There was craning of necks and bending of heads as the Morgue Master opened the door leading to the room where the witnesses waited to be called, and every eye was focussed on Kitty Baird as she stepped into the court room.
“Don’t look so startled, Kitty,” whispered Dr. Leonard McLean in her ear. He had retained his seat by the door, expecting to leave at any moment. “This inquest is only a legal formality.”
“But these people—the publicity,” she faltered.
“Move on, Miss, move on,” directed Hume, the Morgue Master. “You can’t talk to the witnesses, Doctor. This way, Miss,” and interposing his thickset, stocky figure between Leonard and Kitty, he followed her to the platform and administered the oath: “To tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.”
Kitty sat down in the witness chair with a feeling [Pg 64]of thankfulness. The space between it and the door through which she had entered had seemed an endless distance as she traversed it. Coroner Penfield swung his chair around so as to obtain a better view of her.
“Your full name?” he asked.
“Katrina Baird.” Her low voice barely reached the jurors, and Penfield smiled at her encouragingly.
“Please speak louder,” he suggested. “Were you related to Miss Susan Baird?”
“Yes; she was my aunt,” Kitty’s voice gained in strength as her confidence returned. “My father, Judge George Baird, was her only brother.”
“You made your home in Georgetown with your aunt?”
“Yes, ever since the death of my parents.”
“And who else resided with your aunt?”
“No. Our only servant, Oscar, never slept in the house.”
“Did your aunt ever employ another servant?”
“No.” Kitty’s flush was becoming to her, the coroner decided. The added color brought out the blue of her eyes and softened the haggard lines which had come overnight. “My aunt could not afford to employ two servants, so we looked after the house, Oscar doing the heavy work. He was always faithful and kind.”
“And devoted to your aunt?” with a quick look at her.
“Yes, certainly,” she responded, calmly.
There was a brief pause before Penfield again addressed her, and Kitty, her first nervous dread of facing the crowded court room a thing of the past, allowed her gaze to wander about the room. It was with a sharp stab of pain that she recognized more than one familiar face among the spectators. Could it be that men and women whom her aunt had counted among her friends and whom she had entertained in her limited way had come to the inquest from curiosity? Kitty shivered, the idea shocked her.
“Did you spend last Sunday at home, Miss Baird?” asked Penfield.
“No, not the entire day,” she replied. “I left there about three o’clock in the afternoon to go to my cousin, Mrs. Benjamin Potter, at whose apartment I was to spend the night.”
“Was it your custom to leave your aunt alone in the house at night?”
“Not a custom, certainly; but I did occasionally stay overnight with friends or with my cousins, Mr. and Mrs. Potter, in Washington,” Kitty explained. [Pg 66]“Aunt Susan was never afraid of being left alone in the house. And, of course, I was at my work all through the day.”
“And what is your work, Miss Baird?”
“I am employed as a social secretary by Mrs. Amos Parsons,” she replied, concisely. “I am with her from nine in the morning until four in the afternoon.”
“Only on week days?”
“Yes. I have Sunday to myself.”
“And how did you spend last Sunday, Miss Baird?”
“I went to church in the morning.”
“No. Major Leigh Wallace accompanied me.”
“Did Major Wallace return to your house with you?”
The curtly spoken monosyllable brought a sharp glance from the coroner, of which she appeared unaware.
“At what hour did you reach your house, Miss Baird?” he asked.
“After church—” she considered a moment. “To be exact, about a quarter of one.”
“Did you and your aunt lunch alone?”
“Yes. We had no guests,” briefly.
“And what did you do after luncheon?”
“It wasn’t luncheon, it was dinner,” she explained. “I went upstairs almost immediately after it was served, and changed my dress preparatory to going out.”
“When did you last see your aunt alive?” asked Penfield.
“As I was leaving the house,” Kitty spoke more hurriedly, “I looked into her bedroom and called out ‘Good-by!’”
“Miss Baird,” Penfield let his eyeglasses dangle from their ribbon and stood up. “Was your aunt expecting guests at tea on Sunday afternoon?”
“I am sure she was not,” she replied. “Aunt Susan always asked me to arrange the tea table if she had invited any of her friends to come and see her. She was, eh, formal and insisted that her guests be given tea when they called.”
“Was it your aunt’s custom to drink tea every afternoon whether she had guests or not?”
“Oh, yes. She had a spirit lamp and a tea caddy in the library, and made tea for herself,” Kitty responded. “But if any friends were coming she insisted always that the table be especially arranged—sandwiches—and all that,” a trifle vaguely. Kitty was growing tired of answering questions which appeared to lead nowhere.
Coroner Penfield picked up several sheets of pa[Pg 68]per and thumbed them over until he came to a penciled memorandum.
“There were two sandwiches and some peaches on the tea table in front of your aunt,” he remarked. “Who prepared those sandwiches?”
For the second time Kitty colored hotly. “The sandwiches were left over from some I made on Saturday when Aunt Susan entertained Mrs. Amos Parsons at tea.”
“And the peaches—” questioned Penfield.
“I don’t know where Aunt Susan got the peaches,” she said, with a quick shrug of her shoulders. “Probably Oscar brought them to her on Sunday morning when I was out. He knew her fondness for them.”
“Did you not always know what supplies you had in your larder?”
“Why, no.” With a lift of her eyebrows. “Oscar did the marketing.”
Penfield laid down the papers in his hand. “Was your aunt in her normal health on Sunday?” he asked.
“Apparently so; I never observed any change in her.”
“Had she complained of illness recently?”
“No. On the contrary, she seemed brighter and more cheerful during the past ten days,” Kitty answered.
“Was she ever despondent?”
“No,” promptly. “She always looked on the bright side of things. I—” with a fleeting smile—“I was the pessimist of the family.”
“I see.” Coroner Penfield regarded her thoughtfully. She looked barely out of her ‘teens,’ and hers was certainly not the face of a pessimist—youth, good health, and good looks did not conspire to a gloomy outlook on life. “Who were your aunt’s intimate friends?”
“Do you mean women of her own age?”
“Yes; of her age, and also of yours.”
Kitty debated the question thoughtfully before answering it. “Not many of Aunt Susan’s old friends are alive,” she said. “Aunty had just passed her seventieth birthday. She liked all my friends.”
“Yes.” Kitty regarded him steadfastly. She had noted the emphasis on the word “all.” A moment passed before the coroner addressed her again.
“Miss Baird, have you unlimited telephone service?”
“Why, yes.” Kitty’s tone expressed surprise. “We have always had unlimited service.”
Penfield paused and wrote a few lines on his memorandum pad. When he spoke, his voice had gained an added seriousness.
“Were you and your aunt always on the best of terms?” he asked.
Kitty sat erect and her hands dropped on the arms of her chair.
“Your question is impertinent,” she said cuttingly, and, in spite of himself, Penfield flushed.
“I insist upon an answer,” he retorted. “A truthful answer.”
“Dr. Penfield!” Kitty rose.
“Be seated, Madam. A witness cannot leave until dismissed by the coroner.” Penfield spoke with unwonted severity. “I will change my question. What did you and Miss Baird quarrel about on Sunday?”
“Yes, Madam, quarrel. Your servant, Oscar, overheard you.”
Kitty’s bright color had flown. With eyes expressing her scorn, she threw back her head defiantly.
“Ask Oscar,” she suggested. “Servants’ gossip may prove diverting—whether truthful or not.”
Penfield watched her for an intolerable moment. Kitty’s breath was coming unevenly when he finally spoke.
“You are excused, Miss Baird,” he stated briefly, and turned to the Morgue Master. “Summon Mrs. Benjamin Potter, Hume,” he directed.
Kitty’s sudden dismissal by the coroner was a shock to the reporters as well as to the spectators, and they watched her leave the room with undisguised curiosity and disappointment. Were they to be cheated out of a sensational scene? Why had not Coroner Penfield pressed home his question?
Nina Potter’s entrance cut short speculation and the reporters watched her take her place in the witness chair with renewed hope. Her self-possessed air was a surprise to Ted Rodgers, who secretly considered her a bundle of nerves. She looked extremely pretty and Coroner Penfield watched her admiringly as the oath was being administered. From his seat on the second row, Ben Potter leaned against Rodgers, regardless of the latter’s discomfort, in his endeavor to get an uninterrupted view of his wife.
“Mrs. Potter,” Coroner Penfield had again resumed his seat. “What relation are you to Miss Katrina Baird?”
“No relation, except by marriage.” Her voice, though low, held a carrying quality, and reached the ears of all in the room. “My husband is her second cousin.”
“Have you known her long?”
“Since my marriage to her cousin, six months ago,” briefly.
“Did you know her aunt, Miss Susan Baird?”
“Oh, yes, very well. We frequently took Sunday dinner with them.”
“Did you ever hear Miss Susan Baird express a dislike for any particular person?”
Nina shook her head, while a faint smile drew down the corners of her pretty mouth. “Miss Susan disliked a great many people,” she said. “Me, among them. In fact, I never heard her make a complimentary remark about any one.”
Penfield looked taken aback. “Miss Baird was eccentric, was she not?”
“Yes, not to say odd.”
“Exactly what do you mean?”
Nina raised her eyebrows and pursed up her mouth before answering.
“If Miss Baird was calling upon friends and liked the tea cakes, she would open her bag and pour the cakes into it,” she explained. “If she was shopping downtown and grew weary, she would look about and if she saw a motor car belonging to any of her friends waiting at the curb, she would inform the chauffeur he was to take her home. And—” Mrs. Potter’s smile was most engaging, “Miss Baird always got her own way.”
“Until her death—” dryly. “It looked as if some one balked her there.”
“Yes—and who was that some one?” questioned Mrs. Potter sweetly.
Coroner Penfield concealed his annoyance under a pretense of hunting for a pencil among the papers on his table. While listening intently to the dialogue between Penfield and Mrs. Potter, Ted Rodgers had grown aware that Ben Potter was gnawing his nails. Rodgers loathed small noises. He was about to remonstrate when Potter leaned back and whispered in his ear:
“I always told you Nina was clever; bless her heart!”
Rodgers attempted no reply as he waited for Coroner Penfield’s next question.
“Did Miss Kitty Baird spend Sunday night at your apartment, Mrs. Potter?” asked Penfield.
“She did,” with quiet emphasis. “She came in time to help me serve tea in my husband’s studio, stayed to dinner, and retired early. We had breakfast at nine o’clock, after which she returned to Georgetown.”
“That is all, Mrs. Potter, thank you,” and Penfield assisted her down the steps, then turned aside to speak to Hume. “Recall Oscar Jackson,” he said.
Mrs. Potter had almost reached the door when it opened to admit Major Leigh Wallace. He failed to see her in his hurry to secure a seat vacated by an elderly woman who was just leaving and brushed by without greeting. Nina’s pretty color had van[Pg 74]ished when she reached her motor parked near the Morgue. She did not start the engine, however, upon entering the car but sat waiting with untiring patience for the inquest to adjourn.
Nina’s exit from the court room had been closely watched by two pairs of eyes. When Rodgers turned to speak to Potter, he found him sitting well back in his chair, and his whole attention centered on Major Leigh Wallace. The latter, entirely oblivious of the identity of the men and women about him, sat regarding the coroner and the jury while his restless fingers rolled a swagger stick held upright between the palms of his hands.
Coroner Penfield hardly allowed the old negro servant time to take his seat again in the witness chair, before addressing him.
“What were Miss Baird and her niece, Miss Kitty, quarreling about on Sunday?” he asked.
“W-w-what yo’ ax?” Oscar’s breath, such as he had left after his exertions in reaching the platform, deserted him, and he stared in dumb surprise at the coroner.
“You have testified that you overheard Miss Baird and her niece quarreling,” Penfield spoke slowly and with emphasis. “What were they quarreling about? Come,” as the old man remained silent. “We are awaiting your answer.”
“Yessir.” Oscar ducked his head, and the whites [Pg 75]of his eyes showed plainly as he rolled them in fright, first toward the jury and then toward the coroner. “Yessir, ’twarn’t much of a fuss; leastways, it might o’ been wuss, but Miss Kitty, she done jes’ walk upstairs.”
“What was it about?” insisted Penfield.
“Well ’er,” Oscar fingered his worn cap nervously. “Miss Susan, she didn’t think much of some of Miss Kitty’s beaux—jes’ didn’t want her to get married nohow—’specially that there Major Wallace. An’ she ups an’ tells Miss Kitty she mus’ get rid o’ him, or she would—”
“Git rid o’ him,” explained Oscar. “Miss Susan jes’ despised him, even if he did lay himself out to please her.”
“Was Major Wallace there on Sunday?” inquired the coroner.
“No, Sah.” With vigorous emphasis. “The Major ain’t been there for mos’ two weeks. Miss Susan and him had words.”
“Ah, indeed. When?”
“’Bout two weeks ago, p’r’aps longer. Major Wallace kep’ callin’, an’ Miss Susan up an’ tole him Miss Kitty couldn’t be bothered with his company.” Oscar came to a breathless pause. He had caught sight of a man leaving his seat and recognized Major Leigh Wallace. The next second the door [Pg 76]had opened and closed behind Wallace’s retreating figure.
Penfield’s stern voice recalled Oscar’s wandering wits.
“Did you do the marketing on Saturday, Oscar?” he asked.
“Yes, Sah.” Oscar spoke more cheerfully at the change of the topic.
“Did you buy some peaches for Miss Baird?”
“Deed, I didn’t, Sah. Miss Susan hadn’t no money to buy peaches at dis time o’ year,” Oscar’s voice expressed astonishment. “Dis hyar month am March.”
“We have them from California.” Penfield was growing impatient, and his manner stiffened as he faced the old negro. “Who purchased the peaches which Miss Baird was eating just before she died?”
“I dunno, Sah; honest to God, I dunno.” Oscar shook a puzzled head. “I was flabbergasted to see them peaches on the tea table. They weren’t in the house when I was gettin’ dinner, an’ they weren’t there when I left after servin’ dinner.”
“Is that so?” Penfield stared at Oscar. The black face of the negro was as shiny as a billiard ball and about as expressionless. “That is all, Oscar, you may retire.”
Hardly waiting for the servant to descend the steps, Penfield turned to the deputy coroner whose [Pg 77]busy pen had been transcribing the notes of the inquest.
“Dr. Fisher, take the stand,” he directed, and waited in silence while he was being sworn.
“You performed the autopsy, Doctor?” he asked.
“I did, Sir, in the presence of the Morgue Master and Dr. Leonard McLean,” responded the deputy coroner.
“State the results of the autopsy.”
“We found on investigation of the gastric contents that death was due to prussic acid, the most active of poisons,” Fisher replied, with blunt directness. “There was no other cause of death, as from the condition of her body, we found Miss Baird, in spite of her age, did not suffer from any organic disease.”
The silence lengthened in the court room. Penfield did not seem in haste to put the next question and the suspense deepened.
“Can you estimate how long a time must have elapsed between Miss Baird taking the poison and her death?” he asked finally.
“Between two and five minutes, judging from the amount of poison in her system,” responded Fisher.
“Can you tell us how the poison was administered, Doctor?” questioned Penfield. “Did you analyze the contents of the tea pot and cup?”
“Yes. No trace of poison was in either the cup [Pg 78]or the teapot.” Fisher spoke with deliberation, conscious that his words were listened to with breathless interest. “There was on her plate a half-eaten peach on which still remained enough poison to kill several persons.”
Penfield broke the tense pause.
“Have you any idea, Doctor, how the poison got on the peach?”
“On examination we found that drops of prussic acid still remained on the fruit knife used to cut the peach.” Fisher hesitated a brief instant, then continued, “The poison had been put on one side of the knife-blade only.”
“That whoever ate the other portion of the peach was not poisoned.”
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