The Under Dogs - Hulbert Footner - ebook

The Under Dogs ebook

Hulbert Footner



The Under Dogs", published in 1925, is the first novel about Rosika Storey, told by her trusty secretary, Bella Brickley. Beautiful, intelligent Madame Rosika Storey, a respected investigator, becomes interested in the case of a young girl accused of jewel robbery. Although Melanie is desperate, she rejects Mme. Storey’s help, because the gang that is after her is ruthless and, she thinks, unstoppable. When Melanie is kidnapped, Mme. Storey goes undercover herself, and walks into the clutches of the gang, where she works to find its mysterious leader and to free the imprisoned Melanie.

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The Teresa de Guion case, owing to the extraordinary prominence of the persons concerned, raised Mme. Storey to the very pinnacle of her fame; and she (as well as myself in my humbler capacity) had to pay the penalty of the attendant publicity. All day long our offices were thronged by the most diverse collection of human beings, ranging from bank presidents and society leaders all the way down to the cranks and semi-lunatics that make themselves known at such a time.

These people made the oddest demands upon my mistress; or requests for her aid; or appeals to her sympathy. Some wanted to divorce their mates; others to win back an erring husband or wife. Many persons, otherwise sane, firmly believed that they were being persecuted by an unknown enemy; others seemed to fancy that my mistress was a sort of soothsayer with magical powers. Still others, and this was the most numerous class of all, had not the shadow of an excuse for troubling us, except the desire to edge into the limelight that was beating so fiercely on Mme. Storey. Such were the hostesses who wished to ask her to dinner; and the gentlemen who, roused by the extraordinary beauty of her published photographs, desired to ask her to dinners of another sort.

In order to protect my mistress, I was obliged to lock the door between my office and hers, and communicate with her over the extension ‘phone. When I had to see her, I went around through the hall and the middle room. It was all very exciting, but it was wearing too. Amongst all this mob of suitors there was scarcely one who was entitled to serious consideration.

Those who were unable to come to our offices, wrote. Every day I had a stack of letters a foot high to open. It was a rule of the office that all letters must be read and answered–once. Of course, when silly people continued to write after they had received a proper answer, their letters went into the waste paper basket. The matter of these letters, I need hardly say, was even wilder than the preferred requests of those who called.

One morning there was an anonymous letter in the mail, which was rather curiously worded. I paid little attention to it at first, because I have a constitutional prejudice against anonymous letters. However, I laid it on Mme. Storey’s desk amongst the others.

You can never forecast what she is going to do. Of all the scores of letters that day, it was the anonymous letter which attracted her attention.

We had a fairly quiet hour between twelve and one, and I was seated at her desk taking dictation. She picked up the letter in question, and studied it with narrowed eyes. In the other hand she had the inevitable cigarette.

“There’s something about this…” she murmured.

“It’s anonymous!” I said scornfully.

“Even so…An anonymous letter is only contemptible when it seeks to administer a stab in the back. This doesn’t…Listen…”

When she read it, her warm, slow voice made me feel what there was in it.

“Dear Madame Storey:–Teresa de Guion deserved all she got. It did my heart good to see that high society dame yanked down from her perch. She deserves to get it harder than poor devils who have to go crooked to live. Say, it was fine the way you brought it home to her. Any other bull that I ever heard of would have shut right up as soon as he found who it was that had croaked the girl. He wouldn’t have dared go any further. None of those high-up folks wanted you to show up one of their number. But although they were paying you, you saw it through. That was all right. Although you’re a bull you seem human to me. I never expected to find myself writing to one.

“I suppose, when you read this letter, you’ll laugh and chuck it in the waste basket. Oh well, I should worry. I ain’t got nothing better to do. Do you ever take a job without pay? I guess not. You’re not in business for your health. There’s a girl called Melanie Soupert about to come up for trial in General Sessions for grand larceny. She’s guilty, too. What is there about it then, you may ask. Well, if you wanted to make a quiet investigation of all the circumstances behind that case, you might turn up something startling. But you’d have to dig deep for it.

“There’s nothing in this for you except the chance of helping a lot of poor damned souls without hope. Maybe that isn’t much of an inducement. Don’t get the idea that this letter is from Melanie. There’s no use trying to get anything out of her. She’s a hard case. Besides, she’s being well taken care of. But there are others in it.

“If you are fool enough to take any notice of this letter, don’t show your hand if you value your own life. At the first move you made against the interested parties your light would be put out just like pressing a button in the wall. If you are going to do anything, you might put a little personal ad. in the ‘Sphere,’ just saying: ‘X: I’m on the job; Y.’ That would give me something to hope for. But, of course, you won’t. After this, I’ll have no way of communicating with you.

“Well, anyhow, you’re a bit of all right, Madame Storey. I like to think there are women like you going about outside. Life is a rotten mess, and it’s us poor boobs that make it so.

“An Admirer.”

“What do you think of it, Bella?” asked my mistress with a thoughtful smile.

“It’s from a crook,” I said.

“Of course. One thoroughly familiar with the seamy side of life, and with ‘bulls,’ poor soul. That’s what appeals to me. We have never had a crook for a client.”

“You don’t mean to take it seriously?” I said.

“It moves me,” she said simply. “It rings like a genuine cry from the heart.”

It had moved me too, when she read it, but I was filled with anxiety for my generous mistress, who offered such a shining mark for envy and hatred to shoot at. “It may be a trap,” I said.

“Who would ever bait a trap with words like these: ‘If you are fool enough to take any notice of this letter?’” asked Mme. Storey, smiling.

“Any one who knew you would know that that was the very way to catch you,” I said.

She laughed outright. “But there are few who know me as well as you do, my Bella. You are supposing a superhuman cleverness in the writer.”

“You cannot afford to go into anything with your eyes shut,” I said earnestly. “Depend upon it, it’s a rotten mess of some sort. He as good as admits it in the letter.”

“He?” said Mme. Storey.

“Well, he or she,” said I.

“But there can be no doubt as to the sex of the writer,” said Mme. Storey. “Every sentence reveals the feminine. Who but a woman would beg for my help, and in the next sentence tell me I was a fool if I listened to her? Moreover, observe that though this is the letter of one utterly reckless, and though the anonymity releases all inhibitions, it is neither profane nor blasphemous. A reckless man couldn’t help but curse.”

“I heard a damn in it somewhere,” I grumbled.

“‘Poor damned souls,’” quoted Mme. Storey. “It is not used in the sense of profanity there, but as a simple adjective…No; a woman wrote this. Her whole attitude towards me is that of a fellow-woman…Moreover,” she went on in a lower tone, “it is from a woman whose nature is similar to my own.”

I stared hard at that.

“If I was hard up against it,” Mme. Storey went on, “that is just such a letter as I might write myself. That feeling of despair which makes the breast tight; that utter recklessness which makes one mock at that which one most desires–how well I know it! And so you see, my Bella, I could not possibly disregard this cry of pain.”

“Just the same,” I said, “it seems to me both dangerous and unwise to pay heed to an anonymous letter.”

“But I know who wrote it,” said Mme. Storey, smiling.

I stared at her, awaiting the explanation.

“It is from Melanie Soupert–whoever she may be.”

“How do you know?”

“Because she says it isn’t,” said Mme. Storey, with her most provoking smile. “If this letter had been written by somebody else, it wouldn’t be necessary for the writer to state that it wasn’t from Melanie Soupert. Two sentences suggest that it was written in jail. She says first: ‘I haven’t anything else to do;’ towards the end she says: ‘It’s nice to think of women like you going about outside;’ i.e., she was locked up.”

“If she’s got a good case, why doesn’t she state it in her letter?” I asked.

“But she’s got a rotten case,” said Mme. Storey. “She says she’s guilty. Can’t you conceive of a woman who was in bad, and yet worthy of help? Indeed, that’s the sort that appeals to me most…Her lawyer, presumably, has her case in charge. She says this is something behind the case. She begs me to save her, and serves notice that I can expect no help from her. How like a woman, my Bella!”

“I don’t like it! I don’t like it!” I cried unhappily. “Suppose the letter is genuine; why should you put yourself in danger? You could not protect yourself, because you wouldn’t know from what quarter to expect it.”

Mme. Storey laid her hand briefly on mine. “Your feelings do you credit, my dear,” she said. “But I can’t help myself. This letter has got me where I live. I must see the matter through. As for danger–well, you know that the danger of a situation is always grossly exaggerated in the prospect. Anyhow, a little danger will brisken us up. Our lives are too soft.”

“Well…are you going to see her?” I said, giving in very unwillingly.

“No,” said Mme. Storey, “she would repudiate her letter, I am sure. But when she comes up for trial, I’ll have a look at her in the dock. Ask Crider to find out the date.”

“If you’re going by the letter,” I said, “she warns you not to show your hand.”

“You have me there!” said my mistress with a quick smile. “Well, I’ll send you instead to report on the trial…Meanwhile, telephone the personal ad. to the Sphere, will you? ‘X: I’m on the job; Y.’”

I obeyed with many misgivings.


For the purpose of attending the trial, Mme. Storey furnished me with a bobbed brown wig, and an artistic-Bohemian outfit that suggested Greenwich village. It was not that we expected anybody in the court-room to recognise me, but we thought, seeing that I would be working on the case later, it would be just as well not to give any interested person the chance to remember having seen my conspicuous red hair at the trial.

General Sessions, part three, was sitting in one of the corner court-rooms in the Criminal Courts Building. I had had previous acquaintance with those big, ugly, ill-ventilated rooms which are equally stifling in summer or in winter. Justice is always associated in my mind with the smell of hot varnish and perspiring humanity. The case was not of the slightest public interest; and so far as I had seen was not even mentioned in the newspapers; nevertheless, the benches were well filled, which suited me very well.

Recorder Teague was on the bench. He enjoys a wide reputation for no reason that I can see, except that he looks the perfect justice, with his lovely white hair and mild gaze. I have seen him hand down some pretty raw decisions when his temper was exacerbated by the warring lawyers. But justices are only human. My case was not in progress when I entered the room. Various motions were being made in other cases, and the indifferent jury lolled in the box with their tongues out, one might say.

I saw several well-known persons in the court-room. Jim Shryock was sitting at the counsel table. The sight of that man always makes my bristles rise. I cannot understand how an honest community can tolerate such a parasite–much less heap honours and emoluments upon him. But there, I am one of the community myself, and I have never denounced him. He is a little, bald, fat man, with a sharp nose, and he seems to exude oily cunning at every pore. He is known as one of our leading criminal lawyers, and his services are in great demand, yet he can scarcely speak grammatical English. His success is not due to his powers of oratory, but to his command of deep and devious underground methods of political influence and graft. Everybody knows he’s crookeder than the crooks he defends, but he continues to flourish like the green bay tree.

I also saw John McDaniels, the head of the well-known detective bureau. He was a burly Hercules, with a hard, closed face. Nobody could have mistaken him for other than a “bull.” He prides himself on his taciturnity, and is supposed to be able to overawe criminals by his glare, and the turning of his cigar between his thick lips. We have been associated with him in several cases; opposed to him at other times; our general relations are friendly. Mme. Storey has no great opinion of his mental capacity; but he has achieved a considerable measure of success by dogged determination. His agency does a wide business.

When Melanie Soupert was called, I looked towards the prisoners’ door with the keenest curiosity. I saw a handsome, dark-eyed girl enter the court-room with a toss of her black mane, and a defiant hand on her hip. That hand had been placed just so to display a showy bracelet with rhinestones. She stared at the spectators with insolent contempt. It was obvious that every detail of this entrance had been rehearsed. Poor little things! it is well that they are able to obtain some satisfaction out of their appearances in court!

A handsome girl, with regular features and a beautiful strong body. She was clad in a smartly tailored blue suit with a piquant little jacket. A true daughter of New York, her feet were expensively and unserviceably shod in brown suede slippers, daintily strapped and slashed. I knew that the price of such slippers would keep a poor family in food for a week. She wore no hat. Her hands were beautifully kept, and she displayed them.

I sought to pierce through her hard, defiant stare to what lay behind; but in vain, I could see nothing but a sort of childish vanity and braggadocio. Yet I knew there was something behind it, for I had had a peep into her heart through the medium of her letter. It was a disconcerting thought; I mean, that all the childish people we contemptuously put out of mind may have hearts. Melanie sat at the counsel table in the chair that was pointed out to her, and proceeded to powder her nose–though she had surely done it just before entering.

All through the tedious preliminaries I watched and weighed her, trying to solve the insoluble enigma of a human being. I received many impressions; some of them flatly contradictory. I had come there in no friendly state of feeling towards the girl, and she was deliberately trying to antagonise everybody who looked at her; nevertheless, little by little, she won me. Watching her, I was reminded of certain blind and painful periods in my childhood when I knew I was acting like a devil, and my heart was breaking.

I saw that she was not as young as I had at first thought. Fully twenty-six or twenty-seven. I saw that her hardness lay wholly in the deliberately assumed expression of her eyes. Her features were rather softly and sweetly formed. One could see, under different circumstances, that same face turning gentle and girlish. Her eyes were large, and very expressive; such eyes are accustomed to tenderness.

It struck me that there was something quite splendid in her spirit. Certainly her defiant attitude was nobler than the attitude of the usual accused woman, who looks poor and put upon, and ogles the jury with woe-begone eyes. I had the uncomfortable feeling–which has visited me before–that our life is only too prone to crush and destroy the really fine spirits among us, while it exalts the smug and the petty. In short, this girl, who wished to persuade everybody that she didn’t give a damn, caused a good-sized lump to rise in my throat.

The preliminaries over, she pleaded not guilty, and the trial commenced in earnest. It made me thoughtful to observe that Jim Shryock was defending her. Shryock was a big figure in criminal practice, and it was well known that only such of the accused as had plenty of money, or were of political importance, might hope to secure his services. Melanie and Shryock stood side by side at the counsel table, but none of the usual communications passed between them. Apparently the girl’s own lawyer was included in her general scorn.

Every trial is interesting. The very structure of a trial corresponds to that of a play on the stage, with the bringing in of the verdict for the grand climax. And a trial–even such an unimportant trial as this one–brings together such a curious dramatis personæ. There was that fascinating problem of a girl; there was Shryock, the sublimated shyster; there was McDaniels, the honest, dogged bully; there was Mrs. Cranstoun, whose pearl necklace had been stolen, an exquisite, artificial, inane little person; there was Recorder Teague with his ascetic, beautiful face, probably calculating how he could meet the monthly household accounts, while he made believe to be listening to the evidence; and finally, there was me, taking it all in, and trying to strike through to the mystery that I was assured lay behind this very ordinary case.

Mrs. Cranstoun was the first witness. Mrs. Cranstoun was one of those egregiously expensive little matrons who pose as “leaders.” Leaders of what, God knows! There are so many of these leaders scattered up and down Park Avenue, one wonders where they can collect enough followers to go around. Mrs. Cranstoun stated that she was the owner of a necklace of seventy-eight matched pearls that was valued, roughly, at thirty thousand dollars. She was very careful of her things, she informed the court; never left them lying about; never trusted servants foolishly; and had never before had a loss.

She had had a replica of the necklace made, she said, and kept the real pearls in a safe deposit box. Since all her friends knew that she possessed a necklace of that value, she naively explained, it did just as much good to wear the artificial pearls around. But occasionally she had to get the real pearls out, because if they were not worn sometimes she had been told they would lose their lustre. On such occasions, she said, she visited the safe deposit vault without telling anybody of her intention, changed the artificial pearls for the real, wore the latter for a couple of days, then returned them to safe-keeping. She did not even tell her husband when she was wearing the real pearls. Nobody could have told except an expert in gems.

She went on to tell how she had engaged Melanie Soupert–but under the name of Rose Dawson, as a parlour-maid. She had advertised in the newspapers for a parlour-maid. No, that was not her usual custom. She obtained her servants through a high-class agency. But there was a shortage at this time; they sent her nobody, and she was forced to advertise. She liked the looks of the girl, who was very neat and polite. She could see from her hands, of course, that she was not accustomed to domestic service, but all kinds of people drift in and out of service, and she was thankful to get anybody. The girl offered her references, which she did not investigate as closely as she ought.

The prisoner had been working for her a few days, a week, perhaps, when she, Mrs. Cranstoun, had occasion to get her pearls out of the vault. No, she was perfectly sure she had told nobody of her intention. The chauffeur drove her to the bank, of course, but she went there often, and for many other reasons besides getting out the pearls. During the rest of that day she wore the real pearls. That night she and Mr. Cranstoun attended the Follies. Upon retiring for the night, she dropped the necklace in a jewel-box, on her dressing-table, which had no lock. It was part of her system to treat the real pearls, when she was wearing them, exactly the same as the artificial ones.

In the morning, when she went for them, she found them gone. Mrs. Cranstoun gave the jury a moving account of her emotions upon discovering her loss, while Recorder Teague’s Adam’s apple moved up and down with swallowed yawns. Mrs. Cranstoun telephoned to the police, and within half an hour a detective officer was sitting in her living-room. All the servants were rigorously quizzed–Melanie amongst the others–and their rooms searched, but nothing came of it. The parlour-maid answered up as cool as you please, and the officer did not suspect her. He said it was an outside job, and affected to discover finger-prints on the window-sill.

The prisoner remained on for five days after the theft. Then she dropped a valuable sang de boeuf vase, and smashed it. When Mrs. Cranstoun reprimanded her, she answered back pertly, and Mrs. Cranstoun discharged her on the spot. Looking back, she could see, of course, that the girl had smashed the vase on purpose to pave the way for her escape from the house.

Meanwhile, there was no word of the missing pearls, and despairing of getting any results from the police, Mrs. Cranstoun consulted Mr. McDaniels, who had been recommended to her by a friend whose jewels he had recovered. Several of her friends had consulted Mr. McDaniels upon one occasion or another, with entire satisfaction. And, indeed, when she described the discharged parlour-maid to him, he had immediately said: “Melanie Soupert.” Within ten days Mr. McDaniels had recovered all her pearls from the various pawnshops where they had been pledged, and had secured the arrest of the girl.

While Mrs. Cranstoun was testifying, it was curious to see how she and Melanie sought to insult each other with exactly the same sort of glances of animal indifference. You know how women look at each other. In other words, the moral natures of accused and accuser were about the same; the difference between them was merely a matter of money. I never can understand this indifference of humans to humans. If a woman stole a pearl necklace from me I should be extraordinarily interested in her.

When Mrs. Cranstoun concluded her testimony, Jim Shryock arose and said: “No cross-examination.” From the oily smile he bent upon the witness, one would have supposed that he was her lawyer.

This attitude of Shryock’s was my first proof that this was not just an ordinary case. As the trial proceeded, he made it clear that he had no intention of exerting himself to get the girl off. From his cynical expression the jury might gather that the girl’s guilt could be taken for granted. This made me very indignant. She was guilty, no doubt, but just the same she was not getting a fair trial. And the nerve of the super-shyster! He intended that everybody should see that he had abandoned the girl. It was absolutely unethical, of course, but such was the evil prestige of the man that nobody had the courage to call him.

The only other important witness was John McDaniels. An experienced witness, the big man was entirely matter-of-fact upon the stand. This was all in the day’s work for him. He described the various steps he had taken to recover the pearls, and apprehend the girl, which I need not go into here. As soon as he heard Mrs. Cranstoun’s tale, he suspected Melanie Soupert was the thief, because it was her speciality to engage herself as a parlour-maid and steal her mistress’s jewels when the opportunity offered. One of the cleverest jewel thiefs in the business. Always worked single-handed. She possessed several genuine letters of recommendation from well-known women, which she had stolen or purchased from the real Rose Dawson.

McDaniels recited Melanie’s criminal record with deadly particularity. She had first been arrested for stealing her mistress’s jewels, when only seventeen years old. Had been sentenced to a reformatory, but being a first offender, and on account of her youth, had soon been parolled. Shortly afterwards she was back in the dock, charged with a similar crime; and this time she had received a prison sentence, which she had served, with the customary allowance off. Two years before, she had once more been arrested, and convicted of robbery, and had been sentenced to Woburn Prison for five years. After serving but a month or two, she had broken out of prison, and the unexpired sentence was still awaiting her at Woburn.

McDaniels had finally come up with her, he said, in a flat on Avenue A, where she was living with a young man called George Mullen, whom she had recently married. The proceeds of the robbery had partly gone to furnish the flat. This Mullen was a hard-working young fellow, unknown to the police. Apparently he was unaware of his wife’s criminal activities. When he had learned of it, he had repudiated her. Upon being arrested, Melanie had admitted her guilt, but subsequently denied it.

These dry statements of McDaniels caused me to look at the girl with a new and extraordinary interest. I am a spinster, and no less sentimental, I suppose, than others. A bride! Ah, the poor young thing! The fact that she was a thief was not to say she was not capable of feeling all the tremulous happiness of a bride. And her honeymoon had been broken up by the brutal intrusion of McDaniels! And her young husband had turned from her! What a poor stick he must have been. Yet you couldn’t blame him, either, if he had supposed her virtuous. It was a pitiful situation all round. Melanie sat listening with half a sneer on her comely face. God knows what pain that sneer conceals, I thought.

Shryock’s cross-examination of McDaniels was merely perfunctory. No facts favourable to the girl were brought out.

To make a long story short, the jury returned a verdict of guilty without leaving their seats. Only one of the twelve betrayed any concern for the girl; an insignificant little man in the upper corner of the jury box, who looked at Melanie with compassionate eyes. But he had not force of character enough to make a stand against the other eleven. Mrs. Cranstoun, in her expensive clothes, with the pearls (real or phony) around her neck, openly exulted. Melanie herself gave no sign, except that the painful curl in her lip became emphasised.

Before sentencing her Recorder Teague hesitated. I had seen that Shryock’s cynical attitude towards his client had made the worthy man uneasy during the trial. He was a political judge, and had to consider his re-election; he dared not openly rebuke the powerful lawyer, but I am sure he would have liked to do something for the girl. He began to question her with a view to bringing out something favourable to her.

“Have you anything to say?”

“What’s the use?” said Melanie, sneering.

“Is your husband in the court-room?”


“If you went straight, would not your husband return to you?”

Melanie’s dark eyes flashed at him. “I wouldn’t go back to him,” she said. “He’s yellow.”

The judge bit his lip, and tried again. “Are your parents living?”

“That’s neither here nor there,” said Melanie. “They have nothing to do with this.”

“Have you no desire to lead a respectable life?”

“A-ah! sentence me! sentence me!” cried Melanie with harsh effrontery. “It’s bad enough to be tried without having to listen to a moral lecture!”

What could anybody do for a girl like that?

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