The Fly
by George Langelaan

“The Fly”. By George Langelann.

I.

TELEPHONES AND telephone bells have always made me uneasy. Years ago, when they were mostly wall fixtures, I disliked them, but nowadays, when they are planted in every nook and corner, they are a downright intrusion. We have a saying in France that a coalman is master in his own house; with the telephone that is no longer true, and I suspect that even the Englishman is no longer king in his own castle.

At the office, the sudden ringing of the telephone annoys me. It means that, no matter what I am doing, in spite of the switchboard operator, in spite of my secretary, in spite of doors and walls, some unknown person is coming into the room and onto my desk to talk right into my very ear, confidentially – whether I like it or not. At home, the feeling is still more disagreeable, but the worst is when the telephone rings in the dead of night. If anyone could see me turn on the light and get up blinking to answer it, I suppose I would look like any other sleepy man annoyed at being disturbed. The truth in such a case, however, is that I am struggling against panic, fighting down a feeling that a stranger has broken into the house and is in my bedroom. By the time I manage to grab the receiver and say:”Ici Monsieur Delarnbre. Je vous ecoute,” Iam outwardly calm, but I only get back to a more normal state when I recognize the voice at the other end and when I know what is wanted of me.

This effort at dominating a purely animal reaction and fear had become so effective that when my sister-in-law called me at two in the morning, asking me to come over, but first to warn the police that she had just killed my brother, I quietly asked her how and why she had killed Andre.

“But, Francois! I can’t explain all that over the telephone. Please call the police and come quickly.”

“Maybe I had better see you first, Helene?”

“No, you’d better call the police first; otherwise they will start asking you all sorts of awkward questions. They’ll have enough trouble as it is to believe that I did it alone… And, by the way, I suppose you ought to tell them that Andre … Andre’s body, is down at the factory. They may want to go there first.”

“Did you say that Andre is at the factory?”

“Yes … under the steam-hammer.”

“Under the what!”

“The steam-hammer! But don’t ask so many questions. Please come quickly Francois! Please understand that I’m afraid … that my nerves won’t stand it much longer!”

Have you ever tried to explain to a sleepy police officer that your sister-in-law has just phoned to say that she has killed your brother with a steam-hammer? I repeated my explanation, but he would not let me.

“Oui, monsieur, oui,I bear … but who are you? What is your name? Where do you live? I said, where do you live!”

It was then that Commissaire Charas took over the line and the whole business. He at least seemed to understand everything. Would I wait for him? Yes, he would pick me up and take me over to my brother’s house. When? In five or ten minutes.

I had just managed to pull on my trousers, wriggle into a sweater and grab a hat and coat, when a black Citroen, headlights blazing, pulled up at the door.

“I assume you have a night watchman at your factory, Monsieur Delarnbre. Has he called you?” asked Commissaire Charas, letting in the clutch as I sat down beside him and slammed the door of the car.

“No, he hasn’t. Though of course my brother could have entered the factory through his laboratory where he often works late at night … all night sometimes.”

“Is Professor Delambre’s work connected with your business?”

“No, my brother is, or was, doing research work for the Ministere de l’Air. As hewanted to be away from Paris and yet within reach of where skilled workmen could fix up or make gadgets big and small for his experiments, I offered him one of the old workshops of the factory and he came to live in the first house built by our grandfather on the top of the hill at the back of the factory.”

“Yes, I see. Did he talk about his work? What sort of research work?”

“He rarely talked about it, you know; I suppose the Air Ministry could tell you. I only know that be was about to carry out a number of experiments he had been preparing for some months, something to do with the disintegration of matter, he told me.”

Barely slowing down, the Commissaire swung the car off the road, slid it through the open factory gate and pulled up sharp by a policeman apparently expecting him.

I did not need to hear the policeman’s confirmation. I knew now that my brother was dead, it seemed that I had been told years ago. Shaking like a leaf, I scrambled out after the Commissaire.

Another policeman stepped out of a doorway and led us towards one of the shops where all the lights had been turned on. More policemen were standing by the hammer, watching two men setting up a camera. It was tilted downwards, and I made an effort to look.

It was far less horrid than I had expected. Though I had never seen my brother drunk, he looked just as if he were sleeping off a terrific binge, flat on his stomach across the narrow line on which the white-hot slabs of metal were rolled up to the hammer. I saw at a glance that his head and arm could only be a flattened mess, but that seemed quite impossible; it looked as if he had somehow pushed his head and arms right into the metallic mass of the hammer.

Having talked to his colleagues, the Commissaire turned towards me:

“How can we raise the hammer, Monsieur Delambre?”

“I’ll raise it for you.”

“Would you like us to get one of your men over?”

“No, I’ll be all right. Look, here is the switchboard. It was originally a steam-hammer,but everything is worked electrically here now. Look, Commissaire, the hammer has been set at fifty tons and its impact at zero.”

“At zero…?”

“Yes, level with the ground if you prefer. It is also set for single strokes, which means that it has to be raised after each blow. I don’t know what Helene, my sister-in-law, will have to say about all this, but one thing I am sure of: she certainly did not know how to set and operate the hammer.”

“Perhaps it was set that way last night when work stopped?”

“Certainly not. The drop is never set at zero, Monsieur le Commissaire.”

“I see. Can it be raised gently?”

“No. The speed of the upstroke cannot be regulated. But in any case it is not very fast when the hammer is set for single strokes.”

“Right. Will you show me what to do? It won’t be very nice to watch, you know.”

“No, no, Monsieur le Commissaire. I’ll be all right.”

“All set?” asked the Commissaire of the others. “All right then, Monsieur Delambre. Whenever you like.”

Watching my brother’s back, I slowly but firmly pushed the upstroke button.

The unusual silence of the factory was broken by the sigh of compressed air rushing into the cylinders, a sigh that always makes me think of a giant taking a deep breath before solemnly socking another giant, and the steel mass of the hammer shuddered and then rose swiftly. I also heard the sucking sound as it left the metal base and thought I was going to panic when I saw Andre’s body heave forward as a sickly gush of blood poured all over the ghastly mess bared by the hammer.

“No danger of it coming down again, Monsieur Delambre?”

“No, none whatever,” I mumbled as I threw the safety switch and, turning around, I was violently sick in front of a young green-faced policeman.

II.

For weeks after, Commissaire Charas worked on the case, listening, questioning, running all over the place, making out reports, telegraphing and telephoning right and left. Later, we became quite friendly and he owned that he had for a long time considered me as suspect number one, but had finally given up that idea because, not only was there no clue of any sort, but not even a motive.

Helene, my sister-in-law, was so calm throughout the whole business that the doctors finally confirmed what I had long considered the only possible solution: that she was mad. That being the case, there was of course no trial.

My brother’s wife never tried to defend herself in any way and even got quite annoyed when she realized that people thought her mad, and this of course was considered proof that she was indeed mad. She owned up to the murder of her husband and proved easily that she knew how to handle the hammer; but she would never say why, exactly how, or under what circumstances she had killed my brother. The great mystery was how and why had my brother so obligingly stuck his head under the hammer, the only possible explanation for his part in the drama.

The night watchman had heard the hammer all right; he had even heard it twice, he claimed. This was very strange, and the stroke-counter which was always set back to naught after a job, seemed to prove him right, since it marked the figure two. Also, the foreman in charge of the hammer confirmed that after cleaning up the day before the murder, he had as usual turned the stroke-counter back to naught. In spite of this, Helene maintained that she had only used the hammer once, and this seemed just another proof of her insanity.

Commissaire Charas, who had been put in charge of the case, at first wondered if the victim were really my brother. But of that there was no possible doubt, if only because of the great scar running from his knee to his thigh, the result of a shell that had landed within a few feet of him during the retreat in 1940; and there were also the fingerprints of his left hand which corresponded to those found all over his laboratory and his personal belongings up at the house.

A guard had been put on his laboratory and the next day half-a-dozen officials came down from the Air Ministry. They went through all his papers and took away some of his instruments, but before leaving, they told the Commissaire that the most interesting documents and instruments had been destroyed.

The Lyons police laboratory, one of the most famous in the world, reported that Andre’s head had been wrapped up in a piece of velvet when it was crushed by the hammer, and one day Commissaire Charas showed me a tattered drapery which I immediately recognized as the brown velvet cloth I had seen on a table in my brother’s laboratory, the one on which his meals were served when he could not leave his work.

After only a very few days in prison, Helene had been transferred to a nearby asylum, one of the three in France where insane criminals are taken care of. My nephew Henri, a boy of six, the very image of his father, was entrusted to me, and eventually all legal arrangements were made for me to become his guardian and tutor.

Helene, one of the quietest patients of the asylum, was allowed visitors and I went to see her on Sundays. Once or twice the Commissaire had accompanied me and, later, I learned that he had also visited Helene alone. But we were never able to obtain any information from my sister-in-law, who seemed to have become utterly indifferent. She rarely answered my questions and hardly ever those of the Commissaire. She spent a lot of her time sewing, but her favorite pastime seemed to be catching flies, which she invariably released unharmed after having examined them carefully.

Helene only had one fit of raving – more like a nervous breakdown than a fit, said the doctor who had administered morphia to quieten her – the day she saw a nurse swatting flies.

The day after Helene’s one and only fit, Commissaire Charas came to see me.

“I have a strange feeling that there lies the key to the whole business, Monsieur Delambre,” he said.

I did not ask him how it was that he already knew all about Helene’s fit.

“I do not follow you, Commissaire. Poor Madame Delambre could have shown an exceptional interest for anything else, really. Don’t you think that flies just happen to be the border-subject of her tendency to raving?”

“Do you believe she is really mad?” be asked.

“My dear Commissaire, I don’t see how there can be any doubt. Do you doubt it?”

“I don’t know. In spite of all the doctors say, I have the impression that Madame Delambre has a very clear brain … even when catching flies.”

“Supposing you were right, how would you explain her attitude with regard to her little boy? She never seems to consider him as her own child.”

“You know, Monsieur Delambre, I have thought about that also. She may be trying to protect him. Perhaps she fears the boy or, for all we know, hates him?”

“I’m afraid I don’t understand, my dear Commissaire.”

“Have you noticed, for instance, that she never catches flies when the boy is there?”

“No. But come to think of it, you are quite right. Yes, that is strange… Still, I fail to understand.”

“So do I, Monsieur Delambre. And I’m very much afraid that we shall never understand, unless perhaps your sister-in-law should get better.”

“The doctors seem to think that there is no hope of any sort you know.”

“Yes. Do you know if your brother ever experimented with flies?”

“I really don’t know, but I shouldn’t think so. Have you asked the Air Ministry people? They knew all about the work.”

“Yes, and they laughed at me.”

“I can understand that.”

“You are very fortunate to understand anything, Monsieur Delambre. I do not … but I hope to some day.”

III.

“Tell me, Uncle, do flies live a long time?”

We were just finishing our lunch and, following an established tradition between us, I was just pouring some wine into Henri’s glass for him to dip a biscuit in.

Had Henri not been staring at his glass gradually being filled to the brim, something in my look might have frightened him.

This was the first time that he had ever mentioned flies, and I shuddered at the thought that Commissaire Charas might quite easily have been present. I could imagine the glint in his eye as he would have answered my nephew’s question with another question. I could almost hear him saying:

“I don’t know, Henri. Why do you ask?”

“Because I have again seen the fly that Maman was looking for.”

And it was only after drinking off Henri’s own glass of wine that I realized that he had answered my spoken thought.

“I did not know that your mother was looking for a fly.”

“Yes, she was. It has grown quite a lot, but I recognized it all right.”

“Where did you see this fly, Henri, and … how did you recognize it?”

“This morning on your desk, Uncle Francois. Its head is white instead of black, and it has a funny sort of leg.”

Feeling more and more like Commissaire Charas, but trying to look unconcerned, I went on:

“And when did you see this fly for the first time?”

“The day that Papa went away. I had caught it, but Maman made me let it go. And then after, she wanted me to find it again. She’d changed her mind,” and shrugging his shoulders just as my brother used to, he added, “You know what women are.”

“I think that fly must have died long ago, and you must be mistaken, Henri,” I said, getting up and walking to the door.

But as soon as I was out of the dining room, I ran up the stairs to my study. There was no fly anywhere to be seen.

I was bothered, far more than I cared to even think about. Henri had just proved that Charas was really closer to a clue than it had seemed when he told me about his thoughts concerning Helene’s pastime.

For the first time I wondered if Charas did not really know much more than he let on. For the first time also, I wondered about Helene. Was she really insane? A strange, horrid feeling was growing on me, and the more I thought about it, the more I felt that, somehow, Charas was right: Helene was getting away with it!

What could possibly have been the reason for such a monstrous crime? What had led up to it? Just what had happened?

I thought of all the hundreds of questions that Charas had put to Helene, sometimes gently like a nurse trying to soothe, sometimes stern and cold, sometimes barking them furiously. Helene had answered very few, always in a calm quiet voice and never seeming to pay any attention to the way in which the question had been put. Though dazed, she had seemed perfectly sane then.

Refined, well-bred and well-read, Charas was more than just an intelligent police official. He was a keen psychologist and had an amazing way of smelling out a fib or an erroneous statement even before it was uttered. I knew that he had accepted as true the few answers she had given him. But then there had been all those questions which she had never answered: the most direct and important ones. From the very beginning, Helene had adopted a very simple system. “I cannot answer that question,” she would say in her low quiet voice. And that was that! The repetition of the same question never seemed to annoy her. In all the hours of questioning that she underwent, Helene did not once point out to the Commissaire that he had already asked her this or that. She would simply say, “I cannot answer that question,” as though it was the very first time that that particular question had been asked and the very first time she had made that answer.

This cliché had become the formidable barrier beyond which Commissaire Charas could not even get a glimpse, an idea of what Helene might be thinking. She had very willingly answered all questions about her life with my brother – which seemed a happy and uneventful one – up to the time of his end. About his death, however, all that she would say was that she had killed him with the steam-hammer, but she refused to say why, what had led up to the drama and how she got my brother to put his head under it. She never actually refused outright; she would just go blank and, with no apparent emotion, would switch over to, “I cannot answer that question for you.”

Helene, as I have said, had shown the Commissaire that she knew how to set and operate the steam-hammer.

Charas could only find one single fact which did not coincide with Helene’s declarations, the fact that the hammer had been used twice. Charas was no longer willing to attribute this to insanity. That evident flaw in Helene’s stonewall defense seemed a crack which the Commissaire might possibly enlarge. But my sister-in-law finally cemented it by acknowledging:

“All right, I lied to you. I did use the hammer twice. But do not ask me why, because I cannot tell you.”

“Is that your only … misstatement, Madame Delambre?” had asked the Commissaire, trying to follow up what looked at last like an advantage.

“It is … and you know it, Monsieur le Commissaire.”

And, annoyed, Charas had seen that Helene could read him like an open book.

I had thought of calling on the Commissaire, but the knowledge that he would inevitably start questioning Henri made me hesitate. Another reason also made me hesitate, a vague sort of fear that he would look for and find the fly Henri had talked of. And that annoyed me a good deal because I could find no satisfactory explanation for that particular fear.

Andre was definitely not the absent-minded sort of professor who walks about in pouring rain with a rolled umbrella under his arm. He was human, had a keen sense of humor, loved children and animals and could not bear to see anyone suffer. I had often seen him drop his work to watch a parade of the local fire brigade, or see the Tour de France cyclists go by, or even follow a circus parade all around the village. He liked games of logic and precision, such as billiards and tennis, bridge and chess.

How was it then possible to explain his death? What could have made him put his head under that hammer? It could hardly have been the result of some stupid bet or a test of his courage. He hated betting and had no patience with those who indulged in it. Whenever he heard a bet proposed, he would invariably remind all present that, after all, a bet was but a contract between a fool and a swindler, even if it turned out to be a toss-up as to which was which.

It seemed there were only two possible explanations to Andre’s death. Either he had gone mad, or else he had a reason for letting his wife kill him in such a strange and terrible way. And just what could have been his wife’s role in all this? They surely could not have been both insane?

Having finally decided not to tell Charas about my nephew’s innocent revelations, I thought I myself would try to question Helene.

She seemed to have been expecting my visit for she came into the parlor almost as soon as I had made myself known to the matron and been allowed inside.

“I wanted to show you my garden,” explained Helene as I looked at the coat slung over her shoulders.

As one of the “reasonable” inmates, she was allowed to go into the garden during certain hours of the day. She had asked for and obtained the right to a little patch of ground where she could grow flowers, and I had sent her seeds and some rosebushes out of my garden.

She took me straight to a rustic wooden bench which had been in the men’s workshop and only just set up under a tree close to her little patch of ground.

Searching for the right way to broach the subject of Andre’s death, I sat for a while tracing vague designs on the ground with the end of my umbrella.

“Francois, I want to ask you something,” said Helene after a while.

“Anything I can do for you, Helene?”

“No, just something I want to know. Do flies live very long?”

Staring at her, I was about to say that her boy had asked the very same question a few hours earlier when I suddenly realized that here was the opening I had been searching for and perhaps even the possibility of striking a great blow, a blow perhaps powerful enough to shatter her stonewall defense, be it sane or insane.

Watching her carefully, I replied:

“I don’t really know, Helene; but the fly you were looking for was in my study this morning.”

No doubt about it I had struck a shattering blow. She swung her head round with such force that I heard the bones crack in her neck. She opened her mouth, but said not a word; only her eyes seemed to be screaming with fear.

Yes, it was evident that I had crashed through something, but what? Undoubtedly, the Commissaire would have known what to do with such an advantage; I did not. All I knew was that he would never have given her time to think, to recuperate, but all I could do, and even that was a strain, was to maintain my best poker-face, hoping against hope that Helene’s defenses would go on crumbling.

She must have been quite a while without breathing, because she suddenly gasped and put both her hands over her still open mouth.

“Francois … did you kill it?” she whispered, her eyes no longer fixed, but searching every inch of my face.

“No.”

“You have it then. You have it on you! Give it to me!” she almost shouted, touching me with both her hands, and I knew that had she felt strong enough, she would have tried to search me.

“No, Helene, I haven’t got it.”

“But you know now. You have guessed, haven’t you?”

“No, Helene. I only know one thing, and that is that you are not insane. But I mean to know all, Helene, and, somehow, I am going to find out. You can choose: either you tell me everything and I’ll see what is to be done, or…”

“Or what? Say it!”

“I was going to say it, Helene … or I assure you that your friend the Commissaire will have that fly first thing tomorrow morning.”

She remained quite still, looking down at the palms of her hands on her lap and, although it was getting chilly, her forehead and hands were moist.

Without even brushing aside a wisp of long brown hair blown across her mouth by the breeze, she murmured:

“If I tell you … will you promise to destroy that fly before doing anything else?”

“No, Helene. I can make no such promise before knowing.”

“But, Francois, you must understand. I promised Andre that fly would be destroyed. That promise must be kept and I can say nothing until it is.”

I could sense the deadlock ahead. I was not yet losing ground, but I was losing the initiative. I tried a shot in the dark:

“Helene, of course you understand that as soon as the police examine that fly, they will know that you are not insane, and then…”

“Francois, no! For Henri’s sake! Don’t you see? I was expecting that fly; I was hoping it would find me here but it couldn’t know what had become of me. What else could it do but go to others it loves, to Henri, to you … you who might know and understand what was to be done!”

Was she really mad, or was she simulating again? But mad or not, she was cornered. Wondering how to follow up and how to land the knockout blow without running the risk of seeing her slip away out of reach, I said very quietly:

“Tell me all, Helene. I can then protect your boy.”

“Protect my boy from what? Don’t you understand that if I am here, it is merely so that Henri won’t be the son of a woman who was guillotined for having murdered his father? Don’t you understand that I would by far prefer the guillotine to the living death of this lunatic asylum?”

“I understand, Helene, and I’ll do my best for the boy whether you tell me or not. If you refuse to tell me, I’ll still do the best I can to protect Henri, but you must understand that the game will be out of my hands, because Commissaire Charas will have the fly.”

“But why must you know?” said, rather than asked, my sister-in-law, struggling to control her temper.

“Because I must and will know how and why my brother died, Helene.”

“All right. Take me back to the … house. I’ll give you what your Commissaire would call my ‘Confession.'”

“Do you mean to say that you have written it!”

“Yes. It was not really meant for you, but more likely for your friend, the Commissaire. I had foreseen that, sooner or later, he would get too close to the truth.”

“You then have no objection to his reading it?”

“You will act as you think fit, Francois. Wait for me a minute.”

Leaving me at the door of the parlor, Helene ran upstairs to her room. In less than a minute she was back with a large brown envelope.

“Listen, Francois; you are not nearly as bright as was your poor brother, but you are not unintelligent. All I ask is that you read this alone. After that, you may do as you wish.”

“That I promise you, Helene,” I said, taking the precious envelope. “I’ll read it tonight and although tomorrow is not a visiting day, I’ll come down to see you.”

“Just as you like,” said my sister-in-law without even saying good-bye as she went back upstairs.