“Good!… Now for you, young man. And if you’d like some good advice, don’t beat around the bush… Last night you were at the Gai-Moulin in the company of a certain Delfosse. We’ll be dealing with him later… Between you, you didn’t have enough money to pay for your drinks. In fact, you hadn’t paid for two or three days… Is that right?”
Jean opened his mouth, but he shut it again without uttering a sound.
“Your parents aren’t rich, and what you earn won’t take you very far. Yet you’re out having a rare good time, running up debts all over the place… Well? Is that correct?”
The wretched boy hung his head. He could feel the eyes of the five men on him. Inspector Delvigne spoke condescendingly, even a little contemptuously.
“At the tobacconist’s, for instance. Yesterday you owed him money… The old, old story! Boys just out of school, acting like right young men-about-town, without a penny to do it on… How many times have you stolen money from your father’s wallet?”
Jean turned crimson. That last remark was worse than a slap in the face. What made it so dreadful was that he’d earned it; everything the inspector said was true.
Yes, true. More or less. But the truth, put so baldly, was no longer quite the truth.
It had begun by Jean going to the Pelican now and then after work, to have a glass of beer with his friends. That was where they used to meet, and the warm feeling of comradeship was irresistible. Very soon it became a regular thing.
In a moment there, life was transformed; the day’s drudgery and the chief clerk’s sermons were forgotten. Sitting back in their chairs in the fanciest café the town possessed, they would watch people pass by along Rue du Pont d’Avroy, nod to acquaintances, shake hands with friends, eye the pretty girls, some of whom would occasionally join them at their table. Was not all Liège theirs?
René Delfosse stood more rounds than the others, since he was the only one who had an abundant supply of pocket money.
“What are you doing tonight?”
“Let’s go to the Gai-Moulin. There’s a simply terrific dancer there.”
That was more wonderful still. Intoxicating. Bright lights, crimson plush, the air filled with music, perfume, and familiarity. Victor had a friendly way of speaking that flattered the boys. But what counted far more were those bare-shouldered women, who would casually lift their skirts to hitch up a stocking.
So the Gai-Moulin had become a habit too. More than a habit — a necessity. One thing, however, marred its perfection. Rarely could Jean take his turn at paying. And once — though only once — to indulge in that luxury, he had helped himself to money that wasn’t his. He had taken it, not from his parents, but from the petty cash. Barely twenty francs. It was easily done; he simply charged a little extra on a number of registered letters or other mail he’d taken to the post office.
“I never stole from my father.”
“I don’t suppose he has very much to steal… But let’s get back to last night. You were both at the Gai-Moulin. Neither of you had any money, though that didn’t stop you from buying a drink for one of the dancers… Give me your cigarettes.”
Unsuspectingly, Jean held out his pack.
“Cork-tipped Luxors? Is that right, Dubois?”
“So!… Now, while you were sitting there, rich-looking man comes in and orders champagne. It wasn’t hard to guess that his wallet was well lined, was it?… Contrary to your usual habit, you left by the back door, which is near the steps to the cellar. And what should we find this morning on the cellar steps but two cigarette butts and some ash.
“Instead of leaving, you and Delfosse hid. The rich foreigner was killed. Perhaps at the Gai-Moulin, perhaps elsewhere. No wallet was found on him, and no gold cigarette case, though he’d been seen with one that night…
“Today you start paying off your debts. But this evening, knowing you’re being followed, you think you’d better throw the rest of the money away…”
This story was told in such a bored voice that it was hard to believe Delvigne took it seriously.