Instead of going through the town from the police station to the Hotel Van Hasselt, Maigret went along the quay, accompanied by Jean Duclos, whose face and whole demeanor radiated bad temper.
“I suppose you know,” he said at last, “that you’re making yourself most objectionable?”
As he spoke his eyes were fixed on a crane, whose hoist swung only a foot or two above their heads.
“In what way?”
Duclos shrugged his shoulders and took several steps before answering.
“Is it possible you don’t understand?… Perhaps you don’t want to… You’re like all French people…”
“I thought we were both French.”
“With this difference, however: I have traveled widely. In fact, I think I could justifiably call myself a European, rather than a Frenchman. Wherever I go, I can fall into the ways of the country. While you… you simply crash straight through everything regardless of the consequences, blind to everything that requires a little discrimination…”
“Without stopping to wonder, for instance, whether or not it’s desirable that the murderer be caught!”
“Why shouldn’t you stop to wonder?” burst out the professor. “Why shouldn’t you discriminate?… This isn’t a dirty crime. It isn’t the work of a professional killer, or any other sort of ordinary criminal. The question of robbery hasn’t arisen… In other words, the person who did it is not necessarily a danger to society.”
“In which case… ?”
Maigret was smoking his pipe with obvious relish, striding along easily, his hands behind his back.
“You’ve only got to look around…” said Duclos, with a wave of his hand that embraced the whole scene: the tidy little town where everything was arranged as neatly as in a good housewife’s cupboard; the harbor too small to have any of the sordidness that so often belongs to ports; happy, serene people clattering along in their varnished sabots.
Then he went on:
“Everyone earns his living. Everyone’s more or less content. Everyone holds his instincts in check because his neighbor does the same, and that’s the basis of all social life… Pijpekamp will tell you that theft is a rare occurrence here—partly because when it does occur it’s severely punished. For stealing a loaf of bread, you don’t get off with less than a few weeks in prison… Do you see any signs of disorder?… None. No tramps. No beggars. It’s the very embodiment of cleanliness and order.”
“And I’ve crashed in like a bull in a china shop! Is that it?”
“Look at those houses over there on the left, near the Amsterdiep. That’s where the best people live. People of wealth, or at any rate of substance. People who have power or influence in the locality. Everybody knows them. They include the mayor, the clergy, teachers, and officials, all of whom make it their business to see that the town is kept quiet and peaceful, to see that everybody stays in his proper place without damaging his neighbor’s interests. These people—as I’ve told you before—don’t even allow themselves to enter a café for fear of setting a bad example… And now a crime has been committed—and the moment you poke your nose in, you sniff some family scandal…”
Maigret listened while looking at the boats, whose decks, because it was high tide, were well above the quay.
“I don’t know what Pijpekamp thinks about it. He is a very respected man, by the way. All I know is that it would have been far better for everybody if it had been given out that Popinga had been killed by a foreign sailor, and that the police were pursuing their investigations… Yes. Far better for everybody. Better for Madame Popinga. Better for her family, particularly for her father, who is a man of considerable repute in the intellectual world. Better for Beetje and for her father. Above all, better for the public welfare, for the people in all these other houses, who watch with respect all that goes on in the big houses by the Amsterdiep. Whatever is done over there, they want to do the same… And you… you want truth for truth’s sake—or for the personal satisfaction of unraveling your little mystery.”
“You’re putting it in your own words, Professor, but in substance what you say is what Pijpekamp said to you this morning. Isn’t that so?… And he asked your advice as to the best method of dampening my unseemly zeal… And you told him that in France people like me are disposed of with a hearty meal, even with a tip.”
“We didn’t go into details.”
“Do you know what I think, Monsieur Duclos?”
Maigret had stopped and was looking at the harbor. A little bumboat, its motor making a noise like a fusillade, was going from ship to ship, selling bread, spices, tobacco, pipes, and schnapps.
“I think you were lucky to have come out of the bathroom holding the revolver in your hand.”
“What do you mean by that?”
“Nothing… But I’d like you to assure me once more that you saw nobody in the bathroom.”
“I saw nobody.”
“And you heard nothing?”
Duclos looked away. Maigret repeated the question.
“I didn’t hear anything definite… It’s only a vague impression, but there might have been a sound coming from under the lid over the tub.”
“Excuse me, I must be off… I think that’s someone waiting for me.”