They walked along a generously arched and vaulted corridor lined with artworks and curiosities, including photos of visiting dignitaries and past events at Sans Souci. The right, or west-side, wall of the corridor was interrupted by alcoves and vista windows with views over the valley; to the left were lounges, amusement rooms and, finally, a huge dining area.
The corridor ended on a spacious timber landing, with sweeping staircases leading up and down. Around the edge of the open space were portable seats and coffee tables. McGroder led Maigret forward across the landing.
“This is a reception area which was also used for dancing. Like the big dining room we just past it was easily served from the kitchens below…”
“So much space, mon petit. Could all of this complex ever have been fully used?”
“You’d be surprised, commissioner. Australians flock to fun, if you know what I mean, and this place was the last word in fun at the turn of the century when we were briefly the richest place on earth. Wool was a pound a pound back then. Not the sort of situation which lasts, of course.”
“Tiens…tiens…And this gallery?”
“We’re standing under it.”
Maigret looked up.
“As you can see, commissioner, there’s no way through all that intact plaster.”
“Would you like to go upstairs now?”
Maigret shrugged, which was an answer of sorts, as McGroder was learning. Maigret unresponsive was Maigret working, if not willing.
At the top of the stairs, which had challenged the old Frenchman, they came to what looked like yet another huge lounge area served by a bar at its edge. To their left, a door with yellow tape across it, and a typed note dangling from the tape.
“This is where it all happened, commissioner. We’re standing in the Vice-Regal Lounge, where the group had their party and conducted their games. The gallery has been sealed off. I’ve had my men install a padlock, with the owner’s – Miss Berger’s – consent. I’m the only one with a key.”
Maigret looked about, showing little interest in any one thing. Then he pointed to an iron staircase at the eastern, or road-side, wall.
“And this escalier, or ladder way, or whatever one calls it?”
“It leads up to an attic with some bric-a-brac. Bit of a fire hazard, really. It’s above the gallery, so I checked it out pretty well. Would you like to see?”
A shrug. Maigret would see the attic, like it or not.
At the top of the iron stairs McGroder flicked a switch and opened a narrow door. The two stepped in to a cramped space beneath the roof of the building. Many old picture frames lay about, as well as things like archery sets and bicycle parts from long ago.
“It’s all solid timber flooring up here, with plaster under. No sign of any disturbance to anything. The dust and webs were intact when I first looked the place over. Want to see more?”
Maigret sneezed. No, he did not want to see more.
On descending, Maigret directed his attention not to the locked gallery door but to the small bar at the edge of the Vice-Regal Lounge.
“Commissioner, I have the key and we can take a look inside the gallery if…”
“First, some refreshments, non? And maybe a pipe…”
Maigret made his way to the bar and hummed as he inspected the rows of liqueur and spirits. At last he drew down a particular bottle and rubbed it almost with affection.
“Ah, a bottle of Izarra! Amazing! This family have been true collectors. Not even in Paris can I always find some. You know, though Izarra is Basque, they soak good prunes of my home region with walnut shells…all sorts of things…ah, étonnant…Will you not have a taste, mon petit? It’s quite sweet…”
“Oh, not right now…”
“No? Dommage. For me, a little drop…”
“Commissioner, it’s just that the light should be strong in the gallery right now…for our inspection…”
“But you have strong electric lights in this gallery?”
“Well, yes, but I thought…”
“So, time for a glass and a pipe, non?”
Maigret was conversational for a while, glancing about the room and scanning the bar shelves as he spoke of trivialities. At last he fell silent, smoked with more tension, fixing his eyes for long periods on the sealed door of the gallery. He finished his drink, then:
“You say the light is still good?”
“Yes, commissioner, it’s only mid-afternoon, so if you’d like to check out the gallery…”
“Yes, yes…very soon. But I was thinking of taking a little air. And we could inspect the ground below the gallery. You know, a little mountain air, at my age…”
McGroder could barely hide his frustration, but did so.
“Of course. There’s plenty of time, and it will be a lot colder later. I have a key to the bottom door, so we can just walk directly down to the kitchens.”
From a kitchen dock, McGroder opened a door to the outside. The westerly wind attacked their faces, racked through their unbuttoned coats. Over to the right they saw Roland emptying more leaves and rubbish into the incinerator. The smoke was driven almost laterally toward the east and the road, along with leaves which had escaped the pile. Waves were exchanged with the handyman. Then Maigret, after a struggle, re-lit his pipe and began to gaze out over the Megalong Valley, seemingly indifferent to the ground below the gallery.
“Commissioner, the ladder has been removed again for security reasons. We’ve been over the ground but seen little of interest, but if you have any observations…”
“Non , non, I’m sure you have been very thorough. Really, I just needed a little air…Ah, what’s this?”
Maigret, in turning about, had noticed a blue feather on the ground and picked it up.
“Is this from one of your local espieces…or do I say…how to say it?…species?”
“N…no. It’s nothing I know, and I used to bird-watch. But you never know what flies in with the changes of weather we get these days. The last decade was very wet, now everthing is cold and a bit dry, except for those bloody heatwaves…some people blame atom bombs or Sputnik…”
“Or the Beatles?”
Laughing a little, Maigret inspected the feather.
“Ah, les fauves.”
“I spoke of wild animals, of fauves. So many and so different, all changing just like us. Improvisateurs...”
He slipped the feather absently into his coat pocket.
“This has been enough fresh air for me, mon petit. Shall we go back upstairs?”
On their arrival back in the the Vice-Regal Lounge Clive McGroder went immediately toward the sealed door of the gallery, assuming it must be time for the inspection. He winced when he heard Maigret behind him…
“Ah, no rush. The air has chilled me a little too much, I am afraid. I noticed a Creme de Cassis on the shelf…a veritable – is that the word? – from Dijon! Now you must try this, my young friend, at least a tiny amount, non?”
“All right. A tiny one. But very tiny.” He could not refrain from sighing his frustration.
For some minutes Maigret sipped and puffed, only speaking to extract a positive opinion on the liqueur from his companion.
Then, his drink finished, Maigret again fixed the door of the gallery and began to draw on his pipe in short, violent puffs.
“Ah, les fauves…les fauves…“