Unaware that he had a place in Mrs. Parsons’ meditations as well as in her conversation with Major Leigh Wallace, Ted Rogers parked his car near the entrance to “Rose Hill.” His ring at the front door bell was answered by Mandy, the ebony shadow of Oscar, her husband.
“Kin yo’ see Miss Kitty?” She repeated the question after him. “Why, I ’spect yo’ kin, Mister Rodgers. Jes’ step inside, Sah, an’ I’ll go find Miss Kitty.”
Closing the front door and putting up the night latch with much jingling, Mandy led Rodgers down the hall to the entrance of the library.
“The lamps am lighted in hyar,” she said by way of explanation. “Ole Miss never used to let Miss Kitty have a light in de odder rooms on dis flo’, cept when Oscar was a-servin’ dinner. An’ we all got so we jes’ never thought o’ carryin’ a lamp into [Pg 95]de parlor. Make yo’self comfortable, Sah, I’ll tell Miss Kitty an’ she’ll be down terec’ly.”
With a word of thanks Rodgers passed the old servant and entered the library. The light from the two oil lamps was supplemented by a cheerful fire in the brick chimney at the farther end of the room, and its cheerful glow did much to dispel the dreary atmosphere which prevailed.
Rodgers did not at once sit down. Instead he paused in the center of the library and gravely regarded the tea table and the throne-shaped chair where he had frequently seen Miss Susan Baird sitting when entertaining guests at tea. He had a retentive memory, and as his eyes roved about the library, he pieced out the scene of the discovery of the dead woman as described on the witness stand by Inspector Mitchell.
As far as Rodgers could judge, no change had been made in the room, except in the arrangement of the tea table. The soiled dishes and tea cups had been removed, the tea service cleaned and put back, and the fruit dish, of Royal Dresden china of ancient pattern, was empty. Forgetful of the passing time, he wandered about examining with keen attention the fine oil paintings of dead and gone Bairds, the camels’ hair shawls which had been converted into portières, the Persian rugs on the hardwood floor. [Pg 96]What matter that all showed traces of wear and tear? The room was cleanliness personified.
Genteel poverty—his surroundings cried of it. Rodgers thought, with a tightening of his heart-strings, of Kitty’s brave endeavor to keep up the old home and provide her aunt with every comfort within her means. And her aunt had been murdered. Murdered! He shook his head in bewilderment. What possible motive could have inspired such a crime? Who would murder a poverty-stricken old woman? Avarice—where was the gain? Revenge—for what? Hate—why hate a feeble old woman? There remained robbery as a possible motive. Could it be that?
Rodgers crossed over to the “Dutch” door and examined it with interest. Neither its lock nor its solid panels gave indication of having been forced open. From the door his attention passed to the three small windows, placed just under the flooring of the gallery; they appeared tightly closed and resisted his efforts to move them. The library gained its chief light in the daytime from the skylight and the windows opening upon the gallery.
Turning around, Rodgers stood hesitating, his head slightly bent to catch the faintest sound. He had heard, some moments before, Mandy’s halting footsteps as she came limping down the staircase, then along the hall to the basement stairs, and the [Pg 97]shutting of the door after her descending figure. He looked at his watch; ten minutes had elapsed since his arrival and still Kitty had not appeared. Surely she would have sent word by Mandy if she had not wished him to wait? He took from his pocket a crumpled note and smoothed it out. The act had become a habit. He did not need to read the few lines penned on the paper—he knew them by heart.
Come to-night. I must see you. K. B.
He had obeyed the summons eagerly. Kitty had asked him to find out who killed her aunt. And the inquest had brought out what?—that Miss Susan Baird had come to her death through poison administered by a party or parties unknown. It had also disclosed the fact that the last person to see Miss Susan alive was Kitty Baird, and Oscar had testified that aunt and niece had quarreled that fatal Sunday afternoon—over Major Leigh Wallace. Rodgers whitened at the thought. Were Kitty and Wallace really engaged, as he had been given to understand by no less a person than Ben Potter? If so, he cut a sorry figure dancing attendance upon Kitty. She had grown to be all in all to him. It was a case of the moth and the candle. Rodgers smiled wryly; he could not tear himself away, even if he would, and she had asked him to aid her! [Pg 98]Rodgers squared his shoulders. As soon as the mystery of Miss Susan Baird’s death was solved, he would leave Washington and give Wallace a clear field. Kitty was entitled to happiness.
Tired of inaction, harassed by his thought, Rodgers tramped about the room and finally paused in front of the fireplace. Mouchette, Kitty’s Angora cat, rolled over at his approach and yawned sleepily. She had awakened at his entrance, but the comfort of an excellent dinner and the heat of the fire had proven too strong to keep her awake, and she had curled up again and gone to sleep.
The hearth was set far back and two benches were framed on either hand by the walls of the chimney. They looked inviting, and, after giving Mouchette a final pat, Rodgers dropped down on one of the benches, his broad back braced across the corner of the wall, while his long legs were stretched out toward the fire burning so briskly on the hearth. He watched the play of the firelight with unconscious intensity, his mind picturing Kitty’s alluring personality. A log broke and as the burning embers struck the hearth, sparks flew out and upward. One landed on the bench on which Rodgers was sitting and he leaned forward to knock it back upon the hearth. As his hand struck the bench a glancing blow, he felt the wood give and the next instant he was gazing into a small hole.
Rodgers stared at it in deep surprise. Bending closer he saw that he must have touched a concealed spring which released the trap-door. It was not a large cavity into which he peered, hardly a foot deep and about six inches square, or so he judged in the fitful glow of the fire. He sat for a moment perfectly still, then drawing out his matchbox, struck a light and held it carefully so that its rays fell directly into the small hole. It was empty except for a medium-sized brass key to which was tied a small tag. Bending nearer, he made out the scrawled lines with some difficulty:
This key unlocks the inside drawer of the highboy in the blue room on the fourth floor.
A bell reverberating through the silent house caused Rodgers to spring up and look into the hall, in time to see Mandy emerge from behind the door leading to the basement stairs and make her way to the front of the house. A murmur of voices reached Rodgers, then a firm tread sounded down the uncarpeted hall, and parting the portières Charles Craige walked into the library.
“Hello, Rodgers,” he exclaimed in hearty greeting. “Mandy told me that you were here. Have you seen Kitty?”
“Not yet.” Rodgers shook Craige’s hand with [Pg 100]vigor. He had grown to like and admire the brilliant lawyer whose many acts of kindness had added to the enjoyment of his visit. Besides, and Rodgers’ eyes glowed, was he not Kitty’s godfather!
“Trust Kitty to keep a man waiting,” and Craige smiled as he spoke, then grew grave. “This is a devilish bad business—not to say shocking. Poor Susan—the last person in the world whose death would have been of benefit to any one, and yet she was murdered.”
“If we are to believe the medical evidence, yes,” replied Rodgers. “Poison can be administered with murderous intent, but we must also remember that it can be taken with the intent to commit suicide.”
“True.” Craige chose a seat at some distance from the throne-shaped chair. “But I cannot associate either murder or suicide with Susan. I tell you, Rodgers, Susan had an intense desire to live, and I can conceive of no one wishing for her death sufficiently to face the gallows.”
“But the fact remains that she either did away with herself or was cold-bloodedly murdered,” retorted Rodgers.
Craige nodded his head moodily. “If murder, it was cold-blooded, premeditated murder,” he agreed. “Hush, here comes Kitty.”
A door had opened on the gallery and Kitty appeared from her bedroom, stood for a moment [Pg 101]hesitating, then hurrying forward she almost ran down the short flight of steps to the library. She paused by the newel post as both men advanced to meet her.
“I am so glad you are here,” she exclaimed, extending her hands impulsively to each. “It has been so dreadful—alone.”
Craige laid a sympathetic hand on her shoulder and patted her gently as he kissed her. “We understand,” he said. “Now, what can we do for you?”
Rodgers, who still held Kitty’s hand in both of his, released it reluctantly. He was slow of speech, but his eyes, meeting Kitty’s gaze, conveyed a message all their own. As Kitty preceded them across the library, a warm blush mantled her cheeks.
“Sit here, Miss Baird.” Rodgers placed a chair for her near the chimney while Craige pulled forward two others. Grateful for the warmth from the fire, for her bedroom was insufficiently heated, Kitty stretched out her hands to the blaze.
“Why is your telephone disconnected, Kitty?” asked Craige, after a brief silence which neither Kitty or Rodgers made any attempt to break.
“We were deluged with calls,” she explained. “Especially the newspaper reporters.” She shivered slightly. “They gave Mandy no rest.”
“But to cut yourself off from your friends, Kitty, [Pg 102]was that wise?” chided Craige gently. “No one could reach you—I tried and failed.”
“It did not stop your coming over to ask for me,” she put in gratefully. “Ben and Nina Potter stopped for a second before dinner. They left for New York to-night.”
“Indeed?” Craige frowned. “They should have remained here with you,” noting with concern the dark shadows under her eyes and the forlorn droop to her usually erect shoulders. “You must not stay here alone.”
“But I am not alone,” she protested. “Dear, faithful Mandy is with me.”
Craige shook his head, unsatisfied. “Mandy is an ignorant colored woman, old at that,” he remarked. “You must have companionship—woman’s companionship of your own class. Why not ask Cecilia Parsons?”
“Oh, I would not think of asking her,” Kitty objected quickly. “She is so—so sensitive, so—” hunting about for the proper word. “Oh, the house, all this—would get frightfully on her nerves.”
At mention of Mrs. Parsons’ name, Rodgers glanced from one to the other, finally letting his gaze rest on the lawyer’s kindly, clever face. He had heard the rumor connecting the pretty widow’s name with Charles Craige, and that reports of their engagement persisted, in spite of Mrs. Parsons’ [Pg 103]laughing denial and Craige’s skillfully evasive answers to all questions on the subject.
“As you please, Kitty,” replied Craige. “But I think that you are wrong not to ask Mrs. Parsons. She would not hesitate to tell you if she did not wish to come. She is frankness itself.”
Kitty raised her eyebrows and a ghost of a smile crossed her lips. “Mrs. Parsons is always most kind,” she remarked, “but I prefer not to tax her friendship.”
The look Craige cast in her direction was a bit sharp, and with some abruptness he changed the subject.
“Were you wise to have your aunt’s body put in the vault this afternoon, Kitty?” he asked. “Did you not overtax your strength? You look so utterly weary.”
“I am stronger than I appear.” Kitty passed her hand across her eyes. “I could see no object in waiting. Coroner Penfield suggested that we have simple funeral ceremonies immediately after the inquest. I tried to get word to you, but failed. It was but prolonging the agony to wait—” with a catch in her throat, “there was nothing to be gained by waiting. It would not bring her back. Oh, poor Aunt Susan!” And bowing her head Kitty gave vent to the tears she had held back for many, many hours.
Rodgers watched her in unhappy silence. Could he find nothing to say—do nothing to comfort her? He half rose impulsively to his feet—caught Craige’s eye and sat down again. Craige leaned forward and put his arms about the weeping girl and soothed her with loving words. When she grew more composed, he rose and paced up and down the library.
“Had I not better call Mandy and let her put you to bed, Kitty?” he asked, stopping by her chair. “You can see us to-morrow when you are more composed.”
“No, wait.” Kitty sat up and attempted to smile. “I am all right, now. Is it true, as the papers said, that Aunt Susan died from poison placed on a peach she was eating?”
“If we are to believe the medical evidence, yes. Chemical tests proved that prussic acid still remained on one side of the blade of the fruit knife used to cut the peach.”
Kitty shuddered. “Who could have planned so diabolical a murder?” she demanded.
“That is for us to find out.” Kitty looked up quickly at sound of Rodgers’ clear voice. “Tell me, Miss Baird, have you no idea where the peaches came from?”
“Not the slightest,” she shook her head. “I am positive there were no peaches in the house when I left here Sunday afternoon. They are very ex[Pg 105]pensive at this season of the year and,” with downright frankness, “we could not afford to buy them, although Aunt Susan was inordinately fond of them.”
“Some one must have sent the peaches who was aware of your aunt’s liking for the fruit,” Craige remarked thoughtfully. “Had she spoken of peaches to any of your friends lately?”
“Friends!” Kitty looked at him with dawning horror. “You don’t think—you don’t mean that a friend killed Aunt Susan?” She thrust out her hands as if warding off some frightful nightmare. “No, no. It was a housebreaker—a common, ordinary housebreaker.”
“It may have been a housebreaker,” agreed Rodgers, soothingly. “But it was one with the knowledge that the flavor of a peach would disguise the taste of prussic acid.”
“Kitty,” Craige spoke with deep seriousness. “You must realize that this murder of your aunt was a deliberately planned crime. Burglars don’t go around carrying bottles of prussic acid in their pockets. Also, there is one point of especial significance—but one side of the knife-blade had poison on it.”
“You mean—?” She questioned him with frightened eyes.
“That some one whom your aunt knew must have [Pg 106]been taking tea with her, and in administering the poison saw to it that his side of the peach was harmless,” Craige responded.
Kitty looked at the two men dumbly. Craige had put into words what she had dimly realized.
“It is dreadful!” she gasped. “What possible motive could have inspired her murder?”
Craige looked at Rodgers, then drawing out his leather wallet he selected a newspaper clipping and ran his eyes down the printed column.
“Tell us, Kitty,” and his voice was coaxing. “Is it true that you and your aunt quarreled on Sunday as Oscar testified?”
Kitty blanched and her eyes shifted from Rodgers to the glowing embers on the hearth.
“It wasn’t a quarrel,” she declared faintly. “Aunt Susan and I had a few words—”
“Yes,” prompted Craige. “A few words about what?”
“About money matters.” Kitty did not look at either man. Rodgers’ heart sank. Oscar had also testified that the quarrel was about Major Leigh Wallace. Could it be that Kitty was prevaricating? He put the thought from him. Oscar must have lied.
“About money matters,” Craig repeated, returning the clipping and wallet to his pocket. “Then [Pg 107]why did you not tell that to Coroner Penfield when he questioned you in the witness stand?”
“It wasn’t his business—it had nothing to do with Aunt Susan’s death,” she stated incoherently. “And,” with a slow, painful blush, “our poverty, our painful economies were bad enough without discussing them in public.”
“Oh!” Craige cast a doubtful look at Rodgers, but the latter’s expressionless face gave the keen-witted lawyer no clue as to his opinion of Kitty’s statement. “Kitty, were you your aunt’s nearest relative?”
“Yes. Ben Potter is a second cousin, I believe.” Kitty paused. “Ben has not been here very much lately.”
“Since his marriage, you mean?” asked Craige.
Kitty glanced up and then away. “Yes. Aunt Susan poked fun at him at the time of his marriage, said she did not care for ‘poor whites,’ and Ben was very angry.”
“Was there ever an open quarrel?”
“Oh, no. Outwardly, they were good friends; and they dined here usually once a month,” Kitty explained. “But relations were strained a little bit.”
“Could you not make Ben and Nina a visit when they return from New York?” asked Craige.
“I can, if I wish,” with quick resentment. “But I prefer to stay in this house.”
“Just a moment, Kitty,” Craige held up a cautioning hand. “This house belonged to your aunt, did it not?”
“Yes. But I—” she hesitated. “I ran the house with the money I earned. I can still do that.”
“True, if the house is left to you.” Kitty stared at her godfather aghast. “Did your aunt leave her will in your care?”
“Did she ever speak to you of a will?”
“No; she never mentioned the subject.”
Craige looked at her thoughtfully. “It may be that your aunt made no will,” he said finally. “I transacted such legal matters as she brought to me, but I never drew up a will.”
“But as Miss Baird is her aunt’s nearest living relative, would she not inherit her aunt’s property?” asked Rodgers.
“Possibly; but Ben Potter may claim his share of the estate,” the lawyer pointed out.
“Estate!” broke in Kitty with a nervous laugh. “Poor Aunt Susan had only this house and its dilapidated furniture. Ben is welcome to his share.”
“Just a moment,” Craige interrupted in his turn. “Your aunt must have left a will or some legal document regarding the disposal of her property. She had a great habit of tucking her papers away. You recollect our search for the tax receipts, Kitty?”
Kitty’s face brightened into one of her mischievous smiles, while her eyes twinkled.
“Aunt Susan was secretive,” she acknowledged. “It was a case of searching for lump sugar even, when she was in the mood for hiding things.”
“Hiding!” Rodgers rose to his feet and his eyes sought the bench where he had found the trap-door. “Come here, Miss Baird,” and he beckoned them to approach. “I opened that by accident just before Mr. Craige arrived—see.”
Kitty slipped her hand inside the cavity and drew out the key.
“I remember the trap-door,” she said. “If you press on a spring concealed in one of the boards, the door drops inward. But what does this tag mean?” and they read the words aloud:
This key unlocks the inside drawer of the highboy in the blue room on the fourth floor.
“Let us go and see what it means,” suggested Rodgers, and Craige nodded his agreement.
“Lead the way, Kitty,” he added. “Do you need a lamp?”
“There is a candlestick outside my bedroom door, and we can light the gas jets as we go through the halls,” she replied.
Pausing only long enough to pick up several small [Pg 110]match boxes, she led the way out of the library and up the long staircase. A light was burning dimly in the first hall and Rodgers turned it up before following Kitty and her godfather to the next story. From there they hurried to the fourth floor, Kitty’s candle but intensifying the darkness.
The stuffy atmosphere of a room long unused greeted them as they entered a large square room facing the front of the house. With the aid of her candle, Kitty located the one gas jet and by its feeble rays they looked about them. The room evidently obtained its name from its faded blue wall paper. The old four-post bed and the massive mahogany furniture belonged to another and richer generation, but Rodgers had no time to investigate its beauties, his attention being focussed on a highboy standing near one of the windows. Kitty again read the message on the tag before approaching the highboy.
“The inside drawer,” she repeated. “What does she mean?”
For answer Rodgers pulled open the nearest drawer. It was filled with old finery, and after tumbling its contents about, Kitty closed it.
“Try the next,” suggested Craige. The second drawer proved equally unproductive of result, and it was with growing discouragement that they went through the next three and found them also unin[Pg 111]teresting. On pulling out the last drawer Kitty found it arranged as a writing desk.
“I have seen this kind before,” Rodgers felt along the front of the drawer; there was a faint click and the front woodwork swung aside, disclosing an inside drawer.
Kitty slipped the key she was carrying into the lock. It turned with a slight squeaking sound, showing the need of oil, and Kitty drew open the drawer. Inside it lay another brass key also tagged.
“What does it say?” she asked as Rodgers picked it up.
This key unlocks the lower left hand drawer of the sideboard in the dining room.
“Is that your aunt’s handwriting?”
“Yes.” Kitty looked as mystified as she felt. “Shall we go downstairs and look in the sideboard?”
“Of course.” As he spoke, Craige started for the door. It took them but a few minutes to reach the dining room, and it was with a sense of rising excitement that Kitty unlocked the “lower left hand drawer” of the sideboard.
“Good gracious! Another key!” she gasped, and held it up so that both men could read the tag tied to it.
The message ran:
This key unlocks the linen trunk in the attic.
“Upon my word your aunt outdid herself!” exclaimed Craige. “Come, Kitty, as long as we have started this investigation, we must complete it.”
Not having anticipated having to return to the top of the house, Rodgers had carefully put out all the lights, and relighting the gas jets delayed them somewhat. Kitty’s candle had almost burned itself out when they entered the cold and unfriendly attic. No gas pipes had been placed there, and Rodgers was thankful that his electric torch, which he carried when motoring at night, was in his pocket. By its rays Kitty recognized the old-fashioned brass-bound hair trunk in which her aunt had kept some precious pieces of hand woven linen.
Crouching down on the floor with Rodgers holding his torch so that she could see the best, Kitty turned the key in the lock and threw back the lid of the trunk. On the spotless white linen lay a small brass key with a tag twice its size. The message it bore read:
This key unlocks the case of the Gila monster.
“The case of the Gila monster,” repeated Rodgers. “What did your aunt mean?”
“I know!” Kitty clapped her hands. “Ben Potter spent the summer with Aunt Susan two years ago and he left one of his cases here. It contains the plaster cast of a Gila monster.”
“And where is the case?” asked Craige.
“In the library.”
“Then let us go there at once. You will catch cold up in this icy place, Kitty.” Observing that she was shivering, Craige closed the trunk with a resounding bang, drew out the key, and preceded them out of the attic.
Back in the library again, Kitty walked over to a Japanese screen, which cut off one corner of the room, and pushing it aside, disclosed a low oak case on which rested a glass box. Inside the box lay the cast of a Gila monster. The poisonous lizard looked so alive that Rodgers was startled for a moment. Bending closer, he viewed its wedge-shaped head and black and yellow mottled body with deep interest.
“So that is the end of our search!” Kitty laughed ruefully. “Aunt Susan had a remarkable sense of humor.”
“Wait a bit,” exclaimed Rodgers. “Why not unlock the case?”
“If you wish—” Kitty inserted the key in the [Pg 114]lock and pulled down the glass door of the box, and she and her companions stared silently at the monster. Suddenly, Rodgers leaned forward and picked up the plaster cast. An exclamation broke from Craige.
“Papers at last!” he shouted. “Look, Kitty—Rodgers—” and as Rodgers removed the cast entirely out of the glass case, they saw that a part of the flooring of the box, which was built to resemble a sandy desert, came with the lizard, leaving a cavity, or false bottom, in which lay some documents. Gathering them up, Craige walked over to the nearest lamp and drawing up a chair sat down.
“With your permission, Kitty,” he said. “These papers are not sealed—shall I open them?”
Craige pulled out a short half sheet of foolscap from the first envelope and read its contents aloud:
Know all present that I, Susan Baird, spinster, of Washington, D. C., being of sound mind, do give and devise to my niece, Katrina Baird, all I may die possessed of, real or personal property. This is a special bequest in view of her efforts to support me.
A list of my property and a key to my safe deposit boxes in the bank, certificates of ownership, etc., are placed here with this, my last will and testament.
Signed in the presence of: Josiah Wilkins, Martha Hammond, and James Duncan, June 20, 1918.
Kitty and Rodgers stared at each other as Craige, laying aside the will, rapidly opened the three other documents and examined them. Kitty drew a long, long breath.
“So I get the old house after all,” she said softly.
“You get far more than that, Kitty,” Craige laid down the documents. “From these statements and certificates I find that your aunt owned many valuable stocks and bonds.” He looked at the surprised girl for a moment, then added: “She has left you a fortune.”