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"Grandfather should be home soon," said six-year-old Benny. He pressed his nose against the living room window. "Any minute now, we'll find out about the surprise!" He sounded excited.
Ten-year-old Violet came up behind her younger brother. "I wonder what kind of surprise it is." She looked out the window, too. There was no sign of Grandfather yet.
Jessie, who was twelve, was placing napkins around the dining room table. "It's not like Grandfather to be so mysterious," she said. "Tell us again what he said on the phone, Henry."
"He didn't say much," said Henry, as he poured lemonade into tall glasses. "He wouldn't even give me a hint. He just said he was bringing home pizza for dinner—pizza and a surprise." At fourteen, Henry was the oldest of the Alden children.
"One thing's for sure," said Jessie. "Grandfather's surprises are always fun."
At that, Watch, the family dog, looked up and barked in agreement.
Violet had a faraway look in her eye. "Remember when Grandfather surprised us with the boxcar?"
The others nodded and smiled. After their parents died, the four Alden children had run away. They discovered an abandoned boxcar in the woods and made it their home. Then their grandfather, James Alden, found them and brought them to live with him in his big white house in Greenfield. He had the boxcar moved to his backyard as a special surprise for his grandchildren. The Aldens often used the boxcar as a clubhouse.
"Well, surprises always make me hungry," Benny said. "I hope Grandfather gets a really big pizza."
"Oh, Benny!" Jessie laughed. "Everything makes you hungry."
Just then, James Alden walked in the door. He was holding a pizza box from Joe's Restaurant. "Ready to dig in?" he asked, smiling fondly at his grandchildren. "I ordered an extra-large topped with special tomato sauce, extra cheese, and pepperoni."
Benny let out a cheer. "That's my favorite kind!"
The children forgot all about the surprise for a while as they helped themselves to pizza. Finally, Grandfather sat back in his chair and said, "Are you ready to hear my news?"
Henry, Jessie, Violet, and Benny looked up expectantly. "Yes! What is it, Grandfather?" Violet asked.
"I was talking to my friend Fran Russell today. I have some business to take care of in Cedarburg, Wisconsin, and I thought I'd stop by to see her while I'm there." Grandfather took a sip of his lemonade. "She invited the four of you to come with me and spend a few days with her at Shadowbox. What do you think?"
Everyone thought it was a great idea. The children had often heard their grandfather speak of his good friend Fran and her old stone house, Shadowbox.
"Shadowbox sure is a weird name for a house," Benny said.
"The name fits, Benny," said Grandfather, smiling over at his youngest grandson. "When you see the house, you'll know what I mean." He helped himself to another slice of pizza.
Henry was curious. "How old is Shadowbox, Grandfather?"
Grandfather took a bite of his pizza and chewed thoughtfully for a moment. Then he said, "As I recall, Fran's ancestors built Shadowbox back in the 1850s. It's been in the family ever since. Fran takes great pride in her home," he added. "And in the family ghost."
The children all looked at their grandfather in surprise. "The family what?" said Benny his eyes round.
Grandfather's eyes crinkled with amusement. "According to the story, Shadowbox is haunted by a runaway ghost."
"What do you mean?" asked Henry.
"Is the ghost one of Fran's ancestors?" Jessie asked at the same time.
Then Violet chimed in, "What kind of ghost runs away?"
Grandfather couldn't help laughing as he held up a hand to slow them down. "You'll hear all about the runaway ghost when you get to Shadowbox."
Benny wiped tomato sauce from his chin. "Won't you tell us now?" he pleaded.
Grandfather shook his head. "Fran loves to tell visitors about the family ghost. I don't want to spoil it for her."
Benny was deep in thought. "Do you think it's true?" he said at last. "Do you think Shadowbox is haunted?" He sounded uneasy.
"I doubt it, Benny," Grandfather said. "But Fran enjoys entertaining people, and a good ghost story is bound to get everyone's attention."
"It sure got our attention!" said Henry.
Benny nodded as he took the last bite of his pizza. "I can't wait to hear more about it."
"Well, you won't have to wait long," Grandfather told him. "Our flight leaves the day after tomorrow."
"Cedarburg isn't much farther," Jessie said, studying the map unfolded on her lap. She was sitting in the front seat of the car Grandfather rented at the airport.
The Aldens looked out the windows at the peaceful Wisconsin countryside. Rolling fields stretched for miles, broken only by big red barns and old stone houses. "Wow, there sure are a lot of cows around here," Benny noticed.
"Wisconsin is the land of the dairy cow," Grandfather told him. "As a matter of fact, there are more cows here than in any other state."
As Jessie admired a field of wildflowers, she thought of something. "Does Fran still make her own greeting cards?" she asked, remembering the beautiful card Grandfather had received on his birthday. It had been decorated with a border of pressed flowers.
Grandfather nodded. "Pressing flowers has always been a hobby of Fran's. A few years ago, after her husband died, she decided to turn her hobby into a small business. She put her greeting cards on display in a local gallery. Now they're selling like hotcakes."
"Wow, I guess Fran doesn't have to worry about money," Benny said.
"Her greeting card business helps pay the monthly bills," Grandfather replied, "but that's about all. Something always needs fixing in an old house, and it can be very costly. That's why Fran decided to take in a boarder for the summer—someone who pays to live with her. Her son wasn't very happy about it, but she needed the extra money."
"Why wasn't her son happy about it?" Henry wondered.
"From what I hear, Nelson thinks his mother is working too hard. And he's not happy that she spends most of her hard-earned money trying to keep the old house in shape. He doesn't see the point to it. The truth is, he's never shared his mother's fondness for the past. Now that he has a brand-new house of his own, he wants Fran to sell Shadowbox and move in with him."
"Sell Shadowbox?" cried Violet. "But that's Fran's home!"
"Oh, Fran's made it clear she has no intentions of selling," Grandfather assured Violet. "She loves Shadowbox too much for that. But it has caused some hard feelings between mother and son."
Before long, the Aldens were driving through the town of Cedarburg. Old cream-brick buildings lined both sides of the street. Tourists strolled along the sidewalks and in and out of the little shops.
In no time at all, they were pulling into a long driveway. At the end of the driveway was an old stone house nestled among the tall trees.
"Look, it's Shadowbox!" cried Benny.
"It sure is," said Grandfather, slowing to a stop. He waved to a tall, silver-haired lady rushing over to greet them. Everyone scrambled out of the car.
"It's good to see you, Fran!" Grandfather gave his friend a warm hug. "It's been too long between visits."
"You can say that again, James!" Fran's blue eyes were sparkling. "And these must be your wonderful grandchildren." The lace collar on her lilac dress fluttered in the breeze.
Grandfather smiled proudly as he introduced Henry, Jessie, Violet, and Benny. They all shook hands with Fran. "It's very nice to meet you," said Jessie, speaking for them all.
"Now I know why your house is called Shadowbox," Benny piped up. "It's shaped just like a big box, and it's hidden in the shadows of the trees."
"Exactly—yes!" said Fran, who seemed delighted that Benny had figured it out.
Glancing at his watch, Grandfather said, "I hate to rush off, but I have a dinner meeting to attend."
Fran waved that away. "You're here on business, James. I know that."
Grandfather lifted the suitcases from the car. "I should have everything wrapped up in a few days," he said, smiling at his friend. "Then we'll have time for a nice visit."
Fran smiled back. "I'll look forward to it."
The children waved good-bye to their grandfather, then they followed Fran into the house. As they set their suitcases down in the front hall, she turned to them. "Your grandfather tells me you're real experts at solving mysteries."
Benny beamed. "That's our specialty."
"We have solved quite a few," admitted Henry.
Fran was quiet for a moment, then she said, "The thing is, a mystery fell into my lap the other day. And I'm completely baffled by it."
"We'd love to help," offered Violet. And the others nodded eagerly.
Fran smiled gratefully. "I'll tell you about it after dinner," she promised. "But right now, it's time to introduce you to the runaway ghost."
The Aldens looked at one another in amazement. Were they about to meet a real ghost?CHAPTER 2
The Ghostly Painting
Henry, Jessie, Violet and Benny followed Fran into a cozy living room that looked out on Cedar Creek. Fresh flowers in colorful vases had been placed on every table. A sunny-yellow couch and buttercup-patterned chairs were grouped together invitingly around a large stone fireplace.
"What a pretty room," Jessie said admiringly.
"Thank you, Jessie," Fran smiled. "It's my favorite spot in the house."
"Oh, a painting of Shadowbox!" Violet said in surprise.
The other Aldens followed her gaze to the picture hanging above the fireplace. It was a peaceful summer scene with the stone house peeking out from among the trees. Nearby, a black-and-white cow grazed lazily in the late afternoon shadows.
"Meet the runaway ghost!" Fran gestured to the painting with a big sweep of her arm.
The Aldens looked at one another in confusion. Before they had a chance to ask any questions, Fran spoke again.
"It's wonderful, don't you think?" She sounded proud.
"It's a lovely painting," Jessie said, "but where's the runaway ghost?"
Henry added, "All I see is Shadowbox."
"Oh?" Fran lifted an eyebrow. "Perhaps there's something you're missing."
Henry looked again. "You can't mean ... the cow?"
Nodding, Fran brushed a wisp of silver hair back from her face. "Her name was Buttercup. But she's known as the runaway ghost."
The children were so surprised by Fran's words, they were speechless. Was the family ghost really a black-and-white cow? Jessie noticed a shiny brass plaque attached to the picture frame. Sure enough, the title of the painting was The Runaway Ghost.
"Buttercup's story begins many years ago," Fran said, making herself comfortable on the couch, "back when Shadowbox was still part of a big farm."
"This was once a farm?" Benny asked in surprise.
"Yes, indeed!" Fran told him. "My great-great-grandparents, Selden and Anne Gorton, started the farm back in the 1850s. They raised cows here for many, many years."
Benny looked puzzled. "What happened to it?" he wanted to know. "The farm, I mean."
"Selden and Anne's grandchildren decided not to be farmers. They sold off the land in bits and pieces. Now there's only Shadowbox and the lawns around it." A sad smile crossed Fran's face.
"Was Buttercup one of Selden and Anne's cows?" asked Jessie.
"As a matter of fact, she was the very first cow they ever owned," Fran replied.
Benny looked over at the painting. "Oh, I get it!" he said. "That's why the bell around her neck has the number one on it, right?"
"That's exactly right," Fran told him. "Selden and Anne were very fond of their black-and-white cow. She was more like a family pet than anything else. It's little wonder they were heartbroken when she disappeared."
"What ...?" Violet cried out in surprise. "How did Buttercup disappear?"
Fran shook her head sadly. "It happened in the winter of 1859."
The Aldens inched closer. They wanted to catch every word.
"One day, Buttercup wandered too far from the barn and she was caught in a blizzard. It was a terrible snowstorm. The poor thing couldn't find her way home," Fran said.
"Your ancestors went looking for her, didn't they?" Henry asked.
"Selden went out again and again, but the icy winds and the blinding snow kept driving him back. Finally, there was nothing left to do but wait out the storm. And by the time the snow stopped, it was too late."
Benny's eyes were huge. "Too late?"
"They never did find their treasured pet." Lowering her voice to a whisper, Fran added, "Buttercup had disappeared without a trace."
"How sad!" said Violet, who was taking a closer look at the painting of Buttercup.
Jessie came up behind her sister. "Well, at least Selden and Anne had a picture to—"
"Oh, my goodness, look!" Violet broke in as something caught her eye.
Curious, Henry joined his sisters by the fireplace. Benny was close behind.
"What's up?" Henry asked.
Violet pointed to the date next to the artist's signature in a corner of the painting. "It's the strangest thing."
"Oh!" Jessie's eyebrows shot up when she saw the date. "This painting was made in 1866. But ... Buttercup disappeared in 1859. Didn't she, Fran?"
"That's right, Jessie. A friend of my great-great-grandparents painted that picture seven years after Buttercup disappeared."
"Was he painting from memory?" Violet asked.
Fran shook her head. "The artist had never been to Shadowbox until after the cow disappeared."
Benny gulped. "That's a ... a painting of Buttercup's ghost?"
"Yes, it is, Benny," Fran said with a nod.
"How can that be?" Jessie couldn't believe it.
Henry added, "You don't really mean that, do you, Fran? You can't believe the artist painted a ghost."
"Maybe he painted a different cow," Violet offered as they sat down again. "Another black-and-white cow that looked a lot like Buttercup."
"But that doesn't explain the bell with the number one on it," Fran pointed out. "And there's something else," she added. "They say the artist was just putting the finishing touches on his painting when the black-and-white cow suddenly disappeared. It was almost as if ..." She stopped midsentence.
"As if ... what?" Benny asked in a whisper.
"As if the cow had vanished—just like that!" Fran said, with a snap of her fingers.
No one spoke for a moment. Then Henry said, "Has anyone else seen the runaway ghost?"
Fran smoothed down the collar of her dress. "In the old days, there were many sightings reported by family members. Sometimes visitors even heard the ghostly clanging of a cowbell late in the night. I've never heard it myself. I'm afraid I sleep much too soundly for that. It's been ages since the runaway ghost has been around."
Benny looked relieved.
As Fran turned her attention back to the painting, a funny look came over her face. "I've had the strangest feeling lately," she said, "that Buttercup's trying to tell me something."
The Aldens were startled. "Why do you say that, Fran?" Jessie wanted to know.
"Because of the mystery, Jessie," Fran explained. "I'm talking, of course, about the one that fell into my lap."
"Does the mystery have something to do with Buttercup?" Henry asked in surprise.
"That's one of the things I hope you'll figure out," Fran answered. Then she quickly changed the subject. "But now it's time for you to see the rest of the house."
As the Aldens followed Fran out of the room, Violet turned to look over her shoulder. She didn't really believe in ghosts, but she couldn't help wondering about that painting above the fireplace.CHAPTER 3
Elephants and a Riddle
"Do you think it's true?" Benny asked his brother and sisters. He was standing at the window in the lace-and-lavender room that Violet and Jessie were sharing. The children had finished unpacking and were waiting for Violet to put more film in her camera.
Jessie, who was brushing her long brown hair, looked over at her younger brother. "What do you mean, Benny?"
Benny plopped down on Jessie's bed. "Do you think Buttercup really is trying to tell Fran something?"
"No." Henry shook his head firmly. "Ghosts don't exist, Benny." But the youngest Alden didn't look convinced.
Violet looked up. "You must admit, Henry it's awfully strange about that painting."
Benny was quick to agree. "How could the artist paint Buttercup's picture seven years after she disappeared?"
Henry shrugged. "That's a good question."
"I don't understand it, either," put in Jessie, as the four of them made their way downstairs. "But there must be a logical explanation for it."
"Like what?" demanded Benny.
None of them had an answer to that question.
"Something sure smells good!" Henry said, as they trooped into the kitchen.
Fran was humming to herself as she took the biscuits out of the oven. "I made my special meatballs in mushroom sauce." The table was already set for dinner, and she gestured for the children to sit down. "I'm hoping it'll hit the spot."
"Grandfather told us you're a great cook, Fran," Jessie said, taking a seat next to Benny.
"Oh, I just follow the old family recipes, Jessie," Fran said. "Selden's wife, Anne, brought most of them with her from St. Ives."
"St. Ives?" said Henry.
"That was the name of Anne's hometown in England." Fran set a dish of mashed potatoes on the table.
Excerpted from The Mystery of the Runaway Ghost by GERTRUDE CHANDLER WARNER, Hodges Soileau. Copyright © 2003 Albert Whitman & Company. Excerpted by permission of ALBERT WHITMAN & Company.
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Posted August 16, 2013