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Chapter 20

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« on: February 28, 2023, 09:40:36 am »

The company of Edwin was very welcome to Claudia, as she now had an outlet for her grief. She could talk freely to him and receive the comfort which she very greatly needed, although even his consoling words did not entirely quieten her. Like the girl, Craver could not bring himself to believe that the buccaneer was guilty. There seemed nothing for it but to see the man and question him closely.

Claudia therefore determined to journey to London, not only to interview her father, but also to see Mrs. Vence. Edwin's suggestion that the old housekeeper should be questioned struck the girl as remarkably sensible. Mrs. Vence had been in the house when the crime took place, and although she had given evidence with apparent frankness at the inquest, it was just possible that she might have withheld certain facts. If forced to speak she might say something or suggest something likely to throw more light on the darkness which environed the tragedy. She resolved to see the housekeeper first and her father afterwards. What with Mrs. Vence's story and the pirate's explanation the truth might come to light.

The difficulty was to find Mrs. Vence, who had disappeared into the unknown immediately after the inquest. Since leaving Hedgerton, so far as was known, she had given no sign of her existence, and Claudia wondered how the address of the old creature could be found. Finally, she resolved to ask Mrs. Mellin when that good lady came with the washing to the Rectory.

Mrs. Mellin had never seen Mrs. Vence, as Neddy had always taken the clean linen to Maranatha and had conducted the business between the housekeeper and the laundress. But Mrs. Mellin might have learnt something from Neddy, who was always very inquisitive regarding other people's affairs. It was possible that Mrs. Vence had mentioned her destination to the boy in which case he would certainly have repeated the information to his mother. Therefore she waited for the coming of the washerwoman to carry out her scheme.

For over a week Edwin remained in Hedgerton, and daily flew the aeroplane over land and sea, much to the delight of the parishioners. The spectacle attracted man, woman, and child so greatly that there was little work done in the village during these exciting days. They talked of northing else, and the faces were always turned skyward to see the aeroplane skimming and rising and sinking and falling, and generally disporting itself into space. The Rector and his wife, seeing what command their son had over his machine, lost much of their dread of an accident. It was mainly for this reason that the young man brought the aeroplane to Hedgerton, and gave daily exhibitions of his skill. Once his parents became used to aviation, he guessed that they would not worry over his ascents at Hendon.

Claudia, of, course, never believed that any accident would befall her lover and did not need any proof that he was a competent pilot. It was firmly fixed in her mind that Edwin was destined to save her father, to cut the claws of Lady Wyke, and to marry her. Nothing would happen to him likely to prevent his carrying out this programme, as she felt convinced. Therefore, she saw Edwin soar without feeling the slightest anxiety, and even offered to accompany him. But this her lover would not agree to. His nerves were not strong enough to permit his carrying in the perilous machine all that he valued on earth. So Claudia remained on the ground and Edwin skimmed the clouds, both resting content in the knowledge that everything was all right, or would be right in future.

Lady Wyke had not come to see the arrival of Craver because business had taken her to London. When she returned, a note inviting the young man to Maranatha arrived at the Rectory, Claudia did not wish Edwin to go, but the visit was paid all the same, as Craver thought it was just as well to try and learn what Lady Wyke intended to do. Claudia's interview must have enraged her, and it was possible that she had gone to London to take steps likely to make immediately public things best kept private. After some discussion Miss Lemby saw that it was best Edwin should have the interview, and accordingly, she gave him permission. So Edwin sought Maranatha towards the end of the week; and Claudia, during his absence, questioned Mrs. Mellin.

The washerwoman arrived on her usual day, and Claudia managed to attend to the sorting of the clean linen herself. As there was no time to be lost and the kitchen was empty for the time being, Claudia put a point-blank question. "Do you know where Mrs. Vence is to be found?" she asked abruptly.

Mrs. Mellin stared. "Lor' bless my soul, miss, 'ow should I know?"

"I thought Mrs. Vence might have told you where she was going when she left Hedgerton."

"Well, she never did, miss. I didn't 'ave much truck with Mrs. Vence, for Neddy took the washing to the 'ouse and brought it back again. Never did I set eyes on that ole woman, 'cept I saw 'er in the distance at the inquest. An' may I be so bold, miss, as to know why you was so wishful to find 'er?"

Claudia was quite prepared for this leading question, and saw no reason for making a secret of her intentions. "Well, you know, Mrs. Mellin, I was engaged to marry Sir Hector, when it appeared that his wife was already---I mean, still in existence."

"An' a good thing she turned up, miss," said Mrs. Mellin, with dignity, "else a wicked case of bigamy would 'ave bin in the papers, my sister Laura not bein' a lamb to lie down quiet-like.

"Well, then," pursued Claudia, when she was allowed to speak, "I naturally feel that the assassin of Sir Hector should be captured and punished. It struck me that Mrs. Vence may know."

"Lor' bless me, miss, she said all she could say at the inquest."

"Ah, but did she? That is what I wish to find out, Mrs. Mellin. However if you don't know her address----"

"I really don't, miss," interrupted the washerwoman; "but Laura might know."

"Lady Wyke?"

"My sister, miss. Lor to think as I should be connected with the gentry. Long may they live in the land. Not as Laura's proud, she 'avin' proved otherwise by comin' to me, who am 'er own born relative, an' taking Neddy in 'and. Yuss, miss. Laura might know, as she 'unted up Mrs. Vence arter the inquest to 'ear what she'd to say concernin' the tragidy. It ain't much use you seein' Mrs. Vence, miss, if I may be so bold as to say so. Laura didn't find nothin' to 'elp catch the gory villain who bolted on the bike, so I don't expect as you'll git anythin' out of 'er."

"All the same if you can get the address I should be glad."

"I'll try my hardest, miss, Heaven bless, you," said Mrs. Mellin, and this particular conversation ended with the entrance of the Rector's wife, to whom the washerwoman dropped a curtsey. Claudia, having done the best she could, went away to attend to other work, leaving Mrs. Craver to count the washing and hear the news. There was much to be done upstairs, as spring-cleaning was in progress, so Claudia worked like a Trojan, both to help her prospective mother-in-law and the aching of her own heart. While working and giving her attention to every-day things, she could not worry, and managed to pass the time profitably, and tolerably easily until Edwin returned. She heard his step in the hall immediately he opened the front door and flew down swiftly, all agog for news.

"Well? Well?" she asked, I anxiously, and drawing him into the sitting-room.

Edwin put his arm round her waist and looked at her queerly. "I am coming in for a fortune," he observed, in an abrupt manner.

Claudia stared. "What do you mean? Sit down and explain."

Edwin sat down and did as he was told. "Lady Wyke is furious at you, and wants to make you suffer for shaking her as you did. She told me that she never did believe me guilty, and only said so to annoy you and to trap me into marriage. She thought that I would give in, and make her my wife rather than face the worst."

"Well, she found out when I saw her that she was mistaken," said Claudia, tartly. "Yes, she did, and now has gone on a new tack. She doesn't intend to force me into marriage, because she cannot. But she went to London the other day to make a will in my favour. Yes, you may stare, Claudia, but Lady Wyke told me that if she dies I got five thousand a year. The will is made, signed, and witnessed, and Mr. Sandal holds it."

"Pouf!" said Claudia, contemptuously. "Mr. Sandal knows that the will is wastepaper. I wonder Lady Wyke thinks you are such a fool as to be taken in with that bluff."

"Is it bluff!" asked Edwin, looking puzzled. "How?"

"Why, don't you know that a will made before marriage is null and void if the marriage takes place?"

"No. I never knew that. Few people do know it, I fancy."

"Lady Wyke believed that you were ignorant, and so has simply been trying to bluff you into marriage with her. She has made the will to bribe you; but she knows that if you marry her the will becomes wastepaper. See?"

"I see. Anyhow, whether the will is destroyed by her or not, I don't intend to marry her. Therefore, unless she alters the will, it stands in my favour. Not that I want the money, Claudia."

"Nor I," said the girl. "However, you made Lady Wyke understand that you would remain true to me?"

"Yes. And she made me understand that she was heartbroken, and had done what she could to help me by making this ridiculous will. And she won't proceed about my affair, as she sees that by so doing she will be no closer to her goal. For the time being she intends to remain quiet, in the hope that this business will soften me."

"But you told her it wouldn't?"

"I did. Only she won't believe me. However, Lady Wyke is safe for the time being, so meanwhile we can see your father and Mrs. Vence, and get at the truth of the matter. As to the will, we needn't think anything more about it."

Claudia agreed with this, and wondered that so clever a woman as Lady Wyke was should act foolishly. Then she related the conversation with Mrs. Mellin to Edwin, and hopefully said that the address of Mrs. Vence would surely be forthcoming.

Edwin demurred. "Not if Lady Wyke has to give it," he said. "She ii not such a fool as to let you find out anything from Mrs. Vence likely to spoil her game."

But the young man proved to be a false prophet, for Mrs. Mellin arrived on that same evening with the address. It appeared that Mrs. Vence was living in a Pimlico lodging-house, and for the time being was out of work. Possessed of this information, Claudia arranged to go to London next day with her lover.

Next morning Edwin fixed a sidecar to his motor-bicycle, and ran Claudia into Redleigh in time to catch the ten-thirty London express. In an hour and a-half they arrived in town. Then Edwin went to Tenby Mansions at Earl's Court to prepare Lemby for his daughter's visit, and Claudia took an Underground train for Victoria, in order to seek Mrs. Vence in Pimlico. Craver wished to come also, but Claudia insisted that he should look after her father. It was necessary that she should see him as soon as possible, and as the buccaneer was here, there, and everywhere, she urged that Edwin would find him and watch him and hold him at home. With this agreement the young people parted, Claudia promising to be at the flat at three o'clock, or a trifle later.

There was no difficulty in finding the whereabouts of Mrs. Vence, as the very dingy lodging-house she lived in was not far from Victoria. A slatternly woman with a suspicious eye admitted grudgingly that Mrs. Vence was indoors, and, after some arguing, conducted the visitor into a dirty bedroom on the third floor. Here sat Mrs. Vence near the window, coughing and sneezing and groaning and moaning. Her ancient face was more withered and brown and seamed with wrinkles than formerly, and on the whole she looked very old and worn and disagreeable. With a shawl round her head, and a little table covered with medicine bottles at her elbow, the old woman sat with her back to the window, shivering with ague and whimpering with pain. Claudia's stately beauty seemed to annoy her, for she snarled when her visitor sat down, and they were left alone by the slatternly landlady.

"I don't want fine ladies to come and see me, drat you," grumbled the old creature, crossly. "I'm ill with inflewinzy, I am, and I do hope as you'll get it."

Claudia smiled at this amiable wish, and apologised. "I am sorry you are ill, Mrs. Vence. But I have called---"

"About gitting me to look arter your house?" interrupted Mrs. Vence. "Well, then, I can't, me being that ill as never was."

"No. Don't you know my name? I gave it to the landlady. Lemby is---"

"Ho!" Mrs. Vance coughed and stared and grunted after her scrutiny. "So you're his daughter, are you?"

"I am the daughter of Mr. Oliver Lemby, if you mean that," said Claudia, with dignity, "and I have called to----"

"Ho!" Mrs. Vence coughed and for the third time. "I know why you've called, my lady. And it 'ud hev been better if you didn't hev called."

"Why?" Claudia was startled.

"'Cause I thought as every think was dead and done with about that murder. I hev 'ad it on my nerves day and night, wondering if I should speak or not."

"Speak?" The girl rose and turned white with emotion. "My father----"

"Yuss," said Mrs. Vence with relish, "your dear par murdered him sure enough."

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