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CHAPTER XXVI.

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    With the death of Lady Wyke and the discovery of her wickedness came the end of trouble. There certainly remained a little to be endured by those connected with the tragedy, for the whole strange story was made public. That led to an invasion of Hedgerton by reporters, photographers, and many morbid-minded people in search of sensation. The Rectory was besieged, and Edwin, to protect Claudia from worry, was compelled to grant interviews. The girl herself remained in her room for some days, as she had received a severe shock. But that did not prevent her portrait from appearing in the illustrated papers, since it was procured from Mr. Lemby.

    The pirate was in his element. Far from disliking such publicity he gloried in it, and turned it, to good account. Money was what he wanted, and money was what he intended to get——as much as he could conveniently screw of this person and that. He charged for interviews; he had his photograph sold in the streets and in shops; he swanked and swaggered all over the place with a view to impress everyone with his importance. And he succeeded; for the case caused such a sensation that an enterprising music-hall manager offered the buccaneer an engagement at a large weekly salary. Mr. Lemby, therefore, appeared in a kind of Captain Kidd costume to relate wild adventures in the South Seas and in Australia. Both Edwin and Claudia were horribly ashamed. As for Mrs. Craver, her indignation knew no bounds.

    "What kind of a man is this," she wrathfully demanded, "to have such a daughter as you, Claudia? People didn't do these things when I was a girl."

    "It won't last long," replied Claudia with a sigh. "Very soon the novelty will wear off, and then father will go back to Australia."

    "I'm sure I shall be glad." said the little lady, drawing herself up in a dignified way. "And I don't mean any disrespect to you, my dear, when I say so. You are a sweet girl, and will make Edwin an ideal wife. Your father is fascinating in some ways, and has many good qualities. All the same, he should not try and make capital out of this dreadful case."

    Claudia quite agreed with this view. But it was impossible to stop the pirate from taking every advantage of what had happened. As he had entered upon this new career within a week from the death of Lady Wyke, he was absent from Hedgerton and did not remain to worry her. That was something gained, as she had Edwin to herself, and in many ways was perfectly happy. After the storm had come the sunshine, and now that there was no bar to their union the young couple determined to get married as soon as possible. Only when she was Mrs. Craver junior did Claudia feel that she would be safe from the vagaries of her piratical father.

    The Rector and his wife were both shocked when they learnt the truth. In fact, the whole parish was shocked, as everyone knew Laura Bright, although, as Lady Wyke, she was a comparative stranger to the friends of her youth. Poor Mrs. Mellin wept at the outset over her sister's terrible fate; but when she learnt that it was Laura that had tried to kill Neddy she dried her tears and refused to mourn. People talked to her and asked questions, but the old washerwoman behaved with great dignity, and declined to say a word about the dead. She could not say good and she did not wish to say bad, so she wisely held her tongue, and was greatly commended for her reticence by Mrs. Craver, who approved of her attitude.

    As for Neddy, he gradually recovered his health. An operation restored his senses, and careful nursing at Redleigh Hospital did the rest. In a remarkably short space of time, considering the nature of the injury, he was quite his old bright, clever self. Then Mrs. Mellin took him home again with the intention of keeping him under her eye for the rest of her life. But the lad, having tasted the joys of London, refused to remain at Hedgerton. As soon as he was well enough he returned to town and sought out the music-teacher with whom he had been placed by his dead aunt. The man gladly took him in charge, and in due time Neddy appeared at the Tit-Bits Music Hall with immense success. Known as "The Skylark" he became quite a favourite, and made a great ideal of money. To his honour, it must be said that he gave the greater portion of his earnings to his mother, and these she placed in a bank to his credit, refusing to touch a shilling herself. The shock sustained by the boy did him much good, as it sobered his character, and gave him experience. On the whole, he turned out very well, and Mrs. Mellin never regretted letting him have his own way; with regard to the singing. And, like his mother, Neddy never spoke of Lady Wyke. She was dead and buried in the quicksand, so there was no more to be said.

    The quicksand had a wonderful fascination for morbid people. Many came down to Hedgerton during the summer for the express purpose of staring at the terrible grave of the miserable woman. Consequently all the lodging houses in Hedgerton were full, and the season was the best, ever known. In fact, the publicity given to the quiet little place by the tragedy induced strangers to come down and stay there. When they found what a charming resort it was, and how good the air was for nerves, many remained, and building operations on a large scale took place. Within a few years the locality was quite populous, so Lady Wyke did good for her native village by her death, although she had done nothing for it while living. But in this connection it may be mentioned that Maranatha was pulled down. No one would rent it owing to its ill-omened history, so it was finally destroyed, which was the most sensible thing to be done. Its site became tea-gardens, and the proprietors of these did a large business, notwithstanding the fact that, many people shook their heads and declared that even the ground was accursed.

    But all this improvement of Hedgerton, which made it a thriving seaside resort, took place long after Claudia and her lover were happily married. After the first shock was over, and the greedy desire of the public for further details was satisfied, Edwin broached the subject of marriage with Claudia in the drawing-room of the Rectory. Mr. and Mrs. Craver were present and thoroughly approved of their son's wish that the ceremony should take place as soon as possible. They loved Claudia, and, sympathising greatly with what she had gone through, were anxious to make her happy. And what better fortune could they wish her than to be the wife of the man she loved?

    "I shall never be quite satisfied until I call you my wife, darling," said the young man, fondly. "There is no reason why we should not marry at once."

    "I have no money," faltered Claudia, "and my father——"

    "Oh, never mind your father, my dear," interrupted little Mrs. Craver. "If I have said anything about him to wound you, I'm sure I'm very sorry. Let him go his own way, for he has many good qualities. We want you. As to money, Edwin earns enough to keep you in tolerable luxury."

    "I don't want that, I want Edwin."

    "You shall have both, dear. And as a wedding-present," added the young man with a smile. "I am going to give you a promise that I shall not fly any more."

    "Oh," cried Mrs. Craver, clasping her hands tightly, "I am glad. Of course, I am used to it now, but really, Edwin, my heart is in my mouth every time you go up in that horrid aeroplane."

    "Oh, don't call it horrid, Mrs. Craver," expostulated Claudia, hurriedly. "Think of how it saved my life. Nothing but the aeroplane could have rescued me."

    "Along with Edwin's presence of mind, of course," said the Rector, thoughtfully. "And it was providential Edwin, that you took that coil of rope along with you, otherwise——" He shrugged his shoulders.

    "Otherwise I should have gone down with Lady Wyke," said Claudia, trembling.

    "Don't talk of her dear," said Mrs. Craver, trembling also. "I wish to forget Laura Bright entirely. To think of her wickedness in luring you on to that quicksand! It was cruelly clever. She meant to kill you."

    Edwin nodded. "I suppose the sight of the quicksands from the top of the path suggested that way of hurting Claudia," he remarked. "Handcuffed as she was, Lady Wyke saw no other way of getting even with us. And it was wonderful to think how she got down that steep path without breaking her neck."

    "Didn't you guess what she intended to do, Claudia?" asked the Rector.

    "No. I ran after her believing that she intended to throw herself into the sea and escape punishment. But she waited until I nearly reached her, and then ran fairly into the quicksand. I followed unthinkingly, and then——" The girl shivered, for the recollection of her escape was very dreadful.

    "Don't let us talk any more about it," said Edwin, soothingly.

    They could not, for at that moment a visitor was announced. This was none other than Mr. Sandal, who stalked into the drawing-room, tall, thin, and dried up in his looks. Edwin and Claudia were surprised to see him, and when he was introduced to the Rector and Mrs. Craver they looked at him apprehensively. He saw their dismay, and smiled in his dry way.

    "I am not always a bird of ill-omen, Mr. Craver," he said to Edwin; "and on this occasion I come as the dove of peace rather than as the raven of misfortune."

    "What do you mean?" asked the young man, doubtfully. "I mean," said the solicitor, taking an official-looking document out of his pocket, "that I have here the will of Lady Wyke made in your favour."

    "Oh, but that was all nonsense," said Craver, quite taken aback. "Lady Wyke only, told me that she made a will in my favour to trick me into marriage. I did not know, until Claudia here explained, that marriage destroyed a will."

    "It does, Mr. Craver; but, as no marriage took place, this will holds good. It was none of my business to contradict my late client; and, as she insisted on making you her heir, she did so. Of course," added the lawyer quietly, "I did not know that she intended to marry you, or I should have pointed out that the will should be executed after the ceremony."

    "Well, Mr. Sandal," asked Claudia, impatiently, "what does it mean?"

    "It means that Mr. Craver here inherits five thousand a year." There were exclamations, and everyone looked startled. "I won't take a penny of that miserable woman's money!" cried Edwin, violently. "Don't be silly, Edwin!" said Mrs. Craver, sensibly. "You will do move good with the money than she ever did. Take what you can get, and be thankful." "What do you say, father?"

    "I say accept, my son. Although she did not mean it. Providence, in a wonderful way, has guided her to make reparation to you and to Claudia for all the misery she has brought on you."

    "Claudia?"

    "I don't know what to say," said the girl, nervously. "I leave it to you, Edwin."

    "Be wise, my dear sir; be wise," warned Sandal, seeing the young man still hesitate. "I accept," said Edwin, after a few moments' thought. "After all, I have acted honourably, and there is no reason why I should be quixotic."

    "None in the world," said Sandal, drily. "I congratulate you on your good sense, Mr. Craver. Orge up to town when you can, and I shall place you in possession of the property." He rose to go.

    "Stay to dinner," urged the Rector, hospitably.

    "No, my dear sir, no. I have to return to London at once. The trap which brought me from Redleigh is waiting to take me back again. I hope to come down on another and still happier occasion."

    "What is that?" asked little Mrs. Craver, sharply.

    "When Miss Lemby and Mr. Craver are married," complimented the old lawyer, with a courtly bow, and took his leave in his usual stately fashion.

    Amidst the loud congratulations of the Rector and his wife on the great wealth which had come to them, the young couple saw the friendly lawyer down to the gate.

    Sandal refused to say a word about Lady Wyke, even though Edwin gave him a hint. He stepped into Sanky's trap and drove off, leaving two very happy people behind him.

    "Five thousand a year!" said Claudia, drawing a deep breath. "I can scarcely believe it. Why do you laugh, Edwin?"

    "My darling, I was thinking how annoyed your father will be. He schemed for this money, and has lost it. We have not schemed, and it has come to us."

    Claudia laughed also, "I really cannot sympathise with dad," she observed. "I tell you what, Edwin. After dad gets over this music-hall craze of his, let us allow him an income, on condition that he goes to Australia. He will be much happier there, while he will only worry us here. I hope," ended Claudia, remorsefully, "that I am not a bad daughter in saying this?"

    "'No, dear, no." Edwin petted her. "Your father is a trial, and is one of those parents who make one wonder why the fifth commandment was ever given."

    "He means well, Edwin."

    "To himself he does. No, Claudia, don't try to cry up your father's virtues, for he has very, very few. I shall be glad to see the last of him, and so will you." Claudia could not deny this, and they leant comfortably over the gate to talk of more agreeable subjects.

    "What will you do with all this money?" said the girl. "Oh, that is easily settled," said her lover, putting his arm round her waist. "First we get married; second, we shall go a trip round the world for a couple of years, so as to make us forget all these terrible troubles. Then we shall return when your father is safely settled in Australia, and build a house near this rectory. I shall go back to the motor factory, and live the steady life of a business man who has a charming wife to welcome him home."

    "And you won't fly any more, Edwin."

    "No; never again. The aeroplane will go back to town by rail. Seeing what happiness has come to us, I shall not tempt Providence. Hullo, here's the post!" It was indeed Hall, who came up the road on his bicycle. Edwin took the letters, which were all for the Rector. After a word or two, the postman got on his machine, and moved swiftly away. Edwin watched the red bicycle pass out of sight. "A machine like that saved my life," he said, gravely. "If I hadn't got away on that night I should have been hanged by this time." Claudia threw her arms round his neck. "Don't Edwin! Let us try and forget all about that terrible time. Orge inside."

    "All right. We can pass the evening along with father and mother, building castles in the air."

    "Orge in, dear, come in. I never wish to see a red bicycle again."

    "Nor do I," said the young man, laughing; "bat we can't abolish post-men, you know, dearest. There, I shan't say another word. All our trouble has gone down the road with the rod bicycle. And now——"

    "Now I have you, and you have me," said Claudia, with a kiss. "Orge inside."

    The End
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