The Paradise Mystery by J. S. Fletcher
Chapter III. St. Wrytha's Stair
The summarily dismissed assistant, thus left alone, stood for a moment in evident deep thought before he moved towards Ransford's desk and picked up the cheque. He looked at it carefully, folded it neatly, and put it away in his pocket-book; after that he proceeded to collect a few possessions of his own, instruments, hooks from various drawers and shelves. He was placing these things in a small hand-bag when a gentle tap sounded on the door by which patients approached the surgery.
"Come in!" he called.
There was no response, although the door was slightly ajar; instead, the knock was repeated, and at that Bryce crossed the room and flung the door open.
A man stood outside--an elderly, slight-figured, quiet-looking man, who looked at Bryce with a half-deprecating, half-nervous air; the air of a man who was shy in manner and evidently fearful of seeming to intrude. Bryce's quick, observant eyes took him in at a glance, noting a much worn and lined face, thin grey hair and tired eyes; this was a man, he said to himself, who had seen trouble. Nevertheless, not a poor man, if his general appearance was anything to go by--he was well and even expensively dressed, in the style generally affected by well-to-do merchants and city men; his clothes were fashionably cut, his silk hat was new, his linen and boots irreproachable; a fine diamond pin gleamed in his carefully arranged cravat. Why, then, this unmistakably furtive and half-frightened manner--which seemed to be somewhat relieved at the sight of Bryce?
"Is this--is Dr. Ransford within?" asked the stranger. "I was told this is his house."
"Dr. Ransford is out," replied Bryce. "Just gone out--not five minutes ago. This is his surgery. Can I be of use?"
The man hesitated, looking beyond Bryce into the room.
"No, thank you," he said at last. "I--no, I don't want professional services--I just called to see Dr. Ransford--I --the fact is, I once knew some one of that name. It's no matter--at present."
Bryce stepped outside and pointed across the Close.
"Dr. Ransford," he said, "went over there--I rather fancy he's gone to the Deanery--he has a case there. If you went through Paradise, you'd very likely meet him coming back--the Deanery is the big house in the far corner yonder."
The stranger followed Bryce's outstretched finger.
"Paradise?" he said, wonderingly. "What's that?"
Bryce pointed to a long stretch of grey wall which projected from the south wall of the Cathedral into the Close.
"It's an enclosure--between the south porch and the transept," he said. "Full of old tombs and trees--a sort of wilderness --why called Paradise I don't know. There's a short cut across it to the Deanery and that part of the Close--through that archway you see over there. If you go across, you're almost sure to meet Dr. Ransford."
"I'm much obliged to you," said the stranger. "Thank you."
He turned away in the direction which Bryce had indicated, and Bryce went back--only to go out again and call after him.
"If you don't meet him, shall I say you'll call again?" he asked. "And--what name?"
The stranger shook his head.
"It's immaterial," he answered. "I'll see him--somewhere--or later. Many thanks."
He went on his way towards Paradise, and Bryce returned to the surgery and completed his preparations for departure. And in the course of things, he more than once looked through the window into the garden and saw Mary Bewery still walking and talking with young Sackville Bonham.
"No," he muttered to himself. "I won't trouble to exchange any farewells--not because of Ransford's hint, but because there's no need. If Ransford thinks he's going to drive me out of Wrychester before I choose to go he's badly mistaken --it'll be time enough to say farewell when I take my departure--and that won't be just yet. Now I wonder who that old chap was? Knew some one of Ransford's name once, did he? Probably Ransford himself--in which case he knows more of Ransford than anybody in Wrychester knows--for nobody in Wrychester knows anything beyond a few years back. No, Dr. Ransford!--no farewells--to anybody! A mere departure--till I turn up again."
But Bryce was not to get away from the old house without something in the nature of a farewell. As he walked out of the surgery by the side entrance, Mary Bewery, who had just parted from young Bonham in the garden and was about to visit her dogs in the stable yard, came along: she and Bryce met, face to face. The girl flushed, not so much from embarrassment as from vexation; Bryce, cool as ever, showed no sign of any embarrassment. Instead, he laughed, tapping the hand-bag which he carried under one arm.
"Summarily turned out--as if I had been stealing the spoons," he remarked. "I go--with my, small belongings. This is my first reward--for devotion."
"I have nothing to say to you," answered Mary, sweeping by him with a highly displeased lance. "Except that you have brought it on yourself."
"A very feminine retort!" observed Bryce. "But--there is no malice in it? Your anger won't last more than--shall we say a day?"
"You may say what you like," she replied. "As I just said, I have nothing to say--now or at any time."
"That remains to be proved," remarked Bryce. "The phrase is one of much elasticity. But for the present--I go!"
He walked out into the Close, and without as much as a backward look struck off across the sward in the direction in which, ten minutes before, he had sent the strange man. He had rooms in a quiet lane on the farther side of the Cathedral precinct, and his present intention was to go to them to leave his bag and make some further arrangements. He had no idea of leaving Wrychester--he knew of another doctor in the city who was badly in need of help: he would go to him--would tell him, if need be, why he had left Ransford. He had a multiplicity of schemes and ideas in his head, and he began to consider some of them as he stepped out of the Close into the ancient enclosure which all Wrychester folk knew by its time-honoured name of Paradise. This was really an outer court of the old cloisters; its high walls, half-ruinous, almost wholly covered with ivy, shut in an expanse of turf, literally furnished with yew and cypress and studded with tombs and gravestones. In one corner rose a gigantic elm; in another a broken stairway of stone led to a doorway set high in the walls of the nave; across the enclosure itself was a pathway which led towards the houses in the south-east corner of the Close. It was a curious, gloomy spot, little frequented save by people who went across it rather than follow the gravelled paths outside, and it was untenanted when Bryce stepped into it. But just as he walked through the archway he saw Ransford. Ransford was emerging hastily from a postern door in the west porch--so hastily that Bryce checked himself to look at him. And though they were twenty yards apart, Bryce saw that Ransford's face was very pale, almost to whiteness, and that he was unmistakably agitated. Instantly he connected that agitation with the man who had come to the surgery door.
"They've met!" mused Bryce, and stopped, staring after Ransford's retreating figure. "Now what is it in that man's mere presence that's upset Ransford? He looks like a man who's had a nasty, unexpected shock--a bad 'un!"
He remained standing in the archway, gazing after the retreating figure, until Ransford had disappeared within his own garden; still wondering and speculating, but not about his own affairs, he turned across Paradise at last and made his way towards the farther corner. There was a little wicket-gate there, set in the ivied wall; as Bryce opened it, a man in the working dress of a stone-mason, whom he recognized as being one of the master-mason's staff, came running out of the bushes. His face, too, was white, and his eyes were big with excitement. And recognizing Bryce, he halted, panting.
"What is it, Varner?" asked Bryce calmly. "Something happened?"
The man swept his hand across his forehead as if he were dazed, and then jerked his thumb over his shoulder.
"A man!" he gasped. "Foot of St. Wrytha's Stair there, doctor. Dead--or if not dead, near it. I saw it!"
Bryce seized Varner's arm and gave it a shake.
"You saw--what?" he demanded.
"Saw him--fall. Or rather--flung!" panted Varner. "Somebody--couldn't see who, nohow--flung him right through yon doorway, up there. He fell right over the steps--crash!" Bryce looked over the tops of the yews and cypresses at the doorway in the clerestory to which Varner pointed--a low, open archway gained by the half-ruinous stair. It was forty feet at least from the ground.
"You saw him--thrown!" he exclaimed. "Thrown--down there? Impossible, man!"
"Tell you I saw it!" asserted Varner doggedly. "I was looking at one of those old tombs yonder--somebody wants some repairs doing--and the jackdaws were making such a to-do up there by the roof I glanced up at them. And I saw this man thrown through that door--fairly flung through it! God!--do you think I could mistake my own eyes?"
"Did you see who flung him?" asked Bryce.
"No; I saw a hand--just for one second, as it might be--by the edge of the doorway," answered Varner. "I was more for watching him! He sort of tottered for a second on the step outside the door, turned over and screamed--I can hear it now!--and crashed down on the flags beneath."
"How long since?" demanded Bryce.
"Five or six minutes," said Varner. "I rushed to him--I've been doing what I could. But I saw it was no good, so I was running for help--"
Bryce pushed him towards the bushes by which they were standing.
"Take me to him," he said. "Come on!"
Varner turned back, making a way through the cypresses. He led Bryce to the foot of the great wall of the nave. There in the corner formed by the angle of nave and transept, on a broad pavement of flagstones, lay the body of a man crumpled up in a curiously twisted position. And with one glance, even before he reached it, Bryce knew what body it was--that of the man who had come, shyly and furtively, to Ransford's door.
"Look!" exclaimed Varner, suddenly pointing. "He's stirring!"
Bryce, whose gaze was fastened on the twisted figure, saw a slight movement which relaxed as suddenly as it had occurred. Then came stillness. "That's the end!" he muttered. "The man's dead! I'll guarantee that before I put a hand on him. Dead enough!" he went on, as he reached the body and dropped on one knee by it. "His neck's broken."
The mason bent down and looked, half-curiously, half-fearfully, at the dead man. Then he glanced upward--at the open door high above them in the walls.
"It's a fearful drop, that, sir," he said. "And he came down with such violence. You're sure it's over with him?"
"He died just as we came up," answered Bryce. "That movement we saw was the last effort--involuntary, of course. Look here, Varner!--you'll have to get help. You'd better fetch some of the cathedral people--some of the vergers. No!" he broke off suddenly, as the low strains of an organ came from within the great building. "They're just beginning the morning service--of course, it's ten o'clock. Never mind them--go straight to the police. Bring them back--I'll stay here."
The mason turned off towards the gateway of the Close, and while the strains of the organ grew louder, Bryce bent over the dead man, wondering what had really happened. Thrown from an open doorway in the clerestory over St. Wrytha's Stair?--it seemed almost impossible! But a sudden thought struck him supposing two men, wishing to talk in privacy unobserved, had gone up into the clerestory of the Cathedral--as they easily could, by more than one door, by more than one stair--and supposing they had quarrelled, and one of them had flung or pushed the other through the door above--what then? And on the heels of that thought hurried another--this man, now lying dead, had come to the surgery, seeking Ransford, and had subsequently gone away, presumably in search of him, and Bryce himself had just seen Ransford, obviously agitated and pale of cheek, leaving the west porch; what did it all mean? what was the apparently obvious inference to be drawn? Here was the stranger dead--and Varner was ready to swear that he had seen him thrown, flung violently, through the door forty feet above. That was--murder! Then--who was the murderer?
Bryce looked carefully and narrowly around him. Now that Varner had gone away, there was not a human being in sight, nor anywhere near, so far as he knew. On one side of him and the dead man rose the grey walls of nave and transept; on the other, the cypresses and yews rising amongst the old tombs and monuments. Assuring himself that no one was near, no eye watching, he slipped his hand into the inner breast pocket of the dead man's smart morning coat. Such a man must carry papers--papers would reveal something. And Bryce wanted to know anything--anything that would give information and let him into whatever secret there might be between this unlucky stranger and Ransford.
But the breast pocket was empty; there was no pocket-book there; there were no papers there. Nor were there any papers elsewhere in the other pockets which he hastily searched: there was not even a card with a name on it. But he found a purse, full of money--banknotes, gold, silver--and in one of its compartments a scrap of paper folded curiously, after the fashion of the cocked-hat missives of another age in which envelopes had not been invented. Bryce hurriedly unfolded this, and after one glance at its contents, made haste to secrete it in his own pocket. He had only just done this and put back the purse when he heard Varner's voice, and a second later the voice of Inspector Mitchington, a well-known police official. And at that Bryce sprang to his feet, and when the mason and his companions emerged from the bushes was standing looking thoughtfully at the dead man. He turned to Mitchington with a shake of the head.
"Dead!" he said in a hushed voice. "Died as we got to him. Broken--all to pieces, I should say--neck and spine certainly. I suppose Varner's told you what he saw."
Mitchington, a sharp-eyed, dark-complexioned man, quick of movement, nodded, and after one glance at the body, looked up at the open doorway high above them.
"That the door" he asked, turning to Varner. "And--it was open?"
"It's always open," answered Varner. "Least-ways, it's been open, like that, all this spring, to my knowledge."
"What is there behind it?" inquired Mitchington.
"Sort of gallery, that runs all round the nave," replied Varner. "Clerestory gallery-that's what it is. People can go up there and walk around--lots of 'em do--tourists, you know. There's two or three ways up to it--staircases in the turrets."
Mitchington turned to one of the two constables who had followed him.
"Let Varner show you the way up there," he said. "Go quietly --don't make any fuss--the morning service is just beginning. Say nothing to anybody--just take a quiet look around, along that gallery, especially near the door there--and come back here." He looked down at the dead man again as the mason and the constable went away. "A stranger, I should think, doctor --tourist, most likely. But--thrown down! That man Varner is positive. That looks like foul play."
"Oh, there's no doubt of that!" asserted Bryce. "You'll have to go into that pretty deeply. But the inside of the Cathedral's like a rabbit-warren, and whoever threw the man through that doorway no doubt knew how to slip away unobserved. Now, you'll have to remove the body to the mortuary, of course--but just let me fetch Dr. Ransford first. I'd like some other medical man than myself to see him before he's moved--I'll have him here in five minutes."
He turned away through the bushes and emerging upon the Close ran across the lawns in the direction of the house which he had left not twenty minutes before. He had but one idea as he ran--he wanted to see Ransford face to face with the dead man --wanted to watch him, to observe him, to see how he looked, how he behaved. Then he, Bryce, would know--something.
But he was to know something before that. He opened the door of the surgery suddenly, but with his usual quietness of touch. And on the threshold he paused. Ransford, the very picture of despair, stood just within, his face convulsed, beating one hand upon the other.