Inspector Mitchell and Dr. McLean watched the taxicab, in which rode Major Leigh Wallace and Coroner Penfield, until it passed out of sight on its way to Washington, before reëntering the Baird mansion.
“Major Wallace seems in bad shape,” commented Mitchell, as they crossed the hall toward the library. “I thought you would never bring him back to consciousness, Doctor.”
“This library wasn’t a pleasant sight for well man to encounter, Mitchell, let alone a man in the major’s condition,” replied McLean. “The results of shell-shock do not exactly prepare a man for this—” and with a wave of his hand the surgeon indicated the tea table and the throne-shaped chair where Miss Baird’s body had lain on their entrance three quarters of an hour before.
“Eh, yes; but I should have thought the major’s [Pg 18]experiences overseas would have accustomed him to gruesome scenes.” Mitchell paused in front of the portières and adjusted them carefully so that they completely covered the doorway.
“Walking into a room and finding a friend lying dead is a shock, regardless of any past experience,” responded McLean dryly.
“Did Major Wallace know Miss Baird well?” inquired Mitchell.
“Know her well?” repeated McLean. “Yes, and her niece, Kitty Baird, even better, if rumor speaks truly.”
A certain inflection in the surgeon’s voice caused Mitchell to eye him sharply, but McLean’s attention was entirely centered on the tea table before which he was standing, and he appeared unaware of the inspector’s scrutiny.
“Exactly what do you mean, Doctor?” asked the latter. “Your words would imply—”
“Nothing—except that rumor has it that Leigh Wallace and Kitty Baird are engaged to be married.” McLean balanced one hand on a chair and tipped it back and forth.
“And what is your personal opinion, Doctor?” asked Mitchell shrewdly.
McLean hesitated. “I am not quite so certain,” he admitted. “Three months ago I believed Wallace and Kitty were engaged; then—”
“Yes?—” as McLean paused once more in his speech.
“Then Kitty met Edward Rodgers of San Francisco,” McLean smiled. “It’s a toss-up which man wins.”
“So.” The inspector considered a moment. “So Miss Baird is still willing to take a chance on marrying Major Wallace, is she?”
“What d’ye mean?” McLean’s abstracted manner disappeared instantly.
“Well, I wouldn’t exactly like my daughter to marry him,” retorted Mitchell. “Not after seeing his condition here to-day. I haven’t much medical knowledge—”
“Quite so.” The surgeon’s dry tone caused Mitchell to redden. “I can assure you, Mitchell, that Major Wallace’s ill-health is but temporary.”
“Is it?” Mitchell eyed him reflectively, then as an idea occurred to him his expression altered. “By Jove! Perhaps it wasn’t the sight of Miss Baird lying there dead which knocked him out, but the absence of her niece, Miss Kitty Baird.”
McLean let the chair, which he had been balancing on two legs, go slowly back to its proper position.
“It is just possible that you are right,” he agreed. “Kitty Baird’s absence has alarmed me also.”
“Is that so? You kept mighty calm about it,” [Pg 20]grumbled Mitchell. McLean was not evincing much interest. “Possibly you don’t realize that Miss Baird did not die a natural death.”
McLean smiled ironically. “You pay me a poor compliment,” he said. “I only made a superficial examination of her body, but it assured me that a—” he hesitated for a brief second, “that a tragedy had occurred.”
“Tragedy!” In fine scorn. “Why mince words? Say murder.”
“No.” McLean spoke with provoking deliberation. “Suicide.”
“Suicide!” echoed the inspector. “Bah! Look at this room.”
Obediently McLean glanced about the library. It was a large room, almost square in shape, two stories in height with an arched roof containing a stained glass skylight. It was paneled in Flemish oak; and oak bookcases, with sliding glass doors, filled most of the wall space, while a gallery, on a level with the second story, circled the library. Access to the gallery was gained from the library by a flight of circular steps near the huge brick chimney which stood at the farther end of the room. Bookcases, similar in type to those on the main floor of the library, were in the gallery, and McLean scarcely glanced upward; instead, his eyes roved over the worn furniture with its shabby upholstery, the faded [Pg 21]rugs on the hardwood floor, until finally his gaze rested on the tea table. Given to observation of little things, he noticed the spotless condition of the tea cloth and the neat darns in one corner. Inspector Mitchell observed his silent contemplation of the tea table.
“Evidently Miss Baird was enjoying a cup of tea,” he remarked. “See, her cup is half full.”
“Have you analyzed its contents?” asked McLean.
“Not yet.” Mitchell moved impatiently. “Give us time, Doctor. It won’t take long to locate the criminal. He is sure to have left a clue behind him among the tea things.”
“You will insist on murder!” McLean shrugged his shoulders. “I see only one cup of tea,” pointing to the table. “A teapot—is it empty?” He stretched out his hand to pick it up, but Mitchell checked him with an imperative gesture.
“Don’t handle anything, Sir,” he cautioned. “We are making tests for finger prints.”
“Quite right.” McLean’s hand dropped to his side. “Well, murder presupposes the presence of some one beside the victim. I see only one teacup, one plate with two sandwiches and a piece of cake, another plate with a half-eaten peach. Not a very bountiful repast. Now, while Miss Baird was poor, she was hospitable, inspector; had any one been here, [Pg 22]her visitor would have been provided with a cup of tea at least.”
“Perhaps—but suppose she wasn’t aware of the, er, visitor’s presence?” asked Mitchell.
McLean eyed him in silence for a second. “Have you found any indication of another’s presence?” he questioned. “Any clues?”
“Nothing worth mentioning now,” responded Mitchell, evasively. “Can you give me the name of an intimate friend to whom Miss Baird may have gone?”
“Why, certainly; there’s—let me see—” McLean pulled himself up short. Who were Kitty Baird’s intimate friends—her girl friends? He could enumerate dozens of men whose admiration for her was sincere and unconcealed, but when it came to the girls in their set—pshaw! women were cats! Kitty’s popularity had not endeared her to her own sex.
“You might try Mrs. Amos Parsons,” he suggested, and pointed to the telephone table in a corner of the library. “Kitty is her private secretary. No, wait,” as Mitchell snatched up the telephone book and hastily turned its well-thumbed pages. “She may be with her cousins, Mr. and Mrs. Ben Potter. Here, I’ll look up their number for you.”
Mitchell hung up the receiver in disgust a minute later. “Central declares no one answers,” he explained. “Who shall we try next? Mrs. Parsons, [Pg 23]did you say?” This time he was more successful in getting the number desired, but the reply to his question was unsatisfactory. “The butler declares Miss Baird hasn’t been there since yesterday,” he told his companion. “Mrs. Parsons is not at home.”
McLean’s expression had grown serious. “We had better communicate with Charles Craige,” he said. “Craige has handled Miss Baird’s affairs for years, lawyer, agent, and all that. He may aid us in locating Kitty.” Then with a touch of impatience, “Don’t stop to look up the number of his law office—it is Main 3300.”
As Inspector Mitchell turned again to the telephone, McLean rose and slowly paced back and forth the length of the library. His familiarity with the furnishings and the contents of the bookcases—his taste in literature having coincided with that of Colonel Baird, who spent the last years of his life squandering a depleted fortune to gratify his craving as a collector—caused him to pay little attention to his surroundings, and he walked with head bent, his thoughts with the dead woman upstairs.
Was Inspector Mitchell right—could it have been murder? Who would have reason to harm so feeble an old lady? What motive could have inspired such a senseless crime? Robbery—bah, thieves would not kill to secure books and knickknacks of doubtful value.
But then what motive could have prompted suicide? Why should a woman so near the grave take her own life? Miss Baird had abhorred illness in any form; she had always had a healthy distaste for invalidism, and little patience with neurotic friends.
Miss Susan Baird, of all persons, to be found dead—possibly murdered! McLean took out his handkerchief and passed it over his forehead. For the first time he grew conscious of the closeness of the atmosphere, of the musty smell which dampness sometimes engenders. Instinctively, he stopped in front of a side door which opened on a “stoop” leading to the garden which extended to the back of the house. The door resisted his attempts to open it, and he felt for the key. It was not in the lock.
McLean stared at the door in some surprise. It was the only one in the house fitted with a modern lock, and it had always been Miss Baird’s custom to leave the key in the lock. The locks of the other doors were hand-wrought before the Revolution and massive in size. It had been Miss Baird’s fad never to have them modernized. One of her few extravagances, if it could be called such, had been to employ a grandson of old “Oscar,” their colored factotum, to keep the copper highly burnished and shining with its old-time, slave-day luster. The great fireplaces were lined with copper and Miss Baird was never happier than when able to contem[Pg 25]plate her grotesque reflection in the walls of the fireplace in her library.
McLean had been a frequent visitor at the Baird mansion, but never before had he seen the key removed from the side door of the library. With a puzzled frown he reached up and pulled back the copper latch which released the upper half of the door—built in the style of the “Dutch” door—and pulled it back. The fresh air, laden as it was with dampness, was refreshing. The rain had slackened, and seeing there was no danger of it splashing inside the library, he pulled the half door still further open. Turning about, he found Inspector Mitchell at his elbow.
“I caught Mr. Craige,” he announced. “He is coming right over.” Then with a complete change of tone. “How did you open the upper half of this door?”
“By pushing the catch, so—” and McLean demonstrated.
“Hump!” Inspector Mitchell moved the catch back and forth. “I see, there’s a knack about it; it baffled me when I tried to open it. I have the key of the lower door,” and he drew it out of his pocket.
“Why did you take it out of the lock?”
“Because—” Inspector Mitchell’s answer was interrupted by the sudden rush of feet across the outer hall. The portières were thrust aside and [Pg 26]a girl dashed into the library followed by a man.
Utterly oblivious of the inspector’s presence, she sped across the room to McLean.
“Oh, Doctor, is it true?” she gasped, incoherently. “Is Aunt Susan—has she—” She faltered and McLean caught her outstretched hands and drew her into a chair.
“Yes,” he said, and his quiet, controlled tone brought some measure of relief to the overwrought girl. “Your aunt is dead.”
Kitty Baird’s head dropped forward and rested on her cupped hands, and tears forced their way through her fingers. At the sound of her weeping, a seven-toed Angora cat stole out from behind a piece of furniture and pattered across the floor. With a flying leap she seated herself in Kitty’s lap and brushed her head against the girl’s hands. Kitty looked down, caught the soft body in her arms and held the cat tightly to her.
“Mouchette, Mouchette,” she moaned. “Aunty’s gone—gone,” and she buried her face in the long fur. Gradually, her sobs grew less, and McLean, observing that she was regaining some hold on her composure, withdrew to the other end of the library where Inspector Mitchell was holding a low-toned conversation with Charles Craige.
“I am glad you are here, Craige,” McLean said, [Pg 27]keeping his voice lowered. “This is the devil of a mess.”
The lawyer’s handsome face expressed grave concern. “So I judge from what Inspector Mitchell told me on the telephone and what he has just said.” He moved so as to catch a better view of the library. “Where have you taken Miss Baird?”
“To her bedroom,” replied Mitchell. “The autopsy will be held this afternoon probably.”
He had not troubled to lower his rather strident voice and his words reached Kitty’s ears. Dropping the cat, she sprang to her feet with a slight cry.
“Autopsy?” she exclaimed. “No, not that!” And she put up her hand as if to ward off a blow.
“Why not?” demanded Mitchell, and as Kitty hesitated, McLean spoke quickly.
“It is customary in cases of sudden death, Kitty, to hold autopsies,” he explained. “Your aunt was found dead in this room—”
“Here!” Kitty looked about with a shudder. “I did not realize—Mr. Craige only told me—we met at the door,” she pulled herself up short, waited a moment, then continued with more composure. “I understood that aunty had died suddenly. It has been a great shock,” she looked piteously from one to the other. “I have lived with aunty ever since I can remember—and now to be without her!” She again paused to steady her voice. “Oh, it seems im[Pg 28]possible that she is dead; she was so alive—so anxious to live.”
Inspector Mitchell cocked an eager eye at McLean.
“So she wanted to live, Miss,” he commented. “Never expressed any wish to end her life, did she, Miss Baird?”
“Never!” Kitty stared at him in astonishment. “What put such an idea into your head?”
“It wasn’t ever in my head,” Mitchell retorted. “Dr. McLean is responsible for the theory.”
Kitty turned and looked directly at McLean. Tears were still very near the deep blue eyes, and her cheeks had lost their wonted color, but as she faced the three men they were conscious of her beauty. Slightly above medium height, she looked taller owing to her straight and graceful carriage. McLean sighed involuntarily. He dreaded a scene.
“Why, Doctor, what made you think Aunt Susan wished to die?” Kitty’s voice rose. “You told me only last week that she was in excellent health.”
“So I did.” McLean spoke in haste. “Your aunt was in good health, Kitty; but, eh, the circumstances of her death—”
Kitty’s eyes widened. “The circumstances of her death,” she repeated slowly, and paused as if seeking a word, “were they not—natural?”
“No, Miss Baird, they were not,” broke in In[Pg 29]spector Mitchell, anxious to have the floor. “We found your aunt dead in this library about two hours ago. Dr. McLean examined her body; he can tell you from what she died.”
Kitty looked in mute question at McLean while her trembling hands plucked aimlessly at her damp handkerchief. The surgeon impulsively put his arm about her shoulder before speaking.
“Your aunt died from a dose of poison,” he stated slowly.
“Poison!” Kitty reeled and but for McLean’s strong arm would have fallen. Dumbly, she stared at the three men. “Aunt Susan poisoned! By whom?”
“We do not know that—yet,” replied Mitchell, and the tone of his voice chilled Kitty. It was some seconds before she could speak.
“What poisoned her?” she asked.
“The exact nature of the poison will be determined by the autopsy,” broke in McLean. “The coroner’s examination of the body and mine were superficial, but it did establish the fact that your aunt had swallowed poison.” He caught the terror which flashed into Kitty’s eyes, and added impulsively, “Miss Baird, in a moment of insanity, may have committed suicide.”
“There you go again, Doctor.” Mitchell laughed [Pg 30]shortly. “Now, Miss Baird, where did you spend last night?”
“With my cousin, Nina Potter, and her husband, at their apartment in Sixteenth Street,” Kitty spoke mechanically. Turning about she walked stiffly over to a chair and sank into it. She wondered if her companions were aware of her trembling knees.
“Kitty,” Charles Craige’s charmingly modulated voice sounded soothingly to her overwrought nerves. “I would have prepared you for this had I known,” he hesitated, “these details. But Inspector Mitchell only telephoned to me that your aunt was dead, and it was not until we both came in that I learned, as you have, of the tragedy. I grieve with you, dear child; your aunt was my good friend for many years.”
Kitty looked up at him gratefully. She was very fond of her handsome godfather. “Thank you,” she murmured. “I feel stunned.” She pressed her fingers against her temples. “Oh, poor aunty—to die here alone! Why, why didn’t I get up early and come here at once without waiting for breakfast? I might have saved her.”
McLean moved uneasily and exchanged glances with Mitchell.
“Don’t reproach yourself, Kitty,” he begged. “Your presence here this morning would not have saved your aunt,” and as she looked at him in aston[Pg 31]ishment, he added more slowly, “judging from the condition of the body, your aunt died fully twenty hours ago.”
Charles Craig broke the silence. “Twenty hours ago,” he repeated. “That would be yesterday—”
“Sunday afternoon, to be exact,” stated Inspector Mitchell. “When did you leave here, Miss Baird?”
“Yesterday afternoon, about three o’clock; no, nearly four,” Kitty corrected herself with a haste not lost upon the inspector.
“And when did you last see your aunt alive?” he questioned.
“About that time.” Kitty’s foot tapped restlessly against the rug. “She was in her bedroom, and I called to her as I went down the staircase.”
“What did you say to her?” Mitchell was taking mental note of Kitty’s well-groomed appearance and her nervous handling of her handkerchief.
“I told her not to sit up late.” Kitty did not meet the inspector’s eyes. “Aunt Susan seldom went to bed before one or two o’clock in the morning; she claimed it rested her to sit up and read in the library.”
“Were the servants here when you left the house?” asked Mitchell.
“Servants?” A ghost of a smile touched Kitty’s lips. “Aunty would not employ any one but old Oscar. He never comes until about seven in the morning, and leaves immediately after dinner.”
“And was it your custom to leave your aunt alone in the house at night?” Mitchell was blind to the heavy frown with which McLean listened to his continued questioning of Kitty. The surgeon guessed the tension she was under and dreaded a breakdown.
“Occasionally, yes.” Observing Mitchell’s expression, Kitty added hastily, “Why not? Aunt Susan feared no one.”
“And she was murdered.” Inspector Mitchell eyed her keenly; then glanced at his companions—both men were watching Kitty.
“Or killed herself—” Kitty spoke with an effort. “How did you learn of my aunt’s death?”
Inspector Mitchell seemed not to hear the question and Kitty repeated it more peremptorily.
“We received a telephone message, at Headquarters,” he stated finally. “I was in the office at the time and came over to investigate.” He paused dramatically. “We found your aunt sitting dead in that chair.” He walked over and touched the throne-shaped chair. Kitty did not follow him except with her eyes.
“How did you get in?” asked Craige, walking toward him.
“We found the key of the front door in the lock on the outside,” replied Mitchell.
“What!” Kitty sprang to her feet.
“Odd, wasn’t it?” Mitchell was watching her closely.
“Very,” briefly. Kitty paused in thought. “What was the nature of the message you received over the telephone, Inspector?”
“To come at once to ‘Rose Hill,’” Mitchell spoke with impressiveness. “That a crime had been committed.”
“Good heavens!” Kitty took a step in his direction, but before she could speak again, Mitchell held up his hand for silence.
“Did I understand, Miss Baird, that you and your aunt occupied this house alone at night?” he asked.
“And you left here between three and four o’clock on Sunday—yesterday afternoon?”
“And the last time you saw your aunt she was alive?”
“Do you employ a female servant?”
Inspector Mitchell regarded the girl in silence. She bore his scrutiny with outward composure.
“Miss Baird,” he spoke slowly, weighing his words. “I took the message over the telephone to come at once to ‘Rose Hill’—that a crime had been [Pg 34]committed here. The message was given by a woman.”
Kitty stared at him uncomprehendingly, dumbly; then, before they could detain her, she fled from the library and rushing upstairs, dashed into her room, locked the door, and flung herself face downward on the bed.