Read an Excerpt
The Mystery Girl
By GERTRUDE CHANDLER WARNER, Charles Tang
ALBERT WHITMAN & CompanyCopyright © 1992 Albert Whitman & Company
All rights reserved.
It was summer vacation, and the Alden children, Henry, Jessie, Violet, and Benny, had gone to stay for a week with their Aunt Jane in Elmford. On the first morning of their visit, they got up early. They had decided to surprise Aunt Jane by making a special breakfast.
"I vote for pancakes," six-year-old Benny whispered as they all went quietly downstairs.
"That sounds good to me," said Henry, who was fourteen. "Pancakes with that special maple syrup that Aunt Jane gets at Jerry Taylor's general store."
"And some fresh strawberries, too," twelve-year-old Jessie said. "I saw some in the refrigerator last night when we had a snack. Benny, you can wash the strawberries, and I'll make the pancake batter."
"I'll set the table," Henry volunteered.
"And I'll pick some flowers for it," said Violet, who was ten. "Then we can all go wake Aunt Jane."
But when the Aldens went into the kitchen, Aunt Jane was already there, sitting at the table.
"Aunt Jane, it's so early!" Benny cried. "Don't you want to go back to bed for a while?"
Aunt Jane put her glass of orange juice down and smiled. "It is early, Benny, but I'm wide awake."
"Are you sure?" Benny asked. "Maybe if you got back in bed, you'd feel sleepy again."
Jessie laughed. "We'll have to wait for another time, Benny." She kissed Aunt Jane good morning. "We were going to surprise you by having breakfast ready before you got up," she explained.
"Pancakes and maple syrup and strawberries," Benny said. "It was going to be so good."
"It can still be good, Benny," Violet said. "It just won't be a surprise, that's all."
Aunt Jane shook her head. "It sounds delicious, but I'm afraid I can't take the time for a pancake breakfast this morning."
"What do you have to do?" Henry asked. He took some juice glasses from the cabinet for his brother and sisters. "Can we help?"
"I'm sure you can," Aunt Jane said. "While Andy is away on his business trip, I'm going to make some new curtains for the den." Andy Bean was Aunt Jane's husband. "It's his favorite room in the house and I just finished painting it. But the curtains are old and faded, and they look terrible."
"You're working on a surprise of your own," Violet said, as she poured orange juice for everyone.
"That's right," Aunt Jane agreed, laughing. "I thought I'd drive out to Taylor's General Store this morning. He sells everything, including fabric. Would you all like to come with me and help me pick it out?"
"Yes!" Benny took a big gulp of his juice. "We've never been there. I would really like to see it!"
Henry rumpled Benny's hair. "I bet you'd like to see all the jars of penny candy Aunt Jane told you about."
"I sure would," Benny said. "Wouldn't you?"
"You're right, I would," Henry laughed.
"Does Mr. Taylor sell peppermint drops, Aunt Jane?" Violet asked.
"Yes, he does," Aunt Jane said. "Why?"
"Because that's Grandfather's favorite candy," Violet said. "We can take him some when we go back to Greenfield."
The Aldens' parents were dead, and they lived with their grandfather, James Alden. Before that, they had run away and lived by themselves, in an old, abandoned boxcar, which they had turned into a home. They had been afraid of their grandfather because they thought he was mean and wouldn't like them. Once they met him, they found out how kind he was, and now they loved him very much.
"We should take Watch something, too," Benny said. The Aldens' dog, Watch, had stayed behind in Greenfield with their grandfather. "Does Mr. Taylor's store have dog biscuits, Aunt Jane?"
"I'm not sure, Benny," Aunt Jane said. "But he does have dog collars."
"That's perfect," Jessie said. "We'll get candy for Grandfather and a new collar for Watch. And here's another reason we should go with you, Aunt Jane." She held up an almost-empty bottle. "There's not enough of Jerry Taylor's maple syrup left for even one pancake."
Benny laughed. "It's a good thing you got up before us, Aunt Jane. Pancakes without syrup would have been a real surprise!"
After a fast breakfast of cereal with strawberries, everyone got in the car. Jerry's general store was several miles out of town. As they were driving, Jessie pointed out the window at a long, low building with lots of glass and a big fountain in front of it. "What's that building?" she asked. "It wasn't here the last time we came to visit you."
"That's the Elmford Shopping Center," Aunt Jane said. "It opened just a few days ago. It has several different stores in it including a grocery store, a department store that sells just about everything except food, and two restaurants."
"It looked so modern and fancy," Jessie said.
"It is," Aunt Jane said.
"Have you gone shopping there, Aunt Jane?" Violet asked.
"Not yet," Aunt Jane said. "Some of my friends have told me it's very nice, so I'll probably try it one of these days."
Soon the Elmford Shopping Center was behind them, and after a few more miles of driving, they arrived at Taylor's General Store. It was a brown wooden building with a long porch across the front. There was an old-fashioned glider on the porch, and two wooden tubs with petunias and geraniums stood beside the front door.
"This is such a pretty place," Violet said as they all got out of the car. Violet always appreciated the way things looked.
"Do you see those cabins?" Aunt Jane asked, pointing to a group of small cabins near the store. "Jerry lives in one of them, and he rents the others to people who are on vacation."
"Look!" Benny pointed to a white sign in one of the store's front windows. "'Help Wanted,'" he read.
"I didn't know Jerry needed help," Aunt Jane said. "I was here two weeks ago and the sign wasn't there then. Jerry always has two people working for him. I wonder what happened to them."
"We'll find out soon enough," Benny said. He ran ahead of the others and hopped up the steps. As he jumped onto the porch, a tall woman came out of the store. Benny almost bumped into her, but he stopped just in time.
"Excuse me," Benny said, smiling up at the woman.
But the woman just frowned at him and hurried down the steps, past Aunt Jane and the others.
"That woman didn't buy a thing," Aunt Jane said, as she and the others joined Benny on the porch. "I've never known anyone to leave Jerry's store empty-handed."
"Maybe she wanted to run in and ask directions," Jessie said. "She looked like she was in a hurry."
"But how could she not buy any penny candy?" Benny asked.
Henry laughed. "Maybe she just doesn't like it, Benny."
Just then, they all heard a girl's voice cry, "Oh, no! Look out!" Then there was a clanging, rattling noise from inside the store.CHAPTER 2
The General Store
Aunt Jane and the children ran into the store. They saw a pile of shiny pots and pans lying on the floor. A woman was standing near the long wooden counter, and a young girl with short red hair was picking up the pans. Violet said, "Let's go help."
The Aldens quickly picked up the rest of the pans and put them on the counter. "Oh, thank you," said the red-haired girl. "I don't know what happened. I was reaching for a pan and suddenly they all came tumbling off the shelf. I'm just glad you didn't get hit on the head," she said to the woman who was standing by the counter.
"No harm done to me," the woman said. "Are the pans all right?"
"Oh, yes," the girl said. "Mr. Taylor sells the best." She held up a deep saucepan with a wooden handle. "You see? Not even a scratch."
The woman took the pan and looked it over. The girl smiled at the Aldens and Aunt Jane. "Mr. Taylor is on the phone in his office right now," she said. "But I'll be with you in just a moment."
"Please don't hurry," Aunt Jane told her. "I need to take my time looking at the fabric."
Aunt Jane and Violet walked over to look at the bolts of cloth on one side of the store.
On the other side of the store there were boxes of nuts and bolts and nails, gardening and building tools, and camping equipment. "This is a great place!" Henry said to Jessie. He walked over to look at the building tools.
"Aunt Jane was right," Jessie said. "This store has everything." She went to look at the shelves of sweatshirts, jeans, thick socks, and leather belts.
Near the counter was a table with fresh fruit and vegetables. There were also two big barrels, one with peanuts in the shell, the other with walnuts. On the shelves behind the counter were jars of maple syrup and honey and jam. On the counter itself was a long row of big glass jars filled with bright-colored candy. Benny stayed close to the counter and looked at the candy. He could hear the woman and the red-haired girl talking about the pans.
"This is a nice one," the woman said.
"It sure is," said the red-haired girl enthusiastically. "You will be able to make great scrambled eggs in it."
The woman laughed a little. "My dear," she said. "This is a saucepan. I might use it to boil eggs, but I could never scramble them in it."
The red-haired girl blushed. Then she laughed, too. "You are right," she said. "I guess I got mixed up."
Just then, a man came out of a room at the back of the store. He was middle-aged, with thick brown hair and bright blue eyes, and he looked worried.
Aunt Jane saw him and smiled. "Hello, Jerry," she said.
Jerry Taylor stopped looking worried and smiled, too. "Hello, Jane," he said, walking over to her and Violet. "I'm glad to see you." "It's nice to see you, too," Aunt Jane said. "I want you to meet my nieces and nephews, who are visiting me."
By this time, Benny, Jessie, and Henry had joined them. Aunt Jane introduced them to Jerry Taylor, and they all shook hands.
"Your Aunt Jane has told me a lot about you and I'm glad to meet you," Mr. Taylor said to the children. "I'm afraid I can't talk very long right now, though. I want to stay by my phone in the office. I'm hoping to get more calls about the job."
"We saw the help wanted sign in your window," Aunt Jane said. "What happened to Sam and Dick, who used to work here?"
"Sam and his family moved away," Jerry said. "But Dick quit and went to work at the shopping center."
"That new one we passed on the way here?" Jessie asked.
Jerry nodded. He was looking worried again. "There's nothing wrong with a shopping center, of course," he said. "But it's fancy and modern, and my store is pretty old-fashioned. I can't help worrying that the Elmford Shopping Center will hurt my business."
"I don't believe it," Benny declared. "This is the best store I've ever seen!"
Jerry smiled. "I hope all my regular customers agree with you, Benny."
"I'm sure they will," Jessie said reassuringly.
"Have you lost much business yet?" Henry asked.
"No, not yet," Jerry said. "Of course, everyone will try the new place out. I don't blame them. But if they stick with me, I'll have to be ready for them. And that means having enough help."
Just then, the woman who had been looking at the pans walked past them and went outside.
"Gosh," Benny said. "She didn't buy anything, either."
The red-haired girl came over to Jerry and the others. She looked disappointed. "I'm sorry, Mr. Taylor," she said. "I thought for sure that woman was going to buy the pan, even though I knocked them off the shelf. But at the last minute, she said she wanted to look in some other places."
"Probably the new shopping center," Jerry said. He shook his head and then patted the girl on the shoulder. "That's all right, Nancy," he said. "I'm sure you did your best to sell it." He turned to the others. "This is Nancy Baldwin," he said. "She started working for me a week ago, and I sure am glad to have her."
"Hi, I'm Jessie Alden," Jessie said. "This is my sister, Violet, and my brothers, Henry and Benny. And this is our Aunt Jane. She lives in Elmford and we're visiting her."
Nancy smiled and shook hands with the children and Aunt Jane. But before they could say any more than hello, the door opened and a woman came in. She started looking at the fruit.
"Excuse me," Nancy said to the Aldens and Aunt Jane. "I'd better get back to work. Cross your fingers that I don't knock anything else down!"
After Nancy walked over to the customer, a telephone rang. "Good," Mr. Taylor said. "I hope it's someone about the job. I sure do need the help." He went back into his office.
"This is too bad," Aunt Jane said as she and the children walked over to look at the bolts of fabric. "I hope Jerry finds another person to work here soon."
"He is really worried about the new shopping center, too," Violet said. "Is there anything we can do to cheer him up?"
"Let's buy lots of curtain material and candy," Benny suggested. "That will make him happy."
"That's a good idea, Benny," Henry said, laughing. "It's too bad we can't do it every day."
Just then, a man came into the store. He looked around and then said loudly, "Excuse me, but I need to buy some nails, and I'm in a big hurry."
Nancy Baldwin, who was still busy with the other customer, said, "I'll be with you just as soon as I can."
The man frowned. "I can't wait long. I'm in the middle of repairing my front steps. Where is Jerry? Can't he help me?"
"Not right now, I'm afraid," Nancy said nervously. She was holding a bunch of bananas that the other customer had picked out. "He should be back in just a few minutes, though."
The man frowned even harder. Nancy looked even more nervous and dropped the bananas she was holding.
"Oh, no!" her customer said. "Now they're probably bruised."
"I'm sorry," Nancy said. "Please, pick out another bunch."
"Another bunch?" said the man who wanted the nails. "I'm going to be waiting here forever."
"Poor Nancy," Violet whispered. "She's
having a hard time trying to do everything herself."
"I can help out with this," said Henry. He walked over to the man and said, "I'll be glad to show you the nails."
"Do you work here?" the man asked.
Henry shook his head. "No, but I worked in a hardware store once. And I was just looking at the hammers and bolts and nails. What kind of nails do you need?"
The two of them walked over to where the nails were, and soon, Henry had helped the man find the ones he needed. Henry took the man's money and gave him his change and a receipt from the cash register.
When the man left, Nancy was ready to weigh the new bananas the woman had picked out. "Let me see," she said, "bananas are thirty-nine cents a pound." She put a small bunch of bananas on the big brass scale and stared at it. "These weigh—"
"A pound, exactly," the customer interrupted.
"You're right!" Nancy sounded relieved. "That will be thirty-nine cents."
The woman counted out the change. Henry was still at the cash register, so he opened it and Nancy put in the thirty-nine cents. Then the woman decided to look at gardening tools, so Nancy went with her. "Thanks for helping that man with the nails," she said to Henry as she left the counter. "Tell your aunt I'll be with her just as soon as I can."
"The store is pretty busy," Henry said as he joined Aunt Jane and the others. "That's good. But if Mr. Taylor doesn't find another person to work here, I'm afraid people won't want to wait until Nancy can help them."
Jessie nodded. "Then he will lose business, just like he said."
"He's not going to lose your business is he, Aunt Jane?" Benny asked.
"Of course not, Benny," Aunt Jane said. "I've been coming to his store for years and I've always been satisfied." She held the material she and Violet had been looking at. It was blue with light brown stripes running through it. "What does everyone think of this?" she asked.
Benny and Jessie said it was just right for the den, and Henry said, "I think Andy will like it a lot."
"I do, too," Aunt Jane agreed. "And Violet gave me a good idea. I'll buy some extra material and use it to cover the throw pillows on the couch."
"That's a great idea, Violet," Jessie said. "I'll help you measure the material."
"I'll pick out a dog collar," Henry said.
"And I'll get the candy," Benny volunteered eagerly.
"Good," Jessie said. "Since Nancy and Mr. Taylor are so busy, we can save them time by doing the work ourselves."
Excerpted from The Mystery Girl by GERTRUDE CHANDLER WARNER, Charles Tang. Copyright © 1992 Albert Whitman & Company. Excerpted by permission of ALBERT WHITMAN & Company.
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