McGroder opened the door and stepped into the gallery.
Maigret followed, but sluggishly.
In the middle of the floor to their right was a chalk outline of the body’s final position. Extending out from the marking, a broad stain.
“As you can see, Commissioner, we…”
But Maigret had wandered to the side, and was now inspecting the paintings on the walls.
“Tiens, this is a very elaborate gallery. Much cost, no doubt…And this family made their money cultivating wool?”
“No, not exactly…Commissioner, the body, if you’d like to take a look was…”
“Yes, yes. I see where the body lay. But satisfy my curiosity: all this wealth was from wool?”
“Well, indirectly. Most of our wealth depended on wool in the old days. But the Bergers were in music publishing. A few of Australia’s great fortunes came from music publishing…I don’t know why exactly…My grandfather said even poor families would starve for a piano…”
“So this family…it saw itself as bringing much culture, much rapport with England or with Europe?”
“And for all its wealth, the family remained – the word, now? – remained connected with these premises? Even when it was no longer chic?”
“Yes, I suppose. All the generations lived here, ran the place themselves. But when the fashion for deluxe guest houses in the mountains faded they couldn’t just keep pouring their investment and business wealth into the old heap. Not even the Bergers could run that big a loss for decades. That’s why Sans Souci is just a huge shell now, a shell with a few comforts.”
“Yet the place was never altered, it seems? It decayed, became cheaper for guests, was used as a war hospital…but no question of alteration…”
“Not to my knowledge. Until now, that is. As I mentioned to you, there are at last solid plans to restore the old place. Both sisters were excited about that, Naomi Berger’s improvement might have been helped by the good news. She spoke about great things to come for Sans Souci just before she was killed…”
A silence, frustrating for McGroder, as Maigret continued to patrol the gallery walls and ignore the crime scene.
At last Maigret reached the window which had no bars and inspected it, tapping on glass and frame. Then he peered out with no particular focus.
“As you can see, commissioner, no signs of the window being opened or shut after it was nailed up.”
“Would you agree?”
“Oh, entirely. That window was nailed up by our friend Roland, and it has not been opened since…Ah, some very interesting landscapes down this side of the room. And very large. Impressionant…”
“Best watch the floor where it’s lifting in parts. Someone could trip. The parquetry is very worn.”
“Mmm, so it is.”
The Frenchman continued to stroll, glancing at the other windows, still solidly barred, but interested more in the paintings – if he was interested in anything at all.
“Music publication, hein? Tiens, tiens…Oh, and that blanched – is that a word? that blanched space on the wall near the other end of the room…that is the place where the stolen picture was hanging?”
“Yes. They kept it in a low light position to preserve it better. As you can see, it was pretty small…but not so small that it could have been taken out of the gallery without being noticed.”
McGroder had wondered at times if his companion were not a touch senile, then resisted the thought. Now the thought was harder to resist, as Maigret lost himself in contemplation of one large and time-darkened seascape which hung on the wall opposite the entry.
For no apparent reason, Maigret then strolled – at last! – to the middle of the room and looked down on the wide blood stain. Not without groans and winces, he managed to crouch down and then began to pick at some lifting parquetry which was on the fringe of the stain. A slab came away, making it easier to lift one next to it, then another. He moved to several other spots near the stain and lifted parquetry where it was loose. McGroder approached.
“Notice anything, sir?”
“Oh, nothing much, mon petit. Under this piece of floor there is a small dip in the cement or whatever the hard material is. Would that be a place for some sort of plate to support a big light, a chandelier, on the ceiling below us?”
“Why…yes. That would make sense. It would be right over the dance floor and reception below. Do you think it indicates something?”
“The space is not big enough for anything larger than a soup bowl, any holes were filled long ago…and, as you say, the ceiling of the floor below is solid, not disturbed.”
“Exactly. But that goes for the whole area outside the gallery. Not the slightest mark anywhere, above, below or to the side. The windows with bars were also locked, and we could tell by the dust marks that the locks had not been touched since the gallery was aired last summer. We simply can’t find any way a painting let alone its thief could leave this gallery.”
“Ah, the painting! That is a different matter from a person. Two very different shapes, non?”
“You have some idea…?”
“Oh, just an idea. Come with me, mon petit.”
They walked over to the large picture of stormy seas which had drawn Maigret’s attention before.
“This heavy frame has been moved recently.”
“Commissioner, we checked behind this picture. We moved it a little so I could tap the wall and beam a flashlight on it.”
“Ah, but were you in such a hurry that you might have made this fresh scratch in the paintwork and even in the plaster of the wall? See here.” Maigret pointed to a scrape where a bottom corner of the painting met the wall.
“N…no. I see what you mean. We actually checked from the other side as we went round the room clockwise looking behind every painting and bookcase. But I doubt we swung it back in position hard enough to scrape the plaster. Constable Dougherty held the painting outward so I could look behind, then he put it gently back in place, I’m sure. I suppose I should have noticed…”
“Ah, but you were looking for exits from the gallery. I, however, am looking for something else. Would you hold the painting out for me, the way your constable did? There is a small chance we may find something of interest. Only a small chance…That’s right, hold it out so I can reach a hand in behind…Ah, not yet!”
He drew his arm back and removed his coat, dropping it to the floor.
“Now, if you could hold the painting further back and very steady…”
“I…think I can. But best be quick. It’s heavy.”
Again Maigret reached his arm behind the massive painting.
“Ah, we have some bag material to protect the back of the picture from dust…some light wood to hold it in place…Now, if I remove the little tacks, and pull the bag cloth away…I hope no damage is done…Ah! I have it. Now I just need you to hold another moment till I extract it out…”
Maigret drew out a briefcase-sized picture in slim frame. As McGroder lowered the large picture back into place, Maigret propped the small one against the wall below it.
The missing Von Guerard.
“Commissioner, the more I think about this…I have to suspect that someone with later access to the gallery, someone in a position to retrieve the painting…Logically, it could only be a person who…”
“Ah, logique! Clues and logic! People who read or hear about what we police do think we find clues and draw conclusions…But is that is what veritable inspectors do, or should do?”
“I…always thought we were supposed to…But I don’t really understand what you are saying.”
“We are inspectors, non? We inspect! We live with the matter, with its people. We taste, we smell. We wander, if that is the word, all through the case. We are like the housewife who walks into one of these big new shops pushing the big thing on wheels. She is buying in the end, but for a long time she is looking, gathering. Or we are like hunters for mushrooms when the mushrooms are scarce. We walk many miles to fill our basket. You see?”
“I suppose…Well, no, not really. Surely you, more than most, find clues and follow logic…”
“You think I am knowing things now? I am trying to not know. Do you realise what is confining you, my young friend? My very excellent and very capable young friend?”
“Lack of…of inspecting? Of experience? Or…”
Maigret grinned and patted the younger man’s shoulder.
“Lack of calvados! I saw a bottle on the shelf outside. Brandy made from apples. But no ordinary calvados for these music publishing people – ah, non – but calvados of the marque Michel Huard…So, after we place this picture back where it was hidden…
“Calvados! Du véritable…from the Pays d’Auge! Ça, alors!
“That will help us to not think.”