The Cat's Paw

by Natalie Sumner Lincoln

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Chapter XVI - A Startling Encounter

Ted Rodgers ran down the three steps leading to the porte-cochère of “Hideaway,” and opened the door of his car.

“Wouldn’t you like to drive?” he asked, turning to Kitty standing in the doorway with Charles Craige. Kitty’s hesitation was brief.

“Indeed I would!” she exclaimed. “I feel all keyed up—”

Craige smiled indulgently. “Get as much pleasure as you can,” he advised. “You deserve the good things of life, Kitty. Now, put your aunt’s tragic death out of your mind—for to-night, at least,” observing her sober expression. “I will see you to-morrow and we will make a further search among your aunt’s belongings for the papers wanted so mysteriously. Rodgers, take good care of her,” and he waved his hand in farewell as Kitty started the car down the driveway.

Craige’s picturesque cottage, “Hideaway,” concealed from its neighbors by tall box hedges, was [Pg 216]located on a street near Chevy Chase Circle, and, as their car made the turn around it, Rodgers bent closer to Kitty.

“Let’s run through Rock Creek Park,” he coaxed. “It isn’t very much further, and—” his voice grew very tender. “I want so to talk to you all by yourself.”

Kitty wavered a moment in doubt. She had promised Mandy to return within the hour—but she had already stayed more than an hour at her godfather’s home. Probably Mandy had long since gone to bed. Rodgers’ hand on her’s settled her hesitation as, with tender clasp, he turned the steering wheel toward the road leading into the park.

The heavy wind of the early evening had died down and as they sped down the moonlit road Kitty’s cup of happiness seemed filled to the brim. They drove in silence—the silence of perfect companionship and understanding—each content with the other’s presence and their thought of one another.

“Stop here a moment; the view over the Park is wonderful.” Rodgers leaned forward and pushed up the windshield to the farthest limit. “You can see better now.” But when Kitty slowed down at the side of the road she found him regarding her and not the moonlight on the rolling hills and valley before them.

“You meant it, Kitty; you do care for me?” he asked wistfully. “Really care?”

Kitty’s soft laugh held happiness behind it. “I care so much—” her voice dropped to a mere whisper and he had to lean still closer to catch what she said. “My love is yours, always—always.”

Rodgers held her in close embrace. “My beloved,” he murmured and he kissed her with a fervor which left her breathless.

“Ted,” she said, a little later. “Aunt Susan’s love letter haunts me. It told a pitiful story.”

He nodded soberly. “Perhaps that is what warped her nature,” he suggested. “James Leigh Wallace was an out-and-out scoundrel. He gambled his soul away—anything to gain money to lose in some gambling hell.”

“I never heard of him before,” she replied. “Now I understand Aunt Susan’s antipathy to his son. I thought it unreasoning dislike. Leigh—” she hesitated.

“I’ve been so jealous of Leigh,” Rodgers confessed. “Every one thought you were engaged.”

“People are such idiots!” she ejaculated, then added almost in a whisper, “It was always you, dear, never Leigh, that I cared for. He was with me because—because Nina Potter and I were together.”

A low whistle escaped Rodgers. “By jove!” he [Pg 218]exclaimed. “I did hear some time ago that Leigh was attentive to a Miss Underwood—it never dawned on me that she was the one who married Ben Potter.”

“Did you know Leigh very well in San Francisco?” asked Kitty.

“Pretty well, before he entered the army—civilian appointment, you know,” he added. “I used to see him frequently at Mrs. Parsons’ home in San Francisco. By the way, Ben was a great friend of hers in those days.”

“Who, Mrs. Parsons—?” quickly.

“Yes—some people thought she might marry him.”

Kitty smiled. “The idea is droll,” she commented. “Ben has chosen a much more suitable wife. I cannot imagine Mrs. Parsons and Ben in love with each other; they are such opposite natures. But, dear,” turning troubled eyes toward him, “you say Mrs. Parsons and Leigh were good friends—there’s something I must tell you. Just vague suspicions,” she hesitated. “I cannot bear to be disloyal—to harbor suspicions against a man I have called my friend, but—” she took from her pocket a piece of mauve-colored paper—“I lunched with Leigh to-day at the Shoreham and our waiter slipped this paper into his hand. Leigh carelessly dropped it on [Pg 219]my doorstep, and not realizing what I was doing, I read it.”

Rodgers took the paper and, holding it under the dash-light, peered at the writing. “Leigh, you are watched,” he read the words aloud and then reversed the paper.

“There is nothing else on it,” Kitty explained. “But the message is in Mrs. Parsons’ handwriting.”

In the darkness Kitty failed to see Rodgers’ odd expression. After waiting vainly for some comment, she added, “Do you suppose that Mrs. Parsons suspects Leigh is in some way responsible for Aunt Susan’s death?”

“That might be inferred.” Rodgers folded the paper and placed it carefully in his leather wallet. “With your permission, I’ll keep this.”

“Certainly, Ted.” Kitty put her foot on the self-starter. “I am only too thankful to give it to you and to have you, dear, to confide in.” He returned her warm handclasp with a grip that hurt. “But, Ted, how is it that Mrs. Parsons knows that the police are watching Leigh?”

“The police?” echoed Rodgers. “Oh, ah, yes. Perhaps she has had another call from Inspector Mitchell; I saw him coming away from there yesterday.”

“But why in the world should he confide in Mrs. Parsons?”

“I don’t know—” Rodgers was frowning in the darkness, and Kitty, intent on starting the car, did not notice the alteration in his voice. “I don’t know why any one puts trust in Mrs. Parsons.”

“Why, Ted!” Kitty looked at him in surprise. “I never knew you disliked Mrs. Parsons.”

“I have no use for her,” he admitted. “I never did like cats—even your Mouchette.”

“Imagine putting Mrs. Parsons in a class with Mouchette,” Kitty chuckled, then grew grave. “Ted, you don’t suppose, really suppose, that Leigh could have killed Aunt Susan, a defenceless old lady.”

“With a serpent’s tongue.” The words were no sooner spoken than Rodgers regretted them. “Forgive me, darling—”

“I know poor Aunt Susan was not loved—.” A sigh escaped Kitty. “Can it be that Aunt Susan quarreled with Leigh over his father’s treatment of her—”

“It might be,” Rodgers’ tone was grave. “But so far we do not even know that Leigh was at your house on Sunday afternoon. Don’t brood over the tragedy, Kitty: forget it, for to-night, at least. Here’s a clear stretch of road ahead—step on the gas.”

Instinctively, Kitty followed his suggestion and the car shot ahead. The wind fanned their cheeks through the opened windshield, and Kitty was con[Pg 221]scious of a feeling of exhilaration as they tore onward, gathering speed with each throb of the powerful engine. In the distance Kitty descried a car approaching and dimmed her headlights. The courtesy was not returned; instead a spotlight swung directly on them and Kitty, blinded by the glare, swerved to the right as the oncoming car swept up. She heard a deafening report, something swished by her, and the car raced up the road they had just traversed.

Checking the speed of her own car, Kitty swung it back into the center of the road and turned, white-lipped, to Rodgers.

“How dare they drive like that!” she gasped. “They must be drunk or cra—” Her voice failed her at sight of Rodgers sitting huddled back in the car—there was something unnatural in his pose which chilled the blood in her veins. “Ted!”

Her call met with no response.

Slowly she put out her hand and touched his shoulder; then her hand crept upward to his face and forehead. What she touched felt moist and sticky. She jerked her hand downward so that the light from the dash-lamp fell upon it. It was covered with blood.

There was a sound of a thousand Niagaras roaring in her ears as she brought the roadster to a standstill and turned to Rodgers. Bending down [Pg 222]she pressed her ear over his heart—its feeble beat reassured her—he was still alive.

Kitty searched frantically for her handkerchief and for his. Tying them together she bound his wound as best she could; then with compressed lips and in breathless haste she started the car headlong for Washington. As they tore madly down the road, one question only throbbed through her aching head:

Who had shot her lover?


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