The STRANGE CASE of Monsieur Porrier

H. DE VERE STACPOOLE November 15 1931

The STRANGE CASE of Monsieur Porrier

H. DE VERE STACPOOLE November 15 1931

The STRANGE CASE of Monsieur Porrier


TO SEE the Côte d'Azur in perfection you must see it looking westward from Bordighera, where I am writing this. A hundred miles of coast line, brilliant and burning in the sun as in the days of Tiberius, it stretches from Mentone to the far-off Esterelle mountains— violet and maquis scented, beaten upon by the same old azure sea, and possessed by the same old demons that possessed the world when the mason’s trowels were clinking on the tower of Augustus, whose ruins you still can see above the city of Monte Carlo.

The Roman soldiers in La Turbie were gambling with dice or knucklebones in those days, just as the Roman and Parisian punters are gambling with counters in the rooms of the Casino today. The story is as old as Eumolpus, but of all the individual stories that have gone to make it up, the strangest is, possibly, the story oí M. Lisfranc and M. Poirier; the story' of the only "system” that ever w'orked at Monte Carlo, the only "system” by which a man may play without losing.

The thing happened in 1921. It was told to me by M. Henri of the Municipal Detective Service in 1923, and is now published for the first time.

LA TURBIE, with its single street of houses, lies high above Monte Carlo, but is easily reached owing to the funicular radway that connects them.

Getting in a car at Monte Carlo, a few minutes' ride takes you up, as in a lift, and you find yourself in a new world, or rather an old one. For La Turbie is old; the very stones that built its houses were robbed from the great tower of Augustus, whose remains you can see from far-off Bordighera.

Walking along the street toward the tower, you pass a pleasant little hotel, the Hotel de Rome. It, too, is old, but in a different fashion. Built somewhere in the late sixties, it belongs in spirit to the more gracious age that knew' Nice when Nice was a pleasant seaside town, not a roaring city; when motor cars were not, and each day might

be seen the furiously driven Russian horses taking their masters to gamble at the newly opened rooms of Monsieur Blanc.

The Hotel de Rome, with its green-painted balconies and its salle à manner with a sanded floor, has seen a lot of change without losing its old-world air or its reputation for comfort and good cooking.

People who know the ropes use it and recommend it to others, and it was perhaps some recommendation of this sort that brought M. Lisfranc and M. Porricr to its doors.

They arrived one bright day in January of 1921. Just at that moment the hotel was nearly empty, so they were able to secure the two most comfortable suites of rooms. There they established themselves, and there they remained till the tragedy happened.

They had travelled together from Paris and seemed close friends. M. Lisfranc was a retired business man of the elderly type one often meets on the Bourse or in the Rue de la Paix -stout, rather slow of movement, shrewd; a man

for whom the world, even including France, only exists as

an outskirt of Paris,

Poirier was of quite a different type. Thin, evidently of a nervous temperament, Roman-nosed and with that high color which in the old days one associated with port wine bishops and butlers, he proved a striking contrast to M. Lisfranc not only in appearance but in manner. Slightly deferential, rather mincing in his walk and in his manner, he was suggestive of a high-class valet or confidential servant retired on his savings.

He was not quite a gentleman; neither indeed was M. Lisfranc, but that equality did not lessen the subtle social distinction that seemed to separate these two men.

Normande, the landlord of the hotel, who took an interest not only in the comfort of his guests but in their personalities, noticed all this and other things as well.

Though they dined at the same table, they rarely talked to one another. At nine o'clock every morning M. Lisfranc would leave the liotel, taking his way to the station of the

The story of a gambler’s mania and the only “system” that ever worked at Monte Carlo

funicular railway, and a little later Porrier would follow suit. They would be away the whole day, and they scarcely ever returned together, but they always met before dinner in M. Lisfranc’s room.

Normande, as he said later to M. Henri, was not of a nosey disposition, but he could not help noticing these things which, so simple in themselves, had in them no hint or suggestion of tragedy.

By chance one morning he discovered what was possibly the daily occupation of his guests, for, going down to Monte Carlo early and stopping at the Café de Paris for a Dubonnet, he had seen M. Lisfranc entering the Casino with the air of a business man entering his office, and a few minutes later Porrier doing the same thing.

Well, there was nothing extraordinary in that. Guests often stopped at the Hotel de Rome and spent three days in the Casino. The only question was why did these two enter the Casino separately? It was evidently their practice, since they left the hotel regularly every morning.

To make sure of this. Normande, whose interest was now thoroughly aroused, dropped down to Monte on three mornings, only to find that the same thing happened.

He spoke of the matter to his wife.

"Why, it’s easy enough to see,” replied Madame Normande; "they are gamblers, and there's nothing extraordinary that gamblers won’t do. Perhaps they think they would interfere with one another’s luck if they went there together. You remember that man, the Italian, who would turn back if he met a white dog on his way, and that other man who had three peach stones for luck and lost one of them one day and nearly turned the house upside down to find it. They pay regularly and I am sure are honest men. and that is enough for you.”

“Still, it’s funny,” said Normande; and then, a few days later, he came upon something funnier to reawaken his interest in his two strange guests. M. Lisfranc’s little suite of a bedroom and sitting room adjoined that of M. Porrier, and the two suites opened one into the other by a communicating door.

One morning, thinking that the gentlemen had gone out, Toinette, the maid of all work, opened the door of M. Lisfranc’s room, and there he was, seated before a looking-glass, his face covered with lather, and M. Porrier standing beside him flourishing a razor like a barber or a

She closed the door without being observed, and, of course, told Madame Normande, who told her husband.

STRANGELY enough it was madame now who did the worrying.

“That man,” said she, after a moment’s brooding silence and meaning Porrier, “is the servant of the other. It has only just come into my head, but it is quite clear to me. I once saw him brush his coat, and when they arrived it was he who came in to enquire if our rooms were to let; also he saw to the luggage being brought upstairs—and now this. Also he is of that sort. I can see it quite plainly now.” .

“But all this is pure folly,” cried Normande. “Since when has a valet paid his own bill, dined at the table with his master and conducted himself as his equal? Tell me that. Also since when has a valet gone to the Casino every day, in plain view of his master, to gamble, for that is the purpose for which people go to the Casino? Tell me that.”

“Never,” said madame, "because the authorities would not let him in.”

"Then why have they let this man in?”

“Because, you silly, he has represented himself as an independent gentleman, of course, with the connivance of his master, who must know. There is some game between these two, of that you may be sure, and if I were you I would get rid of them from the hotel.”

“But what can their game be?”

“The Virgin only knows—but nothing good. Robbery most like. Why else should they hide their doings and pretend to be what they aren’t?”

Only a few days ago she had been certain that they were honest men because they paid regularly, and now, like a weathercock, she had changed. Per contra. Normande, who nearly always managed to differ from his wife, went the other way.

“After all,” said he, "what have we to do with the Casino? As you said the other day, gamblers are queer people and do queer things for the sake of luck.”

“Not shaving one another,” cut in the lady.

“Also,” he went on, “what excuse have we for telling them to go? As you said the other day, they pay their bills regularly and never grumble.”

“What I said the other day is not what I say now,” replied she. “I have one of my feelings, and it tells me we ought to get rid of them or there will be trouble.”

Normande laughed and went off to bottle some wine. He was an easy-going man and he didn’t want the unpleasant job of dismissing guests from his house without some actual reason for so doing. But she was right, for two mornings later Monsieur Lisfranc was found seated in his armchair in his sitting room with a bullet in his heart and an empty pistol beside him.

It was Toinette who made this unpleasant discover}'

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accidentally, for the report of the pistol had not been noticed below stairs. She rushed down, shrieking, and Normande, running up, found the body as described.

He picked up the pistol and put it on the table; he wrung his hands; he called on the saints; he saw himself ruined and his house deserted by visitors; saw himself questioned by excising magistrates. Then, hatless, he rushed from the house for the police.

Meanwhile his wife downstairs, who after the first shock had got a grip of herself, said toToinette:

“Where is the other man? Where is M. Porrier?”

“He went out early,” sobbed the girl, “before eight. I saw him leaving the house, then just now, thinking they were both out, I went up and saw—that!”

Ten minutes later M. Henri arrived. He was taken to the room. Normande showed him the pistol and told how he had found it on the floor beside the body. The indication pointed to suicide.

Henri, who had forbidden the body to be disturbed, was examining the pistol when the door opened and in came M. Porrier. He looked horrified and perplexed. He had gone out for an early walk, he said, leaving his friend in perfect health—and now, this ! Yes, that pistol was M. Lisfranc's; he had seen it in his possession.

He sat down in a chair and covered his face with his hands and burst into tears: Ah, dear Jean—it was all due to that cursed gambling. Yes, he believed his friend had lost money at the tables. And now it had ended like this !

His distress was absolutely genuine to M. Henri, who from long experience was an expert in the matter of judging distress.

The thing was perfectly clear to him. M. Lisfranc was only another case of a man having been murdered by the tables.

Now, if Henri had known what the Normandes knew, he might have thought differently or at least have pondered the business more deeply. But Normande, with the profound instinct of an innkeeper, had said nothing of the strange relationship between the two men.

The thing, as it was, could be hushed up. Talk might lead to undesirable publicity for the Casino, and that would react upon the innkeeper.

“Say nothing and bury the body.” That was a good maxim with which Normande quite concurred. Henri, having sent for a photographer as a matter of routine to photograph the body, sealed up the two rooms.

He had taken away all M. Lisfranc’s papers and what money was in his desk; and, downstairs, questioning Porrier, the latter had given him some particulars.

M. Lisfranc was a retired business man, living at No. 6 Rue d’Anjou, Paris. He had no wife or family. He was wealthy, or seemed so. His bankers were the Credit Lyonnaise, and Porrier believed he had drawn money from the Monte Carlo branch.

It may be stated that the amount of money found upon the body and in his travelling desk was only sixty-three francs.

TEAVING the hotel, M. Henri called upon •*-' the Credit Lyonnaise.

Yes, M. Lisfranc had drawn on them for 100,000 francs six weeks ago and since then had drawn nothing. It was plain that the gentleman, allowing for living expenses, had lost a good deal of money at the tables.

. The whole thing was apparently quite simple and plain.

But Henri, though a genius in his way, was a creature of routine—never sneer at routine or its sister, red tape—and the next day, with a photograph of the body to assist him, he had some little interviews with some of the croupiers off duty.

These men are armed with long memories as well as long rakes.

Platigue, a Belgian with a heavy black mustache and moist eyes, was the first to identify.

Yes; that man was known to him. The man always played on the even chancts, generally on black or red. Funny thing; there was another man who seemed to follow his play and bet against him.

A thing like that does not draw notice when reported. What really drew Platigue’s attention was the fact that these two men, though seemingly strangers, exchanged glances one day. No, they did not play at his table often.

M. Hammond, the chef de partie, who had presided at Platigue’s table, confirmed this and said more. The two men were known in the rooms. Everything is known in the rooms. Though their entry tickets were dated from early in January, attention had not been drawn to their play till lately. Evidently they had played at different tables alternately. When one backed red the other always backed black, and so on. They always played on the even chances. If they were confederates, then they must have been working on a system with some other player who would be backing some other chance.

“But that seems nonsense,” objected

“All systems are nonsense,” replied M. Hammond.

“By the way,” said Henri, “what was this other player like?”

“Rather tall,” replied Hammond. “Thin, with a high color, dark hair rather scant on the top.”

“Thank you,” said Henri.

The description fitted Porrier.

Henri left the Casino in a meditative mood. What bothered him was this: The thing was unique in the history of the tables, at least to his knowledge. A gambler will often follow another man’s luck and back what he backs, but a gambler rarely or never does the reverse. It is part of the psychology of the gambler to believe that bad luck will turn to good.

If one of these men believed the other to be unlucky and bet against him every time, that man must have had a profound belief that the other was so unlucky that it was safe in the long run to play against him.

That belief would be curious, but more curious still would be the fact that the unlucky man gave the other one this opportunity of direct battle by always backing the even chances.

No. It was evidently an arranged matter between them. But for what reason? Working a system?

There could be no system based on a simple thing like that. If there was any kind of system being worked it would, as M. Hammond said, require a third man playing at the same table and backing some other chance.

The thing seemed crazy, but all systems are crazy. Even so, this thing seemed crazier than crazy. What possible system could require for a basis two men playing, one on the red and one on the black?

However, routine stepped in again, and M. Henri next morning took the funicular up to La Turbie to make enquiries as to whether the innkeeper knew of any other man who was a friend or acquaintance of M. Lisfranc and who might fit in with the system suggested.

It will be noticed that the idea of questioning Porrier was not entertained by him. Porrier, by becoming part of the puzzle, had removed himself into that region of the detective’s mind wherein were penned men marked with notes of interrogation. Not suspects, just persons to be kept in mind.

"\/f. HENRI found Normande in his TYJprivate office. The body had been removed on the previous evening; also M. Porrier had left, taking up his residence I

at the Hotel d’Italie down below in Monte Carlo.

Normande looking round and, seeing the Law entering his office, gave a start and, so to speak, slipped his mask for a second. The second was enough. The man showed that he had something on his mind.

Questioned, Normande stated quite frankly that he knew of no man other than M. Porrier who was a friend or acquaintance of the deceased.

“Just so,” said Henri, who believed him, “but what else do you know about these two men who have lodged here? I warn you, some things have come to our knowledge of a peculiar nature; so be frank. It is always

“I have nothing to conceal, monsieur,” said the other, “but, I must confess, some things about them have puzzled me. I did not say anything to you yesterday because my mind was so upset, but I have been puzzled, and this morning the thing has been weighing on my mind.” He then told all that he knew.

M. Henri, satisfied that he had obtained all that the innkeeper could give him in the way of information, returned to Monte Carlo.

The conclusion to be drawn was that Porrier was the servant of Lisfranc, and Porrier’s appearance seemed to justify the assumption.

He was of the type of a high-class valet. A man’s vocation stamps itself upon him if it is a non-intellectual or subordinate one.

The same may be said of crooks.

Now, Henri had only seen Porrier for a short time on the day before, but his memory, while agreeing with the description “valet,” had suggested something else— "honest.” However queer this man’s position may have been, he was not a crook, nor was he a dangerous man. So judged M. Henri. However, being a creature of routine he detailed Jumeaux oneof his agents, to follow Porrier’s movements and report on them, and on the morning of the second day after giving those instructions the report came in.

Porrier was staying at the Hotel d’Italie; he was also playing in the Casino and playing high. “Regardless” was the word Jumeaux

Yesterday he had lost largely, and then toward the end had recovered his position and was a winner at the close of play.

"Without doubt,” said Jumeaux, “he is playing again this morning.”

“I shall go and see,” said Henri.

He reached the Casino about eleven.

PORRIER was playing at the second table on the right from the entrance. He was playing high and winning. On the morning of the tragedy he had declaimed against “this cursed gambling,” yet here he was at it again.

He was not the same man. The demon of play had him in its grip.

Intent, watchful, absolutely absorbed, he was living in the world of chance, and his hands told the tale as well as his face. M. Henri, having noticed all this, passed on his way through the rooms.

At five o’clock he was back again at the same table, standing behind Porrier, who was now losing. A terrible run of bad luck had left him with only a few counters. He placed them all on a number, lost, and then, rising, he left the table.

He came out into the atrium, paused for a moment as though undecided, then, getting his hat and stick, he left the Casino and crossed over to the Café de Paris.

Here he took a seat at a table; almost immediately Henri, who had fo!!o«'ed him. took a seat at the same table.

"Excuse me, M. Porrier,” said he, “but I wish to speak to you.”

NOW. when you take a seat at one of the little tables in front of the Café de Paris, a waiter instantly springs from the ground. It is a phenomenon natural to the

P "Coffee,” said M. Henri, then to Porrier “And you?"

“Coffee.’ said Porrier.

The other lit a cigarette.

“You have been losing heavily, M. Porrier?”

J “Yes.”

“You have not taken warning from the fate of your friend, yet only the other day, on the morning of that sad affair, you spoke against gambling. You cursed it.”

“I do still.”

“Ah, well,” said Henri, “I am not here to indict gambling, but just to tell you I know all about your relationship with the late M. Lisfranc.”

“In that case,” said Porrier. “I am saved the trouble of coming to you and telling you. Now that I have lost all and everything is over, I would have done so in order to take the matter off my mind. I am an honest man. When I cursed gambling the other day I spoke the truth. When I denied any knowledge of how M. Lisfranc came by his death I lied because I was afraid to tell the truth. You say you know everything, but there is one thing you do not know. Though I killed M. Lisfranc, I did not murder him. Indeed I may say that I did not kill him. But it is a strange story and begins far away from here.”

“Go on,” said Henri. “Tell me exactly what is in your mind. It is always best, with me, to be frank.”

A YEAR ago,” said Porrier, “my employer, Baron Von Stein, died. I had been thirty years in his service as valet. His sons, knowing the facts, gave me most excellent testimonials. But I could not get a place. Why? Because I had been too long in the Baron’s service. It seems incredible but it is so. Gentlemen who want valets do not want men whose habits have become ‘set’ in long, continuous service.

“I lost most of my savings in a speculation, and I was in a very bad way when an agency sent me to M. Lisfranc. He wanted a valet and, being sensible in this at least, preferred a man of long service and integrity to a young-man still untrained.

“M. Lisfranc was a peculiar man, very wealthy, very mean. He was fond of play, but he could not endure to lose, and on the other hand he was not very desirous to win. He just loved engaging himself against chance, and as he often told me, he was happier playing for beans than for money. But people will not play with you in Paris for beans, nor at Monte Carlo.

“Monte Carlo attracted him very much —the rooms and the crowd and the circumstances of play, but for a man to whom the losing of a Napoleon was a grief and the gaining of one not of importance, Monte Carlo was impossible.

“His life in Paris was very quiet and his social activities confined to the houses of a few friends. He made, in a way, a companion of me as well as a valet, and I would sometimes read to him at night from the Debats or Echo de Paris."

“Excuse me.” cut in Henri, who was becoming more and more astonished at the calm manner of the other and at the way he was telling his story. “Excuse me, but you said just now that you killed this man.”

“No, monsieur. I said, in effect, that I believe I killed him. but was not sure. If monsieur will have patience—”

“I was saying that I read to him at night. Also he had a roulette board with which he amused himself spinning the ball and playing against himself. He was interested in systems, and had a belief that if a color turned up three times running it would probably continue to turn up for a long run. He liad several ideas of this sort which lent interest to his amusement, and he might have gone on in this way and dropped his roulette board and turned to cross-word puzzles had not a bright idea occurred to him.

"One day at the end of December he said to me: ‘Get yourself ready for a little journey. I am going to Monte Carlo. A friend has told me of a cheap hotel I can stop at. I am going to amuse myself in the Casino with the best of them, but I require your help. You must go with me to the Casino, but since they would not let you in if they knew you were in my service, you

can stay at the hotel, not as my servant but as an acquaintance of mine. If needs be, I must even shave myself and fold my own clothes at night. It will be worth it for a few’ weeks because of the amusement I will secure at the expense of the Casino.’

“He was as pleased as a child who has discovered a new toy; and, though I did not know in the least what he meant, I «'as pleased to see him so interested and amused.

“We came to La Turbie and put up at the Hotel de Rome, as you know.

“Then I discovered his plan. It was quite simple. The gambling money for each day was to be divided into two parts, one for me. one for him. He was to play only on the even chances, and I was to follow his play. Should he put his money on red, let us say, I was to put the same amount on black.

“In this way, and without bothering about me, he could engage himself in the game, enjoying all the circumstances of play at the tables with an absolutely easy mind. He might lose all he had brought with him, but he would find his losses in my pocket at the end of play. Of course we had to play at the same table, but the thing would have to be very many times repeated to draw attention from the croupiers. Sometimes I would stake my money opposite to him, and sometimes standing behind him; also there are many tables, and we changed our table every day. Some days we did not play at all, taking the sun on the front. So we were never observed as men playing against one another.”

“Excuse me,” said M. Henri, "but you

AH, WELL, it doesn’t matter,” replied the other, “nor did we care particularly. There was nothing illegal in the business and, indeed, Monsieur Lisfranc had the idea of declaring the thing to the Casino as a joke when we were leaving. He even had the idea of wagering M. Blanc that he would play all day in the room on the even chances, making so many given stakes, without losing a sou. It was all very funny, no doubt, but there was something terrible in the business for all that—myself.

“Monsieur, my father was a gambler, my mother when I was a boy had warned me against play, my life had never led me in the way of it or even of speculation till, having lost my position and hoping to increase my capital, I lost it all. as I have already told you. Well. I began this business with M. Lisfranc in the same spirit as he. It was a joke, but the first day’s play was a warning to me. It left me shaken.

“I had won. but my winnings were no use to me; they were not mine.

“But do not think for a moment, monsieur, that the gross fact of my not being able to enjoy my winnings was what disturbed me. The fact that I was not able to enjoy my losses was just as bad. My passion for play was given food and drink as unsubstantial as that offered by the mirage cities of the desert to travellers dying of hunger and thirst. I was condemned to gamble as one in a dream. I was like Tantalus. I drank without satisfying my thirst.

“And, you see, the extraordinary thing was that not only had I no profit or loss out of the business but I had no volition.

"I was bound to oppose my partner and to pit my luck against his, to become his antagonist in this game which you might say was a game of make-believe but for the fact of the reality of the tables, of the rooms, the crowd and the counters which represented good bank notes.

“So, while on the one hand I was kept by him from satisfying in a full and real way the gambler's passion that filled me with unrest, on the other hand I was bound by him to consider him my opponent.

"To the ordinary player the bank is the opponent. In my case the bank was nothing, my opponent was M. Lisfranc.

"Perhaps those two facts worked unconsciously on my mind, monsieur. Consciously I had no grudge against my master. The whole thing filled me with unrest and a sort of irritation, yet it held me.

“The unrest and irritation came to me most in the mornings before we began to

play, but the thing must have been working deeply in my mind like a mole.

“On the morning of the occurrence, M. Lisfranc, who was sitting in his armchair, asked me to get his papers out of his desk. The pistol was in the desk, and I took it out to lay on the table while I looked for the papers.

“He said. ‘What is that?’

"I showed him the pistol which I was holding in my hand, and he said, sharply, ‘Never hold a pistol like that, pointing at a person. Here, give it to me.’

"Perhaps he wished to take the cartridge from it, perhaps he had forgotten if it were really loaded. I don’t know. I came up to him with it.

“I had been more than usually irritated that morning; also he had spoken to me sharply as he had never done before.

“Perhaps that was what made my mind suddenly go blank. I don’t know. But I do remember standing with the discharged pistol in my hand and the smell of smoke in my nostrils, M. Lisfranc sitting back dead in his chair, and a voice saying in my head, ‘You have shot him.’

THEN I was terrified. He was dead. I waited for the hotel people to come rushing in. No one came. I went to the door —no one. There was no one about. I had dropped the pistol and it lay on the floor beside him. It seemed to accuse me and to advise me at the same time. It said, ‘Make your escape.’

"I took all the money from his wallet, which was in the desk—many thousands of francs. I took my hat and left the hotel.

“I took the money simply to help me in my escape. No one saw me leave but the maid Toinette, who was arranging flowers in the bar. She had heard nothing. I said to myself, ‘The walls are thick. No one can have heard the pistol. I have plenty of time to escape.’

“I walked along the road toward Eze. I went a good way, and then suddenly my senses returned.

“I said, 'This is madness. You can’t escape once they start to look for you. Go ( back at once. The pistol is lying by him on the floor. They may think it suicide.’

“I came back.

“You know the rest.

“You seemed satisfied that it was a case of suicide. The man had evidently lost money at the tables. I, as his friend, confirmed this.

“I had all that money in my possession, but no one knew. There was no reason for any finger to point at me because no one knew that I was not his friend but his valet.

"Careful enquiry in Paris might have established the fa,Ct as to my position, but it would have had to be very careful for I vas always known there by the name he called me as a servant, Jacques. And the Casino was not going to make careful search—of that I was sure—also he had no relations to make trouble.

"I felt secure and I had no remorse. Why should I? As for the money I had taken from him, why, it was like clothes that have been through the wash so often that the owners’ markings are gone.

“I removed to the Hotel d'Italie and the Casino drew me in again, this time to play in earnest. I have lost everything or nearly everything, and in some way you have found out all about me. Well, monsieur, what shall I do? What do you propose

Henri promised to do nothing. Porrier, by a stroke of that genius which we call innocence, had told his story, hiding nothing, and M. Henri believed Porrier’s story. Justice would not be served by sending this man to prison for life, and Monte Carlo would not lie served by this exposition of a gambler’s psychology. He intended to let him go, to obtain for him the viatique and to close the matter. That is what he did.

"Are you sure,” 1 asked M. Henri, “that he did the killing unconsciously?"

"No,” he replied, "but I am sure he did it subconsciously. The same thing, perhaps, but with a difference, ”