The Crowned Skull, by Fergus Hume

Chapter 25

Disaster

The amazement of Forde at beholding the ladies was only equalled by the surprise of Sir Hannibal when he saw Polwin sullenly standing in the grip of the barrister.

‘How did you come here?’ he asked with nervous haste; ‘what do you want of me?’

‘Ask Mr. Forde that,’ whined the steward in a fawning manner, belied by the ferocious glitter of his usually meek eyes; ‘he made me come.’

Trevick faced round. ‘Well?’ he asked the young man apprehensively.

Forde did not reply immediately to the question. Forcing Polwin to his knees, he stood over him with the revolver, ready to fire should the man attempt to escape.

‘Keep still,’ said Oswald as the steward snapped and snarled like the mongrel dog he was. ‘You want to settle accounts with Sir Hannibal; here he is, settle them.’

Trevick’s knees shook under him, and he would have fallen but that Anne put her arm within his. Dericka was the first person to break a somewhat oppressive silence:

‘Why did you bring this man here, Oswald?’ she asked sharply.

‘I’ll explain, and so will he,’ said the barrister, ‘but first tell me how you come to be in the mine with Miss Stretton?’

‘I brought her early this morning,’ said Anne quickly. ‘When I reached St. Ewalds last night I went at once to the Dower House and found Miss Trevick waiting up for her father. I explained, and she came on this morning with me to see what could be done.’

‘But that awful shaft, how did you get down?’

‘We came by the other,’ explained Dericka swiftly; ‘it is only a little distance away from this very spot.’

‘But it is so difficult to get down.’

‘No,’ said Trevick, trying to appear cool; ‘the other shaft is both difficult and dangerous, but the one these girls came by is easy. A ten-foot ladder took them down to a slope which descends to this level. Miss Stretton and myself found this easy way one day when we explored the mine. There is no difficulty in getting either out or in, Forde. But if you —’

‘Then I hope Morgan won’t come that way,’ said Oswald to himself.

Dericka overheard. ‘What’s that you say?’ she asked.

‘Mrs. Carney told me that Morgan knows all the mines of this district, and therefore he must be aware of this second way, and will come by that probably,’ and he looked at the sullen Polwin, who shuddered with apprehension.

‘Why should Morgan come at all?’ asked Anne quickly.

‘Because he overheard Polwin, here, say last night to Mrs. Krent that he ought to be locked up for setting the Grange on fire. Morgan is terrified at the idea, and is mad enough to kill this man if he can get at him. We left him on the high road struggling with Anak, but if he escapes he will certainly come here, and then —’ Forde looked at Polwin again.

That individual spoke harshly and to the point. ‘In that case you had better let me settle accounts with Sir Hannibal, as you say, and then I can hide myself in the recesses of the mine before that madman arrives.’

‘Are you afraid of him?’ asked Dericka with contempt.

Polwin raised his wounded hand. ‘I can’t fight against a lunatic with an axe, hampered by this wound,’ he said coolly.

‘Who hurt you, Polwin?’ asked Trevick anxiously.

‘I did,’ said Forde readily, ‘but not before he had tried to stab me. Also,’ he flourished the revolver, ‘this weapon belongs to our friend. I took it from him and intend to use it against him unless he explains how he killed Bowring.’

‘What?’ cried all three in a breath; ‘did —’

‘No, I did not,’ said Polwin loudly, and would have struggled to his feet but that Forde’s hand on his shoulder kept him on his knees.

‘You did,’ said the barrister sternly; ‘Mrs. Carney — your wife — hinted as much, and —’

‘Oh,’ interrupted Sir Hannibal, ‘is Mrs. Carney aware of —’

Forde interrupted in his turn. ‘I believe she knows everything, and only held her tongue because she did not know until an hour or two ago that Polwin was her husband. But you knew it, Trevick?’

‘Yes,’ said Sir Hannibal, unsteadily, ‘I knew it, but I was forced to hold my tongue.’

‘And you’ll hold it still,’ threatened the steward, ‘else it will be the worse for you.’

‘There can be nothing worse than this, Polwin.’

‘Oh, yes; the gallows.’

‘Hold your tongue, you beast,’ said Oswald, giving him a shake as Dericka uttered a faint shriek; ‘now, then, tell the truth.’

‘It won’t be what you expect,’ snapped the steward; ‘I did not kill Bowring, though I had every reason to do so.’

‘Then who is the criminal?’

‘If I tell you and can prove the guilt will you let me go?’

‘Yes. You will only run into Morgan’s arms, and if he kills you so much the better, you grey rat.’

‘I think,’ said Anne Stretton, who had been listening intently, ‘that it will be best for Sir Hannibal to tell us of his relations to this man Polwin.’

‘His real name is Carney,’ said the baronet readily. ‘I knew him and Bowring when we were boys together. We met again in Africa, and there we formed a firm to buy diamonds. This man,’ he pointed to the heap at Forde’s feet, ‘cheated both Bowring and myself, so we kicked him out of the firm.’

‘I went on my own accord,’ said Polwin, ‘leaving you and Bowring to swindle.’

‘You were kicked out by Bowring for trying to blackmail him in connection with those forged bills.’

‘And they were forged?’

‘I don’t deny that,’ retorted Trevick quickly. ‘Bowring forged my name to do a deal and intended to swindle me; I said that I had signed the bills so that you should not make trouble. Then you went away and spread the report that Bowring killed Moolu’s son.’

‘You ought to have been glad of that,’ sneered the steward, ‘since you were the murderer.’

‘I don’t believe that,’ said Dericka, who was leaning against the wall.

‘Thank you, my dear,’ said her father mildly. ‘No, I was quite innocent. But this scoundrel spread a report about me also, and in order not to come into collision with the colonial authorities I was forced to return to England. Bowring, left behind, saw a chance of cheating me. Consequently, when he returned some years later to England he was a millionaire while I was comparatively poor. However, when I threatened him he agreed to take the Grange and to leave me his money — or, rather, my share of it — by will.’

‘He gave you all,’ said Polwin sulkily, ‘and a third of it was mine by the terms of our partnership.’

‘You were not a partner then, Polwin; we had kicked you out. And the money was left on condition that Dericka married Morgan.’

‘You have not fulfilled that condition.’

‘I could not. In the first place it was not laid down in the will and I could have evaded it; in the second Mrs. Krent — your wife — said that Morgan had already married Jenny.’

‘Mrs. Carney is the man’s wife,’ said Forde quickly. ‘Mrs. Krent is really Mrs. Ward.’

‘Yes, I know that, Forde, and have known it all along, but this man made me hold my tongue, since he threatened to tell of my doings in South Africa.’

‘Your swindling,’ snapped Polwin triumphantly, ‘and when I go free I’ll tell how you smuggled diamonds.’

‘I was led into bad ways by you and Bowring,’ said Sir Hannibal in an angry tone; ‘all the business of the firm was shady. I don’t attempt to exculpate myself, Polwin, but Heaven knows that I have paid for my folly.’

‘It’s all over now, dear,’ whispered Anne softly; ‘say no more.’

‘Yes, I will,’ declared Sir Hannibal; ‘it is only right, Anne, that you should know the kind of man you have promised to marry. What our firm did in Africa won’t bear the light of day. I don’t think we were ever criminal, but we certainly sailed very near the wind.’

‘Not a criminal!’ scoffed the steward; ‘what about the murder of that Zulu for the big diamond you sold?’

‘Bowring killed him, as you well know,’ said Trevick immediately, ‘and Moolu knew also. It was Bowring that he threatened with the red skull, not me. But you chose to place the blame on me also for your own ends. However, there will be an end to all this. When I leave this mine I’ll give myself up and face the worst. I have sinned —; it is only right that I should be punished.’

‘When you leave this mine,’ said Forde determinedly, ‘you will know who killed Bowring and thus be absolutely free.’

‘And a pauper,’ cried Polwin; ‘what about that second will?’

‘A forgery by you,’ said the barrister quickly. ‘I have the will in my pocket at this moment. You got into the Grange and placed it in the desk and sent Mrs. Krent there to look therein for something on the chance that she would find it.’

‘It’s a true will.’

‘It is not. However, I’ll see Mr. and Mrs. Trubby, who are your witnesses, and we’ll soon see.’

‘Look here,’ whined the steward, seeing himself thwarted at every turn, ‘if I put things right will you give me five thousand a year and get me safely out of England?’

‘Yes,’ said Sir Hannibal quickly, but Forde stopped him.

‘No,’ said the barrister, ‘you’ll tell the truth about the will and the murder now, or else I’ll hand you over to Morgan.’

‘Go and get him, then,’ said Polwin impudently.

‘Dericka,’ said Oswald calmly, ‘go up to the ten-foot ladder and ascend. I dare say you’ll see Morgan and Anak on the cliffs. Go and —’

‘No, no!’ cried Polwin, rising with a shudder when he saw the girl move up the sloping way, ‘I’ll say what you like.’

‘Tell the truth, then.’

‘I know the truth,’ said Miss Stretton; ‘this man made Sir Hannibal hire him as steward with the intention of blackmailing him.’

‘He has done so,’ said Trevick despairingly, ‘and now —’

‘And now,’ said Anne, ‘he will do so no longer. You have suffered much, but peace is coming at last.’

‘With you as my dear wife,’ whispered the baronet.

Dericka shivered in the semi-darkness as she heard the grating and rolling of the pebbles on the ocean bed overhead.

‘Are we going to stop here all day?’ she asked imperiously; ‘why not take this man out of the mine, and then —’

‘No, no! I am afraid of Morgan,’ cried the steward grasping Forde’s arm convulsively. ‘Let me tell you all I know and then I can hide.’

‘Morgan knows the mine as well as you do,’ said Forde, shaking himself free; ‘you cannot escape him if he gets down here.’

‘Ah, but I can,’ said Polwin cunningly; ‘if I die, he dies also, and I don’t mind going in company,’ he sneered.

His livid face in the dim light was terrible, and the two women shivered at its malignity. Anxious to end the scene Forde shook the steward. ‘Tell everything from the beginning.’

‘There is no need,’ whimpered the man, sitting down and nursing his hand, which must have been very painful. ‘You know all about Africa, although Trevick hasn’t told you half the wicked things we did.’

‘You did,’ corrected Sir Hannibal; ‘you and Bowring. I want to know nothing save why you killed Bowring.’

‘I didn’t,’ contradicted Polwin sullenly, ‘although I wanted to.’

‘Why did you?’

‘Bowring kicked me out of the firm. He made the money and cheated me, as he did you, Trevick. I don’t see why you should be so very tender about his death. You would have killed him yourself: you said so in the library at the Dower House.’

‘How do you know that?’ asked Dericka quickly.

‘Miss Warry told me.’

‘When?’

‘Just after Trevick and Bowring came out of the library.’

‘Ah!’ said Sir Hannibal suddenly, ‘and then you placed the red skull in the fortune-telling tent?’

‘Yes. Miss Warry by telling me about the quarrel gave me an idea. When in Africa I fell in with Moolu, who was wild because he thought that you killed his son. He boiled down his son’s head and dyed it red and crowned it with silver, intending to work spells with it on you so that you might be miserable.’

‘Pooh!’ said Trevick with contempt; ‘and why didn’t he?’

‘Because I saved you,’ said the steward quickly; ‘I told Moolu that Bowring was guilty. Then Moolu sent a warning to Bowring that he would behold the skull of his victim, and that every time he saw it he would be in danger of death. On the third occasion he would surely die. Bowring was frightened and suffered like the devil.’

‘And how did the skull come into your possession?’ asked Anne.

‘Moolu gave it to me with a sum of money, and told me whenever I could to place it in Bowring’s room or office, or anywhere he could see it. I did so twice, and on each occasion Moolu managed to get Bowring shot at and stabbed slightly. I can tell you Bowring was in a great funk,’ added Polwin chuckling; ‘he started at every shadow, and did not dare to call his soul his own, owing to the suspense.’

‘What a brute you were to lend yourself to such a thing,’ said Dericka.

‘I was paid for it,’ retorted Polwin with barefaced impudence, ‘and I hated Bowring because he swindled me out of the money.’

‘Go on,’ said Forde, disgusted with the man’s manner; ‘when you put the skull in the tent you told Miss Warry what it meant?’

‘Yes, and I told her to prophesy that Bowring would die before he reached home.’

‘Then you did kill him?’

‘No, I did not.’

‘There is one flaw in your story, Mr. Polwin,’ said Forde after a moment’s reflection; ‘how came you to be in the house and able to deal with the skull when Sir Hannibal met you miles away, near the scene of the murder?’

‘I was not there,’ said Polwin quickly, ‘I was on the other side of the hill.’

‘True, but you had just to climb the hill in order to get to the scene and upset the stone.’

‘Quite so, but I never upset the stone. As to being in the vicinity, that is quite true. But I had a motor-bicycle as well as Trevick.’

‘I never knew that,’ said the baronet.

‘Of course you didn’t,’ sneered Polwin. ‘I kept that dark because it was necessary for me to get about the country rapidly and yet appear to be unable to do so. When anyone saw me on the machine I told him or her that it was yours. When you came towards me on your own I hid mine behind a stone, and then went on to Penrith Manor with that letter on yours.’

‘But why did you leave the Dower House after placing the skull in the tent?’ asked Forde, puzzled.

‘To fulfil Miss Warry’s prophecy,’ said Polwin brutally. ‘I never thought that Sir Hannibal would follow; but chance would have it so, and that was all the better for my schemes of entangling Trevick in the death business. I wanted to kill Bowring, knowing that he had left the money to Trevick!’

‘Who told you that?’

‘Bowring himself, as he guessed that I might try to kill him. He made a mistake telling me so much, as only when I knew that the money would go to you, Trevick, did I determine to get rid of Bowring. Our mutual friend, the millionaire,’ sneered the steward, ‘was a great fool at times in spite of his clever head for making money.’

‘Well, then,’ said Sir Hannibal, ‘it seems to me that you did intend to kill Bowring, and managed to do so.’

‘No. When you threatened him in the library with death Miss Warry told me. I made her promise to prophesy Bowring’s death, and then put the skull into the tent to warn him that he would die. Afterwards I took my motor, which I kept down the town, and went out to the quarries. I saw Anak, over whom I had great influence.’

‘In what way?’

‘Anak, as Bowring’s foreman, had embezzled some of the moneys with which he had to pay wages,’ said Polwin calmly. ‘He did not know that he was my son, and I did not dare to tell him, as I didn’t want that old witch on my tracks. As Polwin I kept out of her sight, and she never would have set eyes on my but for that cursed mischance of my losing my way in the mist this morning.’

‘Well, well!’ said Forde impatiently, ‘go on about Anak.’

‘I got hold of him and told him to upset the granite mass into the road after Penrith and Miss Stretton had passed so as to smash up Bowring’s car. When he went to his post I returned along the second road and met Sir Hannibal. Then, as I said, I concealed my own machine and went to Penrith Manor on his. Meanwhile Anak waited until he saw the motor of Bowring in sight, and then, placing a lever under the mass of granite, upset it on to the road.’

‘Ah! Then he was returning to the quarry when I met him?’ said Anne.

‘Quite so. The work being done, there was no need for him to stop on the spot. You heard the crash, Miss Stretton: had you waited you would have heard the motor smash.’

‘You beast!’ said Forde with horror, ‘you did intend to kill the man?’

‘I admitted that I did,’ said Polwin impatiently, ‘but the man was only stunned. The shot killed him.’

‘And who fired the shot?’

Polwin drew himself up and looked round with a chuckle. ‘Ah, now you must be prepared for a surprise,’ he said. ‘Anak told me later who did that, for Anak went back to see the smash, instead of remaining at the quarries as I instructed him to do.’

‘Yes, yes. But who fired the shot? Who killed Bowring?’

‘His own son,’ said Polwin calmly, ‘Morgan!’

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