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Chapter 23

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« on: February 28, 2023, 10:21:32 am »

Mr. Oliver Lemby did not trouble to see Lady Wyke again. The two quite understood one another, and there was no need for further conversation. Seeing what Claudia had learnt from Mrs. Vence, the pirate was indeed surprised that Sir Hector's widow intended to leave him alone and get Edwin arrested. Being so passionate and vindictive a woman, it was natural enough that she desired rather to see Craver in the dock than at the altar beside Claudia. Since she could not get him herself---and she had tried every means in her power to win him---it was plain that she intended to see him hanged rather than permit him to marry her rival. Her motive was easily guessed, but what puzzled Lemby was how she meant to bring about her aim. The evidence of Mrs. Vence, as the pirate knew, was against him, and involved him deeply in the crime. Therefore it did not seem much good for the widow to bring the housekeeper down to Hedgerton in order to implicate Edwin, which, on the face of it, she could not do. The sole way in which Lemby could conjecture Lady Wyke intended to act was that Neddy would be used to accuse Craver. But then Neddy liked Craver, and was friendly to Claudia, so he might not be inclined to the woman's bidding. And, so far as could be seen. Lady Wyke had no means of compelling the boy, or Mrs. Vence either, to give false evidence. It was all a mystery.

It said a good deal for Lemby's nerves that he was able to enjoy himself in Hedgerton with the sword of Damocles hanging over his head. But enjoy himself he did, and made himself very agreeable to the old people. Claudia's fears proved to be groundless, for her father behaved with unusual meekness, and showed the best side of his character. Lemby was not altogether bad, and had many good points. Refined he assuredly was not, but he had the breezy, gay air of a soldier of fortune, which fascinated the Rector and his wife. They had never before met with such a one, and the novelty of his conversation charmed them. The pirate talked of adventures in the South Seas, of wanderings in Patagonia, Peru, and Brazil, and of strange doings in Australia. A tendency to exaggeration and boastfulness which characterised his speech made Mr. Craver dub him Parolles, after the personage in Shakespeare's comedy. But Lemby, ignorant of literature, took this as a compliment, which amused the Rector greatly. On the whole, Claudia found that her father was a greater success than might have been hoped for, and therefore breathed more freely. He certainly behaved very well for a man of his loose habits and loose upbringing.

The pirate did not tell his daughter how Lady Wyke had arranged to marry him if Edwin was arrested. In the first place, he did not see how she was going to bring about such a catastrophe, and in the second he saw no reason to worry Claudia. If nothing happened before Sunday, then Craver determined to force his way into Maranatha, along with Claudia and Lemby, in order to face Mrs. Vence in Lady Wyke's presence. Matters, as he said, must come to a climax somehow and at some time. Things could not go on as they were doing.

"Didn't Lady Wyke say what she intended to do?" Edwin asked Lemby for the fourth or fifth time on Saturday morning.

"No," said the buccaneer, with an unmoved face, and lying glibly. "I called to see her. I had dinner with her, and after dinner I asked her to marry me. She said that she would think about it."

"Rather strange, Lemby, considering Lady Wyke must know how Mrs. Vence accuses you of committing the crime."

"I told her that the woman was a liar, and she believed me," said Lemby.

"Hum!" replied Craver, doubtfully. "I don't think that Lady Wyke is a woman to be so easily convinced. She'll have you arrested, my friend."

"She may do the same to you, Craver."

"Well, she might. Going by circumstantial evidence, things look very black against us both. Your use of the knife and my use of the postman's bicycle both go to show that each had a finger in the pie. If Sergeant Purse knew----"

"I don't care whether he knows or not," broke in Lemby. "I'm willing to stand my trial if you are."

"Well," said Craver, with a shrug, "we may both be placed in the dock. It all depends upon Lady Wyke and Mrs. Vence. I suppose you know that she arrived at Maranatha last night. Mrs. Mellin told Mrs. Craver, and added that Lady Wyke had gone to town. It is strange that Lady Wyke didn't wait to see her visitor."

"Oh, I can explain that," said Lemby, stolidly. "Lady Wyke told me she was going to London to destroy that silly will she made in your favour. She admitted that it didn't work since you refused to marry her."

"I should think I did refuse," said Edwin, heatedly. "I marry Claudia, or no one, Lemby. However, Lady Wyke went to London at mid-day on Friday, and Mrs. Vence arrived at Maranatha late last night. I wish you could see her."

"I can't. Lady Wyke said that she would give orders that Mrs. Vence was not to see me except in her presence."

"She'll see the lot of us in her presence," said Edwin, grimly. "To-morrow or on Monday we go to Maranatha and thresh the whole matter out."

"I'm agreeable," said Lemby. "What are you going to do to-day?"

"I have to see about some repairs to my aeroplane, and late in the afternoon I intend to take a flight. Will you come with me?"

"No, thank you."

Craver then left the buccaneer with the Rector, and walked along the cliffs to the barn where his aeroplane was sheltered. The building was a tithe barn standing on glebe land belonging to the Rector of Hedgerton, but, being little used, had fallen into decay. As it was a very large erection with brick walls and thatched roof, Edwin had cleverly turned it into a shelter for his aeroplane by breaking down the front and adding huge double doors. There was ample room for the machine, notwithstanding the wide spread of its wings, and it slipped in and out very easily. In the barn there was a loft which nobody used, and the rude ladder from the ground to the opening overhead had long since been taken away. Mr. Craver did not trouble about the loft, but left it to the rats and owls, to the nesting of starlings and swallows. He was content to have the roof rainproof and the doors stout, so that the machine could be kept dry and wholly safe from robbers. On the whole, it was a most convenient place for the aeroplane, as the machine had plenty of room outside when it emerged to run for the time before ascending. Nothing could have suited Craver's purpose better.

To Edwin's surprise he found Neddy Mellin hovering round the barn when he arrived, trying the doors and peeping in at various points. The lad looked rather pale, but was as smart as ever in his Eton suit. Craver wondered why he had come to Hedgerton, considering that he was engaged to sing at the Tit-Bits Music Hall, and might necessarily be supposed to have remained in town for the Saturday matinee.

"What the dickens are you doing here, Neddy?" he asked, sharply.

"I'm trying to get a squint at your aeroplane, sir," said Neddy, smartly touching his hat. "There isn't any harm in that, is there, sir?"

"No. I don't mean that. Neddy. But why aren't you singing?"

"Well, sir, I've got a touch of hoarseness, and the cove as teaches me said I'd better wait until next week. I was going to sing 'Sally in Our Alley' this week, but I didn't. I'm choky, sir."

The boy certainly spoke in rather a hoarse manner, and Edwin advised him to go home and surrender himself to his mother's care. "The wind is rather keen, Neddy, and you might catch a fresh cold."

"Oh, I'm all right, sir," said the lad, indifferently. "Mother only bothers me with her medicine and coddling. Do let me have a look at the machine, sir, and do take me up with you this afternoon."

"I can't do that unless your mother consents, Neddy." said Craver, kindly. "But by all means you can look at the aeroplane."

He unlocked the doors and conducted the delighted boy into the vast interior of the barn. The next two hours were spent joyfully by Neddy in assisting Craver to do the necessary repairs, and he proved to be very useful in getting what was wanted. With the eager curiosity of his age the lad examined every portion of the machine and asked innumerable questions. All these Edwin answered good-naturedly. Once or twice it was on the tip of his tongue to question Neddy about the events of the night when Wyke met with his death, but on swift reflection he decided to wait for a more fitting occasion. As the boy was devoted to Claudia and very grateful to himself for being allowed to help with the repairs, Edwin believed that he would not side with Lady Wyke, however much she wished it. Therefore he was quite content to wait. Later on, when Claudia was with him, they could examine the boy together and learn what he really knew likely to reveal the truth.

About twelve o'clock Edwin found that he had left a particular screw at home, and went back for it. Neddy offered to go readily; but Craver alone knew where the screw was to be found, and went himself. He left Neddy in charge of the barn and the aeroplane, warning him not to allow anyone to enter. With great pride the lad took up his post as sentry, and Edwin ran back across the wide spaces of land to the rectory, intending to return immediately. But he was prevented from doing so.

"I saw Mrs. Vence on the esplanade," said Claudia, meeting her lover at the gate. "I saw her when I went out for an errand for your mother."

"Did you speak to her?"

"No. I was some distance away, and when she saw me she ran off."

"Ran off! That old woman?"

"Oh, Edwin, she is very quick on her legs, and got out of the way in a most surprising manner. Afterwards I met Mrs. Mellin down in the village, and she told me that Mrs. Vence was looking for Neddy."

"What does she want with him?" asked Craver, suspiciously. "I don't know. Perhaps she wants to tell him to hold his tongue, and is afraid lest we should question him."

"I haven't questioned him yet, Claudia; but now that I know Mrs. Vence is on the warpath I shall ask him immediately I return to the barn. It is just as well for us to learn what he knows before Mrs. Vence gets hold of him. All the same, I don't see why she should tell him to hold his tongue."

"We don't know if she intends to do so, Edwin. It is only a guess on my part, dear. Is Neddy still with you?"

"Yes. He has been with me for the last two hours helping with the repairs. I suppose his mother knows where he is."

"Yes. She said that Mrs. Vence sent a message from Maranatha asking that Neddy should come to see her, and Mrs. Mellin replied that he was at the barn on the cliffs with you. He told his mother that he was going to try and see the aeroplane. Then, I suppose, Mrs. Vence came out to look for him."

"She hasn't been near the barn, at any rate. Claudia, I am very suspicious of that old woman. It seems to me that she wants to make Neddy hold his tongue."

"Why should she?"

"Oh, I don't know," Craver pondered, deeply. "After all, she may have slipped the knife into Wyke herself. Remember, he brought it down the stairs and may have laid it on the study table when speaking to me. Now that I come to think of it." added Edwin with a start, "he did. I remember distinctly."

"Why didn't you say so before?"

"I forgot. All this business is refreshing my memory. Remember, Claudia, I was very upset at the moment, and my mind was somewhat clouded. It's only coming back to me bit by bit. Yes, Wyke did have the knife, and did throw it on the table before he took me into the dining-room. He returned there, and perhaps Mrs. Vence met him with the knife in her hand to----"

"Edwin! Edwin! We can't be sure. She had no reason to murder Sir Hector."

"Has she any reason to force Neddy to hold his tongue?"

"We don't know if she has any such intention, Edwin."

"Let us find out, Claudia. Wait for a minute. I want to find a screw, and then we can both go back to question the boy. We must examine him before Mrs. Vence puts her oar in."

Claudia consented, and Edwin ran into the rectory. He was a long time away, as he could not find the screw. When he did return, he set out at once for the barn with Claudia. By this time he had been absent fully three-quarters of an hour. Never thinking of the shock that was waiting for them, the young couple walked leisurely towards the barn and along the cliffs, chatting easily. Shortly they arrived at the building, but could see no sign of Neddy outside, although Edwin expected to find him doing sentry-go. With an exclamation of vexation at Neddy's negligence, he stepped within, and then cried out; "Claudia! Come quick."

The girl, who was listening behind, ran in to see Craver stooping over the insensible form of the lad. Neddy was lying face downwards and bleeding from an ugly wound in the head, evidently inflicted by some blunt instrument. To all appearances he was dead.

"Oh, Edwin! who has done this?" cried Claudia, piteously, as she knelt beside the poor boy's body.

"I suspect Mrs. Vance, although I have no reason to believe so. We must carry him to the rectory, Claudia, as we can do nothing with him here."

"Is he dead?"

"I think not. Only stunned. Wait a minute. Claudia, I'll ask one of the coastguards to watch the barn and get another to help."

Edwin ran off, while Claudia tried to staunch the wound with her handkerchief. Shortly the young man came back with the two men, and while one remained to guard the machine, the other assisted Edwin to carry the insensible boy to the rectory. Mrs. Craver received them at the door, and was loud in her expressions of regret. A messenger was sent off for the doctor and for Mrs. Mellin, while Neddy was attended to by the rector's wife and by Claudia.

The two did all they could to revive him. But the blow had been so heavy that the boy was quite stunned. Nevertheless, after much trouble with brandy, and bathing and smelling-salts, the boy vaguely opened his blue eyes. At once his gaze fell on Claudia bending over him. His lips moved.

"She did it."

"Who?"

"Mrs. Vence."

"Why, Neddy?"

The boy's gaze wandered, and he showed signs of relapsing into insensibility again. But Claudia, knowing what was at stake, asked the question again.

"Mrs.---Vence---murdered---the---old 'un!" Then Neddy's eyes closed and again he became insensible.

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