Miss Susan Baird let her gaze rest on her companion in speculative silence. Apparently, her last jibe had failed of its mark, judging from the man’s unchanged expression. With a vexed sigh she proceeded to pour out another cup of tea.
They were an oddly matched pair. Miss Baird, still erect in spite of her seventy years, her small slight figure tucked into one corner of the carved, throne-shaped chair which was her habitual seat when in her library, appeared dwarfed in comparison with the broad-shouldered, powerfully built man who faced her across the tea table.
“So you wish to marry my niece, Kitty,” she remarked. “You!” And she broke into shrill laughter.
Her companion flushed hotly. Her ridicule cut deeper than had any of her previous comments.
“I intend to marry her,” he answered, and the stubborn determination of his tone matched his set features.
“So!” Miss Baird shrugged her thin shoulders. “You forget, my friend, that until Kitty is twenty-five years of age, I am her legal guardian, and that she is absolutely dependent upon me.”
“You give her a home and let her work that she may contribute to your support,” he retorted.
At his words her eyes blazed in fury and her talonlike fingers fumbled in the silver bowl for the few pieces of sugar it contained.
“I am her only blood relation. It is fitting and proper that she aid me in my old age,” she exclaimed. “My poverty,” she paused, and a certain dignity crept into both voice and manner, “is my misfortune.”
“And Kitty,” he began, but got no further.
“We will not discuss Kitty,” she announced with finality. “Wait,” as he started to interrupt her. “Such discussion is totally unnecessary, for Kitty will never marry you.”
“For two excellent reasons.” She spoke with deliberation. “Kitty shall not marry a poor man, nor shall she marry a man with an hereditary taint.”
The man regarded her steadfastly across the table, his strong capable hands still holding the peach which he had been peeling. The silence lengthened, but neither seemed inclined to break it. Suddenly, the man laid down the peach and taking out his handkerchief, passed it across his lips; then, still in silence, he picked up the fruit knife, cut the peach in two and, placing the fruit in front of Miss Baird, rose and left the library.
In the outer hall he paused long enough to pick up his hat and gloves from the table where he had placed them upon his arrival some time before. He had opened the front door and was about to step outside when it occurred to him to light a cigarette. To do so, he released his hold on the front door. His cigarette was just commencing to draw nicely when a current of air from an opened window across the hall blew the door, which he had left ajar, shut with a resounding bang.
As the noise vibrated through the silent house, the man glanced nervously over his shoulder. Evidently, it had not disturbed Miss Baird or the other inmates of her household, for no one appeared in the hall. He once more started to approach the front door when he heard, through the portières in front of the entrance to the library, Miss Baird’s voice raised in anger.
“Kitty!” she called. “Kitty!”
As the name echoed through the silent hall, it gave place to a scream of such intensity, such horror that the man drew back aghast. It was some minutes before he moved. With faltering footsteps he retraced his way into the library and paused by the tea table.
Miss Susan Baird still sat in her throne-shaped chair, but the light fell full on her glazing eyes and distorted features.
Slowly, reluctantly, the man bent nearer and forced himself to place his hand upon her wrist. He could feel no pulse. When he stood erect a moment later, his forehead was beaded with perspiration. Dazedly, he glanced about the library—he and the dead woman were its only occupants.
Again he compelled himself to gaze at her, and subconsciously took note of her poor and patched attire. The incongruity of her string of pearls and the diamond rings upon her fingers impressed him even in the presence of death.
Step by step he retreated backward across the room, his glance roaming upward toward the gallery which circled the library and the short staircase leading to it, but always his eyes returned to that still and lonely figure by the tea table.
A few minutes later the faint sound of the front door being closed disturbed a large ball of fur. A [Pg 5]gray Angora cat jumped from its hiding place and, with its back arched in fright, scampered through the portières, and fled along the hall and up the staircase to the attic.