from American Girl
The Thirty-Nine Dimes Mystery
by Ellis Parker Butler
The book we were reading was The Mystery of Hedge Hill. I had just read a chapter aloud and handed the book to Dot Carver because we took turns, and she had begun the next chapter.
"'Detective Fell bent down and picked up a white feather from the edge of the rug. "Ah! A feather from the breast of a white pigeon!" he exclaimed --'"
Dot had got just that far when the telephone rang and she jumped up and went to answer it. We were having a meeting of our Detective Club at Dot's house, and we had no crimes to detect so we were reading a detective mystery. We three girls -- Betty Bliss and Dot and I -- had got up the Detective Club because we thought girls could detect as well as anybody, and we called ourselves The Tenth Street Yard because that was as near as we could come to Scotland Yard, the famous London detective headquarters. We all lived on Tenth Street.
At first Dick Prince and Arthur Dane, the boys who live close to us on Tenth Street, laughed at us, but when we had solved a couple of mysteries they stopped guying us, and we let them be members of the Club, too. The only reason they were not with us was that Dick Prince was going downtown to buy a tennis racket, and Art Dane was going with him to pick it out. Art knew more about rackets than Dick did. Anyway, Dot came back from the telephone all excited.
"Girls," she cried, "no more reading! That was Dick Prince telephoning. A crime has been committed at his house."
"A mystery for us to solve?" I asked, jumping up.
"Well, no, Madge," Dot said, quieting down a little. "Just a crime, not a mystery, but Dick thought we'd like to know about it. He says they know who did it."
Betty was interested. "What was the crime?" she asked.
"Money was stolen," Dot said. "Four dollars, I think Dick said. Arthur Dane is over there now. The money was Dick's."
"Who stole it, did he say?" Betty Bliss asked.
"He said Sophia, their colored maid," Dot answered. Betty turned and looked at her.
"Dick said that?" she asked. "Then there is a mystery for us to solve, Dot. Sophia Backus never stole anything, and she never would. She worked for us for years and years before she went to the Princes', and she is as honest as the day is long. Come on, girls, it is time Tenth Street Yard was on the job."
"Right you are, Superintendent," I said, and we all hurried over to Dick's house. Art was in the living room and Dick led us in there and closed the door.
"I thought you'd like to hear about it," Dick said, "and I'm sorry there's no mystery to untangle, but there isn't. Sophia took the money. She's as good as said so."
"What did she say?" asked Betty Bliss, looking thoughtful.
"Nothing," said Dick. "That's just it. She won't say a word. Father is not home -- he doesn't come home for lunch -- but Mother asked Sophia a hundred questions, and she just won't give any answer but 'I don't want to say, Mrs. Prince.' Mother asked her, 'Did you take the money?' and all she would say was, 'I don't want to say, Mrs. Prince.'"
"How much money was it?" Betty asked. "Dot said four dollars."
"Well, I called it four dollars," Dick answered. "It was four dollars, but I took out a dime a couple of days ago, so it was really three dollars and ninety cents. It was my dimes -- the dimes I had been collecting."
"Oh, I know!" I said. "The collection of dimes of all different dates that you were making a couple of years ago. You showed them to Dot and me once, don't you remember?"
"That's right," Dick said. "I got an 1893 dime once, and I thought I would see if I could get all the dates, and I did -- from 1893 for forty years, until I quit collecting."
"When did you quit collecting?" Betty asked him.
"A couple of years ago," Dick said. "I just forgot to keep on."
"Well, Inspector," Betty Bliss announced, for she called us all that when we were working on a mystery, "I can't believe that Sophia committed this crime."
"She's been pretty hard up for money," Dick told us. "With her husband bedridden and all, she has been asking Mother to advance money on her wages. And Mother did let her have all she could spare."
Betty Bliss did not pay much attention to this.
"Where was the money?" she asked.
"I always kept it in a pigeonhole in my desk, up in my room," Dick told her. "A couple of days ago I needed a dime, and I got out the box and took one from it. I left the box on top of my desk. It was there yesterday morning; I remember seeing it."
"Was it there last night?" Betty asked.
"I didn't notice," Dick said. "Yesterday Mother and Father and I drove up to Jeffersonville to see Aunt Jennie, and it was almost midnight when we got home, and I piled into bed without noticing much of anything."
"And when did you know the money was gone?" Betty enquired. "Did you just find it out?"
"About an hour ago. I was going to buy a tennis racket and I did not have enough money so I was going to use those dimes. Art came over, and he and I went up to my room, and the money was gone. We looked everywhere, but no money."
"And what did you do then?" Superintendent Bliss spoke in her most Scotland Yard way, just like in detective stories.
"I told Mother and she looked, and then she asked Sophia, and I'll say that Sophia looked guilty. She would not say a thing. She hemmed and hawed and all she would say was 'I don't want to say, Mrs. Prince.'"
"She acted guilty, all right," said Art Dane. "I was there."
"Have you looked among Sophia's things?" Betty enquired, after a moment.
"No, I don't believe Mother would do that until Father came home," Dick said. "It would not be hard to hide the box, anyway. It was a small box."
"What kind of box was it?" asked Betty.
"Sherlock Holmes on the job, aren't you?" laughed Dick. "It was a cigar box -- a Keno Little Cigars box. About so big -- just big enough to hold forty dimes, with some cotton to keep them bright."
"Dick Prince," I said, "have you been smoking little cigars?" -- for Keno Little Cigars are about the size of cigarettes, and I don't like boys who smoke.
"No, I haven't, Madge," Dick answered seriously, because he does like me pretty well. "It's the kind my father smokes; I used one of his empty boxes." Then he asked Betty, "Anything else, Superintendent?"
"No, Inspector," Betty told him. "We would like to look at the scene of the crime, and then I would like to question Sophia if she does not mind."
Well, I felt proud of Betty. It was just like a real detective story, the way she asked questions. Dick opened the living room door and we were just going into the hall when we saw Sophia, her hat on and all, going out of the front door.
"Where is she going?" Betty asked sharply as the front door closed behind Sophia.
"I don't know," Dick said. "She said she had to go out for half an hour or so. She asked mother if she might go."
"Madge --" said Betty. "Or no, you, Inspector Dot -- follow Sophia. Trail her carefully and don't lose sight of her. I want to know where she goes and what she does."
Well, that was scrumptious, and I wished Betty had sent me. It was the first real shadowing the Detective Club had ever done but, after all, if Betty sent me I would not be able to see the detective work she did at the house, and that was exciting, too.
When we got to the top of the stairs, on the way to Dick's room, his mother was standing there.
"Oh, Betty!" she said. "I've heard of some of the remarkable things your Detective Club has done and I do hope you can get at the truth of this, but I'm afraid you can't. I don't know whether to send for the police or not, for Sophia is acting so strangely. I don't know what to make of it, I'm sure."
"I wouldn't call in the police yet," Betty said. "You can always do that, you know, Mrs. Prince. And may I ask you something? Was Sophia here all alone yesterday?"
"Alone?" repeated Mrs. Prince, as if the question surprised her. "Why, yes, as far as I know. She was to clean my room and the living room, and wash as many windows as she could."
"How many windows did she get washed?" Betty asked.
"Why, all of them," answered Mrs. Prince. "She did them all, Betty."
"That's a good many windows to do in a day," said Betty, "in addition to cleaning two rooms and the other work, isn't it?"
"Why, yes," said Mrs. Prince hesitatingly. "Yes, it is. It's more than Sophia usually gets done. You don't mean --"
"I don't know that I mean anything," said Betty, "but I remember that when Sophia worked for us, and had windows to do, she always had her husband come and do the outsides. That was before he was bedridden, of course. Probably Sophia will tell us whether Erastus was here or not. She did not say why she wanted to go out just now, did she, Mrs. Prince?"
"No," Mrs. Prince said. "She just asked if she could go out, and I told her she could."
So Betty said we would look at Dick's room, and we went there. Betty stopped us at the door. She was in front, with Dick and Art and me just behind her. She glanced here and there, and then walked toward the desk at the far side of the room and bent down and looked closely at the floor.
"Dick," Betty asked, "do you ever smoke cigarettes?"
"Never," Dick said positively. "I never smoke anything."
"You know Erastus pretty well; does he smoke?" Betty asked.
"Cigarettes? Yes. Why?" Dick asked her.
"There are cigarette ashes here by the desk," Betty said.
"And your windows have been cleaned, inside and out. If Erastus was here yesterday helping Sophia, these ashes may be an important bit of evidence. I think, Inspector Madge,"
Betty said to me, "we are getting a little forward with this case."
"Yes, Superintendent Bliss," I answered, and Betty took an envelope from Dick's desk and scraped the cigarette ashes into it. I was tingling with a sort of pleasure to think how clever Betty was. I was glad to believe Sophia was not guilty; we all liked her.
But Betty was not through with the room. She made us search it thoroughly while she stood and watched. The bed was a single bed because only Dick slept in it. The desk stood beside the bed, and there were a bookcase and chairs. I searched every inch of the desk, every drawer and pigeonhole, but the money was not there, not a sign of it. As we were going downstairs again, Mrs. Prince came to the door of her room.
Did you discover anything?" she asked worriedly.
"I'll say so," Dick said. "Cigarette ashes on the floor. It looks as if Erastus was here yesterday, and in my room."
"Oh, dear!" exclaimed Mrs. Prince. "That is almost as bad as if Sophia had taken the money herself -- she is so proud of that boy."
Well, we went down to the living room, and Betty sent Dick and Arthur out to see if they could find a cigarette stub below any of the windows where Erastus might have dropped one, but they came back and said it was impossible to be sure -- there were bushes under most of the windows. They had not found a stub. And then Sophia came home.
She went right through the hall and up the stairs to the third floor where her room was. Dot came in almost immediately after Sophia. She was very much excited, and she closed the living room door.
"I shadowed her," Dot told us, "and I guess now you'll say she is guilty. She went to two places. First she went to the bank, and I looked through the window to see what she was doing. She gave the teller a five dollar bill and got a lot of money -- dimes, I think. Then she went into the tobacco store next door, and what do you think she bought?"
"A box of Keno Little Cigars, of course," said Betty.
"Yes. How did you ever guess it?" Dot asked.
"If she got dimes at the bank," Betty said, "of course she would want a Keno Little Cigar box to put them in. She is up in her room now, putting the dimes in the box. Before long she will come down and ask us -- or Mrs. Prince -- to please search the desk carefully again, and when we do, we will find a box of dimes there, pushed far back in a corner somewhere, or on the floor back of the desk."
"I said she was guilty!" exclaimed Dot triumphantly. "She's frightened, and wants to hide her crime."
"Not guilty, I would say," said Betty calmly. "If she stole Dick's dimes, she would have them; she could put the box back without going downtown for dimes and a box. Her actions suggest to me that she is afraid Erastus stole the dimes and that she is trying to protect him. Dick, does Sophia know your dimes were a collection of all different dates?"
"No," Dick said. "I don't think so. I just said 'My box that had forty dimes in it.'"
And, sure enough, before long Mrs. Prince called down and said, "Betty, will you come up? Sophia wants you to search the desk again." And when we went to Dick's room, Betty tried the pigeonholes, and away back in one she found a Keno Little Cigar box full of dimes. She looked at the box and opened it, and spilled out the dimes on the desk and poked them around with her finger. Then she shook her head and smiled sadly at Sophia.
"I'm sorry, Sophia," she said. "I honor you for trying to protect Erastus, but it won't do. This isn't the box because the revenue stamp on it is cancelled 'March first, 1935,' and Dick's box was at least 1933 -- perhaps older. And Dick's dimes were all different dates, none newer than 1933, and these dimes are all 1935. This is not Dick's box, and these are not Dick's dimes."
For an instant Sophia looked scared, and then she sat down on the edge of the bed and just bawled. She sobbed and said Erastus was not a thief, and that he wouldn't take even a pin that did not belong to him; and then she said we could blame her, and that she had taken the dimes, and that she had given them to Erastus. She sobbed that Mrs. Prince could send her to jail, but that Erastus was as innocent as a babe unborn.
Well, of course, nobody believed her because she was just trying to protect Erastus, but somebody rapped on the back door just then and Dick went down. He called upstairs when he had gone to the door.
"Betty," he called. "Come down here a minute, will you?" and Betty went down. It was Erastus at the back door.
"Erastus," Betty asked him as soon as he was in the kitchen, "what did you do with the money Sophia gave you yesterday?"
"Gave me?" he asked, grinning from car to ear. "She don't give me no money, Ma don't. Not yesterday noways. I got me plenty money."
"What did you do with the money you took from Dick's room yesterday, then?" Betty asked him.
"Pshaw, now, Miss Betty," Erastus said, still grinning, "I ain't took no money from nowhere, no time. I got plenty money like I say. I got a job every night settin' up pins in Betzman's bowlin' alley -- I gives money to Ma, I does. I don't know what you talkin' about."
"Have you got any money in your pocket? Let's see it," Betty said.
"Sure, I got money," Erastus grinned; and he dug into his pocket and brought out two crumpled dollar bills, and a half dollar and a dime. The dime was one of the bright new 1935 dimes of which so many were around town just then. "Two sixty," Erastus said. "An' I give Ma two dollars yesterday for to get some stuff for Pa. An' I git more, come Saturday night, when Betzman pays me. I saves plenty now 'cause I don't smoke cigarettes no more."
"You don't smoke cigarettes?" Betty asked quickly.
"No, ma'am," Erastus said. "I quit more than a month ago, and I ain't smoked none since then. I got me a cough like Pa has, an' I figger I won't smoke no more."
"You don't smoke anything at all?" Betty asked.
"No, ma'am," said Erastus. "I jess get along without tobacco."
"You didn't smoke anything yesterday?"
"Pshaw, no, Miss Betty," Erastus said. "When I quits, I quits. What you want to know for? What you ask me all this for?"
"I'll tell you before long," Betty said. "Erastus, did you help Sophia wash windows yesterday?"
"Yessum, I did so," Erastus admitted, but he was more serious now. "Right here in this house I washed windows yesterday. Miss Betty."
"You know which room is Dick's? Did you go into Dick's room?"
"Yassum, I sure did," Erastus said. "Me an' Ma was in there together. She washes inside, an' I washes outside, yassum."
"When you were in there," Betty asked, speaking slowly and never taking her eyes off Erastus's face, "did you see a box -- a Keno Little Cigar box?"
"No, ma'am," said Erastus seriously. "Leastways if I done so, I don't take no notice of it. What's the trouble, Miss Betty? Is that box done gone?"
"That's it, Erastus," Betty said. "The box is gone, and there were forty dimes in it --"
"Thirty-nine," Dick corrected her. "You know I took one out."
"Thirty-nine, then," Betty said. "Three dollars and ninety cents, Erastus. And the box was -- where did you leave it, Dick?"
"On top of the desk, I'm pretty sure," Dick said. "Yes, on top of the desk, I'd be willing to swear."
"Might have been there," Erastus said, shaking his head. "I ain't looked at that desk, far as I know. Ma, she washes the insides of them windows, and I come in an' the windows is open, so I goes right to them and sits out and washes. An' I goes right out of that room --"
"Dick," Betty said suddenly, "Sophia never took that box -- she would have seen that the dimes were old ones. And I don't believe Erastus took them. Go call Sophia -- Erastus wants to see her. Tell Dot and Madge to come down, and come to the living room yourself. I've got to think about this. There's something wrong somewhere."
So we all came down but Mrs. Prince. Sophia went to Erastus in the kitchen, still weeping, and we four sat in the living room.
"Now the question is," said Betty, "if neither Sophia nor Erastus took the money, who did? We can easily check up to be sure that Erastus does not smoke, and I believe he is telling the truth. But the cigarette ashes in Dick's room are our principal clue. How did they get there? Who was in Dick's room?"
"If we knew that, we would know just about everything, wouldn't we, Superintendent?" I could not resist asking her then.
"And I think I do know right now," said Betty. "I think another clue has been staring us in our faces all the time, but we ignored it."
"What clue?" Dick asked.
"The box itself," said Betty, "the Keno Little Cigar box. Who smokes Keno Little Cigars, Dick?"
"Why, Father does," said Dick. "I said so long ago. But Father wouldn't steal my money. That's nonsense."
"But he --" Betty began, but before she had said any more, the street door opened and Mr. Prince came into the hall. He looked into the living room and caught sight of us.
"Hello, everybody!" he said, smiling at us good-naturedly. "Having a convention?"
"We're tracing a crime," Art Dane told him.
"Good work," Mr. Prince laughed. "And, by the way, Dick, I've got something of yours. I went into your room to speak to you this morning, but you were asleep so I didn't bother you. I saw a box on your desk, and thought it was a box of my Keno Little Cigars, and slipped it into my pocket. I remember thinking it seemed pretty heavy. And," he laughed, "when I got to the office and opened it, I found it was full of dimes."
We all went to the kitchen to tell Sophia -- the whole Detective Club. She listened until we were through, and then she cried, "Praise de Lawd!" and threw her arms around Erastus and kissed him. It was a good ending.