Chapter XXII. The Price of Tavia's Tresses
 

A week had passed at North Birchland, with Dorothy and Tavia enjoying every succeeding hour better than the last, when the expected lawyers arrived to interview the victim of the railroad fire.

Fortunately Mrs. White was at home, and more fortunately still was the arrival of Mr. French with the strange lawyer.

Tavia was flushed and nervous when Dorothy helped her to dress for the interview.

"Now don't you mind it a bit," said Dorothy. "Just keep thinking that you might have been very seriously injured, and that the railroad people should be more careful for the sake of others. Then you will forget all about the lawyers and their statements."

Mrs. White was talking to the men in the reception room. Certainly the shock had been severe, she said, and only the fact that Miss Travers was unusually lively in temperament had saved her from more serious results.

Dorothy entered the room with Tavia.

"These are the young ladies," said Mr. French, introducing them. "This one was shut in the room with the fire."

Tavia felt her face flush, and her nerves throb painfully. It was so embarassing to be the object of such scrutiny.

Then began a fire of questions, Mr. French in every instance indicating how Tavia should answer. The railroad lawyer, Mr. Banks, trying of course, to trip Tavia into admitting that the lamp exploded first, and the bottle blew up after. But Tavia was positive in declaring that the blaze came from the far corner of the room, whereas the stove was directly at her side. This was also indicated by a map which Mr. French produced, and upon which Tavia marked the various spots where the bench stood, where the marble slab with the stove was situated, and where the bottle appeared to come from--a far corner of the slab.

"Will you let down your hair, please," said Mr. French, and Dorothy promptly drew the pins from Tavia's tresses, allowing the unscorched braid to fall below her waist, while the burnt ends were charred almost to her neck, the red scar showing how close to her head the flames had really crept.

"That is a loss, of course," said Mr. French, taking the long waves in his hand, "but it shows the great danger her life was in. Also, Mr. Banks, notice this scar. That was dressed on the train by Dr. Brown, of Fairview."

Both lawyers examined the scar. Tavia felt as if she would run from the room, the very moment they took their hands off her, but Dorothy smiled encouragingly, and Mrs. White rang for a maid to fetch a glass of water. This had the effect of distracting Tavia, who now stood there being cross-examined like an expert witness.

Finally Mr. French said:

"That will do, thank you."

Tavia had barely tasted the water, and as she crossed the room to reach her chair, she felt dizzy. The next moment she was in Mrs. White's arms, unconscious.

"I saw she was pale," exclaimed the lady, while the gentlemen opened the windows and Dorothy ran for some restoratives. "But I did not think she would go off like that."

It did not take long, however, to revive the fainting girl, and when she had been helped to her room the lawyers held a conference with Mrs. White and then left the Cedars.

"Wasn't that dreadfully stupid!" sighed Tavia, as she lay stretched out on the soft, white bed.

"Not at all, my dear," replied Mrs. White, who at that moment appeared at the door. "You could not have done better had you been coached, for it shows how the shock has unnerved you. And you may as well know that the company has offered to settle for five hundred dollars."

"Five hundred dollars!" echoed Tavia.

"Yes, my dear. For my part I should count a braid of hair such as you lost worth twice that sum, but even at that price I could not obtain it. No one ever values a fine head of hair until it is gone--like the dry well, you know. But you are young enough to grow another braid, and that is the beauty of it. Mr. French said your father gave him full power to act, and so he will accept the company's offer. And the fine thing about it is he does not want a commission--only his expenses, which are nominal."

"Isn't that perfectly splendid!" exclaimed Dorothy, throwing her arms about Tavia.

"Some people are born lucky, and others have luck thrust upon them," said Tavia pleasantly. "In this case it was as usual. I did the mischief and Dorothy did the rest. That lawyer would never have noticed me if Dorothy hadn't shown her pluck--why, she had my flaming hair wrapped up in a brakeman's coat before he had decided whether to throw it out of the window or over the ice cooler. He seemed to be worried about the ice, for it was directly in the path of the fire."

"Nonsense," said Dorothy, blushing. "He very politely pulled off his coat when I asked him to, and of course, he did not know just what to do with it."

"Lucky thing it was a railroad coat," went on Tavia, "or we might have had to pay damages."

"Lucky thing Dorothy had such presence of mind, at any rate," remarked Mrs. White, "for another touch of that flame and your face, Tavia, might have had a different bill against the railroad company. However, as it ends like a love story, we will live happily ever after," and she gave Tavia such an affectionate kiss, that the girl felt a strange nearness to her new-found friend as if she had been suddenly adopted, socially at least, into Dorothy's family.

"And now, my dears," went on their hostess, "I expect the boys out from camp this afternoon, so you must rest up, and look your prettiest."

Tavia sat up and looked about her.

"Did you ever hear that story about why a widower was like a baby?" she asked Dorothy. "Well, I feel just like him. They say he cried for the first six months, then sat up and looked around and it was hard to pull him through the second summer. Now I am looking around, but when I get my five hundred I am afraid I will hardly last through the second summer."

"I know you will like the boys," remarked Dorothy.

"But who will cut my poor old hair?" sang Tavia to the meerschaum pipe tune.

"We will have to put it up in the folded fire escape fashion," said Dorothy, "until we can drive out to a barber's. It is too late this afternoon."

"Whatever will momsey say?" thought Tavia aloud.

"That you would have made a very good-looking boy," replied Dorothy. "I am sure I never saw a girl to whom short hair was so becoming."

"It must look well with a five hundred-dollar note for a background. I tell you, Doro, money covers a multitude of crimes. I wonder if little Lily of the fire room has cooled off yet."

"But you haven't seen the new clothes auntie had brought us--yes us, for she has not forgotten you. You are well able to pay bills now, you know," and Dorothy gave a mischievous little tug at Tavia's elbow. "But wait, wait till you see what you are to wear this very evening. The box has just come up, and I will open it."

Whereupon Dorothy pulled in from the hall door a great purple box labeled "robes." Tavia was on her knees beside it before Dorothy had a chance to untie the strings. What girl does not like to see brand, new, pretty dresses come out of their original box?

Layers of tissue paper were first unwrapped, then a glow of brilliant red shown through the last covering.

"Whew!" exclaimed Tavia, "a rainbow gown, I'll bet. Then she gave her usual text, as Dorothy called her spontaneous rhymes:

     "Breathes there a girl with soul so dead,
      Who never to herself has said,
      I love to wear a dress bright red!"

"And I love red better than butter, and I love butter better than ice cream--so there! Dorothy Dale, that dress on top I claim."

The "bright red" was in full view now, and it was really a beautiful gown. Not extravagantly so, but as Dorothy said "exquisitely so."

The material was of dimity, over muslin, and tiny rows of "val." lace formed a yoke and edgings. A broad sash of flowered ribbon--all in shades of red, with bows of the same in narrow width finished the shoulders.

"Yes, it is for you," said Dorothy, "Auntie said red would suit you."

"I have always loved it, but folks said my hair was red."

"Indeed it never was. And don't you know how great dressmakers insist upon sandy haired girls wearing red? The real red in material contrasts with hair red, so as to make the brown red browner. There now, is a new puzzle. When is brown red?"

"When a sassy boy calls it red," promptly answered Tavia, remembering how she always feared the "red-head" epithet.

"Isn't it sweet?" exclaimed Dorothy, holding the new gown up for inspection.

"Oh, a perfect love!" declared Tavia. "I thought my Rochester creation-- doesn't that sound well--simply 'gloriotious,' but this is beatific!"

"Like a sunset," suggested Dorothy. "But I must get acquainted with mine."

Another layer of paper and a pale blue robe was extracted.

"Oh, I know," cried Tavia, clapping her hands like a delighted child, "It's morning and evening. I'm sunrise and you are evening. Or I'm sunset and you are evening."

"Oh!" exclaimed Dorothy, too enraptured to say more.

"And with your yellow head you will look like an angel."

"Now, see here, Miss Sunset and Sunrise, I don't mind being cloudy or even starry, nor yet heavenly, but don't you dare go one latitude or longitude further. I am mortally afraid Aunt Winnie has elected to wear amethyst this very evening, and when the combination gets together I expect something will happen--something like Mt. Pelee, you know."

"We might call it our elementary evening," went on Tavia, "and then look out for storms. You said the boys were coming?"

"Coming!" and Dorothy sprang to the door. "They are here now. Listen to that shout? That's Ned. Oh, I must run down. Come along," and before Tavia had a chance to "collect her manners" she was bowing after Dorothy's profuse introduction.

"I've heard of Miss Travers," said Edward pleasantly, while Nat was "weighing" Dorothy with one hand, and attempting to shake the other in Tavia's direction.

"You must call her Tavia," insisted Dorothy, getting away from Ned, "or if you prefer you may call her Octavia--she has a birthday within the octave of Christmas."

"Should have been called Yule, for yule-tide," said Nat. "Not too late yet, is it Tavia?"

Mrs. White was smiling at the good times "her children" had already made for themselves. She now insisted upon calling Dorothy daughter and she was so kind to Tavia that she made no distinction but said "daughters" in addressing both.

"Just see, boys," said their mother, unpinning Tavia's now famous half head of hair, "that is all there is left."

"Never!" exclaimed Nat, handling the braid gingerly. "How much did you settle for?"

"That would be telling," said Mrs. White, "but what I want you boys to do is to drive the girls down to your barber's. You said it was a very nice place."

"Tip-top," interrupted Ned. "Bay rum or old rum or anything else from oyster cocktail to Castile soap."

"But have you seen ladies go there?" asked the mother.

"Took 'em there myself," insisted the younger boy. "Don't you remember the day Daisy Bliss got burrs in her hair? Of course I did not put them there--"

"Oh, no!" drawled Ned.

"Well, she always was a dub at ducking," went on the other, "but I put up for the hair cut all the same."

"Now do listen, boys," and the mother spoke firmly. "Tavia must have her hair trimmed. I tried to get a hair-dresser to come out here, but we could not have it done until after the railroad man appraised it. So now the hair-dresser could not get here until after Sunday. That is why I am having recourse to a barber."

"Couldn't do better, mother," spoke up Ned, who had been trying to get a word in with Dorothy "on the other side."

"Then run along, girls, get your things. Don't dress up; it is country all the way, and the dinner folks are not out yet. It will be pleasanter to fix up after the operation," said Mrs. White.

"But I say, momsey," called Nat after her as she went upstairs, "you wouldn't suggest a 'Riley,' would you?"

"Nathaniel White, if you dare get that girl's hair cut in any but the most lady-like fashion I'll--disinherit you!"

"Shadows of the poorhouse! Don't! I'll make the fellow trim it with a butter knife. Come along, children. I'll show you the newest in chaperonage at Mike's!"

Both girls appeared on the veranda to which the depot cart had been drawn up. Dorothy looked like a pond lily, Tavia had told her, in her light green dress with her yellow hair falling over it. Tavia too was attractive, she had on a brown dress with gold in it that reflected the glint of her hair, and, as Ned handed Nat the reins he whispered: "A stunner and a hummer."

"It's real jolly to have a girl around," Nat remarked to Tavia, who had the front seat beside him, "and mother is so fond of girls--I have always worn my hair long to please her."

"Quite a protection in summer, isn't it?" asked Tavia, noticing how the sunburn stopped where the hair began, and that otherwise the young man was much tanned.

"Yes, some. But a fellow can't expect to be a peachblow at Camp Hard Tack."

"It must be a great sport to camp," ventured Tavia.

"The greatest ever! I would like to go out on a ranch but mother says 'no, little boy, you must stay home,' so home I stay."

Dorothy and Ned were evidently enjoying themselves as well as those at front, for, it seemed to Tavia that Dorothy's laugh had not rung out so jolly in many weeks--so much had happened lately to dampen mirthful spirits.

"Just fancy," said Tavia turning back to Ned, "I was sent along to keep Dorothy lively, she was actually threatened with nervous prostration, and think, how lively I did keep her? Came nearing firing a train."

"Oh, anything for a change," politely answered Ned. "One cannot tell just what sort of tonic is best, I am sure she looks first rate."

"Bully," added Nat, "but don't worry that you've laid aside nursing, Yule, I have not been well myself. Ahem! Just finish off on me!"

"There comes our barber shop," called Ned, as a striped pole appeared in view. "Now for the artistic clip-the-clip. Mike is a genius, blushing unseen here. But I mean to set him up some day. Tried to get him out to camp but he shied when we told him there were no 'cops.' Mike loves 'cops,' when the fellows get busy with his tonsorial apparatus."

"Don't faint this time," Dorothy cautioned Tavia with a merry smile, thinking that those two boys would likely dip her in the brook at the side of the shop should she attempt anything like that.

"Indeed I know where and when to faint," responded Tavia. "Mr. French has a way about him--"

"But you never tried me," said Nat, making a funny move as if to catch an armful of thin air. "I am an authority on faints. Every girl at school says I'm a perfect dear, for catching falls at commencement time. They all keel over then."

They were in front of the barber shop now. Mike opened the door with such a bow Tavia could scarcely repress a smile.

Ned made the arrangements, and Tavia mounted the high chair, allowed Mike, the Italian, to tuck the apron around her neck, then all she could see was a very queer looking girl in the glass in front of her.

"Just trim it evenly," said Dorothy, walking up to the chair, and feeling it was hardly safe to trust the boys with the order.

Carefully the barber let down the heavy coil.

"What!" he exclaimed, seeing it was only "half a head." "Fire, you been in explosion?"

"Sure!" answered Ned, mechanically.

Then Mike went through a series of groans, grunts and jabs at the air.

"So shame," he wailed. "The hair is so fine--like gold, brown gold."

With many a sigh and groan the barber plied his shears, stopping constantly to give vent to his feelings with a shrug of his broad shoulders and deep gutteral mutterings.

"Oh, quit gargling your throat, Mike, and get through with the job. The young lady is alive, you see, and expects to get back to the Cedars in time for breakfast," said Ned.

"I am sure that will do," said Dorothy at last, whereat Tavia gladly got out of the stuffy chair.

"Great!" both boys exclaimed in admiration as they saw how "smart" Tavia looked.

"It is becoming," said Dorothy.

"Handy," commented Tavia.

Presently the party was driving off again, Tavia indulging in the laughs she dared not take part in with the scissors at her ear, while Dorothy "scolded" the boys for making such sport of a poor foreigner.

"Poor indeed!" Ned echoed. "I wish we had some of his cash on hand. I mean the ready stuff. I have yet to make the acquaintance of a poor barber; especially the imported kind."

It was a jolly ride home--and the evening that followed was one full of pleasure.