Madame Storey - Hulbert Footner - ebook

Madame Storey ebook

Hulbert Footner

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‘"When Rogues Fall Out” incorporates some wonderful conundrums to hoodwink and hinder the cleverest of crime readers. This book contains three interconnected stories. In the first, a respectable collector of antiques falls victim to temptation. In the second a police inspector is found dead in suspicious circumstances in a railway tunnel. This section includes an interesting „essay” on the early use of fingerprint evidence. The third is a classic locked room mystery where someone has been making use of a sealed room in a remote country house. All three are resolved together in the last few pages. The rogues of the title include three very different men engaged in stealing and fencing high-quality jewelry. One is a working-class robber; one a refined antiques dealer turned fence; and one a mysterious middleman with the appearance of a gentleman.

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Liczba stron: 459

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Contents

I. THE ASHCOMB POOR CASE

I

II

III

IV

V

VI

VII

II. THE SCRAP OF LACE

I

II

III

IV

V

VI

VII

VIII

IX

X

XI

XII

POSTSCRIPT

III. THE SMOKE BANDIT

I

II

III

IV

V

VI

VII

VIII

IX

X

IV. IN THE ROUND ROOM

I

II

III

IV

V

VI

VII

VIII

I. THE ASHCOMB POOR CASE

I

I cannot better put that extraordinary woman, my employer, before you than by describing my first meeting with her. It is easier to show her qualities in action than to describe them.

On a certain morning, no different from thousands of other mornings, I was in a subway train on my way to the office when my eye was caught by this striking advertisement:

Wanted–By a woman of affairs, a woman secretary; common sense is the prime requisite.

Printed words have an extraordinary effect on one sometimes. Something in these terse phrases so strongly appealed to me that though I had a very good position at the time, I interrupted my journey to the office and went directly to the address given.

It was on Gramercy Square. The house proved to be one of the fine old dwellings down there that have been altered into chic more-or-less-studio apartments. Bridal couples of the old Knickerbocker set are fond of setting up in that neighbourhood, I am told. As I approached, other females were converging at the door from three directions. The hall-boy, a typical New York specimen, looked us over with a grin, and without asking our business said:

“Madame Storey ain’t down yet. Youse is all to wait in the little front room.”

I asked him privately what was Madame Storey’s business.

“Search me!” he said cheekily. “She don’t hang out no sign.”

Her apartment was the first floor front; part of the parlour floor of the old mansion. It was evidently only an office, but such an office! The walls were hung with priceless tapestries, there was an Italian Renaissance table for the secretary, ditto chairs for the clients, and here and there a bit of Chinese porcelain to make a vivid spot of colour. I confess I looked a little dubiously at all this magnificence; somehow it didn’t seem quite respectable. All the time I was wondering what Madame Storey’s “affairs” consisted of.

There were about twenty women waiting; not nearly enough chairs, so most of us stood. It was funny to see how every Jill of them was busily cultivating an air of common sense. All looked at me as I entered with an expression which said as plainly as words: “You might as well go; you will never do!” It was somewhat disconcerting until I saw that later arrivals received exactly the same look. No doubt I glared at them that way myself. There were far too many of us there already. What did more have to come for, we thought?

We were a motley throng ranging in age from seventeen to seventy. Women who obviously couldn’t do a thing in this living world had rushed there to give Madame Storey the benefit of their common sense. One saw that there were as many definitions of common sense as there were women. Some thought it was sensible to paint their faces like a barber-pole; others, and these the larger number, considered that a sensible woman must don a hideous travesty of masculine attire, and wrinkle up her forehead like an ape. As for myself, the moment I saw that exquisite interior realised the incongruity of freckled, red-haired me amidst such surroundings. I had no hope of getting the position, but the whole affair was so funny to watch that I stayed on.

We waited an hour casting haughty glances at one another. But no one got tired and left. At the end of that time the boy from below threw open the door with a flourish and announced impressively:

“Madame Storey, ladies.”

There was a dramatic pause while we breathlessly waited with eyes fixed on the open door. Before we saw her we heard her voice–she was speaking to the boy outside, a slow voice with the arresting quality of the deeper notes of the oboe. Then she entered, and an audible breath escaped from all us women. I don’t know what we expected, certainly not what we saw.

She was very tall and supremely graceful. It was impossible to think of legs in connexion with her movements. She floated into the room like a shape wafted on the breeze. She was darkly beautiful in the insolent style that causes plainer women to prim up their lips.

She wore an extraordinary gown, a taupe silk brocaded with a shadowy gold figure, made in long panels that exaggerated her height and slimness, unrelieved by any trimming whatsoever. On her head she wore an odd little hat of the same colour with an exquisite plume curled around the brim. All this was very well, but what made the women gasp was that snuggled in the hollow of her arm she carried a black monkey dressed in a coat of Paddy green, and a foolscap hung with tiny gold bells.

She looked us over with eyebrows registering delicate mockery, and glanced at the ape as if to call his attention to the spectacle. Nevertheless she was not displeased by the sensation her entrance had created. I suspected that she had lingered outside especially to create that dramatic pause.

It was funny to see the faces of the waiting women, wherein strong disapproval struggled with the desire to please. As for myself, having no pretensions to beauty, I don’t have to be jealous of other women. I only knew the moment I laid eyes on Madame Storey that I wanted that job and wanted it badly. In the first place, a really beautiful woman is an unfailing delight to my eyes; in the second, something told me that whoever worked for that woman would see Life with a capital L. I didn’t care much then what her business might be.

She had kept us waiting a long time, but once there she expedited matters. Without any preamble she turned to the woman nearest the door–it was one of the near-masculine type that I have mentioned, and said with a smile:

“There is no need of your waiting any longer.”

The woman gasped and turned a bricky colour. “Why–why–” she began.

“I merely wished to save you from wasting more of your time,” said Madame Storey kindly.

The woman snorted, glared around at us all, grasped her umbrella firmly around the middle and stumped out.

The next one was a sweet young thing of forty-odd who put her head on one side and wriggled her shoulders when Madame Storey looked at her.

“You needn’t wait,” said that lady.

The third was a middle-aged woman of determined mien. When Madame Storey turned to her she stiffened up–breathed hard and prepared to stand her ground.

Madame Storey shook her head with a deprecating smile.

“But I am a sensible woman,” insisted the other. “Everybody says there is no nonsense about me.”

Some of us were impolite enough to laugh.

“I don’t doubt it,” said Madame Storey, “but you are not what I require.”

“I insist on an explanation!”

“Certainly. You do not like me, you see. What would be the use?”

The woman went out with a dazed air.

So it went. In five minutes the room was pretty well cleared. As she approached me my heart sank lower and lower, for I did want that job. But she appeared to overlook me altogether, and I was one of the three left when she completed her circuit. The other two were handsome, assured, well-dressed girls, and I told myself I had as good a chance against them as the traditional snowball down below.

Madame Storey said: “I will see you young ladies one at a time in my own office.”

The other two pressed forward, each trying to be the first, but I hung back. I argued that she would not engage anybody until she had talked to all three, and as every lawyer knows, there is a considerable advantage in having the last say.

The first girl, a ladylike blonde in a tailored suit, was not inside more than two minutes. She came out looking red and flustered.

“Well?” we asked her simultaneously.

“Never gave me a chance to say a word!” she said crossly. “Offered me a cigarette. Since she offered it, I knew she must be a smoker, so I took it, not to seem goody-goody. Well, I’m not accustomed to them. I choked over it. She just stood up and said good-morning.”

The second girl looked wise, and went on in. But her interview didn’t last more than thirty seconds. Reappearing, she burst out without even waiting for me to question her:

“The woman is crazy, if you ask me! Offered me a cigarette, too. Well, I wasn’t going to make the same mistake as the other girl. I declined. Said I didn’t indulge. She just pointed to the inside of my right forefinger and stood up. It’s just a little stained. What does she expect! Smokes like a furnace herself!”

I went into the next room with my heart jumping against the root of my tongue. It was a wonderful room: more like a little gallery in a museum than a woman’s office; an up-to-date museum where they realise the value of not showing too much at once. With all its richness there was a fine severity of arrangement, and every object was perfect of its kind. I didn’t appreciate all this at the moment. It was only as I came to know it that I realised the taste with which every object had been selected and arranged.

Madame Storey was seated at a great table with her back to the windows. On the edge of the table was perched the little green-jacketed monkey, hands on knees and swinging his feet in an absurdly human way. He was gazing solemnly into his mistress’s face and she was talking to him.

“Our last chance, Giannino. If this one fails us, we’ll have to go through with the whole silly business again tomorrow.”

The ape squeaked sympathetically, and gave me the once over.

She waved me to a chair. “What is your name?” she asked.

“Miss Brickley.”

“Your first name? It helps one to understand a person.”

“Bella.”

“Ah!” Giving me a shrewd look, she pushed a great silver box of cigarettes towards me.

I had already made up my mind what to do. “Thanks, I don’t smoke,” I said.

“Hope you don’t object,” she said, taking one.

“No, indeed,” I answered. “I could acquire the habit as quickly as any one, but it would be an added expense. I have to think of that.”

“Ah!” she said, and let the matter drop. Anyhow, the cigarette had not tripped me.

She was regarding me searchingly. It was a kindly look, yet it made me frightfully uncomfortable. I hate people to stare at me, I am so plain. In spite of myself I burst out:

“I suppose you’re thinking I wouldn’t be much of an ornament to this establishment!”

“Yes,” she said quite coolly. “But I was also thinking, that you were not as bad as you thought yourself. Your hair is charming.”

My snaky red locks charming! I looked at the woman in astonishment.

“It would make an effective spot of colour against my green tapestries,” she went on. “You know you don’t have to drag it back from the roots like that.”

Her unexpectedness unnerved me a little. Unfortunately when I am nervous I get cross.

“Are you a sensible woman?” she asked with a bland air.

“I don’t know,” I snapped. “I never gave the matter any thought.”

“That’s encouraging. Tell me of what you were thinking when you came in just now.”

“Well,” I replied, “it was clear to me from the experiences of the two who preceded me that they had got themselves turned down by making pretences; the first pretending that she smoked when she didn’t, and the second pretending she didn’t when she did. So I made up my mind not to bother about what you thought, but to be as nearly honest as I could.”

She laughed. “You hear that, my Giannino?”

The ape made a face at me. He and I never took to each other.

“Then you want this job?” Madame Storey asked.

“I do.”

“Why?”

“Because I think it’s going to be exciting.”

She shrugged. “I’ll give you a trial,” she said casually.

I could scarcely believe my ears. Once I got there I had no doubt but that I could make myself indispensable.

“You have not only the rudiments of sense, but a pretty spirit,” she added with that terribly searching kindly gaze.

I was dumb.

“You are surprised that I praise you to your face? It is not my habit. But you, one can see, are suffering from malappreciation. Those two ugly lines between your brows were born of the belief that you were too plain and uninteresting ever to hope to win a niche of your own in the world. And so you are if you think you are. But you don’t have to think so. Think that cross look away and your face will show what is rarer than beauty–character, individuality. Old Time himself cannot rob you of that.” She turned to the ape. “I believe this is what we were looking for, Giannino.”

I felt as if this strange woman had probed my soul.

“Are you employed now?” she asked abruptly.

“Yes.”

“What is your salary?”

I named it.

“I shall double it, Miss Brickley. That is only fair, because I shall make great demands on you.”

I tried to stammer my thanks.

“Haven’t you got some questions to ask me?” she said.

“What is the nature of your business?” I diffidently inquired.

“You will soon see,” she said smiling. “I assure you it is quite honest. You may call me a practical psychologist–specialising in the feminine.”

II

Most of you will remember how the murder of Ashcomb Poor set the whole town agog. The victim’s wealth and social position and the scandalous details of his private life that began to ooze out, whetted the public appetite for sensation to the highest degree. For years Ashcomb Poor had been one of the most beparagraphed men in town, and now the manner of his taking off seemed like a tremendous climax to a thrilling tale.

The day it first came out in the papers Mme. Storey did not arrive at the office until noon. She was very plainly dressed and wore a thick veil that partly obscured her features. By this time I was accustomed to these metamorphoses of costume. From a little bag that she carried she took several articles and handed them over to me. These were (a) a hank of thin green string in a snarl, (b) a piece of iridescent chiffon, partly burned, (c) an envelope containing seven cigarette butts.

“Some scraps of evidence in the Ashcomb Poor case,” she explained. “Put them in a safe place.”

I had just been reading the newspaper report.

“What! Have we been engaged in that case already?” I exclaimed. Mme. Storey encouraged me to speak of our business in the first person plural, and of course it flattered me to do so.

“No,” she said, smiling, “but we may be. At any rate, I have forearmed myself by taking a look over the ground.”

In the rear of her room there was a smaller one that she used as a retiring and dressing-room. She changed there now to a more suitable costume.

Two days later she remarked: “The signs tell me that we shall receive a call from the district attorney’s office today.”

Sure enough, Assistant District Attorney Barron turned up before the morning was over. Though he was a young man for the job, he was a capable one, and held over through several succeeding administrations. This was the first time I had seen him, though it turned out he was an old friend of Mme. Storey’s. A handsome, full-blooded fellow, his weakness was that he thought just a little too well of himself.

I showed him into the private office and returned to my desk. There is a dictagraph installed between Mme. Storey’s desk and mine, and when it is turned on I am supposed to listen in and make a transcript of whatever conversation may be taking place. Sometimes, to my chagrin, she turns it off at the most exciting moment, but more often she leaves it on, I am sure, out of pure good nature, because she knows I am so keenly interested. Mme. Storey is good enough to say that she likes me to be in possession of full information, so that she can talk things over with me.

The circuit was open now, and I heard him say: “My God, Rose, you’re more beautiful than ever!”

“Thanks, Walter,” she dryly retorted. “The dictagraph is on, and my secretary can hear everything you say.”

“For Heaven’s sake, turn it off!”

“I can’t now, or she’d imagine the worst. You’ll have to stick to business. I suppose you’ve come to see me about the Ashcomb Poor case.”

“What makes you jump to that conclusion?”

“Oh, you were about due.”

“Humph! I suppose that’s intended to be humorous. If you weren’t quite so sure of yourself you’d be a great woman, Rose. But it’s a weakness in you. You think you know everything!”

“Well, what did you come to see me about?”

“As a matter of fact, it was the Ashcomb Poor case. But that was just a lucky shot on your part. I suppose you read that I had been assigned to the case.”

“Walter, you’re a good prosecutor, but you lack a sense of humour.”

“Well, you’re all right in your own line, feminine psychology and all that. I gladly hand it to you. But the trouble with you is, you want to tell me how to run my job too.”

“No one could do that, Walter.”

“What do you mean?”

“Never mind. How does the Poor case stand?”

“I suppose you’ve read the papers.”

“Yes; they’re no nearer the truth than usual. Give me an outline of the situation as you see it.”

“Well, you know the Ashcomb Poors. Top-notchers; fine old family, money, and all that; leaders in the ultra-smart Prince’s Valley set on Long Island. They have what they call a small house at Grimstead, where they make believe to live in quiet style; it’s the thing nowadays.”

“In other words, the extravagantly simple life.”

“Exactly. They have no children. The household consisted of Mr. and Mrs. Poor, Miss Philippa Dean, Mrs. Poor’s secretary; Mrs. Batten, the housekeeper; a butler and three maids; there were outside servants, too–chauffeur, gardener, and so on–but they don’t come into the case. Ashcomb Poor was a handsome man and a free liver. Things about him have been coming out–well, you know. On the other hand, his wife was above scandal, a great beauty–”

“Vintage of 1910.”

“Well, perhaps; but still in the running. These women know how to keep their looks. Very charitable woman and all that. Greatly looked up to. On Monday night Mrs. Poor took part in a big affair at the Pudding Stone Country Club near their home. A pageant of all nations or something. Her husband, who did not care for such functions, stayed at home. So did Miss Dean and Mrs. Batten. Mrs. Poor took the other servants to see the show.”

“There were only three left in the house, then?”

“Yes–Mr. Poor, Miss Dean, and Mrs. Batten.”

“Go on.”

“Mrs. Poor returned from the entertainment about midnight. Mrs. Batten let her in the front door. Standing there, the two women could see into the library, where Poor sat with his back to them. They were struck by something strange in his attitude, and started to investigate, Mrs. Batten in advance.

“She was the first to realise that something had happened, and tried to keep Mrs. Poor from approaching the body. They struggled. Mrs. Poor screamed. The girl, Philippa Dean, suddenly appeared, nobody can tell from where. A moment later the other servants, who had gone around to the back door, ran in.

“Well, there was the situation. He had been shot in the back. The pistol was there. The butler telephoned to friends of the family and to the police. Grimstead, as you know, is within the city limits, so it comes within our jurisdiction. I was notified of the affair within an hour and ordered to take personal charge of the case. Nothing had been disturbed. I ordered the arrest of the Dean girl, and she is still in custody.”

“What do you want of me?” Mme. Storey inquired.

“I want you to see the girl. Frankly, she baffles me. Under our questioning she broke down before morning and confessed to killing the man. But the next day she repudiated her confession, and has obstinately stuck to her repudiation in spite of all we could do. I want you to see her and get a regular confession.”

“What about the girl’s lawyers?”

“She has none as yet. Refused to see one.”

“You’re sure she did it?”

“Absolutely. It was immediately apparent that the murder had been committed by one of the inmates of the house.”

“Why?”

“Because when Mrs. Poor and the servants departed for the entertainment Mrs. Batten, who let them out, turned on the burglar-alarm, and it remained turned on until she let her mistress in again. One of the first things I did on arriving at the house was to make sure that the alarm was working properly. I also examined all the doors and windows. Everything was intact.”

“Why couldn’t the housekeeper have done it?”

“A simple, timid old soul! Impossible! No motive. Besides, if she had she would hardly have given me the principal piece of evidence against those in the house; I mean her testimony about the burglar-alarm.”

“What motive could the girl have had?”

“The servants state that their master had been pestering her–forcing his attentions on her.”

“Ah! But this is all presumptive evidence, of course. What else have you?”

“Ashcomb Poor was shot with an automatic pistol belonging to Miss Dean. The butler identified it. At first she denied that it was hers. She could not deny, though, that she had one like it, and when asked to produce it she could not. It was not among her effects.”

“Where did you find the gun exactly?”

“In the dead man’s hand.”

“In his hand?”

“Under his hand, I should say. It had been shoved under in a clumsy attempt to make it appear like a suicide. But the hand was clenched on top of the weapon. Moreover, the man was shot between the shoulders. He could not possibly have done it himself. The bullet passed completely through his body, and I found it lodged in the wall across the room.”

“Did the housekeeper hear the shot?”

“She did not. She was in another wing of the house.”

“Anything else against the girl?”

“Yes. When she appeared, attracted by Mrs. Poor’s cry, though she was supposed to have retired some time before, she was fully dressed. Moreover, she knew what had happened before any one told her.”

“Ah! How does she explain these suspicious circumstances?”

“She will explain nothing. Refuses to talk.”

“What story did she tell when she confessed?”

“None. Merely cried out: ‘I did it! I did it! Don’t ask me any more!’”

There was a silence here, during which Mme. Storey presumably ruminated on what she had been told. Finally she said: “I’ll see the girl, but it must be upon my own conditions.”

“What are those?”

“As an independent investigator, I hold no brief for the district attorney’s office.”

“Well, there’s no harm in that.”

“But you must understand what that implies. Neither you nor any of your men may be present while I am talking to her. And I do not bind myself to tell you everything she tells me.”

“That’s out of the question. What would the old man say if he knew that I turned her over to an outsider?”

“Well, that’s up to you, of course.” Mme. Storey spoke indifferently. “You came to me, you know.”

“Well–all right.” This very sullenly. “I suppose if she confesses you’ll let me know.”

“Certainly. But I’m not at all sure this is going to turn out the way you expect.”

“After all I’ve told you?”

“Your case against her is a little too good, Walter.”

“Who else could have done it?”

“I don’t know–yet. If she did it, why should she have stuck around the house until you arrested her?”

“She supposed it would be considered a suicide.”

“But, according to you, a year-old child wouldn’t have been deceived into thinking so.”

“Well, you never can tell. They always do something foolish. Will you come down to the Tombs? I’ll arrange for a room there.”

“No, I must see the girl here.”

“That’s impossible!”

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