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Chapter 12

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« on: February 28, 2023, 05:01:59 am »

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, and 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 London."

"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."

"Emma! Emma!"

"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."

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