Monday, December 10, 2012

The Secret of the Witch's Stairway (Meg Duncan #2)

The Secret of the Witch's Stairway (Meg Duncan #2)
Holly Beth Walker
Whitman, 1967

Genre: Mystery


Meg's Uncle Hal Ashley is visiting and tells her about a lost family treasure. The Ashley family silver disappeared during the Civil War. It is said to have been buried somewhere on the old Ashley plantation south of town. Meg and Kerry decided they would like to try and find the treasure so that Clara and Jenny Ashley, a pair of old, queer ladies, who are very poor, could benefit from the treasure. Hal volunteers to take the girls to visit Clara and Jenny.

They learn from the old ladies the sad story of how the treasure got buried. John Ashley decided to fight against slavery in the North with the Yankees. He left his wife and daughter behind with two of his most trusted servants. His wife died and the servants decided to take the little girl to her grandmother in Richmond. They buried the silver, left a note, and headed out but were never heard from again. While investigating the plantation, Meg sees the burned remains of the old plantation house and also discovers a young boy who runs when she sees him. She tries to follow him but he appears to have disappeared.

Jenny and Clara show the girls a letter from Melinda to her father saying that they took the silver and hid it in the special place that he knows about and they fixed it so that no one will ever know it's there. Clara shows them a cabinet full of dolls, some of which belonged to Melinda. The dolls that Meg likes best are dolls of Melinda and her mother and father. The girls learn that the boy is Glenn Morgan. He wants a job but the sisters have no money. When Meg tells them that the boy disappeared the old lady said that he must've gone down the witch’s stairway—an old flight of stairs that lead down to the river. It is seldom used now.

The next day the girls learn that Jenny has broken her arm and she is now in the hospital. The girls volunteer to go help Clara and keep her company. This will also give them an opportunity to hunt for the treasure. Meg decides to go and investigate the stairway and discovers that it is very well hidden by bushes and vines. It leads down into the tunnel and halfway down is a very large six-foot wide landing. The landing splits the stairs in half. On the landing she discovers a sleeping bag and clothes and realizes that the boy must be camping here.

Clara decides to take Glenn in. He says he is from Ohio and that both of his parents are dead. Meg has a hard time trusting him. One night she catches him digging through the desk in the library. She chases after him and he drops a small book. He locks himself in his room and by the time Clara gets it open they discover that he and his belongings are gone. They look at the little book that he dropped and they realize that it is a diary from 1865 written by Melinda. The constable arrives with Glenn who swears that he didn't take anything and explains that Melinda was his great-grandmother and that his father gave him her diary before he died. Since Melinda is family he has come to try to find the treasure and says that her diary explains where the treasure is hidden but all the clues are written in riddles.

One clue mentioned something about a hidden spring so the teens all grab shovels and go dig up an old spring that used to be on the plantation. Unfortunately, they don't find anything. However, Curly, the dog, has found a new plaything. Meg discovers that is an old-fashioned fork. As she tries to find where the fork came from she sees an old woman who looks like a witch staring at her. The woman gets a car drives away. Meg investigates the chimney on the burned out old plantation house where the woman was standing and discovers some disturbed bricks. Glenn also says that he saw two cars drive up to the fence of the property, get out, and walk along the river. They learn that Jenny called the news and broke the story of Glenn and Melinda's diary. When Meg looks at the riddles she notices one line that says “Monticello points the way” and she realizes that it has to refer to the old Jefferson desk the sisters own. The hidden spring must be a spring in the desk. There is another line that says Mrs. Manythings has the key and Meg realizes that this refers to Melinda's peddler doll that has a tiny key ring full of little keys.

When they examine the desk Clara says that she knows about hidden compartment but that there is nothing in it. Uncle Hal informs her that the desk is a crafty reproduction. Jenny explains that they have two of everything so her desk must be the original, but it too is a copy. Hal tracks down Andrew Turner, the woodworker who was commissioned to make the second desk. They visit his house and Meg recognizes his daughter who happens to be the witch she saw on the property. They investigate the desk that Andrew stole and discover the drawer with a false bottom and a tiny keyhole. When they open it up it is empty. The daughter says that they found an old piece of paper in and out her father threw it away but Meg knows that she's lying. Hal convinces the daughter to hand over the note and it is another riddle referring to a wall with seven up and seven down—Meg thinks it might be the chimney and the code for the bricks.

They slowly disassemble the chimney but there's nothing inside. When the dog runs to the secret stairway and Meg chases after him she discovers something. There are seven steps leading down to the stone landing and seven more leading down to the beach. The stairs are supported by a rock wall and Meg discovers that there might be a secret room behind a wall. She gets Kerry and Glenn and they start to look around. They discover an old rotted wooden door and start digging their way into the tunnel where they find a small room overflowing with silver. Unfortunately, the tunnel caves in on them.

After what seems like hours Meg hears the dog outside and calls to him. He digs his way into the room and Meg writes a message hoping that the dog will go home and get help. Hal comes and rescues them shortly thereafter and they all take the silver back to the house. Hal discovers that some of the silver was made by Paul Revere himself. The ladies say that this silver really belongs to Glenn but he says that since it was on their land they should keep it and he plans to move on. The ladies refuse and say that he is family and is more than welcome to stay with them and that they will all share the treasure.

Thoughts and Nuggets of Wisdom for Research

By this time, cars were becoming an everyday necessity. It is cute to read about Meg, who still lives in a small rural town, getting excited about driving in a car—especially an old-fashioned one. The narration reads, “The next day was Sunday. After church Uncle Hal took her on a long ride in the country. He was an artist and he was teaching Meg to draw and paint, too. He had a wonderful old Duesenberg car which he had had rebuilt. It was long and low in gleaming black, with red leather seats. Meg loved to sit beside him, the wind lifting her braids, as the car spun over the highway” (p. 40).

Glenn’s story of Melinda in the Civil War is sad and a rare occurrence when actual history is mentioned in a series book. Melinda was eleven years old when she left Hidden Springs. Two old servants tried to take her to Richmond, but the Union soldiers wouldn't let them go that way. So they went north. When they got to Ohio they were caught in a mob of people. Melinda lost sight of Jeb and Nora. She never could find them again. A kind family took her in. Their name was Morgan, the same as Glenn’s. When she grew up she married one of the sons. Meg asks why she never came back to Virginia. Glenn says that the family was poor. People didn't travel so much in those days. Besides, Melinda did try to reach her father. She wrote, but he never answered. Clara interrupts to say that he couldn't write back because he never came back to this house. After Melinda left no one lived there for over 20 years. When Melinda grew up she worried about the silver. The Morgan's didn't believe her story though. She talked fancy and was always making up riddles. So they just thought it was a game to her and not real. She died never knowing the fate of her father or the family’s silver (p. 68-71).

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