Kitty paused before her bureau and inspected herself in the mirror. It had been a relief to change from her street clothes to a dressing gown. She had spent nearly an hour lying on the couch in her bedroom trying to piece together the puzzling events of the afternoon. On reëntering the house she had gone at once to the servants’ quarters; from there she had searched every room, even to the attic. To all appearances Oscar was not in the house. She had then waited in the library, hoping to catch him on his entrance, but evidently he had accompanied the unknown woman away from the house.
Kitty struck her hands together in impotent wrath at the thought. Why had she not realized immediately that the speakers were outside the house, and not wasted precious minutes trying to light the lamp in the library and thus given them time to slip away unseen!
Who was the woman? Vainly, Kitty tried to identify her voice. Strive as she did to recall where she had heard it before, it eluded her memory. Why should any woman bribe old Oscar to steal papers which had belonged to her aunt?
With a sigh of utter weariness, Kitty gave up the problem for the moment and continued her dressing. Twenty minutes later, her toilet completed, she stopped before the cheval glass and gave a final pat to her hair. At last, satisfied with her appearance, she hastened into the hall. As she descended the staircase, she heard the rattle of dishes in the dining room and the sound of the dumb-waiter creaking its way upward. With flying footsteps she covered the intervening space and crossed the hall to the pantry.
“Oscar!” she called. “I wish to speak to you at once. Come here.”
But the person who stepped from the dining room into the pantry at her imperious summons was not Oscar.
“What yo’ want, Miss Kitty?” asked Mandy.
“Oscar!” She repeated the old servant’s name with ever growing impatience. “I must see him immediately.”
“Laws, Miss Kitty, Oscar’s on his way to Front Royal, Virginia, dis hyar minute,” explained Mandy, in no wise hurrying her leisurely speech.
“On his way where?” gasped Kitty.
“To Front Royal.” Mandy lifted her apron and produced from a voluminous pocket a much twisted telegram. “He done got dis hyar message to come at wandst ’cause his brother, the one dat owns a farm five miles from Front Royal, is a dyin’. See what dey done wrote,” and she held out the telegram. Kitty read the typed lines with interest before handing the telegram back to Mandy.
“Why didn’t you tell me of this?” she demanded. “Oscar had no business to leave without first speaking to me.”
“Laws, Miss Kitty, yo’ warn’t in de house an’ we didn’t know when yo’ ’spected to be back,” Mandy explained. “Oscar had to catch the three o’clock train to get there to-night.”
“The three o’clock train,” Kitty repeated. “The three o’clock train this afternoon.”
“Yes, Miss Kitty.”
“But—” Kitty passed a bewildered hand across her forehead. “Oscar was here at five o’clock—here at this house.”
“Here?” Mandy’s eyes opened, showing the whites more clearly. “What yo’ talkin’ ’bout, Miss Kitty?”
“Oscar was here this afternoon at five o’clock,” Kitty stated, speaking more deliberately so as to make certain that Mandy understood what she said. [Pg 188]“I overheard him talking to a woman just outside the library door.”
“Yo’ did!” Mandy’s uplifted voice as well as her expression registered complete astonishment. “Did yo’ see him?”
“No. I tell you I overheard him talking to a woman.” Kitty’s temper was gaining the upper hand, and she spoke with warmth. “I know Oscar’s voice, Mandy.”
“Yes, Miss Kitty,” but the old colored woman still looked unconvinced. “Dar’s a heap o’ niggers talks jes’ like Oscar. Is yo’ sure it warn’t dat worthless ’Rastus from nex’ do’?”
“I know it was not ’Rastus,” declared Kitty, with emphasis. “Besides, the woman, in speaking to Oscar, addressed him by name.”
“She did?” Mandy fell back a step and stared at Kitty. “Oh, go ’way, Miss Kitty, yo’ been dreamin’—why, ’twarn’t possible. I went to de depot with Oscar my own self an’ saw Oscar get on dat train, an’ it done pull out fo’ Front Royal at three o’clock this afternoon.”
It was Kitty’s turn to stare at Mandy. The old woman’s beady black eyes did not shift their gaze. A full minute passed before Kitty broke the silence.
“When did you return, Mandy?” she asked.
“’Bout six or a few minutes after,” Mandy said. “I come upstairs an’ listened to hear ef yo’ was in [Pg 189]de house. I didn’t hear nuffin’ an’ didn’t see no light, so I went back to de kitchen to get dinner. I s’posed yo’ hadn’t come in.”
“I was lying down—”
Mandy’s worried expression changed to one of relief and she did not permit Kitty to finish her sentence.
“Dar now, I ’spects yo’ jes’ drap off to sleep an’ dreamed ’bout Oscar bein’ hyar,” she exclaimed. “Dat was it, Honey, dat was it!”
“Oh, was that it?” Kitty’s voice lacked heartiness. “All right, Mandy. Serve dinner when it is ready.”
“Yes, Miss Kitty; it won’t be a minute now. I’se got a real tasty chicken a broilin’. Jes’ go set down, chile; trust ole Mandy to look after yo’.” And she gave the girl’s arm a friendly squeeze as Kitty passed her to go into the dining room.
Kitty did not sit down at once. Her thoughts were in a turmoil as she paced up and down the room. Was Mandy right? Had she dreamed overhearing an unknown woman offer Oscar a bribe to steal papers which had belonged to her aunt? Her aimless footsteps carried her into the library and to the Dutch door. The small panel stood open. Kitty’s eyes strayed from it to the telephone. On impulse she crossed to the instrument and took up the telephone directory. It took her but a moment [Pg 190]to find the number she wished, then she paused. Should she call Edward Rodgers or her cousin, Ben Potter?
She had seen or heard nothing from either Ben or his wife since late Tuesday afternoon after the inquest, when they had stopped for a brief moment to tell of their contemplated trip to New York and to suggest that she accompany them. She had been tempted to accept their invitation. A longing to run away from the mansion which she had called home from her earliest recollection, to separate herself from the tragedy of her aunt’s murder had almost overpowered her. But her sense of horror at the crime, her determination to solve the mystery and bring her aunt’s murderer to justice had conquered, and she had stayed on at the old house, refusing to follow Charles Craige’s suggestion that she engage a trained nurse as a companion and go to a hotel. Nina Potter had promised to telephone to her immediately upon their return from New York, but so far she had received no message from her.
Kitty felt urgent need of clear-headed advice. Instinctively, she took up the telephone instrument. She had not seen Edward Rodgers since Tuesday night when they had discovered her aunt’s will secreted under the plaster cast of the Gila monster, but he would come at her call—her woman’s instinct told her that.
The telephone bell sounded with such suddenness that she almost dropped the instrument. Recovering herself she took off the receiver.
“Is that you, Miss Baird?” Edward Rodgers’ deep tones were music in her ears. “Will you be in this evening? Can I see you?”
His questions came in such swift succession that Kitty had no chance to answer each individually.
“Do come,” she called back. “I’ll be very glad to see you.”
“Righto—” The connection was poor and his voice sounded faintly over the wires. “In about an hour.” With heightened color she hung up the receiver and Mandy, entering the dining room some seconds later, found her sitting demurely at her place at the head of the table, waiting patiently for the “tasty” broiled chicken.
During the service of the meal, Mandy kept up a running chatter of conversation, talking on any subject, regardless of its relevancy. Several times Kitty regarded her in surprise; it was not like Mandy to be garrulous.
“I’ve been fixin’ to tell yo’,” she announced as she removed the dessert plate, “dat Mrs. Potter done telephone yo’ jes’ a few minutes after yo’ left this mawnin’. I declare yo’ put it outer my haid when yo’ telled me ’bout yo’ dreamin’ Oscar was hyar at five o’clock.”
“Did Mrs. Potter say how she was, Mandy?” asked Kitty, as she arose.
“She had a mighty bad cold an’ I couldn’t hardly hear what she said, noways.” Mandy advanced, silver coffee pot in hand. “Ain’t yo’ gwine ter take yo’ coffee?”
“Yes, in the library. And Mandy, bring another cup,” Kitty paused. “I am expecting Mr. Rodgers. There is the bell now—”
Mandy was smiling to herself as she walked toward the front door. Her smile broadened into an expansive grin at sight of Edward Rodgers.
“Come right in, Sah: Miss Kitty’s ’spectin’ yo’ in the lib’ry.” She hovered about while he removed his hat and overcoat. “I’se glad yo’ve come; Miss Kitty’s kinda peaked. It’s nice yo’ can keep her company.”
“Thanks.” Rodgers’ dry tone was totally lost on Mandy. With a flourishing twist of the portières in front of the library door she announced:
“Mister Rodgers—” and discreetly disappeared inside her pantry.
As Kitty felt Rodgers’ strong handclasp and met his ardent gaze, her heart beat more swiftly. Rodgers, scarcely conscious that he still held her hand, was unaware of the brief pause, being content to watch Kitty’s piquant beauty.
“I’ve wanted to see you—to be with you,” he stammered. “It’s been an eternity.”
Kitty’s soft laugh interrupted him. “Come and sit down,” she said. “I’m particularly glad you came to-night, for I want your advice badly.”
“You do?” Rodgers followed her to the leather-covered lounge and sat down by her. “What about?”
“Hush!” Kitty had caught the sound of Mandy’s heavy tread in the hall. “I’ll tell you later after we have had our coffee. Come in, Mandy.” Kitty raised her voice. “Bring the tray here and place it on this table.”
With Rodgers’ aid the old servant made room on the table for her tray, then, with a respectful “good night,” she stumped away, taking care to drop the portières back in place. As Rodgers bent to pick up a napkin which he had inadvertently dropped, Kitty caught sight of the cuts on his head partially covered by a dressing.
“Good gracious! What have you done to yourself?” she cried.
“Ran head first into a door,” replied Rodgers.
“Are you sure you are not badly hurt?” she asked gravely, noting the pallor of his usually ruddy cheeks. At the solicitude in her voice Rodgers colored and his eyes shone.
“Quite sure,” he said, then made haste to change [Pg 194]the subject. “Have you seen Ben Potter to-day?”
“No. Nina telephoned to me this morning while I was out.” She handed him her empty coffee cup to put down. “I haven’t seen Ben since the day of the inquest.”
Rodgers hesitated a moment. “Forgive the question—but—are you and he great friends?”
Kitty regarded him gravely. “Not great friends; we sometimes have spats,” she admitted. A mischievous smile brought out her pretty dimples. “Our last dispute was on the subject of deportment and dress. I do not see how Nina stands his Puritanical ideas.”
“Doesn’t he approve of gay colors?”
“Gay colors!” Kitty laughed outright. “I should say not. Why, he nearly had a fit whenever I appeared in my red coat.”
“He is a man of queer ideas,” Rodgers commented dryly. “The red coat was most becoming to you. By the way, I haven’t seen you wear it lately.”
“I am having the coat dyed—” Seeing his surprised expression, she added, “Not because Ben disliked the color, but it was too faded.”
“Did you take the coat to be dyed?” asked Rodgers, and she wondered at the persistency of his gaze.
“No. I gave it to Aunt Susan one day last week.” Kitty sat bolt upright. “Dear me, I won[Pg 195]der at which cleaning establishment she left the coat.”
“You have no idea where it is?”
“Not the faintest idea in this world; Aunt Susan never dealt long at any one shop.” Kitty shook her head. “The events of the past few days put the coat entirely out of my mind.”
“Then your aunt was the last person to have your coat—?”
“She was certainly the last person in this household to handle it,” she answered. “You speak as if the coat was of some consequence—” with a quick surprised glance at him.
Rogers paused as Oscar’s warning recurred to him “She mustn’t know nawthin’.” Whatever the old negro’s reasons might be for asking him not to discuss the red coat with Kitty—whether important or unimportant—he would keep faith with the old negro and not tell her of the incidents of the morning.
“I always liked the coat,” he declared. “Suppose you don’t get it back—?”
“Oh, the cleaners, whoever they are, will probably send it back when it is dyed so as to get paid,” she answered carelessly. “It is a small loss anyway for the coat was about worn out.” She sighed involuntarily and Rodgers looked at her intently.
“Isn’t this house getting on your nerves?” he [Pg 196]asked, observing the deep shadows under her eyes which told their story of wakeful nights and frayed nerves.
“Not so much the house as the mystery,” she admitted, with a slight shiver. “Have you discovered any clues?”
Rodgers touched a small “I.O.U.” paper safely tucked inside his vest pocket. “Nothing of any consequence,” he confessed. “I tried to see Inspector Mitchell this afternoon, but he never returned to Headquarters.”
“He was here.” Kitty paused and considered her companion. The mention of Inspector Mitchell brought back his questions about the Holt will contest. “By the way, the inspector asked if you had ever told me about the law suit over Colonel Holt’s will.”
Rodgers laid down his cigarette case unopened. “The Holt will case,” he exclaimed. “Of what possible interest could that be to you?”
“Colonel Holt was my uncle.” Observing his surprised expression, she added, “The inspector suggested that perhaps the fortune Aunt Susan left to me was given to her by Colonel Holt. I told him the idea was preposterous. Why, Aunt Susan would have nothing to do with Uncle Marcus. To my knowledge she never saw him. I doubt if he even knew of my existence.”
Rodgers selected a cigarette. “May I smoke?” he asked, and for answer she handed him a box of matches. “I wish you and Colonel Holt had known each other. He was a fine old man; looked like a soldier of the French Empire.”
“Was he a friend of yours?”
“I knew him slightly in a business way.” Rodgers puffed at his cigarette until he had it drawing nicely. “How did Mitchell come to know that you were related?”
“I don’t know,” Kitty laughed a trifle vexedly. “The inspector evidently informed himself as to my relations; he even told me that Leigh Wallace and I are cousins.”
Rodgers favored the “grandfather” clock across the library with a prolonged stare. Kitty was commencing to wonder at his silence, when he turned and addressed her.
“So you and Leigh are cousins,” he said. “I had not realized that before. How near is the relationship?”
“We are first cousins, if what Inspector Mitchell said is true. My mother was Louise Holt, and I suppose her half-sister, Anne, was Leigh’s mother. Odd, is it not, that Leigh never spoke of being related to me?” she added, after a slight pause.
Rodgers’ gaze was transferred from the clock to [Pg 198]Kitty. “Was your aunt aware of the relationship?” he asked.
“I imagine not. We haven’t spoken of Colonel Holt for years,” she answered. “Inspector Mitchell said the law suit was one of your big cases.”
“I was called in as a handwriting expert.” Rodgers moved restlessly. “Has Mitchell discovered any clues to your aunt’s murder?”
“If he has, he has not confided them to me,” she smiled mirthlessly. “He has succeeded in making me feel very uncomfortable—”
“In what way?” quickly.
“With his suspicions,” she hesitated. “He insinuated that—” she did not complete her sentence; her eyes had strayed to the framed photograph of Leigh Wallace standing on a near-by table. After all, she could not voice her suspicions to Edward Rodgers. For nearly a month she had been aware of a growing coolness between the two men, and Wallace had been at no pains to conceal his anger whenever he had seen Kitty walking or motoring with Rodgers. Kitty had never detected any alteration in Rodgers’ manner to Wallace. Whatever his opinion of the latter’s surly behavior it had been cloaked under his customary air of good fellowship.
“I have something to tell you of more importance than Inspector Mitchell’s veiled insinuations,” [Pg 199]she said, speaking rapidly to cover her change of topic. “Just after the Inspector’s departure I was standing here by this table,” indicating it as she spoke, “when the sound of voices reached me and I heard Oscar say: ‘I’se done looked an’ looked, an’ I tell yo’ ole Miss never left no sech papers.’ And a woman’s voice replied: ‘Please, please keep up your search, Oscar. I’ll give you more than I promised—a hundred dollars more.’”
Rodgers threw away his cigarette and stared at Kitty.
“Who was the woman?” he demanded.
“I do not know.” Kitty rose and walked over to the Dutch door. “I tried to light the library lamp and wasted valuable seconds hunting for matches. When I finally got the lamp lighted, I found that I was alone in the library and the voices had come through this panel,” laying her hand on it as she spoke. “I dashed outside but Oscar and his companion had disappeared in the darkness.”
Rodgers followed her to the Dutch door, his face expressing both astonishment and deep attention.
“Have you no idea who the woman was?” he asked. “Hasn’t Oscar told you her name and why she was bribing him?”
“Oscar,” Kitty paused and looked carefully about the library. “Oscar, according to his wife, took the three o’clock train to Front Royal this afternoon.”
“He did what?” shouted Rodgers, then at her startled look, he added more quietly, “Do you mean that Oscar has left Washington?”
“So Mandy told me.”
Rodgers considered Kitty in silence.... Oscar a runaway—the red coat practically destroyed by fire—the I.O.U.—
Kitty was commencing to wonder at the prolonged silence when Rodgers spoke.
“At what hour did you overhear Oscar’s conversation with the unknown woman?” he asked.
“About five o’clock.”
Rodgers stroked his chin thoughtfully. “I should say that there was a nigger in the wood-pile,” he said softly. “You are quite sure it was Oscar talking to the woman.”
“Did you recognize the woman’s voice?”
Kitty shook her head. “Her voice haunts me still,” she said. “But I cannot place it. The whole affair bewilders me. I do not know what to think, what to conjecture. Our Oscar and Mandy, my aunt’s faithful old servants, in league against me? Has some one bribed them to lie and steal—and with what object?”
Rodgers did not reply at once. Suddenly he reached over and, pressing the catch, slid the panel back and forth as Inspector Mitchell had done sev[Pg 201]eral hours previously. His action reminded Kitty of the incident.
“That panel seems to fascinate you men,” she exclaimed. “Inspector Mitchell spent fully ten minutes commenting upon its well oiled hinges and its possible use.”
“Its use?” Rodgers’ voice was of the carrying quality, and it sounded distinctly through the open panel to a figure crouching in the shadow of the house. “Has the panel been used for any special purpose?”
“No, it is purely ornamental.”
“Didn’t the postman ever drop mail through it?”
“No. Our mail box is fastened to the front door.”
Rodgers’ gaze had strayed to the floor. Stooping down he rubbed his hand over the bare hardwood boards. “Your flooring is well worn right here,” he said. “Some weight or some one has stood here constantly. Bend closer and you will see that the varnish is completely worn away.”
Kitty followed his suggestion. “I don’t understand,” she exclaimed, standing erect. “It bewilders me. What does it mean?”
“Some one has been using this panel—for what purpose we have yet to find out.” Rodgers spoke half to himself, then asked more loudly: “Have you given all your aunt’s papers to Mr. Craige?”
“Yes—even old letters.”
“Do you know their contents?”
“I did not stop to read them all.” Kitty’s troubled expression deepened. “I gave him every paper I could find.”
“I am glad Mr. Craige has them,” exclaimed Rodgers heartily. “If he has the papers which the woman bribed Oscar to secure for her, we can solve that mystery. There is just one other question, Miss Baird. Did your aunt see very much of Mrs. Amos Parsons?”
Outside in the shadows the listening figure stiffened as it bent dangerously close to catch Kitty’s answer.
“Not any more than Aunt Susan could help—” Kitty’s tired young voice held a hint of mirth as it came through the open panel. “She abominated Mrs. Parsons and deeply resented my acting as her secretary.”
Rodgers contemplated Kitty for several seconds, then stepped briskly toward the telephone.
“With your permission,” he said, “I’ll call up Mr. Craige and ask if he can see us this evening.”