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Chapter 22

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« on: February 28, 2023, 10:06:34 am »

All this time Lady Wyke gave no sign of her intentions. After her interview with Craver, when she assured him that a will had been made in his favour the wily woman remained silent. Perhaps she was waiting for the young man to take the bribe and marry her, trusting to his ignorance of the law concerning wills being rendered null and void by marriage. Perhaps she was waiting for the arrival of Mrs. Vence, in order to collect evidence and send Claudia's father to the gallows. No one could tell what she meant to do.

In spite of the dark clouds by which she was surrounded, Claudia felt happier when she returned to Hedgerton Rectory. Her father was with her, and Edwin also; so, protected in this way, she somehow felt safe. Assured by Lemby that he was guiltless, and believing implicitly that he had spoken the truth, Claudia felt convinced that Lady Wyke would not be able to ruin him. Doubtless her father had his faults; and his foolish rage, which had led him to draw his knife on Wyke, had placed him in an awkward position. All the same, it was not to be thought of for one moment that he would be allowed to suffer for a crime, of which he was wholly innocent. And, indeed, as the girl reflected, Lady Wyke could not herself be positive of his guilt, or she would long ago have had him arrested. Much of the truth had come to light concerning the Hedgerton tragedy; but more had to come before the assassin of Wyke could be placed in the dock. Since her father was innocent and Edwin was innocent, Claudia could not think who was guilty. In the railway carriage, when on the way to Redleigh, she asked Edwin's opinion.

"H'm!" said the young man when thus appealed to. "It is difficult to say, my dear girl. The truth may be found in Lady Wyke's past life."

"What do you mean, Edwin?"

"Well, you see, Lady Wyke knew that her husband had made a will in her favour, for when she called on Sandal to say that she was alive, and to stop the marriage with you, she made sure that there was no new will. Now let us suppose that she learnt Wyke's intention of leaving the money to me, so that I could marry you, is it not likely that she would try and stop him making the new will?"

"Yes," said Lemby, from his corner of the compartment, "it blamed well is. Do you mean to say, Craver, that Lady Wyke murdered the man herself?"

"No. Because, so far as we know, she did not come down to Hedgerton until after the murder. If she had, her sister, Mrs. Mellin, would have recognised her. But Lady Wyke might have hired someone to stab Sir Hector."

"Pigs might fly," said the pirate, disbelievingly and vulgarly. "Why, beyond yourself and myself, there was no one in the house at the time."

"Neddy was in the house," suggested Claudia.

"Pouf!" said her father, contemptuously. "You don't mean to say that such a small boy struck so vigorous a blow."

"No, I don't. But Neddy might know if a third person came to Maranatha on that night."

"I wonder if Mrs. Vence killed the man herself?" murmured Edwin, thoughtfully.

"Of course not!" cried Claudia, quickly. "She had every reason to keep Sir Hector alive, seeing that she had lost a good situation by his death."

"Well, I give it up in despair. What do you think, Lemby?"

"I don't think at all," growled the big man, truculently. "It's a dashed mystery, it is. If your theory is correct, and Lady Wyke hired someone to stab the old man so that he mightn't make a new will, the cove must have sneaked in by the back door."

"If he did Neddy will know, because he was in the kitchen long before the crime was committed," said Miss Lemby. "Mrs. Vence admitted as much."

"If Neddy saw any third person enter in that way, Mrs. Vence saw him too," declared Edwin, positively, "for she was in the kitchen also."

"Not all the time, Edwin. She was running about the house listening, and looking through keyholes, as I told you."

"It is a mystery," sighed the young man, after a pause. "All we can do is to wait for the arrival of Neddy and Mrs. Vence."

"Mrs. Vence will be down on Saturday and Neddy on Sunday," said Claudia. "You know he sings at the Tit-Bits Music Hall this week."

"He hasn't made his appearance yet," growled Lemby. "Since you spoke of the brat I have looked at the newspapers for his appearance. Anyhow, whether he comes or not I'm going to see Lady Wyke."

"What for?"

"To ask her to many me," said Lemby, coolly.

"She won't," said Craver with a stare of astonishment. "You are the most hopeful man in the world if you think so, Lemby."

"It's cheek as does it, Craver. Anyhow, I'm going to have a shot at it. She can but say no."

"It strikes me, Lemby," said the young man, drily, "that she'll say much more." By the time the conversation reached this point, the train was slowing down alongside the Redleigh platform. Edwin got his motorcycle out of the luggage-room where he had stowed it, and, placing Claudia in the sidecar, whirled off to Hedgerton. Lemby engaged the same trap as he had formerly taken when paying his visit to Wyke, and hoisted his portmanteau on to the seat beside Sankey. He did not intend to go to the rectory, as knew that he would feel uncomfortable in the company of two such precise people as the Rector and his wife. Therefore he ordered Sankey to drive to the Jack Ashore Inn, where he had talked with Sergeant Purse.

Claudia and Edwin were welcomed back joyfully to the Rectory, for the old couple had missed them sorely. Mrs. Craver, being the soul of hospitality, was vexed to hear that the girl's father had gone to the inn instead of coming to the Rectory. She was anxious to make his acquaintance and see at close quarters what he was like. Of course, she had beheld him afar off when the inquest was taking place; but she naturally desired to talk to him and examine him and learn all about him. She little guessed that Claudia was relieved at her father's decision to go to the Jack Ashore. The girl had an uneasy feeling that prim Mrs. Craver would not approve of the tyrant. It was with some uneasiness that she waited for the call Lemby proposed to pay, for the purpose of making acquaintance with the Rector and his wife. But he never came, either to dinner nor after dinner. Although Claudia was relieved in one way, she was annoyed in another, as she did not wish Mrs. Craver to think that her father was entirely devoid of manners.

The fact is that Lemby quite intended to go to the Rectory for his meal and to meet his prospective relatives. But after he had settled himself at the inn, he began to think that it would be just as well to get the interview over. There was no doubt about it that Lady Wyke was in a position to make things hot for him if she used the evidence of Mrs. Vence, so that the buccaneer thought that he would close her mouth by requesting her hand in marriage. It was ridiculous to think for one moment that she would prefer a battered old pirate such as he was to a smart and handsome young fellow like Craver. But Lemby had always made his way by sheer audacity, and he hoped to storm Lady Wyke into submission. In this truculent frame of mind he set out for Maranatha shortly after six o'clock.

When he sent in his card Lady Wyke received him at once, and he looked upon this reception as a good omen. He little knew that the little woman wished to learn the plans of her enemies, and had received him so blandly with the object of pumping him. For the purpose of conquest, and to show that he knew what civilisation was, Lemby had arrayed himself in evening dress. He looked a fine, handsome man, when he entered the big drawing-room, and the mellow light of the lamps took years off his life, as they did off the life of Lady Wyke. She came forward with a smile to greet him, looking remarkably attractive and well preserved in a gorgeous dinner-gown of crimson and black.

"I am so glad to see you, Mr. Lemby," she said, graciously. "We have not met for ever so long, although we have had much correspondence."

"I reckon," said the pirate, coolly, "that the correspondence wasn't over-satisfactory to me."

"Ah, but you must make allowances for a woman's whims," said Lady Wyke, with equal coolness. "I read between the lines, you know."

"Then you must guess why I have called."

"Perhaps I do, and perhaps I don't. Anyhow, Mr. Lemby, as you are here, you may as well have dinner with me."

"I thought you'd ask me," said the buccaneer, with has ineffable audacity, "so I got tidied up on purpose."

"So clever of you," said his hostess, with a queer smile, and rang the bell to order that another knife and fork should be placed on the table.

The two chatted about this matter and that. They discussed the news in the daily papers, they talked about various other experiences in America and in the South Seas, and touched upon every subject save on that which was nearest to their hearts. Both wished to break the ice and converse about the murder, but neither would speak first on so serious a subject. By the time the dinner-gong thundered both were quite friendly yet got quite watchful. It, seemed as though the good-fellowship of the meal was necessary to break down the reserve between them. But the moment had not yet come.

"Give me your arm, Mr. Lemby," said Lady Wyke, languidly graceful, and showing nothing of the vicious cat who had fought with the man's daughter. "I'm sure you must be hungry."

"I live on love," said the pirate, gruffly, and, as he thought, gallantly. "You must be hungry, then, as there is nothing for you to eat of that nature."

Lemby turned aside the arrow with a laugh, and shortly found himself seated at a beautifully-decorated table, to eat a delicately-cooked dinner. He did full justice to the admirable dishes and to the very excellent wine, while Lady Wyke ate little and amused him with desultory conversation. All the time she was watching him, wondering why he had called and what he was trying to do. So far she could not fathom his motives; but when champagne had loosened his tongue and tobacco had soothed his nerves---if he had any---she hoped to learn all she desired to learn. But during dinner she purposely kept off the subject of the murder, and it was only when they returned to the scented drawing-room that she spoke. Then the pirate, in a comfortable armchair, sipped his coffee and smoked an excellent cigar, while his hostess trifled with a cigarette and began to talk sense for the first time during the evening.

"Well, Mr. Lemby," she said, resolutely, "let us get to business."

"What business?" asked the buccaneer, wilfully dense.

"That about which we correspond," said Lady Wyke, promptly. "You said that you would assist me to learn who murdered my husband so I presume you have come to tell me something about your discoveries."

"I haven't made any you don't know anything about," said Lemby, incoherently.

"What do I know?"

"You dashed well know that Craver was the man who sloped on the postman's bike on that night. You tried to rope him into the business, but failed."

"For the time being I have failed, Mr. Lemby; but I may rope him in, as you put it, later. Well, and what else do I know?"

"You know that Mrs. Vence is a liar."

"Oh, do I?" Lady Wyke raised her eyebrows.

"Yes. Claudia saw Mrs. Vence the other day---yesterday, in fact, and she said----"

"Mrs. Vence or Claudia? Do be accurate."

"The old woman," growled Lemby, who did not like to be interrupted. "She said as how I came down the stairs with my knife and murdered Wyke."

"Well, the knife with which the crime was committed is yours, you know."

"Who says so? How do you know?"

"Mrs. Vence says so. She told me."

"Then she's a liar."

Lady Wyke shrugged her shoulders. "You'll have to make a stronger defence than that Mr. Lemby. We may as well be plain with one another. I have asked Mrs. Vence to come down here, and she will be in this house on Friday evening. I shan't be here to receive her, unfortunately, as I have to go to London to get that will of mine destroyed."

"What will?"

"One I made in favour of Mr. Craver."

"He told me," nodded Lemby. "Silly business, seeing that a marriage makes it so much waste paper."

"Oh, Mr. Craver has found that out, has he?" said Lady Wyke calmly. "I thought he wasn't clever enough. Yes, it was a false move on my part, and I'm going to tear up the will. It's of no use now. I only made it to try and get Mr. Craver to marry me. Well, then, I'm going up on Friday for that purpose, and will return on Saturday evening. But you must not see Mrs. Vence in the meantime, and I shall leave word that she is not to see you. When I return, then, in my presence, you can meet her and defend yourself."

"It's all dashed rot!" cried Lemby, with disgust. "I never killed the man, nor did Craver."

"Then who did?"

"Might have been Mrs. Vence."

"Rubbish! It was her interest to keep him alive. She lost a good situation by my husband's death remember."

"It might have been Neddy. He was in the house all the time."

"So Mrs. Vence says. But a boy like that---pooh!"

"Might have been yourself."

Lady Wyke laughed. "I was in London at the time, and can prove that I was. I don't think, however, that I'll be called upon to defend myself."

"Why not?" said Lemby, significantly. "I might suggest that to Purse----"

"And you will unless I agree to marry you," finished the woman, coolly.

"That's right smart of you," Lemby assured her. "I came here to ask you to marry me. Craver won't have you; he set on Claudia."

"I haven't lost all hope yet of getting him," said Lady Wyke through her clenched teeth, and looked at the man in a lowering way.

"Shucks! There's no chance there. Marry me."

"No. But I'll make a bargain with you."

"What is it?"

"If Edwin will not marry me he must be hanged. Help me to hang him, and I'll become your wife."

Lemby was quite unmoved by this villainous proposal. "No, ma'am, that wouldn't be dealing square. I must think of my gal, you know. Try another man for the job. I'm no saint, but I draw the line at your suggestion."

"I shall try no other man," cried Lady Wyke, standing up and smiling strangely; "and, indeed, I need no assistance. I can prove Mr. Craver's guilt. Mrs. Vence is coming down, Neddy is coming down, and I have him in a trap. If Mr. Craver is not in gaol by Monday afternoon----"

"Well, ma'am?" Questioned the pirate, roughly, and bending forward.

"I'll marry you when and where you like."

"It's a bargain," said Lemby, gruffly; "and I'll twist your neck if you break it."

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