The Crowned Skull, by Fergus Hume

Chapter 2

The Prophecy Fulfilled

‘What does she mean by that?’ asked Bowring sharply, when the governess had disappeared to foretell the futures of fresh dupes.

‘I do not know,’ said Dericka. Then she pointed to the pocket into which the millionaire had slipped the sealed letter. ‘You can learn, if you read what is written.’

Bowring took the letter out and twisted it in his gnarled, lean hands in a thoughtful manner. ‘No,’ he said abruptly, and after some meditation. ‘If it is good, it can wait; if evil, I must meet it blindly, as it is best that the future should be hidden from our eyes.’

‘Yet you went in there to inquire?’

‘Because I wanted to give my guinea to the chapel. I give nothing for nothing. In that way I made my money. It is all rubbish, this fortune telling,’ he added, looking keenly at Dericka. ‘Has Miss Warry ever told your fortune?’

‘Yes. By the cards and by the hand, and by looking into the crystal.’

‘And you believe what she said?’

Dericka blushed, and looked away in the distance to where Oswald Forde appeared, sauntering idly in search of her, with a cigarette.

‘I should like to believe,’ she said softly.

Bowring’s eyes followed her, and he also saw the handsome young fellow. The sight appeared to annoy him, and he frowned.

‘You are foolish, girl,’ he said roughly. ‘We make our own fortunes, good or bad, and it needs no palmistry to tell that as we sow, so shall we reap.’

Dericka, her eyes still fastened on her lover, who paused to talk with a pretty girl, defended what Miss Warry called ‘her art’. In a musing voice she replied. ‘To some natures,’ she said, ‘the veil between the seen and the unseen is very thin. Such natures may have a premonition which turns out true, or they may read by the present the doubtful future. I have known several of Sophia’s prophecies come true in the end.’

‘Sophia?’

‘Miss Warry. She is my governess, and has been for many a long day, but shortly she is leaving us, as the success of her fortune-telling has made her desirous to earn money in that way.’

‘If she sets up in London,’ said Bowring grimly, ‘she will be haled before the magistrates as a swindler, and quite right too. The woman’s a fool.’

‘She is a very good, kind woman, Mr. Bowring.’

‘Well,’— the millionaire shrugged his large shoulders —‘she certainly has a strong advocate in you, Miss Trevick. Where is your father?’

‘Somewhere about,’ said Dericka, looking round. ‘Do you wish to see him again?’

‘Not at once; though I would like to see him before five o’clock, when I must leave. It is a long drive to Trevick Grange, but my motor is swift, and I’ll get home very rapidly. I want to have a chat to you before I go away.’

‘With me?’ Dericka looked surprised. There was little in common between this old man and herself.

‘Yes.’

He led the way towards a secluded corner where there was a garden seat, and nodded that she should follow, with the air of a man who is accustomed to be obeyed.

‘Your father and I have been talking about you,’ he said abruptly, when Dericka was seated.

‘Yes?’ Dericka replied coldly, and fastened her brilliant blue eyes on the rugged face. She was not going to commit herself by asking questions until she knew how the land lay. Bowring, as she intuitively saw, was a man to be delicately handled.

‘You seem to be a girl with a head on your shoulders.’

‘Thank you for the compliment. But why pay it to me?’

‘I have heard of the way in which you manage this house, and your father, who is, and always was, a simple man.’

‘How do you know?’

‘Because he was with me out in Africa years and years ago, when you were a tiny girl. He came home about the time your mother died, and came home, too, without a penny. Now I,’ the millionaire expanded his chest in a grandiloquent fashion, ‘I have made my fortune! I am worth a great deal of money.’

‘So I understand,’ said Dericka coldly; ‘but what has all this to do with me?’

‘I am coming to that. It has a great deal to do with you. I rented the Grange from your father, not because I wanted it, but so as to help him. I pay a fancy rent, upon which he lives.’

‘You have no right to talk to me like this,’ said Dericka, reddening. ‘After all, my father is my father, and your old association in South Africa does not give you the right to insult him.’

The millionaire was immovable.

‘You are a girl of spirit,’ he said approvingly. ‘I like you none the worse for it.’

‘With your permission,’ said Dericka, rising, and speaking sarcastically, ‘I will join our visitors and attend to my duties.’

‘Join that young popinjay there,’ said Bowring, nodding his head in the direction of Forde. ‘I see well what it means.’

‘Sir!’ Dericka looked angry, and really felt angry. ‘My private affairs have nothing to do with you.’

‘They have a great deal to do with me, as your father and I agreed.’

‘What do you mean?’

‘Let me reply by asking another question, my dear. When Miss Warry told your fortune did she say who was to be your husband?’

‘I refuse to answer that question,’ said Dericka with spirit; but all the same she did answer it by looking again at Forde.

‘No,’ said Bowring, looking also; ‘he is not to be your husband.’

‘I chose for myself, Mr. Bowring.’

‘What a little spitfire you are. Listen. I want to help your father as he is my old friend and is poor.’

‘I never knew that my father and you were friends.’

‘We have both been very thick, certainly,’ said Bowring grimly. ‘He has kept away from me, and I from him. But today, I came over to make it up. We have done so, although it was not an easy task. Your father so far forgot himself as to threaten me with death.’

‘Ridiculous!’

‘So I told him,’ said Bowring quietly; ‘but for reasons connected with South Africa he would not be sorry to see me in my coffin. However, I managed to make him understand that his interest and mine are identical, and proposed a new arrangement.’ He paused.

‘Yes?’ said Dericka, interrogatively.

‘I intend to pay your father a larger rent and help him out of his present difficulties, of which you are cognisant, if you — you, Miss Trevick — will marry my son Morgan.’

Dericka rose with a bewildered air.

‘Marry your son — that idiot?’

‘He is not quite an idiot,’ said Bowring in vexed tones, ‘although his will is weak. All the better for a woman of your managing capability, my dear. Morgan wants a woman who can handle him firmly, and from what I have heard of you, Miss Trevick, you are the woman who would make Morgan a good wife. Also, you are a girl of old family, and the daughter of a baronet. Against these advantages I set my money. If you will marry Morgan and turn him into something resembling a man, I will give you your old family seat of the Grange, and allow you and your husband ten thousand a year. When I die you will get the lot of my money. Also, I will put your father’s affairs right.’

‘Are you serious?’ demanded the girl, with a red spot on either cheek.

‘Perfectly. I never waste words.’

‘Neither do I. Wait!’

She walked away, leaving Bowring wondering what she was about to do, and speedily returned with Oswald Forde.

‘I have asked this gentleman to come,’ said Dericka coldly, ‘so that he and you may hear my answer. Oswald, Mr. Bowring and my father have decided that I shall marry Morgan, the son of this man.’

‘Dericka, you will not, when I—’

‘When you love me,’ she finished, and placing her arms round his neck she kissed him fondly. Then, turning to Bowring, who looked on grimly at this comedy, she said promptly, ‘Do you require any further answer?’

‘What does all this mean?’ asked Forde in angry tones.

‘It means that Mr. Bowring wanted to buy me and that I am not for sale. It means, Oswald, that I will marry you whenever you like.’

‘It means also,’ broke in Bowring, perfectly composed, ‘that if you do not obey your father and marry my son, Sir Hannibal Trevick, baronet as he is, will be disgraced.’

‘Disgraced! What do you mean?’

‘I advise you to ask your father that,’ said Bowring sarcastically. ‘You will find that he is on my side, and is anxious to call Morgan his son-inlaw. For the rest, I can wait. He pulled out his watch and glanced at it. ‘Five o’clock; I must go. I’ll return tomorrow to see if your conversation with your father has modified your attitude. Good-day!’

When the millionaire had gone Dericka stared after him in consternation.

‘What does he mean?’ she asked.

‘Blackmail,’ said Forde quietly. ‘My legal experience tells me that much. Your father was in South Africa and apparently got into some scrape. This man knows all about it, and unless you marry this Morgan Bowring he will tell all the world something, which your father would rather keep concealed.’

‘Oswald,’ said Dericka rapidly, ‘my father is weak and foolish in many ways. But I do not believe that he has done, or would do, anything disgraceful.’

‘Then why is this man so certain that you will marry at his bidding?’

Dericka passed her hand across her forehead with a weary air.

‘I do not know,’ she said. ‘This Morgan Bowring is half an idiot — a most dreadful person to look upon. Were he sane I would not marry him, much less when I know, what all St. Ewalds knows, that the man is not responsible for his actions in a great measure. My father would never consent to my marrying him. I am sure of that.’

Forde was silent. He knew that Sir Hannibal was a selfish man, and probably had pages in his past life which he would not like read by the world. To save himself from a single pang he would sacrifice Dericka without a moment’s hesitation. But he did not tell this to the girl for obvious reasons, and remained awkwardly silent. It was the girl who first recovered her speech.

‘I shall see my father at once,’ she said decisively, ‘and confront him with Mr. Bowring before he leaves this place.’

Forde acquiesced, but a search for the master of the house was in vain. Sir Hannibal was not to be found in any of the rooms, nor in the gardens. People, having exhausted the pleasures of the fete, were already leaving, and Dericka, with Forde at her heels, went down to the gates thinking to find her father there, saying farewell to some of his visitors. Instead she found Mr. Bowring getting into a 50-hp. Hadrian machine, more like a racer than a simple motor-car for travelling country roads. Bowring addressed her:

‘I cannot find my old friend Sir Hannibal,’ he said with something like a sneer, ‘or I should have told him of our conversation. But I’ll come again tomorrow. Good evening.’ And as the chauffeur placed his hands on the wheel the motor swung off with a powerful hum, like a gigantic bee.

Dericka stared after the machine, but found nothing to say. Then she went back with Forde to again search for Sir Hannibal, and again was unsuccessful.

What Bowring thought of the girl’s defiance it is impossible to say. He sat thinking deeply, sometimes with a grim smile, and again with a frown corrugating his brows. The chauffeur, a quiet, fair young fellow called Donalds, engineered the racer — for the Hadrian certainly was that, from the speed she was going at — up the High Street of St. Ewalds and out into the open country. Many people stopped to look at that low, rakish form painted grey, and looking uncanny, which ran up the steep ascent of the street like a fly up a wall. Everyone knew Bowring, and envied him the wealth which could command such a vehicle.

But when the steep ascent was mounted the machine ran smoothly along a level road until she topped the next and slid round a sloping curve, which dropped her into a valley. Then again came a rise, and she slipped forward humming into wild waste lands.

On all sides stretched the naked moorland, covered with heather and gorse, and huge grey stones lying here and there as though a Cornish giant had dropped a handful of pebbles from his pocket. On either side, here and there rose rounded hills, topped with cromlechs and rocking-stones, and streaked with purple lights. The west flared with the vivid colours of the sunset, delicately pink, and melting on the horizon into sheets of shimmering gold. To the left were the bleak hills bathed in the imperial purple of the setting sun; to the right the cold blue of the trembling ocean, with white waves near shore tumbling amongst the black jagged rocks. Bowring knew the landscape well, and troubled himself very little about the beauty it took on under the changing hues of the western sky. He was thinking of many things — perhaps of his past, which rumour said was not all that could be desired. But of one thing he certainly was thinking, and that was the firm face of the fairy-like creature who had defied him. He wondered that so frail a form could contain so brave a spirit. Dericka was the very wife for the half-mad Morgan, and would bring good blood into the family. Then he, John Bowring, millionaire, could die in peace, leaving the firm foundations of a county family.

So the old man dreamed, while the car buzzed along the smooth road, swooping into hollows, soaring up ascents, and, spinning like a live thing, sped along endless levels. About three miles from St. Ewalds came a long downward stretch of road, which afforded Donalds the chance of letting his machine go. And go she did, with a roar and a rush like a live bombshell. The keen air cut sharply against their faces as they hummed down the long descent. At the foot the road took a sharp turn under some high banks, above which stretched the purple of the moorland. With Bowring dreaming, and Donalds exulting in the speed of the powerful machine, the car swept round the curve at a tremendous rate. But once round, and with another short road descending before her to a second corner, she had scarcely darted forward a short distance when right in front loomed up a huge mass of granite in the very centre of the roadway. With a cry of horror Donalds put on the brakes. But it was too late. The Hadrian met the mass of granite full, and the two men were hurled into the air, above a smashed mass of steel and iron, smoking and hissing.

It was like a nightmare. The chauffeur was tossed like a cork down a bank and fell on a soft bed of purple heather, narrowly missing a mighty stone, which would have killed him. Dazed and confused, and not knowing how time was passing, Donalds painfully climbed up to the road again. He saw, as in a dream, the broken motor-car, vague and doubtful-looking in the twilight, and saw also his master struggling to his feet. As Bowring straightened himself, swaying to and fro, a man leaped down from the high bank, and without hesitation, put a revolver to the old man’s ear. The next moment Bowring fell as the report rang out, and Donalds, gasping with horror, weak from loss of blood, and confused by the shock, fell fainting down the bank, to all appearances as dead as the old millionaire.

But the shot had attracted attention. The murderer heard a shout, and without hesitation regained the top of the steep bank and vanished amidst the purple heather. Scarcely had he done so when round the corner came several labourers at full speed. They were quarrymen employed in breaking stones in an old quarry which belonged to Trevick Grange. These ran forward, exclaiming at what they saw. The whole appearance of the wreckage told a story — the broken car, the insensible man, and the great mass of granite in the centre of the road.

‘But the shot?’ said one man, picking up Bowring’s body. He dropped it with a cry of horror. ‘Look!’ he cried, and pointed to the head.

‘Murder!’ said several voices, and the quarrymen looked at one another in the fast gathering twilight.

The sounds of wheels were heard rattling furiously, and round the second corner, whence the quarrymen had appeared, rushed a dog-cart bearing Penrith and Miss Stretton.

‘What is the matter?’ they asked. ‘We heard a shot, and came back.’

‘Bowring’s dead,’ said a man with a civilised accent. ‘Shot!’

‘Dead! Shot!’ cried Penrith, while Miss Stretton shrieked, and he leaped down with a horrified face. ‘Let me see.’

While he examined the body Anne Stretton, with a white face and trembling lips, alighted also. Near the body her quick eye caught sight of an envelope. Picking this up she tore it open.

‘It might contain something likely to say who killed him,’ she said shaking; ‘perhaps the assassin left it here.’

‘What does it say?’ asked Penrith, while the quarrymen crowded round and one struck a match for her to read the letter by.

She read slowly: ‘You will be killed before you reach home this evening!’

There was a dead silence, and all looked at the body. The prophecy had been fulfilled.

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