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Chapter 14

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« on: February 28, 2023, 07:17:20 am »

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 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."

"Claudia!"

"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, upstairs, was 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."

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