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Title: The Red Bicycle Author: Fergus Hume * A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook * eBook No.: 1701201h.html Language: English Date first posted: November 2017 Most recent update: November 2017 This eBook was produced by: Walter Moore Project Gutenberg of Australia eBooks are created from printed editions which are in the public domain in Australia, unless a copyright notice is included. We do NOT keep any eBooks in compliance with a particular paper edition. Copyright laws are changing all over the world. Be sure to check the copyright laws for your country before downloading or redistributing this file. This eBook is made available at no cost and with almost no restrictions whatsoever. You may copy it, give it away or re-use it under the terms of the Project Gutenberg Australia Licence which may be viewed online.
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Published in The Denbighshire Free Press (Benbigh, Wales) beginning Saturday 28th October 1916
The dingy little cart containing the clean linen of the Rectory, was on its way by an unusually roundabout route. Neddy Mellin, the washer woman's son, who disliked work as much as he liked play, which was natural in a lad of thirteen, grumbled openly at the uncongenial task of driving the large white donkey. The animal herself, who answered to the name of Nelly, grumbled also in her own way, as she objected to innovations. Hitherto she had been allowed to take the short road to the parson's residence; now she was compelled to go by the long one, which was particularly annoying on this damp, misty November afternoon. With the obstinacy of her race she refused to trot, and although Neddy whipped her, coaxed her, and threatened her, Nelly still behaved as though she were attending a funeral. Mrs. Mellin did not mind. Throned amidst the bundles of linen, she peered through the fog for something she particularly wished to see. Only when the cart arrived midway down a melancholy, deserted thoroughfare, bordered by dripping elm-trees, did she speak. Then the cart stopped as she fancied she heard an order.
"There," said Mrs. Mellin, pointing with a fat, red finger at a dreary mansion which stood in a disorderly garden. "Maranatha! I never did 'ear of sich a queer name in all my born days."
"It's a scripter name, and has to do with cursing," explained her son, who, being a choir-boy, knew something about the Bible.
"Then don't let me 'ear you use sich a wicked word, or I'll take the skin off your back," said his mother, wiping her large crimson face with a corner of her tartan shawl. "Maranatha! it gives me the shivers, it do."
"You're using it yourself," murmured Neddy, in an injured tone.
"Me, being your elder and your ma, has a right to use words as ain't fit for you," said Mrs. Mellin, tartly, "and as we've got the washing of the new gent as has come to live there, I'll say the name often enough. I'll be bound. But not you, Neddy. Say the 'Ouse, and I'll know what you mean. And for 'Eaven's sake, child don't 'it the donkey. I want to look at the place."
Mrs. Mellin craned forward so as to get a better view, and stared at the square, ugly building, the damp red bricks of which were almost hidden by dark curtains of untrimmed ivy. Smoke came from one chimney, which showed that the house was inhabited, but as the shutters were up and the door closed, there was a sinister look about the whole place which made the washerwoman shiver. In its wilderness of shrubs and long grass, girdled by gigantic elms, all sopping and dripping, the mansion loomed portentously through the mists. It looked like a house with an evil history, and the queer name on the gate suited it extraordinarily well. Mrs. Mellin was not imaginative, yet she shivered again as she signed that Nelly could proceed. Tired of standing and anxious to get her day's work over, Nelly changed her funeral pace for a more active one.
"Maranatha!" murmured Mrs. Mellin, as the cart turned into the Parade. "Well, baronet or no baronet, he won't get much good out of Maranatha. Arter suicides you may paint a 'ouse, you may furnish a 'ouse, and you may advertise 'ouses till you're sick, but them as comes to live in sich allays leaves afore the term's out. An' no wonder 'ow long he'll stay?"
"Who'll stay?" asked Neddy curiously.
"I wasn't speaking to you, child. 'Old your tongue and drive on. I do 'ope as Mrs. Craver ain't 'eard. This will be news for 'er. And that Emily Pyne is sich a gossip, as never was."
All the way to the Rectory, Mrs. Mellin continued to talk in this way to herself, while Neddy kept his ears open to drink in every word. He was a slender boy with a wonderfully delicate complexion, curly golden hair, and innocent blue eyes, looking, on the whole, like a stray angel. And when in the choir he not only looked like an angel but sang like one, as his voice was remarkably beautiful.
But all Neddy's goods were in the shop-window, since he was as naughty an urchin as ever existed, to worry a hard-working mother. He told lies, he played truant, he associated with the worst boys in the parish, smoked on the sly, and behaved like the unscrupulous young rascal he truly was. Yet, when necessary, Neddy could play the saint so perfectly that his conduct, taken in conjuncture with his angelic looks, quite imposed upon the Rector, who believed him to be a modern Samuel.
Mrs. Mellin had her doubts, as experience told her otherwise, but naturally, she kept them to herself, and proclaimed on all and every occasion that Neddy was too good to live. All the same she was on her guard against his wiles, and rebuked him sharply when she noticed that he was listening to her soliloquy. By the time she had finished telling him where bad boys went and how they fared when they died, the cart appeared at the Rectory and Mrs. Craver appeared at the back door.
The parson's wife was a busy, little sharp-faced woman, arrayed in a shabby black silk, with collar and cuffs of ragged white lace, carefully mended. The stipend for looking after the souls of the Hedgerton people was by no means large, and the Rev. George Craver found it difficult to make both ends meet. Indeed, they would not have met at all had not Mrs. Craver been a notable housewife, who looked at both sides of a penny before parting with it, and who made shillings do the work of pounds. She scraped and screwed and pinched, and buzzed about the house from dawn till darkness like a busy bee, keeping her eye on everything and on everyone. According to custom she welcomed Mrs. Mellin into the kitchen and proceeded to count the washing, while Neddy sat outside in the cart and smoked a surreptitious cigarette. After the usual weekly wrangle over missing articles, scanty starching, bad ironing, and excessive charging, Mrs. Craver gave the woman a cup of tea and asked questions.
It was her duty, as she conceived it as the Rector's wife, to know all that went on in the dull, seaside parish, and Mrs. Mellin could supply her with more information than most people. Therefore, Mrs. Craver sent the general servant, who was her solitary factotum, into the wood-shed to clean knives and brush boots while she listened to the weekly report. Mrs. Mellin began by a reference to her sister-gossip and rival spy.
"I do 'ope, ma'am, as that Emily Pyne ain't been tellin' you things, as she ain't to be depended on, with her silly tongue and blind eye." The washerwoman spoke as if the lady in question had only one organ of vision, whereas she had two, and very sharp eyes they were.
"No. I haven't seen Miss Pyne," said Mrs. Craver, briskly. "Has she been doing anything wrong?"
"'Eaven forgive her, ma'am; she never does anything right," said Mrs. Mellin, piously. "Not that I've got anything against her, for the time being, 'cept her gossiping constant when she should be working, and dressing above her station to which she 'ave been called. No, ma'am, never do I speak against Emily, though she did try to catch Mellin, when we was gels, failing, nater'ly, when she 'ave a game leg, and remaining a spinster through 'Eaven's 'and being 'eavy on 'er, may she be forgiven."
"Well, well; what's the news?" Mrs. Craver had heard all about Miss Pyne's wickedness before, and spoke impatiently.
Mrs. Mellin wiped her face, sipped her tea, and shook her head. "There ain't no news as is startling, ma'am, as bombs and bloodshed don't come 'ere while we 'ave the King—long may he reign over us. But that 'ouse in Ladysmith Road, as is so unlucky, is let at last."
"Which the very name do give me the shudders, ma'am. It's a wicked name."
"It is an odd name," agreed the sharp little woman, "and I asked the Rector about it. He says it is a Syriac word, meaning the Lord comes, or has come."
"Neddy told me it was a cuss, ma'am."
"He shouldn't know anything about curses at his age, Mrs. Mellin. Mr. Craver said that St. Paul used the word as expressing a curse."
"There now—" Mrs. Mellin was admiringly triumphant "—to think as how Neddy do pick up things. And a curse is on that 'ouse, Mrs. Craver, ma'am, for never 'ave it been lucky. The gent as built it fifty years back lost his arm, as my mother told me; the family as come after him buried two children in a year; a suicide was the nex' pusson as lived there, and it stayed empty for years till Mrs. Splurge took it to be ruined by the breaking of the bank her cash was in and 'ave her daughter run away with a young man as wasn't what he ought to be. It's a cussed 'ouse, and looks like one."
"H'm! It has a bad history. Well, and who has taken it now?"
"Nonsense! Why should a baronet take a furnished house in this dull town?"
Mrs. Mellin set down her cup and folded her tartan shawl round her in quite a tragic manner. "That's what I arsk myself, ma'am," she said, impressively. "Mrs. Splurge, 'oping to make money after losing her all, advertised the 'ouse to be let furnished. But for two years it hev been standing as empty as my 'usband's 'ead, people fighting shy of its bad luck, as you might say, Mrs. Craver, ma'am. And now Sir 'Ector Wyke hev come, bag and baggage, with a 'ousekeeper as I hevn't seen, though write me she did, saying as she'd engaged me to do the washin'."
"Sir Hector Wyke?" Mrs. Craver searched her memory. "I seem to have heard the name before."
"'Ave he done anything bad?" inquired the washerwoman, eagerly. "Anything as would make 'im 'ide his guilty 'ead. Baronets is bad, as we know."
"Rubbish! Baronets are no worse than other people. But I fancy I have heard my son, Mr. Edwin, mention the name. I'll ask him about Sir Hector when he comes down at the week end."
"Shouldn't be surprised if Mr. Edwin 'ad quite a gory story to tell." said Mrs. Mellin, hopefully, for, like all her class, she loved horrors. "Anyhow. I'll keep my eye on the 'ouse and the 'ousekeeper."
"What is her name?"
"Vence, she writes it. Jane Vence, and a heathen name it is, ma'am. I haven't set eyes on her myself; but one as hev tole me ses as she's an old witch in looks, with a tongue as wicked as that of Emily Pyne's, and I can't say wuss nor that."
"Mrs. Vence." The Rector's wife repeated the name so as to remember it. "And what other servants?"
"None." burst out Mrs. Mellin, triumphantly, "And that's the wust of it, ma'am. I do say as a baronet should be'ave as a baronet, and not come to live in a musty, fusty old 'ouse with one old woman."
"It is strange. When did Sir Hector come?"
"Two days ago, ma'am. I wonder you 'aven't 'eard."
"No. You bring the news to me."
"And proud I am to do so, me thinking as Emily Pyne would be before'and. I s'pose the Rector will call, ma'am?"
"I suppose he will. We don't often have a baronet come to Hedgerton."
"And the Rector 'ull find out all about Sir 'Ector, I s'pose?"
"Mrs. Mellin, you are much too curious about your neighbours," said Mrs. Craver, severely, and quite overlooking the fact that she was encouraging the woman to gossip. "Learn to mind your own business, and don't pry into other people's concerns. Probably Sir Hector has heard that the air is good here, and has come down for the benefit of his health."
"Ho!" Mrs. Mellin rubbed her nose and took no notice of the rebuke. "He's ill then, is he?"
"Now I come to think of it, Edwin did mention his name," murmured Mrs. Craver to herself, while the washerwoman strained her ears to listen. "Sir Hector Wyke? Yes. He is a rich man, very popular and fashionable in London. Not so young as he was, and engaged to a young lady."
"She hev throwed him over." cried Mrs. Mellin, eagerly, "and his 'eart is broke, so he hev come down 'ere to pine away and die. 'Eaven, what grass we are, and 'ow soon we're cast inter the oven!"
"Don't be silly, Mrs. Mellin. Sir Hector has probably come down for his health, and wishing to be quiet has only brought his housekeeper with him. There is no mystery about the matter."
"Baronets who live in style don't come to cussed 'ouses with one old woman to look after them." said Mrs. Mellin doggedly. "Mark my words, ma'am, there's going to be a tragity at Maranatha, and it won't be the fust, ma'am."
"We don't have tragedies here, you foolish woman."
"Oh, don't we, ma'am?" Mrs. Mellin stood up to give her words due effect. "Why, that 'ouse in Ladysmith Road is full of 'em. And, if you remember, Richard Jones beat his wife to death only five years back, and Mrs. Warner ran away with the purser of a ship as went to Chiner; while the children as hev been scalded to death and drownded is 'undreds, you might put it. No tragity!" Mrs. Mellin snorted. "Why, ma'am, my own sister Laura was in one."
"She only ran away." said Mrs. Craver, also standing up to intimate that the conference was ended.
"And 'oo did she run with?" inquired the washerwoman mysteriously, "She was 'ere to-day and gone to-morrer, as you might say. Twenty and more years ago she was as lovely a gel as you ever see, but disappear she did, leaving nothing be'ind to tell her whereabouts, and not a line hev I 'ad since. Why, you remember Laura yourself, ma'am, as you was only a five year bride when you come 'ere with Mr. Craver."
"I remember that your sister disappeared during the first year of my husband becoming Rector of Hedgerton," said Mrs. Craver, drily. "She was a pretty girl, but flighty and discontented. And as she was always fond of the theatre, I daresay she went on the stage. Of course, as she was twenty-five when she disappeared, she was old enough to choose her own way, although I can't say that either I or Mr. Craver approved of her choice."
"'Ow do you know, ma'am, that she made that choice?" questioned Mrs. Mellin, with dignity. "Play-acting Laura loved, there's no denying, but she mightn't have gone play-acting after all. No, ma'am, some villain lured 'er away when she was parlourmaid in Maranatha with the wife of the gent as cut 'is throat in the back room. No wonder I shiver when I 'ears the name, ma'am, for that 'ouse was the ruin of my lovely, innercent sister."
"Mrs. Mellin, you are allowing that house to get on your nerves—"
"Me being a marter to 'em and taking 'og-'ead's of physic." murmured Mrs. Mellin.
"So think no more about the matter. Take Sir Hector Wyke's washing and be thankful. Meanwhile, tell me more news, and be as quick as you can."
Mrs. Craver made this request so as to lure Mrs. Mellin from the subject of the house in Ladysmith Road, as she saw plainly enough that the woman was becoming quite hysterical over the place. The laundress fell into the trap and talked of this person and of that with great gusto, telling what he said and what they said and what she said, with full details of what all said. Mrs. Craver examined and cross-examined and re-examined the good lady, and there was scarcely a person in the place who was not discussed thoroughly. At the end of half-an-hour the Rector's wife was in full possession of all that had taken place in the parish during the week, and mentally arranged the facts so that she might report to her husband. Not that he wished to hear, being something of a book-worm. But Mrs. Craver always presented her seven-days' budget regularly, because she thought that it assisted him in his clerical work. Perhaps it did, as it certainly kept him advised of all that went on. When the examination was concluded Mrs. Mellin retired with many blessings on the head of her hostess and climbed back into the dingy cart. Neddy, having tossed aside the fag-end of his surreptitious cigarette, drove away meekly, while Mrs. Craver witnessed the departure. The washerwoman, still haunted by the memory of the newly-tenanted house, cried back a warning.
"You'll see, ma'am, as a tragity will 'appen at Maranatha. Mark me, ma'am."
When it became known—chiefly through the agency of Mrs. Mellin—that a baronet was living at Maranatha the excitement was very great. It appeared strange to one and all that a titled and wealthy gentleman should leave the pleasures of London to take up his residence in a dull place such as Hedgerton truly was. Originally a rude fishing village, it had of late years been exploited by the jerry-builder, so that it might be improved into a watering-place and a play-ground for trippers. A huddle of quaint houses was buried in a hollow by the shore and faced the estuary of the Thames into which stretched for no great distance a rough stone pier. Sometimes floating on water and sometimes stranded on mud were many fishing-smacks, which went out regularly to the harvest of the sea, while river steamers occasionally called to discharge cargoes or to land passengers. Since Hedgerton had been dignified by the name of a watering-place the steamers called more frequently, especially in summer, and on the whole did fairly well. But somehow they did not bring to Hedgerton the prosperity anticipated by the jerry-builder.
The place did not thrive in spite of doctors' recommendations, cheap fares, and lavish advertisement. Above the hollow wherein nestled the original town stretched a flat, well-wooded country, dotted sparsely with houses, and there was a railway station at Redleigh, three miles away. New Hedgerton, as it was called, consisted of many hastily-built bungalows extending in a lean line along the cliffs, but those were occupied only in summer, and therefore remained empty for the greater part of the year. There was an asphalt esplanade running spaciously from east to west in front of these bungalows, a small bandstand, and a crude hall for public entertainments roofed with galvanised iron. At intervals roads branched at right angles from the esplanade, passing between houses old and new to run finally through woodlands or between the hedges which divided vast meadows from the highway. In spring and summer the country looked very picturesque with the foliage of trees, the blossom of orchards, and the rainbow hue of multitudinous flowers, but the change was marked in autumn and winter. Then the balmy air grew raw and chill; there were damp mists overlying the land morning and evening, while the lack of life gave the place a melancholy aspect. At the fall of the year the inhabitants of the district retired into their houses like rabbits in burrows, as the climate of this particular part of England did not tempt them to lead an out-of-door life. On the whole, therefore, Hedgerton was not a desirable locality either for a pleasure-seeker or for an invalid in summer.
This being the case, the Hedgerton gossips asked one another daily why Sir Hector Wyke had come down to the place during the season of mists and rain, of leafless boughs and ruined orchards. No one was able to give an answer, although it was frequently suggested that the baronet's health was bad. But a man in bad health would scarcely come to so unhealthy a place at so unhealthy a time.
Therefore, there must be some other reason. Everyone tried to learn what it was, and everyone failed. No information was supplied by the tenant of Maranatha, who lived a very secluded life and appeared greatly desirous to be left to himself. He saw no one, and when he took his solitary walks he spoke to no one. Even Mr. Craver was denied admittance when he sought to welcome the stranger to his parish and he returned home to tell his wife that Wyke was probably a misanthropic creature, who disliked his fellow-men.
The description aroused Mrs. Craver's curiosity, and she was even more particular than usual in examining Mrs. Mellin when that spy came to report what had taken place in the parish during the week. The washerwoman could only state, after three weeks watching, that her bills and the bills of the tradespeople were paid regularly, and she saw no one but Mrs. Vence, who was not inclined to be communicative, and that the house appeared to be as neglected now as it was when Sir Hector first went to live in it. It would seem that the mysterious baronet did not so much live in Maranatha as camp in it, since no attempt was made to brush up the residence or improve the garden in any way. Sir Hector, save for occasional walks, stayed indoors, like a snail in a shell, and Mrs. Mellin augured ill from this suspicious retirement. She chiefly blamed the house itself for the doings of its tenant.
"There's a cuss on it," she declared with relish, when Mrs. Craver was speculating as to the meaning of the whole queer business. "If Solomon hisself, as was 'appy with a thousand wives, lived in that 'ouse he'd ha' been miserable within the week. Why, the name tells you what it is, ma'am. What do Maranatha whisper to you but ruin, which there 'as been, and suicide, which 'appened, and bankruptcy, with the elopement of gels—which we know is common there. No ma'am, say what you like, it'll be murder nex'; and 'Eaven be betwixt us and 'arm, save and bless us." Mrs. Mellin always ended these dismal prognostications with the observation that she hoped she would not be called upon to give evidence at the inquest, as murders got on her nerves.
Mrs. Craver was little less fortunate with her son when she asked questions, for all that Edwin could say amounted to nothing. Sir Hector Wyke was a rich man, and a popular man, who had been in the army, and was now a gentleman at large. Edwin had met him in Society, and liked him fairly well although—as he put it—Wyke was not a man he would care to make a chum of.
Mrs. Craver suggested that he should call on the baronet and renew his acquaintance, but this Edwin refused to do. He said that if Wyke wished to improve the acquaintance he could call at the Rectory, and as the recluse showed no disposition to do this, it would be best to leave him alone. The Rector agreed with his son, and Mrs. Craver therefore found herself in the minority. All the same, she remained intensely curious, and frequently wondered what mystery lay behind the whole business. She even questioned, in a delicate way, Hall the postman and Jervis the policeman, but was unable to learn anything from either. Hall simply said that he delivered very few letters, which were received by Mrs. Vence—whom he described as an old hag, while Jervis declared that he saw nothing and knew nothing and heard nothing likely to say why the tenant of Maranatha lived so hermit-like. It was quite painful for brisk little Mrs. Craver to learn that she could discover nothing—she knew the history and daily doings of every soul in Hedgerton.
"I'm sure, George." she said plaintively, to the Rector, "one-half the world does not know how the other half lives."
"Then I'm sure it isn't your fault or Mrs. Mellin's or Miss Pyne's either," retorted her husband, whereat she was offended, and wondered more than ever if she would discover the truth.
To inflame her curiosity still more an event occurred at the end of four weeks which startled her and startled everyone with its far-reaching consequences. Sir Hector had been leading his secluded life for quite a month when the event happened. It began in quite a commonplace way with the delivery of a letter by Hall at Maranatha. About seven o'clock on a foggy November evening Hall was travelling along the esplanade on his red-painted Government bicycle when he alighted to examine his bag. He knew that he had delivered all letters save one, and searched his bag to find the last missive. By the light of the lamp the postman looked at the address, and saw that it was directed to Sir Hector Wyke at Maranatha. With a grunt of satisfaction that his duties for the day would soon be over, Hall was about to mount his machine again when Jervis appeared. The bulky form of the constable loomed portentously through the mists, and Hall guessed who he was.
"Jervis," said the postman, pausing for a moment.
"Hall," answered the officer, as if delivering a countersign, and flashed his bull's-eye on the weather-beaten face of the first speaker, "a shocking night, ain't it? Rain and fog, and bitter cold."
"Why not? 'Tain't June roses as you'll smell in November, Jervis."
"No, worse luck, and night dooty ain't no catch at this time of the year. Now, I'll be bound, Hall, as you're nearly finished, and can get home to your warm bed sharp."
"And to tripe and onions, as my old woman does do a turn, Jervis," said Hall, licking his lips. "I've only got this one letter to deliver to Sir Hector Wyke, as folks is talking about so."
"Don't see why they should talk," said the officer bluffly. "Sir Hector pays his way and keeps himself quiet. Ain't any of my business, or of yours."
"But he never sees no one, and never comes out, and never has any callers."
"He's got one to-night," said Jervis unexpectedly. "You know Sankey?"
"Him as drives the trap to and fro this place and Redleigh?"
Jervis nodded and stuck his big thumbs in his belt. "Got a rotten old fly on the job. Well, I saw it to-night with a fare in it, when Sankey stopped to ask me where Maranatha was. I gave him the tip as it was in Ladysmith Road, so Sankey drove off. I wonder his blessed old nag did the three miles without falling a corpse."
"Did you see who was the fare?" asked Hall, pondering.
"No. Wasn't any of my business. I see you're as curious as the rest of 'em about that bar'nit. Why, Mrs. Craver herself has asked questions by the dozen, as you might say. Anyhow, Sankey left his passenger at Maranatha and drove back to Redleigh, for I see him returning."
"Oh," remarked Hall, in guttural tones, "so his fare stops all night with Sir Hector, I s'pose."
"Why shouldn't he or her, for whether the fare was a male or a female I don't rightly know."
"Well, Sir Hector ain't 'ad no one to stay with him before."
"Dessay," returned the policeman, carelessly, "but he has to make a start. I just tell you what, Hall, you're getting like the rest of the folk hereabouts with their jaw."
"Sir Hector do live such a queer life, Jervis."
"He lives the life as pleases him, as I s'pose he's got the right to."
"I tell you there's something strange in a baronet coming down to this dull place when the weather's so bad," persisted the postman, ominously. "Have you seen the gent?"
"Twice. A little gent with a waxed moustache and dressed up to the nines with fine clothes. I touched my helmet but he only nodded, and never stopped to pass the time o' day."
"Well, he wouldn't, he being a swell and you only a copper, Jervis."
"That's a nasty way of talking, Hall. S'pose I was to report you to your superior for idling when your letter should be delivered."
"And s'pose I was to tell Sergeant Purse at Redleigh as you stopped me on the esplanade to gossip about what ain't any business of yours," retorted Hall, tartly. "Two can play at that game, policeman."
"Go and earn your salary." said Jervis, loftily, and walked away.
"You go and hang yourself," was the not very obvious reply of the postman; and the two opponents were parted by the heavy fog which dropped its curtain between them.
Chuckling over having had the last word, Hall mounted his machine and pedalled slowly round the corner, only too anxious to deliver the last letter and get home to his tripe and onions. He knew that the next turning was in Ladysmith Road, and it was as well that he did, for the mists were so thick that he proceeded with some difficulty. The man could hear the noise of the waves through the fog, and shivered in the chill, raw air. As there were few lamps he found himself in complete darkness when he bicycled up the road, and therefore had to ride cautiously. Finally, he was compelled to dismount, and take his machine on to the pavement, feeling for guidance along the fence on the right-hand side. Shortly he came to the first gate, and the electric torch he carried showed him in black-painted letters "The Firs," but he passed that gate as not being the one he wanted. The second gate he also passed, as it was inscribed "The Elms," and then he walked for quite a long way in the dense gloom to find Maranatha which stood by itself. Finally, he stumbled on the third gate, the inscription of which told him that he had reached his goal when he flashed the electric torch on to the black letters. Hall left his machine leaning against the fence in the dim light of the street lamp—for at this point there was one—and opened the gate to walk slowly up the path between the tangled herbage and under the dripping trees. It curved gradually—a cobble-stone path overgrown with weeds—until it ended in an open space before the house. Through the mists a light beamed from a fanlight over the door, and Hall, anxious to get home, rapped loudly in the approved style of the postman. There was no answer, although he waited for quite a minute, and he searched with his torch for the letterbox. Just as he found it and was about to slip in the letter the door suddenly opened. A stream of radiance poured forth to illuminate the untidy garden, and a man dashed out in a violent hurry. In his exit, he drove Hall against one of the brick pillars of the porch, and by the time the postman recovered his breath the man had disappeared, running swiftly.
"Here's a rum go," said Hall, speaking to himself. "I wonder if that's the blessed baronite, and what he's up to? Here!—" he raised his voice as he faced the open door "—anyone in? I can't wait here all night!"
There was no reply. The house preserved an ominous silence, which made Hall shiver, as Mrs. Mellin had done. Fearing that there was something wrong, and remembering the sinister chatter of the neighbourhood, Hall stepped hastily into the hall. It was of no great size, carpeted throughout, and furnished with a black oak settle on one side and a small rosewood table on the other, together with a hat-rack and an umbrella-stand. Doors were visible right and left; while beyond were stairs and a narrow passage beside them leading towards the back of the house. A swinging lamp illuminated the hall, and in its light everything appeared to be dusty and uncared for. Mrs. Vence certainly was not a particularly good housekeeper, or she would not have neglected her work in this fashion.
Astonished by the continued silence, the postman stood hesitating in the hall, while the sea-fog poured in like smoke through the open door. He did not know what to do. The sudden opening of the door, and the violent exit of the unknown man, and now this ominous silence disconcerted Hall. He had just opened his mouth to call again, when there came the sound of a long, faint sigh, and the door on the left opened slowly to reveal the tottering figure of an old woman. She gasped when she saw the postman, and suddenly appeared to gather strength as she moved forward to seize his arm.
"Where is he?" she demanded, faintly, and with a gasp. "Did you catch him?"
"Catch who, Mrs. Vence?" asked Hall, placing the letter on the rosewood table, since Mrs. Vence did not seem capable of taking it.
"The man who ran out."
"No. He opened the door and pushed past me, and bolted."
"Bolted!" Mrs. Vence screamed. "The villain!"
"Come!" With unnatural strength she dragged the startled postman through the door on the left and into a comfortable study, cleaner in looks than was the hall. On the hearthrug before the fire lay a man in evening dress face upward with a knife in his heart. Hall uttered a cry of horror, and his teeth chattered like castanets. "Murder!" he gasped.
"Murder!" echoed Mrs. Vence, with a shrill scream. "He did it—the man who bolted. Catch him. Catch him!" She pushed the postman fiercely out of the room in a tremendous hurry. "Get a policeman. Catch him. Quick! Quick!"
Hall did not need much urging. With a pale face and dry lips he ran out of the house, down the path, and through the gate, intending to mount his bicycle and race for Jervis, who could not be far away. Then he made a startling discovery. His bicycle was gone. Not a sign of it remained.
"The murderer has gone off on it," said Hall, blankly.
Hall was astonished to find that his bicycle had vanished. Taken by surprise he could only stand at the gate and stare helplessly about him. At last, thinking that something must be done, he shouted wildly for Jervis. In his agitation it never occurred to him that the policeman might be at the other end of the esplanade. As it happened, however, Jervis was close at hand, and shortly his voice boomed strangely out of the mists.
"What's the trouble? Is that you Hall?"
"He's dead! He's got a knife in his heart!" gasped the postman, who was clinging to the fence and feeling sick.
Jervis suddenly loomed hugely out of the fog, and entered into the circle of blurred light cast by the street-lamp. "Who is dead?" he asked, in surprise.
"Sir Hector Wyke," babbled Hall, whose nerves were very much shaken. "I saw him lying dead. Mrs. Vence showed me his corpse. My bicycle is gone—"
"Gone!" Jervis shook the terrified man. "Why I saw your bicycle slip along under the lamp nigh which we were talking on the esplanade. I come here straight when I hear your voice, wondering why you should be in the Ladysmith Road and your bicycle—"
"It was the murderer, Jervis. He dashed past me when I stopped at the door yonder to deliver the letter you saw. He has taken my bicycle. Stop him. He ought to be hanged. Oh, oh, oh!" He broke down, shivering and crying.
"Don't be a fool. Pull yourself together," commanded Jervis, gruffly. "How can I follow in this fog, and with no machine to catch him up with? Go to the telegraph-office, and wire Sergeant Purse at Redleigh that a murder has been committed at Maranatha, and that the criminal has escaped on a Government machine. He can't go far on a red-painted bicycle without being captured, though the fog may help him to win clear. Off with you, Hall, and I'll go into the house."
Hall nodded feebly, "I always thought that there was something strange about the baronet."
"We ain't got time to talk about the bar'nit. You go and do what I tell you."
Thus commanded, the postman, whose nerves were all unstrung by the sight he had seen and the tragedy which had occurred, crawled slowly down the road into the misty darkness, clinging to the fence to aid his progress. Jervis listened for a minute or so until the footfalls of his messenger had died away, then assumed an official expression of stern determination, and strode up the weedy path.
The door was still open, and Mrs. Vence stood upon the threshold. From her first words it was very evident that she had overheard the order. "Do you think Sergeant Purse will stop the bicycle at Redleigh?" she asked, feverishly, and laid a trembling old hand on the policeman's arm.
"I can't say. Don't seem to me as a likely thing to happen in this fog, to say nothing of the fact that this criminal mayn't go through Redleigh. I suppose the man who escaped is the criminal?"
"If sticking knives in folks' hearts is murder, he is," retorted Mrs. Vence, in a tart way, "and you oughter go after him at once."
"I ought to see the body at once," was the gruff reply. "'Taint much good my going on a wild goose chase in this fog. Don't you tell me my dooty, ma'am, for I know it; none better. And be careful what you say, as anything you do say will be used as evidence against you."
"Against me?" cried the housekeeper, shrilly. "Me is as innercent as an unborn babe. Well I never," and she looked furious enough to claw the ruddy face of the gigantic constable.
Mrs. Vence was a small and stout woman, with a brown, withered face seamed with innumerable wrinkles. She had abundant white hair, unbrushed and tangled, which added to her witchlike aspect as she peered indignantly at Jervis through horn rimmed spectacles. A stuff dress of faded blue, a dingy knitted shawl of red wool tightened over rounded shoulders, and a pair of ragged slippers formed her attire, so that she looked a perfect fright, maliciously observant, and aggressively disagreeable. The constable paused for a single moment to wonder why a gentleman should engage such a dirty and disreputable female as a housekeeper.
"You haven't touched it?" queried the policeman, examining the body of the dead man.
"Me?" Mrs. Vence began to thrill again. "Why, I haven't had time to touch it, and I wouldn't have touched it if I had had time. I just came in with a tray and let it fall when I saw him bending over my poor master as he'd killed. I dropped myself and dropped the tray when I fainted, more or less, but not quite. I heard as in a dream," exclaimed the housekeeper, dramatically, "the postman's knock. He waited for a minute until a second knock came, and then ran out of the house for dear life."
"By him you mean the criminal. I s'pose?" said Jervis, stolidly. "Why didn't you stop him?"
"How could I, drat you?" demanded Mrs. Vence, in querulous tones. "I wasn't myself altogether, being in a faint, and yet not in one, as you might say. Why, I gathered myself together us soon as I could and tottered to the door. Then, seeing the post in the hall, I knowed as I'd got a friend, and shoved him out to catch the rascal, drat him, and drat you asking me why I didn't."
Jervis hastily noted this statement down in his book, still kneeling, and would have asked questions, but there came an interruption.
It was Mrs. Vence who mentioned that a third person was present. "Lawks!" said the old woman, wiping her face with her apron. "Thought you was gone sir."
At the door stood a tall man, arrayed in a fashionable overcoat, with a knitted white silk scarf round his neck and a silk hat in his hand. He had large, powerful limbs, a large nose, a large face, and was large altogether. His hair and beard and moustache were iron-grey, and his eyes were as black as the night outside.
Wondering who he was, Jervis noted that he looked a truculent kind of buccaneer, and rose to confront him, thereby revealing the body on the hearthrug.
The newcomer at the door uttered a startled ejaculation, scarcely scriptural, and strode forward in quite a masterful way. He looked at the dead man aghast, then turned towards the policeman with an indignant expression, as if he suspected him of being the culprit. "What does this mean?" demanded the buccaneer, fiercely, and pointed to the corpse with a silver-headed cane which he held in his hand.
"Sir Hector Wyke has been stabbed, as you see, sir," said Jervis, curtly.
"Good heavens!" cried the stranger. "My poor friend."
"Was Sir Hector your friend, sir?" The gentleman nodded. "I came here to see him, and hoped that he would give me a bed for the night. Dead. Stabbed! Who killed him?"
"The other gent as come," chimed in Mrs. Vence, promptly; "and a murdering villain he is, sir. Clever too; seeing as he's got away on the postman's bike."
"Do you know anything about him?" asked Jervis, sharply.
"Lawks! and how should I? I never set eyes on him afore this blessed night."
"The other gent as come," said the stranger, repeating Mrs. Vence's earlier remark, word for word. "Nonsense. I was the only visitor Sir Hector had to-night."
"Makin' me out a liar, indeed," cried Mrs. Vence, much offended by the imputation. "Well, I do say as you've got a face, sir. Impudence and crime. Oh, little did I think as I'd come to sich a situation, and me so respectable."
"Hold your tongue," said Jervis, so ferociously that the old creature started and trembled. "Let us get to the bottom of this. Who are you, sir?"
The other man produced a card. "I am Oliver Lemby," he declared, in his deep, rich voice. "And dash you, policeman, don't look at me as I'd got anything to do with this infernal business. I came down here to see my friend—"
"In a trap from Redleigh."
"Not all the way," said Lemby, drily. "I travelled by train from London to Redleigh. Oh! I remember. The driver of the trap stopped to ask a policeman the way to this house. And you—"
"I am the constable of Hedgerton—the only constable," said Jervis, stiffly and a trifle imperiously. "Well, sir, and what do you know of this?"
"Nothing, dash and confound you!" snarled the truculent Mr. Lemby, who was as aggressive as Mrs. Vence. "I sent the trap away, hoping that Sir Hector would put me up for the night. This old hag showed me into the drawing room."
"Did you hear," said Jervis, "anything likely to make you think that a crime was being committed?"
"Hang you officer! Would I have stayed quietly in the drawing-room had I guessed for one moment that a murder was being committed?" demanded Lemby fiercely, and clenching his fist as if about to strike. "Wyke saw me in the drawing-room when he arrived, and while we were talking there came a ring at the door. Excusing himself, and asking me to stay where I was until he came back, he went down the stairs. I waited and waited until I was tired. Then I heard the woman shrieking, although I did not hear what she said."
"I said 'murder,'" observed Mrs. Vence, "and said it loudly, too."
"Not loud enough for me to hear, however," retorted Lemby, "or I should have been down before. However, as Wyke did not return, I suspected, from the voices and the shrieks of this old thing, that something was wrong, so came down to investigate. Well?"
"Ho!" said Jervis, as he saw no reason to disbelieve the plain statement. "You will have to wait, sir, until my superior officer comes along. I have sent the postman to the telegraph office to wire for him."
"Of course I'll wait, dash you! Do you think I am going to leave this house without finding who has murdered my poor friend? Why are you waiting here, officer? Why don't you catch the villain?"
"'Taint easy to catch a man as has gone off on a foggy night on a bicycle, sir," said Jervis, drily. "I can't tell in which direction he's gone."
"You could trace a Government bicycle because of the colour."
"I have wired to my sergeant to watch Redleigh Station for a red-painted bike, sir. The assassin may go to Redleigh to catch the express to London."
"Not he, unless he's a born fool," retorted Lemby contemptuously, "and his action in using the bike to escape shows that he isn't a fool by any means. I don't think that you'll nab him easily." He stopped, then looked at the corpse at his feet with marked emotion. "I suppose poor Wyke is dead?"
"Stone dead. He's been stabbed to the heart, as you see. Look for yourself."
"No." Lemby shrank back. "I don't meddle with corpses in charge of the law. I think you should get a doctor."
"Go for a doctor, Mrs. Vence," said Jervis, quickly, and thinking that this was good advice. "Bring him here immediately."
"Me!" cried Mrs. Vence, in her usually shrill tones. "Why, I'm a stranger in this place but a month. I don't know where the doctor's to be found, 'specially on this misty night. Go yourself, or send this gent."
"I can't go myself, and the gent doesn't leave this house until my sergeant arrives," said Jervis, grimly.
Lemby drew himself up. "Officer, do you suspect me, dash you?"
"I suspect no one, at present. I don't know enough."
"Know enough," echoed the housekeeper contemptuously. "Why, ain't you heard all what I've told you? It was the beast as went off on the bike as stabbed my poor master. I saw him bending over the body when I dropped the tray and the glasses and the wine," and Mrs. Vence pointed to the tray and the various fragments of glass on the carpet.
"But who is he?"
"I dunno. I never saw him afore."
"He was a short man with red hair and rather stout, like me. I couldn't see much of him, as he was muffled up in a long black overcoat with a blue scarf round his mouth and a soft hat pulled over his eyes. I took him to my master into this very room, and was told to bring wine and cake in ½ of an hour. I was coming in with the wine, having been waiting on the clock in the kitchen, when I see my poor master dead and him bending over him afore I faints."
"It's my opinion that we ought to have a doctor," said Lemby.
Jervis agreed with Mr. Lemby; but as Mrs. Vence did not know where any doctor lived, and as he was unable to go himself, and did not intend to let the buccaneer leave the house, it was difficult to know what to do. But here Providence stepped in to extricate the trio from this dilemma. A light, quick step was heard in the hall, and a high, silvery voice called on the housekeeper.
"It's that imp, Neddy Mellin, with the washing," said Mrs. Vence, hurrying towards the door. "Don't let the child see the corpse."
She was too late. Neddy suddenly shot into the room, smiling and angelic in his looks. But the smile died away when he saw the body. "Crikey!" breathed the lad, turning white, "is the cove a deader?"
"You leave the washing in the hall and cut!" commanded the old woman. "How dare you come in by the front door?"
"Neddy," said Jervis, who knew the lad well, as did everyone else in Hedgerton, "go to Dr. Quin, and ask him to come here at once."
"And I'll give you a shilling," said Lemby, sitting down.
"I'm fly," said Neddy, promptly, and reluctantly backed out of the room. He was anxious to earn the shilling, but still more anxious to gaze on the body. "Let me see the deader when I come back," he called out.
"Get along with you; get along!" vociferated Mrs. Vence, and chased him out of the front door into the mists. When she turned back after closing the door she glanced at the rosewood table on which Hall had placed the letter. It was gone. There was not a sign of it to be seen. And the front door had been open from the time the man had escaped until now. It was very strange.
Sergeant Purse, who had come over from Redleigh to take charge of the matter, was a foxy-faced little man, lean and dried up in appearance, with beady black eyes like those of a rat. He was immensely interested in the matter, as he recognised that this was no common crime, and hoped by tracing the assassin to make a big reputation as a zealous officer and gain advancement. The description of the murderer given by Mrs. Vence was largely advertised, and pointed mention was made of the red-painted bicycle. In the illustrated daily papers pictures of Hedgerton and Maranatha appeared, both the inside and the outside of the house being delineated. Mrs. Vence also shared the honour of this painful publicity, and her portrait looked like that of an old witch. She was very much annoyed by this caricature.
"Me like that," screamed the housekeeper, when Sergeant Purse showed her the picture. "Why, 'taint me at all. 'Tisn't saucy, and I always had a bit of sauciness about me."
The sergeant, laughed drily. "You were not as young as you were."
"Oh, I'm growing old, I don't deny," snapped Mrs. Vence, crushing up the paper wrathfully. "Sixty's getting on, say what you will. But I ain't so bad-looking when all's said and done, although not so handsome as when a gel. I'm active, too, cooking like an angel and celebrated for my tidiness."
Purse had his own opinion about this, and, staring at the disreputable dirty old beldame, wondering for the hundredth time why a fastidious gentleman had engaged her. "Did you know Sir Hector before you came here?" he asked, wondering in his own mind why he had not put the question before.
"No, I didn't," retorted Mrs. Vence, alertly. "I saw an advertisement in the paper as I picked up in a friend's house, and applied for the situation, saying I could cook and hold my tongue, so Sir Hector engaged me. I came down here a few days afore he did, quite a month ago, to get the house ready, and dirty it was, with that, old Peddler, the caretaker, as didn't half look after the furniture."
"Why was it necessary for you to hold your tongue?" asked Purse, seizing on the only phrase in the speech which seemed to be important.
"Lawks! How should I know? Sir Hector, he says to me, he says, 'Hold your tongue and don't talk, for I wants to be secret and quiet like for a bit.' Them were his words, and inquisitions won't make me say otherwise."
"Did he explain why he wished to be secret and quiet like?"
"No, he didn't drat you!" grunted the old woman, who was in a vile temper. "He just had his dinner about six, when Mr. Lemby arrived, and I showed him into the drorin'-room. I don't think Sir Hector, expected him, for he seemed surprised like when I took the card of the gent into the dinin'-room. But he said nothing to me, and went up to the drorin'-room to have a chat, s'pose. Afore seven there was a ring at the door, and the other gent arrived. While I was asking his business Sir Hector came flying down the stairs and took him into the study, telling me to come with cake and wine in a quarter of an hour. I went to the kitchen and watched the clock, and about seven I walks in, happy-like, into the study, knowing as I was doing my duty. There I saw Sir Hector a corpse, and the gent bending over him, and—"
"You explained all that before," interrupted the sergeant, who knew the sequel to the statement.
"Then why did you bother me to say it again?" demanded Mrs. Vence, crabbedly.
"What was the exact time when the second gentleman arrived?"
"About twenty to seven; and a gent I call him, though I don't see if he was one when he was muffled up like a Christmas-pudding. It was twenty to seven, as I know from the kitchen clock, which I had my eye on so's to bring in the wine and cake punctual-like."
"Hall, the postman, says that he arrived at the door about seven, or a trifle afterwards," said Purse, meditatively, "I expect the murder took place about that time. You heard no noise?"
"Drat you, how could I when in the kitchen at the back of the house, and me not expecting horrors and corpses. I came into the study with the victuals and drinks, as I says, and the postman knocked twice, as I more or, less fainted, while the gent cut like the wind."
"Did Sir Hector appear to be afraid of his second visitor?"
"No. He seemed to expect him, for he says, 'Oh, you've come,' or something like that, as he drawed him into the study and sent me about my business."
"He expected him, then, and was quite friendly."
"You can put it like that if you likes," snarled Mrs. Vence, hugging herself, and rocking to and fro, "but I'd like to know when I'm to be let go?"
"After the inquest, which takes place to-morrow."
"And who's going to pay me for what I've had to put up with? I didn't get no wages from Sir Hector, me having arranged for monthly payments."
"Well, I suppose Sir Hector's heir will pay you, Mrs. Vence."
"I don't know. I'm off to see Mr. Lemby, who is a friend of Sir Hector's. I may learn something about the heir from him."
"Well," said Mrs. Vence, rising with an ill-humoured look, "the sooner you get information and them wages the better. I'm travelling to London myself after the inquest to-morrer, and I do hope as my next situation won't be police news and chamber of horrors." She paused, then remarked significantly, "There's the letter, you know, Mr. Purse."
"What letter?" asked the sergeant, alertly, and pricking up his ears.
"That as the post delivered when he come. He put it on the table in the hall when talking to me. I shoved him out, and the policeman came. Afterwards, that imp, Neddy Mellin. When things was quieter, I looked for the letter. Never a sign of it, Mr. Purse, though I hunted careful."
"Who took it?"
"Ask me another," said Mrs. Vence, cunningly. "All I can say is as the door was open from the time the post came to the time I chased that imp out, me being too worried to shut it."
"Did the boy take it?" asked the sergeant, rather foolishly.
"Lawks! and why should he? It wasn't nothing to do with him. I did ask him, and he said as he never saw no letter on the table."
"Did Mr. Lemby—"
"He was in the study with the policeman, and with me and the corpse," said Mrs. Vence, truculently. "I don't go for to tell lies, do I? But the door was open all the time, and the fog was pouring in like steam. If you ask me," added the old woman, slowly, "I do say as the murderer came back for that letter."
Purse jumped. "Why do you say that?"
"'Cause I don't see as anyone else could have taken it. 'Course it ain't no business o' mine, but the murderer might have slipped round the corner on the bicycle and waited his chance to steal."
"He would have acted like a fool had he done that," said Purse, incredulously.
"Well, well, it's only an idea, as you might say."
"Have you any reason to—"
"No, I ain't got reasons. But the letter's gone, and as no one we know took it, someone as we don't know did. And that's sense. Well, I'm going to make myself some tea, and trim up my popping-out bonnet, so as to look smart for the sitting on the corpse to-morrow. This me?" Mrs. Vence glared at the crushed newspaper. "I'll have the law on him as did it."
"Oh, go away and hold your tongue," said Purse, impatiently.
"I was engaged to hold my tongue," said Mrs. Vence, with great dignity, and tottered out of the room along the passage and into the kitchen.
Her repetition of the phrase dwelt in the sergeant's memory as he walked to the inn where Mr. Lemby was staying pending the inquest.
Purse entered the little dark and damp sitting-room, where the buccaneer bulked largely in the twilight atmosphere. It was a gloomy, grey day, by no means cheerful, and the sergeant was glad to warm his hands at the fire which Lemby's desire for comfort had provided. He also suggested a lamp.
"What the dickens should I do with a lamp at twelve o'clock," asked Lemby, bluffly. "It's darkish here I don't deny. But if you think that I'm afraid to show my blamed face let's go outside."
"I never suggested such a thing."
"You hint at it because you think I have something to do with this confounded murder, sergeant," roared the big man, garnishing his speech with oaths after his usual fashion.
"Don't talk rubbish, sir," said the sergeant, imperiously, for although a small man he had a great idea of his own importance. "There's no evidence to implicate you. All the same, I'm bound to say that anything you say will be used as evidence against you, if suspicions are aroused."
"There, dash you! Didn't I say you suspect me?" growled Lemby. "Well, you have stumbled on a mare's nest, hang you! No one was more surprised than I was when I stumbled on that policeman and that old hag dealing with a corpse."
"No one says otherwise," remarked Purse drily. "Undoubtedly the man who stole the bicycle is the guilty person. Do you know who he is?"
"No, dash you, I don't. Wyke said nothing to me about seeing anyone."
"Did he tell you that he expected a visitor?"
"No. The ring came at the door about twenty or fifteen minutes to seven, and he bolted away, asking me to wait."
"And he did not return?" said the officer, musingly.
"How the deuce could he, when the man had knifed him?"
"No, of course not," said the sergeant, soothingly, for Lemby was a difficult witness to deal with. "You were a friend of Sir Hector's?"
"Yes, great friend."
"What do you know about him?"
"What everybody else knows. Everything I know is in the newspapers, as these infernal reporters have been smelling round here."
"Was there anything in Sir Hector's past life to lead you to suppose that he had some secret likely to bring about his violent death?"
"No. What a dashed roundabout way you have of asking questions! Why don't you trace that bicycle and catch the assassin?"
"All over the country I have people on the watch. They may—"
"Yes, and they mayn't," interrupted the buccaneer. "And how long am I to stay in this rotten hole?"
"Until the inquest is over. It will be held to-morrow. It's strange," went on the sergeant, "that no relative of Sir Hector's has appeared to look after his interests. Yet the case is set forth in the newspapers."
"Wyke has no relatives," said Lemby, grimly plucking at his beard. "The title becomes extinct. If you don't believe me ask Mr. Sandal, of Lincoln's Inn Fields, sergeant. He is Sir Hector's lawyer. I wrote and asked him to come down."
Purse nodded approvingly. "Very wise of you, sir. But why take this trouble?"
"Because I wish to know where the property goes to. Sir Hector should, by rights, leave it to my daughter. He was engaged to marry her."
"Your daughter!" Purse started and stared.
"Yes, dash you! Why shouldn't I have a daughter? Here's the case in a nutshell, and you can make what you can of it." Lemby paused, cleared his throat, and continued. "Sir Hector was engaged to marry my daughter Claudia, though she wasn't overfond of him, since she loved a chap called Craver."
"That's the name of the Rector of this parish!" exclaimed Purse, staring hard.
"It's the son I mean, not the father. Well, then, Edwin Craver loved Claudia; but I refused to allow the marriage as I wanted my daughter to become a lady of title. Sir Hector proposed, and the marriage was to have taken place a month ago, as I insisted that Claudia should become Lady Wyke. Then Sir Hector wrote postponing the marriage, and came down here."
"What reason did he give?"
"Said his health was bad. I tried to see him and he refused. I couldn't find out his address for a long time, as he wrote from his London house. Finally I got it from Craver—Edwin, I mean—and came down the other night to force Wyke to explain his dashed impudence. While he was explaining the ring came at the door and he bolted. The rest you know. Well?"
"Well," echoed Purse, vaguely and rather distraught. He did not know very well what to say, as this new complication took him by surprise. Edwin Craver loved the girl, Edwin Craver was the son of the Rector in whose parish the crime had been committed. "Could it be that Edwin Craver—"
"No," said Lemby, reading suspicion in the sergeant's eyes. "Edwin is innocent. I'll swear. In my opinion it was—" He hesitated, faltered and broke down, while Purse waited for him to complete the sentence.
Lemby had some difficulty in speaking freely, and hesitated so pointedly that Purse impatiently assisted him. "Are you going to tell me who is the criminal?"
"No," said Lemby, promptly, and now speaking readily enough. "I was about to say that I believe it was a case of suicide."
The sergeant expressed his surprise. "Suicide, when Mrs. Vence saw the assassin bending over his victim? Ridiculous!"
"It may be ridiculous, or it may not be," replied the buccaneer, doggedly; "but from what I know of Wyke, he was in no danger from anyone. Who the man is that Mrs. Vence saw I don't know. But Wyke might have killed himself and the man might have been bending over his body to afford succour."
"Ridiculous," replied the sergeant. "If the strange man was innocent he would scarcely have fled. His flight on the bicycle proves his guilt. Besides, what reason had Wyke to commit suicide?"
"What reason had he to postpone his marriage and come down to this dismal place?" demanded Lemby, sourly. "You are asking me questions which I cannot answer. Evidently, although I did not know it, there was some secret in Wyke's life which made him act so strangely and drove him to suicide."
"I don't believe for one moment that he committed suicide," persisted Purse, after a pause, and remembering how Mrs. Vence had been engaged to hold her tongue; "but he evidently came down here to escape the man who slew him."
"He might have done so, sergeant." Lemby made a gesture, as if brushing aside the whole subject. "Anyhow it is a sore blow to me and to my daughter."
"To you, no doubt, Mr. Lemby, as you lose the gratification of seeing your daughter bearing a title. But, if she loves young Craver, as you hint, I think she will be glad that Wyke is gone."
"Perhaps. She's dashed obstinate. Anyhow, from what I have told you, sergeant, you must see how absurd it is to suspect me."
"I don't suspect you at all," cried Purse, rising. "When you are examined at the inquest you will no doubt be able to explain more."
"I can't explain more than I have already done." growled Lemby, sullenly. "Is not my explanation satisfactory?"
"Yes. I think it is. From the evidence given by Mrs. Vence, you did not come down the stairs until the man was dead."
"That policeman of yours can back up that statement," said Lemby, eagerly, "and, of course, Mrs. Vence saw the assassin."
"Hullo!" Purse turned sharply at the door, "I thought you believed it was a case of suicide."
"It was merely an idea," protested the other.
"A very silly idea," retorted the sergeant, and took his departure, leaving Mr. Lemby to his own thoughts, which were those of disappointment, as he would never see his daughter Lady Wyke.
During the twenty-four hours which elapsed before the inquest the sergeant walked round Hedgerton, asking innumerable questions and noting down innumerable answers. He learnt all about Sir Hector's way of living, how he kept very much to himself, walked out alone, spoke to no one, and remained indoors as a rule. He inquired at the post-office, and discovered that the baronet had received but few letters, newspapers, and parcels, which were generally redirected from his town residence. Wyke evidently had made no secret of his stay in Hedgerton, and in no way could Purse find that he was in hiding. The man had come down, so it was supposed, for the sake of the Hedgerton air, and had taken Maranatha on the three months' lease. Therefore, it might be supposed that, had he not been killed he would have returned to London at the expiration of that period to resume his ordinary life. From Mrs. Vence's hint that she had been engaged to hold her tongue it would appear that there was some mystery in the baronet's life; but no mystery could be discovered in spite the sergeant's persistent questioning. He left off as wise as he was when he began.
Purse also called to see the Rector and his wife, ostensibly to ask if they knew anything about the gentleman who had come to reside in the parish, but really to learn what he could of young Craver. The intimation of Lemby that his daughter loved the young man, and that he wished to marry her, gave Purse the idea that rivalry might be the cause of the tragedy. But on inquiry the sergeant learnt that Craver came down to see his parents only now and then at a weeks'-end and had not been in Hedgerton at the time that his rival in love was killed. Moreover, it appeared that the young man had not spoken about Miss Lemby to his father or mother, and they were quite surprised to hear that he had any intention of marrying. In fact, Mrs. Craver, was indignant when she heard the story told by Mr. Lemby, and said that Edwin would certainly have told her had he been in love. She admitted, as did the Rector, that Edwin knew Wyke, but insisted that he knew him merely as an acquaintance. If he had been a rival, as the Rector's wife declared her son would assuredly have spoken against him, whereas he only mentioned him indifferently when questioned. But, as Purse pointed out, if young Craver kept his wooing of Miss Lemby secret from his parents, he would scarcely have talked about the man she was being forced to marry. The sergeant left the rectory with a feeling of disappointment. So far as he could gather from the frank speech of Mr. and Mrs. Craver, their son had nothing to do with the crime.
The inquest took place in the Entertainment Hall—that shabby building with the roof of galvanised iron, which was on the esplanade. Sergeant Purse stated all that he knew, which was little enough, and terminated his evidence with the surprising information that a telegram had arrived from the Waking police-office saying that the bicycle had been found. The constable who had found it would appear in due course to relate how it had been discovered. But, as the sergeant added, there was no trace to be found of the man who had stolen the same. This announcement caused some excitement, as there appeared a chance of getting at the truth, but, on the whole, Purse's statement caused prosaic, and his evidence was anything but sensational.
Mrs. Vence was then questioned, and repeated her story much in the same words as she had used when telling it to Jervis and his superior officer.
From her evidence the jury gathered that she had been engaged by Sir Hector, who told her to do her work and hold her tongue. She had come down a few days before her master had taken over Maranatha from Pedder, the caretaker, so as to put it in order. The Coroner, weary of hearing nothings, pointedly asked her why Wyke had requested her to hold her tongue.
"He didn't ask me to hold my tongue," said Mrs. Vence, tartly. "He asked me if I could hold my tongue; and that's a different pair of shoes."
"Well, and why did he?"
"How should I know? I never was one to chatter; and there wasn't anything to chatter about, so far as I could see. I did my work, and he read and walked and slept, seeing no one, and keeping silent."
"He saw no one save Mr. Lemby and the man who escaped on the bicycle?"
"You're right there, if ever you was right in your life," was Mrs. Vence's reply.
"Did he expect Mr. Lemby?"
"No, he didn't. He was quite surprised when he came unexpected, as you might say. But he told me to show him into the drorin'-room, and went up himself to have a chat."
"And the second visitor?'
"Oh, he expected him," said the witness, with emphasis, "for I heard him say, friendly-like: 'Oh, you've come!' or something like that. He took him into the study when he came, flying down the stairs at the ring. Then—"
Here Mrs. Vence went on to repeat how she had been sent to the kitchen to return later with cake and wine. Afterwards she related what had occurred until the arrival of Hall and the escape of the presumed criminal.
"Did you hear any noise of quarrelling while you were in the kitchen?"
"No. I didn't. The kitchen's too far off."
The Coroner asked other questions, and received more or less satisfactory answers, as Mrs. Vence seemed anxiously eager to be frank. But, curiously enough, no mention was made of the missing letter left by Hall. Either Purse had not told the Coroner about this, or it had slipped his memory. Finally Mrs. Vence left the witness-box to give place to Mr. Oliver Lemby.
He stated that he was a colonial from Australia, and had come to England with his daughter three years ago. Having money, he had taken his daughter into society, and there she had met the deceased, who had proposed marriage. Witness frankly said that he approved of the marriage, as Wyke was titled and wealthy, and, his daughter, on these advantages being pointed out to her, was willing enough to do what she was told. The marriage day was duly fixed, and then Sir Hector, for no apparent reason, postponed the same and came down to live at Hedgerton. Lemby stated how he had procured the address from Edwin Craver, who had heard from his parents that Wyke was staying in the parish, and related how he had come down on the night of the murder to force Sir Hector to give an explanation. The rest of his evidence was much the same as he had told Purse.
"So that's all I know," said the witness, fiercely. "My address is Tenby Mansions, Earl's Court, and you can find me there any dashed time you like. I am not afraid."
"There is no reason that I can see why you should be afraid," said the Coroner, rather coldly. "You have given your evidence frankly enough. But I ask you if you heard any noise or quarrelling while you were in the drawing-room?"
"No, I did not. Had I done so I should have come down at once, as I never object to being in a row."
"Did Sir Hector ever tell you that he was in danger of death?"
"Never. I should have dashed well protected him had he said that. I wanted him to marry my daughter, and not to die in this infernal silly way."
Afterwards the postman gave his evidence, saying he had knocked twice at the door of Maranatha, and that at the second knock the door had suddenly been opened, then a man had dashed out to disappear on the bicycle into the fog. He also said that he had left the letter on the hall table; but the Coroner did not take much notice of this statement, little thinking how important it was.
Jervis followed, and related all that he knew, which mainly was a repetition of what Sergeant Purse had said.
Then the doctor stepped into the witness-box. In his evidence he said that a post-mortem examination had revealed the fact that deceased had suffered from cancer.
"Ah!" said the Coroner, quickly, "that is a disease impossible to cure. Do you think. Dr. Quin, that deceased may have taken his own life on that account?"
"No," said the doctor, positively, "such a weak old man could not have delivered so violent a blow. The knife was buried up to the hilt in his heart, and had to pierce through a starched shirt-front and a quilted jacket, both of which would have broken the force of the blow. The body was clothed in a smoking-suit, if you remember, sir."
"Then you don't think that Sir Hector committed suicide?"
"No. I am quite certain that he did not."
The final witness was the police officer who had arrived from Waking. It appeared that the red bicycle had been found in the stable of Jonas Sorley, who had come to the police-office to confess this. Sorley was a carrier, and saw the advertisement about the bicycle in the newspapers. Therefore, he had communicated with the police. Sorley, being ill, could not come to the inquest, but the officer brought his sworn deposition.
From this it appeared that on the night when the crime was committed at Hedgerton Sorley was jogging along in his cart from Bethley to Waking, some twenty miles away. When he left Bethley there was no bicycle in his cart, but when he arrived at Waking there was.
"The bicycle of Hall, the postman?" asked the Coroner.
"Yes, sir. It's the same number. But Sorley cannot say how the bicycle came to be in his cart. It was nearly midnight when he arrived at Waking."
This unsatisfactory statement completed the evidence, and there was nothing for it but that the jury should bring in an open verdict, which they accordingly did. Everyone agreed with this but the buccaneer, who insisted to Sergeant Purse, when the proceedings were over, that the escaped man was the assassin, and should be directly accused.
"But we don't know his name, so how can a verdict be given against him?" was the sergeant's reply. "An open verdict is sufficient. We can search for the man, and when we find him we can hang him."
"Yes, when you find him," jeered Lemby, contemptuously. "You'll never find him!"
With the open verdict, the red bicycle case, as it was called, ended for the time being, as no new evidence was forthcoming likely to elucidate the problem. Wyke's assassin had suddenly emerged out of the mists to commit the crime, and had as suddenly vanished into them again. In spite of all efforts it was impossible for the police authorities to find him.
Some society papers gave many details regarding the life of the dead baronet, but stated nothing of any moment. Sir Hector had a good income and a good position, apparently being a harmless old trifler, who idled luxuriously day after day. He had no relations, therefore the title became extinct, while the property—so said the newspapers—lapsed to the Crown. For a time the old dandy was missed in certain circles, but, as usual, was speedily forgotten. Even the hinted romance of Miss Lemby being engaged against her will to Wyke ceased to interest people, and the girl herself was very glad that this should be the case.
At Hedgerton the sensation lasted longer. But when Mrs. Vence departed bag and baggage, when Sergeant Purse took his leave, and Lemby returned to London, the excitement gradually died away. Maranatha was again placed in the hands of old Pedder as caretaker, and again was advertised to let furnished.
When Christmas was over and the New Year dawned, Oliver Lemby proposed to his daughter that they should return to the Antipodes. The buccaneer was now weary of the restraints of civilisation, and having failed to marry Claudia to a titled husband, desired to go back to his old free life. Father and daughter discussed the matter in the drawing-room of their Tenby Mansion flat, and quarrelled openly. This was scarcely to be wondered at, as Lemby had a violent temper, while Claudia was not the girl likely to submit to being bullied. The pirate was half annoyed and half pleased by her opposition.
"You're a chip of the old block, my girl," he said, smoking furiously, "and can hold your dashed own with anyone; but you ain't going to hold it with me."
"Oh, you'll listen to sense, dad," said Claudia, coolly.
"That's so," Lemby assured her, in quite a dry American style; "but then you ain't talking sense. What's the use of staying longer in this worn-out country when you can't get a husband."
"I've got a husband," declared the girl, equably.
"I take your meaning. But the husband you've spotted ain't got no handle to his name. That Craver chap you mean, don't you? Not much. Rank and riches for you, Claudia, and if you don't hook them, back you go with me to the South Seas."
"I won't," said Claudia, firmly. "Go yourself, dad, and leave me here."
Lemby, lounging in a deep chair with a pipe between his teeth and a glass of whisky at his elbow, stared at her with half-closed eyes. He privately decided that she was much too handsome to be allowed to throw herself away in a hurry. Claudia had a fine figure, hair like sunshine, and laughing azure eyes, together with a perfect complexion, very red lips, and the whitest of teeth. She was tall and largely made, most imposing in her looks, and carried herself so haughtily that the stately Roman name suited her exactly. If Lemby was not a gentleman, his daughter was emphatically a lady, for race showed itself plainly in her slender hands and feet, as in her finely-cut features. From her father she inherited her large frame and shapely body, while her ripe beauty came from her mother. The buccaneer had captured a gentlewoman, who was lured into marriage by his dare-devil looks. But for many years he had been a widower.
"It was a mighty pity Wyke died," said Lemby, regretfully, and ignoring his daughter's defiance. "He had a title, five thousand a year, and a fine house in Devonshire, besides a position in society. I reckon you'd have fitted the position first-class, Claudia. Blamed bad luck, I call it, his pegging out under the knife."
"Well, dad, he's dead, so there's no more to be said," said the girl, impatiently.
"There's a heap more to be said, my dear. No one gets the title, I guess, as the old man had no relatives. But the cash, Claudia?"
"I saw in some society paper that it goes to the Crown," said Claudia, carelessly, for she was young enough to care little for money, never having felt the need of it.
"I ain't so sure of that," muttered her father, slowly drinking the whisky to inspire him; "the old man was so much in love with you that he told me he intended to leave you the dibs."
"If I married him, I suppose—not otherwise."
"That ain't certain, my girl. You were willing to marry him, so—"
"I wasn't!" she flashed out, sharply. "You forced me."
"Why shouldn't I force you? You are my daughter, ain't you?"
"Yes; but I'm not your slave. I didn't want to be Lady Wyke."
"No. You wish to be Mrs. Edwin Craver, and I'll jolly well see as you don't. Seems to me, Claudia, that it would be only fair for him to leave you his pile."
"Didn't he give you an explanation when you called?"
"No. I told you before that he didn't. Said as he'd come back to the drawing-room to clear things up, and naturally didn't when he pegged out in the study below. Anyhow, it's on the cards as he might have made a will in your favour. And," added the buccaneer, emphatically, "I'm dashed well determined to see the sharp as handles his business."
"Mr. Sandal, in Lincoln's Inn Fields?"
"That's him. Wyke told you as he told me about Sandal when he mentioned that marriage settlements were to be drawn up. I guess I'll look him up to see if the old man did the right thing by you. It's dashed queer as he should have postponed the marriage when he worshipped the blamed ground you walked on, Claudia, my girl."
"It is strange; it was strange," admitted Claudia, pondering. "I can't understand it myself, although I am glad that he acted as he did. Perhaps, knowing that I loved Edwin, he changed his mind about making me his miserable wife."
"Miserable!" jeered the pirate, contemptuously. "Miserable with a title and five thousand a year. Shucks! my girl, you're talking through your hat. Well, I reckon I'll see Sandal, and learn if there's a will in your favour."
"I don't want Sir Hector's money," said Claudia, setting her mouth obstinately. "I don't accept a penny of his money, will or no will."
"Then I'll accept it for you," said Lemby, coolly, and heaved his big body out of the chair. "We can't live on nothing, can we?"
Claudia turned sharply from the window, out of which she was looking. "Live on nothing?" she repeated, blankly, for the words conveyed no sense to her.
"That's it, my girl." Lemby stretched himself with a yawn. "My pile never was a big one. It's time for us to get back to the Sunny South and make dollars, failing the old man's cash dropping in."
"But I thought we were rich," expostulated Claudia, in dismay. "If not, why did we come to England to live in so expensive a style?"
"Oh, I wanted to do the right thing by you, my girl," said the pirate, truculently. "I saw as you were a high-stepper when I looked you up at that blamed school in Sydney. I had enough to give us a few years of luxury, so I yanked you home to snatch a husband of the sort I wanted."
"In plain English," cried Claudia, turning very red, and clenching her hands as she faced her father, "you took me into the slave-market; to sell me to the highest bidder?"
"Shucks!" said Lemby, uneasily, for Claudia had a whirlwind temper, which was rising rapidly.
"It's not shucks, or anything like shucks," she retorted, stamping her foot. "I don't recognise your right to choose mv husband. I am a human being as well as your daughter, and I intend to arrange my life for myself."
"What about the ten commandments?" sneered Lemby, hedging. "'Children, obey your parents,' ain't it?"
"'Parents, respect your children,'" counter-quoted the girl. "And how can I respect you, dad, when you tried to force me into a disagreeable marriage. Like a fool, I allowed you to bully me into promising to marry Sir Hector. But now that he is dead and buried I shall act as I please."
"I shan't let you."
"I shan't ask you to let me. See here, dad, it's time we understood one another, as you are going the wrong way to work with me. Have you any money?"
"Enough to get back first-class to Australia with a few dollars to see the year out. And I guess I can raise enough in Sydney to hire a schooner and to take up the copra business again. If I stay here I can't get along anyhow. It depends if Wyke left you the dibs."
"I don't believe he has left me any dibs, as you call it," said Claudia, who was now very pale, for the revelation had startled her considerably. "Can't you leave me enough to live on for six months? I can get a situation as a governess until Edwin is rich enough to marry me."
"He shan't marry you," declared Lemby, looking fierce. "Craver's only a manager in that blamed motor-car factory. He ain't even a partner."
"He will be a partner one day when he gets money to put into the firm," said the girl in a low voice and keeping her temper well in hand.
"And where's he going to get the cash? His father's just a blamed sky-pilot in a dashed township, the place where Wyke handed in his cheques. Craver will never be rich, and will never have a title, so he don't marry you."
She clenched her hands, hardened her face, and stepped up to her tyrannical parent looking just as fierce as he did. "I don't want a title, and I don't want money," she said, passionately. "I want to marry the man I love, and Edwin is that man. I intend to become his wife, in spite of you."
"You just try it, that's all."
"I intend to try. I have begun to try."
"You'll obey me."
"I shan't. I'll obey my conscience."
"I'll twist your neck, dash you!" roared the buccaneer, infuriated by this opposition, which he quite expected.
"Oh, no you won't!" Claudia slipped aside, as he lunged forward, and placed the breadth of the room between them. "You were always a bully father, and are just the kind of slave-driver who should be in the forecastle of a tramp steamer. But you don't bully me. I'll die first. So there," and she stamped.
"Dashed spitfire, you are," he growled. "Have it your own silly way. But you don't marry that engineer bounder, mind."
"Edwin is not a bounder!" cried Claudia, indignantly. "He's a bred-and-born gentleman. While I," she added, bitingly, "I am your daughter."
"Oh—" Lemby began to laugh good-humouredly—"I see what you're getting at, my girl. No, I ain't a gilded Lord, for sure, and never pretended to be. I'm just plain Oliver Lemby, as deals square by them as deals square with him. But your mother was a lady, Claudia, so your blood ain't all mud, remember."
"Why don't you remember, dad," she retorted, angrily, "and treat me with some sort of respect? I know you're kind-hearted, and mean well: but your manners are awful. Be civil."
"I am civil—as civil as I need be to my own daughter."
"Because I am your daughter, that's no reason why I should be bullied. But it's no use talking, dada," she ended wearily, "you'll never understand."
"I understand this—that I'm going to move heaven and earth to get that cash of Wyke's which ought to come to you," said Lemby, sullenly; "and whether I get it or not, I've got to get out of this country, and you too."
"Why have you to get out?" asked Claudia, stuck by the queer expression on her father's florid face.
Lemby shuffled and twisted, evading a direct answer. "I ain't got any dibs, for one thing. I told you so."
"But if you get this money of Sir Hector's?" asked the girl, trying to arrive at his meaning, for she saw that there was something behind his speech.
"I'll go, all the same." Lemby looked at the carpet and scowled.
"Because I choose to. That's why," he burst out furiously.
"Now, dad—" Claudia held up a warning hand "—we have had one scene, so don't let us have another. You won't succeed in getting your way with me."
"You are an ungrateful minx!"
"Oh—" Claudia sat down with a careless shrug "—call me as many names as you like. That matters little. But don't go too far."
"What will you do if—"
"If you go too far," interrupted the girl, her breast heaving with passion, and her eyes flashing, "I'll tell you what I'll do. I'll leave this flat and go out to find a situation."
"Nobody will take you," said Lemby, uneasily, for he knew, what she was capable of when her temper was aroused, as it certainly was at present.
"That's my business, dad."
The buccaneer walked towards the door, halted there irresolutely, and then looked round the room cautiously. After a long pause, he stole forward lightly to bend down and whisper in his daughter's ear. "If you don't come with me and light out straight, you'll see me in trouble."
"What kind of trouble asked Claudia, shrinking back.
"Trouble of the worst. I've risked a lot to get that cash of Sir Hector's."
"Risked what?" Claudia shivered and faltered.
"My good name, my liberty, my life."
"Dad!" She sprang up with a cry.
"My life," repeated Lemby, emphatically, and walked out of the room.
When her father left the room after giving his ominous hint, the girl threw herself full-length on the sofa and covered her face.
In a frank manner Lemby had stated that he wanted money, and that he had risked much to obtain the same. His reference to the chance of losing good name, liberty, and life, could only mean that he was in some way concerned in the Hedgerton crime. Claudia knew that he had gone down to see Sir Hector and to demand an explanation—she knew that he had actually been in the house when the death took place. Certainly, on the face of it, he was exonerated by the evidence of the policeman and the housekeeper; yet it now appeared that he was less innocent than was supposed. The girl did not dare to think that he was the guilty person, for, rough as were his manners, she could not believe that he would so callously slay an old and feeble man. Still, in a moment of impatience he might have had something to do with the sinister affair. His own words hinted as much, and he had said just enough to make Claudia long for her own peace of mind to know more. The girl, with her face buried in the sofa-cushion, raged silently and strongly.
Suddenly, a touch on her shoulder brought her to her feet with a loud scream, and she quite startled the person who had thus aroused her. He was a tall and handsome young man, with closely-cropped, brown hair, a clean-shaven face, and shrewd eyes of hazel, merry and bright, but now he looked quite dismayed at the dishevelled aspect of the girl. "My dearest Claudia, what is the matter?"
"Oh, Edwin!" At the sound if his kind voice she broke down altogether, and in a moment she burst into tears. "Oh, Edwin!" That was all she could gasp out as she threw herself into his arms.
"My dear! My dear!" Craver sat down on the sofa and gently drew the girl on to his knee to soothe her. "What is the matter? There! there! Don't speak. Let me get you a glass of water."
"No," sobbed Claudia, hastily drying her eyes. "I'm behaving like a fool. I'll feel better in a few minutes. But hold me tightly, Edwin. Let me feel that I have someone who loves me."
Without a word the young man petted her and calmed her, and gradually restored her to reason. Claudia's sobs grew less violent, her limbs ceased to tremble, and shortly she slipped out of her lover's arms to stand up. "I am silly," she confessed, and walked across the room to look at her disorder in a mirror over the fireplace. "You beast!" said Claudia, staring at her red eyes and tumbled hair. "Why can't you behave," and she stamped viciously.
Craver rose and moved gently behind her to lay his arm across her shoulder with a smile. Claudia appreciated the diplomatic way in which he was dealing with her, and now that she was more composed turned to face him squarely and take his two hands within her own.
"My dear," cried Claudia, bending forward to kiss him, "you always do me good."
"I'm glad." Edwin returned the kiss with interest. "But what is the matter?"
"Dad's the matter. He always is the matter, I don't mind his raging, I am quite used to that, and he really can't help it. But when he says—" She hesitated.
"I can't tell you just now, as it upset me altogether. Wait for a time, Edwin, and let us talk all round the shop. Then I can gradually lead up to what he said. Oh, it's awful!"
"It must be," rejoined Craver, with a perplexed look, "to upset you so much. I know you are not an hysterical girl, Claudia. Come and sit down, so that we can talk at our ease, and, you can give me some tea in half an hour. I'm dying of thirst."
"You shall have some tea now, or you may die," said Claudia in a lively tone, and touching the bell. "Luckily father has gone out, and will not be back for a long time. We'll be all alone."
"That will be Paradise," said Craver, gaily, and dropped into the deep armchair, lately occupied by the pirate; while Claudia gave orders to the neat maid-servant who appeared. "Come and sit down, dear."
"In this chair," replied Claudia, seating herself opposite to him, and placing a light bamboo table between them. "We must be sensible."
"I get so much sense in business," sighed the young man, "that I come here to indulge in a little delicious folly. Do you feel better, darling?" and he leant his elbows on the table to touch her hand.
"Much better. You have given me strength, which I needed. And you are so very strong, Edwin. Much stronger than father, as you don't waste your powers in boasting and swanking."
"My dearest girl, you must not talk of your father in that way."
"What is the use of blinking at facts?" retorted Claudia, with a pretty shrug. "I love dad, who is kind to me after his truculent fashion. But he really does swank, as you know. Admit it at once, sir."
"I admit it right enough. But he's a real good sort, you know, Claudia."
"So long as he gets his own way he's a good sort," retorted the girl, sharply; "but it never strikes him that I want my own way sometimes."
"I want to marry you."
"Well, now that poor old Wyke is dead, that's all settled, isn't it?"
"Not so far as dad is concerned. He wants me to marry money. I was weak enough to give in to him over Sir Hector, but now I have to fight, for my freedom, and you must help me."
Craver looked rather grim and very determined. "Oh, I'll do that. No one marries you but me. You never would have become engaged to Wyke had you—"
"Had I really and truly loved you," finished Claudia swiftly. "I know quite well what you mean, Edwin. But you have never lived with my dad. He would wear out the Archangel Gabriel to get his own way. I fought and fought till I could fight no longer. Then I gave in. But fate has now cut the knot, and I'll see that it isn't tied again."
"Your father will worry you, of course?"
"He's certain to. But I'll run away and become a governess. Oh, here's Jane." She swept some papers off the bamboo table and helped to lay the cloth and adjust the tea-things. "Thank you, Jane. I shan't want anything more."
"I don't like the idea of your being a governess," said Edwin, who had been carefully considering the proposition while the parlourmaid was present, and argued about it now that she was gone. "You are too handsome to be a governess."
"And not clever enough, you might add," retorted Claudia, pouring out the tea; "but I must do something. Dad worries and worries and worries. He wants to return to the South Seas to make more money, and insists that I shall go with him."
"Oh, Claudia!" Craver dropped the piece of bread and butter he had picked up. "Oh, Claudia!"
"It's all very well saying, 'Oh, Claudia'; but facts have to be faced. And very uncomfortable facts, too, now that I am coming to them."
"Coming to what?"
"To the facts which upset me," Claudia pushed back her chair, and leant her elbow on her knee and her chin on her hand. "Edwin, what do you know about this dreadful murder of Sir Hector?"
Craver started so violently that he spilt his tea and had to set the cup down in a hurry. "Good heavens, Claudia, what do you mean?"
"What I say. I speak plainly enough don't I?"
"What should I know about the murder except what I read in the newspapers?" was Craver's reluctant reply. "Because it took place in my father's parish that does not mean my having anything to do with it."
"I never suggested your having," said Claudia, in a cross tone. "How you do jump to conclusions. But dad was in the house when Sir Hector was killed."
"Yes. Upstairs in the drawing-room. He came down when—"
"When the crime was committed. Mrs. Vence and the policeman said that Sir Hector was dead before dad appeared in the study."
"Yes. So I read in the report of the inquest proceedings. Well?"
"Well if that is the case dad is innocent."
Craver stared. When Claudia first broached the unpleasant subject he had turned pale, but now the colour was slowly creeping back into his sunburnt face. "Of course, Mr. Lemby is innocent," he said, after a pause. "There never was any question of his having anything to do with the death."
"Sir Hector was rich," said Claudia, in apparently an irrelevant manner.
Craver nodded, wondering what she meant. "Five thousand a year according to the gossip of the newspapers."
"Well," continued the girl, "dad is poor, and wants money. He hoped to get it by making me marry Sir Hector. But as I did not become Lady and as I never can be owing to the death, dad is in a hole."
"My dear Claudia, I really don't know what you mean?"
"I'm just coming to the point now," said the girl, nervously, and her lips quivered. "You know that dad went down to ask Sir Hector why he had postponed the marriage?"
"Yes. Did he receive an explanation?"
"No. Sir Hector was about to give him one when the ring came at the door, and Sir Hector went down to see the man who murdered him."
"He might not have murdered him," murmured Craver looking down at his cup.
"Nonsense! Why should he have fled if he was innocent?" said Claudia, hurriedly. "But let that pass, Edwin. The point is that dad did not get an explanation; but somehow he has got it into his head that Sir Hector may have left me the money by will."
"On what grounds does he believe that?"
"I can't tell you. He did not say. But to-day he has gone to see Mr. Sandal in Lincoln's Inn Field, who is Sir Hector's lawyer. And when he left this very room." continued Claudia, sinking her voice to a frightened whisper, "he said that he had risked his reputation, his liberty, and his life to get money."
Craver looked hard at the girl, and seemed to be about as nervous as she was herself. "Did he say that, he had risked so much to get this particular money of Sir Hector's?"
"No. But he more or less implied it."
"And you took it to mean that he had killed—"
"No." Claudia leapt to her feet with a look of positive terror on her face, so greatly was she moved. "Don't say it. It's impossible. Dad is rough and fierce but he would never kill a feeble old man like Sir Hector. Besides, there was no reason why he should, as when I married Sir Hector the money would have come to me as the wife while he lived and afterwards the widow. And what I had I should, of course, share with dad."
"You forget," remarked Craver politely, "that as the marriage was postponed there was every chance that it might not take place."
Claudia's nostrils dilated and her bosom heaved. "Are you against dad?" she asked sharply. "If you are, I wish you had let me know. Then I could have held my tongue."
"I am not against your father," said Craver, steadily; "but I wish to place all points before you. I do not believe Mr. Lemby is guilty, although his sayings are dark and ominous."
"They upset me altogether!" cried the girl, restlessly. "Therefore, Edwin, until you find out who stabbed Sir Hector, we cannot marry."
"Claudia!" He was dismayed by this speech.
"I mean it!" she declared, waving him back. "I shall never be happy until the truth is known. Learn who murdered Sir Hector, and exonerate my dad."
"I'll do my best, although you set me a hard task. But this money—"
"Well?" demanded the girl, seeing how nervous her lover was.
Craver moved slowly towards the door. "You will never get it. Nor will your father. Sir Hector did not leave his fortune to either of you."
Claudia stared when her lover disappeared. She wondered if he knew more about the crime than he admitted. Her father, her lover—was one or the other guilty?
When in the street, Craver turned over in his mind what the girl had said relative to the hint given by her father. Undoubtedly Lemby had a superlatively bad temper, and undoubtedly he had been in the house when the crime was committed. Adding to this the fact that Wyke disliked Claudia's father and had a bitter tongue, it did not seem impossible that the pirate might have struck the blow in a moment of anger. Before the arrival of the postman, and while Mrs. Vence was in the kitchen, Lemby might have slipped down from the upstairs drawing-room to commit the crime and then have slipped up again. But against this was to be placed the fact that a second visitor was not only in the house, but in the company of the baronet. Lemby could scarcely have used the knife while the other man was present. On the whole, Craver was perplexed by the situation, and wondered what he should do. If Lemby took his daughter to Australia, Craver felt sure that he would never see her again, as he himself was unable to leave England. And Lemby, if implicated in the death of his proposed son-in-law, would certainly return to his native land to escape possible arrest. For quite ten minutes Craver stood by the Underground Station at Earl's Court considering how to act. Finally, he made up his mind as to his next step, and took a ticket to Blackfriars.
When in the train the young man reflected on the conclusion he had arrived at. This was to follow Lemby to Mr. Sandal's office, and frankly offer his assistance in extricating the pirate from his dilemma on condition that Claudia should be allowed to marry him. It was difficult to see how he could help the pirate since he knew so little. Two heads are always better than one, and Craver believed that Lemby would consent to the marriage in order to gain a friend while in trouble. Craver alighted on the Blackfriars platform with the conviction that he was going on a wild-goose chase. Nevertheless, failing all else, he believed it was worth while to act as he intended.
Edwin knew where Mr. Sandal's office was situated, as Sir Hector had mentioned on a momentous occasion the name and address of his lawyer. So the young man walked up to the Strand, and soon found himself in Lincoln's Inn Fields. In a few minutes he was at the door of the building in which Mr. Sandal's office was situated, and was mounting the stairs. On inquiry it appeared that Lemby had arrived, and was awaiting the interview with Mr. Sandal, who was engaged for the time being. Craver rejoiced that there was a chance of seeing the pirate before he interviewed the lawyer, and requested to be shown into the waiting-room. The clerk opened a side door to admit him into the same, and then closed it again. Seated near a table covered with magazines and newspapers for the convenience of waiting clients was Lemby reading one of the newspapers. He raised his eyes when the door opened, and rose to his foot when he saw Craver. The astonishment of the buccaneer was very apparent.
"What on earth are you doing here, Craver?" he asked in his truculent way. "I did not know that Sandal was your lawyer?"
"Nor is he," replied Craver, taking a seat and thus forcing Lemby to resume his former position. "I came here to see you."
"Oh, did you? And who told you that I was here?"
"Miss Lemby to you, Craver," said the pirate, gruffly. "I suppose you slipped in to see my daughter immediately my back was turned. A nice way of behaving, I must say."
"I am behaving in a perfectly honourable way," retorted Craver, much nettled.
"Well, I don't think so, dash you! I refuse to allow you to make love to Claudia, as I don't intend you shall marry her. I told you so before."
"You did, while Sir Hector was alive. Now that he is dead there is no reason why I should not marry your daughter."
"There is every reason, and one confoundedly strong one." snarled Lemby, glaring furiously. "You have no money. When Wyke was alive I told you to keep away from my flat, and now that he is dead you might have had the decency to do what I asked you to do."
"See here, Mr. Lemby." said Craver, steadily. "I love Claudia, and I intend to marry her. She yielded to your pressing wishes and became engaged to marry Sir Hector. He is dead now, and I intend to have my innings."
"Like your dashed impertinence to think so!"
"Speeches of that kind won't turn me from my resolution, Mr. Lemby," said the young man, coldly.
Lemby appeared confused for the moment, and cast down his eyes. "I won't have it," he declared with a growl. "Claudia's my daughter, and she shall marry whom I choose."
"She won't. She shall marry me. It is about that matter I have come to see you, Mr. Lemby."
"Oh, have you? And do you think that I am going to be spied upon and followed and worried and chased? Well, you are mistaken. Clear out, and mind your own dashed business."
Lemby was on the point of losing his temper, according to his usual fashion; but Craver did not mind. The hotter Lemby got the cooler was the young man, and the more composed was his speech. "I have come to see after your business, Mr. Lemby," he said, significantly.
"I shan't allow you to meddle with that," snapped the angry pirate.
"It is better that I should meddle with it than that the police—"
"Here—" Lemby jumped up in a violent hurry "—drop it! You are going too far, Craver. What the deuce have the police to do with me?"
"This much. They want to know exactly what took place at Maranatha while you were in the house."
Lemby winced but still kept up his defiance. "I told all that I knew at the inquest," he blustered, "and Sergeant Purse was quite satisfied."
"Ah, so you think," hinted Craver, bluffing boldly; "but he may have his suspicious of you. If he takes action—"
"Takes action." Lemby rose up, and sat down with a positive look of terror on his face. "I don't know what you mean," he ended, doggedly.
"I mean that you want money, and that you risked reputation, liberty and life to, get it." Craver looked significantly at his proposed father-in-law.
Lemby recognised his own speech to Claudia. "You have been listening to the conversation between me and my daughter," he said, fiercely.
"No, I have not. But after you left the flat I saw Claudia, and she sought my counsel."
"It's none of your business, Craver, and Claudia is a minx for talking to you about my affairs."
"It is my business," insisted the young man, firmly. "I hear that you want Claudia to go with you to Australia, and I don't intend her to go."
"Oh! don't you," sneered the other, "And how do you intend to stop her going?"
"Ah! that remains to be seen."
"You're a confounded scoundrel!"
"Gently, Mr. Lemby," said Edwin, resolutely, keeping his temper. "If I were what you call me, I could easily stop your projected journey to Australia by informing Sergeant Purse what you said to Claudia. But I don't intend to do that. I followed you here as your friend to offer my services."
"I don't want them," vociferated the pirate, looking uneasy.
"Think again, Mr. Lemby. You are in a difficult position, and notwithstanding your frankness at the inquest, Sergeant Purse may have suspicions that you did not reveal all. You need a friend, and I am willing to be that friend."
"At a price, I suppose?"
"Naturally. I wish you to consent to my marriage with Claudia if I succeed in getting you out of this trouble."
Lemby rose again, and began to walk up and down the room like a caged beast. "I am in no trouble," he raged fiercely.
"No, not now; but you may be. And your words to Claudia hint that you expect some sort of trouble."
"She had no right to speak to you."
"Oh, I think she had," rejoined Craver, equably. "Claudia knows that I love her and am her true friend. You have caused her much distress by your hints that you are in danger, so it is right that she should seek comfort from me. And as you are her father, it is not likely that I will jeopardise your freedom."
"I am in no danger of losing my freedom," was the angry reply.
"Then why did you use those words to Claudia?"
"To make her do what I want."
"Well, Mr. Lemby—" Edwin rose with an air of finality "—you know your own business best. I came here to offer my services on condition that you allow me to marry your daughter. But as you refuse to listen to sense you must be content to risk the suspicions of Purse. I apologise for having troubled you."
"Here—" Lemby stopped the young man as he moved towards the door "—don't be in a hurry. I expect to see Mr. Sandal every moment, but we can talk for a few minutes. Are you honest?"
"Yes, I, am, and you know that I am."
"Well, then, leave matters as they are for a day or so until we can have a long and exhaustive talk. I have come here to see if Wyke has left his money to Claudia, which he should do, considering how badly he treated her. If he has acted fairly and squarely Claudia and I will be in clover; if not, I may require your assistance."
"I am willing to give it if you will promise to remain in England."
"For the time being I shall remain," said the pirate, grudgingly. "I have no reason to run away in spite of my speech to my daughter of which you have made such clever use, dash you."
"Then I take it that you have nothing to do with the murder?"
"Yes, you can take it that way; I am perfectly innocent."
"Then why do you accept my assistance?" asked Edwin, calmly.
"I shall explain that when we have our talk later. Meanwhile, as I have to see Sandal and arrange about the money, perhaps you will clear out. It is necessary for me to think over matters before interviewing the sharp."
"I should have thought you would have arranged matters by this time," commented Craver, sarcastically. "However. I will go. Remember you have promised to remain in London for the time being."
"Yes," growled Lemby, savagely, "you've got the whip-hand of me."
"If you mean that I am likely to use the information supplied by Claudia, to prevent your leaving, Mr. Lemby, I have not got the whip-hand of you. I am not so mean as to employ tactics of a dishonourable nature. All I say is that if you will stay in England I am willing to help you in every way."
"Well, we'll leave it at that," said Lemby, ungraciously. "But, mind, I don't say that you will marry Claudia."
"I am content to wait," replied Craver, coolly, and passed through the door of the waiting-room at the same moment that a clerk opened it to say that Mr. Sandal was ready to see Mr. Oliver Lemby.
The lawyer was a tall, thin, dried-up man, with a clean-shaven face and two shrewd, twinkling black eyes. He had met Lemby before in connection with the marriage settlements of Claudia, and did not like him. Therefore Sandal received him coldly, and, having seated himself at his desk, waited to hear what he had called about. Lemby, by no means disconcerted by this chilly reception, plunged at once into the matter. And, being nervous, he was the more truculent.
"This is a pretty kettle of fish," he said, in his gruff way.
"If you are referring to the sad death of Sir Hector Wyke," said Sandal, in his dry, precise style, "it is a very painful matter."
"Why didn't you come down to Hedgerton to look into the affair?" asked Lemby. "Don't you know that I wrote to you?"
"I received your letter, Mr. Lemby; there was no need for me to go down personally. I sent a representative, who saw Sergeant Purse, and did what was required. My representative was at the inquest, at the burial, and at the police-office in Redleigh, where he learnt that no trace could be found of the assassin. But you, Mr. Lemby," added the lawyer pointedly, "were in the house when my late client was murdered. Have you come to tell me something likely to lead to the detection of the criminal?"
"No, sir, I haven't. I am as much in the dark as you are about the matter."
"Then I fail to understand why you have come to see me," said Sandal, coldly.
"Why?" Lemby grew angry. "I want to know what Sir Hector has done for my daughter."
"Nothing." Sandal raised his eyebrows. "Why should he do anything."
"My daughter was engaged to marry him, and the marriage settlements were drawn up by you."
"But they were not signed by Sir Hector," Sandal reminded him: "nor did the marriage take place. Well?"
"Well," echoed the pirate, viciously. "Surely Sir Hector has provided for my daughter in his will."
"No, he has not. There is a will dated many years ago, before Sir Hector met your daughter. That will leaves all the property, real and personal, to quite another person."
"Who to?" asked Lemby, rather ungrammatically.
"To Sir Hector's wife."
"What!" Lemby rose with a dazed air, scarcely believing his ears.
"To his wife. To Lady Wyke." The lawyer smiled grimly.
Having in his adventurous life become accustomed to unexpected surprises, Lemby was rarely startled, and frequently boasted that nothing could astonish him. But on this occasion he was not only astonished but enraged. At the outset he blankly refused to believe the lawyer.
"You are talking nonsense," he declared, roughly. "How could Wyke have a wife when he was engaged to be married to my daughter?"
"That is a fair question, which I shall endeavour to answer fairly," replied Mr. Sandal, ignoring the crudity of speech. "Sir Hector, it appears, was married some twenty years ago to an actress. They did not get on well together, and parted by mutual consent. Lady Wyke, under her stage name of Miss Maisie Chain, went to America, and, after a long silence, news came to Sir Hector that she had perished in a theatre fire at Chicago. He quite believed that he was a widower, and therefore felt himself at liberty to propose to Miss Lemby."
"It's all nonsense," repeated the pirate, furiously.
"Well, I don't wonder at your saying so," said Sandal, calmly. "I was surprised myself when Lady Wyke turned up again. She has altered little."
"Oh! So you have seen her before!"
"Yes. I have been Sir Hector's lawyer for many years, as we were at school together and have always been friends. When he wished to marry Miss Chain I tried to persuade him not to, but he was wilful, and persisted in doing so. As I foretold, the match turned out to be an unhappy one. When Sir Hector came to me with the news that Lady Wyke was dead, I congratulated him on his release. She was a very determined and trying woman."
Lemby clutched his head with both hands, leant his elbows on his knees, and stared at the carpet. "You are telling me the truth, I suppose?"
"Why, should I tell you a lie?" demanded Sandal, drily. "I wish myself that Sir Hector could have married your daughter, who is a sweet girl. She would have made him happy."
"How dare he make love to Claudia when he was already a married man!"
"Let me remind you, Mr. Lemby, that when Sir Hector asked your daughter to be his wife he was a widower, or, at least, believed himself to be so."
"Then why didn't he tell me so?"
"There was no need to tell you. Sir Hector very naturally wished to forget the mistake he had made with regard to his marriage."
"It's a plot to rob my daughter of her rights!" shouted Lemby, savagely.
"Lower your voice, if you please," said Sandal, sternly. "If you cannot speak quietly I shall put an end to this interview. There is no plot. I have the newspaper in which is the report of the fire at the Chicago theatre and the death of Maisie Chain, who was really Lady Wyke. Sir Hector left that with me, and it has remained in his deed box ever since. As to your daughter's rights, she had none, seeing that she was not married to my client."
"Are you sure, that this woman is Lady Wyke?"
"Yes, I am. I knew her well in the old days, when Sir Hector and I were young men. I was present at the marriage, and there is a certificate of that in the deed box also. I knew Lady Wyke immediately she walked into this office some days after her husband was buried."
"How did she escape from the fire?" asked Lemby, sullenly, for he felt that a fortune was slipping away from him.
"She was rescued, but owing to being stifled more or loss by the smoke, it was reported that she had died. But being nursed carefully she recovered, and remained quiet. Owing to the shock she did not resume her stage career, so that is why neither Sir Hector nor myself saw her name again. Had we done so, we should have known that she was still living, and then Sir Hector, being an honourable man, would not have courted your daughter."
"An honourable man!" snarled Lemby, who made no attempt to contain his wrath. "Oh, yes, very honourable to leave my daughter without a penny!"
"He had no reason to leave her anything," expostulated the lawyer, mildly.
"Yes, he had. She was engaged to him, and he dodged the marriage."
"He did so because Lady Wyke in America saw a statement in an English society paper which was sent to her that Sir Hector contemplated a second marriage. She came over to England at once and let him know that she was alive. For that reason Sir Hector postponed the marriage."
"Then you knew why he did so?" foamed Lemby, clenching his hands and looking dangerously savage.
"Not at the time. I was amazed to hear that the marriage was postponed, as I knew how deeply my old friend was in love with Miss Lemby. Only when Lady Wyke came here after his burial did I learn that her letter to him, saying she was alive, made him put off the day of his marriage with Miss Lemby."
"When he learnt that this woman was alive he should have made over a good income to my daughter, so as to recompense her for the disappointment."
"I don't agree with you," said Sandal, "for Sir Hector had no call to do what you suggest. And I don't think that your daughter is disappointed, seeing that she never cared for Sir Hector, and only yielded to your wish that, the marriage should take place."
"That's a lie."
"It is not a lie. And I beg that you will not speak to me in that way. Sir Hector told me himself that Miss Lemby was in love with a young engineer calling himself Edwin Craver, and that it was you who were compelling her to marry him. I pointed out to my friend that as he had made one mistake it was foolish for him to make a second, since Miss Lemby did not love him. But he was so infatuated with her that he insisted upon getting his own way."
"He made a fool of my girl," said the visitor, sullenly.
"Indeed, he did not. His intentions were strictly honourable, and he would have fulfilled them had not Lady Wyke made her appearance."
"Seeing how things stood, Wyke; should have told me all about them."
"I agree with you there. But he told no one, not even me. I knew nothing until Lady Wyke walked into this office and explained matters."
Lemby rose and stamped about the room. "It's all a lie! I don't believe a word of what you say."
"Well, it is natural that you should have your doubts," rejoined Sandal, coolly, and glanced at his watch. "But Lady Wyke will be here in a few minutes, as I have to see her to-day in regard to the property. Then she can tell you herself that what I say is true."
"Yes, I'll wait," snapped Lemby, and sat down again with a determination to have it out with this undesirable woman, who had risen from the dead to upset his selfish plans. "She sees you with regard to the property?"
"Yes. By a will made shortly after his marriage Sir Hector left all his property to his wife. That will has never been changed, and, therefore, holds good."
Lemby contradicted. "Wyke told me that when he married Claudia he intended to make a will leaving all his property to her."
"Quite so," said the solicitor, suavely. "And he would have done so when he was married. But as the marriage did not take place, there was no new will made."
"Wyke should have made the will before marriage."
Sandal laughed. "You are very ignorant of English law, Mr. Lemby," he observed drily. "A will made before marriage is waste paper when that marriage takes place. Until your daughter was Lady Wyke no disposition of the property on the lines of marriage, save in settlements, could have been made. Those settlements were drawn up, but not signed, therefore they are useless. And now that Sir Hector is dead the property goes to Lady Wyke by the only will which is in existence."
"Cannot it be upset?"
"No. The will is sound in law. I drew it up myself. And remember, Mr. Lemby, that in justice the widow of Sir Hector should inherit the five thousand a year which he died possessed of."
Lemby scowled at the carpet and revolved schemes. He wanted the money badly, as he was worse off than Claudia knew, even though he had given her a hint of coming poverty. But he saw no means of securing again what he had lost unless Lady Wyke was disposed to be gracious, and recompensed Claudia for her presumed disappointment. He therefore determined to wait and see if Lady Wyke was a person whom he could manage. Possibly he might coax or bully her into what he called justice. And it was at this stage of his meditations that the wife of Sir Hector entered the room.
"Good-day, Mr. Sandal," said Lady Wyke, in a high, shrill voice, hard and rather rasping in its tone. "I fear that I am late."
Mr. Sandal assured the newcomer that she was not late, and placed a chair for her near his desk. Lemby rose in a lumpish, ungracious fashion and glared at the fashionable little woman as though he could have slain her with a look. She cast a careless glance at him, looked him over from head to foot, and then glanced inquiringly at the lawyer.
"Is there any reason why this gentleman should wait?" asked Lady Wyke, and raised a lorgnette to her fine dark eyes to criticise the pirate.
"Mr. Lemby will explain himself why he is here, Lady Wyke."
Mr. Lemby was in no hurry to explain himself. He stared wolfishly at the woman who had put an end to his greedy hopes, and did not speak, for quite two minutes. He noted that Lady Wyke was a smallish woman, by no means in her first youth, with a slender figure and a very perfect pink-and-white complexion, which was probably due to art. Her features were cleanly cut, her teeth were white and regular, and she had a pair of large dark eyes, which suggested those of an Andalusian beauty. Nothing could have been more fashionable or accurate than mourning.
Lemby, being a big man, liked little women, and could not conceal from himself that Lady Wyke was particularly attractive. Yet he judged from the hardness of her bright eyes and the unemotional tones of her shrill voice that she was a cat. So he called her in his own mind, and decided that only personal violence could reduce her to reason, and to get the money by personal violence was quite, what the buccaneer would do. He loathed Lady Wyke as a marplot, yet he could not deny her attractions. At one and the same time he would have liked to kiss her and to strangle her.
"Well, Mr. Lemby," said Lady Wyke, sharply, for she objected to his insolent scrutiny, "and why are you here?"
"To stand up for Claudia's rights," growled Lemby, in a surly manner.
"Claudia? And who is Claudia?" She stared impertinently through the lorgnette.
"My daughter, who would have married Sir Hector had you not been alive."
Lady Wyke dropped her glasses and burst into a shrill, unpleasant laugh. "Oh, I remember—" she clapped her elegantly-gloved hands—"I saw the announcement of the proposed marriage in a society paper which I picked up in New York, and it was that which brought me over, to tell Hector that he must not commit bigamy. Well, I'm sorry for your daughter, Mr. Lemby, but I am Sir Hector Wyke's wife."
"Pardon me," put in Sandal, "you are his widow."
"Pooh!" said Lady Wyke, contemptuously. "How precise you are."
"It is just as well to call things by their proper names," said Sandal, grimly.
"Oh, I'm a thing am I! Don't you think he is very ungallant, Mr. Lemby?"
"I don't think anything about it," snarled the pirate, crossly.
Lady Wyke put up her lorgnette again. "No? You look as though you acted rather than thought. I wonder if your daughter is like you."
"No, she dashed well ain't."
"I thought not. My late husband was a fool, but he was always a gentleman, and would not have cared to marry a girl who used oaths and bad grammar.
"Claudia speaks as well as you do, and is much handsomer and younger," retorted Lemby, spitefully.
"Really! You make me long to see this paragon. What is your address, Mr. Lemby, as I should like to call," and Lady Wyke took out a set of ivory tablets.
"I don't want you to call, nor does Claudia," growled Lemby, who was exasperated the way in which the woman spoke.
"If you don't want to see me, why are you here, then?"
"I want justice done to my daughter. Wyke intended to marry her, and settle money on her; and he's done neither."
"You can't expect a dead man to perform impossibilities, Mr. Lemby." rejoined the widow sarcastically. "I understand what you mean. If you will give me your address, I should call and talk the matter over."
Lemby shook his head. "There's not much to be got out of you."
"Dear me! how accurately you judge my character in five minutes. However, I leave the matter to your own discretion. Give me your address, and I shall pay a visit to see my rival and adjust matters."
Lemby, in a grudging tone, supplied the required information, which the widow noted down swiftly.
"That is all I want," she said, with a nod, as she replaced the tablets in her pocket. "I shall call to-morrow or the next day, Mr. Lemby, Good-afternoon."
Lemby rose and stood, fingering his silk hat like a schoolboy. He felt abashed in the presence of this domineering little woman.
She became impatient. "Don't stand there gawking. Go away. Good-afternoon, Mr. Lemby," And without a word, Lemby shambled from the room, snubbed into silence for once, in his life.
A week went by and things remained as they were. Claudia attended to her household duties, went shopping, and visited friends, while her father smoked and ate and slept in somewhat animal fashion. All his restlessness seemed to have departed since the failure of his scheme to marry Claudia to Sir Hector, and he was content to live a listless existence devoid of excitement. She had received a letter from Craver relating what had taken place in the Lincoln's Inn Fields office, and quite expected that her father would be angry with her for telling secrets. But as he held his peace she avoided any further reference to the ominous words he had uttered, and possessed her soul in patience until such time as Edwin would be able to help her. Everything was as dull as ditchwater, and Claudia disliked the whole position extremely. But so far as she could see there was nothing to be done.
Lemby's real reason for staying so much at home was that he hoped to be within doors to receive Lady Wyke. But as day after day went by and she never put in an appearance, the buccaneer began to believe in his own phrase, that she was "kidding him." Finally, when the week was ended, he shaved and dressed to go out and enjoy himself, for things were getting on his nerves, and he felt the need of change and fresh air. Claudia suggested that she should go with him, as she felt hipped herself. Lemby, however, roundly said that he wished to be by himself, and therefore went off alone. But he was punished for his selfishness, for during his absence Lady Wyke paid her promised call. She sent in her card while Claudia was enjoying her solitary afternoon tea, and the girl was very much amazed when she read the name. As her father had not informed her that Sir Hector had been previously married, and that his wife still lived. Miss Lemby believed that someone was playing a game. Out of sheer curiosity she told the parlourmaid to show in the visitor.
"You did not expect me?" questioned Lady Wyke, on arrival.
"No," answered Miss Lemby. "I am surprised to read the name on this card."
"Strange," said the newcomer, thoughtfully. "Yet I explained everything to your father a week ago in Mr. Sandal's office, and said that I would call."
"My father told me nothing about the matter, Lady—" She hesitated.
"Lady Wyke," said the visitor, politely.
"Are you Lady Wyke?"
"But I did not know there was any Lady Wyke."
"You know now."
"Had Sir Hector a brother, then? Has he come in for the title, and are you his wife?" Claudia asked all these questions in one breath.
"Oh dear me, no, Miss Lemby. I was Sir Hector's wife, and I am his widow. I see that your father has kept you quite in the dark. Why, I don't know." Lady Wyke laughed in an amused manner, and selected a comfortable chair. "As you have sat down, Miss Lemby, I presume that I may sit also."
Claudia had indeed sunk into a chair, as the announcement took her so greatly by surprise that she was unable to stand. "Are you in earnest?" she asked her visitor, and taking no notice of the last remark.
"Of course I am in earnest. If you doubt me, you can see Mr. Sandal, who will show you my marriage certificate, and will tell you that, as Sir Hector's widow, I inherit all his property."
"But Sir Hector was engaged to marry me," stammered the girl, feeling dazed.
Lady Wyke waved her daintily-gloved hands airily. "Ah, poor man. He believed that I was dead, and that he was free to marry again. I learnt from a society newspaper in America, that such was the case, and came over to tell him not to commit bigamy. For that reason he postponed the wedding, and retired to Hedgerton."
"But why did he not tell me?" asked Claudia, growing crimson with anger.
"Well, my dear—" Lady Wyke shrugged her elegant shoulders "—it might be that he hoped to gain time and think matters over. Perhaps he would have divorced me, although without cause he could not have done so. Perhaps he might have murdered me."
"I think he has behaved very badly!" cried the girl, with great indignation.
"All men behave badly, Miss Lemby; they can't help themselves. But as Sir Hector is dead, suppose we say no more about the matter. After all—" she raised her glasses "—you don't look very broken-hearted."
"I am not," Claudia assured her. "I never loved your husband."
"Indeed! Then the title and the money attracted you."
"No. I was worried by my father into the position."
"I see. You love another."
"Yes." Claudia's eyes, from habit, wandered to a side table, on which stood a silver frame containing the photograph of Edwin.
With the swiftness and grace of a swallow Lady Wyke swooped to the other end of the room and took up the photograph. Then her face changed, and, a variety of emotions displayed themselves rapidly. Love, jealousy, fear, astonishment, and suspicion were all written plainly for Claudia to see. "Why, it's him!"
"It is Mr. Edwin Craver, to whom I am engaged."
"That's a lie!" cried Lady Wyke, and threw down the photograph to face the girl with a flushed face and hard eyes.
"Seeing that you do not know Mr. Craver, I do not see why you should speak in that way," was Claudia's dignified reply.
"I do know him. I say that the photograph is one of 'Him.' I call him that to myself, although until now I never heard his name," and she clenched her hands so tightly that one glove split.
The more angry Lady Wyke grew the cooler Claudia became, she had received two great shocks; one was when Lady Wyke announced who she was, and the other on hearing about the recognition of the photo. Danger was in the air and it was Claudia's nature to face danger calmly. "Where did you meet him?" she asked.
"Oh, my dear," Lady Wyke was now quite her self-possessed self, "it is quite a romance. I went to a motor-factory to buy a car, and there I saw Mr. Craver, although I did not know his name, as I never asked it. It was another man who attended to me, and I only saw Mr. Craver at a distance. But he was so very handsome that I admired him exceedingly. Although I am not so young as you are, Miss Lemby, I have the heart and fresh feelings of a girl. After I left the factory I thought a great deal about Mr. Craver."
"Did you indeed?" said. Claudia, hardly relishing this frank confession.
"Now you are jealous. Well, I don't wonder at it. If I was engaged to such a splendid young lover I should be jealous of everyone who looked at him. However, I was beginning to forget him when I went to Hendon to see the flying, and there saw Mr. Craver in an aeroplane."
"You never did," said Claudia, excitedly. "Edwin does not go in for aviation."
"Indeed he does. He went up in an aeroplane and spun about the place like a tee-to-tum, looping the loop, and soaring and all the rest of it. It made me so giddy that I had to close my eyes. But when he came down safely I went up to his machine and congratulated him on his courage. Then, my dear—" Lady Wyke made a gesture of despair "—my heart was wholly lost to him. His good looks, his bravery, his charming manners—can you blame me?"
Claudia declined to say whether she blamed her or not. "You must be making a mistake," she said, in a disturbed manner. "Edwin certainly is in a motor factory, and you might have seen him in one. But he does not go in for aviation. He would have told me had he taken up that profession."
"Oh, I don't say that he is a professional," said Lady Wyke, readily. "He is only an amateur, I fancy, and perhaps he did not tell you what he was doing, lest you should worry. I know it would break my heart to think that the man I loved was up in the air risking his darling neck."
"I don't see why you should talk of Mr. Craver in that way, Lady Wyke. He is engaged to me."
"For the time being, that is."
"For ever. How dare you hint at our parting."
"Well, my dear girl," said the visitor, impertinently, "you took my husband, so why should I not take your lover?"
Claudia rose indignantly, and her mien was that of a queen in a truly royal rage. "I won't allow you to talk to me in that way," she declared, heatedly. "So far as I am concerned, I did not wish to marry your husband, and I never knew that he had a wife already. My father forced me to consent, but now that Sir Hector is dead I am going to have my own way and marry Edwin. You have caused quite enough mischief, Lady Wyke."
"Mischief, when I saved you from a marriage you disliked?"
"You did not save me. Sir Hector was murdered, and that saved me."
"One moment," said Lady Wyke, in cool tones, "you forgot that it was my interposition which sent Sir Hector down to Hedgerton to consider matters. Had he not gone there he might not have been murdered, so I have saved you, in spite of all you say."
"Did you send him to Hedgerton to get him murdered?" asked Claudia, scornfully.
Lady Wyke lost her breath at this insinuation, and rose indignantly. When she got it again it was to protest. "You go too far. Miss Lemby."
"Not so far as you go, madam. How dare you come here and tell me that you love the man I am going to marry?"
"And how dare you accuse me of murdering my husband?"
The two women faced one another and looked into one another's eyes, each trying to bear the other down. The widow felt her inferiority under the girl's indignant gaze, but managed to retreat gracefully.
"Oh, my dear, there is no use our quarrelling like two fishwives. Sit down and let us talk."
"We have nothing to talk about, said Claudia, refusing to obey, for by this time she had taken a deep dislike to Lady Wyke.
"Oh, but we have. Let us leave Mr. Craver on one side for the time being. I told your father that I would call and see you. I am sorry for you."
"Really. And why?"
"Because, by my reappearance and my husband's death you have lost a title and a good income. I wish to make amends."
"I refuse to allow you to make amends."
"Now that I see you—" Lady Wyke put up her lorgnette again—"I am not surprised. But your father wants money to compensate him for failure, and I came here to offer it.
"My father is not at home," said Miss Lemby, coldly. "If you will make an appointment you and he can talk the matter over. With my father's concerns I have nothing to do."
Lady Wyke silently acknowledged that she was beaten, for the time being at all events. Nevertheless, she as silently determined to get the whip hand of this haughty girl and make her pay for such insolence. The little woman liked no one to be insolent but herself. Still, for the moment she veiled her enmity with Judas smiles. "We part friends, I hope?" she said, with her sweetest expression.
"No," returned Claudia, uncompromisingly. "We part as we met—merely as acquaintances."
"I am sorry." Lady Wyke became plaintive. "I like you, and I don t see why you should not like me. And you know, Miss Lemby, we shall meet often in Hedgerton when we go to live there.
"You may be going to live there, I am not."
"Oh, but you will. Now that you have mentioned Mr. Craver's name, I remember that his father is the Rector of Hedgerton. Mr. Sandal told me so, amongst other matters, when I made inquiries about the death of Hector. And when you marry Mr. Craver, or course you will take up your residence near his people.
"Will I?" said Claudia, unsmilingly.
"I think you should, so as to make friends with his parents. And I shall be in the parish also, as I have taken that house my husband died in."
"Maranatha?" Miss Lemby looked astonished.
"Yes." Lady Wyke shot a keen glance at her. "It is said to be unlucky, but, of course, I think that is rubbish. I intend to stay there on the spot, in order to search for the murderer of my late husband. We were not particularly good friends; but I owe it to his memory to avenge his death. And perhaps, when the truth is known to me, it need not be known to others—if you give up the idea of marrying Mr. Craver."
"What do you mean?" Claudia turned cold as Lady Wyke halted at the door.
"I mean,", said the other, "that your father was in the house when my husband was killed. Think it over," and with a significant smile she disappeared quickly.
The last words of Lady Wyke, taken in conjunction with the last words of her father before he paid his visit to Sandal, alarmed Claudia exceedingly.
The high-spirited girl spent a miserable time alone before her father appeared on the scene. She employed a few minutes in wiring to Craver, saying that she wished him to call. In one way or another Claudia determined to have an explanation, so that she might know where she was. At present she did not.
Mr. Lemby made his appearance shortly before seven o'clock, and seemed to be in very good spirits. He asked for his dinner, declared that he felt better, and treated himself to a sherry and bitters so as to give zest to his meal. Then, the dinner having been cleared away, the two sat down to talk. Claudia began abruptly.
"Lady Wyke was here this afternoon," she said, hurling the bombshell at her father in the hope of startling him.
She failed to do so. "Yes, I know," he said, coolly. "I was wondering when you would tell me about the matter."
"I waited for you to speak first," said Claudia, rather annoyed. "You should have explained things to me long ago."
"I didn't think it was necessary," protested the pirate.
"Not necessary? Why, dad. Sir Hector wanted to marry me while he had a wife living, and for that reason postponed our marriage."
"I know, confound you," growled Lemby. "But Wyke didn't know that his wife was alive. If he had he would not have proposed to you. I suppose she told you all about the dashed thing?"
"She explained much, but not all. I think you might speak, dad."
"Oh, I don't mind," rejoined the old man, good-humouredly, and then and there related the past of the dead man. He stated how Lady Wyke had been the actress Maisie Chain, and how Sandal had witnessed the ill-omened wedding. Then he told Claudia about the separation, the journey to America, the presumed death in the fire at the Chicago theatre, and finally described how Lady Wyke had learnt her husband's determination to marry again. "So she came over to prevent that," he concluded, "and so completely knocked the old man off his perch that he ran away to hide from her at Hedgerton."
"What did he intend to do?" asked Claudia, after she had digested the story. Lemby shrugged his shoulders. "Ask me another, my girl? I don't know. Whether he intended to lie low until he could get rid of her and marry you, or whether he intended to stick to her and chuck you I can't say. Seeing that she's a bit of a tartar, I guess he wanted to divorce her if possible."
"Could he have done so?"
"Lady Wyke says he couldn't, as she has always kept herself respectable."
"I don't think that Sir Hector was to blame," said Claudia, after a pause "except in not telling me and you before he went to Hedgerton."
"I should have squeezed the explanation out of him when I paid him that visit, my girl, if he hadn't gone to see the man who killed him."
"Do you know the man who killed him?" asked the girl in a low voice.
"No, I don't," denied the pirate, roundly, but looking uneasy, "and I wish you'd stop harping on that dashed murder, Claudia. Wyke's dead and buried, and his widow has got the cash, so let the whole shoot slide."
"How can I when you hinted that you were mixed up in the matter?"
"Oh, I only said that to get you to come to Australia with me," said her father, rising with a yawn and stretching himself lazily.
"But Lady Wyke says the same thing."
Lemby dropped his arms and his mouth shut like a steel trap. "Tell me what that dashed woman said."
Claudia repeated Lady Wyke's last words verbatim. "And she said that, although the truth was known to her, it need not be known to others if—"
"If what; if what? Don't stop," rapped out the buccaneer, sharply.
"If I refused to marry Edwin."
"Oh!" Lemby's black eyes grew larger and rounder. "Why did she say that? She doesn't know Craver."
"Yes, she does. She saw him at the factory and at Hendon."
"What was he doing at Hendon?"
"Flying," said Claudia, curtly.
"You don't say so. I never thought he'd have the pluck to go up in an aeroplane, my girl. I wish he'd break his dashed neck."
"How dare you say that, dad! Edwin is the bravest man in the world, and if he broke his neck I should die. I love him. I love him and she shall never, never take him from me."
"Lady Wyke. She has fallen in love with Edwin."
Lemby's face grew evil and lowering. "Then I again say that I wish he'd break his dashed neck," he cried with an oath. "Confound the fellow, he comes up against me at every turn. First, he tried to spoil my plans with regard to your marriage with Wyke, and now he is my rival."
"Your rival?" Claudia looked puzzled.
"Yes, hang him. I can't get the money for you by will, as everything has been left to that woman. So I've got an idea that she might marry me."
"Marry you?" Claudia started up from the chair she was seated in. "I hope you won't be so silly as to marry at your age."
"Don't be insolent, my girl," retorted Lemby, for his vanity was hurt. "I'm by no means an old man. There's many a kick left in me yet. Why shouldn't I marry Lady Wyke? She isn't bad-looking, and has the five thousand a year we want so badly."
"I don't want it!" cried Claudia, vehemently? "I wouldn't take a penny of it, dad. She's a horrid and dangerous woman. I object to having her for a stepmother, There!" and she stamped after her usual fashion.
"Well, then," snarled Lemby, crossly, "you can prevent my having my own way by letting her marry Craver, since it seems he is in love with her."
"He isn't in love with her. I never said so. She is in love with him. As to letting her marry him, she shan't! You are cruel to suggest such a thing."
Lemby clutched his head. "Dash it, things are so crooked that I must straighten them out somehow by suggesting," he said, angrily. "And if this young jackaroo is trying to spoil my plans again, I'll make it hot for him. Upon my word, Claudia, I think it best that you should marry the fellow, so that I may be able to make Lady Wyke my wife and collar the dibs."
"She won't have you, dad."
"Oh, yes, she will." Lemby glanced at the nearest mirror, and admired his big body, his black hair, his stalwart looks and general virility. "I may as well tell you that I met her when she came downstairs after seeing you, and I took her to a teashop to have a talk. We got on famously."
"Did she tell you that she suspected you of committing the murder?" asked Claudia, acidly, and not approving of this escapade.
"No, she didn't. If she had I'd have brought her to her senses."
"You'll never do that. She's too clever for you, dad."
Claudia had just uttered this remark in a very positive way when Jane, the parlourmaid, showed young Craver into the drawing-room. Lemby was by no means so pleased to see him as Claudia was, and looked at their greeting glumly. He was quite annoyed when he heard that his daughter had summoned this inconvenient third by telegram. Edwin, who looked smart and well-groomed in evening dress, nodded coolly to his prospective father-in-law and sat down. Then Lemby could contain himself no longer.
"What the deuce do you mean by treating me as nothing in my own house?" he demanded, clenching his big fists with a truculent air.
"I apologise if I have treated you impolitely," said Edwin, raising his eyebrows; "but as you have never shaken hands with me, or bid me welcome; I do not see what you expect me to do."
"Be civil," growled the buccaneer, and dropped into an armchair to fill his pipe. "I'd have dropped you at sight with my little gun had you behaved in this cheeky way to me in Australia."
"I'm not so easily dropped." retorted Craver, laughing, for the man's childish behaviour was not worth noticing. "Two can play at that game, Mr. Lemby. But as Claudia wants to tell me something, don't you think you can treat me as your guest and with courtesy for a few minutes?"
Turning towards her lover, Claudia rapidly told him all about Lady Wyke and her visit. Craver was amazed by the story, and could not believe that Wyke had been married.
"How do you know that this woman is not an impostor?" he asked Mr. Lemby over Claudia's shoulder.
The pirate grunted. "She ain't," he declared, decisively. "Sandal knows all about the marriage, and knows her and knows about the will leaving the cash to her, hang her! She's not an impostor, worse luck. And, what's more, she's a dashed pretty woman."
"Do you think so, Edwin?" asked Claudia, anxiously and significantly.
"Oh!" The young man smiled broadly. "Then she told you that she had met me?"
"Yes. Both at Hendon and at your factory. Edwin, you did not tell me that you went in for aviation."
"I was keeping it as a surprise for you. But I can explain all about my reasons later. Meanwhile we have ample to talk about. Yes, I did see Lady Wyke at the factory, where she came to buy a car. Afterwards I saw her at Hendon, when she congratulated me on a successful flight. She's a pretty woman created by her own art."
"What do you mean by that?" demanded Lemby, growling like a dog over a bone.
"I mean that she is painted and powdered, and padded and overdressed, and all the rest of it. She is mutton trying to look like lamb."
"Then you don't love her?" said Claudia, with a sob of relief.
"Darling," said the astonished young man, "are you mad? How could I love a woman of that kind? And, remember, I have only seen her twice."
"She loves you, however," said Lemby, grimly.
Edwin stared at him. "Is this a joke?" he asked, sternly. "If so it is not a good one, and you display bad taste in making it, Mr. Lemby."
"I am in earnest, as it happens," said the old man, drily, "and don't tell me what's good taste or bad taste, dash you! Lady Wyke saw your photograph over there, and recognised you, Claudia told her your name, which she said she had never heard."
"Then she is telling lies," said Craver, calmly. "I was introduced to her at the factory when I sold her the car."
"She said that another person attended to her," said Claudia, quickly.
"I attended to her. Lady Wyke is evidently an accomplished liar. As to being in love with a man she has only seen twice, she must be joking."
"It didn't sound like joking," remarked the girl, wretchedly. "She hinted that dad was concerned in the death of her husband, but that she would say nothing if I refused to marry you."
"I'll twist her neck if she accuses me of a crime of which I am innocent," was Lemby's observation; "and when I marry her I'll soon bring her to heel."
"Are you going to marry her?"
"Why shouldn't I, Craver? She's rich and dashed pretty, in my opinion. I want money, and I can put up with her. Do you object?" he asked, with a sneer.
"Not at all," rejoined Edwin, promptly, "I don't want her. I shall tell her so if she makes advances to me—on one condition, that is."
Lemby scowled. "What condition?"
"That you allow Claudia to pay a month's visit to my parents at Hedgerton Rectory. I have told them that I love her, and they are anxious to see her."
Claudia, longing for peace and quietness, clapped her hands. "Oh, I should like that above all things. Do say yes, dad."
To the surprise of both young people, the pirate agreed very amicably. "The fact is, I haven't enough money to run this flat much longer," he explained, coolly; "so if Claudia goes away for a month, I can stay here on short commons. Mind, I don't say that I agree to your marrying her, Craver. I let her go to Hedgerton for my convenience, not for yours."
"Dad, how excessively rude," cried the girl, colouring.
"Rude or not, you can go. As to Lady Wyke, if Craver will sheer off, I think I can bring her to reason. Wyke should have left the five thousand a year to you, Claudia. So, as we can't get it by will, we'll get it by marriage."
"I rather think you will find Lady Wyke a difficult woman to manage," said Edwin, warningly. "She's an adventuress of the worst type."
"Well, I'm an adventurer," retorted Lemby, "I know how to size her up."
"What about her accusation, dad?"
"Oh, a wife can't give evidence against her husband," said Lemby, coolly.
The young people, still mystified by the ambiguous way in which Lemby spoke, glanced at one another.
It was with a heavy heart that Claudia went to Hedgerton. She could by no means understand the behaviour of her father, who certainly talked, in a most contradictory manner. At one moment he denied that he had anything to do with the death of his old friend, yet the next hinted at mysterious risks undertaken to obtain money.
Naturally, the change of scene, with new people to talk to, and with new occupations, did her infinite good. To her the rectory was a haven of peace, and Edwin a strong-armed man, who could and would defend her. The welcome of Mr. and Mrs. Craver comforted her exceedingly, as they were charmed with their visitor, and thoroughly approved of her in every way, The Rector, who was a white-haired, gentle-faced old gentleman, fonder of literature than of humanity, admired her beauty greatly, while little Mrs. Craver pronounced her to be an uncommonly sensible girl. Within the week, Claudia was comfortably settled in her new surroundings, and was happier than she had been since her arrival in England. On the plea that Mrs. Craver could teach her housekeeping, she took her share of the work and became quite a busy bee. Her prospective mother-in-law found her quite an able assistant. Poor, weary Mrs. Craver had toiled and struggled and scrimped and screwed for so many years alone that it was quite a relief for her to see a younger person attend to the work. And Claudia enjoyed this domesticity, greatly.
Lemby displayed no desire to call at the Rectory and see the parents of the young man whom his daughter desired to marry, He remained in London, as a gentleman-at-large, and still continued to live in Tenby Mansions—that is, he camped there, for his hours were generally passed elsewhere, although he returned nightly to sleep in the flat. When he did write to Claudia, which was rarely, it was to congratulate her that she had free board and lodging at the Hedgerton Rectory, since money was so scarce. These letters made the girl work all the harder, as she was too proud to live on strangers, and wished on all and every occasion to make some return for bed and board and fire. Ardent as, Mrs. Craver was about work, she took it upon herself to restrain Claudia's zeal, and insisted that she should not do much.
"As a rule I have to drive people to work," said Mrs. Craver at afternoon tea, "but you, my dear, require to be checked. I never met anyone like you."
"So Edwin thinks," remarked the Rector, who had a book on his knee and a cup of tea in his hand. "He says that Claudia is a pearl and far above rubies in value. I quite agree with him."
"Oh, you must not think so highly, of me," said the girl with a blush. "I am really a very ordinary kind of person. I love work."
"Then you are not an ordinary person," said the Rev. George Craver. "It is very rarely one meets with people who love work. If Hedgerton was filled with such people my task would be easier than it is."
Mrs. Craver shook her brisk little head, and her sharp face looked sharper than ever. "The Hedgerton people are too self-complacent, George. You can talk and talk and talk, but no impression can be made."
"I think, that I am making an impression on Lady Wyke, Emma. She attends the services regularly, and has done so since she came here a month ago."
Mrs. Craver straightened her slim figure, which was clothed in the shabby black silk, and looked severe. "Lady Wyke comes, to show off her frocks. She is sinfully extravagant in dress."
"Oh, my dear Emma, you must not assign such a reason for her attendance at church. She really is most attentive to the services, and also she desires to help in the parish work. She told me so."
"She would tell you anything, George, and you would believe her. Who is she?"
"Sir Hector's widow," said Claudia, looking surprised, at this unnecessary remark. "Everyone knows that."
"Oh, yes," agreed Mrs. Craver, significantly. "She is the widow of that poor man, sure enough. But who is she? Where does she come from?"
"She comes from London, Emma," said the Rector, humorously, "and she lives in Hedgerton."
"Why does she live here, George?"
"Well, she must live somewhere."
"But not in the very house in which her husband was murdered, To my mind, it is a ghoulish idea for her to rent Maranatha, seeing, what took place there."
"It is odd," admitted Claudia, musingly. "I wonder why?"
Mr. Craver reached forward to take another slice of bread. "It may be that she wishes to learn who murdered Sir Hector, and, therefore, thinks that she will be more successful if she remains in the house where the crime was committed."
Claudia winced, and her thoughts flew to her father and his mysterious remarks; to Lady Wyke and her ominous hints. "Has she discovered anything yet?"
"No!" observed Mrs. Craver, sharply. "At least, she has said nothing to us, although she has been here a month. And that reminds me, George, that she has not called again since Claudia arrived."
"Well, Emma, she called on you and you called on her. The demands of courtesy have been satisfied. We are dull people, you know, and she is a smart lady. It is not to be supposed that she will find much enjoyment in our society."
"Indeed, George, she would find our society very instructive. She may be smart, as you say, but she certainly is not a lady."
Claudia nodded. "I did not think so myself when I saw her in Loudon."
"Ah, yes—" Mrs. Craver turned briskly "—of course, you saw her. Considering how badly Sir Hector behaved to you, my dear, I wonder she had the impudence to call. What courage she must have."
"Oh, I don't know, Mrs. Craver," Claudia shrugged, carelessly. "Naturally Lady Wyke was anxious to see me, seeing that I was to marry her husband. He was not to blame, poor man, as he quite believed that she was dead."
"She had no business to come alive again," retorted Mrs. Craver. "Yet I am glad, for Edwin's sake, that things have turned out as they have done."
"My dear Emma, you couldn't expect Lady Wyke to allow her husband to commit bigamy. Why shouldn't she come alive again, as you put it?"
"She should have remained always with her husband, as a true and faithful wife should," replied Mrs. Craver, drawing up her spare figure.
"I don't think that the separation was Sir Hector's fault," said Claudia, after a pause. "He was a very polite and amiable old man. I certainly did not wish to marry him, as I always loved Edwin. But my father made me accept."
"Strange, my dear, seeing how strong-minded you are."
"You have not met my father," rejoined the girl, briefly.
"I don't think I want to. Of course, when you marry Edwin, he must come to the wedding, I suppose, and give you away. But he is much too dashing a gentleman for quiet people such as we are."
"Why, Emma," said the Rector, surprised, "I did not know you had seen him."
"I saw him outside the doors of the Entertainment Hall when the inquest was taking place. I happened to be passing on that day. Your father, my dear—" she addressed Claudia "—is a handsome man; but I should think he has a temper."
"He has," said the man's daughter, significantly. "Perhaps, if you knew my father you would not want me to marry Edwin."
"What nonsense. I love you for your own sweet sake. Your father will go back to Australia, I hope, and then we need not be bothered with him."
"Well, I can't help it, George. After all, in trying to make Claudia marry that old man who died, Mr. Lemby did not behave very well."
"All the same, he is Claudia's father," said the Rector, reprovingly.
The girl flushed, and then turned rather pale, as she felt a trifle embarrassed during this discussion. If Mrs. Craver talked of her father in this way when he was absent, what would she say when he was present. The precise, refined little lady would never get on with the pirate, who was all that she was not.
Mrs. Craver, less observant than the Rector, accepted the reproof, although she did not notice Claudia's change of colour, and went on to make other remarks dealing with another subject.
"I only hope that Lady Wyke's example will not ruin the parish," she observed. "She is an extravagant woman, and you wouldn't know Maranatha now that she is living there. I'm sure when I called and saw the quantity of new furniture she has, and the silk curtains, and the fine pictures to say nothing of the many flowers and the expensive china, I thought how rich she must be."
"She has five thousand a year," said Claudia. "That was the amount of money left to her by her husband."
"Which would have been yours, my dear, had you married him. However, it is just as well since you love Edwin."
"What is just as well, Emma?" asked Mr. Craver, who found his wife's remarks a trifle confusing on occasions.
"That Lady Wyke should have come to life, and that Claudia should be poor. I am sure that Edwin will become a partner in that motor firm, and then he will be well able to support a wife. By the way, Lady Wyke's motor-car was manufactured by Edwin's firm. Before you came down, Claudia, she asked Edwin to show her how to drive."
"And did he?" asked Claudia, wincing when she thought of Lady Wyke's admiration for her lover.
"No. He said that he was too busy and had to get back to town. And now that I come to think of it George, Edwin really went back to London, as he had to fly. My heart sinks when I hear of these aviation accidents. A man with a mother should not fly."
"Nor should, an engaged man," chimed in the Rector, "and Edwin is engaged. Don't you think, Claudia, that you could persuade him to give up aviation?"
"I'll try." said the girl, with a faint sigh. "I don't like the idea myself, but Edwin is very determined when he likes."
"Just like me," said Mrs. Craver, complacently. "I am always firm."
"Obstinate," said Mr. Craver, with a laugh.
Before his wife could argue that obstinacy and firmness were entirely different, the parlourmaid entered with the information that Mrs. Mellin wished to speak to her mistress. Mrs. Craver was surprised, as this was not the day when washing arrived and the report of various doings in the parish was made. Something unusual must have caused Mrs. Mellin to come unexpectedly to the Rectory, so the eager little woman hurried out to learn what was the matter. Mr. Craver frankly laughed when alone with Claudia. His wife's energy, always amused him.
"Emma should have been a detective," he remarked to Claudia. "She is always on the look-out for information, and knows everything that is going on in the parish. Depend upon it, Mrs. Mellin, who is her assistant-detective, has come with startling news, and Emma will return to startle us with some kind of a storm in a tea-cup."
"Mrs. Craver is the dearest woman in the world," said Claudia, with a sympathetic laugh, "and I like her mannerisms. To me she is kindness itself."
"Who would not be kind to you, my dear."
Claudia was not emotional as a rule, but her eyes filled with tears at the paternal tone of the Rector's speech. She leant forward impetuously and took his hand. "You don't know how happy I am here," she cried, impulsively. "This place is like heaven to me. And yet perhaps it would be wiser for me to go away and forget Edwin."
Mr. Craver patted her hand. "Why should you?"
"Oh, my father and I are a kind of stormy petrel pair of birds. Wherever we go there is sure to be trouble. I should not like to bring trouble into this haven of peace."
"We'll take the risk, Claudia. We all love you, and now that you are here, here you will remain until Edwin makes you his wife. There is no reason why you should go away."
"I shall stay here willingly," she said, with a sigh of relief. "I am only too glad to stay here."
Just as she made this speech the door opened, and Mrs. Craver rushed into the room with flushed face and startled eyes. Evidently Mrs. Mellin had told her something of moment. "Oh, George—" she spoke while moving into the room "—do you remember Laura Bright? I wonder I did not recognise her."
"Laura Bright, Mrs. Mellin's sister, who ran away twenty and more years ago?"
"Yes, yes! The same. I wonder I did not recognise her. She is Lady Wyke. I mean Lady Wyke is Laura. And I never recognised her."
Little Mrs. Craver was greatly excited over the discovery that Lady Wyke was none other than flighty Laura Bright, the sister of the humble washerwoman. It was not surprising that the Rector's wife had not recognised her, as the brilliant woman of the world was very different from the pretty, discontented, and unformed girl who had gone away from Hedgerton some twenty and more years previous. Indeed, Mrs. Mellin herself confessed that she would never have recognised her sister, had not that sister called upon her to proclaim her identity. Evidently Lady Wyke had no false pride, for she calmly stated who she was, and talked over family affairs with Mrs. Mellin. Old James Bright, who had been the father of the two women, was dead, and so was the mother. The washerwoman's husband had passed away, leaving her with one son, and Lady Wyke was a widow, with no child at all. It was for this reason that she had called on Mrs. Mellin.
"You could have knocked me down with a feather, ma'am, when that grand lady come along, saying as she was my very own sister Laura. Not a bit of pride about her, ma'am, for she sat down and took tea, just as if she was no one in pertic'ler."
"It does her credit," said Mrs. Craver, approvingly. "I think the better of Lady Wyke for not being ashamed of her humble origin. She has greatly improved from the flighty girl she was."
"Clever, ma'am," interposed Mrs. Mellin, proudly, "never flighty."
"Pooh, pooh! She was a very feather, Mrs. Mellin. But we won't discuss her weaknesses. I suppose she called in order to help you?"
Mrs. Mellin rubbed her nose. "She did and she didn't, ma'am. So far as I'm concerned, she said she didn't mind giving me a pound or so when wanted. But she really called about Neddy."
"Oh, indeed. And what about Neddy?"
"Laura ses," Pursued Mrs. Mellin, wiping her mouth with a corner of her well-known tartan shawl, "as Neddy is the only one of our family left, and is as bewtiful as a angel and 'ave a voice like a bird. A skylark she called 'im, and wants to git 'im singing in London."
"Ridiculous!" cried the Rector's wife, vigorously. "Let her give him a good education and apprentice him to some trade."
"So I ses, ma'am, me bein' 'umble and Neddy my boy. But bless you, ma'am, Laura wouldn't 'ear of it, sayin' as 'is voice was wonnerful, and the gift of 'Eaven, which it 'ud be a shame not to 'ave 'eard. Had a long tork with 'her I did, ma'am, and Laura ses, as she was on the music 'all stage 'erself, and didn't see no 'arm in it, nohow. So she ses as she's goin' to send Neddy to London to appear as the Skylark at the Tit-Bits Music 'All."
"Ridiculous! Ridiculous!" said Mrs. Craver, again. "A choir-boy and a music-hall. The two things don't go together."
"They won't, ma'am." retorted Mrs. Mellin, rather defiantly. "Neddy 'ull leave the choir when he becomes the Tit-Bits Skylark. Laura's goin' to 'ave 'is voice trained with a pal of 'er's as sings 'isself, and with 'im Neddy can stay, Laura payin' 'is board and lodgin'. Week-ends he can come down 'ere for me to 'ave a look at 'im and look arter 'is washing, never trustin' them London laundresses as I don't no'ow. So there you are, ma'am. Fortune hev come to me and Neddy at larst."
"I don't approve of it, Mrs. Mellin, and the Rector won't approve of it either, you may be sure. I'll speak to him and to Lady Wyke myself."
Mrs. Craver did so, but gained small satisfaction, for Lady Wyke firmly held to her opinion and refused to listen to the little woman's entreaties. As to the Rector, he also ventured on a mild remonstrance, but Neddy's aunt quickly routed him. She declared that it was better for Neddy to earn his bread by means of his great gift than to remain in Hedgerton, loafing about and consorting with bad boys. In the end Lady Wyke got her own way, as such a hard and determined woman would, so Neddy arrayed in a new suit of clothes, was packed off to London forthwith. He was more than willing to go, as he looked forward to a life of excitement, while his mother was willing that he should try his luck, as she hoped that his voice would win sufficient money for him to support her in her old age. And as the two sisters were thus agreed, neither Mrs. Craver nor the Rector could do anything, although they highly disapproved of the step taken. But they fought desperately that Neddy should learn a trade, and the battle was prolonged for quite a month. At the end of that exciting time, the young scamp went to London, and the fight ended in the triumph of his mother and aunt. Mrs. Craver was much grieved over her defeat.
During the month things went on very smoothly. Edwin came and went, attended to his motor work, and between times essayed flying with more or less success.
Lady Wyke never came near the rectory during the four weeks, rather to Miss Lemby's surprise. Claudia quite expected that after the visit paid to the flat and the hint given that Lady Wyke would seek her out again and still pursue her object, which was to take possession of young Craver. But Sir Hector's widow remained ostentatiously away, and Claudia saw her only in church and occasionally on the esplanade. Short as was the time which had elapsed since her husband's death, the widow was already changing her mourning for dresses less aggressively dismal. From black her gowns turned into violet, and on some days she appeared in grey, always looking smart and fashionable, well-turned-out, and remarkably young.
With keen feminine instinct, Claudia guessed that Lady Wyke was on the warpath, and still cherished a desire to marry Edwin. Seeing that she had only met him once or twice, and that she knew he was engaged to Claudia, it seemed ridiculous that she should hope to win him. Yet her coming down to Hedgerton, her amelioration of mourning-frocks, and her frequent attendance at church to win over Edwin's parents, all suggested to Miss Lemby's clever and rather jealous nature that the widow had not got over her infatuation. Those superior residents of Hedgerton, who knew something of the outside world, invariably spoke of her as "The Merry Widow." Claudia frankly hated her.
This being the case, it was unpleasant that she should meet with the schemer unexpectedly and be forced to have a conversation.
It was now March and there crept into the keen air a breath of spring. The sky was intensely blue, the chestnut buds were glummy, and the wayside hedges were greening over with tiny leaves. As the village, with its ancient fish-like smells, was not inviting, the girl often walked along the verge of the cliffs beyond the Rectory, and watched the murmuring waves ebbing and flowing on the sandy beach below. On the day she met Lady Wyke the sunshine was unusually warm and brilliant, and the azure of the sky, the deep blue of the sea, the reddish stretch of cliffs, and the delicate, green budding of the trees made up an uncommonly pretty picture. Claudia walked along for quite a mile and then sat down to rest near a coastguard station. The winds brought colour to her cheeks, sunshine light to her eyes, and the girl looked extremely young and extremely pretty.
"A penny for your thoughts, Miss Lemby," said Lady Wyke, in her shrill, sharp, and unpleasant voice.
Claudia started violently, as the newcomer had stolen up so quietly behind that she was not aware, of her proximity until she spoke. "Good-day, Lady Wyke," she answered, quietly, "I fear my thoughts are not worth even the small sum you offer."
"Oh, I don't know so much about that." Lady Wyke, a brilliant figure in black touched here and there with orange ribbons, leant with both hands on the smart silver-headed cane which she carried. "Young girls dream of satin frocks and orange-wreaths, of handsome bridegrooms and the wedding march."
"You are not a good thought-reader," said Claudia, coldly.
"Ha! we all make mistakes. Then you were thinking of your father, and of—"
"Of things which it is not necessary for you to know," interrupted the girl, with provoking calmness. "My thoughts are my own."
"What an obvious remark." Lady Wyke put up her lorgnette and surveyed Claudia, inquisitively. "Very obvious for so clever a girl."
"How do you know that I am clever?"
"Well, I think a girl with a shady father, who does her best to ingratiate herself with prejudiced people because she wants to marry their son is clever."
"What right have you to say that my father is shady?" asked Claudia, still composed, and mistress of herself.
Lady Wyke laughed. "Oh, your father and I have had quite a correspondence," she said, airily. "He was a great friend of my late husband's, you know, and professes anxiety to help me discover who killed poor Hector. He writes suggesting theories, and I write back to say that he is talking rubbish. But I rather think," added the woman, shrewdly, "that there is more in your father's attentions to me than zeal for revenge on the man who murdered Hector."
"Indeed!" Claudia coloured as she knew very well what her father's intentions were. "But all this does not warrant your calling him shady."
"Well, no. All the same, I may have other reasons. Miss Lemby. I think you are a nice honest girl—"
"Pardon me, but isn't this conversation rather personal?"
"I mean it to be," replied Lady Wyke, serenely. "You see, it is just as well that you and I should understand one another."
"I see no reason why we should. We are strangers," retorted Claudia, very much annoyed by the brazen impudence of the speaker.
"Oh, I don't think we are strangers, Miss Lemby, seeing that you were on the eve of marrying my husband."
"Well, I didn't marry him, and what is more, I never wished to marry him. It was my father's scheme to—"
"To get money," interposed Lady Wyke, softly. "Didn't I say that he was shady, Miss Lemby? You, in a way, admit as much yourself."
"I admit nothing—" Claudia rose abruptly to her feet "—and I really do not see, Lady Wyke, why you should force your company on me in this way."
"There are many things you don't see, but will be made to see, my dear," said the elder woman, insolently. "I saw you leave the Rectory and followed you to this place so that I might talk to you quietly."
"I see no reason why I should listen," chafed Claudia, restlessly.
"Oh, I think you will when I say what I have come to say," answered Lady Wyke. "To tell, you the truth I quite expected you to call and see me at Maranatha."
"I never had the least idea of continuing our acquaintance," retorted the girl, pointedly. "Our last meeting in London did not make me long to meet you again, Lady Wyke. Your last words hinted—"
"I shall talk about my hints on another occasion," interrupted the other in sharp tones. "Meanwhile I have sought you out to make you an offer."
"Indeed?" Claudia was quite unmoved.
"Yes. You are poor."
"That is my own affair."
"And your father is poor," continued Lady 'Wyke, taking no notice of the interruption. "You both want money. Your father, as I can see very well, is paying attentions to me in the hope that I may look favourably upon his advances."
Claudia was persistently blind. "What advances?"
"Well, if you will have it, my dear, your father has more than hinted that he desires to marry me. He could not get Sir Hector's money through you, so he is now trying to get it through me."
"Is he? Well, Lady Wyke, with what my father says or does or thinks, I have nothing to do. If he wishes to marry you, and you accept him, I have nothing to say. It is none of my business."
"But as your father's daughter—"
"Yes. I know all about that," flashed out the girl quickly, and with flushed cheeks; "but there is no more to be said."
"There is this. That I do not intend to marry your father."
"That is his and your affair. It has nothing to do with me. What have I to do with your intentions, Lady Wyke?"
"You may guess," rejoined the woman, in silky tones, "when I tell you that I wish to marry Mr. Craver."
Claudia flushed still deeper, and looked indignant. Then the humour of this insolence calmed her and made her laugh. And laugh she did, right in the face of Lady Wyke's artificial beauty. "I am not afraid," said Claudia, after looking her rival up and down with all the contempt of youth for age.
The woman clenched her hands, grew a deep red, and quivered from head to foot, as nothing could have been said, calculated to wound her more. However, having an object to gain she kept her temper. "I said before that you are poor, and so is your father. He can't get money by marrying me, as I wish to marry Mr. Craver. But your father can get money, and so can you, if you will stand on one side and refuse to become Mr. Craver's wife."
"Oh, indeed! And how much do you propose to offer me as a bribe?"
Lady Wyke, thinking from the soft tone that Claudia was willing to consider her proposal, became eager. "I shall give you a thousand a year," she said rapidly, and advancing a step. "Think what you can do with that! It is quite a fortune in Australia. You can return there with your father, and keep him in his old age. Think, Miss Lemby—a thousand a year!"
Claudia laughed again, and again Lady Wyke winced. "I don't think that there, is any need to say more. Good-day," and she moved away.
"Stop, stop!" screamed Lady Wyke. "I want my answer."
Claudia looked over her shoulder laughing persistently. "There is no answer."
"Very good." Lady Wyke quivered and turned pale under her rouge. "I have made you a fair offer, and you have refused even to consider it. Now look out for yourself and for your father."
Claudia laughed still louder, and continued to walk away. "Good-day, Lady Wyke!"
Needless to say Claudia did not report the conversation with Lady Wyke to the Rector or to his wife, as neither of them would have understood, so shameless a chase of age after youth. But the girl was anxious to disburden her mind, and looked forward anxiously for the arrival of Edwin, who was expected down to spend the usual week-end. After luncheon the Rector retired to write his sermon, while Mrs. Craver found that she had household duties to do. The young couple were left alone, and forthwith Claudia related all that had taken place on the cliffs. Her lover was greatly annoyed.
"But we can't talk over things quietly here," he said, taking Claudia's arm and moving towards the dining-room door. "Mother is sure to pop in and out when least expected, and I don't want her to hear about Lady Wyke's vagaries."
"I have said nothing, Edwin."
He squeezed her arm. "That is wise of you, dearest. Let us go into the garden and thresh the matter out. I have something to tell you also."
They found a secluded arbour at the bottom of what was called the Laurel Walk from its hedges, and there sat down comfortably. It was quite a place for lovers, and being springtime, they should have paid their devotions to Cupid. But matters were much too serious for trifling of this sort, and the golden hour was filled with the discussion of important matters. Edwin's very first remark made Claudia angry—and with her lover.
"Lady Wyke has ben persecuting me with personal attentions and with letters."
"Oh!" The girl's eyes flashed and her cheeks grew red. "Why didn't you tell me, Edwin?"
"I didn't wish to worry you, dear."
"Your worries are my worries, Edwin. I wish to be your comrade as well as your wife. I think it is very unkind of you to keep silent."
"Well, you know, Claudia, a fellow does feel a bit of an ass in talking about a woman running after him. Spare my blushes!"
"It's all very well turning it into a joke, Edwin," cried the girl, indignantly, "but it is no joke. Lady Wyke is a most dangerous woman."
"Why, what harm can she do?"
"She can hurt my father, if her last threat is to be believed."
"Ah, but is it to be believed?" questioned the young man shrewdly.
"Yes it is. Lady Wyke is growing old, and, as you know, there is no fool like an old fool. She has fallen in love with you, and will move heaven and earth to get you as her husband."
Edwin frowned. "That is quite true." Then he smiled. "She has asked me to afternoon tea."
"Oh, what impertinence! You won't go."
"I leave the decision to you, Claudia," said Craver, drily.
"What does she wish to see you about?"
"I understand from her that she will explain when I call, not before." There was silence for quite a minute. "You had better go, Edwin," said, Claudia, becoming more her reasonable resolute self, and speaking decisively. "I am quite sure that Lady Wyke suspects my father with something in connection with the death of her husband. She may even believe that he is guilty. Perhaps I was foolish not to stay on the cliffs and hear what she had to say. But I was in a rage. I only wanted to hurt her, and did so by laughing."
"You cut off your nose to spite your face." said Edwin, with a shrug. "That is not like you, Claudia."
"No, it isn't," she answered penitently. "Usually I am calm and self-possessed when there is trouble. But Lady Wyke makes me so angry with her insolence that I lose control of myself. How has she persecuted you, Edwin."
"I told you. Nearly every day she has written to me at the factory, saying a great deal without making clear what she really does mean. Three or four times she has been in town, and I have had interviews with regard to the motor she bought. This was wrong, and that was wrong, when, as a matter of fact, nothing was wrong. Then she wrote inviting me to take her to the theatre; she asked me to dinner; she sent me a box of cigarettes—"
"Oh!" Claudia was furious. "You returned the cigarettes?"
"Well, dear; I couldn't do that without appearing to be rude."
"Then you should have been rude, very rude. She deserves rudeness."
"But I refused the dinners and the theatres on the plea that I was busy. I did not intend to see her to-day, but after her conversation with you, I think it is just as well that she should understand things."
"I agree. Tell her you intend to marry me and not her. Oh, what a cat she is! What a persistent, spiteful cat!"
"She is showing her claws at any rate," said Craver, with a shrug. "It is puzzling to know why she has taken this mad fancy to me."
"It's not puzzling at all," rejoined Claudia, promptly. "I took a fancy to you myself. You are handsome and clever and—"
"Oh, spare my blushes!" interrupted Edwin again, and really did grow crimson at these crude compliments. "You make me feel an ass. But there is no doubt," he continued seriously, "that she means mischief with regard to your father."
"You don't think that he is guilty, Edwin?" faltered the girl, wincing.
"No, no! Certainly he is innocent. But he was in the house when Wyke was murdered, and Lady Wyke may try to implicate him in the matter. Sergeant Purse isn't very clever, you know, while she is; so she may be able to twist him, round her finger. I'd better pay the visit, Claudia."
"Yes. But don't—don't—kiss—her."
"I know I'm silly," said Miss Lemby, dismally; "but she's old and desperately in love with you. I don't say that you'll kiss her—"
"Which you did," interpolated Edwin.
"But she may kiss you."
Very much amused, Edwin jumped up and swung Claudia to her feet, "You are a silly child," he said fondly. "You are the only woman I ever loved, or ever shall love. Will you come with me and keep guard?"
"No!" Claudia stamped viciously, "I couldn't keep my temper. She certainly means mischief with regard to my father, Edwin, for she is keeping him on the string."
"What do you mean by that?"
"I mean what I say. Dad wants to marry her and get the money. He said so. She guesses that, and is allowing him to write her silly letters so that she may keep in touch with him. For all I know she may ask him to dinners and theatres, as she asks you. Dad is clever in some ways but a fool in others."
Craver remembered the truculent manners of the buccaneer, and recalled his dominating personality. "I don't think Lady Wyke will find him such a fool as she imagines. He is quite capable of twisting her neck."
"Oh!" Claudia turned pale. "That sounds as though dad was capable of stabbing Sir Hector."
"He didn't do that," said Edwin decisively.
"How can you be sure?"
Craver hesitated in a most unaccountable manner. "Well, it might be the other fellow who bolted on the bicycle, you know. If there had been any evidence against your father he would have been arrested after the inquest."
"That is true," sighed Claudia, with relief, "But what does Lady Wyke mean by her hints?"
"I'm going to find out. Don't worry."
It was all very well for Craver to give this sound advice, but hard for the girl to take it. Usually she was sensible, but the long continued strain on her nerves was breaking her down. Also she was jealous of her elderly rival, who was clever, rich, and persistent. Of course, Edwin could be trusted, still he was only a man, and men are wax in the hands of women.
Claudia would have liked to go also to Maranatha in order to protect her man from the vile machinations of Lady Wyke, but she could not trust herself. She would be sure to say something or do something which would give her hostess the advantage, so it was wiser to risk nothing. Edwin went alone, and then Claudia returned to her room to spend an uncomfortable hour or so of suspense.
The young man walked briskly along the road and turned into Ladysmith Road about four o'clock. He soon arrived at the square, red bricked mansion and paused to stare at it. Maranatha had been greatly improved by its present tenant. The lawns were trim and clean-shaven; the elms were clipped, and looked more civilised, while the house itself had a more inhabited and less dismal look.
Edwin nodded to himself in approval of Lady Wyke's cleaning-up and restoration, then walked up the neat path and rang the bell. When a sedate-looking footman introduced him into the hall he shivered a little, at the memory of the late tragedy, but recovered himself when shown into the drawing-room. This, was upstairs, the very room where Oliver Lemby had been waiting on that fatal night. But it presented quite a different appearance now from what it did then, although the visitor did not know this. Formerly dusty and untidy when attended to by Mrs. Vence, it was now cheerful, bright, and comfortable. A fire was burning in the grate, there was a new and brilliant carpet, while the old-fashioned furniture had been renovated and polished so as to look like new. Showy coloured rugs and draperies made the vast apartment look gay, and everywhere there were hothouse flowers of rainbow hues. The scent of pastilles burning in bronze vases made the atmosphere languid, indisposing those who breathed it to transformation from gloom to brightness as had taken place in Maranatha.
And the author of the transformation rose from a sofa on which she was reclining to greet her visitor. "I am so glad to see you," she said softly, and he noted that her shrill voice was now low and gentle. "I feared you would not come."
But Edwin was not to be taken in by her wiles, and only lightly touched her hand outstretched in greeting. "I certainly came, Lady Wyke," he observed, coldly, "because your letter intimated that you wished to speak to me about something connected with the death of your late husband."
"Does that interest you?" she asked, indicating a seat and sinking down on to the sofa.
"Surely. You hinted to Miss Lemby that her father had something to do with the matter, and for Miss Lemby's sake I am interested."
"Can't we leave the name of that girl out of the conversation?"
"I think not," said Craver, still coldly. "You forget that it is on behalf of her father that I have come. You threatened, both in London and on the cliffs the other day to do him harm."
"Oh!" Lady Wyke's brows contracted in a frown, "so that girl told you of our conversation on the cliffs?"
"Yes. About an hour or so ago. In fact, the moment I arrived as you might say, she told me everything."
"Everything?" repeated the woman, with emphasis.
Edwin nodded. "Even to the offer of one thousand a year."
"She should have had more sense than to say that," snapped Lady Wyke.
"Don't you think that we had better leave Miss Lemby's name out of this conversation?" said Craver, tartly.
"I asked you to," she reminded him swiftly, "and you refused."
Craver could not deny this, and looked uncomfortable. "I have not much time to wait, Lady Wyke," he remarked, looking at his watch with pointed rudeness. "I must ask you to come to the point."
"Oh, there is plenty of time for that," she answered sweetly. "You must have some tea first."
"Thank you. I am due back to tea at the Rectory."
"I think not. We have much to say to one another."
"About Mr. Lemby?"
"No." Lady Wyke looked at him so pointedly that he blushed. "About yourself."
"I wish you wouldn't," he exclaimed, just like an unformed schoolboy.
"You wish I wouldn't what?"
"Talk like that."
"Talk like what?"
"Oh, we are speaking in a circle. See here, Lady Wyke. You asked me here to say something about Mr. Lemby. I understand from your hints to Claudia that you accuse him of murdering your husband."
"How crudely you put it." She raised her eyebrows. "I don't accuse him."
"Then why I am here I don't know."
"You will know soon, Mr. Craver. I accuse someone else."
"Who is it?" The young man suddenly shivered, in spite of the warm atmosphere.
"Who is he, you mean. Well; then, ask yourself who murdered my husband."
"I don't know. How should I know?"
"Because you murdered him. It was you who escaped on that bicycle, Mr. Craver, and it was you who stabbed Sir Hector in this very house."
Lady Wyke's sudden accusation of murder came like a bolt from the blue, and so stunned Craver that he had not a word to say. While he sat silent in the deep armchair, as white and cold and motionless as any corpse, she touched the bell-button and ordered the footman who appeared to bring in tea immediately, The footman arranged the tea-table near the fire, and Lady Wyke sat down to attend to her hospitable duties.
"Sugar, Mr. Craver?" she asked, when the tea was poured out.
If she could be composed so could he.
"Thank you. Two lumps," he said, and bent forward to accept the cup.
"You take it very well," said Lady Wyke, approvingly. "But then I know you have plenty of courage. All aviators must be courageous, and you are very successful I hear. I wonder if you would take me for a flight one day?"
"Would you risk one with me?" asked Craver.
Lady Wyke laughed, settled herself amongst the cushions of the sofa, and stirred her tea. "Oh, you mean that you might be inclined to tip me out of the machine," she observed, looking at him straightly. "Very naturally you should, seeing what I know. Still, I am willing to risk a flight."
"What do you know?"
"I told you. I know that you murdered Sir Hector."
"I did not murder him," said Craver, steadily.
Lady Wyke shrugged her elegant shoulders. "Of course you say that. I don't very well see what else you can say if you want to save your neck."
"My neck isn't in danger."
"Oh, I think it is, and at my discretion."
"So you think."
"And so I believe, with every reason to believe," she retorted, and yet looked uneasy. This calm way of taking so heinous an accusation surprised and irritated her greatly. "Well, what have you to say?"
"A great deal."
"Hum! I told you that you would not get back to tea at the Rectory. After all, we are very comfortable—at least I am."
"Well, I can't say that I am comfortable in the presence of a woman who stoops so low to gain her ends; but let us get down to business."
"Business? You mean you wish to know why I act in this way?"
"Well, I have a sort of idea of your motive. Still—"
"Still, you must be blind," she interrupted, "not to see that I am in love with you and wish to marry you."
"You go the right way about getting me to be your husband, I must say," said the young man, sarcastically. "I shall love you immensely if you succeed in leading me to the altar against my will. Get someone else to woo you," he ended.
"No; I want you."
"You can't have me."
"Edwin—" she leant forward and extended her arms imploringly "—don't be so cruel. It is not my fault that I have fallen in love with you. The moment I met you I wished you to become my husband. After all, I am not so old and not so ugly that you should scorn me. Also, I am rich; I have brains—"
"With regard to that last," he interrupted, "I don't think you have. Otherwise, you would scarcely proceed with your love-making in this way."
"It is the man who should make love;" she panted, fiercely.
"I agree with you. Why, then, do you usurp the privilege of the male sex?"
"I hate you!" Lady Wyke clenched her fists, as if about to strike him, and glared viciously. "I hate you!"
"I prefer that," said Craver, serenely, and kept a cool eye on her doings.
"Ah—" Lady Wyke looked up to the ceiling "—has this man any feeling? How can he sit there and see a loving woman tear her heart to lay it at his feet for him to trample on."
"Silly! Silly!" was Edwin's comment.
"Take care." The woman bent over him and hissed the word into his ear. "I can hang you!"
"So you say," he replied, unmoved.
"So I say, and so I know," she shouted. "I know that you came down to this house on the night when Hector was murdered. You stabbed him, so that he might not marry that Lemby girl. You escaped on the bicycle. You—"
"Stop. How can you prove all this?"
"Oh, I can prove it right enough. But I don't want to go—to—such lengths." Lady Wyke burst into tears and took out her handkerchief. "I wish you wouldn't force me to—to behave in this way. Oh, my darling, I love you with all my heart and soul, I want to—to—"
Edwin sprang up as she stumbled forward, with the idea of throwing her arms around his neck. "Don't go on acting like a fool," he said, sternly. "If you must talk, talk sensibly. Otherwise I shall leave immediately."
"I'll send the police after you," she threatened, furiously.
"Do so. You'll be no nearer to gaining your object."
Then Lady Wyke broke down. "Oh, Edwin! Edwin! Edwin!"
Purposely cool and pointedly rude Craver resumed his seat, lighted a fresh cigarette and looked at her critically. "I wouldn't cry if I were you, Lady Wyke. You can't afford to do so at your age without spoiling your face."
"Oh, you brute!"
"Quite so; and, knowing that I am a brute, why, try to force me to become your husband?"
"Oh, I don't know." She dabbed her eyes carefully with her handkerchief. "Perhaps to make you smart for having treated me so insolently. I won't give you up to that girl."
"There is no question of giving up. I am hers; I never was yours. Come, Lady Wyke, don't you think we had better discuss matters calmly."
"What matters?" she asked, wilfully dense.
"Well; the accusation, for one thing."
Lady Wyke did not reply. She was thinking how best to get the better of this iceberg. Threats did not move him; passion did not appeal to him; tears had no effect. Strange to say, the more he held out the more she admired him. However, if she wished to gain him against his will, and that she intended to manage, being so infatuated, the sole thing to do was to talk business. He must be forced to see that she had the upper hand, and if he did grasp that fact he might yield. But even then she was not very sure of victory.
"Let us talk calmly," said Lady Wyke, lighting a fresh cigarette. "I want to marry you, and I mean to have you. That is not an easy thing for a woman to say to the man she loves."
Edwin admitted this, and suggested that she should lay her cards on the table forthwith. "Then I shall show you my hand."
With an ironical smile she fumbled under the cushion and produced a letter deliberately to pass over to him. "It's a copy," she observed, while he read it. "You see, I can't trust you with the original."
"Well, perhaps it is as wise not to do so. H'm!" Edwin glanced over the four or five lines and nodded. "This is my letter to Sir Hector saying that I was coming down to see him that night at seven o'clock. I wrote this letter—the original one, I mean—in answer to one which your husband wrote me asking me to call. How did you get the original of this?"
"From Neddy Mellin, my nephew. He took the letter from the hall table, where it had been left by the postman on that night. He did not show it to his mother, as he is clever, and hoped to get money for it."
"He read it, I suppose?"
"Oh, yes. The boy is far in advance of his years, and knows a thing or two. He guessed that you were guilty, since the letter said that you were calling to see Sir Hector. However, Neddy gave the letter to me, thinking I could get some money for it for him. I told him to hold his tongue, and, lest he should not, I sent him to London. He is quite safe. Well, now, Mr. Craver, do you deny that you were in his house on that night?"
"Oh, no," said Edwin, smoothly. "I came before my letter arrived, it seems, as Hall brought it while I was in the house. Wyke wished to see me with regard to his discovery that you were alive. He told me that he could not marry Claudia, because you had turned up. But he loved Claudia, and not being able to marry her thought he would make her happy by giving her to me."
"He could, not help himself," said Lady Wyke, tartly.
"So he said. He heard my ring at the door, and came down to the study, leaving Lemby in the drawing-room. Wyke told me that he hated you, and did not intend that you should have his fortune. He intended, so he said, to make a new will, leaving the five thousand a year to me, on condition that I should marry Claudia. I agreed, and he took me out of the study into the dining-room adjoining to show me some notes he had made for a new will."
"Rather strange that he should keep those notes in the dining-room," sneered Lady Wyke, who was listening intently.
"It was strange. But then Wyke was not quite himself that night. Your unexpected reappearance gave him a shock, because he hated you. Anyhow he took me into the dining-room and showed me some papers. Afterwards he went back to the study for other papers, and was away for some time. I heard a cry and a fall, and after waiting for a moment or so I went back to the study. There I saw Wyke lying dead on the hearthrug. While I was bending over him, to see if he was really dead, Mrs. Vence came in, dropped the tray, and fainted. Then came the postman's knock. I lost my head, for in a flash I saw in what a dangerous position I stood if I were discovered with the dead man."
"It seems to me," said Lady Wyke, deliberately, "that you kept your head very cleverly, seeing how you saved yourself."
"I did that on the spur of the moment. I was very much afraid, and ran into the hall, opened the front door, and dashed down the path. All I wanted to do was to escape being recognised by Hall. Then I saw his bicycle leaning against the fence, and immediately the idea came to me of escaping. I used it as you know—and as everyone else knows. Where I rode in the fog and the gloom, I scarcely knew; all I wanted to do was to escape. Then I found myself on the Bethley Road, and saw the carrier's cart joggling along with the man half asleep while driving. I jumped off the bicycle and hoisted it on to the back of the cart, so that no one should know where I had dropped off the machine. Sorley, the carrier, found it, as you know, when he reached home at Waking. I then walked back to the Bethley railway station and took the train to town. That is the whole story, so you see that I am innocent."
"You make out a very good case for yourself," she said, coolly; "but who will believe such a story? It is known that the Lemby girl wished to marry you, and that you hated Hector for taking her from you."
"That is quite true. But I did not hate him after our interview in the study and the dining-room. Of course, I pitied him."
"Yes, of course you did," scoffed the woman, "Anyhow, you are known to have hated him as your rival, and the original letter I hold will prove that you came down to murder him."
"I don't see that?"
"Sergeant Purse may see it."
"Well, then, show it to Sergeant Purse," said Craver, in desperation.
"Oh, no. I shall give you time to reflect. Take a week or a fortnight. If you agree then to marry me I shall destroy the letter. If not—" She paused and smiled.
"I'll take the fortnight," said Craver, heavily. "You are top dog this time."
At the Rectory, dinner was always placed on the table at seven o'clock, it being a law of the Medes and Persians that everyone should be in time. Yet, much to Claudia's distress, Edwin did not put in an appearance until the meal was half over. His parents were speculating as to what could be delaying him when he entered, cool and calm, but somewhat pale. With an apology for his late arrival, and for not having changed his dress, he sat down to cool soup and lukewarm fish.
Mrs. Craver felt annoyed, and said that she was. "Why did Lady Wyke keep you such a long time?" she asked, indignantly. "It was most inconsiderate of her. But, there, you can't expect manners from a person of that class."
"She did not keep me, mother," answered, Edwin, without raising his eyes, "for I left Maranatha some time ago, and have been walking about ever since thinking things over in detail."
"What things?" asked the Rector, curiously, and Claudia's eyes mutely put the same question.
"Those concerned with the murder of her husband."
"Then she did wish to see you about that crime?" said Mrs. Craver, sharply.
Edwin nodded. "She appears to have a good opinion of my qualities as a detective and asked me to help her to discover the truth."
"Well, I'm sure! And what next? As if you were in a position to waste your time attending to that business."
"Well, mother, I nave promised to do so. After all, Lady Wyke is a widow, and has no one to help her. Also, on behalf of the firm, since she is a good customer, it is policy on my part to keep in with her."
"I don't see that, Edwin," observed the Rector, shrewdly. "After all, you are an engineer, and not a detective."
"Oh, I don't mean to say that I am going to give up the substance for the shadow," said Edwin, cheerfully; "that is, I don't intend to leave my business to start on what may prove to be a wild-goose chase. But, between times, and when I have an unoccupied minute or so, it is easy for me to look round. And I think you are rather hard on Lady Wyke, mother. She isn't at all a bad sort."
Mrs. Craver sniffed and straightened her spare figure. "I don't like the woman."
"Well," remarked Edwin, with the air of a man closing a discussion, "I have given her my promise to look into things, and I must keep it. For that reason, I have not changed my clothes, mother. I have to return to town to-night."
"Oh, Edwin!" cried Claudia, with dismay and with some reproach. "Can't you stay until Monday?"
"Not if I have to keep my promise to Lady Wyke."
"Well, Edwin—" Mrs. Craver stood up to go "—a promise is a promise, and you must not break your word."
After the dinner was finished, the young couple were left alone, and Edwin poured himself out a glass of port wine, which he felt sadly in need of. Claudia said nothing, but watched her lover carefully.
"I hate telling lies, in any case," said Craver, abruptly, "but it is particularly difficult with regard to my own parents. Yet I can do nothing else."
"You can tell the truth to me," suggested Claudia, quietly.
"I intend to. We won't be interrupted for at least fifteen minutes, so we can talk without arousing the suspicions of father and mother."
"What do you mean?"
"Can't you guess after what I have said, Claudia? I lulled my mother's suspicions regarding a possible flirtation of Lady Wyke with me by telling a lie; and I said that it was Christianity to help the poor widow—hang her!"
"Oh!" Claudia started and winced. "So she—"
"Exactly. Her flirtation is more serious than ever. She wants to marry me and asked me to tea so that she might put the case plainly."
"She can't force you to marry her, Edwin?"
"She'll try to; and there is no doubt that she has me on toast."
Claudia rose from her chair, and came round the table to sit beside him. "Do you mean to say that she can implicate my father in the crime, and demand your hand as a promise of silence?"
"No. I mean to say that she can drag me into the matter."
"Impossible!" Claudia stared aghast. "What have you to do with the death?"
"Nothing; and Lady Wyke knows as much. All the same, she can make things very unpleasant for me, and will, unless I give you up and marry her."
Claudia looked puzzled. "But how can she?"
"I'll tell you, dear." He took her hand and drew her to him. "Do you remember the letter which Hall, the postman, delivered that night?"
"Yes. My father told me something about it, although it was not mentioned at the inquest."
"Luckily for me it was not."
"Why? Oh, why?"
"Because I wrote it."
"You. And to Sir Hector?"
"Yes. Wyke wrote asking me to go down and see him at Maranatha privately. I replied, saying that I would, and fixed the time. But, owing to the lateness of the post, I arrived before my letter did. Hall brought it, and left it on the table in the hall. It disappeared, and Lady Wyke told me that Neddy Mellin took it when he came with the washing just after the crime was committed. What his object was, I can't say, although Lady Wyke hinted that he desired to get money. However, the boy read the letter, and knew that I was coming to the house. I can't say if he thought that I had already arrived, and was the man who escaped on the bicycle. Lady Wyke got that letter from Neddy, and made him promise to hold his tongue. She sent him to London so as to get him out of the way. She now holds my letter making the appointment, and threatens to show it to Sergeant Purse if I don't throw you over."
"Oh!" Claudia stared straight in front of her, pale and dismayed. "It is very terrible, and very complicated. Why did Sir Hector write to you?" Craver told her rapidly and without further preamble. Thus, Claudia learnt how the dead man intended to leave his money to Edwin, and how he hated his wife. "It was to prevent her finding out his intentions regarding the disposal of his property that he asked me to come secretly to Maranatha," finished Edwin, quietly. "I did so."
"No one saw you; no one recognised you?"
"No one. I was muffled up in a heavy top-coat when I got to Redleigh Station, and pulled my cap over my eyes so that the station-master and the porters should not recognise, me. They did not, and then I walked to Hedgerton to enter that accursed house, and—well you know the rest."
"But how did you escape?"
This also Craver told her, and shortly Claudia was in possession of the whole terrible story. Of course, she immediately saw in what peril her lover stood, and how easily Lady Wyke could have him arrested. "Oh, what is to be done?" she wailed, clasping her hands.
"The first thing to be done is for you and me to keep cool. The second is to prevent father and mother knowing anything that we know. For that reason I was obliged to tell lies, much as I dislike doing so. The third thing, to be done is for me to go to London to-night and see your father at Tenby Mansions the first thing in the morning."
"What good will that do?"
"Your father was in the house, and may know something of moment."
"You believe that he may be able to prove your innocence?"
"Yes, I think so. He was in the drawing-room sure enough; but I can't believe that a man of your father's restless disposition would stay quietly there. I believe that he came down the stairs and saw—saw—" Edwin hesitated.
"Saw what?" asked Claudia, faintly.
"Saw who murdered Wyke."
"But who could have done so. Surely you don't believe that dad is guilty?"
"No. Certainly I don't."
"And you are innocent also?"
"Then there was only Mrs. Vence in the house. Do you think that she—"
"No," said Craver, decisively. "She had every reason to keep him alive, and no reason at all to wish him dead. She didn't strike the blow. Who did I can't say. I'm going to find out. Now you see, Claudia, why I told my father and mother that I wished to assist Lady Wyke. I must assist her, as otherwise I shall be put in gaol on a charge of murder."
"She would never do that," exclaimed Claudia, flushing angrily.
"Oh, indeed she would. The woman is a perfect nuisance, and, although I was as rude as possible to her, she would not sheer off."
"If I gave you up would she let you have that letter and hold her tongue?"
"She says she would," was Edwin's cautious reply, as he rose and glanced at his watch. "Anyhow, I have a fortnight to think over things. In order to get the better of Lady Wyke and clear my character I'm off to-night to begin my search for the true assassin. Come to the gate and see me off, Claudia."
Neither the Rector nor his wife really learnt why Edwin took so abrupt a departure. He made his apologies anew, shook hands with his father and kissed his mother. Mrs. Craver accorded him a rather chilly forgiveness, and remarked that he could not be so very fond of Claudia, seeing that he preferred to leave her and go about Laura Bright's business. However, Edwin laughed her into a better humour, and then went off to Redleigh, on his motorcycle, to catch the nine o'clock train to town.
The Rectory was very dull after this untoward departure. Mrs. Craver being upset, retired early to bed, and insisted that her husband should come likewise. As he had to rise for an early celebration next morning, he was not averse to doing what she asked, and the old couple were safely tucked in by ten o'clock. Claudia, left alone, read a book for a time, but was unable to fix her attention on the story, as she was actually living a much more exciting one. Then she saw that the servants were all in bed, and retired herself in the hope of getting to sleep. Only in that way could she forget her troubles. But she woo'd sleep in vain; she tossed and turned restlessly for quite thirty minutes. At the end of that time she took a sudden resolution, and rose to dress herself. It was not yet so late but what Lady Wyke might still be up and about, so Claudia decided to call and see her. Considering the primitive habits of Hedgerton, the project was rather a mad one. Still, strong diseases require strong remedies, and in a very short time Claudia, with the latch-key in her pocket, had slipped out of the dark Rectory, and was on her way to Maranatha.
It was a bright, star-lit night, although there was no moon, and the girl walked swiftly along the Esplanade towards Ladysmith Road. Luckily, she met no one, not even Jervis, the policeman, as his attentions on Saturday night were always given to the village in the hollow. Claudia boldly rang the bell, and when the footman appeared, sent in her card. The man seemed rather astonished at so late a visitor, but took up the card to his mistress, and shortly returned with the information that Lady Wyke would be pleased to see Miss Lemby.
Claudia followed the servant up the stairs; she was ushered into the drawing-room, and the door was shut behind her. So here she was in the lion's den, alone and unsupported.
"This is a pleasant surprise, Miss Lemby," said Lady Wyke, moving forward with outstretched hands. "Do tell me why you have come to see me at this hour?" Claudia rejected the outstretched hands, and, folding her own, spoke sternly to the point. "I have come to give up Edwin to you," she said, calmly.
"Oh!" Lady Wyke laughed shrilly. "On what condition?"
"On condition that you save his life!"
"I accept!" said Lady Wyke. "His life is safe when he becomes my husband."
After the excitement of the evening and her swift walk in the keen air at so late an hour, Claudia felt faint. Nor did the languid atmosphere of the tropical drawing-room tend to restore her. The heat of the large fire, the brilliance of the many lights, the multiplicity of colours, and the odour of flowers mixed with the scent of the burning pastilles, all made her sense reel and her eye grow dim. With a violent effort she cleared her head of vapours, and became as composed as formerly she had been agitated. Lady Wyke was pleased.
"You are worth fighting, Miss Lemby." she said, approvingly.
"Thank you for the compliment," retorted Claudia, sitting bolt upright with a stern white face and steady eyes.
"Oh, it's no compliment," trilled Lady Wyke, like a bird, "it is the truth. If you were a namby-pamby of the weeping kind I should despise you. As it is, I respect you immensely. Few girls of your age would act so sensibly."
"I am acting sensibly, as you call it, because I see no other way in which to act. But although I have yielded for the moment, Lady Wyke, don't think that I have given up all hope of regaining Edwin. That Edwin will be my husband is a foregone conclusion. Aren't you ashamed to get a husband on such terms?"
"Not a bit," said Lady Wyke, coolly. "He doesn't love me now, but he will learn to love me. I suppose he is annoyed at you throwing him over."
"I haven't told him," retorted Claudia, curtly. "He has gone to town."
"Oh!" Lady Wyke started and looked suspiciously at her visitor.
"I know that you can implicate Edwin in the murder by showing that letter to Sergeant Purse," said Claudia, steadily. "All the same you know that he is guiltless."
"Do I? Then who is guilty?"
"I can't say."
"Your father?" asked Lady Wyke, impertinently and with meaning.
"No!" Claudia started to her feet. "My father would never stab an old man."
"Oh, I think he would to get money," retorted the hostess, leaning back in her chair and smiling. "He is very much the man who would slay and stab in order to get money. And from all accounts he needs money very badly."
"Yes, I think he does," said Claudia, coolly, "else he would scarcely have thought of marrying you."
The shot told, and Lady Wyke grew angry. "Look here, Miss Lemby, I am scrupulously polite to you, and I expect politeness in return. If you have nothing more to say you had better go."
"Oh! I have ever so much more to say. I will go when it suits me."
"You defy me," cried Lady Wyke.
"I do. I have given in over one thing because I can't help myself. I am not going to give in over the question of staying or going. After we have had an explanation, it is just on the cards that I may rescind my surrender."
"Oh, indeed. Well, Miss Lemby, as it seems we are to have a talk, let me offer you some refreshment. There is wine on yonder table."
"Well; then, go on; what have you to say?"
"This. That Edwin is innocent."
"Prove it," said Lady Wyke.
"Edwin has told me everything," pursued Claudia. "He came down here in answer to a letter from your husband inviting him to an interview."
"Quite correct. The letter I hold is written in answer to one sent by Sir Hector."
"Very good," remarked Miss Lemby, "we are agreed so far. Well, then, Edwin told you, I presume, why Sir Hector wished to see him?"
Lady Wyke nodded. "Yes. I appeared and spoilt Hector's plan to marry you. He knew that he had made a will years ago leaving his property to me, and, as he hated me like poison he wished to make another will. He would have done so after marriage, had you become his wife, since he could not make it before the ceremony. But as I prevented the marriage, and Hector did not wish to see me benefit in any way, he proposed to make Edwin his heir on condition that he married you."
"I take it, then, that the will was not made when Edwin came here."
"No. What are you getting at? Do you mean to say that there is a will, and that I have destroyed it?"
"Oh, no. But I merely point out that as no will was made Edwin had no reason to murder Sir Hector."
"He murdered him because he did not wish Hector to marry you."
"You forget," said Claudia, coolly. "Your reappearance prevented Sir Hector from making me his wife. Edwin had no reason to fear the prevention of his marriage with me from that quarter. And as Sir Hector wished to make a will in Edwin's favour, Edwin would scarcely have been such a fool as to murder the man and spoil the chance of his getting five thousand a year."
"I think you should have been a lawyer, Miss Lemby; you argue so well."
"Thank you. But I should like to know, what you think of the case as I have put it? You must see that Edwin had no reason to murder Sir Hector."
"Oh, I see that!" sneered Lady Wyke, crossly. "The question is, would a jury see it?"
"I think so. Absence of motive for the commission of a crime goes a long way towards proving the innocence or an accused person. And remember all the evidence is purely circumstantial."
"Circumstantial or not, I have the whip hand, and I mean to use the whip."
"And I mean to try and get my lover as you are trying to do."
"As I have done," gasped Lady Wyke with fury. "He is mine! He is mine!"
"Not yet! Oh, you thought I was in earnest when I surrendered him to you." Claudia laughed insultingly. "What a fool you are. I have been, bluffing you all along, you silly creature."
This series of insults made Lady Wyke lose her temper altogether, and she became the fisherman's daughter straight away. She rushed across the room to throw herself on Claudia and scratch her eyes out; but Miss Lemby was prepared for the onset, and immediately grabbed her hands so that she could not use them. Being much the stronger of the two, she forced Lady Wyke over to the chair she had risen from and made her sit down. Claudia was silent herself, but Lady Wyke screamed so loudly that it was a wonder the servants did not come up to see what was the matter. Lady Wyke bit and twisted; and cried and writhed; but Claudia held her down firmly in the chair until she was exhausted.
"I think you will be quiet now, said Claudia, suddenly, as Lady Wyke became weak, ceased to kick, and began to sob.
"I'd like to kill you," wept the beaten woman, crying her heart out.
"I daresay you would, if you had a knife or a pistol." jeered Claudia, who was panting with her exertions; "but as you have only your hands, and I am ever so much stronger than you are, it is just as well that you have given in."
"I haven't given in, you common, vulgar creature," snarled Lady Wyke. "I intend to marry Edwin in a month."
"You won't. He marries me."
"You have surrendered him to me to save his life."
"Oh no, I haven't. I have been bluffing you, as I said. Edwin's life is quite safe from you, Lady Wyke."
"Is it, when I have that letter?"
"I defy you to produce that letter." retorted Claudia, arranging the veil round her head, and looking in the mirror over the fireplace. "If you do, there will be trouble. Edwin has a good defence, as I have proved to you. No jury would convict him when no reason can be shown for the commission of the crime of which you accuse him."
"He ran away; he ran away," panted Lady Wyke, who felt her defeat sorely and physically.
"I daresay he did, because he lost his head for the moment. But he has found it now, remember."
"I shall see Sergeant Purse to-morrow and show him that letter," said the hostess, viciously, and stood up to smooth her ruffled plumes at the mirror as her rival had done.
"Well, do so. You won't get Edwin in that way?"
"Yes. We'll see. Good-bye, Lady Wyke, you'd better go to bed. I shan't detain you any longer," and Claudia moved majestically towards the door.
"Wait, I won't show that letter."
"That's your affair, and not mine."
"But," said Lady Wyke, with an evil smile, "I shall make it my business to discover how your father murdered Hector."
"That will be difficult. He had no reason to murder him," so Claudia said, but she winced for all that at the threat.
Lady Wyke saw her wincing, and regained a little of her former dominance. "Yes, he had. Hector was going to leave the money to Edwin, and your father knows that Edwin wouldn't have given him a shilling."
"He would have given me a shilling, and I would have given it to father. I know you are trying hard to make me surrender, Lady Wyke, but it won't do. Edwin has gone to London to see my father and make things straight."
"He can't, he can't!"
"That remains to be seen. I defy you."
"I hear you," Lady Wyke burst out into a shrill laughter. "You defy me, do you. Well, then I shall hang your father and marry Edwin and see you ruined."
"Oh, so you admit that Edwin is innocent," cried Claudia, seizing this admission.
"I admit nothing, I shall act."
"Act as soon as you please." Claudia opened the door. "Good-night, Lady Wyke."
Having, reduced her enemy to impotence, Claudia returned to the Rectory, and slept the sleep of the just. But her slumber was due rather to exhaustion than to placidity of mind; and on waking in the morning, she began to realise that she had acted rather rashly. Impulsively the girl had sought out her enemy, and impulsively, had carried the war into the same enemy's camp. But had she been wise in thus driving Lady Wyke into a corner? Sir Hector's widow was clever, persistent, and dangerous, so that Claudia had no mean antagonist to deal with. Enraged by an ignominious defeat, Lady Wyke might see Purse and ruin Edwin without further delay. It was possible, if not quite probable, that she would act in this way; and Claudia went, down to breakfast, wishing fervently that the record of the previous night could be obliterated. The girl recognised that she had been in too much of a hurry to right the wrong.
All Sunday Claudia was worried and anxious, both in church and out of church, before meals, during meals, and after meals. Of course, since the Rector and his wife were to be kept in the dark, she had to feign a cheerfulness which she was a long way from feeling. Even sharp Mrs. Craver noticed nothing in the girl's manner likely to suggest questions, and privately thought that if Claudia was quieter than usual it was because Edwin had gone back to London so abruptly. Lady Wyke did not come either to the morning or evening service, and the Rector's wife speculated as to why she was absent.
In the afternoon, Claudia found it impossible to remain at home, so she went for a brisk walk along the cliffs. Emerging from the Rectory grounds she passed through a small wood, which sheltered the house from the sea breezes, and took the meandering path along the verge of the cliffs. On arriving at the coastguard station she paused for a quarter of an hour to remove her hat and let the air breathe its cool kiss on her locks. She had a headache, caused by her perplexity and the peace around did it good, soothing the lingering pain and finally taking it away altogether. Claudia set out on her return journey feeling much better, and began to think that she was making a mountain out of a molehill. But before she quite made up her mind to this course she suddenly came across Neddy Mellin.
The boy was descending the zig-zag path which led to the beach immediately below the Rectory, and, not being far distant, Claudia recognised him at once. She then remembered, how Neddy had stolen the fatal letter which implicated Edwin in the crime, and forthwith resolved to ask questions. It required some diplomacy to ask the right ones, so as to get right answers, for Master Mellin was a clever brat, extraordinary sharp and suspicious. However, Claudia thought that she could manage him, and, to attract his attention, raised her voice in the Australian "Cooee!" Neddy turned his head and halted when he saw her coming down the path. He liked Miss Lemby, as she was a "very scrumptious gal—" his own words—and, moreover, had given him a packet of cigarettes, which was wrong of Claudia, considering the boy's tender years. Neddy looked uncommonly smart in an Eton suit, which suited his slim, well-knit figure perfectly. Decidedly, he was a handsome lad, so angelic in appearance, that she wondered how he managed to keep his shady character out of his face. Neddy was an unscrupulous little wretch, he stopped at nothing to get his own way and his own enjoyment, thereby greatly resembling his elders.
"You do look smart, Neddy," said Claudia, when she reached the boy. "Why are you not in London?"
"I came down to see mother," said Neddy, whose diction, as the listener noted, was much improved, even in the short time he had been under tuition. "She always wants to see me every week, so that she may know that I am safe. Coming down on to the beach, miss?"
"Yes. I am out for a walk. I have not been down this way before."
"It's just as well, miss," said Neddy, sagely, and led the way down to the sands. "This place here is dangerous."
"Dangerous!" Claudia looked, at the billowy sand-mounds.
"Yes. See," and Neddy pointed to a distant patch of glistening sand, which looked oozy and damp and treacherous. "Quicksands, miss."
Claudia stared and shivered. "What a nasty-looking place."
"Aye, and it is nasty, too, miss. Folks have told me again and again how other folk have been swallowed up yonder."
"There should be a sign that it is dangerous."
"There was a sign," chuckled Neddy, "but it was swallowed up also, if you or me got in there," he added, fixing his innocent blue eyes on the gleaming expanse, "we'd go down to hell."
"Don't talk like that, you horrid little boy."
"I'm not little, though I may be horrid, miss. I'm grown up, I am, and next week I sing at the Tit-Bits, Music-Hall. 'Sally in our Alley's' what I'm going to sing. The chap as teaches me says I'll make a hit. It's good pay, too, miss, I do say. But there—" Neddy's face fell—"I've got to hand over the dibs to my blessed mother."
"Why do you speak of your mother in that way?"
"Well, I can't call her my cussed mother, can I miss?"
Claudia laughed, and then became grave to rebuke him. "You are a wicked boy to talk of your mother in that way. It is just as well that she should get your salary. You are too young to know the value of money."
"Oh, am I? Well, that's a good one. May I smoke?"
Claudia laughed again at this politeness, and sat down on a convenient boulder. "You shouldn't smoke at your age."
"Who gave me cigarettes?" asked Neddy, shyly.
"I was very wrong to encourage you. I don't think," added Claudia, with a view to arriving at the point she aimed at, "that your aunt would give you tobacco."
Neddy sat down and lighted up with the impudent air of a robin. "I take it," he remarked, coolly, "she smokes herself, and I sneak what I want. Aunt Laura ain't bad. A dashing sort of woman, ain't she?"
"She'd box your ears if she heard you say that, Neddy."
"She wouldn't. Aunt Laura daren't lay a finger on me."
"Why not?" Claudia became aware that there was a threat hidden here.
"Because I know—" Neddy hesitated, and stole a cunning glance at his companion. "Well, I know what I know."
"Lady Wyke has been very kind to you, Neddy."
"Kind? Oh, yes, very kind," Neddy sneered, and then smiled blandly.
"You're a wicked little boy, you know, to steal letters."
Master Mellin dropped his cigarette and looked startled. "She told you?"
Claudia nodded. "Yes. She wants—"
"You needn't talk." Neddy waved his hand grandly. "I know. Aunt Laura wants to marry the nut you're sweet on. I twigged that ages ago. She didn't know how to manage to nab him, so I helped her."
"By giving her that letter?"
Neddy nodded in his turn. "I read it, you know miss," and he leered so significantly that Claudia looked upon him as the leading pupil in Mr. Fagin's evil Academy. "I'm rather sorry I did," went on Neddy, "as the nut belongs to you, but only in that way could I make the old gal help me."
"You unscrupulous little animal!" burst out Claudia, positively afraid of the lad's shrewdness. "You have made a lot of mischief."
"I could have made more, miss. 'Spose I'd given that letter to old Purse?"
Claudia shivered, and saw the necessity of propitiating him. "You didn't do that, I am glad to say."
"No. 'Cause I like Mr. Craver. He's a good sort, and has promised to give me a ride in his aeroplane."
"Why did you steal the letter at all?" asked Claudia, nervously.
"Well, you see, I arrived just when that old cove was slaughtered. Old Mrs. Vence, she wouldn't let me see the corpse as much as I wanted to, so I nicked the letter lying on the hall table just to punish her. You see, if the letter was missing I guessed she'd get beans. When she did I intended to bring the letter back."
"But she didn't get beans as you call it."
"No. Rum thing, as nothing was said about that letter, miss. Well, then, when I saw that nothing was asked at the inquest, I opened the letter and read it. I'm fly enough to know as it meant Mr. Craver was in the house when the old cove died, seeing the letter said as he was coming. But I didn't go for to say a thing, knowing Mr. Craver ain't at all a bad sort, nor his pa and ma either. I stowed away the letter, telling no one, not even mother, and only showed it to Aunt Laura when she was sweet on Mr. Craver."
"You might have thought of me, Neddy."
"Didn't know you then, though it was Hedgerton talk as you were going to marry Mr. Craver. Aunt Laura she got the letter before you came down. When you came and were nice to me and gave me cigarettes. I was sorry. But don't you be afeared, miss. Mr. Craver didn't do it."
"How do you know?" asked Claudia, eagerly.
"Ah, that's tellings." Master Mellin winked.
"I shall ask Sergeant Purse to make you say what you mean!" cried Claudia.
Neddy laughed. "Then all about the letter will come out, and Mr. Craver will be put in chokey. There ain't no sense, in that."
"Do you know the truth?"
"No." Neddy looked innocently surprised. "How should I know the truth? I only come to Maranatha just after the old cove had been murdered. But I'm uncommonly certain as Mr. Craver hadn't no hand in the business."
"Can you help me to prove that?" pleaded Claudia, who saw very well that the boy was a valuable witness if dealt with diplomatically.
"I can give you a tip," said Neddy, after a pause.
"Give it to me, then."
"Go and ask Sergeant Purse to show you the knife as was used."
"What good will that do?"
"Well," said Master Mellin, shrewdly, "it seems to me, though, I'm only a boy, as Sergeant Purse ought to hunt for the cove as owns that knife. It was sticking in the heart of the old cove you know, and the sergeant has it. I saw it at the inquest, and it don't seem to be the kind of knife Mr. Craver would use, nohow. Mr. Craver, he cut on Hall's bike; but the cove as did the trick, miss, cleared out in another way."
Claudia asked further questions, and received evasive answers. Master Mellin evidently had said all that he intended to say at the moment, so there was little use in prolonging the conversation. Along with the boy, Claudia climbed up the path again, and left Neddy again at the Rectory gate. In a most polite way, he lifted his straw hat in farewell; but she detained him for a few minutes, in the hope of getting him to say more. He smiled like an angel, shook his head like an old man, and resolutely refused to open his mouth. There was nothing for it but to let him go, which Claudia did.
All the same, his hint about the knife dwelt in her memory. It was indeed, strange, that the police authorities had not followed up this important clue. Without doubt, if the knife was a peculiar one, which Neddy hinted, its owner might be discovered; and once he was found, then the truth would become known. Miss Lemby retired to bed on that night resolved to see Sergeant Purse on the morrow and learn what she could. Having been engaged to Sir Hector, there was ample excuse for her to ask questions. In the anxiety and interest caused by Neddy's conversation Claudia quite forgot her tussle with Lady Wyke, and passed a better night in consequence.
By three o'clock next day she found herself standing with her bicycle before the door of the Redleigh Police-office, and entered to ask for the sergeant. Luck stood her friend, for the sergeant, usually out on his rounds, happened to be in and disengaged. Claudia was admitted into the sanctum of the official, and was amiably received by the foxy-faced little man. As usual, he was as dry as a mummy in his looks, and his eyes were more than ever like those of a rat. He was uncommonly polite to Miss Lemby, since he knew her story, and was sorry for her.
"I hope you've got over it, miss," said the sergeant, placing a chair for his visitor. "It was a hot time for you, that same murder."
"I am getting over it," Claudia assured him with a faint smile. "And it was a very painful time as I respected Sir Hector."
"I don't think he behaved very well, Miss Lemby."
"Oh, I think he did. After all, sergeant, he did not know that his wife was alive, you know. It was all a mistake. But I have called to ask if you have a clue to the assassin?"
"No, Miss Lemby. I quite understand why you should come and ask, as naturally, you'd like to see the villain hanged. Lady Wyke would like to see it also. I can't catch him, however. He went off on that bicycle, and vanished into thin air, like those witches in the play."
"Well, Mr. Purse. I have been thinking over the matter," said Claudia, with diplomatic frankness, "and it occurred to me that you should follow the clue of the knife. You have it, I believe?"
"Oh, yes," Sergeant Purse rose and went to a shelf at the further end of his office to fumble there, "but I don't see, how we can follow that clue."
"Why not? Someone told me that the knife was a peculiar one. Can't you trace it to the shop where it was bought?"
"It's an idea certainly, Miss Lemby," said Purse, returning with a parcel in his hand. "Look at the knife yourself. It is a peculiar one."
He untied a string and unrolled several sheets of paper. Then Claudia saw a sailors clasp-knife with a handle of black bone decorated with three broad stripes of inlaid silver. "This is the knife, Miss Lemby." said the officer. Claudia gasped and felt herself grow faint. The knife belonged to her father.
How Claudia managed to leave the office of Sergeant Purse and reach home she never clearly knew. In some extraordinary way she contrived to keep from fainting and maintain her composure, so that the officer suspected nothing. After a time she complained that the room was close, and she felt that the fresh air would do her good. Purse, quite ignorant of the true cause of this unexpected nervousness, accompanied her outside and helped her to mount her bicycle in a most amiable way. As she rode off he thanked her for the suggestion she had made, and declared his intention of following the clue of the knife. All the way to Hedgerton Claudia thought over what she had done, and reached the Rectory in quite a fainting condition. Little Mrs. Craver met her at the door and ascribed her pale looks and nerveless limbs to the long ride. Claudia gladly accepted the excuse and the scolding and the order that she should lie down, as she wished to avert suspicion, and also to be alone to think over matters. Never in after years did the girl forget that next hour.
Lying on her bed, with her face pressed against the pillow, Claudia kept assuring herself that she was mistaken. It was sinful of her to suspect her father of such wickedness, and she deserved to be punished for even thinking of such a thing. But the question which agonised her was: What did this particular knife mean in relation to Wyke's death? There was only one answer to the question. The knife had been found sticking in Wyke's heart, and the man who thrust it into that same heart was the criminal. Her father was the man—her father was the criminal. Claudia remained all that evening in bed, and again Mrs. Craver ascribed the weakness to the exhausting ride on the bicycle to Redleigh.
All the long night she pondered and thought and reasoned, and cried out against her reason. When the dawn came she rose and took a cold bath, which refreshed her. There was no excuse for her to remain in bed for the day, so Claudia, wan and haggard, went down to breakfast. There she heard news which cheered her up.
"Edwin is coming here to-day in his aeroplane, my dear," said Mr. Craver, who was reading his letters. "He will be here at two o'clock this afternoon. What excitement this will cause in Hedgerton."
"I only hope Edwin won't break his neck," cried Mrs. Craver, wrathfully. "Oh, how foolish the rising generation is! There's nothing to hold on by in one of these airships, and if he falls he will be killed."
Naturally, the Rector, wishing to give the villagers pleasure, did not keep the news to himself. He told his wife to tell the servants, and the servants told everyone that came on that morning to the Rectory. By noon the whole of Hedgerton knew that Master Edwin was arriving in an airship, and great was the excitement. From what the young man had said in his letter it was known that he would alight on the cliffs, where there were vast spaces along which the aeroplane could run when it settled down like a bird. Consequently, long before two o'clock the coastguard station was surrounded by crowds of people. In their anxiety to see the latest invention of science and to witness the conquest of the air by man, the whole population of the little village assembled on the cliffs. Claudia came also with the Rector and Mrs. Craver, who were both very anxious and very proud of the coming event. The girl glanced round to see if Lady Wyke was present, but could not see her. She did not even catch a glimpse of Neddy, and learnt later from his mother that the boy had returned to town on the previous day. Claudia drew a deep breath of relief at the news. She knew very well that Neddy could be trusted to be silent; yet it was a comfort to know that he was absent. Miss Lemby could not explain to herself why it was a comfort; but somehow she felt more at ease without this Puck in an Eton suit hovering round. And, as Lady Wyke was also conspicuous by her absence, Claudia abandoned herself to the general excitement of the coming arrival of Edwin from the skies.
"I do wish Edwin would come," said Mrs. Craver again and again as the hour drew near. "Do you think he has met with an accident, George?"
"Let us hope he hasn't, my dear," answered the Rector, who was likewise anxious. "But he is not due yet, so we have no reason to think that anything sad has happened!"
"There he is! There he is!" shouted a keen-sighted coastguard, who had a spyglass at his eye. "Yonder he comes."
"Where? Where? Where?" shouted everyone, much excited, and looked north, south, east and west without seeing anything.
The coastguard ran with his spyglass to the Rector. "Look, sir! Over yonder—over yonder!" and he pointed seaward.
With a trembling hand, the Rector adjusted the glass, then uttered an ejaculation of thankfulness. "Yes. The aeroplane is coming along like a great bird. Emma—"
"Don't ask me to look, George. I am trembling all over."
But Claudia looked and saw a black speck growing larger as it came nearer. In a few minutes the hum of the aeroplane was distinctly heard, and with the naked eye everyone could see the machine swinging towards the cliffs high in the blue. The excitement was intense. Mrs. Craver had to be supported by Claudia, so weak did she feel at her son soaring in space. Nearer and nearer came the black dot, louder and louder became the burr of the aeroplane, and finally, like a great dragonfly it swept in huge circles over the land, and settled like a feather, running along the ground swiftly in its impetus until willing hands laid hold of it to bring it to a standstill. Then the crowd rushed to gather round, to cheer, to ask questions, and to examine the first aeroplane which had ever been in this out-of-the-way parish.
Mr. Craver, with his wife on his arm, pushed his way to the front, with his usually dreamy eyes alight with excitement. "I congratulate you, my son."
"Oh, Edwin! Edwin!" sobbed the usually unemotional mother, and clasped him in her arms as he alighted from the machine. "It's wonderful, but horrid. I know you'll be killed."
"I'm safe enough now, anyhow, mother," said Edwin, cheerfully.
"Here," said the girl in a low voice, for she felt faint now that the strain was over, and all her old fears began to reassert themselves.
"Why, darling, what is the matter?" asked her lover, hastily.
"Nothing—nothing—that is, I'll tell you when you come home."
It was not easy for the hero to reach home. He had to submit to incessant handshaking; he had to get his aeroplane under shelter; and it had to be attended to in other ways connected with the engine and wide-spread wings. There was an old barn on the cliffs which Edwin had arranged to use for his machine long ago, so it was run into this, and the doors were closed, much to the regret of the crowd anxious to contemplate the wonder. Edwin promised to give an exhibition on the morrow, and then walked home with his parents and Claudia.
As Mr. and Mrs. Craver were both asking questions concerning his flight from Hendon all the way, Claudia had no opportunity of speaking to her lover. But on arrival at the Rectory the watchful mother gave the girl the opportunity of having a quiet moment with Edwin. Mrs. Craver drew her husband away, saying that it was best to leave the young people to themselves, and so the couple found themselves in the drawing-room. Edwin at once demanded why Claudia looked so ill, and she explained how she had bearded Lady Wyke, how Neddy had advised her to search for the owner of the knife, and how the sight of the knife in the Redleigh Police-office had informed her that the owner was none other than her own father.
"Isn't it dreadful," Edwin? sobbed the girl, when she had finished her breathless narrative; "but father can't have murdered that poor old man."
"Of course he didn't," said Edwin, cheerfully, although he was more startled by the news than Claudia guessed. "We shall ask for an explanation. I am sure he will give one."
"You don't think he is guilty, Edwin?"
"No, I don't, dear. Appearances are rather against him, as they are against me. But I am innocent, and so is your father."
"Did you see him in London? You went up to see him, remember."
"No, I did not. He was absent when I called at Tenby Mansions."
"Oh we must see him! We must see him!" cried Claudia, wringing her hands.
"We shall see him together," said Craver, soothing her gently. "Don't worry, my darling. I feel sure that everything will come out right.
"But Lady Wyke?"
"She won't do anything. She is not sure of her ground. All the same, Claudia, it was a risk going."
"Yes, I know. But I wanted to hear what she knew."
"There is another person who knows more. We must see her, Claudia. If anyone knows the truth of this crime, it is Mrs. Vence."
The company of Edwin was very welcome to Claudia, as she now had an outlet for her grief. She could talk freely to him and receive the comfort which she very greatly needed, although even his consoling words did not entirely quieten her. Like the girl, Craver could not bring himself to believe that the buccaneer was guilty. There seemed nothing for it but to see the man and question him closely.
Claudia therefore determined to journey to London, not only to interview her father, but also to see Mrs. Vence. Edwin's suggestion that the old housekeeper should be questioned struck the girl as remarkably sensible. Mrs. Vence had been in the house when the crime took place, and although she had given evidence with apparent frankness at the inquest, it was just possible that she might have withheld certain facts. If forced to speak she might say something or suggest something likely to throw more light on the darkness which environed the tragedy. She resolved to see the housekeeper first and her father afterwards. What with Mrs. Vence's story and the pirate's explanation the truth might come to light.
The difficulty was to find Mrs. Vence, who had disappeared into the unknown immediately after the inquest. Since leaving Hedgerton, so far as was known, she had given no sign of her existence, and Claudia wondered how the address of the old creature could be found. Finally, she resolved to ask Mrs. Mellin when that good lady came with the washing to the Rectory.
Mrs. Mellin had never seen Mrs. Vence, as Neddy had always taken the clean linen to Maranatha and had conducted the business between the housekeeper and the laundress. But Mrs. Mellin might have learnt something from Neddy, who was always very inquisitive regarding other people's affairs. It was possible that Mrs. Vence had mentioned her destination to the boy in which case he would certainly have repeated the information to his mother. Therefore she waited for the coming of the washerwoman to carry out her scheme.
For over a week Edwin remained in Hedgerton, and daily flew the aeroplane over land and sea, much to the delight of the parishioners. The spectacle attracted man, woman, and child so greatly that there was little work done in the village during these exciting days. They talked of northing else, and the faces were always turned skyward to see the aeroplane skimming and rising and sinking and falling, and generally disporting itself into space. The Rector and his wife, seeing what command their son had over his machine, lost much of their dread of an accident. It was mainly for this reason that the young man brought tie aeroplane to Hedgerton, and gave daily exhibitions of his skill. Once his parents became used to aviation, he guessed that they would not worry over his ascents at Hendon.
Claudia, of, course, never believed that any accident would befall her lover and did not need any proof that he was a competent pilot. It was firmly fixed in her mind that Edwin was destined to save her father, to cut the claws of Lady Wyke, and to marry her. Nothing would happen to him likely to prevent his carrying out this programme, as she felt convinced. Therefore, she saw Edwin soar without feeling the slightest anxiety, and even offered to accompany him. But this her lover would not agree to. His nerves were not strong enough to permit his carrying in the perilous machine all that he valued on earth. So Claudia remained on the ground and Edwin skimmed the clouds, both resting content in the knowledge that everything was alright, or would be right in future.
Lady Wyke had not come to see the arrival of Craver because business had taken her to London. When she returned, a note inviting the young man to Maranatha arrived at the Rectory, Claudia did not wish Edwin to go, but the visit was paid all the same, as Craver thought it was just as well to try and learn what Lady Wyke intended to do. Claudia's interview must have enraged her, and it was possible that she had gone to London to take steps likely to make immediately public things best kept private. After some discussion Miss Lemby saw that it was best Edwin should have the interview, and accordingly, she gave him permission. So Edwin sought Maranatha towards the end of the week; and Claudia, during his absence, questioned Mrs. Mellin.
The washerwoman arrived on her usual day, and Claudia managed to attend to the sorting of the clean linen herself. As there was no time to be lost and the kitchen was empty for the time being, Claudia put a point-blank question. "Do you know where Mrs. Vence is to be found?" she-asked abruptly.
Mrs. Mellin stared. "Lor' bless my soul, miss, 'ow should I know?"
"I thought Mrs. Vence might have told you where she was going when she left Hedgerton."
"Well, she never did, miss. I didn't 'ave much truck with Mrs. Vence, for Neddy took the washing to the 'ouse and brought it back again. Never did I set eyes on that ole woman, 'cept I saw 'er in the distance at the inquest. An' may I be so bold, miss, as to know why you was so wishful to find 'er?"
Claudia was quite prepared for this leading question, and saw no reason for making a secret of her intentions. "Well, you know, Mrs. Mellin, I was engaged to marry Sir Hector, when it appeared that his wife was already—I mean, still in existence."
"An' a good thing she turned up, miss," said Mrs. Mellin, with dignity, "else a wicked case of bigamy would 'ave bin in the papers, my sister Laura not bein' a lamb to lie down quiet-like.
"Well, then," pursued Claudia, when she was allowed to speak, "I naturally feel that the assassin of Sir Hector should be captured and punished. It struck me that Mrs. Vence may know."
"Lor' bless me, miss, she said all she could say at the inquest."
"Ah, but did she? That is what I wish to find out, Mrs. Mellin. However if you don't know her address—"
"I really don't, miss," interrupted the washerwoman; "but Laura might know."
"My sister, miss. Lor to think as I should be connected with the gentry. Long may they live in the land. Not as Laura's proud, she 'avin' proved otherwise by comin' to me, who am 'er own born relative, an' taking Neddy in 'and. Yuss, miss. Laura might know, as she 'unted up Mrs. Vence arter the inquest to 'ear what she'd to say concernin' the tragidy. It ain't much use you seein' Mrs. Vence, miss, if I may be so bold as to say so. Laura didn't find nothin' to 'elp catch the gory villain who bolted on the bike, so I don't expect as you'll git anythin' out of 'er."
"All the same if you can get the address I should be glad."
"I'll try my hardest, miss, Heaven bless, you," said Mrs. Mellin, and this particular conversation ended with the entrance of the Rector's wife, to whom the washerwoman dropped a curtsey. Claudia, having done the best she could, went away to attend to other work, leaving Mrs. Craver to count the washing and hear the news. There was much to be done upstairs, as spring-cleaning was in progress, so Claudia worked like a Trojan, both to help her prospective mother-in-law and the aching of her own heart. While working and giving her attention to every-day things, she could not worry, and managed to pass the time profitably, and tolerably easily until Edwin returned. She heard his step in the hall immediately he opened the front door and flew down swiftly, all agog for news.
"Well? Well?" she asked anxiously, and drawing him into the sitting-room.
Edwin put his arm round her waist and looked at her queerly. "I am coming in for a fortune," he observed, in an abrupt manner.
Claudia stared. "What do you mean? Sit down and explain."
Edwin sat down and did as he was told. "Lady Wyke is furious at you, and wants to make you suffer for shaking her as you did. She told me that she never did believe me guilty, and only said so to annoy you and to trap me into marriage. She thought that I would give in, and make her my wife rather than face the worst."
"Well, she found out when I saw her that she was mistaken," said Claudia, tartly.
"Yes, she did, and now has gone on a new tack. She doesn't intend to force me into marriage, because she cannot. But she went to London the other day to make a will in my favour. Yes, you may stare, Claudia, but Lady Wyke told me that if she dies I get five thousand a year. The will is made, signed, and witnessed, and Mr. Sandal holds it."
"Pouf!" said Claudia, contemptuously. "Mr. Sandal knows that the will is wastepaper. I wonder Lady Wyke thinks you are such a fool as to be taken in with that bluff."
"Is it bluff!" asked Edwin, looking puzzled. "How?"
"Why, don't you know that a will made before marriage is null and void if the marriage takes place?"
"No. I never knew that. Few people do know it, I fancy."
"Lady Wyke believed that you were ignorant, and so has simply been trying to bluff you into marriage with her. She has made the will to bribe you; but she knows that if you marry her the will becomes wastepaper. See?"
"I see. Anyhow, whether the will is destroyed by her or not, I don't intend to marry her. Therefore, unless she alters the will, it stands in my favour. Not that I want the money, Claudia."
"Nor I," said the girl. "However, you made Lady Wyke understand that you would remain true to me?"
"Yes. And she made me understand that she was heartbroken, and had done what she could to help me by making this ridiculous will. And she won't proceed about my affair, as she sees that by so doing she will be no closer to her goal. For the time being she intends to remain quiet, in the hope that this business will soften me."
"But you told her it wouldn't?"
"I did. Only she won't believe me. However, Lady Wyke is safe for the time being, so meanwhile we can see your father and Mrs. Vence, and get at the truth of the matter. As to the will, we needn't think anything more about it."
Claudia agreed with this, and wondered that so clever a woman as Lady Wyke was should act foolishly. Then she related the conversation with Mrs. Mellin to Edwin, and hopefully said that the address of Mrs. Vence would surely be forthcoming.
Edwin demurred. "Not if Lady Wyke has to give it," he said. "She is not such a fool as to let you find out anything from Mrs. Vence likely to spoil her game."
But the young man proved to be a false prophet, for Mrs. Mellin arrived on that same evening with the address. It appeared that Mrs. Vence was living in a Pimlico lodging-house, and for the time being was out of work. Possessed of this information, Claudia arranged to go to London next day with her lover.
Next morning Edwin fixed a sidecar to his motor-bicycle, and ran Claudia into Redleigh in time to catch the ten-thirty London express. In an hour and a-half they arrived in town. Then Edwin went to Tenby Mansions at Earl's Court to prepare Lemby for his daughter's visit, and Claudia took an Underground train for Victoria, in order to seek Mrs. Vence in Pimlico. Craver wished to come also, but Claudia insisted that he should look after her father. It was necessary that she should see him as soon as possible, and as the buccaneer was here, there, and everywhere, she urged that Edwin would find him and watch him and hold him at home. With this agreement the young people parted, Claudia promising to be at the flat at three o clock, or a trifle later.
There was no difficulty in finding the whereabouts of Mrs. Vence, as the very dingy lodging-house she lived in was not far from Victoria. A slatternly woman with a suspicious eye admitted grudgingly that Mrs. Vence was indoors, and, after some arguing, conducted the visitor into a dirty bedroom on the third floor. Here sat Mrs. Vence near the window, coughing and sneezing and groaning and moaning. Her ancient face was more withered and brown and seamed with wrinkles than formerly, and on the whole she looked very old and worn and disagreeable. With a shawl round her head, and a little table covered with medicine bottles at her elbow, the old woman sat with her back to the window, shivering with ague and whimpering with pain. Claudia's stately beauty seemed to annoy her, for she snarled when her visitor sat down, and they were left alone by the slatternly landlady.
"I don't want fine ladies to come and see me, drat you," grumbled the old creature, crossly. "I'm ill with inflewinzy, I am, and I do hope as you'll get it."
Claudia smiled at this amiable wish, and apologised. "I am sorry you are ill, Mrs. Vence. But I have called—"
"About gitting me to look arter your house?" interrupted Mrs. Vence. "Well, then, I can't, me being that ill as never was."
"No. Don't you know my name? I gave it to the landlady. Lemby is—"
"Ho!" Mrs. Vence coughed and stared and grunted after her scrutiny. "So you're his daughter, are you?"
"I am the daughter of Mr. Oliver Lemby, if you mean that," said Claudia, with dignity, "and I have called to—"
"Ho!" Mrs. Vence coughed and for the third time. "I know why you've called, my lady. And it 'ud hev been better if you didn't hev called."
"Why?" Claudia was startled.
"'Cause I thought as every think was dead and done with about that murder. I hev 'ad it on my nerves day and night, wondering if I should speak or not."
"Speak?" The girl rose and turned white with emotion. "My father—"
"Yuss," said Mrs. Vence with relish, "your dear par murdered him sure enough."
"That's a lie," said Claudia, calmly, and without rising.
Mrs. Vence spluttered and shook with wrath, in her rage it seemed as though she were about to rise up and denounce her visitor. But a fit of coughing prevented her, and by the time it was over she felt too weak to scold. "It's the truth," she muttered sulkily, and took a wineglassful of medicine.
Claudia, who had entered the room anxious and perturbed, was now quite calm in asking questions.
Mrs. Vence was patently surprised to see how quietly the girl took the dreadful charge. "You don't seem much upset!" she croaked. "I thought you loved that par of yours, as a gel should."
"I do love my father," was Miss Lemby's steady reply, "and for that reason I decline to believe what you say."
"Then why come here to worrit me?" gasped the old woman, crossly. "Ain't I got enuff to put up with at my age without silly gels coming to tell me as I'm a liar. I can't say nothin' else."
"You can; you must. My father explained his movements at the inquest, and his testimony was accepted as exonerating him. And let me remind you. Mrs. Vence, that at the inquest you brought no charge against him."
"'Cause I warn't certain," retorted the old woman, promptly. "'Twas a nasty case, and I didn't want to be mixed up in it more'n I could help. I said as little as I could, and afterwards, when that Lady Wyke come and see me—
"Did she come and see you?" interposed Claudia, anxiously.
"Don't I say she did, cuss you?" growled Mrs. Vence hoarsely. "Of course she come and see me, to arsk if I know'd of anything likely to show who killed her old man. I told her what I told you, and she said as I'd better keep silent till she wanted me."
"She intended to accuse my father, then?"
"Yus. I s'pose so, when she was ready. And I thinks," added Mrs. Vence, with a dry cough, "as she's gitting ready; for she's arsked me down to Hedgerton at the end of the week—four days off, that is, miss."
"Are you going?"
"How can I say. If the inflewenzy lets me. I may. It means money in my pocket, and, not having a sitivation for months, I want money."
"What have you to say?" demanded Claudia, sternly.
"Say? The truth!" snarled Mrs. Vence, crossly. "And don't arsk me to say anything else, I beg, my mother having bin a Baptist and perticler proper."
"What is the truth?"
"Well, your par was in the droring-room with the barnit when he come, and I crep up to listen to what they was saying, as I don't hold with folk heving secrets fro' me. I had my eye and my ear at the keyhole time and time about."
"What did you hear? What did you see?"
"I heard my master explaining as he couldn't marry you 'cause he was married already. Then your par guv a screech and swore awful. I peeped in at the keyhole, and saw him take out a clasp-knife and run at the old man. The barnit, he just laughed and waited, so your par didn't know what to do. Then at that moment come the ring at the door. I tumbled down the stairs and let in that gent as bolted on the bike later."
"Do you know who he was?" asked Claudia, anxiously.
"No, I didn't, him being muffled up," growled Mrs. Vence.
"What happened then?" asked Claudia, quickly.
"What I said at the inquest. Sir Hector, he took the new gent into his study, and told me to bring cake and wine in a quarter of an hour. I said I was in the kitchen, but," said Mrs. Vence, with a leer, "I wasn't there the whole time. Oh, no, bless you. I wanted to see what it all meant!"
"And you listened?"
"I listened and looked," retorted the housekeeper, shamelessly. "My master and the new gent talked about some will, and then the barnit took the gent into the dining-room to show him some papers. Then," said Mrs. Vence, earnestly, "I saw that par of yours coming down the stairs; with the clasp-knife open in his hand, looking savage-like. I was so feared that I ran back to the kitchen just as I heard Sir Hector returning to the study. Then I comes in with the cake and wine some time later, and found my master lying dead on the rug, and the gent as bolted on the bike bending over him."
"And my father?" faltered Claudia, with a sinking heart.
"Oh, he got back up the stairs, and didn't come down until that there postman and the police came. Clever, he was. But he didn't know as I'd seen him coming down to stick the old man. You know, miss, how the post come, and how the gent opened the door?"
"Yes, yes; I know." Claudia rose with an effort. "All you say sounds reasonable enough, from your point of view."
"It'll be the same fro' the jury's point of view," snapped Mrs. Vence.
"I don't believe it," cried Miss Lemby in despair. "Whatever you may say, my father is innocent. You didn't see him strike the blow."
"But he comed down the stairs with the knife," grinned the housekeeper. "Oh, he did it right enuff—your par, I mean. I believe that boy saw it, too."
"What boy? Do you mean Neddy Mellin?"
"Yus. He was in the house—in the kitchen with me."
"But he said he came with the washing later."
"Then he's a liar," said Mrs. Vence, morosely. "He come earlier, and was keeping me company in the kitchen. An imp, he is; not as you knows him, miss."
"I know him very well," said Claudia, secretly glad to hear that the boy had been on the scene, as his evidence would be valuable. "He is a great friend of mine. I shall see him and make him tell me everything."
"He won't; he won't," said Mrs. Vence, hurriedly, and appeared to be somewhat discomposed, as if she feared she had let out too much.
"Oh, yes, he will, Mrs. Vence. I saw him the other day, and he half-promised to tell me the truth. I'm going now."
"Pity you ever came," snarled the old woman, restlessly. "You're only bringing your par to the gallers. If you speak to that imp, he'll put a rope round the neck of your par for sure."
"Neddy will do nothing to harm me and mine, as he is fond of me."
"Oh, is he? Then he'll hev to tell lies to save your par."
Claudia hesitated at the door. "I tell you what, Mrs. Vence," she said. "When you come to Maranatha I shall get my father and Mr. Craver to meet you and Lady Wyke and Neddy. Then we can thresh the matter out."
"You'd better bring that Sergeant Purse also," taunted Mrs. Vence, "as he'll be on the spot to gaol that par of yours. Git on; git out. You've worrited me with your cussed nonsense."
Claudia, having executed her purpose, left the woman still coughing, and swiftly ran down the stairs. At the end of the narrow street, and when she emerged into the main thoroughfare, she hailed a taxi. Shortly she was driving towards Earl's Court, anxiously considering what was best to be done. It was a very pale-faced girl who entered the tiny drawing-room in the Tenby Mansions flat. Mr. Oliver Lemby was there stretched at length in his favourite chair, and smoking his big pipe. He looked unkempt and uncivilised, while the room had a neglected look. Claudia felt as though she was entering into the den of a bear, and the growl with which Lemby received her aided the illusion. But that Edwin was sitting in an adjacent chair and was ready to support her, Claudia would probably have burst into tears over this reception. What with the wear and tear of the last week, and the trying interview with Mrs. Vence, her nerves were worn thin. She felt that she could not bear much more strain on them.
"Well, my gal," roared The pirate, "you're making a nice hash of things."
"Don't talk like that to Claudia, Lemby," said Edwin, sternly, as the girl sank exhausted in a chair. "Don't you see she is worn out."
"I shall talk to my own daughter as I please, hang you!"
"No you won't! Claudia is engaged to me, and I shall protect her, let me tell you, Lemby, that your position is not so safe that you can afford to go on in this way."
"My position is as safe as yours," growled the buccaneer.
"That isn't saying much," replied Craver, with a shrug. "I am in a difficult position also. I have explained to you that I was in the house."
"Yes; and I believe you scragged the old man."
"Mrs. Vence says it was you, father," said Claudia, faintly.
Lemby rose and dashed his pipe to the ground, opening and shutting his hands in ungovernable rage. "Where is the old wretch?" he shouted. "Only let me get a grip of her and I'll send her to kingdom come."
"Claudia, you are quite faint. Don't say another word for a few minutes, and drink this glass of wine, it will revive you."
"Thank you, Edwin." Claudia willingly accepted the offer and sipped the port, while her father strode up and down the room like a caged beast, cursing and storming, and generally conducting himself like a wild man of the woods. Edwin sat beside Claudia and attended to the girl, occasionally glancing at the buccaneer with a contemptuous smile. The sight of this somewhat calmed Lemby, who became ashamed of his want of self-control. With a final oath he flung himself into his chair and sulkily demanded what was to be done. Since his daughter was still too upset to speak, Edwin spoke for her.
"Let us hear Claudia's report of her interview with Mrs. Vence," he suggested.
The wine did Claudia good, and shortly she felt much more like her ordinary self. Without wasting further time she related tersely what had passed between herself and the housekeeper, Edwin listened attentively without making any remark; but Lemby growled and cursed under his breath the whole time. "Before I left," concluded Claudia, "I suggested that dad and Edwin and I should meet Lady Wyke, Mrs. Vence, and Neddy at Maranatha to come to an understanding. Mrs. Vence goes down to Hedgerton at the end of the week."
"I'll go, too," cried the pirate, rising to again stalk up and down the room. "Do you think that I'm going to have these lies told about me?"
"Are they lies?" asked Edwin, quietly.
Lemby hesitated, "The most part are lies," he said, sulkily.
"And what part is the truth?"
"That about my drawing my knife on Wyke," admitted Lemby, after a pause. "I did get in a rage when Wyke told me that he was already married, and I did take out my knife to frighten him. But I didn't mean a dashed thing, you know, as it ain't my way to kill silly old buffers. 'Sides, he'd pluck, he had, as he stood quite still when I made a run at him, and only laughed."
"So Mrs. Vence said, dad."
"Well, she told the truth for once. I was in a rage, but I couldn't hit a man who stood up to me unarmed. I'm a white man, I am."
"You said at the inquest that Wyke did not explain anything to you in the drawing-room," said Edwin, refusing to endorse Lemby's good opinion of himself. "Yes, I did—and for why? Wyke waited till I cooled down and took the knife from me, still laughing. Then came the ring at the door. He was in a hurry to see you, Craver, I expect, for he blamed well bolted down the stairs and forgot to lay down my knife."
"He took it with him?" gasped Claudia, leaning forward.
"Don't I say he did?" growled her amiable parent. "Yes, he took the knife with him, being in such a hurry. I didn't leave the drawing-room for ever so long, and Mrs. Vence is a liar in saying that I did. I waited until I heard voices, then came down and found that the old man had passed in his cheques. When I saw it was my knife sticking in his blessed old heart I made up my mind to say as little as I could. And that," ended Lemby, turning towards Edwin, "was the reason as I lied about his making explanations in the drawing-room. What else could I do?"
"Nothing," said Craver, promptly; "being innocent, there was no need for you to incriminate yourself. This is the truth, I suppose?"
"Yes it is. Why should I tell lies."
"Well, you did, you know, at the inquest. Anyhow, we have your story and the housekeeper's story. Now we must learn what Neddy Mellin has to say."
"I am sure that the boy knows the truth," said Claudia, positively. "Mrs. Vence admitted that he was in the kitchen all the time. She seemed sorry that she told me so."
"I daresay," remarked Edwin, "she has said too much. Well, Lemby?"
"I'll come down to Hedgerton with you," said the pirate, promptly.
And in this practical way the matter was settled.
All this time Lady Wyke gave no sign of her intentions. After her interview with Craver, when she assured him that a will had been made in his favour the wily woman remained silent. Perhaps she was waiting for the young man to take the bribe and marry her, trusting to his ignorance of the law concerning wills being rendered null and void by marriage. Perhaps she was waiting for the arrival of Mrs. Vence, in order to collect evidence and send Claudia's father to the gallows. No one could tell what she meant to do.
In spite of the dark clouds by which she was surrounded, Claudia felt happier when she returned to Hedgerton Rectory. Her father was with her, and Edwin also; so, protected in this way, she somehow felt safe. Assured by Lemby that he was guiltless, and believing implicitly that he had spoken the truth, Claudia felt convinced that Lady Wyke would not be able to ruin him. Doubtless her father had his faults; and his foolish rage, which had led him to draw his knife on Wyke, had placed him in an awkward position. All the same, it was not to be thought of for one moment that he would be allowed to suffer for a crime, of which he was wholly innocent. And, indeed, as the girl reflected, Lady Wyke could not herself be positive of his guilt, or she would long ago have had him arrested. Much of the truth had come to light concerning the Hedgerton tragedy; but more had to come before the assassin of Wyke could be placed in the dock. Since her father was innocent and Edwin was innocent, Claudia could not think who was guilty. In the railway carriage, when on the way to Redleigh, she asked Edwin's opinion.
"H'm!" said the young man when thus appealed to. "It is difficult to say, my dear girl. The truth may be found in Lady Wyke's past life."
"What do you mean, Edwin?"
"Well, you see, Lady Wyke knew that her husband had made a will in her favour, for when she called on Sandal to say that she was alive, and to stop the marriage with you, she made sure that there was no new will. Now let us suppose that she learnt Wyke's intention of leaving the money to me, so that I could marry you, is it not likely that she would try and stop him making the new will?"
"Yes," said Lemby, from his corner of the compartment, "it blamed well is. Do you mean to say, Craver, that Lady Wyke murdered the man herself?"
"No. Because, so far as we know, she did not come down to Hedgerton until after the murder. If she had, her sister, Mrs. Mellin, would have recognised her. But Lady Wyke might have hired someone to stab Sir Hector."
"Pigs might fly," said the pirate, disbelievingly and vulgarly. "Why. beyond yourself and myself, there was no one in the house at the time."
"Neddy was in the house," suggested Claudia.
"Pouf!" said her father, contemptuously. "You don't mean to say that such a small boy struck so vigorous a blow."
"No, I don't. But Neddy might know if a third person came to Maranatha on that night."
"I wonder if Mrs. Vence killed the man herself?" murmured Edwin, thoughtfully.
"Of course not!" cried Claudia, quickly. "She had every reason to keep Sir Hector alive, seeing that she had lost a good situation by his death."
"Well, I give it up in despair. What do you think, Lemby?"
"I don't think at all," growled the big man, truculently. "It's a dashed mystery, it is. If your theory is correct, and Lady Wyke hired someone to stab the old man so that he mightn't make a new will, the cove must have sneaked in by the back door."
"If he did Neddy will know, because he was in the kitchen long before the crime was committed," said Miss Lemby. "Mrs. Vence admitted as much."
"If Neddy saw any third person enter in that way, Mrs. Vence saw him too," declared Edwin, positively, "for she was in the kitchen also."
"Not all the time, Edwin. She was running about the house listening, and looking through keyholes, as I told you."
"It is a mystery," sighed the young man, after a pause. "All we can do is to wait for the arrival of Neddy and Mrs. Vence."
"Mrs. Vence will be down on Saturday and Neddy on Sunday," said Claudia. "You know he sings at the Tit-Bits Music Hall this week."
"He hasn't made his appearance yet," growled Lemby. "Since you spoke of the brat I have looked at the newspapers for his appearance. Anyhow, whether he comes or not I'm going to see Lady Wyke."
"To ask her to marry me," said Lemby, coolly.
"She won't," said Craver with a stare of astonishment. "You are the most hopeful man in the world if you think so, Lemby."
"It's cheek as does it, Craver. Anyhow, I'm going to have a shot at it. She can but say no."
"It strikes me, Lemby," said the young man, drily, "that she'll say much more." By the time the conversation reached this point, the train was slowing down alongside the Redleigh platform. Edwin got his motorcycle out of the luggage-room where he had stowed it, and, placing Claudia in the sidecar, whirled off to Hedgerton. Lemby engaged the same trap as he had formerly taken when paying his visit to Wyke, and hoisted his portmanteau on to the seat beside Sankey. He did not intend to go to the rectory, as he knew that he would feel uncomfortable in the company of two such precise people as the Rector and his wife. Therefore he ordered Sankey to drive to the Jack Ashore Inn, where he had talked with Sergeant Purse.
Claudia and Edwin were welcomed back joyfully to the Rectory, for the old couple had missed them sorely. Mrs. Craver, being the soul of hospitality, was vexed to hear that the girl's father had gone to the inn instead of coming to the Rectory. She was anxious to make his acquaintance and see at close quarters what he was like. Of course, she had beheld him afar off when the inquest was taking place; but she naturally desired to talk to him and examine him and learn all about him. She little guessed that Claudia was relieved at her father's decision to go to the Jack Ashore. The girl had an uneasy feeling that prim Mrs. Craver would not approve of the tyrant. It was with some uneasiness that she waited for the call Lemby proposed to pay, for the purpose of making acquaintance with the Rector and his wife. But he never came, either to dinner nor after dinner. Although Claudia was relieved in one way, she was annoyed in another, as she did not wish Mrs. Craver to think that her father was entirely devoid of manners.
The fact is that Lemby quite intended to go to the Rectory for his meal and to meet his prospective relatives. But after he had settled himself at the inn, he began to think that it would be just as well to get the interview over. There was no doubt about it that Lady Wyke was in a position to make things hot for him if she used the evidence of Mrs. Vence, so that the buccaneer thought that he would close her mouth by requesting her hand in marriage. It was ridiculous to think for one moment that she would prefer a battered old pirate such as he was to a smart and handsome young fellow like Craver. But Lemby had always made his way by sheer audacity, and he hoped to storm Lady Wyke into submission. In this truculent frame of mind he set out for Maranatha shortly after six o'clock.
When he sent in his card Lady Wyke received him at once, and he looked upon this reception as a good omen. He little knew that the little woman wished to learn the plans of her enemies, and had received him so blandly with the object of pumping him. For the purpose of conquest, and to show that he knew what civilisation was, Lemby had arrayed himself in evening dress. He looked a fine, handsome man, when he entered the big drawing-room, and the mellow light of the lamps took years off his life, as they did off the life of Lady Wyke. She came forward with a smile to greet him, looking remarkably attractive and well preserved in a gorgeous dinner-gown of crimson and black.
"I am so glad to see you, Mr. Lemby," she said, graciously. "We have not met for ever so long, although we have had much correspondence."
"I reckon," said the pirate, coolly, "that the correspondence wasn't over-satisfactory to me."
"Ah, but you must make allowances for a woman's whims," said Lady Wyke, with equal coolness. "I read between the lines, you know."
"Then you must guess why I have called."
"Perhaps I do, and perhaps I don't. Anyhow, Mr. Lemby, as you are here, you may as well have dinner with me."
"I thought you'd ask me," said the buccaneer, with has ineffable audacity, "so I got tidied up on purpose."
"So clever of you," said his hostess, with a queer smile, and rang the bell to order that another knife and fork should be placed on the table.
The two chatted about this matter and that. They discussed the news in the daily papers, they talked about various other experiences in America and in the South Seas, and touched upon every subject save on that which was nearest to their hearts. Both wished to break the ice and converse about the murder, but neither would speak first on so serious a subject. By the time the dinner-gong thundered both were quite friendly yet got quite watchful. It, seemed as though the good-fellowship of the meal was necessary to break down the reserve between them. But the moment had not yet come.
"Give me your arm, Mr. Lemby," said Lady Wyke, languidly graceful, and showing nothing of the vicious cat who had fought with the man's daughter. "I'm sure you must be hungry."
"I live on love," said the pirate, gruffly, and, as he thought, gallantly.
"You must be hungry, then, as there is nothing for you to eat of that nature."
Lemby turned aside the arrow with a laugh, and shortly found himself seated at a beautifully-decorated table, to eat a delicately-cooked dinner. He did full justice to the admirable dishes and to the very excellent wine, while Lady Wyke ate little and amused him with desultory conversation. All the time she was watching him, wondering why he had called and what he was trying to do. So far she could not fathom his motives; but when champagne had loosened his tongue and tobacco had soothed his nerves—if he had any—she hoped to learn all she desired to learn. But during dinner she purposely kept off the subject of the murder, and it was only when they returned to the scented drawing-room that she spoke. Then the pirate, in a comfortable armchair, sipped his coffee and smoked an excellent cigar, while his hostess trifled with a cigarette and began to talk sense for the first time during the evening.
"Well, Mr. Lemby," she said, resolutely, "let us get to business."
"What business?" asked the buccaneer, wilfully dense.
"That about which we correspond," said Lady Wyke, promptly. "You said that you would assist me to learn who murdered my husband so I presume you have come to tell me something about your discoveries."
"I haven't made any you don't know anything about," said Lemby, incoherently.
"What do I know?"
"You dashed well know that Craver was the man who sloped on the postman's bike on that night. You tried to rope him into the business, but failed."
"For the time being I have failed, Mr. Lemby; but I may rope him in, as you put it, later. Well, and what else do I know?"
"You know that Mrs. Vence is a liar."
"Oh, do I?" Lady Wyke raised her eyebrows.
"Yes. Claudia saw Mrs. Vence the other day—yesterday, in fact, and she said—"
"Mrs. Vence or Claudia? Do be accurate."
"The old woman," growled Lemby, who did not like to be interrupted. "She said as how I came down the stairs with my knife and murdered Wyke."
"Well, the knife with which the crime was committed is yours, you know."
"Who says so? How do you know?"
"Mrs. Vence says so. She told me."
"Then she's a liar."
Lady Wyke shrugged her shoulders. "You'll have to make a stronger defence than that Mr. Lemby. We may as well be plain with one another. I have asked Mrs. Vence to come down here, and she will be in this house on Friday evening. I shan't be here to receive her, unfortunately, as I have to go to London to get that will of mine destroyed."
"One I made in favour of Mr. Craver."
"He told me," nodded Lemby. "Silly business, seeing that a marriage makes it so much waste paper."
"Oh, Mr. Craver has found that out, has he?" said Lady Wyke calmly. "I thought he wasn't clever enough. Yes, it was a false move on my part, and I'm going to tear up the will. It's of no use now. I only made it to try and get Mr. Craver to marry me. Well, then, I'm going up on Friday for that purpose, and will return on Saturday evening. But you must not see Mrs. Vence in the meantime, and I shall leave word that she is not to see you. When I return, then, in my presence, you can meet her and defend yourself."
"It's all dashed rot!" cried Lemby, with disgust. "I never killed the man, nor did Craver."
"Then who did?"
"Might have been Mrs. Vence."
"Rubbish! It was her interest to keep him alive. She lost a good situation by my husband's death remember."
"It might have been Neddy. He was in the house all the time."
"So Mrs. Vence says. But a boy like that—pooh!"
"Might have been yourself."
Lady Wyke laughed. "I was in London at the time, and can prove that I was. I don't think, however, that I'll be called upon to defend myself."
"Why not?" said Lemby, significantly. "I might suggest that to Purse—"
"And you will unless I agree to marry you," finished the woman, coolly.
"That's right smart of you," Lemby assured her. "I came here to ask you to marry me. Craver won't have you; he's set on Claudia."
"I haven't lost all hope yet of getting him," said Lady Wyke through her clenched teeth, and looked at the man in a lowering way.
"Shucks! There's no chance there. Marry me."
"No. But I'll make a bargain with you."
"What is it?"
"If Edwin will not marry me he must be hanged. Help me to hang him, and I'll become your wife."
Lemby was quite unmoved by this villainous proposal. "No, ma'am, that wouldn't be dealing square. I must think of my gal, you know. Try another man for the job. I'm no saint, but I draw the line at your suggestion."
"I shall try no other man," cried Lady Wyke, standing up and smiling strangely; "and, indeed, I need no assistance. I can prove Mr. Craver's guilt. Mrs. Vence is coming down, Neddy is coming down, and I have him in a trap. If Mr. Craver is not in gaol by Monday afternoon—"
"Well, ma'am?" Questioned the pirate, roughly, and bending forward.
"I'll marry you when and where you like."
"It's a bargain," said Lemby, gruffly; "and I'll twist your neck if you break it."
Mr. Oliver Lemby did not trouble to see Lady Wyke again. The two quite understood one another, and there was no need for further conversation. Seeing what Claudia had learnt from Mrs. Vence, the pirate was indeed surprised that Sir Hector's widow intended to leave him alone and get Edwin arrested. Being so passionate and vindictive a woman, it was natural enough that she desired rather to see Craver in the dock than at the altar beside Claudia. Since she could not get him herself—and she had tried every means in her power to win him—it was plain that she intended to see him hanged rather than permit him to marry her rival. Her motive was easily guessed, but what puzzled Lemby was how she meant to bring about her aim. The evidence of Mrs. Vence, as the pirate knew, was against him, and involved him deeply in the crime. Therefore it did not seem much good for the widow to bring the housekeeper down to Hedgerton in order to implicate Edwin, which, on the face of it, she could not do. The sole way in which Lemby could conjecture Lady Wyke intended to act was that Neddy would be used to accuse Craver. But then Neddy liked Craver, and was friendly to Claudia, so he might not be inclined to the woman's bidding. And, so far as could be seen. Lady Wyke had no means of compelling the boy, or Mrs. Vence either, to give false evidence. It was all a mystery.
It said a good deal for Lemby's nerves that he was able to enjoy himself in Hedgerton with the sword of Damocles hanging over his head. But enjoy himself he did, and made himself very agreeable to the old people. Claudia's fears proved to be groundless, for her father behaved with unusual meekness, and showed the best side of his character. Lemby was not altogether bad, and had many good points. Refined he assuredly was not, but he had the breezy, gay air of a soldier of fortune, which fascinated the Rector and his wife. They had never before met with such a one, and the novelty of his conversation charmed them. The pirate talked of adventures in the South Seas, of wanderings in Patagonia, Peru, and Brazil, and of strange doings in Australia. A tendency to exaggeration and boastfulness which characterised his speech made Mr. Craver dub him Parolles, after the personage in Shakespeare's comedy. But Lemby, ignorant of literature, took this as a compliment, which amused the Rector greatly. On the whole, Claudia found that her father was a greater success than might have been hoped for, and therefore breathed more freely. He certainly behaved very well for a man of his loose habits and loose upbringing.
The pirate did not tell his daughter how Lady Wyke had arranged to marry him if Edwin was arrested. In the first place, he did not see how she was going to bring about such a catastrophe, and in the second he saw no reason to worry Claudia. If nothing happened before Sunday, then Craver determined to force his way into Maranatha, along with Claudia and Lemby, in order to face Mrs. Vence in Lady Wyke's presence. Matters, as he said, must come to a climax somehow and at some time. Things could not go on as they were doing.
"Didn't Lady Wyke, say what she intended to do?" Edwin asked Lemby for the fourth or fifth time on Saturday morning.
"No," said the buccaneer, with an unmoved face, and lying glibly. "I called to see her. I had dinner with her, and after dinner I asked her to marry me. She said that she would think about it."
"Rather strange, Lemby, considering Lady Wyke must know how Mrs. Vence accuses you of committing the crime."
"I told her that the woman was a liar, and she believed me," said Lemby.
"Hum!" replied Craver, doubtfully. "I don't think that Lady Wyke is a woman to be so easily convinced. She'll have you arrested, my friend."
"She may do the same to you, Craver."
"Well, she might. Going by circumstantial evidence, things look very black against us both. Your use of the knife and my use of the postman's bicycle both go to show that each had a finger in the pie. If Sergeant Purse knew—"
"I don't care whether he knows or not," broke in Lemby. "I'm willing to stand my trial if you are."
"Well," said Craver, with a shrug, "we may both be placed in the dock. It all depends upon Lady Wyke and Mrs. Vence. I suppose you know that she arrived at Maranatha last night. Mrs. Mellin told Mrs. Craver, and added that Lady Wyke had gone to town. It is strange that Lady Wyke didn't wait to see her visitor."
"Oh, I can explain that," said Lemby, stolidly. "Lady Wyke told me she was going to London to destroy that silly will she made in your favour. She admitted that it didn't work since you refused to marry her."
"I should think I did refuse," said Edwin, heatedly. "I marry Claudia, or no one, Lemby. However, Lady Wyke went to London at mid-day on Friday, and Mrs. Vence arrived at Maranatha late last night. I wish you could see her."
"I can't. Lady Wyke said that she would give orders that Mrs. Vence was not to see me except in her presence."
"She'll see the lot of us in her presence," said Edwin, grimly. "To-morrow or on Monday we go to Maranatha and thresh the whole matter out."
"I'm agreeable," said Lemby. "What are you going to do to-day?"
"I have to see about some repairs to my aeroplane, and late in the afternoon I intend to take a flight. Will you come with me?"
"No, thank you."
Craver then left the buccaneer with the Rector, and walked along the cliffs to the barn where his aeroplane was sheltered. The building was a tithe barn standing on glebe land belonging to the Rector of Hedgerton, but, being little used, had fallen into decay. As it was a very large erection with brick walls and thatched roof, Edwin had cleverly turned it into a shelter for his aeroplane by breaking down the front and adding huge double doors. There was ample room for the machine, notwithstanding the wide spread of its wings, and it slipped in and out very easily. In the barn there was a loft which nobody used, and the rude ladder from the ground to the opening overhead had long since been taken away. Mr. Craver did not trouble about the loft, but left it to the rats and owls, to the nesting of starlings and swallows. He was content to have the roof rainproof and the doors stout, so that the machine could be kept dry and wholly safe from robbers. On the whole, it was a most convenient place for the aeroplane, as the machine had plenty of room outside when it emerged to run for the time before ascending. Nothing could have suited Craver's purpose better.
To Edwin's surprise he found Neddy Mellin hovering round the barn when he arrived, trying the doors and peeping in at various points. The lad looked rather pale, but was as smart as ever in his Eton suit. Craver wondered why he had come to Hedgerton, considering that he was engaged to sing at the Tit-Bits Music Hall, and might necessarily be supposed to have remained in town for the Saturday matinee.
"What the dickens are you doing here, Neddy?" he asked, sharply.
"I'm trying to get a squint at your aeroplane, sir," said Neddy, smartly touching his hat. "There isn't any harm in that, is there, sir?"
"No. I don't mean that. Neddy. But why aren't you singing?"
"Well, sir, I've got a touch of hoarseness, and the cove as teaches me said I'd better wait until next week. I was going to sing 'Sally in Our Alley' this week, but I didn't. I'm choky, sir."
The boy certainly spoke in rather a hoarse manner, and Edwin advised him to go home and surrender himself to his mother's care. "The wind is rather keen, Neddy, and you might catch a fresh cold."
"Oh, I'm all right, sir," said the lad, indifferently. "Mother only bothers me with her medicine and coddling. Do let me have a look at the machine, sir, and do take me up with you this afternoon."
"I can't do that unless your mother consents, Neddy." said Craver, kindly. "But by all means you can look at the aeroplane."
He unlocked the doors and conducted the delighted boy into the vast interior of the barn. The next two hours were spent joyfully by Neddy in assisting Craver to do the necessary repairs, and he proved to be very useful in getting what was wanted. With the eager curiosity of his age the lad examined every portion of the machine and asked innumerable questions. All these Edwin answered good-naturedly. Once or twice it was on the tip of his tongue to question Neddy about the events of the night when Wyke met with his death, but on swift reflection he decided to wait for a more fitting occasion. As the boy was devoted to Claudia and very grateful to himself for being allowed to help with the repairs, Edwin believed that he would not side with Lady Wyke, however much she wished it. Therefore he was quite content to wait. Later on, when Claudia was with him, they could examine the boy together and learn what he really knew likely to reveal the truth.
About twelve o'clock Edwin found that he had left a particular screw at home, and went back for it. Neddy offered to go readily; but Craver alone knew where the screw was to be found, and went himself. He left Neddy in charge of the barn and the aeroplane, warning him not to allow anyone to enter. With great pride the lad took up his post as sentry, and Edwin ran back across the wide spaces of land to the rectory, intending to return immediately. But he was prevented from doing so.
"I saw Mrs. Vence on the esplanade," said Claudia, meeting her lover at the gate. "I saw her when I went out for an errand for your mother."
"Did you speak to her?"
"No. I was some distance away, and when she saw me she ran off."
"Ran off! That old woman?"
"Oh, Edwin, she is very quick on her legs, and got out of the way in a most surprising manner. Afterwards I met Mrs. Mellin down in the village, and she told me that Mrs. Vence was looking for Neddy."
"What does she want with him?" asked Craver, suspiciously.
"I don't know. Perhaps she wants to tell him to hold his tongue, and is afraid lest we should question him."
"I haven't questioned him yet, Claudia; but now that I know Mrs. Vence is on the warpath I shall ask him immediately I return to the barn. It is just as well for us to learn what he knows before Mrs. Vence gets hold of him. All the same, I don't see why she should tell him to hold his tongue."
"We don't know if she intends to do so, Edwin. It is only a guess on my part, dear. Is Neddy still with you?"
"Yes. He has been with me for the last two hours helping with the repairs. I suppose his mother knows where he is."
"Yes. She said that Mrs. Vence sent a message from Maranatha asking that Neddy should come to see her, and Mrs. Mellin replied that he was at the barn on the cliffs with you. He told his mother that he was going to try and see the aeroplane. Then, I suppose, Mrs. Vence came out to look for him."
"She hasn't been near the barn, at any rate. Claudia, I am very suspicious of that old woman. It seems to me that she wants to make Neddy hold his tongue."
"Why should she?"
"Oh, I don't know," Craver pondered, deeply. "After all, she may have slipped the knife into Wyke herself. Remember, he brought it down the stairs and may have laid it on the study table when speaking to me. Now that I come to think of it." added Edwin with a start, "he did. I remember distinctly."
"Why didn't you say so before?"
"I forgot. All this business is refreshing my memory. Remember, Claudia, I was very upset at the moment, and my mind was somewhat clouded. It's only coming back to me bit by bit. Yes, Wyke did have the knife, and did throw it on the table before he took me into the dining-room. He returned there, and perhaps Mrs. Vence met him with the knife in her hand to—"
"Edwin! Edwin! We can't be sure. She had no reason to murder Sir Hector."
"Has she any reason to force Neddy to hold his tongue?"
"We don't know if she has any such intention, Edwin."
"Let us find out, Claudia. Wait for a minute. I want to find a screw, and then we can both go back to question the boy. We must examine him before Mrs. Vence puts her oar in."
Claudia consented, and Edwin ran into the rectory. He was a long time away, as he could not find the screw. When he did return, he set out at once for the barn with Claudia. By this time he had been absent fully three-quarters of an hour. Never thinking of the shock that was waiting for them, the young couple walked leisurely towards the barn and along the cliffs, chatting easily. Shortly they arrived at the building, but could see no sign of Neddy outside, although Edwin expected to find him doing sentry-go. With an exclamation of vexation at Neddy's negligence, he stepped within, and then cried out; "Claudia! Come quick."
The girl, who was listening behind, ran in to see Craver stooping over the insensible form of the lad. Neddy was lying face downwards and bleeding from an ugly wound in the head, evidently inflicted by some blunt instrument. To all appearances he was dead.
"Oh, Edwin! who has done this?" cried Claudia, piteously, as she knelt beside the poor boy's body.
"I suspect Mrs. Vence, although I have no reason to believe so. We must carry him to the rectory, Claudia, as we can do nothing with him here."
"Is he dead?"
"I think not. Only stunned. Wait a minute. Claudia, I'll ask one of the coastguards to watch the barn and get another to help."
Edwin ran off, while Claudia tried to staunch the wound with her handkerchief. Shortly the young man came back with the two men, and while one remained to guard the machine, the other assisted Edwin to carry the insensible hoy to the rectory. Mrs. Craver received them at the door, and was loud in her expressions of regret. A messenger was sent off for the doctor and for Mrs. Mellin, while Neddy was attended to by the rector's wife and by Claudia.
The two did all they could to revive him. But the blow had been so heavy that the boy was quite stunned. Nevertheless, after much trouble with brandy, and bathing and smelling-salts, the boy vaguely opened his blue eyes. At once his gaze fell on Claudia bending over him. His lips moved.
"She did it."
The boy's gaze wandered, and he showed signs of relapsing into insensibility again. But Claudia, knowing what was at stake, asked the question again.
"Mrs.—Vence—murdered—the—old 'un!" Then Neddy's eyes closed and again he became insensible.
After that momentary gleam of consciousness, Neddy relapsed into insensibility, and became dead to the world for a long time. Mrs. Mellin arrived in tears, and insisted that the boy should be removed to her own poor home, so that he might be nursed and looked after. But the doctor, who was by this time on the spot, urged that the poor lad should be taken at once to the Redleigh Hospital, as it was probable that an operation would be necessary. The rector agreed with this suggestion, and after a lengthy argument Mrs. Mellin was induced to consent to the arrangement. A motor-car carried both Neddy and his mother to Redleigh, and everything possible having thus been done for the victim, it now remained to find the assailant. It was fortunate that the boy had been able to give the name of the person who struck him down, as it made things easier for the police. While Neddy was being attended to, Edwin wired to Redleigh for Sergeant Purse, and he was expected to arrive every moment. But before the officer came the injured boy was removed to the hospital.
While the rector and his wife were talking over the untoward event, Claudia managed to draw her lover into another room for a private conversation. This privacy was necessary, as, knowing what they did, the young couple could not converse freely in the presence of Mr. and Mrs. Craver. Edwin still wished to keep them in ignorance of what was going on, as things were not yet shipshape. When Claudia had Edwin to herself, and bluntly asked what he was going to do, he quite as bluntly answered her.
"I'm going to tell the whole story to Sergeant Purse," he said, firmly.
"But you and dad may be arrested if you tell the truth," protested the girl uneasily.
"I don't think so. Remember, in your presence and in the presence of my mother, Neddy has accused Mrs. Vence of the crime. Until she is caught, and the truth of the statement is proved, Purse may have us watched, but he certainly will not arrest us."
"Do you think that Mrs. Vence is guilty, Edwin?"
"I am sure of it. Otherwise, why should the boy say so."
"Mrs. Vence was certainly uneasy when she let slip the fact that Neddy was in the house all the time," said Miss Lemby, thoughtfully.
"I quite understand that," replied the young man, promptly. "In the heat of the conversation she said too much. Like many another clever criminal, she gave herself away."
"But why should she murder Sir Hector?"
"That is what we have to find out, and will learn when she is arrested."
"Hiding somewhere, Claudia. From what Mrs. Mellin said, she knew where the boy was to be found, and probably followed him. I daresay she was lurking round the barn while Neddy was assisting me with the repairs, but, owing to my presence, did not get a chance of harming him. Then, when I came back for the screw, she took the opportunity and, as she thought, killed the one witness who could prove her guilt."
Claudia nodded. "It seems to be plain enough. But are you wise in telling the sergeant what you and dad have had to do with the crime? Would it not be better to wait until Mrs. Vence is arrested and confesses her guilt?"
"No, Claudia," said Edwin, positively. "I must speak out now. There has been quite enough of this hole-and-corner work. Your father and I are both quite innocent, and for our own safety we must put ourselves under the protection of the law; otherwise the deuce, knows what will happen."
Claudia, after some consideration, agreed with this view, but begged Edwin not to confess until her father was consulted. The young man had no objection to taking this course, and in order to lose no time he set out for the inn with the intention of bringing Lemby back to the rectory. Then the three could wait for the arrival of Purse and the statement could be made. So matters were arranged; but, as Fate would have it, Claudia and her lover met the sergeant driving along the esplanade while on their way to the village. He stopped the trap when he saw them and made inquiries.
"What's this about your having found out who murdered Sir Hector Wyke?" asked the lean little man, abruptly. "I just received your message, Mr. Craver, and came on at once. Three or four policemen are following."
"You will need them all, and need Jervis, too, in order to catch Mrs. Vence," said Craver, promptly. "She is the culprit."
"Who says so?"
"Neddy Mellin." And Edwin gave a hasty sketch of what had happened, so as to put Purse in full possession of the facts.
When he had concluded, the sergeant whistled. "Fancy that, now. I never should have suspected that old woman. She gave her evidence very clearly at the inquest, and put me off the scent by her very clearness. I should like to see the boy and question him."
"You can't," said Claudia, quickly. "He only became conscious enough to tell, in my presence, and in the presence of Mrs. Craver, who had struck him down. Now he is insensible again, and has been taken to the Redleigh Hospital."
"Oh, has he? I wish I had seen him before he went. However, I can call at the hospital when I return."
"That won't do much good, sergeant," said Craver, with a shrug. "The boy is not able to recognise anyone or to talk at all. Better come with me and with Miss Lemby, here, to see her father, who is at the Jack Ashore."
"What for?" asked Purse, suspiciously.
"We have something to tell you."
"In connection with the death of Sir Hector Wyke?"
"Yes. It won't take long to put you in possession of what we know, and then you can search for Mrs. Vence." Purse drew out his watch. "I'll give you half an hour," he said, pompously. "We can then go back to the Rectory. I have told my men to meet me there. In fact, Mr. Craver, I expected to find you there also."
"You would have," said Edwin drily, "but that the necessity arose of my going to see Mr. Lemby about what we have to tell you."
"And Miss Lemby?"
"She wishes to be present, although she has nothing to do with the mater."
"Oh, but I have," chimed in Claudia. "I can tell the sergeant what Mrs. Vence said to me the other day."
Purse grunted and looked suspiciously at the girl, then, with a nod, agreed to do as he was asked. The Redleigh trap was dismissed, and the trio walked on to the inn. There, in the very room wherein the officer had seen Lemby prior to the inquest, he saw him again. The pirate was startled and disturbed by this invasion of his privacy, and when Edwin privately told him of the determination he had arrived at, he hoarsely objected. But matters had gone too far for these objections to have any weight, so in the end Mr. Lemby was quite agreeable to say what he knew. Then the quartette took their seats, and Purse produced his pocket-book.
"Anything you say will be used in evidence against you," he recited, in quite a mechanical way. "Now, Mr. Craver."
Edwin related in what way he was connected in the matter, and Purse started when he heard that the man before him was the hero of the red bicycle escapade. But he did not interrupt, and speedily noted down all details. Lemby followed immediately on Edwin's heels, and recounted the episode of the knife, which he bluntly acknowledged to be his. Then Claudia took up the tale, and put the sergeant in possession of all facts connected with the hunt for the assassin, including her visit to Mrs. Vence and the statement of Neddy that the old woman was the culprit. All these things the officer took down, and scribbled furiously. When he had finished, and his book was replaced in his pocket, he looked steadily at the three people before him.
"You have all acted wrongly," said the sergeant, in a harsh, official voice. "I should have known of these things long ago."
"We were not bound to incriminate ourselves," said Edwin, smartly.
"I could have helped you."
"Not you, confound it!" growled Lemby, aggressively. "If we had owned up before the truth became known you would have run us in. Come now, confess."
"Well, it is probable that I should," admitted the sergeant, reluctantly. "After all, things look black against you and against Mr. Craver here."
"Of course. And that is the dashed reason why we held our tongues."
Purse, after reflection, made no answer to this, and rose to intimate that the conference was at an end.
"The next thing to be done is to find this old woman," said the sergeant.
"Wait a moment," said Lemby, rising. "How do we stand?"
"Where you were," said Purse, gruffly. "I don't intend to have you arrested, if you mean that. But until this business is cleared up by the arrest of Mrs. Vence, I'll keep an eye on you."
"That is only reasonable," said Edwin, readily. "However, I beg one boon of you, sergeant. Don't let my father or my mother know anything about what we have told you."
"If Mrs. Vence is arrested, the whole story must come out, sir."
"Then wait until you do arrest the woman. But until Mr. Lemby and I are free from danger, I don't wish my parents to know."
"Fair enough," growled the sergeant "I'll hold my tongue. Now come along. She can't have gone far, and we'll soon lay hands on her. The old wretch, to cheat me so! Hang her! She has pulled the wool over my eyes."
There was no doubt of this. Mrs. Vence had proved too clever for Purse at the inquest, and it seemed as though she would again escape him. All that afternoon search was made throughout Hedgerton, but without success. The servants at Maranatha stated that Mrs. Vence had left the house hours ago and had not returned. An inquiry at Mrs. Mellin's cottage showed that the old woman had not been there. Various people, questioned by the police, stated that they had seen the housekeeper wandering about the esplanade, and a coastguard remembered to have noticed her on the cliffs. These were searched, the beach was examined, the woods round Hedgerton were explored, and the village itself was beaten for the fugitive, but all unsuccessfully. It seemed as though Mrs. Vence had taken wings to herself and had flown away. Yet it seemed ridiculous to think that so old and so infirm a woman could escape so easily. By the time it was four o'clock the sergeant was furious at being made to look such a fool. But swearing did not help him. Mrs. Vence had vanished, and was nowhere to be found.
"Well," said Purse, when he came across Edwin and Claudia at the barn, whither they had gone to look at the aeroplane, "what's to be done now?"
"You can't find her?" said Miss Lemby, anxiously.
"No. You know the old wretch by sight. See here, take this police whistle, and if you spot her, blow for all you are worth."
"But I am not likely to see her," protested Claudia. "If a clever man like you can't find her, how do you expect me to?"
"See here, young lady," broke in the irate officer. "Mrs. Vence is hiding. While the police are about she'll not show. I intend to collect my men at the rectory and then come along to have a talk with the coastguard yonder. There is a man there I want to examine. Now, when Mrs. Vence sees that the coast is clear she may venture out, as she won't take any notice of you. Keep your eyes open and blow the whistle if you see her. That's all I ask."
"You ask a great deal, sergeant," said Claudia, drily. "And my father?"
"He will remain at the rectory with my men. Will you do what I ask?"
"Yes. But I warn you that I don't anticipate success," said Claudia, slipping the whistle into her pocket.
"Neither do I. But I'm grasping at straws," growled the sergeant, who was very hot and very angry.
He was turning away from the barn to go to the rectory and collect his men, when Edwin stopped him for a moment. "Have you any objection to my taking a flight, sergeant?" he asked. "I want to try my machine now it is repaired?"
Edwin quite expected the man to object, but, to his surprise, the sergeant at once assented. "Seeing you going away on the aeroplane will make Mrs. Vence think that we have given up the hunt, and she will venture out to escape. Go, by all means, Mr. Craver. I'll come back to see you start."
Purse hurried away, and Edwin made ready his machine. He only intended to take a short flight over the water and then return, as he merely wished to see if the repairs were all right. To provide against accidents he placed a coil of rope on the pilot's seat. It might be wanted, and it might not. All the same, it was just as well that it should be there. Shortly, and just when Purse returned from the rectory, Edwin was ready, and called two or three coastguards from their station to assist in the ascent. While they ran the aeroplane along the ground to give it the impetus to rise, Purse cast his eyes here, there, and everywhere, in the hope of seeing Mrs. Vence. Why he expected her to remain in the vicinity of her crime it is impossible to say. But he could not help thinking that she was lurking about close at hand. However, his attention was called from watching by the ascent of the great machine, which rose majestically into the air, swept round in a great circle, and then turned its nose seaward. Looking up and following its flight, Purse walked along towards the coastguard station, leaving Claudia seated in the shadow near the front of the barn. She was behind one of the double doors, and could not be seen from within.
For a time Claudia watched the aeroplane swooping and soaring and dipping and rising in the rainbow-coloured sunset sky. When it dwindled to a mere black dot she let her eyes sink to the ground, and blinked to get the dazzle out of them. Suddenly she heard a stealthy noise, and looked through the aperture between the door and the barn, where it swung on its hinges. To her surprise, she saw someone climbing actively down the wall, having emerged from the trapdoor leading to the loft. There was no ladder, as has been explained, so the person in question had to descend like a monkey, using feet and hands to cling to the rough wail, A glint of sunshine showed Claudia a blue dress and a red knitted shawl, so she was not long in doubt as to whom the individual was. Evidently Mrs. Vence, after striking down the boy, had climbed up into the loft in order to hide, and now that she believed the coast to be clear was trying to escape into the open. No one had ever thought of searching the loft, so the astute old woman had shown uncommon sense in choosing her hiding-place.
With bated breath Claudia rose silently and waited patiently, drawing the whistle from her pocket, Mrs. Vence, quite ignorant that she was being watched, crept down like a huge bat, and then made a run for the door. Just as she emerged, Claudia sprang at her and the old woman uttered a shriek like the cry of a trapped animal. Afterwards she became silent and fought viciously. But Claudia, knowing what was at stake, held on tightly. In the struggle the woman's spectacles fell off, then her bonnet and a mass of false hair. She was unmasked.
"Lady Wyke!" gasped Claudia, "Lady Wyke!"
"Lady Wyke! Lady Wyke!" babbled Claudia, dazed by the amazing discovery.
"You beast!" snarled the detected murderess, and wrenched herself free, to run swiftly across the open space between the barn and the zig-zag path which led down to the beach.
Claudia, seeing her quarry escaping, recovered her senses promptly, and blew a shrill call on the police whistle. In a moment Sergeant Purse, at the not too distant coastguard station, heard the signal, and came running out. He saw in a moment the flying figure of the woman, and sped towards her like a deer, in order to intercept her before she reached the cliffs. At the same time Claudia sprang forward also, and reached the fugitive almost at the same time as the officer. Purse laid hands on his prey just as she reached the opening of the path, and dexterously flung her on the ground. Lady Wyke, seeing that she was lost, howled like a wild beast, and swore like several troopers in her anger and baffled rage. But the sergeant paid no attention to her curses. When he rose she was lying on the ground with handcuffs on her wrists. Claudia silently stood looking down on her captured enemy, not knowing whether to laugh or cry, so unstrung did she feel. Unable to say a word, she turned red and white alternately, and awaited events.
"Get up, Mrs. Vence," said Purse, briefly.
"It's—not—Mrs. Vence," quavered Claudia, in a shaky voice. "It's Lady Wyke."
"Gosh!" gasped the sergeant, astonished for once in his official life. "Do you mean to say that she murdered her husband?"
There was no answer from either woman. Lady Wyke rolled on the dry grass cursing freely, while Claudia sat down on a convenient rock to clasp her hands tightly and keep herself from trembling—in fact, from breaking down altogether. No one else was at hand, as the policemen at the rectory had not heard the whistle, and Purse had waved back the coastguards who seemed disposed to approach. He did not wish anyone should share the glory of his capture, and desired then and there to hear Lady Wyke's story, so that he could be sure he had arrested the right person.
"Now, then," said Purse, shaking his finger at her sternly, "what have you to say, madam? Remember, anything you do say will be used in evidence against you."
"Oh," sneered Lady Wyke, looking very white and very vicious, "and you think that I'll be fool enough to speak after that warning. How dare you arrest an innocent person such as I am!"
"You are guilty," said Claudia, hoarsely. "You murdered Sir Hector."
"It's a lie."
"Neddy Mellin can prove it."
"Then until he does, I am guiltless," raged the woman, furiously. "Take these handcuffs off, man."
"Oh, no," said the sergeant, smoothly. "I have arrested you as Mrs. Vence, who struck down that boy. Afterwards you can be arrested for the murder of your husband as Lady Wyke."
"I didn't kill him, I tell you," she snarled viciously. "As to the boy, I never saw him."
"Rats!" growled Purse inelegantly. "If you are innocent of assault, why did you hide in that loft?"
Lady Wyke scowled, and saw that there was no escape from the lesser crime. "I only hit the boy lightly to punish him for telling lies."
"You stunned him. He is dangerously ill," said Claudia, quickly.
"Then how can he accuse me if he hasn't his senses about him?"
"He recovered for a moment to say that you had struck him, and he gave the reason why you did so."
"And the reason?" demanded the woman, with a sneer.
"You murdered your husband."
"Did he say that in those exact words?"
"No. He said that Mrs. Vence had murdered Sir Hector."
"Well, I am not Mrs. Vence, I am Lady Wyke."
"Rot!" said the sergeant, angrily. "What the deuce are you wasting my time for in telling lies? You are Lady Wyke sure enough, but you have been masquerading for some purpose as an old woman under the name of Mrs. Vence."
"You can prove nothing against me, said Lady Wyke, sullenly.
"Yes, we can. An operation will restore young Mellin to health, and his evidence will hang you."
"Hang me?" Lady Wyke shivered.
"Yes. There is no escape, But you had better not say any more. I don't want to trap you into a confession. Get up and come along with me. I must take you to Redleigh Goal."
"Oh," groaned the woman, looking at her handcuffs and then wrathfully at the white face of Miss Lemby, "and to think that the girl should get the better of me! But I'm not beaten yet."
"Here, get up and come along," said Purse, harshly, and bent to lift her.
"Wait!" shrieked Lady Wyke, who now saw that there was indeed no escape, and that the time had come for her to pay in full for her wickedness. "I have a word to say first."
"Say it then," growled the officer, sharply, "and be quick about it."
The captured woman thought for a few moments, and then began with a sigh to confess her wickedness, and continued with frequent sobs. Bad as she was, Claudia was quite sorry for her apparent misery.
"I'll tell the truth," said Lady Wyke, in a melancholy tone, but it became sharper when Purse began to recite his formula. "Don't bother me," she said, tartly, "but take out your pocket-book and note down what I say."
"I'm ready," said the sergeant, stolidly, when her command was complied with. Lady Wyke nodded, looked at her fettered hands, and shivered. "I never thought that I'd live to have these on," she said, sullenly. "However, the game's up, and that girl yonder has won. It's no use beating about the bush any longer. I did murder my husband."
"Oh!" gasped Claudia, shrinking and wincing.
"Yes," went on the woman plaintively. "I killed him, with the knife of your father. To begin at the beginning—" her voice shook, but she made an effort and continued slowly "—when I saw in America that Hector was going to marry you. Miss Lemby, I came back to stop him from committing bigamy."
"He thought that you were dead."
"Well, I wasn't. I returned and saw Sandal to prove my identity. I also learnt that the will made by Hector shortly after our marriage, which left his property to me, was still in existence. Then I interviewed Hector, and we had an unpleasant scene, as you may guess. He did not want to tell you the truth immediately, but wished for time to think over matters. To do so he proposed to go into hiding in the country, because he was afraid lest your father should come and worry him."
"My father did find him out," said Claudia, while Purse went on busily taking notes. "He learnt from Edwin where Sir Hector was."
"Add Edwin knew because his father was Rector of Hedgerton. Well, than, as you may guess, I was not going to let my husband give me the slip, so I said that I would go with him. He objected, as he had fixed upon Maranatha, in Hedgerton, as his hiding-place, and knew that I came from there. He did not wish my sister, who was only a washerwoman, to know that I was his wife. I therefore said that I would make myself up as an old woman, and go as his housekeeper."
"And your husband consented to this absurd idea?" I asked Purse, doubtfully.
Lady Wyke smiled drily. "He couldn't very well object, could he," she demanded, "seeing that I had the inside running? Since he was anxious to hide the truth about his first marriage from that girl yonder, he had to do what I wished, as he knew that I could give the show away.
"Well, then, being an actress, I was quite able to turn myself into an old hag. I was Lady Wyke in London, but I arrived at Maranatha as Mrs. Vence. Afterwards, when the house was more or less ready, Hector arrived, and we pigged it there for some time. Hector could not make up his mind to tell you of my reappearance, Miss Lemby, and so dilly-dallied day after day. I kept mostly indoors, while occasionally Hector walked out, although he discouraged people calling, which was natural, considering he did not feel inclined for company. I particularly refused to see my sister, Mrs. Mellin, lest she should recognise me through my disguise. But I got Neddy to bring the washing, and my nephew and I became very friendly."
"Did he know, then, that you were his aunt?" asked Claudia, and Purse mutely put the same question.
"No. He never knew at all that Mrs. Vence and Lady Wyke were one and the same person, which said a good deal for my cleverness in making-up."
"I never guessed myself," said Miss Lemby, shaking her head.
"Another tribute to my talents," cried Lady Wyke, ironically. "Well, then, the whole reason why I disguised myself at Hector's request, and watched him, was to prevent him from making another will. I fancied that he wanted to leave the money to you, Miss Lemby, and naturally I hated you. I pigged it as my husband's housekeeper for some time, as you know, and watched him carefully. Then, on that particular night Mr. Oliver Lemby arrived, and saw my husband in the drawing-room. I then—"
"Wait a bit," broke in Purse. "Was the boy Mellin in the house then?"
"Yes. He arrived early with the washing, and was eating some bread and honey in the kitchen. I excused myself, and left him there while I went up to spy at the drawing-room door keyhole. I wished to find out if Hector was saying anything about leaving the money to you, Miss Lemby. I saw what I told you in London, when you truly believed that I was Mrs. Vence. Your father threatened Hector with his knife, and then came the ring at the door. I ran down to open it, but did not know that the newcomer was Mr. Craver. While he asked for my husband, Hector came running downstairs with your father's knife in his hand. He pushed me aside, told me to go to the kitchen and bring refreshments in a quarter of an hour, and then took the stranger into his study. I did not go to the kitchen, but listened. Then I heard Hector say that he intended to leave the money to Mr. Craver, and knew that the stranger was Edwin. Afterwards Hector conducted Mr. Craver into the dining-room to show him some papers. What they were I don't know, and why they should be in the dining-room I don't know either. But then Hector's papers and letters were always all over the place. He was a most untidy man.
"I stole into the study, and saw Mr. Lemby's knife on the table, where Hector had left it. I was furious at the thought of Hector making a new will and leaving the money to another person. The devil entered into me, for I swear that I had no idea of killing him until then. Hector came back for a moment and faced me as I was holding the knife. Without waiting, I sent the knife straight into his false heart. He gave a cry and fell. Then I heard Mr. Craver move in the next room—the dining-room. I turned to fly, and saw Neddy Mellin looking at me. He had seen all. I dragged him into the kitchen, and made him promise to hold his tongue. He was scared, and did so. Then, while Mr. Craver was bending over the body, I came in with the tray and dropped it. The postman's knock—"
"Yes, yes, yes!" said Purse, closing his pocket-book; "we know all the rest. Mr. Craver escaped on the bicycle. Hall and Jervis and Lemby arrived, and you played the innocent goat."
"She did more than that," said Claudia, looking very sick and white. "She tried to implicate my father and Edwin when she knew they were innocent."
"Oh, that was a part of my game," said Lady Wyke, lightly. "But you know now why I went to buy a motor. It was to make Edwin's acquaintance. Then Neddy gave me the letter he had taken from the hall table, and I knew that I had the upper hand of your lover. I must say that, seeing how I could have ruined him, he was brave to stick to you, Claudia. As to that pirate Lemby—"
"That's enough," said Sergeant Purse, suddenly. "I have heard all that I want to hear. Now come to Redleigh Gaol."
"One minute," said Lady Wyke, staring across the water. "There is the aeroplane, sergeant. Won't you wait for its arrival, and let me say good-bye to the man I love, and for whose sake I have ruined myself?"
"No. Come along," and Purse laid his hand lightly on her arm, never thinking but what she would obey, "come to Redleigh Gaol."
"Death rather!" shrieked Lady Wyke and, handcuffed as she was, sprang down the path in a moment. How she kept, her balance was a wonder but keep it she did, and before the two on the cliffs could gather their senses together she was down on the beach. The aeroplane came nearer and nearer.
"She means to drown herself!" cried Claudia, and sprang in pursuit, while Purse, wholly taken by surprise, blew his whistle loudly.
At once three or four men came running from the coastguard station, and followed the sergeant down the path. But Claudia, determined to prevent her rival from escaping punishment, was already in pursuit. She soon dropped to the level of the beach, and scrambled over the boulders on to the smooth sands. Lady Wyke was speeding ahead like a swallow, but lingered when she saw Claudia at her heels. The girl got within touching distance of her, when the woman, with an insulting laugh, darted off again. Claudia followed unthinkingly, and almost before she knew what had happened, found herself in the middle of the fatal quicksands, which had been pointed out to her by Neddy.
Lady Wyke was already sinking fast, and laughing loudly. "I've got you; you are trapped! No Redleigh Gaol for me, and no Edwin for you! I'm not beaten yet, I'm not beaten yet!"
Claudia shrieked as she felt herself in the grip of the cruel sands. Purse and the coastguards uttered shouts of dismay, for it appeared to be impossible to save the two women. At once two of the men scrambled back up the cliff to get ropes and boards for the rescue. But all the time Claudia and the rival who had lured her to destruction were sinking deeper and deeper, Lady Wyke, in particular, going down swiftly, as she had ran on to the sands first. Claudia was following quickly. All at once both women heard the buzz of the machine, and looked up to see the aeroplane directly overhead. Edwin dropped swiftly downwards as he recognised the peril, and soon came near enough to recognise who were in danger. With a white face, but perfectly calm, he dropped the rope coiled on the pilot seat, and guided the aeroplane down a short distance above the heads of the two. Lady Wyke uttered a cry of rage as she saw Claudia grasp the rope, and cling to it for dear life.
"It's not fair; it's not fair!" she screamed. "She shan't be saved! Me too; me too!" and she shook her ironbound hands impotently at the aeroplane. Purse and his men looked on aghast, for Lady Wyke was now up to her middle in the sand.
There was no word, from Craver, and no cry from Claudia. The rope had dropped truly, and one end was in her hands, while the other was fastened to the seat of the machine. Edwin kept his engine going at full speed, swung low, and then curved for the ascent. The rope tightened, there came a steady pull, and Claudia was plucked from peril, just as the sands had her in their grip up to the knees. With an angry, despairing cry, Lady Wyke saw her hated rival swinging in the air and borne out of danger as the aeroplane slanted skywards with a rush. Then the pilot descended lower and lower gradually, until the rescued girl, now on firm ground, was able to let go her hold. With a faint moan she did so, and sank insensible on the sands, while the aeroplane rose in the air to sweep upward majestically, to skim over the cliffs, and finally to alight with a run near the barn.
But Lady Wyke saw nothing of this. Swiftly and surely the greedy sands sucked her down into their depths. Her waist, her shoulders, her neck disappeared, while the sergeant and the coastguards looked on helplessly. With ropes and board the rescuers scrambled down the cliffs just as the miserable woman's black head vanished for ever. Without a sound, she went down into the halls of death, by a far more cruel road than the one she had forced her husband to travel. And when Claudia awoke from her death-like trance she was lying in the sheltering arms of her lover.
"Lady Wyke?" she murmured, feebly. Edwin silently pointed to the quicksands, which gleamed and glittered, and appeared to smile in the evening light. There was not a sign of the evil woman who had been swallowed up by them. And the incoming tide began to break in little waves over her nameless grave.
With the death of Lady Wyke and the discovery of her wickedness came the end of trouble. There certainly remained a little to be endured by those connected with the tragedy, for the whole strange story was made public. That led to an invasion of Hedgerton by reporters, photographers, and many morbid-minded people in search of sensation. The Rectory was besieged, and Edwin, to protect Claudia from worry, was compelled to grant interviews. The girl herself remained in her room for some days, as she had received a severe shock. But that did not prevent her portrait from appearing in the illustrated papers, since it was procured from Mr. Lemby.
The pirate was in his element. Far from disliking such publicity he gloried in it, and turned it, to good account. Money was what he wanted, and money was what he intended to get—as much as he could conveniently screw of this person and that. He charged for interviews; he had his photograph sold in the streets and in shops; he swanked and swaggered all over the place with a view to impress everyone with his importance. And he succeeded; for the case caused such a sensation that an enterprising music-hall manager offered the buccaneer an engagement at a large weekly salary. Mr. Lemby, therefore, appeared in a kind of Captain Kidd costume to relate wild adventures in the South Seas and in Australia. Both Edwin and Claudia were horribly ashamed. As for Mrs. Craver, her indignation knew no bounds.
"What kind of a man is this," she wrathfully demanded, "to have such a daughter as you, Claudia? People didn't do these things when I was a girl."
"It won't last long," replied Claudia with a sigh. "Very soon the novelty will wear off, and then father will go back to Australia."
"I'm sure I shall be glad." said the little lady, drawing herself up in a dignified way. "And I don't mean any disrespect to you, my dear, when I say so. You are a sweet girl, and will make Edwin an ideal wife. Your father is fascinating in some ways, and has many good qualities. All the same, he should not try and make capital out of this dreadful case."
Claudia quite agreed with this view. But it was impossible to stop the pirate from taking every advantage of what had happened. As he had entered upon this new career within a week from the death of Lady Wyke, he was absent from Hedgerton and did not remain to worry her. That was something gained, as she had Edwin to herself, and in many ways was perfectly happy. After the storm had come the sunshine, and now that there was no bar to their union the young couple determined to get married as soon as possible. Only when she was Mrs. Craver junior did Claudia feel that she would be safe from the vagaries of her piratical father.
The Rector and his wife were both shocked when they learnt the truth. In fact, the whole parish was shocked, as everyone knew Laura Bright, although, as Lady Wyke, she was a comparative stranger to the friends of her youth. Poor Mrs. Mellin wept at the outset over her sister's terrible fate; but when she learnt that it was Laura that had tried to kill Neddy she dried her tears and refused to mourn. People talked to her and asked questions, but the old washerwoman behaved with great dignity, and declined to say a word about the dead. She could not say good and she did not wish to say bad, so she wisely held her tongue, and was greatly commended for her reticence by Mrs. Craver, who approved of her attitude.
As for Neddy, he gradually recovered his health. An operation restored his senses, and careful nursing at Redleigh Hospital did the rest. In a remarkably short space of time, considering the nature of the injury, he was quite his old bright, clever self. Then Mrs. Mellin took him home again with the intention of keeping him under her eye for the rest of her life. But the lad, having tasted the joys of London, refused to remain at Hedgerton. As soon as he was well enough he returned to town and sought out the music-teacher with whom he had been placed by his dead aunt. The man gladly took him in charge, and in due time Neddy appeared at the Tit-Bits Music Hall with immense success. Known as "The Skylark" he became quite a favourite, and made a great deal of money. To his honour, it must be said that he gave the greater portion of his earnings to his mother, and these she placed in a bank to his credit, refusing to touch a shilling herself. The shock sustained by the boy did him much good, as it sobered his character, and gave him experience. On the whole, he turned out very well, and Mrs. Mellin never regretted letting him have his own way; with regard to the singing. And, like his mother, Neddy never spoke of Lady Wyke. She was dead and buried in the quicksand, so there was no more to be said.
The quicksand had a wonderful fascination for morbid people. Many came down to Hedgerton during the summer for the express purpose of staring at the terrible grave of the miserable woman. Consequently all the lodging houses in Hedgerton were full, and the season was the best, ever known. In fact, the publicity given to the quiet little place by the tragedy induced strangers to come down and stay there. When they found what a charming resort it was, and how good the air was for nerves, many remained, and building operations on a large scale took place. Within a few years the locality was quite populous, so Lady Wyke did good for her native village by her death, although she had done nothing for it while living. But in this connection it may be mentioned that Maranatha was pulled down. No one would rent it owing to its ill-omened history, so it was finally destroyed, which was the most sensible thing to be done. Its site became tea-gardens, and the proprietors of these did a large business, notwithstanding the fact that many people shook their heads and declared that even the ground was accursed.
But all this improvement of Hedgerton, which made it a thriving seaside resort, took place long after Claudia and her lover were happily married. After the first shock was over, and the greedy desire of the public for further details was satisfied, Edwin broached the subject of marriage with Claudia in the drawing-room of the Rectory. Mr. and Mrs. Craver were present and thoroughly approved of their son's wish that the ceremony should take place as soon as possible. They loved Claudia, and, sympathising greatly with what she had gone through, were anxious to make her happy. And what better fortune could they wish her than to be the wife of the man she loved?
"I shall never be quite satisfied until I call you my wife, darling," said the young man, fondly. "There is no reason why we should not marry at once."
"I have no money," faltered Claudia, "and my father—"
"Oh, never mind your father, my dear," interrupted little Mrs. Craver. "If I have said anything about him to wound you, I'm sure I'm very sorry. Let him go his own way, for he has many good qualities. We want you. As to money, Edwin earns enough to keep you in tolerable luxury."
"I don't want that, I want Edwin."
"You shall have both, dear. And as a wedding-present," added the young man with a smile. "I am going to give you a promise that I shall not fly any more."
"Oh," cried Mrs. Craver, clasping her hands tightly, "I am glad. Of course, I am used to it now, but really, Edwin, my heart is in my mouth every time you go up in that horrid aeroplane."
"Oh, don't call it horrid, Mrs. Craver," expostulated Claudia, hurriedly. "Think of how it saved my life. Nothing but the aeroplane could have rescued me."
"Along with Edwin's presence of mind, of course," said the Rector, thoughtfully. "And it was providential Edwin, that you took that coil of rope along with you, otherwise—" He shrugged his shoulders.
"Otherwise I should have gone down with Lady Wyke," said Claudia, trembling.
"Don't talk of her dear," said Mrs. Craver, trembling also. "I wish to forget Laura Bright entirely. To think of her wickedness in luring you on to that quicksand! It was cruelly clever. She meant to kill you."
Edwin nodded. "I suppose the sight of the quicksands from the top of the path suggested that way of hurting Claudia," he remarked. "Handcuffed as she was, Lady Wyke saw no other way of getting even with us. And it was wonderful to think how she got down that steep path without breaking her neck."
"Didn't you guess what she intended to do, Claudia?" asked the Rector.
"No. I ran after her believing that she intended to throw herself into the sea and escape punishment. But she waited until I nearly reached her, and then ran fairly into the quicksand. I followed unthinkingly, and then—" The girl shivered, for the recollection of her escape was very dreadful.
"Don't let us talk any more about it," said Edwin, soothingly.
They could not, for at that moment a visitor was announced. This was none other than Mr. Sandal, who stalked into the drawing-room, tall, thin, and dried up in his looks. Edwin and Claudia were surprised to see him, and when he was introduced to the Rector and Mrs. Craver they looked at him apprehensively. He saw their dismay, and smiled in his dry way.
"I am not always a bird of ill-omen, Mr. Craver," he said to Edwin; "and on this occasion I come as the dove of peace rather than as the raven of misfortune."
"What do you mean?" asked the young man, doubtfully.
"I mean," said the solicitor, taking an official-looking document out of his pocket, "that I have here the will of Lady Wyke made in your favour."
"Oh, but that was all nonsense," said Craver, quite taken aback. "Lady Wyke only told me that she made a will in my favour to trick me into marriage. I did not know, until Claudia here explained, that marriage destroyed a will."
"It does, Mr. Craver; but, as no marriage took place, this will holds good. It was none of my business to contradict my late client; and, as she insisted on making you her heir, she did so. Of course," added the lawyer quietly, "I did not know that she intended to marry you, or I should have pointed out that the will should be executed after the ceremony."
"Well, Mr. Sandal," asked Claudia, impatiently, "what does it mean?"
"It means that Mr. Craver here inherits five thousand a year." There were exclamations, and everyone looked startled. "I won't take a penny of that miserable woman's money!" cried Edwin, violently.
"Don't be silly, Edwin!" said Mrs. Craver, sensibly. "You will do move good with the money than she ever did. Take what you can get, and be thankful."
"What do you say, father?"
"I say accept, my son. Although she did not mean it. Providence, in a wonderful way, has guided her to make reparation to you and to Claudia for all the misery she has brought on you."
"I don't know what to say," said the girl, nervously. "I leave it to you, Edwin."
"Be wise, my dear sir; be wise," warned Sandal, seeing the young man still hesitate.
"I accept," said Edwin, after a few moments' thought. "After all, I have acted honourably, and there is no reason why I should be quixotic."
"None in the world," said Sandal, drily. "I congratulate you on your good sense, Mr. Craver. Come up to town when you can, and I shall place you in possession of the property." He rose to go.
"Stay to dinner," urged the Rector, hospitably.
"No, my dear sir, no. I have to return to London at once. The trap which brought me from Redleigh is waiting to take me back again. I hope to come down on another and still happier occasion."
"What is that?" asked little Mrs. Craver, sharply.
"When Miss Lemby and Mr. Craver are married," complimented the old lawyer, with a courtly bow, and took his leave in his usual stately fashion.
Amidst the loud congratulations of the Rector and his wife on the great wealth which had come to them, the young couple saw the friendly lawyer down to the gate.
Sandal refused to say a word about Lady Wyke, even though Edwin gave him a hint. He stepped into Sanky's trap and drove off, leaving two very happy people behind him.
"Five thousand a year!" said Claudia, drawing a deep breath. "I can scarcely believe it. Why do you laugh, Edwin?"
"My darling, I was thinking how annoyed your father will be. He schemed for this money, and has lost it. We have not schemed, and it has come to us."
Claudia laughed also, "I really cannot sympathise with dad," she observed. "I tell you what, Edwin. After dad gets over this music-hall craze of his, let us allow him an income, on condition that he goes to Australia. He will be much happier there, while he will only worry us here. I hope," ended Claudia, remorsefully, "that I am not a bad daughter in saying this?"
"'No, dear, no." Edwin petted her. "Your father is a trial, and is one of those parents who make one wonder why the fifth commandment was ever given."
"He means well, Edwin."
"To himself he does. No, Claudia, don't try to cry up your father's virtues, for he has very, very few. I shall be glad to see the last of him, and so will you."
Claudia could not deny this, and they leant comfortably over the gate to talk of more agreeable subjects.
"What will you do with all this money?" said the girl.
"Oh, that is easily settled," said her lover, putting his arm round her waist. "First we get married; second, we shall go a trip round the world for a couple of years, so as to make us forget all these terrible troubles. Then we shall return when your father is safely settled in Australia, and build a house near this rectory. I shall go back to the motor factory, and live the steady life of a business man who has a charming wife to welcome him home."
"And you won't fly any more, Edwin."
"No; never again. The aeroplane will go back to town by rail. Seeing what happiness has come to us, I shall not tempt Providence. Hullo, here's the post!" It was indeed Hall, who came up the road on his bicycle. Edwin took the letters, which were all for the Rector. After a word or two, the postman got on his machine, and moved swiftly away. Edwin watched the red bicycle pass out of sight. "A machine like that saved my life," he said, gravely. "If I hadn't got away on that night I should have been hanged by this time."
Claudia threw her arms round his neck. "Don't Edwin! Let us try and forget all about that terrible time. Come inside."
"All right. We can pass the evening along with father and mother, building castles in the air."
"Come in, dear, come in. I never wish to see a red bicycle again."
"Nor do I," said the young man, laughing; "but we can't abolish postmen, you know, dearest. There, I shan't say another word. All our trouble has gone down the road with the red bicycle. And now—"
"Now I have you, and you have me," said Claudia, with a kiss. "Come inside."
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