A resounding knock on the side door, through which she had entered the library a few minutes before, caused Kitty to start violently and her hand reached out instinctively to catch the mantel-piece to steady herself. For a second she rested her weight against it, then, controlling her nervousness, she thrust the mauve paper into the pocket of her coat and with reluctance moved over to the side door. Callers did not usually announce their presence in that manner. Miss Susan Baird had never permitted what she termed “familiarity,” and no friend, no matter what the degree of intimacy, was ever admitted except through the front door. Her dominating character had forced respect for her peculiarities, and Kitty could recall no one, except herself, who had ever cared to cross her aunt in any particular.
With her hand on the door-knob, Kitty hesitated. She was alone in the house and in no mood for visitors. Squaring her shoulders, she pulled the door partly open. Inspector Mitchell was standing on the top step of the small “stoop” which led to the brick walk.
“Good afternoon, Miss Baird,” he said, bowing affably. “Can you spare me a few minutes of your time?”
“Why, certainly.” Kitty concealed her vexation. The inspector was the last person she had expected to encounter. “Won’t you come in?” and she opened the door to a wider extent. Not waiting for him to remove his overcoat, she hurried across the library and picking up a log from the wood basket by the hearth she stirred the fire to a brighter blaze. On facing about, she found the inspector standing in front of the side door and regarding it with fixed attention.
“This door does not seem exactly in keeping with this house,” he said, as Kitty approached him. “I’ve never seen a finer example of Colonial architecture, but this—” laying his hand on the upper section of the door—“this resembles a Dutch door.”
“That is exactly what it is, or rather, what Aunt Susan had it converted into,” Kitty explained. “Aunt Susan had a bad attack of inflammatory rheumatism about fifteen years ago; she could not [Pg 171]leave the house and sat chiefly in this room. She was devoted to her garden and had this side door cut in half so that she could see outside without having to open the entire door.”
“And this panel in the upper half of the door?” Mitchell laid his hand on it as he spoke. “Does it open?”
“Yes, it is a sliding panel.” Kitty stifled a yawn. “The builder’s idea of ornamentation, I presume—a door within a door.” She smiled. “And rusty with disuse. Oscar has an objection to cleaning brass, or anything in fact that requires ‘elbow grease.’”
“The latch is discolored,” Mitchell amended. With a quick motion of his hand he released the catch and pushed the panel backward. “But there is no sign of rust in the hinges. Judging from the way this panel moves, Miss Baird, it is well oiled. See for yourself.”
Kitty glanced at him in surprise before moving the panel back and forth. Inspector Mitchell was right; it moved with ease and totally without noise. When pushed to the farthest, the panel left an opening about eight inches square.
“What do you think of that, Miss Baird?” inquired Mitchell.
“I’m sure I don’t know.” Kitty’s eyebrows drew together in a perplexed frown. “We never touched [Pg 172]that panel; never had occasion to use it. This,” laying her hand on the upper part of the Dutch door, “we frequently kept open in the summer as we get the southwestern breeze through it. We never use this door as a means of exit except to go into the garden.”
“You entered by it to-day upon your return,” Mitchell remarked and Kitty favored him with a blank stare.
“Were you watching me?” she asked with a touch of coldness.
“I was waiting in the summer house,” Mitchell explained, ignoring her manner. “No one answered the front bell and, as I wished very much to see you, I killed time by strolling through the garden. Then you don’t generally use this entrance to the house?”
“No.” Kitty regarded him inquiringly, puzzled by his persistent questions on a trivial subject. “Only since Aunt Susan’s death. The lock on this door is modern and the key a reasonable size to carry in my hand bag. Perhaps you recall the key to the front door?” she could not restrain a smile. “It is old-fashioned—”
Mitchell nodded. “I recollect its size,” he remarked dryly. “I found it in the key-hole of the front door on Monday morning, just before we discovered your aunt lying dead in this room. Haven’t any idea how the key got there then, have you?”
Kitty turned pale. “At the coroner’s inquest I told all that I know of the circumstances surrounding my aunt’s death.” She faced him quickly. “Have you made no discoveries bearing on the crime?”
“Only those brought out at the inquest,” he replied, with noncommittal brevity. “Come, Miss Baird, suppose we talk over some of the aspects of the case. I won’t detain you very long.”
Taking her consent for granted, Inspector Mitchell wheeled forward an armchair and selected another for himself. Mouchette watched them both, then, rising stiffly, deserted her favorite spot near the hearth and perched herself in Kitty’s lap, her loud purr testifying to her contentment as Kitty passed her hands over the soft gray fur. Kitty did not care to break the pause that followed. She was content to remain silent and await developments. Mitchell did not leave her long in doubt as to the direction his thoughts were tending.
“Mr. Craige tells me that you have inherited a pretty fortune,” he began. “A very pretty fortune, to be exact. Now, your aunt, if you’ll excuse my directness, lived in, eh,” he hesitated, “say, genteel poverty.” Kitty nodded somberly. Would people never stop harping on her suddenly acquired wealth? “Where did your aunt get this money she left to you?”
“I have no idea,” she replied. “I am as ignorant on the subject as you are.”
Mitchell eyed her intently. Was it candor which prompted the direct denial or duplicity? She appeared unconscious of his steady gaze, her attention apparently centered on the flickering fire, and her hands, clasped together, rested idly in her lap. Mitchell’s profession had made him a close student of human nature and as he studied her face, partly turned from him, he concluded that Kitty did not lack strength of character and will power, whatever her faults might be.
Was her air of relaxation, of almost dumb inertia, a cloak to hide high-strung, quivering nerves? If he could but shake her composure, he might gain some key to the mystery of her aunt’s murder. Mitchell cleared his throat as he unobtrusively hitched his chair around to obtain a more favorable angle from which to gauge her expression.
“Had your aunt a large correspondence?” he asked.
Kitty shook her head. “Aunt Susan abominated letter-writing,” she replied. “My godfather, Mr. Craige, attended to her few business correspondents and I answered any invitations that came to us.”
“Had you any relations living outside of Washington?” he asked.
“A few very distant cousins.” She shrugged her [Pg 175]shoulders. “My aunt did not encourage intercourse with them.”
“Their names, please?” Mitchell pulled out a pencil and notebook and thumbed its pages until he found a blank space.
“A. J. Beekman of Detroit.” Kitty watched him in some amusement. “Then there was rather a large family of Smiths in Georgia—I’m sorry I can’t be more definite. Aunt Susan, as I said before, never cultivated her relatives.”
“Did she actively dislike them?”
Kitty straightened up and regarded him. “I don’t catch your meaning?”
“My meaning is clear.” Mitchell spoke slowly, deliberately. “Did your aunt actively dislike Major Leigh Wallace because of his relationship?”
“His relationship?” echoed Kitty in bewilderment. “He is no relation.”
“I beg pardon,” with a sarcastic smile. “I happen to know that Leigh Wallace is your cousin.”
“Then your knowledge is greater than mine.” Kitty curbed her quick temper with an effort and added more quietly, “Whoever told you that was misinformed.”
“I think not.” Mitchell consulted his notebook before continuing. “Colonel Marcus Holt of San Francisco, was your uncle, was he not?”
“Yes. My mother, Louise Holt, was his sister.” [Pg 176]Kitty slipped her arms out of her coat which she had kept on for warmth. The fire was drawing nicely and for the first time she was conscious of the heat it generated. “What prompts your interest in old Colonel Holt? I assure you he died long before Aunt Susan.” There was a touch of mockery in her voice and Mitchell smiled grimly.
“I am coming to my point,” he said. “Holt’s nephew is Major Leigh Wallace.”
Kitty sat bolt upright with such suddenness that Mouchette nearly lost her balance. With an offended air, the cat jumped to the floor and crept under the nearest chair.
“What!” exclaimed Kitty. “Are you sure?”
“And therefore,” went on Mitchell, paying no attention to her interruption. “Leigh Wallace must be a relation of yours.”
“I suppose so,” Kitty admitted thoughtfully. “But why had Leigh never told me that we are related? He has never spoken of being a nephew of Uncle Marcus.”
“Nor of inheriting the old colonel’s fortune?”
“Fortune?” Kitty looked blank. “Why, I have always understood that Major Wallace had only his pay. I never knew that he was wealthy.”
“His fortune disappeared, the way fortunes have when dissipated away,” Mitchell was watching her like a lynx, but her expression of friendly interest [Pg 177]conveyed that and nothing more. The mention of Leigh Wallace’s name had not produced the result he had hoped for. Kitty’s composure had not been shaken. Could it be that she was not in love with him, as rumor reported? Mitchell frowned. He was not making headway.
“Have you ever heard of the Holt will contest in San Francisco?” he asked, after a brief pause.
“Only in a general way. Aunt Susan spoke of it once or twice.” Kitty settled back in her chair again. “She never evinced any particular interest in Uncle Marcus, and he on his part ignored our existence. To go back to ancient history—” Kitty’s smile was a trifle mischievous; keeping Inspector Mitchell discussing harmless topics would prevent his harping upon her aunt’s death, and perhaps would hasten his departure—“Uncle Marcus objected to mother marrying my father, and naturally Aunt Susan resented the fact that her brother was unwelcome to his wife’s family.”
“So she nursed a grudge against them, did she?”
“Oh, no; she simply had nothing to do with them.”
“Then this money which your aunt left to you couldn’t have been given to her by Colonel Holt in his lifetime?” asked Mitchell.
“Good gracious, no.” Kitty’s astonishment was [Pg 178]plain. “Aunt Susan’s prejudices were stronger even than her—”
“Love of money?”
Kitty flushed hotly. “I do not care to have slurs cast upon my aunt,” she said coldly. “She is not here to defend herself.”
“Hold on, Miss Baird,” Mitchell protested. “You must realize that your aunt hoarded this wealth which you inherited; otherwise she would have spoken to you or to some one about it. She—” Mitchell came to a full pause, then added impressively: “Your aunt was a miser.”
Kitty’s color deepened, but the denial which loyalty prompted remained unspoken. Her sense of justice told her that Inspector Mitchell had spoken truly. What other motive, except love of money, had induced her aunt to live in poverty when she had ample funds to enable her to enjoy every luxury which money could buy?
“Am I to conclude from your questions,” she began, “that you connect my aunt’s hidden wealth with her murder?”
“It seems a reasonable hypothesis,” he replied. “Take the known facts about the murder—first, your aunt was alone in the house on Sunday afternoon—”
“Do you know anything to the contrary?” quickly.
“No. But,” she hesitated, “some one must have been inside the house as well as my aunt.”
“And that some one—?”
“Murdered my aunt,” looking him calmly in the eyes. “She never committed suicide.”
Mitchell regarded her steadfastly. “Can you give me no hint of the identity of your aunt’s caller?” he asked. “Think carefully, Miss Baird. Have you no suspicion who might have murdered your aunt?”
Kitty did not reply at once; instead her hand slipped inside her coat pocket and her fingers closed about the small slip of mauve-colored paper tucked underneath her handkerchief, while the message it bore recurred to her: “Leigh, you are watched.”
To what did Mrs. Parsons’ warning allude? To what could it allude? And why did Inspector Mitchell invariably drag Leigh Wallace’s name into their conversation? And what had inspired her aunt’s hatred of Leigh? Could it have been fear? Fear of what—Death? Kitty shuddered, then pulled herself together. She must not let fancies run away with her.
“I know of no one who could have had a motive for killing poor Aunt Susan,” she said. “It must have been the work of some one afflicted with homicidal tendencies.”
“I’ll stake my reputation that it was no maniac,” declared Mitchell. “The crime was deliberately planned and by some one with nerves absolutely under control. Look at the manner in which the poison was administered—placed on one side of the knife-blade, so that the prussic acid only touched the piece of peach given to your aunt, and the murderer ate his half in perfect safety. It was neat, devilishly neat!”
“Have you found out where the peaches came from?” asked Kitty.
“No, worse luck.” Mitchell frowned. “Very few fruit stores make deliveries on Sunday and those few deny sending any fruit here.”
“How about the Italian fruit stands? Have you questioned the dealers?”
Mitchell smiled wryly. “Not many fruit dealers carry peaches at this season. Our operatives have been pretty thorough in their investigations.” He paused before adding, “According to their reports no one, man, woman, or child, purchased peaches on Sunday last.”
Kitty hesitated. “They may have come from a distance,” she suggested. “By parcel post or express. Have you thought of that?”
“Yes, and we found that no package was left here by the express company or post office employees.” Mitchell paused to replace his notebook and pencil in [Pg 181]his pocket. “No, Miss Baird, the murderer brought those peaches with him.”
“It would seem so,” agreed Kitty, thoughtfully.
“And it must have been some one who knew that your aunt liked peaches,” went on Mitchell. “Were her tastes generally known among your friends?”
Kitty caught her breath sharply. The question recalled an incident forgotten in the rush of events. Leigh Wallace, on the few occasions when he had been invited to tea with them, had invariably preceded his visit with a basket of fruit, and—each basket had contained peaches!
“I suppose our friends knew that Aunt Susan liked peaches,” she said. Her hesitation, slight as it was, was not lost on Mitchell. “I never gave the matter a thought.”
“Indeed?” Mitchell did not try to conceal his unbelief. “Do you see much of Mr. Edward Rodgers?”
Kitty actually jumped at the abruptness of the question and its nature. “What earthly business is it of yours whether I see Mr. Rodgers or not?” she demanded indignantly.
“It is not my business.” Mitchell smiled apologetically. “It just occurred to me that he might have mentioned the Holt will contest to you.”
“To me?” in genuine surprise. “Why should he [Pg 182]speak about Uncle Marcus and the contest over his will?”
“Oh, I don’t know,” Mitchell whirled his hat about. “Mr. Rodgers was called in as a handwriting expert. It was one of his big cases, and I thought it likely he might have talked it over with you, seeing Colonel Holt was your uncle.”
“I doubt if Mr. Rodgers knows that we were related. From what I have seen of Mr. Rodgers,” her color rose as she spoke, “I judge he seldom discusses himself or his work.”
“Perhaps not.” Mitchell walked over to the side door and laid his hand on the knob. “I won’t detain you any longer, Miss Baird. If you should think of any one who ever evinced any great interest in your aunt’s fondness for peaches, just telephone me. Good afternoon.”
Left to herself Kitty stepped up to the fireplace and taking out the piece of mauve-colored paper held it suspended over the flames. But her clutching fingers did not relax their grasp and finally she tucked the paper in the belt of her dress. She laughed mirthlessly as she walked across the library and felt about for a box of matches. Inspector Mitchell, whether he had attained the object of his call or not, had sown seeds of suspicion.
It had grown quite dark and the room, lighted [Pg 183]only by fire, was filled with shadows. Kitty passed a nervous hand over the table ornaments—the matchbox which usually stood near the oil lamp had evidently been misplaced. She was about to look elsewhere when the sound of voices reached her.
“I’se done looked an’ looked,” she heard Oscar say. “An’ I tell yo’ ole Miss never left no such papers.”
“Please, please keep up your search,” a woman’s voice pleaded. “Please, Oscar. I’ll give you more than I promised—a hundred dollars more.”
Kitty straightened up and stared about her. The voices sounded clearly in her ears, but surely she was alone in the library? Running over to the tea table, she felt about and snatched up the much-sought matches. The next instant she was back at the lamp and a second later the room was illuminated. She was its only occupant.
Where had the voices come from? As her eyes roved about the library she spied the “Dutch” door near where she was standing. The little panel in the upper half of the door had been left open and through it came faintly the sound of receding footsteps.
Throwing wide the door, Kitty stepped outside. In the gathering darkness no one was visible. She paused in thought, her troubled eyes trying to pierce [Pg 184]the gloom of the desolate garden and the empty pathway circling the mansion. The woman’s voice still echoed in her ears—where, where had she heard its haunting quality before?
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