Chapter 11 THE MAN IN GRAY

WHEN Peter Van Der Lann drove into the farm yard twenty minutes later, Hanny and Vevi ran to meet him.

“I came as fast as I could,” the farmer said. “Is everything all right?”

Finding English inadequate, Hanny spoke rapidly in Dutch, telling him everything that had happened during his absence.

Mr. Van Der Lann did not have much to say until he had inspected the tulip fields. Although the high wind and rain had flattened many of the plants, they were not as badly damaged as he had feared.

“Now that the sun is coming out again, they will straighten up,” he said. “We will have a good flower harvest, Hanny.”

The nurseryman did not scold his niece for having forgotten about the windmill. Instead, he told her that she probably had saved the tulip field by shutting off the water.

“As for Mr. and Mrs. Mattox,” he said indifferently, “give them no thought, little Hanny.”

“But Uncle Peter, they came while you were away to peep under the box!”

“It does not matter. Before this week has ended, everyone will have seen our beautiful tulip.”

“Mrs. Mattox spoke of a tulip they are entering in the show, Uncle Peter. A cherry-rose candy stripe, she called it.”

“It will not compare with our flower,” declared Mr. Van Der Lann cheerfully. “Do not worry, Hanny.”

“She spoke also of a customer, Mrs. Gabriel. And a large order of tulip bulbs from Holland.”

The nurseryman became attentive, listening closely as his niece related the entire conversation overheard in the hayloft.

“The Mattoxes are welcome to their big order,” he said. “I can tell you no more, Hanny, except to say that you are never to talk to Mrs. Gabriel or have anything to do with her.”

“But why, Uncle Peter?”

“Do not ask me questions,” he said kindly. “I cannot answer, Hanny. Mrs. Gabriel is not to be trusted. I have told her never to come here.”

Mr. Van Der Lann would say no more about Mrs. Gabriel. As it now was growing dusk, he told Vevi he would take her home in his car.

“When you see the other Brownies, let them know that their wooden shoes will be ready for them by tomorrow night,” he said as he dropped her off at her doorstep. “Also, unless it rains again, there will be tulips for the booth which is to be decorated.”

Now that Mrs. Langley’s flower show was close at hand, the Brownie Scouts dropped all other activities.

Miss Gordon and Miss Mohr had obtained Dutch girl costumes for the girls. A carpenter on the Langley estate helped out by making a booth for the organization to use. It was set up on the lawn not far from the greenhouse where the flowers were to be judged.

On the day before the show, the Brownies all hiked out to Windmill Farm. Their wooden shoes were ready for them, and all were a perfect fit.

Mr. Van Der Lann was too busy picking tulips to talk to the children. He left word with his housekeeper though, that they were to have all the flowers they needed. Hanny helped the Brownies choose the blooms they wanted.

“My, I wish we had a tulip bed,” Vevi remarked. “Miss Mohr, could the Brownie Scouts have a little plot of ground at the library?”

“Yes, I’ve been thinking about it, and I know just the place,” the librarian replied. “It will be too late for spring bulbs. However, once the ground is prepared, you can set out other plants.”

“I would rather have tulips,” Vevi said, burying her nose in the crimson bouquet she had gathered. “They are the most beautiful flowers in the world.”

“I would like a bed of nothing but Golden Beauties,” declared Connie.

“How soon can we have our flower bed?” Sunny Davidson asked.

“I will have the plot spaded and raked tomorrow so that the ground is even and workable,” the librarian promised. “If you speak to Mrs. Langley about it, I am sure she will give you plants from her estate.”

“I’d like pansies,” Rosemary said. “And forget-me-nots.”

Sunny thought the bed should be planted with marigolds or late-flowering plants such as asters or chrysanthemums. Connie favored geraniums, while Jane thought an old fashioned herb garden would be the most interesting.

“I just want tulips,” Vevi said again. “The Brownies should have a tulip garden while the festival is going on.”

“I wish we had thought of it earlier,” Miss Gordon replied. “Since we didn’t, I am afraid you will have to forget the tulip bed, Vevi.”

After gathering armfuls of tulips at Windmill Farm, the girls set the stems in tubs of water so they would not wilt.

Just then Mr. Van Der Lann came in from the field. He spoke to everyone and bestowed a very special smile upon Miss Mohr.

“I am driving to the Langley estate now in my truck,” he said. “I will be glad to take the tubs of flowers there for you.”

“May we ride too?” Jane asked.

“Yes, I have plenty of room,” he assured her. “Jump in.”

Mr. Van Der Lann was carrying a load of potted plants to the estate. The children had never seen so many beautiful tulips.

“It will be fun riding with the flowers!” cried Vevi. “I want to sit beside the Golden Beauty.”

The choice tulip, however, was not among the other potted plants in the back of the truck. Vevi was very worried about it until she discovered that the nurseryman was carrying his best tulips in a special box on the front seat.

At the Langley estate dozens of gardeners were hard at work preparing the grounds for the coming affair.

The grass was being cut with big power mowers. All of the hedges had been neatly trimmed. One worker was edging the walks.

Mr. Van Der Lann drove his truck close to the greenhouse. While he was lifting out his flowers, the Brownies went on ahead into the building.

“My, it’s hot in here!” Vevi exclaimed. “It takes my breath away.”

The Brownies spied Mrs. Langley telling workmen how to arrange different flower exhibits. Mr. Piff was there too. The girls saw him start to put up a poster advertising the Rosedale tulip festival.

“No! No! Not in here, of all places!” Mrs. Langley exclaimed. “You will ruin the artistic effect.”

“Where shall I put the poster?” the promoter asked. He seemed rather annoyed by Mrs. Langley’s refusal to let him tack it up in the greenhouse.

“Not anywhere on the estate, please.”

“Don’t you want to advertise the festival?”

“This is a private, non-commercial judging show,” Mrs. Langley explained. “I can’t have the grounds cluttered with cheap signs.”

“Cheap signs!” Mr. Piff exploded. “Well, I like that! Let me tell you, if we don’t advertise, the festival will be a flop. Your money is invested in it too.”

“How well I know,” replied Mrs. Langley coldly. “I deeply regret that I allowed you to talk me into the affair. Your methods—”

The garden club president did not finish what she had intended to say. At that instant she saw the tulips which Mr. Van Der Lann had brought into the greenhouse.

“Oh, such beautiful flowers!” she exclaimed. “I have never seen more lovely blooms. And this golden-hued tulip! What is it, Mr. Van Der Lann?”

“A new variety I am introducing,” the nurseryman replied politely. “I call it the Golden Beauty.”

“It is the showiest flower so far brought in.”

“Thank you, Ma’am, for the praise,” said the nurseryman. “I only wish that you were to be one of the judges.”

While Mr. Van Der Lann was arranging his display, Mr. and Mrs. Mattox drove up in their truck. They too had brought many gorgeous flowers for the judging contest.

“Look at that rosy-red tulip,” Connie directed Vevi’s attention to a potted plant which Mrs. Mattox was showing to the garden club president. “Isn’t it pretty?”

The tulip which Mrs. Mattox had named Candy Stick, resembled peppermint. It stood on a tall, graceful stem, its outer petals a cherry-rose color. Inside petals were a delicate white.

Vevi was deeply worried when she saw the handsome tulip. For a second she thought it was a prettier flower than the one Peter Van Der Lann had developed. Then she decided that the Golden Beauty was the better.

“They’re both very nice,” Connie said. “I hope though, that Peter’s tulip wins the blue ribbon tomorrow.”

After admiring all the lovely flowers, the Brownies helped Miss Mohr and Miss Gordon decorate the outdoor booth. They put up colored crepe paper to cover the rough boards and pasted on the tulips they had made at the library. When the job finally was finished, the Brownies were very proud of their work.

“I just hope a wind doesn’t come along tonight and ruin everything,” Vevi said anxiously. “That would be too mean.”

“Or a rain,” added Connie, glancing up at the slightly overcast sky.

“If it should rain, workmen will move the booth indoors,” Miss Mohr reassured the girls. “I think though, that tomorrow will be fair.”

Her prediction proved true. The day of the flower show dawned warm and clear.

Vevi and Connie were up with the birds. Even before breakfast they were dressed in their Dutch costumes, ready to go to Mrs. Langley’s estate.

By ten o’clock all of the Brownies, including Hanny, had arrived on the grounds. First of all, before taking turns working at the stand, the children visited the greenhouse where the tulips were to be judged.

In addition to the Golden Beauty and the Candy Stripe, other varieties had been displayed by Rosedale growers. There were groupings of Parrot tulips, Darwins and hybrids. One section of the room was devoted to tiny tulips suitable only for rock gardens.

“Do you think the Golden Beauty will win?” Hanny anxiously asked her little friends.

“Of course,” said Vevi loyally.

“Uncle Peter says that Mr. and Mrs. Mattox have a very fine tulip,” Hanny went on. “The judges seem to like it too.”

Now two men and a lady had been selected to award the prize ribbons. The three were experts in judging tulips. They wandered back and forth between the rows of flowers, making notes on paper. Now and then they whispered together. It was hard to tell though, which tulip they thought was the best.

Vevi noticed a tall stranger in a gray suit who had entered the greenhouse. He seemed to be watching the persons who came in, rather than looking at the flowers.

“Who is that man?” Vevi asked, pointing him out to Hanny and Connie.

“No one I ever saw before,” Connie replied carelessly. “Maybe he is one of Mr. Piff’s friends.”

The stranger, however, did not speak to the flower festival promoter when the latter came into the greenhouse. In fact, the man did not talk to anyone.

“Maybe he is a detective,” Vevi decided. “Mrs. Langley may have hired him to watch the prize tulips.”

Convinced that this was so, she went over to ask the garden club president about it.

“No, dear,” Mrs. Langley assured her, “I do not have a detective on the grounds.”

“Then who is that man who keeps watching everyone so closely?” Vevi asked.

Mrs. Langley turned to glance at the tall man in the gray suit. She had never seen him before.

“He probably is from some nearby town,” she told Vevi. “Many persons are here today that I do not know.”

“Maybe he is a friend of Mrs. Gabriel,” Vevi speculated.

She had noticed that the man kept watching both Mrs. Gabriel and the Mattox couple who had come to the show together.

“Who is Mrs. Gabriel?” inquired Mrs. Langley absently. She was not paying very much attention to the conversation for her mind was on other important matters.

“Mrs. Gabriel is very fond of flowers,” Vevi remarked. “I guess she must have one of the largest gardens in Rosedale.”

“Why do you think that, dear?”

Mrs. Langley knew every interesting garden in the entire city and had never heard of one maintained by a Mrs. Gabriel.

“Because Mrs. Gabriel buys so many tulip bulbs.” Vevi replied. “She tried to place a very large order with Peter Van Der Lann. When he wouldn’t take it, she went to the Mattox Nursery with her business.”

Mrs. Langley now was listening more attentively to the little girl. Neither of them noticed that the stranger in gray had moved closer. He too could hear their conversation.

“You say Mr. Van Der Lann turned down a very large bulb order?” the garden club president asked. “Well, that is odd. I wonder why?”

“He didn’t seem to like Mrs. Gabriel.”

“Mrs. Gabriel—” repeated the society woman, mulling over the name. “I’m quite sure I never have heard of her, or her garden. Why would she order tulips at this time of year? Perhaps it was for fall delivery. No doubt that was it, Vevi. Mr. Van Der Lann turned down the business, because this isn’t a good time to plant bulbs. Any that were bought now would have to be held until Fall.”

Mrs. Langley was called away just then and so said no more about Mrs. Gabriel. However, the man in gray moved over to where Vevi stood.

“Hello, little girl,” he greeted her. And in a friendly voice, he asked: “Which lady is Mrs. Gabriel? Is she the one in the darkblue dress?”

“Oh, no, that is Mrs. Howard,” Vevi answered. “Mrs. Gabriel is over by the door, talking to Peter Van Der Lann.”

“The owner of Windmill Farm?”

Vevi merely nodded and did not answer. She had begun to wonder why the man asked so many curious questions.

“Say, you must be a detective,” she declared, after studying him a moment.

The man only smiled. He started to ask Vevi another question, but before he could do so, Mrs. Langley clapped her hands to attract everyone’s attention.

The room became very quiet.

“The judges are ready to award the prize ribbons,” announced the garden club president. “Clear the aisles, please. In a moment now, we will know which tulip is considered the best in the show.”

Share on Twitter Share on Facebook