The Paradise Mystery by J. S. Fletcher
Chapter XI. The Back Boom
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."
"Oh, it'll come out!" assented Mitchington. "I'm ay no means satisfied with that verdict of the coroner's inquiry. I believe there was foul play--of some sort. I'm still following things up--quietly. And--I'll tell you something --between ourselves--I've made an important discovery. It's this. On the evening of Braden's arrival at the Mitre he was out, somewhere, for a whole two hours--by himself."
"I thought we learned from Mrs. Partingley that he and the other man, Dellingham, spent the evening together?" said Bryce.
"So we did--but that was not quite so," replied Mitchington. "Braden went out of the Mitre just before nine o'clock and he didn't return until a few minutes after eleven. Now, then, where did he go?"
"I suppose you're trying to find that out?" asked Bryce, after a pause, during which the listeners heard the caller rise and make for the door.
"Of course!" replied Mitchington, with a confident laugh. "And--I shall! Keep it to yourself, doctor."
When Bryce had let the inspector out and returned to his sitting-room, Ransford and Mary had come from behind the curtains. He looked at them and shook his head.
"You heard--a good deal, you see," he observed.
"Look here!" said Ransford peremptorily. "You put that man off about the call at my surgery. You didn't tell him the truth."
"Quite right," assented Bryce. "I didn't. Why should I?"
"What did Braden ask you?" demanded Ransford. "Come, now?"
"Merely if Dr. Ransford was in," answered Bryce, "remarking that he had once known a Dr. Ransford. That was--literally --all. I replied that you were not in."
Ransford stood silently thinking for a moment or two. Then he moved towards the door.
"I don't see that any good will come of more talk about this," he said. "We three, at any rate, know this--I never saw Braden when he came to my house."
Then he motioned Mary to follow him, and they went away, and Bryce, having watched them out of sight, smiled at himself in his mirror--with full satisfaction.