The Crowned Skull, by Fergus Hume

Chapter 14

An Unexpected Meeting

Forde had sat down to hear Mrs. Krent’s revelations, but when she mentioned the Death’s Head he started to his feet again.

‘I am glad to hear you mention that, Mrs. Krent,’ said he vigorously, ‘for I have an idea that the Death’s Head has much to do with the murder.’

‘What makes you think that?’ demanded Dericka, while the housekeeper leaned back and loosened her bonnet-strings with an enigmatic expression of countenance.

‘Remember what Miss Warry said, my dear, that Bowring turned pale and was very surprised when he saw the skull in the tent. Depend upon it, the thing had some disagreeable memory for him, and such a memory may have to do with his death.’

‘I don’t quite follow you or agree with you, Oswald.’

‘Oh, I may be wrong,’ answered the barrister, dropping back into his seat; ‘all the same, that idea is firmly fixed in my head. However, no doubt Mrs. Krent here will be able to account for Bowring’s fears when he beheld the beastly thing.’

‘No,’ said Mrs. Krent, unexpectedly. ‘I can’t explain why Mr. Bowring feared it, although I know that he did.’

‘Then you cannot elucidate the mystery?’

‘Not of the Death’s Head. There is only one person can do that, as he gave me a hint about it once in Cape Town.’

‘Who is the person?’

‘My husband.’

‘And where is he?’

‘Ah, my dear young lady, I am as ignorant as you are on that point.’

‘But, Mrs. Krent —’

‘There isn’t any “but” about it,’ rejoined the housekeeper with asperity, and her hands trembled; ‘don’t speak of the man or I’ll lose my temper. If ever there was a scoundrel who walked on two legs he was Samuel Krent.’

‘Was he a German?’ asked Forde; ‘the name sounds German.’

‘I don’t know what he was. He called himself English, and came, so he said, from New Zealander. But he was a bad man, and left me to starve. I should have done so but for Bowring,’ ended Mrs. Krent, and her listeners noticed that she dropped the prefix to the millionaire’s name.

‘Well,’ said Forde leisurely, ‘scraps of intelligence of this sort only serve to confuse. Suppose you begin at the beginning, Mrs. Krent, and tell us exactly what you mean.’

‘My dears,’ said the woman, with a vulgar familiarity, which neither of the young people liked, ‘you’re asking me to tell you my life history, which would take hours to relate. I’ll tell what I can, as briefly as possible. I’ve had a hard time, a very hard time,’ sighed Mrs. Krent, looking at her hands in the mauve gloves — admiringly, perhaps; ‘trouble is second nature with me.’

‘Your troubles will be over when you get the two thousand a year, Mrs. Krent,’ observed Dericka, comforting the woman.

‘Ah, my dear, money ain’t everything. Just when I’m settled down that husband of mine will turn up to make trouble. He always did, he always will. I’ve got a temper myself, and can hold my own with most people, but not with Samuel. No! no!’ Mrs. Krent shook her head with a weak smile. ‘Old Nick is Samuel’s father, and Samuel may be with him for all I know; I hope he is.’

‘Go on,’ said Forde, rather impatient and anxious to get to the truth so far as it concerned Bowring; ‘begin at the beginning.’

‘Ah!’ sighed Mrs. Krent, again shaking her head, ‘that takes me back many, many years. I was born in Whitechapel, and got good schooling when I was a gal, for my people were plumbers and well-to-do. I was a fine buxom gal, my dears, and when I went into service I had many an offer of marriage. I took Jerry Ward, who worked as a shoemaker. Him and me went to Africa, and there he died, poor soul, just three years after my Jenny was born.’

‘Oh!’ said Dericka, rather surprised; ‘I thought your daughter was Jenny Krent?’

‘Jenny Ward is her real name, my dear, called after her first father, though to prevent muddle I did allow her to say she was Krent, that being the name of my second. But she’s neither Krent nor Ward now, my dears, but Mrs. Jane Bowring.’

‘You can prove the marriage?’ asked Forde quickly.

Mrs. Krent drew herself up with an offended air. ‘I can show you the certificate,’ she said. ‘Jenny’s a good girl, and I’m a respectable woman. But that can come later. I want to tell all carefully, my dears, so that you may understand.’

‘Yes, yes. Go on.’

Mrs. Krent settled herself comfortably and continued, pleased, as a chattering person always is, to find herself the centre of attraction, and with attentive listeners.

‘Ward died, as I said,’ she resumed, ‘leaving me a lone widow woman with Jenny, quite a baby. I went out washing in Cape Town, for there we lived. Ward emigrated to better himself, but, Lord bless you, he was took off with consumption in a jiffy.’

‘And what did you do?’ asked Dericka, anxious to bring Mrs. Krent back to the point.

‘I took in washing, my dears, as I said. Them niggers washed, too, but none of them could starch shirts like me, so I did well with the laundry. That was over twenty years ago,’ sighed Mrs. Krent.

‘I was a baby then,’ murmured Dericka.

‘Yes, Miss, and so was Jenny. Then I saw your pa. He was always fond of clean linen, and came to my laundry. More than that, he was so pleased with my washing that he brought along Bowring and Krent.’

‘Were those three together?’ asked the barrister suddenly.

‘In partnership, as you might say, Mr. Forde; they did business over diamonds and gold and anything by which they could turn an honest penny. Sir Hannibal, who was friendly with me for so fine a gentleman, talked quite freely, and said that he had come out to make a fortune. How he fell in with Bowring, I can’t say, but he did, up at Kimberley, I think, and Bowring, being clever without money, and Sir Hannibal having money, without being clever — asking your pardon, my dear — the two thought they’d join forces and make a fortune.’

‘And Krent?’

‘He was a kind of sleeping partner,’ said the housekeeper; ‘he did the dirty work.’

‘Then there was dirty work?’ demanded Forde, significantly.

‘Plenty of it. Sir Hannibal, again asking your pardon, my dear, was a fine gentleman, but not clever. Bowring was too much for him, and for Krent, too. It was Bowring who made the money, and a blackguard he was, shame that I should say so, my dears, seeing he has been so good to me, and is dead, not to speak of the fact that he’s my brother-inlaw.’

‘Your brother-inlaw?’ cried the listeners, simultaneously.

‘By marriage,’ explained Mrs. Krent, ‘else I shouldn’t have let my Jenny marry Morgan. Bowring married Ward’s sister, and as he was my first husband that makes —’

‘All right,’ said Forde, cutting her short. ‘We understand the relationship, Mrs. Krent. Go on.’

‘Well, then, as I say,’ pursued the housekeeper, ‘Bowring married Amelia Ward shortly after my first husband’s death. She was not quite right in her head, poor thing, and they say that Bowring treated her cruelly. She died five years later, leaving Morgan, and as Bowring couldn’t be bothered with the boy, and I was a relative, he left him to me to bring up. Then he and Sir Hannibal went to the Transvaal, after diamonds, I suppose. Krent waited behind, and you could have knocked me down with a feather,’ said Mrs. Krent, lifting her hands, ‘when he asked me to marry him.’

‘You did?’ queried Dericka.

‘My dear, Krent told me a story of his future wealth, and as I was tired of washing I took him. He had pretty ways, too,’ added Mrs. Krent, thoughtfully, ‘but, Lord bless you, that was only at the beginning of the marriage. Afterwards he became a brute, and took all my money and went to the Transvaal after Sir Hannibal and Bowring, leaving me with next to nothing, keeping Jenny and Morgan, who were both well grown by then.’

‘When did you see him again?’

‘Not for years and years. One night he appeared in the rain, just such a night as this, my dears. He was at the door, and when I saw his face in the light of a lamp I gave a shriek — it was so white and horrid-looking. He came in and said that he wanted money and a bed. Bowring had kicked him out of the firm and was making money fast.’

‘Why was Krent kicked out?’

The housekeeper lowered her voice and cast a frightened look round the room. ‘I wouldn’t tell everyone,’ she said, softly, ‘but I’ve promised to make a clean breast of it to that young lady. Krent told me that Bowring had forged Sir Hannibal’s name to some bills, and these Sir Hannibal kept hanging over Bowring’s head.’

‘That is not true,’ said Dericka, indignantly.

‘It is,’ insisted Mrs. Krent. ‘Bowring admitted as much to me when he came back and took me to England after making his fortune.’

‘But my father would never —’

‘Hush! Dericka,’ said Forde, quickly; ‘let Mrs. Krent tell the story in her own way. I believe we are coming to something important.’

Dericka subsided and bit her lip, although she was annoyed that a common woman such as Mrs. Krent was should accuse Sir Hannibal Trevick of such conduct.

Mrs. Krent saw her annoyance, and became flurried.

‘My dear young lady, I shouldn’t say what I have said unless it was true,’ she protested. ‘Krent found out about these forged bills and — to be plain, my dears — he tried to blackmail Bowring, who was then rich. But Bowring took him to Sir Hannibal, who denied that there was any forgery, so Krent could do nothing. Bowring then kicked him out of the firm, and he came to me without a penny.’

‘Serve him right, too,’ said Forde indignantly; ‘he was a scamp.’

‘He was worse than that,’ sighed the housekeeper. ‘No one knows what I had to put up with. He kicked me and struck me, and spent my money on other women, begging your pardon, my dear, and lived on me, till I was fairly driven wild. He was always writing to Bowring and Sir Hannibal, but they would not help him. Then he went away, and remained absent for a year.’

‘Where did he go?’

‘To the Transvaal. I fancy something was wrong which Krent could not put right, something about diamonds. He came back in a year with plenty of money and a tale of the Death’s Head.’

‘Ah!’ said Forde with satisfaction; ‘and what is the tale?’

‘My dear young gentleman, I know no more than you do as Krent never would tell me. All he said was that Bowring had been warned once by the nigger skull, and had escaped death. If he was warned again he might escape; but the third time of warning was fatal.’

Forde reflected, his eyes on the woman’s broad, common-looking face.

‘Did Krent possess the skull?’

‘No,’ she whispered; ‘he — Krent, I mean — said that Sir Hannibal had it.’

Dericka and Forde looked suddenly at one another, wondering if Sir Hannibal had placed the skull in the fortune-teller’s tent on that fatal day.

‘I don’t understand quite,’ said Oswald, after a pause, ‘but it seems that this skull — a nigger’s skull, you say? — was a kind of warning to Bowring that he would be killed if he saw it three times.’ Then when Mrs. Krent nodded he went on: ‘Bowring saw it for the first time in the Transvaal, according to Krent, and — I suppose, the second time here —’

‘No; begging your pardon, sir. Bowring came down to Cape Town, and was about with many people over diamond mines. He sometimes came to see Morgan, who was with me. One day he came in quite white, and Krent gave him brandy. Then Krent afterwards told me that Bowring had seen the skull for the second time, and that the third time meant death.’

‘And the third time was in the grounds of this house,’ said Forde, meditatively, ‘and it DID mean death. But explain.’

Mrs. Krent threw up her hands. ‘I can’t explain, sir. That was all Krent told me. Then Bowring paid him to go away, and he went. I have not set eyes on him for ten years, and glad I am that he is away. Then Sir Hannibal came back to England; afterwards Bowring came and took me and Jenny and Morgan. He said that he wanted to be near Sir Hannibal’— Mrs. Krent sunk her voice again, and again glanced round —‘and so took the Grange and made me housekeeper. But I think that Sir Hannibal made him stop there so as to keep an eye on him over those bills. I have no reason to say so,’ added the woman, wiping her red face, ‘but those are my thoughts, my dears.’

‘And the marriage?’

‘Well, my dears, Bowring was close-fisted, and often lost his temper with me and Jenny. He once or twice said that he would turn us out to starve, so, to get the better of him, I made Jenny marry Morgan.’

‘That was not right,’ said Dericka, indignantly, ‘seeing what Morgan is — quite insane.’

‘Oh, he is not so very insane, and Jenny is quite fond of him,’ said Mrs. Krent easily. ‘If he was insane — very bad, that is — the clergyman would not have married him to Jenny. She and me can manage him; but no one else,’ added Mrs. Krent, ‘least of all his father, who always put him in a rage.’

‘Where did the marriage take place?’ asked Mr. Forde, brusquely.

Mrs. Krent produced a certificate of marriage from her capacious pocket.

‘In London, at St. Edwin’s Church,’ she said, handing this to the barrister; ‘everything is in order. It’s about a year ago, now. I intended to tell Bowring when he tried on any of his games about turning me and Jenny out. And now that is all,’ said Mrs. Krent, rising to go. ‘And if you like, sir, I’ll tell everyone that Jenny is Mrs. Bowring.’

‘I think it will be as well, Mrs, Krent,’ said Forde, glancing through the certificate, which appeared to be quite in order. ‘I’ll keep this to verify it at the church.’

‘Oh, you’ll find it all right, sir,’ said the housekeeper, tossing her head; ‘is there anything else, my dears?’

‘Yes,’ said Dericka, rising; ‘why did you accuse my father of having killed Mr. Bowring?’

‘Well, you see, Miss,’ said Mrs. Krent, colouring even redder than she already was, ‘I heard by a side wind about the Death’s Head in the tent, and knowing from my husband that Sir Hannibal had it, I thought that he had put it there to frighten Bowring, and afterwards had killed him. I knew, too, that Sir Hannibal wanted money, and fancied that he had tried to get the fortune in that way.’

‘Mrs. Kent,’ said Forde gravely and slipping the certificate into his pocket, ‘there was no need for Sir Hannibal to kill Bowring in order to get the money. With the bills you speak of in his possession he could easily have extorted what he wanted from Bowring.’

‘Oh, Oswald, do you accuse my father of blackmail?’

‘No, my dear, but if Mrs. Krent thinks him guilty of murder she can easily guess he would not hesitate at blackmail, and so would prefer the lesser crime to the greater.’

‘I don’t say Sir Hannibal killed Mr. Bowring,’ said Mrs. Krent, wagging her hands helplessly, ‘but it does look odd about this skull.’

‘Very odd,’ assented Forde quietly, and escorting her to the door; ‘it will be as well, Mrs. Krent, to say nothing of this conversation until such time as I give you leave.’

‘I’ll not say a word,’ she replied firmly; ‘all I want is the money.’

‘You shall have it as soon as Mr. Gratton can draw up a deed,’ said Dericka. ‘Meanwhile, tell everyone that Morgan is married.’

This Mrs. Krent promised to do, and departed rather relieved in her mind that her troubles, so far as money was concerned, were now at an end. She went out into the dark rainy night and climbed, groaning, into a trap which had brought her from the Grange. With a parting wave of her pudgy hand to Forde she went off.

All the time of that drive Mrs. Krent was thinking of her missing husband, and shuddering at the possibility that he might reappear in her life now, when everything was settled comfortably.

It was pitch dark, and only the lights of the trap cast a forward glare as the moors stretched out their arms to embrace and swallow up the vehicle. Not a star was to be seen, and the rain drove continuously in the faces of the driver and his companion. The housekeeper muffled her ample form up well against the raw air, and thought of the past. It was extremely disagreeable that it should concern itself almost exclusively with the hateful face of Samuel Krent.

‘I suppose it’s because I’ve been talking about him,’ thought Mrs. Krent as the trap drew near the Grange. ‘Ugh! I’ll never mention him again, now that I’ve told what I’ve been forced to tell.’

When the twinkling lights of home shone in her eyes Mrs. Krent became more cheerful, and the bugbear ghost of Krent vanished from her mind. At the sound of the approaching wheels Jenny opened the big hall door, and Mrs. Krent climbed groaning down, for her limbs ached with exertion and dampness. But she had help at hand. A man came forward to assist her. Without thinking, she took his hand and descended slowly, breathing heavily. The trap drove round to the stable. But while it was moving off Mrs. Krent caught sight of the man’s face in the light of the lamps, just as she had seen it years ago in lamplight in Cape Town.

‘Samuel Krent! Samuel Krent!’ she cried, and waddled up the steps as hard as she could, terrified out of her life.

But the man, who followed her closely, bore an uncommon resemblance to Josiah Polwin.

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