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"The Red Hand Bag Mystery" from American Girl

by Ellis Parker Butler
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from American Girl
The Red Hand Bag Mystery
by Ellis Parker Butler

Our Detective Club was meeting that afternoon at Dot Carver's. We had a full attendance, but nothing to detect, so we were reading a mystery novel, taking turns and each reading a chapter. Dick Prince and Arthur Dane were sprawled out on the grass, and Betty Bliss and Dot Carver and I were sitting, Turk-fashion, in a sort of half circle with our feet tucked under us. Betty was reading when Mrs. Henchley came hurrying into the yard.

Mrs. Henchley was very much excited. She is a stout woman and always does get excited when there is anything to get excited about. Betty stopped reading, and Dick and Arthur got to their feet -- because, after all, they know how to behave like gentlemen, even if they do tease us girls a lot.

We were all sitting on the grass in Dot's yard when Mrs. Henchley came hurrying over to consult Betty, and gasped out a jumbled, excited story.

"My goodness!" Mrs. Henchley exclaimed, all out of breath. "I've been everywhere trying to find you." (She had been at Betty's house and at mine.) "And here you are! I've been robbed. I've heard tell that you girls can catch robbers and, land knows, I can't afford to have forty dollars taken right off my kitchen shelf. Forty dollars is forty dollars -- and right there in my red hand bag, and me, not a half hour before, standing right there making a batch of fudge for little Essie Dean's birthday -- she's four tomorrow. And I was out in the back yard no more than half an hour, and what this town is coming to, I don't know!"

She stopped to get a breath, and put her hand on her chest, gulping a big lot of air. She was going right on talking, but Betty Bliss stopped her.

"Just a minute, Mrs. Henchley," Betty said, assuming the commanding manner she always uses when she is Superintendent Bliss of Tenth Street Yard. "Do I understand you have been robbed, and want to have me and my men take the case?"

"Men, I don't know about," said Mrs. Henchley, "but I've heard of you girls; and that you should catch the thief and get my money back is just what I do mean. Forty dollars in my red hand bag, right there on the bottom shelf in my kitchen! And if you want to know who took it, I can tell you, though I don't know which. The butcher boy came, and the grocery boy came, and the iceman came, all while I was lying in my steamer chair under the apple tree in my back yard; but, if you ask me, I say it was the boy in the red sweater."

By that time we knew that Mrs. Henchley meant that someone had gone into her kitchen while she was out in her back yard, and that the person had taken her red hand bag, with forty dollars in it.

Betty Bliss was standing now.

"Inspector Prince," she said to Dick, handing him the book we had been reading, "put this book on Inspector Carver's porch. Mrs. Henchley, we will do our best to solve this crime. What do you mean by the boy in the red sweater?"

"Well, Miss --" Mrs. Henchley began.

"Superintendent Bliss, if you please, while we are on the job," said Betty politely but firmly.

"Well, Superintendent Bliss," said Mrs. Henchley, "I was in my back yard, like I said; and I got cooled off and came around the house; and I didn't know yet that my money was gone -- my purse with my money in it -- but I did see, across the street, a tall boy in a red sweater. 'Now who is that boy?' I said to myself. 'I don't know that boy." He was walking away, toward the corner. So just then he looked around, over his shoulder, and he saw me -- and the minute he saw me he began to run. He ran to the corner and went around it, and that's the last I saw of him."

"You didn't see whether he had your bag?" asked Dot.

"You will let me conduct the enquiries, please, Inspector Carver," Betty said. "You may answer, Mrs. Henchley."

"Whether he had it, or not, I don't know," said Mrs. Henchley. "Little did I dream then, not having got to the kitchen, that money and a hand bag had been stolen from me! And if he had it, he would not have held it in plain view. He would have tucked it under his sweater, wouldn't he?"

"Probably," admitted Betty. "Now, just what shade of red was the sweater?"

"Shade?" asked Mrs. Henchley. "You mean what color of red?"

"Was it light red, or dark red?" asked Berry. "Was it brick red, or rose red, or a maroon red?"

"It was red," stated Mrs. Henchley positively. "The reddest kind of red. Red like red flannel. Bright red, like a canna, or a geranium. Even redder than that."

"Did you notice," asked Betty, "whether or not there was a hole in the sweater, about as big as my fist, in the back just under the right shoulder?"

"Did I notice?" said Mrs. Henchley. "No, I did not. Why should I? I just thought 'I don't know that boy.' Like anyone would. I wasn't thinking anything about holes in sweaters."

"Did he have a hat on, or a cap?" Betty asked.

"Now, wait!" said Mrs. Henchley. "Let me think. No, he did not have a hat on. Nor a cap, either. He had dark hair and a good deal of it."

"Dark hair," repeated Betty. "And about how old would you say he was, Mrs. Henchley?"

"Sixteen, or seventeen. Like a high school boy. He had long pants on -- I'm pretty sure of that, anyway."

"Light colored pants?" asked Dick Prince, and then said, "I beg your pardon, Superintendent Bliss."

"You may answer, Mrs. Henchley," Betty said.

"Yes," said Mrs. Henchley, after she had thought for a moment. "Yes, I would say they were light colored."

Betty looked at Dick, raising her eyebrows. It was plain they thought they knew who the boy in the sweater was.

"Blister Fernigan?" she asked.

"It sounds like him," Dick answered. "If the sweater had a hole in the back it would be Blister Fernigan. But I never thought Blister Fernigan would steal anything. They're poor, but I always thought they were honest."

"So I supposed," agreed Betty. "But in a case like this we must not neglect any clue. Why did he run when he saw Mrs. Henchley? Inspector Dane, and you, Inspector Prince, will go at once and try to find Blister Fernigan. Try to learn where he was when this crime was committed. Report to me at Mrs. Henchley's. We will now proceed to the scene of the crime."

Betty Bliss walked with Mrs. Henchley, but Dot and I were close behind. Dick and Art, of course, had hurried off to see if they could find Blister Fernigan, and I knew why Betty had sent them -- we girls couldn't very well go to him and ask the questions that needed to be asked, but Art and Dick could.

I was pretty sure that it must have been Blister Fernigan. Mrs. Henchley's description of the boy sounded like him -- and there were so many people that needed money! I knew how poor the Fernigans were. But Betty was no one to make up her mind without being pretty sure.

"I think now," she said to Mrs. Henchley, as we went along toward the house, "you had better tell us as much as you can about what happened. You say the butcher boy and the grocery boy and the iceman came to the house while you were in the back yard?"

"Yes, Miss -- yes, Superintendent," said Mrs. Henchley. "Like they always do when I'm upstairs, or out in the yard, they went right into the kitchen."

"You saw them go in?" Betty asked.

"No, I didn't see them. I was in my steamer chair, like I said, out there in the back yard under the apple tree, and the back of the chair was toward the house. I didn't see them."

"How do you know they were in the kitchen?"

"Easy enough," said Mrs. Henchley. "They hadn't come when I went out of the house, and when I went in again, the new chunk of ice was in the refrigerator, and the meat and the groceries were on the kitchen table, where those boys always put them. The first thing I did was put the meat in the refrigerator, and then I went to the shelf to see if the fudge was hardening. It wasn't. I'm not much of a fudge maker, that's the truth. And then I saw that my hand bag was gone from that same shelf."

"You couldn't have put it somewhere else?" asked Betty. "You couldn't have taken it into another room before you went outdoors?"

"Indeed, I did not!" declared Mrs. Henchley positively. "I know it was there on the shelf. And I know it because I opened it and took out a handkerchief, just before I went into the yard. This handkerchief," she said triumphantly, holding it up.

"I see," said Betty. "And when you went out to the yard, Mrs. Henchley, you left the back door unlocked, of course."

"Oh, the back door!" Mrs. Henchley exclaimed. "Certainly I left it unlocked. I always do leave it so the delivery boys can get in, but there's no lock on it. There's a bolt, inside. I bolt it at night. But I didn't go out by the back door. I went out the front door."

I did not know what Betty was trying to get at, but I knew she must be trying to get at something, if only a clear picture of what Mrs. Henchley had done. Dot and I stepped closer so that we could hear everything Mrs. Henchley said.

"You went out by the front door?" Betty asked.

"And around the house to the back," Mrs. Henchley explained. "And the reason was that I hang out a sign that says 'ICE' when I want Morosini to leave ice. So I went out the front way and hung up the sign, and just went around the house and out to the chair under the apple tree to cool off after making the fudge."

"And came back the same way," suggested Betty. "To take down the ice sign, I suppose?"

"No," answered Mrs. Henchley. "I didn't know then that the iceman had been. The sign is still hanging there, I guess. I just remembered I hadn't locked the front door, and I like to look at my flowers at the side of the house, now and then, so I came around to the front."

"So the front door was not locked, and the back door was not bolted," said Betty. "That made it rather easy for whoever took your hand bag -- if it was taken -- didn't it Mrs. Henchley?"

"Well --" said Mrs. Henchley, as if she was now a little ashamed of leaving the house so wide open, "well, I've never been robbed before. I've left that house open, day after day, and year after year, and never a thing has been taken. Not a pin! Maybe I'm too trusting, but I did think folks in this town were honest."

By this time we had reached Mrs. Henchley's house, and we all looked at it for it was the scene of the crime. It was a pretty little house, white with green shutters, and no fence. There was a low hedge, not much more than knee high and neatly trimmed. On the sunny side of the house was a flower bed and a neat gravel path, and that was the way Mrs. Henchley had gone to the back yard and come back again.

"Where were you when you saw the boy in the red sweater?" Betty Bliss asked when we were in the yard. Mrs. Henchley went to the corner of the house.

"Right here," she said. "I stopped to look at those giant double petunias, and took a couple of steps that brought me to here, and I looked across the sheet. I suppose the bright red of the sweater caught my eye. The boy was about where that telephone pole is, and he was walking. He looked over his shoulder and saw me, and began to run. That's the corner he went around."

"Yes, I think I understand all that now," Betty said. "Now about the others, Mrs. Henchley. The iceman -- you said he was Morosini. Do you know anything about him? Do you think he would take a hand bag?"

"I don't know," said Mrs. Henchley, somewhat distressed. "You see he's not Joe Morosini, the one I've always got ice from. This is a new man, Joe's cousin, and Joe hired him only a couple of weeks ago. He came from -- I don't remember where Joe said he came from. I don't know anything about him except that he is good looking and always smiling. He's very pleasant and always wipes his feet before he comes into the kitchen. I thought he was all right."

"And the others?" asked Betty. "The butcher boy and the grocery boy?"

"There!" said Mrs. Henchley, even more distressed. "I hate to think evil of any boys, but what do I know? I don't know anything at all about them, except that one's name is Jim. That's the grocery boy, from Henson's store. The other, I don't even know his name. He's from Schmidt, the butcher."

"A red-haired boy?" I asked.

"Yes, very red-headed. That's the boy!" said Mrs. Henchley.

"That's Mike Dooley, Superintendent," I told Betty. "He brings the meat to our house. He's a fresh kid, but I wouldn't think he'd steal."

"You don't either of you know this Jim from Henson's, do you?" Betty asked us, but we did not know him.

"Well, Inspectors," she went on, "this looks like a very difficult case. So far there isn't a clue that amounts to a thing, and any of the four persons Mrs. Henchley has told us about might be the criminal. In fact, Inspectors, almost anyone might be the criminal. For half an hour both doors of the house were open, with no one to watch them. Anyone could have come in. Anyone could have taken the red hand bag. We will have to be up on our toes, Inspectors."

"Had I better get the police?" asked Mrs. Henchley anxiously.

"You may have to," said Betty. "But we haven't yet seen the actual scene of the crime. There may be a clue there."

When Mrs. Henchley led us into the kitchen -- she locked the front door carefully this time, you may be sure -- I couldn't see anything that looked like even a sign of a clue. The kitchen was spotlessly clean, with linoleum on the floor and not a single trace of a footprint on the linoleum.

"There's nothing here," I said when I had glanced around, and Dot shook her head and said, "Not a thing!" But Betty said nothing. She stood a few feet away from the shelves and looked at them, glancing up and down, with her mouth pursed as it always is when she is taking things in with her eyes. And then I bent forward and down because a tiny little "Meow!" had come from a wastebasket under the shelf on which Mrs. Henchley's hand bag had been lying.

"Oh, the darling little kitten!" I cried, but just as I was about to pick the kitten out of the basket, Betty grasped my arm and held me back.

Just as I was about to pick up the kitten, Betty pulled me back. 'Don't touch anything!' she said sharply.

"Don't touch anything! Don't touch a thing!" she commanded.

I stepped back, of course, because one always obeys Betty when she speaks in the Superintendent Bliss voice, and Betty went a step nearer the shelf and looked here and there on it. She bent her head over the wide, flat pan of fudge on the shelf and just touched it with her finger, and then she looked down at the kitten in the wastebasket and frowned.

"That makes a queer little coop for the kitten, Mrs. Henchley," she said. "Do you always keep it in this wastebasket?"

"Why, not to say always," said Mrs. Henchley, going to Betty's side and looking down into the basket at the kitten. "I put it there today when I went out to the yard. I just got that kitten today -- this morning -- and when I went out I dropped it into the basket there, so it would not be wandering around."

"And a good place for it," said Betty. "It can't climb out of that basket."

"No, indeed," agreed Mrs. Henchley. "The little thing hasn't strength enough for that yet."

It was a lovely little kitten, and it might be called either a white kitten with gray markings, or a gray kitten with white markings. It had a white face with clear gray eyes, and the whites of its eyes were blue-white. It was just about the cleanest looking kitten I had ever seen, and very young -- just old enough to leave its mother, and not much older than that.

"It is a little darling," I said. I longed to take it in my arms and pet it, but, of course, I did not do that when Betty had said to keep away from it. I guessed that Betty thought the kitten was some sort of clue, but I couldn't see what the kitten could have had to do with the taking of the red hand bag.

Just then Dick and Arthur came. Mrs. Henchley had locked the front door -- people always do after things have been stolen -- and Dick and Art rang the bell, and Mrs. Henchley went to let them in.

The two boys were hot and red-faced from running, and Dick told their news as soon as they were in the kitchen.

"It was Blister Fernigan that Mrs. Henchley saw," he said, "and I don't believe he had anything to do with the hand bag. He was across the street here, but he did not see Mrs. Henchley. When he looked in her direction he looked high above her head, looking at the clock in the Town Hall tower -- and when he saw the time he ran. He had promised his mother to be home by then."

"Even so," Arthur began, "we may be wrong. We can't prove that Blister was not in this house --"

"It does not matter, Inspectors," Betty Bliss said. "Thanks for your work, but the mystery of the red hand bag is solved, I believe. You can recover the hand bag and the money, Mrs. Henchley. In fact," Betty smiled, "I believe it will be returned to you. You haven't taken the kitten out of this basket since you put it there, before you went out to sit under the apple tree, have you?"

"Indeed not," said Mrs. Henchley. "I was so excited, when I came in and found the hand bag gone, that I ran right out of the house."

Betty turned to Dot. "Now, Inspector," she said, "what is this under the bottom shelf?"

"It is a box, Superintendent Bliss," Dot answered. "It is a box with potatoes in it."

"Exactly," said Betty. "And extending out from under the shelf a little, like a step. And what is that on the second shelf, Inspector Madge?"

"It is money," I said. "It looks like two or three bills and some change."

"It is eight dollars and thirty cents I put there to pay the iceman," said Mrs. Henchley. "A five dollar bill, and three ones, and some change."

"And now, all of you," said Betty, "look at this pan of fudge. You notice that it is away off to one side on the shelf, out of even my reach when I stand here. What Jo you see in the fudge?"

"Why, marks of kitten paws!" cried Dot. "The kitten must have walked on the fudge!"

"Exactly so," agreed Betty Bliss. "And from that, I think we can deduce who took Mrs. Henchley's red hand bag. If the thief was a man, or even a big boy, would he take time to lift the kitten out of the basket, and let it walk around on this shelf when he was stealing a hand bag?"

"No, Superintendent," I said.

"If he was here to steal, and could see that eight dollars and thirty cents there in plain sight," Betty continued, "would he leave it there? Or would he take it?"

"He would take it," Dot answered with decision.

"Just so," said Betty. "So what is the answer? Whoever entered the kitchen was interested in the kitten, and took it out of the basket, and put it on this shelf and let it walk around. The kitten walked across the pan of fudge and left its tracks. Then the criminal caught the kitten when it was within reach again, and put it back in the basket."

"Why, sure!" Art exclaimed.

"Blister Fernigan would not waste time playing with the kitten," Betty went on. "Neither would the butcher boy, or the grocery boy, or the iceman. And they, or any man thief, or woman thief, would have taken the money from the upper shelf. This thief, I think, had to stand on the potato box --"

I gave a shout.

"And was a little girl!" I cried. But, before I could say more, there was a sharp knock at the back door. When Mrs. Henchley opened the door, Mrs. Dean stood there, holding little Essie Dean by the hand, and in Essie's hand was the red hand bag. The little girl held out the hand bag.

"My mamma says I got to bring this back, and -- and -- I got to say I'm sorry. And -- and can I play with your kitty, Mis' Henchley, please?"

"She did not know it was wrong to take the hand bag, Mrs. Henchley," said Mrs. Dean, and we knew that Mrs. Henchley forgave the child, for she took her in her arms and kissed her.



Saturday, October 07 at 1:10:42am USA Central
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