HOW PHOEBE SURPRISED A SECRET

While Phoebe freely applauded the generous efforts of the children on
behalf of Toby Clark, she realized that it would require something more
than Marching Clubs to save the boy from prison.

According to Sam Parsons, Toby ought to go to prison, as a scapegoat
for others; but Phoebe could not reconcile herself to the decree of so
dreadful a fate for a helpless and innocent waif–just because he had
no near relatives to grieve over his sacrifice.

She had promised Sam not to tell his secret, unless by telling it she
could save Toby, yet after much earnest thought she decided to relate
an abstract case to Cousin Judith and ask her advice. So, outlining
just how much she dared say and still be true to her promise, she went
one afternoon to the Little Mother’s room, taking her sewing with her,
and while Judith painted, Phoebe led the conversation toward Toby Clark.

“I’m afraid,” she remarked, after pursuing the subject for a time,
“that we’re not helping Toby as energetically as we ought. No one
seems so much interested as we are, for neither Mr. Spaythe nor Lawyer
Holbrook appear to be doing anything to find the real criminal. If
things jog along this way, December will soon arrive and Toby will be
tried and convicted before we realize it.”

“True,” said Judith. “I can’t account for the seeming inactivity of Mr.
Holbrook and Mr. Spaythe; yet it may be all seeming, Phoebe. Have you
conceived any idea on the subject?”

“I’ve speculated about it, of course. Suppose, Cousin, these men should
not wish to discover the real criminal. Suppose they know who took
the box, but want to shield the guilty one from disgrace, and so are
willing to let Toby suffer?”

“Why, Phoebe, what a queer notion that is!”

“But it isn’t impossible, is it? Suppose one with many friends and
relatives–a prominent and respectable person, you know–in a moment
of weakness stole Mrs. Ritchie’s box. To save that person from the
consequences, false evidence against Toby was manufactured. We know it
is false evidence if Toby is innocent. Wouldn’t those in the secret
think it better to let a poor and friendless boy suffer the disgrace
and the prison sentence, rather than denounce one whose disgrace would
drag down many others?”

Judith looked at her with a startled expression.

“Really, my dear, you may possibly have stumbled upon the truth,” she
said slowly. “That is quite a reasonable hypothesis. How did you happen
to think of it?”

Phoebe flushed at the necessity of dissimulating.

“Some one is guilty,” she replied evasively, “and there seems to be a
conspiracy to defend the guilty one from discovery. But would it be
right and just for them to do that, Cousin Judith? Would it be honest
to let an innocent boy suffer for another’s crime?”

Judith reflected before answering.

“I think not,” she said. “Certainly not unless the innocent one
willingly and voluntarily undertook to shield the guilty. There have
been such instances of generous self-sacrifice, which all the world has
applauded; but to condemn the innocent without his knowledge or consent
seems to me as great a crime as the theft of the box–even a greater
crime.”

“That is exactly how it seems to me!” cried Phoebe eagerly. “If I knew
of such a thing, Cousin, and was able to foil the plot, would I be
justified in doing so?”

The Little Mother looked at the girl thoughtfully.

“I suppose, Phoebe, that you have discovered something that warrants
this suspicion, but are not ready to confide in me wholly at the
present time,” she said.

“I’m so sorry, Cousin Judith; but—-”

“Never mind. I am not offended, Phoebe. I know your frank and true
nature and can trust you to do right, as you see the right. But move
cautiously in this matter, my dear. Study the arguments on both sides
of the question very carefully; then boldly follow the dictates of your
heart. Without knowing more than I do of the matter, I should consider
two courses of action open to you–if, indeed, you prove to be right in
your surmise. One is to let Toby himself decide.”

“Oh; but that would settle it at once!” exclaimed Phoebe. “Toby is
generous to a fault and, although he is proud, he keenly realizes his
humble position. To ask him to suffer that another might be saved would
be the same as thrusting him into prison. I know he wouldn’t refuse;
and you know it, too, Cousin Judith.”

“Yet under some conditions it might be best, even then,” asserted
Judith. “Best, I mean, from a politic point of view. But that would
depend largely on who the guilty person is. The other alternative is
to obtain proof against the real criminal, of a character sufficient
to clear Toby, and then let the punishment fall where it belongs,
regardless of consequences. That would be strict justice, for those who
err should alone pay the penalty.”

“How about the friends who would share the disgrace?”

“That should prevent one from committing a fault, but once the fault is
perpetrated it is no argument for mercy. Nor do I think that anyone is
really disgraced because a friend or relative does wrong. People never
condemn a woman because her husband is a drunkard; rather do they pity
her. Nor is a relative properly held responsible for one’s crime. It is
true that the taint of crime and prison attaches–unjustly–to one’s
children and frequently ruins their lives, for many believe in heredity
of disposition. Such belief is, in my opinion, erroneous.”

“Suppose the guilty one fell in a moment of weakness and is now
sincerely sorry?” suggested Phoebe.

“The more reason he should bravely bear whatever punishment the law
provides. Really, Phoebe, in the abstract I can see but one way to look
at this thing. There may be exceptional circumstances that would induce
us to sacrifice Toby Clark to avoid a greater evil; but such an act
would not be just; it could only claim policy as its excuse.”

Cousin Judith’s ideas coincided with those of Phoebe. The girl tried
to argue on the side of Sam Parsons, but could not convince herself
that he was right. Sam doubtless believed he was acting nobly and
generously, and he knew more than did Phoebe about the case, but she
resented injustice in any form and finally determined to sift the
affair to the bottom, if possible, and save Toby at any cost. Was not
his good name as precious to him as her own was to herself? What right
had anyone to destroy it, that some weak offender of the law might
escape?

Having once firmly decided her course of action, Phoebe resumed
her careful, painstaking methods of deduction, such as she had
formerly employed. In the light of her latest information many of her
conclusions must be modified. Mr. Spaythe was not the guilty one,
assuredly, for he had but one relation, his son Eric, and no close
friends since the death of Judge Ferguson. Mr. Holbrook was such an
utter stranger to Riverdale that Sam Parsons’ clemency could not
apply to him. Will Chandler was the next on the list; a man of large
family, a postmaster by the grace of the president of the United States
himself, one of the village council, a highly respected citizen, a
leading churchman and a warm personal friend of the constable. Both
Sam Parsons and Will Chandler were officers of the local lodge–an
argument that Phoebe did not appreciate the importance of. But it was
impossible to suspect Will Chandler. Had his nature been weak enough to
succumb to temptation, he might have robbed the post office at any time
during the past twenty years of sums far greater than that contained
in Mrs. Ritchie’s box. Mrs. Miller, the charwoman, was a person of so
little reputation that Sam would never think of shielding her had she
stolen the box.

There remained, then, of all Phoebe’s list of suspects, only Sam
Parsons himself. If he had stolen the box–which she had discovered
in his possession–the arguments he had advanced to induce her to
keep silent would be just such as might be expected from a shrewd but
uncultured man.

Yet Phoebe’s knowledge of character was sufficient to induce her
instantly to abandon any thought of connecting the constable with the
crime. It was absolutely impossible for Sam Parsons to be guilty of the
theft of money. She knew that intuitively. The man was an honest man,
if honest men exist.

Phoebe soon came to realize that she must seek the guilty party outside
the circle of probabilities she had formerly outlined. She knew, at
least by sight and reputation, practically every inhabitant of the
village. So she began to consider which one might have an object in
taking the money, which one was a member of a large and respectable
family, and which was weak enough in character to yield to sudden
temptation. Sam had hinted at an unexpected chance to rifle the box,
which chance had furnished the temptation resulting in the theft; but
Phoebe knew nothing of such a sudden opportunity and, after puzzling
her brain for several days over the problem, she decided to start out
and attempt to secure some additional information which, in view of her
recent discoveries, might guide her to the truth.

Many girls develop a native talent for unraveling mysteries and,
both in modern journalism and in secret service, women have proved
themselves more intelligent investigators than men. There was nothing
abnormal in Phoebe Daring’s desire to discover the truth underlying the
complex plot of which Toby Clark seemed the innocent victim. She was
sufficiently interested in the unfortunate boy to have a sincere desire
to assist him, and she furthermore felt under deep obligations to Toby
for his past services to her family, at a time when the Darings were
in much trouble. It was her bounden duty, she considered, to save him
if she could, for his interests seemed to be sadly neglected by those
who should have strained every effort in his behalf. So she constituted
herself his champion and the disappointments and rebuffs she met with
only made her the more determined to persevere. In a little town like
Riverdale she could go and come without comment and, as a matter of
fact, the young girl’s investigations were conducted very quietly and
secretly. No one but Cousin Judith was in her secret; even the children
had no idea that Phoebe was “playing detective” in Toby’s interest. She
might have to be a little more bold and aggressive than before, if she
was to succeed, but she felt that tact and a cool head would carry her
through any emergency and these qualities she believed she possessed.




It would be useless to deny the fascination inherent in the task
of solving a mystery such as this and although Phoebe Daring had
sufficient reasons for undertaking it she became so intensely
interested that the desire to succeed often overshadowed her primary
object to help Toby Clark.

For one thing, she was anxious to know why Mr. Holbrook had shown so
little interest in clearing his client of the accusation against him.
The young lawyer scarcely knew Toby Clark and could not be personally
inimical to his interests; so she determined to interview him again.

This time she induced Nathalie Cameron to accompany her. Nathalie was
one of Toby’s strongest sympathizers and without letting her suspect
her real purpose Phoebe frankly told her friend that she wanted to
bring Mr. Holbrook to book for not being more strenuous in the defense
of his client.

The girls found the lawyer in his office and he received them with his
usual polite deference.

“I’d like to know,” said Phoebe, “what your plans are for destroying
the evidence against Toby, at the coming trial.”

The young man smiled and then looked grave. He saw that the girl was
quite serious and, unwarranted as her interference might be, her
position in Riverdale was sufficiently important to render it impolitic
to deny her an answer.

“There is little we lawyers can do, in such a peculiar case as this,
in advance of the trial,” said he. “I have selected a number of
witnesses whom I shall call to testify to young Clark’s fine record
and his good standing in the community. But I count largely on the
cross-examinations of the witnesses for the prosecution, and I shall
appeal to the jury not to condemn a man on circumstantial evidence,
which is so often misleading.”

“Then you are unable to disprove the evidence?” asked Phoebe
indignantly.

“There is no way to do that, I fear. The incriminating box, for
instance, was found on Toby Clark’s premises.”

“Are you sure of that?” she inquired.

“We can’t deny it. The regular officers of the law discovered it, where
it was hidden. We can, and shall, deny that the accused placed it
there, and–”

“And also we shall deny that it was Mrs. Ritchie’s box,” she added.

He stared at her, not understanding.

“I will give you a hint, to assist you,” she continued. “Ask them to
prove it was Mrs. Ritchie’s box they found.”

“Why, it had her name painted on the end,” said Holbrook.

“I know that. I believe I could myself paint a name on a tin box, such
as the hardware store keeps in stock for Judge Ferguson and Mr. Kellogg
to use when they required them.”

“Kellogg?” he asked thoughtfully.

“Yes; he uses the same kind of boxes for valuable papers that Judge
Ferguson did. But none of the locks of those boxes are ever duplicated;
the keys are all different. At the trial, if you ask Mrs. Ritchie to
produce her key, which must match the key kept by Judge Ferguson and
now in the possession of Mr. Spaythe, you will find it will not fit
the lock of the box discovered in Toby Clark’s back yard.”

Mr. Holbrook leaped from his chair and paced up and down the room,
evidently excited.

“Good!” he cried. “Excellent, Miss Daring. That is exactly the kind
of information I have been seeking–something that will disprove the
evidence. But are you sure of your statement?”

“I have seen the genuine box,” said Phoebe quietly.

“Since it was stolen?”

“Yes.”

He sat down again and glanced into her face curiously.

“Yet you do not care to say where you have seen it?” he asked in a
hesitating voice.

“No, sir.”

Mr. Holbrook drew a long sigh, as of relief.

“You are quite right to keep the secret,” he asserted firmly. Then,
after a moment, he added in a low tone: “Has she told you everything,
then?”

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