Menaces de mort
First published in Révolution Nationale weekly in 6 parts
You old scoundrel,
Finally, your time is up. Whether you go to Coudray or not, even if you arrange to be accompanied by a regiment of Republican guards, you will die on Sunday before six o'clock in the afternoon.
It will be, for everyone, good riddance!
No signature, of course. With some difficulty Maigret managed not to smile as he observed his pale client.
"Evidently," said the chief, "M. Grosbois is unaware of who could have addressed such a letter to him. He has no knowledge of any enemy."
"We have always been highly regarded." M. Grosbois affirmed.
The chief began again, "I pointed out to him that the jurisdiction of the Criminal Investigation Department does not extend beyond Paris. If a crime is committed in the city, it's a case for us. But if someone is killed in Coudray... M. Grosbois so strongly insisted that I agreed, since so far there has not yet been a crime, to look into the business. What do you think about it, Maigret? Would it trouble you very much to pass the weekend at Coudray?"
"Isn't that at the edge of the Seine, a little beyond Corbeil? If so, I know the area vaguely. A few years ago, I was occupied with a murder at the lock at La Citanguette."3
"So you'll take care of it?"
"If you wish."
"M. Grosbois tells me that he does not have a car. He himself doesn't drive, and chauffeurs have become impossibly demanding." A significant wink.
"The entire family will take the train Saturday after lunch. The railway line even passes through their property, and the station is hardly fifty meters away."
M. Grosbois rose, nodded, shook the hands of the two men and left, after having stammered his thanks. The door was hardly closed again when the Director of the P.J. and Maigret could finally relax their features.
"You noticed, Chief?"
"That depends on what."
"That the small pocket of his vest was on the right. In other words, inside out."
"I was satisfied to note that he used rubber heel-pieces so as not to wear out his shoes."
"It's said that Grosbois has accumulated about thirty million."
"What do you think of this threat?"
"I don't think anything of it yet. In any case, I warned our man that if it were a trick to collect on an insurance policy, we would inform the company and it wouldn't work. You remember that Russian who made his suicide look like murder, so that his daughter could collect the insurance?"
"I was the one who did the investigation,"4 said Maigret modestly.
"Sorry, I'd forgotten."
The chief picked up the telephone at the first ring. "Hello, yes. M. Grosbois? Oscar Grosbois? The brother of M. Émile? I see. Let me pass you to Chief Inspector Maigret, who has agreed to take care of this business."
Maigret took the receiver.
"Hello. Excuse me for disturbing you, Chief Inspector, but I know that my brother went to see you this morning. It is necessary that I have a discussion with you. Yes. Can I come to your office? You prefer to come to see me? In that case, may I ask you to come between eleven and noon, for that is when my brother goes to the bank. Thank you, Chief Inspector. Ring at the small door in the wall on the right. Thank you. Thank you."
Maigret hung up, and sighed, "And I'd just promised my wife we'd go to the countryside!"
It was 11:15 when Maigret arrived at the Rue du Chemin-Vert2, a narrow and animated street in the Bastille district, filled primarily with workshops and warehouses. He easily found Grosbois et Paget, an immense wall with a metal gate, a vast courtyard filled with trucks and encircled by loading platforms. He noticed at a glance that all the windows were fitted with bars, which led one to suppose that trust did not reign in the house, and he rang at the small door which had been indicated to him. A maid of about forty, of doubtful cleanliness, came to open it, and before he could say a word, announced, "Go up to the first floor. M. Oscar is waiting for you."
M. Oscar was already at the top of the staircase, so similar to his brother that for a brief moment the Chief Inspector believed himself to be dealing with the same man.
"I am sorry to have disturbed to you, Chief Inspector. I would readily have gone to see you at your office."
Maigret didn't explain to him that if he'd chosen to come in person, it was because he preferred to get the scent of the air of the household.
"Come in. These old houses are not very comfortable but, seeing as one was born here..."
Maigret could have answered him that it wasn't sufficient, just because one was born there, to leave it in the same state for ages. Already the walls of the false marble staircase had become an unpleasant tobacco-juice brown. As for the carpets, they had no color at all, having being reduced to a threadbare gray.
"You are here in a household of single people, which explains a certain disorder."
But no, not disorder! It was filthiness, lassitude! The dusty pieces of furniture seemed to have been bought at a flea market, and the profusion of unpleasant vases and dreadful curios evoked the back room of a second-hand dealer in a poor district.
"Please sit down, Chief Inspector. Can I offer you a cigar?"
He extended a small tissue-paper packet, which showed that in preparation for Maigret's visit he had gone to the corner tobacconist to buy a half dozen cigars. This gesture of Grosbois Oscar was serious, almost solemn. For him to offer a cigar, wasn't this almost a step towards buying a clear conscience?
"Thank you, I prefer my pipe."
"As for myself, I do not smoke. Nor does my brother, for that matter. I really wonder what he can have told you. He's such a strange one."
Maigret didn't dare to stir, for the leg of the armchair on which he was sitting threatened to yield under his weight.
"You've obviously noticed our resemblance. As you must imagine, we are twins. We have an elder sister, Françoise, who lives on the second floor with her children."
"So your sister is married?"
"She was married to a man named Paget. That's where the business name comes from, Grosbois et Paget. Her husband died ten years ago, and she remains widowed with a son and a daughter."
"All the family continues to live in this building?"
"Not only in this building, but in our villa at Coudray. We have a taste for the family life, the simple life."
Maigret almost wanted to groan. "You must be kidding!"
"These are hard times. One does not know where the world is going. But that isn't the issue. Didn't my brother show you a letter which he claims to have received yesterday morning?"
At the word claims, Maigret sat up.
"He also showed it to us, and seemed quite upset. I calmed him down as I much as I could, for obviously, it's a joke."
"You, my little man," Maigret said to himself, "are dying to know what I think about it." He avoided answering, looking at his interlocutor with eyes of an inexpressible frankness.
"I suppose that people who intend to commit a crime are not accustomed to informing their victim."
"It's been known to happen."
"In certain cases, maybe. But what could someone want of us? We've never done any harm to anyone. We do not owe a centime. We..."
Maigret's inscrutable glance distracted him, and he was hard put to find the thread of his ideas.
"A small aperitif, Chief Inspector? As for ourselves, we do not drink either. No! We've gotten accustomed to a life healthy and unadorned. Never alcohol nor tobacco! Which does not prevent us from having what it is necessary for our guests."
"You receive many?"
"Never! I was saying... Yes... I was saying that my poor brother for some time..."
"He's unmarried, like you, isn't he?"
"We are two old bachelors. Fifty-three years, one like the other. And I would never have suspected that one day my brother would become... How can I express myself?"
If Maigret had had to describe him, he would have said that Oscar Grosbois had the face of a rat, right down to the darting eyes, anxious and furtive.
"I would not like you take what I'm saying literally. Émile is not insane. Most of the time, he maintains his full faculties. However, he has moments when..."
Maigret purposely avoided helping him out, and the other floundered.
"...when he is not like he always was. Understand, he is nervous... he has these whims. I must beg you to keep this in confidence. If Émile himself had made up the letter that he showed you I would not be surprised. It is what is called, if I am not mistaken, a persecution complex. That is what I wanted to let you know. I have too much respect for the police force to let it engage in a business which is probably without the least basis and for which, without a doubt, I would have to reproach myself if I kept silent."
At that moment, Maigret pricked up his ears, for he could hear, above them, separated by the thin floor, the noise of an argument.
Oscar Grosbois started as well, but murmured, "That's just the children bickering."
"Your sister's children? How old are they?"
"Henri is twenty, his sister eighteen. At that age, brother and sister, they're a bit like cats and dogs."
Oscar's smile had an unpleasant aspect, as it displayed his small, pointed, yellow teeth, like the teeth of a rat.
"Is your nephew in the rag business?"
"No. He studies."
"What does he study?"
"Business. He hasn't completely decided yet. His mother spoiled him terribly."
The noise above became louder, and if it were indeed an argument between brother and sister, it sounded like they would soon come to blows. In the end there was the sound of running, shouts, slamming doors, and finally steps on the staircase.
"Don't pay any attention. Those are just the minor nuisances of family life. To return to my brother, you've been informed. Do not grant too much importance to his words and especially to his fears. He works too much. If he would only take a month's holiday in a quiet place, preferably in a private hospital, in the mountains for example, he wouldn't seem so... You really do not want a cigar?"
And the poor fellow, awkward to the end, offered the package of cigars once more to Maigret, as one makes alms: "Come on! Let yourself have one! You'll smoke them at home."
"I'll spend the weekend among people who have about thirty million," Maigret announced to his wife.
"At least you won't be bored!"
And he'd retorted with a mysterious smile, "You think so?"
He had taken the train in the middle of Saturday afternoon, although the coaches were nearly full. His pass enabled him to travel in first class, and he'd sat opposite a girl who scandalized the whole compartment. It was difficult to determine her age exactly, but she was very young, of an exuberant and free youth. An old lady from Melun, in her corner, obviously regarded her as some kind of creature, with her violent make-up, ill-fitting dress and the audacious way in which she regarded the people around her.
As for the conversation... For the girl was not alone, she was accompanied by a young "sportsman", hatless, he too dressed eccentrically...
"So what did they do?" he asked.
"When they saw that the Bugatti was broken down and that there was absolutely no place at all within at least five kilometers, all four of them bedded down in the car as best they could, and that's how they spent the night!"
"It gets better! At first, Betty was with Jean, and Raymonde with Riri. I don't know what happened during the night, but the following day, Betty was with Riri, and Jean with Raymonde!"
The old lady, sitting bolt upright in her corner, looked at the girl with a severity which should have floored her. But she was not in the least brought down. With an absolute lack of embarrassment, she raised her dress to take off her stockings, asking her companion, "Did Yolande find some funds?"
"She wrote to her parents that she needed an emergency operation for appendicitis. They sent her ten thousand francs. But now she'll have to come up with a scar before the holidays."
"That shouldn't be so difficult."
The glance the old lady shot at Maigret seemed to say, "What a generation!"
And Maigret smiled vaguely, enjoying this afternoon of hot sun and the landscape which unraveled past the two sides of the train.
He got off. The girl too. Only the young man remained on the train, which set out again at once.
On the tiny station platform, two men awaited, so similar to one other, both dressed in gray alpaca, that they seemed about to perform some kind of duet. Maigret moved towards them, extending his hand, but he saw that their glances passed over his shoulder, whereby Émile Grosbois pronounced finally, "It is at this hour that you arrive?"
"I missed the first train."
"And your brother?"
"I didn't see him. I thought he'd be here already."
It was the eccentric girl, who was eventually introduced to him as Éliane Paget, the Grosbois brothers' niece.
"Chief Inspector Maigret, Police Judiciaire."
"Oh!" A rather hard glance, wary, "Is my mother here?"
"She came with us and Babette."
"I'll go change," announced Éliane taking off her hat and climbing over a hedge which separated the station from a garden.
The house was right there, a great dark brick construction, dating from the worst time before the war, with dreadful ceramic ornaments. A lawn gave somewhat the illusion of a park, decorated with two horrible statues, while the remainder of the property remained in wasteland.
"I've thought of something, Chief Inspector," began Émile Grosbois. "If someone plans to take my life, he will probably come by the train. Now, from your window, you will be able to observe all the travelers who get off in Coudray. You've probably noticed that there are very few."
An extraordinary, painful impression! The site was splendid. The Seine, very broad, descended sluggishly between two wooded hills and made a large loop. The sun, which had started to set, had painted the sky pink. A scene where everything sang of the joy of life! But Maigret was there in the company of these two small, sly-looking, reddish men, who spent their time spying on each other. Instead of the cheerfulness which the word villa evokes, the dark construction exuded trouble, meanness, mistrust.
"Don't go that way, Chief Inspector, for there are traps. Let us take the path."
The steps leading to the entrance lacked style. Then a poorly-lit anteroom, where one began to sniff an insipid odor of moisture.
"I'll show you your room. The bathroom is at the end of the corridor. Unfortunately, in the summer, it is impossible to have hot water, for the bath-tub is connected to the central heating which we only use in the winter."
Maigret caught a glimpse of the maid who had received him on the Rue du Chemin-Vert and who appeared busy. He heard a woman's voice calling from the kitchen, "Babette! Where are you, Babette? I can't find any butter. I'll bet you forgot the butter again!"
"This way, M. Maigret," said Émile Grosbois. "I must thank you for having come. If you knew how much comfort your presence here gives me! I, who have never done any harm to anyone..."
It was pitiful, grotesque! In the corridor, Éliane emerged in a bathing suit, tall and robust in the style of American girls, and who, against all that vegetated in the house, breathed life and health.
"Aren't you going to swim?" she asked.
"I'm afraid I didn't bring a bathing suit."
"My brother will lend you one when he arrives."
Émile Grosbois sighed. "My sister has raised her so badly. You saw her behavior. That's how she'll stay until tomorrow evening, and she'll hardly wear any more to come to dinner.
Maigret didn't dare tell him that he was delighted, and that he much preferred to contemplate Éliane's form to the unpleasant figures of the two brothers.
"Here's your room. The wallpaper is a bit faded, but it's so humid here in the countryside... I suppose you wish to change?
Not at all. Maigret had brought only his razor, a toothbrush, and a pair of pajamas.
"You will find me in the billiard room."
And to think that a little below the bend of the river were young, healthy people, muscular and alive, camping and playing, plunging joyfully into the Seine! People who did not have thirty million francs!
Some families are able to abide a stranger among them for weeks, or even months, without showing anything of those small, more or less shameful secrets which are the dirty linen of all households. The Grosbois family too, had no doubt promised themselves to present Maigret a favorable image, and the proof was the affectionate attitude of the two brothers with respect to each other, when they had come to greet the Chief Inspector at the station.
It was the same with their sister Françoise, whose first appearance was all smiles and honey. She came out of the kitchen drying her hands. "Excuse me," she said, turning up the corners of her lips. "I haven't yet done my toilet. This old residence is so inconvenient and we have only one domestic."
Maigret noted to himself, "You, my little woman, are the cry-baby type! Victim of fate, all wailing and moaning."
As for the two brothers, they would have liked to continue to give the impression of peaceful, spiteless fellows. Actually, at first they almost succeeded, with their mouse-gray suits, their straw hats, their fabric shoes and the affected steps of small pensioners breathing in the air of their garden.
But not one hour had passed before this mask had already fallen. Babette had just served tea on the iron table in the garden. Émile Grosbois drew from his pocket a kind of snuffbox and took a out a capsule. At once, Oscar, unable to contain himself any longer, exclaimed, "You see, Chief Inspector! He's taking a pill, isn't he? Now, in an hour, it will be another one. And then, with his meal, some kind of drops, and after, still another drug." By his mimicry, he tried to reinforce his thesis of his brother's semi-madness.
"I take care of myself as I see fit," Émile countered rather bitterly.
"You might say that you are out of sorts. Certainly you are tired, and you need rest. But from there to believe you suffer all the diseases which you find in your medical book and to stuff yourself with drugs..."
"Each has his own mania."
"Well yours is absurd."
"I know people with more dangerous ones!"
And Maigret thought, "Round one! While waiting for the second, I'd be curious to know Oscar's mania."
During this time, Éliane, whose bathing suit was of the skimpiest variety, was swimming in the river, where a young man was not long in making his move towards her. The Chief Inspector would have sworn that it was the young man from the train, who had had to go down to the next station.
Round two! They had just sat down at the table. The menu was dull: vegetable soup, potato omelet, spinach and cheese. Éliane, who had taken a sun bath, her skin still coated with a very odorous lotion, had been satisfied to put on a light dressing gown over her swimming suit. This time it was Émile who attacked: "Françoise! What have I told you a hundred times?"
The poor thing looked around her with anguish, like someone accustomed to being berated. She wondered what was wrong.
"I understand, Mother. Uncle Émile would like me to get dressed."
"Decently, yes!" Émile affirmed. Anyone who would enter here suddenly would have to wonder whether this was a serious household."
And Éliane retorted while rising, "More likely they'd think it was a lunatic asylum! For what there is to eat here, I'd do better to leave!"
Round three! They dined in silence, and there were two empty chairs at the table, Éliane's and another. Françoise lowered her nose towards her plate. Émile, after a time, noted, "Once more, Henri hasn't yet arrived!"
"He must have been delayed on business," risked his mother.
And the uncle laughed painfully, "His business! You dare speak of his business?"
She indicated Maigret, hunched over, eating everything that passed within his range.
"You have funny way of raising your children! It is true that if they take after their father..."
Not at all! He was due his speech! He addressed himself to the Chief Inspector. "You should be informed, M. Maigret, that my sister made a sad marriage, a man who married her only for our money and who had affairs. He died, fortunately, for if not I do not know what the family would have become!"
Françoise retained her tears. Suddenly everyone looked up, for a car had stopped in front of the garden gate, then set out again at once. Steps were heard. A young man entered, thin, pale, tormented face. "I missed the train! Excuse me."
Without noticing Maigret's presence, he sat down in his place, but quickly looked up in surprise, "Éliane's not here?" Then he saw the stranger, blinked, and looked at each one in turn, awaiting an explanation.
"Did she bring you here?" his uncle questioned.
For Émile, definitely, could not remain long without expressing his mood. He swallowed some drops of an unspecified medication, drank from a glass of a little-known brand of mineral water, and nibbled a diet biscuit. "I'm waiting for your answer."
"You'll go on bellyaching anyway!"
The uncle complained, indeed, "Initially, I would like you to show yourself more respectful. Furthermore, I have well the right to worry when I see my nephew, twenty years old, unable to do any kind of work, but playing the gigolo with an actress."
He turned to Maigret. "For this boy is the lover of a kept woman! You see his head! Some days he can't even hold it up, and I just wonder how he will finish."
"Émile!" begged Françoise, who sniffled.
Oscar continued to look at the Chief Inspector with the air of saying, "Did I lie to you? Is my brother half mad or not?"
As for Henri, he retorted, "It's not me who makes me come out here each weekend!"
Maigret, on his side, thought to himself, "You, my young man, if I'm not completely mistaken, are a devotée of cocaine!" And it was from this moment that, contrary to his habit, he started to make notes in the large black note-book which never left him.
These notes, by Sunday at midday, were as follows:
- Charming family! They cultivate hatred like others the middle-class virtues. I wonder who among them doesn't hate all the rest, if not someone in particular.
- Émile Grosbois is a maniac who plays the domestic tyrant and who has an atrocious fear of dying and losing money. Like all tyrants, he's wary of those around him, spends his time spying on them, suspecting them of the blackest intentions.
- Oscar has some vice, or mania. His brother referred to it. But what is it exactly? He must be as miserly as Émile. Émile, as almost always arrives between twins, has some terrible power over him, and Oscar doesn't dare to shake the yoke.
- Françoise is afraid of her two brothers. She suffers all the pain of the anger of the house and the faults of her children.
- Éliane, rather than face the storms and suffer from all this meanness, leads her life her own way, egotistically. Last night, I heard a noise from her room. I'm persuaded that the young man from the train came to join her. Her uncles must be afraid of her, for if she decides to marry, it's almost certain that she'll claim her share of the fortune.
- As for Henri, he's weak, a highly-strung person who will be ruined quickly if he continues to devote himself to drugs. Easy prey for an expert woman who gives him the illusion of the good life."
Hadn't one of them sent Émile Grosbois the threatening note, and wasn't it necessary to believe that this threat would really be put into execution? The day before, in the office of the Chief of the P.J., the two men did not give it much credence, rather smelling in it a rotten trick, or even a strange maneuver by Émile Grosbois himself. But since Maigret had been in the house, he no longer took things so lightly, and what had started as discomfort had darkened to anxiety.
For it was difficult to imagine, within the radiant framework of the border of the Seine, where Sunday had brought whole flotillas of canoes and tight rows of lined-up fishermen, an atmosphere more choking that that of the Grosbois villa. Nothing was clear, clean, or sincere! And if the walls sweated moisture, if the wallpaper fell apart, if the kitchen were dirtier than in the worst greasy spoon, the inhabitants were in harmony with the decor.
On this subject too, Maigret had taken notes, for he foresaw that at a certain time, the least details would have their importance. It was, so to speak, a list of the "brawls":
- Saturday, tea time, Oscar reproaches Émile for his medication mania and Émile refers to a secret vice of his brother.
- At dinner, the first match between Émile and Éliane.
- Émile attacks Henri who responds in kind.
- In the kitchen, a little afterwards, an argument between Babette and Françoise. It's Babette who raises her voice. What's the subject of this argument? Immediately afterwards, Françoise, in tears, goes up to lie down, hugging the walls.
- This morning, in the garden, a discussion between Henri and Éliane. Henri seems to suspect that his sister received a young man in her room and he speaks to her vehemently. Éliane responds in the same tone. They both become silent at the approach of their uncle Émile.
- Less than a quarter of an hour later, in a corridor on the first floor, Émile, furious, goes at Françoise.
- Almost at the same time, Oscar approaches me furtively and whispers, "I warned you! One day or another, it will be necessary to have him committed. This life is not possible any more."
At least all the family has gotten accustomed to breathing this atmosphere! As for Maigret, he felt as gloomy and depressed as he'd ever been. Was it really possible that people who had fortune and health had so little common sense as to waste their existence in this way? What underlying evil corroded them? And how did one of them avoid suddenly bursting out laughing while exclaiming, "Enough of these stupidities! Let's cease this senseless bickering, spying on each other, hating each other. There's the sun! It's Sunday! Life is beautiful!"
But no! Only Éliane reacted in that manner, in the sense that, without worrying about the others, magnificently impudent in her bathing suit, she went running towards the river where one immediately saw her in a canoe, in the company of her young man.
Henri was lying in the tall grass, close to a ditch, and when Maigret discovered him, he regarded him with vague eyes. The Chief Inspector wanted to sit down nearby, to start a conversation. "Tell me, my friend, it seems that your uncles don't make your life so easy..."
Henri didn't answer at first. He chewed a bit of straw and his dilated pupils showed that he'd just drugged himself.
"It's true that you'll soon be old enough to take your father's place..."
"What business is it of yours?"
"Maybe it's none of my business, but I will point out to you that it was your uncle Émile who begged me to come to this house where, in fact, the stay is not particularly jolly."
"So much the worse for you!"
Maigret knew that these young people tended to be aggressive, always on the offensive, but not necessarily bad. "As you wish," he murmured, while moving away.
There was nothing in the house to pass the time. One did, all things considered, literally nothing.
The two brothers, who were ready, in their gray alpaca suits, since eight o'clock in the morning, would sit down for a moment in an armchair in the garden; then one would wander about the house, undoubtedly in search of someone to rebuke; then they would find each other again and exchange some idle words, during which time Françoise worked in the kitchen with Babette.
They were there on principle, because they had a country house and it had been decided, once and for all, that the whole family would pass their weekends on this property. It didn't matter that everyone was bored! Essentially, it was to be there, around Uncle Émile, who took a malicious pleasure in spying on his small world and discovering the smallest infractions of the rules that he had enacted.
"What can Oscar's vice be?" Maigret wondered for the hundredth time, examining the little man with the rat's head. He doesn't smoke, he doesn't drink. Miserly as he is, as both brothers are, it would astonish me to see him running after girls."
The answer was provided to him before lunch. The Chief Inspector was forced to do as the others, going and coming, sometimes in the garden, sometimes in the house. Around ten o'clock, Babette went up to do the rooms. Maigret, walking the corridor on the first floor, had seen a half-opened door and, through the opening, Oscar, who held the maid in his arms, or rather who... The eyes of the Chief Inspector sparkled. It was unexpected without being so. He should have suspected that, in such a family, one did not have to expect anything sensational.
His image of the two bachelors was precise. While Émile was pure, Oscar had some passion. Careful, fearing unseen eyes, he was satisfied to appease it with Babette, who had no other distractions. Without his brother, wouldn't he be capable of marrying the maid? Perhaps! In any case, if he took her as his own... And wasn't this why Babette dared to speak in a loud voice to Françoise? But who'd written the threatening letter to Émile? And would someone really have the nerve to put it into effect?
The lunch menu was a little better than that of the dinner of the day before. It was Sunday, after all! One was entitled to hors d'oeuvres (herring fillets, radishes and potato salad), leg of mutton with beans, cheese and a cherry pie, of which Émile chose the largest piece.
Perhaps to avoid a new scene with her mother, Éliane had condescended to put on a dress, a simple one of white fabric, under which she wore nothing at all, for when the sun was behind her, her whole body was revealed through the transparent cloth. In truth, because of this detail, Maigret hardly observed what occurred during the meal. Éliane was right in front of him, on the terrace where the table had been drawn up. And he thought, with some desire, of the happy young man who had been surreptitiously introduced into the villa at night, and who'd spent such pleasant moments.
It was at coffee that Émile spoke suddenly, with an unexpected solemnity. Standing, he seemed to want to make a speech, and it was almost a speech, indeed, on all the feelings which formed the basis for the relations of this extravagant family:
"It is unnecessary to point out to you the threatening letter which I received, and because of which Chief Inspector Maigret is here today. I do not have any illusions about the affection that you bestow on me! When one is the head of a household, one takes on his shoulders all the responsibilities."
For, as Maigret had learned that morning, it was he who was the elder, Oscar having come in the world a few minutes after his brother.
"It is no less true that, whether I want to or not, I must make a point of taking all precautions. The letter specifies that the crime will be committed before six o'clock this afternoon."
Françoise, as usual, seemed filled with an eternal desire to burst into tears. Oscar looked at Maigret fixedly. Éliane, her eyes half-closed in the sun, was no doubt dreaming of some sensual pleasures, while the nostrils of her brother quivered as those of an addict awaiting the hour of his fix.
Babette was in the doorway. Maigret hadn't noticed her, but Émile did. "Come out! You are not excluded, since you form part of the household. I am unaware of the intentions of the Chief Inspector, and I do not know yet what precautions the police force have taken to avoid a mishap. For my part, I believe that the surest means of avoiding the drama is that we remain all together until six o'clock this evening."
He looked at them maliciously, with a challenge, and seemed to say, "Whether you like it or not, this is the way it will be! Too bad for any among you who has plotted my death!"
The counterpart was as funny as unexpected, for it came from Babette, who exclaimed, "And my dishes?"
"You can do them later."
Éliane glanced quickly towards Maigret. Their glances met. She might have read his thoughts, for she blushed slightly.
Henri had become pale, probably considering the prospect of being deprived of his cocaine, which he would certainly couldn't take in front of everyone.
As for Françoise, she sighed, "You suspect us, Émile?"
"I suspect no one and I suspect everyone. All the family will remain on this terrace. Babette will bring what is necessary to prepare the tea. I think that the Chief Inspector will no doubt approve of this elementary safety measure."
The Chief Inspector would approve, indeed! Why not? For Maigret, it facilitated his task, allowing him to avoid running in all directions to ensure himself of how everyone was spending their time.
"What will we do for these hours?" Oscar sighed.
And his brother, in a sour voice, "What do you usually do?"
Éliane could not be prevented from joking, while looking at the sky of radiant blue, "And if it rains?"
Her uncle satisfied himself with a glance.
So much the worse for the young man on the train who was going to pass and pass by again in vain, in his varnished canoe, in front of the garden! Couldn't he be satisfied with what he had had the previous night?
Maigret was almost starting to enjoy himself. Reclining in his rattan chair, he stuffed his pipe with small taps of his index finger, sought matches in his pocket, and, not finding any, rose.
"What do you need?" Émile Grosbois asked.
"They'll be brought to you. Please make sure that no one has any other reason to leave. Forgive me for being so intransigent; however, I allow myself to point out that it is my own life which is at stake!"
Less than fifty meters away, the railway line crossed the garden, and sometimes a train passed with a deafening din, drowning the house for a few moments in its malodorous smoke. Undoubtedly the villa had been built before the establishment of the line. And undoubtedly also the expropriation of a portion of their ground had well benefited the family financially.
"Would you care for something alcoholic, Chief Inspector?" Émile asked him, as if he were certain that the reply would be negative.
Maigret purposely responded, "In fact, if we're to be sitting here for the next few hours, I wouldn't mind at all."
Émile gave the cellar key to Babette. "Bring up the opened bottle of cognac, from the sideboard on the left."
The weather was hot. Families were picnicking everywhere at the edge of the Seine, and men stretched out in the tall grass, handkerchiefs or newspapers over their faces, with the prospect of a tasty nap.
"You don't play anything?" Maigret asked with some irony, looking at his companions in turn.
Françoise answered timidly, "There's a Pope-Joan5, but I don't know if it's complete..."
The waiting started, waiting, in effect, for the death of Émile Grosbois, who held himself very stiff in his garden chair and whose wild glance went unceasingly from the one to the other.
Maigret looked at his watch. It was exactly two o'clock, and consequently four more hours to pass in an immobility rather similar to that of a railway journey. Only one could not count on the procession of the landscape, which remained obstinately the same one, nor on the pleasures of conversation.
Émile Grosbois, one felt, in spite of his apparent calm, was filled with fear and, as time passed, he folded up even more on himself, as if exposing less of himself would make it harder for his fate to catch up with him.
Françoise was sewing. You felt she was a woman able to pass her entire life fussing over trifles, finding a kind of pleasure in her own misfortune. Every five minutes, she raised her head and sighed, looked at each one around her, like a beaten dog, sighed again, and took up her sewing once more. Occasionally she'd utter a few words, for herself only, as those who live long hours in loneliness. "It's not possible that the world is so evil!" About what did she speak? Who? Of the assassin or Émile Grosbois? And a little later, "Nobody would dare to enter with the police here."
Babette, on her part, was furious to be torn away from her kitchen. She'd been told to sit down, but, during one hour at least, as a protest, she'd remained standing, perfectly straight, like a statue of a bad mood.
As for Éliane, she'd been wiser. Taking the cushions of the unoccupied armchairs, she'd arranged them in a corner of the terrace and had stretched out, eyes closed, in a patch of sun.
Her brother was less philosophical, and it was he who worried the Chief Inspector. Indeed, the hour of his drug had passed, and the young man started to fidget, to have nervous twitches which, presently, could well finish in a crisis.
There remained Oscar, who tried to animate the conversation. "You'll allow me to deliver my opinion? I am not a specialist in these questions, like Chief Inspector Maigret. However, common sense is enough to show that we are all taking a joke for reality."
A frozen glance from his brother. A sharper one from Maigret.
"For, all things considered, what is it all about? About an almost childish letter based on... romanticism! Do assassins usually inform their victims of their plans? Since we've been asked, let us remain together, in this place, until six o'clock, but... let's not take the thing as a tragedy, otherwise we will soon be forced to make fun of ourselves."
"Was it you who was threatened?" asked his brother curtly.
Oscar retorted while laughing, "Well, it's me almost as much as you! From a distance it is hardly possible distinguish us one from the other. And since the assassin, if there exists one, will shoot from a distance..."
Maigret intervened gently, "Why do you say shoot?"
And the other, surprised, "But... I don't know. Generally, a crime is done with a revolver, or a rifle." Badly at ease, he stammered, "For I suppose that no one will come onto this terrace, a knife in his hand, to stab my brother."
A grimace from Émile, who uncrossed his legs and recrossed them on the other side. A sigh from Françoise.
2:30... 3:00... Éliane had fallen asleep, very white in her dress which sculpted her body, and which a breeze sometimes made quiver, uncovering a little the bronzed flesh of her thighs.
A train... Later, on the Seine, a tug and its barges.
Suddenly, at 3:30, an unexpected action by Émile, proving that he really was afraid. With a jerky movement indicating that he'd resisted temptation for a long time, he suddenly rose and poured himself a full glass of cognac. His brother was amazed, his sister too. He looked at them sternly. He articulated, "Still two and a half hours!" A little later beads of sweat shone on his face and his lower lip quivered.
"You really think I couldn't do the dishes?"
Oscar silenced her with a gesture, and Maigret smiled at the memory of the morning scene which had finally revealed to him the vice of the second Grosbois.
On the Seine, for all those who canoed, sailed, or bathed joyously, for the fishermen attentive to the quiverings of their floats and for the lovers of napping in the reeds, the hours raced by terribly quickly. But on the terrace of the Grosbois villa, the minutes lengthened implacably, ran one after another as one hears sometimes, in the night, after an interminable time, the drip of a badly turned-off faucet.
God knows that Maigret, who in his career had seen just about everything, was difficult to astonish! However, in fact, it was not astonishment, but rather nausea, revulsion. It seemed to him that these people here, to whom chance had brought him, wasted, almost with pleasure, the beautiful things, the beautiful life, the infinite possibilities. Couldn't Oscar, for example, have found other pleasures than only those of the indifferent scorn Babette subjected him to? Couldn't Henri have been a young man like another and enjoyed without concern the most beautiful part of his life? Only Éliane...
"They're crazy!" he concluded. "It is so rare to meet someone who can live!"
There was, waiting here, someone in the family circle who had decided to kill! Would this someone, in spite of everything, be able to carry out his threat? Suddenly another thought struck the Chief Inspector, a terrifying thought! If the crime did not take place, Émile, the following day, would go forth again to his city councilman or other high-ranking person. He would claim that his life continued to be threatened and he would obtain... Yes! If the crime did not take place, there was a terrible chance that Maigret would be attached for an unspecified time to the steps of the man and his confounded family! Provided... Maigret did not ask for the death of Émile, but he wished that something would happen which would put an end to the anguish of the man!
"A question," he said in a loud voice. "Does a train pass here around six o'clock?"
"No. There's an express at 4:47 and a local at 7:05."
An idea like another! A rather stupid idea, all things considered. To shoot at Émile Grosbois, it would be necessary that he was in his garden during the passage of the train.
"I had thought of that too," Françoise sighed. "I was even going to propose that we go back in. You don't find it getting cool?"
"Not at all."
It was hot. Maigret looked with a certain discomfort at Éliane's neck, the skin glistening with a light dew among the small golden hairs. What wasted time! And that because of a man, or rather of two unattractive men!
At 4:00, or a little afterwards, Émile took another drink of brandy and, as he was not accustomed to it, his eyes soon betrayed the beginning of intoxication.
"Should I prepare tea?" proposed Babette, who was obviously bored.
"Not yet. We had a late lunch."
"And dinner? You really believe that dinner will be ready, with all this nonsense?
"Silence!" came the subdued voice of Émile.
"Fine! I'll keep silent! Presently, you won't have to grumble if..."
"No need to shout so. One never saw..."
"Silence!" he howled while standing up. "You forget that perhaps I will die. I know that that would please you all. Yes! I know it and you hardly hide it. But..."
He lost his track suddenly, probably the influence of the alcohol.
"... the Chief Inspector is here, you understand? So that the assassin will not escape punishment! Maybe you are bored. It is a lost afternoon. But you will acknowledge that that is better than a corpse. Silence!"
Oscar looked at Maigret and raised his eyes skyward. "Completely insane!" he seemed to say.
Françoise trembled with each shout, as if she herself had been threatened. Éliane raised her head, batted her eyelids, lowered her dress a little on her thighs almost stripped by the breeze, and, indifferent, found again a comfortable position, and tried to sleep.
"I will not only tolerate, in our house..."
Émile, not finding a suitable phrase to be used as an element of his anger, was going to have to calm himself when, to the shock of everyone except Maigret, who had been expecting it for a few minutes, Henri rose, pale, his lips trembling. It was already some time since his nostrils had become pinched, his fingers agitatedly gripping.
"You're insane!" he screamed. "You hear? You, my crazy uncle, nothing will prevent me from saying to you that you're insane and a brute! As for me, I'll not remain a minute more in this house! I've had enough of it! Enough! Enough!"
His mother did not look up, remained without reaction as though in a stupor. Émile looked at his nephew as if wondering whether he had any sense left at all.
"Henri!" he shouted.
"Henri! I want... I order..."
Much too late! The young man had already left the terrace, crossing the garden with jerky steps, undoubtedly continuing his tirade to himself. One could almost believe that Émile was going to run after him and that the scene would finish in a grotesque one. Instead, he blustered, "Chief Inspector, you are witness. I ask you to arrest that young man, to prevent him from leaving."
Maigret did not move.
"I summoned you..."
"Excuse me," murmured Maigret calmly. "We are here in the Seine-et-Oise, you know. The Chief pointed out to you that my role, outside the jurisdiction of the P.J., is limited to that of protection. Even in Paris, I would not have any reason to arrest your nephew merely because he said merde to you.".
"Very well! Very well! Very well!"
He fumed. He automatically took a drink and, forgetting that it was cognac, swallowed a great mouthful which made him choke.
"I am here, Monsieur."
"Prepare the tea. Everything you need is on the terrace isn't it? I don't want anyone else to leave."
He had to wipe his brow, to take a breath. Then he looked at his watch and wiped his brow again, for it was nearly 5:00.
"Calm yourself," advised his brother.
An unpleasant glance, his lips half opened for a new burst of anger, but closed again without his spouting out a word.
"If you'd only let people sleep!" sighed Éliane without opening her eyes.
On the table from which lunch had not been cleared, Babette lit an alcohol stove to boil the water for tea. Maigret smoked without respite, swearing to himself never to accept a similar mission and to be wary from now on of rag merchants and unmarried twins.
"If something happens to me, Chief Inspector, I must to say to you...
Maigret wanted, like the young man, to say simply "Merde!" That he didn't do so was painful.
"... that you will have to answer to public opinion about..."
"... about your death, I know! But I will point out to you that you made all your provisions without consulting me at all."
"They are not adequate?"
"I didn't say that."
"What would you have done?"
"The question is no longer meaningful, since there remain only fifty minutes."
The closer the hour approached the more Émile became nervous, contracted, wary, aggressive. "When I think that someone in my family..."
"Why necessarily someone of your family?"
"Because they hate me! Because they've always hated me!"
It was like those persons who put on a grand show during the whole of their lives but who, with the approach of death, lose all shame, begging to confess themselves to the first passer-by.
"A simple detail! I've thought well about the question! The letter was made up using words and letters cut out of newspapers which we regularly receive in this house."
"I suppose that no other people receive them?" Maigret had really had enough. His contempt was such that he would have been able, like Henri, to leave without awaiting the end of this nauseating meeting.
"It's in the house."
"Go get it. Or rather don't! Chief Inspector, go with her. No!"
He could no longer decide on which precautions to take. He didn't want to see a single person entering the villa. He didn't want to go there himself. He didn't want anything to occur without the possible assistance of Maigret.
"We will take the tea without sugar."
"But..." protested his brother.
"Silence! Is it me, yes or no, who is expecting to be killed?"
Cowardice burst out of him, while around him there was only spinelessness. Françoise served the tea, sniffling constantly, a true maniac of the tearful life.
The only one who remained calm was Oscar, who benefited from a pause to exclaim, "I am sure that nothing will happen. It's nothing but a bad joke." And to his brother who looked at him savagely, "You would have done better to listen to me, to leave for the mountains where I've found a good spot. A few weeks of rest. Moreover, it is not too late."
5:20. The swimming continued in the Seine. Éliane, her eyes always closed, inflated her chest with each breath, dreaming perhaps of the joys that this day had refused to her.
"Leave me alone."
Émile, as he had done the day before, chose a capsule from his pillbox, where not more than three remained, and swallowed it with a mouthful of tea.
"You'll make yourself sick by believing yourself sick," thundered his brother. "Whereas a little rest..."
Why the devil did he want to drive his brother away from Paris? Why did he so obstinately want to make him believe that he needed a cure in a convalescent home, a cure which could easily have its epilogue in a lunatic asylum? Was it because of Babette? Did he simply need more elbow room? Had the maid decided to marry him and he feared only the veto of Émile?
In place of sugar, Maigret poured some cognac into his tea, for he almost wanted to get drunk not to think any more of all this dirtiness.
Maigret was astonished by sudden calm of Émile Grosbois and he observed that he was very pale in his armchair, a hand on his chest, his pupils dilated.
"Does your brother have a heart disorder?" he whispered to Oscar.
"He believes so. That's what he's always worried about."
At that moment they heard a groan, that of Émile who slumped imperceptibly in his armchair.
Maigret leapt up. "An emetic! Quickly!" he shouted.
"There is nothing in the house."
"Anything! Wait... A hen or pigeon feather..."
For Émile was no longer moving. He was bloodless, without a quiver, no sign of life.
"A spoon! Quickly, damn it!"
And Maigret went at it, using a spoon to loosen the rag merchant's teeth, inserting the feather that Babette had brought him into his throat.
"Damnation!" he cursed.
It was his turn to speak, his alone to command, "Just spit it up! Spit it up if you don't want to die!"
He abused the victim in vain, extremely anxious none the less, and he hardly noted the stupor which marked the features of Oscar.
"Hold him up! Chest forward... Yes, like that... But don't let go, idiot!"
Those are minutes during which one does not have time to reflect, nor to think. One acts automatically, according to his reflexes. Those of Maigret were good, happily for Émile Grosbois, who ended up losing his attitude of a statue of salt, became animated, coughed, and finally vomited up all that he could.
"A doctor! You, Éliane! Run to get a doctor."
6:00! The bells sounded ironically in the very small church close by.
"Keep tickling the back of his throat, so he'll throw up everything he has in him."
It was almost revenge to see Grosbois, folded in two, held up by two solid hands, coughing, the long strings of dribble under his chin.
"Well? How was the weekend?" The Chief, in the sun, stroked his white goatee and smiled maliciously at a bad-humored Maigret.
"Another time, I'd appreciate it if you'd be kind enough to send someone else for this kind of mission. It's nice to save people, but it would be better if they deserved it! However, such that they are..."
"Who are you talking about?"
"The whole family!"
"Well, maybe except for a beautiful young girl who... Still, no one has the right to play all Sunday afternoon at the Temptation of Saint Anthony!6 When one has such a body, one should cover it, or at least..."
"The threatening letter?"
"I was sure about that from the very start. Sent by the brother, Oscar, obviously! For a long time he'd been trying to get rid of his elder brother by getting him to go away to the mountains. And it was he who, under pretext of protest against the drugs which this same Émile took, unceasingly brought him medical books. You understand?"
"You can't really understand if you don't know the family. In short, Oscar, at fifty and a few years, wanted to live his life, which he couldn't do as long as he remained under the supervision of his brother. He told himself that by frightening him, he would finally get him to move away, which would enable him devote himself to his small vices in the company of Babette, and undoubtedly to marry her.
"It may be very clear for you, but I must say..."
"It's unimportant. Oscar has admitted it. I was sure that he wouldn't push the joke further, that he would never make an attempt on his brother's life. Unfortunately, this kind of joke, like many of its kind, led to tragedy, because it gave ideas to someone. A poor soul, the nephew, raised in this lunatic asylum, excited by cocaine, torn, exalted, angry morning and night..."
"I follow you less and less!"
"I will try to be more precise in my report, but that won't be so easy to write. In short, the young man, Henri, informed of the threat which weighed on his uncle, told himself that he could well put it into execution. Note that in that house, any of them would have done so readily. You know the story of the Mandarin7? If one had given to whomever, Oscar, Babette, Françoise, Éliane, the possibility, by simply pushing a button, of removing Émile..."
"Henri tried to do it by putting a strong dose of cocaine in the capsule which his uncle took at regular times. He didn't have the courage to wait for his agony. The police picked him up in Paris that same night, half dead with fear, since he'd absorbed a massive quantity of drugs and had fallen into a stupor in a sleazy dive in Montmartre."
"And that's it." Maigret wiped his brow, approached the window and breathed, with full lungs, the air of the morning.
"He's been arrested?"
"In the hospital. His uncle didn't file a complaint, frightened of the idea of the publicity resulting from public debates in the Assizes.
"Nothing! My wife is furious! Émile threw up onto my trousers, which she'll have to send to the cleaners, and she spent a bad Sunday."
He lit his pipe, grumbling between two puffs which went up towards the sun, "Talk about a sympathetic villain! But those people there..."
And the chief, ironic, retorted, "The Criminal Investigation Department doesn't occupy itself only with killers, Maigret. Don't forget the other heading, that under which you will file your report."
The Chief admittedly was sure not to have heard Maigret's "Damn, then!" for he had already gone out the door.
1. In Chapter 1 of Les mémoires de Maigret [Maigret's Memoirs], Maigret reminisced that "this particular Chief was, in my eyes, the real Chief in the fullest sense of the word, the Chief under whom I had served my first term at Police Headquarters, who, without actually protecting me, had kept a discreet eye on me from above, and whom I had watched, in his black coat and bowler hat, walking alone under fire towards the door of the house in which Bonnot and his gang had for two days been resisting police and gendarmes. I am referring to Xavier Guichard, with his mischievous eyes and his white hair, as long as a poet's."
In Chapter 8 of La maison du juge [Maigret in Exile] Maigret referred to this case, recalling that "...back in the days of the Bonnot case, when he had been thin, and had sported a waxed mustache and a little pointed beard, and worn four-inch-high starched collars and a top hat ... his boss, Chief Chief Inspector Xavier Guichard, later to become Chief Commissioner of the Police Judiciaire, had said to him, 'all this talk of flair... is just a publicity stunt... what really matters is evidence.'"
Jules Joseph Bonnot (born Oct. 14, 1876, Pont-de-Roide, Doubs, E France), led of a band of French anarchists, "tragic bandits", who robbed banks in the spirit of redistribution of the wealth, credited with being the first to put the motor-car to use in crime. The gang mounted major terroristic blows at society, especially from December 1911-April 1912, and were finally stopped on April 27, 1912, after a 5-hour armed siege at Choisy-le-Roi (SSE suburb of Paris on the left bank of the Seine), in which the public was armed and the Republican guard called in. It ended with the dynamiting of the garage in which they were hiding. Bonnot died of his wounds in the hospital the next day; four surviving members his band were sentenced to death the following year.
2. The Rue du Chemin-Vert, in the 11e, between Boulevard Beaumarchais and the Avenue de la République, was close to Maigret's apartment in the Boulevard Richard-Lenoir, and is frequently mentioned in Maigret cases. For example, Louis Jeunet, who shot himself in Maigret and the Hundred Gibbets (1930-31), had rented a room for his wife's mother there; Julien Foucrier, the man who shot Janvier in Maigret takes a Room (1951) lived in the Boulevard Richard-Lenoir, on the corner of Rue de Chemin-Vert, a few houses along from Maigret; Loraine Martin, whose niece was the little girl with the broken leg in Maigret's Christmas (1950), lived across the street from Maigret, and did her shopping in the Rue du Chemin-Vert; Victor Cadet, the diver who came up with the body parts in Maigret and the Headless Corpse (1955) lived there. In Maigret has Doubts (1959), Dr. Pardon often received wrong number calls for the nearby Bal des Vertus, a dancehall in the Rue du Chemin-Vert which had a similar phone number, and Gino Pagliati, who first came upon the body in Maigret and the Killer (1969) had his small grocery store on the corner of Rue du Chemin-Vert and the Rue Popincourt.
3. In La péniche aux deux pendus [Two Bodies on a Barge], (written October 1936) Maigret had been called to the lock at Le Coudray, where a barge, the Astrolabe, had drifted, with two dead bodies aboard. He went upstream to La Citanguette, where the drama had started, and investigated in the bistro there.
4. This case does not appear in any of the published Maigret chronicles. However, if it had not been a Russian, it would have fit well with M. Gallet décédé [Maigret Stonewalled].
5. Pope-Joan. A card game resembling Michigan and fan-tan, using a regular deck, but a special round board with eight compartments. Maigret played the game with his brother- and sister-in-law and Mme Maigret at the very end of L'Ombre Chinoise [Maigret Mystified].
6. A reference to the legend of Saint Anthony, the first Christian monk, born in Egypt in the 3rd century, who was said to have struggled to keep to his meditations on the Scriptures when beset by demons in the shape of horrid beasts, beautiful ladies and hideous giants, all sent by the devil to distract him. A popular theme in art, "The Temptation of Saint Anthony" is the title of famous paintings by Bosch, Breughel, Cranach, Dali... and many others.
7. In Chapter 10 of Le pendu de Saint-Pholien [Maigret and the Hundred Gibbets], Maurice Belloir speaks of "...the mandarin problem. You know... 'If all you had to do was press an electric button to kill a very rich mandarin in the heart of China and become his heir, would you do it?'..."
8. Recherches dans l'intérêt des familles was a theme in La pipe de Maigret, and the title of Chapter 3 of that work, where Maigret put it to rhythm, as on a train: Re-cher-ches-dans-l'in-té-rêt-des-fa-mil-les... In Jean Stewart's translation [Maigret's Pipe] he rendered it as "inquiries on behalf of next of kin".
Maigret also refers to it at the end of La première enquête de Maigret [Maigret's First Case], the investigation on behalf of Lise Gendreau-Balthazar 22 years later, "investigations undertaken on behalf of private families".
Tokyo, August 1998