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Chapter 19

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« on: February 28, 2023, 09:38:02 am »

How Claudia managed to leave the office of Sergeant Purse and reach home she never clearly knew. In some extraordinary way she contrived to keep from fainting and maintain her composure, so that the officer suspected nothing. After a time she complained that the room was close, and she felt that the fresh air would do her good. Purse, quite ignorant of the true cause of this unexpected nervousness, accompanied her outside and helped her to mount her bicycle in a most amiable way. As she rode off he thanked her for the suggestion she had made, and declared his intention of following the clue of the knife. All the way to Hedgerton Claudia thought over what she had done, and reached the Rectory in quite a fainting condition. Little Mrs. Craver met her at the door and ascribed her pale looks and nerveless limbs to the long ride. Claudia gladly accepted the excuse and the scolding and the order that she should lie down, as she wished to avert suspicion, and also to be alone to think over matters. Never in after years did the girl forget that next hour.

Lying on her bed, with her face pressed against the pillow, Claudia kept assuring herself that she was mistaken. It was sinful of her to suspect her father of such wickedness, and she deserved to be punished for even thinking of such a thing. But the question which agonised her was: What did this particular knife mean in relation to Wyke's death? There was only one answer to the question. The knife had been found sticking in Wyke's heart, and the man who thrust it into that same heart was the criminal. Her father was the man---her father was the criminal. Claudia remained all that evening in bed, and again Mrs. Craver ascribed the weakness to the exhausting ride on the bicycle to Redleigh.

All the long night she pondered and thought and reasoned, and cried out against her reason. When the dawn came she rose and took a cold bath, which refreshed her. There was no excuse for her to remain in bed for the day, so Claudia, wan and haggard, went down to breakfast. There she heard news which cheered her up.

"Edwin is coming here to-day in his aeroplane, my dear," said Mr. Craver, who was reading his letters. "He will be here at two o'clock this afternoon. What excitement this will cause in Hedgerton."

"I only hope Edwin won't break his neck," cried Mrs. Craver, wrathfully. "Oh, how foolish the rising generation is! There's nothing to hold on by in one of these airships, and if he falls he will be killed."

Naturally, the Rector, wishing to give the villagers pleasure, did not keep the news to himself. He told his wife to tell the servants, and the servants told everyone that came on that morning to the Rectory. By noon the whole of Hedgerton knew that Master Edwin was arriving in an airship, and great was the excitement. From what the young man had said in his letter it was known that he would alight on the cliffs, where there were vast spaces along which the aeroplane could run when it settled down like a bird. Consequently, long before two o'clock the coastguard station was surrounded by crowds people. In their anxiety to see the latest invention of science and to witness the conquest of the air by man, the whole population of the little village assembled on the cliffs. Claudia came also with the Rector and Mrs. Craver, who were both very anxious and very proud of the coming event. The girl glanced round to see if Lady Wyke was present, but could not see her. She did not even catch a glimpse of Neddy, and learnt later from his mother that the boy had returned to town on the previous day. Claudia drew a deep breath of relief at the news. She knew very well that Neddy could be trusted to be silent; yet it was a comfort to know that he was absent. Miss Lemby could not explain to herself why it was a comfort; but somehow she felt more at ease without this Puck in an Eton suit hovering round. And, as Lady Wyke was also conspicuous by her absence, Claudia abandoned herself to the general excitement of the coming arrival of Edwin from the skies.

"I do wish Edwin would come," said Mrs. Craver again and again as the hour drew near. "Do you think he has met with an accident, George?"

"Let us hope he hasn't, my dear," answered the Rector, who was likewise anxious. "But he is not due yet, so we have no reason to think that anything sad has happened!"

"There he is! There he is!" shouted a keen-sighted coastguard, who had a spyglass at his eye. "Yonder he comes."

"Where? Where? Where?" shouted everyone, much excited, and looked north, south, east and west without seeing anything.

The coastguard ran with his spyglass to the Rector. "Look, sir! Over yonder---over yonder!" and he pointed seaward.

With a trembling hand, the Rector adjusted the glass, then uttered an ejaculation of thankfulness. "Yes. The aeroplane is coming along like a great bird. Emma----"

"Don't ask me to look, George. I am trembling all over."

But Claudia looked and saw a black speck glowing larger as it came nearer. In a few minutes the hum of the aeroplane was distinctly heard, and with the naked eye everyone could see the machine swinging towards the cliffs high in the blue. The excitement was intense. Mrs. Craver had to be supported by Claudia, so weak did she feel at her son soaring in space. Nearer and nearer came the black dot, louder and louder became the burr of the aeroplane, and finally, like a great dragonfly it swept in huge circles over the land, and settled like a feather, running along the ground swiftly in its impetus until willing hands laid hold of it to bring it to a standstill. Then the crowd rushed to gather round, to cheer, to ask questions, and to examine the first aeroplane which had ever been in this out-of-the-way parish.

Mr. Craver, with his wife on his arm, pushed his way to the front, with his usually dreamy eyes alight with excitement. "I congratulate you, my son."

"Oh, Edwin! Edwin!" sobbed the usually unemotional mother, and clasped him in her arms as he alighted from the machine. "It's wonderful, but horrid. I know you'll be killed."

"I'm safe enough now, anyhow, mother," said Edwin, cheerfully.

"Where's Claudia?"

"Here," said the girl in a low voice, for she felt faint now that the strain was over, and all her old fears began to reassert themselves.

"Why, darling, what is the matter?" asked her lover, hastily.

"Nothing---nothing---that is, I'll tell you when you come home."

It was not easy for the hero to reach home. He had to submit to incessant handshaking; he had to get his aeroplane under shelter; and it had to be attended to in other ways connected with the engine and wide-spread wings. There was an old barn on the cliffs which Edwin had arranged to use for his machine long ago, so it was run into this, and the doors were closed, much to the regret of the crowd anxious to contemplate the wonder. Edwin promised to give an exhibition on the morrow, and then walked home with his parents and Claudia.

As Mr. and Mrs. Craver were both asking questions concerning his flight from Hendon all the way, Claudia had no opportunity of speaking to her lover. But on arrival at the Rectory the watchful mother gave the girl the opportunity of having a quiet moment with Edwin. Mrs. Craver drew her husband away, saying that it was best to leave the young people to themselves, and so the couple found themselves in the drawing-room. Edwin at once demanded why Claudia looked so ill, and she explained how she had bearded Lady Wyke, how Neddy had advised her to search for the owner of the knife, and how the sight of the knife in the Redleigh Police-office had informed her that the owner was none other than her own father.

"Isn't it dreadful," Edwin? sobbed the girl, when she had finished her breathless narrative; "but father can't have murdered that poor old man."

"Of course he didn't," said Edwin, cheerfully, although he was more startled by the news than Claudia guessed. "We shall ask for an explanation. I am sure he will give one."

"You don't think he is guilty, Edwin?"

"No, I don't, dear. Appearances are rather against him, as they are against me. But I am innocent, and so is your father."

"Did you see him in London? You went up to see him, remember."

"No, I did not. He was absent when I called at Tenby Mansions."

"Oh we must see him! We must see him!" cried Claudia, wringing her hands.

"We shall see him together," said Craver, soothing her gently. Don't worry, my darling. I feel sure that everything will come out right.

"But Lady Wyke?"

"She won't do anything. She is not sure of her ground. All the same, Claudia, it was a risk going."

"Yes, I know. But I wanted to hear what she knew."

"There is another person who knows more. We must see her, Claudia. If anyone knows the truth of this crime, it is Mrs. Vence."

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