The Paradise Mystery by J. S. Fletcher
Chapter XV. The Double Offer
Bryce, who was deriving a considerable and peculiar pleasure from his secret interview with the old detective, smiled at Harker's last remark.
"That's a bit of a platitude, isn't it?" he suggested. "Of course we shall know a lot more--when we do know a lot more!"
"I set store by platitudes, sir," retorted Harker. "You can't repeat an established platitude too often--it's got the hallmark of good use on it. But now, till we do know more --you've no doubt been thinking a lot about this matter, Dr. Bryce--hasn't it struck you that there's one feature in connection with Brake, or Braden's visit to Wrychester to which nobody's given any particular attention up to now--so far as we know, at any rate?"
"What?" demanded Bryce.
"This," replied Harker. "Why did he wish to see the Duke of Saxonsteade? He certainly did want to see him--and as soon as possible. You'll remember that his Grace was questioned about that at the inquest and could give no explanation--he knew nothing of Brake, and couldn't suggest any reason why Brake should wish to have an interview with him. But--I can!"
"You?" exclaimed Bryce.
"I," answered Harker. "And it's this--I spoke just now of that man Glassdale. Now you, of course; have no knowledge of him, and as you don't keep yourself posted in criminal history, you don't know what his offence was?"
"You said--forgery?" replied Bryce.
"Just so--forgery," assented Harker. "And the signature that he forged was--the Duke of Saxonsteade's! As a matter of fact, he was the Duke's London estate agent. He got wrong, somehow, and he forged the Duke's name to a cheque. Now, then, considering who Glassdale is, and that he was certainly a fellow-convict of Brake's, and that I myself saw him here in Wrychester on the day of Brake's death--what's the conclusion to be drawn? That Brake wanted to see the Duke on some business of Glassdale's! Without a doubt! It may have been that he and Glassdale wanted to visit the Duke, together."
Bryce silently considered this suggestion for awhile.
"You said, just now, that Glassdale could be traced?" he remarked at last.
"Traced--yes," replied Harker. "So long as he's in England."
"Why not set about it?" suggested Bryce.
"Not yet," said Harker. "There's things to do before that. And the first thing is--let's get to know what the mystery of that scrap of paper is. You say you've found Richard Jenkins's tomb? Very well--then the thing to do is to find out if anything is hidden there. Try it tomorrow night. Better go by yourself--after dark. If you find anything, let me know. And then--then we can decide on a next step. But between now and then, there'll be the inquest on this man Collishaw. And, about that--a word in your ear! Say as little as ever you can!--after all, you know nothing beyond what you saw. And--we mustn't meet and talk in public--after you've done that bit of exploring in Paradise tomorrow night, come round here and we'll consider matters."
There was little that Bryce could say or could be asked to say at the inquest on the mason's labourer next morning. Public interest and excitement was as keen about Collishaw's mysterious death as about. Braden's, for it was already rumoured through the town that if Braden had not met with his death when he came to Wrychester, Collishaw would still be alive. The Coroner's court was once more packed; once more there was the same atmosphere of mystery. But the proceedings were of a very different nature to those which had attended the inquest on Braden. The foreman under whose orders Collishaw had been working gave particulars of the dead man's work on the morning of his death. He had been instructed to clear away an accumulation of rubbish which had gathered at the foot of the south wall of the nave in consequence of some recent repairs to the masonry--there was a full day's work before him. All day he would be in and out of Paradise with his barrow, wheeling away the rubbish he gathered up. The foreman had looked in on him once or twice; he had seen him just before noon, when he appeared to be in his usual health --he had made no complaint, at any rate. Asked if he had happened to notice where Collishaw had set down his dinner basket and his tin bottle while he worked, he replied that it so happened that he had--he remembered seeing both bottle and basket and the man's jacket deposited on one of the box-tombs under a certain yew-tree--which he could point out, if necessary.
Bryce's account of his finding of Collishaw amounted to no more than a bare recital of facts. Nor was much time spent in questioning the two doctors who had conducted the post-mortem examination. Their evidence, terse and particular, referred solely to the cause of death. The man had been poisoned by a dose of hydrocyanic acid, which, in their opinion, had been taken only a few minutes before his body was discovered by Dr. Bryce. It had probably been a dose which would cause instantaneous death. There were no traces of the poison in the remains of his dinner, nor in the liquid in his tin bottle, which was old tea. But of the cause of his sudden death there was no more doubt than of the effects. Ransford had been in the court from the outset of the proceedings, and when the medical evidence had been given he was called. Bryce, watching him narrowly, saw that he was suffering from repressed excitement--and that that excitement was as much due to anger as to anything else. His face was set and stern, and he looked at the Coroner with an expression which portended something not precisely clear at that moment. Bryce, trying to analyse it, said to himself that he shouldn't be surprised if a scene followed--Ransford looked like a man who is bursting to say something in no unmistakable fashion. But at first he answered the questions put to him calmly and decisively.
"When this man's clothing was searched," observed the Coroner, "a box of pills was found, Dr. Ransford, on which your writing appears. Had you been attending him--professionally?"
"Yes," replied Ransford. "Both Collishaw and his wife. Or, rather, to be exact, I had been in attendance on the wife, for some weeks. A day or two before his death, Collishaw complained to me of indigestion, following on his meals. I gave him some digestive pills--the pills you speak of, no doubt."
"These?" asked the Coroner, passing over the box which Mitchington had found.
"Precisely!" agreed Ransford. "That, at any rate, is the box, and I suppose those to be the pills."
"You made them up yourself?" inquired the Coroner.
"I did--I dispense all my own medicines."
"Is it possible that the poison we have beard of, just now, could get into one of those pills--by accident?"
"Utterly impossible!--under my hands, at any rate," answered Ransford.
"Still, I suppose, it could have been administered in a pill?" suggested the Coroner.
"It might," agreed Ransford. "But," he added, with a significant glance at the medical men who had just given evidence. "It was not so administered in this case, as the previous witnesses very well know!"
The Coroner looked round him, and waited a moment.
"You are at liberty to explain--that last remark," he said at last. "That is--if you wish to do so." "Certainly!" answered Ransford, with alacrity. "Those pills are, as you will observe, coated, and the man would swallow them whole--immediately after his food. Now, it would take some little time for a pill to dissolve, to disintegrate, to be digested. If Collishaw took one of my pills as soon as he had eaten his dinner, according to instructions, and if poison had been in that pill, he would not have died at once--as he evidently did. Death would probably have been delayed some little time until the pill had dissolved. But, according to the evidence you have had before you, he died quite suddenly while eating his dinner--or immediately after it. I am not legally represented here--I don't consider it at all necessary --but I ask you to recall Dr. Coates and to put this question to him: Did he find one of those digestive pills in this man's stomach?"
The Coroner turned, somewhat dubiously, to the two doctors who had performed the autopsy. But before he could speak, the superintendent of police rose and began to whisper to him, and after a conversation between them, he looked round at the jury, every member of which had evidently been much struck by Ransford's suggestion.
"At this stage," he said, "it will be necessary to adjourn. I shall adjourn the inquiry for a week, gentlemen. You will--" Ransford, still standing in the witness-box, suddenly lost control of himself. He uttered a sharp exclamation and smote the ledge before him smartly with his open hand.
"I protest against that!" he said vehemently. "Emphatically, I protest! You first of all make a suggestion which tells against me--then, when I demand that a question shall be put which is of immense importance to my interests, you close down the inquiry--even if only for the moment. That is grossly unfair and unjust!"
"You are mistaken," said the Coroner. "At the adjourned inquiry, the two medical men can be recalled, and you will have the opportunity--or your solicitor will have--of asking any questions you like for the present--"
"For the present you have me under suspicion!" interrupted Ransford hotly. "You know it--I say this with due respect to your office--as well as I do. Suspicion is rife in the city against me. Rumour is being spread--secretly--and, I am certain--from the police, who ought to know better. And--I will not be silenced, Mr. Coroner!--I take this public opportunity, as I am on oath, of saying that I know nothing whatever of the causes of the deaths of either Collishaw or of Braden--upon my solemn oath!"
"The inquest is adjourned to this day week," said the Coroner quietly.
Ransford suddenly stepped down from the witness-box and without word or glance at any one there, walked with set face and determined look out of the court, and the excited spectators, gathering into groups, immediately began to discuss his vigorous outburst and to take sides for and against him.
Bryce, judging it advisable to keep away from Mitchington just then, and, for similar reasons, keeping away from Harker also, went out of the crowded building alone--to be joined in the street outside by Sackville Bonham, whom he had noticed in court, in company with his stepfather, Mr. Folliot.
Folliot, Bryce had observed, had stopped behind, exchanging some conversation with the Coroner. Sackville came up to Bryce with a knowing shake of the hand. He was one of those very young men who have a habit of suggesting that their fund of knowledge is extensive and peculiar, and Bryce waited for a manifestation.
"Queer business, all that, Bryce!" observed Sackville confidentially. "Of course, Ransford is a perfect ass!"
"Think so?" remarked Bryce, with an inflection which suggested that Sackville's opinion on anything was as valuable as the Attorney-General's. "That's how it strikes you, is it?"
"Impossible that it could strike one in any other way, you know," answered Sackville with fine and lofty superiority. "Ransford should have taken immediate steps to clear himself of any suspicion. It's ridiculous, considering his position --guardian to--to Miss Bewery, for instance--that he should allow such rumours to circulate. By God, sir, if it had been me, I'd have stopped 'em!--before they left the parish pump!"
"Ah?" said Bryce. "And--how?"
"Made an example of somebody," replied Sackville, with emphasis. "I believe there's law in this country, isn't there?--law against libel and slander, and that sort of thing, eh? Oh, yes!"
"Not been much time for that--yet," remarked Bryce.
"Piles of time," retorted Sackville, swinging his stick vigorously. "No, sir, Ransford is an ass! However, if a man won't do things for himself, well, his friends must do something for him. Ransford, of course, must be pulled--dragged!--out of this infernal hole. Of course he's suspected! But my stepfather--he's going to take a hand. And my stepfather, Bryce, is a devilish cute old hand at a game of this sort!"
"Nobody doubts Mr. Folliot's abilities, I'm sure," said Bryce. "But--you don't mind saying--how is he going to take a hand?"
"Stir things towards a clearing-up," announced Sackville promptly. "Have the whole thing gone into--thoroughly. There are matters that haven't been touched on, yet. You'll see, my boy!"
"Glad to hear it," said Bryce. "But--why should Mr. Folliot be so particular about clearing Ransford?"
Sackville swung his stick, and pulled up his collar, and jerked his nose a trifle higher.
"Oh, well," he said. "Of course, it's--it's a pretty well understood thing, don't you know--between myself and Miss Bewery, you know--and of course, we couldn't have any suspicions attaching to her guardian, could we, now? Family interest, don't you know--Caesar's wife, and all that sort of thing, eh?"
"I see," answered Bryce, quietly--sort of family arrangement. With Ransford's consent and knowledge, of course?"
"Ransford won't even be consulted," said Sackville, airily. "My stepfather--sharp man, that, Bryce!--he'll do things in his own fashion. You look out for sudden revelations!"
"I will," replied Bryce. "By-bye!"
He turned off to his rooms, wondering how much of truth there was in the fatuous Sackville's remarks. And--was there some mystery still undreamt of by himself and Harker? There might be--he was still under the influence of Ransford's indignant and dramatic assertion of his innocence. Would Ransford have allowed himself an outburst of that sort if he had not been, as he said, utterly ignorant of the immediate cause of Braden's death? Now Bryce, all through, was calculating, for his own purposes, on Ransford's share, full or partial, in that death--if Ransford really knew nothing whatever about it, where did his, Bryce's theory, come in--and how would his present machinations result? And, more--if Ransford's assertion were true, and if Varner's story of the hand, seen for an instant in the archway, were also true--and Varner was persisting in it--then, who was the man who flung Braden to his death that morning? He realized that, instead of straightening out, things were becoming more and more complicated.
But he realized something else. On the surface, there was a strong case of suspicion against Ransford. It had been suggested that very morning before a coroner and his jury; it would grow; the police were already permeated with suspicion and distrust. Would it not pay him, Bryce, to encourage, to help it? He had his own score to pay off against Ransford; he had his own schemes as regards Mary Bewery. Anyway, he was not going to share in any attempts to clear the man who had bundled him out of his house unceremoniously--he would bide his time. And in the meantime there were other things to be done--one of them that very night.
But before Bryce could engage in his secret task of excavating a small portion of Paradise in the rear of Richard Jenkins's tomb, another strange development came. As the dark fell over the old city that night and he was thinking of setting out on his mission, Mitchington came in, carrying two sheets of paper, obviously damp from the press, in his hand. He looked at Bryce with an expression of wonder.
"Here's a queer go!" he said. "I can't make this out at all! Look at these big handbills--but perhaps you've seen 'em? They're being posted all over tho city--we've had a bundle of 'em thrown in on us."
"I haven't been out since lunch," remarked Bryce. "What are they?"
Mitchington spread out the two papers on the table, pointing from one to the other.
"You see?" he said. "Five Hundred Pounds Reward!--One Thousand Pounds Reward! And--both out at the same time, from different sources!"
"What sources?" asked Bryce, bending over the bills. "Ah--I see. One signed by Phipps & Maynard, the other by Beachcroft. Odd, certainly!"
"Odd?" exclaimed Mitchington. "I should think so! But, do you see, doctor? that one--five hundred reward--is offered for information of any nature relative to the deaths of John Braden and James Collishaw, both or either. That amount will be paid for satisfactory information by Phipps & Maynard. And Phipps & Maynard are Ransford's solicitors! That bill, sir, comes from him! And now the other, the thousand pound one, that offers the reward to any one who can give definite information as to the circumstances attending the death of John Braden--to be paid by Mr. Beachcroft. And he's Mr. Folliot's solicitor! So--that comes from Mr. Folliot. What has he to do with it? And are these two putting their heads together--or are these bills quite independent of each other? Hang me if I understand it!"
Bryce read and re-read the contents of the two bills. And then he thought for awhile before speaking.
"Well," he said at last, "there's probably this in it--the Folliots are very wealthy people. Mrs. Folliot, it's pretty well known, wants her son to marry Miss Bewery--Dr. Ransford's ward. Probably she doesn't wish any suspicion to hang over the family. That's all I can suggest. In the other case, Ransford wants to clear himself. For don't forget this, Mitchington!--somewhere, somebody may know something! Only something. But that something might clear Ransford of the suspicion that's undoubtedly been cast upon him. If you're thinking to get a strong case against Ransford, you've got your work set. He gave your theory a nasty knock this morning by his few words about that pill. Did Coates and Everest find a pill, now?"
"Not at liberty to say, sir," answered Mitchington. "At present, anyway. Um! I dislike these private offers of reward--it means that those who make 'em get hold of information which is kept back from us, d'you see! They're inconvenient."
Then he went away, and Bryce, after waiting awhile, until night had settled down, slipped quietly out of the house and set off for the gloom of Paradise.