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"I can't believe we're going to college!" said Violet Alden, as the van rounded a steep mountain curve.
Next to her, fourteen-year-old Henry Alden grinned. "We're not exactly going to college," he teased his little sister. "We'll only be at Mountvale College for five days, for Grandfather's conference."
"Isn't it strange that we were in Connecticut this morning," said twelve-year-old Jessie from the seat behind her sister and brother, "and now we're in the West Virginia mountains!"
"It is different here, that's for sure," agreed Randy Merchant, their driver. He had picked up the Aldens at the airport.
"I liked the plane ride," piped Benny, the youngest Alden. "But this ride is fun, too."
Even though the van had several seats, the Alden children sat together. They were used to being close together and had grown to like it. The four children once lived in an abandoned boxcar. That was before their grandfather, James Alden, found them and took them to his big house in Connecticut.
James Alden even had the old boxcar brought to his house so the children could play in it. Grandfather took the Aldens on trips all over the country. The children had solved many mysteries and had some wonderful adventures along the way.
Now Jessie checked the pile of luggage in the back. She counted the suitcases — there were a lot for five people. Jessie liked to keep track of things.
"What are you doing at this conference?" she asked her grandfather. "You told us once, but I forgot."
"I'm the moderator," James Alden replied. "My old friend Able Porter is the president of Mountvale College. He asked me to moderate this conference for young scientists. I introduce the speakers and tell everyone when it's time for lunch."
"I can do that!" exclaimed six-year-old Benny.
Grandfather laughed. "I may need your help. Sometimes scientists become so wrapped up in their work, they don't remember to eat."
"I could never forget to eat," said Benny.
The others laughed.
"It's so pretty here," said ten-year-old Violet. "I can't wait to take pictures." Violet never went anywhere without her camera.
"Are there wild animals in these woods?" Henry asked the driver. "Like bears and mountain lions?"
Randy steered into another twisting turn. "There are no mountain lions. But we do have bobcats and black bears."
"I think I see a bear now!" Benny cried, looking through his grandfather's field glasses. "No, it's just an old log."
"Feel the air," Jessie said, her hair blowing in the breeze from the open window. "It's so cool."
"Midsummer is nice in the mountains," Grandfather said. "Back home in Connecticut, it's hot."
"Can we go hiking?" Henry asked Randy. "That looks like a trail over there."
"Hiking, fishing, rock climbing, we've got it all," Randy replied. "But," he added mysteriously, "Stay off that trail."
"How come?" Henry asked.
Instead of answering, Randy said, "Wait'll you see our observatory. We've got a twenty-four-inch telescope. It's a beauty," he said proudly, slowing the van. "And here we are!"
The van glided into a wide driveway flanked by stone pillars. At the end of the circular drive were several brick buildings. The largest had four white columns and an arched front door.
The Aldens tumbled from the van, eager to stretch their legs. Grandfather helped Randy unload their luggage.
A man with iron-gray hair and black-rimmed glasses came through the front door. He hurried down the graveled path, a big smile curving his thick mustache.
"James!" he cried, clasping Grandfather's hand. "It's been too long!"
"Able, it's good to see you," Grandfather said heartily. "May I present my grandchildren — Henry, Jessie, Violet, and Benny. Children, this is my friend Dr. Porter. He is the president of Mountvale College."
The Aldens said hello and shook the man's hand.
"Welcome to Mountvale," greeted Dr. Porter. "I hope your visit will be pleasant. But first let's get you settled. We've put you in the Seneca Building."
Randy scooped up several suitcases and led the way down another graveled path. "Follow me, everybody."
Benches sat invitingly under the trees. Students lolled on the grassy lawn, reading or talking.
A smiling woman with blond hair stood in the doorway of a two-story building.
"Welcome to Mountvale," she said. Jessie noticed the woman's voice had the same soft drawl as Randy's. "I'm Hazel Watson. I'm the housekeeper for this dorm."
"You undoubtedly keep the place running smoothly," said Grandfather.
Hazel laughed. "I try my best. This is the lounge. Feel free to relax here," she said, sweeping through a room with a high ceiling and tall windows. A massive stone fire-place covered an entire wall.
"Boy, I bet you could roast a lot of marshmallows in that!" Benny remarked.
"You must be hungry," Hazel guessed. "There's a cookout this evening for everyone attending the conference. But I've put some fruit in your rooms to tide you over."
As they walked, Hazel pointed to the dining room. "Except on special occasions, like tonight, we eat in there," she said.
They went up a flight of stone steps. Doors with woodburned number plates lined the corridor.
"I've put you girls in number six," said Hazel, opening a door. "You boys are next door. Mr. Alden is down here." She and Grandfather continued to the end of the hall.
Randy deposited the Aldens' suitcases in their rooms.
"How come we can't use that trail?" Henry asked. "The one you told us to stay away from."
Randy acted as if he didn't hear. "I've got to go fetch the rest of the bags," he said as he hurried down the steps.
"I wonder why he won't tell us about the trail," Henry said, opening his suitcase on the floor of their room.
Benny crunched into a crispy apple he found in a basket on the dresser. "You know what I think? I think we're off on another adventure!"
Just then Jessie and Violet knocked on the boys' door.
When the girls came in, Violet glanced around the room. Twin beds were made up with woven bedspreads. Photographs of misty mountains hung on the walls.
"Our room looks just like this," she remarked.
"Except you've got clothes on the floor," Jessie said. She had already unpacked and put her clothes in the bureau. She hated living out of a suitcase, even for a few days.
Henry gazed out the tall windows to the lawn below. "Looks like they're setting up for the cookout."
Benny tossed his apple core into the trash. "I wonder if they need some help."
"You just want to sample everything!" Henry said, laughing. "Let's see if Grandfather wants to go down now."
Jessie took out the room key. "Let me go lock our door."
"The doors lock automatically," Henry pointed out. "Just pull it closed."
Grandfather wanted to shower before going to the cookout. "Go ahead," he urged. "I'll be down in about twenty minutes."
The children hurried down the stone steps and out the side door.
Tables covered with yellow-striped cloths ringed the lawn. Randy and another man were barbequing chicken and hamburgers over a smoking grill. A cart with pitchers of iced tea stood next to an ice-filled tub of sodas.
"I'm thirsty," said Benny.
"I'll ask Randy if we can have a soda," said Jessie, heading toward the grill.
"Make way!" yelled someone from behind her.
A dark-haired young woman hurried by, carrying a huge tray of cheese and pickles.
"I'll help you put that down," Benny offered, his thirst forgotten. He hoped he'd be rewarded with a pickle.
"No problem," said the girl, quickly arranging the platters. "I've got to set up before the crowd arrives."
Already young men wearing ties and young women in flowered summer dresses milled about on the lawn. Everyone wore name tags.
Hazel Watson came over to the Aldens. "Here are your name tags," she said, pinning a plastic square to Benny's shirt.
The dark-haired girl bustled past again, this time carrying a huge bowl of chips.
"Rachel," Hazel said, halting the girl. "There are no cups with the drinks."
"Yes, Mrs. Watson," Rachel replied, sounding frustrated. "I'll fetch them on the next trip."
A young man stopped to read Benny's name tag. "Hello, Benny Alden. I'm Mark Jacobs. Pleased to meet you." He shook Benny's hand, then smiled at the other children.
"Are you a student here?" Jessie asked. She thought the young man had wonderful brown eyes.
"Yes," Mark replied. "I'm studying astronomy. In fact, I'm presenting a paper at the conference."
"What's it about?" asked Henry.
Mark lowered his voice to a whisper. "My secret discovery!" he said, wiggling his eyebrows.
Violet giggled. "Astronomy is about the stars, right?"
Mark nodded. "And the moon and planets and the sun."
Just then Randy Merchant rang a bell. "Time to eat," he bellowed to the guests.
Everyone formed a line. Henry was extra-hungry. He took a hamburger and a big piece of chicken.
A pudgy young man behind him took a hamburger. "The food in this place isn't that great," he complained. His badge read EUGENE SCOTT.
Henry introduced himself to Eugene. "My grandfather is the moderator of the conference. Are you studying astronomy like Mark Jacobs?"
"I'm a better astronomer than Jacobs is any day," Eugene said scornfully, leaving the food line.
Henry shrugged. Maybe the guy was just cranky because he was hungry.
The Aldens found a small table under a tree. Grandfather sat with Dr. Porter at a bigger table.
Mark Jacobs brought his plate over. "May I join you?"
"Sure," said Benny. He liked the young astronomer.
"Eat fast," said Mark, looking up at the dark clouds. "I'm afraid we're in for a real mountain thunderstorm."
Rachel walked by with a pitcher of iced tea. "Refills?"
Mark held out his glass. "The food is really good."
"At least you don't have to work for it," she said, stalking away.
"Who is she?" asked Violet.
"That's Rachel Cunningham," Mark replied. "She's from the little town at the bottom of the mountain."
"Is she a student, too?" Henry wanted to know.
Mark nodded. "Yes, but she works as a waitress and a maid to help earn tuition money. Rachel is —"
But before he could finish, it began to rain — big, splattering drops followed by daggers of lightning!CHAPTER 2
The Cabin in the Glen
Jessie grabbed Benny's hand and ran toward the dormitory. Lightning flashed all around them. The claps of thunder were deafening.
Everyone scurried for shelter. Jessie and Benny raced inside the Seneca Building, just ahead of Violet and Henry. Mark Jacobs was right behind them.
A fire blazed in the huge stone fireplace. Several people gathered around the warmth of the flames.
"I am so wet!" cried Violet as she plopped down on the hearth to dry off. "Those raindrops were cold!"
"That was a mountain cloudburst," said Mark, wringing out his soggy tie. "Definitely not a gentle summer shower."
Thunder rocked the building.
Benny's eyes grew round. "This storm is very noisy," he said, trying to be brave.
"It'll be over soon," Mark assured him. "One thing about weather up here — it changes quickly. If it's clear tomorrow night, I'll let you look through the telescope."
"Can we see Jupiter?" asked Henry.
"Sure," said Mark. "I wish I could show you Saturn, too. But it rises much later. You'd have to get up very early in the morning, while it's still dark out."
"I always get up really early," Benny bragged. The storm was rumbling down the mountain and he felt braver.
"But first you have to go to bed," said a familiar voice.
"Grandfather," said Violet. "Where were you?"
"Able Porter and I waited out the rain in the main building. But before we got there we were soaked," replied James Alden. "I'm going to toast by the fire a bit. You children should go on up to bed. You've had a busy day."
After saying good night, the Aldens went upstairs. Jessie and Violet unlocked their door and went into room six.
Henry got out the key to his and Benny's room.
"It's already open," whispered Benny. He pushed on the door, which swung inward. "Maybe somebody's in there!"
"Let me go in first," Henry cautioned. He stepped carefully into the room, switching on the light.
First he checked under the beds and then in the tiny bathroom. But no one was hiding.
"All clear," Henry told Benny.
"Who was in our room?" Benny asked.
"I don't know," Henry replied. "But I know the door was locked. Somebody came in while we were at the cookout. Is anything missing?"
"Hey!" cried Benny. "There were four apples in the basket. I ate one. But look!" He held up two apples. "Somebody took an apple."
A sharp rap on the doorjam caused them both to jump.
Hazel Watson came into the room. "I heard your conversation from the hall. Is anything wrong?"
"Somebody broke into our room," Henry told her. "We found the door unlocked."
"Oh, dear," said the housekeeper. "I hope nothing is missing."
"An apple," Benny reported.
"Are you sure the door was locked, Henry?" Hazel asked. "People have been arriving for the conference all evening. Maybe one of them accidently went into your room."
Now Henry wasn't so certain. "Maybe I was wrong," he said. "Sorry to bother you."
"No trouble. See you in the morning," Hazel said, pulling the door shut behind her.
Henry went over to the window to close the blinds. Suddenly he slipped and nearly fell.
There was a puddle of water beneath the window.
"Water!" he exclaimed. "How did that get here?"
Then it came to him. Whoever had broken into their room might have been at the cookout. Drenched from the storm, the intruder had dripped on the floor.
Benny bent down. "What is this?" He held up a damp, pale blue piece of paper.
"It looks like a gum or candy wrapper," Henry observed. "The person must have dropped it."
"You know what this means?" Benny exclaimed. "We have a new mystery to solve!"
The next morning was sparkling and sunny. The rain had left the campus fresh and green.
In the dining room, the Aldens sat at a table by a big window. The room buzzed with the chatter of scientists. Grandfather was attending a special breakfast meeting.
Violet put down her menu. "Ugh! Who'd want mountain trout for breakfast?"
"Fresh-caught trout is supposed to be good," Henry said. "But I'm with you, Violet. I can't face fish this early."
Rachel Cunningham came over to take their orders. She wore a cheerful pink sweater, but no smile.
Jessie wondered why the girl seemed so unhappy. It was a beautiful day. Who could be glum under such blue skies?
Jessie smiled at Rachel when she brought the Aldens' orders, but Rachel didn't respond.
While the Aldens spooned up oatmeal with maple syrup and raisins, they discussed the new mystery.
"You should have shown the puddle and that wrapper to Hazel," Jessie said to Henry.
"That's proof somebody was in your room."
"Hazel had already left," Henry said. "Anyway, she thinks someone just went in there by accident."
"If the person didn't take anything, maybe it was an accident," Violet mused.
Benny waved his spoon. "They took one of my apples!"
"I guess he — or she — was hungry," said Henry.
"But he couldn't have been hungry if he'd just come in from the cookout," Jessie pointed out.
Henry buttered a corn muffin. "We don't know for sure that the person was at the cookout. Maybe he just got caught in the storm."
Just then Randy Merchant walked by, carrying a Styrofoam cup of juice. "Hey, guys!" he greeted. "When you finish, come by the observatory. I'll show you the telescope."
"Oh, boy!" Benny said, stuffing half a muffin in his mouth. "Let's hurry!"
Violet laughed. "Benny! The telescope isn't going anywhere." But she was eager to visit the observatory, too.
"Good breakfast," Jessie said when Rachel cleared their plates. "Thanks."
"Don't thank me," she said shortly. "I'm not the cook."
As the Aldens went outside, Jessie remarked, "I wonder why Rachel is so unfriendly."
"Maybe she's just having a bad day." Henry indicated a sign beside a graveled path. "The observatory is this way."
The trail wound upward, between jagged rocks and thick bushes. The children were out of breath when, a while later, they reached a windowless building capped by a white dome.
"We're on the very top of the mountain," said Henry as they headed toward the building. "You can see the campus down there."
They opened the door to the building and walked down a hall lined with desks and bookcases. At the end of the hall another door stood open.
"Come in!" Randy's voice echoed from within.
The children stepped into a huge round room. The ceiling curved overhead like the inside of an egg. In the center of the room was a large cylinder-shaped object.
Randy Merchant stood at the base of the instrument, holding a pair of pliers. "Welcome," he said, grinning.
Henry looked up, marveling at the enormous structure. "We're inside the dome, aren't we?"
"There's a big crack in it," Benny said, pointing to a narrow slit in the roof. "You should get it fixed."
Randy laughed. "The slit is supposed to be there. The roof slides open when the telescope is in use." He patted the huge cylinder. "I told you it was a beauty."
"Can we look through it?" asked Benny.
"I'm doing some maintenance on it right now," Randy replied. "But I'll tell you about it. This is a twenty-four-inch reflecting telescope."
"How does it work?" asked Henry. He was interested in mechanical devices.
Excerpted from The Outer Space Mystery by GERTRUDE CHANDLER WARNER, Charles Tang. Copyright © 1997 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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Posted November 8, 2012