The House of Anxiety
by Georges Sim
"It's finished, Chief! And I hope you'll be kind enough to assign me to the first case that comes along, something to take my mind off things, as long as it's about some hooligan who has all his faculties, who kills either to kill or to steal, and who doesn't read the works of Professor Chauveau."
He was feeling gruff, standing in front of the stove, his hands behind his back, in his habitual way. He had put his reports on the chief's desk. But the director of the Sûreté seemed in no hurry to leaf through them.
"So it really was the kid who killed the Captain?"
"Can you believe it! And for his money... A kid, as you say. One whose face you'd really wanted to slap, and afterwards to give a good lecture to... An off-track kid, spending his time accumulating every conceivable blunder..."
"Did others drink? Did others play the horses, take cocaine, pinch money from their dads? He didn't tell himself that they had stronger stomachs, more stable families, or that they could allow themselves those fantasies without too much danger. He imitated them..."
"And he ran straight ahead into disaster. In the end, he must have known it. Because they're all dreadfully lucid, in that family..."
"They spent their time sniffing the scattered lunacy in the atmosphere, observing each other..."
"Christian had noticed his sister's rendezvous with Demassis at the Captain's. He must have borrowed money from Truffier, threatening to let the cat out of the bag. Because he was a cynic... and he was proud of it!"
"Was he successful? Maybe the Captain did give him something from time to time... but, the last time, he refused. The boy struck out..."
"And when he turned around, he saw his sister behind him..."
As the chief looked at him with a certain astonishment, Maigret grumbled, "Oh, we're not at the end yet. First we have to explain the relationship between Christian and his sister. Hélène Gastambide is a little neurotic, a bundle of nerves actually. One has to wonder, at this point in time, if she's really all there. But Chauveau believes that such women have formidable faculties of resistance..."
"In brief, Hélène, since her childhood, was subject to bouts of somnambulism. As children, Christian took advantage of those times to make her talk."
"Then he noticed that he could put her into a similar state, when he wanted to, even though she wasn't asleep. To state it simply, he found he could hypnotize her."
"That night, the girl, who was in Truffier's room and had seen what her brother did, was not awake. Chauveau says that current theory holds that sleepwalkers often unconsciously reproduce their daytime actions during the night. And, she frequently went to visit Truffier."
"Where did Christian get the notion of taking advantage of this? I have no idea. At any rate, afraid, he persuaded his sister that it was she who had just killed."
"The professor gave me a lecture on this topic. He affirms that Christian held all the cards, that his sister, accustomed to being his moral dependent, had no choice but to believe him."
"Maybe, outside of that house, she would have eventually had her doubts. But, as I've said, they lived in an atmosphere of lunacy. Each considered himself flawed.
"Hélène believed that she had had a fit of craziness. Her first impulse was to confess. She rushed out..."
"But how? If I remember correctly, the concierge claimed..."
"I knew you'd ask that it's something that had me troubled for quite a while. As usual, the solution was humiliatingly simple. Hélène simply left by the door. And yet Mme Foucrier, the concierge, hadn't lied when she stated that she hadn't pulled the cord for anyone..."
"In fact, Mme Foucrier was also out of the house! It was while observing during the night that I noticed that she herself went out, once all the tenants were home. She has a beautiful game. Her husband takes a sleeping draft and sleeps like the dead. I believe she loves him well enough in any case, she takes care of him, as intolerable as he is, with devotion. But that doesn't stop her from going to visit a neighboring grocer who's been widowed for some years..."
"And so, the girl could get out. But how did she get back in?"
"Upset by his sister's departure, Christian's first impulse was to follow her. But recognizing that it was dangerous, he kept watch for her, from his window."
"But why did she flee your office?"
"She says she doesn't know anymore, that she only has a confused memory of that night, and I'm inclined to believe her. There are two explanations I can see, one as plausible as the other. Either, remaining alone, thinking about the situation, she didn't want to confront authority anymore and left, or Christian managed from afar a droll idea to suggest to her to return..."
Maigret filled a new pipe. "So there it is!" he muttered. "It's perfectly simple, after that! The following day, she defends herself. She denies having gone to the Prefecture. But Christian is afraid that she'll eventually betray them. She's too nervous to hold to her role for a long time."
"Furthermore, the father suspects them both. The kid panics. He remembers Ninie, whom he'd met some weeks earlier in Montmartre. He gets the idea to have her pass for Hélène, at least for a while. He convinced her."
"But the atmosphere at Montreuil became only more troubled. Did Gastambide guess the truth? It's likely. The day he overheard my conversation with the false Hélène, he confessed, wanted to pass himself off as completely mad, threatened me with a kitchen knife. But a few moments later, while leaving, he threw a note in the street ordering Christian, whom he spotted across the way in the small bar, to admit nothing..."
"Simple, did I say? At this point it's about impossible to determine where the lunacy starts and finishes, where the responsibility of some begins and of others ends..."
"I couldn't have prevented Christian's suicide, and right now, I'm not sure if I should regret it."
"Hélène?" quizzed the chief.
"At the Demassis'. Complete rest. Chauveau is attending to her..."
"Ninie? A holy brat, whom I've got to take care of, now that I pulled her out of there. I've found her a job at a milliner's that I know. In the evening, she comes to the house from time to time."
He grinned, while shaking his pipe above the charcoal stove.
"Which has been causing scenes at home!" he concluded. "At forty-five years of age, my wife has decided to become jealous... It's a lark! Or rather, as Évariste Gastambide would have said, it continues! It's a good thing that brute of a Torrence is chasing after the kid..."