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Chapter 15

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« on: February 28, 2023, 07:34:41 am »

Lady Wyke's sudden accusation of murder came like a bolt from the blue, and so stunned Craver that he had not a word to say. While he sat silent in the deep armchair, as white and cold and motionless as any corpse, she touched the bell-button and ordered the footman who appeared to bring in tea immediately, The footman arranged the tea-table near the fire, and Lady Wyke sat down to attend to her hospitable duties.

"Sugar, Mr. Craver?" she asked, when the tea was poured out.

If she could be composed so could he.

"Thank you. Two lumps," he said, and bent forward to accept the cup.

"You take it very well," said Lady Wyke, approvingly. "But then I know you have plenty of courage. All aviators must be courageous, and you are very successful I hear. I wonder if you would take me for a flight one day?"

"Would you risk one with me?" asked Craver.

Lady Wyke laughed, settled herself amongst the cushions of the sofa, and stirred her tea. "Oh, you mean that you might be inclined to tip me out of the machine," she observed, looking at him straightly. "Very naturally you should, seeing what I know. Still, I am willing to risk a flight."

"What do you know?"

"I told you. I know that you murdered Sir Hector."

"I did not murder him," said Craver, steadily.

Lady Wyke shrugged her elegant shoulders. "Of course you say that. I don't very well see what else you can say if you want to save your neck."

"My neck isn't in danger."

"Oh, I think it is, and at my discretion"

"So you think."

"And so I believe, with every reason to believe," she retorted, and yet looked uneasy. This calm way of taking so heinous an accusation surprised and irritated her greatly. "Well, what have you to say?"

"A great deal."

"Hum! I told you that you would not get back to tea at the Rectory. After all, we are very comfortable---at least I am."

"Well, I can't say that I am comfortable in the presence of a woman who stoops so low to gain her ends; but let us get down to business."

"Business? You mean you wish to know why I act in this way?"

"Well, I have a sort of idea of your motive. Still---"

"Still, you must be blind," she interrupted, "not to see that I am in love with you and wish to marry you."

"You go the right way about getting me to be your husband, I must say," said the young man, sarcastically. "I shall love you immensely if you succeed in leading me to the altar against my will. Get someone else to woo you," he ended.

"No; I want you."

"You can't have me."

"Edwin"---she leant forward and extended her arms imploringly---"don't be so cruel. It is not my fault that I have fallen in love with you. The moment I met you I wished you to become my husband. After all, I am not so old and not so ugly that you should scorn me. Also, I am rich; I have brains----"

"With regard to that last," he interrupted, "I don't think you have. Otherwise, you would scarcely proceed with your love-making in this way."

"It is the man who should make love;" she panted, fiercely.

"I agree with you. Why, then, do you usurp the privilege of the male sex?"

"I hate you!" Lady Wyke clenched her fists, as if about to strike him, and glared viciously. "I hate you!"

"I prefer that," said Craver, serenely, and kept a cool eye on her doings.

"Ah"---Lady Wyke looked up to the ceiling---"has this man any feeling? How can he sit there and see a loving woman tear her heart to lay it at his feet for him to trample on."

"Silly! Silly!" was Edwin's comment.

"Take care." The woman bent over him and hissed the word into his ear. "I can hang you!"

"So you say," he replied, unmoved.

"So I say, and so I know," she shouted. "I know that you came down to this house on the night when Hector was murdered. You stabbed him, so that he might not marry that Lemby girl. You escaped on the bicycle. You----"

"Stop. How can you prove all this?"

"Oh, I can prove it right enough. But I don't want to go---to---such lengths." Lady Wyke burst into tears and took out her handkerchief. "I wish you wouldn't force me to---to behave in this way. Oh, my darling, I love you with all my heart and soul, I want to---to----"

Edwin sprang up as she stumbled forward, with the idea of throwing her arms around his neck. "Don't go on acting like a fool," he said, sternly. "If you must talk, talk sensibly. Otherwise I shall leave immediately."

"I'll send the police after you," she threatened, furiously.

"Do so. You'll be no nearer to gaining your object."

Then Lady Wyke broke down. "Oh, Edwin! Edwin! Edwin!"

Purposely cool and pointedly rude Craver resumed his seat, lighted a fresh cigarette and looked at her critically. "I wouldn't cry if I were you, Lady Wyke. You can't afford to do so at your age without spoiling your face."

"Oh, you brute!"

"Quite so; and, knowing that I am a brute, why, try to force me to become your husband?"

"Oh, I don't know." She dabbed her eyes carefully with her handkerchief. "Perhaps to make you smart for having treated me so insolently. I won't give you up to that girl."

"There is no question of giving up. I am hers; I never was yours. Come, Lady Wyke, don't you think we had better discuss matters calmly."

"What matters?" she asked, wilfully dense.

"Well; the accusation, for one thing."

Lady Wyke did not reply. She was thinking how best to get the better of this iceberg. Threats did not move him; passion did not appeal to him; tears had no effect. Strange to say, the more he held out the more she admired him. However, if she wished to gain him against his will, and that she intended to manage, being so infatuated, the sole thing to do was to talk business. He must be forced to see that she had the upper hand, and if he did grasp that fact he might yield. But even then she was not very sure of victory.

"Let us talk calmly," said Lady Wyke, lighting a fresh cigarette. "I want to marry you, and I mean to have you. That is not an easy thing for a woman to say to the man she loves."

Edwin admitted this, and suggested that she should lay her cards on the table forthwith. "Then I shall show you my hand."

With an ironical smile she fumbled under the cushion and produced a letter deliberately to pass over to him. "It's a copy," she observed, while he read it. "You see, I can't trust you with the original."

"Well, perhaps it is as wise not to do so. H'm!" Edwin glanced over the four or five lines and nodded. "This is my letter to Sir Hector saying that I was coming down to see him that night at seven o'clock. I wrote this letter---the original one, I mean---in answer to one which your husband wrote me asking me to call. How did you get the original of this?"

"From Neddy Mellin, my nephew. He took the letter from the hall table, where it had been left by the postman on that night. He did not show it to his mother, as he is clever, and hoped to get money for it."

"He read it, I suppose?"

"Oh, yes. The boy is far in advance of his years, and knows a thing or two. He guessed that you were guilty, since the letter said that you were calling to see Sir Hector. However, Neddy gave the letter to me, thinking I could get some money for it for him. I told him to hold his tongue, and, lest he should not, I sent him to London. He is quite safe. Well, now, Mr. Craver, do you deny that you were in his house on that night?"

"Oh, no," said Edwin, smoothly. "I came before my letter arrived, it seems, as Hall brought it while I was in the house. Wyke wished to see me with regard to his discovery that you were alive. He told me that he could not marry Claudia, because you had turned up. But he loved Claudia, and not being able to marry her thought he would make her happy by giving her to me."

"He could not help himself," said Lady Wyke, tartly.

"So he said. He heard my ring at the door, and came down to the study, leaving Lemby in the drawing-room. Wyke told me that he hated you, and did not intend that you should have his fortune. He intended, so he said, to make a new will, leaving the five thousand a year to me, on condition that I should marry Claudia. I agreed, and he took me out of the study into the dining-room adjoining to show me some notes he had made for a new will."

"Rather strange that he should keep those notes in the dining-room," sneered Lady Wyke, who was listening intently.

"It was strange. But then Wyke was not quite himself that night. Your unexpected reappearance gave him a shock, because he hated you. Anyhow he took me into the dining-room and showed me some papers. Afterwards he went back to the study for other papers, and was away for some time. I heard a cry and a fall, and after waiting for a moment or so I went back to the study. There I saw Wyke lying dead on the hearthrug. While I was bending over him, to see if he was really dead, Mrs. Vence came in, dropped the tray, and fainted. Then came the postman's knock. I lost my head, for in a flash I saw in what a dangerous position I stood if I were discovered with the dead man."

"It seems to me," said Lady Wyke, deliberately, "that you kept your head very cleverly, seeing how you saved yourself."

"I did that on the spur of the moment. I was very much afraid, and ran into the hall, opened the front door, and dashed down the path. All I wanted to do was to escape being recognised by Hall. Then I saw his bicycle leaning against the fence, and immediately the idea came to me of escaping. I used it as you know---and as everyone else knows. Where I rode in the fog and the gloom, I scarcely knew; all I wanted to do was to escape. Then I found myself on the Bethley Road, and saw the carrier's cart joggling along with the man half asleep while driving. I jumped off the bicycle and hoisted it on to the back of the cart, so that no one should know where I had dropped off the machine. Sorley, the carrier, found it, as you know, when he reached home at Waking. I then walked back to the Bethley railway station and took the train to town. That is the whole story, so you see that I am innocent."

"You make out a very good case for yourself," she said, coolly; "but who will believe such a story? It is known that the Lemby girl wished to marry you, and that you hated Hector for taking her from you."

"That is quite true. But I did not hate him after our interview in the study and the dining-room. Of course, I pitied him."

"Yes, of course you did," scoffed the woman, "Anyhow, you are known to have hated him as your rival, and the original letter I hold will prove that you came down to murder him."

"I don't see that?"

"Sergeant Purse may see it."

"Well, then, show it to Sergeant Purse," said Craver, in desperation.

"Oh, no. I shall give you time to reflect. Take a week or a fortnight. If you agree then to marry me I shall destroy the letter. If not----" She paused and smiled.

"I'll take the fortnight," said Craver, heavily. "You are top dog this time."

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