The Cat's Paw

by Natalie Sumner Lincoln

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Chapter XIX - Suspicion

It was not often that Charles Craige was late in keeping an appointment with Mrs. Parsons. But the pretty widow had occasion to glance repeatedly at her parlor clock with ever increasing annoyance before she heard the butler ushering some one upstairs. She masked her displeasure under a smiling face.

“Ah, Charles, what has detained you?” she asked, as he bent low over her hand and kissed it.

“Pressing business,” he answered. “I am deeply sorry to be late, Cecelia. Judge McMasters simply would not hurry. Has Ben Potter been here?”

“Not to-day.” Mrs. Parsons’ surprise at the question was manifest. “You know he is not one of my favorites. He bored me to death in San Francisco; he is so intense—” she shrugged her shoulders. “I saw his wife this morning.”

“Indeed?” Craige selected a cigarette from the box on the table and accepted a lighted match.

“Silly sentimental little fool,” commented Mrs. Parsons. “Just the kind of wife Ben could have been counted on to pick out.”

“Men usually marry to please themselves.” Craige laughed. “Ben telephoned me an hour ago and said that he was coming around to see you—”

“What about?”

“He did not state.” Craige looked at her in surprise, abruptness was not usual with her. “He may come at any moment—” glancing at his watch. It lacked five minutes of the hour. “I stopped at the bank this morning and President Walsh said he would accept your note for two thousand dollars provided you have collateral—”

“Certainly.” Mrs. Parsons colored deeply. “In fact, I am not sure that I shall need the loan from the bank. I was only temporarily embarrassed until my property in San Francisco is sold. To-day,” she paused, “I have arranged another matter satisfactorily. It is kind of you, Charles, very kind, to handle my business for me.”

“My dearest Cecelia—” Craige laid his hand on hers. “I am happiest when I serve you.”

Her eyes sparkled with a hint of tears. “I am grateful,” she murmured. “You have been so good, so very good since I came to Washington.”

“Cecelia!” Craige bent forward impulsively, but she drew away from his embrace.

“Not now, dear,” she protested. “You know you promised—”

Craige’s handsome face, alight with eagerness, altered. “I will keep my word—” he said. “One month, Cecelia, and then the whole world is to know of my happiness—”

“Our happiness—” she corrected softly. Craige caught her hands and pressed the palms against his face before kissing them with lingering tenderness.

“A la bonne heure!” he exclaimed, and his voice betrayed his happiness. “Cecelia, you grow prettier every day.”

“My mirror is not so kind as you, Charles!” A sigh accompanied the words, and she swiftly changed the subject. “Have you seen Kitty Baird to-day?”

“I am on my way there now.” A worried look crossed his face. “That poor girl seems fated for tragedy. You heard of the attempt to kill Ted Rodgers last night in the Park, did you not?”

“I understood that it was an accident.” Horror crept into Mrs. Parsons’ eyes. “How dreadful!”

“Kitty declares that the headlights of the car blinded her, and that she has no idea of the identity of the person who did the shooting. She says that [Pg 255]she could not even tell whether it was a man or a woman.”

Craige, sitting facing the light from the western window, failed to detect the faint alteration in Mrs. Parsons’ expression.

“How is Ted Rodgers?” she asked. “Out of danger?”

“I haven’t heard; which reminds me that I am to meet Dr. McLean at ‘Rose Hill’ at three o’clock.” Craige rose. “I sincerely hope that Ted recovers—it will kill Kitty if anything happens to him.”

Mrs. Parsons held out her hands and Craige helped her slowly to her feet. “So Ted really has cut out Leigh Wallace in Kitty’s affections,” she remarked.

Craige frowned. “It was nothing more than a flirtation between Kitty and Wallace,” he declared. “Her whole heart is centered on Ted.”

“You speak with positiveness—” Mrs. Parsons’ laugh held a touch of malice. “Remember, women are fickle—and Leigh very attractive.”

“I fail to understand the fascination he apparently has for women.” Craige’s tone was stiff. A mischievous smile touched Mrs. Parsons’ lips and her eyes danced.

“Leigh was very, very smitten with Kitty,” she asserted, as she paused before the long gilt mirror and adjusted her lorgnette chain. “Do you suppose [Pg 256]it could have been Leigh who tried to kill Ted last night?”

Craige stood just behind her and looking in the mirror she saw his face reflected over her shoulder. His expression of surprise gave place to doubt—to wonder—

“By Jove!” he exclaimed. “No, it can’t be, Cecelia. Leigh, whatever his faults, is the type of man who fights in the open.”

“Jealousy changes a man’s nature sometimes,” she murmured. “Leigh has not been himself since his return from France.”

“You knew him before, then?”

Mrs. Parsons nodded. “Very slightly. It was Nina Potter who commented upon the change in him; he was an old sweetheart of hers.”

Craige paused. “Upon my word, Cecelia,” he ejaculated. “How do you learn so much about people?”

She laughed aloud in her amusement. “I am observant. I find—” and the lines about her mouth hardened—“it pays to be. Will you dine with me to-morrow night, Charles?”

“Surely,” with eager haste. “And will you go to the theater afterward?”

“Perhaps.” She laid her hand for the fraction of a second against his cheek with a caressing motion. [Pg 257]“Careful, dear, James is waiting to open the door for you—” and Craige perforce contented himself with a formal handshake as the servant came forward to the foot of the short flight of steps with his overcoat and hat.

Craige was about to step into his motor when he became aware that the butler was at his elbow.

“Can I have a word with you, sir?” he asked, and a jerk of his thumb indicated Craige’s chauffeur. “In private, sir.”

“Certainly, James.” Mystified by the butler’s air of secretiveness Craige followed him a few steps down the street. When convinced that the chauffeur could not overhear them, James halted. But they were not destined to have their interview in private, for as Craige stood waiting for James to explain what he wished Inspector Mitchell stopped beside them.

“Good afternoon, Mr. Craige,” he said, as he nodded a greeting to the butler. “Glad to see you, sir. Now, James, why did you send for me?”

James rubbed his hands together and cast an appealing look at Craige. “I had to,” he began, addressing his remarks to him rather than to Mitchell. “My conscience couldn’t rest easy, sir, after I read the newspapers about the inquest.”

“The inquest?” Mitchell’s eyes snapped with ex[Pg 258]citement. “Go on, man—you mean the Baird inquest?”

“Yes. Mr. Craige, sir, the newspapers said that Miss Baird was killed by poison put on a peach,” he spoke in nervous haste and Craige had some difficulty in catching what he said. “Nobody seemed to know where the peaches came from ’cording to the papers.”

“No more we did,” prompted Mitchell. “Well, what then?”

James licked his lips with the tip of his tongue. “Miss Kitty Baird goes to the market sometimes for Mrs. Parsons, sir. On Saturday she brought back some California peaches,” his voice sank even lower. “She called here Sunday morning, and when she left, the peaches wasn’t on the dining room table.”

Craige stared the butler out of countenance. “Preposterous!” he exclaimed, turning red with indignation. “What are you suggesting, James?”

“Nothing, sir, Mr. Craige. I’m just telling you about the peaches.”

Craige’s face was a study of wrath and bewilderment; the former predominating. With an effort, he checked an oath and instead drew out some loose silver.

“I am glad you spoke only to us, James,” he said. “Come with me, Mitchell,” and paying no attention [Pg 259]to the inspector’s protests that he wished further word with the butler, he hurried him toward his car.

So occupied were both men that neither caught James’ furtive glance at the parlor window as he turned to reënter Mrs. Parsons’ house.


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