HOW PHOEBE PLAYED DETECTIVE

On her way home Phoebe Daring stopped at the post office and talked
with Will Chandler. He was a middle-aged man, slow and deliberate in
thought and action, yet a veritable potentate in local politics and all
affairs of a public character in Riverdale. There had been Chandlers
in the town ever since it had been established, and before it had been
named Riverdale it had been called Chandler’s Crossing, the original
Chandler having been a ferryman on the river. This Will Chandler,
the sole representative of a long and prominent line, was a steady,
straightforward fellow and greatly respected by everyone. It was said
that he was too honest ever to become rich, and to eke out a living for
a large family he kept a little stock of stationery for sale in the
post office. This was located in the front part of the room, and his
daughter, a white-faced, silent girl, waited on customers and gave out
the mail when her father was absent.

The postmaster was on his stool behind the wicket when Phoebe
approached him.

“Who do you think could have taken Mrs. Ritchie’s box?” asked the girl.

“I don’t know,” said Chandler. “If I did, I’d help Toby out of his
trouble.”

“I didn’t ask who took the box,” said Phoebe; “but who _could_ have
taken it.”

The postmaster slowly revolved this in his mind.

“Possible burglar?” he asked.

“Yes.”

“Sam Parsons, the constable.”

“How is that?”

“I went upstairs about noon and found Sam peeking through the keyhole
into the judge’s office. He mumbled some and went away. That night,
just before I went home to supper, I walked upstairs again, just to see
if everything was all right. I hadn’t any key, that time, but Parsons
was standing with his back to the door, silent like, as if he was
thinking.”

“Rather curious, isn’t it?” asked Phoebe, quite astonished by this
report.

“Can’t say,” replied Chandler. “I’d trust Sam with all I’ve got–even
with the United States mail. He’s the squarest man that ever walked.”

“I think so, too,” she agreed. “What other possible burglar do you know
of?”

Chandler pondered.

“I might have done it,” said he; “but I guess I didn’t. Toby might have
done it; but I guess he didn’t. Holbrook might have done it; but I
guess–”

“Had Mr. Holbrook any chance to take the box?” she asked quickly.

“A chance, but a rather slim one. I took him up to see the office and
while we were there Hazel called me for something. So I left him sizing
up the furniture and law books, to see if they were worth buying, and
came down to the office. When I got back Holbrook was sitting down,
looking through the books. That was the only chance he had, as far as
I know, and I’ll swear he didn’t have the box when I locked up and we
went away.”

“You didn’t see Mrs. Miller around that day?”

“No.”

“Nor Griggs the carpenter?”

“Haw-haw! Phoebe; that’s funny. Griggs? Griggs steal the box? Why, the
old idiot won’t take the money he earns, unless you force it on him. If
there’s a soul in this world that don’t care a snap for money, it’s old
Griggs.”

“Thank you, Mr. Chandler. Please don’t tell anyone I’ve been
questioning you.”

He looked at her steadily.

“I suppose you’re Toby’s friend, because he once helped your people
out of a scrape, as everybody knows–that time the Darings came near
losing their money. I wish, Phoebe Daring, you could find out who took
that box. I’ve been just miserable over Toby’s arrest; but I’m so busy
here, just now, I can’t lift a finger to help him.”

The girl walked thoughtfully home, wondering if she had really
accomplished anything. Sitting down at her desk she made the following
memoranda, writing it neatly and carefully:

“THOSE WHO KNEW OF THE BOX.

“1.–Janet Ferguson.–Being the judge’s daughter and likely to
suffer more than anyone else by the theft of the box, which
the Ferguson estate was responsible for, and being a sweet and
honest girl and incapable of stealing even a pin, Janet is beyond
suspicion.

“2.–Mrs. Ritchie.–She knew better than anyone else the value of
the box. A hard, shrewd old woman, very selfish and mean. It is
said she half starves the workmen on her farm and makes her hired
girl pay for the dishes she breaks. Her husband left her a good
deal of money, and she has made more, so she is quite rich. Never
spends anything.

“_Question_: Did Mrs. Ritchie steal her own box?

“_Answer_: She might be capable of doing it and then throwing
the blame on Toby. Her eagerness to have the box given up to
her as soon as she heard of the judge’s death looks suspicious.
On the other hand she couldn’t pick a lock to save her neck, and
it’s easy to trace her every movement from the time she drove
into town until she went home again. She afterward went to Mr.
Spaythe and bothered him until he decided to give her the box a
day earlier than he planned to give the other boxes up to their
owners. But when they went to the office and opened the cupboard,
the box was gone. She nearly had a fit and called Mr. Spaythe a
thief to his face. Don’t think she is clever enough to assume all
that. She afterward went to Lawyer Kellogg, whom she hates, and
employed him to help her find the thief. If she had stolen the
box herself she wouldn’t have done that. She’d have kept quiet
and obliged the Fergusons to make good any loss she claimed.
Considering all this, I don’t believe that Mrs. Ritchie stole her
own box.

“3.–Mr. Spaythe.–A rich man who likes to make more money. Gets
all the interest he can and doesn’t spend much. Pays his son Eric
a mighty small salary; people say it’s because he’s so stingy.
He was Judge Ferguson’s best friend. Stern and severe to most
people. His own son fears him.

“_Question_: Did Mr. Spaythe steal Mrs. Ritchie’s box?

“_Answer_: He had the keys and could have done so. We’re not
sure the box was taken the day after the judge’s death; it might
have been several days later. It is astonishing that Mr. Spaythe
at once defended Toby; was much excited over his arrest; put
himself out to go to Bayport to give five thousand dollars bail,
and then took Toby into his own home. Mr. Spaythe isn’t usually
charitable or considerate of others; he has known Toby Clark for
years and has never taken any interest in him till now. Why has
he changed so suddenly? Is it because he himself stole the box
but doesn’t want an innocent boy to suffer for it? No answer just
now. Better watch Mr. Spaythe. He’s the biggest man around here
and considered very honorable. Always keeps his word religiously.
Is trusted with everyone’s money. Can I suspect such a man? Yes.
Somebody stole that box. I’ll put Mr. Spaythe under suspicion.

“4.–Will Chandler.–A prominent citizen, postmaster for a good
many years and generally liked. Under bonds to the post-office
department, so he has to be honest. No Chandler has ever done
anything wrong.

“_Question_: Did Will Chandler steal the box?




“_Answer_: Not likely. He could have done so, but the same chance
has existed for a long time, as far as Chandler is concerned,
for the judge trusted him with his key. This key always hung on
a peg just inside the post-office window, where the judge could
reach it from the outside without bothering Chandler; but very
few people knew that and either Will or his daughter Hazel always
had the key in plain sight. Chandler had learned that there was
money in Mrs. Ritchie’s box. He may have been suddenly tempted.
Better put him under suspicion.

“5.–John Holbrook.–Absolutely unknown here. No record of his
past. Is a lawyer and has a certificate to practice in this
state. Dresses extravagantly, lives at the hotel and claims to be
too poor to hire a clerk.

“_Question_: Did he steal Mrs. Ritchie’s box?

“_Answer_: This man, having little or no money, was audacious
enough to open a law office here–‘on his nerve,’ Don would say.
Boldness is therefore a trait in his character. He suddenly
learned, from the woman herself, that there was considerable
money in her box. He told Toby not to give it up, which was quite
right and good advice. But he had all that night to work in. Had
been in the office–left alone there–and if he was observing
had noticed that the locks of the door and of the cupboard were
not hard to pick. Says he knows a lot about criminal practices
and so he might have taken a wax impression of the keyholes and
made keys to fit them. I’ve read of such things being done.
Holbrook might have hidden the box in Toby’s rubbish heap and put
the papers in his room without knowing who lived in the shanty.
Was evidently disturbed by the news of Toby’s arrest. Took his
case, but hasn’t done a single thing to clear up the mystery.
Didn’t want a detective to come here. Why? Easy to guess, if Mr.
Holbrook is guilty. All his acts are strongly suspicious. Keep a
sharp eye on him.

“6.–Joe Griggs, the carpenter.–Harmless old man, who doesn’t
care for money. Handy with tools and could pick a lock, but
wouldn’t have any desire to do so. Likes Toby and wouldn’t have
any object in hurting him; careless about money; is always poor
and contented. Joe Griggs could have stolen that box but I’ll bet
anything he didn’t.

“7.–Mrs. Miller.–A woman who bears a doubtful character. Is
deaf and dumb, but quick-witted. Her husband a drunkard and she
supports the family by washing and cleaning. May have known there
was money in Mrs. Ritchie’s box and wouldn’t be above stealing
it. But how could she? It would be like her to hide the box and
papers on Toby’s premises, to divert suspicion from herself. None
can tell what an unscrupulous woman like Mrs. Miller might not
do, if she set about it. Suspicious.

“8.–Sam Parsons.–Constable. That means the sole policeman and
officer of the law in Riverdale. Not very well educated but quite
intelligent and a terror to evil-doers. Sam is very kind hearted;
is married and has a happy wife and three children. Great friend
of Judge Ferguson and Toby Clark. Plays chess nearly every Monday
night with Will Chandler. Everybody likes Sam except the hoodlums.

“_Question_: Did Sam Parsons steal Mrs. Ritchie’s box?

“_Answer_: Seems as if one might as well suspect the law itself,
or the judge and the court and the Constitution of the United
States. But somebody stole that box and Sam Parsons was twice
seen in a compromising position. It was underhanded to peek
through the keyhole of the office door; and what was he doing,
standing with his back to it, when it was locked and no one
inside? This is the strongest clew I have found in the case, and
the hardest to follow. Either Sam did it, or he knows something
about the theft of the box; but in either case he has kept mum.
Why did he arrest Toby and put him in jail, never saying a word
in protest or defense, if he knew who really took the box? Sam
is fond of Toby and from the first said he was innocent. But
he has never hinted that he knows the guilty party. There’s a
possibility that Sam stole the box himself. I take it that a
constable is human, like other folks. Therefore I’ll watch Sam
Parsons.”

Phoebe now reread what she had written and nodded approval. It occurred
to her that her reasoning was very logical and entirely without
personal bias.

“I’ve made a beginning, at least,” she murmured. “I’ve narrowed down
the possible thieves to just five people: Mr. Spaythe, Will Chandler,
Mr. Holbrook, Mrs. Miller and Sam Parsons. I am positive that one of
these five is guilty, but without more evidence I can’t even guess
which it is. I believe I’ll go and report progress to the Little
Mother, my fellow conspirator.”

Judith greeted the girl with her usual affectionate smile.

“Well, Miss Conspirator,” she said playfully, “what news?”

“I’ve accomplished something, I believe,” returned Phoebe with an air
of satisfaction. “Here are my present conclusions, all written out.”

Before she read the paper, however, she related to Judith her visit to
Toby Clark and to Will Chandler. Then, slowly and deliberately, she
began to read.

Judith listened in some surprise, for she was astonished by the girl’s
shrewdness in analyzing human character. Phoebe had struggled to
be perfectly unprejudiced and impersonal in jotting down her items,
but more than once the Little Mother had to repress a smile at some
inconsistent hypothesis. Yet there was cleverness and a degree of logic
in the entire summary.

“You see,” concluded the girl, folding the paper carefully for future
reference, “we must seek the criminal among these five persons.”

“Why, dear?”

“Because, being aware of Judge Ferguson’s life and habits and of about
all that goes on in this village, I find them the only ones who knew of
the box, were able to get hold of it, or might for some reason or other
be tempted to steal it. Don’t you agree with me, Cousin Judith?”

“Not entirely, Phoebe. I do not think any stretch of the imagination
could connect Mr. Spaythe with the crime, or even Will Chandler. From
their very natures, their antecedents and standing in Riverdale, such a
connection is impossible.”

“Improbable, I admit, Cousin; but nothing is impossible.”

“On the other hand,” continued Judith, “you have a strong argument in
favor of suspecting Mr. Holbrook. I myself have thought of him as the
possible perpetrator of the crime, but have been almost ashamed to
harbor such a thought. I have never seen the man, you know; but I wish
we knew something of his past history.”

“How about Mrs. Miller?”

“I agree with you that she might be capable of the theft, but do not
see how she could accomplish it.”

“And Sam Parsons?”

“There, I think, you have unearthed a real clew, but not one leading
to Sam’s identity with the thief. The constable is absolutely honest;
but he is a clever fellow, for all he seems so slow and easy, and he is
the nearest approach to a detective we have in town. My idea is that
Sam was suspicious that some one intended to rob the judge’s office,
and was hanging around to prevent it or to discover the thief. We may
conclude that he failed to do either, for had he known who took the box
he would have denounced and arrested him. It may be that Sam has some
hint of the truth and is lying in wait for the burglar. Why don’t you
have a talk with him, Phoebe, and try to discover how much he knows?”

“I think I shall,” said the girl, musing over this suggestion.

“And bear in mind the fact that the box might have been taken by some
person you have not yet thought of in this connection. You’ve made
progress, my dear–extraordinary progress–but, after all, you may be
far from the truth in your deductions.”

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