more ‘gray misery’ from the french: chapter five of simenon’s the murderer

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FIVE

Everything was ready, and the doctor walked to and fro between the living room and the dining room, occasionally glancing at himself in the mirror over the mantelpiece.

Half an hour before, Neel had closed the shutters, assisted by Beetje, a girl of sixteen, too fat for her age, who, moreover, squinted. It was Neel who had engaged her and explained her duties. Kuperus rarely saw her, but her presence in the house made a great difference, because Neel was now always clean and neat in her black dress and white apron.

The dining-room clock struck five. It was a handsome clock, which struck the quarter hours. Kuperus had bought it on the occasion of his marriage.

He sat down in one of the armchairs in the dining room, then got up again to help himself to a cigar from the box that was already lying open on the table. He checked the impulse, however, remembering that it was not correct to receive your guests smoking a cigar.

The next moment a sarcastic smile came to his lips. He had remembered something else! That things of that sort no longer mattered. And, choosing a cigar, he bit the end off and lit it. What on earth did he care whether Mme Malderen was offended or not?

As matter of fact, she probably wouldn’t even notice, since she was inured to the smell of cigar smoke. Then why had he always made a point of not smoking while waiting for his guests to arrive?

Why? Because of his wife… Well, no! That wasn’t true, and he had to admit it. He had always been as punctilious as she was in matters of etiquette.

It had been a regular thing for years for the Van Malderens to come to tea on Thursday, and once a month they stayed on for dinner. After the tragedy, Kuperus hadn’t even thought about it, but he had been reminded of it a few days previously by Van Malderen, who, in the Onder den Linden, had said to him, a little awkwardly:

“Look here, Hans!…My wife’s very cross with you.”

“Why?”

“She says you’ve dropped her.”

So now they were coming once again, Franz with his somewhat heavy humor, Jane with her inquisitiveness, her ferrety eyes, which pried into every corner.

She was a flat-chested, swarthy little thing, and it would have been impossible to have found another like her in the whole of Friesland. In height, she was positively tiny, a whole head and shoulders shorter than her husband.

Kuperus went over to the stove, which was a huge thing built of dark-colored glazed tiles with brass fittings. He picked up the bottle of Burgundy that was warming up at the side, and felt it critically.

Two trays were ready on the table, just as they had always been in the days of Madame Kuperus. On one were the teacups, with toast, honey, and jam; on the other, the big wine glasses of cut glass and the box of cigars.

And suddenly, for the first time in his life, Kuperus did a thing that was really outrageous, so much so that he couldn’t help once more looking at himself in the mirror. Without waiting any longer for his guests, he poured himself a full glass of wine. Then, sitting down to the left of the stove, he crossed his legs and began to sip it.

A glass of wine in one hand, a cigar in the other, its smoke swirling in a cloud around the pink silk lampshade! And already the room had begun to be impregnated with the characteristic smell of those Thursday teas, a blend of the Puerto Rican cigar with the slightly warm wine and the permanent smell of the linoleum and floor polish.

The bell rang. Neel went to open the door. The doctor could hear Franz saying something as he gave his coat and hat to the maid, then Jane’s shrill voice asking:

“Ihope we’re not too early. Has the doctor finished his work?”

Then steps… The door opening… Jane Van Malderen running up to Kuperus and giving him a little peck on the cheek…

“My poor Hans… How are you getting on?”

And he answering coldly:

“Admirably, thanks!”

The two men shook hands, while Jane, looking around, exclaimed:

“Everything’s just as it was. It makes me feel quite funny…to see all these things…”

She looked at the two trays, at the mantelpiece.

“Tell me, are you being properly looked after? It’s terrible for a man to be all alone. I know if I’m away three days, the servants do absolutely nothing… As a matter of fact, Neel seems to have changed. She seems neater and nicer-looking…”

Van Malderen had sat down with a sigh, knowing that his wife could go on chattering like that for an hour at a stretch.

“Shall I ring for the tea, Hans?”

“Do.”

“You’ve changed, too, Hans. How shall I put it?… There’s something more manly about you… they told me you’d aged, but to my mind you’re better as you are…”

Neel came in with the teapot, and Kuperus managed to tread on her foot, just for fun, just to have contact with her.

“Thank you, my little Neel,” he said.

He was well aware that his familiarity would shock Mme Van Malderen. That’s why he’d said it. He wanted to awake her suspicions. He even toyed with the idea of saying straight out that Neel was his mistress. As soon as she was gone, Jane went on:

“I hope she doesn’t take too many liberties now that Alice is no longer here.”

On pronouncing Alice’s name, Jane reddened, and she made haste to add:

“Forgive me, my poor Hans… I know I ought not to remind you…”

But he looked at her calmly, sipping his wine. In the living room the chandelier was not lit. That, too, was a tradition. It was by way of being a mark of special favor, of intimacy, that the Van Malderens were received, not in the living room, but in the dining room, which was considered cozier, chiefly because the stove gave out more heat. Between the folding doors, the living room was visible, bathed in a gentle half-light.

Jane sighed and blew her nose.

“I was thinking of the last time we were here…Who would ever have thought…You must have been terribly unhappy, Hans!”

Her husband sighed again. Perhaps he foresaw the inevitable scene. Leaning back in his chair, he gazed at the pink lampshade.

“You were such a close couple… Yes, you were. I used to say so to Franz every Thursday as we went home… It was a great misfortune that you never had any children.”

To startle her, he said, looking at his cigar ash:

“It’s not too late.”

“Oh, Hans!”

“What do you mean, ‘Oh, Hans’? Do you think I’m too old to have children?”

“Don’t say such things… And here of all places! With Alice’s photograph looking at us!”

It was true. A small photograph he no longer noticed, so used was he to seeing it in its place.It had been taken in Paris, because Alice had thought it would be done better there than anywhere else. They’d had an argument about that. He maintained that Paris was a very much overrated place, that the town itself was dirty and the women too made-up.

“You might just as well have your photograph taken in Sneek, where it’ll be just as well done at half the price.”

No. She had insisted on Paris, and had returned with a photograph that was commonplace enough. And there it stood in a silver frame beside other family photographs.

From her nose, Jane Van Malderen’s handkerchief passed to her eyes.

“How did you hear about it, Hans?”

“Hear about what?”

He looked at her sternly, aggressively. That was his way of looking at people nowadays, as though he meant to frighten them.

“You know very well what I mean!”

“Oh, yes,” he sneered. “You mean how did I find out that she was deceiving me with our excellent friend Schutter!”

“Hans!”

“What?”

“She’s dead!”

“And what about it?”

“Whatever she did wrong, she’s paid for it…And knowing Alice as I did, I can’t bring myself to believe she was as guilty as all that… Who knows? Perhaps it was the first time… just a moment’s aberration…”

“What do you think of this Burgundy, Franz? Don’t you think it’s just a little corky?”

For a few moments there was silence, which gaveMme Van Malderen an opportunity to fill her little rodent’s mouth with buttered toast.

Suddenly she jumped up and ran over to a little table, returning with a ball of pale blue wool and a little rectangle of knitting.

“It was I who taught her that stitch. Only the week before…” said Jane, gazing at the wool, which was really of the most angelic color. “She was going to make a little sweater for indoors… That was just before the cold weather came… And then when the frost came…”

“She was under the ice,” put in Kuperus.

Even Franz started. He sat up in his chair and stared at his friend with an expression of alarm, while Jane exclaimed:

“It’s simply dreadful!”

“It was simply dreadful when they pulled them out! Would you believe it: Schutter’s body was almost torn in two by the grapnel. One side of his face was ripped right open…”

“Oh, do stop! For heaven’s sake!”

“I didn’t begin it.”

“Let me tell you something, Hans.”

“If you like.”

“I think I know you well enough. We’ve known each other for twelve years. In fact, you and Alice have been our only really intimate friends… You’ve been brooding too much over your sorrow, Hans…Yes, yes. I know you have. I’ve been watching you every day as you passed.”

Her house had a sort of closed-in veranda where she spent most of the day, keeping an eye on everything that happened in the street.

“You know, Hans, people turn around to look at you as you pass. There’s something so strange about you… You’re nursing your sorrow, that’s what it is, instead of throwing it off… I was saying so only last week, wasn’t I, Franz?… And it was then I thought that I ought to come and give you some advice…”

Kuperus looked at her without turning a hair, but Van Malderen seemed more and more ill at ease.

“You know our one thought is to help you, don’t you, Hans? Well, I’ve come to tell you that you ought to go away for a while.”

For a moment he was taken aback, though he didn’t show it. But his features set a little harder, and he bit into the end of his cigar.

“You ought to go away for a good long holiday. Go to Switzerland or the South of France… Or why not Italy?… I know you can afford it, and it’ll take your mind off all this trouble…”

She paused for a moment, drank a mouthful of tea, then rattled on, staring at the tablecloth:

“And you might even come across some young person — a young widow would be best, don’t you think so, Franz?… You’ve no idea what it costs me to say such a thing — I was so fond of Alice — but at your age life’s not over…”

“You haven’t got someone up your sleeve already?” he asked, and nobody could possibly have told whether he was joking or not.

“No, I haven’t,” stammered Jane. “And, in any case, I think someone from elsewhere would be much more suitable. Someone with whom you can make a fresh start.”

Kuperus had his eyes half shut. It was hot. The Burgundy had inflamed his cheeks, and the fire in the stove was roaring, as in the Onder den Linden. From time to time a truck passed along the street, or a motor barge on the canal would sound a blast on its horn for the swing bridge to be opened.

A few feet in front of him he could see Jane Van Malderen’s irregular features, her scraggy neck, the cameo that hung around it. On his left, he was conscious of her husband, from whom drifted a cloud of cigar smoke.

But it was rather vague, rather blurred, deliberately so. The lights in the house were heavily shaded, with pink silk in the dining room, with yellow silk in the living room.

The upholstery was dingy, a mixture of every color of the rainbow, but faded until it was completely nondescript.

Everything seemed dim, soft, and neutral… He forgot for a moment that something was changed, and in his mind’s eye he could see Alice sitting beside Jane with some work in her lap, talking in an undertone so as not to disturb the conversation of the men.

He could remember that when he was in the middle of a discussion with Franz, he would suddenly be conscious of Alice’s voice saying:

“Three plain and one purl. Is that it?”

And Jane would take her knitting and look at it and…

But that was all over and done with now. And what were they after, these two? What had they come for? He knew now. It hadn’t taken Jane long to give her little game away. They wanted to persuade him to go away!

He was to be eliminated. Driven from the town. Franz hadn’t said anything himself. Of course not! Everybody knew that when there was anything disagreeable to be done he’d always get his wife to do it. Only this time, she’d been a little too precipitate.

With a sigh, Kuperus got up from his chair, threw the end of his cigar into the coal scuttle, and lit another. His attitude was becoming more aggressive. So far he had left the initiative to Jane. Now it was obvious he was going to take the offensive himself.

“What do they say?” he asked, standing in front of her.

“Who? What do you mean?”

“I’m asking you what people are saying about me in town. You’re not going to pretend they say nothing, are you? This is the first time in thirty years that anything so dramatic has happened in Sneek…”

Thirty years before there’d been a murder of two little girls.

“There’s been nothing like it for thirty years,” he went on. “Schutter, the richest man in town, the best connected, the most popular, has been murdered at the same time as the wife of Dr. Kuperus.”

“Please, Hans!”

“Is there any reason why I shouldn’t speak about it? I should have thought I was the person most entitled to! And it is made obvious to everybody that the unfortunate Dr. Kuperus has been made a fool of by his wife…”

“How can you talk like that?”

“I said made a fool of… And, once more, if anyone has a right to say that, it’s me!…Now tell me: What do people say about it all?”

Van Malderen fidgeted in his chair, while his wife began, timidly:

“What do you expect us to say, Hans?… We’re terribly sorry for you…”

“That’s not true.”

“What do you mean, it’s not true?”

“No one’s ever sorry for a man who’s been made ridiculous…”

“Sorrow isn’t ridiculous.”

“Suppose I don’t feel any sorrow?”

“You’re not yourself, Hans… When you think it over, you’ll see I’m right. I know you will. You’ll see there’s only one thing to do: go right away and forget all about it.”

“Well, I won’t.”

“Why not?”

“Because you all want me to.”

“What’s that got to do with it?”

“Only that I’m not going to toe the line… And now you might as well tell me what people say. Do they think I knew my wife was carrying on with Schutter?”

“Really!”

“Answer me.”

“I’ve never heard anyone suggest such a thing.”

He knew perfectly well what he was leading up to. He might have stopped at that. He’d already gone far enough. But he didn’t want to stop. He was standing, his head level with the hanging lamp that shone on the embroidered tablecloth. And the bit of blue knitting was lying on the table, exactly as though Alice would be picking it up at any moment to go on with it.

“Who do the police suspect?”

“How should I know?”

“Why can’t you leave her alone, Hans?” said Van Malderen.

“Then answer for her.”

“Nobody knows anything. What do you expect people to say?”

“The less people know, the more they talk… Come on, what do they say?”

“That it’s the work of some vagrant.”

His nerves were stretched to breaking point. He would have liked to have done with it once and for all. Done with what? With this gnawing anguish, this impatience, this giddiness, this nameless uneasiness.

“And me?”

“What about you?”

“I might have killed them myself. Hasn’t anybody suggested that yet?”

“Stop, Hans!” pleaded Jane. “Stop, or I’ll go.”

She was dabbing her eyes with her handkerchief. Her breast was heaving with emotion.

“Let’s talk of something else,” she went on. “If I’d known it would come to this…”

Calmly Kuperus pursued the subject.

“For my part, I’m quite sure there are people who suspect me and don’t hesitate to say so.”

“What does it matter to you what they say?”

Kuperus stood his ground stolidly, and the others didn’t even notice that this last remark had hit him like a stone. For a moment he could find nothing to say, could not even lift his cigar to his lips. Finally, he said very quietly:

“You’re right. It makes no difference to me at all.”

“Listen, Hans,” broke in Van Malderen, “we’ve all been trying to help you, and it was to show our affection and our confidence in you that we elected you president of the club…”

At the mention of the club Kuperus regained all his aggressiveness.

“Only because I forced you to,” he countered.

“You were elected unanimously.”

“On a show of hands. Nobody had the courage to refuse, but I don’t mind betting they’re sorry now.”

“You’re very unjust… And you’re making it very difficult for us… Do you think we can’t see that you’re in a bad way? If you don’t do something about it, it’ll end up badly… I’ve been watching you in the Onder den Linden. Jane’s been watching you as you walk along thestreet. We hear what your friends say about you…”

“So you’re coming to the point at last!”

“I wish it hadn’t been necessary.”

Van Malderen got up in turn and stood with his hands clasped under his coattails.

“You can’t fail to be aware that your practice has dwindled. Doesn’t that mean anything to you?”

It was a fact. In a few weeks, half the doctor’s patients had faded away.

“You know the Frieslanders as well as I do, and most of all those of Sneek… The people here have a horror of scandal. So much so that they feel it reflects on them if they even set foot in the house of a woman…”

“Who has been unfaithful to her husband.”

“Since you want me to say it — yes… And if you had a son, he’d find his schoolmates turning their backs on him…”

“As the whole town is going to turn its back on me — is that what you mean?”

“Nobody blames you… On the contrary, we’re all sorry for you…”

“And I don’t care whether anyone’s sorry for me or not.”

He said it airily, as though he was thoroughly pleased with himself.

“I tell you I don’t care! I don’t care two hoots for the Billiard Club, nor for my practice, nor for any young widows who might be waiting for me in Switzerland!”

Jane was completely bewildered. She gave a meaning look at her husband, jerking her head toward the bottle. No doubt she thought Kuperus was drunk.

“You’d never understand that. All you’re concerned with is your petty reputations in this petty little town. I don’t mind betting Jane took an hour to get ready to come here, and I daresay she even went to the hairdresser’s this morning, so as to be properly dolled up for the occasion!…A lot of good it’s done her!… But it had to be done. Just because it always has been.”

He opened the door and shouted across the hall:

“Neel! Bring another bottle, will you, my precious!”

Turning back into the room, he looked at Alice’s photograph, which he picked up.

“In her time, it would have seemed very uncalled for to produce a second bottle of wine.

Really, Hans! What are you thinking of? People will be taking us for drunkards!’. . . What a lot of nonsense. All for the sake of a pack of fools…”

“Hans!” pleaded Jane once again.

“ ‘Hans! Hans!’ ” He imitated her high-pitched voice. “You won’t get anywhere with your ‘Hans! Hans!’ Hans doesn’t care a damn for you, and he’s not going to Switzerland or the South of France or anywhere else just to oblige the townsfolk of Sneek, who are beginning to be scared of him!”

He stopped, surprised himself by what he had said. He looked narrowly at the others, but they made no sign. Neel came in with another bottle of Burgundy, and as she uncorked it he patted her thigh familiarly.

After shutting the door, he came back to his guests, running his hand across his forehead.

“What were we saying? Won’t you sit down again? It’s not time for you to go yet. Don’t forget: it’s half past six you’re supposed to go, except on the second Thursday of the month, when you have dinner thrown in…”

Jane turned toward her husband.

“Franz!… Do say something… Stop him… Don’t let him drink any more.”

Kuperus poured himself a glass of wine, which, having come straight from the cellar, was cold and sharp.

“Look here, Hans! Do be reasonable…”

“No.”

Jane had been blowing her nose until it was red, a tiny little button nose that now looked like an unripe cherry.

“At first you behaved with great dignity, and everybody was grateful to you for it.”

“Thanks.”

“We’d better go now… Think over what we’ve said, and remember that we only said it out of affection for you…”

“Thanks again.”

“Come on, Jane. Are you ready?”

She nodded and moved toward the door. Halfway there, however, she turned around to say:

“I can’t bear leaving you like this…And I can’t help thinking…”

“That I’ll do something rash? You needn’t worry. As soon as you’re gone, I’ll call Neel, and we’ll chat quietly till it’s time for us to go to bed… You see how things are. You’re the first people to be told officially, but I’m sure the neighbors have a pretty shrewd idea by now… For the last few days she’s even been having her meals with me. It makes a little company for me. You see, I’m not used to eating alone…”

“Let’s go, Franz!”

And Jane fled. She was in such a hurry that she put her arm in the wrong sleeve of her coat. It was a coat she had modeled on one of Alice’s, except that Alice’s was cinnamon, whereas hers was blue-gray.

“Shall I see you tomorrow?” asked Franz, holding out his hand.

“Tomorrow and every other day… To my mind, the president of a club ought to be regular in his attendance. So until you throw me out…”

“Nonsense!”

“Good-bye, good night, sleep well!…As a matter of fact, I’m sure you’ll both sleep abominably. As for you, Jane, don’t fail to be on your veranda tomorrow to see me pass!”

He glanced into the street, at the stone parapet by the canal, the bollards between the trees, the shaped gables of the houses opposite. When he shut the door, he stood still for a moment, his hand to his heart, since once again he had that sudden feeling of constriction that had caused him so much alarm. For a second he thought of calling one of his colleagues, a heart specialist who had seen him previously and had told him it was nothing to worry about.

It seemed to him strange for some reason to be alone in the empty hall, standing under the light, which was in the form of a lantern with colored glass sides. At the far end was the kitchen door, whose frosted-glass panels were lit up. Now and again a shadow moved across them.

Upstairs all was darkness. Here, the umbrella stand, which also had its history. Another little quarrel. Alice had given it to him for his birthday, and his idea of a birthday present was something for your own personal use. So annoyed had he been that he had threatened to give her a box of cigars for hers.

How silly it all was! And how far, far away! Like the coatstand. Alice had wanted one of fumed oak, he one of bamboo. There’d been an argument, Alice maintaining that bamboo was common.

They had bought one of fumed oak with bronze pegs and a bevel-edged looking-glass in the middle. They had bought it at Versma’s, the best furniture store in Sneek.

Kuperus could follow the Van Malderens all the way home. Jane, as always hanging on her husband’s arm, out of breath because he took such long strides. And it wasn’t hard to guess that they’d be talking about him…

And then their arrival home, to their newly built house, one of the smartest in town… Jane heaving a sigh of satisfaction as she took off her outdoor shoes, which cramped her feet.

Like a nightmare, the discomfort in his chest passed off. He crossed the hall and opened the kitchen door. The new maid, Beetje, was ironing, while Neel was cutting thin slices of cheese.

“When would you like dinner?” she asked.

“As soon as possible. You can set the table now.”

He was tired all of a sudden. Was there a chance of their doing anything to him in the Billiard Club? Would they have the courage to replace him? It was an important question. It wasn’t the billiards that counted, but the circle of people who made up the club. All the best people belonged, and there was nothing in Sneek that quite compared with it. Even the café itself was not like any other. If it wasn’t exactly reserved for the notabilities of the town, few went there who did not come under that classification, and when they did, they were generally made to feel out of place.

If they asked him to resign, it could only mean that they suspected him. In fact, it would almost amount to a public accusation.

Rather than that, they had approached Franz Van Malderen… Franz had spoken to his wife… His wife had invited herself to tea… And, after a little maneuvering, she had broached the subject of a trip abroad. And the young widow! Of course, if he married abroad, there was all the less chance of his ever coming back.

When Neel came in with the tablecloth, he was still holding his wife’s photograph. Suddenly conscious of it, he put it down quickly, but not before she had seen it.

“There are too many things in here,” he said roughly. “We must get rid of some of these photographs.”

To which Neel answered:

“It wouldn’t be right.”

For the life of her, she couldn’t have given a reason. It was always like that with her. It just wasn’t the thing to do. It wouldn’t be right.

He shrugged his shoulders, then paused to study her. Jane had not failed to notice the change in her. Her hair was neatly done and her whole appearance showed signs of care. Kuperus even came to the conclusion she must be using face powder.

He had told the truth when he’d boasted of having her eat with him. It had started only a few days before.

“Why don’t you sit down?” he had said as she stood waiting.

“I wouldn’t like to.”

“Why not?”

“It’s not the right thing.”

“Well, you’re going to do it anyway!” he had snapped. “From now on you’re going to have your meals with me. Do you hear that?”

She had hardly been able to swallow a thing, but all the same she had had a meal with him, and with that a new custom had been inaugurated. As for Beetje, Kuperus didn’t bother about what she might think. On the contrary, he positively flaunted his relationship with Neel, going into the kitchen at night on purpose to say:

“Coming to bed, Neel? Good night, Beetje.”

Beetje didn’t seem to understand. Or if she did, it was a matter of complete indifference to her. She worked twelve to fourteen hours a day, and to judge by the expression on her face — or the lack of it — she didn’t have a thought in her head the whole day long.

“You can leave the wine here,” he said.

Half the second bottle was left. And habit was so strong in him that he couldn’t help getting out the special silver-mounted cork, which they had always used for bottles that had been opened. It was part of a plated service that had come from The Hague. They had chosen it from a catalogue, and within two years the plating had worn off.

“I’m tired, Neel,” he sighed, sinking back into the chair in which Van Malderen had sat.

And when the meal was served he complained:

“I’m not hungry.”

“You’d better eat something… It’s not good to go to bed on an empty stomach.”

Exactly what his wife would have said, or Jane Van Malderen, or any other woman, for that matter.

“They came about the electricity,” added Neel, “and I paid the bill.”

And every object was in its exact place, immutably, unbearably in its place!

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