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- The Paradise Mystery - 4/50 -


innocent person!"

"They'd better not begin gossiping about my affairs," said Ransford. "Otherwise--"

"You can't stop them from gossiping about your affairs," interrupted Bryce cheerfully. "Of course they gossip about your affairs; have gossiped about them; will continue to gossip about them. It's human nature!"

"You've heard them?" asked Ransford, who was too vexed to keep back his curiosity. "You yourself?"

"As you are aware, I am often asked out to tea," replied Bryce, "and to garden-parties, and tennis-parties, and choice and cosy functions patronized by curates and associated with crumpets. I have heard--with these ears. I can even repeat the sort of thing I have heard. 'That dear, delightful Miss Bewery--what a charming girl! And that good-looking boy, her brother--quite a dear! Now I wonder who they really are? Wards of Dr. Ransford, of course! Really, how very romantic! --and just a little--eh?--unusual? Such a comparatively young man to have such a really charming girl as his ward! Can't be more than forty-five himself, and she's twenty--how very, very romantic! Really, one would think there ought to be a chaperon!'"

"Damn!" said Ransford under his breath.

"Just so," agreed Bryce. "But--that's the sort of thing. Do you want more? I can supply an unlimited quantity in the piece if you like. But it's all according to sample."

"So--in addition to your other qualities," remarked Ransford, "you're a gossiper?"

Bryce smiled slowly and shook his head.

"No," he replied. "I'm a listener. A good one, too. But do you see my point? I say--there's no mystery about me. If Miss Bewery will honour me with her hand, she'll get a man whose antecedents will bear the strictest investigation."

"Are you inferring that hers won't?" demanded Ransford.

"I'm not inferring anything," said Bryce. "I am speaking for myself, of myself. Pressing my own claim, if you like, on you, the guardian. You might do much worse than support my claims, Dr. Ransford."

"Claims, man!" retorted Ransford. "You've got no claims! What are you talking about? Claims!"

"My pretensions, then," answered Bryce. "If there is a mystery--as Wrychester people say there is--about Miss Bewery, it would be safe with me. Whatever you may think, I'm a thoroughly dependable man--when it's in my own interest."

"And--when it isn't?" asked Ransford. "What are you then?--as you're so candid."

"I could be a very bad enemy," replied Bryce.

There was a moment's silence, during which the two men looked attentively at each other.

"I've told you the truth," said Ransford at last. "Miss Bewery flatly refuses to entertain any idea whatever of ever marrying you. She earnestly hopes that that eventuality may never be mentioned to her again. Will you give me your word of honour to respect her wishes?"

"No!" answered Bryce. "I won't!"

"Why not?" asked Ransford, with a faint show of anger. "A woman's wishes!"

"Because I may consider that I see signs of a changed mind in her," said Bryce. "That's why."

"You'll never see any change of mind," declared Ransford. "That's certain. Is that your fixed determination?"

"It is," answered Bryce. "I'm not the sort of man who is easily repelled."

"Then, in that case," said Ransford, "we had better part company." He rose from his desk, and going over to a safe which stood in a corner, unlocked it and took some papers from an inside drawer. He consulted one of these and turned to Bryce. "You remember our agreement?" he continued. "Your engagement was to be determined by a three months' notice on either side, or, at my will, at any time by payment of three months' salary?"

"Quite right," agreed Bryce. "I remember, of course."

"Then I'll give you a cheque for three months' salary--now," said Ransford, and sat down again at his desk. "That will settle matters definitely--and, I hope, agreeably."

Bryce made no reply. He remained leaning against the table, watching Ransford write the cheque. And when Ransford laid the cheque down at the edge of the desk he made no movement towards it.

"You must see," remarked Ransford, half apologetically, "that it's the only thing I can do. I can't have any man who's not --not welcome to her, to put it plainly--causing any annoyance to my ward. I repeat, Bryce--you must see it!"

"I have nothing to do with what you see," answered Bryce. "Your opinions are not mine, and mine aren't yours. You're really turning me away--as if I were a dishonest foreman! --because in my opinion it would be a very excellent thing for her and for myself if Miss Bewery would consent to marry me. That's the plain truth."

Ransford allowed himself to take a long and steady look at Bryce. The thing was done now, and his dismissed assistant seemed to be taking it quietly--and Ransford's curiosity was aroused.

"I can't make you out!" he exclaimed. "I don't know whether you're the most cynical young man I ever met, or whether you're the most obtuse--"

"Not the last, anyway," interrupted Bryce. "I assure you of that!"

"Can't you see for yourself, then, man, that the girl doesn't want you!" said Ransford. "Hang it!--for anything you know to the contrary, she may have--might have--other ideas!"

Bryce, who had been staring out of a side window for the last minute or two, suddenly laughed, and, lifting a hand, pointed into the garden. And Ransford turned--and saw Mary Bewery walking there with a tall lad, whom he recognized as one Sackville Bonham, stepson of Mr. Folliot, a wealthy resident of the Close. The two young people were laughing and chatting together with evident great friendliness.

"Perhaps," remarked Bryce quietly, "her ideas run in--that direction? In which case, Dr. Ransford, you'll have trouble. For Mrs. Folliot, mother of yonder callow youth, who's the apple of her eye, is one of the inquisitive ladies of whom I've just told you, and if her son unites himself with anybody, she'll want to know exactly who that anybody is. You'd far better have supported me as an aspirant! However --I suppose there's no more to say."

"Nothing!" answered Ransford. "Except to say good-day--and good-bye to you. You needn't remain--I'll see to everything. And I'm going out now. I think you'd better not exchange any farewells with any one."

Bryce nodded silently, and Ransford, picking up his hat and gloves, left the surgery by the side door. A moment later, Bryce saw him crossing the Close.

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, books 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?


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