The Paradise Mystery by J. S. Fletcher
Chapter II. Making an Enemy
It was characteristic of Pemberton Bryce that he always walked into a room as if its occupant were asleep and he was afraid of waking him. He had a gentle step which was soft without being stealthy, and quiet movements which brought him suddenly to anybody's side before his presence was noticed. He was by Ransford's desk ere Ransford knew he was in the surgery--and Ransford's sudden realization of his presence roused a certain feeling of irritation in his mind, which he instantly endeavoured to suppress--it was no use getting cross with a man of whom you were about to rid yourself, he said to himself. And for the moment, after replying to his assistant's greeting--a greeting as quiet as his entrance--he went on reading his letters, and Bryce turned off to that part of the surgery in which the drugs were kept, and busied himself in making up some prescription. Ten minutes went by in silence; then Ransford pushed his correspondence aside, laid a paper-weight on it, and twisting his chair round, looked at the man to whom he was going to say some unpleasant things. Within himself he was revolving a question--how would Bryce take it?
He had never liked this assistant of his, although he had then had him in employment for nearly two years. There was something about Pemberton Bryce which he did not understand and could not fathom. He had come to him with excellent testimonials and good recommendations; he was well up to his work, successful with patients, thoroughly capable as a general practitioner--there was no fault to be found with him on any professional grounds. But to Ransford his personality was objectionable--why, he was not quite sure. Outwardly, Bryce was rather more than presentable--a tall, good-looking man of twenty-eight or thirty, whom some people--women especially--would call handsome; he was the sort of young man who knows the value of good clothes and a smart appearance, and his professional manner was all that could be desired. But Ransford could not help distinguishing between Bryce the doctor and Bryce the man--and Bryce the man he did not like. Outside the professional part of him, Bryce seemed to him to be undoubtedly deep, sly, cunning--he conveyed the impression of being one of those men whose ears are always on the stretch, who take everything in and give little out. There was a curious air of watchfulness and of secrecy about him in private matters which was as repellent--to Ransford's thinking--as it was hard to explain. Anyway, in private affairs, he did not like his assistant, and he liked him less than ever as he glanced at him on this particular occasion.
"I want a word with you," he said curtly. "I'd better say it now."
Bryce, who was slowly pouring some liquid from one bottle into another, looked quietly across the room and did not interrupt himself in his work. Ransford knew that he must have recognized a certain significance in the words just addressed to him--but he showed no outward sign of it, and the liquid went on trickling from one bottle to the other with the same uniform steadiness.
"Yes?" said Bryce inquiringly. "One moment."
He finished his task calmly, put the corks in the bottles, labelled one, restored the other to a shelf, and turned round. Not a man to be easily startled--not easily turned from a purpose, this, thought Ransford as he glanced at Bryce's eyes, which had a trick of fastening their gaze on people with an odd, disconcerting persistency.
"I'm sorry to say what I must say," he began. "But--you've brought it on yourself. I gave you a hint some time ago that your attentions were not welcome to Miss Bewery."
Bryce made no immediate response. Instead, leaning almost carelessly and indifferently against the table at which he had been busy with drugs and bottles, he took a small file from his waistcoat pocket and began to polish his carefully cut nails.
"Yes?" he said, after a pause. "Well?"
"In spite of it," continued Ransford, "you've since addressed her again on the matter--not merely once, but twice."
Bryce put his file away, and thrusting his hands in his pockets, crossed his feet as he leaned back against the table --his whole attitude suggesting, whether meaningly or not, that he was very much at his ease.
"There's a great deal to be said on a point like this," he observed. "If a man wishes a certain young woman to become his wife, what right has any other man--or the young woman herself, for that matter to say that he mustn't express his desires to her?"
"None," said Ransford, "provided he only does it once--and takes the answer he gets as final."
"I disagree with you entirely," retorted Bryce. "On the last particular, at any rate. A man who considers any word of a woman's as being final is a fool. What a woman thinks on Monday she's almost dead certain not to think on Tuesday. The whole history of human relationship is on my side there. It's no opinion--it's a fact."
Ransford stared at this frank remark, and Bryce went on, coolly and imperturbably, as if he had been discussing a medical problem.
"A man who takes a woman's first answer as final," he continued, "is, I repeat, a fool. There are lots of reasons why a woman shouldn't know her own mind at the first time of asking. She may be too surprised. She mayn't be quite decided. She may say one thing when she really means another. That often happens. She isn't much better equipped at the second time of asking. And there are women--young ones--who aren't really certain of themselves at the third time. All that's common sense."
"I'll tell you what it is!" suddenly exclaimed Ransford, after remaining silent for a moment under this flow of philosophy. "I'm not going to discuss theories and ideas. I know one young woman, at any rate, who is certain of herself. Miss Bewery does not feel any inclination to you--now, nor at any time to be! She's told you so three times. And--you should take her answer and behave yourself accordingly!"
Bryce favoured his senior with a searching look.
"How does Miss Bewery know that she mayn't be inclined to--in the future?" he asked. "She may come to regard me with favour."
"No, she won't!" declared Ransford. "Better hear the truth, and be done with it. She doesn't like you--and she doesn't want to, either. Why can't you take your answer like a man?"
"What's your conception of a man?" asked Bryce.
"That!--and a good one," exclaimed Ransford.
"May satisfy you--but not me," said Bryce. "Mine's different. My conception of a man is of a being who's got some perseverance. You can get anything in this world--anything! --by pegging away for it."
"You're not going to get my ward," suddenly said Ransford. "That's flat! She doesn't want you--and she's now said so three times. And--I support her."
"What have you against me?" asked Bryce calmly. "If, as you say, you support her in her resolution not to listen to my proposals, you must have something against me. What is it?"
"That's a question you've no right to put," replied Ransford, "for it's utterly unnecessary. So I'm not going to answer it. I've nothing against you as regards your work--nothing! I'm willing to give you an excellent testimonial."
"Oh!" remarked Bryce quietly. "That means--you wish me to go away?"
"I certainly think it would be best," said Ransford.
"In that case," continued Bryce, more coolly than ever, "I shall certainly want to know what you have against me--or what Miss Bewery has against me. Why am I objected to as a suitor? You, at any rate, know who I am--you know that my father is of our own profession, and a man of reputation and standing, and that I myself came to you on high recommendation. Looked at from my standpoint, I'm a thoroughly eligible young man. And there's a point you forget--there's no mystery about me!"
Ransford turned sharply in his chair as he noticed the emphasis which Bryce put on his last word.
"What do you mean?" he demanded.
"What I've just said," replied Bryce. "There's no mystery attaching to me. Any question about me can be answered. Now, you can't say that as regards your ward. That's a fact, Dr. Ransford."
Ransford, in years gone by, had practised himself in the art of restraining his temper--naturally a somewhat quick one. And he made a strong effort in that direction now, recognizing that there was something behind his assistant's last remark, and that Bryce meant him to know it was there.
"I'll repeat what I've just said," he answered. "What do you mean by that?"
"I hear things," said Bryce. "People will talk--even a doctor can't refuse to hear what gossiping and garrulous patients say. Since she came to yon from school, a year ago, Wrychester people have been much interested in Miss Bewery, and in her brother, too. And there are a good many residents of the Close--you know their nice, inquisitive ways!--who want to know who the sister and brother really are--and what your relationship is to them!"
"Confound their impudence!" growled Ransford.
"By all means," agreed Bryce. "And--for all I care--let them be confounded, too. But if you imagine that the choice and select coteries of a cathedral town, consisting mainly of the relicts of deceased deans, canons, prebendaries and the like, and of maiden aunts, elderly spinsters, and tea-table-haunting curates, are free from gossip--why, you're a singularly innocent person!"
"They'd better not begin gossiping about my affairs," said Ransford. "Otherwise--"
"You can't stop them from gossiping about your affairs," interrupted Bryce cheerfully. "Of course they gossip about your affairs; have gossiped about them; will continue to gossip about them. It's human nature!"
"You've heard them?" asked Ransford, who was too vexed to keep back his curiosity. "You yourself?"
"As you are aware, I am often asked out to tea," replied Bryce, "and to garden-parties, and tennis-parties, and choice and cosy functions patronized by curates and associated with crumpets. I have heard--with these ears. I can even repeat the sort of thing I have heard. 'That dear, delightful Miss Bewery--what a charming girl! And that good-looking boy, her brother--quite a dear! Now I wonder who they really are? Wards of Dr. Ransford, of course! Really, how very romantic! --and just a little--eh?--unusual? Such a comparatively young man to have such a really charming girl as his ward! Can't be more than forty-five himself, and she's twenty--how very, very romantic! Really, one would think there ought to be a chaperon!'"
"Damn!" said Ransford under his breath.
"Just so," agreed Bryce. "But--that's the sort of thing. Do you want more? I can supply an unlimited quantity in the piece if you like. But it's all according to sample."
"So--in addition to your other qualities," remarked Ransford, "you're a gossiper?"
Bryce smiled slowly and shook his head.
"No," he replied. "I'm a listener. A good one, too. But do you see my point? I say--there's no mystery about me. If Miss Bewery will honour me with her hand, she'll get a man whose antecedents will bear the strictest investigation."
"Are you inferring that hers won't?" demanded Ransford.
"I'm not inferring anything," said Bryce. "I am speaking for myself, of myself. Pressing my own claim, if you like, on you, the guardian. You might do much worse than support my claims, Dr. Ransford."
"Claims, man!" retorted Ransford. "You've got no claims! What are you talking about? Claims!"
"My pretensions, then," answered Bryce. "If there is a mystery--as Wrychester people say there is--about Miss Bewery, it would be safe with me. Whatever you may think, I'm a thoroughly dependable man--when it's in my own interest."
"And--when it isn't?" asked Ransford. "What are you then?--as you're so candid."
"I could be a very bad enemy," replied Bryce.
There was a moment's silence, during which the two men looked attentively at each other.
"I've told you the truth," said Ransford at last. "Miss Bewery flatly refuses to entertain any idea whatever of ever marrying you. She earnestly hopes that that eventuality may never be mentioned to her again. Will you give me your word of honour to respect her wishes?"
"No!" answered Bryce. "I won't!"
"Why not?" asked Ransford, with a faint show of anger. "A woman's wishes!"
"Because I may consider that I see signs of a changed mind in her," said Bryce. "That's why."
"You'll never see any change of mind," declared Ransford. "That's certain. Is that your fixed determination?"
"It is," answered Bryce. "I'm not the sort of man who is easily repelled."
"Then, in that case," said Ransford, "we had better part company." He rose from his desk, and going over to a safe which stood in a corner, unlocked it and took some papers from an inside drawer. He consulted one of these and turned to Bryce. "You remember our agreement?" he continued. "Your engagement was to be determined by a three months' notice on either side, or, at my will, at any time by payment of three months' salary?"
"Quite right," agreed Bryce. "I remember, of course."
"Then I'll give you a cheque for three months' salary--now," said Ransford, and sat down again at his desk. "That will settle matters definitely--and, I hope, agreeably."
Bryce made no reply. He remained leaning against the table, watching Ransford write the cheque. And when Ransford laid the cheque down at the edge of the desk he made no movement towards it.
"You must see," remarked Ransford, half apologetically, "that it's the only thing I can do. I can't have any man who's not --not welcome to her, to put it plainly--causing any annoyance to my ward. I repeat, Bryce--you must see it!"
"I have nothing to do with what you see," answered Bryce. "Your opinions are not mine, and mine aren't yours. You're really turning me away--as if I were a dishonest foreman! --because in my opinion it would be a very excellent thing for her and for myself if Miss Bewery would consent to marry me. That's the plain truth."
Ransford allowed himself to take a long and steady look at Bryce. The thing was done now, and his dismissed assistant seemed to be taking it quietly--and Ransford's curiosity was aroused.
"I can't make you out!" he exclaimed. "I don't know whether you're the most cynical young man I ever met, or whether you're the most obtuse--"
"Not the last, anyway," interrupted Bryce. "I assure you of that!"
"Can't you see for yourself, then, man, that the girl doesn't want you!" said Ransford. "Hang it!--for anything you know to the contrary, she may have--might have-other ideas!"
Bryce, who had been staring out of a side window for the last minute or two, suddenly laughed, and, lifting a hand, pointed into the garden. And Ransford turned--and saw Mary Bewery walking there with a tall lad, whom he recognized as one Sackville Bonham, stepson of Mr. Folliot, a wealthy resident of the Close. The two young people were laughing and chatting together with evident great friendliness.
"Perhaps," remarked Bryce quietly, "her ideas run in--that direction? In which case, Dr. Ransford, you'll have trouble. For Mrs. Folliot, mother of yonder callow youth, who's the apple of her eye, is one of the inquisitive ladies of whom I've just told you, and if her son unites himself with anybody, she'll want to know exactly who that anybody is. You'd far better have supported me as an aspirant! However --I suppose there's no more to say."
"Nothing!" answered Ransford. "Except to say good-day--and good-bye to you. You needn't remain--I'll see to everything. And I'm going out now. I think you'd better not exchange any farewells with any one."
Bryce nodded silently, and Ransford, picking up his hat and gloves, left the surgery by the side door. A moment later, Bryce saw him crossing the Close.