The broad streets of Washington City presented a lively scene as Dr. Leonard McLean drove his car with increasing slowness down Connecticut Avenue, crowded with government employees hastening to their offices. The congestion was even greater than usual owing to the downpour of rain as the drenched pedestrians swarmed around the street car stops in their endeavor to board cars, already packed to their limit, and arrive promptly at nine o’clock at their various destinations.
McLean slowed down to a stop within the fifteen feet limit prescribed by law, as the street car ahead of him halted to take on passengers, and watched with interest the futile efforts of the conductor to prevent the desperate rush made by both men and women to get through the car door at the same time. Suddenly, McLean discerned a familiar face in the [Pg 7]crowd before him and sounded his horn. The unexpected “honk” created confusion among those unable to find even clinging room, and the conductor, taking advantage of the diversion, signaled to the motorman and the car sped onward.
“Hey, Leigh!” hailed McLean. “Leigh Wallace!”
Major Wallace glanced around and with a wave of his hand McLean indicated the vacant seat in his roadster.
“Hop in!” he exclaimed, as Wallace hurried across the intervening space between the car and the curbstone. “I’ll give you a lift downtown,” and, hardly waiting for Wallace to seat himself and close the door, the busy surgeon released the clutch and the roadster sped down Connecticut Avenue.
It was not until they were clear of traffic and were approaching the intersection of Twenty-first Street and Massachusetts Avenue that McLean realized his companion had not returned his greeting or addressed a word to him since entering the car. Turning his head, he eyed him unobtrusively. Wallace sat moodily staring ahead; his big frame, slumped in the easiest posture, seemed to fill the broad seat of the Packard. McLean took silent note of Wallace’s expression and the unhealthy pallor of his skin.
“Get any sleep last night?” he asked.
“Not much.” Wallace drew out a leather wallet [Pg 8]from an inside pocket and produced a prescription. “The druggist refused to fill this again; said I had to get another prescription. Beastly rot,” he complained. “Cost me a bad night.”
The surgeon ran his eye over the prescription before pocketing it.
“It’s a narcotic,” he explained. “The druggists are not allowed to refill. Next time you want one come to me. How long is it since you left Walter Reed Hospital, Leigh?”
“Two months ago,” was the laconic rejoinder. Wallace removed his hat and passed his hand over his short-clipped hair. “I hope to report for duty soon.”
“Good!” McLean slowed down to make the turn from Twenty-first Street into Massachusetts Avenue and as they drove westward Major Wallace for the first time took notice of the direction in which they were heading and that they were no longer on Connecticut Avenue.
“Aren’t you going to your office, McLean?” he inquired.
“Not immediately. I have a professional call to make first. Are you in a hurry?”
The question seemed superfluous and McLean smiled as he put it. The major’s apathetic manner and relaxed figure could not be associated with haste.
“No,” Wallace answered. “I promised to stop in and see Charles Craige some time this morning; he’s attending to some legal business for me. Otherwise I have nothing to do. This killing time gets on my nerves—look at that, now,” and he held up a hand that was not quite steady. “Take me on as chauffeur, McLean. I understand an engine; shell-shock hasn’t knocked that out of my head.”
“Your head’s all right, old man. I told you that when you were my patient at Walter Reed,” responded McLean cheerily. “A few weeks more and—” He stopped speaking as they crossed the Q Street bridge into Georgetown, then, stepping on the accelerator, he raced the car up the steeply graded street and drew up in front of a high terrace.
“Hello, are you going to ‘Rose Hill’?” demanded Wallace, wakened from his lethargy by the stopping of the car. He had apparently been unaware that McLean had left his last sentence unfinished. “Who is ill?”
“I don’t know.” McLean leaned back to pick up his instrument bag which he carried in the compartment behind his seat. “My servant called to me just as I was leaving home that I had been telephoned to come over here at once. I didn’t catch all she said. I suppose Kitty Baird is ill. That girl is a bundle of nerves.”
Wallace clambered out of the car so that his more [Pg 10]nimble companion would not have to climb over his long legs in getting out. As McLean turned to close the door of his car, Wallace’s hand descended heavily upon his shoulder.
“What—who—who’s that standing in the Baird’s doorway?” he gasped. “A policeman?”
McLean swung around and glanced up at the house. A long flight of stone steps led up to the front door and a landing marked each break in the terrace whereon grew rosebushes. It was the picturesque garden which gave its name to the fine old mansion—Rose Hill. The mansion had been built in colonial times when the surrounding land, on which stood modern houses and the present-day streets, had been part of the “plantation” owned by General Josiah Baird of Revolutionary fame. The hand of progress had left the mansion perched high above the graded street, but it had not touched its fine air of repose, nor diminished the beauty of its classic Greek architecture.
Standing under the fanlight over the doorway was the burly form of a blue-coated policeman.
“Yes, that’s one of the ‘City’s finest,’” he laughed. “What of it?” he added, observing his companion’s agitation in astonishment. “The policeman is probably taking the census; one called on me last Saturday.”
Wallace swallowed hard. “That’s it,” he mumbled, rather than spoke. “You’ve hit it.”
McLean, conscious of the bleak wind which accompanied the driving rain, stopped to open the door of his roadster.
“Wait in the car, Leigh; I won’t be long.” Not pausing to see if his suggestion was followed, McLean hurried up the steps.
Wallace plucked at the collar of his overcoat and opened it with nervous fingers, mechanically closed the car door, and then with slow reluctant feet followed McLean toward the mansion. He was breathing heavily when he gained the surgeon’s side, and the latter’s surprised exclamation at sight of him was checked by the policeman who had advanced a few steps to meet the two men.
“Dr. McLean?” he asked, and as the surgeon nodded, added, “Step inside, Sir.” He touched his hat respectfully. “Is this gentleman with you, Doctor?”
“Why, certainly.” McLean glanced inquiringly at the policeman; the latter’s manner indicated suppressed excitement. “What’s to pay, Officer?”
“They’ll tell you inside,” waving his hand toward the open door. “The coroner’s there.”
“Coroner!” McLean’s bag nearly slipped from his hand; but before he could question the policeman further, his name was called from the back of the [Pg 12]hall and he hurried inside the house. Coroner Penfield stood by the portières in front of the library door.
“I am glad you could get here so promptly, McLean,” he said. “Come in,” and he drew the portières to one side. McLean entered the library hastily and continued to advance with his usual brisk tread until he caught sight of a huddled figure in the throne-shaped chair.
“Good God!” he ejaculated and retreated a few steps. Recovering his usual calm poise he walked around the tea table and examined the body. When he straightened up and turned around, he found Coroner Penfield’s attention was centered on Major Leigh Wallace.
Wallace had followed McLean across the threshold of the library only, and stood with his back braced against the doorjamb while his eyes mutely scrutinized every movement made by the surgeon.
“Well?” he questioned, and McLean’s stare grew intensified. If he had not seen Wallace’s lips move he would never have recognized his voice. With difficulty Wallace enunciated his words. “Well—what—what is it?”
“It’s a case of—”
“Sudden death.” Coroner Penfield completed McLean’s sentence.
In the silence that followed, a man who had been [Pg 13]leaning over the railing of the gallery which circled the library, watching them, walked over to the stairs and came slowly down. At sound of his footsteps McLean glanced up and recognized Inspector Mitchell of the Central Office. He bowed courteously to the surgeon before addressing the coroner.
“If it is all right, Dr. Penfield, we’ll have the body removed,” he said. “My men are here.”
“Certainly. Call them.” Penfield turned to McLean. “I wanted you to be present as I understand you attended Miss Susan Baird.”
“Yes, I have been her family physician for years.” McLean spoke with an effort, his thoughts centered on one idea. “Where is Miss Baird’s niece, Miss Kitty Baird?”
His question went unanswered. Apparently Coroner Penfield and Inspector Mitchell failed to hear him as they busied themselves in superintending the removal of the body. McLean, after watching them for some seconds, walked over to Wallace. The latter took no notice of him whatever, his eyes remaining always on the tea table. McLean scanned his drawn face and listened to his labored breathing with growing concern. Whirling around, he opened his bag, took out a flask, detached its silver cup and poured out a liberal allowance of whisky, then, darting out of the library, he returned an instant later with some water in a glass. Slightly diluting the [Pg 14]whisky, he thrust the cup against Wallace’s white lips.
“Drink that,” he ordered, and Wallace followed his peremptory command. “Now, sit down,” and he half-pushed, half-supported him to a large leather covered lounge.
“I—I,” protested Wallace. “I’m a bit undone, McLean,” and he raised miserable, apologetic eyes to his friend.
“Sure, it’s enough to bowl any one over,” McLean acknowledged, with a sympathetic pat. “Even the strongest—”
“Which I am not,” supplemented Wallace. The powerful stimulant was taking effect, and he spoke with more composure. “Have you—can you—” he hesitated, and cast a sidelong glance at McLean. “Can you learn any details about Miss Baird and how she came to be lying in that chair?” It was impossible for him to suppress a shudder as he indicated the empty throne-shaped chair. “She was dead, wasn’t she?”
“As dead as a door nail.” His question was answered by Inspector Mitchell, who had returned in time to catch their last few remarks. “Can you give me any facts about Miss Baird, Doctor McLean?”
“Only that she was a lifelong resident of Georgetown and a well-known character—known for her [Pg 15]eccentricities, that is,” responded McLean. “Her death has come as a great shock to Major Wallace and to me, Inspector.”
“When did you see her last?” inquired Mitchell. His question was addressed to both men, but it was McLean who answered it after a moment’s thought.
“She was in my office on Friday.”
“Was she ill?”
“No. For a woman of her age she was remarkably free from organic trouble,” replied McLean. “In fact, she did not come to consult me about herself at all, but to ask for a tonic for her niece. By the way, where is Miss Kitty Baird?”
At the question Wallace raised his head and eyed the surgeon intently for a second, then dropped his eyes as the other felt his gaze and turned toward him.
“Where is Miss Kitty Baird?” Mitchell repeated the surgeon’s question. “Blessed if I know.”
“What!” McLean started from the chair where he had seated himself a moment before. “Do you mean to say that Miss Kitty Baird is not in her bedroom?”
“I do.” Mitchell shook a puzzled head. “And she isn’t in any part of the house. My men and I have searched it thoroughly. We found only the dead woman in the house and a live Angora cat.”
McLean stared at the inspector in dumbfounded [Pg 16]amazement. A gurgling sound from the sofa caused him to look at Wallace. The major, with purpling face, was struggling to undo his collar.
“Air! Air!” he gasped, and before the surgeon could spring to his aid, he sank back unconscious against the sofa pillows.