Chapter XXV. An Emergency Case
 

"There's a special messenger," exclaimed Dorothy, with a little flutter. "I hope there's nothing the matter--"

The boy with the bag strapped over his shoulder had dismounted from his muddy bicycle, and was now at the door of the Cedar mansion.

Tavia slipped through the hedge after Dorothy. It seemed the message must be from Dalton, somehow, and she too, like Dorothy, felt a trifle agitated.

The maid had answered the ring, and now the boy was wandering along the path, content that his time-mark allowed a few moments for such recreation.

Mrs. White appeared on the piazza presently. Dorothy and Tavia were within its portals, waiting to be summoned.

"My dear," began the hostess, "I have just received a message from Major Dale. He wants you to come home--at once. He is called to Rochester on important business, and as he says Mrs. Martin is not well, so he cannot leave without having his little housekeeper in charge of things-- Dorothy, you are a real Dale, able at your age to keep house."

"Aunt Libby sick," was Dorothy's first thought and exclamation.

"The Rochester case," declared Tavia. "That means the Burlock mystery is going to be cleared up."

"The major did not, of course, hint at the nature of his business, but I am really so sorry to lose you just now. And the boys at camp--they will be painfully disappointed," said Mrs. White.

"We have had a perfectly splendid time," declared Dorothy, "and I am sure we can hardly thank you for your--attention. You have so many calls upon your time and you did all that shopping for us."

"My dear," and the aunt tilted Dorothy's chin to kiss it, "that was a real dissipation. To shop for my own girls. Why, it made me feel like a youngster, myself. And besides, I had orders from Dalton."

"Even so," insisted Dorothy, showing some surprise at the word "orders." "It took a lot of time and it was such a warm day. But you did a great deal more than that for us, Aunt Winnie, you must remember how much I can do, too, and give me a chance some day, when you want a rest."

"Bless the baby's heart! Hear her talk!" and the woman in the soft gray robe threw her arms about Dorothy. "All the same, when my heart gets unconquerably lonely for my daughter, I shall command her to come to me."

Tavia was "standing afar off." Her burning cheeks grew more scarlet every moment, and were plainly a matter of great embarrassment to her. She did want to offer her thanks with those of Dorothy, but somehow, her words were scorched when they reached her lips, and they "stuck there."

"My dear," exclaimed Mrs. White, presently noticing Tavia's confusion. "Have you been in poison ivy? Your cheeks show a poison!"

"Only mullen leaves," answered Tavia promptly, relieved to have made the confession without further parleying.

"Mullen leaves," in a surprised voice, then adding quickly, "Oh, of course, we all used to do that. You were painting to go out to camp," said Mrs. White.

"Tavia was going to help play a joke on Rosabel," interrupted Dorothy, anxious to make the matter as light as possible, and help Tavia with her honesty.

"Why, that would be too bad," said Mrs. White, "Poor Rosabel has trouble with her skin. It is always flaming red, and it seems almost impossible to cool down the sudden flashes. It is caused by a nervous condition."

Tavia dropped her eyes. What if Dorothy had not spoken against the joke, and if they had really gone to camp?

"Your train leaves shortly after lunch," continued Mrs. White, "so you had better be getting ready. I am sorry the boys are not here to see you off, but I will drive you over myself and see that you are safely en route for Dalton. I almost wish I were going myself. It seems an age since I have seen the dear major."

"Oh, do come!" exclaimed Dorothy joyously, "Wouldn't it be splendid."

"If I only could, my dear, but I cannot this time. I will surprise you some day. Then I will see whether you or Tavia is the better housekeeper."

"Please do not surprise me," begged Tavia, "although I should be so very glad to see you--give me notice, so that you may be able to get in. Whenever I take to sweeping and bar up the doors with furniture my Sunday school teacher calls."

"I always was considered a good player at hopscotch," joked Mrs. White, "so you need not worry about that, Tavia, dear."

The dress suit cases were to be packed. They had been full enough coming, but it was soon found impossible to get all the new things in them for the journey back. Tavia discovered this first, and called it in to Dorothy's room.

"I can't get my things in either," answered Dorothy back, through the summer draperies that divided the apartments. "We will have to send a box."

This seemed a real luxury to the girls--to come home with an express box.

Mrs. White had given Dorothy a fine bracelet as a good-bye present, and to Tavia a small gold heart and dainty gold chain.

Tavia could not speak she was so surprised and pleased at first. Dorothy had a locket and chain, but Tavia had hardly ever expected to own such a costly trinket. The maid had brought the gifts up. Mrs. White was busy dressing.

"I'll have to hug her," declared Tavia, kissing the heart set with a garnet.

"Just do," agreed Dorothy, "she would be so pleased."

Down the stairs flew Tavia. Lightly she touched the mahogany paneled door at Mrs. White's boudoir.

"Come," answered the pleasant voice.

"I came to thank you," faltered Tavia, glancing with misgivings at the handsome bared arms and throat before the gilt framed mirror.

"For your heart?" and Mrs. White smiled so kindly.

"Yes," said Tavia simply, and the next moment she had both arms around that beautiful neck.

The woman held the girl to her breast for a moment. Tavia's heart was beating wildly.

"My dear," said Mrs. White, "I do hope you have enjoyed yourself," and she kissed her again. "But you must promise me not to paint with mullen leaves any more. Sometimes such jokes lead to habits--one looks pale you know when the blaze dies away."

Tavia felt as if her blaze never would die away. Why had she been so foolish? She would have given anything now to rub those horrid, prickly leaves off forever.

"I never will paint--" she stammered.

"I hope you will not, dear, you should be grateful for such coloring as you have. But let me warn you in all kindness. It is usually pretty girls who make such mistakes--they want to be more and more attractive and so spoil it all. Think right, and of pleasant things, and the glory of happiness will be all the cosmetic you will ever need," and again she pressed her own white cheek to the burning face of the girl she still held in her arms.

Later, when Tavia was thinking it all over, she pondered seriously upon those words. No one had ever spoken to her just that way before--at home it was taken for granted she knew so much more than those around her, that such counsel as she needed was withheld. Alas, how many girls lose valuable advice by appearing to be over-smart for their years! And then the awakening is always doubly sad. So it was with this mistake of Tavia's, trivial enough, yet for her--it appeared like a crime to have put those mullen leaves to her cheeks; to be thought vain; to have Mrs. White warn her about other girls!

It seemed a very short time indeed, from the arrival of the special message at the Cedars until the train was speeding back toward Dalton. And the journey had lost all its novelty, for Dorothy and Tavia were so intent upon the possible happenings when they should reach home, that the wait, even on a flying train, seemed tiresome.

"Do you suppose," ventured Tavia, as she laid her book down, after a number of unsuccessful efforts to become interested in the story, "they have captured that Anderson?"

"I am sure I cannot guess," answered Dorothy, "but I feel certain it is about that affair that we are called home in such a hurry. I wish I could soon keep the promise I made to poor Mr. Burlock. I said I would some day find his daughter Nellie, and it does seem the detectives have been a long time in finding any tangible clew. Father hired two of the best he could get to trace the child--that was her mother who died, the one you told me of, you know. I did not talk about it because father thought it was best to say nothing that might possibly give Anderson a hint that they were on his track."

"And have they tracked him?" asked Tavia.

"Yes, they know he left Mr. Burlock in Rochester. He cashed a check there that Mr. Burlock gave him for what the poor man thought would be a possible clew to little Nellie's whereabouts, and to think that the disappointment killed the disheartened father!"

"Well, I only hope they have him now," said Tavia, "I would like to have another chance at his--hat."

Then the conversation drifted back to North Birchland. Both girls looked much benefited by their visit, and even Tavia's short hair and unnatural red cheeks did not detract from the noticeable improvement. Dorothy's face had rounded some too, and the Lake air had given a ruddiness to her naturally delicate tinting, that was most becoming to her as a summer girl.

"I never saw such nice boys," remarked Tavia, "I think, after all, it takes money to polish people."

"Not at all," insisted Dorothy. "It is not money but good breeding. There are plenty of poor persons who are just as polished as you call it. Father often told us about a family he visited when he was abroad. They were so poor in clothes--pathetically shabby, and yet they went in the very best society. Father used to make us laugh by his funny descriptions of the ladies at dinners. At the same affairs would be Thomas Carlyle, and just think, these poor people--he was a parson, lived on the very ground that was once part of the garden of Sir Thomas Moore. Father saw the famous mulberry trees there, that so much has been written about. I hope I may be able to go there some time--we have relatives in England."

"I would not care to travel," said Tavia impatiently. "This seems a long enough trip for me."

"Only two more stops," said Dorothy as the train rattled past the stations. "Oh, I shall be so glad to see them all."

"And lonesome for the Cedars after you have seen them all," Tavia hinted. "That's the worst of it, home is always with us--"

"Get your hat box down," Dorothy interrupted. "We are slackening up now."

"Dalton! Dalton!" called the brakeman at the door, and the next minute the girls were being kissed heartily by Joe, Roger and Johnnie, "the committee on arrival," as Tavia said. The lads were fully qualified to carry off the honors in the way of boxes and small bundles.

"How is Aunt Libby?" asked Dorothy as soon as she could say anything relevant.

"Better," said Joe, "but father does not feel well--you are not to worry--" seeing how her face clouded, "he is only tired out. He has been working at the office and writing so many letters--"

"That I should have written. Poor dear father! I hope he is not going to have another spell," and Dorothy sighed.

"No, the doctor said he would be all right if he would only stay quiet, but he is about as quiet as my squirrel in its new cage," said Joe.

"Home again," called Dorothy, waving her hand to the major who now appeared on the piazza. "Here we are, bag and baggage," and then it seemed all the "pain of separation" was made up for in that loving embrace--the major had the Little Captain in his arms again.