Reflecting on the astonishing information Don had conveyed, Phoebe went
to her room and sat down at a small table near the window to which was
fastened a telegraph instrument, the wire leading outside through a
hole bored in the lower part of the sash.
A telegraph instrument is indeed a queer thing to be found in a young
girl’s room, yet its existence is simple enough when explained.
Riverdale was an out-of-the-way town, quite as unenterprising as many
Southern towns of its class. Its inhabitants followed slowly and
reluctantly in the wake of progress. They had used electric lights
since only the year before, getting the current from Canton, ten miles
away, where there was more enterprise and consequently more business.
Canton also supplied telephone service to Bayport and Riverdale, but
the cost of construction and installation was considered so high that
as yet Riverdale had but three connections: one at the post office, a
public toll station; one at Spaythe’s bank and one at the newspaper
office. The citizens thought these three provided for all needs and
so they did not encourage the Canton telephone company to establish a
local exchange for the residences of their village.
Some were annoyed by this lack of public interest in so convenient a
utility as the telephone. The Randolphs would have liked one in their
house, and so would the Darings, the Camerons, the Fergusons and a
few others; but these were obliged to wait until there was sufficient
demand to warrant the establishment of an exchange.
The telegraph operator of the village was a young fellow who had been
a schoolmate of both Phil and Phoebe Daring, although he was some
few years their elder. Dave Hunter had gone to St. Louis to study
telegraphy and afterward served as an assistant in several cities until
he finally managed to secure the position of operator in his home town.
The Hunters were nice people, but of humble means, and Dave was really
the breadwinner for his widowed mother and his sister Lucy, a bright
and pretty girl of Phoebe’s age. Encouraged by her brother’s success,
Lucy determined to become a telegraph operator herself, as many girls
are now doing; but to avoid the expense of going to a school of
telegraphy Dave agreed to teach her during his leisure hours. In order
to do this he stretched a wire from his office to his home, two blocks
away, and placed instruments at either end so that Lucy could practice
by telegraphing to her brother and receiving messages in reply.
She was getting along famously when Phoebe Daring and Nathalie Cameron
called on her one day and were delighted by her ability to telegraph to
“Why, it’s as good as a telephone, and much more fun,” declared Phoebe,
and Nathalie asked:
“Why couldn’t we have telegraphs in our own houses, and get Dave to
teach us how to use them? Then we could talk to one another whenever we
pleased–rain or shine.”
The idea appealed to Phoebe. Lucy telegraphed the suggestion to her
brother and he readily agreed to teach the girls if they provided
instruments and stretched wires between the various houses. That
would be quite an expense, he warned them, and they would have to get
permission from the village board to run the wires through the streets.
Nothing daunted, they immediately set to work to accomplish their novel
purpose. Marion Randolph, the eldest of the Randolph children, was home
from college at this time and entered heartily into the scheme. They
were joined by Janet Ferguson, and the four girls, representing the
best families in the village, had no trouble in getting permission to
put up the wires, especially when they had the judge to argue their
case for them.
Dave, seeing he could turn an honest penny, undertook to put up the
wires, for there was not enough business at the Riverdale telegraph
office to demand his entire time and Lucy was now competent to take his
place when he was away. He connected the houses of the Darings, the
Randolphs, the Camerons and the Fergusons, and then he connected them
with his own home. For, as Lucy was the original telegraph girl, it
would never do to leave her out of the fun, although she could not be
asked to share the expense.
Lucy seemed a little embarrassed because Dave accepted money for his
work and for teaching the four girls how to operate. “You see,” she
said one day when they were all assembled in her room, “Dave has lately
developed a money-making disposition. You mustn’t breathe it, girls,
but I’ve an idea he’s in love!”
“Oh, Lucy! In love?”
“He’s been very sweet on Hazel Chandler, the postmaster’s daughter,
of late, and I sometimes think they’ve had an understanding and will
be married, some day–when they have enough money. Poor Hazel hasn’t
anything, you know, for there are so many in the Chandler family
that the postmaster’s salary and all they can make out of the little
stationery store in the post office is used up in living.”
“It’s used up mostly by Mrs. Chandler’s social stunts,” declared
Nathalie. “She’s proud of being the leader of Riverdale society, and a
D. A. R., and several other things. But doesn’t Hazel get anything for
tending the shop and handing out the mail when her father is away?”
“Not a cent. She’s lucky to get her board. And when she’s not in the
shop her mother expects her to do housework. Poor thing! It would be
a relief to her to marry and have a home of her own. I hope Dave’ll
manage it, and I’d love to have Hazel for a sister,” said Lucy. “Mind
you, girls, this is a secret; I’m not even positive I’m right in my
suspicions; but I wanted to explain why Dave took the money.”
“He was perfectly right in doing so, under any circumstances,” declared
Phoebe, and the others agreed with her.
Phoebe and Marion learned telegraphy very quickly, developing
surprising aptitude; Nathalie Cameron was not far behind them, but
Janet Ferguson, a remarkably bright girl in her studies, found the art
quite difficult to master and made so many blunders that she added
materially to the delight they all found in telegraphing to one another
on all possible occasions. When Marion went back to college the other
four continued to amuse themselves by gossiping daily over the wire;
but gradually, as the novelty of the thing wore away, they became less
eager to use their lately acquired powers and so, at the period of this
story, the click of an instrument was seldom heard except when there
was some question to ask or some real news to communicate. By concerted
arrangement they were all alert to a “call” between six and seven in
the evening and from eight to nine in the mornings, but their trained
ears now recognized the click-click! if they were anywhere within
hearing of it.
Cousin Judith was much amused and interested in this odd diversion
of Phoebe’s, and she recognized the educational value of the
accomplishment the girl had acquired and generously applauded her
success. Indeed, Phoebe was admitted the most skillful operator of them
all. But aside from the amusement and instruction it furnished, the
little telegraph circuit was of no practical value and could in no way
be compared with the utility of the telephone.
On this evening, after hearing the exciting news of the loss of Mrs.
Ritchie’s box, Phoebe went to her room with the idea of telegraphing
to Janet and asking about the matter. But as she sat down before the
instrument she remembered that the Ferguson household was a sad and
anxious one just now and it was scarcely fitting to telegraph to her
friend in regard to so personal and important an affair. She decided
to run over in the morning for a quiet talk with Janet and meantime to
call the other girls and ask them for further news. She got Lucy Hunter
first, who said that Dave had come home full of the gossip caused by
the missing box, but some one had come for him and he had suddenly gone
away without telling the last half of his story.
Then Phoebe, after a long delay, got Nathalie Cameron on the wire and
Nathalie had a lot to tell her. Mr. Cameron was a retired manufacturer
who was considered quite wealthy. Several years ago he had discovered
Riverdale and brought his family there to live, that he might “round
out his life,” as he said, amid quiet and peaceful scenes. He was a
director in Spaythe’s bank, as had been Judge Ferguson. Mr. Cameron
also owned a large plantation that adjoined the property of Mrs.
Ritchie, on the Bayport road. Nathalie told Phoebe that the Cameron
box, containing many valuable papers but no money, had also been in the
judge’s cupboard, but Mr. Spaythe had reported it safe and untampered
with. Nor had any box other than Mrs. Ritchie’s been taken. So far as
they knew, the Ritchie box was the only one in Mr. Ferguson’s care
that contained money, and it seemed as if the thief, whoever he might
be, was aware of this and so refrained from disturbing any of the
others. This theory, reported Nathalie, was sure to limit the number of
suspects to a possible few and her father was positive that the burglar
would soon be caught. Mr. Cameron had been at the bank and witnessed
Mrs. Ritchie’s display of anger and indignation when her box could not
be found. He had thought Mr. Spaythe rather too cold and unsympathetic,
but the banker’s nature was reserved and unemotional.
“Father says the woman was as good as a vaudeville,” continued
Nathalie, clicking out the words, “but not quite so circumspect–so you
can imagine the scene! She is said to be rich and prosperous, but was
furious over her loss and threatened Mr. Spaythe with so many horrible
penalties, unless he restored her property, that he had to take refuge
inside the bank and lock the door on her.”
This was merely such gossip as Phoebe had heard from Don, but it was
interesting to have the details from another viewpoint.
To understand the excitement caused by the disappearance of Mrs.
Ritchie’s box it is only necessary to remember that Riverdale is a
sleepy old town where anything out of the ordinary seldom happens.
In a big city such an occurrence would be a mere detail of the day’s
doings and the newspapers would not accord it sufficient importance to
mention it in a paragraph; but in Riverdale, where a humdrum, droning
life prevailed, the mysterious incident roused the entire community to
a state of wonder and speculation. The theft, or loss, or whatever it
was, became indeed the “talk of the town.”
The principals in the scandal, moreover, were important people, or as
important as any that Riverdale possessed. Mrs. Ritchie owned one of
the largest plantations–or “farms”–in the neighborhood, left her long
ago by her deceased husband; Mr. Spaythe was the local banker; Judge
Ferguson had been known and highly respected far and wide. Therefore
the weekly newspaper in the town was sure to print several columns of
comment on the affair, provided the tipsy old compositor employed by
the editor could set so much type before the paper went to press.
The following morning Phoebe walked over to see Janet and found that
the Fergusons were face to face with a new and serious trouble. It was
true that the Ritchie box had vanished and no one could imagine where
it had gone to.
“Papa was very orderly, in his way,” said Janet, “and he had a book in
which he kept a complete list of all papers and securities in his care
and a record of whatever he delivered to the owners. Mrs. Ritchie’s
account shows he had received money, bonds and mortgages from her,
amounting in value to several thousand dollars, and these were kept in
a heavy tin box painted blue, with the name ‘Ritchie’ upon it in white
letters. With many similar boxes it was kept in the oak cupboard at the
office, and my father always carried the keys himself. We gave these
keys to Mr. Spaythe because we knew he was father’s executor, and he
found all the boxes, with their contents undisturbed, except that of
Mrs. Ritchie. It is very strange,” she added, with a sigh.
“Perhaps the judge removed it from the cupboard just before his–his
attack,” said Phoebe. “Have you searched the house?”
“Everywhere. And it is not among father’s papers at the bank. One of
the most curious things about the affair,” continued Janet, “is that
Mrs. Ritchie came to the house the very day after father’s death to
demand her box, and she was so insistent that I had to send for Toby
Clark to take her away. No one else bothered us at all; only this
woman whose property was even then missing.”
“Are you sure she didn’t go to the office and get the box?” asked
Phoebe, suddenly suspicious of this queer circumstance.
“Why, she hadn’t the keys; nor had Toby. Mr. Spaythe found the cupboard
properly locked. On the bunch of small keys which father carried is one
labelled ‘Ritchie,’ and it proved there was a complicated lock on the
box which could not have been picked.”
“That’s nothing,” returned Phoebe. “Whoever took the box could break it
open at leisure. It was merely tin; a can-opener would do the job.”
“Yes; I’m sure that was why the entire box was taken away. It was the
only one that contained money to tempt a thief. Mrs. Ritchie, for
some reason, never trusted banks. She has some very peculiar ideas,
you know. Whenever she needed money she came to father and got it out
of the box, giving him a receipt for it and taking a receipt when
she deposited money. The record book shows that she had about three
thousand dollars in currency in her box when it–disappeared; and there
were government bonds for several thousands more, besides notes and
mortgages and other securities.”
“Can she hold you responsible for this property?” inquired Phoebe.
“Mr. Spaythe says that she can, but he is confident she will not
attempt to collect it from us. He was here this morning and had a
long talk with mother. He assured her the box will surely be found in
time, and told her not to worry. We are liable to suffer our greatest
annoyance from Mrs. Ritchie, who won’t be patient and wait for an
investigation. The woman is very nervous and excitable and seems to
think we are trying to defraud her.”
“I–I don’t suppose there is anything I can do?” said Phoebe helplessly.
“No, dear; nothing at all. Mr. Spaythe says not to pay any attention to
Mrs. Ritchie and has asked us not to talk about the affair until the
mystery is solved. If anyone asks questions we must refer them to Mr.
Spaythe. So you mustn’t repeat what I’ve told you, Phoebe.”
“I won’t. Don says Mrs. Ritchie went away with Lawyer Kellogg last
“I suppose Mr. Kellogg would like to take her case and make us all the
trouble he can,” replied Janet bitterly.
“Why doesn’t Mr. Spaythe see Mr. Holbrook?” asked Phoebe.
“I don’t know. Perhaps he has seen him. Anyhow, I’m sure Mr. Spaythe
will do everything in his power to find the box. He was one of father’s
best friends and we know him to be an honorable man and very capable in
all ways. We feel that we may trust Mr. Spaythe.”
Phoebe did not reply to this. She was wondering if anyone could be
trusted in such a peculiar complication.