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Mary's first instinct on seeing the approach of Pemberton Bryce, the one man she least desired to see, was to retreat to the back of the house and send the parlourmaid to the door to say her mistress was not at home. But she had lately become aware of Bryce's curiously dogged persistence in following up whatever he had in view, and she reflected that if he were sent away then he would be sure to come back and come back until he had got whatever it was that he wanted. And after a moment's further consideration, she walked out of the front door and confronted him resolutely in the garden.
"Dr. Ransford is away," she said with almost unnecessary brusqueness. "He's away until evening."
"I don't want him," replied Bryce just as brusquely. "I came to see you."
Mary hesitated. She continued to regard Bryce steadily, and Bryce did not like the way in which she was looking at him. He made haste to speak before she could either leave or dismiss him.
"You'd better give me a few minutes," he said, with a note of warning. "I'm here in your interests--or in Ransford's. I may as well tell you, straight out, Ransford's in serious and imminent danger! That's a fact."
"Danger of-what?" she demanded.
"Arrest--instant arrest!" replied Bryce. "I'm telling you the truth. He'll probably be arrested tonight, on his return. There's no imagination in all this--I'm speaking of what I know. I've--curiously enough--got mixed up with these affairs, through no seeking of my own, and I know what's behind the scenes. If it were known that I'm letting out secrets to you, I should get into trouble. But, I want to warn you!"
Mary stood before him on the path, hesitating. She knew enough to know that Bryce was telling some sort of truth: it was plain that he had been mixed up in the recent mysteries, and there was a ring of conviction in his voice which impressed her. And suddenly she had visions of Ransford's arrest, of his being dragged off to prison to meet a cruel accusation, of the shame and disgrace, and she hesitated further.
"But if that's so," she said at last, "what's the good of coming to me? I can't do anything!"
"I can!" said Bryce significantly. "I know more--much more --than the police know--more than anybody knows. I can save Ransford. Understand that!"
"What do you want now?" she asked.
"To talk to you--to tell you how things are," answered Bryce. "What harm is there in that? To make you see how matters stand, and then to showy you what I can do to put things right."
Mary glanced at an open summer-house which stood beneath the beech trees on one side of the garden. She moved towards it and sat down there, and Bryce followed her and seated himself.
"Well--" she said.
Bryce realized that his moment had arrived. He paused, endeavouring to remember the careful preparations he had made for putting his case. Somehow, he was not so clear as to his line of attack as he had been ten minutes previously--he realized that he had to deal with a young woman who was not likely to be taken in nor easily deceived. And suddenly he plunged into what he felt to be the thick of things.
"Whether you, or whether Ransford--whether both or either of you, know it or not," he said, "the police have been on to Ransford ever since that Collishaw affair! Underground work, you know. Mitchington has been digging into things ever since then, and lately he's had a London detective helping him."
Mary, who had carried her work into the garden, had now resumed it, and as Bryce began to talk she bent over it steadily stitching.
"Well?" she said.
"Look here!" continued Bryce. "Has it never struck you--it must have done!--that there's considerable mystery about Ransford? But whether it has struck you or not, it's there, and it's struck the police forcibly. Mystery connected with him before--long before--he ever came here. And associated, in some way, with that man Braden. Not of late--in years past. And, naturally, the police have tried to find out what that was."
"What have they found out?" asked Mary quietly.
"That I'm not at liberty to tell," replied Bryce. "But I can tell you this--they know, Mitchington and the London man, that there were passages between Ransford and Braden years ago."
"How many years ago?" interrupted Mary.
Bryce hesitated a moment. He had a suspicion that this self-possessed young woman who was taking everything more quietly than he had anticipated, might possibly know more than he gave her credit for knowing. He had been watching her fingers since they sat down in the summer-house, and his sharp eyes saw that they were as steady as the spire of the cathedral above the trees--he knew from that that she was neither frightened nor anxious.
"Oh, well--seventeen to twenty years ago," he answered. "About that time. There were passages, I say, and they were of a nature which suggests that the re-appearance of Braden on Ransford's present stage of life would be, extremely unpleasant and unwelcome to Ransford."
"Vague!" murmured Mary. "Extremely vague!"
"But quite enough," retorted Bryce, "to give the police the suggestion of motive. I tell you the police know quite enough to know that Braden was, of all men in the world, the last man Ransford desired to see cross his path again. And--on that morning on which the Paradise affair occurred--Braden did cross his path. Therefore, in the conventional police way of thinking and looking at things, there's motive."
"Motive for what?" asked Mary.
Bryce arrived here at one of his critical stages, and he paused a moment in order to choose his words.
"Don't get any false ideas or impressions," he said at last. "I'm not accusing Ransford of anything. I'm only telling you what I know the police think and are on the very edge of accusing him of. To put it plainly--of murder. They say he'd a motive for murdering Braden--and with them motive is everything. It's the first thing they seem to think of; they first question they ask themselves. 'Why should this man have murdered that man?'--do you see! 'What motive had he?--that's the point. And they think--these chaps like Mitchington and the London man--that Ransford certainly had a motive for getting rid of Braden when they met."
"What was the motive?" asked Mary.
"They've found out something--perhaps a good deal--about what happened between Braden and Ransford some years ago," replied Bryce. "And their theory is--if you want to know the truth --that Ransford ran away with Braden's wife, and that Braden had been looking for him ever since."
Bryce had kept his eyes on Mary's hands, and now at last he saw the girl's fingers tremble. But her voice was steady enough when she spoke.
"Is that mere conjecture on their part, or is it based on any fact?" she asked.
"I'm not in full knowledge of all their secrets," answered Bryce, "but I've heard enough to know that there's a basis of undeniable fact on which they're going. I know for instance, beyond doubt, that Braden and Ransford were bosom friends, years ago, that Braden was married to a girl whom Ransford had wanted to marry, that Braden's wife suddenly left him, mysteriously, a few years later, and that, at the same time, Ransford made an equally mysterious disappearance. The police know all that. What is the inference to be drawn? What inference would any one--you yourself, for example--draw?"
"None, till I've heard what Dr. Ransford had to say," replied Mary.
Bryce disliked that ready retort. He was beginning to feel that he was being met by some force stronger that his own.
"That's all very well," he remarked. "I don't say that I wouldn't do the same. But I'm only explaining the police position, and showing you the danger likely to arise from it. The police theory is this, as far as I can make it out: Ransford, years ago, did Braden a wrong, and Braden certainly swore revenge when he could find him. Circumstances prevented Braden from seeking him closely for some time; at last they met here, by accident. Here the police aren't decided. One theory is that there was an altercation, blows, a struggle, in the course of which Braden met his death; the other is that Ransford deliberately took Braden up into the gallery and flung him through that open doorway--"
"That," observed Mary, with something very like a sneer, "seems so likely that I should think it would never occur to anybody but the sort of people you're telling me of! No man of any real sense would believe it for a minute!"
"Some people of plain common sense do believe it for all that!" retorted Bryce. "For it's quite possible. But as I say, I'm only repeating. And of course, the rest of it follows on that. The police theory is that Collishaw witnessed Braden's death at Ransford's hands, that Ransford got to know that Collishaw knew of that, and that he therefore quietly removed Collishaw. And it is on all that that they're going, and will go. Don't ask me if I think they're right or wrong! I'm only telling you what I know so as to show you what danger Ransford is in."
Mary made no immediate answer, and Bryce sat watching her. Somehow--he was at a loss to explain it to himself--things were not going as he had expected. He had confidently believed that the girl would be frightened, scared, upset, ready to do anything that he asked or suggested. But she was plainly not frightened. And the fingers which busied themselves with the fancy-work had become steady again, and her voice had been steady all along.
"Pray," she asked suddenly, and with a little satirical inflection of voice which Brice was quick to notice, "pray, how is it that you--not a policeman, not a detective!--come to know so much of all this? Since when were you taken into the confidence of Mitchington and the mysterious person from London?"
"You know as well as I do that I have been dragged into the case against my wishes," answered Bryce almost sullenly. "I was fetched to Braden--I saw him die. It was I who found Collishaw--dead. Of course, I've been mixed up, whether I would or not, and I've had to see a good deal of the police, and naturally I've learnt things."
Mary suddenly turned on him with a flash of the eye which might have warned Bryce that he had signally failed in the main feature of his adventure.
"And what have you learnt that makes you come here and tell me all this?" she exclaimed. "Do you think I'm a simpleton, Dr. Bryce? You set out by saying that Dr. Ransford is in danger from the police, and that you know more--much more than the police! what does that mean? Shall I tell you? It means that you--you!--know that the police are wrong, and that if you like you can prove to them that they are wrong! Now, then isn't that so?"
"I am in possession of certain facts," began Bryce. "I--"
Mary stopped him with a look.
"My turn!" she said. "You're in possession of certain facts. Now isn't it the truth that the facts you are in possession of are proof enough to you that Dr. Ransford is as innocent as I am? It's no use your trying to deceive me! Isn't that so?"
"I could certainly turn the police off his track," admitted Bryce, who was growing highly uncomfortable. "I could divert--"
Mary gave him another look and dropping her needlework continued to watch him steadily.
"Do you call yourself a gentleman?" she asked quietly. "Or we'll leave the term out. Do you call yourself even decently honest? For, if you do, how can you have the sheer impudence --more, insolence!--to come here and tell me all this when you know that the police are wrong and that you could--to use your own term, which is your way of putting it--turn them off the wrong track? Whatever sort of man are you? Do you want to know my opinion of you in plain words?"
"You seem very anxious to give it, anyway," retorted Bryce.
"I will give it, and it will perhaps put an end to this," answered Mary. "If you are in possession of anything in the way of evidence which would prove Dr. Ransford's innocence and you are wilfully suppressing it, you are bad, wicked, base, cruel, unfit for any decent being's society! And," she added, as she picked up her work and rose, "you're not going to have any more of mine!"
"A moment!" said Bryce. He was conscious that he had somehow played all his cards badly, and he wanted another opening. "You're misunderstanding me altogether! I never said--never inferred--that I wouldn't save Ransford."
"Then, if there's need, which I don't admit, you acknowledge that you could save him?" she exclaimed sharply. "Just as I thought. Then, if you're an honest man, a man with any pretensions to honour, why don't you at once! Any man who had such feelings as those I've just mentioned wouldn't hesitate one second. But you--you!--you come and--talk about it! As if it were a game! Dr. Bryce, you make me feel sick, mentally, morally sick."
Bryce had risen to his feet when Mary rose, and he now stood staring at her. Ever since his boyhood he had laughed and sneered at the mere idea of the finer feelings--he believed that every man has his price--and that honesty and honour are things useful as terms but of no real existence. And now he was wondering--really wondering--if this girl meant the things she said: if she really felt a mental loathing of such minds and purposes as he knew his own were, or if it were merely acting on her part. Before he could speak she turned on him again more fiercely than before.
"Shall I tell you something else in plain language?" she asked. "You evidently possess a very small and limited knowledge--if you have any at all!--of women, and you apparently don't rate their mental qualities at any high standard. Let me tell you that I am not quite such a fool as you seem to think me! You came here this afternoon to bargain with me! You happen to know how much I respect my guardian and what I owe him for the care he has taken of me and my brother. You thought to trade on that! You thought you could make a bargain with me; you were to save Dr. Ransford, and for reward you were to have me! You daren't deny it. Dr. Bryce --I can see through you!"
"I never said it, at any rate," answered Bryce.
"Once more, I say, I'm not a fool!" exclaimed Mary. "I saw through you all along. And you've failed! I'm not in the least frightened by what you've said. If the police arrest Dr. Ransford, Dr. Ransford knows how to defend himself. And you're not afraid for him! You know you aren't. It wouldn't matter twopence to you if he were hanged tomorrow, for you hate him. But look to yourself! Men who cheat, and scheme, and plot, and plan as you do come to bad ends. Mind yours! Mind the wheel doesn't come full circle. And now, if you please, go away and don't dare to come near me again!"
Bryce made no answer. He had listened, with an attempt at a smile, to all this fiery indignation, but as Mary spoke the last words he was suddenly aware of something that drew his attention from her and them. Through an opening in Ransford's garden hedge he could see the garden door of the Folliots' house across the Close. And at that moment out of it emerge Folliot himself in conversation with Glassdale!
Without a word, Bryce snatched up his hat from the table of the summer-house, and went swiftly away--a new scheme, a new idea in his mind.
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