CORONER’S INQUEST RETURNS OPEN VERDICT
Miss Susan Baird Killed by Party or Parties Unknown
Mrs. Amos Parsons laid down her evening newspaper and stared at her own reflection in the upright, silver-framed mirror standing on the table by her side. So absorbing were her thoughts that she did not observe a velvet-footed servant remove the tea tray and carry off the soiled cups and saucers. The French clock on the high mantel of the drawing room had ticked away fully ten minutes before she stirred. With an indolent gesture of her hands, eminently characteristic, she dropped them in her lap and let her body relax against the tufted chair back. Her mirror told her that she needed rest; the deep shadows under her eyes and her unusual pallor both emphasized the same story. She was very, very weary.
“Beg pardon, Madam.” The velvet-footed butler was back in the room again, silver salver in hand. “A gentleman to see you.”
Mrs. Parsons picked up the small visiting card and adjusting her lorgnette, inspected the engraved lettering it bore.
MR. BENJAMIN POTTER
“Where is Mr. Potter?” she asked.
“In the reception room downstairs, madam. He said he was in a great hurry, Madam,” as she remained silent. “He asked particularly to see you.”
“Very well; show him up. Wait—” as the servant started for the doorway. “Bring Mr. Potter upstairs in the lift.”
“Very good, Madam,” and, a second later, Mrs. Parsons was alone in her drawing room.
Leaning forward, she looked about the beautifully furnished room, then, convinced that she was its only occupant, she opened her vanity case and selecting a lip-stick, applied it, and added a touch of rouge. Lastly a powder-puff removed all outward traces of restless hours and weary waiting. She [Pg 81]had just time to slip the puff and lip-stick inside her vanity box before the portières parted and Ben Potter hastened into the room. He stopped his rapid stride on catching sight of her and advanced more leisurely.
“Good evening, Cecilia,” he said, and paused in front of her.
She appeared not to see his half-extended hand, as she laid down her cigarette.
“Ah, Ben,” she remarked dryly. “I see that you still believe in the efficacy of a bribe.”
“If it is big enough,” composedly. “Your servant said you had denied yourself to callers so—voilà tout.”
“And why this desire to see me?”
Potter did not reply at once; instead, he scrutinized her intently. She was well worth a second glance. Her type of face belonged to the Eighteenth Century, and as she sat in her high-backed chair, her prematurely grey hair, artistically arranged, in pretty contrast to her delicately arched eyebrows, she resembled a French marquise of the court of Louis XIV. She bore Potter’s penetrating gaze with undisturbed composure. He was the first to shift his glance.
“Suppose I take a chair and we talk things over,” he suggested. “You are not very cordial-to-night.”
Mrs. Parsons smiled ironically. “Take a chair [Pg 82]by all means; that one by the door looks substantial. Now,” as he dragged it over and placed it directly in front of her. “I will repeat my question—why do you wish to see me?”
“You ask that—and a newspaper by your side!” Potter pointed contemptuously at the paper lying on the floor. “Have you seen Kitty Baird since the inquest?”
Mrs. Parsons shook her head. “There was hardly time for her to get here; besides she must be very weary, not to say—unstrung.” She held out her cigarette case, but Potter waved it away, making no effort politely to restrain his impatience. “So dear Miss Susan Baird was poisoned after all.”
“And why ‘after all’?” swiftly. “Why ‘dear Miss Susan’?”
A shrug of her shapely shoulders answered him. “You are always so intense, Ben,” she remarked. “Why not ‘dear Miss Susan’? Had you any reason to dislike your cousin?”
“Had any one any reason to like her?” he asked gruffly. “You don’t need to be told that.” His smile had little mirth in it. “The poor soul is dead—murdered.” He looked at her queerly. “How much does Kitty see of Major Leigh Wallace?”
Mrs. Parsons selected another cigarette with care. “So that is the reason I am honored by a visit from you.” Tossing back her head, she inspected him [Pg 83]from head to foot. “How am I qualified to answer your question? I am not Kitty’s guardian.”
“No, but you are her employer,” with quiet emphasis. “And Major Wallace is a frequent caller here.”
“Is he?” Her smile was enigmatical. “May I ask the reason of your sudden interest in Major Wallace?”
Potter colored hotly. “That is my affair,” he retorted. “Were you at the Baird inquest this morning?”
“Have you read the newspaper account of it?”
“And what is your opinion?”
She shook her head. “I have formed none.”
“Oh, come!” Potter smiled skeptically, then frowned. “Kitty must be safeguarded,” he announced with gruff abruptness.
“From Major Wallace?—”
She considered him a moment in silence. Potter’s big frame did not show to best advantage in his sack suit which betrayed the need of sponging and pressing. The naturalist seldom gave a thought to his personal appearance.
“How is your wife?” she asked.
Potter started a trifle at the abrupt question.
“Quite well,” he replied. “But a bit fagged after the inquest. She was one of the witnesses, you know.”
“I was not called by the coroner,” shortly. “Ted Rodgers and I sat together in the court room. He’s a good chap, Ted—promised Kitty to help trace her aunt’s murderer.”
The pupils of Mrs. Parsons’ eyes contracted. “I did not realize that they were on such terms of intimacy,” she remarked, and her voice had grown sharper. “Do you think Mr. Rodgers will have a difficult task?”
Potter ran his fingers through his untidy grey hair. “That remains to be seen,” he replied. “So far, all that we know is that my cousin, Miss Susan Baird, was poisoned with prussic acid.”
“Is that all the police know?” she questioned rapidly.
He did not answer immediately, his attention apparently centered on the newspaper which lay folded so that the headlines were in view:
Coroner’s Inquest Returns Open Verdict
“It is all that the police will admit knowing,” he said at last. “I must remind you that you have not [Pg 85]answered my question: how often does Kitty see Major Wallace?”
“I am unable to tell you.” There was a touch of insolence in her manner and his eyes sparkled with anger. “I do not keep tab on Kitty—” their glances crossed—“and I don’t intend to.”
Potter hesitated a second, then rose. “It was good of you to see me,” he announced. His tone was perfunctory. “My interest in Kitty prompted the visit.” He stooped over and picked up a glove which had slipped from his restless fingers to the floor. “Good-by. Don’t trouble to ring for James; I know my way out.”
But Mrs. Parsons was already half across the room and her finger touched the electric button with some force. James was a trifle out of breath when he reached them.
“Take Mr. Potter down in the lift,” she directed. “Good evening, Ben,” and with a slight, graceful gesture, she dismissed him.
Once more back in her chair Mrs. Parsons settled down in comfort and permitted her thoughts to wander far afield. It was not often that she allowed herself to dwell on the past.
“So Ted Rodgers is taking a hand in the game,” she murmured, unconscious that she spoke aloud. “And Ben Potter is interested in—Kitty.” Putting back her head, she laughed heartily. She was still [Pg 86]chuckling to herself when James, the butler, came in to announce dinner.
Dinner with Mrs. Parsons was a formal affair even when alone, and she looked with approval at the spotless linen, the burnished silver, and glittering glass. She thoroughly appreciated her butler’s taste in table decoration. Domestic troubles, which vexed other women, never touched her household. She had one theory which she always put into practice—to pay her servants just a little more than her neighbors gave their domestics, and it was seldom that they left her employ.
Washington society had found that Mrs. Parsons was wealthy enough to indulge in her whims, and, bringing, as she did, letters of introduction from far-off California to influential residents of the national Capital, she had been entertained at houses to which newcomers frequently waited for years to gain the entrée. Well gowned, handsome rather than pretty, quick of wit, Mrs. Parsons soon attained a place for herself in the kaleidoscopic life of the cosmopolitan city, and, giving up her suite of rooms at the New Willard had, three months before, purchased a house on fashionable Wyoming Avenue.
On taking possession of what she termed her maisonnette, Mrs. Parsons decided that she had need of a social secretary. Kitty Baird had been highly recommended for the post by Charles Craige, and, [Pg 87]after much urging on the part of both Mrs. Parsons and her godfather, Kitty had resigned her clerkship in the Department of State, which she had held during the World War, and taken up her secretarial duties.
And Kitty had been of genuine aid to her employer, as Mrs. Parsons acknowledged to herself if to no one else—she was chary of spoken praise. Kitty had not only an accurate knowledge of social life in Washington, having enjoyed belleship since her first “tea dance” at Rauscher’s which one of her aunt’s old friends had given in her honor, but possessed unbounded tact and a kindly heart. Her aunt, Miss Susan Baird, had seen to it that she was well educated and thoroughly grounded in French and German. Having a natural gift for languages, Kitty had put her early training to good account in her war work as a translator and code expert.
To James’ secret distress, Mrs. Parsons partook but indifferently of the deliciously cooked dinner, even refusing dessert which, to his mind, was inexplicable.
“Has Miss Kitty Baird telephoned at any time to-day?” she asked, laying down her napkin.
“No, Madam.” James concealed his surprise. It was not like Mrs. Parsons to repeat herself, and to his best recollection, and he had a good memory, she had asked that same question at least a dozen times. [Pg 88]“Will you have coffee served in the drawing room, Madam?”
“I don’t care for coffee to-night, thanks.” Mrs. Parsons picked up her scarf and rose. “Tell Anton that if any one calls this evening, I am at home.”
“Very good, Madam,” and James held back the portières for her as she left the room.
Mrs. Parsons did not return to the drawing room: instead she made her way to the “den” at the end of the hall, a pretty square room, which served as a lounge and library. Once there she paused by the telephone stand and laid her hand on the instrument.
“West, 789.” She was forced to repeat the number several times before Central got it correctly.
There was a brief wait, then came the answer, “Line disconnected, ma’am,” and she heard Central ring off. Mrs. Parsons put down the instrument in bewildered surprise. “Why had Kitty Baird’s telephone been disconnected?” She was still considering the puzzle as she rearranged some “bridesmaids’ roses” in a vase. By it lay a note in Charles Craige’s fine penmanship. Picking up the note, Mrs. Parsons read it for perhaps the twentieth time.
My precious Cecelia:
I am disconsolate that I cannot dine with you to-night. I have promised to see Kitty—poor girl, she needs all the sympathy and help we can give her. Miss me just a little and I shall be contented. My thoughts are with you always.
“Beg pardon, Madam.” James the obsequious stood in the room, card tray in hand. “Major Leigh Wallace is waiting for you in the drawing room.”
Mrs. Parsons folded the note and slipped it inside her knitting bag. “Ask Major Wallace to come here,” she said, pausing to switch on a floor lamp, the light from which cast a becoming glow on her as she selected a chair beside it, and took up her embroidery.
“Ah, Leigh, good evening,” she exclaimed a moment later as the young officer stood by her. “Have you come to make your peace with me?”
“In what way have I offended?” Wallace asked.
“You were so rude to one of my guests at my tea yesterday.” Mrs. Parsons watched him as he made himself comfortable in a dainty settee under the lamp.
“Rude to one of your guests? Impossible!” [Pg 90]ejaculated Wallace in surprise. “To whom do you refer?”
“Nina Potter.” Mrs. Parsons had not taken her eyes off him, and she caught the sudden shifting of his gaze. “Why are you and she no longer friendly?”
“You are mistaken.” Wallace spoke stiffly. “We are—I am still a great admirer of hers—”
Wallace flushed to the roots of his sandy hair. “Kitty never had very much use for me,” he admitted, rather bitterly. “She—she—seems to be tired—”
“Of being a cat’s paw?”
“Mrs. Parsons!” Wallace was on his feet, his eyes snapping with anger.
“Don’t go,” Mrs. Parsons’ smile was ingratiating. “Forgive me if I blunder, Leigh. Sometimes an outsider sees most of the game. Will you take a friendly piece of advice—”
“Surely,” but Wallace was slow in reseating himself.
“Then avoid Ben Potter.” Mrs. Parsons picked up her neglected embroidery, and did not trouble to glance at her guest.
Wallace’s attempt at a laugh was something of a failure. “I saw Potter an hour ago at the club,” he volunteered. “He told me that he and his wife were leaving for New York to-night.”
“Indeed.” Mrs. Parsons held her needle nearer the light and threaded it with deft fingers. “Is Kitty Baird going with them?”
“I believe not.” Wallace moved a trifle and shaded his face with his hand. “I’ve just come from ‘Rose Hill.’”
“And how is Kitty? Did you see her?” Mrs. Parsons spoke with such rapidity that her questions ran together.
“No.” Wallace compressed his lips. “She sent down word that she begged to be excused.”
“Oh!” Mrs. Parsons lowered her embroidery and regarded her companion. He looked wretchedly ill, and the haggard lines were deeper than ever. For a man of his height and breadth of shoulder, he seemed to have shrunken, for his clothes appeared to hang upon him. Dwelling on his ill-health would not tend to lessen Wallace’s nervous condition, and Mrs. Parsons omitted personalities. “Were you at the Baird inquest?” she inquired.
“Yes, that is, I got there late—” stumbling somewhat in his speech. “Why don’t you go and see Kitty, Cecelia? That house of hers is sort of ghastly—”
“For any one who suffers from nerves,” she put in, and he flushed at the irony of her tone, “Kitty has plenty of courage. I—” she smiled. “I am in[Pg 92]clined to think that Kitty has inherited some of her aunt’s prejudices—”
“She couldn’t inherit any likes—that abominable aunt of hers hated everybody.” Wallace spoke with such bitter feeling that Mrs. Parsons restrained a smile with difficulty.
“Poor Kitty,” her tone was full of sympathy. “I am glad she has Ted Rodgers to lean on.”
Wallace flushed angrily. “He’s the one who has made all the trouble,” he began. “If it hadn’t been for his—”
“What?” as Wallace came to an abrupt halt.
“Oh, nothing.” Wallace beat the devil’s tattoo on the chair arm. “I must be going, Cecelia. It’s a beastly bore having to turn in early, but I must obey the doctor’s orders.”
“You certainly should take better care of yourself.” Mrs. Parsons walked with Wallace to the door of the room. The house was an English basement in design, and as they came to the top of the flight of steps leading to the ground floor, Wallace held out his hand. It felt feverish to the touch and Mrs. Parsons regarded him with growing concern. “Stop and see Dr. McLean on your way home,” she advised.
“I’m all right.” Wallace laughed recklessly. “Don’t worry, I take a lot of killing. Good night.” And, squeezing her hand until the pressure forced [Pg 93]her rings into the tender skin, he released it and ran down the steps.
Mrs. Parsons lingered long enough to hear James assisting Wallace into his overcoat and then went thoughtfully into her drawing room. The footman had left one of the window shades up and Mrs. Parsons paused to pull it down. The street was well lighted from the electric lamp opposite her doorway, and, as she stood idly looking out of the window, she saw Major Leigh Wallace start to cross the street, hesitate at the curb, turn to his left and walk eastward. He had gone but a short distance when Mrs. Parsons saw a man slip out from the doorway of the next house and start down the street after Wallace. Halfway down the block Wallace crossed the street and without glancing backward continued on his way, his shadow at his heels.
Mrs. Parsons watched them out of sight, her eyes big with suppressed excitement. When she finally pulled down the window shade her hand was not quite steady.