The House of Anxiety
by Georges Sim
The Commissioner lunched at home, arriving at the Quai des Orfèvres towards three o'clock, where he managed to get soaked to the skin by a sudden downpour before reaching his building. At that moment, his mood was such that he considered asking Judge Coméliau for a warrant against the entire Gastambide family.
Regarded with a little distance, the morning's scenes appeared to him absolutely absurd. He had the sensation of having been had... and by everyone! By this big gray and solemn Évariste Gastambide. By this Hélène, so sure of herself. And by Christian Gastambide, who had answered him so casually.
Maigret pushed open the door of his office, tossed his overcoat onto a chair and sat down.
A large Manila envelope with the stamp of the Medico-Legal Institute awaited him, containing a number of photographs taken during the autopsy. A typed, eight-page report accompanied them. There was the question of the contents of Truffier's stomach at the time of his death, of the state of each of his organs, of a surgical procedure undergone five years earlier following an attack of appendicitis, and of a bruise to the base of the skull that he had received when he fell.
The description of the injury took a whole page. Death was caused by the tearing of the pericardium by a sharp object whose width, shape and the aspect were similar to those of an ordinary knife. There had not been a struggle.
Another report was on the desk, this one without an envelope. It came from the Criminal Records Office, and contained, as the first, several photographs. It said, in brief: "The only fingerprints found in the office were those of the victim, of the concierge and, finally, on the wrapping paper and penholder, those of Henry Demassis."
All of that had certainly been a great help!
"A perfectly silly business!" he found himself repeating three or four times. And without any glamour at all! The press gave it ten lines. Judge Coméliau, until Maigret discovered something, had no interest.
"What's this holy kid doing going to the Moulin-Rouge, when everyone believes she's in her bed?"
Not that there was a lack of plausible, if banal explanations. It isn't rare for young girls, otherwise sensible and reserved-looking, to escape, in the evening, to some place of pleasure. But the choice of the Moulin-Rouge astonished him. Those who frequented this dancehall in the Place Blanche were mainly shop-girls, department store salesgirls and perhaps a couple of dozen young women from Montmartre. Hélène Gastambide's character simply didn't fit into this milieu, nor with this kind of distraction.
But there was still the Bureau 42! This notation, on the gray paper, didn't it prove that the girl was connected with Truffier, or with his nephew, or maybe both?
Basically, what troubled Maigret most, leaving him all worked up, was precisely the disproportion between the obvious triviality of the business and the extreme peculiarity that he sensed there.
Around four o'clock, Inspector Torrence, whom he had charged with collecting information on the Gastambides, entered his office.
"Évariste Gastambide, age fifty-eight, born in Le Havre, son of Edmond Gastambide, president of the Chamber of Commerce," he recited while consulting a slip of paper.
"Extremely. The Gastambides had for three generations been part of the upper crust of Le Havre. Chamber of Commerce, General Council... A cousin District Attorney of the Republic..."
"Studied Law until he was twenty-four. Sudden switch to medicine. Didn't finish those studies any more than he had Law. Nevertheless, at thirty, he was still at university. An only child. His mother dies, father sends him to England. Bored there, he heads for New York. Comes back at the death of the old man and inherits a few million, as well as the Gastambide family mansion. Could make an alliance with any fine family, but instead he marries some kid that no one knows, who comes from God knows where. Invites two witnesses to the ceremony. Five months later, she bears him a son, which explains a lot of things. After that all three travel. Egypt, then Asia... Gastambide doesn't give any further sign of life to his uncles, nor to his cousins. Six years later, he reappears in Le Havre with his son and a little girl of three. He populates the house with servants, tutors and housekeepers. Brief political activity. Presents himself all alone for election, without joining a party. Spends a half-million in election campaign expenses and, not surprisingly, hardly collects two hundred votes. He was said to have been somewhat put out. Stopped receiving guests and no longer went out. Five years later, he suddenly appears at the Stock Exchange. He speculates. He throws himself into finance with a fever, almost a rage."
"His activity was followed with alarm. He won big, then, suddenly, within a week, his entire fortune was wiped out by a crash. There were rumors that he was unsecured, that the adventure would finish in court. But things somehow worked out and he disappeared from Le Havre with his children."
"Some say that he left her in Asia, others that it was she who left him to follow an English baronet..."
Maigret indicated that he'd heard enough. The door closed again itself and he remained once more alone, in tête-à-tête with his reports and his sorrowful photographs.
An hour later, the air of the office was no longer transparent, so heavy were the clouds of smoke. Maigret rose with a sigh, put on his hat and his thick dark overcoat.
Once more, his reflections on the business had brought him back automatically to one character: the girl with the pale eyes and the black suit that he had seen there, in his own office, standing close to the stove, and who he had foolishly let escape.
He was not pleased enough with himself to take a taxicab and so was content with a tram that jogged along through the 20th arrondissement, bringing him eventually to Montreuil-sous-bois.
The rain hadn't let up. Night had fallen, and he was cold. After standing a few minutes in front of 111, Maigret ended up pushing open the door of the Copains d'Auvergne, where he ordered a drink.
When one feels bad, the brandy itself has a bad taste. Such was the case now. The commissioner had the impression of turning in a circle, like a circus horse, without arriving anywhere nearer his goal. The windows of the second floor and the fourth on the left were lit. In the windows of old Mlle. Augustine's apartment, there was only a reddish halo. A single nightlight must have been burning close to her bed.
On the first floor, nothing. The concierge's dog sat on the doorstep, pressing as closely as possible against the door to avoid the rain. He shivered. The idea of going back in apparently didn't occur to him. The street was without animation. The rare passer-by hurried along. The butcher shop was desolate.
Maigret ordered a second brandy, then a third, exhibiting the same persistence in burning his throat as Belleau did in being wet and shivering. It was six o'clock when the car that the policeman had seen at noon, driven by Christian Gastambide, stopped in front of the door. The young man got out with his sister, and entered the house.
A few moments later, the windows of the living room, then those of another room lit up. But immediately the curtains were drawn.
And Maigret whispered to himself: "To have her sitting before me for an hour! To force her to speak..."
A quarter of an hour passed. The young man reappeared, got settled at the wheel and, after a skillful U-turn, headed off toward Paris. Maigret considered the ridicule that he'd incur in retracing the same steps a few hours later. But none the less he had to go in, and so knocked at the first floor door once more.
Hélène wore her black suit skirt, a blouse of white silk, a small blue tie with white polka dots. She drew back from Maigret, and asked in an agreeable voice: "What is it?"
He entered. While crossing the foyer, he noticed the light on in the girl's room, and through the open door, a certain disorder.
"Our conversation was interrupted this morning," he said. "If you don't mind, we are going to take it up again..."
He was already in the living room. He noted that the girl who followed betrayed a slight confusion.
"Please sit down," she mumbled.
He smiled, and at that instant, he had the illusion of triumph. It was clear that she had changed her attitude. That morning she had not addressed him a word without unpleasant observations, or even reminders of proper behavior.
Now, she appeared, on the contrary, very humble. He wanted to benefit from it, to take advantage of the occasion as quickly as possible. And that is why he launched, in a detached tone:
"I would like to know, among other things, how long you have been Henry Demassis' mistress..."
He expected some surprise, perhaps followed up by a rude remark. But nothing like that happened at all. In fact, she appeared to be searching her memory:
"His mistress..." She bit her lip, walked toward the fireplace, where there were some logs prepared, but no fire.
"Would you mind sitting down in front of me?" asked Maigret.
"But... I..." She decided to smile. "Gladly." And it was a true smile, hardly veiled by concern!
"You didn't answer my question..."
"With regard to... Henry Demassis?"
She obviously wanted to gain some time. And the commissioner was starting to lose his patience.
"Listen!" he said, rising. "Haven't we played enough? You cannot deny that you presented yourself in my office Saturday night, and that you declared to me that you had just killed a man. Fine! I make no accusations... I even confess that I don't put great stock in these sorts of confessions. But I would like you to answer my questions clearly. The police have more to do than to play around with nervous young women."
"But I swear to you..." she exclaimed.
"What do you swear?"
"I have no idea what you're talking about! I... You must be mistaken... It wasn't me!"
"It wasn't you who came to the Quai des Orfèvres?"
"I don't even know where it is..."
"And it wasn't you who danced that same evening, till midnight, at the Moulin-Rouge?"
She turned crimson, shook her head negatively.
"To put it otherwise, you were, that night, here in your room. Sleeping!"
"Yes... I was sleeping..."
She didn't cry. But he needed to contain himself. He felt that a word would be sufficient to unleash her sobs. And that was what was so strange, the attitude of this fearful little girl defending herself against a terrifying accusation. It was especially novel! That same morning, she had been mistress of herself, calculating her gestures and her words, challenging Maigret.
"It is time for me to prepare dinner," she risked.
"That's fine... We can talk while you work."
She choked. She didn't know what to do. He nearly had to take her to the kitchen, and she was so agitated that it was clear that she no longer had control over her movements. She avoided looking at Maigret. Her anguish was obvious. One could predict that any moment her nerves would give out. She took up a tablecloth, headed toward the living room, looked at the table with a dazed air, finally went into the dining room where she turned the electric switch.
The commissioner was on her heels. He no longer even seemed to want to question her again. He looked at her. He looked at her like a phenomenon, intrigued, sensing something much more complex than everything he had imagined before.
"Was it at Truffier's that you met your lover?"
She spread out the tablecloth on the table, tugged it in all directions.
"Why do you torture me so? You know well that I am innocent."
"Where did you go, this afternoon?"
"But... to the Cyrano..."
"The restaurant on the corner of the Place Blanche and the Rue Lepic?"
He could no longer distinguish her pupils through the troubled moisture of her eyes.
"Do you go there often?"
It was inevitable! Events repeated themselves with a desperate similarity.
Maigret felt that he was about to seize a shred of truth when, in the same instant, just as in the morning, steps stopped before the door. Three knocks. The girl went to open it and Évariste Gastambide entered, dripping water, dull, drabber, more gray, even more melancholy than ever.
He raised his eyes toward the commissioner, remained one moment with nothing to say. Then he turned toward his daughter, who he fixed with a lengthy stare:
"I hope," he said finally, "that you are not here to make things worse..."
There would have been something delightfully loony to it all, had not one felt that at the bottom, under these incredible appearances, a tragedy was being played out.
Maigret wanted to take his hat and to run away.
I. 7. Scratches