The Paradise Mystery by J. S. Fletcher
Chapter VII. The Double Trail
Pemberton Bryce was not the only person in Wrychester who was watching Ransford with keen attention during these events. Mary Bewery, a young woman of more than usual powers of observation and penetration, had been quick to see that her guardian's distress over the affair in Paradise was something out of the common. She knew Ransford for an exceedingly tender-hearted man, with a considerable spice of sentiment in his composition: he was noted for his more than professional interest in the poorer sort of his patients and had gained a deserved reputation in the town for his care of them. But it was somewhat surprising, even to Mary, that he should be so much upset by the death of a total stranger as to lose his appetite, and, for at any rate a couple of days, be so restless that his conduct could not fail to be noticed by herself and her brother. His remarks on the tragedy were conventional enough--a most distressing affair--a sad fate for the poor fellow--most unexplainable and mysterious, and so on--but his concern obviously went beyond that. He was ill at ease when she questioned him about the facts; almost irritable when Dick Bewery, schoolboy-like, asked him concerning professional details; she was sure, from the lines about his eyes and a worn look on his face, that he had passed a restless night when he came down to breakfast on the morning of the inquest. But when he returned from the inquest she noticed a change--it was evident, to her ready wits, that Ransford had experienced a great relief. He spoke of relief, indeed, that night at dinner, observing that the verdict which the jury had returned had cleared the air of a foul suspicion; it would have been no pleasant matter, he said, if Wrychester Cathedral had gained an unenviable notoriety as the scene of a murder.
"All the same," remarked Dick, who knew all the talk of the town, "Varner persists in sticking to what he's said all along. Varner says--said this afternoon, after the inquest was over--that he's absolutely certain of what he saw, and that he not only saw a hand in a white cuff and black coat sleeve, but that he saw the sun gleam for a second on the links in the cuff, as if they were gold or diamonds. Pretty stiff evidence that, sir, isn't it?"
"In the state of mind in which Varner was at that moment," replied Ransford, "he wouldn't be very well able to decide definitely on what he really did see. His vision would retain confused images. Probably he saw the dead man's hand--he was wearing a black coat and white linen. The verdict was a most sensible one."
No more was said after that, and that evening Ransford was almost himself again. But not quite himself. Mary caught him looking very grave, in evident abstraction, more than once; more than once she heard him sigh heavily. But he said no more of the matter until two days later, when, at breakfast, he announced his intention of attending John Braden's funeral, which was to take place that morning.
"I've ordered the brougham for eleven," he said, "and I've arranged with Dr. Nicholson to attend to any urgent call that comes in between that and noon--so, if there is any such call, you can telephone to him. A few of us are going to attend this poor man's funeral--it would be too bad to allow a stranger to go to his grave unattended, especially after such a fate. There'll be somebody representing the Dean and Chapter, and three or four principal townsmen, so he'll not be quite neglected. And"--here he hesitated and looked a little nervously at Mary, to whom he was telling all this, Dick having departed for school--" there's a little matter I wish you'd attend to--you'll do it better than I should. The man seems to have been friendless; here, at any rate--no relations have come forward, in spite of the publicity--so--don't you think it would be rather--considerate, eh?--to put a wreath, or a cross, or something of that sort on his grave--just to show--you know?"
"Very kind of you to think of it," said Mary. "What do you wish me to do?"
"If you'd go to Gardales', the florists, and order--something fitting, you know," replied Ransford, "and afterwards--later in the day--take it to St. Wigbert's Churchyard he's to be buried there--take it--if you don't mind--yourself, you know."
"Certainly," answered Mary. "I'll see that it's done."
She would do anything that seemed good to Ransford--but all the same she wondered at this somewhat unusual show of interest in a total stranger. She put it down at last to Ransford's undoubted sentimentality--the man's sad fate had impressed him. And that afternoon the sexton at St. Wigbert's pointed out the new grave to Miss Bewery and Mr. Sackville Bonham, one carrying a wreath and the other a large bunch of lilies. Sackville, chancing to encounter Mary at the florist's, whither he had repaired to execute a commission for his mother, had heard her business, and had been so struck by the notion--or by a desire to ingratiate himself with Miss Bewery--that he had immediately bought flowers himself--to be put down to her account--and insisted on accompanying Mary to the churchyard.
Bryce heard of this tribute to John Braden next day--from Mrs. Folliot, Sackville Bonham's mother, a large lady who dominated certain circles of Wrychester society in several senses. Mrs. Folliot was one of those women who have been gifted by nature with capacity--she was conspicuous in many ways. Her voice was masculine; she stood nearly six feet in her stoutly-soled shoes; her breadth corresponded to her height; her eyes were piercing, her nose Roman; there was not a curate in Wrychester who was not under her thumb, and if the Dean himself saw her coming, he turned hastily into the nearest shop, sweating with fear lest she should follow him. Endued with riches and fortified by assurance, Mrs. Folliot was the presiding spirit in many movements of charity and benevolence there were people in Wrychester who were unkind enough to say--behind her back --that she was as meddlesome as she was most undoubtedly autocratic, but, as one of her staunchest clerical defenders once pointed out, these grumblers were what might be contemptuously dismissed as five-shilling subscribers. Mrs. Folliot, in her way, was undoubtedly a power--and for reasons of his own Pemberton Bryce, whenever he met her--which was fairly often--was invariably suave and polite.
"Most mysterious thing, this, Dr. Bryce," remarked Mrs. Folliot in her deepest tones, encountering Bryce, the day after the funeral, at the corner of a back street down which she was about to sail on one of her charitable missions, to the terror of any of the women who happened to be caught gossiping. "What, now, should make Dr. Ransford cause flowers to be laid on the grave of a total stranger? A sentimental feeling? Fiddle-de-dee! There must be some reason."
"I'm afraid I don't know what you're talking about, Mrs. Folliot," answered Bryce, whose ears had already lengthened. "Has Dr. Ransford been laying flowers on a grave?--I didn't know of it. My engagement with Dr. Ransford terminated two days ago--so I've seen nothing of him."
"My son, Mr. Sackville Bonham," said Mrs. Folliot, "tells me that yesterday Miss Bewery came into Gardales' and spent a sovereign--actually a sovereign!--on a wreath, which, she told Sackville, she was about to carry, at her guardian's desire, to this strange man's grave. Sackville, who is a warm-hearted boy, was touched--he, too, bought flowers and accompanied Miss Bewery. Most extraordinary! A perfect stranger! Dear me --why, nobody knows who the man was!"
"Except his bank-manager," remarked Bryce, "who says he's holding ten thousand pounds of his."
"That," admitted Mrs. Folliot gravely, "is certainly a consideration. But then, who knows?--the money may have been stolen. Now, really, did you ever hear of a quite respectable man who hadn't even a visiting-card or a letter upon him? And from Australia, too!--where all the people that are wanted run away to! I have actually been tempted to wonder, Dr. Bryce, if Dr. Ransford knew this man--in years gone by? He might have, you know, he might have--certainly! And that, of course, would explain the flowers."
"There is a great deal in the matter that requires explanation, Mrs. Folliot," said Bryce. He was wondering if it would be wise to instil some minute drop of poison into the lady's mind, there to increase in potency and in due course to spread. "I--of course, I may have been mistaken--I certainly thought Dr. Ransford seemed unusually agitated by this affair --it appeared to upset him greatly."
"So I have heard--from others who were at the inquest," responded Mrs. Folliot. "In my opinion our Coroner--a worthy man otherwise--is not sufficiently particular. I said to Mr. Folliot this morning, on reading the newspaper, that in my view that inquest should have been adjourned for further particulars. Now I know of one particular that was never mentioned at the inquest!"
"Oh?" said Bryce. "And what?"
"Mrs. Deramore, who lives, as you know, next to Dr. Ransford," replied Mrs. Folliot, "told me this morning that on the morning of the accident, happening to look out of one of her upper windows, she saw a man whom, from the description given in the newspapers, was, Mrs. Deramore feels assured, was the mysterious stranger, crossing the Close towards the Cathedral in, Mrs. Deramore is positive, a dead straight line from Dr. Ransford's garden--as if he had been there. Dr. Bryce!--a direct question should have been asked of Dr. Ransford--had he ever seen that man before?"
"Ah, but you see, Mrs. Folliot, the Coroner didn't know what Mrs. Deramore saw, so he couldn't ask such a question, nor could any one else," remarked Bryce, who was wondering how long Mrs. Deramore remained at her upper window and if she saw him follow Braden. "But there are circumstances, no doubt, which ought to be inquired into. And it's certainly very curious that Dr. Ransford should send a wreath to the grave of--a stranger."
He went away convinced that Mrs. Folliot's inquisitiveness had been aroused, and that her tongue would not be idle: Mrs. Folliot, left to herself, had the gift of creating an atmosphere, and if she once got it into her head that there was some mysterious connection between Dr. Ransford and the dead man, she would never rest until she had spread her suspicions. But as for Bryce himself, he wanted more than suspicions--he wanted facts, particulars, data. And once more he began to go over the sum of evidence which had accrued.
The question of the scrap of paper found in Braden's purse, and of the exact whereabouts of Richard Jenkins's grave in Paradise, be left for the time being. What was now interesting him chiefly was the advertisement in the Times to which the bank-manager from London had drawn attention. He had made haste to, buy a copy of the Times and to cut out the advertisement. There it was--old friend Marco was wanted by (presumably old friend) Sticker, and whoever Sticker might be he could certainly be found under care of J. Braden. It had never been in doubt a moment, in Bryce's mind, that Sticker was J. Braden himself. Who, now, was Marco? Who--a million to one on it!--but Ransford, whose Christian name was Mark?
He reckoned up his chances of getting at the truth of the affair anew that night. As things were, it seemed unlikely that any relations of Braden would now turn up. The Wrychester Paradise case, as the reporters had aptly named it, had figured largely in the newspapers, London and provincial; it could scarcely have had more publicity--yet no one, save this bank-manager, had come forward. If there had been any one to come forward the bank-manager's evidence would surely have proved an incentive to speed--for there was a sum of ten thousand pounds awaiting John Braden's next-of-kin. In Bryce's, opinion the chance of putting in a claim to ten thousand pounds is not left waiting forty-eight hours--whoever saw such a chance would make instant use of telegraph or telephone. But no message from anybody professing relationship with the dead man had so far reached the Wrychester police.
When everything had been taken into account, Bryce saw no better clue for the moment than that suggested by Ambrose Campany--Barthorpe. Ambrose Campany, bookworm though he was, was a shrewd, sharp fellow, said Bryce--a man of ideas. There was certainly much in his suggestion that a man wasn't likely to buy an old book about a little insignificant town like Barthorpe unless he had some interest in it--Barthorpe, if Campany's theory were true, was probably the place of John Braden's origin.
Therefore, information about Braden, leading to knowledge of his association or connection with Ransford, might be found at Bartborpe. True, the Barthorpe police had already reported that they could tell nothing about any Braden, but that, in Bryce's opinion, was neither here nor there--he had already come to the conclusion that Braden was an assumed name. And if he went to Barthorpe, he was not going to trouble the police--he knew better methods than that of finding things out. Was he going?--was it worth his while? A moment's reflection decided that matter--anything was worth his while which would help him to get a strong hold on Mark Ransford. And always practical in his doings, he walked round to the Free Library, obtained a gazeteer, and looked up particulars of Barthorpe. There he learnt that Barthorpe was an ancient market-town of two thousand inhabitants in the north of Leicestershire, famous for nothing except that it had been the scene of a battle at the time of the Wars of the Roses, and that its trade was mainly in agriculture and stocking-making --evidently a slow, sleepy old place.
That night Bryce packed a hand-bag with small necessaries for a few days' excursion, and next morning he took an early train to London; the end of that afternoon found him in a Midland northern-bound express, looking out on the undulating, green acres of Leicestershire. And while his train was making a three minutes' stop at Leicester itself, the purpose of his journey was suddenly recalled to him by hearing the strident voices of the porters on the platform.
"Barthorpe next stop!--next stop Barthorpe!"
One of two other men who shared a smoking compartment with Bryce turned to his companion as the train moved off again.
"Barthorpe?" he remarked. "That's the place that was mentioned in connection with that very queer affair at Wrychester, that's been reported in the papers so much these last few days. The mysterious stranger who kept ten thousand in a London bank, and of whom nobody seems to know anything, had nothing on him but a history of Barthorpe. Odd! And yet, though you'd think he'd some connection with the place, or had known it, they say nobody at Barthorpe knows anything about anybody of his name."
"Well, I don't know that there is anything so very odd about it, after all," replied the other man. "He may have picked up that old book for one of many reasons that could be suggested. No--I read all that case in the papers, and I wasn't so much impressed by the old book feature of it. But I'll tell you what--there was a thing struck me. I know this Barthorpe district--we shall be in it in a few minutes--I've been a good deal over it. This strange man's name was given in the papers as John Braden. Now close to Barthorpe--a mile or two outside it, there's a village of that name--Braden Medworth. That's a curious coincidence--and taken in conjunction with the man's possession of an old book about Barthorpe--why, perhaps there's something in it--possibly more than I thought for at first."
"Well--it's an odd case--a very odd case," said the first speaker. "And--as there's ten thousand pounds in question, more will be heard of it. Somebody'll be after that, you may be sure!"
Bryce left the train at Barthorpe thanking his good luck--the man in the far corner had unwittingly given him a hint. He would pay a visit to Braden Medworth--the coincidence was too striking to be neglected. But first Barthorpe itself--a quaint old-world little market-town, in which some of even the principal houses still wore roofs of thatch, and wherein the old custom of ringing the curfew bell was kept up. He found an old-fashioned hotel in the marketplace, under the shadow of the parish church, and in its oak-panelled dining-room, hung about with portraits of masters of foxhounds and queer old prints of sporting and coaching days, he dined comfortably and well.
It was too late to attempt any investigations that evening, and when Bryce had finished his leisurely dinner he strolled into the smoking-room--an even older and quainter apartment than that which he had just left. It was one of those rooms only found in very old houses--a room of nooks and corners, with a great open fireplace, and old furniture and old pictures and curiosities--the sort of place to which the old-fashioned tradesmen of the small provincial towns still resort of an evening rather than patronize the modern political clubs. There were several men of this sort in the room when Bryce entered, talking local politics amongst themselves, and he found a quiet corner and sat down in it to smoke, promising himself some amusement from the conversation around him it was his way to find interest and amusement in anything that offered. But he had scarcely settled down in a comfortably cushioned elbow chair when the door opened again and into the room walked old Simpson Harker.