Authors: Gertrude Chandler Warner
“Maybe Pam’s shy around new people,” Violet was quick to suggest.
Jessie frowned as she wrapped a sandwich. She thought there was more to it than that. Pam always seemed so eager to get away from them.
Henry filled a large thermos with lemonade. “I think we should concentrate on one mystery at a time,” he said, and the others nodded.
Jessie loaded their picnic lunch into her backpack. She even remembered Benny’s special cup—the cracked pink cup he had found while they were living in the boxcar.
Then they filed out the door.
“Stick together!” Norah called out to them from an opened window. “We don’t want anyone to get lost.”
“Don’t worry, Norah,” Jessie called back to her with a little wave. “We always stick together.”
The Aldens set off across the fields, following a row of scraggly pines that grew near a rail fence. They made a detour around a weedy pond and stopped by a lone apple tree on a hill to pick wildflowers. By the time they reached the woods, the afternoon sun was getting hot and their flowers were starting to wilt.
“I’m starving,” said Benny, as they followed a winding path covered with pine needles. “Is it lunchtime yet?”
“Got to be!” said Henry. “I’m ready for a break.”
“Mrs. McGregor said there was a good spot for a picnic by the stream,” Violet recalled.
“It must be up ahead,” guessed Jessie. “Let’s keep going a while longer.”
Pine needles crackled under Benny’s feet as he quickened his pace. “Sure hope we find it soon,” he said, rubbing his empty stomach.
“Doesn’t it smell wonderful here?” Violet said, looking back at her older sister.
Jessie filled her lungs with the spicy scent of pine. “It sure does.”
Just then, Benny stopped so quickly that Henry almost bumped into him.
“What’s wrong?” Henry asked.
Benny stood frozen to the spot.
“Benny?” Jessie said in alarm. “Are you okay?”
The youngest Alden put a finger to his lips signaling for the others to be quiet. “Listen!”
No one spoke for a moment. Then Henry nodded. So did Jessie and Violet. They heard it, too. A rushing noise.
“That’s water rushing over rocks,” stated Henry. “The stream must be close by.”
It wasn’t long before they reached a stream that wound its way through the woods.
They quickly made themselves comfortable on the grassy bank. Then Jessie passed out the sandwiches while Henry poured the lemonade.
“Mrs. McGregor was right,” Violet said as she unwrapped a sandwich. “This really is a perfect spot for a picnic.”
Jessie looked around. “It’s a perfect spot for a bridge, too,” she said, taking the lemonade that Henry handed her.
“You’re right, Jessie,” said Henry. “I bet this is just where Jon Eton was going to put that old stone bridge.”
“I wonder if …” Violet began and then stopped herself.
“Are you wondering if one of the workmen really did steal Meg’s brooch?” Jessie asked. “I don’t blame you, Violet. I can’t help wondering about that myself.”
“Annette seems so convinced,” said Violet.
Henry suddenly had a thought that hadn’t occurred to him before. “Maybe it wasn’t one of the workmen who stole the brooch.”
“What are you getting at, Henry?” Violet looked confused.
“Maybe Jon took Meg’s brooch.”
“I suppose so.” Violet frowned. She didn’t want to believe Jon Eton would steal his wife’s family heirloom.
“If only we could figure out Meg’s verse,” said Jessie. She pulled her notebook from her back pocket and read the words aloud one more time.
When last goes first,
and first goes last,
Eton’s Loop will show you
a clue from the past.
But nobody had any idea what the verse meant. It still didn’t make any sense.
Violet couldn’t help noticing that her little brother was unusually quiet. She could tell something was troubling him. “Is anything wrong, Benny?”
Benny’s eyes were fixed on the water flowing swiftly over the rocks. “I heard it last night,” he said softly.
“Heard what, Benny?” Jessie asked.
“Water rushing over rocks!”
The others stopped eating and stared at him. “I didn’t know what it was,” Benny told them. “But now I do.”
“You couldn’t have heard this stream last night, Benny,” Henry argued. “It’s too far away from the house.”
Benny shook his head. “It wasn’t this stream, Henry. It was the ghost—the ghost of the Chattering Bones!”
“Oh!” Violet put one hand over her mouth in surprise.
But Henry wasn’t having any of that. “There’s no such thing as ghosts, Benny” he said for the umpteenth time. “Not even ghost streams.”
Violet glanced at Henry. She knew her older brother was right. And yet, Benny’s words still gave her a chill.
“Benny are you sure you weren’t dreaming?” Jessie wanted to know.
“I thought maybe I was,” Benny admitted. “I even forgot all about the weird noise for a while—until we got closer to this stream.” He looked over at his brother and sisters. “It wasn’t a dream last night. I’m sure of it.”
“There’s only one way to settle this,” said Jessie. “If it happens again, we’ll all check it out together.”
Violet added, “That’s a promise.”
“There must be an explanation for what you heard, Benny,” said Henry. “We just have to figure out what it is.”
Benny gave his brother and sisters a grateful smile. They always knew how to make him feel better.
After lunch, the four Aldens slipped off their socks and shoes and stood ankle-deep in the icy cold stream. The water was so clear they could see to the bottom. Sidestepping the rocks, they waded downstream. By the time they got back, their pockets were bulging with interesting pebbles.
When they stepped onto the mossy bank again, Violet spotted something half-hidden in the long grass nearby. “Look at this,” she said, holding up a braided green headband.
“I bet somebody’s looking all over for that,” said Jessie.
“Pam always wears headbands,” Benny pointed out as he put on his socks.
Henry nodded. “Maybe it’s hers.”
“Possibly,” said Jessie. “But not likely.”
Violet agreed. “Pam never hikes this far, remember?” She slipped the headband into her pocket, hoping to find the owner.
Henry looked at his watch. “I guess we should head back.”
“Right,” said Jessie, remembering the potluck dinner. “It’s a long hike.”
With that, the four children followed the path out of the woods, still no closer to solving the mystery. In fact, they didn’t have the faintest idea how they were going to solve it. All they knew was that they had to try.
Benny was checking himself out in the hall mirror when Mrs. McGregor came down the stairs in a peach-colored dress. “Doesn’t everyone look wonderful!” she said, smiling fondly at the children.
Henry Jessie, Violet, and Benny were ready for the potluck dinner. Jessie was wearing a watermelon-pink dress with pearly buttons. Violet had changed into a lavender T-shirt and pale blue skirt with lace pockets. Henry wore a blue shirt and black pants. And Benny had on a short-sleeved white shirt and tan pants.
Just then, Pam came out of the kitchen holding a covered dish. The cream-colored headband in her hair matched her dress. Norah, in a ruffled blue dress, was right behind her.
“Pam made pasta salad for the potluck,” Norah said proudly as they headed out to the car.
“Oh, do you enjoy cooking, Pam?” Violet asked.
Pam nodded. “I’m not very good at it yet,” she said. “But I’m learning.”
“Pam’s being modest,” Mrs. McGregor said as they pulled out of the driveway. “It just so happens I had a taste—and it was delicious!”
“It smells delicious!” Benny piped up from the backseat.
Pam, who was sitting up front between her great-aunt and Mrs. McGregor, turned around and smiled. “I’m making cookies tomorrow, Benny. You can help me decorate them if you want.”
“Sure!” Benny was grinning from ear to ear.
Pam was being very nice to Benny, Jessie thought.
“I was hoping Annette would join us,” Norah said as they drove through the peaceful countryside. “She doesn’t know a soul around here. I wanted to introduce her to a few people, but she said she’d rather work.”
“You certainly have a dedicated assistant,” Mrs. McGregor remarked.
Norah nodded, then she added, “By the way, if anyone comes across that tape recorder of mine, please let me know right away. Annette and I both use it for research.”
“You mean, it’s still missing, Norah?” Mrs. McGregor was surprised to hear this.
“I’m afraid so.”
“We’ll keep an eye out for it,” Jessie promised. And the others nodded.
“Oh, Pam,” Violet said, “speaking of lost things, are you missing a headband? A braided green headband?”
Pam whirled around. “Yes, did you find it?”
Violet nodded. “We came across it when we were out today.”
“That’s great!” said Pam. “It’s my favorite.”
The Aldens looked at each other. Pam said she never went into the woods. Why would she lie to them?
Just then, Norah pulled into the busy parking lot at the community center. “I wonder what everybody’s bringing for the potluck,” said Benny. He sounded excited.
“One thing’s for sure,” said Norah, parking in an empty space. “You’ll be stuffed to the gills by the time we leave!”
Benny jumped out of the car. “Let’s go,” he said, heading for the door.
Henry laughed. “When it comes to food, there’s no stopping Benny.”
Inside the packed center, people were already helping themselves to the hot and cold food set out on a long table. Pam went over to add her dish to the others.
“Wow, there sure are a lot of potluckers here,” Benny said as he looked around. “I hope they save some food for us.”
Jessie smiled at her little brother and brushed her fingers across his hair. “Don’t worry, Benny. I’m sure there’s plenty to go around.”
Norah put a hand to her cheek. “Oh, no. There he is again!” she said, keeping her voice low.
The Aldens and Mrs. McGregor looked at Norah, then in the direction she was staring. A man in gold-rimmed glasses was eating dinner at a small table in the corner. The man was Spence Morton!
“Never mind, now. We’ll just keep out of his way,” Mrs. McGregor told her friend.
Henry noticed that Benny was eyeing the buffet table again. “I think there’s still plenty of food there, Benny,” he teased.
Norah smiled at the youngest Alden. “Getting hungry?”
“Sort of,” Benny said, looking at her expectantly. “Is it time to eat yet?”
Norah laughed. “Go ahead.”
The Aldens quickly made their way over to the buffet while Norah and Mrs. McGregor mingled with the other guests. The children followed the line of people moving slowly around the table. After helping themselves to the different dishes, they carried their heaping plates to a small table and sat down.
“Mmm,” said Jessie, digging in. “Have you tried Pam’s pasta salad? It really is great.”
Henry nodded. “I’ll second that.”
“Don’t all look at once,” said Violet, “but Spence Morton has company.”
One by one, the other Aldens peeked over to take a look. Someone with gray streaks in her dark hair was sitting across from Spence. They seemed to be deep in conversation.
“Isn’t that Darlene?” Jessie said in surprise, trying not to stare.
“You mean the lady from the gas station?” asked Benny.
Violet turned around slowly to take another glance. “Yes, I think you’re right, Jessie.”
“I wonder what that’s all about,” said Henry
But they soon forgot about Spence Morton as Norah and Mrs. McGregor joined them, with Pam close behind. They all enjoyed a cheerful dinner together. Even Pam was all smiles.
Benny was just polishing off his second helping of chocolate cake when he spotted someone waving. “I think someone’s trying to get your attention, Norah.” He nodded in the direction of a man seated a few tables away.
“You’re right, Benny.” Norah smiled and waved, too. “That’s Bob Ferber. He did the work on my house.”
A young man of about thirty came over. He had sandy-colored hair and a golden tan.
“Good to see you, Norah!” He put out his hand. “And you, too, Pam.”
“How are you, Bob?” Norah responded, shaking hands. Then she introduced Mrs. McGregor and the Aldens.
“I’m afraid I ate too much,” Bob confessed, after saying hello to everyone. “I seldom get a chance to enjoy such great cooking.”
Norah smiled. “I hope business is going well,” she said. “I know it’s been quite a struggle to get it off the ground.”
“Oh, it’s not as bad as all that,” said Bob. “I’ll have my bills paid off soon—then it’ll be smooth sailing.”
Norah seemed surprised to hear this. “That’d be an amazing thing to do in such a short time.”
Changing the subject, Bob turned to the Aldens. “So, are you enjoying your visit with Norah?”
Benny nodded. “We’re solving a mystery,” he said, his eyes shining.
“Oh?” Bob looked startled.
“At least, we’re trying to solve one,” added Henry.
Norah laughed a little. “I’ll have to tell you about that mystery sometime, Bob.”
“Right.” Smiling uneasily, the young man glanced at his watch. “Well, now, just look at the time. Guess I’d better be off. Good luck with the old mystery, kids,” he said, seeming eager to get away.
Jessie stared after him, puzzled. Nobody had mentioned it was an
mystery. How did he know?
That night, after the Aldens had gone to bed, Violet lay awake thinking about Eton’s Loop. What in the world was it? All day they’d kept their eyes peeled for clues. But they’d found nothing that would help solve the mystery. Was the answer somewhere in the verse itself?
When last goes first,
and first goes last,
Eton’s Loop will show you
a clue from the past.