The Crowned Skull, by Fergus Hume

Chapter 15

Husband and Wife

Mrs. Krent swarmed up the steps with an agility surprising in so stout a woman. Tearing the heavy door from her daughter’s grasp, she flung it to and dropped in an untidy heap on to the pavement.

The door, however, simply swung against the foot of the man, who was determined to enter, and a moment afterwards he was standing over the frightened housekeeper, by this time dissolved in tears.

‘This is a nice welcome, upon my word!’ said Krent, alias Polwin, and in a bullying tone, quite different to his meekness in the presence of Forde. ‘Get up, Maria, and don’t make a fool of yourself.’

‘Who are you?’ asked Jenny, coming to the aid of her mother.

‘I’m your father, Samuel Krent,’ retorted the man.

‘Oh, liar — liar, seeing Jenny’s name is Ward,’ moaned Mrs. Krent.

‘I understood that her name was Bowring,’ said the returned wanderer cheerfully. ‘Get up, Maria; I have much to say.’

‘I shall sit here for ever,’ gasped Mrs. Krent, and placed one fat hand on her aching side.

‘If you don’t go,’ said Jenny, striving to screw her small pale pretty face into a severe look, ‘I’ll call the men and have you thrown out.’

‘A nice way to treat your father, my girl.’

‘You are not my father, and I am not your girl,’ was Jenny’s remarkable spirited reply; ‘address me with all respect as Mrs. Bowring.’

‘Oh Mrs. Bowring,’ he bowed ironically, ‘I ask you pardon. Will you be so pleased as to ask my wife to rise and conduct herself less like a fool.’

‘Morgan,’ cried Jenny, while Mrs. Krent still wept bitterly on the cold black and white pavement.

A thin whimper, like a kicked dog, answered her, and from a side room appeared Morgan, creeping along the wall, with a hanging head and hunched shoulders. His face was white, and his lips redder than ever, and he looked exactly like a vampire as depicted in Hungarian legends.

With strange, lifeless eyes he gazed at his pretty wife and then at Mrs. Krent grovelling on the stone floor.

‘A nice son to inherit John Bowring’s money,’ laughed Polwin jeeringly.

Morgan’s eyes settled on the lean, sneering face of the little man, and a look of recognition crept into them.

‘Polwin,’ he said in his thin, high voice, which was like that of a child. ‘I saw you in St. Ewalds. Yes; I remember. Jenny left me in the trap while she was shopping and you spoke to me. You told me to say nothing of having seen you.’

‘Polwin,’ echoed Mrs. Krent, struggling to rise and getting on her knees. ‘Eb, that name — Sir Hannibal’s steward?’

‘Quite so,’ said Polwin. ‘I have been acting as his steward for quite sixteen months.’

‘To think that you should have been so near and I never knew,’ wailed Mrs. Krent. ‘I would have put the ocean between us had I known.’

‘Oh, I don’t want you,’ said Polwin insolently; ‘all I wish for is a conversation, and then I’ll go.’

‘Swear to leave the house this very night and I’ll talk to you,’ said his wife, getting on to her feet.

‘I promise without swearing,’ said Polwin in a sanctimonious tone. ‘Be calm, Maria, I am not what I was. As Samuel Krent I was lost, as Josiah Polwin I am found; I preach at the Gwynne Chapel.’

‘Oh, Lord, the devil quoting Scripture!’ muttered Mrs. Krent; ‘it’s all right, Jenny,’ she added, seeing the look of fear on her daughter’s face; ‘I’d better talk to him lest worse befall.’

‘A nice greeting,’ snarled Polwin, ‘when I’ve come to do you a good turn, you ungrateful woman.’

‘You!’ Mrs. Krent laughed. ‘You never did man, woman or child a good turn in all your wicked days, Samuel Krent.’

‘Josiah Polwin, if you please,’ he snapped, ‘that being my real name.’

‘Oh!’ sighed the housekeeper; ‘you didn’t even marry me straight. I am glad Jenny is not your child.’

‘So am I,’ said Polwin, contemptuously. ‘A whey-faced minx.’

Morgan made an angry noise in his throat. ‘That’s my little girl,’ he gurgled, clasping and unclasping his hands; ‘leave her alone or I’ll tear the heart out of you.’

Polwin stepped back a step, as the look in the man’s eyes was not pleasant. Jenny laughed triumphantly.

‘You see, I am protected, Mr. Polwin, or Krent, or whatever you like to call yourself,’ and took her husband’s arm.

‘I am not afraid of your husband,’ said Polwin, with his eyes on the white, vacant face of the idiot; ‘you know me, Morgan?’

‘Yes; I saw you in St. Ewalds.’

‘And?’ said Polwin, fixing him with anything but a meek look.

‘And,’ echoed Morgan, drooping lower and lower as though a burden was being piled on his shoulders; ‘and — oh!’— he flung out his hands and covered his eyes —‘don’t look. I’ll be good — I’ll be good. Jenny,’ he tugged at his wife’s dress, ‘come away. He’s the big, red devil. He’s a witch-doctor, same as I saw in Africa. Oh, the scarlet skull — oh, the fire and — no — no!’ As Polwin still kept looking at him he dropped on all fours like a beast, and crept swiftly up the stairs, moaning all the time, ‘I’ll be good — I’ll be good.’

When his wailing died away Mrs. Krent, whose face was as white as paper, faced her small husband boldly.

‘What does this devilry mean?’

‘Never you mind, Maria,’ he replied quietly. ‘Morgan saw something in Cape Town that wasn’t pleasant.’

‘The Death’s Head?’

‘Never you mind,’ said Polwin again, then suddenly became irritable. ‘Here, take me in and give me wine and food. I’m tired of talking in damp clothes, and hungry. Jenny,’ he turned sharply on the girl, ‘go!’

Mrs. Bowring stood her ground, although her face was also white, and she trembled from head to foot. The effect of Polwin’s gaze on the usually intractable Morgan had frightened her not a little. ‘I stand by my mother,’ she faltered.

Mrs. Krent moved forward and patted her hand. ‘Go, deary,’ she whispered, wetting her dry lips with her tongue. ‘I’d best speak him fair.’

‘See here,’ said Polwin with a stamp, ‘you’re making a fuss about nothing; I’ve come to give you money.’

‘I don’t want it,’ said Mrs. Krent; ‘me and Jenny have two thousand a year. Yes, you may look and look, but Miss Trevick has given us —’

‘Where did Miss Trevick get the money?’ asked Polwin, and his pale eyes became two pinholes as they narrowed dangerously.

‘From her father, I suppose. Sir Hannibal got Bowring’s fortune.’

‘Yes, but Sir Hannibal wouldn’t —’ He stopped and gnawed his fingers with a thoughtful look. ‘There’s more in this man than I know of,’ he said suspiciously; ‘come away, Maria and tell me everything. If you don’t I’ll stay with you for the rest of my blessed life.’

‘Oh, Lord! oh, Lord!’ cried the terrified woman; ‘not that, Krent.’

‘Polwin, you fool. I don’t choose to be known as Krent here.’

‘Polwin, then.’

‘Mr. Polwin. Be respectful.’

‘Mr. Polwin,’ whimpered Mrs. Krent, terrified to death by the devilish look which the little man cast upon her. ‘Jenny, love, go to Morgan and keep him quiet.’

‘I wish Morgan would kill you,’ cried Jenny, mounting the stairs and facing Polwin for one moment.

He laughed in a nasty, sneering way.

‘I dare say you do, but I’m not so easy got rid of. If Morgan isn’t quiet tell him that the black man with the crowned skull will come to him.’

Jenny wondered what this threat might mean, but giving no answer disappeared round the landing on her way to the idiot. Mrs. Krent sighed heavily, pushed open the door of the sitting-room and walked in, followed by her undesirable husband. With a dragging step the poor woman went to the fire at the end of the room and put one foot on the high fender to dry her boots. Polwin snarled, and darting forward he twisted her arm until she shrieked.

‘Get food,’ said he, grinning at the pain of her expression; ‘do you think I’m here to wait on you? Have you any servants?’

‘Three,’ whimpered Mrs. Krent, standing before him like an elephant before a cock sparrow.

‘Where are they?’

‘In bed by this time.’

‘Then let them stay there. I don’t want it known that I am here. As Sir Hannibal’s steward I have to keep my good name. Go and get me some food and drink, and hold your tongue.’

‘Yes, yes, Samuel.’

‘Polwin, I tell you; Mr. Polwin to a slut like you.’

The big woman hurried away as quickly as her tottering legs would allow her. Polwin gazed after her with a smile of satisfaction, and then seated himself in an armchair which was comfortably near the glowing fire. Here he removed his boots, held his small feet to the blaze, and producing a cigar, lighted it carefully, and with the air of a man who knew what a good weed was. When the fragrant smoke of it was curling round his lank grey hair — such of it as remained — he cast a lordly look round the splendidly furnished room. Bowring had spared no expense in putting the Grange in order, and the result was that the furniture and hangings and decorations were of the best.

‘Mine,’ said Mr. Polwin with a gratified air. ‘Mine,’ he repeated, and licked his thin lips. ‘What a comfort it is to come home.’

The sentiment was not shared by Mrs. Krent, who entered hurriedly and placed on the table a tray covered with a white cloth. On it was a plate of dainty slices of ham, a crusty loaf, a pat of butter, a pot of pate de fois gras, and a bottle of excellent port. Polwin, who was delicate in his appetite, as she knew of old, cast a pleased look at the repast.

‘Place it on a small table and bring it here!’ he commanded abruptly, laying aside his cigar for the moment.

The obedient Mrs. Krent brought a small table close to his elbow and arranged the tray. He made her pour him out a glass of port, and then pointed to a near chair, rather an uncomfortable one. ‘Sit there.’

‘Yes, Samuel — I mean, Mr. Polwin.’

‘And hold your tongue till I give you leave to speak!’ commanded the little demon.

The housekeeper obeyed, keeping her anxious eyes fastened on the wrinkled yellow face that looked as malicious as that of the Yellow Dwarf. Mrs. Krent was as little like the vulgar virago who had defied Sir Hannibal as Polwin was like the meek steward who had cringed in the presence of Oswald Forde.

Polwin ate and drank leisurely, keeping his wife waiting fifteen minutes in silence while he finished his meal. Then he poured himself out another glass of port and relighted his cigar. It was noticeable that he did not offer Mrs. Krent any wine, although the poor woman needed some to sustain her. When the cigar was in full blast Polwin turned a smiling, satisfied face on his stout better half, or, rather, worse half, seeing that he was completely her master. For some minutes he eyed her with a grin, and Mrs. Krent’s hand worked restlessly. She longed to slap his face, but under the compelling power of those pale eyes she did not dare. Like a meek little school-girl, she quailed before the small man, whom she could have crushed with one hand. And, oh, how she longed to crush him!

‘I came to St. Ewalds over a year ago,’ said Polwin suddenly, ‘because the money which Trevick gave me to go to New Zealand was spent. As I knew much that was unpleasant, Trevick, at my desire, made me his steward.’

‘Oh, Lord!’ sighed Mrs. Krent; ‘and I never knew.’

‘I took good care that you shouldn’t know by never coming here. When you visited the Dower House I kept out of your sight.’

‘Didn’t Bowring recognise you?’

‘No, Maria. I kept out of his sight also, until such time as I required him. I haven’t forgotten the way in which he treated me.’

‘You beast,’ cried Mrs. Krent with sudden fury; ‘I believe that you killed him.’

‘Pooh!’ Polwin waved aside a wreath of smoke airily. ‘I would have killed him in a much more artistic fashion. What I have come to ask you is, why did Trevick kill Bowring when he had him under his thumb? Tell me, Maria.’

Mrs. Krent stared. ‘I’m sure I don’t know if Sir Hannibal killed him at all,’ she said piteously.

Polwin looked puzzled. ‘But you accused him when the will was read.’

‘I know, because of that skull in the tent.’

‘Then you have no true evidence?’

‘No. I was angry that Bowring had left the money to Sir Hannibal.’

Polwin for the first time looked disconcerted.

‘I thought you knew something,’ he said in an acid tone; ‘you always were a fool, Maria.’

‘I can’t be expected to know about the death,’ she replied sharply.

‘Don’t you talk like that, Maria, to me, or I’ll show you a new trick I have learned, to make you suffer,’ grinned her spouse. ‘Come, now,’ he added, when she quailed, ‘do you know if Sir Hannibal killed —’

‘I tell you I don’t. I believe you killed Bowring.’

‘I did not. He was more of value to me alive than dead. Those bills —’

‘You could do nothing with those, seeing Sir Hannibal swore that they were not forgeries.’

‘Hold you tongue and listen,’ snapped the little man. ‘I say that those bills placed Bowring under Trevick’s thumb, so I don’t see why Trevick should kill him.’

‘I don’t believe he did,’ said Mrs. Krent.

‘Oh, that’s because Miss Trevick has paid you two thousand a year.’

‘Well, yes. Jenny and me and Morgan are well off now. And if you think to get any of the money you won’t, Samuel,’ she added desperately; ‘I shall have a divorce.’

Before she could withdraw her hand Polwin had seized it, and was screwing his knuckles into the back. Mrs. Krent writhed with pain and finally shrieked, while Polwin went on screwing and smiling.

‘Are you sorry, Maria?’ he asked.

‘Yes, yes,’ gasped the poor creature, and when he let her go she nursed her sore hand in her bosom, rocking with pain. Polwin still smiled.

‘That’s a new trick, Maria,’ said the little demon, grinning. ‘Now listen to me and don’t interrupt or you’ll have worse pain to suffer. I met Trevick on his motor-bicycle going after Miss Stretton and Mr. Penrith. He wanted to give the lady a letter. I was on the road behind the hill and met Trevick.’

‘Why did he go by that road?’ asked Mrs. Krent, still rocking. ‘Miss Stretton and Mr. Penrith, as I heard at the inquest, came by the direct road leading to this place.’

‘Trevick made a mistake. At all events he asked me to take the letter on and gave me the bicycle. I delivered it at Penrith’s place and left Trevick on the other road behind the hill. Now,’ added Polwin, placing one finger in the palm of his hand, ‘Trevick could easily have climbed over the hill to loosen that stone, and he had plenty of time to do so before Bowring’s motor-car came along. I know for a fact that he was not in the house when I returned, for I came back by the second road, and did not appear until dinner. Plenty of time, Maria, for him to have walked back.’

‘Then you really think that Sir Hannibal killed Bowring?’

‘I do, Maria, but I want to know why he killed him, seeing that he could do what he liked about the money, thanks to those bills. Of course,’ added Polwin thoughtfully, ‘there is the Death’s Head.’

Mrs. Krent stopped rocking. ‘I can’t understand that.’

‘No, Maria, you’re too much of a fool to understand anything. I am going to explain, as I want you to get me ten thousand a year from Sir Hannibal.’

‘Why don’t you get it yourself?’

‘I don’t know where Sir Hannibal is hiding, or I would.’

‘I can’t find him, Samuel.’

‘Mr. Polwin, Maria, unless you want another screw. I am aware that you can’t find him, but I dare say Miss Trevick can. You went to see her to-night, and you tell me that she is friendly enough to give you two thousand a year. You told me so.’

‘Yes, but how did you know that I was at the Dower House?’ ‘You told me so,’ repeated Mr. Polwin agreeably, ‘and also I saw you there, Maria. For that reason I followed you here to find out your little game, my dear.’

‘Impossible!’ gasped Mrs. Krent, looking at the man with fear; ‘I drove!’

‘So did I, Maria.’

‘I heard no wheels.’

‘You heard the wheels of your own trap. I was hanging on behind, and a very unpleasant journey I had.’

Mrs. Krent gasped, and stared with her eyes as round as gooseberries and bulging with fear. ‘Oh!’ she gasped; ‘what a devil you are.’

Polwin took this quite as a compliment.

‘I am rather fly,’ he said modestly; ‘you take care, Maria, or I’ll be one too many for you as I am now, my darling. Thwart me, and I’ll screw not your hand but your neck. Obey me, and with ten thousand a year, mind you, I pass out of your life for ever, sweetheart.’

‘I’d give double the money to see the last of you,’ whimpered Mrs. Krent, drawing back, for his mean, yellow face was unpleasantly near her now plump red one, ‘what do you want me to do?’

‘Various things. First, to make matters clear, I’ll tell you the story of the Death’s Head. I think that will supply the motive for the murder of Bowring by Trevick.’

‘You told me of the three warnings.’

‘In Africa, but I did not explain fully. The fact is, I was not quite sure at the time of the true story. But I learned it, and came back to tell it to Trevick — with the Death’s Head,’ ended Polwin, slowly and pointedly.

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