Although Mehitabel is only eight years old, her grandfather thinks she is the smartest thing on two legs. She is especially quick at riddling riddles, and Grandpa takes her with him whenever he goes to the park so he can show his friends how quick-witted she is.
Mehitabel and Grandpa’s friends enjoy this too. Grandpa’s friends think up riddles, and Mehitabel thinks up answers.
Grandpa and his friends have an agreement: If they can stump Mehitabel, he’ll treat them all to ice-cream cones. But if Mehitabel gives the right answer—or a better one than the riddler had—Grandpa buys only a cone for himself, and the friends have to treat themselves and Mehitabel.
In the summertime, Grandpa and Mehitabel often go to the park. They find Grandpa’s friends sitting on benches in the sun or in the shade. Sometimes they’re reading newspapers or books or playing checkers. Mrs. Gray is often knitting. Sometimes they’re just talking or napping. But when Mehitabel and Grandpa arrive, they look up and smile.
Mehitabel says hello to each of Grandpa’s friends; then the fun begins. Someone says, “Here, Hitty, riddle me this!” Then the person tries to stump Mehitabel with a riddle. The others stop whatever they are doing to see who will win out.
One day Grandpa’s best friend, Carlos Sanchez, wiggled his bushy eyebrows and said, “Well, Hitty, I’ve got one today that will stump you! Riddle me this: How can you hatch a chicken from a boiled egg?”
Mehitabel frowned as she thought. Suddenly she smiled at Mr. Sanchez. “I know! If you grow a patch of boiled peas, then scatter them around the boiled egg, the chicken will come out of the shell to eat the peas.”
The listeners clapped their hands and nodded their heads. Mehitabel had given a very clever answer.
Grandpa slapped his knee and chortled, “That Mehitabel! You just can’t beat her!”
After Mehitabel ate the ice-cream cone Grandpa’s friends had bought her, she went off with her jump rope. She always tried to go ten times around the duck pond without a miss.
On another day when Mehitabel and Grandpa arrived at the park, everyone was eating doughnuts that Mrs. Gray had brought. “I saved some for you two!” she told Mehitabel and Grandpa, passing the doughnuts to them.
Mehitabel was just about to take a bite when Mr. Loomis challenged her. “Hitty, I have a riddle song for you. Listen and riddle me this.”
He took a mouth organ from his pocket and played a short, sweet tune. Then he began to sing:
“I gave my love a cherry
That had no stone.
I gave my love a chicken
That had no bone.
I gave my love a story
That had no end.
I gave my love a garden
That no one needs to tend.”
Mehitabel really didn’t need to ponder this one. She had learned the old folk song in school. But she didn’t want Mr. Loomis to feel cheated, so she pretended to consider the problem. She wrinkled her brow. She scratched her head. She bit her lip. Then she looked up, smiled, and began to sing:
“A cherry in the blossom,
That has no stone.
A chicken in the egg still,
That has no bone.
The story that ‘I love you,’
That had no end.
A garden in a seed pack,
That no one needs to tend.”
The listeners nodded and smiled. They would have liked to stump Mehitabel and get those ice-cream cones, but they were proud that she could riddle the riddle song. Grandpa, of course, was delighted.
Every time they saw Mehitabel, Grandpa’s friends challenged her with “Riddle me this!” and “Riddle me that!” But Mehitabel always came up with a clever answer. It began to look as though the whole summer would pass without Grandpa’s buying his friends a treat.
Then one day Mrs. Gray had a riddle poem for Mehitabel. “Riddle me this, Hitty, if you can,” she said. “Who are the people, and what is the poem the tale of?” Then she recited:
“One was in the dungeon;
One was in the street.
The lost one and the searcher—
How could they ever meet?”
Mehitabel knew at once that she was stumped. Oh, she knew that she had heard the story somewhere, But what was it about? she asked herself. And who was in the dungeon? The Little Lame Prince? No, he was in a tower, not a dungeon, and he wasn’t really lost. Robinson Crusoe? No, he was on an island, and no one was searching for him. The princess in Rumpelstiltskin? She wasn’t locked in a dungeon, and no one was searching for her, either.
Maybe it wasn’t a person, Mehitabel continued in her thoughts. Maybe it was an animal—or a thing. Yes! A thing! What does one search for? Gold? She sighed with relief. She may not have Mrs. Gray’s answer, but at least she had one. She turned to Grandpa’s friend and said. “The lost one in the dungeon was gold in a mine. The searcher was the miner who was trying to pan the gold from a stream.”
Grandpa chuckled. He had been worried for a minute, but Mehitabel had done it again.
However, Mrs. Gray said, “You’ve given a very good answer, Hitty, but I think even your grandpa will admit that the better answer comes from history.” She smiled at Mehitabel and said, “The one in the dungeon was King Richard the Lionhearted. The searcher was his minstrel, Blondel.”
Grandpa nodded. “Yes, that’s right. I know the story—King Richard was captured by the duke of Austria and locked in a castle on the Danube River. I’d forgotten that old story. You stumped her fair and square, Mrs. Gray. And I’m happy to pay up.”
Grandpa called to the ice-cream vendor and motioned for him to come over. “Let each of my friends choose the flavor of ice-cream cone he wants. The treat’s on me today!”
Carlos Sanchez wanted blueberry. Mrs. Gray asked for vanilla. Mr. Loomis’s favorite was cherry marshmallow. Grandpa said, “I’ll have peppermint. What about you, Mehitabel?”
Mehitabel looked hard at the ice-cream vendor. “I’ll have black mud,” she said.
“Mud!” shouted Grandpa.
“Mud?” yelled Grandpa’s friends.
The ice-cream vendor didn’t bat an eye. He took an empty cone and filled it with something that looked exactly like mud. Handing it to Mehitabel, he grinned and said, “I guessed your riddle, young lady. That’s licorice ice cream!”
Grandpa shook his head, chuckling. “That Mehitabel!”