Chapter XXVII. The Guarded Secret

When Bryce had left her, Mary Bewery had gone into the house to await Ransford's return from town. She meant to tell him of all that Bryce had said and to beg him to take immediate steps to set matters right, not only that he himself might be cleared of suspicion but that Bryce's intrigues might be brought to an end. She had some hope that Ransford would bring back satisfactory news; she knew that his hurried visit to London had some connection with these affairs; and she also remembered what he had said on the previous night. And so, controlling her anger at Bryce and her impatience of the whole situation she waited as patiently as she could until the time drew near when Ransford might be expected to be seen coming across the Close. She knew from which direction he would come, and she remained near the dining-room window looking out for him. But six o'clock came and she had seen no sign of him; then, as she was beginning to think that he had missed the afternoon train she saw him, at the opposite side of the Close, talking earnestly to Dick, who presently came towards the house while Ransford turned back into Folliot's garden.

Dick Bewery came hurriedly in. His sister saw at once that he had just heard news which had had a sobering effect on his usually effervescent spirits. He looked at her as if he wondered exactly how to give her his message.

"I saw you with the doctor just now," she said, using the term by which she and her brother always spoke of their guardian. "Why hasn't he come home"

Dick came close to her, touching her arm.

"I say!" he said, almost whispering. "Don't be frightened --the doctor's all right--but there's something awful just happened. At Folliot's."

"What" she demanded. "Speak out, Dick! I'm not frightened. What is it?"

Dick shook his head as if he still scarcely realized the full significance of his news.

"It's all a licker to me yet!" he answered. "I don't understand it--I only know what the doctor told me--to come and tell you. Look here, it's pretty bad. Folliot and Bryce are both dead!"

In spite of herself Mary started back as from a great shock and clutched at the table by which they were standing.

"Dead!" she exclaimed. "Why--Bryce was here, speaking to me, not an hour ago!"

"Maybe," said Dick. "But he's dead now. The fact is, Folliot shot him with a revolver--killed him on the spot. And then Folliot poisoned himself--took the same stuff, the doctor said, that finished that chap Collishaw, and died instantly. It was in Folliot's old well-house. The doctor was there and the police."

"What does it all mean?" asked Mary.

"Don't know. Except this," added Dick; "they've found out about those other affairs--the Braden and the Collishaw affairs. Folliot was concerned in them; and who do you think the other was? You'd never guess! That man Fladgate, the verger. Only that isn't his proper name at all. He and Folliot finished Braden and Collishaw, anyway. The police have got Fladgate, and Folliot shot Bryce and killed himself just when they were going to take him."

"The doctor told you all this?" asked Mary.

"Yes," replied Dick. "Just that and no more. He called me in as I was passing Folliot's door. He's coming over as soon as he can. Whew! I say, won't there be some fine talk in the town! Anyway, things'll be cleared up now. What did Bryce want here?"

"Never mind; I can't talk of it, now," answered Mary. She was already thinking of how Bryce had stood before her, active and alive, only an hour earlier; she was thinking, too, of her warning to him. "It's all too dreadful! too awful to understand!"

"Here's the doctor coming now," said Dick, turning to the window. "He'll tell more."

Mary looked anxiously at Ransford as he came hastening in. He looked like a man who has just gone through a crisis and yet she was somehow conscious that there was a certain atmosphere of relief about him, as though some great weight had suddenly been lifted. He closed the door and looked straight at her.

"Dick has told you?" he asked.

"All that you told me," said Dick.

Ransford pulled off his gloves and flung them on the table with something of a gesture of weariness. And at that Mary hastened to speak.

"Don't tell any more--don't say anything--until you feel able," she said. "You're tired."

"No!" answered Ransford. "I'd rather say what I have to say now--just now! I've wanted to tell both of you what all this was, what it meant, everything about it, and until today, until within the last few hours, it was impossible, because I didn't know everything. Now I do! I even know more than I did an hour ago. Let me tell you now and have done with it. Sit down there, both of you, and listen."

He pointed to a sofa near the hearth, and the brother and sister sat down, looking at him wonderingly. Instead of sitting down himself he leaned against the edge of the table, looking down at them.

"I shall have to tell you some sad things," he said diffidently. "The only consolation is that it's all over now, and certain matters are, or can be, cleared and you'll have no more secrets. Nor shall I! I've had to keep this one jealously guarded for seventeen years! And I never thought it could be released as it has been, in this miserable and terrible fashion! But that's done now, and nothing can help it. And now, to make everything plain, just prepare yourselves to hear something that, at first, sounds very trying. The man whom you've heard of as John Braden, who came to his death--by accident, as I now firmly believe--there in Paradise, was, in reality, John Brake--your father!"

Ransford looked at his two listeners anxiously as he told this. But he met no sign of undue surprise or emotion. Dick looked down at his toes with a little frown, as if he were trying to puzzle something out; Mary continued to watch Ransford with steady eyes.

"Your father--John Brake," repeated Ransford, breathing more freely now that he had got the worst news out. "I must go back to the beginning to make things clear to you about him and your mother. He was a close friend of mine when we were young men in London; he a bank manager; I, just beginning my work. We used to spend our holidays together in Leicestershire. There we met your mother, whose name was Mary Bewery. He married her; I was his best man. They went to live in London, and from that time I did not see so much of them, only now and then. During those first years of his married life Brake made the acquaintance of a man who came from the same part of Leicestershire that we had met your mother in--a man named Falkiner Wraye. I may as well tell you that Falkiner Wraye and Stephen Folliot were one and the same person."

Ransford paused, observing that Mary wished to ask a question.

"How long have you known that?" she asked.

"Not until today," replied Ransford promptly. "Never had the ghost of a notion of it! If I only had known--but, I hadn't! However, to go back--this man Wraye, who appears always to have been a perfect master of plausibility, able to twist people round his little finger, somehow got into close touch with your father about financial matters. Wraye was at that time a sort of financial agent in London, engaging in various doings which, I should imagine, were in the nature of gambles. He was assisted in these by a man who was either a partner with him or a very confidential clerk or agent, one Flood, who is identical with the man you have known lately as Fladgate, the verger. Between them, these two appear to have cajoled or persuaded your father at times to do very foolish and injudicious things which were, to put it briefly and plainly, the lendings of various sums of money as short loans for their transactions. For some time they invariably kept their word to him, and the advances were always repaid promptly. But eventually, when they had borrowed from him a considerable sum--some thousands of pounds--for a deal which was to be carried through within a couple of days, they decamped with the money, and completely disappeared, leaving your father to bear the consequences. You may easily understand what followed. The money which Brake had lent them was the bank's money. The bank unexpectedly came down on him for his balance, the whole thing was found out, and he was prosecuted. He had no defence--he was, of course, technically guilty--and he was sent to penal servitude."

Ransford had dreaded the telling of this but Mary made no sign, and Dick only rapped out a sharp question.

"He hadn't meant to rob the bank for himself, anyway, had he?" he asked.

"No, no! not at all!" replied Ransford hastily. "It was a bad error of judgment on his part, Dick, but he--he'd relied on these men, more particularly on Wraye, who'd been the leading spirit. Well, that was your father's sad fate. Now we come to what happened to your mother and yourselves. Just before your father's arrest, when he knew that all was lost, and that he was helpless, he sent hurriedly for me and told me everything in your mother's presence. He begged me to get her and you two children right away at once. She was against it; he insisted. I took you all to a quiet place in the country, where your mother assumed her maiden name. There, within a year, she died. She wasn't a strong woman at any time. After that--well, you both know pretty well what has been the run of things since you began to know anything. We'll leave that, it's nothing to do with the story. I want to go back to your father. I saw him after his conviction. When I had satisfied him that you and your mother were safe, he begged me to do my best to find the two men who had ruined him. I began that search at once. But there was not a trace of them--they had disappeared as completely as if they were dead. I used all sorts of means to trace them--without effect. And when at last your father's term of imprisonment was over and I went to see him on his release, I had to tell him that up to that point all my efforts had been useless. I urged him to let the thing drop, and to start life afresh. But he was determined. Find both men, but particularly Wraye, he would! He refused point-blank to even see his children until he had found these men and had forced them to acknowledge their misdeeds as regards him, for that, of course, would have cleared him to a certain extent. And in spite of everything I could say, he there and then went off abroad in search of them--he had got some clue, faint and indefinite, but still there, as to Wraye's presence in America, and he went after him. From that time until the morning of his death here in Wrychester I never saw him again!"

"You did see him that morning" asked Mary.

"I saw him, of course, unexpectedly," answered Ransford. "I had been across the Close--I came back through the south aisle of the Cathedral. Just before I left the west porch I saw Brake going up the stairs to the galleries. I knew him at once. He did not see me, and I hurried home much upset. Unfortunately, I think, Bryce came in upon me in that state of agitation. I have reason to believe that he began to suspect and to plot from that moment. And immediately on hearing of Brake's death, and its circumstances, I was placed in a terrible dilemma. For I had made up my mind never to tell you two of your father's history until I had been able to trace these two men and wring out of them a confession which would have cleared him of all but the technical commission of the crime of which he was convicted. Now I had not the least idea that the two men were close at hand, nor that they had had any hand in his death, and so I kept silence, and let him be buried under the name he had taken--John Braden."

Ransford paused and looked at his two listeners as if inviting question or comment. But neither spoke, and he went on.

"You know what happened after that," he continued. "It soon became evident to me that sinister and secret things were going on. There was the death of the labourer--Collishaw. There were other matters. But even then I had no suspicion of the real truth--the fact is, I began to have some strange suspicions about Bryce and that old man Harker--based upon certain evidence which I got by chance. But, all this time, I had never ceased my investigations about Wraye and Flood, and when the bank-manager on whom Brake had called in London was here at the inquest, I privately told him the whole story and invited his co-operation in a certain line which I was then following. That line suddenly ran up against the man Flood --otherwise Fladgate. It was not until this very week, however, that my agents definitely discovered Fladgate to be Flood, and that--through the investigations about Flood --Folliot was found to be Wraye. Today, in London, where I met old Harker at the bank at which Brake had lodged the money he had brought from Australia, the whole thing was made clear by the last agent of mine who has had the searching in hand. And it shows how men may easily disappear from a certain round of life, and turn up in another years after! When those two men cheated your father out of that money, they disappeared and separated--each, no doubt, with his share. Flood went off to some obscure place in the North of England; Wraye went over to America. He evidently made a fortune there; knocked about the world for awhile; changed his name to Folliot, and under that name married a wealthy widow, and settled down here in Wrychester to grow roses! How and where he came across Flood again is not exactly clear, but we knew that a few years ago Flood was in London, in very poor circumstances, and the probability is that it was then when the two men met again. What we do know is that Folliot, as an influential man here, got Flood the post which he has held, and that things have resulted as they have. And that's all!--all that I need tell you at present. There are details, but they're of no importance."

Mary remained silent, but Dick got up with his hands in his pockets.

"There's one thing I want to know," he said. "Which of those two chaps killed my father? You said it was accident--but was it? I want to know about that! Are you saying it was accident just to let things down a bit? Don't! I want to know the truth."

"I believe it was accident," answered Ransford. "I listened most carefully just now to Fladgate's account of what happened. I firmly believe the man was telling the truth. But I haven't the least doubt that Folliot poisoned Collishaw --not the least. Folliot knew that if the least thing came out about Fladgate, everything would come out about himself."

Dick turned away to leave the room.

"Well, Folliot's done for!" he remarked. "I don't care about him, but I wanted to know for certain about the other."

        *       *       *       *       *

When Dick had gone, and Ransford and Mary were left alone, a deep silence fell on the room. Mary was apparently deep in thought, and Ransford, after a glance at her, turned away and looked out of the window at the sunlit Close, thinking of the tragedy he had just witnessed. And he had become so absorbed in his thoughts of it that he started at feeling a touch on his arm and looking round saw Mary standing at his side.

"I don't want to say anything now," she said, "about what you have just told us. Some of it I had half-guessed, some of it I had conjectured. But why didn't you tell me! Before! It wasn't that you hadn't confidence?"

"Confidence!" he exclaimed. "There was only one reason--I wanted to get your father's memory cleared--as far as possible--before ever telling you anything. I've been wanting to tell you! Hadn't you seen that I hated to keep silent?"

"Hadn't you seen that I wanted to share all your trouble about it?" she asked. "That was what hurt me--because I couldn't!"

Ransford drew a long breath and looked at her. Then he put his hands on her shoulders.

"Mary!" he said. "You--you don't mean to say--be plain!--you don't mean that you can care for an old fellow like me?"

He was holding her away from him, but she suddenly smiled and came closer to him.

"You must have been very blind not to have seen that for a long time!" she answered.