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Chapter 17

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« on: February 28, 2023, 08:55:55 am »

After the excitement of the evening and her swift walk in the keen air at so late an hour, Claudia felt faint. Nor did the languid atmosphere of the tropical drawing-room tend to restore her. The heat of the large fire, the brilliance of the many lights, the multiplicity of colours, and the odour of flowers mixed with the scent of the burning pastilles, all made her sense reel and her eye grow dim. With a violent effort she cleared her head of vapours, and became as composed as formerly she had been agitated. Lady Wyke was pleased.

"You are worth fighting, Miss Lemby." she said, approvingly.

"Thank you for the compliment," retorted Claudia, sitting bolt upright with a stern white face and steady eyes.

"Oh, it's no compliment," trilled Lady Wyke, like a bird, "it is the truth. If you were a namby-pamby of the weeping kind I should despise you. As it is, I respect you immensely. Few girls of your age would act so sensibly."

"I am acting sensibly, as you call it, because I see no other way in which to act. But although I have yielded for the moment, Lady Wyke, don't think that I have given up all hope of regaining Edwin. That Edwin will be my husband is a foregone conclusion.

"He doesn't love me now, but he will learn to love me." said Lady Wyke, coolly. "I suppose he is annoyed at you throwing him over."

"I haven't told him," retorted Claudia, curtly. "He has gone to town."

"Oh!" Lady Wyke started and looked suspiciously at her visitor. "I know that you can implicate Edwin in the murder by showing that letter to Sergeant Purse," said Claudia, steadily. "All the same you know that he is guiltless."

"Do I? Then who is guilty?"

"I can't say."

"Your father?" asked Lady Wyke, impertinently and with meaning.

"No!" Claudia started to her feet. "My father would never stab an old man."

"Oh, I think he would to get money," retorted the hostess, leaning back in her chair and smiling. "He is very much the man who would slay and stab in order to get money. And from all accounts he needs money very badly."

"Yes, I think he does," said Claudia, coolly, "else he would scarcely have thought of marrying you."

The shot told, and Lady Wyke grew angry. "Look here, Miss Lemby, I am scrupulously polite to you, and I expect politeness in return. If you have nothing more to say you had better go."

"Oh! I have ever so much more to say. I will go when it suits me."

"You defy me," cried Lady Wyke.

"I do. I have given in over one thing because I can't help myself. I am not going to give in over the question of staying or going. After we have had an explanation, it is just on the cards that I may rescind my surrender."

"Oh, indeed. Well, Miss Lemby, as it seems we are to have a talk, let me offer you some refreshment. There is wine on yonder table."

"No, thanks."

"Well; then, go on; what have you to say?"

"This. That Edwin is innocent."

"Prove it," said Lady Wyke.

"Edwin has told me everything," pursued Claudia. "He came down here in answer to a letter from your husband inviting him to an interview."

"Quite correct. The letter I hold is written in answer to one sent by Sir Hector."

"Very good," remarked Miss Lemby, "we are agreed so far. Well, then, Edwin told you, I presume, why Sir Hector wished to see him?"

Lady Wyke nodded. "Yes. I appeared and spoilt Hector's plan to marry you. He knew that he had made a will years ago leaving his property to me, and, as he hated me like poison he wished to make another will. He would have done so after marriage, had you become his wife, since he could not make it before the ceremony. But as I prevented the marriage, and Hector did not wish to see me benefit in any way, he proposed to make Edwin his heir on condition that he married you."

"I take it, then, that the will was not made when Edwin came here."

"No. What are you getting at? Do you mean to say that there was a will, and that I have destroyed it?"

"Oh, no. But I merely point out that as no will was made Edwin had no reason to murder Sir Hector."

"He murdered him because he did not wish Hector to marry you."

"You forget," said Claudia, coolly. "Your reappearance prevented Sir Hector from making me his wife. Edwin had no reason to fear the prevention of his marriage with me from that quarter. And as Sir Hector wished to make a will in Edwin's favour, Edwin would scarcely have been such a fool as to murder the man and spoil the chance of his getting five thousand a year."

"I think you should have been a lawyer, Miss Lemby; you argue so well."

"Thank you. But I should like to know, what you think of the case as I have put it? You must see that Edwin had no reason to murder Sir Hector."

"Oh, I see that!" sneered Lady Wyke, crossly. "The question is, would a jury see it?"

"I think so. Absence of motive for the commission of a crime goes a long way towards proving the innocence or an accused person. And remember all the evidence is purely circumstantial."

"Circumstantial or not, I have the whip hand, and I mean to use the whip."

"And I mean to try and get my lover as you are trying to do."

"As I have done," gasped Lady Wyke with fury. "He is mine! He is mine!"

"Not yet! Oh, you thought I was in earnest when I surrendered him to you." Claudia laughed insultingly. "What a fool you are. I have been bluffing you all along, you silly creature."

This series of insults made Lady Wyke lose her temper altogether, and she became the fisherman's daughter straight away. She rushed across the room to throw herself on Claudia and scratch her eyes out; but Miss Lemby was prepared for the onset, and immediately grabbed her hands so that she could not use them. Being much the stronger of the two, she forced Lady Wyke over to the chair she had risen from and made her sit down. Claudia was silent herself, but Lady Wyke screamed so loudly that it was a wonder the servants did not come up to see what was the matter. Lady Wyke bit and twisted; and cried and writhed; but Claudia held her down firmly in the chair until she was exhausted.

"I think you will be quiet now, said Claudia, suddenly, as Lady Wyke became weak, ceased to kick, and began to sob.

"I'd like to kill you," wept the beaten woman, crying her heart out.

"I daresay you would, if you had a knife or a pistol." jeered Claudia, who was panting with her exertions; "but as you have only your hands, and I am ever so much stronger than you are, it is just as well that you have given in."

"I haven't given in, you common, vulgar creature," snarled Lady Wyke. "I intend to marry Edwin in a month."

"You won't. He marries me."

"You have surrendered him to me to save his life."

"Oh no, I haven't. I have been bluffing you, as I said. Edwin's life is quite safe from you, Lady Wyke."

"Is it, when I have that letter?"

"I defy you to produce that letter." retorted Claudia, arranging the veil round her head, and looking in the mirror over the fireplace. "If you do, there will be trouble. Edwin has a good defence, as I have proved to you. No jury would convict him when no reason can be shown for the commission of the crime of which you accuse him."

"He ran away; he ran away," panted Lady Wyke, who felt her defeat sorely and physically.

"I daresay he did, because he lost his head for the moment. But he has found it now, remember."

"I shall see Sergeant Purse to-morrow and show him that letter," said the hostess, viciously, and stood up to smooth her ruffled plumes at the mirror as her rival had done.

"Well, do so. You won't get Edwin in that way?"

"We'll see."

"Yes. We'll see. Good-bye, Lady Wyke, you'd better go to bed. I shan't detain you any longer," and Claudia moved majestically towards the door.

"Wait, I won't show that letter."

"That's your affair, and not mine."

"But," said Lady Wyke, with an evil smile, "I shall make it my business to discover how your father murdered Hector."

"That will be difficult. He had no reason to murder him," so Claudia said, but she winced for all that at the threat.

Lady Wyke saw her wincing, and regained a little of her former dominance. "Yes, he had. Hector was going to leave the money to Edwin, and your father knows that Edwin wouldn't have given him a shilling."

"He would have given me a shilling, and I would have given it to father. I know you are trying hard to make me surrender, Lady Wyke, but it won't do. Edwin has gone to London to see my father and make things straight."

"He can't, he can't!"

"That remains to be seen. I defy you."

"I hear you," Lady Wyke burst out into a shrill laughter. "You defy me, do you. Well, then I shall hang your father and marry Edwin and see you ruined."

"Oh, so you admit that Edwin is innocent," cried Claudia, seizing this admission.

"I admit nothing, I shall act."

"Act as soon as you please." Claudia opened the door. "Good-night, Lady Wyke."

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