SING-SING OU LA MAISON DES TROIS MARCHES
(SING-SING OR THE HOUSE WITH THE THREE STEPS)
A SHORT STORY
Translated by PETER FOORD
|Written in March 1931 and first published in the weekly magazine "VU", N°158, 25 March 1931. It was republished in TOUT SIMENON, Volume 18, December 1991, pages 1003-1009, and reprinted in the Centenary edition of TOUT SIMENON, Volume 18, January 2003, pages 1003-1009. |
When the man left the Café de la Marine, waving happily to his friends remaining inside, he was caught by a gust of wind, having to catch hold of the sides of his overcoat, which he only buttoned with difficulty, whilst holding his hat on his head.
At nine o'clock in the evening, the quaysides were as deserted as in the middle of the night and somewhere a broken fence was beating against the gap with its loose planks.
The man was tipsy. He began to battle comically against the teeth of the wind. Then he caught sight of the lights of Chez Émile, where there was a dance, and he made a careful detour, stepping off the pavement so as to avoid the shadowy figures that were prowling around the brothel.
A little further on, the idea came to him to light his pipe. With a touching stubbornness, he struck twenty matches before deciding to climb a threshold of three steps in order to find shelter in the angle of a doorway. The shutters of the house were closed. No light filtered through.
And yet the customs officer on guard duty near the trawler Francette, who was following the man with his eyes, believed that he heard a noise of a report. Immediately afterwards the man fell down the stone steps as if he had lost his balance, whilst holding his stomach with both hands, his body bent, and he finished up by sprawling on the edge of the pavement whilst the wind plucked his hat.
There were anxious comings and goings from the door of the dance. For a moment the owner blocked the door with his huge bulk, turned towards the interior, repeated ten times, in a husky voice, as he hadn't managed to make himself heard over the din of the accordion:
"Stop the music, God damn it!"
The body was fully lit by a street lamp and it was easy to see that the overcoat was holed, burnt level with the abdomen, where there must be a nasty wound. Round about, girls, sailors, prowlers were whispering, when the man came to, raised his chest and looked around so confused, so innocent that a woman burst into nervous laughter.
They recognised him. It was Monsieur Bouchardeau, the wholesale wine merchant who lived a few houses further on. The doctor took him to his house, whilst the police arrived and began the investigation. The customs officer noticed Sing-Sing, the rat de quai1, who was prowling around the groups, without speaking to anyone, with a curious glint in his eye.
An hour later, it was established that the shot had been fired from inside the house, through the letterbox. In fact, this house was for sale, uninhabited for some months. They found there some evidence, as the strong whiff of tobacco, ash and muddled tracks leading to a low wall of the courtyard, which was sufficient to jump over in order to reach the alleyway, the Ruelle des Innocents.
Not only did Monsieur Bouchardeau not have any enemies, but also it was obvious that the killer could not have foreseen that he would find shelter on this doorstep in order to light his pipe.
Since there wasn't a man dead, the owner of the bar decided that music could be played again and once more took his place behind the bar. He frowned on seeing Sing-Sing enter, who rested his elbows on the bar and ordered a grog.
Émile was six feet, three inches tall. He was as broad as two men and had a goitre that gave him a still more formidable appearance. By contrast, when he opened his mouth, it was a very thin, quite reedy voice that left this monstrous throat.
Whilst serving the rat de quai, he was watching him furtively and he ended up by murmuring, glancing elsewhere, with an indifferent expression:
"Didn't you hear what the customs officer said?… You would perhaps be wise to clear off!…"
But the other contented himself by smiling vaguely, with his eyes following the course of the waitress around the benches and tables. Émile shrugged his shoulders.
"Don't you understand?… I'd like you to scarper!… Not to mention that you're still going to get her all steamed up!…"
The waitress saw Sing-Sing, turned her head away, went on serving in a more frantic way. The owner occupied himself with the other customers, without ceasing to watch the rat de quai who was rolling a cigarette and who, having lit it, threw some money onto the bar and moved off.
He was thin and red haired, with a centimetre growth of beard, an old suit which was too small and down at heel shoes. Like all the customers in the bistro, on his head he had a cap with a bent peak. Émile, who respected no one, watched him make off with a touch of consideration.
"Who's that?" asked a sailor who had arrived from Brest and who had placed his bag at his feet.
"A weird sort of bloke! Nowadays he's a rat de quai. He helps out here and there… He shows tourists around the harbour… Perhaps he has light fingers… But he did have, not so long ago, his own boat, a hundred and twenty tonne ketch…"
"Not at sea… With the police, in New York!"
"Opium! Four years hard! It's because of that he's called Sing-Sing… The name of the prison2, it seems…"
Sing-Sing spent the night prowling around the Grand Hotel, opposite the railway station and, at eight o'clock, at the very time the staff were sweeping out the lounge, he entered, sat down, ordered:
"A laced coffee!"
They scowled at him. They summoned the cashier, who was losing patience, when, an hour later, she saw that he wasn't getting ready to leave. At ten o'clock he was still there. He was doing nothing, looking right in front of him, like a man whose thoughts are enough. A few seconds later, however, he got up ungracefully at the moment when a guest appeared in the doorway and held out his key.
A curious thing, the guest, who was going out, beat a retreat by running up the staircase. He was in room number 15. He had arrived the day before by train at two o'clock and he had written on his form: Joseph Leduc, postal Inspector, from Bourbon-Lancy, 35, born in Boulogne.
Sing-Sing, as soon as he had left, was content to sit down again. At aperitif time, whilst some of the town's leading citizens and commercial travellers filled the café, he stayed and, as the bell sounded for lunch, he commanded:
"You'll serve me here!"
His beard of a fiery red, gave him a sinister look, which emphasised his tired eyelids. His jacket was patched at the elbows.
"You know the price?"
Without hesitation, he placed a hundred franc note on the table. At the same time a chambermaid called out:
"Number fifteen asks to be served up there!"
At ten o'clock in the evening, Sing-Sing was still in the same place and the cashier hadn't taken her eyes off him, certain of an unpleasant occurrence. Some customers passing by jostled him. Everyone scowled at him, but he appeared not to notice it. Only at midnight did he decide to leave and this was to make for "Chez Émile", where he received the same uncomfortable reception from the owner.
"Haven't you made up your mind to leave her in peace?" growled the fat bar owner with a glance at the waitress.
"Listen! I don't know what you've got into your head. This morning the police came to question me about you… You know what you must do…"
As the waitress passed not far from him, avoiding looking at him, Sing-Sing stopped her by the arm, forcing her to turn her face towards him. He had a fixed and disturbing look.
He took a photograph from his pocket, comparing it to the person he was speaking to. It was the same woman. In the portrait she was young, laughing with dimpled cheeks, an appearance of a small good-natured woman healthy and happy.
The waitress was drab, anaemic, rather recalling the drudge who, under Émile's beck and call, was working fourteen or fifteen hours a day.
"Pierre!…" she implored, turning her head away. "I must leave… I can't stand it any longer!… Don't you understand then?…"
He put the portrait back in his pocket and with relief the owner saw him move away.
"He's still there, monsieur! Suppose the police are informed?"
"From the moment when he causes a scandal…"
"But he frightens me! And he must frighten others! Number fifteen no longer leaves his room…"
"Who's number fifteen?"
"The new postal Inspector. They announced his appointment in the newspapers. He's from the country. He started here, then he worked in several towns…"
The manager of the Grand Hotel cast a glance at his obstinate customer, who remained prudently in his place, without arrogance, without impatience.
"Tomorrow, if he's still here, I'll speak to the Chief Inspector about him!"
Twice, during the day number fifteen came down the staircase, which he quickly went up again on seeing Sing-Sing. Then the latter went out, hiding himself at the corner of the first street. An hour went by. Joseph Leduc ventured onto the threshold of the hotel, anxiously looked around him, and made up his mind to dash towards the centre of the town. He hadn't covered a hundred metres before Sing-Sing was on his heels, one hand in his trouser pocket, eyes riveted on the back of the postal employee.
The streets were busy. People were standing on the pavements, looking at the lighted windows. And yet Leduc was taken with panic, literally fleeing, avoiding the empty streets, turning back when he ventured into a dark area. Sing-Sing, a head taller than him, didn't need to quicken his pace. His long legs stretched with nonchalance even when the other was puffing and blowing.
They passed a policeman, then another. Leduc took advantage to recover his breath, with the feeling of momentary safety. But the rat de quai approached a policeman from whom he requested a light, whilst the post office employee, more frightened than ever, resumed his journey. And the latter in spite of everything ended up on the quayside. Sing-Sing had controlled the flight. At certain corners, he had taken up his position opposite Leduc, obliging him to move in an oblique direction in one sense or another. He was always smiling, with a vague, light smile.
Arriving in front of Chez Émile, the rat de quai began his manoeuvre again, taking several rapid steps, trapping his companion against the door, finally opening his mouth, for the first time:
It was eight o'clock in the evening. There was only one customer at the bar. At the first table, Émile and his wife, a small swarthy woman, were eating in the company of the waitress and the accordion player. In front of them there was a grilled black sausage, mashed potato and dull blue-green cider.
The owner stood up on seeing the two men, fixing Sing-Sing with a questioning look, but the latter appeared not to see it, leaned on the bar, next to the door, and ordered a rum.
He pretended to take no further interest in Leduc whose clothes of a meticulous official were out of keeping with the surroundings. The post office official still hadn't looked around him. He only knew one thing: Sing-Sing was barring his exit! Then he slumped onto a bench and when he was asked what he would like he made a vague gesture of indifference.
"Come here, Fanny!"
The waitress, frightened, was on the point of leaving the room. Nevertheless she approached the rat de quai submissively whilst Émile, who had taken his place again, strained his ears. Sing-Sing placed the photograph of the servant on the bar, began in a voice no-one recognised:
"There we are!… It was you!… And this portrait here is of me, the day my boat was baptised, which I naturally named "Fanny"… You remember?…"
Émile remained ready to intervene, frowning, his mouth full of blood sausage.
"It wasn't bad, eh!… You earned your living as a shop assistant… And myself, at twenty-six, succeeded in treating myself to a nice ketch… Not paying for it entirely… The bank had advanced me three quarters of the cost… Well!… For a whole year, the coastal trade didn't work out… And it was then that an American turned up to suggest a deal to me…"
She was listening to him, mesmerised, and the owner became nervy.
"Not regular trading… Carrying opium to America!… But, at a stroke, the bank was reimbursed and we bought a small house… We were married without delay… I had agreed… I only took two men with me… They knew that we were risking our necks and one night we cast off without any noise, whilst you remained on the jetty…"
"We didn't know, idiots that we were, that all our efforts, like the forty-five days on the open sea the three of us were going to live, the hard knocks, and so on, that finally everything was useless, and because a greenhorn who made up to you, had written to the American Customs to denounce us and at the same time to earn a bonus of I don't know how many dollars… Perhaps he was there to watch us depart…"
"Four year in prison!… Sing-Sing!… The boat confiscated with its cargo… When I returned, for sure I was no longer the same man… And you?… Well! you, after having been the greenhorn's mistress for a year, became a waitress!… Eh!…"
"They said I didn't feel proud to show myself back home like that and to become a rat de quai… Look at the photos!… Now look at me and look at yourself in the mirror… What a comedown!… Look at this very proper gentleman, well dressed, very proud of his success!…"
"For five years he didn't dare return to Boulogne, because he knew I was there and he dreaded my revenge… Next, he has been appointed here… Fright has got him… Then, he took it into his head to be done with it… But to end it in the way of a greenhorn!… He sent me a letter signed with an illegible name giving me a meeting place at nine o'clock in the evening in a house on the quayside… He was on the other side of the door, ready to shoot through the letterbox… It was an honest sort who received the bullet in my place."
"There he is!… Look at him!… Look at the photos, Fanny… You remember?… We had decided to build our house at the end of the Quai des Belges and we had thoughts of a room for kids…"
"What do you think I'm going to do to him, who's stolen all that from us?… Denounce him?… They won't believe me!… He's taken every precaution… Then, what is there? there's only one way: to deal with it myself!…"
With an abrupt gesture, he took something from his pocket and there was a glint of metal at the end of his arm. Émile sprung up. The waitress let out a shrill scream. But already a report rang out. It was Leduc who had fired, his eyes wild, his brow dripping. And Sing-Sing put a hand to his side, threw onto the bar the toy revolver, bought at a cheap store, which he had brandished.
"It's done!… There are witnesses, aren't there?… Prison for prison!… Watch him Émile!… You, go and find a policeman…"
Sing-Sing wiped his blood-covered fingers on his jacket, emptied his glass and moved off in the direction of the harbour. A fishing boat, which came in, threw him a hawser but he let it fall at his feet without touching it.
They found him two hours later, sleeping with closed fists, in the loft that a second hand dealer had rented him above a shop full of old anchors, out of use mooring ropes, port holes, compasses, ruined ships' logs.
It was necessary to take him away by force to the hospital so as to extract the bullet from him, which he intended to retain between two ribs, as a souvenir.
- rat de quai - vagrant, drop out, specifically one who hangs around ports and coastal resorts.
- Sing Sing is the name of the state prison situated at Ossining in Westchester County, New York, U.S.A. The name possibly derives from the Native American Sintsink.