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The Marshmallow Mix-up
"Guess who's helping decorate the tree," said six-year-old Benny. Watch came running across the snowy backyard with a popcorn ball in his mouth. "Even Watch wants to help the birds!"
Twelve-year-old Jessie was hanging a string of cranberries from the branches of a pine tree. She turned and smiled at their little dog. "Watch knows it's hard for birds to find food in the winter."
"Everything is frozen and covered with snow at this time of year," added ten-year-old Violet as she tightened the purple scarf around her neck.
Purple was Violet's favorite color, and she almost always wore something purple or violet.
"Not all birds fly south," added Henry. He took the popcorn ball from Watch and hung it from one of the higher branches. At fourteen, Henry was the oldest of the Alden children. "Some birds stay where it's cold. They make their homes wherever they can find a warm, dry spot."
Benny glanced over his shoulder at their red boxcar. "Just like we did!"
He was thinking back to when they had discovered the old abandoned train car in the woods. Their parents had died, and they were hiding from their grandfather because they thought he was mean. But Grandfather Alden wasn't mean at all.
After finding his grandchildren, Grandfather Alden had brought the four Aldens and Watch to live with him in his big white house on the edge of the town of Greenfield, Connecticut. And when he had realized how much they missed the boxcar, Grandfather Alden had given their old home a special place in his backyard. Now the Aldens often used the boxcar as a clubhouse.
Jessie stepped back to admire their tree. She clapped her mittened hands together and said, "What a feast the birds will have!"
Violet went over and stood beside her older sister. The tree was quite a sight, with its decorations of popcorn balls, apple rings, loops of red cranberries and unshelled peanuts, corn on the cob, and little mesh bags of suet. Everything was tied to the branches with brightly colored yarn.
"Birds have huge appetites," Violet said softly. "Even a tiny hummingbird eats every ten minutes or so!"
Benny grinned. "No wonder they hum. They must be very happy birds!"
They all laughed. The youngest Alden was always hungry.
"I'll bet we'll soon have lots of visitors," remarked Henry.
Benny was stomping his feet to keep them warm. He had a look of concern on his face. "But what if the birds don't spot our tree?"
"Don't worry, Benny," said Violet. "The chickadees will find it. Other birds hang around chickadees because they're such good food-finders!"
"Just like we're good clue-finders!" said Benny. And his brother and sisters nodded in agreement. The Aldens loved mysteries, and together they'd managed to solve quite a few. "But are you sure the chickadees will find our tree?" Benny asked.
"Maybe we should leave an invitation for them!" suggested Henry, hiding a smile. He knelt down and began to write in the snow. When he was finished, he got up and brushed the snow from his pant legs.
"I know what that says!" Benny announced proudly. The youngest Alden always enjoyed a chance to show his older brother and sisters that he was learning how to read. "It says, 'Welcome Birds!'"
Violet stooped down and added something to Henry's invitation. "And ... bring ... all ... your ... friends!"
"That should really do the trick!" said Benny.
Jessie was staring down at the writing in the snow. "A person's handwriting is supposed to show some interesting things," she said.
"Like what?" asked Violet.
"Well, Henry's handwriting slants to the right a bit," said Jessie, who had been reading a book on handwriting. "That's supposed to show he's a very friendly person. And he's careful with each letter. I can tell he's probably a hard worker, too."
"Jessie's right, Henry!" said Violet. "You are a hard worker. And you're always friendly to everyone!"
Henry looked pleased. "What about Violet's handwriting?" he asked.
"Hmmm." Jessie took another look. "Well, I can see some fancy swirls. That's a sign of a person who's artistic ... and helpful, too," Jessie concluded.
"You do like to draw pictures, Violet," observed Benny. "And you're good at it!" he added.
Just then the back door of the house opened. Mrs. McGregor came out carrying a tray. There were four cups of steaming hot chocolate and a plate of chocolate chip cookies on it.
"Oh, boy!" cried Benny. "How did you know I was hungry, Mrs. McGregor?"
Mrs. McGregor broke into a smile as she came along the shoveled walkway. "Just a hunch, Benny." She set the tray down on the tree stump that was the boxcar's front step. "Besides," she added, "what could be better on a cold winter's day than hot chocolate with marshmallows?"
Benny reached out for his special cup. It was the cracked pink cup he had found when they were living in the boxcar. "I love hot chocolate with marshmallows in it!" he said. But when he looked down, he gasped in surprise.
"What is it?" asked Jessie, who often acted like a mother to her younger brother and sister. "What's wrong, Benny?"
"The ... the marshmallows!" cried Benny. "These are the funniest-looking marshmallows I ever saw!"
"Why, whatever do you mean?" asked Mrs. McGregor.
"Well, they look just like mushrooms!" said Benny.
And sure enough, mushrooms were floating in their hot chocolate!
"Oh—oh, my!" cried Mrs. McGregor. "How could I have made such a mistake?" Then she slapped a hand against her cheek. "Don't tell me ... Oh, my goodness! I must have put the marshmallows in the stew!" And with that, Mrs. McGregor rushed back to the house.
The Alden children stared after her in amazement. Henry was shaking his head. "That's not like Mrs. McGregor," he said.
"No, it's not," agreed Jessie. "But she hasn't been acting like herself at all lately. I spoke to her twice today and she didn't answer. She seemed to be deep in thought."
"Mrs. McGregor must be worried about something," said Violet. "I think we should find out what's wrong. Maybe we can help." "Well, what are we waiting for?" cried Benny. Forgetting all about food, he went racing along the walkway with his brother and sisters close behind.
Whatever was wrong with Mrs. McGregor, the Aldens were determined to set it right!CHAPTER 2
The Crooked House at Riddle Lake
After hanging their jackets on the coat tree by the door, the Aldens struggled out of their boots and went looking for Mrs. McGregor. They found her in the living room. She was sitting in the green satin chair by the window. At her feet was a wicker basket filled with their old clothes.
"Oh, dear!" she said as Henry, Jessie, Violet, and Benny came into the room. "I meant to make another pot of hot chocolate for you."
"That's okay, Mrs. McGregor," said Henry as he sat down on the couch. "We didn't come in for hot chocolate."
Mrs. McGregor went back to her work. She was making a braided rag rug. For the last week, she had been tearing their old clothing into long, thin strips, which she braided together. Then she wrapped the braids around and around and stitched them in place to form a circle.
"What a great way to recycle our old clothes!" said Violet, who was standing by Mrs. McGregor's chair. "It's fun watching the circle grow bigger every day."
"And it has every color of the rainbow in it," said Jessie. "Watch will love it."
Mrs. McGregor smiled. "The rug will have something from each of the Alden children in it," she said. "What could be better than that?"
Benny was warming his hands by the fire. "Maybe when it's finished, we can put the braided rag rug in the boxcar."
"Yes," agreed Violet. "That'll be just the place for it! Don't you think so, Mrs. McGregor?"
But Mrs. McGregor made no reply. Her head was bent over her work and she seemed to be lost in a world of her own. Jessie looked over at Henry as if to say Now, this is exactly what I was talking about!
Violet reached out and put a hand gently on their housekeeper's arm. "Mrs. McGregor?" she said. "Is anything wrong?"
"Oh, I'm sorry, Violet," said Mrs. McGregor. "I wasn't listening. What were you saying?"
"Please, Mrs. McGregor," pleaded Violet, "won't you tell us what's troubling you?"
"Sometimes talking about a problem can help," added Jessie.
Just then, Watch came over and put his head in Mrs. McGregor's lap. He gave a little whimper. "Look!" cried Benny. "Even Watch is worried!"
"Oh, dear!" Mrs. McGregor scratched Watch behind the ears. "I really didn't mean to cause such a fuss! The truth is," she added, "something has been bothering me. But I'm afraid there's nothing anyone can do to help."
"But haven't you seen Violet's swirls? Jessie says the swirls mean she's helpful," cried Benny. "We all can be very helpful!"
"Oh, Benny!" Jessie laughed. "Violet would be helpful even if her handwriting didn't have a single swirl in it!"
Mrs. McGregor was quiet for a moment, then she said, "I've been racking my brains trying to come up with an answer to a problem. I'm afraid the Crooked House has been on my mind all day."
Benny glanced around. "But Grandfather's house isn't crooked!"
Mrs. McGregor shook her head. "I mean the Crooked House at Riddle Lake."
The Aldens stared at Mrs. McGregor in bewilderment. They had never heard of a Crooked House at Riddle Lake.
"It's my family home," explained Mrs. McGregor. "My father built it himself, and everything turned out just a little bit crooked. You see, my father had never built anything before then."
"I'll bet he had fun, though," said Henry, who liked building things.
"I think my father really did enjoy building our home," Mrs. McGregor continued. "And we loved all the crooked windows and the crooked doors—and the floor that was on a bit of a slant." Mrs. McGregor paused for a moment. "My sister Madeline and I inherited the family home after our parents died. That was many years ago. At first, Madeline wanted to sell the Crooked House so she could do a bit of traveling. When we were growing up, she'd always talked of seeing the world. But the truth is, neither of us could bear to part with our family home."
Mrs. McGregor went on, "Madeline continued living there instead. And she's been making a very comfortable living all these years, renting out rooms to folks from the city. Just like our parents did. Riddle Lake really is a wonderful place for a holiday. There's swimming and hiking and fishing in the summer. And skating and tobogganing and cross-country skiing in the winter."
"Wow!" said Henry. "That sure sounds great!"
Mrs. McGregor let out another long sigh. "Yes, but I'm afraid things haven't been going very well lately at the Crooked House."
"Why not?" asked Violet in surprise.
"Last year a fancy resort was built at the other end of Riddle Lake," explained Mrs. McGregor. "Now people seem to prefer the modern Sterling Resort to the old-fashioned comforts of the Crooked House. I'm afraid business has fallen off. My sister says there isn't enough money to pay the taxes this year.
"Madeline phoned this morning and asked me to drive up to Riddle Lake for a few days. She thinks it's time we made a decision about selling the family home. It'll break our hearts, but there doesn't seem to be any other choice." Mrs. McGregor's eyes clouded. "I'll leave tomorrow. There's no point in delaying what must be done. Besides, I haven't seen Madeline for a while. Not since we made that trip to Oregon together."
Just then a rush of cold air stirred the curtains on the window as Grandfather Alden came through the door. He stopped in his tracks when he saw the long faces. "What's this all about?" he asked with concern. When everybody began to speak at once, he held up his hands. "Whoa!" he said. "One at a time!"
Taking turns, they told their grandfather all about the Crooked House at Riddle Lake. Then Mrs. McGregor said, "I haven't had my mind on my work today. I'm afraid dinner is ruined."
"I have an idea," said Grandfather Alden after a moment's thought. "Why don't we go to Joe's Restaurant for pizza?"
"Mmmm!" said Benny. "An extra-large pizza with everything on it?"
Everyone laughed. They laughed even harder when Mrs. McGregor said, "Maybe everything except mushrooms, Benny!"CHAPTER 3
Hold the Mushrooms!
"Well," said Grandfather Alden, patting his stomach, "I couldn't eat another bite if you paid me!" They were sitting in a booth at Joe's Restaurant.
"Nor could I!" agreed Mrs. McGregor.
"I think I have room for more," Benny piped up. There was one slice of pizza left. It was Benny's favorite kind—topped with special tomato sauce, extra cheese, and pepperoni. "Unless somebody else wants it," he added politely.
Jessie shook her head. "Go ahead, Benny," she said. "I'm stuffed!"
Benny used both hands to pick up the pizza. "I eat like a bird!" he said. Then he added with a grin, "But just remember, even a hummingbird eats every ten minutes!"
Everyone laughed at Benny's joke. Then Mrs. McGregor took a sip of her tea. "That pizza really did hit the spot. And not a single mushroom in sight!" she said with a laugh.
"It's good to see you in better spirits, Mrs. McGregor," Grandfather said.
"How could anyone not be in good spirits around the Aldens? But I really must leave for Riddle Lake tomorrow," Mrs. McGregor added as she grew serious again. "Oh, dear! I really will miss my family home when it's sold!"
"We missed our old home, too," admitted Jessie, "until Grandfather surprised us one day!"
The Alden children looked gratefully at their grandfather, remembering the day he had moved the boxcar all the way from the woods to the backyard of their Greenfield home.
Mrs. McGregor nodded. "Any place that has been a home will always be very dear to the heart," she said. "But I'm afraid my sister is right. We just can't afford to keep the Crooked House now that the resort has opened."
Grandfather was thumping a finger against his chin. He put down his coffee cup and said, "It seems to me that if you were to advertise, business just might pick up. I'm sure there are plenty of people who would prefer the peace and quiet of the Crooked House to the hustle and bustle of a big resort."
Henry, Jessie, Violet, and Benny all leaned forward when their grandfather spoke. James Alden knew all there was to know about business.
"Yes," agreed Mrs. McGregor. "Advertising would help. But it takes money to advertise. And money is the one thing we don't have."
"If I knew what the Crooked House looked like," Violet said in her gentle voice, "I'd draw a picture of it for you, Mrs. McGregor. Then you could see it whenever you wanted."
Mrs. McGregor drew in her breath as a sudden thought came to her. "Why don't you come along?" she suggested. Then, turning to James Alden, she added, "Do you think you could spare your grandchildren for a few days? I know they'd have a wonderful time at Riddle Lake."
"We would miss you, Grandfather," said Jessie, "but we would like to see Mrs. McGregor's family home!"
"May we go, Grandfather?" asked Violet. "Then I really could draw that picture for Mrs. McGregor!"
"Plus there's tobogganing!" Benny managed to say as he took the last bite of his pizza.
"And skating!" added Henry, who sounded very excited.
"Well, now," said Grandfather Alden, his eyes twinkling, "perhaps I could make do on my own for a few days—if Watch stays behind and keeps me company."
"Hooray!" cried Benny. "Riddle Lake, here we come!"
"As a matter of fact," Grandfather went on, "I have business not far from there. I'd be happy to drive you up to Riddle Lake tomorrow. That is, if you don't mind leaving after lunch. I'm afraid I have a meeting to attend in the morning."
"That's very kind of you." Mrs. McGregor sounded very pleased.
"I've been wondering about something," said Jessie. "Why do they call it Riddle Lake?"
"Nobody knows how the lake got its name," replied Mrs. McGregor. "I suppose that's a riddle in itself."
"And a riddle is a kind of question, isn't it?" asked Benny.
"Yes, it is!" said Mrs. McGregor. "You find the answer by trying to figure out the clues."
Excerpted from The Mystery at the Crooked House by GERTRUDE CHANDLER WARNER, Hodges Soileau. Copyright © 2000 Albert Whitman & Company. Excerpted by permission of ALBERT WHITMAN & Company.
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Posted January 26, 2013
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