simenon’s the murderer, chapter 7: “the day before, he had still been wondering why he’d killed”


 

SEVEN

It was ten o’clock in the morning, and Kuperus had not yet finished dressing. Standing in front of the mirror, he was in the act of tying his tie when all at once he paused, motionless, listening.

Through the wall came the sound of a piano, at first a few casual notes, then some firmer chords, which formed the opening bars of one of Schumann’s compositions.

For a moment he was at a loss to know what it was that had caught him off guard. It wasn’t surprise, but, rather, some sort of wistful nostalgia. As he looked at his reflection, he saw a Kuperus different from that of the last few days, a Kuperus who was touched, agitated, bewildered.“Mia!” he whispered.

Mia had returned. Perhaps she was cured. The doctor was so affected by the idea that he almost forgot he had been summoned to appear before the examining magistrate.

The house next door, on the side toward the bridge, was smaller than the others, but it was more spick-and-span than any of them, with its woodwork freshly painted every year and its white curtains starched. In it lived the Braundts, the quietest and most respected people on the street. Braundt was a master at the grammar school; his wife was housekeeper in an upper school for girls.

They went off at the same time every day, leaving their little girl, Mia, in the care of a governess. Mia was twelve. She didn’t go to school because of her health and also because she spent a lot of time studying the piano. For the last two years, Kuperus had been used to hearing her practice while he saw his patients.

The autumn before, she had been so ill that they’d sent her off to spend the winter in Switzerland, and the doctor had so far forgotten her that he had ceased to notice the absence of the music.

And now she had come back, and the sound of her playing filled his house.

“The little girl’s come back,” said a voice behind him.

It was Neel, who was busily brushing his bowler.

“Yes, she’s back,” he murmured.

Downstairs, he didn’t go out at once, but wandered first into the living room. Against the wall was an upright piano, the top of which was littered with photographs and ornaments.

On the music stool was a cushion of dark crimson plush, which had been made specially for little Mia.

At one time, she had come in regularly every afternoon to do her practicing under the supervision of Madame Kuperus. For Alice played, too, though not well enough to give the child her lessons. For that, a teacher came to the Braundts’ every morning.

Alice had kept a special box of chocolates for Mia. Perhaps it was still there in the dining-room sideboard.

“Will you be seeing any patients while you’re out? If so, you’d better take your bag.”

Neel followed him to the front door.

“No. I won’t need it.”

He had been quite relieved, that morning, to receive the official notice asking him to be at the examining magistrate’s office by eleven o’clock. Somehow, its effect had been to set his mind at rest. But Mia’s playing had sufficed to upset him again, and it was with a heavy heart that he heard the familiar sound of the front door shutting behind him.

Many a time Mia had still been with Alice when her mother had come back from work in the evening. If so, the latter had simply banged on the wall, which was the signal for the child to return home.

It was a dull gray day. Kuperus made an effort to shake off the melancholy effect of the music. He succeeded sufficiently to be able to throw a glance of complete indifference at the veranda from which he knew Jane Van Malderen would be watching him. In fact, he was almost tempted to put out his tongue!

What was the examining magistrate going to call him? Anton Groven and Hans Kuperus had been to school together, and by rights should call each other by their Christian names. They always had. It’s true they had never seen a great deal of each other, but that was only because his wife was the most disagreeable woman in Sneek. Nobody could stand her.

Why had he been summoned? Had the writer of the anonymous letter come forward at last? Or had the ticket collector been to the police?

When he’d got up that morning, Kuperus had been in a pugnacious mood, ready to confront the world and answer whatever questions they cared to put to him. But a few notes of music had cut the ground from under his feet, bringing back the past, years and years of it, right from the time of Mia’s first scales, when she’d had to have two cushions on the music stool.

The law courts were grayer than the rest of the town. The doctor walked straight upstairs and knocked on the examining magistrate’s door. Before there was any answer, he heard the sound of chairs being moved inside.

Finally the door was opened by the magistrate’s clerk. Anton Groven stood rather uneasily behind his desk, trying to look dignified.

“Come in… Take a seat…”

He didn’t shake hands. He didn’t call his visitor by his Christian name. Sitting down again, he tugged at his little beard, while with the other hand he turned over the papers of a file whose bulk surprised Kuperus.

“I had to summon you to come. There are a few questions I must ask you before winding up this inquiry. I’ve received reports from various quarters, and there are one or two points that require elucidation…”

He had obviously rehearsed the sentences beforehand, since he sounded rather like a schoolboy reciting one of the fables of La Fontaine. He hadn’t even raised his eyes from the dossier.

“For instance, I see here that at the time of the incident you were sheltering a certain Karl Vorberg, of German nationality, whose record is highly unsatisfactory. The Emden police have informed us that this Vorberg is strongly suspected of having committed a murder, but there’s not sufficient evidence to provide grounds for extradition…”

At last Groven raised his head. He looked timidly at Kuperus, as though he feared the latter would present a painful spectacle.

“Were you aware of the presence of this Vorberg in your house?”

“No.”

“In that case, I’m afraid I must quote from another report. It states here that you saw this person twice yesterday in a street of ill repute in Amsterdam. Do you deny that?”

“No.”

Kuperus tried to banish the strains of the piano from his mind. He realized now that, though he had been left alone, he had nonetheless been the subject of pretty exhaustive inquiries. He had even been followed. And he hadn’t noticed it!

He looked at the dossier. Was every page of it a trap in some form or other?

“Don’t think I’m trying to trip you up… But we must get this clear… On the one hand, you’ve told me you didn’t know Vorberg. On the other, you admit having seen him twice yesterday… ”

“That’s right.”

“Would you mind explaining that, please?”

“I didn’t know Karl at the time. I had no idea there was a man sleeping in the house…”

“How did you find out?”

“From the maid. When I took her as my mistress.”

The clerk hesitated to write that down, and Groven looked inquiringly at the doctor, who went on:

“I take full responsibility for what I’m saying. I had the maid down to sleep with me, and then it came out that she had another man upstairs… To get rid of him, I gave him some money, on condition he go to Amsterdam.”

“Has he been blackmailing you?”

“No. But it’s only natural he should expect a little compensation for obliging me. Yesterday I gave him a little more to get along with.”

For a moment there was silence while Groven studied his papers. Then he looked up again and made a sign to the clerk not to take down what he was going to say.

“The presence of this German under your roof was the most obscure part of the whole affair, and the police were almost prepared to draw certain conclusions from it…It will be easy to have your story confirmed by the servant and by Karl Vorberg himself… With that out of the way, there’s not much to bother about…” That might have been taken ironically, since there were at least a hundred typewritten sheets in the dossier, and presumably they weren’t about nothing! “I suppose,” went on the magistrate, “that, on your side, you’ve no information to give us…”

He said that rather hurriedly, as though he was afraid the doctor might have.

“I’m ready to answer your questions,” answered the latter.

“I wish I could spare myself the task of having to ask them… As you know, of course, Schutter’s wallet disappeared, which suggested an obvious motive. But we couldn’t blind ourselves to the fact that there might be another one — in other words, jealousy. I take it that you deny having shot your wife and her companion…”

Kuperus sat still for a moment, assailed by a strange temptation. He would have loved to contradict the magistrate. He would have loved to answer:

“I don’t deny any such thing!”

But it wasn’t so easy. And if, in the end, he nodded, it was because Groven, by the attitude he adopted, practically forced him to.

“That evening, when you returned from Amsterdam, you went as usual to the Onder den Linden, after which you went straight home.”

Groven breathed deeply. He was relieved. He made a little movement of his hand as though to banish the clouds.

“Of course, if it was assumed to be a crime of passion, the sentence would be correspondingly lenient, as it always is in such cases… On the other hand, it would unloose a scandal that could only be described as disastrous…”

Kuperus gave a bleak smile.

“On your side, is there anybody on whom you could throw suspicion?”

“No. Nobody,” answered Kuperus without a trace of sarcasm.

The magistrate paused while the clerk wrote that down. Then he stood up and cleared his throat. He had come to the most difficult part of all, but he was determined to go through with it.

“I hope,” he began, looking everywhere but at Kuperus, “I hope you fully realize the situation. This crime, this double crime, was committed in such a way as to leave us with no serious indications as to the perpetrator, or, at all events, with no formal proof. If the case was sent before the Assizes, it’s more than probable there’d be an acquittal, because the accused would be given the benefit of the doubt…”

The clerk had got up, too, and had disappeared into an alcove, where he was washing his hands.

“The accused?” asked Kuperus. “Who do you mean?”

“I don’t know… I’m just speaking in the abstract…But let me go on. At this stage we can hardly hope for any fresh evidence. That’s why I’ve asked you to come today. By this evening there’s every probability that the case will have been dropped…And, if it’s dropped, the important thing is that it should be forgotten; in other words, there should be nothing to keep it fresh in people’s minds… You understand me, Doctor?”

He’d said “Doctor”! That made it thoroughly official! Admittedly, it would have been difficult for Groven to call him Hans.

“As a matter of fact, one of our mutual friends, Van Malderen to be exact, told me you were intending to go away as soon as the case was finished… And I must say I think it’s a very wise decision…”

He had come out with it at last! With his hands in his pockets, he walked slowly to and fro behind his desk, pronouncing his words syllable by syllable to give full weight to all they were meant to convey.

“Your answers to my questions have been entirely satisfactory, and I feel sure that, before the day is out, what you have told me will be confirmed from other sources. That leaves us with only one or two details that are a little troublesome, though I don’t suppose they would amount to much in the eyes of a jury. At the station they’ve hunted for your railway ticket without success. The man at the barrier has admitted that some people, particularly the regular passengers, occasionally leave the station via the buffet, in which case they don’t hand in their tickets…You can imagine what capital a lawyer could make out of an admission like that!”

There was no doubt about it: his words were intended as a threat. He spoke in tones of the utmost detachment, but he was nonetheless giving orders.

“And, last, the other little point: it’s a pity that on the day in question you failed to attend the meeting of the Biological Association. Of course I’m quite sure you had a very good reason. I daresay you weren’t feeling well that day and decided to come straight home… And we mustn’t forget that you’ve never possessed a revolver, and the one with which the crime was committed has not been found… So, all things considered… But I don’t want to make a long story of it. All I wanted to do was to put my cards frankly on the table… As I said before, by tonight this dossier will have been stuffed away in a pigeonhole, and tomorrow I’ll be busy on something else… It only remains for me to wish you an interesting journey and to express the hope that this unfortunate business will soon cease to trouble people’s minds…”

He stood still and looked Kuperus squarely and coldly in the face.

“I take it you have nothing to add?” he said sternly.

The doctor hesitated. Why should a phrase of the music once more run through his head? Finally, and with an abject air, he stammered:

“Nothing.”

“In that case, we can consider it all over. Thank you.”

He opened the door himself, keeping his right hand on the handle so that it wouldn’t be available for shaking hands. His only farewell was a stiff bow, and the doctor left ignominiously, bumped into somebody in the hall, muttered an apology, and found himself in the street without knowing how he’d left the building.

So acutely was he suffering that he had to stop in the middle of the sidewalk outside a house and stand there with his hand over his heart. It wasn’t merely a physical suffering. It affected mind and body alike. It was an utter prostration of his whole being.

But through his agony came a ray of light. The day before, he had still been wondering why he’d killed. Now he knew it. It was because of just what he was suffering now!

He had just been through the most abject humiliation of his whole life. A man who had been to school with him, and ever since had called him by his Christian name, had rapped him over the knuckles and practically ordered him out of the town.

It was impossible to interpret what he had said in any other way. He had told Kuperus he was no longer wanted in Sneek. He had told him to pack his bags and clear out!

What was humiliation? The feeling of impotence in the face of one’s fellow creature, of inferiority that has to be openly admitted, the obligation to bend before another’s will…

And wasn’t that just what he’d felt over and over again in his relations with Schutter? And when he had received the anonymous letter…

… Schutter, who was richer than he was, who had kept his youthful figure, who was a polished man of the world, who could do anything he liked, and get away with it!…

He was walking along the canal now, but with unseeing eyes. When he got home, he walked straight past Neel in the hall without so much as a glance at her, and, taking refuge in his office, he shut and locked the door.

There he paced up and down, clenching his fists because of the music. It wasn’t Schumann now, but a Chopin berceuse, whose romanticism he found absolutely unbearable. He felt like breaking down altogether, bursting into tears.

Anton Groven was no doubt saying to Van Malderen:

“It’s all arranged… He’s going!”

And when Van Malderen went home to lunch, he’d say to Jane:

“It’s all arranged… He’s going!”

And so from mouth to mouth. Later on, in the Onder den Linden, the billiard players would say between their breaks:

“Have you heard?… It’s all arranged… He’s going!”

It was a sort of bloodless execution. And the Braundts would soon be saying to the little wide-eyed Mia:

“Aunt Kuperus is dead and Uncle Kuperus has gone away.”

For Mia had been in and out of their house so much that she had been taught to call them Aunt and Uncle Kuperus.

And now, after all, it was in a sense Schutter who triumphed. He had always put Kuperus in the shade, and now he was actually banishing him!

Up and down he went, to and fro, not knowing what he was doing. Sometimes he stopped to fiddle with something on his desk.

He had been completely incapable of standing up for himself. He had left the examining magistrate’s office like a beggar who has been refused alms! Had Anton Groven been watching him as he groped his way blindly along the hall? Had he felt a spark of pity at the sight of his drooping shoulders?

If only he could have wept! Tears might have brought some relief. The music jarred on his nerves to such an extent that he suddenly walked swiftly over to the wall and banged on it. But Mia didn’t understand what he meant.

He had killed because…

It wasn’t really clear even now. At least, it was the sort of revelation that cannot be expressed in words or fitted into any logical sequence of ideas.

It was something like this: for fifteen years he, Dr. Kuperus, had lived in this house with his wife… He worked hard… In the course of the morning he saw about twenty patients, and, because they were mostly poor people, the waiting room always smelled a bit…

In the afternoon he went all over the town on foot, into stuffy rooms whose air was already heavy with impending death, and then at five o’clock he would reach the Onder den Linden, often only to be called away again before he’d finished a game…

In the evening he read the newspaper while his wife did some needlework or knitting. Once a month the Van Malderens stayed to dinner, and once a month he went to Amsterdam, where his sister-in-law put him up for the night…

He had been on a cruise to Spitzbergen and had had a holiday in Paris…

For fifteen years things had gone on like that, because that was how they had to be. He’d been quite a stickler in his way. Everything had to be in its right place, everything done at the right time.

When his wife had wanted her living room refurnished, he’d agreed because Jane Van Malderen’s had been refurnished the year before. When she had wanted a fur coat, he had thought it over for a month, which was only reasonable and proper, and then had bought it for her birthday.

Only, from time to time something gnawed at him, from time to time he was assailed by a longing to break out of this harmonious existence, to knock down this scaffolding of respectability. Such ideas, however, were no sooner entertained than they were brushed aside. That he was living his life in the right sort of way was obvious, since everybody else did precisely likewise…

If he was occasionally tempted to make a pass at Neel, he immediately reproved himself, and was even ready to judge himself very severely…

Then all of a sudden his wife… and Schutter!…

If it had been anyone else, it would have been different. But it had to be Schutter! The one man in Sneek who did not live like Dr. Kuperus and all the others. The one man who lived just as he wanted to, indulging every whim. And far from being punished for it, he was rewarded. He was made president of the Billiard Club! And no woman seemed able to withhold her favors from him.

Not even Alice Kuperus!…

What did it all amount to? That Kuperus was wrong. That he’d been wrong all his life. That he’d been led up the garden path — the straight and narrow path, into the bargain — and been led nowhere.

In other words, everything was false, rotten to the core, the house and everything in it, the new living-room furniture, the fur coat, the piano, and the crimson cushion that had been made for Mia…

There! That was why he’d killed! Because he was fed up with the whole bag of tricks, because things that for years had seemed right and proper, if not scared, now seemed idiotic, like the bottle of Burgundy that was brought up from the cellar religiously every Thursday and set by the side of the fire to take the chill off…

Because everything had been knocked sideways. Because he could no longer even listen to Mia’s playing…

He had been taken in. That was it: taken in! He’d been a fool to believe in it all, to toe the line, all for nothing… They had never even thought of making him vice-president of the club!

So why not get rid of this Schutter, and his wife into the bargain?

Having done that, he would kill himself, too. Or he could just give himself up and then have the satisfaction of telling them all exactly what he thought of them.

Things had worked out differently. Why? He really couldn’t say. He hadn’t killed himself. Nor had he given himself up. The only thing he had done to mark his protest was to take

Neel to bed with him.

And where did he stand now? He didn’t know that either. He was crushed. He didn’t even have the courage to look at himself in the mirror. Stamped on his retina was the vision of Anton opening the door and showing him out, bowing frigidly…

The music never stopped. Mia practiced six hours a day, because she was intending to become a virtuoso.

If only he could have wept! But no! He even screwed his face into a grimace, hoping to start it that way, but no sob came.

Opening the door he angrily shouted:

“Neel!”

Then, since she didn’t come immediately, he went downstairs and found her setting the table in the dining room.

“Neel!”

She turned and looked at him apathetically.

“Tell me, Neel… are there any rumors going around in the neighborhood?”

“What do you mean?”

“The people that gossip in the shops, for instance — have they been saying anything new these last few days?”

“About you?”

“Yes, of course — about me.”

“They say you’re going away.”

“Do they give any reason?”

Neel sighed.

“You know perfectly well.”

“Never mind! I want you to tell me.”

“Oh, very well! They say that after what’s happened you can’t go on living in Sneek, and that even if you wanted to, you’d be prevented…”

“Who says that?”

“Everybody. Even the boys run after me and put their tongues out…You asked me to tell you, didn’t you?”

“Do they say anything else?”

“They do.”

“Come on! Out with it!”

“They say that you’re much too cunning to have left any clues, but that the murderer of Schutter and your wife is not far away…”

Kuperus looked at her out of the corner of his eye.

“And you?”

“What about me?”

“What do you think?”

“You know.”

“Why should I?”

“Really?…Do you mean to say you don’t know… that you never suspected?”

Her surprise was not put on.

“Suppose we drop the subject,” she muttered, moving toward the door.

“Answer me, will you?… What do you think?”

“I’ve known all along,” she replied with a shrug of the shoulders. “You see, it was me who wrote the letter…”

She didn’t seem to think it was of any importance. The subject bored her, and her one thought was to cut the conversation short.

“Why did you write that letter?”

“Because of Madame.”

“Why?”

“I knew she came in late the nights you were in Amsterdam, and once she only got back at nine next morning…”

“Go on.”

“One day we had a fight…”

“You and my wife?”

“Yes… I’d been doing the shopping, and was half a guilder short when I gave her the change… I must have dropped it somewhere, because I’d never think of taking the trouble to steal half a guilder… A whole hour she spent in the kitchen yelling at me and saying she’d take it out of my wages… It was then that I told her…”

“What did you tell her?”

“That if she did, I’d come out with what I knew.”

Kuperus stood motionless, oppressed by the thought of the petty squabbles that had gone on around him to which he’d been utterly oblivious. His life had been so quiet, so well regulated. He must have come home from the Onder den Linden only a few minutes after scenes of this kind, and had noticed nothing.

“But she was in such a temper that she yelled back at me: ‘You’d never dare!’ ”

“But you did?”

“The same day… The next day she said she was sorry, gave me five guilders, and begged me to keep my mouth shut… But it was too late…”

“Did you tell her so?”

“No.”

“And you took the five guilders?”

“Yes.”

And from that day she had waited, surprised at having to wait so long. Because she knew that he knew.

“Did you ever ask her for money after that?”

“Toward the end, yes. On account of Karl.”

She had made her confession without shame, only with a touch of asperity, as though she couldn’t understand why anyone would want to stir up memories of that kind.

“So when I came back that night and told you to bring me some tea, you knew at once?”

“I knew from the moment you touched me.”

The doctor was silent for a moment. Thenhe suddenly flared up.

“Get out of here!” he shouted. “Get out of this room.”

In the mirror, he watched her go out shrugging her shoulders, then he went over and shut the door behind her. Coming back to the table, he caught hold of the tablecloth and, with a sudden jerk, sent all the china crashing to the floor. Finally he picked up a vase from the mantelpiece and hurled it, too, to the floor. It was a vase he had once mended himself, when a former servant, long before Neel, had broken off one of the handles.

There was no relief for his suffering! He was humiliated, humiliated by everything. Humiliated by Van Malderen, humiliated by Anton Groven, who was no doubt at that very moment discussing him with his wife as they sat at lunch… Humiliated by Neel…

Alice had paid the five guilders, hoping thus to buy Neel’s silence…

A sudden stab went through him at a thought. It wasn’t Alice who kept the housekeeping accounts, but he. So to give Neel five guilders, she must have cheated on the weekly bills. Or else…or else asked Schutter for it.

That was it! Surely! She’d asked Schutter. She’d sobbed out the whole story to him, and he’d reassured her, patted her on the back, given her the five guilders.

He looked around for something else to smash. But no! What was the use? It didn’t even relieve his feelings. He was aching all over. He felt as though he were suffocating. He didn’t know what to do with himself. The constriction in his chest got tighter and tighter, until it became sharp as a spasm. He groped for the handle of the door. He called out:

“Neel!”

She came, quite casually, asking:

“What is it now?”

“Call Dr. De Greef,” he panted. “Ask him to come at once.”

He felt sure his strength was failing. He thought the spasms of his heart were squeezing it like a sponge. He listened and heard Neel in the office talking to De Greef’s maid. A moment later she came down again.

“He’ll be here in a few minutes. Do you want anything else?”

“No. Leave me.”

“You’d much better put it out of your mind. You won’t do any good by worrying over it… What’s done’s done…”

“Be quiet.”

“And what’s the matter with a bit of foreign travel, anyway?”

“Hold your tongue, will you?”

He couldn’t bear to listen to another word.

“Go away. Leave me alone.”

Perhaps he was going to die. The music, which had stopped for a few minutes, now started again. He knew every note by now, every chord. He waited for each one to come…

He left the door open, in order to be sure of hearing the bell when De Greef arrived.

 

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