from American Girl
The White Blackbird Mystery
by Ellis Parker Butler
Our Detective Club was having a meeting at my house that afternoon, but I will admit we were not giving much attention to the proper business of the Club. Betty Bliss was there because she never missed a meeting, being Superintendent, and I was there, and so were Dot Carver and Dick Prince, but Arthur Dane had not come, so we were just talking to pass the time until Arthur did come -- if he were coming.
"What do you think?" Dot asked. "Will he be kicked out? It will give Westcote High an awful jolt if he does not pass." She did not mean Arthur Dane. We had been talking about Bingo Bates who was the best all-round athlete in Westcote High School, but not such a good scholar. He was the best man on the football eleven, and the only good pitcher Westcote had on the baseball nine, and the backbone of the basketball team, and right up front on the track team. So far, he had just barely managed to pass his exams and stay in school, but he was awfully weak in mathematics, and we were all afraid he would not pass the exam we had just had that morning.
"I don't know," Dick said, answering Dot. "So far, Bingo has just managed to hang on by the skin of his teeth, but that algebra exam was a terror. It had me all curled up for a while, and I'm pretty good at algebra."
"How about geometry?" Betty asked.
"That was worse," Dick said. "I was talking to Bingo a couple of days ago, and there were some things he just couldn't seem to get into his head. I tried to explain them, but I'm not much good at that. I guess I didn't help him much."
Betty Bliss was getting impatient. The Club was reading a mystery novel, The Mystery of Hedge Hill, and we were at an exciting point in it. When we had read a few more chapters we would each make a guess at the solution of the mystery, and Betty wanted to get on with it. I don't wonder, because Betty was usually right, or nearest right. She is simply wonderful that way.
"Please, Inspectors," she said, "let's read now!" But before I had picked up the book -- it was my turn to read -- Art Dane came barging in, all excited, and tossed his cap on a chair.
"I've got news," he exclaimed. "I've got big news, folks."
"Bingo Bates has passed his exams," Dick guessed.
"Yes, he did," Art said, flopping himself down into the chair he had tossed his cap onto, "but that's not it. I've got a case for you, and a tough one. Somebody stole my father's white blackbird."
"His what?" I asked. "What on earth is a white blackbird?"
"It is just that -- a white blackbird," Art told us. "A blackbird like any other blackbird, but it is all white. White as snow."
"An albino," Betty Bliss said. "I've heard of such birds. They happen sometimes, but they are very rare."
"One in a million -- in ten thousand million for all I know," Art went on. "Father was out hunting woodcock and quail, a few days ago, and saw this snow-white blackbird in a flock of black ones, and shot it. He took it down to old Elbert Jenkins to have it stuffed and mounted. Last night someone stole it."
"But, Art," I asked, "who would steal a thing like that?"
"You will please let me ask the questions, Inspector Madge," Betty Bliss said, firmly but kindly. "It is clear enough that, if the white blackbird was stolen, someone must have wanted it badly enough to steal it. If Art knew who stole it, he would not be asking the Detective Club to solve the mystery."
I said, meekly enough, that I was sorry, and Betty gave me a smile, and then assumed her Superintendent of Detectives air.
"Tell us the rest, Inspector Dane," she said to Art. "Your father took the white blackbird to old Elbert Jenkins to be stuffed and mounted. You mean Mr. Jenkins who keeps the gun store?"
"Yes. He's a taxidermist, too -- stuffs birds and animals when anyone wants them stuffed. He has his taxidermy shop in back of the gun store."
"I know," I said. "I've seen stuffed birds in his window. He --" but Betty gave me a warning look and I shut up. Betty told Art to continue.
"So old Elbert Jenkins stuffed the white blackbird and mounted it," Art said. "Father remembered that Professor Wilkins, over there at Turnertown, is one of the greatest bird experts in America, and Father telephoned him that he had a white blackbird. Professor Wilkins was excited about it, and asked if he could come over and see it."
"What has that got to do with its being stolen?" Dick Prince asked.
"Maybe it has a lot to do with it," Art answered. "I've heard that collectors sometimes have no consciences at all, when they want to add a rarity to their collections. Anyway Father said he would be glad to have Professor Wilkins see the white blackbird, and Professor Wilkins said that the only time he could see it was last night. He said he would drive over, if that suited Father."
"Drive over by automobile?" Betty asked.
"Yes," Art said. "The professor was starting for Florida and said he would stop on his way. So Father telephoned to old Elbert Jenkins to hurry up and bring the white blackbird to the house --"
"That was yesterday?" Betty Bliss asked.
"Yes, Superintendent," Art answered. "So old Jenkins hurried up and mounted the bird and sent it to our house."
"He didn't bring it himself?" Betty asked.
"No, he sent it. Bingo Bates happened to be in the shop, and old Jenkins sent it by him."
"All right, go ahead," urged Betty. "Tell us everything. How was it wrapped?"
"Wrapped?" said Art, looking at Betty as if he thought that was a queer question. "It was wrapped in brown paper and tied with a string. Tough string and tough paper. Well, Mother took the parcel, and when Father came home he unwrapped it and hung the thing on the wall above the fireplace --"
"Hung it?" asked Betty. "Then it was not mounted on a branch, to stand upright on a shelf the way some birds are mounted?"
"No," said Art, shaking his head. "It was mounted as if it were flying. On an oval piece of wood -- a wooden plaque. One wing was spread out against the plaque and the other out in the air. Just like a bird flying, neck stretched out and legs drawn close."
Betty nodded her head to show she understood, and asked how big the plaque was.
"About so big," Art said, showing about a foot and a half with his hands. "Shall I go on now? Well, Father had hardly hung the plaque on the wall before Professor Wilkins came. Dinner was just ready, but Professor Wilkins had to look at the white blackbird first of all, so Father took it down again and carried it out to the sun porch and put it on the table there, and they looked at it and studied it, and then dinner was ready."
"Professor Wilkins stayed to dinner?" Betty asked.
"Oh, yes!" Art said. "And he and Father talked about the white blackbird and where Father had found it, and after dinner they went to the sun porch and kept talking until Professor Wilkins said he had to go."
"Where was the blackbird then?" Betty asked.
"Right there on the table by the window on the sun porch," Art said.
Betty thought a moment. "Inspector Dane," she asked, "did anyone at the table say anything about the value of the white blackbird when your Maggie was in the room?"
Maggie, of course, is the Danes' maid and I guessed what Betty had in her mind.
"Yes," Art admitted. "I remember that Professor Wilkins said the white blackbird was priceless. Something like that."
"Just so, Inspector," Betty smiled. "I suppose Professor Wilkins went away after a while?"
"Yes, half an hour after dinner. He said he had to be on his way. I was glad because Father was taking Mother and me to the movies, and I didn't want to be late."
Betty thought again, wrinkling her forehead.
"And Maggie?" she asked. "Did she go out?"
"Yes," Art said. "She went before we did. She finished doing the dishes, and Bill Roscoe came for her. She has been going out with him lately. Mother doesn't like it. She thinks Bill Roscoe is no good, but she can't do anything about it."
"Hm!" said Betty. "Bill Roscoe. And the Professor said the white blackbird was priceless."
"The professor could have come back after Art's family had gone to the movies, Superintendent Bliss," I suggested.
"Or the taxidermist, that Mr. Elbert Jenkins," said Dot. "He must have known the white blackbird was worth a lot."
"Don't you believe, for a minute, he would steal anything!" Art said indignantly. "Old Elbert Jenkins is as square as a die. Why, even Professor Wilkins praised him. He asked Father who mounted the bird and, when Father told him, he said that Jenkins was an example of the kind of man who knows what he wants to do with his life and does it. He said that, if old Jenkins had been willing to be bound down by college rules and regulations, he would have been one of the greatest teachers of mathematics in America. But he wanted to be free from all that. He preferred running a gun store and doing a little taxidermy now and then. No, sir -- you can forget old Jenkins."
"When we are on a case, Inspector Dane," Betty said, "we try not to forget anybody, or anything. And we try to use our eyes. I think now we had better visit the scene of the crime, and see what we can see."
In less than a minute we were out of the house, but suddenly Betty turned back.
"Go right along," she said. "I'll catch up with you. I'll be just a minute; I want to telephone." So we walked slowly toward Arthur's house, and presently Betty came hurrying up and joined us.
Mrs. Dane, Art's mother, heard us, and came to the door to meet us.
"The Detective Club?" she asked. "All of you are here, I see. I wanted to call the police, but Art said he wanted your Club to have a first chance. I haven't told Mr. Dane," she added. "This is a busy day for him at his office, and I did not want to worry him."
"He doesn't know the white blackbird is gone?" Betty asked.
"No," Mrs. Dane said. "He left the blackbird on the table by the window on the sun porch last night, and this morning he did not go near it at all. Art can tell you that."
"You don't mind telling us, Mrs. Dane, who discovered that the white blackbird was gone, do you?" asked Betty.
"Of course not, Superintendent Bliss," said Mrs. Dane. "It was I who discovered that the plaque was missing. After Mr. Dane went to the office, I went to the sun porch to get the plaque and hang it over the fireplace, and it was gone."
"And you don't mind us asking this, do you?" said Dick Prince. "Do you know whether Maggie told Bill Roscoe anything?"
"I did ask her that," Mrs. Dane replied, "and she told me, quite frankly, that she had told Bill Roscoe all about the white blackbird. She would, naturally, the bird being such a curiosity and all of us so interested in it. She admitted that she told Bill it must be worth a lot of money."
By that time Betty had moved toward the sun porch, and we had all trailed along after her. She stood in the doorway, looking up and down and all around, with us crowded behind her and Mrs. Dane at her side.
"That is the table?" she asked. "And that is the window? The plaque was on that table? The window was open just as it is now? And was that door locked?"
Mrs. Dane's answer to all these questions was "yes," and Betty walked to the table. She leaned across it and looked out of the window.
"Anyone could have reached in from outside to take the plaque," Betty said. "There would be no footprints on that grass."
"We never imagined anyone would steal the blackbird," said Mrs. Dane, as if excusing herself for carelessness. "Such a thing never entered our minds. We never close the window there -- the door into the house is kept locked."
"We close it when it rains, Mother," Art said.
"But there was no sign of rain last night, Arthur," his mother reminded him.
"There was some wind," remarked Betty. "It blew a little last night, didn't it?"
"But there's nothing here the wind would harm," Mrs. Dane smiled. "You don't mean the wind could have blown the plaque away, do you, Superintendent?"
"No," said Betty, stepping into the sun porch. "A wind would blow in and not out, but, even if it blew outward, it would not blow a plaque like that entirely away. This is the cover that was on the table last night, I suppose?"
Mrs. Dane said it was and, as Betty was looking at it closely, Mrs. Dane looked at it closely, too. So did I, to tell the truth, because when Betty is on the trail of a mystery and looks at anything closely, I want to see what she sees. It was easy enough to see something here. The table cover was white, embroidered with a flower design in white, and the top surfaces of the embroidered flowers were smudged with blue that did not belong there. Mrs. Dane frowned and gathered up the table cover.
"I'm ashamed," she said. "What sort of a housekeeper must you girls think I am! But I'm sure this cover was clean yesterday."
"And so am I," said Betty. "I am sure it was clean. Just let me have the cover a minute. Inspector Prince, what would you say this blue is?"
Dick took the table cover.
"It looks like chalk to me, Superintendent," he said, after he had studied it a bit. "I would say it was blue chalk."
He handed the cover to Betty, and she handed it to Mrs. Dane who crumpled it together as a woman does when she means an article shall not be used again until it has been laundered.
"Thank you," Betty said. "Will it be all right if we look at the place where Mr. Dane first hung the plaque?"
"My dear child --" Mrs. Dane began, then she corrected herself. "I mean, my dear Superintendent Bliss, anything you want that will help you solve this little mystery, you can have. Mr. Dane will be so upset if he comes home and finds his precious white blackbird is gone! All I ask is that you work as quickly as you can, so that I can turn the mystery over to the police if you fail to solve it."
"But the mystery is solved," said Betty with pretended innocence. "We just want to check up the clues, Mrs. Dane. It is part of the routine of the Detective Club."
Mrs. Dane stared at her.
"Solved?" she exclaimed. "Do you mean you know who took the blackbird? Do you mean you know where it is?"
"I don't know exactly where it is at this minute," Betty answered, "but we will all know soon. At least, I think so, Mrs. Dane."
"Well, I declare!" Mrs. Dane looked at Betty harder than ever. "You are certainly the most remarkable -- ah -- Superintendent of Detectives I ever saw. Do all of you girls and boys know as much about this as Betty does?"
I didn't, and I said so frankly. So did Dot and Dick. Only Art said anything else.
"Don't you let her bunco you, Mother," he said. "Make her make good. You know how these detectives are -- the police report that they are about to make important discoveries."
"That will do, Inspector Dane," Betty said sternly. "I did not say we were about to make important discoveries. May we see the place where the plaque hung, Mrs. Dane?"
Mrs. Dane led us to the dining room and pointed to the wall above the fireplace. There was a nail there, and it was not so high that Betty could not see the wall below it without standing on a chair. She looked at the wall a moment and then turned to me.
"Look closely, Inspector Madge," she said, "and tell me what you see, if anything."
I craned my neck and looked as Betty had told me, and I did see specks of blue chalk on the light brown wallpaper.
"Blue chalk, I think," I said. And the others looked, including Mrs. Dane, and they all said there were surely small specks of blue chalk.
"If it were necessary," Betty told them, "I could send one of my Inspectors down to the gun store of Elbert Jenkins and, in the back shop where he stuffs birds, a piece of blue chalk would be found. But it is not necessary because I know it is there. Mr. Jenkins used the blue chalk to write something on the back of the plaque on which he mounted the white blackbird in such a hurry."
"And some came off on the wall here," Dot murmured.
"Yes, and more rubbed off on the table cover when Mr. Dane and Professor Wilkins moved it around while looking at the white blackbird," Dick Prince added. "But where does that get you, Superintendent?"
"It gets us back to the sun porch and the open window, Inspector," Betty said, smiling at Dick. "And the wind that was blowing last night. Didn't you see anything except what we were talking about, when we were on the sun porch?"
"I saw some chairs and a settee." Dick grinned.
"You should learn to use your eyes, Inspector," Betty told him good-naturedly. "There were three matting rugs on the floor. Two of the rugs were oval, and one was round. The round rug was -- and still is -- slightly turned up on one side where a leg of the settee had pushed against it. That edge is toward the open window. Under that edge of the round rug is a piece of paper. Inspector Dot, will you bring that piece of paper here?"
Dot went in a hurry.
"I think," said Betty, "that piece of paper is a note -- we will know when Dot brings it to us. I think Bingo Bates went to Elbert Jenkins to have him explain some algebra or geometry problem, and Mr. Jenkins took up an unused plaque and used the back of it, marking on it with blue chalk. Bingo Bates thought he understood, but later he couldn't remember, so he went back to Mr. Jenkins, and Mr. Jenkins was not there."
"And the plaque wasn't there because Jenkins had used it to mount the white blackbird, and had sent it here by Bingo himself," said Art.
"Exactly so, Inspector," said Betty. "And Bingo guessed that the data he wanted was on this very plaque, so he came here last night to see it, but everyone was away. He saw the white blackbird on the table in the sun porch and borrowed it, and he scribbled a note to Arthur, saying he would bring the plaque and the white blackbird back today. He knew Art would explain to his father --"
"Because old Art, like the rest of us, wants old Bingo to stay in the High School," said Dick Prince. "I'll say we do!"
"Here is the paper," said Dot, returning from the sun porch. "It's a note from Bingo Bates, saying he is borrowing the white blackbird."
"And --" said Betty again.
"Here comes Bingo with a bundle," cried Art, who was looking out of the window. "It's the white blackbird, or I'm a Piute Indian."
And Art was not a Piute Indian. It was the white blackbird, all safe and sound and not a feather rumpled. Bingo was completely apologetic when he heard what a fuss he had aroused, but Mrs. Dane told him it was quite all right -- he could not have known that the note he had left would blow off the table.
"And now," she said, "I want you all to have cake and lemonade with me. In every detective mystery book I have ever read, the detectives are always eating and drinking."
So, being the Detective Club, we ate and drank. Between mouthfuls of cake, I asked Betty a question.
"Who did you telephone to before we left your house, Betty?"
"Just Bingo Bates," Betty answered. "I told him the Danes were worried about the white blackbird, and that he might as well bring it back now. All he said was, 'They oughtn't to be worried; I left a note for Art.'"
"Well, anyway --" I said, and took another bite of cake.