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   Chapter 8 THE BEST MAN

The Paradise Mystery By J. S. Fletcher Characters: 16518

Updated: 2017-11-29 00:04

Old Harker's shrewd eyes, travelling round the room as if to inspect the company in which he found himself, fell almost immediately on Bryce-but not before Bryce had had time to assume an air and look of innocent and genuine surprise. Harker affected no surprise at all-he looked the astonishment he felt as the younger man rose and motioned him to the comfortable easy-chair which he himself had just previously taken.

"Dear me!" he exclaimed, nodding his thanks. "I'd no idea that I should meet you in these far-off parts, Dr. Bryce! This is a long way from Wrychester, sir, for Wrychester folk to meet in."

"I'd no idea of meeting you, Mr. Harker," responded Bryce. "But it's a small world, you know, and there are a good many coincidences in it. There's nothing very wonderful in my presence here, though-I ran down to see after a country practice-I've left Dr. Ransford."

He had the lie ready as soon as he set eyes on Harker, and whether the old man believed it or not, he showed no sign of either belief or disbelief. He took the chair which Bryce drew forward and pulled out an old-fashioned cigar-case, offering it to his companion.

"Will you try one, doctor?" he asked. "Genuine stuff that, sir-I've a friend in Cuba who remembers me now and then. No," he went on, as Bryce thanked him and took a cigar, "I didn't know you'd finished with the doctor. Quietish place this to practise in, I should think-much quieter even than our sleepy old city."

"You know it?" inquired Bryce.

"I've a friend lives here-old friend of mine," answered Harker. "I come down to see him now and then-I've been here since yesterday. He does a bit of business for me. Stopping long, doctor?"

"Only just to look round," answered Bryce.

"I'm off tomorrow morning-eleven o'clock," said Harker. "It's a longish journey to Wrychester-for old bones like mine."

"Oh, you're all right!-worth half a dozen younger men," responded Bryce. "You'll see a lot of your contemporaries out, Mr. Harker. Well-as you've treated me to a very fine cigar, now you'll let me treat you to a drop of whisky?-they generally have something of pretty good quality in these old-fashioned establishments, I believe."

The two travellers sat talking until bedtime-but neither made any mention of the affair which had recently set all Wrychester agog with excitement. But Bryce was wondering all the time if his companion's story of having a friend at Barthorpe was no more than an excuse, and when he was alone in his own bedroom and reflecting more seriously he came to the conclusion that old Harker was up to some game of his own in connection with the Paradise mystery.

"The old chap was in the Library when Ambrose Campany said that there was a clue in that Barthorpe history," he mused. "I saw him myself examining the book after the inquest. No, no, Mr. Harker!-the facts are too plain-the evidences too obvious. And yet-what interest has a retired old tradesman of Wrychester got in this affair? I'd give a good deal to know what Harker really is doing here-and who his Barthorpe friend is."

If Bryce had risen earlier next morning, and had taken the trouble to track old Harker's movements, he would have learnt something that would have made him still more suspicious. But Bryce, seeing no reason for hurry, lay in bed till well past nine o'clock, and did not present himself in the coffee-room until nearly half-past ten. And at that hour Simpson Harker, who had breakfasted before nine, was in close consultation with his friend-that friend being none other than the local superintendent of police, who was confidentially closeted with the old man in his private house, whither Harker, by previous arrangement, had repaired as soon as his breakfast was over. Had Bryce been able to see through walls or hear through windows, he would have been surprised to find that the Harker of this consultation was not the quiet, easy-going, gossipy old gentleman of Wrychester, but an eminently practical and business-like man of affairs.

"And now as regards this young fellow who's staying across there at the Peacock," he was saying in conclusion, at the very time that Bryce was leisurely munching his second mutton chop in the Peacock coffee-room, "he's after something or other-his talk about coming here to see after a practice is all lies!-and you'll keep an eye on him while he's in your neighbourhood. Put your best plainclothes man on to him at once-he'll easily know him from the description I gave you-and let him shadow him wherever he goes. And then let me know of his movement-he's certainly on the track of something, and what he does may be useful to me-I can link it up with my own work. And as regards the other matter-keep me informed if you come on anything further. Now I'll go out by your garden and down the back of the town to the station. Let me know, by the by, when this young man at the Peacock leaves here, and, if possible-and you can find out-for where."

Bryce was all unconscious that any one was interested in his movements when he strolled out into Barthorpe market-place just after eleven. He had asked a casual question of the waiter and found that the old gentleman had departed-he accordingly believed himself free from observation. And forthwith he set about his work of inquiry in his own fashion. He was not going to draw any attention to himself by asking questions of present-day inhabitants, whose curiosity might then be aroused; he knew better methods than that. Every town, said Bryce to himself, possesses public records-parish registers, burgess rolls, lists of voters; even small towns have directories which are more or less complete-he could search these for any mention or record of anybody or any family of the name of Braden. And he spent all that day in that search, inspecting numerous documents and registers and books, and when evening came he had a very complete acquaintance with the family nomenclature of Barthorpe, and he was prepared to bet odds against any one of the name of Braden having lived there during the past half-century. In all his searching he had not once come across the name.

The man who had spent a very lazy day in keeping an eye on Bryce, as he visited the various public places whereat he made his researches, was also keeping an eye upon him next morning, when Bryce, breakfasting earlier than usual, prepared for a second day's labours. He followed his quarry away from the little town: Bryce was walking out to Braden Medworth. In Bryce's opinion, it was something of a wild-goose chase to go there, but the similarity in the name of the village and of the dead man at Wrychester might have its significance, and it was but a two miles' stroll from Barthorpe. He found Braden Medworth a very small, quiet, and picturesque place, with an old church on the banks of a river which promised good sport to anglers. And there he pursued his tactics of the day before and went straight to the vicarage and its vicar, with a request to be allowed to inspect the parish registers. The vicar, having no objection to earning the resultant fees, hastened to comply with Bryce's request, and inquired how far back he wanted to search and for what particular entry.

"No particular entry," answered Bryce, "and as to period-fairly recent. The fact is, I am interested in names. I am thinking"-here he used one more of his easily found inventions-"of writing a book on English surnames, and am just now inspecting parish registers in the Midlands for that purpose."

"Then I can considerably simplify your labours," said the vicar, taking down a book from one of his shelves. "Our parish registers have been copied and printed, and here is the volume-everything is in there from 1570 to ten years ago, and there is a very full index. Are you staying in the neighbourhood-or the village?"

"In the neighbourhood, yes; in the village, no longer than the time I shall spend in getting some lunch at the inn yonder," answered Bryce, nodding through an open window at an ancient tavern which stood in the valley beneath, close to an old stone bridge. "Perhaps you will kindly lend me this book for an hour?-then, if I see anything very noteworthy in the index, I can look at the actu

al registers when I bring it back."

The vicar replied that that was precisely what he had been about to suggest, and Bryce carried the book away. And while he sat in the inn parlour awaiting his lunch, he turned to the carefully-compiled index, glancing it through rapidly. On the third page he saw the name Bewery.

If the man who had followed Bryce from Barthorpe to Braden Medworth had been with him in the quiet inn parlour he would have seen his quarry start, and heard him let a stifled exclamation escape his lips. But the follower, knowing his man was safe for an hour, was in the bar outside eating bread and cheese and drinking ale, and Bryce's surprise was witnessed by no one. Yet he had been so much surprised that if all Wrychester had been there he could not, despite his self-training in watchfulness, have kept back either start or exclamation.

Bewery! A name so uncommon that here-here, in this out-of-the-way Midland village!-there must be some connection with the object of his search. There the name stood out before him, to the exclusion of all others-Bewery-with just one entry of figures against it. He turned to page 387 with a sense of sure discovery.

And there an entry caught his eye at once-and he knew that he had discovered more than he had ever hoped for. He read it again and again, gloating over his wonderful luck.

June 19th, 1891. John Brake, bachelor, of the parish of St. Pancras, London, to Mary Bewery, spinster, of this parish, by the Vicar. Witnesses, Charles Claybourne, Selina Womersley, Mark Ransford.

Twenty-two years ago! The Mary Bewery whom Bryce knew in Wrychester was just about twenty-this Mary Bewery, spinster, of Braden Medworth, was, then, in all probability, her mother. But John Brake who married that Mary Bewery-who was he? Who indeed, laughed Bryce, but John Braden, who had just come by his death in Wrychester Paradise? And there was the name of Mark Ransford as witness. What was the further probability? That Mark Ransford had been John Brake's best man; that he was the Marco of the recent Times advertisement; that John Braden, or Brake, was the Sticker of the same advertisement. Clear!-clear as noonday! And-what did it all mean, and imply, and what bearing had it on Braden or Brake's death?

Before he ate his cold beef, Bryce had copied the entry from the reprinted register, and had satisfied himself that Ransford was not a name known to that village-Mark Ransford was the only person of the name mentioned in the register. And his lunch done, he set off for the vicarage again, intent on getting further information, and before he reached the vicarage gates noticed, by accident, a place whereat he was more likely to get it than from the vicar-who was a youngish man. At the end of the few houses between the inn and the bridge he saw a little shop with the name Charles Claybourne painted roughly above its open window. In that open window sat an old, cheery-faced man, mending shoes, who blinked at the stranger through his big spectacles.

Bryce saw his chance and turned in-to open the book and point out the marriage entry.

"Are you the Charles Claybourne mentioned there?" he asked, without ceremony.

"That's me, sir!" replied the old shoemaker briskly, after a glance. "Yes-right enough!"

"How came you to witness that marriage?" inquired Bryce.

The old man nodded at the church across the way.

"I've been sexton and parish clerk two-and-thirty years, sir," he said. "And I took it on from my father-and he had the job from his father."

"Do you remember this marriage?" asked Bryce, perching himself on the bench at which the shoemaker was working. "Twenty-two years since, I see."

"Aye, as if it was yesterday!" answered the old man with a smile. "Miss Bewery's marriage?-why, of course!"

"Who was she?" demanded Bryce.

"Governess at the vicarage," replied Claybourne. "Nice, sweet young lady."

"And the man she married?-Mr. Brake," continued Bryce. "Who was he?"

"A young gentleman that used to come here for the fishing, now and then," answered Claybourne, pointing at the river. "Famous for our trout we are here, you know, sir. And Brake had come here for three years before they were married-him and his friend Mr. Ransford."

"You remember him, too?" asked Bryce.

"Remember both of 'em very well indeed," said Claybourne, "though I never set eyes on either after Miss Mary was wed to Mr. Brake. But I saw plenty of 'em both before that. They used to put up at the inn there-that I saw you come out of just now. They came two or three times a year-and they were a bit thick with our parson of that time-not this one: his predecessor-and they used to go up to the vicarage and smoke their pipes and cigars with him-and of course, Mr. Brake and the governess fixed it up. Though, you know, at one time it was considered it was going to be her and the other young gentleman, Mr. Ransford-yes! But, in the end, it was Brake-and Ransford stood best man for him."

Bruce assimilated all this information greedily-and asked for more.

"I'm interested in that entry," he said, tapping the open book. "I know some people of the name of Bewery-they may be relatives."

The shoemaker shook his head as if doubtful.

"I remember hearing it said," he remarked, "that Miss Mary had no relations. She'd been with the old vicar some time, and I don't remember any relations ever coming to see her, nor her going away to see any."

"Do you know what Brake was?" asked Bryce. "As you say he came here for a good many times before the marriage, I suppose you'd hear something about his profession, or trade, or whatever it was?"

"He was a banker, that one," replied Claybourne. "A banker-that was his trade, sir. T'other gentleman, Mr. Ransford, he was a doctor-I mind that well enough, because once when him and Mr. Brake were fishing here, Thomas Joynt's wife fell downstairs and broke her leg, and they fetched him to her-he'd got it set before they'd got the reg'lar doctor out from Barthorpe yonder."

Bryce had now got all the information he wanted, and he made the old parish clerk a small present and turned to go. But another question presented itself to his mind and he reentered the little shop.

"Your late vicar?" he said. "The one in whose family Miss Bewery was governess-where is he now? Dead?"

"Can't say whether he's dead or alive, sir," replied Claybourne. "He left this parish for another-a living in a different part of England-some years since, and I haven't heard much of him from that time to this-he never came back here once, not even to pay us a friendly visit-he was a queerish sort. But I'll tell you what, sir," he added, evidently anxious to give his visitor good value for his half-crown, "our present vicar has one of those books with the names of all the clergymen in 'em, and he'd tell you where his predecessor is now, if he's alive-name of Reverend Thomas Gilwaters, M.A.-an Oxford college man he was, and very high learned."

Bryce went back to the vicarage, returned the borrowed book, and asked to look at the registers for the year 1891. He verified his copy and turned to the vicar.

"I accidentally came across the record of a marriage there in which I'm interested," he said as he paid the search fees. "Celebrated by your predecessor, Mr. Gilwaters. I should be glad to know where Mr. Gilwaters is to be found. Do you happen to possess a clerical directory?"

The vicar produced a "Crockford", and Bryce turned over its pages. Mr. Gilwaters, who from the account there given appeared to be an elderly man who had now retired, lived in London, in Bayswater, and Bryce made a note of his address and prepared to depart.

"Find any names that interested you?" asked the vicar as his caller left. "Anything noteworthy?"

"I found two or three names which interested me immensely," answered Bryce from the foot of the vicarage steps. "They were well worth searching for."

And without further explanation he marched off to Barthorpe duly followed by his shadow, who saw him safely into the Peacock an hour later-and, an hour after that, went to the police superintendent with his report.

"Gone, sir," he said. "Left by the five-thirty express for London."

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