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The Mystery of the Screech Owl
By GERTRUDE CHANDLER WARNER, Hodges Soileau
ALBERT WHITMAN & CompanyCopyright © 2001 Albert Whitman & Company
All rights reserved.
Broken Moon Pond
"Snow!" exclaimed Jessie Alden, peering out the rental car window. "When we left Greenfield this morning, Mrs. McGregor's daffodils were blooming."
"Canada is farther north. It snows even in the spring here," said Henry from the front seat. At fourteen, he knew a lot about the places the Alden family visited.
"Fun!" said six-year-old Benny. He was thrilled to see snow any time of the year.
"I can't wait to see Broken Moon Pond," said Violet, sitting beside Benny. "It sounds great."
Grandfather slowed down for a curve in the country road. "I can't wait to see it, either," he replied. "I haven't been there since I was ten years old."
"You were my age," Violet remarked, gazing at the passing scenery of patchy snow and stark trees.
"We came every year at this time," Grandfather went on. "My parents were friends of the Dupré family, who own Broken Moon Pond. In those days, we didn't fly from Connecticut to Quebec and rent a car. It took much longer to get here."
"Did you come by horse and buggy?" asked Benny.
Jessie reached across the seat to ruffle her little brother's hair. "Benny, Grandfather isn't that old!" At twelve, Jessie liked to look after her younger brother.
After their parents died, the Alden children lived in an abandoned boxcar. They learned to take care of themselves because they believed they were alone in the world.
But their grandfather, James Alden, found the children and gave them a real home. The children were happy living in Greenfield with Mrs. McGregor, the housekeeper, and Watch, their dog. Grandfather even had their old boxcar towed to the backyard so they could play in it.
Now they were off on a late-spring trip to Broken Moon Pond.
"There's the sign to Nibelle," Henry pointed out. He sat up front to give directions.
Grandfather turned off onto another road. Moments later, trees and fields gave way to farmhouses and then the village of Nibelle.
Old stone buildings were arranged around a square with a fountain in the middle. Grandfather pulled the car into a parking spot.
"This is the real estate agent's office," he said. "I need to pick up the key to our cabin."
"Doesn't the Dupré family live there?" asked Jessie as she got out and stretched.
Grandfather put on his wool hat. "I don't know. When I phoned the main cabin, my call was switched to this agency. Let's go in and we'll find out."
The air was chilly. Violet hurried into the stone building after Benny. Inside, she squinted in the dim interior.
"Bonjour," said a voice from the gloom. A man rose from behind a desk. When he saw the Aldens, the smile dropped from his face.
"I'm James Alden," said Grandfather. "You are expecting us."
In accented English, the man said stiffly, "My name is Monsieur Cartier. How may I help you?"
"We are renting a cabin at Broken Moon Pond this week," said Grandfather. "And we are here to pick up the key."
"Oui," said Mr. Cartier. "Une seconde." He went into another room.
Benny frowned. "What kind of talk is that?"
"He's speaking French," said Henry. "Remember the lady on the loudspeaker system in the Quebec airport? She spoke French. That's the main language here."
"Will we have to speak French, too?" Benny asked, concerned. "I don't know how."
"I brought a French-English dictionary," Jessie said. "We can look up words we don't understand. And Grandfather speaks a little."
Just then Mr. Cartier came back. He held up a key ring. "I am sorry I was so long. My assistant is away and I cannot find anything."
"Are the Duprés here?" Grandfather asked.
Mr. Cartier shook his head. "Only a few Dupré family members remain and they no longer come to the pond. They rent out the cabins to tourists. As a matter of fact, the estate is up for sale."
"Broken Moon Pond is for sale?" Grandfather echoed, surprised. "That property has been in the family for generations."
Mr. Cartier shrugged. "No one comes now. And it is a difficult property to sell. It is a — how do you say — a white elephant."
In the car, Grandfather said, "I still can't believe the pond is for sale. And the place is hardly a white elephant."
"Is there a white elephant where we're going?" Benny asked hopefully.
"That's an expression," said Henry. "It means a house or a place that is too big or odd for anyone to want to buy."
They drove out of Nibelle. Benny noticed a couple of men putting up a bright yellow banner across the narrow street.
"What does that say?" he asked.
"It's about the sugar festival," Grandfather replied. "This is sugaring season. The villagers make maple syrup. Then they have a festival."
"Just for syrup? I'm going to like it here!" Benny exclaimed, licking his lips. He loved to eat. Any place that celebrated making sugar was definitely where Benny wanted to be.
It didn't take them long to reach Broken Moon Pond. Jessie thought she had never seen such a beautiful spot.
Evergreen trees towered over a huge pond, reflecting dark shapes. Rustic log cabins ringed the pond and a large dock jutted halfway across the still water.
Grandfather pulled the car into the driveway of the largest cabin.
"This is the main house," he said. "The Duprés built this camp many years ago. They had a big family. Everyone spent the summer here and they'd bring their children and friends. That's why there are so many cabins. When we visited, we stayed in the main cabin."
"All out!" Henry called. He opened the trunk and began setting suitcases on the snow-covered ground.
Benny ran up the steps and onto the porch that spanned the front of the house. Whole logs had been used as posts.
"Look what I found!" he exclaimed. "Skates! And funny-looking things to put on our feet!" He held up a pair of snowshoes.
"Those are for walking in deep snow," Grandfather said, bringing up the first load of luggage. "We won't need those unless we have a storm, which could happen even at this time of year."
Taking out the key ring, he tried the key. It didn't work. Jiggling the lock, he tried again.
"The key doesn't fit," he said. Just to make sure, he tried all the keys on the ring. None of them opened the door. "I bet Mr. Cartier gave me the wrong key ring."
Jessie thumped her suitcase on the porch. "Now what?"
"I'll drive back to the village and pick up the right keys," said Grandfather. "Hop in the car again, everybody."
At that moment, four children appeared at the bottom of the steps.
"Hi," said the oldest, a girl about Henry's age. "I'm Patty Anderson. These are my brothers, Aaron and Jacob, and my little sister, Emma." Emma was just a toddler, but she smiled at the Aldens.
"Nice to meet you," said Henry. He introduced Benny, Violet, Jessie, and Grandfather. "We just got here, but our key doesn't fit. We're going back to Nibelle."
"Oh, why don't you stay here," Patty urged. "We're in the cabin across the pond with my mom and dad."
"I'll only be gone fifteen minutes," Grandfather said to the kids. "It's okay if you want to stay."
The Aldens and Andersons strolled around the pond.
"This is such a great place," said Aaron, who was Jessie's age.
"It looks neat," Henry agreed.
"There's our dad," said Jacob, waving to a man who was walking down to the pond with a tackle box and fishing pole.
"Hi, neighbors," Mr. Anderson greeted them. "Isn't it nice that there are two families here with four kids?"
"Are we the only people here?" asked Benny.
"Most people come when the weather is warmer," said Mr. Anderson. "But we like it here any time of the year."
"Wait until you taste the food they have here," said Aaron. "Yum!"
"The caretaker and his wife live in the village, but they left us supper," Patty explained. "And there's some in the refrigerator for you, too."
Henry looked out across the water. "I see Grandfather's car. We'd better go. See you later!"
The Andersons called good-bye as the Alden children ran up the stone path to the main cabin.
Grandfather already had the door open and was taking their luggage inside. "Mr. Cartier was very apologetic," he said. "I have a feeling his assistant really runs that office!"
Violet helped carry in the rest of the bags. Then she stopped to look around.
Bright wool blankets hung on the exposed log walls. Even the furniture was made of logs and saplings. An enormous stone fireplace took up one end of the living room. Above, a real birchbark canoe was suspended from the high-beamed ceiling. Lightbulbs edged the rim of the canoe.
"Let's pick out our bedrooms," said Jessie.
The second story had been divided into dormitories, one for girls, one for boys. Grandfather was sleeping in one of the downstairs bedrooms.
The girls chose a room overlooking the pond and picnic area. Henry and Benny decided on a room decorated with old boating flags.
"Supper!" Grandfather called.
The kids ran downstairs. They didn't need to be called twice, especially Benny.
"Mmmm," Violet said, smelling something wonderful. "What's for dinner?"
Grandfather carried a dish to the table. "The caretaker's wife left us a meat pie and tarte du sucre for dessert."
"Tart what?" asked Benny.
"Maple sugar pie," answered Grandfather.
Two kinds of pie for dinner! Benny liked this place more and more. The meat pie was hearty and the maple sugar pie was so good, everyone ate seconds.
When the dishes were washed, the kids went back upstairs to unpack.
Jessie claimed the old dresser by the window, while Violet took the rickety wardrobe.
"This drawer is really stuck," said Jessie, tugging on a small drawer at the top. "I guess it's the damp air."
With a jerk, she yanked the drawer backward. As she did, something dropped at her feet.
"What's that?" asked Violet.
As Jessie bent to pick up the object, it opened. "I've never seen anything like this before!" she said with wonder.CHAPTER 2
The Mysterious Notebook
At that moment, someone rapped at the door.
Henry poked his head in. "We saw your light still on," he said. "Everything okay?"
Benny came in behind Henry. He noticed the object in Jessie's hand. "What's that?"
"It's a book. It was jammed in the back of the drawer," Jessie replied. "But it's not like any book I've ever seen before."
Carefully, she opened the cracked leather covers. The others gathered around.
The paper was old and yellowed. The first page showed a sketch of a deer. In the upper corners were drawings of the deer's head in different poses, chewing grass, listening, and drinking water. Neat writing in English and another language framed the sketches.
"Whoever drew this was a good artist," Violet remarked. She was an artist herself and often drew and painted pictures.
"I like this one," said Benny when Jessie turned to the next page. "The grasshopper looks real. But what does that writing say?"
"The English part says where the grasshopper was found and how big it was," Henry replied. "I don't know what the French part says. The person who kept this notebook could write in both English and French."
"He — or she — must have been pretty smart," said Jessie.
"It's fairly common in this part of Canada to speak both languages," Henry said. He took the notebook and flipped through pages of drawings. "You know what this is? It's a field journal."
"What's that?" asked Violet.
"Scientists who study nature keep records of the birds and animals and insects they see," answered Henry. "But these drawings were done by a kid."
Jessie wiped dust from the worn leather cover. "Whoever it was kept the notebook a long time ago. It's pretty old."
Benny yawned. Tired, he lost interest in the old journal. "We'd better get to bed, Henry. I want to go exploring first thing in the morning."
"Before breakfast?" Violet teased.
"Not that early," said Benny, who never missed a meal.
The boys said good night and went across the hall to their own room.
Jessie and Violet finished unpacking. Jessie left the field journal on the dresser. When she switched off the lamp, moonlight filled the narrow room.
"It's as bright as day in here," said Violet. She walked over to the big window to pull the shade.
"What was that?" Jessie exclaimed, rushing to the window.
"I don't know," said Violet. "I've never heard anything like it."
The moon was reflected in the pond like a silver dollar. Something ruffled the surface, causing the reflection to waver and break.
"Now I know how the pond got its name," Jessie murmured. "But what was that horrible sound?"
Violet tensed. "Jessie, look over there. By the dock."
From the shadow of the dock an object glided across the water. It was a rowboat. Who would be out rowing in the dark? Jessie wondered.
Violet clutched her sleeve.
"Jessie!" she whispered. "Nobody is rowing that boat!"
Jessie looked again. Was it a trick of the moonlight or was the boat actually rowing itself across the pond?
The boat slid around to the other side of the dock, disappearing from sight. Jessie blinked, but the boat was gone.
"We must be very tired," she told Violet. "Maybe the wind pushed the boat away from the dock."
"There's no wind," Violet observed. "The water is as still as glass. Nothing moved on that pond but the boat. A boat rowed by no one!"
The girls went back to bed.
Jessie had trouble falling asleep. She kept picturing the empty boat moving across the dark water. Violet was right — they hadn't imagined what they had just seen. At last, she fell asleep.
The next morning, the smell of fried potatoes and sizzling bacon drifted upstairs. The Alden children dressed hurriedly and ran down to the big open kitchen.
Grandfather stood at the old-fashioned stove, expertly flipping flapjacks onto a castiron griddle.
"I thought you kids were going to sleep all day," he said, teasing. "But I figured out a way to get you up."
Benny carried the jug of warm maple syrup over to the polished oak table. "I'm starving," he exclaimed. "Grandfather, may I have a dozen pancakes?"
Violet laughed. "When aren't you starving, Benny Alden? And I don't think even you can eat a dozen of Grandfather's pancakes."
Crispy bacon, home fries, and cold milk rounded out the hearty meal. James Alden's famous pancakes were so huge, even Henry couldn't eat a dozen, but everyone gave it a try.
"There's frost on the windows," Jessie observed. "That means it's really cold. Will it snow?"
"It could, but the weather report on the radio said it would be sunny today," said Grandfather. "At least, that's what I think the radio announcer said. The broadcast was in French."
"Then we can go exploring," Benny said.
"Of course," Grandfather said. "Just wear your coats and hats. These cold nights and warm days are perfect conditions for the sap to rise in the sugar bush."
Everyone looked puzzled. Grandfather laughed.
"I'll take you to the sugar bush this afternoon," he said. "And you'll see what I'm talking about."
After washing the dishes, the children bundled up in jackets, scarves, and hats.
As they walked down to the edge of the pond, Violet told the boys about the boat she and Jessie had seen the night before.
"A boat with nobody rowing it?" Benny exclaimed. "How could that happen? You don't think there are any ghosts here, do you?"
"I'm sure there's a logical explanation," said Henry. "Let's look for the boat."
Now that it was bright daylight, Jessie could see the camp wore signs of neglect. The cabins around the pond were rundown. The gravel paths sprouted weeds and the lawns had gone to seed.
Down by the pond, cattails and reeds grew thickly along the shore.
They walked out on the sagging dock, carefully stepping over missing planks.
"We saw the boat leave on this side." Violet pointed. "And then it went around over here. I think I see it!"
The children hurried back down the dock, then pushed through a thicket of cattails along the shore.
A rickety rowboat was beached on the muddy bank, hidden by reeds. It had been painted dark green at one time, but the boards were mostly scraped bare. Ghostly orange letters spelled out the boat's name.
"Is this the boat?" Henry asked.
Jessie stared at it. "I think so. What's that written on the side? The letters are so faded Orville?"
"What a funny name for a boat," Benny commented.
Excerpted from The Mystery of the Screech Owl by GERTRUDE CHANDLER WARNER, Hodges Soileau. Copyright © 2001 Albert Whitman & Company. Excerpted by permission of ALBERT WHITMAN & Company.
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