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Chapter 13

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« on: February 28, 2023, 06:55:43 am »

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," shaffed 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!"

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