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Title: The Cafe of Terror
Author: E. Phillips Oppenheim
* A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook *
eBook No.: 0608961h.html
Language:  English
Date first posted: November 2006
Date most recently updated: November 2006

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THE CAFE OF TERROR

by

E. Phillips Oppenheim


The Marquis always talked very bad English when he was angry, and this morning he was very angry indeed. Climbing up narrow and precipitous paths upon a surface of loose stones, pushing his way occasionally through brambles and undergrowth, and looking downwards from heights, which always made him giddy, had been undertakings which had combined to incense him. He was not dressed or built for such mad escapades. The sight of Madelon, bare-headed, and laughing, having the air of one to whom such excursions, instead of being a torture, were a keen pleasure, only irritated him, whereas the final note of exasperation he discovered in the pleasant good temper of Mr. Samuel T. Billingham, their guide and host, who, with a huge cigar in his mouth, was walking with springy steps and unabated cheerfulness up the path which the Marquis had passionately declared to be only fit for goats and idiots.

"I can no further make this absurd promenade," the Marquis announced, sinking on to a heap of stones and dabbing with a scented pocket-handkerchief drops of moisture upon his forehead, which must not be allowed to reach his eyebrows. "It is an absurdity! I have a pain of the stomach, a pain of the knees, a pain of the back. It is not for this I came. Where is the automobile?"

"Poor uncle!" Madelon sympathised. "I had forgotten that you were not used to walking. You should have lived in England as I have done. But the view—you must admit that the view is marvellous!"

The comments of the Marquis upon the view were delivered in fluent and sacrilegious French. He displayed an acquaintance with the various forms of blasphemy peculiar to his language which moved even Mr. Billingham to wondering admiration.

"When I feel better," he concluded, after a moment's electric pause, "I shall apologise. At present I will only say that the view from the window of my salon, which takes in the Casino and all that glorious sea, is better worth having."

"Less than a kilometre to go," Mr. Billingham declared. "I reckon we shall strike the main road just beyond that clump of firs, and that's where I told the car to pick us up. Another quarter of an hour, Marquis, and we shall be in St. Félix."

"If one could only drink something!" the latter observed pettishly, as he rose to his feet. "I miss my morning apéritif."

"That's coming to you, sure," Mr. Billingham promised. "I've done this tramp before, and unless I'm mistaken there's a little café where this path joins the cart track."

The prospect was sufficiently encouraging to induce the Marquis to struggle to his feet. They clambered another fifty yards or so up the stony path and found themselves in a rough track which had evidently been made by the carting of timber from the other side of the ravine. A little way along there was a small white-plastered building, to which Mr. Billingham pointed.

"The Café du Forêt!" he exclaimed. "The worst ever, so far as I remember, but a Dubonnet won't poison us."

The Marquis almost smiled.

"A Dubonnet will be acceptable," he admitted. "The place appears poverty-stricken, but if one can secure an unopened bottle——"

"We'll find that," Mr. Billingham interrupted confidently.

A few minutes' further climb brought them to the café. It was small, dilapidated and uninviting. Nevertheless it proclaimed itself in rudely painted black letters to be a restaurant where "Vins et Consommations" were to be obtained. There were three iron tables outside with a couple of chairs at each, but no sign of life. The door stood open and his two companions followed Mr. Billingham inside. There was no one behind the little counter, no one in the rude little compartment with its sanded floor and benches in place of chairs. There were bottles upon the shelves, however, and a tumbler half full of brandy upon the counter. Mr. Billingham raised his voice and the glasses around shook.

"Hallo there!" he shouted.

"Allo, allo!" the Marquis echoed. "N'y a-t-il personne ici pour nous servir?"

There was a stolid, unsympathetic lack of response. They waited for a moment, then Mr. Billingham opened the door of the room behind the bar and glanced around. It was a rough-looking kitchen, with a stone floor and a few clumsy articles of furniture. A string of onions, a scraggy piece of meat, and a rabbit hung down from iron hooks in the ceiling. There were pots and dishes upon the table, but no fire or any sign of recent occupation. Mr. Billingham raised his voice again without result, opened still another door, and called up a flight of flimsy stairs—also without result. Then he returned to his companions.

"There is no one about at all," he announced.

"You might try outside," Madelon suggested.

Outside there was no garden but a little clearing, a rudely constructed shed built of pine logs from which the bark had not been stripped, and a lean-to shelter, with a corrugated iron roof, against the wall. Mr. Billingham again, in stentorian tones, invited the presence of the missing innkeeper and again without response. He returned to the bar.

"Deserted!" he exclaimed.

"They were preparing for a fête at the small village we passed through last," Madelon remarked. "Perhaps the people have gone there, or the man may work in the woods."

The Marquis smiled. He had been studying the labels upon the bottles.

"At least," he pointed out, "they have left a bottle of Dubonnet. Produce that excellent corkscrew of yours, my friend Billingham. We will serve ourselves and leave the money."

They opened the bottle of Dubonnet which the Marquis had dragged down from the shelf, found some thick wine-glasses, and seated themselves before one of the rude tables outside. Madelon gave a little exclamation of relief as they passed out into the pine-scented sunshine.

"That place gave me the shivers," she declared. "It seemed so very empty, so very silent."

"It's a lonely spot," Mr. Billingham agreed, pouring out the Dubonnet. "They seem to have let off felling the timber round here, and I guess that took the trade away."

"So long as they are absent," the Marquis said, "one owes them gratitude that they left the place open. Never have I tasted Dubonnet with a better flavour. Tell me, my friend Billingham, how much further of this abominable promenade before we reach the automobile?"

"Not more than half a kilometre," Mr. Billingham assured him. "There's a little path which leads straight up to the road from the cart track. There we shall find the automobile. In a few minutes more we shall be in St. Félix. After that—the déjeuner!"

The Marquis breathed a little sigh of content and helped himself once more from the bottle. Madelon, who had set her glass down empty, was fidgeting about as though anxious to start.

"Hungry?" Mr. Billingham inquired.

She shook her head.

"I have taken a dislike to this place," she confided. "Am I superstitious, I wonder? I have a terrible feeling about it."

The Marquis was sympathetic but entirely comfortable and not disposed to hurry. He lit a cigarette and leaned back in his chair.

"I understand," he murmured. "A deserted inn on the edge of the forest! There are all the materials here for drama. There was a story I once read——"

He broke off abruptly and the cigarette fell from his fingers. Mr. Billingham sprang to his feet. Madelon, who had wandered a few yards away from them and turned back towards the house, was standing suddenly rigid, suddenly pale. The cry which had startled them had escaped from her lips. She pointed to the window above the door.

"There was a face there!" she cried. "Some one up in the room!"

Mr. Billingham remained composed.

"Well, I guess that isn't so terrible after all," he observed. "I dare say there's some one ill there. Who was it—a man or a woman?"

"I do not know," Madelon answered faintly. "It was—just a face!"

"Seems to have given you a shock," Mr. Billingham continued. "Sit down, Miss Madelon, and drink half a glass more of this stuff. Guess I'd better hunt round and see if there's any help wanted."

Madelon—young woman of nerve and courage though she was—staggered into a chair and was utterly unable to raise to her lips the glass which her uncle hastily filled. Mr. Billingham disappeared inside the building. In about five minutes he returned.

"There's only one room upstairs," he announced, "and there ain't a soul in it."

"But I saw some one," Madelon protested.

He strolled a yard or two away and looked back at the window, pausing a moment to relight his cigar which had gone out.

"Well, there's no one there now," he assured her. "There's only one room and not a cupboard for a hiding-place. There are two beds—both look as though they'd been slept in—but there isn't a human being in the shanty. You can take my word for it."

Madelon looked at him steadfastly. She had drunk some of the Dubonnet and she was becoming herself again.

"Do you believe, then," she asked, "that I saw the face of some one who does not exist?"

"I shouldn't say you were the sort who saw spooks," Mr. Billingham admitted. "All I say is, there's no one there now."

"You must surely have realised, my dear Madelon," the Marquis intervened, "whether the face was the face of a man or a woman."

"I should have said that it was the face of a young man," Madelon replied, "but it might have been the face of a girl. There was a mass of black hair. The face itself was smooth. It was the eyes that were horrible."

"You don't say!" Mr. Billingham murmured with tolerant sympathy. "Kind of scared, were they?"

Madelon rose to her feet.

"Please let us go now," she begged. "I cannot talk about it any more. I can only assure you of one thing. Something terrible has happened here. Please, Mr. Billingham!"

"We'll get right along," was the prompt response. "Ten francs will square us for the bottle of Dubonnet, I guess—ten francs and what's left of the bottle. I'll put it underneath the glass—see? Now, we're right! Just a yard or two through the trees and then we'll leave this place behind us."

"I hope," Madelon murmured as they passed swiftly back to the cart track, "that I may be able to forget it."

The Marquis smiled.

"Pooh, pooh, my child!" he exclaimed. "You are too sensitive, too emotional! Material discomforts you scoff at. A fancy sometimes tortures you. Behold, the good news!"

He pointed upwards. At the end of the path was the curling main road and by the side of it the automobile Mr. Billingham had hired for their day's excursion. No vehicle before had ever appealed so greatly to the Marquis.

"We've struck it right after all," Mr. Billingham declared with satisfaction. "Gee, how hot the sun is out here! Lunch on the terrace in twenty minutes, Miss Madelon. Now, let's forget that dirty little shanty and its spook!"

The spook was not so easy to forget. Madelon, with Mr. Billingham as her escort, was on her way that evening from the Casino to Ciro's when she suddenly gripped her companion's arm.

"Look," she cried, in a tone vibrant with absolute terror. "Look! The boy at that table!"

Mr. Billingham's eyes followed her gesture. The young man was certainly an unusual sight in such surroundings. His clothes, although perfectly new, were clumsily fashioned and of the sort worn on fête days by the peasants. His hat was pushed to the back of his head, and, although it was of the sombrero order affected by the mountaineers of the district, it failed to conceal the masses of black hair which gave him almost a grotesque appearance. His complexion was the usual burnt olive of the Provençal labourer. It was again his expression which arrested. His eyes were large and black, without either the vacancy or the humour of the peasant on a holiday. They looked neither at the people who passed, the trees and flowers of the plaza, nor at the bottle of wine which stood half-empty by his side. They seemed to be looking at something which, if it existed at all, existed far away.

"That," Madelon said, "was the face I saw at the upstairs window of that place this morning."

Her hand was clutching nervously at his arm. Mr. Billingham patted it gently.

"Say, this boy has got on your nerves some," he declared. "I'll go across and have a talk to him. Sit down and wait for me."

"I think I will for a moment," Madelon acquiesced.

She seated herself on one of the benches by the side of the pavement. Mr. Billingham crossed the road and addressed the boy in hesitating but comprehensible French.

"Do you belong to the inn up near St. Félix?" he inquired. "The young lady and I were there this morning."

The boy stared at his questioner for a moment with parted lips and terrified expression. He made absolutely no reply, however.

"We could not find any one there," Mr. Billingham continued, speaking with laborious care. "We hoped there was nothing wrong."

The boy broke out into a stream of rapid, unintelligible speech, to which Mr. Billingham listened in ever-increasing confusion. He turned round to find Madelon by his side.

"Say, this young goat-herd has got hold of a lingo of his own," he complained. "I don't know as any one but a monkey could tell what he's chattering about. Seems kind of annoyed with me, but I can't get a word of it."

"It is the dialect of the Italians here," Madelon explained. "Let me try."

She spoke to him patiently. The boy only shook his head. Presently he poured out another glass of wine and drank it. Then he sat quite still, stolid and inattentive. He took no notice of Madelon's questions. He showed no sign of understanding a word she said. In the end she was seized by a sudden revulsion. She tugged at her companion's arm.

"Come away!" she begged. "He will not reply. He pretends not to understand me, though I believe that he does. Let us leave him."

"Guess you're right," Mr. Billingham assented. "He's a crazy loon, if ever there was one, or he wouldn't speak such gibberish. Anyway, it's not our business."

They passed on. The young man looked after them sullenly and helped himself to more wine. Ten minutes later, when Mr. Billingham, obeying an unaccountable impulse, chose a moment when Madelon was talking to some acquaintances and hurried back, the chair was empty. The young man was gone.

"Anyway," Mr. Billingham murmured to himself, struggling against a curious feeling of uneasiness, "it ain't our affair."

Notwithstanding the fact that Mr. Billingham had twice declared that whatever trouble there might be or have been at the little inn on the edge of the forest was not his affair, it was barely ten o'clock in the morning when he left the automobile which he had hired in the Square at Monte Carlo, clambered down the steep path, made his way along the cart track, pushed through the clump of trees and found himself before the café. There was no smoke emerging from the chimney, and Mr. Billingham gave a little start of surprise as he saw on the table, in front of the still open door, the half-consumed bottle of Dubonnet and the ten-franc note under one of the glasses.

"I guess passers-by round here are pretty scarce," he ruminated. "Seems queer that whoever quit the place didn't trouble to lock up. Left in a hurry, perhaps."

Mr. Billingham would doubtless have scorned the suggestion that he talked to himself for the fact of any pleasure he might derive from hearing his own voice, and yet it was without a doubt true that the uneasy feeling of the day before had returned to an even larger extent. He pushed open the door. The half-emptied tumbler was still upon the counter. Some little disarrangement of the bottles upon the shelf, effected by their removal of the bottle of Dubonnet, still existed. He threw open the door leading to the kitchen and called out:

"Hallo there!"

There was no reply. He mounted the stairs with footsteps which he was half-ashamed to admit were reluctant ones. The bedroom was as empty as it had been on the previous day. There was no place to hide anywhere—no other room. As he descended, however, he realised that it was perfectly possible for the owner of the face whom Madelon had seen there to have escaped by the back door and reached the wood in the matter of a very few seconds. He returned to the kitchen. Here he noticed for the first time that by the side of the fireplace was a clumsy framework door, which looked as though it might have led into a pantry or cupboard. He moved towards it and raised the latch. Before he threw the door open, he knew. When he closed it again—in the space of a second or two—there were great beads of perspiration upon his forehead. The colour had left his cheeks and the blood seemed to have been drained from body. He staggered out into the bar, gripped the counter for a moment, saw a bottle of Martell's brandy on the bottom row of the shelf, seized it, made his faltering way outside, knocked off its neck against the top of one of the iron tables, and drank. ... Mr. Billingham was a strong man and his recovery was prompt. Nevertheless, he was breathing heavily as he hastened up the hill to where his automobile was waiting.

"Drive to the Mairie at St. Félix," he ordered....

Arrived at the Mairie—a small wistaria-covered building on the outskirts of the straggling village of St. Félix—Mr. Billingham was ushered at once by a gendarme into a bare little apartment with whitewashed walls and a row of benches, in which a very formal-looking gentleman with a closely-trimmed black beard, very smoothly brushed hair, and gold-rimmed pince-nez, was seated at a table, signing documents. His work for the morning had consisted of adjudicating upon a highly important case of fowl stealing, and he looked with some surprise at his visitor's precipitate entrance. Mr. Billingham's opening statement was in far from lucid English. The magistrate, with a puzzled expression, waved him to a seat.

"Comment, monsieur?" he exclaimed.

Mr. Billingham pulled himself together. His French, though not rapid, was fairly precise, and he had no difficulty in making himself understood.

"A woman has been murdered at a little café at the edge of the forest," he announced.

The magistrate gasped. The gendarme gasped.

"Continue, monsieur," the former begged.

Mr Billingham told his story. The magistrate gave him his entire attention. It was a great day, this! A murder! Obviously a murder, in his district! He began to make notes of Mr. Billingham's statement. He was friendly but official. It was quite hopeless for him to conceal the fact that the news had filled him with pleasurable interest. It had been the secret desire of his life to have the handling of such a case.

"I will accompany you to the inn myself at once, monsieur," he announced, rising to his feet. "You can accommodate a gendarme, perhaps, on the front of your car.... Let the Court remain open till my return," he directed a subordinate. "Tell me again your story as we proceed, monsieur."

Mr Billingham went through the few facts again. In response to his own inquiries the magistrate gave him certain information.

"The inn," he said, "was kept by a very respectable, good man, of the name of Pierre Anson. He lived there with his wife, the woman who without a doubt is the victim, and his nephew, a young man of whom one hears not too much of good. The wife, it is reported, had savings—savings of some account—and the nephew knew it. Three days ago news came to Anson of the death of a relative in Marseilles. This I know because he came to me for information as to the burying of the relative and as to his journey. He set off last Monday morning. He was expecting to return to-night. He left alone his wife and this nephew. One fears to reflect what may have happened!"

Mr. Billingham sighed, because he was a kind-hearted man, and because a vision of that flashing knife of the guillotine is terrible to such. Nevertheless it was his duty.

"Last night," he confided, "the young man, who apparently was the nephew of Pierre Anson, was drinking wine at the Café de Paris in Monte Carlo. He was pointed out to me by the young lady, who declared that his was the face she saw at the window."

The magistrate nodded gravely.

"It is a crime," he said, "in effect simple, not uncommon amongst this race of people. When heated with wine and drunk with the desire of pleasure, the shedding of blood is nothing. I, who tell you this, know."

They arrived at their destination. The magistrate and the gendarme made their way to the little room. Mr. Billingham sat outside. He had no soul for horrors. It was an hour before they rejoined him. The magistrate was carrying his notebook in his hand.

"All is clear," he announced. "The savings of the poor woman have disappeared. To-night, or to-morrow at the latest, the young man will be in our hands. Your name and address, if you please, monsieur. You will attend the Court?"

"Certainly," Mr. Billingham promised.

"The young man," the magistrate continued, "will have had two nights of that wild pleasure of which he has lain awake, here in this place of tranquillity, and dreamed. Afterwards—well—he may escape with the penitentiary. One knows little of his age."

Mr. Billingham looked up at the blank window. The silence which brooded over the place remained unbroken. A gendarme, having closed the door, seated himself outside.

"Pierre Anson will arrive by the night train," the magistrate remarked. "It will be a sad home-coming for him."

"Better," Mr. Billingham rejoined, with a little shiver, "than if he had found the house empty and opened that door, as I did."

The most pathetic sight in the bare, whitewashed little room of the Mairie on the first morning of the examination was Pierre Anson, the woodman. The tears streamed down his brown, wrinkled face as the magistrate addressed his first few kindly questions. He had, at one time, as was evident, been a man of great stature and strength. Now he seemed shrunken up, stricken with the horror of his home-coming.

"Your wife had savings, Pierre Anson?" the magistrate asked him.

"She was a thrifty woman," was the tremulous reply. "She had always a stocking."

"Do you know how much was in it?"

"She never told me."

"Did your nephew—the young man between the gendarmes there—the young man whom you trusted alone with your wife—did he know?"

"I cannot tell," Pierre Anson answered. "He was always wanting money."

"You have been to Marseilles to bury a relative—is it not so?"

"Yes, monsieur."

"You thought it safe to leave this youth, of whose character we hear little that is good, alone with your wife in such a desolate spot?"

"She was his aunt," the man announced, with a little sob. "How would I dream of anything so horrible?"

The magistrate bent over his papers. Mr. Billingham, seated by his side, watched the shaft of sunlight which had found its way through the cobwebbed windows and had fallen upon the boy's face. Madelon, who had also been invited by the magistrate to occupy a chair near him, scribbled something on a piece of paper and passed it to her neighbour. He glanced at it and passed it on to the magistrate, who studied it through his pince-nez with pursed lips. Finally, with a little shrug of the shoulders, he twiddled it between his fingers.

"Where did you stay in Marseilles, Pierre Anson?" he asked suddenly.

The woodman lifted his head and stared uncomprehendingly at his questioner.

"I asked you where you stayed in Marseilles," the magistrate repeated.

Pierre Anson shook his head.

"I do not remember," he said. "It was a small lodging-house down by the quay."

"You do not remember?" the magistrate echoed, in a tone of some surprise. "Is that not strange, Pierre Anson?"

"It was somewhere near where my cousin lay dead," the man answered, a little sullenly. "I could find the place—the name I never knew."

The magistrate's right arm suddenly shot out.

"Or is it that you are lying, Pierre Anson?" he thundered. "Is it that you yourself, before you left home in the small hours of that Tuesday morning, murdered your wife and stole her savings, forced two of the notes on that half-witted youth, persuaded him to buy clothes and go down to Monte Carlo, and went yourself to Nice—your rendezvous at Nice—to your rendezvous with Lucie Bérard?"

The man half-rose to his feet. His eyes seemed suddenly bloodshot. He swayed about as though striving to speak.

"Bring the woman," the magistrate ordered.

Pierre Anson glanced fearfully towards the door. A woman in the care of a gendarme entered. They looked at one another across the room—the man and the woman—and one understood.

"The money of which you robbed your wife, Pierre Anson," the magistrate continued, "was found upon this woman. You have visited her month by month in Nice. You would have thrust the burden of this crime upon your nephew. You yourself are the murderer! Do you confess?"

A cry rang through the Court—not from the man, Pierre Anson, who was indeed incapable of speech, whose hands were fighting the air, who fought against unconsciousness, but from the boy who stood between the gendarmes. His eyes were fixed upon the woman who had entered the Court Room, His indifference had vanished. His eyes again were lit with fear.

"Mother!" he cried.

"It is I!" she answered.

The boy turned towards the magistrate.

"It was I who killed the woman," he pleaded. "No one else knows anything about it."

"You are a liar and a fool!" the woman declared angrily. "It was he, the bungler there," she added, pointing to Pierre Anson. "And there is the money."

She dashed a bundle of notes upon the floor and stood with folded arms, defiant, the incarnation of an evil spirit. A gendarme touched Pierre Anson upon the shoulder. The proceedings were over.

Afterwards the magistrate entertained his two distinguished guests with a bottle of sweet wine and biscuits in his retiring-room. He was well pleased with the whole business.

"Amongst the lowest classes of our peasants," he explained, "these family dramas are not uncommon. Pierre Anson, as the story goes now, loved both sisters. He married the older one—a widow with money. The rest of the story unfolds itself. Yet Pierre Anson had cunning which few of these peasants possess. He deceived us all. It is to you, monsieur," he added, turning to Mr. Billingham, "that we owe the clue by means of which we arrived at the truth."

Mr. Billingham shook his head.

"Not to me," he rejoined; "to the young lady."

The magistrate bowed.

"Then might one inquire," he ventured, "what led the young lady to doubt the lad's guilt?"

Madelon was once more serious.

"Something in his eyes," she confided, with a little shudder of reminiscence; "something which was there and something which was nor there."

The magistrate raised his glass and bowed first to Madelon, then to Mr. Billingham.

"Something in his eyes," he repeated. "Well, one reads somewhere in a lay commentary upon our laws and the discovery of crime, that the born detective must have an instinct for the truth. Mademoiselle, there is a great vocation open to you."

Madelon smiled. She sipped her wine, but she remained silent.

THE END

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