The Crowned Skull, by Fergus Hume

Chapter 23

Anak’s Mother

Forde stooped to pick up the red skull with mixed feelings. He wondered how it had come into possession of the idiot, and what strange thought in the madman’s brains led him to believe that Polwin could be cursed in connection with so weird an object. But as he touched the Death’s Head Morgan flung himself forward, and snatching it from him with a guttural cry, bounded on to a moderately high rock near the cabin with the leap of a cat, and sat there nursing the uncanny relic of humanity with a cunning and dangerous expression. Forde, taken by surprise, stared motionless.

‘Ah,’ said Mrs. Carney, tottering forward and mumbling as usual, ‘he’s fond of that, is Morgan: it’s like a doll to a lass.’

‘How did he obtain possession of it?’ asked the barrister; ‘it belonged to Polwin — it is connected with the murder.’

‘Polwin!’ repeated the old woman, squatting down on her hams like a savage; ‘he’s my son’s friend. I’ve never set eyes on him myself, but Hugh likes him.’

‘Anak, you mean?’

‘My son’s name is Hugh, as was his father’s before him,’ mumbled the crone, ‘though they do call him Anak from the size of him. Aye, there are giants in these days, though it’s after the Flood instead of before it. Not but what folk are marrying and drinking and sinning now, as they did then, young sir.’

‘You remember me, Mrs. Carney?’

‘Aye. You’re the young gentleman who knocked down Anak — if you will call him so. And clever you are to do that seeing how big he is, Mr. Forde. Well, well, there are worse sons than Anak, for he keeps his old mother like a queen, bless him.’

The idiot still moped and mowed on the rock, fondling the skull.

Oswald glanced from him to Mrs. Carney, and from that unsightly old creature to the miserable hut which she called home. Her notion of being kept like a queen was indeed sordid, and he wondered how she could endure so wretched an existence, especially as he discerned in her manner and speech, that which argued that she had not always occupied so lowly a condition. Forde involuntarily put a leading question to her:

‘What is your past, Mrs. Carney?’

The beldam looked up, and her black eyes, brilliant as those of a young girl, flashed angrily. Her face was wrinkled and yellow and not over-clean, her hair was white, her body was bowed, and her brown hands were like the claws of a bird — a vulture’s for choice. Also her nose and chin nearly met, and she looked exactly like the bad fairy of a child’s book. Yet in those eyes shone the fierce, free spirit of inextinguishable youth, and Forde would not have been surprised had she dropped her worn body like a ragged garment and shone out a nymph of grace. Those eyes should have been set as jewels in the face of a young and lovely woman. Now they sent out lightnings towards Forde because of his indiscreet question.

‘What’s my past got to do with you, young man?’

Oswald shrugged his shoulders. ‘Nothing; only you seem to have seen better days.’

‘Aye, that I have, but I don’t tell you anything about them,’ grumbled Mrs. Carney, and then, with the inconsistency of old age, she at once began to mumble out her life story. At first she spoke almost too softly for Forde to hear, so he waited until she warmed up before giving her his entire attention. Lighting his pipe, he sat down on a stone near the door of the hut and watched the squatting figure of the aged witch — for witch she was, if looks went for anything, as they assuredly did in the middle ages when an old woman was required to be tar-barrelled. Morgan, humming weird songs to himself, still played fantastically with his gruesome toy, and everywhere the earth was growing warm and bright under the influence of the newly-risen sun.

‘Aye, aye!’ muttered Mrs. Carney, plucking at the fringe of her ragged skirt. ‘I was pretty once: no girl prettier, but that Trevick man he made me hate everyone.’

‘Did he do you wrong?’ asked Forde softly, so as not to break the current of her thoughts.

‘He! No. No one ever did me wrong,’ cried the old hag, ‘I was too clever for them all. Sir Hannibal — drat the man for a false lover — he wanted me to run away with him. But I said marriage or nothing; yes, I said that — no wrongdoing for the prettiest girl in St. Ewalds, or out of it, for the matter of that. But he wouldn’t. Bless you, those Trevicks think a heap of themselves, and he looked on me as dirt. On me,’ cried Mrs. Carney, rising, and her voice leaping an octave, ‘me, who was a lady’s maid, and was well educated as a companion to gentry. Aye. I knew French at one time, and could play the piano and paint on velvet, and do things the like of which are never heard of nowadays. But Trevick left me to go to London, and never came back. Out of sight, out of mind with him. Oh, deary me.’ She hid her hands under her apron and stared at the glimpse of blue sea seen between the rocks, viewing probably in her mind’s eye the golden days of her distant youth.

Forde made no remark, knowing that she would recommence the story after a time, and anxious to hear all that she could say about herself.

‘Yes,’ went on the old woman, still gazing at the ocean, ‘he left me, did Trevick, but I wasn’t one to pine away for such as he. Oh, no, not at all. There were lots of them, and when Miss Gyles — she that I was companion to — got married, I could pick and choose a handsome man as well as she. And I did. I picked out the ugliest of the bunch. Lord knows why I did it,’ muttered the witch, rubbing her beaky nose; ‘he wasn’t tall nor fine-looking, and he wasn’t rich. I couldn’t get Trevick, but Bowring was willing to make me his wife, though I never could abear him. Nor Carney either, for the matter of that. But he got round me in his wheedling way and we were married. Then he left me to starve,’ said Mrs. Carney angrily, ‘with Hugh a babe at the breast.’

‘Where did he go?’ asked Forde idly.

‘Lord knows, young man. He disappeared like a drop of water over five and twenty years ago, if not more, and never have I set eyes on him since — no, never.’

‘He may be dead.’

‘Dead!’ echoed the hag with a screech; ‘men like Carney never die, I can tell you, young sir. Good men die, pretty babes die, strong wenches die, but the devil looks after his own, and Carney was the son of Old Nick, for all his wheedling and pious talk. Well, he’s gone’— she flung her apron over her head, rocking to and fro in her grief —‘and I’m left here like a bare stone on the hillside.’

Forde looked at the grey stone walls of the hut, with the moss and lichens growing in the cracks; at the thatched roof of dried grass and fern; at the small window and crazy door, and pitied the pair who dwelt there. Anak certainly could look after himself, and was strong enough to laugh at the weather when living in such a tumbledown house, but Mrs. Carney was frail and looked decidedly ill.

‘How did you come so low?’ asked the barrister.

Mrs. Carney tore the apron from her head and looked at him angrily as she stamped her foot.

‘Low!’ she screamed. ‘I’d have you know as I’d rather live here than in a palace. I’m free here, and I can work spells and everyone fears me for a witch.’

‘Oh, that’s rubbish,’ said Forde easily.

‘Oh, is it?’— she looked at him malignantly —‘well, you’ll see. Day and night have I cursed Carney, and he’ll surely be drawn back to me by the spell. Then I’ll stab him, and poison him, and crush him, and make him long for a death that won’t come until he has endured the pangs he made me endure. Oh,’ she shook her fist impotently at the calm sky, ‘I could tear him to bits, the beast, the wretch.’

‘What else could I do?’ inquired Mrs. Carney with a scowl; ‘I was left without a penny and with a babe. I tried to earn money, but those who were jealous of me kept me out of employment. Then I took to telling fortunes, and did a rare trade until the law turned me out of St. Ewalds years and years ago. I came here to be near the quarries, where Hugh could work, and I’ve lived here, sun and rain, wet and fine, these fifteen and more years.’

Forde rose, and putting his pipe into his pocket, yawned. It was about time that he started back to St. Ewalds, but before departing he wished to learn how the skull had come into the possession of the idiot. As a means of unloosening Mrs. Carney’s tongue regarding the doings of Morgan, with whom she seemed to be so well acquainted, and because he was truly hungry, he took half a sovereign from his pocket.

‘I’ll give you this, Mrs. Carney, for a breakfast.’

The witch grabbed it, bit it to see if the gold was genuine, and laughed as she tied it in a corner of her apron. ‘Ham and eggs,’ she said, walking towards the house; ‘Morgan, make a fire.’

Forde sat down again and watched the idiot, who readily obeyed the command. Morgan left the red skull carefully on the rock, and rapidly collected sticks and dried moss which he heaped between two stones on a blackened spot which had evidently been used before for the same purpose. Then Mrs. Carney made her appearance with a frying-pan and matches. In a few moments the fire was crackling merrily, and the frying-pan, filled with three eggs and several slices of bacon, was placed on the glowing mass. Morgan knelt beside it while Mrs. Carney tottered to and fro, bringing plates and cups and saucers and a teapot. The idiot thrust sticks into the fire, and clapped his hands with childish glee as the sparks scattered and the flame flickered.

‘Oh, pretty, pretty!’ cried Morgan, and his joy put an idea into the head of Forde.

‘Did you set fire to the Grange the other night?’ he asked.

Morgan looked cunning, and his face darkened.

‘Polwin,’ he said, and grated his strong, white teeth.

‘Oh, Polwin did?’

‘I never said that — I never said that — I never said that. Oh, I hate Polwin, I curse Polwin.’ He sprang to his feet, leaped for the skull, and muttered various spells over it with waving arms.

Mrs. Carney, quite unmoved, placed two eggs and some bacon on a plate and gave it to Forde, along with a cup of tea and a slice of bread.

Forde was glad of the hot food, for, strange to say, now that the sun was well above the horizon, the mists were lowering over the moorland, dropping even to the roof of the hut. In a wonderfully short space of time the whole small plateau upon which the hut was built seemed to be in cloudland. Sea and sky, rock and grass vanished, and Forde found himself isolated in white, damp vapour, through which could be distinctly seen the figure of Morgan gesticulating with the skull. Wondering how he was to find his way down to the high road again, Forde made the best of a bad job, and devoured the hot food with great relish. It was well worth the half-sovereign.

Mrs. Carney did not seem at all astonished at the sudden shutting down of the white mists. ‘It happens like this unexpectedly,’ she said, squatting to drink a cup of tea. ‘Morgan, child, come and eat.’

But the idiot paid no attention, being still taken up with his skull play, and very gruesome he looked through the veil of vapour.

‘Have you known Morgan long?’ asked Forde while eating.

‘Aye, aye!’ grumbled Mrs. Carney, who seemed to be enjoying the gossip and sipping her hot tea. ‘Bowring came back from foreign parts and wished to give me a better house. But I stopped where I was, as everyone who wants their fortune told, and their friends cursed, knows where to find me. But he gave me money when he lived at Trevick’s place.’

‘It’s burnt down,’ said Forde quickly.

Mrs. Carney shook with malignant laughter. ‘I put a spell on it,’ she said spitefully; ‘Trevick treated me badly.’

‘Only because he did not marry you,’ interrupted the barrister.

‘And wasn’t that enough, young sir? A woman scorned — that’s what I was and what I am. Well, I put the spell on him, and he’s wandering Lord knows where, but not far from the gallows I’m trying to draw him to. Yes, I am.’

‘You!’ Forde was startled, and for the first time it occurred to him that Mrs. Carney might have something to do with the crime. She peered over the edge of her saucer in an odd way, guessing, from his looks, what was in his mind.

‘There’s nothing the law can lay hold of me for,’ said Mrs. Carney in her croaking voice; ‘all the same, I laid the spell of trouble on Trevick, and trouble he had. I’ve laid the spell to bring him back to these moors where he courted me, and when he comes back I hang him — hang him — hang him!’ and she thumped on the ground.

‘But he didn’t kill Bowring.’

‘I know that,’ was Mrs. Carney’s unexpected answer, and given snappily.

‘Then do you know who did?’

‘Perhaps,’ she retorted, winking an eye, ‘but don’t you ask questions and you’ll be told no lies. Trevick will come back, and though he hides himself in the bowels of the earth I’ll hunt him out to put a rope round his neck. Aye, that I shall.’

Forde felt nervous. What if this malignant woman guessed that Sir Hannibal really was hiding, as she put it, in the bowels of the earth? There would be small chance of the baronet’s escape then. But he remarked how she had obviously declared that she knew who had actually murdered the millionaire, and cautiously proceeded to question her, hoping to get at the truth by roundabout means.

‘How can you find him if he is hidden hereabouts?’

‘How? Why, Morgan, there, can find him. Morgan knows every mine and hole in the countryside, and has been down them all. Yes, even down that Tregeagle mine, which may be flooded at any moment.’

Oswald laid down his plate, feeling more anxious than ever, especially as she kept her black eyes fairly on his face. Then she gave him a clue to her knowledge.

‘I rise as early as most folk,’ said Mrs. Carney, ‘and I gather herbs for drams or love-philters in the dawn.’

‘What! Did you see —’

‘I saw what I saw, and I have only to say to Morgan, here, “Hunt me out Trevick that I may kill him,” and Morgan will. Oh, yes, the lad and I are great friends. His father let him come to me, and many a time have I sheltered him when his silly wife and her silly mother thought that he was lying out on the cold ground. Morgan will do what I tell him, you may be sure.’

‘But if Sir Hannibal is innocent —’ stammered Forde, startled.

‘What’s that to me? I hate him because he made a white-faced minx Lady Trevick instead of me. I can save him, but I won’t. He’ll hang as soon as he is found, and Morgan knows all the burrows.’

Hearing his name, the idiot leaped again from the rock and came to the fire with the skull. He dropped this into the blaze, and danced round it. ‘Curse it, Mother Witch, curse it, and then Polwin will burn and burn and burn.’

‘Why should I curse Polwin, my son’s friend?’ said Mrs. Carney; ‘he may be a good man, although I’ve never set eyes on him.’

‘He’s wicked.’ Morgan stamped his foot, clenched his fists and rolled his eyes. ‘He wants to shut me up with wicked people. Last night I heard him say to Jenny that I had set the house blazing and that I must be locked up. Oooh! oooh!’ He flung himself on the ground in a paroxysm of rage, tearing at the grass and biting it.

The old woman fished the skull out of the fire. ‘Don’t take on so, deary. He can’t shut you up; you didn’t fire the Grange.’

‘But I did — I did,’ shouted Morgan, sitting up considerably dishevelled. ‘Polwin came to the window and gave me matches to play with. Jenny never would give me matches because I used to strike them to see the pretty fire. And Polwin said that I could play with them, and I did, and then — oh, what a blaze it was!’ Morgan leaped to his feet clapping his hands, then suddenly stood stock still.

‘Is this the way to the quarry?’ asked a quiet voice from out of the mist, and Forde started to his feet.

So did Mrs. Carney. She turned grey, and gathered herself up in a shaky, nervous state. ‘That voice!’ she murmured, grasping the skull.

‘Can’t you answer?’ said the quiet voice in a rasping tone. ‘I want to see Hugh Carney — I’ve missed the way to the —’ Here the speaker appeared, slowly emerging from the white folds of the mist.

‘Polwin! Polwin!’ shrieked Morgan, and leaped for the door of the hut.

He stumbled on the threshold and there lay shaking and sobbing. Mrs. Carney, with the skull poised in her hand like a cricket ball, looked at the newcomer with the eyes of a Sphinx. And as soon as Polwin’s gaze fell on the old woman he fell back a step and turned to flee. Forde stood dazed, not knowing what to make of the scene.

‘You have come back, Carney, have you?’ said the old woman slowly; ‘I knew the spell would draw you, villain and — Ah!’

Polwin made a dart into the mist. Mrs. Carney, his long-forsaken wife, flung the skull at him with so sure an aim that it hit him at the back of the neck. He stumbled and fell, and the next moment she was tearing at him like a bird of prey. In response to her yell Morgan also fell on the miserable man and scratched and bit freely. Forde ran to drag the pair off, but before he could reach them Polwin had flung both aside with desperate strength and disappeared into the mist.

‘Kill him, kill him!’ yelled Mrs. Carney. ‘Beast. Kill him! Boo! hoo!’

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