The Paradise Mystery by J. S. Fletcher
Chapter XIII. Bryce is Asked a Question
Mitchington stepped aside into a private room, motioning Bryce to follow him. He carefully closed the door, and looking significantly at his companion, repeated his last words, with a shake of the head.
"Poisoned!--without the very least doubt," he whispered. "Hydrocyanic acid--which, I understand, is the same thing as what's commonly called prussic acid. They say then hadn't the least difficulty in finding that out! so there you are."
"That's what Coates has told you, of course?" asked Bryce. "After the autopsy?"
"Both of 'em told me--Coates, and Everest, who helped him," replied Mitchington. "They said it was obvious from the very start. And--I say!"
"Well?" said Bryce.
"It wasn't in that tin bottle, anyway," remarked Mitchington, who was evidently greatly weighted with mystery.
"No!--of course it wasn't!" affirmed Bryce. "Good Heavens, man--I know that!"
"How do you know?" asked Mitchington.
"Because I poured a few drops from that bottle into my hand when I first found Collishaw and tasted the stuff," answered Bryce readily. "Cold tea! with too much sugar in it. There was no H.C.N. in that besides, wherever it is, there's always a smell stronger or fainter--of bitter almonds. There was none about that bottle."
"Yet you were very anxious that we should take care of the bottle?" observed Mitchington.
"Of course!--because I suspected the use of some much rarer poison than that," retorted Bryce. "Pooh!--it's a clumsy way of poisoning anybody!--quick though it is."
"Well, there's where it is!" said Mitchington. "That'll be the medical evidence at the inquest, anyway. That's how it was done. And the question now is--"
"Who did it?" interrupted Bryce. "Precisely! Well--I'll say this much at once, Mitchington. Whoever did it was either a big bungler--or damned clever! That's what I say!"
"I don't understand you," said Mitchington.
"Plain enough--my meaning," replied Bryce, smiling. "To finish anybody with that stuff is easy enough--but no poison is more easily detected. It's an amateurish way of poisoning anybody--unless you can do it in such a fashion that no suspicion can attach you to. And in this case it's here --whoever administered that poison to Collishaw must have been certain--absolutely certain, mind you!--that it was impossible for any one to find out that he'd done so. Therefore, I say what I said--the man must be damned clever. Otherwise, he'd be found out pretty quick. And all that puzzles me is--how was it administered?"
"How much would kill anybody--pretty quick?" asked Mitchington.
"How much? One drop would cause instantaneous death!" answered Bryce. "Cause paralysis of the heart, there and then, instantly!"
Mitchington remained silent awhile, looking meditatively at Bryce. Then he turned to a locked drawer, produced a key, and took something out of the drawer--a small object, wrapped in paper.
"I'm telling you a good deal, doctor," he said. "But as you know so much already, I'll tell you a bit more. Look at this!"
He opened his hand and showed Bryce a small cardboard pill-box, across the face of which a few words were written --One after meals--Mr. Collishaw.
"Whose handwriting's that?" demanded Mitchington.
Bryce looked closer, and started.
"Ransford's!" he muttered. Ransford--of course!"
"That box was in Collishaw's waistcoat pocket," said Mitchington. "There are pills inside it, now. See!" He took off the lid of the box and revealed four sugar-coated pills. "It wouldn't hold more than six, this," he observed.
Bryce extracted a pill and put his nose to it, after scratching a little of the sugar coating away.
"Mere digestive pills," he announced.
"Could--it!--have been given in one of these?" asked Mitchington.
"Possible," replied Bryce. He stood thinking for a moment. "Have you shown those things to Coates and Everest?" he asked at last.
"Not yet," replied Mitchington. "I wanted to find out, first, if Ransford gave this box to Collishaw, and when. I'm going to Collishaw's house presently--I've certain inquiries to make. His widow'll know about these pills."
"You're suspecting Ransford," said Bryce. "That's certain!"
Mitchington carefully put away the pill-box and relocked the drawer.
"I've got some decidedly uncomfortable ideas--which I'd much rather not have--about Dr. Ransford," he said. "When one thing seems to fit into another, what is one to think. If I were certain that that rumour which spread, about Collishaw's knowledge of something--you know, had got to Ransford's ears --why, I should say it looked very much as if Ransford wanted to stop Collishaw's tongue for good before it could say more --and next time, perhaps, something definite. If men once begin to hint that they know something, they don't stop at hinting. Collishaw might have spoken plainly before long--to us!"
Bryce asked a question about the holding of the inquest and went away. And after thinking things over, he turned in the direction of the Cathedral, and made his way through the Cloisters to the Close. He was going to make another move in his own game, while there was a good chance. Everything at this juncture was throwing excellent cards into his hand--he would be foolish, he thought, not to play them to advantage. And so he made straight for Ransford's house, and before he reached it, met Ransford and Mary Bewery, who were crossing the Close from another point, on their way from the railway station, whither Mary had gone especially to meet her guardian. They were in such deep conversation that Bryce was close upon them before they observed his presence. When Ransford saw his late assistant, he scowled unconsciously --Bryce, and the interview of the previous afternoon, had been much in his thoughts all day, and he had an uneasy feeling that Bryce was playing some game. Bryce was quick to see that scowl--and to observe the sudden start which Mary could not repress--and he was just as quick to speak.
"I was going to your house, Dr. Ransford," he remarked quietly. "I don't want to force my presence on you, now or at any time--but I think you'd better give me a few minutes."
They were at Ransford's garden gate by that time, and Ransford flung it open and motioned Bryce to follow. He led the way into the dining-room, closed the door on the three, and looked at Bryce. Bryce took the glance as a question, and put another, in words.
"You've heard of what's happened during the day?" he said.
"About Collishaw--yes," answered Ransford. "Miss Bewery has just told me--what her brother told her. What of it?"
"I have just come from the police-station," said Bryce. "Coates and Everest have carried out an autopsy this afternoon. Mitchington told me the result."
"Well?" demanded Ransford, with no attempt to conceal his impatience. "And what then?"
"Collishaw was poisoned," replied Bryce, watching Ransford with a closeness which Mary did not fail to observe. "H.C.N. No doubt at all about it."
"Well-and what then?" asked Ransford, still more impatiently. "To be explicit--what's all this to do with me?"
"I came here to do you a service," answered Bryce. "Whether you like to take it or not is your look-out. You may as well know it you're in danger. Collishaw is the man who hinted--as you heard yesterday in my rooms--that he could say something definite about the Braden affair--if he liked."
"Well?" said Ransford.
"It's known--to the police--that you were at Collishaw's house early this morning," said Bryce. "Mitchington knows it."
"Does Mitchington know that I overheard what he said to you, yesterday afternoon?" he inquired.
"No, he doesn't," answered Bryce. "He couldn't possibly know unless I told him. I haven't told him--I'm not going to tell him. But--he's suspicious already."
"Of me, of course," suggested Ransford, with another laugh. He took a turn across the room and suddenly faced round on Bryce, who had remained standing near the door. "Do you really mean to tell me that Mitchington is such a fool as to believe that I would poison a poor working man--and in that clumsy fashion?" he burst out. "Of course you don't."
"I never said I did," answered Bryce. "I'm only telling you what Mitchington thinks his grounds for suspecting. He confided in me because--well, it was I who found Collishaw. Mitchington is in possession of a box of digestive pills which you evidently gave Collishaw."
"Bah!" exclaimed Ransford. "The man's a fool! Let him come and talk to me."
"He won't do that--yet," said Bryce. "But--I'm afraid he'll bring all this out at the inquest. The fact is--he's suspicious--what with one thing or another--about the former affair. He thinks you concealed the truth--whatever it may be--as regards any knowledge of Braden which you may or mayn't have."
"I'll tell you what it is!" said Ransford suddenly. "It just comes to this--I'm suspected of having had a hand--the hand, if you like!--in Braden's death, and now of getting rid of Collishaw because Collishaw could prove that I had that hand. That's about it!"
"A clear way of putting it, certainly," assented Bryce. "But --there's a very clear way, too, of dissipating any such ideas."
"What way?" demanded Ransford.
"If you do know anything about the Braden affair--why not reveal it, and be done with the whole thing," suggested Bryce. "That would finish matters."
Ransford took a long, silent look at his questioner. And Bryce looked steadily back--and Mary Bewery anxiously watched both men.
"That's my business," said Ransford at last. "I'm neither to be coerced, bullied, or cajoled. I'm obliged to you for giving me a hint of my--danger, I suppose! And--I don't propose to say any more."
"Neither do I," said Bryce. "I only came to tell you."
And therewith, having successfully done all that he wanted to do, he walked out of the room and the house, and Ransford, standing in the window, his hands thrust in his pockets, watched him go away across the Close.
"Guardian!" said Mary softly.
Ransford turned sharply.
"Wouldn't it be best," she continued, speaking nervously, "if --if you do know anything about that unfortunate man--if you told it? Why have this suspicion fastening itself on you? You!"
Ransford made an effort to calm himself. He was furiously angry--angry with Bryce, angry with Mitchington, angry with the cloud of foolishness and stupidity that seemed to be gathering.
"Why should I--supposing that I do know something, which I don't admit--why should I allow myself to be coerced and frightened by these fools?" he asked. "No man can prevent suspicion falling on him--it's my bad luck in this instance. Why should I rush to the police-station and say, 'Here--I'll blurt out all I know--everything!' Why?"
"Wouldn't that be better than knowing that people are saying things?" she asked.
"As to that," replied Ransford, "you can't prevent people saying things--especially in a town like this. If it hadn't been for the unfortunate fact that Braden came to the surgery door, nothing would have been said. But what of that?--I have known hundreds of men in my time--aye, and forgotten them! No!--I am not going to fall a victim to this device--it all springs out of curiosity. As to this last affair--it's all nonsense!"
"But--if the man was really poisoned?" suggested Mary.
"Let the police find the poisoner!" said Ransford, with a grim smile. "That's their job."
Mary said nothing for a moment, and Ransford moved restlessly about the room.
"I don't trust that fellow Bryce," he said suddenly. "He's up to something. I don't forget what he said when I bundled him out that morning."
"What?" she asked.
"That he would be a bad enemy," answered Ransford. "He's posing now as a friend--but a man's never to be so much suspected as when he comes doing what you may call unnecessary acts of friendship. I'd rather that anybody was mixed up in my affairs--your affairs--than Pemberton Bryce!"
"So would I!" she said. "But--"
She paused there a moment and then looked appealingly at Ransford.
"I do wish you'd tell me--what you promised to tell me," she said. "You know what I mean--about me and Dick. Somehow--I don't quite know how or why--I've an uneasy feeling that Bryce knows something, and that he's mixing it all up with--this! Why not tell me--please!"
Ransford, who was still marching about the room, came to a halt, and leaning his hands on the table between them, looked earnestly at her.
"Don't ask that--now!" he said. "I can't--yet. The fact is, I'm waiting for something--some particulars. As soon as I get them, I'll speak to you--and to Dick. In the meantime--don't ask me again--and don't be afraid. And as to this affair, leave it to me--and if you meet Bryce again, refuse to discuss any thing with him. Look here!--there's only one reason why he professes friendliness and a desire to save me annoyance. He thinks he can ingratiate himself with--you!"
"Mistaken!" murmured Mary, shaking her head. "I don't trust him. And--less than ever because of yesterday. Would an honest man have done what he did? Let that police inspector talk freely, as he did, with people concealed behind a curtain? And--he laughed about it! I hated myself for being there--yet could we help it?"
"I'm not going to hate myself on Pemberton Bryce's account," said Ransford. "Let him play his game--that he has one, I'm certain."
Bryce had gone away to continue his game--or another line of it. The Collishaw matter had not made him forget the Richard Jenkins tomb, and now, after leaving Ransford's house, he crossed the Close to Paradise with the object of doing a little more investigation. But at the archway of the ancient enclosure he met old Simpson Harker, pottering about in his usual apparently aimless fashion. Harker smiled at sight of Bryce.
"Ah, I was wanting to have a word with you, doctor!" he said. "Something important. Have you got a minute or two to spare, sir? Come round to my little place, then--we shall be quiet there."
Bryce had any amount of time to spare for an interesting person like Harker, and he followed the old man to his house --a tiny place set in a nest of similar old-world buildings behind the Close. Harker led him into a little parlour, comfortable and snug, wherein were several shelves of books of a curiously legal and professional-looking aspect, some old pictures, and a cabinet of odds and ends, stowed away in of dark corner. The old man motioned him to an easy chair, and going over to a cupboard, produced a decanter of whisky and a box of cigars.
"We can have a peaceful and comfortable talk here, doctor," he remarked, as he sat down near Bryce, after fetching glasses and soda-water. "I live all alone, like a hermit--my bit of work's done by a woman who only looks in of a morning. So we're all by ourselves. Light your cigar!--same as that I gave you at Barthorpe. Um--well, now," he continued, as Bryce settled down to listen. "There's a question I want to put to you--strictly between ourselves--strictest of confidence, you know. It was you who was called to Braden by Varner, and you were left alone with Braden's body?"
"Well?" admitted Bryce, suddenly growing suspicious. "What of it?"
Harker edged his chair a little closer to his guest's, and leaned towards him.
"What," he asked in a whisper, "what have you done with that scrap of paper that you took out of Braden's purse?"