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The Ghost in the First Row
By GERTRUDE CHANDLER WARNER, Robert Papp
ALBERT WHITMAN & CompanyCopyright © 2009 Albert Whitman & Company
All rights reserved.
Lady Chadwick's Riddle
"Is it really haunted, Grandfather?" asked six-year-old Benny, his eyes huge.
"Haunted?" James Alden looked puzzled, but only for a moment. "Oh, I suppose you children heard me on the phone?"
Jessie poured more milk into Benny's glass. "Yes, you were talking to Aunt Jane about the Trap-Door Theater, Grandfather," she explained. At twelve, Jessie often acted like a mother to her younger brother and sister.
Violet, who was ten, looked up. "Benny heard you say it was haunted, Grandfather."
Fourteen-year-old Henry shook his head. "Ghosts don't exist, Benny," he said. He sounded very sure.
The four Alden children—Henry, Jessie, Violet, and Benny—were sitting around the dining room table with their grandfather. They were discussing their upcoming visit to nearby Elmford. Aunt Jane had invited the children to stay with her while Uncle Andy was away on business.
Grandfather put down his fork. "The Trap-Door Theater was closed years ago, Benny," he explained. "Sometimes people start talking about ghosts when a building's been empty for a long time."
"That's true," said Mrs. McGregor, as she came into the room. "It's been called the haunted theater for as long as I can remember." She placed a bowl of salad on the table. "From what I've heard, they've done a wonderful job fixing up the old place."
Grandfather nodded. "That building was quite an eyesore," he said. "Now it looks just like it did when it was first built in the late 1800s."
"Aunt Jane bought tickets for opening night," Violet told their housekeeper, her eyes shining. "We'll be seeing a mystery play."
"And mysteries are our specialty!" added Benny sounding just as excited as his sister. There was nothing the children loved better than a mystery and together they'd managed to solve quite a few.
"I bet you'll have that mystery figured out before the last act, Benny," guessed Mrs. McGregor.
"Well, I am very good at sniffing out clues," Benny admitted.
Henry couldn't help laughing. "Benny, you're almost as good at sniffing out clues as you are at sniffing out food!"
"Right!" Benny gave his brother the thumbs-up sign. The youngest Alden was known for his appetite. He was always hungry.
"Aunt Jane had a hunch you'd enjoy a good whodunit," said Grandfather, as Mrs. McGregor walked out of the room.
"A what?" Benny looked puzzled.
"A whodunit," Henry repeated. "That's another name for a mystery, Benny."
"Oh, I get it," said Benny, catching on. "They call it a whodunit because you figure out who did it. Right?"
"Right," said Grandfather, as he passed the salad along. "And the play's supposed to be a first-rate whodunit. At least, that's what Aunt Jane tells me."
"One thing's for sure," said Jessie. "It'll be great to see Aunt Jane again."
"I'll second that!" Henry said.
"Yes, it's been a while since you've had a visit." Grandfather helped himself to the mashed potatoes.
Just then, Watch ran over, wagging his tail.
"Sorry, Watch," Violet said, petting their family dog softly on the head. "You can't go with us this time."
"Dogs aren't allowed on the train," said Benny.
"Besides," put in Violet, "you need to keep Grandfather and Mrs. McGregor company while we're gone."
"And look after our boxcar," added Henry.
After their parents died, the four Alden children had run away. For a while, their home was an old boxcar in the woods. But then their grandfather, James Alden, had found them. He brought his grandchildren to live with him in his big white house in Greenfield. Even the boxcar was given a special place in the backyard. The children often used it as a clubhouse.
"I'll drop you off at the train station after lunch tomorrow," said Grandfather. "Aunt Jane will be waiting for you when you arrive in Elmford."
"Thanks, Grandfather," said Jessie. "We'll pack tonight, then we won't be rushed in the morning."
The other Aldens smiled at each other. They could always count on Jessie to be organized.
Violet was wondering about something.
"Grandfather, why was the Trap-Door Theater left empty for such a long time?"
"Well, when the theater was first built, Violet," said Grandfather, "it was Elmford's pride and joy. Tickets were always sold out. But as the years went by, the building needed repairs. It slowly became more and more rundown. Soon people didn't want to go there anymore."
"Why didn't they do the repairs?" Benny wondered.
"The town of Elmford didn't have the money, Benny. The council finally closed the theater down."
"How did they finally get the money to fix it up?" Jessie wondered.
"When Alice Duncan died, she left her money to the town to restore the place," said Grandfather. "Alice was one of Aunt Jane's neighbors."
"What a wonderful thing to do!" said Violet. Jessie nodded. "She saved the old theater."
"For now, anyway." Grandfather put down his fork. "Everyone's hoping the theater will bring tourists into town. But ..."
"If it doesn't," guessed Henry, "they'll close it down again?"
"I'm afraid so, Henry. But if the theater brings tourists into town, it'll be good for everyone."
"That makes sense," Henry said after a moment's thought. "There'll be more shoppers going in and out of the stores. Right, Grandfather?"
"Right." Grandfather nodded.
"Oh, I'm sure the play will be a success," said Violet.
Benny was quick to agree. "Everybody likes a mystery!"
True to her word, Aunt Jane was waiting for the Aldens when their train pulled into Elmford the next day.
"I brought my binoculars for the play, Aunt Jane!" Benny shouted, running up and giving her a hug. Laughing, Aunt Jane returned the hug.
"Don't worry, Benny," she said. "We'll be sitting in the first row. I don't think you'll need binoculars."
"We can't wait to see what the theater looks like now," Violet said.
Henry loaded the suitcases into the car and they all got inside.
"Actually, you can take a peek at it right away," Aunt Jane said. "The theater is just around the corner, so you can see it from the outside. It's been completely done over."
"Thanks to your neighbor," said Henry, sitting up front beside Aunt Jane. "Alice Duncan, I mean."
"Yes, Alice was a great fan of the theater," said Aunt Jane. "And a wonderful friend."
Violet didn't like to hear the note of sadness in Aunt Jane's voice. She was trying to think of something cheery to say, but Jessie spoke first.
"I bet Alice would be pleased with all the work that's been done," she said.
"Yes, I think she would." Aunt Jane smiled at Jessie through the rearview mirror. "In the old days, Alice had a seat in the first row for every mystery play. And she always brought her knitting and a bag of popcorn with her for intermission."
"Wow," said Benny. "I guess Alice liked mysteries."
"She sure did, Benny." Aunt Jane nodded. "As a matter of fact, she even wrote her own mystery plays."
The children were surprised to hear this.
"Alice Duncan was a writer?" Jessie asked.
"She sure was," said Aunt Jane. "Whenever we had a cup of tea together, she'd tell me about her latest codes and clues."
That sounded like fun to Benny. "I bet she was a good writer."
"The best, Benny," said Aunt Jane. "And she always put a surprise twist in the last act."
"Were any of her plays performed in the Trap-Door Theater?" Jessie wondered.
"It was always Alice's dream to have one of her plays performed." Aunt Jane sighed. "But sadly, her dream never came true."
"What a shame!" said Violet.
"Alice wanted to give other writers the chance she never had," Aunt Jane went on. "That's why she left her money to the town—on one condition."
At this, the children were curious. "What was the condition?" Henry wondered.
"That a contest be held every summer. The winner would get a cash award," said Aunt Jane, "and the winning play would be performed at the Trap-Door Theater."
"Cool!" said Benny.
"The winner this year is a local college student, Tricia Jenkins. And from what I hear, she can really use the money."
"Oh?" Henry asked.
"Yes, apparently Tricia's putting herself through school," Aunt Jane told them. "She earns extra money working at her computer. They say she's an expert typist."
"So, it's Tricia's play we'll be seeing on opening night?" Jessie wondered.
"Yes." Aunt Jane nodded. "And I'm really looking forward to it. The judges were all very impressed that someone so young could write such a fine play."
"Then it's bound to be a big hit," Henry concluded.
"We're keeping our fingers crossed, Henry. Nobody wants the theater to close down again," said Aunt Jane.
"Well, guess what, Aunt Jane?" Benny piped up. "I'm going to clap extra hard at the end of the play—just in case."
"In case what, Benny?" asked Henry, looking over his shoulder.
"In case the theater really is haunted," said Benny. "The clapping will drown out all the booing from the ghosts."
"That's a good one, Benny," Henry said, as everyone burst out laughing.CHAPTER 2
The Haunted Theater
The Aldens drew in their breath as they pulled up in front of the Trap-Door Theater.
"Oh, it looks wonderful!" said Violet, as they climbed out of the car. She gazed admiringly at the stone building with its marble columns.
Henry let out a low whistle. "Awesome."
Aunt Jane looked pleased. "See those stone lions on either side of the ticket window? We thought they were lost forever," she said.
"But then, one of the workmen came across them in a dark corner of the basement."
"That was lucky," said Benny.
"Yes, they were quite a find," Aunt Jane said, with a big smile. "Now the theater looks just like it did when it was first built."
"They really did a great job," said Jessie.
Aunt Jane agreed. "It's like stepping back in time," she said. "In fact, the mayor's planning to arrive by horse and buggy on opening night."
Henry's eyebrows shot up. "Wow, he's really getting into the spirit of things."
"Oh, yes," said Aunt Jane. "This is the biggest thing that's happened to Elmford in a long time."
Benny tilted his head back to look up at the sign above the doorway. "What does that say?" he wanted to know. The youngest Alden was just learning to read.
Jessie read the words on the billboard aloud. "Lady Chadwick's Riddle—Starring Fern Robson."
"You're not throwing your money away on tickets, are you?" Everyone whirled around as a middle-aged man with a mustache walked towards them. He was wearing a business suit, and his dark hair was slicked back.
"Hello, Gil," Aunt Jane greeted him. "We were just checking out the theater." She introduced the children to Gil Diggs, the owner of the local movie theater.
"If you ask me, Alice wasted her money on this place."
Aunt Jane stared at Gil in surprise. "I think the Trap-Door Theater does the town proud."
"It's just a matter of time before they close it down again," Gil said, shaking his head. As he walked away, he called back over his shoulder, "Mark my words!"
"He doesn't seem very happy about the theater," said Benny.
"Gil has a lot on his mind these days," Aunt Jane explained. "It makes him seem a bit grumpy sometimes. You see, his movie theater hasn't been doing well lately."
Violet asked, "Why's that, Aunt Jane?"
"They opened a huge movie complex on the highway, Violet. Some of Gil's customers go there now. And on top of that, a lot of people would rather rent movies and watch them at home these days."
"That's true," said Henry. "We do that, too."
Aunt Jane nodded. "I imagine Gil thinks the Trap-Door Theater will take away even more business. He doesn't seem to understand," she said, "that a successful theater will bring tourists into town."
"And that would be good for everyone's business," finished Henry, remembering what Grandfather had said.
"Exactly," said Aunt Jane. "But it'll take time for Gil to realize that, I'm afraid. Speaking of time," she added, "I'd better take Uncle Andy's watch to the jewelry store for repairs. I'll be right back."
While the children were waiting, they noticed a young woman in a hooded white top and track pants step out of the theater. She was wearing sunglasses, and her coppery red hair was pulled back into a ponytail. A tall man appeared seconds later, the sleeves of his white shirt rolled up above his elbows, and a pencil stuck behind his ear.
From where they were standing, the Aldens couldn't help overhearing their conversation.
"Hold on a minute," the young man was saying. "You're getting upset over nothing, Fern."
"How can you call it nothing? I have a good mind to walk out on—"
The man broke in, "I'm sure it's just somebody's idea of a joke."
"Well, if it's a joke," the woman shot back, "it's not a very funny one!"
"Her name is Fern," Henry whispered to the others. "She must be the actress starring in the play."
Jessie felt uncomfortable listening to the conversation. "Maybe we should walk over to the jewelry store," she suggested in a low voice. "It isn't nice to eavesdrop."
"Oh, here comes Aunt Jane now," said Violet.
"Jane Bean!" The young man waved a hand in the air as Aunt Jane approached. "You're just the person I wanted to see."
Aunt Jane introduced the children to Ray Shaw. He was the director of the Trap-Door Theater. Then she said, "What can I do for you, Ray?"
"I was hoping I could stop by tonight," said Ray, "to pick up a few things from your shed."
"Of course!" Aunt Jane nodded. Then she turned to the children. "Alice left most of her belongings to the theater," she explained. "We're keeping them in the old shed out back."
"The workmen should be finished in the basement soon," said Ray. "Then we'll have a dry place to keep all the stage props."
"That's good," Aunt Jane told him. "As you know, the lock's been broken on that shed for years."
Ray laughed. "I don't think anybody would be interested in stealing old furniture," he told her.
"By the way," Aunt Jane added, "how are rehearsals going?"
"Don't ask!" The woman with the coppery red hair came over and joined their group. "I'm at the end of my rope."
Ray introduced everyone to Fern Robson who was playing the lead in Lady Chadwick's Riddle.
"This theater makes my hair stand on end," Fern went on, shivering a little. "I'm a bundle of nerves!"
Henry and Jessie exchanged glances. Why was Fern so upset?
"I have an idea," said Aunt Jane. "Why don't you both join us for dinner this evening? How does a barbecue sound?"
"Sounds great!" said Ray. "Count me in."
"Me, too," said Fern. "I could use a break from the ghost world." The actress shivered a little.
The Aldens looked at one another. The ghost world? What on earth was Fern Robson talking about?CHAPTER 3
"Fern is such a pretty name," Aunt Jane was saying, as they sat around the picnic table in the backyard.
"Oh, do you like it?" Fern's face broke into a smile. "You know, I couldn't make up my mind between Fern and Cassandra. But I decided to go with Fern."
Benny wrinkled up his forehead. "You named yourself?"
"Well, I'm really Susan. But I wanted a name with more pizzazz. Something that would look good up in lights."
"I think you made a great choice," Violet said.
"Thank you, Violet," said Fern. "Lots of people in show business change their names, you know. Even the winner of the play-writing contest changed her name. Isn't that true, Ray?"
Ray wiped some mustard from the corner of his mouth. "Well, she changed her nickname, at least."
"I was hoping to see my name first on the billboard," Fern went on. "Above the title of the play, I mean." She shot the director a look. "But I suppose that was hoping for too much."
Ray rolled his eyes, but he didn't say anything. Instead, he dished up another helping of potato salad.
Jessie couldn't help noticing that the Fern had hardly eaten a bite. She was only poking at her food with a fork.
The actress caught Jessie's look. "I'm afraid I have a nervous stomach," she said. "I can't stop thinking about all the strange things that have been happening at the theater."
Aunt Jane looked up in surprise. "What's been happening?"
Fern leaned forward and whispered, "The ghosts have been acting up."
"This isn't the time or the place—" Ray began.
Fern waved that away. "They've been using it for years, you know. It gives me goose bumps just to think about it!"
"What do you mean?" Benny's big eyes were round.
"I'm talking about the ghosts." Fern replied. "They've been using the theater to perform their plays."
The Aldens looked at one another. They were too stunned to speak.
"The ghosts aren't happy about the theater opening up again," Fern went on. "They don't want to share it with the public."
"You don't really believe that," said Henry. "Do you, Fern?"
"Take a look at the facts," Fern said.
Jessie stared at the actress. "What facts?"
"Well, for starters, things keep disappearing." Fern looked slowly around the table. "Then they show up in the oddest places."
"That's weird," said Benny. He was so interested in the conversation that he still hadn't taken a bite of his hamburger.
"Remember Lady Chadwick's hat?" Fern turned to look at Ray. "The one with the yellow marigolds on it?"
"I remember," said Ray. "We found it hanging from the chandelier in the lobby."
"What's a chandelier?" Benny wanted to know.
Excerpted from The Ghost in the First Row by GERTRUDE CHANDLER WARNER, Robert Papp. Copyright © 2009 Albert Whitman & Company. Excerpted by permission of ALBERT WHITMAN & Company.
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