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.