The Paradise Mystery by J. S. Fletcher
Chapter XIX. The Subtilty of the Devil
There was a sudden determination and alertness in Bryce's last words which contrasted strongly, and even strangely, with the almost cynical indifference's that had characterized him since his visitors came in, and the two men recognized it and glanced questioningly at each other. There was an alteration, too, in his manner; instead of lounging lazily in his chair, as if he had no other thought than of personal ease, he was now sitting erect, looking sharply from one man to the other; his whole attitude, bearing, speech seemed to indicate that he had suddenly made up his mind to adopt some definite course of action.
"I'll tell you more!" he repeated. "And, since you're here --now!"
Mitchington, who felt a curious uneasiness, gave Jettison another glance. And this time it was Jettison who spoke.
"I should say," he remarked quietly, "knowing what I've gathered of the matter, that we ought to be glad of any information Dr. Bryce can give us."
"Oh, to be sure!" assented Mitchington. "You know more, then, doctor?"
Bryce motioned his visitors to draw their chairs nearer to his, and when he spoke it was in the low, concentrated tones of a man who means business--and confidential business.
"Now look here, Mitchington," he said, "and you, too, Mr. Jettison, as you're on this job--I'm going to talk straight to both of you. And to begin with, I'll make a bold assertion--I know more of this Wrychester Paradise mystery--involving the deaths of both Braden and Collishaw, than any man living --because, though you don't know it, Mitchington, I've gone right into it. And I'll tell you in confidence why I went into it--I want to marry Dr. Ransford's ward, Miss Bewery!"
Bryce accompanied this candid admission with a look which seemed to say: Here we are, three men of the world, who know what things are--we understand each other! And while Jettison merely nodded comprehendingly, Mitchington put his thoughts into words.
"To be sure, doctor, to be sure!" he said. "And accordingly --what's their affair, is yours! Of course!"
"Something like that," assented Bryce. "Naturally no man wishes to marry unless he knows as much as he can get to know about the woman he wants, her family, her antecedents--and all that. Now, pretty nearly everybody in Wrychester who knows them, knows that there's a mystery about Dr. Ransford and his two wards--it's been talked of, no end, amongst the old dowagers and gossips of the Close, particularly--you know what they are! Miss Bewery herself, and her brother, young Dick, in a lesser degree, know there's a mystery. And if there's one man in the world who knows the secret, it's Ransford. And, up to now, Ransford won't tell--he won't even tell Miss Bewery. I know that she's asked him--he keeps up an obstinate silence. And so--I determined to find things out for myself."
"Aye--and when did you start on that little game, now, doctor?" asked Mitchington. "Was it before, or since, this affair developed?"
"In a really serious way--since," replied Bryce. "What happened on the day of Braden's death made me go thoroughly into the whole matter. Now, what did happen? I'll tell you frankly, now, Mitchington, that when we talked once before about this affair, I didn't tell you all I might have told. I'd my reasons for reticence. But now I'll give you full particulars of what happened that morning within my knowledge --pay attention, both of you, and you'll see how one thing fits into another. That morning, about half-past nine, Ransford left his surgery and went across the Close. Not long after he'd gone, this man Braden came to the door, and asked me if Dr. Ransford was in? I said he wasn't--he'd just gone out, and I showed the man in which direction. He said he'd once known a Dr. Ransford, and went away. A little later, I followed. Near the entrance of Paradise, I saw Ransford leaving the west porch of the Cathedral. He was undeniably in a state of agitation--pale, nervous. He didn't see me. I went on and met Varner, who told me of the accident. I went with him to the foot of St. Wrytha's Stair and found the man who had recently called at the surgery. He died just as I reached him. I sent for you. When you came, I went back to the surgery--I found Ransford there in a state of most unusual agitation--he looked like a man who has had a terrible shock. So much for these events. Put them together."
Bryce paused awhile, as if marshalling his facts.
"Now, after that," he continued presently, "I began to investigate matters myself--for my own satisfaction. And very soon I found out certain things--which I'll summarize, briefly, because some of my facts are doubtless known to you already. First of all--the man who came here as John Braden was, in reality, one John Brake. He was at one time manager of a branch of a well-known London banking company. He appropriated money from them under apparently mysterious circumstances of which I, as yet, knew nothing; he was prosecuted, convicted, and sentenced to ten years' penal servitude. And those two wards of Ransford's, Mary and Richard Bewery, as they are called, are, in reality, Mary and Richard Brake--his children."
"You've established that as a fact?" asked Jettison, who was listening with close attention. "It's not a surmise on your part?"
Bryce hesitated before replying to this question. After all, he reflected, it was a surmise. He could not positively prove his assertion.
"Well," he answered after a moment's thought, "I'll qualify that by saying that from the evidence I have, and from what I know, I believe it to be an indisputable fact. What I do know of fact, hard, positive fact, is this:--John Brake married a Mary Bewery at the parish church of Braden Medworth, near Barthorpe, in Leicestershire: I've seen the entry in the register with my own eyes. His best man, who signed the register as a witness, was Mark Ransford. Brake and Ransford, as young men, had been in the habit of going to Braden Medworth to fish; Mary Bewery was governess at the vicarage there. It was always supposed she would marry Ransford; instead, she married Brake, who, of course, took her off to London. Of their married life, I know nothing. But within a few years, Brake was in trouble, for the reason I have told you. He was arrested--and Harker was the man who arrested him."
"Dear me!" exclaimed Mitchington. "Now, if I'd only known--"
"You'll know a lot before I'm through," said Bryce. "Now, Harker, of course, can tell a lot--yet it's unsatisfying. Brake could make no defence--but his counsel threw out strange hints and suggestions--all to the effect that Brake had been cruelly and wickedly deceived--in fact, as it were, trapped into doing what he did. And--by a man whom he'd trusted as a close friend. So much came to Harker's ears--but no more, and on that particular point I've no light. Go on from that to Brake's private affairs. At the time of his arrest he had a wife and two very young children. Either just before, or at, or immediately after his arrest they completely disappeared--and Brake himself utterly refused to say one single word about them. Harker asked if he could do anything --Brake's answer was that no one was to concern himself. He preserved an obstinate silence on that point. The clergyman in whose family Mrs. Brake had been governess saw Brake, after his conviction--Brake would say nothing to him. Of Mrs. Brake, nothing more is known--to me at any rate. What was known at the time is this--Brake communicated to all who came in contact with him, just then, the idea of a man who has been cruelly wronged and deceived, who takes refuge in sullen silence, and who is already planning and cherishing--revenge!"
"Aye, aye!" muttered Mitchington. "Revenge?--just Sol"
"Brake, then," continued Bryce, "goes off to his term of penal servitude, and so disappears--until he reappears here in Wrychester. Leave him for a moment, and go back. And--it's a going back, no doubt, to supposition and to theory--but there's reason in what I shall advance. We know--beyond doubt--that Brake had been tricked and deceived, in some money matter, by some man--some mysterious man--whom he referred to as having been his closest friend. We know, too, that there was extraordinary mystery in the disappearance of his wife and children. Now, from all that has been found out, who was Brake's closest friend? Ransford! And of Ransford, at that time, there's no trace. He, too, disappeared--that's a fact which I've established. Years later, he reappears--here at Wrychester, where he's bought a practice. Eventually he has two young people, who are represented as his wards, come to live with him. Their name is Bewery. The name of the young woman whom John Brake married was Bewery. What's the inference? That their mother's dead--that they're known under her maiden name: that they, without a shadow of doubt, are John Brake's children. And that leads up to my theory--which I'll now tell you in confidence--if you wish for it."
"It's what I particularly wish for," observed Jettison quietly. "The very thing!"
"Then, it's this," said Bryce. "Ransford was the close friend who tricked and deceived Brake:
"He probably tricked him in some money affair, and deceived him in his domestic affairs. I take it that Ransford ran away with Brake's wife, and that Brake, sooner than air all his grievance to the world, took it silently and began to concoct his ideas of revenge. I put the whole thing this way. Ransford ran away with Mrs. Brake and the two children--mere infants--and disappeared. Brake, when he came out of prison, went abroad--possibly with the idea of tracking them. Meanwhile, as is quite evident, he engaged in business and did well. He came back to England as John Braden, and, for the reason of which you're aware, he paid a visit to Wrychester, utterly unaware that any one known to him lived here. Now, try to reconstruct what happened. He looks round the Close that morning. He sees the name of Dr. Mark Ransford on the brass plate of a surgery door. He goes to the surgery, asks a question, makes a remark, goes away. What is the probable sequence of events? He meets Ransford near the Cathedral --where Ransford certainly was. They recognize each other --most likely they turn aside, go up to that gallery as a quiet place, to talk--there is an altercation--blows--somehow or other, probably from accident, Braden is thrown through that open doorway, to his death. And--Collishaw saw what happened!"
Bryce was watching his listeners, turning alternately from one to the other. But it needed little attention on his part to see that theirs was already closely strained; each man was eagerly taking in all that he said and suggested. And he went on emphasizing every point as he made it.
"Collishaw saw what happened?" he repeated. "That, of course, is theory--supposition. But now we pass from theory back to actual fact. I'll tell you something now, Mitchington, which you've never heard of, I'm certain. I made it in my way, after Collishaw's death, to get some information, secretly, from his widow, who's a fairly shrewd, intelligent woman for her class. Now, the widow, in looking over her husband's effects, in a certain drawer in which he kept various personal matters, came across the deposit book of a Friendly Society of which Collishaw had been a member for some years. It appears that he, Collishaw, was something of a saving man, and every year he managed to put by a bit of money out of his wages, and twice or thrice in the year he took these savings--never very much; merely a pound or two--to this Friendly Society, which, it seems, takes deposits in that way from its members. Now, in this book is an entry--I saw it--which shows that only two days before his death, Collishaw paid fifty pounds--fifty pounds, mark you!--into the Friendly Society. Where should Collishaw get fifty pounds, all of a sudden! He was a mason's labourer, earning at the very outside twenty-six or eight shillings a week. According to his wife, there was no one to leave him a legacy. She never heard of his receipt of this money from any source. But--there's the fact! What explains it? My theory--that the rumour that Collishaw, with a pint too much ale in him, had hinted that he could say something about Braden's death if he chose, had reached Braden's assailant; that he had made it his business to see Collishaw and had paid him that fifty pounds as hush-money--and, later, had decided to rid himself of Collishaw altogether, as he undoubtedly did, by poison."
Once more Bryce paused--and once more the two listeners showed their attention by complete silence.
"Now we come to the question--how was Collishaw poisoned?" continued Bryce. "For poisoned he was, without doubt. Here we go back to theory and supposition once more. I haven't the least doubt that the hydrocyanic acid which caused his death was taken by him in a pill--a pill that was in that box which they found on him, Mitchington, and showed me. But that particular pill, though precisely similar in appearance, could not be made up of the same ingredients which were in the other pills. It was probably a thickly coated bill which contained the poison;--in solution of course. The coating would melt almost as soon as the man had swallowed it--and death would result instantaneously. Collishaw, you may say, was condemned to death when he put that box of pills in his waistcoat pocket. It was mere chance, mere luck, as to when the exact moment of death came to him. There had been six pills in that box--there were five left. So Collishaw picked out the poisoned pill-first! It might have been delayed till the sixth dose, you see--but he was doomed."
Mitchington showed a desire to speak, and Bryce paused.
"What about what Ransford said before the Coroner?" asked Mitchington. "He demanded certain information about the post-mortem, you know, which, he said, ought to have shown that there was nothing poisonous in those pills."
"Pooh!" exclaimed Bryce contemptuously. "Mere bluff! Of such a pill as that I've described there'd be no trace but the sugar coating--and the poison. I tell you, I haven't the least doubt that that was how the poison was administered. It was easy. And--who is there that would know how easily it could be administered but--a medical man?"
Mitchington and Jettison exchanged glances. Then Jettison leaned nearer to Bryce.
"So your theory is that Ransford got rid of both Braden and Collishaw--murdered both of them, in fact?" he suggested. "Do I understand that's what it really comes to--in plain words?"
"Not quite," replied Bryce. "I don't say that Ransford meant to kill Braden--my notion is that they met, had an altercation, probably a struggle, and that Braden lost his life in it. But as regards Collishaw--"
"Don't forget!" interrupted Mitchington. "Varner swore that he saw Braden flung through that doorway! Flung out! He saw a hand."
"For everything that Varner could prove to the contrary," answered Bryce, "the hand might have been stretched out to pull Braden back. No--I think there may have been accident in that affair. But, as regards Collishaw--murder, without doubt--deliberate!"
He lighted another cigarette, with the air of a man who had spoken his mind, and Mitchington, realizing that he had said all he had to say, got up from his seat.
"Well--it's all very interesting and very clever, doctor," he said, glancing at Jettison. "And we shall keep it all in mind. Of course, you've talked all this over with Harker? I should like to know what he has to say. Now that you've told us who he is, I suppose we can talk to him?"
"You'll have to wait a few days, then," said Bryce. "He's gone to town--by the last train tonight--on this business. I've sent him. I had some information today about Ransford's whereabouts during the time of disappearance, and I've commissioned Harker to examine into it. When I hear what he's found out, I'll let you know."
"You're taking some trouble," remarked Mitchington.
"I've told you the reason," answered Bryce.
Mitchington hesitated a little; then, with a motion of his head towards the door, beckoned Jettison to follow him.
"All right," he said. "There's plenty for us to see into, I'm thinking!"
Bryce laughed and pointed to a shelf of books near the fireplace.
"Do you know what Napoleon Bonaparte once gave as sound advice to police?" he asked. "No! Then I'll tell you. 'The art of the police,' he said, 'is not to see that which it is useless for it to see.' Good counsel, Mitchington!"
The two men went away through the midnight streets, and kept silence until they were near the door of Jettison's hotel. Then Mitchington spoke.
"Well!" he said. "We've had a couple of tales, anyhow! What do you think of things, now?"
Jettison threw back his head with a dry laugh.
"Never been better puzzled in all my time!" he said. "Never! But--if that young doctor's playing a game--then, by the Lord Harry, inspector, it's a damned deep 'un! And my advice is --watch the lot!"