The Paradise Mystery by J. S. Fletcher
Chapter XIV. From the Past
If any remarkably keen and able observer of the odd characteristics of humanity had been present in Harker's little parlour at that moment, watching him and his visitor, he would have been struck by what happened when the old man put this sudden and point-blank question to the young one. For Harker put the question, though in a whisper, in no more than a casual, almost friendlily-confidential way, and Bryce never showed by the start of a finger or the flicker of an eyelash that he felt it to be what he really knew it to be --the most surprising and startling question he had ever had put to him. Instead, he looked his questioner calmly in the eyes, and put a question in his turn.
"Who are you, Mr. Harker?" asked Bryce quietly.
Harker laughed--almost gleefully.
"Yes, you've a right to ask that!" he said. "Of course!--glad you take it that way. You'll do!"
"I'll qualify it, then," added Bryce. "It's not who--it's what are you!"
Harker waved his cigar at the book-shelves in front of which his visitor sat.
"Take a look at my collection of literature, doctor," he said. "What d'ye think of it?"
Bryce turned and leisurely inspected one shelf after another.
"Seems to consist of little else but criminal cases and legal handbooks," he remarked quietly. "I begin to suspect you, Mr. Harker. They say here in Wrychester that you're a retired tradesman. I think you're a retired policeman--of the detective branch."
Harker laughed again.
"No Wrychester man has ever crossed my threshold since I came to settle down here," he said. "You're the first person I've ever asked in--with one notable exception. I've never even had Campany, the librarian, here. I'm a hermit."
"But--you were a detective?" suggested Bryce.
"Aye, for a good five-and-twenty years!" replied Harker. "And pretty well known, too, sir. But--my question, doctor. All between ourselves!"
"I'll ask you one, then," said Bryce. "How do you know I took a scrap of paper from Braden's purse?"
"Because I know that he had such a paper in his purse the night he came to the Mitre," answered Harker, "and was certain to have it there next morning, and because I also know that you were left alone with the body for some minutes after Varner fetched you to it, and that when Braden's clothing and effects were searched by Mitchington, the paper wasn't there. So, of course, you took it! Doesn't matter to me that ye did --except that I know, from knowing that, that you're on a similar game to my own--which is why you went down to Leicestershire."
"You knew Braden?" asked Bryce.
"I knew him!" answered Harker.
"You saw him--spoke with him--here in Wrychester?" suggested Bryce.
"He was here-in this room--in that chair--from five minutes past nine to close on ten o'clock the night before his death," replied Harker.
Bryce, who was quietly appreciating the Havana cigar which the old man had given him, picked up his glass, took a drink, and settled himself in his easy chair as if he meant to stay there awhile.
"I think we'd better talk confidentially, Mr. Harker," he said.
"Precisely what we are doing, Dr. Bryce," replied Harker.
"All right, my friend," said Bryce, laconically. "Now we understand each other. So--do you know who John Braden really was?"
"Yes!" replied Harker, promptly. "He was in reality John Brake, ex-bank manager, ex-convict."
"Do you know if he's any relatives here in Wrychester?" inquired Bryce.
"Yes," said Harker. "The boy and girl who live with Ransford --they're Brake's son and daughter."
"Did Brake know that--when he came here?" continued Bryce.
"No, he didn't--he hadn't the least idea of it," responded Harker.
"Had you--then?" asked Bryce.
"No--not until later--a little later," replied Harker.
"You found it out at Barthorpe?" suggested Bryce.
"Not a bit of it; I worked it out here--after Brake was dead," said Harker. "I went to Barthorpe on quite different business--Brake's business."
"Ah!" said Bryce. He looked the old detective quietly in the eyes. "You'd better tell me all about it," he added.
"If we're both going to tell each other--all about it," stipulated Harker.
"That's settled," assented Bryce.
Harker smoked thoughtfully for a moment and seemed to be thinking.
"I'd better go back to the beginning," he said. "But, first --what do you know about Brake? I know you went down to Barthorpe to find out what you could--how far did your searches take you?"
"I know that Brake married a girl from Braden Medworth, that he took her to London, where he was manager of a branch bank, that he got into trouble, and was sentenced to ten years' penal servitude," answered Bryce, "together with some small details into which we needn't go at present."
"Well, as long as you know all that, there's a common basis and a common starting-point," remarked Harker, "so I'll begin at Brake's trial. It was I who arrested Brake. There was no trouble, no bother. He'd been taken unawares, by an inspector of the bank. He'd a considerable deficiency--couldn't make it good--couldn't or wouldn't explain except by half-sullen hints that he'd been cruelly deceived. There was no defence --couldn't be. His counsel said that he could--"
"I've read the account of the trial," interrupted Bryce.
"All right--then you know as much as I can tell you on that point," said Harker. "He got, as you say, ten years. I saw him just before he was removed and asked him if there was anything I could do for him about his wife and children. I'd never seen them--I arrested him at the bank, and, of course, he was never out of custody after that. He answered in a queer, curt way that his wife and children were being looked after. I heard, incidentally, that his wife had left home, or was from home--there was something mysterious about it--either as soon as he was arrested or before. Anyway, he said nothing, and from that moment I never set eyes on him again until I met him in the street here in Wrychester, the other night, when he came to the Mitre. I knew him at once--and he knew me. We met under one of those big standard lamps in the Market Place--I was following my usual practice of having an evening walk, last thing before going to bed. And we stopped and stared at each other. Then he came forward with his hand out, and we shook hands. 'This is an odd thing!' he said. 'You're the very man I wanted to find! Come somewhere, where it's quiet, and let me have a word with you.' So--I brought him here."
Bryce was all attention now--for once he was devoting all his faculties to tense and absorbed concentration on what another man could tell, leaving reflections and conclusions on what he heard until all had been told.
"I brought him here," repeated Harker. "I told him I'd been retired and was living here, as he saw, alone. I asked him no questions about himself--I could see he was a well-dressed, apparently well-to-do man. And presently he began to tell me about himself. He said that after he'd finished his term he left England and for some time travelled in Canada and the United States, and had gone then--on to New Zealand and afterwards to Australia, where he'd settled down and begun speculating in wool. I said I hoped he'd done well. Yes, he said, he'd done very nicely--and then he gave me a quiet dig in the ribs. 'I'll tell you one thing I've done, Harker,' he said. 'You were very polite and considerate to me when I'd my trouble, so I don't mind telling you. I paid the bank every penny of that money they lost through my foolishness at that time--every penny, four years ago, with interest, and I've got their receipt.' 'Delighted to hear it, Mr.--Is it the same name still?' I said. 'My name ever since I left England,' he said, giving me a look, 'is Braden--John Braden.' 'Yes,' he went on, 'I paid 'em--though I never had one penny of the money I was fool enough to take for the time being--not one halfpenny!' 'Who had it, Mr. Braden?' I asked him, thinking that he'd perhaps tell after all that time. 'Never mind, my lad!' he answered. 'It'll come out--yet. Never mind that, now. I'll tell you why I wanted to see you. The fact is, I've only been a few hours in England, so to speak, but I'd thought of you, and wondered where I could get hold of you --you're the only man of your profession I ever met, you see,' he added, with a laugh. 'And I want a bit of help in that way.' 'Well, Mr. Braden,' I said, 'I've retired, but if it's an easy job--' 'It's one you can do, easy enough,' he said. 'It's just this--I met a man in Australia who's extremely anxious to get some news of another man, named Falkiner Wraye, who hails from Barthorpe, in Leicestershire. I promised to make inquiries for him. Now, I have strong reasons why I don't want to go near Barthorpe--Barthorpe has unpleasant memories and associations for me, and I don't want to be seen there. But this thing's got to be personal investigation --will you go here, for me? I'll make it worth your while. All you've got to do,' he went on, 'is to go there--see the police authorities, town officials, anybody that knows the place, and ask them if they can tell you anything of one Falkiner Wraye, who was at one time a small estate agent in Barthorpe, left the place about seventeen years ago--maybe eighteen--and is believed to have recently gone back to the neighbourhood. That's all. Get what information you can, and write it to me, care of my bankers in London. Give me a sheet of paper and I'll put down particulars for you.'"
Harker paused at this point and nodded his head at an old bureau which stood in a corner of his room.
"The sheet of paper's there," he said. "It's got on it, in his writing, a brief memorandum of what he wanted and the address of his bankers. When he'd given it to me, he put his hand in his pocket and pulled out a purse in which I could see he was carrying plenty of money. He took out some notes. 'Here's five-and-twenty pounds on account, Harker,' he said. 'You might have to spend a bit. Don't be afraid--plenty more where that comes from. You'll do it soon?' he asked. 'Yes, I'll do it, Mr. Braden,' I answered. 'It'll be a bit of a holiday for me.' 'That's all right,' he said. 'I'm delighted I came across you.' 'Well, you couldn't be more delighted than I was surprised,' I said. 'I never thought to see you in Wrychester. What brought you here, if one may ask --sight-seeing?' He laughed at that, and he pulled out his purse again. 'I'll show you something--a secret,' he said, and he took a bit of folded paper out of his purse. 'What do you make of that?' he asked. 'Can you read Latin?' 'No --except a word or two,' I said, 'but I know a man who can.' 'Ah, never mind,' said he. 'I know enough Latin for this--and it's a secret. However, it won't be a secret long, and you'll hear all about it.' And with that he put the bit of paper in his purse again, and we began talking about other matters, and before long he said he'd promised to have a chat with a gentleman at the Mitre whom he'd come along with in the train, and away he went, saying he'd see me before be left the town."
"Did he say how long he was going to stop here?" asked Bryce.
"Two or three days," replied Harker.
"Did he mention Ransford?" inquired Bryce.
"Never!" said Harker.
"Did he make any reference to his wife and children?"
"Not the slightest!"
"Nor to the hint that his counsel threw out at the trial?"
"Never referred to that time except in the way I told you --that he hadn't a penny of the money, himself and that he'd himself refunded it."
Bryce meditated awhile. He was somewhat puzzled by certain points in the old detective's story, and he saw now that there was much more mystery in the Braden affair than he had at first believed.
"Well," he asked, after a while, "did you see him again ?"
"Not alive!" replied Harker. "I saw him dead--and I held my tongue, and have held it. But--something happened that day. After I heard of the accident, I went into the Crown and Cushion tavern--the fact was, I went to get a taste of whisky, for the news had upset me. And in that long bar of theirs, I saw a man whom I knew--a man whom I knew, for a fact, to have been a fellow convict of Brake's. Name of Glassdale--forgery. He got the same sentence that Brake got, about the same time, was in the same convict prison with Brake, and he and Brake would be released about the same date. There was no doubt about his identity--I never forget a face, even after thirty years I'd tell one. I saw him in that bar before he saw me, and I took a careful look at him. He, too, like Brake, was very well dressed, and very prosperous looking. He turned as he set down his glass, and caught sight of me--and he knew me. Mind you, he'd been through my hands in times past! And he instantly moved to a side-door and--vanished. I went out and looked up and down--he'd gone. I found out afterwards, by a little quiet inquiry, that he'd gone straight to the station, boarded the first train--there was one just giving out, to the junction--and left the city. But I can lay hands on him!"
"You've kept this quiet, too?" asked Bryce.
"Just so--I've my own game to play," replied darker. "This talk with you is part of it--you come in, now--I'll tell you why, presently. But first, as you know, I went to Barthorpe. For, though Brake was dead, I felt I must go--for this reason. I was certain that he wanted that information for himself--the man in Australia was a fiction. I went, then--and learned nothing. Except that this Falkiner Wraye had been, as Brake said, a Barthorpe man, years ago. He'd left the town eighteen years since, and nobody knew anything about him. So I came home. And now then, doctor--your turn! What were you after, down there at Barthorpe?"
Bryce meditated his answer for a good five minutes. He had always intended to play the game off his own bat, but he had heard and seen enough since entering Harker's little room to know that he was in company with an intellect which was keener and more subtle than his, and that it would be all to his advantage to go in with the man who had vast and deep experience. And so he made a clean breast of all he had done in the way of investigation, leaving his motive completely aside.
"You've got a theory, of course?" observed Harker, after listening quietly to all that Bryce could tell. "Naturally, you have! You couldn't accumulate all that without getting one."
"Well," admitted Bryce, "honestly, I can't say that I have. But I can see what theory there might be. This--that Ransford was the man who deceived Brake, that he ran away with Brake's wife, that she's dead, and that he's brought up the children in ignorance of all that--and therefore--"
"And therefore," interrupted Harker with a smile, "that when he and Brake met--as you seem to think they did--Ransford flung Brake through that open doorway; that Collishaw witnessed it, that Ransford's found out about Collishaw, and that Collishaw has been poisoned by Ransford. Eh?"
"That's a theory that seems to be supported by facts," said Bryce.
"It's a theory that would doubtless suit men like Mitchington," said the old detective, with another smile. "But--not me, sir! Mind you, I don't say there isn't something in it--there's doubtless a lot. But--the mystery's a lot thicker than just that. And Brake didn't come here to find Ransford. He came because of the secret in that scrap of paper. And as you've got it, doctor--out with it!"
Bryce saw no reason for concealment and producing the scrap of paper laid it on the table between himself and his host. Harker peered inquisitively at it.
"Latin!" he said. "You can read it, of course. What does it say?"
Bryce repeated a literal translation.
"I've found the place," he added. "I found it this morning. Now, what do you suppose this means?"
Harker was looking hard at the two lines of writing.
"That's a big question, doctor," he answered. "But I'll go so far as to say this--when we've found out what it does mean, we shall know a lot more than we know now!"