"Can your Grace suggest any reason at all why he should wish to call on you?" asked the Coroner.
"None! But then," replied the Duke, "there might be many reasons—unknown to me, but at which I can make a guess. If he was an antiquary, there are lots of old things at Saxonsteade which he might wish to see. Or he might be a lover of pictures—our collection is a bit famous, you know. Perhaps he was a bookman—we have some rare editions. I could go on multiplying reasons—but to what purpose?"
"The fact is, your Grace doesn't know him and knows nothing about him," observed the Coroner.
"Just so—nothing!" agreed the Duke and stepped down again.
It was at this stage that the Coroner sent the jurymen away in charge of his officer to make a careful personal inspection of the gallery in the clerestory. And while they were gone there was some commotion caused in the court by the entrance of a police official who conducted to the Coroner a middle-aged, well-dressed man whom Bryce at once set down as a London commercial magnate of some quality. Between the new arrival and the Coroner an interchange of remarks was at once made, shared in presently by some of the officials at the table. And when the jury came back the stranger was at once ushered into the witness-box, and the Coroner turned to the jury and the court.
"We are unexpectedly able to get some evidence of identity, gentlemen," he observed. "The gentleman who has just stepped into the witness-box is Mr. Alexander Chilstone, manager of the London & Colonies Bank, in Threadneedle Street. Mr. Chilstone saw particulars of this matter in the newspapers this morning, and he at once set off to Wrychester to tell us what he knows of the dead man. We are very much obliged to Mr. Chilstone—and when he has been sworn he will perhaps kindly tell us what he can."
In the midst of the murmur of sensation which ran round the court, Bryce indulged himself with a covert look at Ransford who was sitting opposite to him, beyond the table in the centre of the room. He saw at once that Ransford, however strenuously he might be fighting to keep his face under control, was most certainly agitated by the Coroner's announcement. His cheeks had paled, his eyes were a little dilated, his lips parted as he stared at the bank-manager—altogether, it was more than mere curiosity that was indicated on his features. And Bryce, satisfied and secretly elated, turned to hear what Mr. Alexander Chilstone had to tell.
That was not much—but it was of considerable importance. Only two days before, said Mr. Chilstone—that was, on the day previous to his death—Mr. John Braden had called at the London & Colonies Bank, of which he, Mr. Chilstone, was manager, and introducing himself as having just arrived in England from Australia, where, he said, he had been living for some years, had asked to be allowed to open an account. He produced some references from agents of the London & Colonies Bank, in Melbourne, which were highly satisfactory; the account being opened, he paid into it a sum of ten thousand pounds in a draft at sight drawn by one of those agents. He drew nothing against this, remarking casually that he had plenty of money in his pocket for the present: he did not even take the cheque-book which was offered him, saying that he would call for it later.
"He did not give us any address in London, nor in England," continued the witness. "He told me that he had only arrived at Charing Cross that very morning, having travelled from Paris during the night. He said that he should settle down for a time at some residential hotel in London, and in the meantime he had one or two calls, or visits, to make in the country: when he returned from them, he said, he would call on me again. He gave me very little information about himself: it was not necessary, for his references from our agents in Australia were quite satisfactory. But he did mention that he had been out there for some years, and had speculated in landed property—he also said that he was now going to settle in England for good. That," concluded Mr. Chilstone, "is all I can tell of my own knowledge. But," he added, drawing a newspaper from his pocket, "here is an advertisement which I noticed in this morning's Times as I came down. You will observe," he said, as he passed it to the Coroner, "that it has certainly been inserted by our unfortunate customer."
The Coroner glanced at a marked passage in the personal column of the Times, and read it aloud:
"The advertisement is as follows," he announced. "'If this meets the eye of old friend Marco, he will learn that Sticker wishes to see him again. Write J. Braden, c/o London & Colonies Bank, Threadneedle Street, London.'"
Bryce was keeping a quiet eye on Ransford. Was he mistaken in believing that he saw him start; that he saw his cheek flush as he heard the advertisement read out? He believed he was not mistaken—but if he was right, Ransford the next instant regained full control of himself and made no sign. And Bryce turned again to Coroner and witness.
But the witness had no more to say—except to suggest that the bank's Melbourne agents should be cabled to for information, since it was unlikely that much more could be got in England. And with that the middle stage of the proceedings ended—and the last one came, watched by Bryce with increasing anxiety. For it was soon evident, from certain remarks made by the Coroner, that the theory which Archdale had put forward at the club in Bryce's hearing the previous day had gained favour with the authorities, and that the visit of the jurymen to the scene of the disaster had been intended by the Coroner to predispose them in behalf of it. And now Archdale himself, as representing the architects who held a retaining fee in connection with the Cathedral, was called to give his opinion—and he gave it in almost the same words which Bryce had heard him use twenty-four hours previously. After him came the master-mason, expressing the same decided conviction—that the real truth was that the pavement of the gallery had at that particular place become so smooth, and was inclined towards the open doorway at such a sharp angle, that the unfortunate man had lost his footing on it, and before he could recover it had been shot out of the arch and over the broken head of St. Wrytha's Stair. And though, at a juryman's wish, Varner was recalled, and stuck stoutly to his original story of having seen a hand which, he protested, was certainly not that of the dead man, it soon became plain that the jury shared the Coroner's belief that Varner in his fright and excitement had been mistaken, and no one was surprised when the foreman, after a very brief consultation with his fellows, announced a verdict of death by misadventure.
"So the city's cleared of the stain of murder!" said a man who sat next to Bryce. "That's a good job, anyway! Nasty thing, doctor, to think of a murder being committed in a cathedral. There'd be a question of sacrilege, of course—and all sorts of complications."
Bryce made no answer. He was watching Ransford, who was talking to the Coroner. And he was not mistaken now—Ransford's face bore all the signs of infinite relief. From—what? Bryce turned, to leave the stuffy, rapidly-emptying court. And as he passed the centre table he saw old Simpson Harker, who, after sitting in attentive silence for three hours had come up to it, picked up the "History of Barthorpe" which had been found in Braden's suit-case and was inquisitively peering at its title-page.
CHAPTER VII. THE DOUBLE TRAIL
Pemberton Bryce was not the only person in Wrychester who was watching Ransford with keen attention during these events. Mary Bewery, a young woman of more than usual powers of observation and penetration, had been quick to see that her guardian's distress over the affair in Paradise was something out of the common. She knew Ransford for an exceedingly tender-hearted man, with a considerable spice of sentiment in his composition: he was noted for his more than professional interest in the poorer sort of his patients and had gained a deserved reputation in the town for his care of them. But it was somewhat surprising, even to Mary, that he should be so much upset by the death of a total stranger as to lose his appetite, and, for at any rate a couple of days, be so restless that his conduct could not fail to be noticed by herself and her brother. His remarks on the tragedy were conventional enough—a most distressing affair—a sad fate for the poor fellow—most unexplainable and mysterious, and so on—but his concern obviously went beyond that. He was ill at ease when she questioned him about the facts; almost irritable when Dick Bewery, schoolboy-like, asked him concerning professional details; she was sure, from the lines about his eyes and a worn look on his face, that he had passed a restless night when he came down to breakfast on the morning of the inquest. But when he returned from the inquest she noticed a change—it was evident, to her ready wits, that Ransford had experienced a great relief. He spoke of relief, indeed, that night at dinner, observing that the verdict which the jury had returned had cleared the air of a foul suspicion; it would have been no pleasant matter, he said, if Wrychester Cathedral had gained an unenviable notoriety as the scene of a murder.
"All the same," remarked Dick, who knew all the talk of the town, "Varner persists in sticking to what he's said all along. Varner says—said this afternoon, after the inquest was over—that he's absolutely certain of what he saw, and that he not only saw a hand in a white cuff and black coat sleeve, but that he saw the sun gleam for a second on the links in the cuff, as if they were gold or diamonds. Pretty stiff evidence that, sir, isn't it?"
"In the state of mind in which Varner was at that moment," replied Ransford, "he wouldn't be very well able to decide definitely on what he really did see. His vision would retain confused images. Probably he saw the dead man's hand—he was wearing a black coat and white linen. The verdict was a most sensible one."
No more was said after that, and that evening Ransford was almost himself again. But not quite himself. Mary caught him looking very grave, in evident abstraction, more than once; more than once she heard him sigh heavily. But he said no more of the matter until two days later, when, at breakfast, he announced his intention of attending John Braden's funeral, which was to take place that morning.
"I've ordered the brougham for eleven," he said, "and I've arranged with Dr. Nicholson to attend to any urgent call that comes in between that and noon—so, if there is any such call, you can telephone to him. A few of us are going to attend this poor man's funeral—it would be too bad to allow a stranger to go to his grave unattended, especially after such a fate. There'll be somebody representing the Dean and Chapter, and three or four principal townsmen, so he'll not be quite neglected. And"—here he hesitated and looked a little nervously at Mary, to whom he was telling all this, Dick having departed for school—"there's a little matter I wish you'd attend to—you'll do it better than I should. The man seems to have been friendless; here, at any rate—no relations have come forward, in spite of the publicity—so—don't you think it would be rather—considerate, eh?—to put a wreath, or a cross, or something of that sort on his grave—just to show—you know?"
"Very kind of you to think of it," said Mary. "What do you wish me to do?"
"If you'd go to Gardales', the florists, and order—something fitting, you know," replied Ransford, "and afterwards—later in the day—take it to St. Wigbert's Churchyard—he's to be buried there—take it—if you don't mind—yourself, you know."
"Certainly," answered Mary. "I'll see that it's done."
She would do anything that seemed good to Ransford—but all the same she wondered at this somewhat unusual show of interest in a total stranger. She put it down at last to Ransford's undoubted sentimentality—the man's sad fate had impressed him. And that afternoon the sexton at St. Wigbert's pointed out the new grave to Miss Bewery and Mr. Sackville Bonham, one carrying a wreath and the other a large bunch of lilies. Sackville, chancing to encounter Mary at the florist's, whither he had repaired to execute a commission for his mother, had heard her business, and had been so struck by the notion—or by a desire to ingratiate himself with Miss Bewery—that he had immediately bought flowers himself—to be put down to her account—and insisted on accompanying Mary to the churchyard.
Bryce heard of this tribute to John Braden next day—from Mrs. Folliot, Sackville Bonham's mother, a large lady who dominated certain circles of Wrychester society in several senses. Mrs. Folliot was one of those women who have been gifted by nature with capacity—she was conspicuous in many ways. Her voice was masculine; she stood nearly six feet in her stoutly-soled shoes; her breadth corresponded to her height; her eyes were piercing, her nose Roman; there was not a curate in Wrychester who was not under her thumb, and if the Dean himself saw her coming, he turned hastily into the nearest shop, sweating with fear lest she should follow him. Endued with riches and fortified by assurance, Mrs. Folliot was the presiding spirit in many movements of charity and benevolence; there were people in Wrychester who were unkind enough to say—behind her back—that she was as meddlesome as she was most undoubtedly autocratic, but, as one of her staunchest clerical defenders once pointed out, these grumblers were what might be contemptuously dismissed as five-shilling subscribers. Mrs. Folliot, in her way, was undoubtedly a power—and for reasons of his own Pemberton Bryce, whenever he met her—which was fairly often—was invariably suave and polite.
"Most mysterious thing, this, Dr. Bryce," remarked Mrs. Folliot in her deepest tones, encountering Bryce, the day after the funeral, at the corner of a back street down which she was about to sail on one of her charitable missions, to the terror of any of the women who happened to be caught gossiping. "What, now, should make Dr. Ransford cause flowers to be laid on the grave of a total stranger? A sentimental feeling? Fiddle-de-dee! There must be some reason."
"I'm afraid I don't know what you're talking about, Mrs. Folliot," answered Bryce, whose ears had already lengthened. "Has Dr. Ransford been laying flowers on a grave?—I didn't know of it. My engagement with Dr. Ransford terminated two days ago—so I've seen nothing of him."
"My son, Mr. Sackville Bonham," said Mrs. Folliot, "tells me that yesterday Miss Bewery came into Gardales' and spent a sovereign—actually a sovereign!—on a wreath, which, she told Sackville, she was about to carry, at her guardian's desire, to this strange man's grave. Sackville, who is a warm-hearted boy, was touched—he, too, bought flowers and accompanied Miss Bewery. Most extraordinary! A perfect stranger! Dear me—why, nobody knows who the man was!"
"Except his bank-manager," remarked Bryce, "who says he's holding ten thousand pounds of his."
"That," admitted Mrs. Folliot gravely, "is certainly a consideration. But then, who knows?—the money may have been stolen. Now, really, did you ever hear of a quite respectable man who hadn't even a visiting-card or a letter upon him? And from Australia, too!—where all the people that are wanted run away to! I have actually been tempted to wonder, Dr. Bryce, if Dr. Ransford knew this man—in years gone by? He might have, you know, he might have—certainly! And that, of course, would explain the flowers."
"There is a great deal in the matter that requires explanation, Mrs. Folliot," said Bryce. He was wondering if it would be wise to instil some minute drop of poison into the lady's mind, there to increase in potency and in due course to spread. "I—of course, I may have been mistaken—I certainly thought Dr. Ransford seemed unusually agitated by this affair—it appeared to upset him greatly."
"So I have heard—from others who were at the inquest," responded Mrs. Folliot. "In my opinion our Coroner—a worthy man otherwise—is not sufficiently particular. I said to Mr. Folliot this morning, on reading the newspaper, that in my view that inquest should have been adjourned for further particulars. Now I know of one particular that was never mentioned at the inquest!"
"Oh?" said Bryce. "And what?"
"Mrs. Deramore, who lives, as you know, next to Dr. Ransford," replied Mrs. Folliot, "told me this morning that on the morning of the accident, happening to look out of one of her upper windows, she saw a man whom, from the description given in the newspapers, was, Mrs. Deramore feels assured, was the mysterious stranger, crossing the Close towards the Cathedral in, Mrs. Deramore is positive, a dead straight line from Dr. Ransford's garden—as if he had been there. Dr. Bryce!—a direct question should have been asked of Dr. Ransford—had he ever seen that man before?"
"Ah, but you see, Mrs. Folliot, the Coroner didn't know what Mrs. Deramore saw, so he couldn't ask such a question, nor could any one else," remarked Bryce, who was wondering how long Mrs. Deramore remained at her upper window and if she saw him follow Braden. "But there are circumstances, no doubt, which ought to be inquired into. And it's certainly very curious that Dr. Ransford should send a wreath to the grave of—a stranger."
He went away convinced that Mrs. Folliot's inquisitiveness had been aroused, and that her tongue would not be idle: Mrs. Folliot, left to herself, had the gift of creating an atmosphere, and if she once got it into her head that there was some mysterious connection between Dr. Ransford and the dead man, she would never rest until she had spread her suspicions. But as for Bryce himself, he wanted more than suspicions—he wanted facts, particulars, data. And once more he began to go over the sum of evidence which had accrued.
The question of the scrap of paper found in Braden's purse, and of the exact whereabouts of Richard Jenkins's grave in Paradise, he left for the time being. What was now interesting him chiefly was the advertisement in the Times to which the bank-manager from London had drawn attention. He had made haste to buy a copy of the Times and to cut out the advertisement. There it was—old friend Marco was wanted by (presumably old friend) Sticker, and whoever Sticker might be he could certainly be found under care of J. Braden. It had never been in doubt a moment, in Bryce's mind, that Sticker was J. Braden himself. Who, now, was Marco? Who—a million to one on it!—but Ransford, whose Christian name was Mark?
He reckoned up his chances of getting at the truth of the affair anew that night. As things were, it seemed unlikely that any relations of Braden would now turn up. The Wrychester Paradise case, as the reporters had aptly named it, had figured largely in the newspapers, London and provincial; it could scarcely have had more publicity—yet no one, save this bank-manager, had come forward. If there had been any one to come forward the bank-manager's evidence would surely have proved an incentive to speed—for there was a sum of ten thousand pounds awaiting John Braden's next-of-kin. In Bryce's opinion the chance of putting in a claim to ten thousand pounds is not left waiting forty-eight hours—whoever saw such a chance would make instant use of telegraph or telephone. But no message from anybody professing relationship with the dead man had so far reached the Wrychester police.
When everything had been taken into account, Bryce saw no better clue for the moment than that suggested by Ambrose Campany—Barthorpe. Ambrose Campany, bookworm though he was, was a shrewd, sharp fellow, said Bryce—a man of ideas. There was certainly much in his suggestion that a man wasn't likely to buy an old book about a little insignificant town like Barthorpe unless he had some interest in it—Barthorpe, if Campany's theory were true, was probably the place of John Braden's origin.
Therefore, information about Braden, leading to knowledge of his association or connection with Ransford, might be found at Barthorpe. True, the Barthorpe police had already reported that they could tell nothing about any Braden, but that, in Bryce's opinion, was neither here nor there—he had already come to the conclusion that Braden was an assumed name. And if he went to Barthorpe, he was not going to trouble the police—he knew better methods than that of finding things out. Was he going?—was it worth his while? A moment's reflection decided that matter—anything was worth his while which would help him to get a strong hold on Mark Ransford. And always practical in his doings, he walked round to the Free Library, obtained a gazeteer, and looked up particulars of Barthorpe. There he learnt that Barthorpe was an ancient market-town of two thousand inhabitants in the north of Leicestershire, famous for nothing except that it had been the scene of a battle at the time of the Wars of the Roses, and that its trade was mainly in agriculture and stocking-making—evidently a slow, sleepy old place.
That night Bryce packed a hand-bag with small necessaries for a few days' excursion, and next morning he took an early train to London; the end of that afternoon found him in a Midland northern-bound express, looking out on the undulating, green acres of Leicestershire. And while his train was making a three minutes' stop at Leicester itself, the purpose of his journey was suddenly recalled to him by hearing the strident voices of the porters on the platform.
"Barthorpe next stop!—next stop Barthorpe!"
One of two other men who shared a smoking compartment with Bryce turned to his companion as the train moved off again.
"Barthorpe?" he remarked. "That's the place that was mentioned in connection with that very queer affair at Wrychester, that's been reported in the papers so much these last few days. The mysterious stranger who kept ten thousand in a London bank, and of whom nobody seems to know anything, had nothing on him but a history of Barthorpe. Odd! And yet, though you'd think he'd some connection with the place, or had known it, they say nobody at Barthorpe knows anything about anybody of his name."
"Well, I don't know that there is anything so very odd about it, after all," replied the other man. "He may have picked up that old book for one of many reasons that could be suggested. No—I read all that case in the papers, and I wasn't so much impressed by the old book feature of it. But I'll tell you what—there was a thing struck me. I know this Barthorpe district—we shall be in it in a few minutes—I've been a good deal over it. This strange man's name was given in the papers as John Braden. Now close to Barthorpe—a mile or two outside it, there's a village of that name—Braden Medworth. That's a curious coincidence—and taken in conjunction with the man's possession of an old book about Barthorpe—why, perhaps there's something in it—possibly more than I thought for at first."
"Well—it's an odd case—a very odd case," said the first speaker. "And—as there's ten thousand pounds in question, more will be heard of it. Somebody'll be after that, you may be sure!"
Bryce left the train at Barthorpe thanking his good luck—the man in the far corner had unwittingly given him a hint. He would pay a visit to Braden Medworth—the coincidence was too striking to be neglected. But first Barthorpe itself—a quaint old-world little market-town, in which some of even the principal houses still wore roofs of thatch, and wherein the old custom of ringing the curfew bell was kept up. He found an old-fashioned hotel in the marketplace, under the shadow of the parish church, and in its oak-panelled dining-room, hung about with portraits of masters of foxhounds and queer old prints of sporting and coaching days, he dined comfortably and well.
It was too late to attempt any investigations that evening, and when Bryce had finished his leisurely dinner he strolled into the smoking-room—an even older and quainter apartment than that which he had just left. It was one of those rooms only found in very old houses—a room of nooks and corners, with a great open fireplace, and old furniture and old pictures and curiosities—the sort of place to which the old-fashioned tradesmen of the small provincial towns still resort of an evening rather than patronize the modern political clubs. There were several men of this sort in the room when Bryce entered, talking local politics amongst themselves, and he found a quiet corner and sat down in it to smoke, promising himself some amusement from the conversation around him; it was his way to find interest and amusement in anything that offered. But he had scarcely settled down in a comfortably cushioned elbow chair when the door opened again and into the room walked old Simpson Harker.
CHAPTER VIII. THE BEST MAN
Old Harker's shrewd eyes, travelling round the room as if to inspect the company in which he found himself, fell almost immediately on Bryce—but not before Bryce had had time to assume an air and look of innocent and genuine surprise. Harker affected no surprise at all—he looked the astonishment he felt as the younger man rose and motioned him to the comfortable easy-chair which he himself had just previously taken.
"Dear me!" he exclaimed, nodding his thanks. "I'd no idea that I should meet you in these far-off parts, Dr. Bryce! This is a long way from Wrychester, sir, for Wrychester folk to meet in."
"I'd no idea of meeting you, Mr. Harker," responded Bryce. "But it's a small world, you know, and there are a good many coincidences in it. There's nothing very wonderful in my presence here, though—I ran down to see after a country practice—I've left Dr. Ransford."
He had the lie ready as soon as he set eyes on Harker, and whether the old man believed it or not, he showed no sign of either belief or disbelief. He took the chair which Bryce drew forward and pulled out an old-fashioned cigar-case, offering it to his companion.
"Will you try one, doctor?" he asked. "Genuine stuff that, sir—I've a friend in Cuba who remembers me now and then. No," he went on, as Bryce thanked him and took a cigar, "I didn't know you'd finished with the doctor. Quietish place this to practise in, I should think—much quieter even than our sleepy old city."
"You know it?" inquired Bryce.
"I've a friend lives here—old friend of mine," answered Harker. "I come down to see him now and then—I've been here since yesterday. He does a bit of business for me. Stopping long, doctor?"
"Only just to look round," answered Bryce.
"I'm off tomorrow morning—eleven o'clock," said Harker. "It's a longish journey to Wrychester—for old bones like mine."
"Oh, you're all right!—worth half a dozen younger men," responded Bryce. "You'll see a lot of your contemporaries out, Mr. Harker. Well—as you've treated me to a very fine cigar, now you'll let me treat you to a drop of whisky?—they generally have something of pretty good quality in these old-fashioned establishments, I believe."
The two travellers sat talking until bedtime—but neither made any mention of the affair which had recently set all Wrychester agog with excitement. But Bryce was wondering all the time if his companion's story of having a friend at Barthorpe was no more than an excuse, and when he was alone in his own bedroom and reflecting more seriously he came to the conclusion that old Harker was up to some game of his own in connection with the Paradise mystery.
"The old chap was in the Library when Ambrose Campany said that there was a clue in that Barthorpe history," he mused. "I saw him myself examining the book after the inquest. No, no, Mr. Harker!—the facts are too plain—the evidences too obvious. And yet—what interest has a retired old tradesman of Wrychester got in this affair? I'd give a good deal to know what Harker really is doing here—and who his Barthorpe friend is."
If Bryce had risen earlier next morning, and had taken the trouble to track old Harker's movements, he would have learnt something that would have made him still more suspicious. But Bryce, seeing no reason for hurry, lay in bed till well past nine o'clock, and did not present himself in the coffee-room until nearly half-past ten. And at that hour Simpson Harker, who had breakfasted before nine, was in close consultation with his friend—that friend being none other than the local superintendent of police, who was confidentially closeted with the old man in his private house, whither Harker, by previous arrangement, had repaired as soon as his breakfast was over. Had Bryce been able to see through walls or hear through windows, he would have been surprised to find that the Harker of this consultation was not the quiet, easy-going, gossipy old gentleman of Wrychester, but an eminently practical and business-like man of affairs.
"And now as regards this young fellow who's staying across there at the Peacock," he was saying in conclusion, at the very time that Bryce was leisurely munching his second mutton chop in the Peacock coffee-room, "he's after something or other—his talk about coming here to see after a practice is all lies!—and you'll keep an eye on him while he's in your neighbourhood. Put your best plainclothes man on to him at once—he'll easily know him from the description I gave you—and let him shadow him wherever he goes. And then let me know of his movement—he's certainly on the track of something, and what he does may be useful to me—I can link it up with my own work. And as regards the other matter—keep me informed if you come on anything further. Now I'll go out by your garden and down the back of the town to the station. Let me know, by the by, when this young man at the Peacock leaves here, and, if possible—and you can find out—for where."
Bryce was all unconscious that any one was interested in his movements when he strolled out into Barthorpe market-place just after eleven. He had asked a casual question of the waiter and found that the old gentleman had departed—he accordingly believed himself free from observation. And forthwith he set about his work of inquiry in his own fashion. He was not going to draw any attention to himself by asking questions of present-day inhabitants, whose curiosity might then be aroused; he knew better methods than that. Every town, said Bryce to himself, possesses public records—parish registers, burgess rolls, lists of voters; even small towns have directories which are more or less complete—he could search these for any mention or record of anybody or any family of the name of Braden. And he spent all that day in that search, inspecting numerous documents and registers and books, and when evening came he had a very complete acquaintance with the family nomenclature of Barthorpe, and he was prepared to bet odds against any one of the name of Braden having lived there during the past half-century. In all his searching he had not once come across the name.
The man who had spent a very lazy day in keeping an eye on Bryce, as he visited the various public places whereat he made his researches, was also keeping an eye upon him next morning, when Bryce, breakfasting earlier than usual, prepared for a second day's labours. He followed his quarry away from the little town: Bryce was walking out to Braden Medworth. In Bryce's opinion, it was something of a wild-goose chase to go there, but the similarity in the name of the village and of the dead man at Wrychester might have its significance, and it was but a two miles' stroll from Barthorpe. He found Braden Medworth a very small, quiet, and picturesque place, with an old church on the banks of a river which promised good sport to anglers. And there he pursued his tactics of the day before and went straight to the vicarage and its vicar, with a request to be allowed to inspect the parish registers. The vicar, having no objection to earning the resultant fees, hastened to comply with Bryce's request, and inquired how far back he wanted to search and for what particular entry.
"No particular entry," answered Bryce, "and as to period—fairly recent. The fact is, I am interested in names. I am thinking"—here he used one more of his easily found inventions—"of writing a book on English surnames, and am just now inspecting parish registers in the Midlands for that purpose."
"Then I can considerably simplify your labours," said the vicar, taking down a book from one of his shelves. "Our parish registers have been copied and printed, and here is the volume—everything is in there from 1570 to ten years ago, and there is a very full index. Are you staying in the neighbourhood—or the village?"
"In the neighbourhood, yes; in the village, no longer than the time I shall spend in getting some lunch at the inn yonder," answered Bryce, nodding through an open window at an ancient tavern which stood in the valley beneath, close to an old stone bridge. "Perhaps you will kindly lend me this book for an hour?—then, if I see anything very noteworthy in the index, I can look at the actual registers when I bring it back."
The vicar replied that that was precisely what he had been about to suggest, and Bryce carried the book away. And while he sat in the inn parlour awaiting his lunch, he turned to the carefully-compiled index, glancing it through rapidly. On the third page he saw the name Bewery.
If the man who had followed Bryce from Barthorpe to Braden Medworth had been with him in the quiet inn parlour he would have seen his quarry start, and heard him let a stifled exclamation escape his lips. But the follower, knowing his man was safe for an hour, was in the bar outside eating bread and cheese and drinking ale, and Bryce's surprise was witnessed by no one. Yet he had been so much surprised that if all Wrychester had been there he could not, despite his self-training in watchfulness, have kept back either start or exclamation.
Bewery! A name so uncommon that here—here, in this out-of-the-way Midland village!—there must be some connection with the object of his search. There the name stood out before him, to the exclusion of all others—Bewery—with just one entry of figures against it. He turned to page 387 with a sense of sure discovery.
And there an entry caught his eye at once—and he knew that he had discovered more than he had ever hoped for. He read it again and again, gloating over his wonderful luck.
June 19th, 1891. John Brake, bachelor, of the parish of St. Pancras, London, to Mary Bewery, spinster, of this parish, by the Vicar. Witnesses, Charles Claybourne, Selina Womersley, Mark Ransford.
Twenty-two years ago! The Mary Bewery whom Bryce knew in Wrychester was just about twenty—this Mary Bewery, spinster, of Braden Medworth, was, then, in all probability, her mother. But John Brake who married that Mary Bewery—who was he? Who indeed, laughed Bryce, but John Braden, who had just come by his death in Wrychester Paradise? And there was the name of Mark Ransford as witness. What was the further probability? That Mark Ransford had been John Brake's best man; that he was the Marco of the recent Times advertisement; that John Braden, or Brake, was the Sticker of the same advertisement. Clear!—clear as noonday! And—what did it all mean, and imply, and what bearing had it on Braden or Brake's death?
Before he ate his cold beef, Bryce had copied the entry from the reprinted register, and had satisfied himself that Ransford was not a name known to that village—Mark Ransford was the only person of the name mentioned in the register. And his lunch done, he set off for the vicarage again, intent on getting further information, and before he reached the vicarage gates noticed, by accident, a place whereat he was more likely to get it than from the vicar—who was a youngish man. At the end of the few houses between the inn and the bridge he saw a little shop with the name Charles Claybourne painted roughly above its open window. In that open window sat an old, cheery-faced man, mending shoes, who blinked at the stranger through his big spectacles.
Bryce saw his chance and turned in—to open the book and point out the marriage entry.
"Are you the Charles Claybourne mentioned there?" he asked, without ceremony.
"That's me, sir!" replied the old shoemaker briskly, after a glance. "Yes—right enough!"
"How came you to witness that marriage?" inquired Bryce.
The old man nodded at the church across the way.
"I've been sexton and parish clerk two-and-thirty years, sir," he said. "And I took it on from my father—and he had the job from his father."
"Do you remember this marriage?" asked Bryce, perching himself on the bench at which the shoemaker was working. "Twenty-two years since, I see."
"Aye, as if it was yesterday!" answered the old man with a smile. "Miss Bewery's marriage?—why, of course!"
"Who was she?" demanded Bryce.
"Governess at the vicarage," replied Claybourne. "Nice, sweet young lady."
"And the man she married?—Mr. Brake," continued Bryce. "Who was he?"
"A young gentleman that used to come here for the fishing, now and then," answered Claybourne, pointing at the river. "Famous for our trout we are here, you know, sir. And Brake had come here for three years before they were married—him and his friend Mr. Ransford."
"You remember him, too?" asked Bryce.
"Remember both of 'em very well indeed," said Claybourne, "though I never set eyes on either after Miss Mary was wed to Mr. Brake. But I saw plenty of 'em both before that. They used to put up at the inn there—that I saw you come out of just now. They came two or three times a year—and they were a bit thick with our parson of that time—not this one: his predecessor—and they used to go up to the vicarage and smoke their pipes and cigars with him—and of course, Mr. Brake and the governess fixed it up. Though, you know, at one time it was considered it was going to be her and the other young gentleman, Mr. Ransford—yes! But, in the end, it was Brake—and Ransford stood best man for him."
Bruce assimilated all this information greedily—and asked for more.
"I'm interested in that entry," he said, tapping the open book. "I know some people of the name of Bewery—they may be relatives."
The shoemaker shook his head as if doubtful.
"I remember hearing it said," he remarked, "that Miss Mary had no relations. She'd been with the old vicar some time, and I don't remember any relations ever coming to see her, nor her going away to see any."
"Do you know what Brake was?" asked Bryce. "As you say he came here for a good many times before the marriage, I suppose you'd hear something about his profession, or trade, or whatever it was?"
"He was a banker, that one," replied Claybourne. "A banker—that was his trade, sir. T'other gentleman, Mr. Ransford, he was a doctor—I mind that well enough, because once when him and Mr. Brake were fishing here, Thomas Joynt's wife fell downstairs and broke her leg, and they fetched him to her—he'd got it set before they'd got the reg'lar doctor out from Barthorpe yonder."
Bryce had now got all the information he wanted, and he made the old parish clerk a small present and turned to go. But another question presented itself to his mind and he reentered the little shop.
"Your late vicar?" he said. "The one in whose family Miss Bewery was governess—where is he now? Dead?"
"Can't say whether he's dead or alive, sir," replied Claybourne. "He left this parish for another—a living in a different part of England—some years since, and I haven't heard much of him from that time to this—he never came back here once, not even to pay us a friendly visit—he was a queerish sort. But I'll tell you what, sir," he added, evidently anxious to give his visitor good value for his half-crown, "our present vicar has one of those books with the names of all the clergymen in 'em, and he'd tell you where his predecessor is now, if he's alive—name of Reverend Thomas Gilwaters, M.A.—an Oxford college man he was, and very high learned."
Bryce went back to the vicarage, returned the borrowed book, and asked to look at the registers for the year 1891. He verified his copy and turned to the vicar.
"I accidentally came across the record of a marriage there in which I'm interested," he said as he paid the search fees. "Celebrated by your predecessor, Mr. Gilwaters. I should be glad to know where Mr. Gilwaters is to be found. Do you happen to possess a clerical directory?"
The vicar produced a "Crockford", and Bryce turned over its pages. Mr. Gilwaters, who from the account there given appeared to be an elderly man who had now retired, lived in London, in Bayswater, and Bryce made a note of his address and prepared to depart.
"Find any names that interested you?" asked the vicar as his caller left. "Anything noteworthy?"
"I found two or three names which interested me immensely," answered Bryce from the foot of the vicarage steps. "They were well worth searching for."
And without further explanation he marched off to Barthorpe duly followed by his shadow, who saw him safely into the Peacock an hour later—and, an hour after that, went to the police superintendent with his report.
"Gone, sir," he said. "Left by the five-thirty express for London."
CHAPTER IX. THE HOUSE OF HIS FRIEND
Bryce found himself at eleven o'clock next morning in a small book-lined parlour in a little house which stood in a quiet street in the neighbourhood of Westbourne Grove. Over the mantelpiece, amongst other odds and ends of pictures and photographs, hung a water-colour drawing of Braden Medworth—and to him presently entered an old, silver-haired clergyman whom he at once took to be Braden Medworth's former vicar, and who glanced inquisitively at his visitor and then at the card which Bryce had sent in with a request for an interview.
"Dr. Bryce?" he said inquiringly. "Dr. Pemberton Bryce?"
Bryce made his best bow and assumed his suavest and most ingratiating manner.
"I hope I am not intruding on your time, Mr. Gilwaters?" he said. "The fact is, I was referred to you, yesterday, by the present vicar of Braden Medworth—both he, and the sexton there, Claybourne, whom you, of course, remember, thought you would be able to give me some information on a subject which is of great importance—to me."
"I don't know the present vicar," remarked Mr. Gilwaters, motioning Bryce to a chair, and taking another close by. "Clayborne, of course, I remember very well indeed—he must be getting an old man now—like myself! What is it you want to know, now?"
"I shall have to take you into my confidence," replied Bryce, who had carefully laid his plans and prepared his story, "and you, I am sure, Mr. Gilwaters, will respect mine. I have for two years been in practice at Wrychester, and have there made the acquaintance of a young lady whom I earnestly desire to marry. She is the ward of the man to whom I have been assistant. And I think you will begin to see why I have come to you when I say that this young lady's name is—Mary Bewery."
The old clergyman started, and looked at his visitor with unusual interest. He grasped the arm of his elbow chair and leaned forward.
"Mary Bewery!" he said in a low whisper. "What—what is the name of the man who is her—guardian?"
"Dr. Mark Ransford," answered Bryce promptly.
The old man sat upright again, with a little toss of his head.
"Bless my soul!" he exclaimed. "Mark Ransford! Then—it must have been as I feared—and suspected!"
Bryce made no remark. He knew at once that he had struck on something, and it was his method to let people take their own time. Mr. Gilwaters had already fallen into something closely resembling a reverie: Bryce sat silently waiting and expectant. And at last the old man leaned forward again, almost eagerly.
"What is it you want to know?" he asked, repeating his first question. "Is—is there some—some mystery?"
"Yes!" replied Bryce. "A mystery that I want to solve, sir. And I dare say that you can help me, if you'll be so good. I am convinced—in fact, I know!—that this young lady is in ignorance of her parentage, that Ransford is keeping some fact, some truth back from her—and I want to find things out. By the merest chance—accident, in fact—I discovered yesterday at Braden Medworth that some twenty-two years ago you married one Mary Bewery, who, I learnt there, was your governess, to a John Brake, and that Mark Ransford was John Brake's best man and a witness of the marriage. Now, Mr. Gilwaters, the similarity in names is too striking to be devoid of significance. So—it's of the utmost importance to me!—can or will you tell me—who was the Mary Bewery you married to John Brake? Who was John Brake? And what was Mark Ransford to either, or to both?"
He was wondering, all the time during which he reeled off these questions, if Mr. Gilwaters was wholly ignorant of the recent affair at Wrychester. He might be—a glance round his book-filled room had suggested to Bryce that he was much more likely to be a bookworm than a newspaper reader, and it was quite possible that the events of the day had small interest for him. And his first words in reply to Bryce's questions convinced Bryce that his surmise was correct and that the old man had read nothing of the Wrychester Paradise mystery, in which Ransford's name had, of course, figured as a witness at the inquest.
"It is nearly twenty years since I heard any of their names," remarked Mr. Gilwaters. "Nearly twenty years—a long time! But, of course, I can answer you. Mary Bewery was our governess at Braden Medworth. She came to us when she was nineteen—she was married four years later. She was a girl who had no friends or relatives—she had been educated at a school in the North—I engaged her from that school, where, I understood, she had lived since infancy. Now then, as to Brake and Ransford. They were two young men from London, who used to come fishing in Leicestershire. Ransford was a few years the younger—he was either a medical student in his last year, or he was an assistant somewhere in London. Brake—was a bank manager in London—of a branch of one of the big banks. They were pleasant young fellows, and I used to ask them to the vicarage. Eventually, Mary Bewery and John Brake became engaged to be married. My wife and I were a good deal surprised—we had believed, somehow, that the favoured man would be Ransford. However, it was Brake—and Brake she married, and, as you say, Ransford was best man. Of course, Brake took his wife off to London—and from the day of her wedding, I never saw her again."
"Did you ever see Brake again?" asked Bryce. The old clergyman shook his head.
"Yes!" he said sadly. "I did see Brake again—under grievous, grievous circumstances!"
"You won't mind telling me what circumstances?" suggested Bryce. "I will keep your confidence, Mr. Gilwaters."
"There is really no secret in it—if it comes to that," answered the old man. "I saw John Brake again just once. In a prison cell!"
"A prison cell!" exclaimed Bryce. "And he—a prisoner?"
"He had just been sentenced to ten years' penal servitude," replied Mr. Gilwaters. "I had heard the sentence—I was present. I got leave to see him. Ten years' penal servitude!—a terrible punishment. He must have been released long ago—but I never heard more."
Bryce reflected in silence for a moment—reckoning and calculating.
"When was this—the trial?" he asked.
"It was five years after the marriage—seventeen years ago," replied Mr. Gilwaters.
"And—what had he been doing?" inquired Bryce.
"Stealing the bank's money," answered the old man. "I forget what the technical offence was—embezzlement, or something of that sort. There was not much evidence came out, for it was impossible to offer any defence, and he pleaded guilty. But I gathered from what I heard that something of this sort occurred. Brake was a branch manager. He was, as it were, pounced upon one morning by an inspector, who found that his cash was short by two or three thousand pounds. The bank people seemed to have been unusually strict and even severe—Brake, it was said, had some explanation, but it was swept aside and he was given in charge. And the sentence was as I said just now—a very savage one, I thought. But there had recently been some bad cases of that sort in the banking world, and I suppose the judge felt that he must make an example. Yes—a most trying affair!—I have a report of the case somewhere, which I cut out of a London newspaper at the time."
Mr. Gilwaters rose and turned to an old desk in the corner of his room, and after some rummaging of papers in a drawer, produced a newspaper-cutting book and traced an insertion in its pages. He handed the book to his visitor.
"There is the account," he said. "You can read it for yourself. You will notice that in what Brake's counsel said on his behalf there are one or two curious and mysterious hints as to what might have been said if it had been of any use or advantage to say it. A strange case!"
Bryce turned eagerly to the faded scrap of newspaper.
BANK MANAGER'S DEFALCATION.
At the Central Criminal Court yesterday, John Brake, thirty-three, formerly manager of the Upper Tooting branch of the London & Home Counties Bank, Ltd., pleaded guilty to embezzling certain sums, the property of his employers.
Mr. Walkinshaw, Q.C., addressing the court on behalf of the prisoner, said that while it was impossible for his client to offer any defence, there were circumstances in the case which, if it had been worth while to put them in evidence, would have shown that the prisoner was a wronged and deceived man. To use a Scriptural phrase, Brake had been wounded in the house of his friend. The man who was really guilty in this affair had cleverly escaped all consequences, nor would it be of the least use to enter into any details respecting him. Not one penny of the money in question had been used by the prisoner for his own purposes. It was doubtless a wrong and improper thing that his client had done, and he had pleaded guilty and would submit to the consequences. But if everything in connection with the case could have been told, if it would have served any useful purpose to tell it, it would have been seen that what the prisoner really was guilty of was a foolish and serious error of judgment. He himself, concluded the learned counsel, would go so far as to say that, knowing what he did, knowing what had been told him by his client in strict confidence, the prisoner, though technically guilty, was morally innocent.
His Lordship, merely remarking that no excuse of any sort could be offered in a case of this sort, sentenced the prisoner to ten years' penal servitude.
Bryce read this over twice before handing back the book.
"Very strange and mysterious, Mr. Gilwaters," he remarked. "You say that you saw Brake after the case was over. Did you learn anything?"
"Nothing whatever!" answered the old clergyman. "I got permission to see him before he was taken away. He did not seem particularly pleased or disposed to see me. I begged him to tell me what the real truth was. He was, I think, somewhat dazed by the sentence—but he was also sullen and morose. I asked him where his wife and two children—one, a mere infant—were. For I had already been to his private address and had found that Mrs. Brake had sold all the furniture and disappeared—completely. No one—thereabouts, at any rate—knew where she was, or would tell me anything. On my asking this, he refused to answer. I pressed him—he said finally that he was only speaking the truth when he replied that he did not know where his wife was. I said I must find her. He forbade me to make any attempt. Then I begged him to tell me if she was with friends. I remember very well what he replied.—'I'm not going to say one word more to any man living, Mr. Gilwaters,' he answered determinedly. 'I shall be dead to the world—only because I've been a trusting fool!—for ten years or thereabouts, but, when I come back to it, I'll let the world see what revenge means! Go away!' he concluded. 'I won't say one word more.' And—I left him."
"And—you made no more inquiries?—about the wife?" asked Bryce.
"I did what I could," replied Mr. Gilwaters. "I made some inquiry in the neighbourhood in which they had lived. All I could discover was that Mrs. Brake had disappeared under extraordinarily mysterious circumstances. There was no trace whatever of her. And I speedily found that things were being said—the usual cruel suspicions, you know."
"Such as—what?" asked Bryce.
"That the amount of the defalcations was much larger than had been allowed to appear," replied Mr. Gilwaters. "That Brake was a very clever rogue who had got the money safely planted somewhere abroad, and that his wife had gone off somewhere—Australia, or Canada, or some other far-off region—to await his release. Of course, I didn't believe one word of all that. But there was the fact—she had vanished! And eventually, I thought of Ransford, as having been Brake's great friend, so I tried to find him. And then I found that he, too, who up to that time had been practising in a London suburb—Streatham—had also disappeared. Just after Brake's arrest, Ransford had suddenly sold his practice and gone—no one knew where, but it was believed—abroad. I couldn't trace him, anyway. And soon after that I had a long illness, and for two or three years was an invalid, and—well, the thing was over and done with, and, as I said just now, I have never heard anything of any of them for all these years. And now!—now you tell me that there is a Mary Bewery who is a ward of a Dr. Mark Ransford at—where did you say?"
"At Wrychester," answered Bryce. "She is a young woman of twenty, and she has a brother, Richard, who is between seventeen and eighteen."
"Without a doubt those are Brake's children!" exclaimed the old man. "The infant I spoke of was a boy. Bless me!—how extraordinary. How long have they been at Wrychester?"
"Ransford has been in practice there some years—a few years," replied Bryce. "These two young people joined him there definitely two years ago. But from what I have learnt, he has acted as their guardian ever since they were mere children."
"And—their mother?" asked Mr. Gilwaters.
"Said to be dead—long since," answered Bryce. "And their father, too. They know nothing. Ransford won't tell them anything. But, as you say—I've no doubt of it myself now—they must be the children of John Brake."
"And have taken the name of their mother!" remarked the old man.
"Had it given to them," said Bryce. "They don't know that it isn't their real name. Of course, Ransford has given it to them! But now—the mother?"
"Ah, yes, the mother!" said Mr. Gilwaters. "Our old governess! Dear me!"
"I'm going to put a question to you," continued Bryce, leaning nearer and speaking in a low, confidential tone. "You must have seen much of the world, Mr. Gilwaters—men of your profession know the world, and human nature, too. Call to mind all the mysterious circumstances, the veiled hints, of that trial. Do you think—have you ever thought—that the false friend whom the counsel referred to was—Ransford? Come, now!"
The old clergyman lifted his hands and let them fall on his knees.
"I do not know what to say!" he exclaimed. "To tell you the truth, I have often wondered if—if that was what really did happen. There is the fact that Brake's wife disappeared mysteriously—that Ransford made a similar mysterious disappearance about the same time—that Brake was obviously suffering from intense and bitter hatred when I saw him after the trial—hatred of some person on whom he meant to be revenged—and that his counsel hinted that he had been deceived and betrayed by a friend. Now, to my knowledge, he and Ransford were the closest of friends—in the old days, before Brake married our governess. And I suppose the friendship continued—certainly Ransford acted as best man at the wedding! But how account for that strange double disappearance?"
Bryce had already accounted for that, in his own secret mind. And now, having got all that he wanted out of the old clergyman, he rose to take his leave.
"You will regard this interview as having been of a strictly private nature, Mr. Gilwaters?" he said.
"Certainly!" responded the old man. "But—you mentioned that you wished to marry the daughter? Now that you know about her father's past—for I am sure she must be John Brake's child—you won't allow that to—eh?"
"Not for a moment!" answered Bryce, with a fair show of magnanimity. "I am not a man of that complexion, sir. No!—I only wished to clear up certain things, you understand."
"And—since she is apparently—from what you say—in ignorance of her real father's past—what then?" asked Mr. Gilwaters anxiously. "Shall you—"
"I shall do nothing whatever in any haste," replied Bryce. "Rely upon me to consider her feelings in everything. As you have been so kind, I will let you know, later, how matters go."
This was one of Pemberton Bryce's ready inventions. He had not the least intention of ever seeing or communicating with the late vicar of Braden Medworth again; Mr. Gilwaters had served his purpose for the time being. He went away from Bayswater, and, an hour later, from London, highly satisfied. In his opinion, Mark Ransford, seventeen years before, had taken advantage of his friend's misfortunes to run away with his wife, and when Brake, alias Braden, had unexpectedly turned up at Wrychester, he had added to his former wrong by the commission of a far greater one.
CHAPTER X. DIPLOMACY
Bryce went back to Wrychester firmly convinced that Mark Ransford had killed John Braden. He reckoned things up in his own fashion. Some years must have elapsed since Braden, or rather Brake's release. He had probably heard, on his release, that Ransford and his, Brake's, wife had gone abroad—in that case he would certainly follow them. He might have lost all trace of them; he might have lost his original interest in his first schemes of revenge; he might have begun a new life for himself in Australia, whence he had undoubtedly come to England recently. But he had come, at last, and he had evidently tracked Ransford to Wrychester—why, otherwise, had he presented himself at Ransford's door on that eventful morning which was to witness his death? Nothing, in Bryce's opinion, could be clearer. Brake had turned up. He and Ransford had met—most likely in the precincts of the Cathedral. Ransford, who knew all the quiet corners of the old place, had in all probability induced Brake to walk up into the gallery with him, had noticed the open doorway, had thrown Brake through it. All the facts pointed to that conclusion—it was a theory which, so far as Bryce could see, was perfect. It ought to be enough—proved—to put Ransford in a criminal dock. Bryce resolved it in his own mind over and over again as he sped home to Wrychester—he pictured the police listening greedily to all that he could tell them if he liked. There was only one factor in the whole sum of the affair which seemed against him—the advertisement in the Times. If Brake desired to find Ransford in order to be revenged on him, why did he insert that advertisement, as if he were longing to meet a cherished friend again? But Bryce gaily surmounted that obstacle—full of shifts and subtleties himself, he was ever ready to credit others with trading in them, and he put the advertisement down as a clever ruse to attract, not Ransford, but some person who could give information about Ransford. Whatever its exact meaning might have been, its existence made no difference to Bryce's firm opinion that it was Mark Ransford who flung John Brake down St. Wrytha's Stair and killed him. He was as sure of that as he was certain that Braden was Brake. And he was not going to tell the police of his discoveries—he was not going to tell anybody. The one thing that concerned him was—how best to make use of his knowledge with a view to bringing about a marriage between himself and Mark Ransford's ward. He had set his mind on that for twelve months past, and he was not a man to be baulked of his purpose. By fair means, or foul—he himself ignored the last word and would have substituted the term skilful for it—Pemberton Bryce meant to have Mary Bewery.
Mary Bewery herself had no thought of Bryce in her head when, the morning after that worthy's return to Wrychester, she set out, alone, for the Wrychester Golf Club. It was her habit to go there almost every day, and Bryce was well acquainted with her movements and knew precisely where to waylay her. And empty of Bryce though her mind was, she was not surprised when, at a lonely place on Wrychester Common, Bryce turned the corner of a spinny and met her face to face.
Mary would have passed on with no more than a silent recognition—she had made up her mind to have no further speech with her guardian's dismissed assistant. But she had to pass through a wicket gate at that point, and Bryce barred the way, with unmistakable purpose. It was plain to the girl that he had laid in wait for her. She was not without a temper of her own, and she suddenly let it out on the offender.
"Do you call this manly conduct, Dr. Bryce?" she demanded, turning an indignant and flushed face on him. "To waylay me here, when you know that I don't want to have anything more to do with you. Let me through, please—and go away!"
But Bryce kept a hand on the little gate, and when he spoke there was that in his voice which made the girl listen in spite of herself.
"I'm not here on my own behalf," he said quickly. "I give you my word I won't say a thing that need offend you. It's true I waited here for you—it's the only place in which I thought I could meet you, alone. I want to speak to you. It's this—do you know your guardian is in danger?"
Bryce had the gift of plausibility—he could convince people, against their instincts, even against their wills, that he was telling the truth. And Mary, after a swift glance, believed him.
"What danger?" she asked. "And if he is, and if you know he is—why don't you go direct to him?"
"The most fatal thing in the world to do!" exclaimed Bryce. "You know him—he can be nasty. That would bring matters to a crisis. And that, in his interest, is just what mustn't happen."
"I don't understand you," said Mary.
Bryce leaned nearer to her—across the gate.
"You know what happened last week," he said in a low voice. "The strange death of that man—Braden."
"Well?" she asked, with a sudden look of uneasiness. "What of it?"
"It's being rumoured—whispered—in the town that Dr. Ransford had something to do with that affair," answered Bryce. "Unpleasant—unfortunate—but it's a fact."
"Impossible!" exclaimed Mary with a heightening colour. "What could he have to do with it? What could give rise to such foolish—wicked—rumours?"
"You know as well as I do how people talk, how they will talk," said Bryce. "You can't stop them, in a place like Wrychester, where everybody knows everybody. There's a mystery around Braden's death—it's no use denying it. Nobody knows who he was, where he came from, why he came. And it's being hinted—I'm only telling you what I've gathered—that Dr. Ransford knows more than he's ever told. There are, I'm afraid, grounds."
"What grounds?" demanded Mary. While Bryce had been speaking, in his usual slow, careful fashion, she had been reflecting—and remembering Ransford's evident agitation at the time of the Paradise affair—and his relief when the inquest was over—and his sending her with flowers to the dead man's grave and she began to experience a sense of uneasiness and even of fear. "What grounds can there be?" she added. "Dr. Ransford didn't know that man—had never seen him!"
"That's not certain," replied Bryce. "It's said—remember, I'm only repeating things—it's said that just before the body was discovered, Dr. Ransford was seen—seen, mind you!—leaving the west porch of the Cathedral, looking as if he had just been very, much upset. Two persons saw this."
"Who are they?" asked Mary.
"That I'm not allowed to tell you," said Bryce, who had no intention of informing her that one person was himself and the other imaginary. "But I can assure you that I am certain—absolutely certain!—that their story is true. The fact is—I can corroborate it."
"You!" she exclaimed.
"I!" replied Bryce. "I will tell you something that I have never told anybody—up to now. I shan't ask you to respect my confidence—I've sufficient trust in you to know that you will, without any asking. Listen!—on that morning, Dr. Ransford went out of the surgery in the direction of the Deanery, leaving me alone there. A few minutes later, a tap came at the door. I opened it—and found—a man standing outside!"
"Not—that man?" asked Mary fearfully.
"That man—Braden," replied Bryce. "He asked for Dr. Ransford. I said he was out—would the caller leave his name? He said no—he had called because he had once known a Dr. Ransford, years before. He added something about calling again, and he went away—across the Close towards the Cathedral. I saw him again—not very long afterwards—lying in the corner of Paradise—dead!"
Mary Bewery was by this time pale and trembling—and Bryce continued to watch her steadily. She stole a furtive look at him.
"Why didn't you tell all this at the inquest?" she asked in a whisper.
"Because I knew how damning it would be to—Ransford," replied Bryce promptly. "It would have excited suspicion. I was certain that no one but myself knew that Braden had been to the surgery door—therefore, I thought that if I kept silence, his calling there would never be known. But—I have since found that I was mistaken. Braden was seen—going away from Dr. Ransford's."
"By—whom?" asked Mary.
"Mrs. Deramore—at the next house," answered Bryce. "She happened to be looking out of an upstairs window. She saw him go away and cross the Close."
"Did she tell you that?" demanded Mary, who knew Mrs. Deramore for a gossip.
"Between ourselves," said Bryce, "she did not! She told Mrs. Folliot—Mrs. Folliot told me."
"So—it is talked about!" exclaimed Mary.
"I said so," assented Bryce. "You know what Mrs. Folliot's tongue is."
"Then Dr. Ransford will get to hear of it," said Mary.
"He will be the last person to get to hear of it," affirmed Bryce. "These things are talked of, hole-and-corner fashion, a long time before they reach the ears of the person chiefly concerned."
Mary hesitated a moment before she asked her next question.
"Why have you told me all this?" she demanded at last.
"Because I didn't want you to be suddenly surprised," answered Bryce. "This—whatever it is—may come to a sudden head—of an unpleasant sort. These rumours spread—and the police are still keen about finding out things concerning this dead man. If they once get it into their heads that Dr. Ransford knew him—"
Mary laid her hand on the gate between them—and Bryce, who had done all he wished to do at that time, instantly opened it, and she passed through.
"I am much obliged to you," she said. "I don't know what it all means—but it is Dr. Ransford's affair—if there is any affair, which I doubt. Will you let me go now, please?"
Bryce stood aside and lifted his hat, and Mary, with no more than a nod, walked on towards the golf club-house across the Common, while Bryce turned off to the town, highly elated with his morning's work. He had sown the seeds of uneasiness and suspicion broadcast—some of them, he knew, would mature.
Mary Bewery played no golf that morning. In fact, she only went on to the club-house to rid herself of Bryce, and presently she returned home, thinking. And indeed, she said to herself, she had abundant food for thought. Naturally candid and honest, she did not at that moment doubt Bryce's good faith; much as she disliked him in most ways she knew that he had certain commendable qualities, and she was inclined to believe him when he said that he had kept silence in order to ward off consequences which might indirectly be unpleasant for her. But of him and his news she thought little—what occupied her mind was the possible connection between the stranger who had come so suddenly and disappeared so suddenly—and for ever!—and Mark Ransford. Was it possible—really possible—that there had been some meeting between them in or about the Cathedral precincts that morning? She knew, after a moment's reflection, that it was very possible—why not? And from that her thoughts followed a natural trend—was the mystery surrounding this man connected in any way with the mystery about herself and her brother?—that mystery of which (as it seemed to her) Ransford was so shy of speaking. And again—and for the hundredth time—she asked herself why he was so reticent, so evidently full of dislike of the subject, why he could not tell her and Dick whatever there was to tell, once for all?
She had to pass the Folliots' house in the far corner of the Close on her way home—a fine old mansion set in well-wooded grounds, enclosed by a high wall of old red brick. A door in that wall stood open, and inside it, talking to one of his gardeners, was Mr. Folliot—the vistas behind him were gay with flowers and rich with the roses which he passed all his days in cultivating. He caught sight of Mary as she passed the open doorway and called her back.
"Come in and have a look at some new roses I've got," he said. "Beauties! I'll give you a handful to carry home."
Mary rather liked Mr. Folliot. He was a big, half-asleep sort of man, who had few words and could talk about little else than his hobby. But he was a passionate lover of flowers and plants, and had a positive genius for rose-culture, and was at all times highly delighted to take flower-lovers round his garden. She turned at once and walked in, and Folliot led her away down the scented paths.
"It's an experiment I've been trying," he said, leading her up to a cluster of blooms of a colour and size which she had never seen before. "What do you think of the results?"
"Magnificent!" exclaimed Mary. "I never saw anything so fine!"
"No!" agreed Folliot, with a quiet chuckle. "Nor anybody else—because there's no such rose in England. I shall have to go to some of these learned parsons in the Close to invent me a Latin name for this—it's the result of careful experiments in grafting—took me three years to get at it. And see how it blooms,—scores on one standard."
He pulled out a knife and began to select a handful of the finest blooms, which he presently pressed into Mary's hand.
"By the by," he remarked as she thanked him and they turned away along the path, "I wanted to have a word with you—or with Ransford. Do you know—does he know—that that confounded silly woman who lives near to your house—Mrs. Deramore—has been saying some things—or a thing—which—to put it plainly—might make some unpleasantness for him?"
Mary kept a firm hand on her wits—and gave him an answer which was true enough, so far as she was aware.
"I'm sure he knows nothing," she said. "What is it, Mr. Folliot?"
"Why, you know what happened last week," continued Folliot, glancing knowingly at her. "The accident to that stranger. This Mrs. Deramore, who's nothing but an old chatterer, has been saying, here and there, that it's a very queer thing Dr. Ransford doesn't know anything about him, and can't say anything, for she herself, she says, saw the very man going away from Dr. Ransford's house not so long before the accident."
"I am not aware that he ever called at Dr. Ransford's," said Mary. "I never saw him—and I was in the garden, about that very time, with your stepson, Mr. Folliot."
"So Sackville told me," remarked Folliot. "He was present—and so was I—when Mrs. Deramore was tattling about it in our house yesterday. He said, then, that he'd never seen the man go to your house. You never heard your servants make any remark about it?"
"Never!" answered Mary.
"I told Mrs. Deramore she'd far better hold her tongue," continued Folliot. "Tittle-tattle of that sort is apt to lead to unpleasantness. And when it came to it, it turned out that all she had seen was this stranger strolling across the Close as if he'd just left your house. If—there's always some if! But I'll tell you why I mentioned it to you," he continued, nudging Mary's elbow and glancing covertly first at her and then at his house on the far side of the garden. "Ladies that are—getting on a bit in years, you know—like my wife, are apt to let their tongues wag, and between you and me, I shouldn't wonder if Mrs. Folliot has repeated what Mrs. Deramore said—eh? And I don't want the doctor to think that—if he hears anything, you know, which he may, and, again, he might—to think that it originated here. So, if he should ever mention it to you, you can say it sprang from his next-door neighbour. Bah!—they're a lot of old gossips, these Close ladies!"
"Thank you," said Mary. "But—supposing this man had been to our house—what difference would that make? He might have been for half a dozen reasons."
Folliot looked at her out of his half-shut eyes.
"Some people would want to know why Ransford didn't tell that—at the inquest," he answered. "That's all. When there's a bit of mystery, you know—eh?"
He nodded—as if reassuringly—and went off to rejoin his gardener, and Mary walked home with her roses, more thoughtful than ever. Mystery?—a bit of mystery? There was a vast and heavy cloud of mystery, and she knew she could have no peace until it was lifted.
CHAPTER XI. THE BACK ROOM
In the midst of all her perplexity at that moment, Mary Bewery was certain of one fact about which she had no perplexity nor any doubt—it would not be long before the rumours of which Bryce and Mr. Folliot had spoken. Although she had only lived in Wrychester a comparatively short time she had seen and learned enough of it to know that the place was a hotbed of gossip. Once gossip was started there, it spread, widening in circle after circle. And though Bryce was probably right when he said that the person chiefly concerned was usually the last person to hear what was being whispered, she knew well enough that sooner or later this talk about Ransford would come to Ransford's own ears. But she had no idea that it was to come so soon, nor from her own brother.
Lunch in the Ransford menage was an informal meal. At a quarter past one every day, it was on the table—a cold lunch to which the three members of the household helped themselves as they liked, independent of the services of servants. Sometimes all three were there at the same moment; sometimes Ransford was half an hour late; the one member who was always there to the moment was Dick Bewery, who fortified himself sedulously after his morning's school labours. On this particular day all three met in the dining-room at once, and sat down together. And before Dick had eaten many mouthfuls of a cold pie to which he had just liberally helped himself he bent confidentially across the table towards his guardian.
"There's something I think you ought to be told about, sir," he remarked with a side-glance at Mary. "Something I heard this morning at school. You know, we've a lot of fellows—town boys—who talk."
"I daresay," responded Ransford dryly. "Following the example of their mothers, no doubt. Well—what is it?"
He, too, glanced at Mary—and the girl had her work set to look unconscious.
"It's this," replied Dick, lowering his voice in spite of the fact that all three were alone. "They're saying in the town that you know something which you won't tell about that affair last week. It's being talked of."
Ransford laughed—a little cynically.
"Are you quite sure, my boy, that they aren't saying that I daren't tell?" he asked. "Daren't is a much more likely word than won't, I think."
"Well—about that, sir," acknowledged Dick. "Comes to that, anyhow."
"And what are their grounds?" inquired Ransford. "You've heard them, I'll be bound!"
"They say that man—Braden—had been here—here, to the house!—that morning, not long before he was found dead," answered Dick. "Of course, I said that was all bosh!—I said that if he'd been here and seen you, I'd have heard of it, dead certain."
"That's not quite so dead certain, Dick, as that I have no knowledge of his ever having been here," said Ransford. "But who says he came here?"
"Mrs. Deramore," replied Dick promptly. "She says she saw him go away from the house and across the Close, a little before ten. So Jim Deramore says, anyway—and he says his mother's eyes are as good as another's."
"Doubtless!" assented Ransford. He looked at Mary again, and saw that she was keeping hers fixed on her plate. "Well," he continued, "if it will give you any satisfaction, Dick, you can tell the gossips that Dr. Ransford never saw any man, Braden or anybody else, at his house that morning, and that he never exchanged a word with Braden. So much for that! But," he added, "you needn't expect them to believe you. I know these people—if they've got an idea into their heads they'll ride it to death. Nevertheless, what I say is a fact."
Dick presently went off—and once more Ransford looked at Mary. And this time, Mary had to meet her guardian's inquiring glance.
"Have you heard anything of this?" he asked.
"That there was a rumour—yes," she replied without hesitation. "But—not until just now—this morning."
"Who told you of it?" inquired Ransford.
Mary hesitated. Then she remembered that Mr. Folliot, at any rate, had not bound her to secrecy.
"Mr. Folliot," she replied. "He called me into his garden, to give me those roses, and he mentioned that Mrs. Deramore had said these things to Mrs. Folliot, and as he seemed to think it highly probable that Mrs. Folliot would repeat them, he told me because he didn't want you to think that the rumour had originally arisen at his house."
"Very good of him, I'm sure," remarked Ransford dryly. "They all like to shift the blame from one to another! But," he added, looking searchingly at her, "you don't know anything about—Braden's having come here?"
He saw at once that she did, and Mary saw a slight shade of anxiety come over his face.
"Yes, I do!" she replied. "That morning. But—it was told to me, only today, in strict confidence."
"In strict confidence!" he repeated. "May I know—by whom?"
"Dr. Bryce," she answered. "I met him this morning. And I think you ought to know. Only—it was in confidence." She paused for a moment, looking at him, and her face grew troubled. "I hate to suggest it," she continued, "but—will you come with me to see him, and I'll ask him—things being as they are—to tell you what he told me. I can't—without his permission."
Ransford shook his head and frowned.
"I dislike it!" he said. "It's—it's putting ourselves in his power, as it were. But—I'm not going to be left in the dark. Put on your hat, then."
Bryce, ever since his coming to Wrychester, had occupied rooms in an old house in Friary Lane, at the back of the Close. He was comfortably lodged. Downstairs he had a double sitting-room, extending from the front to the back of the house; his front window looked out on one garden, his back window on another. He had just finished lunch in the front part of his room, and was looking out of his window, wondering what to do with himself that afternoon, when he saw Ransford and Mary Bewery approaching. He guessed the reason of their visit at once, and went straight to the front door to meet them, and without a word motioned them to follow him into his own quarters. It was characteristic of him that he took the first word—before either of his visitors could speak.
"I know why you've come," he said, as he closed the door and glanced at Mary. "You either want my permission that you should tell Dr. Ransford what I told you this morning, or, you want me to tell him myself. Am I right?"
"I should be glad if you would tell him," replied Mary. "The rumour you spoke of has reached him—he ought to know what you can tell. I have respected your confidence, so far."
The two men looked at each other. And this time it was Ransford who spoke first.
"It seems to me," he said, "that there is no great reason for privacy. If rumours are flying about in Wrychester, there is an end of privacy. Dick tells me they are saying at the school that it is known that Braden called on me at my house shortly before he was found dead. I know nothing whatever of any such call! But—I left you in my surgery that morning. Do you know if he came there?"
"Yes!" answered Bryce. "He did come. Soon after you'd gone out."
"Why did you keep that secret?" demanded Ransford. "You could have told it to the police—or to the Coroner—or to me. Why didn't you?"
Before Bryce could answer, all three heard a sharp click of the front garden gate, and looking round, saw Mitchington coming up the walk.
"Here's one of the police, now," said Bryce calmly. "Probably come to extract information. I would much rather he didn't see you here—but I'd also like you to hear what I shall say to him. Step inside there," he continued, drawing aside the curtains which shut off the back room. "Don't stick at trifles!—you don't know what may be afoot."
He almost forced them away, drew the curtains again, and hurrying to the front door, returned almost immediately with Mitchington.
"Hope I'm not disturbing you, doctor," said the inspector, as Bryce brought him in and again closed the door. "Not? All right, then—I came round to ask you a question. There's a queer rumour getting out in the town, about that affair last week. Seems to have sprung from some of those old dowagers in the Close."
"Of course!" said Bryce. He was mixing a whisky-and-soda for his caller, and his laugh mingled with the splash of the siphon. "Of course! I've heard it."
"You've heard?" remarked Mitchington. "Um! Good health, sir!—heard, of course, that—"
"That Braden called on Dr. Ransford not long before the accident, or murder, or whatever it was, happened," said Bryce. "That's it—eh?"
"Something of that sort," agreed Mitchington. "It's being said, anyway, that Braden was at Ransford's house, and presumably saw him, and that Ransford, accordingly, knows something about him which he hasn't told. Now—what do you know? Do you know if Ransford and Braden did meet that morning?"
"Not at Ransford's house, anyway," answered Bryce promptly. "I can prove that. But since this rumour has got out, I'll tell you what I do know, and what the truth is. Braden did come to Ransford's—not to the house, but to the surgery. He didn't see Ransford—Ransford had gone out, across the Close. Braden saw—me!"
"Bless me!—I didn't know that," remarked Mitchington. "You never mentioned it."
"You'll not wonder that I didn't," said Bryce, laughing lightly, "when I tell you what the man wanted."
"What did he want, then?" asked Mitchington.
"Merely to be told where the Cathedral Library was," answered Bryce.
Ransford, watching Mary Bewery, saw her cheeks flush, and knew that Bryce was cheerfully telling lies. But Mitchington evidently had no suspicion.
"That all?" he asked. "Just a question?"
"Just a question—that question," replied Bryce. "I pointed out the Library—and he walked away. I never saw him again until I was fetched to him—dead. And I thought so little of the matter that—well, it never even occurred to me to mention it."
"Then—though he did call—he never saw Ransford?" asked the inspector.
"I tell you Ransford was already gone out," answered Bryce. "He saw no one but myself. Where Mrs. Deramore made her mistake—I happen to know, Mitchington, that she started this rumour—was in trying to make two and two into five. She saw this man crossing the Close, as if from Ransford's house and she at once imagined he'd seen and been talking with Ransford."
"Old fool!" said Mitchington. "Of course, that's how these tales get about. However, there's more than that in the air."
The two listeners behind the curtains glanced at each other. Ransford's glance showed that he was already chafing at the unpleasantness of his position—but Mary's only betokened apprehension. And suddenly, as if she feared that Ransford would throw the curtains aside and walk into the front room, she laid a hand on his arm and motioned him to be patient—and silent.
"Oh?" said Bryce. "More in the air? About that business?"
"Just so," assented Mitchington. "To start with, that man Varner, the mason, has never ceased talking. They say he's always at it—to the effect that the verdict of the jury at the inquest was all wrong, and that his evidence was put clean aside. He persists that he did see—what he swore he saw."
"He'll persist in that to his dying day," said Bryce carelessly. "If that's all there is—"
"It isn't," interrupted the inspector. "Not by a long chalk! But Varner's is a direct affirmation—the other matter's a sort of ugly hint. There's a man named Collishaw, a townsman, who's been employed as a mason's labourer about the Cathedral of late. This Collishaw, it seems, was at work somewhere up in the galleries, ambulatories, or whatever they call those upper regions, on the very morning of the affair. And the other night, being somewhat under the influence of drink, and talking the matter over with his mates at a tavern, he let out some dark hints that he could tell something if he liked. Of course, he was pressed to tell them—and wouldn't. Then—so my informant tells me—he was dared to tell, and became surlily silent. That, of course, spread, and got to my ears. I've seen Collishaw."
"Well?" asked Bryce.
"I believe the man does know something," answered Mitchington. "That's the impression I carried away, anyhow. But—he won't speak. I charged him straight out with knowing something—but it was no good. I told him of what I'd heard. All he would say was that whatever he might have said when he'd got a glass of beer or so too much, he wasn't going to say anything now neither for me nor for anybody!"
"Just so!" remarked Bryce. "But—he'll be getting a glass too much again, some day, and then—then, perhaps he'll add to what he said before. And—you'll be sure to hear of it."
"I'm not certain of that," answered Mitchington. "I made some inquiry and I find that Collishaw is usually a very sober and retiring sort of chap—he'd been lured on to drink when he let out what he did. Besides, whether I'm right or wrong, I got the idea into my head that he'd already been—squared!"
"Squared!" exclaimed Bryce. "Why, then, if that affair was really murder, he'd be liable to being charged as an accessory after the fact!"
"I warned him of that," replied Mitchington. "Yes, I warned him solemnly."
"With no effect?" asked Bryce.
"He's a surly sort of man," said Mitchington. "The sort that takes refuge in silence. He made no answer beyond a growl."
"You really think he knows something?" suggested Bryce. "Well—if there is anything, it'll come out—in time."