The Paradise Mystery by J. S. Fletcher
Chapter IX. The House of His Friend
Bryce found himself at eleven o'clock next morning in a small book-lined parlour in a little house which stood in a quiet street in the neighbourhood of Westbourne Grove. Over the mantelpiece, amongst other odds and ends of pictures and photographs, hung a water-colour drawing of Braden Medworth --and to him presently entered an old, silver-haired clergyman whom he at once took to be Braden Medworth's former vicar, and who glanced inquisitively at his visitor and then at the card which Bryce had sent in with a request for an interview.
"Dr. Bryce?" he said inquiringly. "Dr. Pemberton Bryce?"
Bryce made his best bow and assumed his suavest and most ingratiating manner.
"I hope I am not intruding on your time, Mr. Gilwaters?" he said. "The fact is, I was referred to you, yesterday, by the present vicar of Braden Medworth--both he, and the sexton there, Claybourne, whom you, of course, remember, thought you would be able to give me some information on a subject which is of great importance--to me."
"I don't know the present vicar," remarked Mr. Gilwaters, motioning Bryce to a chair, and taking another close by. "Clayborne, of course, I remember very well indeed--he must be getting an old man now--like myself! What is it you want to know, now?"
"I shall have to take you into my confidence," replied Bryce, who had carefully laid his plans and prepared his story, "and you, I am sure, Mr. Gilwaters, will respect mine. I have for two years been in practice at Wry Wrychester, and have there made the acquaintance of a young lady whom I earnestly desire to marry. She is the ward of the man to whom I have been assistant. And I think you will begin to see why I have come to you when I say that this young lady's name is--Mary Bewery."
The old clergyman started, and looked at his visitor with unusual interest. He grasped the arm of his elbow chair and leaned forward.
"Mary Bewery!" he said in a low whisper. "What--what is the name of the man who is her--guardian?"
"Dr. Mark Ransford," answered Bryce promptly.
The old man sat upright again, with a little toss of his head.
"Bless my soul!" he exclaimed. "Mark Ransford! Then--it must have been as I feared--and suspected!"
Bryce made no remark. He knew at once that he had struck on something, and it was his method to let people take their own time. Mr. Gilwaters had already fallen into something closely resembling a reverie: Bryce sat silently waiting and expectant. And at last the old man leaned forward again, almost eagerly.
"What is it you want to know?" he asked, repeating his first question. "Is--is there some--some mystery?"
"Yes!" replied Bryce. "A mystery that I want to solve, sir. And I dare say that you can help me, if you'll be so good. I am convinced--in fact, I know!--that this young lady is in ignorance of her 'parentage, that Ransford is keeping some fact, some truth back from her--and I want to find things out. By the merest chance--accident, in fact--I discovered yesterday at Braden Medworth that some twenty-two years ago you married one Mary Bewery, who, I learnt there, was your governess, to a John Brake, and that Mark Ransford was John Brake's best man and a witness of the marriage. Now, Mr. Gilwaters, the similarity in names is too striking to be devoid of significance. So--it's of the utmost importance to me!--can or will you tell me--who was the Mary Bewery you married to John Brake? Who was John Brake? And what was Mark Ransford to either, or to both?"
He was wondering, all the time during which he reeled off these questions, if Mr. Gilwaters was wholly ignorant of the recent affair at Wrychester. He might be--a glance round his book-filled room had suggested to Bryce that he was much more likely to be a bookworm than a newspaper reader, and it was quite possible that the events of the day had small interest for him. And his first words in reply to Bryce's questions convinced Bryce that his surmise was correct and that the old man had read nothing of the Wrychester Paradise mystery, in which Ransford's name had, of course, figured as a witness at the inquest.
"It is nearly twenty years since I heard any of their names," remarked Mr. Gilwaters. "Nearly twenty years--a long time! But, of course, I can answer you. Mary Bewery was our governess at Braden Medworth. She came to us when she was nineteen--she was married four years later. She was a girl who had no friends or relatives--she had been educated at a school in the North--I engaged her from that school, where, I understood, she had lived since infancy. Now then, as to Brake and Ransford. They were two young men from London, who used to come fishing in Leicestershire. Ransford was a few years the younger--he was either a medical student in his last year, or he was an assistant somewhere in London. Brake--was a bank manager in London--of a branch of one of the big banks. They were pleasant young fellows, and I used to ask them to the vicarage. Eventually, Mary Bewery and John Brake became engaged to be married. My wife and I were a good deal surprised--we had believed, somehow, that the favoured man would be Ransford. However, it was Brake--and Brake she married, and, as you say, Ransford was best man. Of course, Brake took his wife off to London--and from the day of her wedding, I never saw her again."
"Did you ever see Brake again?" asked Bryce. The old clergyman shook his head.
"Yes!" he said sadly. "I did see Brake again--under grievous, grievous circumstances!"
"You won't mind telling me what circumstances?" suggested Bryce. "I will keep your confidence, Mr. Gilwaters."
"There is really no secret in it--if it comes to that," answered the old man. "I saw John Brake again just once. In a prison cell!"
"A prison cell!" exclaimed Bryce. "And he--a prisoner?"
"He had just been sentenced to ten years' penal servitude," replied Mr. Gilwaters. "I had heard the sentence--I was present. I got leave to see him. Ten years' penal servitude! --a terrible punishment. He must have been released long ago --but I never heard more."
Bryce reflected in silence for a moment--reckoning and calculating.
"When was this--the trial?" he asked.
"It was five years after the marriage--seventeen years ago," replied Mr. Gilwaters.
"And--what had he been doing?" inquired Bryce.
"Stealing the bank's money," answered the old man. "I forget what the technical offence was--embezzlement, or something of that sort. There was not much evidence came out, for it was impossible to offer any defence, and he pleaded guilty. But I gathered from what I heard that something of this sort occurred. Brake was a branch manager. He was, as it were, pounced upon one morning by an inspector, who found that his cash was short by two or three thousand pounds. The bank people seemed to have been unusually strict and even severe --Brake, it was said, had some explanation, but it was swept aside and he was given in charge. And the sentence was as I said just now--a very savage one, I thought. But there had recently been some bad cases of that sort in the banking world, and I suppose the judge felt that he must make an example. Yes--a most trying affair!--I have a report of the case somewhere, which I cut out of a London newspaper at the time."
Mr. Gilwaters rose and turned to an old desk in the corner of his room, and after some rummaging of papers in a drawer, produced a newspaper-cutting book and traced an insertion in its pages. He handed the book to his visitor.
"There is the account," he said. "You can read it for yourself. You will notice that in what Brake's counsel said on his behalf there are one or two curious and mysterious hints as to what might have been said if it had been of any use or advantage to say it. A strange case!"
Bryce turned eagerly to the faded scrap of newspaper.
Bryce read this over twice before handing back the book.
"Very strange and mysterious, Mr. Gilwaters," he remarked. "You say that you saw Brake after the case was over. Did you learn anything?"
"Nothing whatever!" answered the old clergyman. "I got permission to see him before he was taken away. He did not seem particularly pleased or disposed to see me. I begged him to tell me what the real truth was. He was, I think, somewhat dazed by the sentence--but he was also sullen and morose. I asked him where his wife and two children--one, a mere infant --were. For I had already been to his private address and had found that Mrs. Brake had sold all the furniture and disappeared--completely. No one--thereabouts, at any rate --knew where she was, or would tell me anything. On my asking this, he refused to answer. I pressed him--he said finally that he was only speaking the truth when he replied that he did not know where his wife was. I said I must find her. He forbade me to make any attempt. Then I begged him to tell me if she was with friends. I remember very well what he replied.--'I'm not going to say one word more to any man living, Mr. Gilwaters,' he answered determinedly. 'I shall be dead to the world--only because I've been a trusting fool! --for ten years or thereabouts, but, when I come back to it, I'll let the world see what revenge means! Go away!' he concluded. 'I won't say one word more.' And--I left him."
"And--you made no more inquiries?--about the wife?" asked Bryce.
"I did what I could," replied Mr. Gilwaters. "I made some inquiry in the neighbourhood in which they had lived. All I could discover was that Mrs. Brake had disappeared under extraordinarily mysterious circumstances. There was no trace whatever of her. And I speedily found that things were being said--the usual cruel suspicions, you know."
"Such as--what?" asked Bryce.
"That the amount of the defalcations was much larger than had been allowed to appear," replied Mr. Gilwaters. "That Brake was a very clever rogue who had got the money safely planted somewhere abroad, and that his wife had gone off somewhere --Australia, or Canada, or some other far-off region--to await his release. Of course, I didn't believe one word of all that. But there was the fact--she had vanished! And eventually, I thought of Ransford, as having been Brake's great friend, so I tried to find him. And then I found that he, too, who up to that time had been practising in a London suburb--Streatham--had also disappeared. Just after Brake's arrest, Ransford had suddenly sold his practice and gone--no one knew where, but it was believed--abroad. I couldn't trace him, anyway. And soon after that I had a long illness, and for two or three years was an invalid, and--well, the thing was over and done with, and, as I said just now, I have never heard anything of any of them for all these years. And now! --now you tell me that there is a Mary Bewery who is a ward of a Dr. Mark Ransford at--where did you say?"
"At Wrychester," answered Bryce. "She is a young woman of twenty, and she has a brother, Richard, who is between seventeen and eighteen."
"Without a doubt those are Brake's children!" exclaimed the old man. "The infant I spoke of was a boy. Bless me!--how extraordinary. How long have they been at Wrychester?"
"Ransford has been in practice there some years--a few years," replied Bryce. "These two young people joined him there definitely two years ago. But from what I have learnt, he has acted as their guardian ever since they were mere children."
"And--their mother?" asked Mr. Gilwaters.
"Said to be dead--long since," answered Bryce. "And their father, too. They know nothing. Ransford won't tell them anything. But, as you say--I've no doubt of it myself now --they must be the children of John Brake."
"And have taken the name of their mother!" remarked the old man.
"Had it given to them," said Bryce. "They don't know that it isn't their real name. Of course, Ransford has given it to them! But now--the mother?"
"Ah, yes, the mother!" said Mr. Gilwaters. "Our old governess! Dear me!"
"I'm going to put a question to you," continued Bryce, leaning nearer and speaking in a low, confidential tone. "You must have seen much of the world, Mr. Gilwaters--men of your profession know the world, and human nature, too. Call to mind all the mysterious circumstances, the veiled hints, of that trial. Do you think--have you ever thought--that the false friend whom the counsel referred to was--Ransford? Come, now!"
The old clergyman lifted his hands and let them fall on his knees.
"I do not know what to say!" he exclaimed. "To tell you the truth, I have often wondered if--if that was what really did happen. There is the fact that Brake's wife disappeared mysteriously--that Ransford made a similar mysterious disappearance about the same time--that Brake was obviously suffering from intense and bitter hatred when I saw him after the trial--hatred of some person on whom he meant to be revenged--and that his counsel hinted that he had been deceived and betrayed by a friend. Now, to my knowledge, he and Ransford were the closest of friends--in the old days, before Brake married our governess. And I suppose the friendship continued--certainly Ransford acted as best man at the wedding! But how account for that strange double disappearance?"
Bryce had already accounted for that, in his own secret mind. And now, having got all that he wanted out of the old clergyman, he rose to take his leave.
"You will regard this interview as having been of a strictly private nature, Mr. Gilwaters?" he said.
"Certainly!" responded the old man. "But--you mentioned that you wished to marry the daughter? Now that you know about her father's past--for I am sure she must be John Brake's child --you won't allow that to--eh?"
"Not for a moment!" answered Bryce, with a fair show of magnanimity. "I am not a man of that complexion, sir. No!--I only wished to clear up certain things, you understand."
"And--since she is apparently--from what you say--in ignorance of her real father's past--what then?" asked Mr. Gilwaters anxiously. "Shall you--"
"I shall do nothing whatever in any haste," replied Bryce. "Rely upon me to consider her feelings in everything. As you have been so kind, I will let you know, later, how matters go."
This was one of Pemberton Bryce's ready inventions. He had not the least intention of ever seeing or communicating with the late vicar of Braden Medworth again; Mr. Gilwaters had served his purpose for the time being. He went away from Bayswater, and, an hour later, from London, highly satisfied. In his opinion, Mark Ransford, seventeen years before, had taken advantage of his friend's misfortunes to run away with his wife, and when Brake, alias Braden, had unexpectedly turned up at Wrychester, he had added to his former wrong by the commission of a far greater one.