The Crowned Skull, by Fergus Hume

Chapter 10

A Strange Disappearance

Forde stared at the meek steward, scarcely believing his ears when he heard what he was saying.

‘When did Anak say that?’

‘Only the other day,’ replied Polwin. ‘I have said nothing about it to anyone, and beg you to observe, Mr. Forde, that I never in any way accused Sir Hannibal of being concerned in this crime. All I said was that Sir Hannibal went out on his bicycle. I expect the feeling against my master arises from the accusation brought by Mrs. Krent.’

‘Oh, you know of that, do you, Polwin?’

‘Yes, sir; everyone knows of it. Mrs. Krent makes no secret that she thinks Sir Hannibal killed Mr. Bowring. That is, she did say so, but lately she seems to have changed her mind.’

‘Quite so,’ rejoined the barrister, thinking of the bribe which was to be paid to the malignant housekeeper. ‘Mrs. Krent, as a woman, would say things in a hurry, which were not true. You can see for yourself, Polwin, that Sir Hannibal, having left you on the second road near St. Ewalds, could not have got over to the place where the crime was committed.’

‘Across the moors he could, sir.’

‘Good heavens, man, do you insinuate —’

‘Nothing, sir, nothing,’ said the steward hurriedly. ‘Only Anak did say that he saw Sir Hannibal near the spot. I daresay he told the quarrymen that, and so they went to wreck the Dower House.’

‘Humph! Why should these quarrymen take up the cudgels so warmly on behalf of Bowring?’

‘Well, sir, Mr. Bowring was an extremely good master, and paid them large wages.’

‘Sir Hannibal, who now again possesses the quarries, will do the same.’

‘Sir Hannibal was never famous for liberality,’ said Polwin dryly; ‘and the quarrymen liked Mr. Bowring, who used to talk to them as though he were one of themselves.’

‘As I believe he was,’ snapped Forde, considerably upset by the information of the steward. ‘He was born hereabouts of poor parents, and only became a gentleman, so-called, after he returned from Africa. By the way, Mr. Polwin, did you know him there?’

‘Slightly. He and Sir Hannibal did business in some diamond transaction. I was very hard up in Africa, and there Sir Hannibal was kind to me in giving me employment.’

‘All the more reason that you should defend him now, Polwin.’

‘I am perfectly willing to do so, sir,’ said the steward earnestly. ‘Believe me, Mr. Forde, I am deeply grateful to Sir Hannibal for what he did for me. It was not I who set the rumour afloat, but Anak, and — and —’ Polwin hesitated, ‘and Miss Warry,’ he ended.

‘Miss Warry!’ Forde stared in surprise. ‘I thought she had gone to London.’

‘She is going, sir; but has not departed as yet. She went to Mrs. Carney, who knows about fortune-telling, and had a talk with her. Mrs. Carney asked her how she came to prophesy so truly, but she refused to give an explanation.’

‘Naturally, seeing that she wishes it to be thought that she prophesied the death from a knowledge of the unseen.’

‘Don’t you believe she did, Mr. Forde?’

‘No, Polwin, I do not. Miss Warry knows something.’

Polwin nursed his chin in the hollow of his hand.

‘I believe she does, sir. She has stated very plainly that she believed Sir Hannibal to be guilty. And what with her story and Anak’s story, and a perversion of what I said about my master having gone out on the bicycle, the police are beginning to believe that Sir Hannibal is guilty.’

‘Good heavens! Things are indeed becoming serious, Polwin. But if the police suspect Sir Hannibal, why did they not arrest him?’

‘They would have done so, sir, had he not gone away. At least, Miss Stretton says so.’

‘I’ll see Miss Stretton, and also Miss Warry. Where is she?’

Polwin mentioned a quiet boarding house a stone-throw from the mansion of Sir Hannibal.

‘You’ll see Anak also, sir?’

‘Certainly; he must have made a mistake.’

‘Then you don’t believe, sir, that Sir Hannibal killed —’

‘Assuredly I do not, Polwin,’ interrupted the young man angrily. ‘I can see no reason why Sir Hannibal should have killed Mr. Bowring.’

‘They say that the money —’

Forde interrupted again. ‘Ridiculous! Sir Hannibal knew nothing about the will making him the heir. And, again, Polwin, you can tell everyone that the money is left in trust for Miss Trevick and Morgan Bowring on condition that they marry.’

Polwin started and appeared disturbed.

‘Is that marriage likely to take place, sir?’

‘Perhaps. At all events, Sir Hannibal is agreeable.’

‘And the young lady, sir? I thought,’— Polwin looked very directly at the barrister —‘that Miss Dericka had other views.’

‘Perhaps,’ said Forde again, and somewhat carelessly. ‘At all events I understand that such a match may take place. But you can see, Polwin, that if the money was thus left there was no reason why Sir Hannibal should murder Mr. Bowring. Unless,’ added Forde keenly, ‘you, Mr. Polwin, know of some reason.’

‘How should I know, sir?’

‘What about Sir Hannibal and Mr. Bowring in Africa?’ asked Forde, abruptly.

‘They were partners, sir, in some diamond transactions.’

‘And good friends?’

‘I really cannot say, sir,’ said Polwin, coldly; ‘they appeared to be good friends.’

‘Humph!’ said Oswald, rather dissatisfied. ‘And the skull?’

‘What skull, Mr. Forde?’

‘That placed in Miss Warry’s tent by an unknown person.’

‘I know nothing about that, Mr. Forde. Sir Hannibal will be the most likely person to explain.’

‘Sir Hannibal declares he knows nothing. Come, now, Mr. Polwin; you must be aware of some circumstance in Mr. Bowring’s past life — in Africa, we’ll say — which is connected with his fear of the skull.’

‘I swear I know nothing,’ replied Polwin, a trifle sullenly; then his face cleared and he looked pleadingly towards the young man. ‘Sir, I am only too anxious to be of service to Sir Hannibal, who has been a kind and good friend to me.’

‘That sounds genuine enough,’ said Forde, looking keenly into the meek face of the steward. ‘Well, Mr. Polwin, and what do you advise?’

‘What you have already suggested, sir. See Miss Warry and Anak and Miss Stretton and Mrs. Carney.’

‘Why Mrs. Carney?’

‘Miss Warry may have said something to her about her prophecy of Mr. Bowring’s death.’

‘But you told me that Miss Warry refuses to speak.’

‘Mrs. Carney told me so, sir, but Mrs. Carney may tell you otherwise. I daresay Miss Warry paid Mrs. Carney to hold her tongue.’

Forde looked at the ground and moved the hearthrug with his foot dreamily.

‘There seems to be considerable muddling over this matter, and I don’t quite see my way. However, it will be best to do what you say, Mr. Polwin. I’ll see the people you mention.’

‘And advise Sir Hannibal to keep away, sir,’ advised Polwin earnestly, ‘else he may be arrested.’

‘That will be the very best thing that can happen,’ said Forde in a grim tone. ‘Sir Hannibal, being innocent, will have no hesitation in facing his accusers.’

Polwin looked doubtfully at the barrister, and the confidence the latter expressed in the baronet’s innocence did not seem to be shared by the steward. However, he said nothing, but meekly bowed and passed out of the room. Oswald did not try to stop him. For the present he had learned sufficient to advise him as to the next steps to be taken along the doubtful path which led towards the light. In that light Forde expected to see the assassin of John Bowring, and he did not think to find him in Sir Hannibal Trevick. But Polwin, who had known the baronet longer than the barrister, did not seem so certain that Sir Hannibal was innocent. Forde felt uneasy.

‘I wonder,’ he thought, warming his hands, ‘if there is anything in Trevick’s past life in Africa which would warrant his killing Bowring. It seems to me that the Death’s Head could clear up a lot, if its significance could be known. Miss Warry also seems to have her knife into Sir Hannibal, seeing what she said. I don’t believe that she read her prophecy in the stars. She knows something, and perhaps can explain the mystery of that crowned skull. Humph! I’ll call and see Miss Warry this very evening.’

Having made up his mind to this course, Forde sent up a note to Dericka saying that he would call in the morning. He had intended to go up to the Dower House that evening, but thought it as well to postpone his visit until such time as he had seen Miss Warry, and learned exactly what was her attitude towards the baronet. Behind all the evidence which pointed to this person and that, as the enemy who was engineering Sir Hannibal’s destruction, lurked an idea in Oswald’s head that Miss Warry was the moving spirit. Yet he knew that the exgoverness had been kindly treated by the baronet, and had no reason to trouble him. But it might be that Miss Warry was one of those persons who resent kindness, and who would be willing to hurt the person who was kind for the very reason that the person had behaved well. Forde had come across that sort of individual before.

However, he postponed his decision until he had interviewed the exgoverness, and meanwhile walked up to the boarding house where she was stopping. It was a large granite house overlooking the bay, and as comfortable as any place in St. Ewalds, if not more so. Two very charming ladies owned the place, and ministered to the many guests who came to their establishment, for it was wonderfully popular and quite deserved its popularity. Miss Warry, who was fond of her comforts, could not have chosen a more delightful abode.

Forde sent in his card and was shown into a small room, well furnished and illuminated by a tall lamp in a rose-coloured shade. Consequently, when Miss Warry, gaunt and grey as ever, sailed into the room, swinging her inevitable black velvet bag from her lean wrist, she looked quite presentable in the rose-hued light. She was arrayed in a dark red cashmere dress with a long train, perfectly plain and tightfitting. As Miss Warry had not an elegant figure the excellent fit of her dress showed her angles in an excessively unbecoming manner. Also she wore a paste star in her scanty hair, and assumed a solemn manner. Her mincing ways and meek behaviour and nervous tittering were things of the past. Emancipated from the thraldom of an inferior position, Miss Warry had adopted a severe, imperative manner, which she thought befitted her new role of prophetess.

She greeted Forde with the air of one welcoming a mourner to a funeral, and scanned him closely with her green eyes before subsiding gracefully into an armchair. Forde could not help thinking that she looked like a problem of Euclid, so angular did she appear. And, like such a problem, Miss Warry, as he guessed, would be hard to solve.

She began the conversation by giving him a shock.

‘This is sad news, Mr. Forde,’ she said in a deep voice, and with a direct gaze.

‘To what particular sad news do you allude, Miss Warry?’

‘Have you not seen the weekly paper which came out today, Mr. Forde?’

‘No. I only arrived in St. Ewalds this day.’

‘With Miss Quinton and Dericka? I heard as much. But how wise that Sir Hannibal did not come.’

‘Really, I don’t see that, Miss Warry.’

‘Ah, I forgot you have not read the paper. There is no copy here.’

‘In that case, Miss Warry, perhaps you will tell me what is the sad news you allude to.’

Miss Warry was only too pleased.

‘It is stated that the police have found a clue which leads them to believe that Sir Hannibal murdered Mr. Bowring, and he is to be arrested. The warrant has been taken out,’ continued the exgoverness with relish, and passing over Forde’s exclamation, ‘and a detective has gone to London to arrest the assassin. How very sad.’

‘You seem to be very certain that Sir Hannibal is guilty,’ said Mr. Forde somewhat tartly, and recovering his self-possession.

‘On these facts I am,’ said Miss Warry, serenely.

‘What facts?’

Miss Warry forthwith launched into long explanations, which dealt with the story of Polwin, considerably distorted, with the tale of Anak, and with the marvellous truth of her own prophecy.

Forde listened in silence, alert to seize on any new point which might help him to solve the mystery of the millionaire’s death. But Miss Warry’s story was only the same as he had learned from the steward. He did not give the exgoverness the satisfaction of seeing what an impression she had made on him, but looked at her serenely when she had finished.

‘Of course, I don’t believe all this gossip,’ said Forde.

‘Gossip!’ echoed Miss Warry viciously. ‘The police do not take out warrants on gossip.’

‘The truth of these tales has yet to be proved, Miss Warry. I am quite sure that Sir Hannibal will willingly face his accusers.’

‘In the dock, remember,’ she snapped, annoyed by his coolness; ‘not in the witness box.’

‘Quite so. You will probably be there, Miss Warry.’

‘What do you mean?’

‘I mean,’ said Forde, rising to give due effect to his words, ‘that I am aware of this conspiracy which has been formed to wreck Sir Hannibal’s good name, and that I have undertaken to learn the truth.’

‘It will not be hard to learn,’ said Miss Warry, coolly; ‘my late employer killed Mr. Bowring.’

‘There I join issue.’

‘I don’t understand law terms, Mr. Forde. But, of course, you believe that Sir Hannibal is innocent since you are to marry Dericka.’

‘Ah, but I am not to marry Dericka.’

‘What!’ Miss Warry looked profoundly astonished.

‘By the will of the late Mr. Bowring it is arranged that Dericka shall marry Morgan Bowring. Sir Hannibal intends that such a marriage shall take place. So you see, Miss Warry, that Sir Hannibal had no reason to kill Mr. Bowring. He simply holds the money in trust, as it were, for the young couple.’

Miss Warry sniffed and laughed in an artificial manner.

‘Pardon me, Mr. Forde, but I was present at the reading of the will. There is no hard and fast assertion that such a marriage shall take place.’

‘Sir Hannibal thinks that he should yield to the express wishes of his late friend.’

‘His late friend?’ scoffed the lady; ‘his late enemy, you mean.’

‘How can you be sure of that?’

‘Because I know what I know,’ said Miss Warry in an enigmatic manner. ‘Your story of this possible marriage doesn’t impose on me, Mr. Forde. Sir Hannibal is not the man to give his daughter to a madman, and you are not the lover to surrender a pretty girl such as Dericka is — to say nothing of the fact that Dericka has too much common sense to allow herself to be handed over to anyone. If you think to do away with the motive for the crime by such an explanation, Mr. Forde, you have failed so far as I am concerned. Sir Hannibal needed money, and he killed Mr. Bowring to get it.’

‘How can you tell?’

‘I’ll tell now,’ said Miss Warry quickly, ‘and if needs be I’ll tell what you are about to hear in the witness box. You know what I wrote in the letter which I gave Mr. Bowring?’

‘Yes; but I don’t believe that you read it in his hand.’

‘I did, and in the crystal,’ snapped the sibyl. ‘But I also had some grounds to go upon.’

‘I thought so,’ said Forde sarcastically.

‘The crystal and the palm of Mr. Bowring’s hand simply confirmed what I guessed. I went into the house to get something for my fortune-telling on that day of the fete, and about the time Sir Hannibal was talking in the library with Mr. Bowring I was there.’

‘Oh! Eavesdropping?’

‘Nothing of the sort,’ said Miss Warry, flushing all over her sallow face. ‘I wanted a book which was in the library which dealt with fortune-telling, as I had to refresh my memory. I went to the library, and when I heard voices I slipped behind a screen.’

‘Why did you conceal yourself so unnecessarily?’

‘Just because I didn’t want anyone to think that I had to refer to a book for my Art. You can call it weak, if you like, Mr. Forde, but that is what I did. Well, then, when I was hidden behind the screen Sir Hannibal came in with Mr. Bowring. They were quarrelling.’

‘What about, Miss Warry?’

‘Really, I cannot say exactly. It had something to do with that skull and with a Zulu witch-doctor. They spoke in low, angry tones, and as my hearing is not very good, and they were some distance away, by the window, I could not hear all. But I did hear Sir Hannibal say he would kill Mr. Bowring sooner than he should disgrace him.’

‘Did Sir Hannibal use those words?’

‘He did. So when I saw in the crystal and read in Mr. Bowring’s palm that he would die before he reached home, I guessed that Sir Hannibal would fulfil his promise and kill him. And when I found Sir Hannibal absent from the fete, I guessed that he had gone to kill his enemy.’

Forde pondered. ‘This is all very strange.’

‘Meaning that you don’t believe me?’ snapped the lady, rising.

‘Oh, yes, but —’

‘There is no but. I am very sorry that I told you since you doubt my word. I decline to stay longer in your company.’ And Miss Warry, in the most unexpected manner, swept out of the room before Forde could stretch a hand, or say a word to stop her. It seemed to him that Miss Warry was fearful lest he should question her, and therefore had made his doubts of her story a feeble excuse to get speedily out of the room.

He sent a message asking her to return, but she refused to appear, and Forde had to return home to bed considerably bewildered by the information she had given him. Whether it was true, or merely the invention of a spiteful woman, he would not say, but undoubtedly it made things look blacker than ever against Sir Hannibal Trevick. And even now he might be arrested.

Forde passed a bad night, as he foresaw trouble, and could not think how such trouble was to be avoided. Trevick was in danger of being hanged, seeing that the evidence against him was so strong and the public feeling ran so high. Yet never for one moment did the barrister believe his future father-inlaw to be guilty. But how to prove his innocence he could not think, and thought it would be best to go to London again and have a conversation with him regarding the crowned skull, which seemed to turn up everywhere in this extraordinary case.

But there was no need for Forde to leave St. Ewalds. Just as he was preparing to go out Polwin appeared and made an abrupt announcement:

‘Sir Hannibal has disappeared,’ said Josiah Polwin.

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