impression a little earlier, during the wavering, the bridging the gap, as they say in the theater, that followed the man's entrance.
That he'd been in the house since the beginning of the interview, there was no doubt. He'd pretended to leave, had immediately retraced his steps, had hidden himself in the foyer. He'd heard everything and had only appeared because the commissioner had headed towards him.
Now, clearly, his first moments following his appearance were indecisive. He repeated in that mechanical voice, "It continues... It continues!"
But he couldn't quite avoid looking for Ninie. When he found her, Maigret felt that he had to make a great effort to look elsewhere. It was as if he were captivated by the girl, while she, on her side, contemplated him with increasing anguish.
The commissioner was caught between them. He was all attention. He wondered if this ambient indecision would dissolve or not.
Suddenly, Gastambide started walking. And it was like a trigger. His face, at a stroke, became once more bizarre, his mouth stretched into a bitter smile. "And there are people who don't find that admirable!"
He walked straight ahead, up to the wall, made an about-face, reversed his movement. While passing before the table in the living room, he seized the box that contained his two poor cigars again, offered it to Maigret.
"No, thank you."
Maigret seized them both.
"I said one! Don't you hear?"
The commissioner looked him in the eyes, very near. "This one is also your daughter, isn't she? Your wife gave birth to twins. When she left you, she kept one of them close to her..."
Gastambide shrugged his shoulders, let them fall while looking at the cigar-box. "What would you have me do?" And it was an infinite, inhuman detachment.
"Finished. Do you understand? Fi-nished. That she manages, that he manages, that you..." He exploded in laughter. "My word, it's a conjugation!"
Ninie had approached the door. She was afraid. But she didn't dare to run away yet...
As for the commissioner, he kept his right hand in his pocket and his eyes didn't leave Gastambide for a second.
He felt that something was wrong. What was it? He couldn't say. But there was a flaw in the logical course of events. It worried him. He tried to understand.
Gastambide, who kept walking from one wall to the other, spoke only to himself, in a low voice. At the same time he gesticulated, careful to avoid looking at the girl as he passed.
This couldn't last very long. It was too artificial. Maigret himself felt almost a painful need for diversion.
During his obstinate march, the man crossed to the kitchen, filled himself a glass of water at the faucet, drank it thirstily, came back.
Could anything be more cheerful?
Maigret received a sly, oblique look, that didn't linger. He moved back a step. At the same instant Gastambide leapt forward, a knife in his right hand, his arm raised.
He was livid, silent, frightening. In this contorted pose, he appeared immense.
"Raise your hands!"
Maigret had his revolver in his fist. He moved back quickly to put even more steps between himself and the deranged man.
"Drop the knife or I'll shoot..."
Although the expression which flashed across Gastambide's eyes was but a flicker, the commissioner discerned it with intensity, so much had all his senses sharpened during the previous seconds.
But how to define that expression? Contempt? Yes, there was that. Contempt for the threat or for the one who formulated it, or again for death itself...
At the same time, sarcasm, but not with regard to the present circumstances, sarcasm addressing itself to something greater and more mysterious.
The danger, for Gastambide, was obvious. Maigret was in state of legitimate self-defense. He appeared determined.
Nevertheless, the knife remained in his hand. He breathed deeply, turned a tenth of second toward Ninie who, mouth open, fists clenched, managed not to cry out.
Then, he charged the policeman. Maigret had his finger on the trigger. A simple reflex and he would fire. Instead, he tossed the revolver to the ground, bent over a little. His neck became shorter, his shoulders broader.
An infinitesimal fraction of time. He was holding Gastambide's wrist in his thick hand, twisting it. Surely he was provoking severe pain.
Yet the man didn't even grimace, didn't let himself be taken. He fought, and while their faces nearly touched, Maigret saw, only inches away, eyes without fever, without emotion.
Bumping into a chair tripped the combatants to the floor. Évariste was underneath.
And then he closed his eyes. His forehead creased, his eyebrows joined together painfully.
The kitchen knife slipped from his hand.
It was sinister, the old man's big body on the carpet. Even more upsetting since he was neither wounded, nor unconscious.
Maigret had set him free. And Gastambide waited. He seemed spiritless. He didn't try to stand up. He didn't speak. He didn't look at anyone.
In a corner, against the wall, Ninie, her teeth chattering.
"Stand up!" ordered the policeman in a dry voice.
He had to repeat it three times. Gastambide straightened himself out slowly, with an effort, stood up in the same place, arms dangling.
"You have nothing to say?"
Silence. The girl implored, "Leave him alone! You can well see that he..."
The father didn't so much as start on hearing her voice. His eyes were extinguished.
"I'm asking you if, since there is still time, you don't have anything to say..."
The scene ended as it had begun, with the same words, in the same monotonous rhythm.
"Was it you who killed Captain Truffier?"
"The Second Officer Truffier, yes!"
A sneering laugh. And an unexpected question. "Do you know why you live, you?"
"Where is the knife?"
He designated the windows, the space spreading beyond.
The same gesture.
He indicated his room.
"Go and get it!"
Maigret watched him carefully, following him into the messy bedroom. Gastambide opened a mirrored closet, withdrew a small mahogany case, opened it with a key that he took from his pocket.
The first object that Maigret saw was a photograph of a woman, thin and blonde like Hélène and Ninie. With a nervous gesture, the man returned it, sifted through the pile of papers slowly, while his long pale fingers lingered in the box.
"What is that policy?"
Gastambide handed it to him. It was a life insurance policy with Christian and Hélène as beneficiaries. It was a large one, the total redemption value a half-million francs.
"You took out this policy ten years ago, at the time of your fortune. During the past five years, have you continued to pay on it?
His patent leather shoes, resoled twice at the very least, must have leaked. His jacket was patched at the elbows.
"Here it is..." He offered a sheaf of ten one-thousand-franc notes.
He was content to answer with a nod.
"I'm thirsty," he said, a little later.
One could tell by the sound of his voice that his throat was dry, his chest tight.
"Bring a glass of water, Ninie," said Maigret.
He added while turning toward the man, "Do you know what has become of Hélène?"
"I don't know anything, you see. It's not good to know too much. But it continues, nevertheless!"
Oh, to walk in the street, forehead bathed with cool air, in the middle of the familiar hubbub of the city, brushing past bustling, smiling people!
Maigret's temples were pounding from tension. He was bogged down in the depressing dullness. He desperately wanted to clear up the investigation, to set it in a reasonable direction.
"Is Truffier the first man that you've killed?"
He launched this question on an off chance, and in fact Gastambide paled, looked for a nearby support.
"...that I killed, yes!"
"And it wasn't for his money?"
Gastambide raised a finger to his chest, as if he suddenly had a sharp pain. He appeared to count the beats of his heart with concern, keeping deadly still. His voice became neutral.
"Would you bring me the small round box which is in the drawer of the nightstand?"
He seemed to want to avoid all effort, in order to treat his disrupted body carefully.
The box contained digitalis pills. The dose was marked on the label: two or three pills at the time of crisis.
He remained frozen. Even moving his hand to carry the medicine to his lips, he took meticulous precautions.
And his immobility lasted ten minutes more. The skin close to his nostrils had become sallow. His gray eyes were muddied, his mouth, in spite his efforts, a little twisted.
"Do you want me to call a doctor?"
He held up his index finger to signal no. Ninie had snuggled deeply into an armchair in the living room. She held her head in her hands, but was no longer crying. Primarily, she was afraid. Finally, a deep sigh. The man said, for himself, "It has passed."
He regarded the commissioner heavily. "I'm ready. Will you take me?"
This was the calmest he'd been, the most serious. For a moment, one would have to question whether the previous scene had really occurred.
"Angina. Since four years ago..."
He headed toward the dining room, entered the living room, stopped for a moment in front of the armchair where Ninie was ensconced. It seemed he might become emotional, show some compassion, but he shrugged his shoulders. "Let's go."
"You want me to arrest you?"
"But... I suppose..."
He became once again as upset as before. "There is one of us two who must be mad!" he cried.
"I also believe so!" replied Maigret. "And I end up thinking that it is me..."
He opened the door, shouted into the staircase, "Madame Foucrier!"
She answered from the third floor, where she was occupied with Mlle Augustine, "What is it?"
"Please come down, quickly."
She stopped on the doorstep, looked in at Gastambide with fright.
"I'd like you to get me a cab. Wait..."
He stepped out onto the landing, closed the apartment door in order to not to be overheard. "About two hundred yards down the street, you'll find M. Henry in his car. Please tell him to rejoin me in an hour in my office..."
"And don't forget to get me the taxicab, even if you have to go as far as the Porte de Montreuil."
"Is it... ?" She pointed to the apartment, then to the top of the staircase.
"No! It's not what you think! Go..."
He opened the door silently. And he could see, in the space of a second, Évariste Gastambide, who furtively caressed the girl's head.
"I don't want to stay here all alone! I'm afraid..."
Mme Foucrier signaled to Maigret that she wanted to speak to him. She had just announced that the taxicab was downstairs. But she had something else to say.
The commissioner followed her once more onto the landing.
"I couldn't find M. Henry."
"Did you look carefully?"
"I even went to the Rue Michelet. But M. Christian..."
"I don't know if I should tell you... I don't understand..."
"Please speak, Mme Foucrier."
"He is across the way, in the small bar. When he saw me, he tried to hide behind a column. Oh! Is it possible that he...?"
"Hush! I promise you that it isn't what you think. If M. Henry comes, send him to my office. And if... if Mlle Hélène arrives..."
"But she is there!" said Mme Foucrier, indicating the apartment.
"Evidently. But, if she comes back, you must immediately phone me. You hear, immediately. Is your husband downstairs?"
"He isn't in bed?"
"No, this week he's walking around a little."
"Good! In that case, please tell him to watch Mlle Hélène while you phone..."
He left suddenly, to avoid any questions.
III. 4. The Copains d'Auvergne