The Crowned Skull, by Fergus Hume

Chapter 19

What Happened Next

Forde stopped opening the blue envelope when Mrs. Krent made this amazing announcement as to the new disposal of Bowring’s property, and, together with Dericka, stared at the messenger of ill tidings.

The stout, elderly housekeeper, who was still attired in the incongruous costume which she loved, fanned her red face with a flimsy handkerchief and arranged her dyed yellow curls under the juvenile bonnet. Blandly surveying the astonished lovers, she continued her monologue.

‘You could have knocked me down with a feather,’ she repeated, when she could get her breath, ‘when I came across that second will’— she nodded towards the blue envelope in Forde’s hand —‘in a desk which was in Mr. Bowring’s room. I was just putting it tidy-like, and pulled out all the drawers to dust them, when in the top one on the right-hand side I saw the envelope: sealed, it was, and then found that Mr. Bowring had made a second will. There’s a note with it,’ added Mrs. Krent, gasping for breath. ‘If you read it, sir, you will see that Bowring’s repented leaving the money to Sir Hannibal, but says that he was compelled to do so. However, since he’s dead, nothing matters, and he wanted to show Sir Hannibal that he would not be trifled with. He asks me also to be a friend to Morgan, which I’m sure I am, seeing he’s married to my dear Jenny, though to be sure, Bowring never guessed that such was the case.’

Again she gasped, and this time, being really out of breath, held her clacking tongue for the moment. Dericka was wise enough to say nothing, and Forde silently took out the new will. It was written on a sheet of foolscap, and seemed legal enough, seeing that it was duly attested and witnessed. In this document, which was short and to the point, John Bowring had left the money to his son Morgan, but if was held in trust by Mrs. Krent, who was to receive one thousand a year for her trouble. In the note which was inside the will, and addressed to the housekeeper, Bowring wrote that Mrs. Krent was his only friend, that he was in the power of Sir Hannibal, and would have to leave the money to him or else face a law court on account of certain forged bills. He had made such a will in order to satisfy Trevick, but in the enclosed document — a later-executed testament — had left the money to his son, as was only right. There were a few expressions of satisfaction showing that Bowring was glad he had succeeded in cheating the baronet, and there the latter ended with the bold signature of the millionaire and two names of witnesses. These were badly written, and proved as Forde afterwards learned, to be those of two servants who worked at the Grange.

‘Well,’ said the young barrister, when he had made himself acquainted with this document and had replaced it in the blue envelope, ‘I must say this is a nice state of things.’

‘But no more than Sir Hannibal deserves,’ cried Mrs. Krent in a defensive manner. ‘He had no right to force Bowring to leave the money away from Morgan.’

‘Not all of it, perhaps,’ assented the young barrister, ‘but you must be aware, Mrs. Krent, that part of this sixty thousand a year belongs to Sir Hannibal Trevick.’

‘I don’t see that at all, sir,’ she retorted, ‘seeing that Bowring made every penny by the sweat of his brow.’

‘Humph! I rather think it was other people who sweated, Mrs. Krent.’

‘How do you know, sir?’

‘Because I happen to have seen Sir Hannibal.’

‘Then you know where he is, sir?’ asked Mrs. Krent suspiciously.

The young lawyer saw that he had made a mistake, and, colouring with vexation, held his tongue.

Dericka, who was watchful of his emotion, entered the breach and addressed herself to the stout house-keeper.

‘Mrs. Krent,’ she said, in a cold and icy tone, ‘you must be aware that my father is wrongly accused?’

‘If he did not murder Bowring, who did?’ snapped the other.

‘Ah, that is what we have to learn. But I can tell you with safety that my father is hiding, and that Mr. Forde and myself know where his hiding-place is.’

Mrs. Krent gave an odd cough. ‘I wonder you ain’t afraid to say this to me, Miss, seeing as I may tell the police.’

‘I don’t think you will,’ answered Dericka, fixing a steady gaze on the woman. ‘I said that I could tell you with safety.’

‘You’ve got no hold over me,’ retorted Mrs. Krent fiercely.

‘I may not have, but another person may be able to silence you.’

‘And that other person, if you please, Miss Trevick?’

‘Josiah Polwin.’

The colour ebbed from the fat cheeks of the housekeeper, and she turned as pale as a lily, glancing from one to the other in a state of scarcely concealed alarm. However, she made a bold attempt to foil the attack. ‘What has Mr. Polwin to do with me, Miss?’

‘Ah, you can best explain that.’

‘I can’t,’ said Mrs. Krent obstinately.

‘Then let me explain,’ said Forde, seeing what Dericka meant. ‘As Mr. Polwin, this man is nothing to you, but as Samuel Krent —’

The woman rose and flapped her hands helplessly. ‘Oh, what are you saying — why do you speak to me like this? My husband is dead.’

‘Under the name of Josiah Polwin,’ said Forde calmly.

‘It’s a lie.’

‘It is the truth, and you can prove it.’

‘Then I won’t.’

Forde rose, shrugged his shoulders, and slipped the blue envelope containing the new will into his breast-pocket. ‘Then there’s no more to be said,’ he remarked blandly.

‘Of course there ain’t,’ cried Mrs. Krent, reassured. ‘Give me back the will and let me go.’

‘No,’ said Forde steadily; ‘I’ll take this up to Mr. Gratton and see if it’s genuine.’

‘Genuine!’ The colour flushed Mrs. Krent’s cheeks. ‘Oh, Lord, sir, you don’t think Polwin — I mean —’

‘You mean Polwin right enough,’ said Dericka, noticing the slip, and taking advantage of it at once. ‘Mrs. Krent, we may as well understand one another before you leave this room.’

The big woman sat down with a thump and flapped her hands like a clumsy [?].

‘I’m sure I don’t know what to do,’ she whimpered. ‘I’m sure there’s been nothing but trouble since Bowring died. I never did care for money. Me and Morgan and Jenny can live well enough on the two thousand a year you promised me, Miss, so you can destroy the will and keep the rest.’

‘No,’ said Forde sternly. ‘If this will,’ he tapped his breast-pocket, ‘is genuine, the money will go to you in trust for Morgan.’

‘You would let the money go?’ asked Mrs. Krent, her little pig’s eyes opening to their widest. Such an action was beyond her system of ethics, and she collapsed.

‘Yes. Why should Miss Trevick or her father keep money which does not belong to them?’

‘But you said it did, sir?’

‘Half of it, not all. But if the will is genuine then Morgan will get everything and Sir Hannibal will lose what is rightfully his.’

‘What do you want me to do, sir?’ asked the housekeeper after a pause.

‘What do you wish to do yourself?’ demanded Forde quickly.

‘Well, sir, you and her — I mean that young lady — have been so kind to me when I hadn’t that second will, that I’m ready to place myself in your hands. I only want enough to be comfortable, and as this is a world of wickedness, sir, I hope you’ll be my friend and help me out of my many difficulties.’

‘About the money, Mrs. Krent?’

‘Yes, sir; and there it is,’ she cried, with a burst of emotion; ‘as soon as folks know that Morgan is rich they’ll come round trying to get money, and he’ll get beyond control. I’m sure it’s hard enough to manage him as it is, but if he, with his poor wits, thinks he is rich he’ll simply kick over the traces and leave me and my poor girl. I’m afraid — very much afraid.’

Mrs. Krent appeared to be genuine, for, so far as she knew, she possessed the whip hand, yet was willing to be guided by Forde.

Dericka softened somewhat at this, as she perceived that the housekeeper was really an honest woman. She therefore went to the door to be sure that no one was outside, then came back to the chair she occupied near Mrs. Krent, who by this time was shaking like a jelly. ‘Mrs. Krent, you husband —’

‘He’s dead — he’s dead —’

‘No! Listen. Mr. Forde and myself know everything.’ And Dericka related all that Jenny had overheard and told. ‘We want to be your friends,’ concluded Miss Trevick, ‘and as you have proved that you really have a good heart, Mr. Forde shall help you.’

Poor Mrs. Krent sat staring straight in front of her with two fat hands on her fat knees. When Dericka stopped speaking she heaved a portentous sigh.

‘All the help in the world won’t do much good against Samuel, Miss,’ she said sadly, ‘he’s a devil.’

‘There’s law in the land to restrain such devils,’ Forde reassured her; ‘don’t be afraid, Mrs. Krent, he’ll not trouble you.’

‘If you can get him out of my life, sir, I’ll go on my knees,’ cried the housekeeper vehemently. ‘For the moment I was vexed at Jenny telling you and betraying her mother, as it were, but now I see that it is the best thing that she could have done, although it would never have struck me, fool that I am. But now you know what a devil Polwin is, and that his real name is not Polwin, perhaps you’ll help?’

‘I promise you I will,’ said the lawyer, soothingly, ‘but you must be plain with me, Mrs. Krent.’

‘You have only to ask and to have, sir.’

‘Then tell me, when did you see Polwin last?’

‘No later than today. He came along this morning and said that Bowring had some papers of his connected with South Africa. I promised to send them to him and that is what took me to the desk to look. In looking I found the will.’

‘Ah,’ said Forde with satisfaction; ‘and was Mr. Polwin in the house by himself during the morning?’

‘No, sir. I wouldn’t let him enter. He stood at the door and talked in his devilish way. Why, sir?’

‘I thought that he might have hidden this will.’

‘Lord, sir, why should he do that? If Polwin — I’ll call him that, for I’ll never soil the name I bear by giving it to him, although it is his own — but I say, if Polwin had that will and knew that I had the management of the money he would have kept the will and bothered me to give him what he wanted. And tons of gold,’ added Mrs. Krent, fervently, ‘wouldn’t satisfy that beast.’

‘What are you thinking of, Oswald?’ asked Miss Trevick.

‘I’m wondering if Polwin had a finger in this pie. He might have hid the will in the desk and then sent Mrs. Krent to find it.’

‘You fancy that it may be a forgery?’

‘Well, yes! Of course, I don’t know Mr. Bowring’s signature, but —’

‘Oh, it’s Bowring’s name right enough,’ said Mrs. Krent wiping her inflamed face; ‘but I hope it is a forgery. I’d rather have the two thousand a year that young lady promised me and have done with the whole business. Anything rather than be persecuted by Polwin.’

‘Well,’ said Forde, after a pause, ‘I must see Mr. Gratton, who knows Bowring’s writing better than anyone else, and learn if the will is genuine. I’ll get him to come down here and see the two witnesses.’

‘They’re servants in the house,’ said Mrs. Krent, ‘but both of them gave notice a week ago. One was a man, and the other a woman, and they’ve got married since leaving the Grange.’

‘Humph! that looks dicky,’ said Forde, nodding. ‘I wouldn’t be at all surprised to find that Polwin had a finger in this pie.’ He paused, then turned to Mrs. Krent solemnly: ‘Have you any reason to believe that your husband shot Bowring?’

‘Lord save and preserve us!’ cried Mrs. Krent aghast, ‘how can I say, sir? Polwin’s fit for anything, but I’m bound to say that he seemed as puzzled as anyone else over the death.’

‘Are you sure?’

‘As sure as I’m sitting here wishing that I was a widow,’ cried the woman earnestly. ‘I’m not a wicked person: live and let live say I; but if I could put a rope round the neck of that wicked man I’d do it, cost what it might. Oh, Lord!’— Mrs. Krent again placed her hands on her knees and rocked —‘to think of all that money coming to Morgan, who’s got no more sense than a babe of a month old. Polwin would get hold of him, and lead him to the Pit of Tophet. Mr. Forde, sir,’ she went on hysterically, ‘put that will in the fire and let me have the two thousand a year; I’ll say nothing.’

‘No, no, Mrs. Krent! I cannot commit a crime like that.’

‘If you don’t, there’s worse crimes will be committed,’ said the old woman bitterly; ‘you’re dealing with Satan himself, Mr. Forde, mark my words if you ain’t.’

There was silence for a few minutes, while Mrs. Krent rocked and moaned and shook her head, weeping the while like a very Niobe. Plainly she was terrified to death by Polwin, alias Krent, and would stick at nothing to get rid of him.

But the mystery was far from being unravelled, and to destroy the second will would only be to make things more complicated. Therefore Forde made up his mind to see Gratton and ask his opinion. If Sir Hannibal, or, rather, Dericka, was to lose the sixty thousand a year the loss would have to be borne. All Forde wished to do at the present moment was to establish the good name of Sir Hannibal Trevick and save him from the gallows — no easy task, owing to the difficulties of the case and the shady doings of the baronet in South Africa while a member of the firm.

Oswald felt that he would require time to think out things, and so spoke on this point to Mrs. Krent:

‘Go home,’ said he quietly; ‘go home and say nothing.’

‘But if Polwin asks about the will?’

‘If he hid the will he is too clever to do that,’ said Forde, quickly; ‘he’ll wait until it is proved. Knowing that you would find the will is contented to bide his time. Of course, I may be wrong about the man —’

Mrs. Krent rose, shaking her head half-blinded with tears.

‘It’s just the sort of thing he’d do, sir,’ she moaned, ‘and then when the money came to me for Morgan he’d ruin that poor lad and worry me into my grave. Oh, I’ll hold my tongue, sir, but will you speak to Polwin?’

‘No, no!’ said Dericka quickly; ‘that would put him on his guard. We must be silent until we can see our way. All Mrs. Krent has to do is to go home and say nothing.’

‘I’ll do that, Miss — I’ll be as dumb as a fish. But I know my health will give way with all this worry. I wish I’d the laundry again.’

‘By the way,’ asked Dericka, ‘did Morgan come home?’

‘Oh, yes, he came home, Miss; I knew that he would. He takes fits of wandering, but he always comes back. But I’ll get back to Jenny and hope for the best, expecting the worst. I’ll not sleep a wink this night. Oh, why didn’t I stick by the laundry and keep a quiet heart? Money don’t bring happiness. Oh, dear me!’

While Mrs. Krent was thus maundering on, Forde had an idea. It would be just as well, he thought, to see the desk in which the will had been found. Also, Polwin might come to the Grange on that night, and if confronted might give himself away. He whispered this to Dericka, who nodded assent, and then addressed himself to the crying housekeeper.

‘I’ll take you home, Mrs. Krent,’ said he in a kindly tone, ‘and if Polwin comes on the scene I’ll protect you.’

‘Oh, thank you, sir, a thousand times, but if he knows that you know —’

‘I’ll keep him in the dark as much as possible, Mrs. Krent. But if he does learn that we are acquainted with his little games, why we must beat him, that’s all.’

Mrs. Krent moaned and nodded, being too far gone to argue. She submitted to be led out of the room, and was hoisted into the trap a mere bundle of clothes. Knowing that Polwin was often at the Dower House, she shook and quaked at every shadow, and not until she and Forde, with the driver, were well on the way to the Grange did she recover sufficiently to speak. Then Forde stopped her, as she spoke too freely for safety, and the driver was all ears. For all both of them knew, he might be a creature of Polwin’s. Therefore they drove through the night in silence — and a very bad night it was, cold and with a gusty wind that almost tore them from their seats when they reached the high moors. However, Mrs. Krent was too bulky to be easily moved, and Oswald held on to the woodwork of the trap, so they managed to get along pretty well. But there was no moon, and the darkness was of the pit.

Suddenly they heard a rattle of horse’s hoofs, and past them tore a wild steed with a man on its back riding under whip and spur.

‘Save us,’ cried Mrs. Krent hysterically; ‘what’s wrong?’

There was no reply, and the rattling hoofs of the horse died away.

Forde thought that the man was probably on his way for a doctor, and was one of the dwellers in Penrith’s village. This explanation reassured Mrs. Krent, and she subsided into a kind of doze. On and on they crawled into the darkness for the horse was not very quick. At last they rounded the curve and came within view of the ancient Grange nestling amidst the gloom of the moors.

But these were not gloomy now. The old house was a mass of flames, and flared in the windy night, a gorgeous bonfire, telling of destruction and terror.

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