Whar yo’ goin’, Honey, at dis time o’ night?” Mandy’s voice was raised in shocked expostulation and Kitty could not refrain from a smile. She had interrupted the old servant in the act of arranging her bedroom for the night when she had entered a moment before and taken her heavy overcoat and hat out of the closet.
“Mr. Rodgers is going to run me over to see my godfather, Mr. Craige,” she explained as she arranged her veil. “Don’t wait up for me, Mandy; I have the key of the side door and can let myself in. You are not afraid to stay here alone, are you?”
“No’m.” But Mandy spoke with no enthusiasm. “I ain’t skeered, kexactly, but yo’ won’t be very late, will yo’?”
“Oh, no.” Kitty glanced at the clock on her dressing table. “It is only a quarter of nine, Mandy; I’ll be back within the hour. Sit down be[Pg 204]fore the fire,” pointing to the grate where Mandy, with solicitous forethought had built a coal fire for her young mistress to enjoy when undressing, “and make yourself comfortable. Don’t stay in a cold kitchen.”
“Thank yo’, Miss Kitty. I ’spects I’d ruther stay up hyar, it’s mo’ cheerful.” Mandy walked into the hall with her. “Mind yo’ keep that collar buttoned up.”
“All right, Mandy.” Kitty, touched by the old woman’s care for her, laid her hand for a minute on her rounded shoulder. “Don’t worry and keep warm.”
Mandy waited in the hall, her woolly head, covered with a bright bandanna handkerchief, cocked in a listening attitude until she heard Kitty and Ted Rodgers depart and the side door closed. Taking a general survey of the empty hall, Mandy limped back into Kitty’s bedroom and drew a tufted armchair up to the grate, selecting a “comfortable” from those stored in the hall closet and wrapping herself in it, she settled down in the chair. For a time she was wakeful, but as the hands of the clock approached the hour, her head drooped sideways and a subdued snore gave proof that she had fallen asleep. So sound was her slumber that the incessant clatter of the bell on the branch telephone, [Pg 205]which Kitty had had installed the day before, made no impression upon her.
From her corner near the fire the angora cat, Mouchette, slumbered also. A shower of sparks, as a piece of burning cannel-coal dropped through the grate, singed her fur and woke her just as a figure crept through the partly open bedroom door and into the room. Its objective seemed to be an old-fashioned secretary in the southeast corner of the room. At sight of Mandy, asleep in the chair, the intruder paused, listened attentively to her regular breathing, then, reassured, moved onward across the room, followed by Mouchette’s large yellow eyes.
The cat licked her singed fur, then, with a faint “mew,” started in the direction of the secretary. A second later a graceful leap had landed her on the chair beside it, and she purred contentedly as the intruder turned and gently stroked her head. In her chair by the fire old Mandy snored peacefully, oblivious alike of the rustle of papers being removed from the secretary and the antics of the cat.
Kitty was relieved to find Ted Rodgers a silent companion as they drove out to Chevy Chase, for she was in no mood for small talk. The rush of the cold air against her hot cheeks and the steady throb of the motor as the car raced up one hill and down another brought a sense of relaxation and [Pg 206]rest to her tired nerves. A restless longing to get out of the house, away from her thoughts, had pursued her all day. The big, silent man by her side and his air of protection were a tonic in themselves, and she forgot her sorrows and perplexities in the enjoyment of the unexpected trip to Chevy Chase, Washington’s fashionable suburb.
Nearly a year before, Charles Craige had purchased from one of his clients a cottage in Chevy Chase and had moved his Lares and Penates from his bachelor apartment in the Hadleigh. His English butler, Lambert, and the latter’s wife, Mildred, ran his house for him, as they had his apartment. Invitations to his hospitable entertainments were eagerly sought, for he was a born host and nothing gave him more delight than to have his friends about him. Mothers with marriageable daughters and widows never lost hope of catching so worthwhile a parti and Craige had been reported engaged upon numerous occasions. Kitty had always entertained a genuine affection for her godfather, to whose kind offices she had owed many attentions upon her début in Washington society. It was he who had introduced her to Mrs. Parsons, and through his suggestion the gay widow had secured Kitty as her social secretary.
In what seemed an incredibly short time to Kitty, Ted Rodgers drove his roadster under the porte-[Pg 207]cochère of “Hideaway.” Lambert came immediately in answer to Kitty’s ring, and his usually solemn manner thawed at the sight of her.
“The master will be ’ere in a moment,” he explained, helping them off with their wraps. “Just step into the living room, Miss Kitty. I ’ave a fresh fire laid there. Mr. Craige told me you were h’expected.”
The living room always aroused Ted Rodgers’ admiration, for it represented his idea of comfort combined with good taste. Craige had a love of art and an appreciation of the beautiful and ample means to gratify both. In furnishing his house, he had spared no expense.
“Aunt Susan was very fond of this room,” Kitty said as she wandered about examining the paintings on the walls. “She and Mr. Craige were great cronies. In fact,” and Kitty’s smile showed each pretty dimple, “he was about the only man she approved of.”
“So she told me,” Rodgers’ smile was fleeting. “I wasn’t in her good graces—” he stooped to pick up the fire-tongs which Lambert had inadvertently left lying on the floor before the brass fender when hurrying to answer the front door bell. “Your aunt gave me to understand at our last interview that I was persona non grata. Had she lived,” Rodgers [Pg 208]paused and looked at Kitty, “I imagine she would have tried to turn you against me.”
Kitty blushed. “It wasn’t you in particular,” she began impulsively. “Aunt Susan was frequently discourteous to my friends. There were none she liked when she found they—they—that is, that they liked me.” She laughed to cover her confusion.
“They wished to marry you—as I do—” the words caught her unawares. “Kitty, my darling,” he pleaded. “Don’t turn from me; give me a chance. I’ve loved you so silently, so deeply—” his voice shook with feeling. “You have grown to be my life—my religion—”
“No; you must hear me, Kitty.” He was pale with the intensity of his emotion. “I thought that I could be content just to see you—to be with you; but it has gone beyond that. I must know if there is a chance for me. Is there, my dearest? I know that I am unworthy—”
Kitty’s heart was beating to suffocation as she turned bravely and faced him. She had flirted many a time before and had turned aside a proposal with light-hearted banter, but her coquetry had deserted her utterly.
“Ted!” she whispered.
“Kitty!” In an instant his arms were about her. “Kitty!” His voice deepened. “My best be[Pg 209]loved—” and as she raised her head to look into his eyes their lips met in the first kiss of love.
Forgetful of all else save each other, the lovers were brought back to the everyday world and their surroundings by a determined cough. Looking hastily around, Kitty spied Charles Craige regarding them from the doorway.
“Sorry to interrupt,” he said dryly; then as Kitty ran to him, her eyes like twin stars and the rich color mantling her cheeks, his manner altered and his tone grew tender. “Dear child, in so far as I may, I give you a father’s blessing. Rodgers, you are to be congratulated,” and his hearty handshake emphasized his words. His eyes strayed to a large portrait photograph of Mrs. Amos Parsons which was the chief ornament on the mantel-piece. “I can understand and appreciate your happiness,” he added. “I hope some day soon to tell you I have won the dearest woman in the world—”
“Except one—” broke in Rodgers, glancing proudly at Kitty.
“Perhaps so,” agreed Craige cheerily. “And when is the engagement to be announced?”
“Oh, don’t say a word about it, please,” Kitty begged; then, with a quick shy glance at Rodgers, “We must keep the secret until the mystery surrounding Aunt Susan’s death is solved.”
“It makes a double incentive to clear up the case,” [Pg 210]declared Rodgers. “Come, Kitty, sit by the fire and I’ll explain to Craige the errand which brought us to see him to-night.”
Obediently, Kitty curled herself up on the big sofa which stood facing the huge open fireplace. Her unhappy restlessness had deserted her. In its stead a feeling of peace, of renewed courage and unutterable happiness encompassed her, and she was content to sit idly by and watch the two men. As they stood with their backs to the fire, she was struck by their distinguished appearance. Craige, with his iron-grey hair and dark moustache, was the handsomer of the two, but Kitty decided that Rodgers’ more rugged features, offset by the deep dimple, almost a cleft in his chin, indicated the more determined character. His dark hair was inclined to curl, in spite of every effort on his part to keep it straight, and Kitty liked its wavy appearance better than the severe style which Craige preferred. As Craige held a match to Rodgers’ cigar she was surprised by their similarity in height. Had any one asked her she would have said that Rodgers was the heavier and the taller by a quarter of an inch.
“This afternoon,” Rodgers had waited to commence his explanation of their call until his cigar was drawing nicely. “Kitty overheard an unknown woman bribe Oscar to steal some papers which had belonged to her aunt, Miss Susan Baird.”
“That is interesting,” Craige pulled his mustache thoughtfully. “You say the woman was unknown. Describe her appearance, Kitty.”
“I can’t, for I did not see her,” she explained. “The woman had gone when I looked into the garden, and Oscar with her.”
“Then you haven’t questioned Oscar?”
“Oscar,” Kitty spoke more slowly, “according to Mandy, Oscar was on the train to Front Royal this afternoon, but I can swear that it was Oscar I heard; also the woman called him by name.”
“Then it must have been Oscar,” Craige commented dryly. “And Mandy lied to you.”
“What could have been her object?” asked Kitty. “She must realize that we can trace Oscar’s whereabouts.”
“That is already being done by the police,” Rodgers put in quickly. “I called up Inspector Mitchell from your house, Kitty, while you were upstairs getting your wraps, and told him that Oscar had disappeared. He promised to try and locate the old man at once.”
“Good!” Craige’s tone spoke his satisfaction. “Now, as to the woman, did her voice give you no clue to her identity, Kitty?”
“No, I could not place it—” Kitty hesitated. “But I am convinced that I have heard her voice before.”
“Very likely,” agreed Craige. “It must have [Pg 212]been some one who knew your aunt, and therefore is probably acquainted with you, also. Now, what papers could she have wanted?”
“That is the question which has brought us to see you,” Kitty explained. “Yesterday I gave you the contents of Aunt Susan’s desk—”
“Her papers are here—” As he spoke, Craige went over to a table and pulling out one of the drawers, carried it back to the sofa and put it down by Kitty. “Hereafter I will keep all Susan’s papers in my office vault, now that I know some one is vitally interested in gaining possession of them.”
“Have you looked them over?” questioned Rodgers.
Craige nodded assent. “They are receipted bills for taxes, marketing, and so forth. See, Kitty,” holding up a bundle neatly tied with red tape. “Your aunt was very methodical.”
“She was indeed,” Kitty sighed as she untied one of the bundles. “Suppose we each take a package and run through it.”
Silence prevailed while the packages were being opened and gone over with a thoroughness which omitted nothing. Kitty’s nimble fingers made quicker work of the knotted red tape and therefore to her fell the last bundle in the drawer. As she turned over the commonplace receipted bills, most of them for groceries and coal, she thought bitterly [Pg 213]of the frugality which she and her aunt had needlessly practiced, and of the years she had spent in denying herself pleasures which the average American girl accepts, not as luxuries, but as necessities. Expert bank officials had estimated the negotiable securities and money left by her aunt as totalling over eight hundred thousand dollars—nearly a million—and her aunt had lived a life of genteel poverty during all the years that Kitty could remember.
As Kitty sorted the bills in her lap, a small envelope, yellow and worn with age, tumbled out. She opened it and, unfolding the old-fashioned note paper, read the cramped penmanship with some difficulty.
“This is evidently a love letter addressed to Aunt Susan,” she exclaimed. “Listen,” and she read aloud:
Richmond, Va., April 1, 1867.
My Darling Susan:
I have called upon your mother and disclosed my affection for you, and she has graciously given me permission to marry you.
I hope that I may never meet with your disapprobation.
Transported with joy and expectation, I am
Your fond lover,
James Leigh Wallace.
Kitty looked at her companions in wide-eyed as[Pg 214]tonishment. “James Leigh Wallace,” she repeated. “Who could that be?”
“Leigh Wallace’s father,” Rodgers replied. “I knew the old man. But—” he paused, “that James Leigh Wallace married Colonel Holt’s sister, Anne Holt.”
Craige completed his examination of old receipts and retied the bundle. “Do you suppose, Kitty, that your aunt could have been secretly married?” he asked.
For answer Kitty held up a small object and a newspaper clipping which she had taken a second before from the envelope containing the love letter.
“It is a withered rose,” she said softly, holding it out in the palm of her hand. “And this—” she opened the clipping—“the notice of the marriage in San Francisco of Anne Holt to James Leigh Wallace, on April 1, 1869.” She looked up in wonder. “See, here at the bottom of the clipping is written one word in Aunt Susan’s handwriting—‘jilted!’”
Craige was the first to speak.
“It is not surprising that Miss Susan Baird hated young Leigh Wallace,” he remarked quietly. “She was not the type of woman to forgive an injury or forget an insult.”