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"The Third-Grade Watson" from Illustrated Detective Magazine

by Ellis Parker Butler
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from Illustrated Detective Magazine
The Third-Grade Watson
by Ellis Parker Butler

It was a cold March day. In the village of Mud Cove on Long Island the wind swept across Long Island Sound in the usually prevailing direction, from northwest to southeast, and Lotta Spotts stopped her brother as he was leaving the houseboat where they sold clams.

"You got your muffler on, Oliver?" she asked. "If you ain't, Oliver, you're liable to catch cold in your throat."

"I don't need no muffler, Lotty," said Oliver Spotts, "not with this beard on."

The bantam-like little clam-digger and near-detective referred to a large pink false beard that hung from his ears by two wires. It was part of the disguise he wore when disguised as a clam-digger, and he was wearing it now because Old Cap Cuff, owner of the Cornelius Cuff College for Detectives, had ordered his students to be present in the assembly hall of the college at ten o'clock sharp in full disguise.

"A most important case of crime has come up," Old Cap Cuff had announced to his students, among whom Oliver Spotts was a sophomore, "and the full resources of this college have been asked to solve the baffling mystery, so one and all be on hand promptly and ready to hear about it."

Unfortunately for promptitude Mr. Spotts had a bushel of clams to deliver and he was a few minutes late when he entered the assembly room of the college. Other than the beard, his disguise consisted of a pair of rubber boots, a nor'wester hat and a yellow slicker that was so long it trailed on the floor, but Old Cap Cuff knew him instantly and gave him a frown. Mr. Spotts slipped into a vacant seat and save his attention to the platform at the front of the room.

Oliver Spotts, Near-Detective Oliver Spotts, Near-Detective

On the platform stood Old Cap Cuff and behind him sat the six detective college professors, but immediately behind Old Cap Cuff sat three persons. One of these was Jed Hullins, the Chief of Police of the village of Mud Cove, another was a lady of considerable beauty of face and form but of a somewhat professional type, and the third was a man of fine physique, big chested and narrow of waist, with much of the swagger of an opera singer.

"Gentlemen," said Old Cap Cuff, addressing the fifty detective students, "this here lady is Mlle. Duflay, known to the world as owner and trainer of the world's only educated mule, Woppo, that counts, figures, says over one hundred words and sings seven tunes. To my right is Captain Jed Hullins of the Mud Cove police, and to the left is Signor -- or something -- Orlando Morez, a neighbor of Mlle. Duflay, who has come here to translate for her because she don't talk no English."

At that moment there was a slight commotion and a tall man in a black suit entered the hall and walked to the platform. Old Cap Cuff shook his hand and set a chair for him, remarking, "I thought you wasn't coming."

"And this," he said, "is Mr. Jadwin Bleeks, head of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in this here district. He will tell you about this here crime."

Mr. Bleeks arose and after putting a cough lozenge in his mouth addressed the students.

"This terrible outrage, gentlemen," he said, "has got to be punished. To punish the heartless perpetrator we have to find him -- or her. This lady owns a mule, a mule that had performed upon the stage before millions and before the crowned heads of Europe. Last Fall this mule contracted a severe case of epizootic and this lady brought the mule here for recovery. She rented the house at 786 Harbor Road and the mule has lived there peacefully, in the yard by day and in the cellar by night. Two weeks ago Mlle. Duflay awoke in the morning and went down to let the mule out and found it had been one quarter shaved."

Here Mlle. Outlay said something to the Signor Morez and he whispered it to Mr. Bleeks.

"Yes," he said. "It was the forequarter of the mule that was shaved, on the left side of the mule as you stand facing it. Nothing more happened for a week. The mule seemed uneasy and Mlle. Duflay was annoyed, and night before last the unknown miscreant again entered the cellar and shaved the rest of that side of the mule."

"What would anybody want to shave a mule for?" asked Oliver Spotts from his seat in the hall.

"Shut up, Spotts," said Old Cap Cuff severely. "That's part of the mystery."

"We do not know," said Mr. Bleeks, "unless some enemy of Mlle. Duflay wants to kill the mule by causing it to die by giving it coughs, colds, congestion of the lungs, pneumonia, et cetera. The vaudeville business has been bad and to the left of Mlle. Duflay lives Professor Januscheck, owner of the trained seals we have all heard of, and to the right of her lives Madame Brale who owns Jocko, the trained ape. It may have been professional jealousy."

"But we have searched them houses high and low," said Chief of Police Hullins, "and we ain't found one dratted clue. The police is baffled, by hecky! Yes, sir, we're baffled right up to the neck!"

"So we come to you, gentlemen," said Mr. Bleeks, "to have the mean miscreant found and that poor helpless -- although educated -- animal protected." He sat down.

"Mlle. Duflay," said Old Cap Cuff, addressing her, "I understand there was one clue. What was it?"

"It is ze safety razor by which ze mule is shave," said Signor Morez when he had repeated the question to Mlle. Duflay. "Here is ze implement," and he placed an ordinary safety razor in the hand of Old Cap Cuff."

"One safety razor of white metal, stamped 'Patented Aug. 6, 1922,'" said Old Cap Cuff, taking the razor apart. "One steel blade for same. Said razor and blade show no fingerprints. What sort of mule is this mule of yours?"

"She say it is nice mule," said Signor Morez when he had consulted Mlle. Duflay. "It is gentleman mule, from Spain, from Andalusia, of a whiteness."

"Have you seen the mule, signor?"

"Yes, I have seen," said Signor Morez. "Si, signor! I am dwelling in the immediate backwards of Mlle. Duflay, to the upwards of the hill on top of her. When I look down I see that most beautiful mule. And I look down much." He added this with a smile. "I am of hope to be marry to the lady," he explained, "if she say the one little word."

"And what's your business?" asked Old Cap Cuff.

"I am baritone," said the signor. "I make sing for opera, for concert -- beautiful music. Of the voice, so -- tra-la-la-la!"

You wouldn't try to croak your sweetie's mule, would you?

"And you wouldn't want to have the mule die?" asked Old Cap Cuff. "You wouldn't try to croak your sweetie's mule, would you?"

"Ah!" cried the signor, pressing his hands to his heart. "If those mule die I am breaked-heart! I have give Mlle. Duflay the syrup of the cough, the cure of the cold, the ointment for the rub! I have bring the Dr. Murch for those mule. I -- even I, the great Morez -- have rub those dear mule with those liniment."

It was evident that the signor meant what he said, and Mlle. Duflay -- although she could not understand his words -- put out her hand and pressed his fondly.

"Well, gentlemen, there is your case," said Old Cap Cuff. "Somebody shaved that mule. It looks like they wanted it to catch cold and die, so they shaved it, and when it didn't get pneumonia when it was one quarter shaved they shaved it some more. And shaving a mule with a safety razor ain't no easy job. They've put it up to the College to find who did it and we will. Any questions?"

"Yes, sir," said Oliver Spotts. "Is the mule at the present moment of time in a condition of sickly unhealth?"

"It is have ze sniff of ze nose," said Signor Morez. "Zat is all."

"Any other questions?" asked Old Cap Cuff.

"What kind of folks is those that lives to each side of the lady?" asked Oliver Spotts.

"Don't ask silly questions, Spotts," said Old Cap Cuff. "What has that got to do with it?"

"Well, some kinds of folks hates other kinds of folks," said Mr. Spotts. "French and Germans don't get along none too well together."

"Ah, yes!" said Signor Morez, who had listened with interest. "Zis is ze affair international, is it not? Mlle. Duflay she is ze French lady, Professor Januscheck is ze man from Poland, Madame Brale she is ze Swiss, and I -- I am from ze sunny Spain, from ze Andalusia where all ze great mules come from."

"Does that satisfy you, Spotts?" asked Old Cap Cuff ironically. "If so perhaps you can give us the benefit of your mighty thoughts."

"Don't seem to get me much further," said Oliver Spotts, coloring pinker than his false beard. "Them Poles and French and English is all friends and allies, and the Spain and Swiss folks was neutral. Ain't nothing into that, I guess."

"And there's not apt to be much in questions you ask, Spotts," said Old Cap Cuff meaningly. "The assembly will now dismiss and all students and professors will assume disguises and meet on the east lawn in fifteen minutes prepared to work on the case."

As Mr. Spotts was already in disguise he went at once to the east lawn and there he sat on a bench to await the others. He felt cheap and ashamed. Three times Old Cap Cuff had reproved him, more than insinuating that the clam-digger near-detective was next door to a fool, and when Old Cap Cuff appeared on the lawn talking interestedly with his five star pupils -- Mr. Bulwinzer, Mr. Bopp, Mr. Cuffick, Mr. Clancy and Mr. Jullups -- Mr. Spotts felt additionally out in the cold. To his favorites Old Cap Cuff was giving hints and suggestions and when Mr. Spotts drew near he said "Oh! Go away!" in a tone of great annoyance.

By this time all the students were on the lawn and each was practicing the appropriate actions for his particular disguise. If one was dressed as a window cleaner he cleaned imaginary windows and if another was dressed as a baseball player he threw imaginary balls or caught them or batted with an imaginary bat. As the disguises were of many sorts, ranging from a bishop to a wild west cowboy the scene was varied and interesting and Mr. Spotts' digging of imaginary clams was but small addition to the general oddity of the panorama.

It was while this was going on that a handsome limousine, driven by a chauffeur, paused a few moments while a stout gentleman looked at the fifty detective students. In the car with him was a young man who did not seem interested in the antics that were going on, for he lay back in his seat with his eyes closed, playing on a saxophone. He was not very good at it. The result was a sound as of something sick and in pain and the stout gentleman kept his hands pressed over his ears, his expression being anything but one of delight.

"That," he said after watching the detective students a while, "must be an insane asylum," and to the chauffeur, "Drive on slowly," but when the car was in front of the college building itself he said, "Stop, George! I want to get out here."

The reason this gentleman, whose name was Henry W. Scummins, ordered the car stopped was that his eye had caught the sign over the college door. This sign read "The Cornelius Cuff College for Detectives" but it was not surprising that Mr. Scummins, after having seen the fifty students and six professors on the east lawn in their disguises, should misread the sign, mistaking the word "Detectives" for "Defectives."

"Ethelbert," he said to his son, "stop tooting on that condemned instrument a moment; here is where you get out."

"What say, father?" asked Ethelbert Scummins, taking the saxophone from his lips.

"I say you get out here," said his father sternly. "For twenty-five years I have put up with your worthlessness and I'm through! You haven't the brain of a half-witted flea. You're a noodle and a nincompoop but I put up with it until you took to tooting that infernal thing. Now I'm through! This is the place for you, for if you're not a defective I don't know who is."

"Will they let me play the sax, do you think, old governor?" asked Ethelbert without much interest, and he got out of the car and followed his millionaire father into the yard. Old Cap Cuff, seeing a possible new student, hurried toward them.

"You are the owner of this college?" asked Mr. Scummins. "This is my son and I am ashamed to say how dumb he is. He is a disgrace to the human race. He is so dumb he thinks that thing is a musical instrument. I'm disgusted with him. Look here, for instance."

Ethelbert Scummins was tooting on the saxophone again and his father got down behind him on his hands and knees.

"Now push him," said Mr. Scummins, and Old Cap Cuff put a hand on Ethelbert's chest and pushed. Ethelbert fell backward over his father. He alighted on his neck but he continued to toot the saxophone even after his father arose. In fact Ethelbert lay there with his feet in the air, tooting away as if nothing had happened.

"Dumb!" said Mr. Scummins disgustedly. "Dumb, that's what he is! Look here, for instance," and he took a five-dollar bill from his pocket and held it toward Ethelbert. "Give me change for this," he said, and Ethelbert took the bill with one hand, dug into his pocket with the same hand and handed his father six or eight one and two dollar bills as well as the five dollar bill. "Is he dumb?" Mr. Scummins asked Old Cap Cuff; "I ask you!"

"Dumb is what he is," said Old Cap Cuff. "I never saw anything dumber. Even Ollie Spotts ain't as dumb as that -- not quite."

"All right -- that's how dumb he is," said Mr. Scummins, "and the question is will you take him into this college and teach him whatever it is you teach here? Money," he added, "being no object."

"Well, now -- hum!" said Old Cap Cuff, eyeing Ethelbert Scummins doubtfully. "I've sure got some dumb ones here, but I don't know. Take Ollie Spotts over there, for instance. He's dumb, but I've still got hopes of making a kind of sort of detective out of him. But this boy of yours he's almost too dumb even to make a detective out of. But I'll tell you what I might do," he added, brightening as the thought came to him; "I might make a Watson out of him."

"A what?" asked Mr. Scummins.

"A Watson," said Old Cap Cuff. "A Watson is the guy that goes along with a detective and asks him fool questions so the detective can show off how bright he is and what a great mind he's got. We call them Watsons, because the one Sherlock Holmes had was named Dr. Watson, but every detective has got to have one. It don't take much brains to be a Watson. A parrot could be one. The most he has got to do is say, 'Marvelous! You amaze me! And how did you know the man was a cross-eyed Greek by merely seeing a piece of his shoelace?' I guess I could make a Watson of this son of yours, maybe. I'm willing to have I a try at it."

"You'll have a big job to make anything of him," said Mr. Scummins.

"I don't say I can make a first-class Watson of him," said Old Cap Cuff, "nor yet a second-class one, but I've got a good college here and there's a chance I can make him into a pretty fair third-grade Watson, if you'll give me plenty of time."

"You can have the next thousand years," said Mr. Scummins, and with that he took a roll of bills from his pocket and handed Old Cap Cuff a couple of thousand dollars for board, tuition and expenses, and having said farewell to Ethelbert he entered his limousine and was driven away. Ethelbert saw him go without emotion, for he was busy trying to get a Rudy Vallee effect out of the saxophone.

"Here, Spotts!" exclaimed Old Cap Cuff, clapping his hands. "Come here! This is a new student and I want you to take charge of him. For the present he will be your Watson, so don't lose him or let him get injured or broken. We've got to get on the mule job."

With that he hurried off to start the student detectives on their task of discovering the miscreant who had shaved Mlle. Duflay's white Andalusian mule, and for a minute or so Oliver Spotts stood and studied Ethelbert Scummins, the prospective third-grade Watson. As Ethelbert played on the saxophone he looked at Mr. Spotts and suddenly he grinned and gave Mr. Spotts a wink.

"I bet you ain't such a fool as you look," said Mr. Spotts. "I bet you ain't even as dumb as I am."

"You guessed it," said Ethelbert, ceasing to toot the saxophone. "The trouble with my old man is he wants me to be a banker, and I won't be. I don't know a single bank that lets a man play the sax in business hours."

"Do you know any of the rudiments of how to start beginning to be a Watson?" asked Mr. Spotts.

"Do I?" exclaimed young Scummins. "I haven't done a thing all my life but play the sax and read detective mystery novels. I can out-Wat any Watson you ever heard of. I'll be good at it, fellows!"

"What sort of name do you wish to be called by when spoken to?" asked Oliver Spotts.

"Now, there you are!" said Ethelbert. "I'm not particular. The old man generally calls me The Pest. Mother calls me Darling. Some folks call me Ethel and some call me Bert, and some call me Scummy. I don't care what you call me."

It is time we were going forth to solve the mystery of the hand-shaved mule, my dear Watson.

"Considering the profession into which you are attempting to embark," said Mr. Spotts, "I presume it would be fittingly appropriate to call you My Dear Watson," and as Ethelbert did not object to this, he said: "It is time we were going forth to solve the mystery of the hand-shaved mule, my dear Watson," and he led the way out of the college grounds and toward the home of Mlle. Duflay, Ethelbert Scummins walking at his side playing on the saxophone.

As they proceeded Mr. Spotts explained to Ethelbert the details of the case as far as they were known to him, speaking in a loud voice because of the noise the saxophone was making, and from time to time Ethelbert paused in his playing to say, "Exactly, my dear Spotts!" or "I understand, my dear Spotts!" and thus they reached the home of Mlle. Duflay.

The yard in which the cottage of Mlle. Duflay sat was not large and it was considerably crowded at the moment because all the forty-nine students of Old Cap Cuff's college were there, as well as Old Cap Cuff himself, the six professors, Emmaline the cook, Chief of Police Hullins and three of his men, Mr. Jadwin Bleeks, Orlando Morez, Mlle. Duflay, Professor Januscheck, Madame Brale, some two hundred citizens of Mud Cove who had been drawn by the excitement, and the mule. Indeed, so crowded was the small yard that Mr. Spotts and his third-grade Watson could not get inside the yard, so they clambered to the roof of a shed across the road. Here they had an excellent view, but were far from comfortable for the chill wind swept upon them unobstructed.

The mule was facing toward them and as Ethelbert Scummins blew a sour note it raised its head and uttered a long "Hee-haw" of protest that may be written as "Hee-haw hee-haw hee-haw e-aw-aw-aw-aw-aw," gradually diminishing into silence. As the mule did this Signor Orlando Morez clapped his hands to his ears and then, turning toward Ethelbert Scummins, shook his fist at him angrily.

Old Cap Cuff, who seemed to be directing the operations of the forty-nine student detectives, at this point took the mule by the halter and turned it around so that its head was toward the hill back of Mlle. Duflay's house, but when he released the halter the mule immediately turned around again and faced Oliver Spotts and Ethelbert, nor could Old Cap Cuff turn the mule to face the hill again, although he jerked hard at the halter. Ethelbert blew another sour note and the mule instantly responded with a fresh burst of song, longer and louder than before.

As if responding to this challenge the wind from the northwest blew even harder and chillier and Oliver Spotts wished he had let Lotta give him a muffler. He did the next best thing and shifted his pink false beard, hooking both wires over his right ear so that the whole beard protected the right side of his face. Ethelbert Scummins, who was about to blow another blast on his saxophone, took the instrument from his lips.

"Marvelous, my dear Spotts!" he exclaimed. "You amaze me! It is no wonder that you are considered the foremost detective in Mud Cove. No one but you could have solved the mystery of the Andalusian mule in such a short time."

"Hey?" said Oliver Spotts.

"Now, do not try to deceive me," said Ethelbert, poking Mr. Spotts playfully in the ribs. "I knew instantly when you shifted your beard that you knew all. I am astounded by the quick working of your brain. No one but you would have thought of bringing me here with my saxophone, my dear Spotts. But why are you looking at the house of Signor Morez on the hill behind the house of Mlle. Duflay?"

As a matter of fact Mr. Spotts had to look at the house of Signor Morez if he looked toward the mule and he would have said so, but Ethelbert did not give him time to speak.

"Dumb as I am, Spotts, and dumb as I may be," said Ethelbert, "I have associated with you long enough to know a little of what goes on in your mind, and all I ask is that I may be allowed to go with you."

"Go? Where?" asked Mr. Spotts, for he had had no intention of going anywhere just then. "I wasn't going anywhere."

"Ah! That is like you, Spotts!" said the third-grade Watson. "You do not want me to accompany you up the hill to the house of Signor Orlando Morez because you think there may be danger there. You want to take the risk alone. Is it the mule hairs?"

"I ain't going to say nothing right now, Watson," said Mr. Spotts, but he got off the shed roof because Ethelbert gave him a push from behind, and as Ethelbert started toward the path that led up the hill to Signor Morez's house Mr. Spotts accompanied him.

"It is the mule hairs!" declared Ethelbert Scummins. "You said to yourself, Spotts, 'Mule hairs penetrate cloth and are not easily brushed off, and they will be the clue that leads to the guilty man.' But what will you say to the valet of Signor Morez? No doubt you have already thought of a way to have him put in your hands the old suit Signor Morez wore when he shaved the mule. That is something you will have decided long since if I know you -- and I think I do, Spotts."

"I guess I'll ask him for them clothes," said Mr. Spotts. "There ain't no use beating around the bush. I'll ask him straight out for them. But, look here --"

"You are going to ask me how I knew you suspected Signor Morez from the first, aren't you?" said Ethelbert. "Do you remember a word you let fall when you were explaining the case to me? 'Baritone' -- that was the word, Spotts. I saw at once what was flashing through your mind -- your marvelous mind. 'Baritone -- opera singer' -- you were saying to yourself. 'He sings' you were saying to yourself; 'He is obliged to practice, to keep his voice fit, and when he sings it arouses the mule and the mule turns itself toward him and hee-haws. It drives Signor Morez frantic.' That is what you said to yourself, Spotts."

"Did I?" said Mr. Spotts.

"Certainly you did!" said Mr. Scummins. "And you said to yourself, 'Consider the case. Signor Morez loves Mlle. Duflay and would not kill her mule, but he would try to protect himself from its hee-haws. How would an Andalusian who knew Andalusian mules go about that? He would know,' you said to yourself, 'that the Andalusian mule hates to have a cold wind blow upon it. It feels the cold. How would a Spanish baritone go to work to make an Andalusian mule point its hee-haws in the opposite direction?' That is what you asked yourself, Spotts."

"By hecky! He'd shave off its hair on one side!" cried Mr. Spotts.

"You astound me, Spotts!" exclaimed Ethelbert. "Your marvelous brain! You mean he would shave one side of the mule, Spotts? You mean that the mule, feeling the wind more bitterly on that side would turn that side from the wind and thus hee-haw toward the bay instead of toward Signor Morez's house on the hill?"

"Well, that's what he done, wasn't it?" demanded Mr. Spotts.

By this time they had reached the gate of Signor Morez's place and Ethelbert Scummins put a hand on Mr. Spotts's arm.

"Yes," said Mr. Scummins, "I think that will be best."

"What will be?" asked Mr. Spotts. "Your first idea," said Ethelbert. "The one you put aside in your usual generous desire to take all the risks yourself. Your thought that Signor Morez's valet might suspect something if he saw you coming in disguise, particularly with your beard all on one side of your face; your thought that it would be best if you waited here while I went in and said I was the man from the cleaners and that Signor Morez had sent me for the suit with the mule hairs on it. And I refuse to be frightened by the risk, Spotts. I insist in sharing your perils."

With that Ethelbert thrust his saxophone into Mr. Spotts's hands and went to the door of Signor Morez's house, but when the valet heard what was wanted he doubted Ethelbert. He went to the edge of the hill and looked down into Mlle. Duflay's yard, and Mr. Spotts and Ethelbert accompanied him.

"Signor!" the valet called, and all in the yard looked up at him. "Signor! This gentleman says he is from the cleaners and that you sent him for the gray suit. Is it so?"

Instantly Signor Morez, seeing Oliver Spotts, knew that his guilty secret was known. Taking Mlle. Duflay by the hand he clambered up the bank and stood before Oliver Spotts and there confessed that he had shaved the mule. Fortunately, Mlle. Duflay was herself an artist and a professional and could understand, and when Signor Morez had fallen on his knees to beg her pardon and had promised to shave the other side of the Andalusian mule and buy it a woolen blanket, she kissed him and forgave him.

"Spotts," said Old Cap Cuff, when all the students and professors had returned to the college, "I'm going to advance you to the senior class for this, but I want you to tell me how you worked to solve this case."

"His brain did it," said his faithful third-grade Watson. "Marvelous! Astounding!"

"Yeah?" said Old Cap Cuff skeptically. "Is that so! And maybe you can tell me and these gents what your process of thought was, Spotts?"

"What goes on in the brain of a detective," said Mr. Spotts, nervously twisting a wisp of his pink beard, "ain't easy to say, thank you, Cap'n Cuff, sir."



Saturday, October 07 at 1:14:22am USA Central
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