When Nina Potter reëntered the library a few minutes later she found Charles Craige playing with the Angora cat, Mouchette. With a word of greeting she moved over to the fire and held out her hands before the blaze. Craige, who had risen at sight of her, observed her effort to avoid his gaze.
“I feel chilled,” she confessed, and a shiver shook her from head to foot.
“You have a bad cold,” Craige remarked. “Was it wise to linger in the garden—?”
Nina, intent on her own thoughts, never noticed the gravity of his manner.
“Perhaps not,” she admitted absently. “I should have remembered my coat. Where is Kitty?”
“Upstairs, I imagine. Your husband went to find her.”
“Ben!” Nina whirled around. “Ben—here?”
“Look out, you will scorch yourself,” Craige stepped hastily toward her. “Don’t stand so near the fire.”
“I am in no danger—” but Nina drew away from the fireplace with a paler face. “How long have you been in the library, Mr. Craige?”
“About ten minutes.”
“Was Ben here with you?”
“I found him here when I arrived. Do sit down, Mrs. Potter, you look utterly fagged,” and Craige wheeled forward a chair. As she still remained standing he started to remonstrate, but the words died on his lips as Kitty came into the room, followed by Ben Potter.
“Thank heaven you are here,” she cried, running to her godfather’s side. “You will bring Ben to his senses.”
Potter walked up to them, his eyes ablaze with anger. “I’ve told her a few plain truths,” he stated. His truculent manner made anything but an agreeable impression on Craige, who viewed him with contempt. He had no use for bullies.
“Stop shouting, Ben,” he remarked cuttingly. “You forget you are addressing your cousin and your wife.”
Nina moved slightly to one side and looked at her husband. Upon his entrance she had shrunk behind Craige. The movement had been instinctive.
“Why are you so excited, dear?” she asked, timidly.
Potter avoided her gaze and addressed Craige. [Pg 272]“I’m tired of mysteries,” he declared. “First, Cousin Susan is murdered, brutally murdered, poor old lady; then my friend, Ted Rodgers, is shot while driving in his own car with Kitty—and Kitty’s revolver, with one chamber discharged, is found in the car. Damn it!” His teeth clenched together. “It’s time the police took action.”
“We will, never worry—” Inspector Mitchell, who had been an interested spectator of the scene from the doorway, stepped inside the library, his face set and stern. “Allow me to conduct this investigation in my own way, Mr. Potter. Stand aside, sir.” He turned to address some one in the hall. “Welsh, go tell Major Wallace that he will find Miss Baird here and not in the parlor.”
“Wallace!” Potter faced about. “Is he still hanging around here? Why don’t you throw him out?”
“Major Wallace has a perfect right to come here if he wishes to.” Kitty spoke with warmth. “How dare you, Ben, dictate who shall call here and who shall not? This is my house.”
“Is it?” Potter had lashed himself into a fury—a fury apparently intensified by the arrival of Leigh Wallace, for he turned and shook his fist at the young officer. “As your nearest of kin, Kitty, I insist that your aunt’s wishes be carried out and that you shall not receive Wallace again. She knew [Pg 273]what character of man he is—and that knowledge was the cause of her death.”
Craige stepped forward. “Are you aware of what you are saying, Ben?” he asked. “That you virtually accuse Major Wallace of killing Miss Susan Baird?”
“Sure.” Potter laughed recklessly. “Miss Baird had proof of his treachery—”
“Treachery? To whom?” Craige’s hand on Kitty’s shoulder warned her to be silent as he shot his questions at the distraught naturalist.
“To Kitty—playing fast and loose with her affections, and holding clandestine meetings with—” Potter licked his dry mouth, while his eyes, inflamed with hate, rested on Wallace’s white face, “with my wife.”
“You lie!” The denial rang out clearly. Only Inspector Mitchell’s powerful arm prevented Wallace from springing on Potter. “You d—mn scoundrel, to blacken your wife’s name.”
“Stop! Stop!” Nina Potter wrung her hands. “You are both mad!”
“This scene has gone far enough!” Craige spoke with authority. His calmness brought some comfort to Kitty—they were not all losing their heads! “Quiet, Potter. Now, Mitchell, what have you to say?”
Inspector Mitchell surveyed the small circle with [Pg 274]critical eyes. He noted Nina Potter, standing white-faced and terror-stricken, her gaze riveted on her infuriated husband. Kitty, bewilderment struggling with dawning horror as she stared at her cousin and his young wife and then at Wallace, had sunk down on the nearest chair. Wallace, his eyes downcast, stood swaying on his feet. Mitchell glanced at Craige and pointed slightly to Wallace. It was plain to both men that the young officer had been drinking.
“Suppose we sit down,” Mitchell indicated the chairs about the tea table, and taking their consent for granted, deliberately seated himself. With some hesitancy, Potter followed his example and Wallace did so mechanically. Nina Potter, her feet dragging as she stumbled nearer, half fell into an armchair and Craige took the vacant one by Kitty’s side.
“Draw up,” Mitchell directed. “I will lay my cards on the table—and then, Mr. Potter,” as the naturalist started to speak, “we’ll hear what you have to say. Until then, keep quiet.”
Mitchell spoke in a tone which commanded respect and Potter sullenly obeyed him. The silence remained unbroken for a tense moment, then the portières were drawn aside and Welsh, the plain clothes detective, stuck his head inside the library.
“Mrs. Parsons,” he announced, and drew back to let her enter.
Half way across the library the pretty widow paused and inspected the company assembled around the tea table in astonishment.
“My dear Kitty,” she said, dropping her lorgnette. “I stopped only for a minute,” she hesitated. “I fear I am de trop,” and she turned to leave.
“Not a bit of it.” Mitchell spoke so quickly that Kitty, who had risen, had no opportunity to answer Mrs. Parsons. The instinct of courtesy gained ascendancy over her perturbed spirit, and she offered her chair to the pretty widow. “Join us here, Mrs. Parsons,” added Mitchell. “We want your advice.”
Mrs. Parsons’ smile was charming, but her eyes were keenly alert as she moved forward, searching each face for a clue to the scene which she felt she had interrupted. Not observing where she was going, she stepped on something soft. A loud wail from Mouchette caused her to start convulsively, and the Angora cat, switching her injured tail, back and forth, sprang on Kitty’s vacant chair and from there to the tea table.
“That cat is always under my feet, horrid beast!” Mrs. Parsons, conscious of appearing ridiculous, for Wallace had not restrained a chuckle, spoke with irritation.
“Let me help you,” and Craige, who with the other men had risen on the widow’s entrance, assisted her in removing her wrap.
Mrs. Parsons presented an alluring picture in her chic crêpe de Chine calling costume, its soft folds showing her graceful figure to advantage. Mrs. Parsons, with reason, was vain of her neck and arms and generally wore elbow sleeves and square cut neck. She was making a round of visits, and as she removed her long white gloves, she laid her gold card case and mesh bag before her on the tea table.
Mouchette eyed them for a second and then put out an inquisitive paw. Mrs. Parsons promptly drew both bag and card case out of the cat’s reach. Craige, who missed nothing the widow either said or did, lifted Mouchette off the table and held her on his knee. He was aware of Mrs. Parsons’ fear of cats. Mouchette submitted to his petting with good grace and much purring, and finally curled up in his lap, but her yellow eyes never ceased watching Mrs. Parsons.
“Is this a séance?” asked Mrs. Parsons as the silence continued. “If not,” her eyebrows lifted, “why are we sitting around this table?”
“We are waiting for Inspector Mitchell to, as he expressed it, ‘lay his cards on the table,’” Potter spoke with a sneer. “In other words, Cecelia, you are in at the death.”
Mrs. Parsons’ slight start was lost on all but Craige.
“Drop the melodrama, Ben,” he said. “We pre[Pg 277]fer to listen to Inspector Mitchell and not to you. Go on, Inspector.”
But the Inspector was doomed to another interruption, for as he hitched his chair closer to Nina Potter, the sound of footsteps in the gallery circling the library drew all eyes upward. With the aid of his nurse, Ted Rodgers was making his way down the gallery steps with faltering speed.
“Don’t any one rise,” he begged, as they started to their feet. Kitty was the first to reach his side.
“Ted, is this wise, dear?” she asked, making no attempt to conceal her anxiety. “How could you let him get up, Miss Gray?”
“She couldn’t help herself.” Rodgers gently but firmly disengaged his hand from Kitty’s tender clasp. “Go and sit down, dear; I’ll take this chair.”
Miss Gray aided him in pulling out the throne-shaped chair. By tacit consent the others had avoided sitting in it. As Rodgers sank back, the bandage on his head showed up plainly. Leigh Wallace transferred his gaze elsewhere. Vividly before him had loomed the memory of Miss Susan lying dead in her throne-shaped chair on Monday morning. Rodgers’ complexion matched the dead woman’s in pallor. His exertions had made him deadly faint and it was some seconds before he could gather his strength to speak with clearness.
“Don’t wait, Miss Gray,” he said courteously. [Pg 278]“They will call you if I need your aid. Thank you.” Then as the nurse withdrew, he turned to Inspector Mitchell. “Well, what news?”
“Miss Baird,” Mitchell cleared his throat and pointed to a typewritten manuscript which he had lain before him on the table just as Rodgers joined them. “You quarreled with your aunt on Sunday—”
“We had an argument, I admit—” Kitty rubbed one nervous hand over the other—they were both cold.
“It was more than an argument—it was a quarrel, and about Major Leigh Wallace,” Mitchell’s manner was dictatorial. “Don’t contradict me, madam, I know.”
“Well, what else do you know?” demanded Craige, losing patience. “What’s that document you have there, Mitchell?”
“All in good time, sir.” Mitchell’s smile was tantalizing. “You went out of here, Miss Baird, in a rage, because your aunt had ordered you not to return. Can you deny it?”
“Stop a moment,” Craige held up his hand. “You are not obliged to answer these questions, Kitty, except in a law court. Don’t overstep your authority, Mitchell.”
Mitchell’s only answer was to shrug his heavy [Pg 279]shoulders, and look across the table at Kitty. “Miss Baird,” he began. “You purchased some peaches for Mrs. Parsons on Saturday—”
She looked at him dumbly. Then at Mrs. Parsons, who gazed back at her in silent astonishment. “I bought some fruit for her on Saturday,” she admitted. “But if there were any peaches in the basket, they were there unknown to me.”
Mitchell smiled significantly. “Pretty thin,” he commented, and glanced over at Craige, before again addressing her. “You stopped to see Mrs. Parsons on Sunday morning, Miss Baird—and you brought those peaches home to your aunt.”
“I did not!” Kitty’s voice rang out clearly. “I was at Mrs. Parsons’ for a few minutes on Sunday on my way from church—”
“With Major Wallace?”
Kitty changed color. “Yes.”
“And Major Wallace went into the house with you?”
Kitty paused in uncertainty and her eyes sought Wallace. He sat lolling back in his chair, his air of indifference plainly assumed as his restless fingers played with the catch of Mrs. Parsons’ gold mesh bag.
“I went upstairs to see Mrs. Parsons,” she explained. “I left Major Wallace standing in the vestibule—”
“And the front door open—” Mitchell broke in rudely. He turned to Mrs. Parsons. “Your house is an English basement, with the drawing room on the second floor. Where is your dining room?”
“On the first floor.” Mrs. Parsons had been following the dialogue with unwavering attention. At her answer Mitchell nodded his head with an air of triumph.
“I’ll amend my statement, Miss Baird,” he said. “You did not carry those peaches home to your aunt, but Major Wallace did—when he called here to see her alone on Sunday afternoon.”
Wallace’s air of indifference dropped from him and he swung to his feet, his hands clenched. “You’re a damned liar!” he shouted.
“Shouting won’t help matters,” Mitchell remarked. “For I have the goods on you.” He tapped the papers in front of him. “Here is the sworn testimony of Mrs. Murray, who saw you enter this house on Sunday afternoon with a paper package under your arm, and when you left you carried no package and were so agitated that you weren’t even conscious of bumping into Mrs. Murray as you hurried down the street toward Washington.”
Wallace stared at the Inspector and then at the others, but always his eyes passed over Nina Potter, sitting huddled in her chair, her eyes upraised in mute pleading.
“Well,” his voice was hoarse—discordant. “What if I did bring some peaches to Miss Susan as a ‘peace offering?’” His lips twitched into a ghastly smile. “It doesn’t follow that I murdered her.”
“No—?” Mitchell’s tone expressed incredulity. “That’s for the jury to decide.” He looked across at Kitty. “You I charge with being an accessory to the crime.”
Charles Craige was the first to speak. “You bring a serious charge against my godchild,” he said sternly. “I demand your proof.”
Mitchell turned slightly to address the man on his left. “How about it, Mr. Potter?” he asked.
Potter seemed to have some difficulty in speaking, for a moment elapsed before he answered.
“Kitty spent Sunday night with us,” he began. “I came home late, having been detained at my club, and was surprised to see Kitty walk out of my apartment house and jump into Major Wallace’s car—”
He got no further. Kitty was on her feet, her face scarlet.
“You saw me?” she cried. “Me!”
“Yes,” meeting her gaze unwaveringly. “I recognized your red coat.” He paused, then added slowly, “I followed you to Georgetown and saw you enter this house—”
Kitty dropped back in her chair as if shot. Her [Pg 282]eyes wandered from Nina Potter, sitting with head averted, to Wallace, who stared straight in front of him, and then to Ted Rodgers, who sat with closed eyes, his head resting against the high back of the throne-shaped chair. No one broke the tense silence and after a brief pause Mitchell spoke.
“You got your aunt’s fortune, Miss Baird—and then you got cold feet—” he paused dramatically. “There was one man who suspected you, and so you tried to do away with him. I found your revolver, with one chamber discharged in the bottom of Mr. Rodgers’ car—”
“So I have heard,” Kitty’s fighting spirit was coming to her aid. It had conquered her feeling of deadly faintness, and she faced them, white-lipped but with blazing eyes. “And who was with you, Inspector, when you made that discovery?”
“My chauffeur and Mr. Potter.”
“Is that so?” Kitty’s smile was peculiar as she glanced at her cousin. “Has it occurred to you that it may be manufactured evidence?”
Mitchell looked at her in astonishment. “Are you accusing your cousin of lying?”
“He is accusing me of a far more despicable crime,” she retorted. “Of wilfully aiding in the murder of my aunt, of trying to kill the man whom, last night, I promised to marry—” she faced them proudly, her heart beating with suffocating rapidity. [Pg 283]Why, why had not Ted Rodgers spoken in her defense? “Mr. Rodgers,” she went on, after an almost imperceptible pause, “was shot by a person riding in a car which passed us when we were driving in Rock Creek Park last night. When I left this house with Mr. Rodgers, my revolver was upstairs in the drawer of my desk—” Again she paused, finding speech difficult—her throat felt parched and dry. “Upon my return I found not only you waiting for me, Inspector Mitchell, but Mr. Potter. My cousin knew where I kept my revolver; it was no secret. He could easily have slipped upstairs during the confusion of getting Mr. Rodgers to bed and sending for a nurse and doctor, secured my revolver and, unknown to you, dropped it in Mr. Rodgers’ car—for the purpose of incriminating me.”
“And Mr. Potter’s object in doing that?” questioned Mitchell, as she came to a breathless pause.
“Ask him—” and Kitty pointed to her cousin, who had half risen, then dropped back in his chair. Mitchell stared at them both for a second, then faced the throne-shaped chair.
“Can you tell us who shot you, Mr. Rodgers?” he
Rodgers opened his eyes and faced their concentrated attention.
“Miss Baird,” he commenced, and Kitty almost cried out at the formality of his address, “has told [Pg 284]you how the revolver might have been ‘planted’ in my car to incriminate her. To be exact it was thrown into the car by the person who shot me, and with it a handkerchief.” He fumbled in his pocket and pulled out a piece of linen, bloodstained and torn. “You bound my head, did you not, before you started to drive me home?” turning to Kitty.
“My nurse—” Rodgers was speaking more clearly, “showed me the handkerchiefs which Dr. McLean had removed to put on a proper bandage,” touching his head. “Look at that handkerchief, Mitchell—and tell us what you see.”
Mitchell spread out the costly linen so that all could view it.
“A woman’s handkerchief,” he remarked. “There’s an initial in the corner—the letter—” holding it closer—“the letter ‘P.’” In the utter stillness that followed he laid down the handkerchief. “‘P,’” he repeated musingly—“Potter.”
A cry escaped Nina Potter and she shrank back in her chair, her face buried in her hands, shaking from head to foot. “Not that,” she gasped. “Not that!”
Ted Rodgers bent forward. “‘P’ stands as well for ‘Parsons,’” he commented, and got no further.
“Yo’se done said it!” gasped a voice behind them, and Oscar, perspiration trickling down his black [Pg 285]face, came forward, his arm tightly clutched by Welsh, the plain clothes’ detective. “Dar’s de woman who done up ole Miss,” shaking his fist in Mrs. Parsons’ face. “I see’d her acreepin’ away from here on Monday mawnin,’ an’—”
“You—you—Oscar!” Mrs. Parsons’ voice rose and cracked. Again she tried to speak in her natural tones—“Oscar!”
Kitty cried out—a chord of memory had been touched—
“It was you I heard trying to bribe Oscar!” she exclaimed. “You!”
Mrs. Parsons turned with livid face to Charles Craige.
“Charles—they—she—stop her!” She reeled backward and Craige, awakening from his stupor, flung Mouchette toward Kitty and reached forward to catch Mrs. Parsons as she swayed dangerously near the edge of her chair.
The Angora cat, roused suddenly from her sleep, missed Kitty by the fraction of an inch and alighted in Mrs. Parsons’ lap. As the terrified woman attempted to throw her down, the cat sank her claws into her bare arm, tearing the delicate flesh with gash after gash.
The men sprang to Mrs. Parsons’ aid, but too late. Her screams gave place to a gurgling cry and she sank back a dead weight. Mitchell, kneeling by [Pg 286]her side, stared at her convulsed features in horror as his hand went to her wrist.
“By God! She’s dead!” he gasped in awe. His glance traveled downward. “Look—look at the cat!” His shaking finger pointed to where Mouchette sat licking first one paw and then the other. A streak of blood was flowing from where she had gashed herself in her fury. Suddenly they saw the cat stiffen, throw back her head convulsively, roll over and lie still.
A clicking sound caused Inspector Mitchell to whirl around in time to see a pair of handcuffs dangling from Charles Craige’s wrists.
“What—what?” he gasped.
“Charles Craige—murderer of Miss Susan Baird,” explained Rodgers. “Don’t move,” and a revolver rested dangerously near Craige’s heart. “Open your hand.” The command was accompanied by a threatening movement of the revolver.
Slowly, very slowly Craige did as he was told. A small rubber bulb syringe dropped to the floor.
“Don’t touch it,” Rodgers cried sharply, as Mitchell bent down. “It is filled with the poison which Craige sprayed on the cat’s paw—and thus killed Cecelia Parsons, his fiancée.”