The Crowned Skull, by Fergus Hume

Chapter 20

A Terrible Night

Forde had a hard time to keep Mrs. Krent from throwing herself out of the trap when she saw the flaming Grange. Screaming out that Jenny would be burnt to death, that Polwin — only she used his name of Samuel — had fired the house, that she had lost her dear daughter, she strove again and again to hurl herself to the ground as the horse literally galloped up the avenue. By main force the young lawyer held her to her seat, and the driver whipped the animal hard, so as to arrive on the scene of disaster the sooner. The vehicle rocked from side to side as the maddened animal tore up towards the blazing mass and stopped short on the brilliantly-illuminated lawn so abruptly that Mrs. Krent and Forde with her was hurled to the ground.

The stout woman with wonderful agility picked herself up, and with outstretched arms ran open-mouthed and gasping towards the burning house.

‘Jenny; oh, my Jenny, where are you?’ she panted wildly.

‘Mother! mother!’ and Jenny, holding Morgan by the hand, ran out of the crowd of servants and quarrymen and labourers who were watching the fire. ‘I’m all right. The man has gone to St. Ewalds for the fire-engines.’ And then Forde recollected the racing horseman.

‘How did it happen — how did it happen?’ yelled Mrs. Krent.

‘I don’t know,’ faltered Jenny, who was white and trembling. ‘I was getting ready for dinner, and it was quite dark. Then I heard Morgan crying out that the place was on fire, and met him coming up the stairs.’

‘Yes! Yes! Yes!’ danced the idiot; ‘I saw the red fire, I saw it.’

‘Where?’ asked Mrs. Krent anxiously.

The man looked at her cunningly and continued to caper on the fire-lighted lawn. ‘I saw the red fire,’ he chaunted; ‘I saw it, I saw it burning — burning.’ And not another word could they get out of him.

In the meantime more and more people were gathered together in the grounds of the Grange. The mansion, being of granite, could not burn wholly to the ground, but it was being gutted as fast as possible by the fierce fire. The high wind still continuing fanned the blaze into roaring vigour, and sheets of flame stormed the darkness of the sky. From Penrith, from the quarries, from hamlets and solitary houses flocked the sparse dwellers of the moorland. Far and near the blaze reddened the gloomy heath, and seabirds screamed, hovering round the glare, apparently thinking it was a lighthouse on a gigantic scale.

Mrs. Krent stood helplessly on the lawn, wringing her fat hands.

‘Not a thing will be saved,’ she sobbed; ‘not a thing.’

But everybody, both men and women, and indeed children were trying their best to carry out articles from the burning house. The lawn was littered with chairs and tables, and couches, and draperies, and china, and glass, and pictures, and many other objects too numerous to mention.

Mrs. Krent, still sobbing, dropped on to a dainty Louis Quinze sofa with gilded framework, and sat there bemoaning the loss of all her worldly belongings. Nothing could be done to stop the flames until the arrival of the St. Ewalds brigade for there was no means of getting water rapidly enough on to the flaming mass. It is true that a line of labourers with buckets had been formed between a moorland stream near at hand and the terrace, but although the buckets passed rapidly from hand to hand, those who were trying to put out the fire by this means might as well have used a squirt.

‘Oh, Lord! Oh, Lord!’ groaned Mrs. Krent, rocking on the sofa; ‘I was always afraid of fire. Jenny, you careless girl, why didn’t you see that the lamps and things were safe?

‘They were all right when I went up to get dressed, mother.’

‘Where did the fire begin?’

‘In the drawing-room, I think. At least, that was in flames when I came down.’

‘The lamp might have upset, Jenny.’

‘Where was Morgan while you were dressing?’ asked Forde, who was standing by the housekeeper’s side regretting the loss of Dericka’s ancestral home.

‘In the drawing-room,’ said Jenny with hesitation.

‘Then he must have set it on fire,’ cried Forde promptly.

Mrs. Krent raised her voice to a scream. ‘Morgan! Did you light the fire?’ she asked coaxingly; ‘come tell nursey.’

‘I saw it blaze, I saw it red,’ chaunted the idiot, waving his hands over his head; ‘it was red, red — Polwin with the matches; oh, Polwin with the matches.’

‘What!’ cried Mrs. Krent, rising tremulously, ‘that wretch here? Oh, then I know that he did it — he did it.’

‘That is not true, ma’am,’ and the steward emerged from the crowd where he had been helping. He looked as meek and respectable as ever, and Forde found it hard to believe that he was the terrible person Mrs. Krent asserted him to be. ‘If you want to know the truth, ma’am,’ he continued, addressing the housekeeper respectfully, ‘it was that young man,’ and he pointed to Morgan, who was dancing fantastically to his shadow in the red light.

‘How can you tell that?’ whimpered Mrs. Krent, a bit reassured when she saw that Polwin had no intention of asserting himself in public.

‘I came to see you, ma’am’— he cast a side look at Forde —‘with a message from my young mistress, Miss Trevick. I rang and rang, but no one came to the door, so I went to the window of the drawing-room. I saw the lamps lighted, and also that young man,’ he again pointed to Morgan Bowring, ‘lighting matches and throwing them about. The better part of the room was already in a blaze. I broke in through the window and snatched the box out of his hand. That is why he keeps repeating “Polwin with the matches”. Then I gave the alarm.’

‘Morgan did that,’ cried Jenny, shrinking from the man.

Polwin turned on her like lightning. ‘Morgan ran up to tell you of the blaze,’ said he quietly, with a suspicion of a snarl in his voice, ‘but I gave the alarm to the servants — too late, however.’

‘Yes, that is right,’ said a respectable woman at Mrs. Krent’s elbow. ‘Mr. Polwin came running into the kitchen saying the drawing-room was afire. We all rushed in, but it was too late.’

‘Jane Trubby,’ cried Mrs. Krent, indignantly, ‘I gave you notice a few weeks ago. Why aren’t you with your wedded husband instead of coming into the house unbeknown to me?’

‘I came with my husband, ma’am,’ said Jane respectfully, and she introduced an elderly, shifty-eyed man, who rubbed his hands and cringed. At this moment the crash of a floor drew everyone forward, Mr. and Mrs. Trubby amongst the rest.

Polwin had slipped back again amidst the crowd and could be seen urging the bucket bearers to fresh exertions. Forde caught Mrs. Krent’s elbow as she lunged forward.

‘Who are Mr. and Mrs. Trubby?’ he asked, then, receiving no reply from the dazed woman, shook her; ‘are they the witnesses to the will?’

‘Yes,’ said Mrs. Krent in a kind of parrot-screech and ramped forward into the thick of the mob.

‘Humph!’ said Forde to himself, and retiring a step before the fiery furnace which faced him, ‘the witnesses of the will stand up for Mr. Polwin. That looks bad. I believe it’s forged after all.’

Unexpectedly, while watching the frantic throng, he turned and saw Anne Stretton at his elbow. She looked very pale and ill. Beside her stood the sulky squire of Penrith Manor, who nodded gruffly to the young barrister.

‘How are you, Mr. Forde?’ said Miss Stretton calmly. ‘This is very terrible, is it not? Can nothing be saved?’

‘I fear not until the brigade arrives,’ said Forde, taken aback; ‘but pardon me, Miss Stretton, I thought you were in St. Ewalds.’

‘I came to Penrith Manor this evening to dinner and to stop the night at the request of Mrs. Penrith,’ said Anne quietly. ‘We saw the blaze, and came up to see what assistance we could give. Ralph, will you not help?’

‘I’m going to,’ said the squire sullenly, and loafed forward with his hands in his pockets. He was in evening dress, and a fine figure of a man, yet he looked like a veritable yokel as he stumbled into the midst of the helpers. When he was out of earshot Miss Stretton hurriedly whispered to the barrister:

‘What are you doing here?’

‘I came to see Mrs. Krent on business.’

‘Does she know that Sir Hannibal is hiding —’

‘No. That is all safe. Hush! Miss Stretton, don’t say too much, there are eyes and ears everywhere,’ and he cast a significant look upon Polwin, who, mean and frowning, was slinking at the edge of the crowd, casting furtive glances at the pair. ‘Do you see that man? I believe he set fire to the place.’

‘Polwin? I know him; Sir Hannibal’s steward. He first started the rumour that Sir Hannibal was guilty.’

‘I rather think Mrs. Krent did that in her folly. However we must keep Sir Hannibal where he is until we can prove his innocence.’

‘Have you seen him?’

‘Yes, and so has Dericka.’

‘He told you everything?’

‘About what?’ asked Forde, on his guard.

Miss Stretton laughed. ‘Oh, you need not be suspicious of me,’ said she in an easy manner. ‘Sir Hannibal told me of all his dealing in Africa with Mr. Bowring and Mr. Krent.’

Forde started. ‘What do you know —’

‘I know that Polwin is Krent, masquerading as an angel. I know about the Death’s Head also.’

‘Sir Hannibal could not have told you that,’ cried Forde suddenly, ‘as he did not know it himself.’

‘I learned it from another source,’ said Anne quickly. ‘Do you see that man?’ She pointed to a gigantic figure looming against the flames. ‘He knows about the Death’s Head, and about Polwin also.’

‘Why, that’s Anak.’

‘Certainly.’

‘And Anak led the mob who wished to destroy the Dower House?’

‘Of course he did. Now, can you put two and two together?’

‘Ah,’ Forde looked quickly into Miss Stretton’s mocking face, ‘then you think that Anak has something to do with Polwin, and that Polwin is mixed up in this murder?’

‘I am quite certain of it,’ said Anne decisively. ‘Hush!’ and she sank her voice as the lean figure of Polwin glided close to them. ‘Oh,’ she added with a shudder, ‘do you think he overheard?’

‘I don’t know, and I don’t care.’

‘I do,’ murmured Anne, who again looked uncomfortable. ‘Polwin is a most dangerous man.’

‘He looks meek enough,’ muttered the barrister.

‘Ah, in his case appearances are deceptive.’

‘But how do you happen to know his real character?’

Anne Stretton was quite ready with a reply:

‘Sir Hannibal told me a lot, and then I have been watching Mr. Polwin of late. Of course, you know his real name is —’

‘Krent,’ finished Oswald; ‘yes, I know. I believe that Polwin, as he calls himself, is at the bottom of the whole affair.’

‘Yes,’ assented Miss Stretton; ‘and yet I did not see him —’

‘Where?’ asked Forde when she hesitated.

‘Never mind,’ replied Anne abruptly. ‘Later on I may tell you, and may ask for your assistance. I’ll tell you one thing now,’ she added, bringing her mouth close to his ear, ‘Sir Hannibal must leave that mine. It is not safe.’

‘Why, who knows where —’

‘Hush!’ She placed her finger on her lips as Polwin, in company with Anak, came near and sent stray glances in their direction. ‘Hark! That must be the fire engine.’

The interruption came very opportunely, for Polwin decidedly was suspicious of her conversation with Forde. Why he should be speaking so earnestly to Anak, with glances towards her, Anne could not think. But she learned that within a very short space of time. Meanwhile her attention, and, indeed, that of everyone was taken up with the fire engine and many traps from St. Ewalds, which dashed up in fine style. A hose was laid on the stream, the pumps were set to work, and in a few minutes a thick spurt of water was dashing against the almost red-hot walls of the doomed mansion. For doomed it was. There seemed to be very little chance of saving the ancestral home of the Trevicks.

‘All gone — all gone!’ moaned Mrs. Krent, who stood between Jenny and Morgan holding a hand of each; ‘I’m beggared in my old age.’

‘No, no,’ breathed Forde in her ear, ‘remember the will.’

‘Ah, that’s all very well, sir, but there’s things lost that can’t be replaced. Family photographs, and my mother’s silver teapot, to say nothing of Jenny’s toys, which I had hoped to keep for her children.’

Forde shuddered at this last remark when he looked on Morgan, who was dancing and gibbering in his excitement. It would be a sin, he thought, if Jenny became a mother.

Mrs. Krent continued to moan and wring her hands, Morgan to dance, and Jenny to stand like a statue.

At the edge of the group hovered Polwin, meek and demure, like an evil shadow. And near him lounged Anak, his eyes fastened, curiously enough, on Miss Stretton, who, however, seemed oblivious of his scrutiny.

Anne had been joined by a portly matron, well muffled up in furs against the cold of the night. A few words passed between them, and Anne pointed towards Mrs. Krent. The portly gentlewoman thereupon advanced and addressed the unfortunate housekeeper:

‘I am Mrs. Penrith, of the Manor,’ she said in a dignified but kindly voice, ‘and I wish you, my good woman and your daughter, to stop for the night, since your own home is burnt.’

‘Thank you kindly, ma’am,’ said poor Mrs. Krent, with her eyes fastened on the flaming mass; ‘I’ll come with pleasure, homeless and poor as I am. Oh, dear me, what a crash!’

The whole of the roof fell in as she spoke, and millions of sparks soared into the windy blackness. The brigade was doing no good with its one hose, although each member did his best. The house was completely gutted, and only the walls were left standing. Between them blazed and flamed and roared a great mass of fire. With the exception of the few articles scattered about the lawn, which had been saved earlier, all the splendours with which John Bowring had filled the house were things of the past. Oswald could not help regretting the loss of the fine old mansion. And as for Mrs. Krent, she appeared to move like one in a dream. At a word from Mrs. Penrith, Jenny led her mother down the avenue. Morgan followed, dancing as usual.

Polwin remained behind with Anak. Forde could not help thinking from the persistent way in which these two haunted the steps of Miss Stretton that they meant harm to the lady.

Shortly Ralph Penrith came out of the crowd round the fire engine, looking dirty and dishevelled with his exertions. But the exercise had done him good, along with the excitement. He did not look nearly so sulky as he had done, and appeared to be more amiable.

‘All’s gone,’ he growled, waving his hand towards the house; ‘I’m off to get a whisky and soda. Will you come, Forde?’

‘No, thank you. I’ll have to be getting back to St. Ewalds. I came to see Mrs. Krent, but she has gone at your mother’s invitation to the Manor along with her son-inlaw and daughter.’

‘All the more reason that you should come,’ said Penrith briskly.

‘Yes, do come, Mr. Forde,’ urged Miss Stretton, and from the expression on her face he saw that she had an object in asking him.

While Forde hesitated the rain-clouds, which had gathered rapidly, discharged themselves of their ever-growing burden. Down came the rain as the wind died away, and in a few minutes the crowd was drenched. Consequently it melted rapidly away, since nothing cools the courage and enthusiasm of people like a good shower. And this was more than a shower, it was a fierce, tropical downpour, and speedily the blazing mass of the Grange was hissing savagely as water tried to quench the fire. The brigade gave over working, put the horses to the engine and rattled away, followed by the many people who had come out to see the sight. The lawn was rapidly deserted, and save for the still flickering flames fighting against the steady rain all signs of anything untoward vanished. Anne shivered and drew her cloak round her shoulders. She was moving away with Penrith and Forde, when Anak suddenly threw himself in her way.

‘Stop!’ cried the big man, ‘I’ve got summat to say.’

‘Then say it quickly,’ snarled Penrith, who had a short temper; ‘we can’t stop in the rain all night.’

‘Don’t you talk to me, you jack-a-dandy,’ bellowed Anak, and the few people remaining drew near to listen, ‘you’re as bad as she.’

‘What are you talking about, man?’ asked Anne, drawing herself up.

‘Ah, you know well enough what I’m talking about,’ said Anak. ‘I thought Sir Hannibal had killed master, but now I know —’

‘Stop!’ cried Forde, looking around for Polwin, who was nowhere to be seen; ‘are you bringing an accusation against Miss Stretton?’

‘Yes, I am, sir,’ said Anak, more respectfully, as he recognised the antagonist who had brought him to his knees, ‘and against Mr. Penrith, also. They’re both in it.’

Penrith took a step forward with clenched fists. ‘Take care, Carney.’

‘Take care yourself,’ said Anak, bluffly; ‘I say now, and I’d say it with my dying breath, that you and that lass,’ he pointed to Anne, who was standing straight, pale and defiant; ‘yes, you and she killed Mr. Bowring and laid the blame on Sir Hannibal.’

‘It’s a damned lie.’

‘It’s a damned truth,’ retorted Anak, ‘you’re the guilty ones. I saw you at the business myself.’

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