Read an Excerpt
The Mystery At Peacock Hall
By GERTRUDE CHANDLER WARNER, Charles Tang
ALBERT WHITMAN & CompanyCopyright © 1998 Albert Whitman & Company
All rights reserved.
"Come at Once!"
From the front seat of the station wagon, Benny Alden traced the large R at the top of the letter with his finger.
"What did you say this was again?" he asked his grandfather.
"A monogram," replied Grandfather. "The first letter is a person's last name. Our monogram would be A for Alden."
"A monogram is an initial," said Jessie from the backseat. "Initials are the first letters of your name. Your initials are —"
"B, A!" Benny finished. At six, he was just learning to read. His sister Jessie, who was twelve, was teaching him more each day.
Next to Jessie, ten-year-old Violet turned from the window. "When I grow up, I'm going to have thick writing paper with my monogram on it in gold, just like Cousin Althea's."
It had only been a few days ago that the letter from Althea Randolph had arrived. It had a gold monogram on the envelope. Grandfather had opened it right away.
Althea Randolph was a cousin of Grandfather's wife, Celia. In the letter, Althea claimed to be in trouble and needed Grandfather's help.
The Alden children and their grandfather always tried to help people. Once, Henry, Jessie, Violet, and Benny had lived in an old boxcar. Their parents had died, and they were afraid their grandfather was mean. But then he had found them, and the children had learned that James Alden was a kind and loving man.
Grandfather decided immediately that they would go to Virginia, where Althea lived in a house called Peacock Hall. The Aldens packed, took a plane to Richmond, Virginia, then rented a car to drive to the Randolph estate.
Now they were driving past emerald-green pastures with grazing horses. Violet wished she had brought her camera. The chestnut horses would make a great picture. But they had left in such a hurry, she forgot to pack it.
"I wonder what kind of trouble Cousin Althea is in," she said.
Grandfather shook his head. "She didn't say in her letter. She just asked for us to come at once. We've been on this road quite a while. I'm not sure this is the right way."
Benny pointed. "Look! There's a lady selling stuff. Let's stop and ask her."
"Good idea." Grandfather pulled the station wagon off the road.
The kids piled out, glad to stretch after the long ride.
A woman in her late twenties was arranging jars of small plants on a rough wooden counter. Wreaths of grapevine and dried flowers hung from the front of the handmade stall. A boy about Violet's age watered buckets of flowers.
"Can I help you?" the woman said. Jessie thought she was pretty, with strawberry-blond hair and eyes so blue they were nearly purple.
"We're looking for a house called Peacock Hall," said Grandfather. "Do you know if this is the right road?"
"Yes, it is," the woman replied in a soft Virginia drawl. "Keep going about a mile, to the old stone wall. The driveway is on the right. There's a sign, but it's grown over with trees."
"Thank you," Grandfather said.
Benny was interested in the weird-smelling plants on the counter.
"Those are herbs," the woman told him.
Benny wrinkled his nose. "What are herbs?"
"Plants used in cooking. And people like them just because they smell nice, too." The woman pulled off a leaf and crushed it between her fingers. "What's that smell like?" Benny sniffed. "Lemon!"
"Very good! The plant is called lemon balm."
Jessie chose a bunch of wildflowers. "Do you think Cousin Althea would like these?" she asked.
"They are pretty. By the way, I'm Heather Olsen and this is my son, David. Hope to see you again."
"Do you live around here?" Grandfather asked Heather as he paid for the purchase.
"Yeah, we live —" David began.
But Heather interrupted loudly, "David! Don't drown the daffodils!"
He glanced down at the watering can, suddenly silent.
"Thanks very much for your help," said Henry, who was fourteen.
They all got back in the station wagon.
Violet watched David as they drove off. The boy didn't look up. "David seems kind of strange."
"Maybe he's just shy," Jessie said, burying her nose in the bouquet of spring blooms.
But Violet didn't think so. She thought David was about to say something and his mother stopped him. But she forgot about Heather and David as Grandfather turned the car onto a pitted asphalt lane.
"Boy," said Benny. "This is the longest driveway."
"It is long," Grandfather agreed, as the car bounced over a pothole. "Althea could use a load of gravel in these holes. And those bushes need to be cut back."
Locust trees and honeysuckle vines grew densely along each side. The thick shrubbery gave Jessie the creeps. If the driveway was this bad, what would the house be like?
Suddenly the trees gave way to a wide, sloping lawn. The land looped around a crumbling goldfish pond. A large stone fish balanced on its tail in the center of the empty pool.
Jessie gasped when she saw the house. Three stories of pinkish red brick soared above a half-moon porch. Massive white pillars supported the porch roof. A brick-paved walk, bordered by red and yellow tulips, led to the steps.
"Wow!" Benny exclaimed. "What a big house!"
Grandfather parked the car. "Yes, Peacock Hall is quite impressive. But the porch needs painting and the flower beds are full of weeds. Why has Althea let the place get so run- down?"
Everyone climbed out. Henry unloaded the luggage and they each took a bag up the steps.
Grandfather rang the bell. After a short pause, the heavy oak door swung inward.
"James!" said the old woman who stood there. "I'm so glad you're here! And you brought your grandchildren!"
"Hello, Althea," said Grandfather, putting out his hand. "Yes, these are my grandchildren. This is Henry, Jessie, Violet, and Benny."
"Welcome," Althea Randolph greeted them. "Please come in! You must be exhausted after that trip."
She led them down a long hall and into a high-ceilinged room with peach-colored walls. Portraits of stern-looking men and women glared down at the visitors.
"Sit down," Althea offered. "I've made some lemonade."
While Althea poured drinks, Jessie studied her cousin. She was older than Grandfather. Snow-white curls framed a face that was still pretty. Althea wore a lace-collared print dress with a silver pin.
Grandfather accepted his glass with a nod of thanks. "Althea, do you live here alone? I know your husband passed away some years ago."
"Yes," Althea replied. "Grayson died eight years ago. We had no children, you know. Old Tate lives on the grounds. He's the gardener, but he doesn't do much these days."
"How old is this house?" Henry asked, looking at the iron implements hanging from the fireplace.
Althea brightened. "Peacock Hall is very old. It was originally built in 1814 by my husband's ancestor, Zachary Randolph. Zachary was friends with Thomas Jefferson. Did you know that Monticello, Jefferson's estate, is nearby?"
Henry nodded. "Thomas Jefferson was the third president."
Violet felt like she was living in a history lesson. "How did the house get its name?"
"Zachary brought a pair of peacocks with him from England," Althea replied. "Well, a peacock and a peahen, as the female bird is called. Anyway, it's family tradition that there are always peacocks on the lawn."
Benny's eyes grew bright. "Where are the peacocks now?" He'd seen pictures of the colorful birds.
"You'll see them," Althea said. Then she added soberly, "Though I don't know how long the tradition will last."
Grandfather said, "Your letter sounded urgent."
Althea's blue eyes clouded. "Oh, James, I'm in such terrible trouble! I owe some money in back taxes on this place. If I don't pay by Friday, I'll be evicted and Peacock Hall will be auctioned!"
"Can they do that?" asked Jessie. She couldn't believe Althea could be thrown out of her own house.
"Yes, they can," said Grandfather. "Althea, did Grayson leave you his estate when he died?"
She dabbed a tissue at her eyes. "Yes, he left me the house and what was in our bank account. We never had much money. Peacock Hall is expensive to run. Something is always breaking, like the furnace or the plumbing. Grayson told me he never wanted Peacock Hall to leave the Randolph family. The Randolphs built this house and kept it even during difficult times."
Grandfather frowned. "You and Grayson didn't have children. Are there any other Randolphs who might buy it?"
"Grayson had some distant cousins," Althea replied. "But they're scattered all over the country. They don't want to be burdened with a white elephant in Virginia."
Benny leaned forward. "White elephant? Where?" He loved elephants. When he grew up, he planned to own one.
Althea laughed. "It's an expression, Benny, dear. A white elephant is a big place nobody wants."
Jessie rubbed her hand over the worn chair cushion. She could see why Peacock Hall might be hard to sell. People today wanted new houses.
Footsteps rang across the foyer. Henry who was sitting closest to the doorway saw a red- faced young man rush into the room.
"Aunt Althea!" the man thundered. "If you're going behind my back and selling to a real estate agent —"
"Roscoe Janney!" Althea chided. "Where are your manners? This gentleman is my cousin Celia's husband, James Alden. And these are his grandchildren. They've come to visit me."
"Oh." Roscoe looked embarrassed. "Aunt Althea, have you considered my offer — will you sell Peacock Hall? You could get a cozy little apartment in Charlottesville."
Althea drew herself up. "First of all, Roscoe, your paltry offer is an insult. Peacock Hall is worth twice that price. And second, let me remind you that although you are my great- nephew, you are not a Randolph."
Roscoe's beady eyes narrowed. "By Friday you're going to wish you had snapped up my offer. Only by then it'll be too late!" He turned on his heel and left, slamming the front door behind him.
"I apologize for my great-nephew's behavior," Althea said to Grandfather. "He's right about one thing, though. By Friday I'll have to leave."
"Have you had any other offers?" Grandfather asked.
"One. A woman named Marlene Sanders came by a month ago. She offered me a fair price, but the development firm she represents wants to tear the house down and put up a golf course!" Althea seemed ready to cry. "If I sell, what will happen to old Tate? I hate to go against my husband's wish. I promised him I'd only sell this house to a member of the Randolph family."
Grandfather patted Althea's hand. "It'll be all right. But we can't fix your problem tonight. Tomorrow is Monday. I'll go downtown and check the county records."
The older woman looked relieved. "The taxes are due Friday at five o'clock. I'd be so grateful if you stayed until then."
Grandfather pushed himself to his feet. "My grandchildren are very helpful as well. They've solved a number of mystery cases."
"You don't say!" Althea smiled. "Maybe you children will find the secret of Peacock Hall."
Benny who was nodding off, became alert. "Mystery? There's a mystery here? Tell us about it!"
Grandfather laughed. "Not tonight. We've had a long day and it's bedtime."
"I'll show you to your rooms," Althea led them up a wide flight of stairs and down a hallway. "I'm afraid I don't use these rooms anymore, so you'll have to make up your own beds. Linens are in this closet."
Benny and Henry chose a blue-painted room overlooking the empty fish pond. The girls picked a room across the hall with rose-patterned wallpaper.
Violet sneezed when she opened the linen closet. "Whew! Nobody's used these sheets in ages." She took out sheets and pillowcases for four twin beds. Handing two sets to her brothers, she said good night.
In their room, Jessie began making up their beds. "This house needs a good cleaning!"
Violet yawned hugely. "Please. I'm too tired to think about cleaning tonight."
They climbed into bed and Jessie switched off the old-fashioned lamp on the nightstand.
"What's that?" Violet asked.
Jessie was nearly asleep. "What's what?"
"That scratching sound. Hear it?" Violet sat up.
"Maybe it's a tree branch outside," Jessie said drowsily.
But Violet had to see. She slid out of bed and padded over to the window.
A face peered back at her!CHAPTER 2
Mr. Jefferson's House
Violet shouted, "Somebody's out there!"
Jessie threw back the covers and dashed to the window. "I don't see anyone. Are you sure?"
"Positive!" Violet thrust back the rosebud-sprigged curtains. A soft mist had drifted in from the hills. It was hard to see clearly. Still, Violet knew she had seen a face.
Feet pounded down the hall. The others had heard Violet's cry. Grandfather burst into the room, Henry and Benny at his heels.
"What is it?" Grandfather said.
"I saw someone looking in the window!" Violet answered.
Althea Randolph appeared wearing an old velvet bathrobe. "You must have been dreaming, child. We're two stories up."
Grandfather looked through the window. "If Violet says she saw someone out here, she did. Henry, you're still dressed. Come with me. We'll look outside."
Benny held out his flashlight. It was new and he never went anywhere without it. "Take this, Grandfather."
"Thanks, Benny. Henry and I will be back in a minute."
Everyone went downstairs to wait in the living room.
Violet was still shaking. She couldn't tell if the face had belonged to a man or a woman. But she knew she hadn't been dreaming.
Henry came back in, followed by Grandfather, who gave Benny his flashlight.
"Did you find anything?" Benny asked.
"Marks in the dirt under the second-story window," Henry reported. "Probably from a ladder. Violet was right — someone was there."
Althea put a hand to her cheek. "Oh, my! In all my years here, I can't recall ever having a burglar."
"The person is gone now," Grandfather assured her.
They all went back to bed. Violet didn't think she could fall asleep after so much excitement. She closed her eyes, trying to picture the face at the window.
When she opened them again, birds were singing and spring sunshine filled the room.
Jessie was already up and dressed. She swiped a finger across the dusty dresser. "We have to clean this room!"
Violet groaned, pulling on jeans and a purple T-shirt. "Not before breakfast!" Jessie was worried. If Althea didn't have any money to pay her taxes, how could she feed five extra people?
She was surprised to walk into the dining room and see the oblong mahogany table set with beautiful china. Althea came in carrying a silver tray loaded with a platter of crisp bacon and fried eggs, a crystal dish of honey and a basket heaped with homemade biscuits.
"Let me help," Jessie offered. "I love your dishes."
"They've been in my husband's family for many years."
As Jessie placed silver knives and forks around the table, she asked, "This house is important to you, isn't it?"
"I've lived my whole life here, it seems. I can't imagine living anywhere else." Althea left and came back with Grandfather's wildflowers in a tall vase.
Benny skidded into the room. "Oh, boy! Food!"
Jessie laughed. Her little brother wasn't interested in pretty dishes or flowers, only the next meal.
At breakfast, Grandfather announced he was going into town to go through the county records.
"I want to make sure that tax bill is accurate," he said, draining his coffee cup.
When he left, the children went outside to check where the prowler had been.
Henry showed them several dents in the soft earth near the foundation. "Whoever Violet saw used a ladder to look into the second-story window."
"But why?" asked Violet.
Henry shrugged. "Maybe to scare us."
"Who knows we're here?" Jessie pulled her hair off her neck. The day was warming up fast.
"Nobody, except that great-nephew," Henry replied. "And I don't know why he'd try to scare us."
Benny was staring up at the first-floor window just above his head. "Look!" he said, pointing to something blue caught on the sandstone ledge.
Since he was the tallest, Henry reached up and plucked the scrap of fabric free.
"That's denim," Jessie said. "The material jeans are made out of." She compared the scrap to Violet's jeans.
"A clue," Henry said. "Nice work, Benny. Now we know the prowler is wearing ripped jeans."
"I knew we'd find a mystery here," Violet said.
"Two mysteries," Benny corrected.
"What's the other one?" Jessie wanted to know.
"The secret in this house," Benny reminded them. "Cousin Althea was going to tell us about it, but we had to go to bed. Let's ask her now!"
He ran ahead, leaping up on the front porch and through the wide front door.
Jessie called after him. "Save your energy, Benny! We have some serious housework to do." She looked at Henry and Violet. "You don't mind, do you? I feel sorry for Althea. The house is so big."
"I like old houses," Henry replied. "And this one is neat."
Althea was delighted with Jessie's plan. She gave them mops, brooms, and cleaning supplies.
But before Benny lifted a dust rag, he had to know about the secret. "You said you'd tell us."
"Oh, that!" said Althea. "It's just a silly story, passed from one generation to the next. Grayson told me there's something in Peacock Hall that's priceless."
"What is it?" asked Violet. She was curious, too.
"I have no idea," their hostess replied. "Grayson didn't know, either. It's truly a secret!"
"It must be a hidden treasure," Benny declared. "We'll find it for you!"
Excerpted from The Mystery At Peacock Hall by GERTRUDE CHANDLER WARNER, Charles Tang. Copyright © 1998 Albert Whitman & Company. Excerpted by permission of ALBERT WHITMAN & Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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