Once again he groped for the switch and turned on the light. The hands of his watch were at half past eleven. For the fifth time he drank a glass of water, after which he lay down again and listened resentfully to the rain pattering on the roof.
It was very hot in the room, and his skin was tingling uncomfortably. If he turned over on his left side, he could feel a slight pain in his chest, but he knew now that it was nothing to worry about.
De Greef had said so, and he was a specialist of some standing whose reputation extended to Groningen and even to Amsterdam. But although he had been reassuring, that didn’t mean he had been agreeable. On the contrary. When he came in, he had avoided offering Kuperus his hand.
“It’s for you, is it?” he had grunted, taking off his gloves and putting his stethoscope down on the table.
A chilly little man, with gray hair and very white skin. His features were finely drawn, even sharp.
“Take your clothes off.”
He was certainly thinking of other things than purely professional matters. And when Neel came in with a clean towel, he looked sideways at her. No doubt he had heard something about her, too.
“A feeling of suffocation, you say?”
“Take a deep breath.”
He examined him standing. Kuperus looked enormous; in fact, De Greef’s head came only to the level of his bare chest. For a quarter of an hour the examination went on, during which time the specialist asked a few curt questions, but made no comment whatsoever.
Finally, he called Neel and asked for some water to wash his hands. Then he started rolling up his shirt sleeves.
“Well?” asked Kuperus with some impatience.
“You’re more frightened than anything else.”
De Greef said it contemptuously, his voice as cold as his appearance.
“When one’s as little ill as you are, there’s no need to call in a specialist who’s got plenty of serious work on his hands.”
“Then I haven’t got angina pectoris?”
“Not a shadow of it.”
“But those spasms?”
The other shrugged his shoulders.
“Look here!” he said at last. “This isn’t a job for a doctor at all. Speaking as a man, however, I can give you a bit of advice. Clear out! And as soon as possible. Take your servant with you if you can’t do without her.”
He had no sooner gone than the piano started up again, throwing Kuperus this time into a rage. He called Neel.
“Go next door and tell them to stop that damned piano!… Tell them I’m ill. Do you hear me?”
Neel heard him all right, but she shook her head.
“What are you waiting for?”
“I can’t do that.”
“What? Do you mean to say you refuse?”
“You know very well it isn’t possible.”
He really lost control, and all the more readily because he now knew it wasn’t dangerous. He didn’t have angina pectoris, not a shadow of it.
Cursing and swearing, he strode into the kitchen, where Beetje was washing up.
“Here! I want you… Wipe your hands and go next door. Ask them, from Dr. Kuperus, to stop the piano for today…”
The girl looked inquiringly at Neel, who shook her head. Thus prompted, she stammered:
“What did you say?”
It was a disgusting scene, sordid beyond words. He began by shaking the girl, who immediately burst into tears. Then, to stop her crying, he started slapping her face. At the same time, he stormed and threatened, heaping on Neel’s head all the abuse he could think of.
Finally, panting with rage, he had left them and shut himself up in the dining room, where he found a bottle of gin in the sideboard, which he settled down to drink, muttering to himself all the while.
He hadn’t had any dinner. He hadn’t answered when Neel knocked on the door to come in and set the table. A little later he had gone up to the office, then to his bedroom, where he had started packing.
Now, he felt washed out. The sounds in the street had died down little by little, and the house, too, had relapsed into silence. There was nothing to be heard but the raindrops obstinately pattering down on the roof and against the windowpanes. The radiator seemed to be throwing out waves of heat.
Kuperus got up and slipped on his dressing gown. Opening the door, he went upstairs to the next floor, which was the attic. He moved noiselessly. Anyone seeing him might have thought he was afraid of himself.
Neel’s door wasn’t locked. He opened it and heard a rustling sound, as of someone roused from sleep. When he switched on the light, he found Neel’s eyes open, looking at him.
The light made them blink, but they expressed nothing, neither surprise nor fear.
“What’s the matter?”
She was hot, too. The whole house was overheated. There were two beds in the room; the other one was empty.
“What do you mean?”
“She’s gone back to her parents.”
“Because I slapped her?”
Neel’s skin was shining; her eyelids were heavy.
“She wanted to go yesterday.”
Neel sighed, as much as to say:
“You know as well as I do.”
Kuperus looked fleetingly at her and said:
“Oh, dear! Do you really want me to?”
“Yes. Do what I tell you.”
She could see he was on the verge of losing his temper again, and grudgingly lifted herself up, thrust one leg out of bed, then the other. She put on her slippers and threw a coat over her pink nightgown.
“All right. I’ll come.”
She shuffled down the stairs, still only half awake. In the doctor’s bedroom, she said:
“It’s too hot in here. We must have a window open.”
She went and opened it, then stood by the fireplace, waiting. Kuperus had closed the door, but, having done that, he didn’t know what to say or what to do. He couldn’t have said quite why he’d gone to get her.
“Did I hit you, too?” he asked without looking at her.
“It doesn’t matter about me.”
“And Beetje? Do you think she’ll tell everybody?”
“Of course she will.”
“What did she say?”
“She swore you must be crazy.”
“This is what we’re going to do…We’ll pack our bags right away — tonight, in fact — and tomorrow we’ll take the first train to Paris…”
“You can take it if you like.”
“Why not you?”
“Because I don’t want to go.”
“You mean you refuse to live with me? Answer me. Do you refuse?”
“I refuse to leave Holland.”
“What’s wrong with living in the South of France? In Nice, for instance… You’d have nothing to do the whole day long.”
“I don’t mind work.”
He had never seen her calmer, more sure of herself. She rejected his offer with complete indifference. Going over to the window, she shut it a little, because a draft of cold air was moving across the room.
“I’m quite ready to help you pack.”
“Look here, Neel! I mean this seriously. If you come with me, I’ll marry you.”
And still in the same offhand way, she answered:
“I won’t go.”
“Do you refuse to become my wife?”
“For no particular reason. Just because I don’t want to.”
“And if I stay here?”
“I’ll go on keeping house for you. Now that I’m about it…”
Avoiding her eye, he paced up and down the room.
“Go to bed,” he ordered.
He watched her in the mirror, saw her throw off her coat and slip into the bed.
“What about you? Aren’t you coming to bed?”
“You ought to take a sleeping pill.”
No. He wasn’t going to take a sleeping pill. He didn’t want to sleep. He wanted to think. And think he did, furiously, angrily, reviewing one by one the events of the day, beginning with Groven’s frigid politeness and De Greef’s unconcealed contempt, right down to the ugly scene with Beetje, and ending with Neel’s refusal to marry him.
“All right! Then I won’t go either!” he suddenly announced emphatically.
He was expecting Neel to start arguing about it, or at least to show surprise, but when he turned toward the bed he found her more than half asleep, hardly able to keep her eyes open.
“Do you hear that, Neel? I won’t go! I’m not afraid of them… What can they do to me?”
“Why don’t you come to bed?”
“You’ll see if I don’t know how to hit back! And no later than tomorrow either! They’re all in league to hound me out of town…” She shut her eyes, and suddenly, looking at her, he remembered their first night, and felt the blood rush to his head. “Do you hear what I say, Neel?” And still the constant patter of the rain, apart from which all was silence. A dead world with just one little corner that was alive, this warm bed, warmed by Neel’s sleeping body. For she had fallen asleep, and merely gave a little grunt as he got into the bed beside her.
So much the worse for them, all of them! If they didn’t like it, they’d just have to lump it! In a firm hand he had written:
Would you please come here as soon as you possibly can. I want to see you about a matter of the utmost importance.
I am counting on you.
It was Neel who had taken it to Van Malderen’s office. When she returned, Kuperus pounced on her in the hall.
“What did he say?”
“He asked if you were going away.”
“What did you tell him?”
“That I didn’t know.”
“Is he coming?”
“He didn’t say.”
On the way back, she had bought some cutlets and lettuce. She went into the kitchen, and a moment later he could hear her making up the fire.
As for Kuperus, he went down to the cellar to get a bottle of Burgundy, which he put in its traditional place by the side of the stove. Then he got the tray ready with the wine glasses and some biscuits.
Mia was practicing again, but the sound no longer annoyed him. On the contrary, he now regarded it as a suitable accompaniment to the drama, serving to heighten his emotions.
He wasn’t going! That was definitely decided. And not only was he staying, but he was going to take the offensive. He was going to do something altogether unexpected, which would completely turn the tables.
He saw Van Malderen’s head pass the window, and shouted to Neel to open the door at the same moment the doorbell rang. But he remained in the dining room while Neel relieved the visitor of his coat.
“I’ve come, as you asked me…What is it you want of me?”
He’d come straight to the point without a word of friendly greeting. That was significant.
“I need your help. Sit down.”
And the doctor poured two glasses of wine.
“Not for me, thanks,” said Van Malderen. “Not at this time of day.”
“Just as you like… In any case, it’s as a lawyer that I need your services…I want to bring a suit.”
He expected Franz to look surprised, if not to jump from his chair, but the lawyer merely frowned.
“I’ve been accused of murder. Various people have made it quite obvious by their attitude. And to vindicate my honor, I have only one recourse — to sue for defamation of character…”
“I’m not quite sure. You’ll have to advise me about that. But, for one, Groven. He summoned me to his office and then insulted me, grossly insulted me, in the presence of his clerk…”
Van Malderen shrugged his shoulders.
“And there are others. For instance, my colleague De Greef, who only yesterday…”
“Excuse me,” sighed Van Malderen, “but there’s not the slightest use going on, because I can’t act for you.”
“You mean you refuse?”
“As a lawyer, you refuse to act for a man who’s being persecuted?”
“Both as a lawyer and as one of your oldest friends. Still more, as a sane man! The idea is absurd from start to finish. First, you wouldn’t have a leg to stand on. Second, the case would be ridiculous and thoroughly unpleasant. Third…”
“There are some causes that I would rather not defend. I have every right to pick and choose. If you want to waste your time, you can ask every lawyer in the country. You won’t find one to take on a case like this.”
He moved toward the door.
“Franz!” cried Kuperus.
“Is that your last word?”
“The last, yes, on this or any other subject!”
And without waiting for Neel to open the door, he took down his coat and walked out of the house.
The piano was still playing, and Kuperus stood with his elbows on the mantelpiece, staring at himself in the mirror. His features were puffy, his eyes tired, his mouth cruel. Permeating his whole being was a feeling of lassitude and at the same time a warm, tender self-pity.
They were all against him, the whole town.
They wanted at all costs to drive him out. But that only made him cling more tightly than ever to his little corner of the universe, his street, his house and all the things in it, and even the music that came through the wall.
He turned and looked at Alice’s photograph, the one she’d had taken in Paris. For two or three minutes he gazed at it, and if there was pity in his eye, it was because in a strange way he included her in his pity for himself.
“I’ve got a cutlet for you,” announced Neel, coming in to set the table.
He turned around. She looked tired, too. There was a droop in her shoulders and an irritable look on her face.
“What did he say?” she ventured to ask.
He shrugged his shoulders and answered, with a sigh:
“They’re all against me.”
“That you’d much better go.”
She brought in his cutlet and after a moment’s hesitation began:
“I’ve been thinking things over… I don’t want you to do anything foolish. So, if you’re really set on it, I’ll come with you as far as Brussels. They say you can get along in Belgium speaking Dutch…I’d stay there a few weeks with you — long enough for you to get settled. Then I’d come back…”
It wasn’t affection. It might have been pity. She made the proposal with an air of resignation.
“We could catch the early train tomorrow morning. We don’t need long to pack.”
“That’s all over now. I’m not going.”
“You’re making a mistake.”
“Because they’ll force you to.”
He flared up again:
“Nobody can force me to go. Do you hear that? They haven’t got a particle of proof. Even if you went and told them about the letter, they still wouldn’t have any proof. Nobody saw me do it, and they haven’t found a thing that would enable them to fasten it on me…”
He went over to the window and looked out. The canal, the quay, with two trees that were not yet in leaf, the houses on the other side. A man passed, wheeling a barrow. Somewhere, bells were ringing. It was still raining.
His breath made the windowpane misty. Hanging on either side were curtains with crochetwork. It was Alice who had made those curtains. On the window sill was a beaten brass cachepot, which they’d bought in Brussels, where they’d been for their honeymoon.
Neel had gone back to the kitchen, leaving his cutlet on the table. Now that Beetje had left them, she preferred to eat in the kitchen, so that she could keep an eye on the stove.
Kuperus turned back into the room, but, instead of sitting down to his meal, he wandered into the living room. Everything was in its place, the piano, the music stool, Mia’s plush cushion, the new furniture, and even the ball of sky-blue wool.
It was such a celestial blue, so utterly unreal, that he was touched. And when he picked it up, the feel of it was as delicate as the color.
Such purity, such grace!
On one of the needles was the little square of knitting already done. It was to have been a sweater. For indoors, Jane had said…
He dropped it, picked it up, then put it firmly down, making a resolution never to look at it again. He wouldn’t look at the photograph either. He sat down in one of the easy chairs, only to think that that was where he’d sat in the evening for fifteen years reading the Telegraaf, while the pink-shaded lamp threw its circle of soft light.
And they wanted to chase him away. What would he do with himself in Brussels, or Paris, or even on the Riviera? He would be an outcast, a wanderer with no roots, like Karl Vorberg… He wouldn’t even have Neel to share his bed——He’d be left with nothing
“Neel!” he called.
He was solemn, but she could see at once that he was in a state of intense emotion. She saw him sit down in front of his cutlet, which had by now got cold.
“Come and have your meal in here, will you?… Do as I ask you, Neel. We’re going to have our lunch quietly and calmly… Don’t look at me like that. Sit down…”
“I’ll just take the saucepan off the fire…”
She came back in a moment, carrying her plate.
“You see, don’t you?… There’s no reason why we shouldn’t be very happy together. What can they do to us?… Nothing! They can yap to their hearts’ content, but what do I care?… I have money. I don’t need any patients.”
“You’re not eating.”
“No hurry. I’ll eat my cutlet in a minute… You see, I’m quite calm… It’s you who are not eating…”
“I’m not hungry.”
“But you must eat your lunch… or I’ll be cross with you… You’re not afraid of me, are you?”
“Then you won’t leave me. Ever!…We’ll live here together, the two of us… You’ll be able to have a good time. But you must make me a promise, Neel. Swear you’ll never leave me. Swear on your mother’s head.”
She looked away, embarrassed.
“Why won’t you swear?… Don’t you mean to stay with me?”
She began to be frightened. His voice had changed. Had he suddenly remembered the decision he’d once made to kill her if ever she left him? Whatever it was, he was looking at her with strange eyes, bereft of thought.
“You know very well I’ll stay.”
He was absolutely set on it. At all costs, he must have her promise on oath.
“On your mother’s head.”
A little shiver went down her spine.
“On… on my… mother’s head!”
The doctor’s face lit up with almost childish joy-
“That everything’s coming out all right. I knew it would. We’ll stay here together, us two in our own home. We’ll have our meals together, we’ll sleep together. And I want you to start drinking wine.”
“I don’t like it.”
“That doesn’t matter. You’ll get to.”
And he poured her a full glass, which she didn’t dare refuse.
“We’ll open a bottle every day… And in the evenings you’ll sit here with some sewing, while I read the paper.”
“Yes,” she said dejectedly.
She couldn’t even swallow the mouthful she’d been chewing for ages.
He got up and fetched the ball of blue wool.
“You must finish this knitting… Yes, you must. I want you to.”
She couldn’t find a word to say. She simply sat there petrified, while the fire roared in the stove.
“Do you understand, Neel?… There’s only one thing: I don’t suppose they’ll allow Mia to come here… But we’ll hear her just the same. We can send her some chocolates… I expect there are still some in the sideboard, some of those we used to buy for her… Do you know where Madame used to buy them?”
She nodded, speechless.
He avoided catching sight of himself in the mirror, came back to his seat, and poured himself a glass of wine.
“Get me a cigar.”
She had to pass behind him to get one of the boxes on the mantelpiece. When she turned around again, it was to see a rounded back and Kuperus’s head buried in his arms on the table.
His shoulders heaved convulsively, while from his throat came raucous sobs that sounded as though they must be tearing him to bits.
“Doctor!” cried Neel, rushing toward him. “Calm yourself, Doctor!”
She couldn’t think of anything else to say. She felt she must do something, but there was no stopping him now.
She hovered around him, not knowing what to do. His suffering frightened her; it seemed so complete, so abysmal, as though it could never end.
She wept, too, though for no reason. She had never seen a man cry before, and it filled her with shame.
She stood beside him, wondering whether she hadn’t better leave him to himself, when he took one of his hands from under his head and, still sobbing, groped for her hand and squeezed it.
She heard the letter slot rattle and even the sound of a letter falling on the floor.
It was only a little boy, who, on a postcard, had scribbled the word Murderer.
Still hiding his face, Kuperus felt for his handkerchief.
Leave a comment
No comments yet.