FRANK and Joe were determined to help their chum prove his father’s innocence. They shared his conviction that Mr. Robinson was not guilty.
“Of course he’s innocent,” Frank agreed. “He’ll be able to clear himself all right, Slim.”
“But things look pretty black right now,” the boy said. He was white-faced and shaken. “Unless Mr. Hardy can catch the real thief, I’m afraid Dad will be blamed for the robbery.”
“Everybody knows your father is honest,” said Joe consolingly. “He has been a faithful employee -even Mr. Applegate will have to admit that.”
“Which won’t help him much if he can’t clear himself of the charge. And Dad admits that he did know the combination of the safe, although of course he’d never use it.”
“He knew it?” repeated Joe, surprised.
“Dad learned the combination accidentally. It was so simple one couldn’t forget it. This was how it happened. One day when he was cleaning the library fireplace, he found a piece of paper with numbers on it. He studied them and decided they were the safe combination. Dad laid the paper on the desk. The window was open and he figured the breeze must have blown the paper to the floor.”
“Does Mr. Applegate know that?”
“Not yet. But Dad is going to tell him now. He realizes it will look bad for him, but he’s going to give Mr. Applegate the truth.”
From the library came the hum of voices. The harsh tones of Hurd Applegate occasionally rose above the murmur of conversation and finally the boys heard Mr. Robinson’s voice rise sharply.
“I didn’t do it! I tell you I didn’t take that money!”
“Then where did you get the nine hundred you paid on that note?” demanded Mr. Applegate.
“Where did you get it?”
“I’m not at liberty to tell you or anyone else.”
“I got the money honestly-that’s all I can say about it.”
“Oh, ho!” exclaimed Mr. Applegate. “You got the money honestly, yet you can’t tell me where it came from! A pretty story! If you got the money honestly you shouldn’t be ashamed to tell where it came from.”
“I’m not ashamed. I can only say again, I’m not at liberty to talk about it.”
“Mighty funny thing that you should get nine hundred dollars so quickly. You were pretty hard up last week, weren’t you? Had to ask for an advance on your month’s wages.”
“That is true.”
“And then the day of this robbery you suddenly have nine hundred dollars that you can’t explain.”
Mr. Hardy’s calm voice broke in. “Of course I don’t like to pry into your private affairs, Mr. Robinson,” he said, “but it would be best if you would dear up this matter of the money.”
“I know it looks bad,” replied the caretaker doggedly. “But I’ve made a promise I can’t break.”
“And you admit being familiar with the combination of the safe, too!” broke in Mr. Applegate. “I didn’t know that before. Why didn’t you tell me?”
“I didn’t consider it important.”
“And yet you come and tell me now!”
“I have nothing to conceal. If I had taken the securities and jewels I wouldn’t be telling you that I knew the combination.”
“Yes,” agreed Mr. Hardy, “that’s a point in your favor, Mr. Robinson.”
“Is it?” asked Mr. Applegate. “Robinson’s just clever enough to think up a trick like that. He’d figure that by appearing to be honest, I’d believe he is honest and couldn’t have committed this robbery. Very clever. But not clever enough. There’s plenty of evidence right this minute to convict him, and I’m not going to delay any further.”
In a moment Mr. Applegate’s voice continued, “Police station? Hello . . . Police station? . . . This is Applegate speaking-Applegate-Hurd Applegate. . . . Well, we’ve found our man in that robbery. . . . Yes, Robinson. . . . You thought so, eh?-So did I, but I wasn’t sure. . . . He has practically convicted himself by his own story. . . . Yes, I want him arrested. . . . You’ll be up right away? . . . Fine. . . . Good-by.”
“You’re not going to have me arrested, Mr. Applegate?” the caretaker cried out in alarm.
“Why not? You’re the thief!”
“It might have been better to wait a while,” Mr. Hardy interposed. “At least until there was more evidence.”
“What more evidence do we want, Mr. Hardy,” the owner of Tower Mansion sneered. “If Robinson wants to return the jewels and securities I’ll have the charge withdrawn-but that’s all.”
“I can’t return them! I didn’t take them!” Mr. Robinson defended himself.
“You’ll have plenty of time to think,” Mr. Applegate declared. “You’ll be in the penitentiary a long time-a long time.”
In the hallway the boys listened in growing excitement and dismay. The case had taken an abrupt and tragic turn. Slim looked as though he might collapse under the strain.
“My dad’s innocent,” the boy muttered over and over again, clenching his fists. “I know he is. They can’t arrest him. He never stole anything in his life!”
Frank patted his friend on the shoulder. “Brace up, pal,” he advised. “It looks discouraging just now, but I’m sure your father will be able to clear himself.”
“I- I’ll have to tell Mother,” stammered Slim. “This will break her heart. And my sisters-“
Frank and Joe followed the boy down the hallway and along a corridor that led to the east wing of the mansion. There, in a neat but sparsely furnished apartment, they found Mrs. Robinson, a gentle, kind-faced woman, who was lame. She was seated in a chair by the window, anxiously waiting. Her two daughters, Paula and Tessie, twelve-year-old twins, were at her side, and all looked up in expectation as the boys came in.
“What news, son?” Mrs. Robinson asked bravely, after she had greeted the Hardys.
“They’re not-they’re not-arresting him?” cried Paula, springing forward.
Perry nodded wordlessly.
“But they can’t!” Tessie protested. “Dad couldn’t do anything like that! It’s wrong-“
Frank, looking at Mrs. Robinson, saw her suddenly slump over in a faint. He sprang forward and caught the woman in his arms as she was about to fall to the floor.
“Mother!” cried Slim in terror, as Frank laid Mrs. Robinson on a couch, then he said quickly to his sister, “Paula, bring the smelling salts and her special medicine.”
Perry explained that at times undue excitement caused an “attack.” “I shouldn’t have told her about Dad,” the boy chided himself.
“She’d have to know it sooner or later,” Joe said kindly.
In a moment Paula returned with the bottle of smelling salts and medicine. The inhalant brought her mother back to consciousness, and Paula then gave Mrs. Robinson the medicine. In a few moments the woman completely revived and apologized for having worried everyone.
“I admit it was a dreadful shock to think my husband has been arrested,” she said, “but surely something can be done to prove his innocence.”
Instantly Frank and Joe assured her they would do everything they could to find the real thief, because they too felt that Mr. Robinson was not guilty.
The next morning, as the brothers were dressing in their room at home, Frank remarked, “There’s a great deal about this case that hasn’t come to the surface yet. It’s just possible that the man who stole Chet Morton’s car may have had something to do with the theft.”
Joe agreed. “He was a criminal-that much is certain. He stole an automobile and he tried to hold up the ticket office, so why not another robbery?”
“Right, Joe. I just realized that we never inspected Chet’s car for any dues to the thief, so let’s do it.”
The stout boy did not bring his jalopy to school that day, so the Hardys had to submerge their curiosity until classes and baseball practice were over. Then, when Mrs. Morton picked up Chet and Iola, Frank and Joe went home with them.
“I’ll look under the seats,” Joe offered.
“And I’ll search the trunk compartment.” Frank walked to the back of the car and raised the cover. He began rooting under rags, papers, and discarded schoolbooks. Presently he gave a cry of victory.
“Here it is! The best evidence in the world!”
Joe and Chet rushed to his side as he held up a man’s red wig.
Frank said excitedly, “Maybe there’s a clue in this hair piece!”
An examination failed to reveal any, but Frank said he would like to show the wig to his father. He covered it with a handkerchief and put it carefully in an inner pocket. Chet drove the Hardys home.
They assumed that their father was in his study on the second floor, and rushed up there and into the room without ceremony.
“Dad, we’ve found a clue!” Joe cried. Then he stepped back, embarrassed, as he realized there was someone else in the room.
“Sorry!” said Frank. The boys would have retreated, but Mr. Hardy’s visitor turned around and they saw that he was Perry Robinson.
“It’s only me,” said Slim. “Don’t go.”
“Perry has been trying to shed a little more light on the Tower robbery,” explained Mr, Hardy. “But what is this clue you’re talking about?”
“It might concern the robbery,” replied Frank. “It’s about the red-haired man.” He took the wig from his pocket and told where he had found it.
Mr. Hardy’s interest was kindled at once. “This seems to link up a pretty good chain of evidence. The man who passed you on the shore road wrecked the car he was driving, then stole Chet’s, and afterward tried to hold up the ticket office. When he failed there, he tried another and more successful robbery at the Tower.”
“Do you really think the wig might help us solve the Tower robbery?” asked Perry, taking hope.
“I was just telling your father,” Slim went on, “that I saw a strange man lurking around the grounds of the mansion two days before the robbery. I didn’t think anything of it at the time, and in the shock of Dad’s arrest I forgot about it.”
“Did you get a good look at him? Could you describe him?” Frank asked.
“I’m afraid I can’t. It was in the evening. I was sitting by a window, studying, and happened to look up. I saw this fellow moving about among the trees. Later, I heard one of the dogs barking in another part of the grounds. Shortly afterward, I saw someone running across the lawn. I thought he was just a tramp.”
“Did he wear a hat or a cap?”
“As near as I can remember, it was a cap. His clothes were dark.”
“And you couldn’t see his face?”
“Well, it’s not much to go on,” said Mr. Hardy, “but it might be linked up with Frank and Joe’s idea that the man who stole the jalopy may still have been hanging around Bayport.” The detective thought deeply for a few moments. “I’ll bring all these facts to Mr. Applegate’s attention, and I’m also going to have a talk with the police authorities. I feel they haven’t enough evidence to warrant holding your father, Perry.”
“Do you think you can have him released?” the boy asked eagerly.
“I’m sure of it. In fact, I believe Mr. Applegate is beginning to realize now that he made a mistake.”
“It will be wonderful if we can have Dad back with us again,” said Perry. “Of course things won’t be the same for him. He’ll be under a cloud of suspicion as long as this mystery isn’t cleared up. I suppose Mr. Applegate won’t employ him or anyone else.”
“All the more reason why we should get busy and clear up the affair,” Frank said quickly, and Joe added, “Slim, we’ll do all we can to help your father.”