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Authors: Nicolas Freeling

The Widow

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Nicolas Freeling

The Widow

Dedication, to the City of Strasbourg

‘Argentoratum, cuius ob antiquitem Prolemeus d' Hieronijmus, … et alii miminere, Alsatiae Metropolis, apud praterfluentem Rhenum, aliis, Argentina, aut, si quis ex re, nomen commutare velit, Aurentina, Sed vulgo Strasburgum dicta; urbs virtute, magistratuum prudentia, ac integritate, honestis Studiis, ac nobili schola inclyta.'

Very roughly translated:

‘Argentoratum, the town by the silver river, celebrated from earliest times by a lot of classical authors, the metropolis of Alsace, near the close-by-flowing Rhine; by others spoken of as Argentina the Silvery or even by a play on words Aurentina the Golden, but in the vulgar tongue Strasbourg: city renowned for courage, the watchfulness of its rulers, for integrity, for intellectual worth and a noble University.'

Legend to a sixteenth-century engraving of the city, by Abraham Hogenberg, 1572.

From the original in the Cabinet des Estampes, Strasbourg, Palais des Rohan.

Contents

Chapter 1. Arthur Davidson's lurid imagination

Chapter 2. Retrospect of the Widow

Chapter 3. Hautepierre with a Manchester accent

Chapter 4. The widow's observatory

Chapter 5. Chez Mauricette

Chapter 6. Stocktaking

Chapter 7. Redefinition of the private eye

Chapter 8. Fringes of Professionalism

Chapter 9. The Thin Man's Wife

Chapter 10. The Meinau Marie-Line

Chapter 11. Realities

Chapter 12. Monsieur Dupont's Café Confidences

Chapter 13. Mise au point

Chapter 14. A Slightly Unwished-for Houseguest

Chapter 15. Diverse Deeds

Chapter 16. Divers Facts

Chapter 17. Pressure

Chapter 18. Grace under pressure

Chapter 19. You take the gun, Trelawney; you're the best shot

Chapter 20. Solidarity

Chapter 21. A landed proprietor in heaven

Chapter 22. Arthur's War

Chapter 23. Women thinking, women talking

Chapter 24. An Irritating Nonchalance

Chapter 25. Lycée Classique

Chapter 26. The Flowering Suburb

Chapter 27. The Two Michels

Chapter 28. A lavish expense-account lunch

Chapter 29. The Marginals

Chapter 30. Shrouded Hammer

Chapter 31. Between Jerusalem and Jericho

Chapter 32. The Nasty Accident

Chapter 33. Suite of the nasty accident

Chapter 34. The Police Judiciaire

Chapter 35. Interrogations

Chapter 36. Madame le Juge

Chapter 37. A foggy evening on the autoroute

Chapter 38. A Masterly Throw of the Net

Chapter 39. The Beginnings of Execution

Chapter 40. White Fang'

A Note on the Author

Chapter 1
Arthur Davidson's lurid imagination

‘It was about eleven o'clock in the morning, mid October, with the sun not shining and a look of hard wet rain in the clearness of the foothills.'

That much was accurate – Arthur knew the opening paragraph of
The Big Sleep
by heart. The rest of it – no. His wife, even if dressed up in the good powder-blue suit, the dark blue shirt, etcetera, would not look like Humphrey Bogart: hell, she didn't even look like Lauren Bacall. Still, the parallel went on amusing him: Arlette was neat, clean, shaved, sober, and didn't care who knew it – everything the well-dressed private detective ought to be. Arlette would have agreed with the word ‘private' …

She was not calling on four million dollars either. She would have been indignant at all the misplaced humour. She had a literal mind: it was Arthur who had these lurid fantasies. Arthur, like many Englishmen, concealed (thinks he's Tolkien or something) a powerful and eccentric imagination beneath a harmless academic exterior, mild, given to pipes, occasionally rather dirty. Really it took Arthur. And private eyes were forty years out of date: when was
The Big Sleep
published? Nineteen thirty-nine, said Arthur whose memory was phenomenal. Besides being English, Doctor Davidson was fifty, and a sociologist. Made, claimed Arlette, for fanaticism about minor details in greatly beloved antique thrillers. She was wearing black trousers, a blousy top with a
belt. No gun. Because of the sharp nearness of the foothills – one could reach out and touch the Vosges, which were thirty kilometres off – her raincoat and one of her shapeless Garbo hats lay next to her, on the front seat of the little almond green Lancia that had been Arthur's wedding present.

She was driving down the Avenue des Vosges in Strasbourg. The traffic lights here have been left uncoordinated deliberately, to discourage speeding drivers: the boulevard is broad and straight but when you get a green you have barely time to shift up into third and accelerate before the next one goes red under your nose. The Avenue des Vosges is the main east–west axis of the city. East is the Rhine, and Germany. Strasbourg does not lie on the Rhine, but seven kilometres inland, a medieval precaution against flooding when the snows melt. Nowadays of course it reaches that far. West are the Vosges and France, and the modern city lurches out about seven kilometres that far too.

A medium-sized town, a good size; around three hundred thousand people. In between the Rhine and the Vosges lies Alsace. Neither French nor German, but since it is on the French bank the province is French: this was quarrelled over a good deal in the old days. From 1870 till 1918 it was German. Nowadays it has again the open flavour of medieval times. The European Parliament sits here, and the Council of Europe, and the Court of Human Rights; all in several languages. Arlette Sauve from the department of the Var, more recently the Widow Van der Valk from Holland, now most legally Madame, Frau or Mrs Arthur Davidson, fitted in comfortably.

She was driving west, towards France. She came out on the big U of the Place de Haguenau. Ahead lay Schiltigheim, where they make beer. Large blue notices announced the autoroute to the north, to Metz; to Paris. Keep on turning to the left and one works into the southbound traffic, on its way down to Switzerland. This she did. The first turn-off is marked Cronenbourg/Hautepierre. Cronenbourg is just another suburb, where they make more beer. Hautepierre is
more interesting and here she was headed; not alas for General Sternwood. Even Arthur's imagination would not find Laurel Canyon Boulevard hereabouts.

Chapter 2
Retrospect of the Widow

Arlette Sauve was born of petit-bourgeois parents fifty years ago in the South of France. Her father was an antiquarian bookseller in a lazy way, with a mild interest in Mediterranean languages. They lived in a flat over the shop. Out near Cassis they had a small cottage, extremely primitive, with a few fruit trees and a patch of fairly mediocre vines. The shop, which had disappeared long ago, had never made any money, but her elder brother still had the cottage. It was now rather grand: she preferred her childhood memories.

She was tall, blonde, and considered plain. Not tall by Dutch standards; in Holland her looks had been thought striking, while she stayed That French Cow. Some accident of ancestry had given her the Phoenician looks: bony high-bridged nose, large brilliant eyes that were brown in light and a sickly green in shade, a fine upright carriage and a splendid walk. The hair was the fairness called ‘cendré': now that it was as much grey as blonde, ashes was the word. It was poker-straight and tiresomely fine. No hairdresser had ever been able to do anything with it. Let it hang, it hung like a corpse. Pin it up, where it looked sculptural, it fell instantly down again. For some years she'd had most of it cut off. Gamine with a fringe; never really a success either.

Toulon in the thirties was very dull, all anticlerical civilians and clerical naval officers. In the forties, still dull, despite or because of the war. One was Darlaniste or Pétainiste, Gaullist or Giraudiste, they were all right-thinking and very noisy and boring about it. The French, the Germans and the Americans,
roughly in that order, were destructive. One was both Catholic and Communist, not always at the same time. The noise rose to a paroxysm and finally everyone was Gaullist. When the novelty of this wore off, the poor went back to being Communist and the bourgeois were still Catholic. The port filled up again with other people's cast-off warships.

There had been several Arlettes. They hadn't really melted into one another except at the edges. There were still several, superimposed as it were. Kept well under control as a rule. Now and then one of the old ones would pop its head out, and squeak.

But the sum was greater than the component parts: too bad about logic.

There had been the goody schoolgirl, terribly well brought up and top of the catechism class, blouse always clean, toys always tidied.

And a big revolution from all that as a student; the anarchist stage and not washing much; which hadn't lasted long, mercifully. One didn't blush about it; pretty normal. One did blush, and had regrets lasting up to this day, at being atrocious towards one's parents.

Once that nasty student began again to wash it remained fanatic, and obstinately virgin till marriage: well almost, until the deplorable evening when Piet, in the interests of experimental science, filled it to the brim with Pernod, and was extremely gallant about the consequences (she'd eaten lots of lobster, and between that, the virginity and the Pernod, been sicker than a dog all night). But how quietly, how kindly, Piet had brought – and emptied – buckets, been good with towels wrung out in cold water, eau de cologne, handling angry tears and harsh words. Nobody had forced her to drink pastis or take her clothes off. And had there ever been such a fuss about doing so?

Arlette, Catholic in her schooldays, went Communist at the university, attracted the odium of the right-thinking and went to Paris, where she even more unsuitably made the acquaintance of a Dutch policeman, married him, worse still, and
worst of all made a success of it. Piet Van der Valk, too intelligent to be a good policeman and with too much character to be a successful one, did make a good husband.

For more than twenty years they lived together, fighting furiously and on the whole happy. Most of that time in Amsterdam. Piet got shot by a neurotic and spoiled Belgian woman Arlette took a great dislike to. It smashed him up enough that he limped, and was put out to pasture in a provincial town, getting promoted in return for being demoted. He managed to draw attention to himself in spectacular fashion once or twice, and finally to everyone's surprise was promoted again and given a bureaucratic job in the Hague, obscurely concerned with reforming criminal law. Just as one could have a quiet existence at last he got curious again. And shot again, this time for good: he died there on the street. Stendhal, a writer she admired, did the same, after saying there was no disgrace in dying on the street: one must not, though, do it on purpose.

BOOK: The Widow
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