The House of Anxiety
by Georges Sim
M. GASTAMBIDE, BUSINESSMAN
Évariste Gastambide seemed to be about fifty-five years old. Tall and thin, he had gray hair and a small gray mustache. But in fact, wasn't his skin also gray, and his eyes? His entire being gave an impression of grayness, his tall skinny silhouette that appeared, rather than bony, to be fuzzy, without consistency.
He was wearing those striped pants that tailors call, for God knows what reason, fantasy trousers, and a jacket edged with silk. These clothes, a bit formal, were rather worn. Neat, certainly. But their hue had become undecided, as had their lines, like the patent leather shoes, with tiny cracks.
His hands were long, pale and hairy; a heavy gold signet ring on his index finger. These hands were occupied in opening a cigar box that was on the table, in which there were only two inexpensive cigars. M. Gastambide offered one to his visitor with a noble gesture, as if they were the finest Havanas.
"No, thank you," said Maigret.
His host took no offence, didn't smoke himself.
"You've come with regard to... the incident of the 3rd?" he queried.
"With regard to the incident, as you say. You're no doubt aware that the Captain died?"
"Between us, he wasn't a Captain. The highest rank he ever reached was Second Officer, and that in the merchant marine!"
This clarification was made with supreme detachment, as if the fact that Truffier was only a Second Officer and of the merchant marine! had decreased the importance of what Mr. Gastambide had called 'the incident.'
"I see," continued Maigret, "and you know nothing of this affair?"
"You understand, as far as I can tell... I know nothing... I prefer not to know anything..."
"Naturally... That is why I ask you to lend no importance to this visit I'm paying you at the moment. I've had to interrogate all the other tenants..."
"I understand. Whom have you arrested?"
"Hmm! Exactly... I must confess..."
And while he spoke, the question constantly came back him, "Is this fellow mad, or is he playing with me?"
"Ha! Ha! That's the rub, isn't it?"
"What's the rub?"
"I mean, the problem is to find the person to arrest... Do you really not want a cigar?"
"No, thank you. If you have no objection, I'll light my pipe."
He pulled it from his pocket. M. Gastambide offered him the flame of a match. The silence that followed was laborious, at least for Maigret, bothered by the same question. "Mad? Not mad? Does he know?"
He thought of the girl, who he guessed was listening behind a door.
"You knew the Captain personally... I mean, the Second Officer Truffier?"
M. Gastambide had a nervous smile. "We have nothing to do with anybody here," he said very quickly, as if to apologize.
"Have you lived in Montreuil long?"
"Since... well... Since... the event. I mean... but I'll have to explain. The Manby crash, in London... I had taken position for a rise... I was caught... And so..."
He designated, while pronouncing the last word, the walls around him, the pieces of furniture, the loud street. He seemed to say, "You can see what I have been reduced to..." And a sarcastic expression floated on his colorless lips. "It's of no importance, is it?" he added. "To endure is everything."
Why did Maigret feel that 'to endure' wasn't an allusion to his material situation, but to something more mysterious? He was decidedly ill at ease. He was hot. And he began to miss the girl, whose strangeness was nothing in comparison with her father.
"You have a son, I believe?"
"A son, yes..."
Mr. Gastambide sneered, "As you say, in business! Last month, his boss put him out the door for indelicacy..."
It was more absurd than all the rest. Especially the tone in which these words were pronounced! The man repeated to himself, "To endure..."
"Mlle Hélène is very pretty..."
"Very pretty, yes... very. As was her mother!"
And, this time again, it was sarcasm that dominated. One would have said that every word had a terrifying hidden sense, that put this interview on a plane completely different from the obvious.
The atmosphere was that of a drama, or a farce, or even a padded cell. And yet there were only the four walls, decorated with pictures and lithographs, six tapestry armchairs, a Louis XVI sofa and two Empire pedestal tables.
When the silence settled, it was even more flagrant. Maigret said anything at all to escape the anguish that gripped him.
"I've heard you're in business?"
"In business, yes! Hmm... Wait!... Yes, I think this might interest you... Do you have children?"
"It doesn't matter... It's as useful to grownups as to children. Only, when there are children, I never fail to remark that it will serve them all their lives..."
He had risen, and gone into the foyer, where he rummaged about for a few minutes. When he came back, he had his case under his arm.
"You're a civil servant, so you are sure to receive your pay at the end of every month... That's also something I never fail to underline. A hundred francs a month! A hundred francs out of two thousand, for example... Because you must earn two thousand francs at least..."
He finally unpacked a volume of a large encyclopedia that comprised forty-eight.
"There! You simply sign a small paper. Everything that has been invented until this day is in there... Food, machinery, aviation, radium, fakirism... Everything! In eight days, the full forty-eight volumes will be delivered to you... An entire library!"
It was impossible to tell if he were serious or being sarcastic.
"Are you the agent of this publishing house?"
"Sorry, no. There is a general agent. Myself, I work for a subagent. I've been assigned the Picpus district. When I have finished, they will probably give me a suburban sector..."
The door opened up suddenly. The girl entered.
"What is it?" questioned her father.
She looked at the book with a meaningful air. Then she pronounced, "I wanted to know if you were ready to eat lunch..."
"Ask this gentleman if he has finished. I am completely at his disposal!"
Maigret rose, thick drops of sweat on his forehead, although the room was hardly heated.
"I have finished, yes," he said.
He looked for his hat. He felt Mlle Gastambide's look fixed on him.
"On this chair!" she said, as if he couldn't find his own hair.
"Thank you... I..."
"My encyclopedia doesn't interest you, I see," pronounced the fellow with a dignity laced with weariness.
"I must confess that..."
"Of course, you are perfectly right! It's what I tell people... For themselves, they are right, isn't that so?"
Hélène lost patience. She would have been capable of pushing the policeman outside, if it had been possible. She prevented her father from holding Maigret back. Nevertheless, in the foyer, she couldn't speak to him, because he had followed them. She was content to launch the commissioner a long look. But how to interpret it? Was it, "I will see you again!" or "I hate you!"
He went downstairs. Just as he passed the loge, a powerful American car, brand new, stopped at the door. He asked Mme Foucrier who it was.
The young man crossed the sidewalk. Maigret stopped him.
"Yes. What do you want?"
His features had contracted slightly, like a trace of concern on the surface of his skin.
"I'm investigating the crime... I wanted to know..."
"And if I don't know anything? No! Nothing of nothing! And, in fact, these stories make me sick, as well as this whole house..."
He designated the brick building insolently.
"Is that your car?"
"Alas, no! It's the boss's... But I can use it. Is that all?"
He was about to pass. Suddenly he decided otherwise, "Did you come from up there?"
"You saw my father and sister? Hey, don't pay them any attention! They've been that way a long time!"
"I don't understand..."
The young man exploded in laughter, pointing to the middle of his forehead with his index finger which he twirled.
"Bonkers, what! The old one especially! Although my sister isn't much better... I tell you it's the most pestilential house on earth!"
He couldn't have been more than twenty-one. He was dressed a little too carefully, the cut of his clothes bringing to mind the young people you met on the Champs-Élysées, who drank cocktails while perched on high stools, and drove American cars...
"One minute... How much did you take from the cash-box?"
Christian Gastambide exploded in laughter once more.
"The whole nine yards! Dad didn't forget anything, did he? I'm sure he unwound the whole rosary of his misfortunes for you. And did he try to palm off the forty-eight-volume encyclopedia set on you? The money you're asking about certainly worth making a big deal of! Three bills..."
"And it was to put them on a nag that had to win... a sure thing! A jockey with whom I'd been living it up... At the last moment, there was some snag... the three bills were lost. And just when the boss stuck his nose into the accounts. The funniest thing is that he himself is an old ass who gets off watching greyhounds run after an electric hare."
Christian, laughing with all his white teeth, repeated, "Is that all?"
Maigret left without answering.
I. 6. Reports