Charles Craige sat staring into vacancy, while beads of perspiration trickled down his ghastly face. Several drops slipped into his eyes and half blinded him. Raising his hands he brushed them away. The action brought the handcuffs encircling his wrists into view. He regarded them apathetically, then his uncomprehending gaze traveled over the horror-stricken men and women grouped about his chair. It was not until he saw Kitty Baird that the situation dawned upon him. Before the others suspected his intention, he sprang at her, his manacled hands upraised to strike. The blow was turned aside by Inspector Mitchell, who darted to Kitty’s assistance.
“Hold him down in that chair, Welsh,” he directed as the detective came to his aid. Rodgers, whose false strength had departed, dropped into the nearest chair, the revolver hanging useless in his grasp. His shot, as Craige sprang forward, had gone wild. Kitty was by his side in an instant.
“I’m all right,” he panted, as she bent over him. “Don’t worry, my darling. Now, Craige, what have you to say?”
“Say?” Craige was winded from his exertions and spoke with difficulty. “Why should I say anything?”
“Because the game’s up,” Mitchell stated, and stepped aside so that Craige had a clear view of Cecelia Parsons. “Why did you kill that woman?”
“I did not mean to kill Cecelia,” Craige shouted. “God knows I did not.” His bloodshot eyes again sought Kitty. “I threw the cat at you. Cecelia called to me to stop you—”
“Ah, so Mrs. Parsons aided you in your murder of Miss Susan Baird,” broke in Mitchell.
“She did not.” Craige, his tongue unloosened, spoke in desperate haste, his words tripping over one another. It seemed almost as if he gained courage from the sound of his own voice. “Miss Susan Baird was warned—but she would not listen to me.”
“Why did you kill my aunt?” demanded Kitty, indignation for the moment mastering her horror. “She was always kind to you. She trusted you.”
“Trust? It was greed which prompted her friendship.” Craige laughed harshly, jeeringly. “It was by my aid that she made her fortune. Do you know [Pg 289]what she was—your aristocratic aunt—a money-lender!”
Kitty stared at him—appalled. “It can’t be,” she cried, and turned appealingly to Ted Rodgers. “Make him tell the truth.”
“I am speaking the truth,” Craige retorted. “Many’s the person I’ve brought over here when you, Kitty, were not around, and your aunt has admitted us at that side door. She charged high rates of interest, but no one gave her away. She was square with them.”
“Were you square with her?” asked Rodgers quietly, and a dull red suffused Craige’s white face.
“When I had to borrow, she treated me like the others,” he answered. “The fact that I helped her amass a fortune cut no ice. I got deeper and deeper in debt, and then—” his voice changed. “I had to have money, so I told her I wanted to marry you.”
Kitty retreated, aghast. “Marry me? You!”
“Yes,” coolly. “I am only fifty-four; there is not such a difference in our ages. I saw your aunt on Sunday about six o’clock. She laughed at me and refused to consent to our marriage.” Beads of perspiration had again gathered on his forehead, but he went steadily on with his story, oblivious apparently of the abhorrence with which his companions were regarding him. “I had forged Miss Susan Baird’s name in my desperation last week. I knew that if [Pg 290]Kitty and I were married quickly, she would keep quiet about the forgery for her family’s sake. When she laughed my plan to scorn, I realized there was only one thing to do—to kill her.”
“How did you go about it?” asked Mitchell.
It was some seconds before Craige answered. “I went prepared for failure,” he admitted. “I could not face ruin—perhaps the penitentiary for forgery. My father was a famous expert in toxicology and,” he moistened his lips—“I often worked in his laboratory,” with a side glance at the bulb syringe still lying where it had fallen on the floor. “I at first planned to squeeze some poison in her tea cup, but got no chance. Then Miss Baird asked me to peel a peach for her. I don’t know where the peaches came from, but there were three in a dish on the table. Before cutting the peach in two, I sprayed some hydrocyanic acid on the knife-blade when Miss Baird was not looking, holding the knife just over the edge of the table and the bulb in my left hand, out of sight in my lap.”
“It was devilishly ingenious,” commented Mitchell. “Well, did you steal the forged paper after killing the old lady?”
“No.” Craige looked at Kitty with a faint sneer. “It was among those canceled checks from the bank which you so obligingly left in your desk yesterday [Pg 291]alongside your revolver. I stole them both last night.”
“Last night?” Kitty looked at him in astonishment. “Why, we found you at home last night, Ted and I. We telephoned you first that we were coming and—”
“I answered the ’phone; quite so.” Craige’s smile was peculiar. “My butler, Lambert, is well trained and,” with emphasis, “well paid. He is quick at recognizing the voices of my intimate friends. I happened to be in Washington in my, eh, town apartment,” with a sidelong look at Kitty. “From there I have a direct wire to my switchboard in my house, and Lambert plugged in your call. You thought you were talking to me at ‘Hideaway,’ Rodgers, whereas I wasn’t six blocks away from here.
“I told Lambert to take care of you until I got home, then hurried over here. I have a key to the side door. It took but an instant to slip upstairs to your room and to go through your desk. Mandy never woke up, but that infernal cat,” with a vindictive snarl. “I wish I had strangled her. When I got back to ‘Hideaway,’ I found you and Kitty so engaged with each other that I knew you never realized the time I took to appear.”
“So that was it!” Rodgers drew a long breath. “And you followed us and tried to shoot me in the Park!”
“Yes.” Craige favored him with a scowl. “I got word yesterday that you were wise to the kind of life I was leading—you knew too much. I detected you watching me last night. If Kitty had not swerved her car when she did, I’d have potted you, for I’m a crack shot as a general thing.”
“And did you throw the revolver into the car as you dashed by?” asked Kitty.
“Yes. I had tied a handkerchief loosely about the butt of the revolver so as not to leave finger prints,” Craige added. “It was clever of you, Rodgers, to trace the handkerchief as you did. In my haste that night, I never noticed that I had one of Cecelia’s handkerchiefs in my pocket and none of my own.” He paused, his voice had grown husky. “Well, that clears up the mystery.”
“All but Mrs. Parsons’ part in it,” broke in Rodgers. “Where did she come in, Craige?”
Craige’s color mounted, then receded, leaving him deadly white.
“She cut a big splurge here,” he began, “and soon went through her money. She found out about Miss Baird and came here early Monday morning, knowing that Kitty was spending the night with her cousins, hoping to borrow from Susan. She found the front door open, so she told me, and walked in. When she discovered Miss Baird lying dead in the library, she bolted home and called up the police.”
“And why did she try to bribe Oscar?” demanded Kitty.
“She wanted some papers to prove that your aunt was a money-lender,” Craige twisted about, his growing uneasiness plainly indicated by his avoidance of their gaze.
“In other words,” cut in Mitchell. “Mrs. Parsons hoped to blackmail Miss Kitty Baird by threatening to expose her aunt’s career.”
Craige nodded sullenly. “Something like that,” he admitted.
Rodgers had not taken his eyes from him. “Did Mrs. Parsons know that you wished to marry Kitty?” he asked.
Craige shifted his feet about. “No,” he muttered.
“Did she know that you killed Miss Susan Baird?” Rodgers was persistent in his questioning.
“I’m not sure,” Craige glanced up at him quickly, then dropped his eyes. The sight of his handcuffs sent a shiver down his spine and he again shifted his gaze.
“Mrs. Parsons done picked up dat ar’ rubber ball befo’ she left on Monday mawnin’,” volunteered Oscar. The old man had been a fascinated witness of all that transpired; his face, gray from fright at the death of Cecelia Parsons, had regained its nor[Pg 294]mal hue somewhat, but his eyes still bulged from his head.
“She did!” A startled look crept into Craige’s ever shifting eyes. “Why, I found the cat playing with the syringe when I first entered this room. I knew that I had dropped it on Sunday, probably when I reëntered the library after Susan Baird screamed.” A shudder shook him, in spite of his iron self-control. “Seeing it here this afternoon, I supposed it had rolled in some corner, and been overlooked. I judged that the cat had selected it as a plaything.”
“It’s a wonder the cat didn’t poison herself,” commented Mitchell.
Craige’s face was distorted into what he meant for a smile. “There wasn’t a drop of poison left in the syringe,” he said. “I considered finding it a direct act of Providence, for I expected trouble of some kind, and brought with me a small phial of a concentrated solution of crotalidae—”
“What’s that?” asked Mitchell.
“Snake venom, and deadly when introduced into the blood,” explained Craige. “It’s sometimes used in drugs given by homeopathists. During the few minutes I was alone in the library I put the poison in the syringe.”
“But if Mrs. Parsons carried away the syringe on [Pg 295]Monday morning, how did it get back in this library to-day?” asked Kitty.
“She probably guessed that it was used to kill Miss Susan Baird in some way, and brought it back to incriminate Miss Kitty Baird,” declared Mitchell. “Mrs. Parsons was as clever as they make them, but she overreached herself when she tried to involve you, Mr. Rodgers. I kept the wires to San Francisco hot until I found out that the papers she produced to prove that you were involved in the Holt will forgery were ones found in Gentleman Jake’s house, when he and his confederates were trying to forge Holt’s will.” He turned to Craige. “Did you put Mrs. Parsons up to that deviltry, Mr. Craige?”
Craige ignored the question and Potter broke his long silence.
“I imagine he did,” he said. “Mrs. Parsons was the divorced wife of Gentleman Jake, and later she married Amos Parsons. He left some property and she came east. She’d have lived straight, Craige, if it hadn’t been for you.”
“Craige,” Mitchell’s harsh voice made the lawyer turn with a nervous jump. “Did you conceal that small bottle of prussic acid in the ivory dice cup?”
“Yes,” sullenly, then with a venomous glance at Kitty. “I hoped to involve you.”
“You yellow devil!” Ted Rodgers rose and stepped toward him, but Mitchell intervened.
“The law will deal with him, Mr. Rodgers; stand back, Sir. Now, Craige, come on—” and, at a sign, Welsh, the detective, took his place by the lawyer.
Twice Craige tried to get upon his feet, only to sway back into his seat. He had aged in the past hour, and when he finally stood upright his shoulders sagged forward and his trembling knees seemed unable to support him.
“Catch him on the other side, Welsh,” Mitchell directed. “Mr. Potter, please telephone to Coroner Penfield.” With a jerk of his head he indicated the prone figure behind them. “Mrs. Parsons cannot be moved until he gets here. Come, Craige.”
Craige moved forward a few hesitating steps and then halted. An irresistible attraction which he could not conquer drew his eyes toward Cecelia Parsons. Whatever emotion he felt he controlled admirably. He stood for a moment motionless, then, without glancing to right or left, he squared his shoulders and swinging around strode arrogantly from the library, the two men on either side walking rapidly to keep up with him.
The silence in the library grew oppressive and Kitty was conscious of a feeling almost of nausea when Nina Potter came toward her.
“Kitty,” she said brokenly. “I did you a very [Pg 297]great wrong when I wore your red coat to come here on Sunday night with Leigh.”
“Did you not do your husband a greater wrong?” Kitty asked swiftly.
“No.” Nina flushed scarlet. “I am a coward, but I am a loyal wife.”
“I am entirely to blame,” Leigh Wallace turned and addressed Potter directly. “I was once engaged to your wife. We quarreled and she broke it off. I never saw or heard from her again until we met this winter. Nina would not let me pay her any attention, so, forgive me, Kitty, I went with you because I could be with Nina without arousing talk,” he hesitated.
No one spoke, and, after an instant’s pause, Wallace continued:
“On Saturday night Oscar brought me a note from Miss Susan Baird asking me to come here on Sunday at five o’clock. I did take the peaches from Mrs. Parsons’ table on a silly impulse, for I knew Miss Baird was fond of them and thought that I could placate her with a gift.
“When I got here she told me how my father had jilted her and of her hatred of me. She declared that she had secured, through bribing one of Nina’s servants, some old love letters of mine—they were undated, and she proposed showing them to Ben Potter. I tried in every way to induce her to return [Pg 298]them to me, even offering a large sum of money. She ordered me out of the house,” he paused. “Then I went to Nina and asked her to see Miss Baird and try to get her to give up the letters.”
“So I came over here with Leigh on Sunday night,” Nina Potter took up the story. “Miss Susan had loaned me your red coat, Kitty, last Wednesday to wear home when it blew up so cold. The coat is distinctive in appearance, and—well—” she faltered—“I knew if any one saw me, there was a chance I might be mistaken for you. Afterwards I got rid of the coat by selling it to a second-hand dealer.” She caught her husband’s averted gaze and colored painfully.
“Leigh left me at the side door of ‘Rose Hill,’” she added. “I entered the library—saw Miss Susan sitting there—dead—” she covered her eyes with her hand as if to shut out some terrifying vision and a shudder shook her. “I must have fainted, for it was late when I stole out of the house. I left by the front door, and in my terror I put the big key in the lock on the outside with some idea of locking poor Miss Susan in the house. I heard an automobile coming and ran away, forgetting to turn the key in the lock after all. When I got home I found Ben had not gotten in and that you were still asleep, Kitty—so—” she faltered again and glanced appealingly at her husband.
Potter stirred uneasily. “I drove around a bit,” he said. “Kitty, as I thought, coming over here at that time of night with Wallace troubled me, and I wanted time to think things over. When I heard of Cousin Susan’s murder—well, I—well, I kept silent until my jealousy of Wallace drove me to try and implicate Kitty and him in the crime.
“I saw you, Ted,” he turned to Rodgers, “come out of a second-hand clothing store on Pennsylvania Avenue with Kitty’s coat on your arm. The dealer told me that you had just paid twenty dollars for it. I decided that if the coat was worth that to you, it might be worth double the money to me: so I bribed the dealer to buy the coat back from you. When that scheme failed, I went to your apartment—”
“Where you failed again,” broke in Rodgers. “Your coat was accidentally burned up, Kitty, all except one pocket. In that pocket I found the clue which gave the first inkling that Charles Craige might have murdered your aunt—”
“What was it?” demanded Kitty breathlessly.
“An ‘I.O.U.,’ which your aunt must have slipped inside the coat pocket and forgotten. The signature was obliterated, but I recognized Craige’s handwriting,” Rodgers explained. “It showed me that Craige was under heavy financial obligations to Miss Susan Baird while all the time he protested absolute ignor[Pg 300]ance of her wealth. I immediately started to investigate Craige’s career, and it was that investigation, as he said a few minutes ago, which forced his hand last night—”
“And he nearly killed you!” Kitty’s eyes were shining as she faced her lover. “You endangered your life for me—”
Regardless of the others’ presence Rodgers drew her to his side.
“Sweetheart,” he murmured. “Sweetheart—”
“Ahem!” Ben Potter cleared his throat, and faced the others.
“Did you get your letters, Nina?” he asked, turning to his wife.
“Not then, only this afternoon,” she explained. “I found them in a box under the mattress of Miss Susan’s bed. Mrs. Parsons suspected that I was searching for something, for yesterday she told me that for a considerable sum of money she would aid me.”
“That woman was a fiend incarnate!” ejaculated Rodgers.
“She sho’ly was, Sah,” agreed Oscar. “She done her bes’ to make me tell de police that ole Miss let people have money. Yo’ see, Miss Kitty, ole Miss had me to help her, an’ I promised never to tell, an’ I never broke my promise, never.”
“Oscar!” Kitty’s eyes were dim with tears as she laid her hand on the faithful servant’s shoulder. “Where did you disappear yesterday?”
“Jes’ went down to my rooms an’ laid low,” promptly. “Mandy an’ me thought things were gettin’ kinda critical ’round hyar. Las’ night I heered yo’ an’ Mister Rodgers a-plannin’ to see Mister Craige, an’ then I went home again, scared stiff.”
“Wait, Oscar—” Rodgers interrupted him quickly. “Why did you ask me to find Miss Kitty’s red coat?”
“I seen some one a-wearin’ dat coat enter dis house as I was passin’ along de street late Sunday night,” the negro explained. “I couldn’t swear it warn’t yo’, Miss Kitty, an’ I couldn’t swear it were; but I calculated dat whoever ’twas might a lef’ somethin’ in de coat pockets to tell on them.”
“It was a clever thought,” exclaimed Rodgers. “But it would have been better had you taken me entirely into your confidence, Oscar.”
“Yessir.” But Oscar looked doubtful. “I was mighty concarned ’bout Miss Kitty, ’deed I was, Sah. It warn’t ’till jes’ a spell back that that detecertif man, Mister Welsh, who tried to find me in Front Royal an’ at las’ found me to home, ’splained to me I had orter be hyar wif yo’, Honey, Miss Kitty, so then I comed round wif him.”
Leigh Wallace heard the old man to the end, then stared moodily across the library. He started for the doorway and turned around.
“I’ve destroyed your letters, Nina,” he said. “I, forgive me, I feared that you had killed Miss Susan Baird on Sunday night. That was why I was so overcome when the crime was discovered. Mr. Potter,” he spoke with deep feeling. “Your wife loves you devotedly. I am but a forgotten incident in her life. I received my orders for foreign service to-day. Good-by.” He clicked his heels together and with a bow which included all in the library, turned and strode from the room.
At sound of the front door closing, Potter stepped forward. He was oblivious of any one’s presence but his wife.
“Nina, can you forgive me?” he asked humbly. “I have acted the part of a jealous fool.”
Nina’s answer was not in words. With a face in which joy obliterated the shadow of the past few days, she slipped her arm within his and he led her from the room.
“Doan yo’ wait hyar, Miss Kitty—” Oscar came forward a pace. “Jes’ you an’ Mister Rodgers go right along. I’ll stay wid dis—” and he nodded significantly at Rodgers. The latter turned to take a last survey of the library. Not far from Cecelia [Pg 303]Parsons lay a small furry body—both were rigid in death.
“Come, sweetheart—” Rodgers slipped his arm around Kitty and they walked toward the drawing room. Once there Kitty gave way to the grief consuming her.
“Poor Aunt Susan—how could Charles Craige have had the heart to kill her!” she exclaimed. “He was her trusted friend.”
“He was a man of masks,” Rodgers said gravely. “A man of character, well educated, a social favorite and a brilliant lawyer, but heredity proved too strong for him.” And as Kitty looked at him in question, he added, “Were you not aware that his father died insane?”
Kitty shook her head. “I never knew it,” she said. “How dreadful! The whole affair—Aunt Susan’s death—her life, oh, Ted, her life!”
“Hush!” Rodgers laid his finger gently on her lips. “Let us forget the tragedy in our happiness.”
Glancing shyly upward, Kitty read the worship in his eyes and her rapidly beating heart sang a glad response.
“All my life I have prayed for love,” she murmured as he took her in his arms; “even when I was only a little lonely child—and now to feel such hap[Pg 304]piness as I never even imagined. To have you with me always—”
“In our Kingdom of Love”—Rodgers’ tender, caressing voice was melody in her ears—“My queen—my queen!”