The Open Window by Charles
“It happened just as I have said,” Fernet reiterated,
tossing the wine-dregs from his glass.
The company at the table looked instinctively toward
the kitchen. Berthe was bringing a fresh pot of coffee.
They all followed Fernet’s example, lifting their empty
glasses for her to serve them in their turn.
The regular boarders of the Hôtel de France, after the
fashion of folks who find their meal a duty to be promptly
despatched, had departed, but the transients still lingered
over their café noir and cognac in the hope that something
exciting might materialize.
As the sound of Fernet’s voice died away, a man who
had been sitting in an extreme corner of the room scraped
back his chair and rose. Fernet looked up. The man
was a hunchback, and, instead of paying for his meal and
leaving, he crossed over and said to Fernet, in the most
perfect French imaginable:
“I see, my young fellow, that you are discussing something
of interest with your friends here. Would it be
impertinent for me to inquire into the subject?”
Fernet drew out a chair for the newcomer, who seated
“By no means. We were discussing a murder and
suicide. The murdered man was an Italian fisherman
who lodged at the Hôtel des Alpes Maritimes, the suicide
was a musician named Suvaroff.”
“Ah,” said the hunchback, cracking his fingers. “Why
a murder and suicide? Why not two murders?”
“Because,” returned Fernet, pompously, “it was abundantly
proved to the contrary. This man Suvaroff suffered
from neuralgia; the Italian fisherman was given to
playing the accordion at all hours of the night. Suvaroff
was, in addition, a musician—a high-strung person.
The Italian’s playing was abominable—even his landlady
says as much. In short, Suvaroff deliberately killed
this simple-minded peasant because of his music. Then,
in a fit of remorse, he killed himself. I leave it to any
one here to dispute the fact. Besides, I was on the coroner’s
jury. I should know what I am talking about.”
“Oh, without doubt,” agreed the hunchback, smiling
amiably. “But, as I remember, the knives in both cases
were plunged hilt-deep into the backs of the victims. One
does not usually commit suicide in this fashion.”
Fernet coldly eyed the curiously handsome face of his
antagonist. “It seems you know more about this thing
than a coroner’s jury,” he sneered.
“It seems I do—granting that such an important item
was left out of the evidence.”
“Then, my good sir, will you be good enough to tell
me who did kill Suvaroff, since you do not admit that he
died by his own hand?”
The hunchback cracked his fingers again. “That is
simple enough. Suvaroff was killed by the same person
who stabbed the Italian.”
“And who might that be, pray?”
The hunchback rose with a malignant smile. “Ah, if
I told you that you would know as much as I do, my
And with that he walked calmly over to the proprietor,
put down thirty-five cents for his meal upon the counter,
and without another word left the room.
A silence fell upon the group. Everybody stared
straight ahead, avoiding the eye of his neighbor. It was
as if something too terrifying to be remarked had passed
Finally, a thick-set man at Fernet’s right, with a purple
wart on his cheek, said, uneasily, “Come, I must be
The others rose; only Fernet remained seated.
“What,” said another, “haven’t you finished?”
“Yes,” returned Fernet, gloomily, “but I am in no
He sat there for an hour, alone, holding his head between
his hands. Berthe cleared off the soiled plates,
wiped the oilcloth-covered tables, began noisily to lay the
pewter knives and forks for the morning meal. At this
Fernet stirred himself and, looking up at her, said:
“Tell me who was the hunchback who came and sat
with us? Does he live here—in San Francisco?”
“His name is Flavio Minetti,” she replied, setting the
lid back upon an uncovered sugar-bowl. “Beyond that
I know nothing. But they tell me that he is quite mad.”
“Ah, that accounts for many things,” said Fernet,
smiling with recovered assurance. “I must say he is
Berthe looked at him sharply and shrugged. “For my
part, he makes me shiver every time I see him come in
the door. When I serve him my hand shakes. And he
continually cracks his fingers and says to me: ‘Come,
Berthe, what can I do to make you smile? Would you
laugh if I were to dance for you? I would give half my
life only to see you laughing. Why are you so sad?’ ... No,
I wish he would never come again.”
“Nevertheless, I should like to see him once more.”
“He comes always on Thursdays for chicken.”
“Thanks,” said Fernet, as he put on his hat.
Fernet walked directly to his lodgings that night. He
had a room in an old-fashioned house on the east side of
Telegraph Hill. The room was shabby enough, but it
caught glimpses of the bay and there was a gnarled
pepper-tree that came almost to its windows and gave
Fernet a sense of eternal, though grotesque, spring.
Even his landlord was unusual—a professional beggar
who sat upon the curb, with a ridiculous French poodle
for company, and sold red and green pencils.
This landlord was sitting out by the front gate as Fernet
“Ah, Pollitto,” said Fernet, halting before the old man
and snapping his fingers at the poodle who lay crouched
before his master, “I see you are enjoying this fine warm
“You are wrong,” replied the beggar. “I am merely
sitting here hoping that some one will come along and
rent my front room.”
“Then it is vacant?”
“Naturally,” replied the old man, with disagreeable
brevity, and Fernet walked quickly up to his room.
“Why do I live in such a place?” he asked himself,
surveying the four bare walls. “Everything about it is
abominable, and that beggar, Pollitto, is a scoundrel. I
shall move next week.”
He crossed over to the window and flung it open. The
pepper-tree lay before him, crouching in the moonlight.
He thought at once of Flavio Minetti.
“He is like this pepper-tree,” he said, aloud, “beautiful
even in his deformity. No, I would not trade this
pepper-tree for a dozen of the straightest trees in the
world.” He stepped back from the window, and, lighting
a lamp, set it upon a tottering walnut table. “Ah,
André Fernet,” he mused, chidingly, “you are always
snared by what is unusual. You should pray to God that
such folly does not lead you to disaster.”
He went to the window and looked out again. The
pepper-tree seemed to be bending close to the ground, as
if seeking to hide something. Presently the wind parted
its branches and the moonlight fell at its feet like a silver
moth before a blackened candle.
André Fernet shivered and sighed. “Yes,” he repeated,
again and again, “they are alike. They both are
at once beautiful and hideous and they have strange secrets....
Well, I shall go on Thursday again, and
maybe I shall see him. Who knows, if I am discreet he
may tell me who killed this ridiculous musician Suvaroff.”
And with that he suddenly blew out the light.
On the next Thursday night, when Fernet entered the
dining-room of the Hôtel de France his glance rested immediately
upon Flavio Minetti. To his surprise the
hunchback rose, drawing a chair out as he did so, and
beckoning Fernet to be seated next him. For a moment
Fernet hesitated, Berthe was just bringing on the soup.
“What! Are you afraid?” she said, mockingly, as
This decided Fernet. He went and sat beside Minetti
without further ado.
“Ah, I was expecting you!” cried the hunchback, genially,
as he passed the radishes.
“Expecting me?” returned Fernet. His voice trembled,
though he tried to speak boldly.
“Yes. Women are not the only inquisitive animals in
the world. What will you have—some wine?”
Fernet allowed Minetti to fill his glass.
Other boarders began to drift in. Minetti turned his
back upon Fernet, speaking to a new-comer at his left.
He did not say another word all evening.
Fernet ate and drank in silence. “What did I come
for and why am I staying?” he kept asking himself.
“This man is mocking me. First of all, he greets me as
if I were his boon companion, and next he insults me
openly and before everybody in the room. Even Berthe
has noticed it and is smiling. As a matter of fact, he
knows no more than I do about Suvaroff’s death.”
But he continued to sit beside the hunchback all
through the meal, and as fruit was put on the table he
touched Minetti on the arm and said, “Will you join me
in a café royal?”
“Not here ... a little later. I can show you a place
where they really know how to make them. And, besides,
there are tables for just two. It is much more
Fernet’s heart bounded and sank almost in one leap.
“Let us go now, then,” he said, eagerly.
“As you wish,” replied Minetti.
Fernet paid for two dinners, and they reached for their
“Where are you going?” asked Berthe, as she opened
Fernet shrugged. “I am in his hands,” he answered,
sweeping his arm toward Minetti.
“You mean you will be,” muttered the hunchback, in
Fernet heard him distinctly.
“Perhaps I had better leave him while there is yet
time!” flashed through his mind. But the next instant
he thought, contemptuously: “What harm can he do
me? Why, his wrist is no bigger than a pullet’s wing.
Bah! You are a fool, André Fernet!”
They stepped out into the street. A languorous note
was in the air; the usual cool wind from the sea had not
risen. A waning moon silvered the roof-tops, making a
pretense of hiding its face in the thin line of smoke above
The hunchback led the way, trotting along in a fashion
almost Oriental. At the end of the second block he
turned abruptly into a wine-shop; Fernet followed. They
found seats in a far corner, away from the billiard-tables.
A waiter came forward. They gave their orders.
“Be sure,” said Minetti to the waiter, “that we have
plenty of anisette and cognac in the coffee.”
The man flicked a towel rather contemptuously and
made no answer.
“Now,” Minetti continued, turning a mocking face
toward Fernet, “what can I do for you, my friend?”
Fernet was filled with confusion. “I ... you ...” he
stammered. “Really, there is nothing. Believe
“Nonsense,” interrupted Minetti. “You wish to know
who killed Suvaroff. But I warn you, my friend, it is a
dreadful thing to share such a secret.”
He looked at Fernet intently. The younger man shuddered.
“Nevertheless, I should like to know,” Fernet
“Well, then, since you are so determined—it was I
who killed him.”
Fernet stared, looked again at the hunchback’s puny
wrists, and began to laugh. “You! Do you take me for
a fool?” And as he said this he threw back his head and
laughed until even the billiard-players stopped their game
and looked around at him.
“What are you laughing at?” asked the hunchback,
narrowing his eyes.
Fernet stopped. He felt a sudden chill as if some one
had opened a door. “I am laughing at you,” he
“I am sorry for that,” said Minetti, dryly.
The hunchback leaned forward confidentially. “Because
I kill every one who laughs at me. It—it is a little
weakness I have.”
The waiter came with two glasses of steaming coffee.
He put them down on the table, together with a bottle of
cognac and a bottle of anisette.
“Ah, that is good!” cried the hunchback, rubbing his
hands together. “The proprietor is my friend. He is
going to let us prepare our own poison!”
Fernet felt himself shivering. “Come,” he thought,
“this will never do! The man is either mad or jesting.”
He reached for the anisette.
“Let me pour it for you,” suggested Flavio Minetti.
“Your hand is shaking so that you will spill half of it on
The hunchback’s voice had a note of pity in it. Fernet
relinquished his hold upon the bottle.
“Don’t look so frightened,” continued Minetti. “I
shall not kill you here. The proprietor is a friend of
mine, and, besides—”
“What nonsense!” cried Fernet, with a ghastly smile.
“But I must confess, you did make my blood run cold
for a minute.”
Minetti stirred some cognac into his glass. “And,
besides,” he finished, coldly, “I give everybody a sporting
chance. It adds to the game.”
That night André Fernet was restless. He lay on his
bed looking out at the blinking lights of the harbor. “I
must stop drinking coffee,” he muttered to himself.
Finally he fell asleep, and when he did he had a strange
dream. It seemed that the pepper-tree outside his window
suddenly began to move in the night breeze and its
long green boughs became alive, twisting like the relentless
tentacles of a devil-fish. Its long green boughs became
alive, crawling along the ground, flinging themselves
into the air, creeping in at André Fernet’s open
window. He lay upon the bed as he had done earlier in
the evening, watching the harbor lights. Slowly the
green boughs writhed over the faded carpet, scaled the
bedpost and fell upon the bed. André Fernet waited,
motionless. He felt the green tentacles close about his
legs, clasp his hands, slide shudderingly across his throat.
Yet he made no move to free himself. It was only when
he felt a breath upon his cheek that he turned slightly,
and instead of the tentacle-like boughs of the pepper-tree
he fancied himself staring down at the hands of Flavio
Minetti.... He awoke with a start. The sun was pouring
in at the open window. He got up quickly. A noisy
clatter issued from the passageway. Fernet opened his
door. Two men were carrying a trunk up the stairs.
Pollitto, the beggar, walked behind.
“Ah, I see you have rented your front room,” said
Fernet, stepping out.
“Yes,” returned the other. “It was taken as early
as six o’clock this morning—by a hunchback.”
Fernet stopped breathing. “A hunchback? Was his
name Flavio Minetti?”
“Yes. How did you know?”
Fernet tried to smile. “He is a friend of mine,” he
answered, as he walked back into his room. “Perhaps it
would be better if I moved away,” he thought. “I do
not like this room. Heaven knows why I have stayed
this long. Is this fellow Minetti really mad or merely
making sport of me? I should not like to have him think
that I am afraid of him. As for his story about Suvaroff,
that is, of course, ridiculous. If I thought otherwise I
should go at once to the.... No, it is all a joke! I
shall stay where I am. I shall not have it said that a
little, mad, puny, twisted fellow frightened André Fernet
out of his lodgings. Besides, it will be curious to watch
his little game. What a beautiful morning it is, after all!
And the pepper-tree—how it glistens in the sun! I
should miss that pepper-tree if I moved away. But I
must stop drinking cafés royal. They upset one. I do
not know whether it is the coffee, or the cognac, or the
anisette, or all three. Of course, that dream I had toward
morning means nothing—but such dreams are unpleasant.
I hate this place. But I shall not move now. No,
I shall wait and see what happens.”
Fernet did not see Minetti for some days. Indeed, he
had dismissed the whole thing from his mind, when, one
night, returning home early to get out of a drizzle, who
should stop him on the stairway but the hunchback.
“Ah, so here you are!” called out Fernet, gaily, in
spite of his rapidly beating heart. “I have been waiting
for you to call on me ever since I heard that you were
lodging under the same roof.”
“I have been busy,” replied the hunchback, laconically.
Fernet threw open his bedroom door and waved
“Busy?” he echoed, as he struck a light. “And what
do you find that is so absorbing, pray?”
“You know my specialty,” replied Minetti, flinging off
Fernet looked up sharply. A malignant look had crept
into the hunchback’s face.
“Oh, there is no doubt of it, he is quite mad!” said Fernet
to himself. Then aloud: “Yes, I have been wanting
to talk to you more about this. Take a seat and I shall
make some coffee. For instance, do you always employ
the knife in despatching your—”
“Scarcely,” interrupted Minetti, quickly. “Slow poison
has its fascinations. There is a very delicate joy
in watching a gradual decline. It is like watching a
green leaf fading before the breath of autumn. First
a sickly pallor, then a yellowing, finally the sap dries
completely, a sharp wind, a fluttering in the air, and
it is all over. I have tried nearly every slow way—except
mental murder. I fancy that, too, would be
“Mental murder.... I do not understand.”
Minetti stretched himself out and yawned. “Accomplishing
the thing without any weapon save the mind.”
Fernet picked up the coffee-pot and laughed. “Why,
my dear fellow, it is too absurd! The thing cannot be
done. You see I am laughing at you again, but no
“No, as you say, it is no matter. You can die only
Fernet’s laughter stopped instantly. He went on with
his preparation for coffee. Minetti changed the subject.
It turned out that there was no sugar in the cracked
bowl. Fernet was putting on his hat to go out for some,
when the hunchback stopped him.
“Sugar will not be necessary,” he said. And as he
spoke he drew a vial from his vest pocket and laid it
upon the table beside the cups. “You know what these
are, of course.”
“Saccharine pellets?” inquired Fernet as he threw
aside his hat.
Minetti replied with a grunt. Fernet poured out the
coffee, set a spoon in each saucer, laid three French rolls
upon a blue plate. Then he sat down.
“Permit me!” said Minetti, reaching for the vial and
rolling a tiny pellet into his palm.
Fernet held up his cup; the hunchback dropped the
pellet into it. Then he corked the vial tightly and laid it
“You forgot to serve yourself,” said Fernet.
“So I did!” answered Minetti, nonchalantly. “Well,
no matter. I very often drink my coffee so—without
Fernet drew back suddenly. Could it be possible
that.... The hunchback was staring at him, an ironical
smile was on his lips. Fernet shuddered.
“Drink your coffee!” Minetti commanded, sneeringly.
“You are on the verge of a chill.”
Fernet obeyed meekly. He felt for all the world like
an animal caught in a trap. He tried to collect his
thoughts. What had the hunchback been talking about?
“Slow poison!” muttered Fernet, inaudibly to himself.
“What is that you are saying?” demanded the other.
“You were speaking of slow poison. How do you go
“Oh, that is easy! For instance, once in London I
lodged next door to my victim. We became capital
friends. And he was always calling me in for a bite of
something to eat. Nothing elaborate—a bun and a cup
of tea, or coffee and cake. Very much as we are doing
now. He died in six months. It is no trick, you know,
to poison a man who eats and drinks with you—especially
As he said this the hunchback reached for the coffee-pot
and poured Fernet another cupful. Then he uncorked
the vial again and dropped a pellet into the steaming
“I do not think that I wish any more,” protested
“Nonsense! You are still shivering like an old woman
with the palsy. Hot coffee will do you good.”
“No,” said Fernet, desperately, “I never drink more
than one cup at a sitting. It keeps me awake, and next
morning my hand shakes and I am fit for nothing. I
need a steady hand in my business.”
“And what may that be, pray?”
“At present I am a draftsman. Some day, if I live
long enough, I hope to be an architect.”
“If you live long enough? You forget that you have
laughed at me, my friend.”
Fernet tried to appear indifferent. “What a droll fellow
you are!” he cried, with sudden gaiety, rubbing his
hands together. And without thinking, he reached for
his coffee-cup and downed the contents in almost one
gulp. He laid the cup aside quickly. He could feel the
sweat starting out upon his forehead.
“There, you see,” said Minetti, “the coffee has done
you good already. You are perspiring, and that is a
good sign. A hot drink at the right moment works
The next morning Pollitto stopped Fernet as he swung
out the front gate to his work.
“What is the matter with you?” exclaimed the beggar,
in a surprised tone.
“Why ... what?” demanded Fernet, in a trembling
voice. “Do I look so ...? Pray, tell me, is there anything
unusual about me?”
“Why, your face.... Have you looked at yourself
in the glass? Your skin is the color of stale pastry.”
Fernet tried to laugh. “It is nothing. I have been
drinking too much coffee lately. I must stop it.”
It was a fine morning. The sun was shining and the
air was brisk and full of little rippling breezes. The bay
lay like a blue-green peacock ruffling its gilded feathers.
The city had a genial, smiling countenance. But Fernet
was out of humor with all this full-blown content. He
had spent a wretched night—not sleepless, but full of
disturbing dreams. Dreams about Minetti and his London
neighbor and the empty sugar-bowl. All night he
had dreamed about this empty sugar-bowl. It seemed
that as soon as he had it filled Minetti would slyly empty
it again. He tried stowing sugar away in his pockets,
but when he put his hand in to draw out a lump a score
or more of pellets spilled over the floor. Then he remembered
“I shall call on Minetti’s London neighbor. Maybe
he will have some sugar.”
He walked miles and miles, and finally beat upon a
strange door. A man wrapped in a black coat up to his
eyebrows opened to his knock.
“Are you Flavio Minetti’s London neighbor?” he demanded,
The figure bowed. Fernet drew the cracked sugar-bowl
from under his arm.
“Will you oblige me with a little sugar?” he asked,
The black-cloaked figure bowed and disappeared.
Presently he came back. Fernet took the sugar-bowl
from him. It struck him that the bowl felt very light.
He looked down at his hands. The bowl had disappeared;
only a glass vial lay in his palm. He removed
the cork—a dozen or more tiny round pellets fell out.
He glanced up quickly at Minetti’s London neighbor; a
dreadful smile glowed through the black cloak. Fernet
gave a cry and hurled the vial in the face of his tormentor.
Minetti’s London neighbor let the black cloak fall,
and André Fernet discovered that he was staring at himself....
He awakened soon after that and found that
it was morning.
When he brushed his hair his hand had shaken so that
the brush fell clattering to the floor. And he had spilled
the cream for his morning coffee over the faded strip of
carpet before the bureau. It had ended by his eating no
breakfast at all. But he had drunk glass after glass of
After Pollitto’s words he trembled more and more like
a man with the ague, and before every saloon-door
mirror he halted and took a brief survey of his face.
Pollitto was right—his skin was dead and full of unhealthy
pallor. It was plain that he could not work in
his present condition. His trembling fingers could
scarcely hold a pencil, much less guide it through the
precise demands of a drafting-board. He decided to go
to the library and read. But the books on architecture
which always enthralled him could not hold his shifting
attention. Finally in despair he went up to the librarian
“Have you any books on poison?”
The woman eyed him with a cold, incurious glance.
“Historical or medical?” she snapped out, as she went
on stamping mysterious numbers in the pile of books before
She consulted a catalogue and made a list for him.
He sat all day devouring books which the librarian had
recommended. He did not even go out for lunch. He
read historical and romantic instances with a keen, morbid
relish; but when it came to the medical books his
heart quickened and he followed causes and effects
breathlessly. By nightfall he had a relentless knowledge
of every poison in the calendar. He knew what to expect
from arsenic or strychnine or vitriol. He learned which
poisons destroyed tissues, which acted as narcotics, which
were irritants. He identified the hemlock, the horse-chestnut,
the deadly toadstools. In short, he absorbed
and retained everything on the subject. It seemed that
the world teemed with poisons; one could be sure of
nothing. Even beautiful flowers were not to be trusted.
He was so upset by all he had read that he could
scarcely eat dinner. He went to an obscure pension in a
wretched basement, where he was sure he would be unknown,
and, after two or three mouthfuls of soup and a
spoonful of rice boiled with tomato, he rose, paid for his
meal, and went out to tramp up and down past the
tawdry shops of middle Kearny Street. He was trotting
aimlessly in the direction of Market Street when he felt
a tug at his coat-sleeve. He turned. Minetti was smiling
genially up at him.
“Come,” said the hunchback, “what is your hurry?
Have you had coffee yet? I was thinking that—”
Fernet’s heart sank at once. And yet he managed to
say boldly: “I have given up drinking coffee. You can
see for yourself what a wretched complexion I have.
And to-day I have scarcely eaten.”
“Pooh!” cried Minetti. “A cup of coffee will do you
Fernet began to draw away in futile terror. “No!” he
protested, with frightened vehemence. “No, I tell you!
I won’t drink the stuff! It is useless for you to—”
Minetti began to laugh with scornful good-humor.
“What has come over you?” he drawled, half-closing his
eyes. “Are you afraid?”
And as he said this Fernet glanced instinctively at the
puny wrists, no bigger than a pullet’s wing, and replied,
“Afraid? Of what? I told you last night I need a
steady hand in my business, and to-day I have not been
able to do any work.”
Minetti’s mirth softened into genial acquiescence.
“Well, maybe you are right. But I must say you are not
very companionable. Perhaps the coffee you have been
drinking has not been made properly. You should take
something. You do look badly. A glass of brandy?...
No?... Ah, I have it—coffee made in the Turkish
fashion. Have you ever drunk that?”
“No,” replied Fernet, helplessly, wondering all the
time why he was foolish enough to tell the truth.
“Well, then,” announced the hunchback, confidently,
“we shall cross over to Third Street and have some
Turkish coffee. I know a Greek café where they brew a
cup that would tempt the Sultan himself. Have you ever
seen it made? They use coffee pounded to a fine powder—a
teaspoonful to a cup, and sugar in the same proportion.
It is all put in together and brought to a boil. The
result is indescribable! Really, you are in for a treat.”
“If it is sweetened in the making,” flashed through
Fernet’s mind, “at least we shall have no more of that
“Yes—the result is quite indescribable,” Minetti was
repeating, “and positively no bad effects.”
And as he said this he slipped his arm into Fernet’s
and guided him with gentle firmness toward the Greek
café in question. Fernet felt suddenly helpless and incapable
of offering the slightest objection.
A girl took their orders. She had a freckled nose and
was frankly Irish. Naturally, she did not fit the picture,
and Fernet could see that she was scornful of the whole
“Two coffees ... medium,” Minetti repeated, decisively.
“And will you have a sweet with it? They sell
taffy made of sesame seeds and honey. Or you can have
Turkish delight or a pastry dusted with powdered sugar.
Really they are all quite delicious.”
Fernet merely shrugged. Minetti ordered Turkish
delight. The girl wiped some moisture from the marble
table-top and walked toward the coffee-shelf.
“So you were not able to work to-day?” Minetti
began, affably. “How did you put in the time?”
“At the library, reading.”
“Something droll? A French novel or—”
“Books on poison!” Fernet shot out with venomous
triumph. “I know more than I did yesterday.”
“How distressing!” purred Minetti. “Ignorance is
more invulnerable than one fancies. Of course we are
taught otherwise, but knowledge, you remember, was the
beginning of all trouble. But you choose a fascinating,
subject. Some day when we get better acquainted I shall
tell you all I know about it. Poison is such a subtle thing.
It is everywhere—in the air we breathe, in the water we
drink, in the food we eat. And it is at once swift and
sluggish, painful and stupefying, obvious and incapable
of analysis. It is like a beautiful woman, or a great joy,
or love itself.”
Fernet glanced up sharply. The hunchback had slid
forward in his seat and his eyes glowed like two shaded
pools catching greedily at the yellow sunlight of midday.
Fernet shuddered and looked about the room. Groups
of swarthy men were drinking coffee, or sipping faintly
red draughts of cherry syrup and sweet soda. At a
near-by table a group of six shuffled cards and marked
their scores upon a slate. And, of course, there were
those who played backgammon, rattling the dice and
making exaggerated gestures as they spurred on their
adversaries with genial taunts.
The girl came back carrying cups of thick steaming
coffee and soft lemon-colored sweetmeats speared with
two tiny silver forks. She set the tray down. Minetti
reached for his coffee greedily, but Fernet sat back in his
seat and allowed the waitress to place the second cup
before him. As she did so the table shook suddenly and
half of the hot liquid spilled over on the marble tabletop.
Fernet jumped up to escape the scalding trickle;
the girl gave an apologetic scream; Minetti laughed
“It is all my fault!” cried the hunchback. “What
stupidity! Pray be seated. My young woman, will you
give the gentleman this coffee of mine? And get me
“Pardon me,” Fernet protested, “but I cannot think
of such a thing!” And with that he attempted to pass
the coffee in question back to Minetti. But the hunchback
would have none of it. Fernet broke into a terrified
“He has dropped poison into it!” he thought, in sudden
panic. “Otherwise why should he be so anxious to
have me drink it? He kicked the table deliberately, too.
And this cup of his—why was it not spilled also? No,
he was prepared—it is all a trick!”
“Come, come, my friend,” broke in Minetti, briskly,
“drink your coffee while it is still hot! Do not wait for
me. I shall be served presently. And try the sweetmeats;
they are delicious.”
“I am not hungry,” replied Fernet, sullenly.
“No? Well, what of that? Sweetmeats and coffee
are not matters of hunger. Really, you are more droll
than you imagine!” Minetti burst into a terrifying
“He thinks I am afraid!” muttered Fernet.
And out of sheer bravado he lifted the cup to his lips.
Minetti stopped laughing, but a wide smile replaced his
diabolical mirth. The girl brought fresh coffee to the
hunchback. He sipped it with frank enjoyment, but he
did not once take his gaze from Fernet’s pale face.
“Well,” thought Fernet, “one cup of poison more or
less will not kill me.... It is not as if he has made up
his mind to finish me at once. He is counting on the exquisite
joys of a prolonged agony.” And he remembered
Minetti’s words: “It is like watching a green leaf fading
before the breath of autumn. First a sickly pallor, then
a yellowing, a sharp wind, a fluttering in the air....”
He tossed off the coffee in one defiant gulp. “He thinks
that he has me in his power. But André Fernet is not
quite a fool. I shall go away to-morrow!”
They went home as soon as Minetti finished his coffee.
Fernet felt a sudden nausea; by the time he reached his
lodgings his steps were unsteady and his head reeled.
Minetti was kindness itself.
“Let me help you into bed,” he insisted. “You must
have a congestion. Presently I shall heat some water
and give you a hot gin.”
Fernet was too sick to protest. Minetti started the
gas-stove and filled the kettle and went into his room for
gin. Fernet dragged himself out of his clothes and
crawled in between the sheets. Minetti came back. Fernet
lay with his eyes half-closed, shivering. Finally the
water boiled, and the hunchback brought Fernet a huge
tumbler of gin and water with bits of lemon-peel and
cloves floating in it. It tasted so good that Fernet forgot
his terror for the moment. But when the tumbler was
empty he felt helpless; he could scarcely lift his arms; so
he lay flat upon his back, staring up at the ceiling. He
tried to recall scraps of what he had been reading all
afternoon. What was the name of the poison that left
one paralyzed? He could not remember. He found his
movements becoming more and more difficult; he could
scarcely turn in bed. Minetti brewed another toddy.
Fernet could not hold the glass! He tried to push the
tumbler away from his lips, but his efforts were useless.
Minetti hovered above him with a bland, gentle smile,
and Fernet felt the warm liquid trickling into his mouth
and down his throat. In the midst of all this he lost consciousness....
Once or twice during the night Fernet
had a wakeful interlude. Whenever he opened his eyes
he saw Minetti sitting before the open window, gazing
down at the twisted pepper-tree.
“Yes, they are both alike!” passed dimly through his
mind. “They both are at once beautiful and hideous and
they have strange secrets! It is no use, I must go away—to-morrow.”
In the morning Minetti was standing by the bed. “I
have sent for the doctor,” he said. But his voice sounded
The doctor came shortly after ten o’clock. He was a
little wizened, dried-up old man with a profound air.
“He is a fraud!” thought Fernet. “He knows
“Ah,” said the doctor, putting a sly finger against his
sharp nose, “our friend here has a nervous collapse. He
should have a nurse!”
“A nurse!” exclaimed Minetti, with indignation.
“And, pray, what do you call me? Do you not think
“Well, we shall see! we shall see!” replied the doctor,
rubbing his hands together. “But he will need all
sorts of delicacies and—”
Minetti moistened his lips with sleek satisfaction.
“You cannot name a dish that I am not able to prepare.”
“How about a custard? To-day he should eat something
“A custard is simplicity itself,” answered the hunchback,
and he cracked his fingers.
Minetti went out with the doctor, and came back
shortly, carrying eggs and a bottle of vanilla extract and
sugar. Fernet lay helpless, watching him bustling about.
Finally the delicacy was made and set away in a pan of
water to cool. At noon Minetti brought a blue bowl filled
with custard to the bedside. It looked inviting, but Fernet
shook his head.
“I am not hungry,” he lied.
The hunchback set the bowl down on a chair so that
Fernet gazed upon it all day. The hunchback did not
leave the room. He sat before the open window, reading
from a thick book. Toward nightfall Fernet said to him:
“What do you find so interesting?”
Minetti darted a sardonic glance at his patient. “A
book on poison. I did not realize that I had grown so
rusty on the subject. Why, I remember scarcely enough
to poison a field-mouse!”
He rose and crossed over to the bedside. “Do you not
feel ready for the custard?”
Fernet cast a longing eye upon the yellow contents of
the blue bowl.
“No. To tell the truth, I never eat it.”
“But I should like a glass of water.”
The hunchback drew water from the faucet. Fernet
watched him like a ferret.
“At least,” thought Fernet, “he cannot drop poison
in the water secretly. It is well that I can see every move
he makes at such a time. I should not like to die of
A little later Minetti removed the bowl and threw out
its contents. Fernet looked on with half-closed eyes.
“What better proof could I have?” he mused. “If
the custard were harmless he would eat it himself. I
must get away to-morrow.”
But the next day he felt weaker than ever, and when
the doctor came Minetti said, in answer to questions:
“I made a delicious custard yesterday and he ate every
bit.... An oyster stew? ... with milk? I shall see
that he has it at noon.”
“God help me!” muttered Fernet. “Why does he lie
like this? I must get the doctor’s ear and tell him how
things stand. I shall eat nothing—nothing! Thank
Heaven I can drink water without fear.”
At noon the oyster stew was ready. But Fernet would
have none of it. “Oysters make me ill!” he said.
Minetti merely shrugged as he had done the previous
day, and set the savory dish upon a chair before the bed.
It exuded tantalizing odors, until Fernet thought he
would go mad with longing. Toward evening Minetti
threw out the stew. And as before, when the doctor
called the hunchback said:
“He ate a quart of stew and there were plenty of oysters
in it, I can tell you. Do you think that a chicken fried
in olive-oil would be too hearty?”
Fernet groaned. “This is horrible—horrible!” he
wept to himself. “I shall die like a starving rat with
toasted cheese dangling just beyond reach. God help
me to rouse myself! Surely the effects of the poison he
has given me must soon wear off.... There he is,
reading from that big book again. Perhaps he is contriving
a way to put poison in my water even though I
am able to watch him when he draws me a drink....
Poison—poison everywhere. It can even be administered
with the prick of a needle. Why did I read about
it? Chicken fried in olive-oil ... what torture!”
The chicken fried in olive-oil was a triumph—Fernet
knew all this by the wisps of appetizing fragrance which
drifted from the sizzling pan. Minetti made a great stir
over the preparations. The tender flesh had to be rubbed
thoroughly with garlic and well dusted with salt and
pepper. And a quarter of a bottle of yellow-green olive-oil
was first placed in the pan. When everything was
ready and the chicken cooked to a turn, Minetti carried it
to Fernet with a great flourish. Fernet gritted his teeth
and turned his face away. He did not have the courage
to invent an excuse. Minetti laid it on the chair as usual.
For two hours Fernet was tortured with the sight of
this tempting morsel, but at the sound of the doctor’s
step upon the stair the hunchback whisked away the
“His appetite?” Minetti said, echoing the doctor’s
query. “Why, one could not wish for better! Only this
morning he despatched a chicken as if it had been no
more than a soft-boiled egg. As a matter of fact, he is
“Well, well,” beamed the doctor, “that is the best of
signs, and it happens that way very often in nervous
cases. You are a capital nurse, my good man, and by the
end of the week, if you keep feeding him up in this fashion,
he should be as hearty as a school-boy.”
At that moment Minetti was called down-stairs by his
landlord. Fernet struggled to lift himself; the doctor
bent toward him.
“This hunchback,” Fernet gasped, “he is trying to
poison me. Already I have drunk four or five of his concoctions,
and that is why I am in this condition ... helpless.
And he is lying when he says that I have eaten.
I have touched nothing for three days.”
The doctor laid the patient back upon the pillow.
“Poison you, my friend? And for what reason?”
“Because I laughed at him. In God’s name, Doctor, see
that you keep a straight face in his presence or else—”
The doctor patted Fernet’s hand and straightened the
sliding bedclothes. By this time Minetti had come back.
The doctor and the hunchback whispered together in a
far corner. Minetti laughed and tapped his head. At
the door Fernet heard the doctor say:
“Just keep up the good work and the idea will pass.
It happens that way very often in nervous cases. I
shall not look in again until the first of next week
Fernet groaned aloud.
“I must get away to-morrow.... I must get away
to-morrow!” he kept on repeating.
By the end of the week the smell of food held no
temptations for Fernet. Minetti stopped cooking. And
when a glass of water was drawn from the faucet Fernet
had difficulty in forcing his vision to answer the strain
of a searching gaze.
“When my sight fails me,” Fernet thought, dimly,
“I shall either die of thirst or take the consequences.”
When the doctor finally came again Fernet closed his
eyes and pretended to be asleep.
“He seems thinner,” remarked the doctor, as if he had
made an important discovery.
“Well, to tell the truth,” replied the hunchback, “he
has lost his appetite. I have fed him milk and eggs,
“There is nothing to do but be patient,” said the doctor.
“Medicine will do him no good. Just rest and
food. Even a little starvation will not hurt him. People
eat too much, anyway.”
At this Fernet opened his eyes and broke into a laugh
that startled even Minetti. The doctor looked offended.
“Well, he is in your hands,” the old fraud said, pompously,
to the hunchback. “Just keep up the good
Fernet laughed again.
“He is hysterical,” proclaimed the doctor, with an air
of supreme wisdom. “It happens that way very often in
And he walked out with great solemnity.
“Ah, I have offended him!” thought Fernet. “Well,
now they will finish me—together!”
There followed days of delicious weakness. Fernet lay
for the most part wrapt in the bliss of silver-blue visions.
It seemed as if years were passing. He built shining
cities, received the homage of kings, surrendered himself
to the joys of ripe-lipped beauties. There were lucid intervals
shot through with the malignant presence of
Minetti and the puttering visits of the doctor. But these
were like waking moments between darkness and dawn,
filled with the half-conscious joy of a sleeper secure in
the knowledge of a prolonged respite. In such moments
Fernet would stir feebly and think:
“I must get away to-morrow!”
And there would succeed almost instantly a languid
ecstasy at the thought that to-morrow was something remote
and intangible that would never come.
At times the hunchback seemed like nothing so much
as a heartless gaoler who, if he would, might open the
door to some shining adventure. Gradually this idea
became fixed and elaborated. Fernet’s sight grew dimmer
and dimmer until he followed the presence of
Minetti by the sounds he made.
“He is jingling something,” Fernet would repeat,
weakly. “Ah, it must be his keys! He is searching for
the one that will set me free!... Now he is oiling the
lock.... He has shut the door again. I am to be held
awhile longer.... I am a caged bird and just beyond
is the pepper-tree. It must be glistening now in the sunlight.
Well, let him lock the door, for all the good it will
do him. Is not the window always open? When the
time comes I shall fly out the window and leave him here—alone.
Then we shall see who has the best of this
And all the silver-blue visions would steal over him
again, to be pierced briefly by the arrival of the wizened
“It is he who keeps me here!” Fernet would say to
himself. “If it were not for him I could fly away—forever.
Well, presently even he will lose his power.”
One day a strange man stood at his bedside. Minetti
was there also, and the old fraud of a doctor. The strange
man drew back the covers and put his ear to Fernet’s
fluttering heart and went through other tiresome matters....
Finally he smoothed back the covers again,
and as he did so he shook his head. He spoke softly,
but Fernet heard him distinctly.
“It is too late.... You should have called me
sooner. He wishes to die.... There is nothing to be
“Yes, yes—it happens this way very often in nervous
“I have done my best. I have given him food and
drink. I have even starved him. But nothing seemed to
do any good.”
“No,” said the stranger; “it is his mind. He has
made up his mind that.... You can do nothing with a
Fernet closed his eyes.
“A man! They think I am a man. What stupidity!
Can they not see that I am a bird?... They have gone
out. He is locking the door again.... I can hear the
keys jingle.... Well, let him lock the door if it
gives him any pleasure. The window is open and
The footsteps of the departing visitors died away. A
chuckling sound came to André Fernet and the thump of
ecstatic fists brought down upon a bare table-top. The
voice of Flavio Minetti was quivering triumphantly like
the hot whisper of a desert wind through the room:
“Without any weapon save the mind! Ha! ha! ha!”
Fernet turned his face toward the wall. “He is laughing
at me now. Well, let him laugh while he may....
Is not the window open? To-morrow I shall be free ... and
he?... No, he cannot fly—he has a broken
wing.... The window is open, André Fernet!”