This is a novel that contains many mysteries and, to me, one of them is why it is called Annabel, since Will Carden is the main character. At one time the Cardens had been a prominent family in Bingham, but now Will grows and sells vegetables to help support his widowed mother and his siblings.
Will, then 15-years-old, had just delivered vegetables to the cook at the Williams home when he saw that family’s children playing outside. Gladys, the youngest, was crying over a broken doll, so Will stopped to reattach the bottom half of a jointed leg. After that Gladys’ brothers told of a kite that wouldn’t fly. Will adjusted the “brace string” and solved the problem. All of the youngsters, including 12-year-old Annabel, thought Will was a splendid friend, but then Mrs. Williams came outside and declared she wouldn’t allow her children to associate with the vegetable boy.
Will began walking home, offended by the woman’s words. The Williams children always treated him as an equal, but he knew that the town of Bingham depended on the 300 jobs at the steel mill, where world-famous Williams Drop Forge Steel was made. The Williams lived in a fine mansion, and the Cardens lived in a cottage on the other side of town. The Cardens had a couple acres of good land, cultivated by Will and his older brother Egbert, who was deaf, and had a crippled arm. Other family members were Mrs. Carden, and 10-year-old sister Florence. Also living in the small house was Mr. Jordan, who was Mr. Williams’ secretary at the steel mill. He had once been John Carden’s best friend, and he’d been boarding with the Cardens for eight years, ever since Will’s father had died in a shipwreck. Mr. Jordan was “greatly respected, but little liked.” He stayed in the Carden’s best room, went to work, took a walk after supper, and then shut himself in his room each night.
When Will returned to his humble home he met up with Dr. Meigs, who saw that the lad was troubled. After telling the doctor what Mrs. Williams had said the doctor told about Will’s father. John Carden came up with the process to make Williams Drop Forge Steel, but he’d become poor working on his experiments and had to borrow money from Mr. Jordan. Mr. Carden took a second-rate ship to England to interest steel companies in his process, but the ship sank, killing everyone on board. The secret process was now owned by Mr. Jordan, who got royalties on all of the steel made by Mr. Williams’ mill.
Will’s sister, Florence, wanted to go visit with Annabel, but he told her she should just talk with her at school, and not go to the Williams house anymore, since Mrs. Williams wouldn’t like it. After supper Mr. Jordan went for his daily walk and Will followed after him, wanting to meet up with the man and ask him about his father. Mr. Jordan walked through a grove of trees he owned, stopped by one, looked around, and then ran his hand over a section of bark about the height of his head. After that Mr. Jordan continued on with his walk. Will decided not to try and talk to the boarder, for the man’s actions made him uneasy.
A few days later Dr. Meigs came by once again, and Will told him he planned to try and get a job at the steel mill in October, once the vegetable-growing season was through. His mother was looking tired out, and Egbert couldn’t do heavy work due to his bad arm, so Will needed to earn more money to help his family. Dr. Meigs thought the youth should continue in school, and suggested a partnership raising mushrooms inside of the Cardens’ shed, that had once sheltered horses and cows, so the dirt floor was well fertilized. The doctor would pay for the equipment needed to properly heat the building, plus all other expenses to start the business. Will and his brother would do the work, and the mushrooms could be shipped by rail to a nearby city, where the doctor’s son-in-law was a wholesale grocer.
Will could continue in school, and Egbert could study his correspondence lessons from the deaf-mute academy. (I suppose poverty kept Egbert from actually attending the school for the deaf.) The mushroom business was started, and proved a successful venture.
When winter came Will came home from school and told his mother he was going out to Mr. Jordan’s tree grove and gather up all the downed branches for firewood. He would take some food with him so he wouldn’t have to come home for supper. Just as he was finishing his wood gathering Will saw Mr. Jordan come by on his walk, stop in front of the same tree as before, and run his hand over a certain area of bark. Since Will wasn’t much of a detective he didn’t go over to investigate if there was anything unusual about that tree.
On the day after Christmas Will went to the skating pond. While he was there Annabel Williams fell through the ice, and Will rescued her. Though soaking wet he carried her to the Williams home and handed the freezing girl to Mr. Williams, who was often away, but happened to be home that day. Then Will went home to change into dry clothes. Mr. Williams was told that Annabel had been saved by Will Carden, and learned that he was the son of John Carden, who had discovered the special steel making process. When Dr. Meigs came Mr. Williams found out that the Carden family was poor, which surprised him, for when Mr. Jordan came to him with the steel formula he was shown a paper signed by John Carden, stating he sold the formula for ten thousand dollars.
That evening Mrs. Williams sent word via a servant that she was so upset over Annabel’s “careless accident” that she would be eating in her room. Mr. Williams was surprised to see how pleased his children were about not having to eat with their mother at the table. He also learned that all of his children liked Will, but their mother wouldn’t let them socialize with him because he’s a vegetable boy.
Mr. Williams sent a letter to Will, asking that he come see him at his office. When Will came Mr. Williams talked with him, and asked Will to go and visit Annabel, who was still recovering from her accident. Will went to see her more than once, and he discovered she wasn’t too bad looking, even if she did have red hair and freckles.
In the spring it was decided that Mrs. Williams was in poor health, so she went to Europe for a rest. (Rich people logic.) Mr. Williams changed his work schedule to spend more time in Bingham instead of at the city where he had business dealings, for he wanted his children to have a parent at home.
The mushroom business was bringing in enough money that Will told Mr. Jordan how Mrs. Carden was working too hard, and they no longer needed him to board with them. Mr. Jordan said he’d take his meals in town, but would keep his room. He also continued to get the Cardens’ mail from the post office, which he started doing as soon as Mr. Carden left for Europe.
The Williams mill put in a bid for a large overseas steel order, but learned they were outbid by a English company called Atlas Steel, which was manufacturing an improved version of the secret Carden process. Mr. Williams wanted to investigate how someone in England came up with the same metal formula, but he felt he should keep an eye on Mr. Jordan, whom he no longer trusted. After conferring with Dr. Meigs he asked Will, who was now 18-years-old, if he’d like to go on a business trip to England. Will accepted the offer, and was told it was important that Mr. Jordan not learn where he was going. Will was given one other task. He must first go to London, meet Mrs. Williams at the Savoy hotel, and see that she gets safely on a steamer that will bring her home.
Before telling about Will’s oversees journey I’ll skip ahead and say that Annabel and Mr. Williams took a walk to Mr. Jordan’s grove of trees, and she told her father that Will had pointed out to her a special tree where Mr. Jordan would run his hands over an area of bark. Mr. Williams, who was smart enough to carry a pocket knife with him, examined the tree and found that a section of bark formed a door over a hollow area of the tree trunk. Now, its fairly common for villains in children’s books to make foolish decisions, but would any cad be stupid enough to hide incriminating evidence in a tree that he goes and touches everyday? What was in that tree?
Meanwhile, when Will arrived in London he went to see Mrs. Williams, and she said “Dear me! Isn’t it the vegetable boy?” But she asked him to have supper with her at a swanky restaurant. While Will and Mrs. Williams were dining a woman came over to gossip with the lady, and told her all the important people in the room. One of them was wealthy John Carden, the head of Atlas Steel. My goodness, that was the name of Will’s deceased father, and Atlas was the steel company he’d come to investigate.
If Mr. Carden was still alive, why hadn’t he been communicating with his own family? Now I’m never able to solve the mysteries found in books, but I got suspicious about why Mr. Jordan had assigned himself the job of always getting the Cardens’ mail.
This novel, written by Suzanne Metcalf, and published in 1906, had so many coincidences, and poor-boy-meets-the-right-person scenes that it reminded me of a Horatio Alger adventure. But Suzanne Metcalf was actually a pseudonym for L. Frank Baum, a writer famous for the Oz books, including The Wizard of Oz, the inspiration for the famous 1939 Judy Garland movie. I found this book an enjoyable read, and stayed up late to finish it, for I had to know what happened next. I never found out why Annabel got her name used for the title, though she was wiser than Will when it came to wondering what’s up with that tree Mr. Jordan kept visiting. And – spoiler alert – Will ends up finding her to be a very nice person.
If you’d like to read Annabel it can be downloaded, free of charge, at: https://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/53196