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Chapter 25

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« on: February 28, 2023, 10:41:19 am »

"Lady Wyke! Lady Wyke!" babbled Claudia, dazed by the amazing discovery.

"You beast!" snarled the detected murderess, and wrenched herself free, to run swiftly across the open space between the barn and the zig-zag path which led down to the beach.

Claudia, seeing her quarry escaping, recovered her senses promptly, and blew a shrill call on the police whistle. In a moment Sergeant Purse, at the not too distant coastguard station, heard the signal, and came running out. He saw in a moment the flying figure of the woman, and sped towards her like a deer, in order to intercept her before she reached the cliffs. At the same time Claudia sprang forward also, and reached the fugitive almost at the same time as the officer. Purse laid hands on his prey just as she reached the opening of the path, and dexterously flung her on the ground. Lady Wyke, seeing that she was lost, howled like a wild beast, and swore like several troopers in her anger and baffled rage. But the sergeant paid no attention to her curses. When he rose she was lying on the ground with handcuffs on her wrists. Claudia silently stood looking down on her captured enemy, not knowing whether to laugh or cry, so unstrung did she feel. Unable to say a word, she turned red and white alternately, and awaited events.

"Get up, Mrs. Vence," said Purse, briefly.

"It's---not---Mrs. Vence," quavered Claudia, in a shaky voice. "It's Lady Wyke."

"Gosh!" gasped the sergeant, astonished for once in his official life. "Do you mean to say that she murdered her husband?"

There was no answer from either woman. Lady Wyke rolled on the dry grass cursing freely, while Claudia sat down on a convenient rock to clasp her hands tightly and keep herself from trembling---in fact, from breaking down altogether. No one else was at hand, as the policemen at the rectory had not heard the whistle, and Purse had waved back the coastguards who seemed disposed to approach. He did not wish anyone should share the glory of his capture, and desired then and there to hear Lady Wyke's story, so that he could be sure he had arrested the right person.

"Now, then," said Purse, shaking his finger at her sternly, "what have you to say, madam? Remember, anything you do say will be used in evidence against you."

"Oh," sneered Lady Wyke, looking very white and very vicious, "and you think that I'll be fool enough to speak after that warning. How dare you arrest an innocent person such as I am!"

"You are guilty," said Claudia, hoarsely. "You murdered Sir Hector."

"It's a lie."

"Neddy Mellin can prove it."

"Then until he does, I am guiltless," raged the woman, furiously. "Take these handcuffs off, man."

"Oh, no," said the sergeant, smoothly. "I have arrested you as Mrs. Vence, who struck down that boy. Afterwards you can be arrested for the murder of your husband as Lady Wyke."

"I didn't kill him, I tell you," she snarled viciously. "As to the boy, I never saw him."

"Rats!" growled Purse inelegantly. "If you are innocent of assault, why did you hide in that loft?"

Lady Wyke scowled, and saw that there was no escape from the lesser crime. "I only hit the boy lightly to punish him for telling lies."

"You stunned him. He is dangerously ill," said Claudia, quickly.

"Then how can he accuse me if he hasn't his senses about him?"

"He recovered for a moment to say that you had struck him, and he gave the reason why you did so."

"And the reason?" demanded the woman, with a sneer.

"You murdered your husband."

"Did he say that in those exact words?"

"No. He said that Mrs. Vence had murdered Sir Hector."

"Well, I am not Mrs. Vence, I am Lady Wyke."

"Rot!" said the sergeant, angrily. "What the deuce are you wasting my time for in telling lies? You are Lady Wyke sure enough, but you have been masquerading for some purpose as an old woman under the name of Mrs. Vence."

"You can prove nothing against me, said Lady Wyke, sullenly.

"Yes, we can. An operation will restore young Mellin to health, and his evidence will hang you."

"Hang me?" Lady Wyke shivered.

"Yes. There is no escape, But you had better not say any more. I don't want to trap you into a confession. Get up and come along with me. I must take you to Redleigh Goal."

"Oh," groaned the woman, looking at her handcuffs and then wrathfully at the white face of Miss Lemby, "and to think that the girl should get the better of me! But I'm not beaten yet."

"Here, get up and come along," said Purse, harshly, and bent to lift her.

"Wait!" shrieked Lady Wyke, who now saw that there was indeed no escape, and that the time had come for her to pay in full for her wickedness. "I have a word to say first."

"Say it then," growled the officer, sharply, "and be quick about it."

The captured woman thought for a few moments, and then began with a sigh to confess her wickedness, and continued with frequent sobs. Bad as she was, Claudia was quite sorry for her apparent misery.

"I'll tell the truth," said Lady Wyke, in a melancholy tone, but it became sharper when Purse began to recite his formula. "Don't bother me," she said, tartly, "but take out your pocket-book and note down what I say."

"I'm ready," said the sergeant, stolidly, when her command was complied with. Lady Wyke nodded, looked at her fettered hands, and shivered. "I never thought that I'd live to have these on," she said, sullenly. "However, the game's up, and that girl yonder has won. It's no use beating about the bush any longer. I did murder my husband."

"Oh!" gasped Claudia, shrinking and wincing.

"Yes," went on the woman plaintively. "I killed him, with the knife of your father. To begin at the beginning"---her voice shook, but she made an effort and continued slowly---"when I saw in America that Hector was going to marry you. Miss Lemby, I came back to stop him from committing bigamy."

"He thought that you were dead." "Well, I wasn't. I returned and saw Sandal to prove my identity. I also learnt that the will made by Hector shortly after our marriage, which left his property to me, was still in existence. Then I interviewed Hector, and we had an unpleasant scene, as you may guess. He did not want to tell you the truth immediately, but wished for time to think over matters. To do so he proposed to go into hiding in the country, because he was afraid lest your father should come and worry him."

"My father did find him out," said Claudia, while Purse went on busily taking notes. "He learnt from Edwin where Sir Hector was."

"Add Edwin knew because his father was Rector of Hedgerton. Well, than, as you may guess, I was not going to let my husband give me the slip, so I said that I would go with him. He objected, as he had fixed upon Maranatha, in Hedgerton, as his hiding-place, and knew that I came from there. He did not wish my sister, who was only a washerwoman, to know that I was his wife. I therefore said that I would make myself up as an old woman, and go as his housekeeper."

"And your husband consented to this absurd idea?" I asked Purse, doubtfully.

Lady Wyke smiled drily. "He couldn't very well object, could he," she demanded, "seeing that I had the inside running? Since he was anxious to hide the truth about his first marriage from that girl yonder, he had to do what I wished, as he knew that I could give the show away.

"Well, then, being an actress, I was quite able to turn myself into an old hag. I was Lady Wyke in London, but I arrived at Maranatha as Mrs. Vence. Afterwards, when the house was more or less ready, Hector arrived, and we pigged it there for some time. Hector could not make up his mind to tell you of my reappearance, Miss Lemby, and so dilly-dallied day after day. I kept mostly indoors, while occasionally Hector walked out, although he discouraged people calling, which was natural, considering he did not feel inclined for company. I particularly refused to see my sister, Mrs. Mellin, lest she should recognise me through my disguise. But I got Neddy to bring the washing, and my nephew and I became very friendly."

"Did he know, then, that you were his aunt?" asked Claudia, and Purse mutely put the same question.

"No. He never knew at all that Mrs. Vence and Lady Wyke were one and the same person, which said a good deal for my cleverness in making-up."

"I never guessed myself," said Miss Lemby, shaking her head.

"Another tribute to my talents," cried Lady Wyke, ironically. "Well, then, the whole reason why I disguised myself at Hector's request, and watched him, was to prevent him from making another will. I fancied that he wanted to leave the money to you, Miss Lemby, and naturally I hated you. I pigged it as my husband's housekeeper for some time, as you know, and watched him carefully. Then, on that particular night Mr. Oliver Lemby arrived, and saw my husband in the drawing-room. I then----"

"Wait a bit," broke in Purse. "Was the boy Mellin in the house then?"

"Yes. He arrived early with the washing, and was eating some bread and honey in the kitchen. I excused myself, and left him there while I went up to spy at the drawing-room door keyhole. I wished to find out if Hector was saying anything about leaving the money to you, Miss Lemby. I saw what I told you in London, when you truly believed that I was Mrs. Vence. Your father threatened Hector with his knife, and then came the ring at the door. I ran down to open it, but did not know that the newcomer was Mr. Craver. While he asked for my husband, Hector came running downstairs with your father's knife in his hand. He pushed me aside, told me to go to the kitchen and bring refreshments in a quarter of an hour, and then took the stranger into his study. I did not go to the kitchen, but listened. Then I heard Hector say that he intended to leave the money to MV. Craver, and knew that the stranger was Edwin. Afterwards Hector conducted Mr. Craver into the dining-room to show him some papers. What they were I don't know, and why they should be in the dining-room I don't know either. But then Hector's papers and letters were always all over the place. He was a most untidy man.

"I stole into the study, and saw Mr. Lemby's knife on the table, where Hector had left it. I was furious at the thought of Hector making a new will and leaving the money to another person. The devil entered into me, for I swear that I had no idea of killing him until then. Hector came back for a moment and faced me as I was holding the knife. Without waiting, I sent the knife straight into his false heart. He gave a cry and fell. Then I heard Mr. Craver move in the next room---the dining-room. I turned to fly, and saw Neddy Mellin looking at me. He had seen all. I dragged him into the kitchen, and made him promise to hold his tongue. He was scared, and did so. Then, while Mr. Craver was bending over the body, I came in with the tray and dropped it. The postman's knock----"

"Yes, yes, yes!" said Purse, closing his pocket-book; "we know all the rest. Mr. Craver escaped on the bicycle. Hall and Jervis and Lemby arrived, and you played the innocent goat."

"She did more than that," said Claudia, looking very sick and white. "She tried to implicate my father and Edwin when she knew they were innocent."

"Oh, that was a part of my game," said Lady Wyke, lightly. "But you know now why I went to buy a motor. It was to make Edwin's acquaintance. Then Neddy gave me the letter he had taken from the hall table, and I knew that I had the upper hand of your lover. I must say that, seeing how I could have ruined him, he was brave to stick to you, Claudia. As to that pirate Lemby----"

"That's enough," said Sergeant Purse, suddenly. "I have heard all that I want to hear. Now come to Redleigh Gaol."

"One minute," said Lady Wyke, staring across the water. "There is the aeroplane, sergeant. Won't you wait for its arrival, and let me say good-bye to the man I love, and for whose sake I have ruined myself?"

"No. Come along," and Purse laid his hand lightly on her arm, never thinking but what she would obey, "come to Redleigh Gaol."

"Death rather!" shrieked Lady Wyke and, handcuffed as she was, sprang down the path in a moment. How she kept her balance was a wonder but keep it she did, and before the two on the cliffs could gather their senses together she was down on the beach. The aeroplane came nearer and nearer.

"She means to drown herself!" cried Claudia, and sprang in pursuit, while Purse, wholly taken by surprise, blew his whistle loudly.

At once three or four men came running from the coastguard station, and followed the sergeant down the path. But Claudia, determined to prevent her rival from escaping punishment, was already in pursuit. She soon dropped to the level of the beach, and scrambled over the boulders on to the smooth sands. Lady Wyke was speeding ahead like a swallow, but lingered when she saw Claudia at her heels. The girl got within touching distance of her, when the woman, with an insulting laugh, darted off again. Claudia followed unthinkingly, and almost before she knew what had happened, found herself in the middle of the fatal quicksands, which had been pointed out to her by Neddy.

Lady Wyke was already sinking fast, and laughing loudly. "I've got you; you are trapped! No Redleigh Gaol for me, and no Edwin for you! I'm not beaten yet, I'm not beaten yet!"

Claudia shrieked as she felt herself in the grip of the cruel sands. Purse and the coastguards uttered shouts of dismay, for it appeared to be impossible to save the two women. At once two of the men scrambled back up the cliff to get ropes and boards for the rescue. But all the time Claudia and the rival who had lured her to destruction were sinking deeper and deeper, Lady Wyke, in particular, going down swiftly, as she had ran on to the sands first. Claudia was following quickly. All at once both women heard the buzz of the machine, and looked up to see the aeroplane directly overhead. Edwin dropped swiftly downwards as he recognised the peril, and soon came near enough to recognise who were in danger. With a white face, but perfectly calm, he dropped the rope coiled on the pilot seat, and guided the aeroplane down a short distance above the heads of the two. Lady Wyke uttered a cry of rage as she saw Claudia grasp the rope, and cling to it for dear life.

"It's not fair; it's not fair!" she screamed. "She shan't be saved! Me too; me too!" and she shook her ironbound hands impotently at the aeroplane. Purse and his men looked on aghast, for Lady Wyke was now up to her middle in the sand.

There was no word from Craver, and no cry from Claudia. The rope had dropped truly, and one end was in her hands, while the other was fastened to the seat of the machine. Edwin kept his engine going at full speed, swung low, and then curved for the ascent. The rope tightened, there came a steady pull, and Claudia was plucked from peril, just as the sands had her in their grip up to the knees. With an angry, despairing cry, Lady Wyke saw her hated rival swinging in the air and borne out of danger as the aeroplane slanted skywards with a rush. Then the pilot descended lower and lower gradually, until the rescued girl, now on firm ground, was able to let go her hold. With a faint moan she did so, and sank insensible on the sands, while the aeroplane rose in the air to sweep upward majestically, to skim over the cliffs, and finally to alight with a run near the barn.

But Lady Wyke saw nothing of this. Swiftly and surely the greedy sands sucked her down into their depths. Her waist, her shoulders, her neck disappeared, while the sergeant and the coastguards looked on helplessly. With ropes and board the rescuers scrambled down the cliffs just as the miserable woman's black head vanished for ever. Without a sound, she went down into the halls of death, by a far more cruel road than the one she had forced her husband to travel. And when Claudia awoke from her death-like trance she was lying in the sheltering arms of her lover.

"Lady Wyke?" she murmured, feebly. Edwin silently pointed to the quicksands, which gleamed and glittered, and appeared to smile in the evening light. There was not a sign of the evil woman who had been swallowed up by them. And the incoming tide began to break in little waves over her nameless grave.

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