p>The clerks in the outer office of “Craige and Lewis, Attorneys” looked up as the hall door opened with an unmistakable wrench and Ben Potter precipitated himself into the room. He brought up with some abruptness before the chief clerk’s desk.
“Take my card at once to Mr. Craige,” he directed. “Tell him I’m in the devil’s hurry—late for an appointment now. Thank you,” as an office boy hurried forward with a chair. “I prefer to stand.”
The chief clerk, with one look at Potter’s determined expression, decided it was best to swallow his dignity and execute Potter’s peremptory request. He returned with unusual speed from the inner office.
“Mr. Craige will see you at once, Sir,” he announced, holding the door open for Potter and [Pg 128]swinging it to behind him with a sharp bang, as a slight vent to his ruffled feelings.
Potter had crossed the room before he realized that he and Craige, who had risen at his entrance, were not alone. His angry frown gave way to a smile when the third man turned more fully toward him and he recognized Edward Rodgers.
“Hello, Ted, I’m glad you are here,” he exclaimed as Craige pulled another chair for his guest before resuming his seat. Potter sat down heavily and tossed his hat and cane on the desk. “Say, Craige, what the deuce does this mean?” and unfolding a newspaper, which he had held tightly clenched in his left hand, he pointed to a column of news, under the heading:
Miss Susan Baird Wills Fortune to Niece
“It means what it says,” explained Craige. “Miss Susan Baird left Kitty an heiress.”
Potter’s prominent pale blue eyes were opened to their widest extent. “C-c-cousin S-s-susan!” he stuttered. “That forlorn old pauper left a fortune! Why, Craige, I fully expected to be called on to pay her funeral expenses. You mean to tell me, in all earnestness, that Cousin Susan had any money—”
“She did not have ‘any money,’ she had a large [Pg 129]fortune,” declared Craige, laughing outright at Potter’s ludicrous expression of bewilderment.
“Then I am to understand that this newspaper is correct in its statements?” Potter asked.
“You are—” Craige leaned over and looked at the date on the newspaper. “You are a bit behind-hand, Ben. That paper of yours is a day old.”
“Well, I’ve only just seen it,” Potter’s tone had grown querulous. “I had to run on to New York night before last—the night of the inquest, to be exact, and Nina and I only got in this morning, having taken the midnight train. This paper was the first I opened when we reached home, and its account of Cousin Susan’s will astounded me.”
“It took our breath away also,” admitted Craige. “Rodgers was with us when we found the will; in fact it was through his agency that it was found at all.”
Potter swung around so hastily in his endeavor to face Rodgers that he knocked his cane off the desk.
“How’d you know there was a will?” he demanded. “Oh, never mind about the cane; let it stay on the floor.”
“Rodgers had no knowledge of the will’s existence any more than the rest of us,” declared Craige before Rodgers, who had stooped to pick up Potter’s cane, had a chance to answer the latter’s question. “He happened to open a trap-door to a hiding place [Pg 130]in which lay directions, written by Susan Baird, telling us where to find her papers.”
Potter stared at his companions in unbounded astonishment. It was some moments before he collected his wits sufficiently to ask a question.
“Where,” he began, “and how, in the name of God, did Cousin Susan acquire her wealth?”
Craige shook a bewildered head. “I cannot answer that question,” he admitted. “It is one that has puzzled me hourly since the finding of her will and the discovery of her investments.”
“They are all genuine?”
“Absolutely; gilt edged, most of them.” Again Craige shook his head. “Miss Susan showed rare judgment in her investments, rare even in an experienced man of business, and in a woman who posed as a pauper—good Lord!” He raised his hands and dropped them with an expressive gesture. “In all my legal experience the whole affair, her death, her wealth—is the most remarkable.”
“Considering them together, does not her wealth suggest a motive for her death?” asked Rodgers, breaking his long silence.
“But who knew that she was wealthy?” demanded Potter. “Was ever a secret so well kept?” He stopped abruptly as a thought occurred to him and his expression altered. “How about Kitty? Was [Pg 131]she in the dark, too, or was she aware that her aunt owned a large fortune?”
“She was entirely ignorant of it.” Rodgers spoke with marked emphasis, and Potter favored him with a heavy scowl. “Kitty Baird had no idea that her aunt was anything but the pauper she pretended to be. On that I’ll stake my reputation.”
Potter’s scowl gave away to an expression of doubt.
“It’s odd, in fact, it’s damned odd!” he exploded. “Kitty lived with her aunt, lived alone with her. How could she help but know of her aunt’s financial affairs?”
“Suppose you question Kitty,” suggested Craige, with a swift glance at Rodger’s lowering countenance. “The girl, in my opinion, knew absolutely nothing about her aunt’s hoarded wealth—for it was hoarded, hoarded even from her, her only living relative.”
“Hold on there, I’m a relative, also,” objected Potter. “She and my father were second cousins. By the way,” with a complete change of tone, “was there any mention of me in the will?”
“There was not.” At Craige’s curt reply Potter frowned again.
“So she left me out of it, did she?” He shrugged his shoulders with well-simulated indifference. “Did Cousin Susan name an executor and did she leave [Pg 132]her fortune to Kitty in trust, or give it to her outright?”
“She left it to Kitty without reservations,” replied Craige. “Kitty applied to the Court to appoint me co-executor with herself, and the court has granted her request and permitted us to-day to take out letters of administration.”
“Is that so.” Potter reached for his hat and buttoned up his overcoat which he had kept on during the interview. “Do I understand, Ted, that you are seriously trying to solve the mystery of Cousin Susan’s murder?”
Potter rose. His usual genial manner was absent and also his ready smile.
“Has it occurred to you, Ted,” he said, and his voice was rasping; “that the person to benefit by Cousin Susan’s death is the one person known to have quarreled with her during the afternoon of the day in which she was murdered?”
“What d’ye mean?” Rodgers was on his feet, advancing toward the naturalist.
“I mean,” Potter spoke with deliberation, his eyes not dropping before Rodgers’ furious gaze. “I mean that Kitty first quarreled with her aunt and now most opportunely inherits her fortune—so that she can marry Leigh Wallace, who can’t afford to marry a poor girl.”
Rodgers’ powerful grip on Potter’s throat was loosened by Craige.
“Stop this quarreling!” commanded the lawyer. “Stop it, I say,” and he shook Rodgers vehemently as he backed him away from Potter. “Go, Ben; I’ll join you later.”
Craige did not release his hold on Rodgers until Potter, still gasping from his encounter with the former, reeled out of the office.
“What has come over you, Rodgers?” he asked, letting go his hold so suddenly that Rodgers staggered backward. “Why did you fly at Potter in that manner?”
“The dirty blackguard!” Rodgers actually stammered in his rage. “Didn’t you hear him? Why, he had the audacity to infer that because old Oscar overheard a wordy row between Kitty and her aunt, that Kitty killed the old lady and so inherited her fortune—to marry—” he choked. “Why, damn it! There are a dozen men who would marry Kitty if she hadn’t a cent in the world—I’m—” his face paled, “I’m one of them.”
Craige looked at him with admiring approval. “I like your loyalty,” he exclaimed. “As for Potter—” he struck his desk with his clenched fist. “Potter has grown insufferable. Matrimony doesn’t appear to agree with him.” He stepped back to his desk and picked up his brief case. When he turned again [Pg 134]to Rodgers, who stood waiting by the door, the gravity of his manner struck the younger man. “There is no use blinding ourselves to the situation, Rodgers,” he said. “It is up to us to solve the mystery of Susan Baird’s death. If we don’t,” he paused, “Kitty may find herself in a most unpleasant predicament.”
“The mystery is going to be solved—and quickly,” Rodgers checked his hasty speech. “Are you on your way to the Court House, Mr. Craige?”
“Yes.” Craige followed Rodgers through the outer office, pausing only long enough to be assisted into his overcoat by an attentive office boy, and joined him at the elevator. “Don’t let Potter worry you, Rodgers; give him time to cool off. I imagine the news that Susan Baird was a wealthy woman, and that she never left him a red cent is responsible for his irritability. You know Ben is rather inclined to love money.”
“Hm, yes. I can well believe that he is blood-kin in that respect to Miss Susan Baird,” and Rodgers, his temper somewhat restored, waved a friendly hand to Craige as they left the elevator and went their several ways.
Once in the street Rodgers moved with dragging footsteps toward his car, his thought elsewhere. Suddenly he became conscious that, as deliberately as he walked, some one just ahead of him was mov[Pg 135]ing even more slowly. Stepping to one side, he moved forward at a more rapid gait and was about to pass the limping figure when a hand touched his arm and looking down he found old Oscar by his side.
“I’se sorry, Sah, I couldn’t get out o’ your way,” he said apologetically. “This hyar rheumatics am mighty bad dis mawnin’, Mister Rodgers.”
“That is too bad, Oscar.” Rodgers, observing the old man’s weary air, spoke with impulsive sympathy. “You are pretty far from home.”
“Yessir. I started to do an errand fo’ Mandy, and then I stopped to see a parade, an’ I jes’ naturally has ter follow a band, an’ hyar I be!” The old darky heaved a heavy sigh. “I ’spects a street cyar’ll be along bimeby an’ carry me over to Georgetown.”
“Get in my car and I will take you to ‘Rose Hill.’” At Rodgers’ suggestion a pleased smile lighted Oscar’s face and he showed his big white teeth to their fullest extent.
“’Deed, Sah, that’s mighty nice ob you’,” he exclaimed, moving with greater speed to the curb. “I kin get in, thank yo’ kindly.”
It took Oscar a few minutes to get comfortably settled in the roadster, and it was with a sigh of genuine satisfaction that he leaned back and watched Rodgers start his engine. His smile, which had never quite departed since Rogers first suggested [Pg 136]taking him home, broadened expansively as they slipped through traffic and swung into a quieter side street.
“Yo’ certainly kin drive, Mister Rodgers,” he said, breaking the long silence. “I guess yo’ can beat Major Wallace handlin’ a cyar.”
“Thanks for the compliment, Oscar,” Rodgers laughed. “Major Wallace has a reputation as a speedster.”
“Yessir,” but Oscar looked a trifle bewildered, long words were not his strong point. “Major Wallace done taught Miss Kitty ter drive.”
“Oh, has he?”
“Yessir.” Oscar was oblivious of Rodgers’ shortness of tone. “Dat’s one o’ the things Ole Miss cut up ructions ’bout. She did hate dat Major, an’ she jes’ laid Miss Kitty out fo’ goin’ wid him.”
“Oh, come, Oscar, Miss Susan did not hate Major Wallace,” objected Rodgers.
“She did, Sah, she did.” Oscar’s smile had disappeared and he spoke quickly. “An’ she suttenly did ’spress her mind to Miss Kitty on Sunday.”
Rodgers turned and scanned Oscar closely. The old darky looked the picture of honest respectability. His worn clothes were neatly brushed and patched. He sat with his battered hat cocked a trifle over one eye and his black face shone with the enjoyment of the unexpected treat of a ride in a fast roadster with [Pg 137]“one of the quality” as he termed Ted Rodgers in his own mind.
“Why did you tell Coroner Penfield that Miss Susan and her niece quarreled on Sunday?” Rodgers asked. The old man blinked at the unexpected question.
“’Cause he axed me, an’ they did quarrel.” Oscar’s voice betrayed a strain of obstinacy. “’Tain’t no harm tellin’ de truf, is there, Mister Rodgers?”
“No, certainly not.” Rodgers slowed down at a street crossing and in shifting gears failed to catch the sudden crafty look Oscar shot at him. It vanished in a second. “How is Miss Kitty this morning?”
“Tol’able well, thank yo’,” Oscar replied. “Dr. McLean was over las’ night an’ he tole Mandy that he wanted Miss Kitty to leave town fo’ a month; seemed to think she needed change. But Miss Kitty, she said ‘no.’”
“Then she is not going away.” Rodgers’ satisfaction was unconcealed. “Is she at home, Oscar?” as he slowed up the car before the entrance to “Rose Hill.”
Oscar shook his head. “No, Sah, she done gone fo’ de day,” he said, opening the door and clambering with some difficulty to the pavement. “Miss [Pg 138]Kitty said somethin’ ’bout seein’ Mrs. Parsons. She done call her up dis mawnin’.”
“I thought Miss Kitty had resigned from her secretary work.” Rodgers let his engine run and leaned over to speak to Oscar. “Has Mrs. Parsons been here?”
“No, Sah, not since Miss Susan’s death.” Oscar hesitated, looked up and down the empty street, then back over his shoulder. No one was within earshot. The old man took his hand from the car door and rested his weight on his cane. “I kinda ’spects they had a fight.”
“They—?” Rodgers eyed him in deep surprise. “Miss Kitty and Mrs. Parsons?”
“No, Sah. Mrs. Parsons an’ ole Miss Susan. Good mawnin’, Sah,” and Oscar stamped up the steps leading to “Rose Hill,” deaf to Rodgers’ repeated calls to return.