The Crowned Skull, by Fergus Hume

Chapter 1

The Tent of Mystery

Sir Hannibal Trevick was a personage at St. Ewalds. Certainly he lacked money to support the dignity of his name, and therefore had been compelled to let Trevick Grange to a South African millionaire, and take up his abode in the Dower House at the Cornish watering-place. But he came of an old and distinguished family, and possessed to all appearances great force of character. Also, he was an ardent churchman, and a philanthropist. Finally, he had a most charming daughter, who was both clever and beautiful: two things not invariably found together.

Dericka Trevick — her quaint Christian name was a source of wonder to archaeologists, since it was that of the Babylonian fish-goddess, could have figured as Titania at a fairy solemnity. She was small and slender, golden-haired and blue-eyed, with a bright manner and a mercurial temperament. Such a description gives an impression of insipidity and shallowness. But Dericka was neither insipid nor shallow. Her will was strong, her judgement quick and unerring, and she ruled the Dower House. Sir Hannibal obeyed her, although he saved his dignity by pretending that such obedience was but fatherly kindness, which could refuse nothing to his household fairy. She dominated the mild, lean governess, Miss Warry, who had taught her everything, and she kept a tight hand over the three domestics who formed Sir Hannibal’s modest establishment. In spite of her looks and manner Dericka was strong, and could have passed for an Elizabeth or Catherine in embryo.

All the same, she was popular, and therefore all the young men of St. Ewalds were bound to her chariot-wheels. But she favoured none of these as they were too bucolic and tame. Her heart had been given for over six months to a smart young barrister from London, who was called Oswald Forde. Sir Hannibal approved, for Forde was a rising man, and might yet become a K. C. or a judge; but as yet there was no open engagement. Dericka was only twenty, and Forde twenty-seven, so there was time enough for a mutual experiment as to whether they would suit one another before before attempting matrimony.

Forde came to St. Ewalds to bask in the smiles of beauty whenever he could manage, and thus found himself at the fete given by Sir Hannibal in aid of the Fishermen’s Chapel, which was being built on a promontory just outside the town. It was a splendidly warm autumn day, and the spacious grounds of the Dower House were occupied by all the fashion and wealth of the place. The square, ugly building — it was Georgian and comfortable — looked out over the waters of St. Ewalds Bay, and possessed garden far too large for the size of the mansion. These sloped down to a fringe of ragged rocks, barricading smooth stretches of sand upon which broke the white Atlantic billows. What with foreign plants and native trees, and late blooming flowers of all kinds bordering the green lawns, the place was very lovely, and the tents erected here and there for the fete made it look like an encampment. People were buying and selling, and eating and drinking, and dancing, and playing games in the hot sunshine, and Sir Hannibal secretly assured himself with much satisfaction that the fete would bring in much money to the chapel. He liked to play the Lord of the Manor even on a small scale, and regarded those who attended the fete as so many worshippers who came to adore him — which they certainly did in a most snobbish manner.

As Sir Hannibal was a widower, with a daughter who would soon be married, at least so said the gossips, many young ladies had, as the saying goes, set their caps at him. He seemed to favour Miss Anne Stretton, a dark-eyed, handsome woman, who was studying art, and had just enough to keep a roof over her head and dress well, which she invariably did. Sir Hannibal, as Miss Stretton knew, was poor, but then he had a position, and was, as she guessed, fairly manageable. It was worth her while to be Lady Trevick, and that position she was determined to occupy, even though her heart drew her in the direction of Ralph Penrith, a dissipated-looking man, whose pedigree was long and whose income was extremely small.. These two were at the fete, and talked together a great deal, perhaps, on Miss Stretton’s part, to arouse the jealousy of Sir Hannibal, and force him into an ardently-wished-for proposal.

‘You have scarcely given me a word,’ complained Sir Hannibal, advancing to where Miss Stretton sat along with his rival. ‘Will you not accept my arm and walk round the grounds?’

‘Certainly,’ assented the lady, alertly, and shot a glance at Penrith, whose face grew dark, ‘but I cannot stay long. Mr. Penrith’s mother has asked me to stay for a few days, and he drives me out to the Manor House at four o’clock.’

‘It is three now,’ said Penrith, looking at his watch; ‘you have an hour to explore the grounds, Miss Stretton.’

‘It will not take us long to drive five miles,’ she replied carelessly, and walked away with the baronet, leaving Penrith sullen and silent. After a time he strolled away to the tent where drinks were sold and enjoyed himself there in his own gross way.

Miss Stretton looked sideways at her companion as they strolled among the visitors. She saw a well-preserved man of over fifty who might pass for forty, and could not but admire his alert military looks and perfect dress. Catching her gaze Sir Hannibal smiled, and examined her in his turn. She was certainly handsome — quite a fine woman, although it could be seen that later in life she would become stout and heavy. Her eyes were dark, and she knew how to use them, and her frock was all that could be desired, even by so fastidious a man as Sir Hannibal Trevick.

‘You are very cruel to me,’ he murmured in her ear.

‘On the contrary,’ said Miss Stretton, smiling. ‘I should blame you. I have been here for half an hour and this is the first time that I have set eyes on you. But for Mr. Penrith I should have been sadly neglected. These St. Ewald people look down upon a poor artist.’

‘They are jealous, dear lady. You are fit to be a queen.’

‘I am a queen, without a kingdom,’ said Miss Stretton meaningly.

‘You shall have one soon,’ replied Sir Hannibal significantly. ‘A small kingdom, it is true, but still one wherein you can reign supreme.’

‘The size does not matter so long as love rules.’

‘And love would rule, were you the queen.’

‘That so much depends on my subjects,’ replied the lady, quickly, and cast another look on him, which made the elderly heart of Sir Hannibal beat faster than it had done for years.

They were in a secluded part of the grounds overlooking the beach, and undoubtedly after so propitious an opening Trevick would have proposed, but that he was interrupted. He had just opened his mouth to speak, and Miss Stretton, with a heightened colour, was getting ready to accept him, when Dericka appeared along with Forde. With his dark looks and her golden beauty they made a comely couple, but Sir Hannibal frowned all the same. His frown was reflected on the face of the calm queenly woman beside him. Dericka, glancing from one to the other, drew her own conclusions. She knew what Miss Stretton desired, and, not liking her, congratulated herself on thus preventing a proposal. Forde saw nothing, and shook hands with Anne; but Dericka saw everything with the quickness of a woman who is in love herself, and at once proceeded to detach her father from this too fascinating adventuress — as she characterised Miss Anne Stretton.

‘You are wanted, papa,’ she said quickly. ‘Mr. Bowring is waiting for you in the library.’

‘Mr. Bowring!’ echoed Sir Hannibal, growing red and looking fierce; ‘and what may Mr. Bowring want?’

‘I really do not know. He came over from the Grange in his motor-car and seems very anxious to see you — on business, I suppose.’

‘He might have chosen a day when I was less busy,’ retorted Trevick, and seemed inclined to deny himself to the untoward visitor. But on second thoughts he turned away towards the house. ‘I must see him, I suppose,’ he said ill-humouredly; ‘something to do with the Grange, I expect. He is a most expensive tenant in spite of his being a millionaire. He always wants something done. Miss Stretton, will you excuse? Dericka, please look after Miss Stretton.’ And he went away with a last look at Anne, who stood silent, drawing figures on the sandy path with the tip of her sun-shade.

‘Have you had some refreshment?’ Dericka asked her formally.

‘Thanks, yes,’ replied Miss Stretton with a sweet smile, and with rage in her heart at the interruption. ‘Now I must buy something.’

‘Or you can have your fortune told,’ said Forde smiling. ‘Go to the Tent of Mystery. Miss Warry is there, and she really tells the most wonderful things.’

‘Has she told your fortune?’ asked Miss Stretton with a glance at Dericka.

‘That is very easy to read,’ answered Forde, smiling again.

Anne tossed her head. ‘How superstitious you are.’

‘I believe that there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamed of in our philosophy,’ retorted the young man dryly.

‘Poor Shakespeare; what a mis-quotation.’

‘Give the credit to Bacon,’ laughed Dericka, who scarcely knew what to say to a woman she so much disliked.

‘I am not clever enough to decide the Bacon–Shakespeare controversy, Miss Trevick. You are, I understand?’

‘You praise me too much, Miss Stretton.’

How far the battle of words would have gone it is impossible to say, but the presence of Forde restrained the feminine war, and the situation was adjusted by a glance between the two women. Then Miss Stretton turned away with a laugh — a society laugh, to hide deeper feelings, and left the lovers alone. ‘You can talk Romeo and Juliet,’ she called back mockingly.

Dericka rather talked Lady Macbeth. ‘How I hate that woman,’ she said clenching her small fist; ‘an adventuress, and —’

‘That is too severe, my dear.’

‘No it isn’t. She came here pretending to paint pictures, but in reality to look for a husband.’

‘Rumour gives Penrith to her in that capacity.’

‘And my knowledge of her scheming gives her my father.’

‘Pooh! Sir Hannibal is too old to think of marriage.’

‘A man is never too old to be cajoled by a woman,’ said Dericka, tartly.

‘I know that,’ replied Oswald gaily; ‘even my twenty-seven venerable years have not saved me.’

Dericka pinched his arm. ‘You donkey.’

‘A really nice girl would have put in an adjective.’

‘You silly donkey!’ Where upon the young man kissed her, and a lovers’ interlude followed.

‘When will you allow me to ask Sir Hannibal?’ demanded the barrister softly.

‘To-morrow, before you go back to town. But papa will not make any objection, dearest. He has just enough to live on, and will be very glad to place his burden — I am the burden, if you please — on someone else’s shoulders.’

‘Dear burden,’ murmured Forde, taking her in his arms. Then, when he descended to earth again, ‘Why doesn’t Bowring help your father? I heard that they were old friends.’

‘Old enemies, rather,’ said Dericka with a cloud over-shadowing her fair face. ‘Mr. Bowring knew papa in Africa years ago, when I was a little baby. When he made his money he asked papa to let him have the Grange, and pays him a good rent. But papa and Mr. Bowring hardly ever speak and never visit one another.’

‘But Mr. Bowring is with him now?’

‘Yes, and I am going into the house to see what is the matter.’

‘There is no need,’ urged Forde, restraining her.

‘There is every need,’ replied Dericka determinedly. ‘Papa in many things is a mere baby, and I have to do everything; besides, he has a very quick temper, and Mr. Bowring is a very rough man. Should they quarrel, and that is not unlikely, I don’t know what may happen.’

‘Let me go with you to the house.’

‘No, stop here. People always smile when they see us together.’

‘Who cares for their smiling? We are as good as engaged.’

‘Wait until our engagement is announced,’ said Dericka quickly, ‘then I won’t mind. But I hate gossip, until my position is assured with papa’s approval.’

‘Ah, then you do count Sir Hannibal as something?’

‘Of course. I like to do things in order. Papa, to the outward world, is a person of character and with a strong will. But he has my character and my will.’

‘What a terrible wife I shall have,’ said Oswald jokingly; ‘you will rule me in every way.’

‘Then I shall begin now,’ said the girl, laughing, but with a fond look at his handsome face. ‘Stop here and I’ll be back as soon as I know why Mr. Bowring has come. Papa cannot do business without me.’

Somewhat annoyed, Forde lighted a cigarette and leaned over the brick wall to watch the billows rolling on the shore, while Dericka walked quickly to the house. She had cause for uneasiness, as she had heard her father express anything but amiable sentiments towards his tenant. Mr. Bowring was a rough man, as she had said, for she had met him once or twice, and having lived in lawless lands he was not likely to be bound by social rules. Sir Hannibal, weak and refined, would have no chance against his rugged strength, nor indeed would he have any chance did Bowring do business with him. The South African, fighting for his own hand, was always trying to get the better of his landlord with regard to the Grange, and would have done so on three occasions but for Dericka’s shrewdness. Bowring bore no grudge towards the girl for her interference, and rather seemed to admire her for her cleverness of getting the better of him.

But Dericka’s fears as to a fracas proved to be vain, for when she reached the front door she met Sir Hannibal and his visitor, issuing therefrom. The baronet certainly appeared to be agitated, but Bowring presented a calm aspect.

The millionaire was a man of bronze, grey as an old wolf, with shaggy hair fringing a bald head, and shaggy eyebrows overhanging piercing grey eyes. His long beard was also shaggy, but his skin, in spite of his sixty years, was fresh and pink as that of the girl who gazed at him. With the contempt for appearance in which wealthy men indulge on occasions, he wore a shabby suit of black, with an African felt hat, and carried in his ungloved hands a queer twisted stick, carved and painted by the hands of some Zulu witch-doctor. Beside Sir Hannibal, polished, stately, accurately dressed, and eminently refined, John Bowring looked like a savage, but a savage dowered with a powerful brain.

Man of bronze as he was the keen grey eyes lighted when they fell on Dericka, gazing fascinated by his strength.

‘Good-day, missy,’ he said in a deep, harsh voice, yet in a kindly manner. ‘We have finished our conversation, and now your father — my old friend,’ he cast a side glance on the baronet as he spoke, ‘wants to see the fun.’

‘Dericka will conduct you round the grounds,’ said Trevick hurriedly. ‘Where is Miss Stretton, my dear?’

‘In the Tent of Mystery,’ replied the girl carelessly; ‘at least, I advised her to go there and have her fortune told.’

Sir Hannibal looked hard at his daughter, trying to discover if her words were double-edged. But she met his gaze serenely, and presently the baronet hurried away. Bowring turned to address the girl with something like a chuckle when behind him appeared a mild face and a lean, gaunt figure, in sad-coloured feminine garments.

‘Why, Sophy, are you not in the tent?’ said Dericka, recognising her governess with surprise.

‘I just came in for a few minutes,’ said Miss Warry timidly. ‘It is trying work telling fortunes. I read Miss Stretton’s hand.’

‘What did you read?’ asked Dericka, curiously.

‘Sorrow and trouble and wickedness,’ said the sibyl solemnly, and again the old millionaire chuckled.

‘Do you really profess to tell the future?’ he asked contemptuously.

‘I really do,’ said the mild governess, nettled by his disbelief, ‘and if you will come with me to the tent I can tell yours.’

‘My future is already my past,’ said Bowring harshly; ‘you can tell me nothing likely to interest me. However, I wish to give some money to the chapel, and as I give nothing for nothing I may as well buy a few fairy stories with my guinea.’

‘I may make mistakes,’ said Miss Warry simply and blinked with her tired old eyes, ‘and sometimes I do, as I am not sufficiently conversant with the psychic life. But I do occasionally foretell things which really happen.’

‘Let us see what will happen to me,’ said Bowring jokingly, and with a grim smile walked after Miss Warry, who floated — the term is very appropriate, for she did not walk like an ordinary human being — towards the Tent of Mystery.

It was now about four o’clock, and Dericka saw her father bidding farewell to Miss Stretton, who was hanging on the arm of the still sulky-looking Mr. Penrith. The baronet seemed to be younger than ever as he basked in the smiles of the adventuress. ‘For she is that,’ insisted Dericka to herself, ‘and wants to marry papa for his position.’ It never occurred to the girl, who, after all, was young in experience, that the adventuress might seek money also, and that she was not likely to find in the pockets of Sir Hannibal Trevick.

Dericka saw the three disappear down the short avenue, at the foot of which, presumably, waited the dog-cart of Penrith, wherein he proposed to drive Miss Stretton over the moorland to his mother’s place. She then walked about amongst the visitors, exchanging a few words, and making herself agreeable. Chance brought her in front of the Tent of Mystery, and from it there issued Bowring, looking somewhat white, followed by the governess.

‘You don’t believe me?’ asked Miss Warry severely — that is, as severely as her mildness would permit.

‘No,’ said Bowring harshly, ‘you talk nonsense.’

‘Yet you seem to be upset,’ said Dericka suddenly, and looking at him in a curious, puzzled way.

Bowring wiped the perspiration from his high, bald forehead.

‘I have had a turn,’ he said gruffly, ‘but from nothing that woman told me.’

The governess had again retired into the tent, and Dericka, thinking that the fortune-telling was at an end, was about to conduct the millionaire to the refreshment stall, when Miss Warry again appeared, holding an envelope in her hand. ‘Mr. Bowring,’ she called, and some people turned at the sound of the name.

‘What is it?’ he asked gruffly.

‘In this envelope I have written a prophecy which I read in your hand. It will be fulfilled before tomorrow. The envelope is sealed, and if what I have written here occurs, then the truth of my art will be made manifest.’

Bowring took the sealed envelope and thrust it into his pocket. ‘I shall look at it tomorrow night.’

‘It may be too late!’ said the sibyl solemnly, and vanished into the tent.

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Last updated Monday, March 17, 2014 at 16:42