Kitty Baird regarded the butler with astonishment.
“Mrs. Parsons is not at home,” she repeated. “Why, Oscar brought me a telephone message from her asking me to be here at noon and to lunch with her.” She consulted her watch. “Are you quite certain that she is not in, James?”
“Quite, Miss Kitty.” The butler’s solemnity of manner matched his severe black clothes, which fitted his somewhat spare form with the neatness of a glove. “Mrs. Parsons had forgotten a meeting of the Neighborhood House Committee, and she left word that she was very sorry to put you out. She said that she had no idea what time she would be back, and that you were not to wait for her.”
“Oh!” The exclamation slipped from Kitty with some vigor. “Oh, very well, James,” with a quick change of tone. “Please tell Mrs. Parsons that I called. Good morning.”
“Good morning, Miss Kitty.” And James re[Pg 156]treated inside the vestibule and closed the front door. As he went through the hallway, intent on reaching the servants’ dining room by the shortest possible route, he failed to see Mrs. Parsons standing in the folds of the portières before the entrance to the small reception room, which, with the large dining room, was on the ground floor of her English basement house.
From her vantage point, Mrs. Parsons had overheard Kitty’s conversation with her butler. Slipping her front door key, with which she had gained entrance some moments before, unknown to James, into her gold mesh bag, she hurried to the small window which overlooked the street. Taking care not to be seen by passers-by, Mrs. Parsons watched Kitty standing by the curb, apparently in doubt as to whether to cross the street or not.
Kitty, in fact, was debating where she should lunch. Time hung heavy on her hands, and the thought of the great empty house in Georgetown sent a shiver down her spine. Neither Mandy nor Oscar were enlivening company at the best of times, and since her aunt’s death—Kitty shivered again. Oscar’s morbid relish of everything pertaining to the tragedy, his incessant harping on the subject, had worked upon Kitty’s nerves, and except for her appreciation of his many years of devoted service, she would have paid him several months’ wages in advance and let him go.
Mandy, since the day of the discovery of Miss Susan Baird’s dead body, had moved over to “Rose Hill,” bag and baggage, and Kitty had been grateful for her watchful care. Unlike her husband, Mandy was not given to talking and she had seen to it that Kitty had every attention, and in her way had done much to shelter her from inquisitive callers. Mandy looked upon the telephone as the invention of the Evil One, and nothing would induce her to answer it, so that to Oscar had fallen the task of keeping reporters away. His loquaciousness had, however, been checked by a stringent command from Mr. Craige to refer all newspaper men to him or to the police. The order had been emphasized with a hint that, if not carried out, Oscar would be parted from what promised to be a lucrative pension. Oscar had obeyed the order with much grumbling, but his complaints were carefully confided to his wife alone and fell on unsympathetic ears.
“Go ’long, nigger; don’t bother yo’ betters,” she had responded. “Ef yo’ ain’t careful, Miss Kitty’ll bounce us both. An’ then whar’ll we be?”
Kitty looked at her watch again. She had ample time to walk down to the Allies’ Inn for luncheon and she would feel better for the exercise. Already [Pg 158]the sunshine and fresh air had braced her up. Her decision made, she waved away a taxi-driver hovering near the curb with a watchful eye on her, and, turning, started down the street. She was conscious of a man passing her at a rapid walk, but with her head slightly bent and her thoughts elsewhere, she did not glance up. The man ran up the three steps leading to Mrs. Parsons’ front door, stopped, turned around and looked at her. The next second Kitty heard her name called by a familiar voice.
“What luck!” exclaimed Leigh Wallace, as she waited for him to approach. “Where are you going, Kitty?”
“To the Allies’ Inn for luncheon,” she replied. “Mrs. Parsons is out, Leigh; I’ve just been there.”
“Oh, ah!” Wallace twirled his swagger stick with such energy that it almost slipped from his grasp. “In that case, Kitty, lunch with me at the Shoreham? Don’t say you won’t,” as she shook her head. “I must talk to you—by yourself. Don’t refuse, Kitty, don’t.”
Kitty looked at him steadily. “We can talk as we walk along,” she said quietly. “Come.” And her decided tone left Wallace nothing to do but match his footstep to hers as she sauntered along.
From her sheltered nook in the window Mrs. Parsons saw Major Wallace’s rapid approach to her front door, observed his belated recognition of [Pg 159]Kitty, heard his hail, and watched their leisurely walk down the street. An odd smile crossed her lips as she dropped the window curtain into place and went quietly to her bedroom.
“Francise,” she said, as her confidential maid rose on her entrance and laid down some sewing, “tell James that I will lunch alone to-day. Major Wallace is unexpectedly detained and has cancelled his engagement with me.”
Kitty found Major Wallace a taciturn companion, and her efforts at conversation elicited only absent-minded, monosyllabic replies as they walked slowly down Connecticut Avenue. It was not until they reached H Street that Wallace awoke from his abstraction.
“The Shoreham is down this way,” he expostulated as Kitty continued walking straight ahead. “You must lunch with me, Kitty, you promised.”
“I did nothing of the sort,” she retorted. “You said that you wished to talk to me and you have had every opportunity to do so. Instead of which you have been silent to the verge of rudeness. Frankly,” and her voice was decidedly chilly, “you owe me an explanation—”
“That is just it,” he broke in. “Why have you avoided me?”
“I? Avoided you?” The scorn in Kitty’s voice [Pg 160]caused him to color warmly. “I have done nothing of the sort.”
“You sent word that you ‘begged to be excused’ when I called to see you,” Wallace reminded her bitterly.
“The words were of Oscar’s choosing, not mine,” she explained. “You came the night of the inquest, and by Dr. McLean’s orders I denied myself to all callers—”
“But you saw Ted Rodgers?”
“Well, why not?” Her color deepened, but her eyes did not fall before his angry gaze. “It is not your right to dictate to me about anything. And besides,” not giving him a chance to interrupt her, “you have had ample time to call since then.”
“I’ve been ill—oh, hang it!” as a hurrying pedestrian collided against him. “We can’t talk here. There’s no fun in being jostled about by idiots!”—casting a vindictive glance at the offender, who had just made the street car he had been running to catch.
Kitty eyed Wallace sharply. Never before had she known him so upset in speech and manner. As she observed the careworn lines in his face and the mute appeal in his deep-set eyes, her anger cooled.
“I will lunch with you, Leigh,” she said. “But why make such a point of it?”
What answer Wallace would have made remained [Pg 161]unspoken, as a mutual acquaintance swooped down upon them and, utterly ignoring their lack of cordiality, insisted upon accompanying them to the Shoreham. Once inside the hotel restaurant, Wallace lost no time in securing a table in a secluded corner and an attentive waiter took his order for luncheon.
“There, that’s done,” and Wallace, with a sigh of satisfaction, laid down the menu card and contemplated Kitty with admiration but thinly veiled. Her mourning was extremely becoming to her blonde beauty. “Is this story true that I hear, Kitty, that your aunt has left you a fortune?”
Kitty considered him in silence. The question had been asked so often by friends and acquaintances that it had lost its novelty; coming from him it surprised her.
“Mr. Craige assures me that I am no longer a pauper,” she answered, and her tone was dry.
Wallace flushed. “The papers said that you were wealthy, very wealthy,” he persisted.
“It depends on how you compute wealth,” she said. “And how much faith you put in newspapers.” A faint mocking smile touched her lips and vanished. “Why this interest in my fortune, Leigh?”
“Because,” he spoke with unconcealed bitterness, [Pg 162]“it puts another barrier between us. Your aunt’s hatred, and now this, this—”
“Please stop,” Kitty raised her hand slightly. “Why keep up the farce longer?”
“Flirtation, if you like it better,” she sighed involuntarily. “Just an idle flirtation.”
“Idle nothing! You’d have married me if you hadn’t met Ted Rodgers,” he blurted out.
“Stop!” Her tone, though low, was imperative. “Here is luncheon. Suppose we discuss another topic. When does Nina Potter return from New York?”
“I have no idea,” shortly. “Have a muffin, do?” and he extended the bread plate toward her, then relapsed into abstracted silence.
Kitty’s healthy young appetite, sharpened by her walk, did full justice to the luncheon, and, not feeling inclined for conversation, she was content to watch the groups of people seated at near-by tables. One pair, obviously a bride and groom, especially attracted her and she turned for another look at them as they left the restaurant. When she faced around toward Wallace again, she saw their waiter slip a note into his hand. It was deftly done and only Kitty’s keen eyes detected the act. Wallace, his face devoid of expression, laid the lunch check and a bank note on the silver salver.
“Never mind the change,” he said to the waiter, and rising helped Kitty put on her coat and adjust her furs. “I am sorry my car is in the paint shop, but we will get a taxi at the door.”
“We’ll do nothing of the sort,” objected Kitty. “I don’t propose to put you to all that trouble, Leigh.”
Without answering, Wallace led the way down the corridor to the H Street entrance. “Call a taxi,” he directed the doorman, then turned to Kitty. “Don’t scold,” he begged. “I am going to Fort Myer and it will not take me out of my way to leave you at ‘Rose Hill.’ Here’s the car—” and before Kitty could protest further, she was bundled inside the taxi. Wallace gave a few hurried directions to the chauffeur and then sprang in beside her.
The chauffeur was evidently a novice for he started his car with such a jerk that Kitty was half thrown from her seat. With a muttered word which strongly resembled a curse, Wallace picked up her bag and muff and laid them in her lap.
“The —— fool!” His face was red with anger. “Sorry, Kitty, I have no use for incompetents.”
Kitty watched him in wondering silence. In place of a sunny temperament she found uncontrolled irritability; instead of the steady gaze she was familiar with, she became aware of ever shifting eyes. What had changed her cheery companion of [Pg 164]the past into the nervous, unhappy man by her side?
Kitty sighed involuntarily. She had met Leigh Wallace four months before, shortly after he was admitted as a patient at Walter Reed Hospital, at a “birthday party” for the Walter Reed boys at the Theodorus Bailey Myers Mason House, and they had become great friends. Her aunt’s dislike was so general, so far as her friends were concerned, that Kitty had not taken seriously her objections to the gay and handsome army officer. When she finally realized that Miss Susan Baird had conceived what appeared to be an actual hatred of Leigh Wallace, Kitty had tried to reason with her, but to no avail. When Miss Susan Baird had once acquired an idea, the Rock of Gibraltar was as jelly to her.
Kitty had inherited some of the Baird obstinacy, and it was that trait more than anything else which had fanned her liking into a violent flirtation with Wallace. She considered her aunt unjust in her treatment of him and resented her incivility. Her sympathies aroused, she had almost persuaded herself that she was in love with him, and then—Kitty’s face flamed at the recollection. Then she had met Edward Rodgers.
Time had had no place in the development of their friendship. He had been drawn to her with the same irresistible attraction which the North Pole has for the magnetic needle. No word of love had [Pg 165]ever passed his lips, but his eyes—they had pleaded his suit more eloquently than any words.
Absorbed in her thoughts, Kitty was actually startled when the taxi stopped in front of “Rose Hill.”
“Won’t you come in?” she asked, as Wallace helped her out of the car.
“No, thanks, I haven’t time.” Wallace looked up at the fine old mansion and hesitated a moment. “I’ll try and get in to-night or to-morrow. Say, Kitty, why don’t you go to a hotel?”
“Do what?” Kitty’s astonishment was obvious.
“Close up your house,” with hurried emphasis. “You ought not to live there alone. What is Craige thinking of to let you do it?”
“But I am not alone,” she pointed out. “Oscar and Mandy are living with me now. Besides—” it was her turn to hesitate. “The police wish the house kept open.”
“They do, eh?” Wallace turned and scowled at the mansion. “Have you heard anything, Kitty—any new theories about your aunt’s death?”
She shook her head. “I only know those published in the newspapers,” she answered. “The police do not make a confidante of me. Won’t you change your mind, Leigh, and come into the house?”
“I really can’t.” Wallace walked with her up the [Pg 166]terraced steps to the front door and laid an impatient hand on the old-fashioned bell-pull.
“Don’t ring!” exclaimed Kitty. “Both of the servants are out. I have my latch-key to the side door. Don’t wait any longer, Leigh, if you are in a hurry.”
“Sure you can get in?” Kitty nodded an affirmative. Wallace wavered a moment, glanced at the bunch of keys which Kitty produced from her muff, then cast a fleeting look at the walk which skirted the mansion. “Kitty,” he stepped closer to her side, his hands fumbling awkwardly with his hat. “Did you and your aunt really quarrel about me on Sunday?”
Kitty stepped back as if shot. “What an egotistical question?” she stammered, with a brave attempt at a laugh. “On the contrary, Leigh, Aunt Susan and I had words over a matter of no importance; as was our habit. Good-by.”
“Good-by—” Wallace echoed her words mechanically, and, without a further glance at her, ran down the steps.
Kitty watched the taxi and its solitary passenger disappear up Q Street before turning toward the brick walk which circled the house and led to the large garden in the rear. She dreaded entering the house alone. It was a feeling which she had not been able to conquer, and she had, on the few occasions when she had gone out, always arranged to [Pg 167]have one of the servants in the house upon her return. Mandy had asked for the afternoon off and Oscar, not being at home when Kitty left to go to Mrs. Parsons, had probably not gotten back in time to be told by Mandy before her departure that he was to await Kitty’s return.
Kitty shook herself. It was not yet four o’clock in the afternoon. It was foolish to give way to nerves. But before turning into the walk, Kitty took one final look down the terraced steps, hoping for a sight of Mandy’s substantial form or old Oscar’s halting walk. Neither was visible. As her glance swept upward, she saw a piece of crumpled paper lying on the step just below her. Stooping over, she picked it up and, observing writing upon it, smoothed out the paper. She had read the few words it bore several times before she took in their meaning.
Leigh, you are watched.
Kitty turned the paper over. It was the one she had seen the waiter at the Shoreham slip surreptitiously into Leigh Wallace’s hand. She recognized the delicate mauve shade of the paper—she also recognized the handwriting. Why had Mrs. Parsons written such a warning to Leigh Wallace?
With her ideas in a whirl Kitty walked slowly around the mansion and to the side door. It gave [Pg 168]entrance to the library. There was a perceptible pause before Kitty unlocked the door and entered the house. She had grown to loathe the library.
Mouchette, aroused from her slumber in front of the fireplace, came forward with many “mews” to greet her. Kitty fondled the cat affectionately before laying down her muff and fur piece on the nearest chair. Going over to the chimney, she poked the smoldering embers on the hearth into a feeble blaze and added some kindling wood.
She had a sense of chill in the room apart from its lack of heat. She could not dissociate her surroundings from the tragedy of Sunday. In her mind’s eye she saw always her aunt’s body lying inert in the throne-shaped chair and in memory she conjured up their last interview on that fatal Sunday afternoon. Her aunt had not spared her feelings. What was it that she had called her—an ingrate! And her last sentence still echoed in Kitty’s ears:
“Mark my words, Kitty, if you don’t conquer this infatuation for Leigh Wallace, it will not be you alone who will suffer. It will kill me.”
As Kitty spread out her cold hands to the blaze her eyes again read the message written by Mrs. Parsons on the mauve-colored paper, which she still clutched in her fingers:
Leigh, you are watched.