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Chapter 16

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« on: February 28, 2023, 07:50:03 am »

At the Rectory, dinner was always placed on the table at seven o'clock, it being a law of the Medes and Persians that everyone should be in time. Yet, much to Claudia's distress, Edwin did not put in an appearance until the meal was half over. His parents were speculating as to what could be delaying him when he entered, cool and calm, but somewhat pale. With an apology for his late arrival, and for not having changed his dress, he sat down to cool soup and lukewarm fish.

Mrs. Craver felt annoyed, and said that she was. "Why did Lady Wyke keep you such a long time?" she asked, indignantly. "It was most inconsiderate of her. But, there, you can't expect manners from a person of that class."

"She did not keep me, mother," answered, Edwin, without raising his eyes, "for I left Maranatha some time ago, and have been walking about ever since thinking things over in detail."

"What things?" asked the Rector, curiously, and Claudia's eyes mutely put the same question.

"Those concerned with the murder of her husband."

"Then she did wish to see you about that crime?" said Mrs. Craver, sharply.

Edwin nodded. "She said she had a good opinion of my qualities as a detective and asked me to help her to discover the truth."

"Well, I'm sure! And what next? As if you were in a position to waste your time attending to that business."

"Well, mother, I nave promised to do so. After all, Lady Wyke is a widow, and has no one to help her. Also, on behalf of the firm, since she is a good customer, it is policy on my part to keep in with her."

"I don't see that, Edwin," observed the Rector, shrewdly. "After all, you are an engineer, and not a detective."

"Oh, I don't mean to say that I am going to give up the substance for the shadow," said Edwin, cheerfully; "that is, I don't intend to leave my business to start on what may prove to be a wild-goose chase. But, between times, and when I have an unoccupied minute or so, it is easy for me to look round. And I think you are rather hard on Lady Wyke, mother. She isn't at all a bad sort."

Mrs. Craver sniffed and straightened her spare figure. "I don't like the woman."

"Well," remarked Edwin, with the air of a man closing a discussion, "I have given her my promise to look into things, and I must keep it. For that reason, I have not changed my clothes, mother. I have to return to town to-night."

"Oh, Edwin!" cried Claudia, with dismay and with some reproach. "Can't you stay until Monday?"

"Not if I have to keep my promise to Lady Wyke."

"Well, Edwin"---Mrs. Craver stood up to go---"a promise is a promise, and you must not break your word."

After the dinner was finished, the young couple were left alone, and Edwin poured himself out a glass of port wine, which he felt sadly in need of. Claudia said nothing, but watched her lover carefully.

"I hate telling lies, in any case," said Craver, abruptly, "but it is particularly difficult with regard to my own parents. Yet I can do nothing else."

"You can tell the truth to me," suggested Claudia, quietly.

"I intend to. We won't be interrupted for at least fifteen minutes, so we can talk without arousing the suspicions of father and mother."

"What do you mean?"

"Can't you guess after what I have said, Claudia? I lulled my mother's suspicions regarding a possible flirtation of Lady Wyke with me by telling a lie; and I said that it was Christianity to help the poor widow---hang her!"

"Oh!" Claudia started and winced. "So she----"

"Exactly. Her flirtation is more serious than ever. She wants to marry me and asked me to tea so that she might put the case plainly."

"She can't force you to marry her, Edwin?"

"She'll try to; and there is no doubt that she has me on toast."

Claudia rose from her chair, and came round the table to sit beside him. "Do you mean to say that she can implicate my father in the crime, and demand your hand as a promise of silence?"

"No. I mean to say that she can drag me into the matter."

"Impossible!" Claudia stared aghast. "What have you to do with the death?"

"Nothing; and Lady Wyke knows as much. All the same, she can make things very unpleasant for me, and will, unless I give you up and marry her."

Claudia looked puzzled. "But how can she?"

"I'll tell you, dear." He took her hand and drew her to him. "Do you remember the letter which Hall, the postman, delivered that night?"

"Yes. My father told me something about it, although it was not mentioned at the inquest."

"Luckily for me it was not."

"Why? Oh, why?"

"Because I wrote it."

"You. And to Sir Hector?"

"Yes. Wyke wrote asking me to go down and see him at Maranatha privately. I replied, saying that I would, and fixed the time. But, owing to the lateness of the post, I arrived before my letter did. Hall brought it, and left it on the table in the hall. It disappeared, and Lady Wyke told me that Neddy Mellin took it when he came with the washing just after the crime was committed. What his object was, I can't say, although Lady Wyke hinted that he desired to get money. However, the boy read the letter, and knew that I was coming to the house. I can't say if he thought that I had already arrived, and was the man who escaped on the bicycle. Lady Wyke got that letter from Neddy, and made him promise to hold his tongue. She sent him to London so as to get him out of the way. She now holds my letter making the appointment, and threatens to show it to Sergeant Purse if I don't throw you over."

"Oh!" Claudia stared straight in front of her, pale and dismayed. "It is very terrible, and very complicated. Why did Sir Hector write to you?" Craver told her rapidly and without further preamble. Thus, Claudia learnt how the dead man intended to leave his money to Edwin, and how he hated his wife. "It was to prevent her finding out his intentions regarding the disposal of his property that he asked me to come secretly to Maranatha," finished Edwin, quietly. "I did so."

"No one saw you; no one recognised you?"

"No one. I was muffled up in a heavy top-coat when I got to Redleigh Station, and pulled my cap over my eyes so that the station-master and the porters should not recognise, me. They did not, and then I walked to Hedgerton to enter that accursed house, and---well you know the rest."

"But how did you escape?"

This also Craver told her, and shortly Claudia was in possession of the whole terrible story. Of course, she immediately saw in what peril her lover stood, and how easily Lady Wyke could have him arrested. "Oh, what is to be done?" she wailed, clasping her hands.

"The first thing to be done is for you and me to keep cool. The second is to prevent father and mother knowing anything that we know. For that reason I was obliged to tell lies, much as I dislike doing so. The third thing to be done is for me to go to London to-night and see your father at Tenby Mansions the first thing in the morning."

"What good will that do?"

"Your father was in the house, and may know something of moment."

"You believe that he may be able to prove your innocence?"

"Yes, I think so. He was in the drawing-room sure enough; but I can't believe that a man of your father's restless disposition would stay quietly there. I believe that he came down the stairs and saw---saw----" Edwin hesitated.

"Saw what?" asked Claudia, faintly.

"Saw who murdered Wyke."

"But who could have done so. Surely you don't believe that dad is guilty?"

"No. Certainly I don't."

"And you are innocent also?"

"Absolutely."

"Then there was only Mrs. Vence in the house. Do you think that she----"

"No," said Craver, decisively. "She had every reason to keep him alive, and no reason at all to wish him dead. She didn't strike the blow. Who did I can't say. I'm going to find out. Now you see, Claudia, why I told my father and mother that I wished to assist Lady Wyke. I must assist her, as otherwise I shall be put in gaol on a charge of murder."

"She would never do that," exclaimed Claudia, flushing angrily.

"Oh, indeed she would. The woman is a perfect nuisance, and, although I was as rude as possible to her, she would not sheer off."

"If I gave you up would she let you have that letter and hold her tongue?"

"She says she would," was Edwin's cautions reply, as he rose and glanced at his watch. "Anyhow, I have a fortnight to think over things. In order to got the better of Lady Wyke and clear my character I'm off to-night to begin my search for the true assassin. Come to the gate and see me off, Claudia."

Neither the Rector nor his wife really learnt why Edwin took so abrupt a departure. He made his apologies anew, shook hands with his father and kissed his mother. Mrs. Craver accorded him a rather chilly forgiveness, and remarked that he could not be so very fond of Claudia, seeing that he preferred to leave her and go about Laura Bright's business. However, Edwin laughed her into a better humour, and then went off to Redleigh, on his motorcycle, to catch the nine o'clock train to town.

The Rectory was very dull after this untoward departure. Mrs. Craver being upset, retired early to bed, and insisted that her husband should come likewise. As he had to rise for early celebration next morning, he was not averse to doing what she asked, and the old couple were safely tucked in by ten o'clock. Claudia, left alone, read a book for a time, but was unable to fix her attention on the story, as she was actually living a much more exciting one. Then she saw that the servants were all in bed, and retired herself in the hope of getting to sleep. Only in that way could she forget her troubles. But she woo'd sleep in vain; she tossed and turned restlessly for quite thirty minutes. At the end of that time she took a sudden resolution, and rose to dress herself. It was not yet so late but what Lady Wyke might still be up and about, so Claudia decided to call and see her. Considering the primitive habits of Hedgerton, the project was rather a mad one. Still, strong diseases require strong remedies, and in a very short time Claudia, with the latch-key in her pocket, had slipped out of the dark Rectory, and was on her way to Maranatha.

It was a bright, star-lit night, although there was no moon, and the girl walked swiftly along the Esplanade towards Ladysmith Road. Luckily, she met no one, not even Jervis, the policeman, as his attentions on Saturday night were always given to the village in the hollow. Claudia boldly rang the bell, and when the footman appeared, sent in her card. The man seemed rather astonished at so late a visitor, but took up the card to his mistress, and shortly returned with the information that Lady Wyke would be pleased to see Miss Lemby.

Claudia followed the servant up the stairs; she was ushered into the drawing-room, and the door was shut behind her. So here she was in the lion's den, alone and unsupported.

"This is a pleasant surprise, Miss Lemby," said Lady Wyke, moving forward with outstretched hands. "Do tell me why you have come to see me at this hour?" Claudia rejected the outstretched hands, and, folding her own, spoke sternly to the point. "I have come to give up Edwin to you," she said, calmly.

"Oh!" Lady Wyke laughed shrilly. "On what condition?"

"On condition that you save his life!"

"I accept!" said Lady Wyke. "His life is safe when he becomes my husband."

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