The Crowned Skull, by Fergus Hume

Chapter 17

Under the Earth

Dericka returned to the cheerful breakfast-room with the letter in her hand. She could scarcely believe her eyes. That Sir Hannibal should be so near home as in a tin mine on the moors was extraordinary indeed. She had thought of him hiding in London, or as having gone abroad to escape arrest; but never did she suspect for one moment that he was in the neighbourhood of St. Ewalds. It seemed rash.

Miss Lavinia, prim, and stately as ever, entered to find her niece considerably perturbed, and was speedily made acquainted with the contents of the missive brought by the idiot. She was scarcely so surprised as the girl.

‘It is just the kind of silly thing Hannibal would do,’ was her comment. ‘A wise man would have gone abroad until such time as things had settled down; but Hannibal must needs run his head into the lion’s mouth. I have no patience with the man.’

Dericka reflected. ‘After all, Aunty, papa may not be as silly as you think. He could not leave England, as, after the warrant was issued, all the ports would be watched. If he remained in London you may be certain that search would be made for him there. To come back here is the last thing the detective expected.’

‘I think not,’ corrected Miss Quinton in a chilly voice, ‘seeing that Arkle came to make enquiries.’

‘Well, then, Mr. Arkle can be certain that papa is not here, so will return to town. But I think papa is wise to hide in one of those old mining shafts; no one will look for him there.’

‘Oh, yes, one would,’ said Miss Lavinia, obstinately; ‘if Arkle guessed that Hannibal had returned to Cornwall a mining shaft would be the first place he would search.’

‘He would have his work cut out for him, then,’ said Dericka coolly, ‘as there are dozens of those abandoned mines.’

‘And how do you know the right one? Is it here?’ Miss Lavinia tapped the letter with her lorgnette.

‘No, Aunty, papa has not given away the place of his refuge even to me. But Morgan Bowring received the letter from Anak, and I expect Anak will guide us to the place.’

‘In that case,’ said the spinster, moving towards the fire, ‘there is no need to keep such an incriminating letter.’ She dropped it into the heart of the burning coals and sat down at the breakfast table. ‘Come my dear, eat and drink; you must keep up your strength.’

‘I have no appetite,’ replied Dericka, sitting down to pour out the coffee with a sigh.

Miss Lavinia passed her a plate of eggs and bacon with a severe look.

‘My dear girl, you have no faith. Since Providence has helped my poor brother-inlaw so far, Providence will save him yet. Providence,’ added Miss Quinton, with uncomplimentary fervour, ‘watches over drunken men, fools and bairns. I need hardly mention which of those your father is, my dear child.’

‘Then you think that he is innocent?’ asked Dericka, beginning to eat.

‘Yes and no. I have made up my mind once or twice, and have unmade it three or four times. Let us wait and see. What do you intend to do, Dericka?’

‘I’ll tell Oswald about that letter, and walk with him to Anak’s hut. Then we will see papa.’

This arrangement having been made, the girl ate a good meal in spite of her anxiety, recognising Miss Quinton’s good sense in advising her to take things quietly. Within half an hour Forde entered the room, and to him Miss Trevick related her experience with Morgan Bowring. Forde was extremely astonished, but rubbed his hands, well pleased at what he had been told.

‘Now,’ said Oswald, nodding, ‘we shall hear the truth.’

‘From Hannibal?’ scoffed Miss Lavinia; ‘what an unlikely person to trust. Hannibal will tell as much as will suit him.’

‘He’ll have to tell the whole, then,’ said the young barrister, somewhat grimly; ‘that is, if he wants to save his skin.’

Miss Quinton nodded severely and took up her knitting, while Dericka went to her room to dress for the walk to the moors. When she had gone the spinster lifted her hard eyes enquiringly and mutely questioned the barrister as to his plans. Having none for the moment, he did not explain himself, but merely walked to the fire, saying: ‘I wish the letter had been kept, so that I could have seen it.’

‘There was nothing in it but what you know, Mr. Forde. And it is not wise to keep such a document in a house which may at any time be raided by detectives.’

‘I don’t think there is any chance of that. Arkle is satisfied.’

‘He must be a fool, then,’ said Miss Lavinia, jerking his chin in the air and knitting with redoubled vigour.

‘Let us hope that he is for Sir Hannibal’s sake,’ said Forde dryly.

While they were talking Dericka, hatted and cloaked, came into the room looking remarkably pretty, if somewhat anxious. Behind her appeared another woman, quietly dressed and with a scared face, pale and sweet, although somewhat doll-like.

‘Aunty! Oswald!’ said Miss Trevick, stepping aside to introduce the stranger, ‘this is Mrs. Bowring, who has come to tell us something.’

‘No! No! Really, Miss Trevick,’ protested Jenny, looking more scared than ever; ‘I really came to see what has become of Morgan. He got out of the house last night,’ she went on, addressing all three impartially, ‘and, having searched the moors, I met Anak, who told me that he had come on here with a letter to Miss Trevick.’

‘He did come, as I explained,’ replied Dericka, ‘but he went away over an hour ago, and I thought that he had gone home.’

‘He has not arrived yet,’ said Mrs. Bowring anxiously, ‘and I came by the direct road.’

‘Probably an idiot like that would go by the second road, which is the longer,’ suggested Miss Quinton; ‘people of weak intellect always do exactly the opposite to what sane folk do.’

Jenny sank into a seat and clasped her hands, looking weary and worn and tired out with worry. Dericka glanced at her for a moment, then left the room to return with a glass of port wine which she made her drink.

‘You must keep up your strength,’ said Dericka, boldly plagiarising from her aunt.

‘Thank you, Miss Trevick; how good you are. Oh, I’ll do what I can to help you,’ cried the poor, tired-looking doll.

‘Do what?’ questioned Miss Quinton sharply. Before Jenny could reply Forde intervened.

‘One moment,’ he said, anxious to settle a question which had been in his mind since Jenny had mentioned about her meeting with Anak; ‘did that man, Hugh Carney, tell you what was in the letter he gave your husband?’

‘Oh, no; how could he, sir? Anak did not know himself. He would not open a letter which belonged to Miss Stretton.’

Forde stepped back a pace in his surprise. ‘Miss Stretton!’

‘Yes. Anak said that she dropped this letter, which was directed to you, Miss Trevick, on the floor of his mother’s hut. He ran after her to return it, but Miss Stretton had vanished. Anak therefore gave it to Morgan, whom he met on the moors. You see,’ added Mrs. Bowring apologetically, ‘Anak could not leave the quarries himself, as he is the foreman, and has to start the men to work.’

Forde turned away, rubbing his chin thoughtfully. This explanation showed him that Anak was still the enemy of Sir Hannibal, and that Miss Stretton was the sole person cognisant of the baronet’s hidingplace.

While he reflected how he could meet her and have a chat, Dericka was talking to Mrs. Bowring, whose white face had now more colour in it, thanks to the generous vintage.

‘What is it you wanted to tell me?’ she asked softly.

‘You won’t tell mother that I told you?’ entreated Mrs. Bowring, looking somewhat fearful; ‘she would never forgive me. But that man is such a trial to mother that she cannot fight him singlehanded. I know that you are clever, Miss Trevick, so I thought that you might help mother; and of course,’ added the doll with emphasis, ‘it will help your father also.’

Forde wheeled round.

‘What’s that?’ he asked sharply.

‘I crept downstairs when mother was talking to the man,’ said Mrs. Bowring, feverishly, ‘and I heard nearly all they were saying.’

‘Who is the man?’

‘Mr. Polwin — but that is not his real name.’

‘Humph!’ Forde rubbed his chin again and recalled the meek little steward. ‘And what is his name, Mrs. Bowring?’

‘Samuel Krent. He is my mother’s husband.’

‘What!’ ejaculated Dericka, ‘your father?’

‘Oh, no, no, how can you think so? My father was called Ward. Mr. Krent is my mother’s second husband. He is a wicked man, and she is very much afraid of him. Had she known that he was here she would have run away miles and miles.’

‘What, that sheep dangerous?’ murmured Dericka.

‘He isn’t a sheep, Miss Trevick, but a very terrible man. He bullied mother last night and struck her and pinched her. Oh, don’t tell Mr. Polwin that I listened,’ said Mrs. Bowring, piteously, ‘or he will hurt me. He will indeed; you don’t know what a terrible man he is.’

‘If he’s the biggest blackguard in England I’m equal to him,’ said the barrister quickly and grimly. ‘Go on, Mrs. Bowring, tell me all that you overhead and then we’ll send for Mr. Polwin.’

The little woman sprang up and clutched Forde’s arm. ‘You mustn’t do that,’ she panted, much terrified; ‘if you tell him I’ll say nothing.’

‘But I think —’ began Dericka, only to be cut short by her aunt.

‘Mrs. Bowring is perfectly right,’ said that oracle; ‘if Polwin, or Krent, or whatever he calls himself, is dangerous, it would be folly to put him on his guard by letting him see that he is suspected.’

Forde nodded.

‘I agree!’ He went to the door and closed it carefully, then returned and placed a chair for Mrs. Bowring in the midst of the room, beckoning to Miss Lavinia and Dericka to likewise draw their chairs up to the doll. Then he seated himself at her ear and leaned forward. ‘Tell us all, in a whisper.’

Mrs. Bowring cast a terrified glance round the apartment, then — in a whisper, as she had been advised — related nearly the entire conversation which her mother had held with Polwin on the previous night.

Miss Quinton’s face grew more and more severe as she heard about her brother-inlaw’s African life, and Forde nodded at intervals with a satisfied air.

Dericka, her blue eyes fastened on the swiftly moving lips of the whispering girl, alone showed no sign of emotion. Then the story was finished. Forde pushed back his chair.

‘You can return home, Mrs. Bowring,’ he said softly, ‘resting assured that neither Mr. Polwin nor your mother, nor anyone else, will hear what you have told us.’

‘And will you do anything to help mother?’ faltered the doll.

‘Later on, no doubt. At present we must all keep silence so as to give Polwin enough rope to hang himself.’

‘Do you think he is guilty?’ asked Dericka swiftly.

Forde answered evasively: ‘I cannot say as yet, I must wait. Meanwhile, Mrs. Bowring, go home and say nothing.’

Jenny nodded faintly, and gathering her cloak around her took her leave. She looked very frail and ill as she walked down the avenue, but the three left behind had more to think about than Mrs. Bowring’s health, and looked at one another.

‘Will you see Polwin?’ asked Miss Trevick, reading Forde’s face.

‘Not just now, but it will be as well to learn what he is doing.’

Dericka rang the bell and asked if the steward was in the house. It appeared that Polwin had been there to breakfast, but had gone to the quarries on business.

‘He took the master’s motor-bicycle,’ said the servant respectfully.

‘Well?’ asked Miss Quinton when the door closed and the trio were again alone; ‘what is to be done?’

‘Dericka and I will go to Miss Stretton’s studio,’ said Forde unexpectedly.

‘Why, Oswald?’

‘Because Miss Stretton will guide us to the mining-shaft wherein your father is hidden.’

‘But the letter said that Anak would guide us.’

‘Ah,’ said the barrister, vexedly, ‘I wish I had seen that letter. I am sure from what Mrs. Bowring said that Anak knows nothing about the matter, and, moreover, on account of his mother, he is your father’s enemy. The name, my dear Dericka, was not Anak but Anne; you have made a mistake.’

‘I might have done so,’ said Dericka, thoughtfully; ‘papa’s writing is none of the best. At all events, we might see Miss Stretton.’ And, having settled this, the two lovers left the house for the studio of the lady in question.

Anne was within, looking somewhat anxious and pale. When Forde explained about the missing letter her face cleared.

‘I am so glad,’ she said, clasping her hands; ‘I could not think where I had lost that letter. Did Anak read it?’

‘I don’t think so,’ said Forde, recalling what Jenny had related.

‘Perhaps it will be better for Sir Hannibal to hide in another mine?’ murmured Miss Stretton, meditatively.

‘Then you know where papa is?’ said Dericka quickly.

‘Yes. He wrote to me from town, saying that he had been warned that a warrant was out against him and stating that he would have to hide until he could prepare his defence. I advised him to come here. He did so in disguise, and got out at Gwynne Station. I met him there and drove him in Mr. Penrith’s cart on to the moors. It was my idea that he should hide in the Pengelly mine.’

‘Oh!’ said Dericka quickly, ‘I know that mine. It is just near Mr. Penrith’s place, a mile or so beyond the quarries.’

‘Yes. If you go down the shaft and sing “Home, Sweet Home”, Sir Hannibal will call out, and then you will see him.’

‘“Home, Sweet Home”,’ echoed Forde, smiling in spite of his anxiety. ‘What an ironical song to sing.’

‘We had to choose some sort of signal,’ said Anne tartly, for she was worn out and short-tempered; ‘will you go yourselves, or shall I come with you?’

‘We shall go ourselves,’ said Miss Trevick after a moment’s hesitation, ‘and you, Miss Stretton, must lie down.’ She moved forward, then suddenly kissed Anne’s dark cheek. ‘I have been unjust to you,’ said Dericka frankly; ‘you have been, and are, my father’s best friend.’

‘Then you won’t dislike me any more?’ faltered Anne, rather touched by this action of so usually an undemonstrative girl.

‘No! And if papa marries you I think it will be the best thing for him. Good-bye, now. We can talk of these things later.’

Anne looked out of the window at the two as they walked down the narrow street, and turned away with a sigh. She was well satisfied that she had saved Sir Hannibal for the time being, and had gained the good graces of his daughter, but she felt tired out with the strain, and went immediately to bed. As she fell asleep she wondered what would be the outcome of all these things. ‘And I wonder,’ murmured Anne, yawning, ‘if I’ll marry Sir Hannibal after all?’

Meanwhile Forde, returning to the ‘King’s Arms’, secured the trap in which he had driven on the previous day to the quarries, and explained to Mrs. Tregar that he intended to take Miss Trevick for a drive on the moors.

Dericka did not like the curious way in which the landlady looked at her, as she felt certain it was simply because of the misfortune which had befallen her father. But Mrs. Tregar soon disabused her mind of this.

‘I’ve heard, dear Miss, that Morgan Bowring is married to Mrs. Krent’s daughter,’ said Mrs. Tregar beaming, ‘and I’m so glad for Mr. Forde’s sake and for yours.’

‘Thank you, Mrs. Tregar, but my father would never have insisted upon my marrying Morgan Bowring.’

‘I should think not, Miss, and you engaged to such a handsome young gentleman. When will the marriage take place, Miss?’

Dericka sighed. ‘I can’t say,’ she replied quietly; ‘we are in great trouble, Mrs. Tregar.’

‘Don’t take that to heart, Miss,’ entreated Mrs. Tregar. ‘Your pa will come out white as moor snow. Him guilty? I wouldn’t believe that,’ concluded the landlady stoutly, ‘if all the judges and jury in Great Britain said as much. There!’

While Dericka was thanking this sympathetic friend Forde came to say that the trap was waiting, and in a few minutes they drove away. Oswald had brought the driver, as it would be necessary to leave someone in charge of the vehicle while they went on the moors.

The day was fine after the rain, and the air breathed clean and fresh, especially when they came to the top of the hill overlooking St. Ewalds. The two said very little during the journey, since what they had to speak about was not meant for the driver’s ears, and an unguarded remark might reveal too much.

They drove past the scene of the murder, past the quarries, where the men were working hard, and rounded the curve behind which lay Penrith’s village and Manor House. The hamlet was of grey stone, severe-looking and bleak, and so suited to the grimness of the country that it appeared as though it was the work of Nature. The Penriths had been settled in these parts before the Flood, and both village and Manor House were called after their name.

Forde, informed by Miss Trevick, knew that the Pengelly mine was not very far up the hill, which hung above the winding road, and therefore instructed the driver to take the trap to the ‘Penrith Crest’, the sole public-house of the village. He and Dericka alighted on the road just under the hill, and choosing a sheep-track, climbed the steep, stony ascent, which was covered with bracken and wiry grass, and sown thickly with lumps of granite.

On the top there appeared a mighty cromlech, and here, somewhat out of breath, they halted for a few minutes.

‘There!’ said Dericka, pointing to a tall chimney some distance away.

Forde nodded, but wasting no words, since time was valuable, led the way down the slope of the hill to the depression, where the abandoned mining works littered the ground. They made their way amongst rubble and refuse, and under broken roofs, and between ruined outhouses. The gaping mouth of the mine yawned near the tall chimney, and on approaching the brink they saw a very perpendicular ladder going down into the depths.

Miss Trevick remembered that a few months before the mine had been reopened by a London speculator, who had drained the levels and readjusted the ladder; but since the work had proved unremunerative, he had abandoned the mine. Still, the depths were clear of water, and comparatively safe, and it was here that Sir Hannibal had found refuge.

‘How horrid!’ said Dericka, after she had imparted this information to her companion.

‘Let me go,’ suggested Forde; ‘you stop here.’

Dericka gave him one look of indignant surprise and replied by placing a dainty foot on the ladder. In a moment or so she disappeared, and Forde, admiring her courage, followed with due care.

Down and down the adventurers dropped into the humid gloom, carefully feeling their way as they approached the unknown. Oswald heard Dericka singing the inappropriate tune which was to be the signal to Sir Hannibal that friends were at hand. He guessed that she had reached the level wherein the baronet had taken up his abode like a troglodyte. Strangely enough, both had forgotten the necessity of taking lanterns or candles, and found themselves involved in deepest gloom a considerable distance below the earth’s surface.

Hand in hand they lingered at the foot of the long ladder which led to the upper world, and shivered in the damp atmosphere.

‘What’s to be done?’ asked Dericka in a whisper, for the place was awesome in its loneliness.

‘Sing again,’ suggested the barrister; ‘these long galleries carry sound for great distances.’

In a somewhat tremulous manner Miss Trevick lifted up a voice clear, sweet and true as that of a lark, and the silvery sound vibrated throughout the sullen depths. Minute after minute passed, and Forde was beginning to think that they had mistaken the mine when far away his quick eye caught the glimmer of a candle.

Seizing the girl’s hand, he guided her towards the gleam, and they stumbled over trolley-rails laid down on the wet uneven ground. At times they had to stop in case they should knock their heads against the dripping roof. The gleam grew stronger and stronger, and once or twice disappeared. When this happened Dericka again sang a snatch of song, and the light reappeared.

Finally, at the end of the gallery, and within a circle of light, they saw the form of a man.

‘Father!’ called out Miss Trevick in her strong, young voice.

‘At last,’ Sir Hannibal called back, and in tremulous tones; ‘oh, thank Heaven that you have come, Dericka.’

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