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Chapter 10

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« on: February 28, 2023, 03:52:13 am »

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?"

"I am."

"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.

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