simenon’s the murderer, chapter three: “he ate & drank everything… & indulged in nightly excesses”

El asesino - Simenon, Georges 

THREE
 
Everyone agreed that he was behaving with great dignity in his unenviable situation. So much so that no one thought of laughing at him. On his side, he was hardly conscious of having to act a part. He simply did what obviously had to be done, and did it naturally.
He duly called on the superintendent of police, a tall thin man he’d known for many years, who always wore a morning coat. Considering his errand, Kuperus had no cause to be gay, and in this he was helped by the superintendent, who was by nature gloomy.
“Sit down. How are you?”
“All right, thanks.”
“And Madame Kuperus?”
“That’s just it! I don’t know…I’ve come to report her disappearance. She’s been gone two days…”
He spoke like one who has an unpleasant duty to perform. And his air of annoyance was naturally construed as being the restrained expression of a great inward grief.
“That’s strange,” muttered the superintendent, looking into the fire.
“That my wife should disappear?”
“That you should report the fact just after I received a similar report concerning one of your friends, Schutter, the lawyer…”
Kuperus shrugged his shoulders, as much as to say there could be no connection between the two. He didn’t even find it funny to see the superintendent swallow everything he said, look at him with compassion, and at the end give him a long insistent handshake.
“I promise I’ll do everything in my power… Meanwhile, we must hope for the best. There may be some misunderstanding…”
Kuperus thanked him with a wan smile. Outside, he stopped in front of a pharmacy, in the window of which was nothing but an immense yellow jar. Looking in, he examined himself in the glass and was surprised to discover that he looked every inch a widower.
If he hadn’t gone to the Onder den Linden at five o’clock, his absence would have been readily understood, but he considered it, on the contrary, to be absolutely necessary. He put down his bag in the corner, surrendered his coat to Old Willem, and said:
“It really is freezing now.”
It was. Early in the morning a hard frost had set in, and ice was rapidly forming on the canals that cut Sneek up into rectangles. Who could know that there was something providential in that frost? Nobody! And that’s why Kuperus repeated to one after the other as he shook hands with them, to Van Malderen, to Loos, and to a couple of others:
“It’s freezing hard.”
He noticed that the blonde woman was there again, sitting in the same place, and that she looked at him with what seemed to be a hostile stare. Because it was the second time he’d seen her, he thought it was only polite to bow slightly as he caught her eye.
“Well?” asked Van Malderen in the same tone in which he might have said “My poor friend.”
Kuperus answered with a sigh. He sat down and lifted his feet for Willem to take off his galoshes.
“It’s in the paper,” murmured Van Malderen after a silence.
“What? They speak of my wife?”
“No! About Schutter,” and he read out:
The well-known lawyer Cornelius de Schutter has disappeared without leaving the slightest trace. It is still hoped however that it will turn out to be nothing more serious than an unpremeditated journey undertaken on some sudden whim.…”
Kuperus turned around, conscious of someone behind him. It was the blonde, standing and looking at him with a worried expression.
“You’re the husband, aren’t you?”
“Whose husband?”
Van Malderen turned away, because he found it difficult to keep a straight face. Only Kuperus remained perfectly natural, incredibly natural.
“The husband of the woman who’s gone off with Cornelius.”
He began by lighting his cigar, during which time his features became still graver and more dignified. Then he looked around him as though he were at bay.
“I am not prepared to admit anything of the sort. We are all miserable sinners, of course, but, until the matter is proved to have foundation, I cannot allow anyone to throw doubt on my wife’s honor…”
If the subject hadn’t been so serious, there’d have been a burst of applause. But the young woman showed her impatience. She was not the elegant traveler of the previous day. In both attitude and voice she was decidedly common.
“Anyhow, you have no idea where they’ve gone to?… A nice mess I’ll be in if he doesn’t turn up again!”
She looked at all the men present, as though holding them personally responsible for her plight.
“We’re all very sorry, I’m sure…” murmured Kuperus.
He played billiards, which everybody thought showed great fortitude. There was no doubt he was taking it very well.
To tell the truth, he was thinking of Neel.
All the rest was of minor importance.
Kuperus spent his mornings in his office as usual and called on his patients in the afternoon. He spent an hour or two at the café with his friends, then read the Telegraaf while he had his dinner. The temperature was below freezing. He wasn’t tempted to go back to the spot to make sure there were no traces.
His windows looked onto the canal, where he could see the bargemen breaking the ice around their barges every morning. The children wore bright-colored hats and mufflers, and rubber boots. Steps rang out with peculiar insistence on the frozen cobblestones.
A police inspector came, as serious and respectful as the superintendent. Kuperus gave him a glass of wine, since he happened to have a bottle warming up at the side of the grate. The inspector produced a little notebook and a pencil.
What dress was Mme Kuperus wearing when she left the house?… What was her coat like, her hat?… At what time did she leave?…
“I’ll call the servant,” said the doctor.
It was Neel who answered the questions. She was much more upset by them than he was. Indeed, she seemed nervous that day. At dinnertime she dropped a plate and broke it, and during the meal, when he tried to draw her to him, she snapped:
“I wish you’d behave yourself.”
When talking to him, she was less and less respectful. When the inspector had gone, she came into the room without having been called. She was a country girl, and the mistrustful look on her face was typical of a peasant.
“Can I speak to you for a minute?”
“What is it, Neel?”
“I ought to have told you before… I think it would be better if I didn’t spend the night in your room… The other thing doesn’t matter, but if I sleep in your bed it’s bound to get around sooner or later… It makes me feel awkward…Well! There it is!…”
“Why do you tell me that now?”
“Because… I really don’t know.”
“Why didn’t you say so yesterday or the day before?”
She shrugged her shoulders before answering: “Do you really want to know?… It’s all the same to me.”
“All right. Out with it…”
“It’s Karl who doesn’t like it… You’re a lot wiser now, aren’t you?… Karl’s my young man…”
“And it’s today that you’re going to see him?”
Another shrug of the shoulders.
“No.”
“He knows about… about you and me?”
“Naturally.”
“And that’s why you don’t want…”
She fidgeted impatiently.
“No, no! You’ve got it all wrong…I’m sure you won’t turn me out of the house, so you may as well know… Karl’s been sleeping in the house for the last five months.”
“What do you mean? Where?”
“In my room.”
“How does he come in? How does he go out?”
She blushed, hesitated, then blurted out hurriedly: “I had a key made for him. He comes in late at night, when everyone’s in bed, and goes off early again next morning.”
“And he’s been here these last few days?”
Neel nodded. He was completely taken aback. He felt thoroughly shaken, and to pull himself together he poured a glass of wine.
“Would you like some, too?”
“No, thanks. I don’t like red wine.”
“What sort of man is he?”
“Karl?…A German. From Emden…”
“And what does he do?”
“Nothing… Occasionally, when there’s a banquet, he’s taken on as an extra waiter.”
“Leave me alone now, will you?”
“Am I free tonight?”
“Yes…Or, rather, I don’t know… I’ll tell you later…”
He sat down in the easy chair in front of the fire. The pink lampshade bathed the room in warm light. Every bit of furniture was dusted and polished. The glasses glittered on the sideboard. Brass ornaments glowed richly. On the mantelpiece was a pile of cigar boxes.
Kuperus couldn’t remain seated for long. He jumped to his feet. He opened his mouth to shout something, but was stopped by the sight of himself in the mirror.
It was inconceivable! It upset everything. It was absolutely unheard of! So much so that for a moment he wondered whether Neel hadn’t been romancing.
For five months a man had been sleeping in his house every night without his having the faintest suspicion. They had been thinking they had the house to themselves, and all the time… It was outrageous! And Kuperus, until the last few days, had religiously kept his hands off Neel for fear of complications!
This man, this Karl, had a key to the front door! And, more improbable, more outrageous than anything else, he was still coming, even since the change had begun, sleeping all alone on Neel’s iron bedstead, while she…
He rang for her. The folding doors were open between the dining room and the living room, and as he talked he walked up and down from one room to the other.
“Does he love you, this man?”
“I think so.”
“Isn’t he jealous?”
“I don’t know.”
“Anyhow, he accepts the fact that you come to bed with me?”
“That’s different.”
“What’s different?”
“You and Karl. After all, you’re the master. He’s intelligent enough to see that it’s necessary.”
“All right. You can go.”
“And tonight?”
“Tonight you’ll sleep with me. Do you hear? It’s necessary, as you put it so nicely!… And now, for the love of God, clear out!”
He was at the end of his tether. Never would he have believed it would have such an effect on him. Here he was, jealous of Neel. That’s what he’d come to! He was actually suffering because she had said that their relations were of no importance.
It was impossible to come to any other conclusion. And he was alarmed by it. He sensed some hidden danger. To calm himself, he went out and walked along the deserted quays by the canals.
Suppose it was this man, this Karl, who had written the anonymous letter. Some sort of criminal type, no doubt. Couldn’t be far short of it — a man who did no work and had no home. How long would he wait before he started trying to blackmail him?
Dr. Kuperus passed the Onder den Linden, but merely peeped through the window without going in. Games were in progress at all four billiard tables, since they were approaching the finals of the billiard tournament. Near the bar, the blonde woman was sitting with Van Malderen and another man, who had his back to the window.
“Bring me my tea,” called out Kuperus as he went upstairs to his bedroom that evening.
He had never taken tea at night, but it had served, in the first place, as a pretext for getting Neel into his room, and from then on it had become an established custom.
He changed into his dressing gown. A little later Neel came up with a tray, which she put down on the table without looking at him. Then, with a scowl on her face, she started undressing.
“Is he upstairs?”
“Yes.”
“What did he say?”
“Nothing. What did you expect him to say?”
She pulled back the covers and got in bed, lying on her back with her hands under her head.
“What does it matter to you what I do afterward? What difference does it make whether I sleep here or there?”
He went on brushing his teeth without answering.
“You’re not jealous, I hope.”
He started and shot a glance at her as she lay there looking sulkily at the ceiling.
“And what about you? Do you love him?”
“I don’t know.”
“What’s he like?”
“Tall and very thin, with bright eyes.”
“You don’t know what he was doing in Germany?”
“No. But he told me he’d got into some sort of trouble. He’s not just anybody. He’s educated.”
“Where did you come across him?”
“In the street… He followed me when I was out doing the shopping.”
“How long ago was that?”
“Five months.”
If it was true, he could not have written the anonymous letter. Kuperus got into bed. He was conscious of the warmth of her body, which was nonetheless apathetic.
“Neel!”
“Yes.”
“Answer me honestly… Are you the same with him as with me?”
“In what way?”
“Frigid… As if you don’t feel a thing…”
“Yes.”
It was true. She had answered without a moment’s hesitation, and her voice had sounded sincere. Besides, she wouldn’t have taken the trouble to lie.
“What would have happened if we’d discovered this Karl when my wife was here?”
“I’d have been kicked out.”
“And suppose you hadn’t been able to find another place?”
She sighed. It was her way of saying that she really didn’t care and that all these questions were a bore. She wasn’t in a good temper at all, and she stared at the ceiling more obstinately than ever.
“What does he do all day?”
“How should I know?”
“I suppose it’s you who keeps him in food?”
“Of course! There’s always enough left over.”
He preferred not to think of that, because it reminded him of the mystery that had for a considerable time been a worry to Alice, that very question: What happened to all the food left over? It was explained now. But it was too late.
“What do you think of me, Neel?”
“Why should I think anything in particular?”
“Tell me the truth. I mean it. Really.”
“I know… It’s funny.”
“What’s funny?”
“Let’s go to sleep.”
“I asked you what was funny.”
“You! All you do. The way you behave with me…Everything, in fact. I really can’t explain it…Are we going to do anything or are we going to sleep?… I’ve got to be up by seven o’clock in the morning.” He’d have liked to be able to answer: “All right! If that’s how you feel, you can go to sleep.” But he couldn’t. She had found the right word for it. It was necessary.
For hours he lay awake thinking of the man upstairs, the man who, uninvited, was sleeping under his roof.
He might have told Neel to turn him out of the house. But he didn’t dare, fearing she might go with him. Indeed, there was every chance she would. Besides, if she once started talking…
On the other hand, he simply couldn’t bear the thought of her going upstairs to join her Karl. He listened to her regular breathing. One of her hands was touching his shoulder.
What was that blonde doing in Sneek? And what was she hanging around in the Onder den Linden for?
He wasn’t afraid. No, he wasn’t afraid of anything. Certainly not of Karl. In fact, at one moment he was seriously tempted to go up and talk to him, then and there, just to see what he was like.
Why shouldn’t he talk to the fellow? As things were…
All night long he never more than dozed, and next day the lack of sleep had a strange effect upon him. He had a feeling of emptiness, but at the same time of lightness. When he went into his office and put on his white coat, he wondered what was the use of it all. As in a dream, he opened the door to the waiting room and saw the old man with intercostal neutralgia, whom he’d been treating for two years.
“Good morning, Doctor… I’m afraid it’s no better… Last night I had to get up three times… Lying down it’s unbearable, and it looks as though I’ll end up standing all night…”
“Let me see… How old are you?”
“Sixty-four… Getting on for sixty-five… And until these pains came on two years ago, I was…”
The old man started undressing, unnoticed by Kuperus, who was getting out his case book and his instruments. When the latter at last looked around, he was confronted by a bare, scraggy chest.
“You can put your clothes on again.”
“Aren’t you going to look at me?”
“I examined you two weeks ago.”
“But I’m getting worse.”
“Just so!”
“What do you mean?”
A bleak note of anxiety came into the old man’s voice.
“You’ve had sixty-four years of life. It isn’t everybody that has so much.”
“You mean to say… ?”
“That it’s coming to an end… I’ll give you a month… Go on, you can get dressed.”
He’d had enough of all these people who were afraid of death! Wasn’t he a sick man himself? Hadn’t he been examined by a doctor in Amsterdam?
But that was before. Now, everything was changed. He no longer studied himself, no longer listened to the palpitations of his heart. He ate and drank everything that came his way, and indulged in nightly excesses.
There were tears in the old man’s eyes. More disgusted than ever, the doctor pushed him out of the room.
“Next, please!”
He was no longer afraid of the writer of the anonymous letter. He thought quite a lot about that person, but only because it amused him to do so. It was like a riddle.
Was it Neel? Van Malderen? Someone he didn’t know? He wanted to find out, to satisfy his curiosity. He scrutinized everyone who came near him, because he was convinced whoever it was would be anxious to see how he was taking it.
What really worried him were the other letters, the ones that had to be answered. There was one from his brother-in-law in Amsterdam, one from the aunt in Leeuwarden, and quite a number from Alice’s friends.
Her disappearance had been reported in the papers, and people wrote to him for further details. The Amsterdam brother-in-law was annoyed because he thought the scandal might affect his career. He was a schoolmaster. He even accused Kuperus of having had it put in the papers on purpose.
As for the artificial blonde in the Onder den Linden, her presence in Sneek had been explained. She had confided in Van Malderen, whose appearance suited him for the role of father confessor.
She was named Lina. Schutter had been in the habit of sending her two hundred guilders a month, and now and again he spent a week with her in Amsterdam.
Then the money had stopped, and she’d come to Sneek to see about it. Now she had less than ever — not even enough to pay for her fare back to Amsterdam or her hotel bill, which was mounting up day by day!
“I think she’s counting on one of us,” said
Van Malderen. “She’s not really a bad girl, you know, and if it wasn’t for my wife…”
His face belied his words, and Kuperus was convinced Van Malderen had already fallen to her charms and was providing her with pocket money.
“Hello!… Is that you, Doctor?… I’m sorry to disturb you, and I’d better say right away that I don’t want to raise any false hopes, but we’ve had news from London to say that a woman arrived at Dover yesterday wearing clothes similar to your wife’s. She had no identity papers… Of course there may be nothing in it…”
It was the superintendent of police.
“Should I go there?” asked Kuperus in just the right tone of voice.
“Not at present. There’d be no point in it. I’ve asked for a photograph of the woman in question to be sent…”
It couldn’t go on like that forever. The days passed. January gave place to February, and in the latter half of the month a slow thaw set in. It was just a question of time now. When the ice was gone, the bodies would come to the surface, and however deserted the spot might be, something was bound to be noticed, if only a bit of dress or overcoat.
Meanwhile, a meeting had taken place between Kuperus and Karl. The doctor had decided he really couldn’t go on living in the house without seeing the face of the lodger.
One morning when Neel went down to light the kitchen fire and make the coffee, he went up to the attic on tiptoe and suddenly burst in.
And, sure enough, there was someone in the bed, a very young man, unshaven, who slowly opened his eyes. When he saw Kuperus, he didn’t move, but a frown slowly gathered on his forehead.
“Excuse me,” said the doctor automatically.
It was a silly thing to say, but he hadn’t thought of anything else. He listened to Karl’s breathing, then said:
“Are you ill?”
“A little,” answered the other in German.
“Since when?”
“I stayed in bed all yesterday.”
Kuperus felt his pulse, put his hand on his forehead.
“Influenza. Nothing more. But it could easily develop into bronchitis. Has Neel brought you up hot drinks?”
“Some grog.”
“I suppose you’re staying in bed today?”
“I think I better.”
There was nowhere to sit except on the edge of the bed, so that’s where Kuperus installed himself.
“I understand you haven’t been able to find work.”
Karl merely sighed, as much as to say:
“What’s the use of pretending. You know as well as I do that I’m not looking for work.”
He was a nice-looking fellow. His features were well drawn and sensitive. His mouth had an ironical, even a sarcastic, twist. His clothes were in a heap on the floor.
“They haven’t found your wife?”
“Not yet.”
This time the doctor winced. He found the young man’s eyes disconcerting.
“Why didn’t you take any notice of Neel before? Why all of a sudden?”
“I didn’t think about her.”
“And of course there was your wife! She nearly found out about me once, but I said I’d come to read the gas meter.”
There were a lot of things Kuperus hadn’t known before that were now coming to light.
“I’ll send you up some aspirin,” he said, going to the door.
That was February 2. In the course of the morning Mme Costens called from Leeuwarden to ask if there was any further news of her niece. And then at eleven o’clock a policeman came to the door. The doctor was in the middle of his consultations, but he was urgently requested to come to the Town Hall.
Sending his patients away, he put on his fur coat and, with it, all his dignity. At the Town Hall they were waiting for him, the mayor, the superintendent of police, and two or three others, who shook his hand with unusual solemnity. He was asked to sit down.
“You must excuse us, Doctor… We have a very painful task to perform, and you may be assured you have all our sympathy in the ordeal that’s in store for you…”
He was pale that day, which happened to be just right.
“Your wife has been found… Or, rather, I should say her body has…”
The mayor turned his eyes away, so forcibly did Kuperus, grim and rigid, give the impression of great suffering nobly borne. As a matter of fact, without his wanting it to, his mind had reverted to Karl.
“I’m afraid we must ask you to accompany us.”
The canal had thawed. They went in the mayor’s car toward Schutter’s cottage, but they had to do the last part on foot, for fear the car would get stuck in the mud. As they approached, they saw two boats on the canal and a little group of people on the bank, standing near a small cart.
For the rest of the way, the mayor held Kuperus’s arm affectionately.
“Courage, dear friend… I’d like to have spared you this, but you know how things are: you’ve got to identify the body.”
The sky was dull and colorless except for a gap lit bv a patch of sunshine. Though thawing, it was still cold. Underfoot was a slush of melting snow and mud. As they came up, the little crowd moved aside, and Kuperus could see on the cart a covered form that looked like a body.
Someone was shaking him by the hand. It was Moers, the police doctor, whom he knew well.
“Just a formality… I’m afraid there’s no room for doubt.”
He lifted up a corner of the tarpaulin. Kuperus stared glassily, without wincing. He was being held up on both sides, in case he fainted.
“My dear colleague, may I have a couple of words with you?”
Moers took him aside. Kuperus noticed that they were dragging the canal.
“Your wife was murdered… Before being thrown in the canal, she had already been killed by a revolver bullet in the chest…”
What would Neel say about it? And Karl?… He’d had a funny way of talking that morning about his wife’s disappearance.
Next, it was the turn of the superintendent to take him aside. Everybody turned to look at them as they walked up and down.
“I’d better come to the point right away… You’ve already shown great self-control… The thing is, there’s every likelihood of our finding another body shortly… You must forgive me if I mention a name, but I have no choice… A hat has been found, and the initials in it are Schutter’s… When you consider that they both disappeared the same day… We’re dragging the canal…”
Kuperus said nothing. He wasn’t expected to say anything, and everyone was glad he didn’t. It was so much more dignified.
“The question will no doubt arise whether this is a case of double suicide — for things like that do happen, you know — or whether it’s one of murder… Perhaps you’d like to go home now?”
“I’ll stay until they finish searching.”
And he stayed, walking up and down by himself, followed by inquisitive glances. A hundred times he passed within a yard of the cart on which Alice’s remains were laid.
He thought of nothing, or, rather, of nothing in particular. His thoughts roamed all over. For instance, he recalled the arguments he’d had with Alice, who always said it was his fault they had no children, whereas he maintained it was hers… He almost smiled at the recollection…
Suppose he had a child with Neel?
He heard the voices of the boatmen as they went on dragging. At two o’clock a diver arrived. They screwed on his helmet, and a man worked the air pump.
A photographer came to take pictures of the scene for an Amsterdam paper. He was a local man, at whose shop Kuperus had his film developed.
The police visited the cottage and returned arguing hotly. One of them was sure there’d been a third person in the place; the others swore there’d been only two.
Kuperus looked at them as coldly as if he’d been called uponto perform a post-mortem on some unknown person.
The funniest thing was that the mayor sent his car back with a flask full of tea and some sandwiches for him.
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