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Chapter 24

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« on: February 28, 2023, 10:32:53 am »

After that momentary gleam of consciousness, Neddy relapsed into insensibility, and became dead to the world for a long time. Mrs. Mellin arrived in tears, and insisted that the boy should be removed to her own poor home, so that he might be nursed and looked after. But the doctor, who was by this time on the spot, urged that the poor lad should be taken at once to the Redleigh Hospital, as it was probable that an operation would be necessary. The rector agreed with this suggestion, and after a lengthy argument Mrs. Mellin was induced to consent to the arrangement. A motor-car carried both Neddy and his mother to Redleigh, and everything possible having thus been done for the victim, it now remained to find the assailant. It was fortunate that the boy had been able to give the name of the person who struck him down, as it made things easier for the police. While Neddy was being attended to, Edwin wired to Redleigh for Sergeant Purse, and he was expected to arrive every moment. But before the officer came the injured boy was removed to the hospital.

While the rector and his wife were talking over the untoward event, Claudia managed to draw her lover into another room for a private conversation. This privacy was necessary, as, knowing what they did, the young couple could not converse freely in the presence of Mr. and Mrs. Craver. Edwin still wished to keep them in ignorance of what was going on, as things were not yet shipshape. When Claudia had Edwin to herself, and bluntly asked what he was going to do, he quite as bluntly answered her.

"I'm going to tell the whole story to Sergeant Purse," he said, firmly.

"But you and dad may be arrested if you tell the truth," protested the girl uneasily.

"I don't think so. Remember, in your presence and in the presence of my mother, Neddy has accused Mrs. Vence of the crime. Until she is caught, and the truth of the statement is proved, Purse may have us watched, but he certainly will not arrest us."

"Do you think that Mrs. Vence is guilty, Edwin?"

"I am sure of it. Otherwise, why should the boy say so."

"Mrs. Vence was certainly uneasy when she let slip the fact that Neddy was in the house all the time," said Miss Lemby, thoughtfully.

"I quite understand that," replied the young man, promptly. "In the heat of the conversation she said too much. Like many another clever criminal, she gave herself away."

"But why should she murder Sir Hector?"

"That is what we have to find out, and will learn when she is arrested."

"Hiding somewhere, Claudia. From what Mrs. Mellin said, she knew where the boy was to be found, and probably followed him. I daresay she was lurking round the barn while Neddy was assisting me with the repairs, but, owing to my presence, did not get a chance of harming him. Then, when I came back for the screw, she took the opportunity and, as she thought, killed the one witness who could prove her guilt."

Claudia nodded. "It seems to be plain enough. But are you wise in telling the sergeant what you and dad have had to do with the crime? Would it not be better to wait until Mrs. Vence is arrested and confesses her guilt?"

"No, Claudia," said Edwin, positively. "I must speak out now. There has been quite enough of this hole-and-corner work. Your father and I are both quite innocent, and for our own safety we must put ourselves under the protection of the law; otherwise the deuce, knows what will happen."

Claudia, after some consideration, agreed with this view, but begged Edwin not to confess until her father was consulted. The young man had no objection to taking this course, and in order to lose no time he set out for the inn with the intention of bringing Lemby back to the rectory. Then the three could wait for the arrival of Purse and the statement could be made. So matters were arranged; but, as Fate would have it, Claudia and her lover met the sergeant driving along the esplanade while on their way to the village. He stopped the trap when he saw them and made inquiries.

"What's this about your having found out who murdered Sir Hector Wyke?" asked the lean little man, abruptly. "I just received your message, Mr. Craver, and came on at once. Three or four policemen are following."

"You will need them all, and need Jervis, too, in order to catch Mrs. Vence," said Craver, promptly. "She is the culprit."

"Who says so?"

"Neddy Mellin." And Edwin gave a hasty sketch of what had happened, so as to put Purse in full possession of the facts.

When he had concluded, the sergeant whistled. "Fancy that, now. I never should have suspected that old woman. She gave her evidence very clearly at the inquest, and put me off the scent by her very clearness. I should like to see the boy and question him."

"You can't," said Claudia, quickly. "He only became conscious enough to tell, in my presence, and in the presence of Mrs. Craver, who had struck him down. Now he is insensible again, and has been taken to the Redleigh Hospital."

"Oh, has he? I wish I had seen him before he went. However, I can call at the hospital when I return."

"That won't do much good, sergeant," said Craver, with a shrug. "The boy is not able to recognise anyone or to talk at all. Better come with me and with Miss Lemby, here, to see her father, who is at the Jack Ashore."

"What for?" asked Purse, suspiciously.

"We have something to tell you."

"In connection with the death of Sir Hector Wyke?"

"Yes. It won't take long to put you in possession of what we know, and then you can search for Mrs. Vence." Purse drew out his watch. "I'll give you half an hour," he said, pompously. "We can then go back to the Rectory. I have told my men to meet me there. In fact, Mr. Craver, I expected to find you there also."

"You would have," said Edwin drily, "but that the necessity arose of my going to see Mr. Lemby about what we have to tell you."

"And Miss Lemby?"

"She wishes to be present, although she has nothing to do with the mater."

"Oh, but I have," chimed in Claudia. "I can tell the sergeant what Mrs. Vence said to me the other day."

Purse grunted and looked suspiciously at the girl, then, with a nod, agreed to do as he was asked. The Redleigh trap was dismissed, and the trio walked on to the inn. There, in the very room wherein the officer had seen Lemby prior to the inquest, he saw him again. The pirate was startled and disturbed by this invasion of his privacy, and when Edwin privately told him of the determination he had arrived at, he hoarsely objected. But matters had gone too far for these objections to have any weight, so in the end Mr. Lemby was quite agreeable to say what he knew. Then the quartette took their seats, and Purse produced his pocket-book.

"Anything you say will be used in evidence against you," he recited, in quite a mechanical way. "Now, Mr. Craver."

Edwin related in what way he was connected in the matter, and Purse started when he heard that the man before him was the hero of the red bicycle escapade. But he did not interrupt, and speedily noted down all details. Lemby followed immediately on Edwin's heels, and recounted the episode of the knife, which he bluntly acknowledged to be his. Then Claudia took up the tale, and put the sergeant in possession of all facts connected with the hunt for the assassin, including her visit to Mrs. Vence and the statement of Neddy that the old woman was the culprit. All these things the officer took down, and scribbled furiously. When he had finished, and his book was replaced in his pocket, he looked steadily at the three people before him.

"You have all acted wrongly," said the sergeant, in a harsh, official voice. "I should have known of these things long ago."

"We were not bound to incriminate ourselves," said Edwin, smartly.

"I could have helped you."

"Not you, confound it!" growled Lemby, aggressively. "If we had owned up before the truth became known you would have run us in. Come now, confess."

"Well, it is probable that I should," admitted the sergeant, reluctantly. "After all, things look black against you and against Mr. Craver here."

"Of course. And that is the dashed reason why we held our tongues."

Purse, after reflection, made no answer to this, and rose to intimate that the conference was at an end.

"The next thing to be done is to find this old woman," said the sergeant.

"Wait a moment," said Lemby, rising. "How do we stand?"

"Where you were," said Purse, gruffly. "I don't intend to have you arrested, if you mean that. But until this business is cleared up by the arrest of Mrs. Vence, I'll keep an eye on you."

"That is only reasonable," said Edwin, readily. "However, I beg one boon of you, sergeant. Don t let my father or my mother know anything about what we have told you."

"If Mrs. Vence is arrested, the whole story must come out, sir."

"Then wait until you do arrest the woman. But until Mr. Lemby and I are free from danger, I don't wish my parents to know."

"Fair enough," growled the sergeant "I'll hold my tongue. Now come along. She can't have gone far, and we'll soon lay hands on her. The old wretch, to cheat me so! Hang her! She has pulled the wool over my eyes."

There was no doubt of this. Mrs. Vence had proved too clever for Purse at the inquest, and it seemed as though she would again escape him. All that afternoon search was made throughout Hedgerton, but without success. The servants at Maranatha stated that Mrs. Vence had left the house hours ago and had not returned. An inquiry at Mrs. Mellin's cottage showed that the old woman had not been there. Various people, questioned by the police, stated that they had seen the housekeeper wandering about the esplanade, and a coastguard remembered to have noticed her on the cliffs. These were searched, the beach was examined, the woods round Hedgerton were explored, and the village itself was beaten for the fugitive, but all unsuccessfully. It seemed as though Mrs. Vence had taken wings to herself and had flown away. Yet it seemed ridiculous to think that so old and so infirm a woman could escape so easily. By the time it was four o'clock the sergeant was furious at being made to look such a fool. But swearing did not help him. Mrs. Vence had vanished, and was nowhere to be found.

"Well," said Purse, when he came across Edwin and Claudia at the barn, whither they had gone to look at the aeroplane, "what's to be done now?"

"You can't find her?" said Miss Lemby, anxiously.

"No. You know the old wretch by sight. See here, take this police whistle, and if you spot her, blow for all you are worth."

"But I am not likely to see her," protested Claudia. "If a clever man like you can't find her, how do you expect me to?"

"See here, young lady," broke in the irate officer. "Mrs. Vence is hiding. While the police are about she'll not show. I intend to collect my men at the rectory and then come along to have a talk with the coastguard yonder. There is a man there I want to examine. Now, when Mrs. Vence sees that the coast is clear she may venture out, as she won't take any notice of you. Keep your eyes open and blow the whistle if you see her. That's all I ask."

"You ask a great deal, sergeant," said Claudia, drily. "And my father?"

"He will remain at the rectory with my men. Will you do what I ask?"

"Yes. But I warn you that I don't anticipate success," said Claudia, slipping the whistle into her pocket.

"Neither do I. But I'm grasping at straws," growled the sergeant, who was very hot and very angry.

He was turning away from the barn to go to the rectory and collect his men, when Edwin stopped him for a moment. "Have you any objection to my taking a flight, sergeant?" he asked. "I want to try my machine now it is repaired?"

Edwin quite expected the man to object, but, to his surprise, the sergeant at once assented. "Seeing you going away on the aeroplane will make Mrs. Vence think that we have given up the hunt, and she will venture out to escape. Go, by all means, Mr. Craver. I'll come back to see you start."

Purse hurried away, and Edwin made ready his machine. He only intended to take a short flight over the water and then return, as he merely wished to see if the repairs were all right. To provide against accidents he placed a coil of rope on the pilot's seat. It might be wanted, and it might not. All the same, it was just as well that it should be there. Shortly, and just when Purse returned from the rectory, Edwin was ready, and called two or three coastguards from their station to assist in the ascent. While they ran the aeroplane along the ground to give it the impetus to rise, Purse cast his eyes here, there, and everywhere, in the hope of seeing Mrs. Vence. Why he expected her to remain in the vicinity of her crime it is impossible to say. But he could not help thinking that she was lurking about close at hand. However, his attention was called from watching by the ascent of the great machine, which rose majestically into the air, swept round in a great circle, and then turned its nose seaward. Looking up and following its flight, Purse walked along towards the coastguard station, leaving Claudia seated in the shadow near the front of the barn. She was behind one of the double doors, and could not be seen from within.

For a time Claudia watched the aeroplane swooping and soaring and dipping and rising in the rainbow-coloured sunset sky. When it dwindled to a mere black dot she let her eyes sink to the ground, and blinked to got the dazzle out of them. Suddenly she heard a stealthy noise, and looked through the aperture between the door and the barn, where it swung on its hinges. To her surprise, she saw someone climbing actively down the wall, having emerged from the trapdoor leading to the loft. There was no ladder, as has been explained, so the person in question had to descend like a monkey, using feet and hands to cling to the rough wail, A glint of sunshine showed Claudia a blue dress and a red knitted shawl, so she was not long in doubt as to whom the individual was. Evidently Mrs. Vence, after striking down the boy, had climbed up into the loft in order to hide, and now that she believed the coast to be clear was trying to escape into the open. No one had ever thought of searching the loft, so the astute old woman had shown uncommon sense in choosing her hiding-place.

With bated breath Claudia rose silently and waited patiently, drawing the whistle from her pocket, Mrs. Vence, quite ignorant that she was being watched, crept down like a huge bat, and then made a run for the door. Just as she emerged, Claudia sprang at her and the old woman uttered a shriek like the cry of a trapped animal. Afterwards she became silent and fought viciously. But Claudia, knowing what was at stake, held on tightly. In the struggle the woman's spectacles fell off, then her bonnet and a mass of false hair. She was unmasked.

"Lady Wyke!" gasped Claudia, "Lady Wyke!"

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