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Chapter 21

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« on: February 28, 2023, 09:54:20 am »

"That's a lie," said Claudia, calmly, and without rising.

Mrs. Vence spluttered and shook with wrath, in her rage it seemed as though she were about to rise up and denounce her visitor. But a fit of coughing prevented her, and by the time it was over she felt too weak to scold. "It's the truth," she muttered sulkily, and took a wineglassful of medicine.

"Prove it!"

Claudia, who had entered the room anxious and perturbed, was now quite calm in asking questions.

Mrs. Vence was patently surprised to see how quietly the girl took the dreadful charge. "You don't seem much upset!" she croaked. "I thought you loved that par of yours, as a gel should."

"I do love my father," was Miss Lemby's steady reply, "and for that reason I decline to believe what you say."

"Then why come here to worrit me?" gasped the old woman, crossly. "Ain't I got enuff to put up with at my age without silly gels coming to tell me as I'm a liar. I can't say nothin' else."

"You can; you must. My father explained his movements at the inquest, and his testimony was accepted as exonerating him. And let me remind you. Mrs. Vence, that at the inquest you brought no charge against him."

"'Cause I warn't certain," retorted the old woman, promptly. "'Twas a nasty case, and I didn't want to be mixed up in it more'n I could help. I said as little as I could, and afterwards, when that Lady Wyke come and see me----

"Did she come and see you?" interposed Claudia, anxiously.

"Don't I say she did, cuss you?" growled Mrs. Vence hoarsely. "Of course she come and see me, to arsk if I know'd of anything likely to show who killed her old man. I told her what I told you, and she said as I'd better keep silent till she wanted me."

"She intended to accuse my father, then?"

"Yus. I s'pose so, when she was ready. And I thinks," added Mrs. Vence, with a dry cough, "as she's gitting ready; for she's arsked me down to Hedgerton at the end of the week---four days off, that is, miss."

"Are you going?"

"How can I say. If the inflewenzy lets me. I may. It means money in my pocket, and, not having a sitivation for months, I want money."

"What have you to say?" demanded Claudia, sternly.

"Say? The truth!" snarled Mrs. Vence, crossly. "And don't arsk me to say anything else, I beg, my mother having bin a Baptist and perticler proper."

"What is the truth?" "Well, your par was in the droring-room with the barnit when he come, and I crep up to listen to what they was saying, as I don't hold with folk heving secrets fro' me. I had my eye and my ear at the keyhole time and time about."

"What did you hear? What did you see?"

"I heard my master explaining as he couldn't marry you 'cause he was married already. Then your par guv a screech and swore awful. I peeped in at the keyhole, and saw him take out a clasp-knife and run at the old man. The barnit, he just laughed and waited, so your par didn't know what to do. Then at that moment come the ring at the door. I tumbled down the stairs and let in that gent as bolted on the bike later."

"Do you know who he was?" asked Claudia, anxiously.

"No, I didn't, him being muffled up," growled Mrs. Vence.

"What happened then?" asked Claudia, quickly.

"What I said at the inquest. Sir Hector, he took the new gent into his study, and told me to bring cake and wine in a quarter of an hour. I said I was in the kitchen, but," said Mrs. Vence, with a leer, "I wasn't there the whole time. Oh, no, bless you. I wanted to see what it all meant!"

"And you listened?"

"I listened and looked," retorted the housekeeper, shamelessly. "My master and the new gent talked about some will, and then the barnit took the gent into the dining-room to show him some papers. Then," said Mrs. Vence, earnestly, "I saw that par of yours coming down the stairs; with the clasp-knife open in his hand, looking savage-like. I was so feared that I ran back to the kitchen just as I heard Sir Hector returning to the study. Then I comes in with the cake and wine some time later, and found my master lying dead on the rug, and the gent as bolted on the bike bending over him."

"And my father?" faltered Claudia, with a sinking heart. "Oh, he got back up the stairs, and didn't come down until that there postman and the police came. Clever, he was. But he didn't know as I'd seen him coming down to stick the old man. You know, miss, how the post come, and how the gent opened the door?"

"Yes, yes; I know." Claudia rose with an effort. "All you say sounds reasonable, enough, from your point of view."

"It'll be the same fro' the jury's point of view," snapped Mrs. Vence.

"I don't believe it," cried Miss Lemby in despair. "Whatever you may say, my father is innocent. You didn't see him strike the blow."

"But he comed down the stairs with the knife," grinned the housekeeper. "Oh, he did it right enuff---your par, I mean. I believe that boy saw it, too."

"What boy? Do you mean Neddy Mellin?"

"Yus. He was in the house---in the kitchen with me."

"But he said he came with the washing later."

"Then he's a liar," said Mrs. Vence, morosely. "He come earlier, and was keeping me company in the kitchen. An imp, he is; not as you knows him, miss."

"I know him very well," said Claudia, secretly glad to hear that the boy had been on the scene, as his evidence would be valuable. "He is a great friend of mine. I shall see him and make him tell me everything."

"He won't; he won't," said Mrs. Vence, hurriedly, and appeared to be somewhat discomposed, as if she feared she had let out too much.

"Oh, yes, he will, Mrs. Vence. I saw him the other day, and he half-promised to tell me the truth. I'm going now."

"Pity you ever came," snarled the old woman, restlessly. "You're only bringing your par to the gallers. If you speak to that imp, he'll put a rope round the neck of your par for sure."

"Neddy will do nothing to harm me and mine, as he is fond of me."

"Oh, is he? Then he'll hev to tell lies to save your par."

Claudia hesitated at the door. "I tell you what, Mrs. Vence," she said. "When you come to Maranatha I shall got my father and Mr. Craver to meet you and Lady Wyke and Neddy. Then we can thresh the matter out."

"You'd better bring that Sergeant Purse also," taunted Mrs. Vence, "as he'll be on the spot to gaol that par of yours. Git on; git out. You've worrited me with your cussed nonsense."

Claudia, having executed her purpose, left the woman still coughing, and swiftly ran down the stairs. At the end of the narrow street, and when she emerged into the main thoroughfare, she hailed a taxi. Shortly she was driving towards Earl's Court, anxiously considering what was best to be done. It was a very pale-faced girl who entered the tiny drawing-room in the Tenby Mansions flat. Mr. Oliver Lemby was there stretched at length in his favourite chair, and smoking his big pipe. He looked unkempt and uncivilised, while the room had a neglected look. Claudia felt as though she was entering into the den of a bear, and the growl with which Lemby received her aided the illusion. But that Edwin was sitting in an adjacent chair and was ready to support her, Claudia would probably have burst into tears over this reception. What with the wear and tear of the last week, and the trying interview with Mrs. Vence, her nerves were worn thin. She felt that she could not bear much more strain on them.

"Well, my gal," roared The pirate, "you've making a nice hash of things."

"Don't talk like that to Claudia, Lemby," said Edwin, sternly, as the girl sank exhausted in a chair. "Don't you see she is worn out."

"I shall talk to my own daughter as I please, hang you!"

"No you won't! Claudia is engaged to me, and I shall protect her, let me tell you, Lemby, that your position is not so safe that you can afford to go on in this way."

"My position is as safe as yours," growled the buccaneer.

"That isn't saying much," replied Craver, with a shrug. "I am in a difficult position also. I have explained to you that I was in the house."

"Yes; and I believe you scragged the old man."

"Mrs. Vence says it was you, father," said Claudia, faintly. Lemby rose and dashed his pipe to the ground, opening and shutting his hands in ungovernable rage. "Where is the old wretch?" he shouted. "Only let me got a grip of her and I'll send her to kingdom come."

"Claudia, you are quite faint. Don't say another word for a few minutes, and drink this glass of wine, it will revive you."

"Thank you, Edwin." Claudia willingly accepted the offer and sipped the port, while her father strode up and down the room like a caged beast, cursing and storming, and generally conducting himself like a wild man of the woods. Edwin sat beside Claudia and attended to the girl, occasionally glancing at the buccaneer with a contemptuous smile. The sight of this somewhat calmed Lemby, who became ashamed of his want of self-control. With a final oath he flung himself into his chair and sulkily demanded what was to be done. Since his daughter was still too upset to speak, Edwin spoke for her.

"Let us hear Claudia's report of her interview with Mrs. Vence," he suggested.

The wine did Claudia good, and shortly she felt much more like her ordinary self. Without wasting further time she related tersely what had passed between herself and the housekeeper, Edwin listened attentively without making any remark; but Lemby growled and cursed under his breath the whole time. "Before I left," concluded Claudia, "I suggested that dad and Edwin and I should meet Lady Wyke, Mrs. Vence, and Neddy at Maranatha to come to an understanding. Mrs. Vence goes down to Hedgerton at the end of the week."

"I'll go, too," cried the pirate, rising to again stalk up and down the room. "Do you think that I'm going to have these lies told about me?"

"Are they lies?" asked Edwin, quietly.

Lemby hesitated, "The most part are lies," he said, sulkily.

"And what part is the truth?"

"That about my drawing my knife on Wyke," admitted Lemby, after a pause. "I did get in a rage when Wyke told me that he was already married, and I did take out my knife to frighten him. But I didn't mean a dashed thing, you know, as it ain't my way to kill silly old buffers. 'Sides, he'd pluck, he had, as he stood quite still when I made a run at him, and only laughed."

"So Mrs. Vence said, dad."

"Well, she told the truth for once. I was in a rage, but I couldn't hit a man who stood up to me unarmed. I'm a white man, I am."

"You said at the inquest that Wyke did not explain anything to you in the drawing-room," said Edwin, refusing to endorse Lemby's good opinion of himself. "Yes, I did---and for why? Wyke waited till I cooled down and took the knife from me, still laughing. Then came the ring at the door. He was in a hurry to see you, Craver, I expect, for he blamed well bolted down the stairs and forgot to lay down my knife."

"He took it with him?" gasped Claudia, leaning forward.

"Don't I say he did?" growled her amiable parent. "Yes, he took the knife with him, being in such a hurry. I didn't leave the drawing-room for ever so long, and Mrs. Vence is a liar in saying that I did. I waited until I heard voices, then came down and found that the old man had passed in his cheques. When I saw it was my knife sticking in his blessed old heart I made up my mind to say as little as I could. And that," ended Lemby, turning towards Edwin, "was the reason as I lied about his making explanations in the drawing-room. What else could I do?"

"Nothing," said Craver, promptly; "being innocent, there was no need for you to incriminate yourself. This is the truth, I suppose?"

"Yes it is. Why should I tell lies."

"Well, you did, you know, at the inquest. Anyhow, we have your story and the housekeeper's story. Now we must learn what Neddy Mellin has to say."

"I am sure that the boy knows the truth," said Claudia, positively. "Mrs. Vence admitted that he was in the kitchen all the time. She seemed sorry that she told me so."

"I daresay," remarked Edwin, "she has said too much. Well, Lemby?"

"I'll come down to Hedgerton with you," said the pirate, promptly.

And in this practical way the matter was settled.

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