paranoia in george simenon’s roman dur: the murderer, chapter four… “what were they thinking?”

FOUR

The mystery began suddenly and for no apparent reason. It seemed to condense out of nothing, like an autumn fog, and before he knew where he was, Kuperus was in the thick of it. There it was all around him, blotting out or distorting all reality, putting all human contacts out of focus.
It must have been about six o’clock. Kuperus was very tired, having spent the whole afternoon on his feet by the waterside. He was now following a canal, not the one by the cottage, but the one that ran in front of his house, where the quays were paved with flagstones.
It was still thawing fast. Drops trickled from every roof, and the reflections of the street lamps flickered once more on the rippling water.
He was getting near the house. He could already see the lighted window of the grocer’s, which was only three doors away. In it were packs of chocolate and long sticks of macaroni tied by a red ribbon so they would stand up like a sheaf of corn.
Between the window and the shop was a low screen, so low that anyone inside could easily see over it into the street. There were three people in the shop, and as he passed, three pairs of eyes stared at him.
He took out his key and inserted it in the lock. As he did so a new question flashed into his mind:
What were they thinking?
He had already wondered what Neel might think, and Karl. Now for the first time he was concerned with the world at large, with the people in the street…
What were they thinking?
Yes, what were they thinking about him, those three women in the shop? What were they saying about him, as they stood at the white marble counter doing their shopping or waiting to be served?
He shut the front door behind him, and paused with a frown in the outer hall, finding the house in darkness. He only had to switch the light on — it was done in a second — but he was nonetheless put out by the chilly reception.
For sixteen years he had been living in that house. He went up the three white stone steps and pushed open the glass-paneled door to the inner hall. There he stopped in front of the coat stand, beside which stood an umbrella stand made of imitation delft.
“Neel!” he called.
The little jar to his nerves he’d experienced on passing the grocer’s turned into a vague uneasiness. The house seemed empty, dead. On the ground floor were two big rooms, the living room and dining room, then, beyond the stairs, the kitchen and laundry. A window at the back of the hall opened on a little whitewashed courtyard.
The waiting room and office were on the entresol, and up to that floor the red stair-carpet was covered with a strip of canvas, because few patients bothered to wipe their feet.
“Neel!”
There was no light in the kitchen, and Neel knew he didn’t like her to go out shopping in the evening. He went into the living room, but stood there frowning, feeling out of place. The next moment, however, there was a noise upstairs, the slam of a door, then steps on the attic stairs.
When Neel came into the room, she was rather red and she looked hesitantly at the doctor.
“So, Madame is dead…” she said.
He nodded gravely, at the same time looking at her intently, asking himself the same question as before:
What would Neel think?
“Where were you?” he asked.
“In my room. I was giving Karl a cup of tea.”
“And you told him, I suppose?”
She didn’t say no. Neel must have heard about it from the people next door or from tradesmen coming to the house.
So she and Karl had been talking it over! On an impulse, he decided to make an experiment. He walked rapidly up to her without giving the least hint of what he was going to do.
She watched him approach without any sign of surprise. She allowed him to caress her, merely saying:
“How could you think of that… now?”
The important thing was that she hadn’t shrunk from his touch.
But what did that prove? Did it prove anything? Couldn’t she have remained as calm as that even if she thought him a murderer?
“Get my dinner ready…”
She seemed relieved as she went out, but that certainly didn’t prove anything either, since she always seemed relieved when she left him.
How could he know? And not only with her, but with all the others?
Schutter’s body had been found just as the light began to fail. The absence of his wallet was noticed immediately. An inquiry was opened.
He tried again next day, with one of his patients, a fat woman who sold cheese and who had a wen. Before opening the door to her, he deliberately set his features into a stony stare. He treated her brusquely, almost roughly.
And all the time he watched her carefully, asking himself:
Is she afraid of me?
She wasn’t. Not in the least. Only rather surprised. She didn’t seem to understand, or she may have thought he was ill himself.
“I won’t be seeing any patients tomorrow or the next day, because of the funeral…”
“Oh, I’m so sorry. Has there been a death in the family?”
She didn’t even know!
Drawing a blank with her did not discourage him, however. He tried with the others. His manner became stiff and jerky, his speech curt. Suddenly he would look keenly, fiercely into their eyes to ferret out their secret thoughts.
The brother-in-law came from Amsterdam, and the aunt from Leeuwarden, and a few other relations, one of whom was a weedy young man with a red nose who was already in mourning for his father and who had such a bad cold that he looked all the time as though he’d been crying.
Kuperus had been before the examining magistrate, his friend Anton Groven, who received him with great cordiality and many apologies, after which he asked him a few questions of minor importance.
“Now that the post-mortem’s over, there’s no reason why the funeral shouldn’t take place…”
Kuperus had bought a new black suit and overcoat, and had a band of crepe put around his hat. The undertakers came and fixed up the living room for the occasion. The coffin was brought, candles lit, the doorbell muffled with a bit of cloth, and the front door left ajar so that visitors could come and go freely.
The brother-in-law stayed the night, but the aunt went back to her fish store, to return next day for the funeral.
Alice Kuperus came from an Amsterdam family and was a Catholic. A mass was arranged.
That night Neel put her foot down.
“No! Not when Madame is lying there…”
Kuperus looked her in the eyes.
“Then you won’t sleep with Karl either!”
He was jealous! There was no getting away from the fact. There were three bedrooms on the second floor, and he forced her to sleep in the vacant one. Moreover, he got up twice during the night to make sure she hadn’t given him the slip.
His brother-in-law, waking, opened his door.
“What’s the matter?”
Standing barefoot, in his nightshirt, Kuperus answered:
“Can’t you sleep?”
“What about you?”
“Never mind about me.”
If his strangeness was put on, it was also in a way sincere. He had to act queerly. He had to watch for the effect on other people.
Some were bound to suspect him. That was inevitable. The local paper, of course, made the most of the missing wallet, suggesting robbery as the motive. But how could anyone fail to see that there might be another one?
The examining magistrate would no doubt have discussed the matter with the police and the public prosecutor. Was Kuperus being watched? Perhaps, unknown to him, an exhaustive inquiry was going on all around him.
“Did you meet anybody when you went out shopping?” he asked Neel.
“No. What do you mean?”
“Nothing.”
He had meant the police. They’d get detectives over from Amsterdam for a case like this. And in order not to put him on his guard, wasn’t it natural that they would get hold of Neel in the street or in a shop?
Alice’s sister came only on the day of the funeral. She was expecting a baby. She was the living image of Alice, but five years younger. Kuperus was particularly preoccupied with her. Wasn’t she the most likely person to suspect something? Yet he wasn’t able to detect the faintest sign of it. She had greeted him exactly as usual, kissing him on both cheeks, as they did in the family, shedding a few tears as she murmured:
“Who would ever have thought!…”
This wasn’t quite an ordinary funeral. The words that were generally spoken at funerals would in this case have sounded out of place. Prolonged silent handshakes were the order of the day.
For how were people to say:
“Poor woman!…” Or:
“What a terrible mishap!…” Or:
“And in the prime of life!…”
She had gone off with another man. Her dishonor was public knowledge. It was the first time anything like it had happened in Sneek. It was a subject that couldn’t be broached in front of children, and Alice’s sister had left her boy of seven at home for fear he would hear something unsuited to his young ears.
For the same reason, the priest had suggested that the service be as simple as possible.
There were lots of people. A long procession of black clothes and umbrellas following the hearse. But it was a cold group, with dry eyes. They came because it was their duty to, not to show approval.
At every window, as they passed, peering eyes watched Kuperus, who held himself very erect and stared back, instead of keeping his eye on the coffin, as people usually do.
No flowers, of course! No wreaths or crosses!
The next day there was much the same crowd following the remains of Cornelius de Schutter, with the addition of two very elegant women, cousins from Amsterdam, who had brought their lawyer with them.
The evening of the funeral Kuperus, after going to the station with the relatives, appeared at the Onder den Linden, where he wasn’t expected, to say the least.
There was a dead silence as he shook hands all around. Then he called out to Willem:
“A gin and bitters, please.”
It was the same here as it was at home. The house he had lived in for sixteen years seemed suddenly to have changed — or, rather, it seemed to have died. There was no longer any reason, for instance, why an object should be where it was rather than anywhere else, and it now appeared incredible that he and Alice could have argued, fussed, and fretted over just how the rooms should be arranged.
And now the same feeling assailed him in the Onder den Linden. For years and years he had been going there. He had his favorite corner, his own billiard cue secured by a little padlock, and his name on the list of members of the committee.
It was in a slightly contemptuous tone that he asked.
“Well? What’s the news?”
“We must have an election,” sighed Van Malderen.
“Ah! Yes…”
He looked up at the list and suddenly remembered his decision.
“Who’s standing?” he asked.
Somebody would have to be elected president in Schutter’s place.
“Nobody’s come forward yet…I daresay Pijpekamp may…”
“Pijpekamp? Why, he can’t make a break of fifty!” objected Kuperus.
“It’s he who provides the prize every year.”
“Only because he sells such things!”
“Who else is there?”
He drank his gin in a single swallow, threw back his head, and looked challenginglyat his fellow members one after the other.
“Well… Why shouldn’t I put my name forward?”
The question was received in stony silence. Loos was the only one to make any response, and he raised his eyebrows. Kuperus turned on him.
“What do you mean by that, Loos?” he asked. “Have you any objection to my standing? If you have, out with it! If there’s one thing I can’t put up with, it’s people who don’t say what they really think.”
He was almost trembling. He felt he was on the verge of finding out what he wanted to know.
“You’re taking it the wrong way,” stammered Loos awkwardly. “I didn’t mean it that way at all. But considering that you’re in mourning…”
“I don’t see why that should stop me from playing billiards.”
“On the contrary. It’s just the thing to do. It’ll take your mind off other things.” So there it was! He was now a candidate for the presidency of the club. He was asking to be the elected successor to Cornelius de Schutter.
That night he couldn’t help saying to Neel: “They’re going to make me president of the club.” Of course she couldn’t understand what it meant, but he’d said it just the same!
As for the anonymous letter, no one came forward. Nevertheless, somebody had written it. Somewhere in Holland, somewhere in Sneek no doubt (he hadn’t thought at the time of looking at the postmark) was a person who knew, a person who could at any moment go to the examining magistrate and say:
“The man who murdered Schutter and Mme Kuperus is…”
Well? Why didn’t he do so?
He could also come and ring the doctor’s bell and be shown into the living room or the office. He could smile at the doctor and drop a few hints. He could play with him like a cat with a mouse, until he finally let fall:
“Look here, Doctor, I wonder if you could let me have a thousand guilders…”
Or two thousand, or even five! He could ask for whatever he liked: to come and stay in the house, for instance, and sleep in the best bedroom with Neel. He could have all his meals there…
Nobody had come forward, at least not in that sort of way. But what was there to prove that it wasn’t Neel? Or Van Malderen, or Loos, who had raised his eyebrows? Lastly, why not Karl? He had only Neel’s word for it that the German had been there only five months.
Karl had recovered from his influenza. Twice Kuperus had asked Neel:
“Has he found a job yet?”
To which she had simply answered:
“No.”
Her tone obviously meant to say that he had not even considered looking for one.
Suppose his presence in the house was noticed. Wouldn’t it be awkward? What explanation could Kuperus give? He couldn’t very well say that he was giving him shelter because he was in love with the maid.
“I must have a talk with him, Neel.”
“He’s gone out. I don’t know when he’ll be back.”
“He must leave the house, Neel. In fact, he must leave today.”
She waited, guessing there was something to follow.
“I’m prepared to give him a hundred guilders. With that, he can go and look for a job in Amsterdam or Rotterdam, or anywhere he likes on the other side of the Zuider Zee. If he doesn’t find one at once, I’ll send him a little more… ”
“I’ll tell him.”
If Karl refused, would that prove anything? For a long time he turned the question over in his mind, finally deciding that it wouldn’t be any indication at all, one way or the other. In the evening Neel brought his answer:
“He’s catching the eleven o’clock train.”
Kuperus was undecided whether to see him or not. In the end, he decided not to, and gave Neel the hundred guilders. Soon after, he heard steps on the stairs and then someone shutting the front door.
“Neel!” he shouted over the banister. “Come up, will you?”
He turned her head toward the light and looked in her eyes.
“Are you sad to see him go?”
“A little.”
“Did you really love him?”
“It’s difficult to say.”
“And if he loved you, why was he willing to go?”
“There was no help for it.”
“Get undressed. From now on, I don’t want you to have an affair with anyone, do you understand?…Nobody but me!”
The blood rose to his head, and for the time being nothing in the world mattered but Neel’s passive body and her unfeeling eyes.
“Do you hate me, Neel?”
“No.”
“Why not?”
“I don’t know.”
“Are you afraid of me?”
“Not that either.”
He was wildly passionate. She might well have said, as on the first night:
“You’re pretty hot stuff!”
He gazed into her gray eyes and racked his brain for something to say that might trouble their indifference.
“Neel!”
“Yes.”
“Aren’t you afraid of living here alone with me?”
“Why?”
“Aren’t you?” he insisted.
“No.”
“Neel.”
“Yes.”
“Are there any people suggesting that I killed my wife and Schutter?”
He still had her in his arms.
“Answer me. You needn’t be afraid.”
“There are.”
“What do they say?”
“That you never can tell.”
“And what else?”
“That it’s bound to affect your practice.”
“Go on.”
“That you always were a bit odd.”
Kuperus greeted the last remark with a harsh, raucous laugh. It was untrue, utterly untrue. People could only be fools to say a thing like that, or, if they weren’t fools, they must be quite blind.
The truth was the exact opposite. The whole of his life, that is to say the whole of his first life, had been commonplace. He had been a perfectly ordinary Dutchman, like hundreds, like thousands of others, a doctor like any other doctor, a husband like any other husband.
His chief concern had always been to avoid anything that might single him out, make him seem original.
Wasn’t his house in every way typical of a man of his means and social standing? Yes, and everything in it down to the last bit of bric-a-brac on the living-room mantelpiece. The meals served in it had always been exactly what everyone would expect to find in a middle-class household in Holland.
If he’d gone to Spitzbergen, it hadn’t been with any idea of breaking out. On the contrary. It had been a cruise organized for the medical profession at specially reduced rates. There had been three hundred doctors on board.
He had been to Paris, but only on the occasion of an exposition, and that time, too, with a group.
And now they had the cheek to suggest that he’d always been odd! It just showed how people judged! Those same people who eyed him as he passed and whom he, too, watched closely, eager to catch the least hint of their thoughts…
“And you, Neel?… What do you think yourself?”
“I don’t.”
“What do you think of me?”
“Look out! You’re hurting me.”
“Are you going to stay here all your life?”
“I don’t know.”
Why was he haunted all the time by the idea that Neel might leave him?
“Well, I mean you to stay here, do you understand?… I’ll pay you what you like, but I won’t allow you to go…And what’s more: I forbid you to speak to any other man!…”
“I’ll have to speak to the butcher and the grocer.”
“Fool!”
He still didn’t know. She was so close to him, and yet no power on earth could drag from her what was going on behind that obstinate forehead.
“Look at me, Neel!”
“You’re always asking me to look at you.”
“Because I’ve got to know, sooner or later, what you think.”
“Haven’t I told you that I don’t think anything at all?”
He went to sleep, exhausted, and woke up with a violent headache. He tried to shake off his obsession, but to no avail. He couldn’t escape from this twilight that surrounded him, this emptiness, this absence of life, in which his own faltered like a flame deprived of air.
In a strange sort of way, he seemed to have become detached from things. He turned on his own axis in a hollow universe. He touched things without seeming to come really into contact with them; he spoke to people who no longer belonged to the same world as his.
Even in the café! His name had been put up. The members of the club had said nothing — at least not in front of him — and it had been decided that, since he was set on it, he should be elected president to succeed Schutter.
But nobody had congratulated him. Nobody had come forward to shake him by the hand.
And he couldn’t help noticing that, though nobody ever refused to play with him, neither did anybody ever invite him to a game.
Far from taking the hint, he made a point of asking them all in turn. He stood rounds of drinks regardless of the cost. Money, like everything else, had lost its meaning.
What did it matter if he squandered it? As for Lina, they never spoke to him about her, and it was only by overhearing chance remarks that he learned anything.
Some said it was Van Malderen who had paid her hotel bill; others, that Loos had contributed, too, though without the lawyer’s knowledge.
In any case, when Schutter’s heirs had arrived, the two cousins from Amsterdam, Lina had turned up at the house and claimed a share of the estate equivalent to the allowance she had been receiving. It had ended with a hand-to-hand fight in which one of the cousins had got her dress torn!
Lina was still in Sneek, still subsidized by Van Malderen, and, according to some, by Loos also. But she had been forbidden by one or the other — or perhaps by both — to set foot in the Onder den Linden. She had left the hotel and was tucked away in a furnished room somewhere or other.
Why didn’t they talk to Kuperus about her openly? He began to detest the whole lot of them. Certainly he despised them, and it was to gratify his contempt that he greeted them with an aggressive stare and forced them to shake hands with him.
He was even deliberately disagreeable, and no one dared say anything.
When the time came to make his inaugural speech as president, he flouted the traditions of the club in making no reference whatever to his predecessor. And at the end he suddenly took it into his head to declare:
“I trust that the honor you are conferring upon me is only the prelude to a career of public service. The next election is due in two years’ time, and I would like to take this opportunity of announcing that it is my ambition to represent my fellow citizens of Sneek in Parliament…”
The clapping, when he sat down, was perfunctory. And all the while, he scrutinized the faces around him, particularly the eyes, eyes that would not give up their secret.
For after all, people must think something! They must have some opinion about him and about the deaths of Alice and Schutter.
Did they think him a murderer, or didn’t they? That was what he wanted to know! And if they didn’t think it, were they too scared of him to say so?
As regards the second question, the answer seemed to be yes. He became more convinced of it every day. They were afraid of him, every one of them.
Even the examining magistrate, Anton Groven! Twice Kuperus went to see him without being summoned. He called him by his Christian name and offered him a cigarette, which the other hadn’t the courage to refuse. And all Groven could find to say was:
“We haven’t dropped the case, though I can’t say we’re making much headway… It may be we never shall…”
Suppose they arrested him? From time to time Kuperus came back to that question. What would they do to him? What would he do about it himself?
At one time there had been no doubt about what he’d have done. Rather than spend ten or twenty years in prison, he’d have put a bullet into his head.
Not now! Why shouldn’t he go to prison? Why should he be any worse off there than anywhere else? There was only one thing that upset that idea: to know that Neel would be free…
Unless of course… And why not?… Rather than allow her to share the bed of other masters, whom she would look at placidly, with her pale indifferent eyes… rather than that, he might kill her, too, before they arrested him. He’d have the courage; he didn’t doubt that for a moment. And with that done, he could go to prison without a worry in the world.
He turned the idea over in his mind as he walked through the streets. Like other people, he stopped and looked into shop windows, but without interrupting his train of thought.
Yes, it was really quite simple when you came to think of it…
“Neel!” he called, as he went indoors.
She came from the laundry, her hands covered with soapsuds, since it was washing day.
“Neel! I’ve been thinking about you, and I’ve made a decision.”
“What?”
“I can’t tell you… But you may as well know this much: that it’s only today that I’ve realized how much attached I am to you.”
She answered merely with a slight shrug of her shoulders. The next moment another wild idea had come into his head. Until the last few days, he had reflected before doing anything. He had avoided doing or saying anything on the spur of the moment. It was different now. An idea no sooner came into his mind than he acted on it. The more absurd the idea was, the more certain was he to come out with it.
“You’re doing the washing, are you?”
“Yes.”
“For the last time… Tomorrow we’ll see about getting another maid.”
“What for?”
“To do the work. Then you’ll be able to take it easy.”
“Don’t talk such nonsense…”
She turned away, muttering, and he wasn’t quite sure of the rest of the sentence, but it sounded something like:
“If you think that would do you any good, you’re very much mistaken.”
She was right there, and he knew it. It was one thing to have an affair with his servant, quite another to advertise it. If he did that, he would never be forgiven. But what did he care? Not a scrap. He didn’t care about anything now… Except for just one thing: to know what people thought about him.
And that was just what he couldn’t find out…
The winter was coming to an end, and boys began once again to play in the street. Near the lamppost ten yards from the doctor’s front door was a slight drop in the level of the sidewalk, and there, for generations, boys had been in the habit of playing marbles.
One afternoon, Kuperus went out as usual to make his rounds, carrying his little bag and wearing the black overcoat he had bought when he went into mourning. He was wondering which of his patients he would begin with, and so engrossed was he by the question that for a moment he didn’t see the boys.
Then suddenly he heard a loud whisper:
“Look out!… Here he comes…”
One boy was quite close to him, bending over his marbles. He looked around sharply, then quickly darted aside, flattening himself against the wall to let the doctor pass. Kuperus noticed his red scarf and a scar he had on his forehead.
The doctor had stopped dead. And the boys stood still, too, as though petrified, looking at him. For a few seconds not a movement was made on either side. It was as though life hung in suspense.
Then all at once the little boy with the red scarf was seized with panic. He took to his heels, and the others followed.
Why? What were they frightened of? What had their parents been saying to them?
Kuperus walked on, but a moment later he couldn’t help turning around, and he saw the boys in a huddle at the corner, watching him cautiously.
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