Look out! Here’s the murderer!”
And at once the little boys would scatter, leaving the sidewalk free for Dr. Kuperus. Every day he went for a walk, and every day followed exactly the same route.
By the front door of his house there was still the brass plate that said:
dr. hans kuperus
office hours 7 to 11 a.m.
But nowadays nobody ever came. So to pass the time, he walked the streets with his hands in his pockets. And little by little his itinerary had been narrowed down until it was so invariable that anybody seeing him was apt to say:
“It must be ten o’clock. The doctor’s just passed.”
First of all he went along the unused canal, crossed the third bridge, and reached the main canal, where barges came from all directions loaded with produce.
A little farther on he came to the Van Malderens’, and he never failed to look up at the veranda, where he’d be sure to see Jane bending over her sewing.
At eleven, by the cathedral, it was unusual if he didn’t find a wedding or a funeral in progress. At half past he would be watching the children streaming out of school.
He looked at everything and remembered everything. Without a second’s hesitation he could have said which day such and such lamppost had been newly painted. He knew if the postmen or milkmen were late or early on their rounds, and on market days he counted the cows, and listened to the farmers haggling over their prices.
One day he was passing the Town Hall when a painter fell off a scaffolding, and he had been one of the many people who had immediately crowded around. Rather shyly he had wormed his way to the front, and bent over the injured man.
With a lump in his throat, he had felt the man’s head and limbs to see if any bones were broken. At the same time, he’d heard them ring the bell of one of his colleagues.
The latter had arrived on the scene, and without so much as a word had brushed Kuperus aside.
He had got used to it by now. It no longer hurt. In July, when all the windows were open, he had heard Mia’s voice saying:
“There goes Uncle Kuperus.”
And he distinctly heard her father’s answer:
“You’re not to call him Uncle Kuperus any more… He isn’t your uncle.”
Another walk in the afternoon, and so the hours slipped by. On the stroke of five he pushed open the door of the Onder den Linden. Nobody greeted him. He was no longer president of the club, and his name had been removed from the board. The players went on with their games, pretending not to see him.
Old Willem went to the bar, put a bottle of beer and a small glass of gin on his tray, and set them down in front of the doctor without a word or a look. Kuperus put the exact money on the table, and the waiter took it after he had gone.
That didn’t matter, however. As in the old days, the doctor had his seat, always the same one, and there he sat among his former friends, listening to their conversation, till it was time for him to go.
What went on in his mind was his affair. No one could guess his thoughts, not even Neel, in spite of her being the one person who had seen him weep.
She had written a letter to Karl, who was still in Amsterdam.
I think he’s going crazy. I’m sure, anyhow, he can’t go on much longer like this. Last week he sent for a notary and made his will. Everything’s to come to me. He says he’s got thirty thousand guilders in the bank, and there’s the house, which belongs to him too…
At seven o’clock every evening Kuperus inserted his key in the lock and sank back once again into the atmosphere of his house, an atmosphere as calm, as stagnant as the water in the old canal, an atmosphere in which the passage of a human being seemed to have no effect whatever. Doors creaked when opened, as though they had been shut for many months.
He hung up his hat and coat, and didn’t forget to glance at himself in the mirror, apparently satisfied with his blank features, in which neither thought nor feeling could be read.
The table was set. Neel brought in the dinner and sat down opposite him.
“Van Malderen made a break of forty-two,” he announced in exactly the same way as if he’d played with him himself. “He’s taking his wife to Ostend for a few days’ holiday.”
She answered cautiously, well aware that a single misplaced word would be enough to throw him into a rage. For what he wanted of her was something impossible, impossible even to explain.
When they were sitting like that in the evenings at the dinner table, Neel was to be Neel no longer. He had even made her alter Alice’s dresses, so that she could wear them, and he had persuaded her little by little to change the way she did her hair.
And after the meal was cleared away, she had to come and sit with him in the circle of soft light and do her needlework.
She had already finished knitting the sky-blue sweater, and the day she had refused to wear it he had made the worst row they had ever had, shouting and storming till all the neighbors heard.
As usual, Kuperus, in his slippers, sat reading the paper with a cigar between his lips. From time to time, without looking up, he would read her a passage.
“A typhoon in the Philippines has caused the death of five hundred people.”
“In a mining accident in the United States, thirty-eight miners have been buried alive.”
She knew she must avoid the least thing that could set him off, but just what that might be was difficult to foresee. It varied with each day. Sometimes it was a word, sometimes a gesture, sometimes a silence.
Then suddenly the doctor’s features would harden, and the paper would drop. His eyes would stare into space like those of a man who sees other things than those visible to the common run of mortals.
“Half a guilder!” he groaned.
There was no use her going away. That would only precipitate a crisis. There was no use her protesting. All she could do was to wait in silence, her eyes bent on her work.
Kuperus got up and came and stood in front of her. He began in a sarcastic tone, but the sarcasm soon turned to bitterness.
“Half a guilder!… Isn’t that right, Neel?… It all happened for a mere half-guilder! If there’d not been a mistake of half a guilder in the change, my wife would never have said anything to you, you’d never have got your own back by writing me the letter…”
He walked up and down the room. He had said it all before, even in the same words, except that the words were harsher the more Burgundy he’d drunk.
“… in that case she’d be sitting here now in your place, and you’d be in the kitchen…”
His eyes became more and more inhuman. It was impossible to believe they saw the same things as other people. He looked at things as though they were transparent, or as though they were living beings.
Alice’s photograph was still there, and no evening passed without his gazing at it.
“Do you understand now?… All that for a matter of fifty cents!… Because the housekeeping money was half a guilder out!”
He didn’t need any answers to whet his anger. It rose by itself, goaded only by the memories with which his mind was burdened.
And it ended in the same way.
“Get out!… Go to bed!… I can’t stand the sight of you any longer!”
Silently, obediently, Neel got up and went. Reaching her attic, she left the door open, and she could still hear him striding up and down the room, talking to himself. She undressed and went to bed, but kept her coat handy, because she knew the sequel.
An hour later Kuperus had gone to bed. But he hadn’t tossed about for ten minutes before he got up and went to the door.
“Neel!” he called.
He couldn’t sleep alone. When she joined him, he pretended to have forgotten his recent rage.
“Come to bed… Get me a glass of water will you? And my pills…”
He could no longer do without sleeping pills. For another quarter of an hour she heard him sigh and groan, while she mused, staring into the darkness.
She had to go farther afield for her shopping nowadays, because in the shops where she was known people began to be disagreeable. Rumor had coupled her with the doctor’s guilt. Some even went so far as to say she’d been his mistress for years, and that the two had put their heads together to get rid of Mme Kuperus.
According to age and temperament, imagination did its work. For the children, Kuperus became a sort of supernatural monster, not far removed from Satan himself, and their blood ran cold in their veins if he came upon them unawares.
And what could little Mia think when she paused in her practicing and heard her ex-uncle Kuperus pacing up and down, up and down?
“Mind you don’t ever speak to him!”
“What would he do to me?”
“He’d kill you!”
Kuperus knew all about that. He could feel it in the air. With his heavy regular stride he walked alone, and in the Onder den Linden he noticed that the billiard players — particularly the younger ones — often missed a shot just because he was staring at them.
They didn’t know! No one knew what he was thinking,because he had escaped from their world and entered another, which existed for him alone.
As a small boy he had always, on waking, looked first at one of the flowers on the wallpaper, which looked — no doubt in his eyes only — like the head of Vercingetorix, as depicted in his history book. The interesting thing about it was the great variety of its expressions, sometimes smiling, sometimes scowling. It was only after a long time that he discovered what the variations depended on: the exact position from which he looked. After that he was able to make Vercingetorix smile or scowl just as he wished.
It was rather like that now. The town of Sneek, as other people knew it, no longer existed for him. He had re-created it according to his own whim, like the head of Vercingetorix, which, to his mother, was merely one of the flowers on the wallpaper.
Each building he passed on his daily walks had its own special significance for him. Like the house opposite the school. He had lived there when he was six years old. He’d had a bow and arrows then, and had drawn a target on one of the walls. When rubbing it out, someone had broken a piece of brick off the corner and the gap still showed.
A little farther on he jumped back fourteen years — since time no longer counted — to a certain day when he and Alice had paid a visit to some friends who had just had a baby, and they had gone home full of hope themselves… Farther still…
But it wasn’t necessary to go far; his own world followed him everywhere, his own special world, with its own particular mystery, which would never leave him in peace, and so often in the evening made him fly into a rage.
The mystery of Neel’s half-guilder! If the change had been right that day, his whole life would have been different! He’d still have his waiting room crowded with patients, and go to see others in the afternoon… He’d be waked up at night to go make deliveries…
“What is it?” he’d ask out of the window, before deciding whether to go down.
And if it didn’t sound urgent, he’d merely grunt:
“I’ll come around tomorrow.”
“Put some compresses on, and wait till I see him.”
Half a guilder! But there was more to it than that. Something more, which he knew, but nobody else did. Nobody. Neither Van Malderen, nor Anton Groven, nor Dr. De Greef, nor the people he passed in thestreet.
As he looked at them all, he couldn’t keep a disdainful smile from coming to his lips. Because in them he recognized the man he had been before.
For instance, when Pijpekamp said to his friends in the café:
“I’m going to Paris tomorrow.”
The doctor’s eyes twinkled. Because Pijpekamp was going to Paris, they were all slightly uneasy, disgusted with their commonplace lives, their little town, their eternal billiards.
And when they saw a love story on the screen at the movie house across the way, they were tired of their wives and hankered after a heroine…
They were all the same, the grocer, the butcher, the man with the bicycle shop, and every passerby — they all wanted what they didn’t have; they all wanted to escape.
Just what he had wanted before! And to get what he had wanted, he had killed someone, killed two people!
It had started with half a guilder… From that to a servant’s revenge… And from that again to the longing of a middle-aged man to kick over the traces, to break out of the rut.
That was all! And nobody knew. He was the only one to have discovered that circle and to know why every day he passed the same place at exactly the same time.
Because he had escaped! Only to return as quickly as possible, terrified by the emptiness he had escaped into. He had returned, and now clung to every wall, to every house, to every memory, to every habit, to the box of cigars on the mantelpiece, the bottle of Burgundy warming up by the side of the fire, right down to the familiar clack of the billiard balls in the Onder den Linden.
Patiently he went on his little daily round, never tiring of it.
And at seven he got home, thrust his keys into the lock just as he had done for fifteen years, and in the hall he was greeted by the same smell of floor polish.
The table was set. Neel brought in the dinner.
He no longer desired her. He no longer touched her. If he kept her there, it was as a sort of hostage.
“I had a letter from Karl. He’s lost some money at the races and says will you send him some more?”
Of course he would! What did that matter to him?
What he didn’t know — and there were, after all, some things concealed from him — was what Neel had answered that afternoon at the kitchen table.
I threw the pack of powder down the toilet, because I was scared of it. It seemed to me they’d suspect the truth at once. In any case, I don’t think this can go on much longer. Each day he gets a little queerer. Sometimes at night he makes me hold his hand while he goes to sleep.
Neel was wearing one of Alice’s dresses. She’d had to shorten the waist. There were veal cutlets for dinner. Kuperus asked: “Have you brought up a bottle of Burgundy?”
“Yes. There are only fifteen bottles left.” He drank freely; therefore, there’d be a scene that night, perhaps a violent one, with the whole story over again, right from the half-guilder to the end.
Meanwhile, there was time to eat in peace and even perhaps sew for a quarter of an hour. She also kept some sewing up in her room, so that she had something to do while she was waiting for him to call her down again.
“Jane Van Malderen has got the flu,” he announced.
Van Malderen had said so an hour ago in the Onder den Linden.
He had to lead up to the row with little phrases like that, of no particular importance, interspersed by silences, by the rustling of the newspaper, and by the reading of little extracts from it, generally about accidents, which seemed to give Kuperus a peculiar satisfaction.
“The airplane that crashed into the North Sea yesterday is reported to have been carrying seven passengers.…”
Neel sighed and waited patiently…