Frédéric Boutet: The Ghost of M. Imberger (conclusion)
I have never known whether or not, during this time, Maxence held clandestine meetings with Mme Imberger. Her, they did not permit me to follow, and he had the artfulness to shed those of my men who trailed him. But I have always thought she gave him money, for in the evenings of certain days, when he was particularly free of restraint, he gambled with his circle for high stakes, or paid his costs in champagne…
After all, it may be that Andrée acquitted herself thus from family duty, making it her own; or simply from respect for the customs of her husband towards this young man who’d been in his charge. One must not excuse the act one can explain charitably, more than another.
And so I felt at last a cold exasperation. This business began to turn for me on a fixed idea. I must determine Imberger alive or dead. Well…it was at the Mi-Carème that I found him dead. Or alive. That evening, I was in the grand salon of a night café in Monmartre. It did not call itself a dancehall at that time, but amounted to the same thing. I admit I was not there altogether in connection with my work…I was feeling fatigued, annoyed, set on edge by these last weeks of fruitless inquiry. For a few hours, I desired a change of scene; not neglecting, however, to observe everything around me—as the night cafés are full of information.
I had for half an hour watched the little women who danced in the middle of the room, when Maxence himself entered with a gang of friends. He was an habitué of the house; I had counted on seeing him…while, for practical purposes, I was camouflaged so that he could not recognize me.
They sat themselves at a table not far from mine, four men in tuxedos. Max himself, and a fat, hearty gladhander that I knew a little, having asked him for information on recent activities before the disappearance of M. Imberger. As well, two revelers without interest. With the men were three of the women, the little dancers familiar to all the bars and nightclubs. All three more or less were disguised as Persians, and one of them, a dainty blonde they called Cora, laughed and swayed, and lovingly caressed the irresistible Max. But she did not leave the line.
The men’s supper began with a dry champagne. The room grew animated. I saw the dancers’ serpentine movements, the spangles and scarves, the mounting smiles of the men, the women’s shopworn, squealing flirtations. All at once, they rose to perform.
“Wait for me, wait for me, I’m going too!” cried little Cora, half-lying on Max and smoking a cigarette. “And then you’ll see, I will do something amazing!”
“What? Tell, baby!”
The fat fellow, a little plastered, tried to hold her, but she danced free. “It’s a surprise! You’ll see, you big walrus!”
She took from the banquette an immense carpet bag, the mode of that era, which seemed heavy and stuffed. She gave the handsome Max a long kiss, and ran to the lavatory where she shut herself in, as though to make up her face.
Five minutes later she came out with one of her friends, who laughed like a fool. Cora took her by the waist and they threw themselves in among groups who were pressing to look at her, applauding and laughing, without my being able to see why. It was then that she came to the table where the two revelers had sunk in their seats, the fat man remaining all hilarity, and Max, nonchalant with his back to the banquette and a cigar between his teeth, waiting for her. She dashed up behind him, moved in front, and showed herself.
His eyes flew open and his face changed, becoming blanched and convulsed in horror; he stood in a single bound, fists clenched, knocking over the table.
“You dare it, in the name of God! You dare it!”
His shout drowned all other voices in the room.
There was a general silence, everyone staring. At Max’s side, the fat man got to his feet, aghast. He looked at the girl, who stood petrified. He grew pale himself, and cried:
“But…it’s the picture of M. Imberger!”
All this passed in ten seconds. I was rushing already to see the little dancer, her winsome face covered with a wax mask, a droll contrast to her blonde curls. It was painted to resemble an old man, recognizably that of innumerable photos, en face or in profile, that I’d seen of M. Imberger.
I turned to Max. “Where did you put the body?”
I seized his arm.
I was braced for a battle I could not be at all sure of winning with a rascal of his size. But he was a brute without courage. When two policemen called by the manager came in, he sank in my hands. Quickly they removed him, to the astonishment of the revelers and the girls—
Who would understand next day, when they read their newspapers.
I had taken the mask from our little Cora, and saw her run into the arms of the fat fellow, sobbing. “I did it for a joke,” she said again and again. “He had a bunch of them over his mantelpiece.”
And the fat man, distrait, repeated, “What a business! I’d thought him such a nice boy…!”
I found the corpse of M. Imberger buried in the cellar of the little house in Passy. This, as in most old houses, had dark corners among its arches. Barrels, bottles, and some rubble were heaped there, in a pell-mell fashion that had looked to me natural when making my quick inspection.
In one such corner, the corpse was buried at a shallow depth.
The impetus of the crime, you will guess. M. Imberger had perceived the attentions of Maxence towards his wife, without believing yet that Max was her lover. In a violent confrontation, he’d ordered his nephew to leave.
Maxence—it was he who gave me all the details, for he was a criminal of the talkative variety—had gained time from the absence of the young wife. (Recall, this was the night of the costume ball.) He had hid himself in the office of his uncle, and strangled him with his hands. He then carried the body to the lowest part of the cellar. I would have found it sooner, if the apparitions of M. Imberger had not obliged me to officially interrupt my searches.
And this was a truly a marvelous invention of the dandy Maxence. In one blow, these appearances detoured suspicion and neatly forestalled my interrogations. He had taken an impression from the bust of M. Imberger, you understand, and had fabricated the wax mask to resemble him.
When he saw me closing near he began using it. He donned the great cloak of the dead man at that hour when the light of lampposts mingles with that of fading day. He appeared, as you know, suddenly and rapidly, on his own face this other, frozen and haggard, so striking to all those who thought they had seen M. Imberger.
This mask he had hung at home over the fireplace, not, by an excess of cleverness, trying too hard to hide it, amid others grotesque or horrible, Chinese and Tibetan. Little Cora, brought there one night, chose to filch this one, to make her Carnival dress.
Maxence, betrayed by chance, which sometimes favors the criminal and sometimes the police, was conducted to the assize, where he was given only ten years—for they had wanted to see in this a crime of passion.
Mme Imberger, though in no way pursued, could not even appear as a witness. A cerebral fever held her between death and life; she did not cease in her delirium to repeat:
“If I had known…if I had known…”
But for Ferrier, who cared for her—as he was quite willing to tell me—there was no knowing whether she felt remorse at being the involuntary cause of her husband’s murder, for becoming the mistress of Maxence, or if she regretted not being there to manage things, so as to help her lover save himself…
The Ghost of M. Imberger
(2019, translation, Stephanie Foster)