simenon’s the murderer, chapter two: “he looked at himself once again in the mirror…he was afraid”

 
TWO
 
Waking up on board ship had always had a peculiar significance for Kuperus, as it had, for instance, when he had been on a cruise to Spitzbergen. To open one’s eyes and realize that one was out at sea, many miles from land — there was something fascinating about that.
Something of the same sort took hold of him now. It must have been after seven, because it was already getting light and there were scraping sounds from the street, where the unemployed were clearing away the snow. Kuperus didn’t open his eyes wide, only just enough to be aware of the twilight in the room.
It was his bedroom, and someone was breathing close to him. Someone was sleeping at his side, and it wasn’t Alice Kuperus, but Neel, the servant, and it was Neel’s warm leg that touched his own.
What had happened to the world? Henceforward, every day, every night, Kuperus could share his bed with Neel, or with anyone else, for that matter.
He wondered what effect it would have on her. Would she take advantage of it to lie in bed all morning? Or would she go about her work as usual?
Her breathing changed. She sighed, stretched an arm, then snuggled down under the bedclothes again. A moment later, however, she thrust one leg out of the bed, then the other.
Her movements were no doubt just the same as on other mornings, when she woke up in her attic. For half a minute she sat on the edge of the bed, only half awake, her eyes dull, her limbs heavy. She turned around to look at Kuperus, who pretended to be asleep, then started putting on her stockings.
She went downstairs without washing, and he heard her lighting the kitchen fire, then making the coffee.
As for Alice Kuperus, she was dead and done with! So was Schutter!
Had Neel been aware of their liaison? When he had returned home the previous evening, he had asked:
“Is my wife in bed?”
And he was surprised to hear himself act the part so convincingly.
“Madame is not here,” Neel had answered.
“What? Where is she then?”
“She got a telegram from Leeuwarden to say her aunt was ill…”
“When do you expect her back?”
“Madame said she’d return tomorrow.”
But he knew better! She wasn’t coming back tomorrow, or the next day, or the next… Did Neel guess what was going to happen? She murmured:
“Can I go back to bed?”
“Make me a cup of tea first. Bring it to my room.”
To think that she’d been in the house for three years, and that every time she’d passed him he’d wanted to lay hands on her but had never dared! He’d felt sure she was an innocent girl, probably ignorant.
“Don’t hurry away,” he said when she brought the tea. “Come over here… You needn’t be afraid.”
“I’m not!” she answered.
Indeed she wasn’t! And it wasn’t the first time that sort of thing had happened to her! Kuperus was nervous, not because of her, but because of everything. After all, he had plenty of reason to be. But his nervousness was translated into an amorous frenzy, which provoked Neel to remark:
“You’re pretty hot stuff!”
At last the door opened and Neel came in with his breakfast on a tray. She put it down beside him, then went over and drew back the curtains, revealing the black branches of a tree against a leaden, snowy sky.
She had had time to wash and dress. Her hair was neatly done, and she had put on a clean apron. Her arms were pink and smelled of soap.
Dr. Kuperus would have been at a loss for an answer if he’d been asked whether she was pretty. She had the prominent cheekbones of a peasant, and her features were not well drawn. Certainly she was not a classic beauty, but in her sturdy, buxom way she was desirable, and his eye ran over her figure greedily.
“What time is it, Neel?”
“Eight o’clock, Doctor.”
She answered exactly as she would have on any other day, and that was reassuring.
“What’s the weather like?”
“It looks as though we’re in for some more snow… Which suit will you be wearing?”
“The black one… Look here, Neel…”
“Yes, Doctor?”
“Didn’t it seem funny to you to be sleeping in my bed?”
“Why should it?”
“Have you had many men before?… Listen, Neel… I’d like to know something: at what age did you start?“
“At fifteen. I was a nursemaid then, looking after some children in Amsterdam.”
“And since then?”
“Since…”
She shrugged her shoulders, as though she regarded it as a matter of small importance.
He got up, shaved, and dressed. And all the time Neel ran through his thoughts. He looked at himself in the mirror more critically than usual and decided that his face was rather puny. It was inclined to be at times, and it always worried him.
What was going to happen now? He stood staring out the window at the canal and the bare trees along its banks. Downstairs, the doorbell rang, and by the sounds that followed he knew that his first patient had been shown into the waiting room.
The most important thing was for him to go on being surprised by his wife’s absence, and after a reasonable time — a day or two — to report it to the police. It wasn’t going to be difficult. He could tell that from the way he’d succeeded with Neel. He felt himself playing his part to perfection. And the funny thing was that never in his life before had he been a good liar!
What was there that could give him away? Nobody had seen him. Nobody could guess that he had got out of the train between stations.
Downstairs, he went into the living room. The sight of it almost made him smile, because it had its place in the story. It was just over a year ago that Alice’s complaints about her old-fashioned living-room furniture had reached their height. At first he had turned a deaf ear to them. The room was really in excellent condition, and he didn’t see why he should go to such needless expense.
Then suddenly one day he had changed his mind.
“All right, you can have your new furniture.”
It was exactly three days later that the anonymous letter arrived. Just when Alice was up to her ears in fabric samples, in catalogues, wallpapers, velvets…
In his office, his first act was to change into a white coat. He glanced into the waiting room, where there were already five people. Later on there would be more like twenty, since he was a popular doctor and charged only one guilder for a consultation.
He was pleased with himself. There he was, cool and dignified, just as if nothing had happened.
A woman brought in a small boy whose face was covered with scabs. The doctor had picked up his pad to write out a prescription when a sudden pang darted through his breast.
Someone knew! At least there was someone who was bound to know sooner or later. He had thought of everything except that. How could he have overlooked it?
It was the person who had written the anonymous letter. And he hadn’t the faintest idea who it could be. He didn’t even know whether it was a man or a woman.
Whoever it was, he or she would instantly jump to conclusions on hearing of the double murder.
Who could it be? One of the members of the Billiard Club? Why not Neel? Neel could hardly fail to have known.
What had been occupying his thoughts so far? It was terrible to think he could overlook a question as important as that. Certainly Neel must have been aware of what was going on, since Alice had left each time the doctor went to Amsterdam. And she’d never breathed a word.
Obviously Alice must have paid her to keep her mouth shut…
He hadforgotten all about the prescription. Looking up, he wondered for a second what the scabby child was doing standing there in front of him. Then, with an effort, he pulled himself together, wrote out the prescription, and opened the door to the next patient, an old man with intercostal neuralgia.
Suppose it was Neel who had written the anonymous letter…
He wasn’t mistaken: he had twenty-two patients during the morning. As usual, he interrupted his work at eleven for a cup of tea and a slice of bread.
It was served in the dining room, which smelled of polish, because it was the day for doing the floors. But he had no sooner drunk the tea down than he felt impelled to go into the kitchen.
“Is there anything you want?” asked Neel.
The strange thing was that he still desired her. All he could think of saying, however, was:
“Isn’t my wife back yet?”
“No, not yet… I thought she’d be back before now…”
His day’s work wouldn’t be over till five, when he’d be able to join his friends in the Onder den Linden. No doubt they’d talk of Schutter.
He had lunch alone, watching Neel in the mirror when she brought in the dishes.
“Did you like it last night?”
“Why do you ask me that?”
“Would you like to do it again?”
“You know very well we can’t. Not when Madame comes back… If she found out…”
Suppose they did put him in prison, what would that matter? He knew the examining magistrate, Anton Groven, who was also a member of the Billiard Club. A bad player, because he was terribly near-sighted. He would be on one side of the table, and Kuperus with his lawyer on the other. Would he call him Hans, or would he have to start all at once calling him Dr. Kuperus?
In the afternoon the doctor went out to make his calls. He wore his fur coat and carried a little bag with his instruments. On the big canal there were dozens of boats moving around, fighting for berths, and making a fearful noise with their diesel engines.
It was the day of the cattle market, and they were bringing animals from all over the countryside by the many canals that converged on Sneek.
Kuperus had to pass the Town Hall, and with a new interest he looked at Schutter’s house. It was the only house in the town where there were two servants: a footman in a striped waistcoat and a butler in evening dress who wore white gloves when he waited at table!
At the doctor’s there was only Neel and a cleaning woman who came in twice a week.
Could it have been the cleaning woman who had written the anonymous letter? He’d really never looked at her. He merely knew her vaguely by sight as a homely old body. A bright red face and untidy hair over a bundle of voluminous black petticoats.
A case of scarlet fever, then a woman who was expecting a baby, probably next day, possibly that very night… During December he’d been called out at night exactly twenty-six times for deliveries.
When he finally got to the café at five o’clock, he was tired out. There was no particular reason why he should have been; the day’s work had been no heavier than usual. Only, his life seemed to have suddenly slipped into a higher gear and to be going at an excessive speed.
He put his bag down in the corner as usual, and Old Willem helped him off with his fur coat. He shook hands with Pijpekamp, then with Van Malderen and Loos.
“It looks as though we won’t get any skating this winter,” said Van Malderen, the lawyer. “We no sooner get a good frost than it thaws again.”
In the quiet billiard room was a clock that had always impressed Kuperus. It was high up on the wall. There was nothing remarkable about its face, which was marked in ordinary roman figures. But under it was a huge brass pendulum which always caught the light, and it seemed to him, as he looked at it, that in that room the seconds went more slowly than anywhere else.
And there was some truth in it. There was something about the Onder den Linden that made the time pass slowly and serenely. Even before you reached it you were already struck by the hushed dignity of the square, deserted at that time of night, brooding under the Gothic tower and gilded turrets of the Town Hall.
Old Willem walked noiselessly across the parquet floor, which was more highly polished than any other. Highly polished, too, were the little tables all around the room against the walls. Everything shone. Everything basked in an atmosphere of warmth and well-being, including the proprietor, Loos, who, when there was nobody there, would settle down snugly in one of the easy chairs beside the big square stove, put on his glasses, and read the Telegraaf for hours on end.
It was a place where you could sit and smoke with two or three others without bothering to keep up a conversation. Just a phrase from time to time; that was enough. And, as often as not, it was answered merely with a grunt. Some, like Van Malderen, kept their pipes there in the rack, and their jars of tobacco. But on the whole it was the smell of cigars that dominated, blended with that of gin.
“Hasn’t Schutter turned up yet?”
It was Kuperus who asked the question, as he lit his pipe, staring into the fire through the mica panes. The lights were already switched on over the main billiard table, the one on which all the tournament games were played, which had very handsome carved legs.
“He hasn’t been seen since yesterday,” said Loos, poking the fire, at the same time puffing away at his pipe.
And in a leisurely way he went on:
“The funny thing is that his butler came around a little while ago to ask if he’d been here…”
Van Malderen winked. He was the wag of the club. He had a large stock of funny stories, which he would relate with a mournful air that suited him perfectly. He was thin and colorless, and made a point of dressing like a Protestant pastor.
“Another woman…” he sighed. “Fortunately, I have nothing to worry about myself. My wife is much too plain to get into trouble!”
It was quite true! And it was a great source of satisfaction to him.
“Well?” asked Kuperus. “Who’d like a game?”
“For how much?”
“One guilder…”
“All right,” said Van Malderen, and both men took off their jackets and slipped elastic bands over their shirt sleeves. Each had his own personal cue, padlocked to the rack.
“Let’s make it two hundred up.”
In the middle of the game, two or three others came in, one of them the wholesale tobacconist from next door, who, as he shook your hand, would manage to leave a cigar in it, saying with a chuckle:
“Try that one.”
Kuperus took the lead at once, starting off with a break of sixty. There was a big mirror in the room, and every time he took aim he glanced at himself.
To think that he’d killed Schutter! He didn’t think half so much about Alice. Somehow that was much less serious. It only belonged to his private life.
While with Schutter… They began talking about him while Kuperus was making the winning break.
“The mayor told me Schutter’s going to run in the next election…”
“For what party?”
“The Progressives, of course.”
Schutter, just to tease them, or out of some sort of snobbery, dabbled in left-wing opinions, Schutter who had his dinner served by a butler in white gloves!
“Schutter loves an opportunity to hold forth,” said Kuperus, leaning over his cue.
But what he really thought was:
Schutter loved an opportunity…
“He’s a very able man. There’s no doubt about that… Succeeds at anything he puts his hands to… I bet he gets in… ”
“And I bet he doesn’t!”
That was Kuperus again, still at the same break, still counting out loud after every stroke.
“He ought to have a good chance,” said another. “The retiring member’s seventy-two.”
“And Schutter?”
“He’s the same age as me,” broke in Kuperus once more.
He simply couldn’t help it. And each time he spoke, he looked at himself in the mirror.
It was wonderful. He was at the top of his form. The puffiness had gone from his features. At the corner of his mouth was the faintest hint of a smile, so slight that only he could see it.
“Forty-four?”
“No. Forty-five.”
“He doesn’t look it… But of course he takes cares of himself.”
“Even as an undergraduate,” Kuperus said, “he used to polish his fingernails… Two hundred…”
He had won the game. A moment later he was pocketing the guilder Van Malderen handed over with a humorous gesture of reluctance, saying:
“I’ll have to think up an explanation, or my wife’ll be getting after me about my extravagance.”
He loved to say things like that, though everybody knew that Mme Van Malderen was a meek and mild creature who never dared make the least hint of reproach.
“I don’t know what my wife’s up to,” ventured Kuperus. “I was told she got a telegram yesterday and has gone to see an aunt of hers in Leeuwarden…”
“So you’re enjoying yourself, I suppose!” joked Van Malderen.
Perhaps he was the person who’d written the anonymous letter?
It was a pity it hadn’t been kept. Kuperus had torn it up into little bits and thrown them in the fire. He couldn’t remember what the handwriting looked like…
Yes, Van Malderen was just the sort of person to do a thing like that. He’d think it very amusing, and be quite content to keep the joke to himself. He’d never let it out, though he might very well throw out a few ambiguous remarks, like the one just now:
“So you’re enjoying yourself, I suppose!”
The door opened, and the men exchanged glances. A young woman had entered and, apparently indifferent to the clouds of smoke, sat at one of the tables on the far side of the room and ordered a liqueur.
“Do you serve dinner here?” she asked.
Willem answered yes, but it obviously went against the grain to do so. For the young woman was not only a blonde, but a very artificial one, and was dressed as no woman ever dressed in Sneek. Her lips were rouged and her heels were so high that it was a mystery how she kept her balance on them.
She produced a gold cigarette case and lit a cigarette. That she came from Amsterdam was obvious. With an amused eye and without the slightest embarrassment, she looked around the café, which was in all respects designed to be a haven of refuge for the male sex and in particular for the worthies of the town.
“Waiter!”
Willem ran forward, his napkin over his arm.
“Do you know where Count de Schutter lives?”
“The…Count?” stammered Willem. “If you mean Herr Cornelius de Schutter…”
“That’s the name.”
Everybody listened. There was no sound but the roaring of the stove.
“He lives a hundred yards from here, Madam. Next door to the Town Hall.”
“Has he got a telephone?”
“It would be quicker to go there.”
“That’s not what I wanted to know. I asked if he had a telephone.”
“Yes… The number’s 133.”
“Can I phone from here?”
“To the right of the washrooms.”
She got up, flicked the ash off her cigarette, and crossed the café. All eyes were on her, but that didn’t seem to bother her in the least. She went into the phone booth and shut the door, after which there was a faint ring and then a confused murmur.
The men looked at each other. Van Malderen made Willem a sign to fill up the glasses.
“That’s another one!” sighed Loos.
“Perhaps he expected her,” suggested Van Malderen. “And that’s why he’s made off…”
The young woman returned and asked Willem:
“Have you got any rooms?”
“No, Madam…This isn’t a hotel. But I can call the Station Hotel…It’s very comfortable. All the rooms have running water.”
“Give me another cherry brandy first.”
She looked anxious. Three young men came in to play billiards, but they had nothing to do with the Billiard Club. They weren’t much to look at, and they made an unnecessary amount of noise to cover their self-consciousness, laughing and talking without a break.
“Waiter?”
“Yes, Madam?”
“Does Count de Schutter come here often?”
“Every day.”
“Did he tell anybody he was going away?”
“No, Madam.”
Loos got up. This was really a matter for the proprietor to deal with.
“He was here yesterday around three o’clock,” he said. “And I was surprised not to see him today. Even more so when his butler came around to ask if we had news of him.”
Kuperus was torpidly lolling in an easy chair, his feet against the stove, smoking a cigar that the wholesale tobacconist had slipped into his hand. He looked quizzically at the young woman from Amsterdam.
Somehow she didn’t attract him, though he couldn’t explain why. For there was no denying it: she was beautiful. It was curious. There was all the difference in the world between her and Neel, the badly dressed and almost ungainly Neel, with disheveled hair. Yet it was Neel’s ample figure that made him go hot all over. He thought of her again now; there was a matter that had to be decided.
Would he dare have her sleep with him again that night? It wasn’t so simple as all that! Today he was supposed to be expecting his wife at any moment. He must look as though he were expecting her, and he must show increasing anxiety when she failed to show up. Perhaps he ought to have shown some already.
“Willem!… Will you look in the book and see if Mme Costens, in Leeuwarden, has a telephone.”
Mme Costens was the aunt in Leeuwarden who was supposed to be ill. It was only natural he would telephone her to ask about Alice.
He had seen her only a couple of times. She was a fat and rather vulgar woman whom Alice rarely referred to, since she kept a fish store.
Obviously a fish store would have a telephone! Willem turned over the pages of the directory. Kuperus smoked his cigar, thinking of Alice, though he still went on looking at the blonde stranger.
There was a connection between them.
Schutter! By what inexplicable aberration had the latter picked on Alice Kuperus? What had he found in her to get excited about?
And, on her side, how on earth had Alice — Alice of all people — come to plunge into an affair of that kind? The more he thought of it, the more preposterous it seemed. She was the very last sort of woman to commit such folly.
She looked like a bonbon. She was sugary to the core. She stuffed herself with pastries, and her skin was as pink as sugar icing. For a week at a stretch she could fuss and fiddle with samples before buying a new pair of curtains.
She ate a particular brand of chocolate because in each package was a picture of a flower, a common chromolithograph, which she would paste into an album.
“Is this it?” asked Willem. “Costens, fishmonger?… Shall I get it for you?”
“Please.”
The young men were really too noisy. Van Malderen sighed comically as he looked at the girl from Amsterdam.
“It must be a wonderful thing to be a bachelor… I’ve never been one…”
“Except before your marriage.”
“Not even then! I had a mother, a saintly woman whose one thought was to keep me pure for my future wife.”
“Did she succeed?”
“Most of the time…”
“Madame Costens is on the phone.”
“Is that you, Aunt?… I hope you’re better… What?…What’s that?…Alice isn’t there?”
He acted the part to the full, though for himself alone, since he could be neither seen nor heard by the others. He assumed an expression of astonishment, then of anxiety. When he returned to his friends, he was the picture of bewilderment.
“I don’t know what to make of it…Willem! Bring me a gin.”
“What’s the matter?”
“It’s unbelievable…”
He lowered his voice, and went on:
“My wife was supposed to be in Leeuwarden. She isn’t there…”
He gulped down his glass of gin and looked at himself in the mirror.
“Who told you she was there?”
“Our maid.”
“Doubtless she got mixed up,” suggested Loos. “Your wife’s probably gone to some other aunt’s…”
“She hasn’t got another.”
Van Malderen’s lips were pursed in a comic grimace.
“Excuse me… I’d like to be alone, to think this over…”
As he left the café, he looked really upset. The expression remained on his face until he turned the corner, when it suddenly faded away. All at once his face was completely expressionless.
What expression ought it to have? He really didn’t know. It was easy in front of the others. But now?…
And what was he to do next? It was still too soon to go to the police. For the moment, the only thing was to go home. He’d find Neel there…
He ate dinner as usual. The light over the dining-room table had a huge shade of pink silk, which made the whole room pink and cozy.
“Isn’t my wife back yet?”
“No, Doctor.”
“Any telephone calls?”
“Only one, asking you to go to the Meeuses’ as soon as possible. Their daughter’s worse…”
“Neel!”
“Yes.”
“Look me straight in the eye, Neel!… Madame never went to her aunt’s in Leeuwarden…You knew that, didn’t you?”
“Yes, Doctor.”
She answered quite simply. And she looked him straight in the eye, just as he’d asked her to.
“Where’s she gone then?”
“I don’t know. She didn’t say.”
“You’ve no idea?”
“No, Doctor.”
“Come here.”
She was in her white apron. Still munching his food, he put his arm around her waist.
“Do you love me a little bit, Neel?”
“What are you leading up to?”
“We had a good time last night, didn’t we?”
“That question again!”
“You’d like some more, wouldn’t you?”
“And when Madame comes back? What then?”
“Doesn’t she do as much herself? Well? What’s your answer to that?”
“Of course she does.”
“You knew it?”
“Of course.”
“And what did you think about it?”
“I thought that when a woman had all she could want…”
Her eye ran over the comfortable furniture, the silver on the table.
“Go on.”
“I thought there was no point in it.”
“No point in what?”
“In deceiving you.”
“Sit down.”
“Me?”
“Yes, you… Sit down and have your dinner with me.”
“I’d rather not.”
“Why?”
“It’s not the right thing.”
“You didn’t mind coming to bed with me!”
“That’s different…Besides, I’ve got things to see to in the kitchen… You’re not angry, are you?”
Left alone, he looked at himself once again in the mirror. He was hot all over. He was afraid. It was difficult to say what he was afraid of. Not of going to prison, anyhow.
Yet he was afraid. A vague fear gripped him, rather like the discomfort that gripped him in the chest.
He gobbled his food without really enjoying it, then went and opened the kitchen door.
“Haven’t you finished?”
“I’ve still got a few things to wash up.”
“Leave them till morning. Come.”
It was an absolute necessity. He couldn’t bear the thought of being left alone.
“Suppose Madame turns up?”
“She won’t.”
He oughtn’t to have said that. Never mind!
“Come on, my big girl…”
It was stranger than the Spitzbergen boat! They were right out at sea, far from land. The whole house, with its darkened rooms and the single lamp by the bedside, floated in a new, unknown, and incoherent universe in which a few solid facts stood out, like Neel’s pink chemise as she sat on the edge of the bed taking off her stockings, her hair hanging over her face.
Where were they heading?
Neel’s mouth, like Alice’s, had the taste of chocolate. The same exact chocolate!
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