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Chapter 18

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« on: February 28, 2023, 09:28:32 am »

Having reduced her enemy to impotence, Claudia returned to the Rectory, and slept the sleep of the just. But her slumber was due rather to exhaustion than to placidity of mind; and on waking in the morning, she began to realise that she had acted rather rashly. Impulsively the girl had sought out her enemy, and impulsively, had carried the war into the same enemy's camp. But had she been wise in thus driving Lady Wyke into a corner? Sir Hector's widow was clever, persistent, and dangerous, so that Claudia had no mean antagonist to deal with. Enraged by an ignominious defeat, Lady Wyke might see Purse and ruin Edwin without further delay. It was possible, if not quite probable, that she would act in this way; and Claudia went, down to breakfast, wishing fervently that the record of the previous night could be obliterated. The girl recognised that she had been in too much of a hurry to right the wrong.

All Sunday Claudia was worried and anxious, both in church and out of church, before meals, during meals, and after meals. Of course, since the Rector and his wife were to be kept in the dark, she had to feign a cheerfulness which she was a long way from feeling. Even sharp Mrs. Craver noticed nothing in the girl's manner likely to suggest questions, and privately thought that if Claudia was quieter than usual it was because Edwin had gone back to London so abruptly. Lady Wyke did not come either to the morning or evening service, and the Rector's wife speculated as to why she was absent.

In the afternoon, Claudia found it impossible to remain at home, so she went for a brisk walk along the cliffs. Emerging from the Rectory grounds she passed through a small wood, which sheltered the house from the sea breezes, and took the meandering path along the verge of the cliffs. On arriving at the coastguard station she paused for a quarter of an hour to remove her hat and let the air breathe its cool kiss on her locks. She had a headache, caused by her perplexity and the peace around did it good, soothing the lingering pain and finally taking it away altogether. Claudia set out on her return journey feeling much better, and began to think that she was making a mountain out of a molehill. But before she quite made up her mind to this course she suddenly came across Neddy Mellin.

The boy was descending the zig-zag path which led to the beach immediately below the Rectory, and, not being far distant, Claudia recognised him at once. She then remembered, how Neddy had stolen the fatal letter which implicated Edwin in the crime, and forthwith resolved to ask questions. It required some diplomacy to ask the right ones, so as to get right answers, for Master Mellin was a clever brat, extraordinary sharp and suspicious. However, Claudia thought that she could manage him, and, to attract his attention, raised her voice in the Australian "Cooee!" Neddy turned his head and halted when he saw her coming down the path. He liked Miss Lemby, as she was a "very scrumptious gal"---his own words---and, moreover, had given him a packet of cigarettes, which was wrong of Claudia, considering the boy's tender years. Neddy looked uncommonly smart in an Eton suit, which suited his slim, well-knit figure perfectly. Decidedly, he was a handsome lad, so angelic in appearance, that she wondered how he managed to keep his shady character out of his face. Neddy was an unscrupulous little wretch, he stopped at nothing to get his own way and his own enjoyment, thereby greatly resembling his elders.

"You do look smart, Neddy," said Claudia, when she reached the boy. "Why are you not in London?"

"I came down to see mother," said Neddy, whose diction, as the listener noted, was much improved, even in the short time he had been under tuition. "She always wants to see me every week, so that she may know that I am safe. Coming down on to the beach, miss?"

"Yes. I am out for a walk. I have not been down this way before."

"It's just as well, miss," said Neddy, sagely, and led the way down to the sands. "This place here is dangerous."

"Dangerous!" Claudia looked, at the billowy sand-mounds.

"Yes. See," and Neddy pointed to a distant patch of glistening sand, which looked oozy and damp and treacherous. "Quicksands, miss."

Claudia stared and shivered. "What a nasty-looking place."

"Aye, and it is nasty, too, miss. Folks have told me again and again how other folk have, been swallowed up yonder."

"There should be a sign that it is dangerous."

"There was a sign," chuckled Neddy, "but it was swallowed up also. If you or me got in there," he added, fixing his innocent blue eyes on the gleaming expanse, "we'd go down to hell."

"Don't talk like that, you horrid little boy."

"I'm not little, though I may be horrid, miss. I'm grown up, I am, and next week I sing at the Tit-Bits, Music-Hall. 'Sally in our Alley's' what I'm going to sing. The chap as teaches me says I'll make a hit. It's good pay, too, miss, I do say. But there"---Neddy's face fell---"I've got to hand over the dibs to my blessed mother."

"Why do you speak of your mother in that way?"

"Well, I can't call her my cussed mother, can I miss?"

Claudia laughed, and then became grave to rebuke him. "You are a wicked boy to talk of your mother in that way. It is just as well that she should get your salary. You are too young to know the value of money."

"Oh, am I? Well, that's a good one. May I smoke?"

Claudia laughed again at this politeness, and sat down on a convenient boulder. "You shouldn't smoke at your age."

"Who gave me cigarettes?" asked Neddy, shyly.

"I was very wrong to encourage you. I don't think," added Claudia, with a view to arriving at the point she aimed at, "that your aunt would give you tobacco."

Neddy sat down and lighted up with the impudent air of a robin. "I take it," he remarked, coolly, "she smokes herself, and I sneak what I want. Aunt Laura ain't bad. A dashing sort of woman, ain't she?"

"She'd box your ears if she heard you say that, Neddy."

"She wouldn't. Aunt Laura daren't lay a finger on me."

"Why not?" Claudia became aware that there was a threat hidden here.

"Because I know----" Neddy hesitated, and stole a cunning glance at his companion. "Well, I know what I know."

"Lady Wyke has been very kind to you, Neddy."

"Kind? Oh, yes, very kind," Neddy sneered, and then smiled blandly.

"You're a wicked little boy, you know, to steal letters."

Master Mellin dropped his cigarette and looked startled. "She told you?"

Claudia nodded. "Yes. She wants----"

"You needn't talk." Neddy waved his hand grandly. "I know. Aunt Laura wants to marry the nut you're sweet on. I twigged that ages ago. She didn't know how to manage to nab him, so I helped her."

"By giving her that letter?"

Neddy nodded in his turn. "I read it, you know miss," and he leered so significantly that Claudia looked upon him as the leading pupil in Mr. Fagin's evil Academy. "I'm rather sorry I did," went on Neddy, "as the nut belongs to you, but only in that way could I make the old gal help me."

"You unscrupulous little animal!" burst out Claudia, positively afraid of the lad's shrewdness. "You have made a lot of mischief."

"I could have made more, miss. 'Spose I'd given that letter to old Purse?"

Claudia shivered, and saw the necessity of propitiating him. "You didn't do that, I am glad to say."

"No. 'Cause I like Mr. Craver. He's a good sort, and has promised to give me a ride in his aeroplane."

"Why did you steal the letter at all?" asked Claudia, nervously.

"Well, you see, I arrived just when that old cove was slaughtered. Old Mrs. Vence, she wouldn't let me see the corpse as much as I wanted to, so I nicked the letter lying on the hall table just to punish her. You see, if the letter was missing I guessed she'd get beans. When she did I intended to bring the letter back."

"But she didn't get beans as you call it."

"No. Rum thing, as nothing was about that letter, miss. Well, then, when I saw that nothing was asked at the inquest, I opened the letter and read it. I'm fly enough to know as it meant Mr. Craver was in the house when the old cove died, seeing the letter said as he was coming. But I didn't go for to say a thing, knowing Mr. Craver ain't at all a bad sort, nor his pa and ma either. I stowed away the letter, telling no one, not even mother, and only showed it to Aunt Laura when she was sweet on Mr. Craver."

"You might have thought of me, Neddy."

"Didn't know you then, though it was Hedgerton talk as you were going to marry Mr. Craver. Aunt Laura she got the letter before you came down. When you came and were nice to me and gave me cigarettes. I was sorry. But don't you be afeared, miss. Mr. Craver didn't do it."

"How do you know?" asked Claudia, eagerly.

"Ah, that's tellings." Master Mellin winked.

"I shall ask Sergeant Purse to make you say what you mean!" cried Claudia.

Neddy laughed. "Then all about the letter will come out, and Mr. Craver will be put in chokey. There ain't no sense, in that."

"Do you know the truth?"

"No." Neddy looked innocently surprised. "How should I know the truth? I only come to Maranatha just after the old cove had been murdered. But I'm uncommonly certain as Mr. Craver hadn't no hand in the business."

"Can you help me to prove that?" pleaded Claudia, who saw very well that the boy was a valuable witness if dealt with diplomatically.

"I can give you a tip," said Neddy, after a pause.

"Give it to me, then."

"Go and ask Sergeant Purse to show you the knife as was used."

"What good will that do?"

"Well," said Master Mellin, shrewdly, "it seems to me, though, I'm only a boy, as Sergeant Purse ought to hunt for the cove as owns that knife. It was sticking in the heart of the old cove you know, and the sergeant has it. I saw it at the inquest, and it don't seem to be the kind of knife Mr. Craver would use, nohow. Mr. Craver, he cut on Hall's bike; but the cove as did the trick, miss, cleared out in another way."

Claudia asked further questions, and received evasive answers. Master Mellin evidently had said all that he intended to say at the moment, so there was little use in prolonging the conversation. Along with the boy, Claudia climbed up the path again, and left Neddy again at the Rectory gate. In a most polite way, he lifted his straw hat in farewell; but she detained him for a few minutes, in the hope of getting him to say more. He smiled like an angel, shook his head like an old man, and resolutely refused to open his mouth. There was nothing for it but to let him go, which Claudia did.

All the same, his hint about the knife dwelt in her memory. It was indeed, strange, that the police authorities had not followed up this important clue. Without doubt, if the knife was a peculiar one, which Neddy hinted, its owner might be discovered; and once he was found, then the truth would become known. Miss Lemby retired to bed on that night resolved to see Sergeant Purse on the morrow and learn what she could. Having been engaged to Sir Hector, there was ample excuse for her to ask questions. In the anxiety and interest caused by Neddy's conversation Claudia quite forgot her tussle with Lady Wyke, and passed a better night in consequence.

By three o'clock next day she found herself standing with her bicycle before the door of the Redleigh Police-office, and entered to ask for the sergeant. Luck stood her friend, for the sergeant, usually out on his rounds, happened to be in and disengaged. Claudia was admitted into the sanctum of the official, and was amiably received by the foxy-faced little man. As usual, he was as dry as a mummy in his looks, and his eyes were more than ever like those of a rat. He was uncommonly polite to Miss Lemby, since he knew her story, and was sorry for her.

"I hope you've got over it, miss," said the sergeant, placing a chair for his visitor. "It was a hot time for you, that same murder."

"I am getting over it," Claudia assured him with a faint smile. "And it was a very painful time as I respected Sir Hector."

"I don't think he behaved very well, Miss Lemby."

"Oh, I think he did. After all, sergeant, he did not know that his wife was alive, you know. It was all a mistake. But I have called to ask if you have a clue to the assassin?"

"No, Miss Lemby. I quite understand why you should come and ask, as naturally, you'd like to see the villain hanged. Lady Wyke would like to see it also. I can't catch him, however. He went off on that bicycle, and vanished into thin air, like those witches in the play."

"Well, Mr. Purse. I have been thinking over the matter," said Claudia, with diplomatic frankness, "and it occurred to me that you should follow the clue of the knife. You have it, I believe?"

"Oh, yes," Sergeant Purse rose and went to a shelf at the further end of his office to fumble there, "but I don't see, how we can follow that clue."

"Why not? Someone told me that the knife was a peculiar one. Can't you trace it to the shop where it was bought?"

"It's an idea certainly, Miss Lemby," said Purse, returning with a parcel in his hand. "Look at the knife yourself. It is a peculiar one."

He untied a string and unrolled several sheets of paper. Then Claudia saw a sailors clasp-knife with a handle of black bone decorated with three broad stripes of inlaid silver. "This is the knife, Miss Lemby." said the officer. Claudia gasped and felt herself grow faint. The knife belonged to her father.

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