The House of Anxiety
by Georges Sim
It was a long time before Maigret was able to talk about the scene which took place shortly afterwards... and a long time before he got over his feeling of humiliation.
He had followed the girl into the post office. She had gotten in line behind five people waiting at the poste restante window. When her turn came, the clerk, without asking for any identification at all, handed her two identical, long, bluish envelopes.
She left immediately, seemed to hesitate for a moment, then once more hailed a cab, finding one stopped at the edge of the sidewalk.
Maigret acted at once. Just as she was about to close the door, he stopped it with his hand, and moved into the seat next to her.
He was sure of himself. He had recognized his night-time visitor of the Quai des Orfèvres. Enormous, heavy, a childish smile on his lips, he had appeared at the moment when she'd least expected him.
He wanted to get settled in, to reclose the door, and all his being breathed an absolute confidence, with no malice. However, the girl uttered in a dry voice, "What are you doing?"
He was content to look her in the eye, persuaded that this look would be sufficient. He told the driver, "Avenue de Paris, Montreuil!"
He was nearly seated. There was hardly enough room, and it was with some difficulty that he managed to turn sideways.
"Get out!" ordered his companion.
"Take it easy, my dear. We have to talk..."
"Didn't you hear what I said? Get out! Get out, quickly, or I'll call..."
This time he put his heavy hand on the girl's shoulder. "Have you already forgotten our meeting?"
He didn't have the least doubt about how this would turn out. He believed he held all the cards, and he could already picture the flow of events: Mlle Gastambide would start to tremble, to huddle in a corner. He would speak to her paternally, as he knew so well how...
But something was wrong! The door didn't close! Mlle Gastambide didn't appear at all disposed to break into tears, nor to let him call her 'my dear' again. She repeated, "Get out! I'm warning you that I'll call..."
And, just as Maigret himself least expected it, she was halfway out the door. There was a policeman on the sidewalk, opposite the branch of the Bank of France.
The man in uniform came forward...
"Please make this man get out! He insists on trying to..."
"What is the meaning of this?" asked the offer.
Maigret preferred to get out. He gave a sign to his colleague of the public way, but this one didn't understand. The girl slammed the door furiously. The cab drove off.
"Aren't you ashamed...?"
"Criminal Investigation Department," Maigret was finally able to utter. You didn't realize..."
He was livid. The agent had his breath knocked out of him.
"How could this be?"
"Never mind! You couldn't understand... And, after all, you did your duty..."
He was furious, humiliated as he had rarely ever been.
He dove into the Rue de la Bastille, more to escape the curiosity of passers-by than for any other reason, reentered the post office.
"Get me the clerk of Window 5," he ordered the postmaster.
He was a tall young man in gray shirt.
"Do you know the person to whom, a few minutes ago, you gave two blue envelopes?"
"Do you know her?"
"She comes in often..."
"And do you always give her the same kind of envelope?"
"I don't know."
"When was the last time you saw her?"
"Is that why there were two letters? With the same handwriting, no doubt?"
"Yes, the same handwriting."
"You don't know anything else?"
"No. Nothing. That is..."
"It's unimportant... I met her two or three times at the dance at the Moulin-Rouge.
"Yes, last week, I danced with her..."
"Would you be able to tell me what day?"
"Certainly! It was the day before yesterday."
"What time was it?"
"It was the last dance. So that would make it... a little past midnight."
"Are you're certain it was her?"
"Yet, when you handed her her letters, she didn't speak to you..."
"I know... Maybe she didn't want to recognize me..."
"Had you ever danced with her before?"
"Never. But I'd noticed her. She's special enough..."
"Do you often go to the Moulin-Rouge?"
"Once or twice a week..."
"And is she always there?"
"I don't know. I usually see her on the dance floor... And there are so many couples!"
It was more of a grumble than a thanks. Maigret drove his bowler further onto his head, and left with great strides, bumping into an old lady in passing. As he walked, he lowered his shoulders, mumbling, "Saturday, midnight, the Moulin-Rouge... Saturday at three in the morning the Quai des Orfèvres. In the meantime, Captain Truffier is murdered. On the other hand, no one entered the house and no one left... Sunday morning, she's at home. On a sheet of paper, Henry Demassis wrote, the night before, during a visit of five minutes, Bureau 42... and he didn't even have the time to sit down! Monday, here she is at Bureau 42 where she picks up two letters from the same sender..."
Thereupon, he champed down even harder on the stem of his pipe, and stood at edge of the sidewalk without knowing if he was going to take a taxicab, a bus or a tram, nor where he was going to go.
The decision was sudden and unexpected, even for Maigret. A cab passed in front of him. He yelled to the driver, "To Montreuil!"
He didn't know what he was going to do there, but he felt the need to see again this girl who had scored so well against him.
He could have arrested her. But first of all, that wasn't his style. And moreover, it was clumsy! Maigret had the habit of pushing an investigation as far as possible before allowing any intervention of the prison system. And in the present case, this prudence was more necessary than ever.
Because that foggy night visit of a blonde girl to the Quai des Orfèvres, had definitely had an affect on him like that of a dream. And the incident of the taxicab was sufficient to prove that Mlle Gastambide was not at all ready to renew her confessions.
Maigret had found himself a speedy driver, who ten times narrowly avoided a collision. When he arrived at Montreuil, he saw a cab just pulling away from number 111.
He didn't need to question the concierge. From the hallway, he could hear the steps that stopped on the first floor, then the noise of a key in the lock, and a door opening and closing again.
He went up the stairs in turn, knocked on the door. Maybe he was slightly less calm than he wanted to be, but it was imperceptible. A detail, though, would have given him away to any of his colleagues: Just as someone approached the other side of the door, he took his pipe from his mouth, extinguished it with his thumb, and shoved it into the pocket of his overcoat.
Hélène Gastambide opened the door. Just in case, Maigret put his foot in, in order to prevent her from closing it again.
Did she recognize him in the darkness of the stairwell? She backed away slightly. He took advantage of it to enter.
"Pardon me for disturbing you," he said, "but there is some information I need from you, and I noticed that you don't like to be questioned in the street..."
She had already removed her hat, but she hadn't had time to take off her jacket.
The foyer was large and bright. An open door gave a glimpse of an elegantly enough furnished living room. Maigret went in without being invited, looked around him calmly, smiling as usual. But, without being obvious, he didn't let the girl out of his sight. She was standing in the doorway. She waited, anxious, her lips quivering, making an effort to maintain a relative calmness.
He took care to say nothing. He walked around, sometimes stopping before a picture or a vase.
"Are you from the police?"
"As you have guessed, Mademoiselle! I even believe that I have already had the pleasure of meeting you..."
"I... I don't remember..."
"I'm not speaking of the incident a little while ago, you understand... but of a certain foggy night..."
She stared at him dumbfoundedly. "I have no idea what you're trying to say..."
"It doesn't matter. Sunday, I interrogated some of tenants of the building. I didn't want to disturb you, knowing you very tired, a little sick even, I think..."
"What! Who told you that?"
She didn't give him the time to speak. "You were very badly informed. I was up, Sunday, since eight o'clock in the morning, as usual. I was in this room all day long, where you could have found me at any time!"
It was said with composure, even slightly mockingly.
"Would you mind if I ask you a question?"
She was quiet.
"I would very much like to know by what means you leave the house evenings to go dancing at the Moulin-Rouge..."
She looked at him in astonishment. She seemed at one instant about to get excited, but, on the contrary, it was with a cold voice that she answered, "And I'd like to ask you a question in return. Will you tell me the purpose of this odious cross-examination? Can you tell me why you took the liberty of entering my cab in the middle of the street? And what are these stories about Moulin-Rouge? You say you are from the police. A crime has been committed in this house. It has nothing to do with me and I have no information to give you. Unless you intend to charge me with the murder, I don't see the purpose of your presence here and, therefore, I pray you..."
She showed him the door. As she spoke, she gained assurance.
"Is this a challenge?" quizzed Maigret.
"I have no reason to challenge you. All that I can do, is to remind you of your manners and ask you to remove your hat..."
The superintendent blushed, removed his bowler with an abrupt gesture but, in protest, let it fall into an armchair.
"Maybe you could sit down as well..." he said. "There is still the matter of the letters that you receive in the Bureau 42 to speak of, and..."
But she was no longer listening to him, but to the steps on the staircase. They stopped on the landing. Two or three small knocks on the door.
Mlle Gastambide hesitated. Twice, her look went from Maigret to the door. Finally she mumbled, "It's my father... Will you be quiet?"
These words were accompanied by a strange look, at the same time imperious and confiding. She seemed to implore and to promise...
An instant later, the man in the pelisse that the policeman had seen leaving in the morning, entered, groaning in the foyer, "Ruffians! What ruffians, my God! Today again, they..."
Whispers. The girl had to warn her father of a stranger's presence in the living room. He asked in a low voice, distrustful, "Who is it?"
And without waiting for the answer, he moved to the door, stared in silence at the visitor, who had not moved.
There was on Maigret's side a touch of impoliteness, or even coarseness that, for the most part, was affected only to impress. Nevertheless, he didn't sustain M. Gastambide's look for long. He ended up rising. "I was waiting for you!" he said. "Superintendent Maigret, of the Mobile Brigade. With your permission I'd like to put to you some questions..."
Gastambide looked again at his daughter, then at the policeman, once more at his daughter. He held his head tilted a little forward, which probably contributed to his distrustful air.
"You can leave us, Hélène," he said while advancing into the middle of the room and choosing an armchair.
And, as she didn't move, he repeated without impatience, "Do you hear? I permit you to leave us..."
During the few moments he had observed him, Maigret had searched in vain for that which, in this man, caused him an indefinable uneasiness. He suddenly found it.
It was a mere nothing, maybe in his look, maybe in the tone of voice, maybe something vaguer still that, to the commissioner's eyes, placed M. Gastambide in the family of those who come to the offices of the police and newspapers, to hold forth on disjointed subjects.
A second later, he could see the girl observing his eyes, eyes which also...
And then he said, very gently, "You will excuse me, will you not, for this indiscreet visit?"