The reception was in full swing and Mrs. Amos Parsons contemplated her crowded drawing room in a spirit of happy self-congratulation. She had just welcomed a newly accredited ambassador and introduced a Cabinet officer to the ambassador’s charming wife and she felt that her feet were at last securely placed upon the ladder of success. The scene was typical of the national Capital. The World War had rudely interrupted the “calling” days of the hostesses of Washington, but with the advent of peace a return had been made to old customs, and “teas” were again taking their accepted place in the social calendar.
“A penny for your thoughts,” said a masculine voice over her shoulder and glancing around Mrs. Parsons found Charles Craige at her elbow.
“You offer a penny too much,” laughed Mrs. Parsons. “They were idle thoughts—”
“About the idle rich.” Craig looked at her with [Pg 36]admiration. “Upon my word, Cecilia, you grow prettier every day.”
“Happiness is a great ‘beautifier,’” Mrs. Parsons glanced up at him with a strange, new shyness; then quickly veiled her eyes that he might not read her thoughts too plainly. Under pretense of arranging the bouquet, his gift, which she was carrying, Craige pressed her hand. His marked attention to the fascinating widow had aroused the interest of their circle of friends, and the prospect of the announcement of their engagement had formed the topic of conversation on numerous occasions.
There was a lull in the arrival of guests and Mrs. Parsons imperceptibly edged toward an alcove. Many curious glances were cast in their direction by both men and women who stood chatting in groups about the long drawing room. They made a striking tableau—Mrs. Parsons’ delicate beauty enhanced by a perfectly fitting modish gown, and Charles Craige, standing tall and straight beside her, his iron-grey hair and ruddy complexion adding distinction to his appearance.
“The world and his wife are here this afternoon, Cecilia,” he said. “Your tea is an unqualified success. And every one is lingering,” glancing down the room. “That is a sure sign that they are enjoying themselves.”
“Except Major Wallace.” Mrs. Parsons drew [Pg 37]his attention to a man worming his way between the groups of people. “He appears to avoid his friends—there, he has cut Nina Potter dead.”
“What a caddish thing to do!” Craige spoke with warmth as he saw Mrs. Potter shrink back and her half-extended hand drop to her side. Turning quickly, she slipped behind two women and disappeared from their sight. Walking moodily ahead, Leigh Wallace found himself face to face with his hostess and Charles Craige.
“Not leaving so early, surely?” she exclaimed as he put out his hand.
“Yes, I just dropped in for a minute,” Wallace explained, and he made no effort to conceal the indifference of his tone. “I don’t feel very fit this afternoon, so you must excuse me. Good evening, Craige,” and he turned abruptly and left them.
“Of all uncivil people!” observed Mrs. Parsons, much incensed. “That’s the last invitation he gets to my house.”
“He doesn’t look well,” Craige remarked thoughtfully. “I presume he and Kitty Baird have had another quarrel.”
“Well, he has no right to vent his ill-humor on me or my guests.” Mrs. Parsons was not pacified.
“I hope Kitty decides to marry Ted Rogers and not Leigh Wallace.” Craige looked grave. “It [Pg 38]would be a far more suitable match, although I understand Rodgers is not wealthy.”
“Mr. Rodgers was here a moment ago.” Mrs. Parsons raised her lorgnette and glanced about her. “He asked particularly for Kitty. Where in the world is she? She was to pour tea for me this afternoon.”
“Have you not heard—”
“Heard?” Attracted by the alteration in Craige’s voice, Mrs. Parsons looked at him. “Heard what?”
“That Kitty’s aunt, Miss Susan Baird, was found dead this morning—”
“Great heavens!” Mrs. Parsons retreated a step in shocked surprise. “Oh, Mrs. Sutherland, so glad to see you. You know Mr. Craige, of course.” As the newcomer and the lawyer exchanged greetings, Mrs. Parsons saw Nina Potter and started toward her, but several guests claimed her attention and when she looked around Nina had vanished.
The room which served Benjamin Potter as a combination workshop and library was at the other end of the apartment which the elderly naturalist had leased upon his marriage to Nina Underwood six months before. The apartment house, one of those erected to meet the demands for housing wealthy war-workers who thronged the national Capital during the winter of 1917-1918, had but one apartment to each floor, and Potter had been grati[Pg 39]fied by having the best room, from his point of view, set aside for his exclusive use by his bride.
Mrs. Potter had also seen to it that the furniture was of the finest mahogany, the filing and specimen cases of the most approved models, while the leather-seated chairs and lounges added greatly to the comfort of the occupants of the room. No expense had been spared and for the first time in his hard-working, studious life, Ben Potter had found himself surrounded with every comfort which money could purchase.
Potter’s marriage to his pretty stenographer had been a severe shock to several impecunious relatives and a nine days’ wonder to his small world. He had taken the surprised comments and sometimes belated congratulations of both relatives and friends with the same placid good nature which characterized all his actions. Nina, with a tact for which she had not been credited, went out of her way to cultivate his friends, and if she felt the chilly reception accorded her, never by word or manner betrayed the fact.
Seated alone in his room and absorbed in his book, Potter was oblivious of the lengthening shadows and was only recalled to his surroundings by the opening of the door.
“Well, what is it?” he asked testily. “Oh!” At [Pg 40]sight of his wife, his expression brightened. “I did not expect you home so soon.”
“Soon?” Nina laughed softly, as she brushed his unruly gray hair back from his forehead. “Have you no idea of the time? It is nearly six o’clock, and you should not be reading with only one light turned on. Doctor McLean must talk to you.”
Potter made a wry face. “I would rather listen to you than any doctor,” he said and pulled forward a chair close to his own. “Tell me, have you had a pleasant time at Mrs. Parsons’ tea?”
“Does one ever have a pleasant time at a tea?” Nina’s gesture was eloquent. “Where are your matches, dear?”—fumbling, as she spoke, with her cigarette case.
Potter frowned slightly as he located a match box under the tumbled papers on his desk and struck a light for her. He had never been able to master his dislike to women smoking, in spite of his staunch belief that his pretty wife was always right in everything she did. Reading his expression like a book, Nina slipped her hand inside his and leaned against his arm.
“It is very lonely going about without you,” she murmured. “I don’t enjoy myself a bit when you remain at home.”
Potter turned and kissed the soft cheek so near his own. “My holiday is over,” he answered, and [Pg 41]putting out his foot touched a packing case, its contents partly spread on the floor in an untidy pile. “I cannot neglect my work.”
“You will never be accused of that,” with flattering emphasis. “But, dear, I need—want your society more than these dreadful reptiles,” and she made a slight grimace as she glanced at the bottles containing specimens preserved in alcohol which adorned the shelves of a cabinet near at hand. “I know,” lowering her voice, “I’m selfish—”
“I love your selfishness, dear,” he replied, and held her closely to him just as a tap sounded on the door. “Confound it! Come in.”
The Japanese servant, who answered his command, bowed profoundly, and his calm gaze never flickered at sight of the loverlike attitude of husband and wife.
“You home, Sir?” he asked.
“Yes, of course, I’m home. What of it?” Potter dropped his arm from about his wife’s waist in embarrassment.
“Mr. Rodgers call upon you.” The Japanese spoke without haste. “You see him?”
“Certainly. Bring him here,” and at the words Moto vanished.
“Here?” echoed Nina. “Isn’t it a bit untidy?”
“What of it? He hasn’t come to see us,” he grumbled. “Probably thinks Kitty is here. I don’t [Pg 42]approve of Kitty playing fast and loose with those two men.”
“What men?” Nina was not looking at her husband, and missed his keen scrutiny.
“Ted Rodgers and Leigh Wallace,” briefly. “If it goes on much longer, I will speak to Cousin Susan Baird. Hello, what did you do that for?” as the room was suddenly plunged in darkness. A second later the light flashed up.
“I pulled the wrong string,” Nina explained as she lighted both sides of the electric lamp.
Potter paused undecidedly, then rose and, going over to the packing case, tossed excelsior and paper back into it and pushed it behind a screen. When he turned back, he saw Nina deftly rearranging the ornaments and papers on his flat top desk. In silence he watched her graceful movements and the play of the lamplight on her hair which shone like spun gold under its rays. It would have taken a more observant man than her husband to have discovered that nature’s art had been supplemented by the rouge pot. No wrinkles marred the soft pink and white tint of her complexion, and few would have guessed that she had passed her thirtieth birthday.
Looking up, Nina caught her husband’s gaze and flushed faintly.
“I hope Mr. Rodgers won’t stay long,” she began, [Pg 43]and checked herself hastily as Moto ushered in their caller. “So very glad to see you, Mr. Rodgers,” she exclaimed, extending her hand, which rested in his for a fraction of a second and was withdrawn.
At the touch of her cold fingers, Rodgers looked intently at her. He still found it hard to realize that the fashionably gowned woman before him was Ben Potter’s wife. Ben a Benedict! The mere idea had provoked a smile, and the announcement of the marriage in cold print had produced a burst of merriment, and the silent hope that Ben had found a motherly soul to run his house for him. Instead of which, with the perversity of Fate, Ben Potter had selected a wife at least fifteen years his junior, who would most certainly enjoy the social life of Washington to the full.
Potter had formed a strong attachment for the younger man when spending a winter in San Francisco three years before and Rodgers had been a frequent visitor since his arrival in Washington. His visits, as Potter shrewdly noted, were generally timed to find Kitty Baird with her cousins, and ended in his escorting her home.
“I missed you both at Mrs. Parsons’ tea, so dropped in for a chat,” Rodgers remarked, accepting a cigar from Potter as Nina perched herself on one end of the lounge. “Why weren’t you there?”
“Nina went,” answered Potter, throwing himself [Pg 44]down in his favorite chair. “You don’t catch me at a tea.”
“You were there, Mrs. Potter?” Rodgers spoke in surprise. “I searched for you—”
“It was a frightful jam.” Nina picked up her workbag which she had left on the lounge earlier in the afternoon and unfolded its contents. “I did not stay long.”
“But you heard the news?”
“News?” Potter glanced up, expectantly. The tone in which the question was put arrested his attention which had strayed to his wife. “Was there any special news? Nina, you didn’t tell me.”
“I heard no news in particular.” Nina held a needle and thread nearer the light. “To what do you refer, Mr. Rodgers?”
“To the death of Miss Susan Baird.”
Potter sat bolt upright. His healthy color changed to a sickly white. “Cousin Susan dead? Impossible!”
“It is a fact. Mr. Craige told me—” Rodgers stooped over and picked up the needle which had slipped from Nina’s clutch. “Take care you don’t prick yourself, Mrs. Potter,” he warned, as he placed it in the palm of her hand and noticed the quick, spasmodic movement of her fingers. “The news had just gotten about and every one at the tea was talking of Miss Baird.”
“That’s turning the tables; usually Cousin Susan talked about everybody,” Potter remarked, breaking a slight pause. “Why hasn’t Kitty telephoned us? I am now her nearest living relative.”
“She may have tried to reach us,” suggested his wife. “I don’t suppose Moto answered the telephone in my absence; he hates it. Did you hear it ring, Ben?”
“No,” shortly. “I can’t say I grieve over your news, Ted. I have always resented Cousin Susan’s treatment of Kitty. Made the girl slave for her, the venomous old scandal-monger.”
“Ben!” Nina’s shocked tone caused her husband to pause in his rapid speech. “Did you hear, Mr. Rodgers, the cause of Cousin Susan’s death?”
“Bit her tongue and died from blood-poisoning,” growled Potter, before Rodgers could answer.
“Well, all right, dear; I’ll say no more. But,” in self-defense, noting Rodgers’ surprise, “I’ve had no cause to love Cousin Susan— I heard her caustic remarks about my marriage. Never mind that now,” with a quick glance at his wife. “Go ahead, Ted, tell us of what Cousin Susan died.”
“The coroner will have to answer that question, Ben.”
“The coroner!” Potter rose to his feet and stared at his guest. “What d’ye mean? Oh, hurry your [Pg 46]speech, man; don’t keep us in suspense,” as Rodgers hesitated and eyed Mrs. Potter in some trepidation. Judging from her sudden loss of color, she was about to faint.
“Your cousin was found dead,” he said, and got no further.
“Found dead—where?” demanded Mrs. Potter, breathlessly.
“In her library.”
Potter broke the pause. “Go ahead and tell us what you know, Ted.” He reseated himself. “Give us every detail.”
Rodgers shook his head. “I know very little on the subject,” he said. “I stopped on the way here and telephoned to ‘Rose Hill,’ but could get no response; so I came right here supposing you could tell me further news. I thought Miss Kitty might be with you.”
“We have not seen Kitty since early this morning,” answered Nina. “Who found Cousin Susan?” Rodgers, his ear trained to detect variations in the human voice, observed a faint huskiness in the usual soft tones.
“I do not know, Mrs. Potter,” he said. “Miss Baird was so well-known in Washington that her death was commented on at the tea, and I only heard a garbled account of what occurred. Perhaps there might be something in the evening paper.”
“To be sure.” Potter jumped at the suggestion, and hurrying toward the door, pushed an electric bell. A second later and Moto responded. “The evening paper, quick.”
Moto let his gaze travel around the room, then darting forward he crossed to where the packing case stood partially concealed behind the screen. Delving into its contents, he returned a moment later with a crumpled newspaper and extended it to his master.
“You toss it down, so,” demonstrating, “when I bring it to you, sir,” he explained. “You say, ‘Moto, don’t trouble me, go away,’ and I go.”
“Well, well, Moto, you interrupted me.” Potter’s tone was apologetic. “Much obliged for finding the paper. That is all I wanted.” And Moto slipped away to his pantry in time to hear the buzzer of the front door bell sounding faintly.
Forgetful of all but the paper in his hand, Potter turned it over and searched for the item of news.
“Try the first page,” suggested Rodgers. Potter switched the sheet around and gave vent to a startled exclamation as his eyes fell on the double column heading:
ELDERLY SPINSTER FOUND DEAD SUICIDE SUSPECTED
“Suicide!” Potter gasped. “Bless my soul! Who would have believed Cousin Susan would kill herself?”
“She didn’t!” The denial rang out clearly from the direction of the door and wheeling around the three occupants of the room saw Kitty Baird confronting them. “Aunt Susan did not commit suicide, Ben; you know she didn’t.”
Potter stared at her long and earnestly. Twice he opened his mouth to speak and closed it again, after a look at Ted Rodgers who, upon Kitty’s entrance, had stopped somewhat in the background so that his face was in shadow.
“I don’t know anything,” Potter said finally. “I haven’t read the paper—”
“The paper has printed lies!” Kitty’s foot came down with an unmistakable stamp, and her eyes sparkled with wrath. “I tell you Aunt Susan did not commit suicide.”
“Yes, dear.” Nina stepped hastily forward and threw her arm protectingly across Kitty’s shoulder. “Come and sit down, and when you are more composed you can tell us of—of the details.” Exerting some strength, she pulled the unwilling girl to the lounge and gently pushed her down upon it. “I am so, so sorry, Kitty. Your aunt—” she stumbled a bit in her speech—“Your aunt’s death is a great shock—”
“To me,” bitterly. “I know many people disliked her. Poor Aunt Susan—” Kitty’s lips trembled. “You need not try to dissemble your feelings, Ben. I know you hated Susan.”
“Oh, come, Kitty; that’s pretty strong language!” Potter flushed angrily. “You are unstrung—where are your smelling salts, Nina?”
“A glass of wine would be better.” Rodgers spoke for the first time, and Kitty looked up in startled surprise. She had been conscious of a third person in the room when she first entered, but, absorbed in her talk with her cousin, had forgotten his presence.
“Where’s my flask?” demanded Potter, considerably shaken out of his habitual calm. “Oh, thank you, my dear,” as Nina snatched it out of one of his desk drawers. “Now, Kitty,” unscrewing the stopper and pouring some cognac into an empty tumbler, which, with a water carafe, stood on his desk. “Drink this; no, I insist—” as she put up her hand in protest. “You will need all your strength—drink every drop.”
Kitty’s eyes sought Rodgers and his quick “Please do” did more to make her drink the cognac than all Potter’s urging. The fiery strength of the old brandy made her catch her breath, but she did not put the tumbler down until she had swallowed its contents. As the stimulant crept through her [Pg 50]veins, her head cleared, and the feeling of deadly faintness which had threatened to overcome her several times on her way to her cousin’s apartment, disappeared.
“I will tell you what I know,” she began. “Aunt Susan was found by the police dead in our library. The coroner claims that she had taken poison.”
“Well?” prompted Potter. “Go on.”
“Aunt Susan never swallowed poison—of her own free will.” Kitty turned and gazed at Ted Rodgers. Intently she studied his face, noting his clear-cut features and shapely head. Standing six feet four, he seemed to dwarf Ben Potter. Although the latter was nearly his equal in height, the stoop in his shoulders, which betrayed the hours spent in poring over books, made Potter appear much shorter. Something of his quiet, determined character showed in Rodgers’ firm mouth and handsome eyes, eyes which redeemed the severe lines of his face.
He had fallen madly in love with Kitty and had courted her with the persistency of his faithful nature. Heartsick, craving sympathy, which had brought her to her cousin only to be rebuffed by his reception of the news of her aunt’s death, Kitty turned instinctively to Rodgers.
“Won’t you help me prove that Aunt Susan did not commit suicide?” she asked.
As he studied the upturned face, the deep blue [Pg 51]eyes, made more brilliant by the tears she had shed that morning, and noted the forlorn droop of her shoulders, Rodgers’ decision was taken.
“I will do anything for you—anything,” he promised, his deep voice vibrating with feeling.
“Then find the murderer of Aunt Susan,” she cried.
“How—what?” Potter looked at her aghast. “What makes you think Cousin Susan was murdered?”
“My intuition,” promptly. “Oh, you may jeer, but it was no case of suicide. Aunt Susan did not court death—she feared it.”
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