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Chapter 7

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« on: February 28, 2023, 02:27:02 am »

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 of 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.

"Says what?"

"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 your 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."

"As how?"

"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?

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