The Crowned Skull, by Fergus Hume

Chapter 26

The Deluge

‘That is impossible,’ said Forde decisively, while Sir Hannibal stared at the steward as though he had horns growing out of his head.

‘It is the truth,’ asserted Polwin with a weary look; ‘why will you not believe me when I tell you the truth? Anak confessed to me that Morgan was at the quarries on that day, and had a revolver on him.’

‘Where did a lunatic get such a dangerous weapon?’

‘I gave it to him,’ said Polwin calmly. ‘Bowring, who was sick of his son’s vagaries, threatened to lock him up. Morgan, who was always terrified at such an idea, told me. I frightened him still more with tales of how lunatics were treated.’

‘Lying tales,’ said Forde, frowning, ‘since lunatics are treated with every care. You beast.’

‘I had to get Morgan into a proper frame of mind to kill Bowring, as I thought it would save trouble. He had the revolver for quite a month, yet never used it. But he was always afraid lest he should be suddenly seized and taken to an asylum. On that day at the quarries he told Anak and Anak said that he could come with him and see his father killed.’

‘Oh,’ cried Dericka, shuddering, ‘have these men any feelings!’

‘Oh, bother!’ said the steward; ‘you make me tired. Let me finish the story, as I’m sick of all this. Well, then, Morgan saw the smash of the motor as he remained behind when Anak went back to the quarries. Seeing his father rise, he saw that he was not dead, so he leaped down the bank and shot him. Then he ran up and found that Anak had come back. Anak took the revolver from him and told him to be silent, lest he should be hanged. That’s all!’

‘And quite enough,’ said Sir Hannibal, who was very pale, ‘does Mrs. Krent know of this?’

‘No; nor does young Mrs. Bowring. But I believe Mother Witch, as Morgan calls her, my precious first wife, knows. She held her peace for Morgan’s sake. But now that she knows I am her husband she will go to the police and tell the truth. I must get out of the country. But of one thing you may be sure, I’ll never be taken alive.’

Polwin shut his mouth and said no more. Forde turned to Sir Hannibal. ‘It seems to me, sir, that we can establish your innocence with the aid of Mrs. Carney. But it will be just as well to write down a statement in my pocket book and make this man sign it.’

Before Trevick could answer a cry was heard and then a wild shout. Polwin, with a whimper of fear, ran away into the darkness. All at once down the slope which led from the ten-foot ladder came Morgan waving his axe. His clothes had been torn in the scuffle with Anak, and his eyes glared with the light of madness.

Dericka and Anne both shrieked when they saw this madman rushing towards them.

After him lumbered Anak, shouting.

‘Hold him, hold him; he’s quite mad. He’s cut my arm with the axe; catch him, Mr. Forde.’

Morgan had foam on his lips and kept screeching like a wild cat. He dodged Anak as he came forward with his arms outstretched, and dashed out one of the candles.

‘Where’s Polwin — I want to kill Polwin! Let me chop him — let me — aaaah — aaaah —’ He gave a wild shriek as he felt himself again in Anak’s mighty grip. The two reeled against Anne, and she dropped her candle. There was only one left.

‘Dericka! Dericka! Come!’ cried Forde, grasping her hand; ‘lead me to this easy shaft and let us get out. Trevick —’

‘I’ll take Anne,’ said Sir Hannibal, whose candle was still giving light; ‘God help us all.’

And indeed there seemed to be much need for such help then. Here in the bowels of the earth, under the bed of the ocean, in almost complete darkness, and with a raving madman and murderer struggling with another criminal — as Anak truly was — the position was enough to unsettle the sanest human being.

Dericka did not lose her head. Grasping her lover’s hand she drew him swiftly up the slope on the way to the ten-foot ladder, whence they could easily regain the upper world. Sir Hannibal, holding the half-fainting Anne on his arm, tried to push past Anak and Morgan to go the same way, but they swayed from side to side and would not allow him to pass.

All at once they heard a noise like thunder, and a moment later Polwin came running out from the darkness towards the glimmer of the candle held by the baronet.

‘I’ve let the ocean in,’ he cried, ‘Morgan will drown, Morgan —’

The lunatic, hearing that hated voice, withdrew himself with a violent effort from Anak and threw himself like a wild beast of prey on the steward. At the same time a rush of water came through the levels from the back part of the mine. Without thinking, Trevick dragged Anne along the gallery which led to the shaft which was most difficult to climb. Noting his mistake, she wanted to turn back.

‘We can’t climb there — we can’t,’ she screamed, struggling.

‘We must — we must,’ panted the baronet, stumbling along over the uneven ground, which was now covered with salt water up to their ankles.

Polwin, screaming like a woman with terror, strove to get away from Morgan, and managed to grasp Anak’s arm. The giant, who had no desire to be drowned like a rat in a trap, shook him off. But Morgan, hearing the roar of the flood and feeling the water rising higher threw his arms round both men, shouting exultingly.

‘We’ll swim together in the water — we’ll swim — we’ll wash — Ha! Ha!’ His laughter echoed wildly through the galleries, and Anak swore, while his father wailed wildly, fighting all the time. A great wave came thundering through the level, and swept them along down the passage towards the flying forms of Sir Hannibal and Anne.

‘Leave me — leave me,’ cried Anne.

‘No! Courage! I’ll save you,’ gasped the baronet, and felt that he must risk all for this woman who risked so much for him. She stumbled and fell. He caught her in his arms, and with supernatural strength, as it seemed, waded waist deep in water to the shaft. Fortunately they were not far from it, and had just managed to get under the glimpse of daylight far overhead when wave after wave of the bitter incoming ocean came sweeping along the levels and past the shaft, filling that as they went along. And past them a writhing trio was carried, sucked down by the waters into the very depths of the mine. Morgan held father and son in a death grip, and Heaven only knows to what depths the bodies were sucked by the fierce power of the waves.

Sir Hannibal lifted Anne as high as he could. ‘Grasp that beam,’ he cried; ‘quick, quick, the water is gaining.’

With an effort of despair she stretched and swung herself on the decayed beam. Trevick followed, keeping as close to her as he could.

The water rose and rose with a sucking noise as though it wanted to drown them. By holding on to various projections and stone and beams the man and woman managed to float upward on the surface of the rising waters. Then, when nearly at the top, the water stopped rising, and the two clung to a great stone, expecting it every moment to give way.

Trevick shouted loudly. In a few minutes they saw two pale faces peering down. They were those of Forde and Dericka, and they could hear the girl cry aloud with joy.

‘We thought you were dead,’ she said gladly.

‘We will be soon. Help! help!’ gasped Sir Hannibal.

‘Wait — wait,’ shouted Forde, ‘there’s an old rusty chain dangling from the tower. Hold on!’

He ran away, and in ten minutes, which seemed like an eternity to the wretched pair, came back along with Dericka and a chain. Both the girl’s hands and those of her lover were bleeding from their efforts to detach the chain from a rusty old windlass. Forde let it down with the help of Dericka. Luckily it was not very heavy, and the links held fast. Anne caught at the chain, and, by holding on to the side of the shaft, was slowly drawn up. Then Sir Hannibal followed, and the two found themselves under the bright sky, saved from a most terrible death.

‘And the others?’ asked Dericka, trembling.

‘Dead!’ said Trevick solemnly.

Forde took off his cap. ‘I say what the judge says to a condemned prisoner,’ he said in a deep, slow voice —‘God have mercy on their souls.’

Naturally there was great excitement when the whole story became known at St. Ewalds. Afterwards reporters came down and a full account was sent to the London papers. It was found impossible to empty the mine.

Apparently Polwin, alias Krent, alias Carney, knowing the weakness of the crust between the mine and the sea, had broken it through in the hope of drowning Morgan, who he feared, and his own son, Hugh, who might have witnessed against him as being implicated in the murder of John Bowring. But the idiot had fully revenged himself on the man who had caused him to kill his father and set fire to the Grange. Far in the bowels of the mine, deep in salt water, the three bodies rested, and the Tregeagle mine became a grave.

It was Mrs. Carney who exonerated the baronet. She came forward regardless that she might be arrested as an accomplice after the fact, and related her story. It seems that she had never met Polwin — in spite of the man’s statement to Oswald at the ‘King’s Arms’— as he had always kept out of her way, until that fatal hour when he stumbled into her presence through having missed his way in the mist while seeking Anak. But the big quarryman had been forced through fear to confess to his mother that he had attempted the murder of Bowring, and that Morgan had really killed the millionaire. Far from being angry, Mrs. Carney commended her son for having got rid of a man she hated. But then Mrs. Carney hated everyone, although she could give no reason for doing so. The fact is, what with disappointment and a lonely life and a belief in her own powers of witchcraft, the woman’s mind had become unhinged. Her grievance against Sir Hannibal, as he proved, was entirely imaginary; and, indeed, since Bowring had been kind to her, she had no real reason to hate him. However, she thought she had, and so held her tongue. But hatred against the dead Polwin made her tell the truth, and Sir Hannibal, after being brought before a magistrate, was completely exonerated, and left the court, as the saying goes, without a stain on his character.

There was some talk of prosecuting Mrs. Carney, but the death of the quarryman finally completed the weakening of her mind. Instead of going to prison, she was placed in an asylum, and Trevick surrounded her with every comfort, as he reflected that only her testimony had saved his life.

It was certainly true that Polwin had confessed in the presence of Forde and Dericka and Anne. All the same, it was better that the final defence should come from an outsider. Mrs. Carney never recovered her wits, but died very shortly, after entering the asylum, cursing her husband, Bowring and Sir Hannibal with her last breath. The sole person she seemed to think kindly of was her son Anak, and it was his terrible death that finally unsettled her reason.

It had not been difficult to prove that the second will was a forgery. Mr. and Mrs. Trubby confessed under pressure that Polwin had forged the will and the name of the testator and had promised them three thousand pounds to go to America if they signed as witnesses. Forde caught the two as they were embarking, being sent post haste out of the country by uneasy consciences, and took them to Gratton. After they had made a signed deposition to the effect that the second will was forged, the lawyer let them go, and they departed without a penny for all their rascality. So the money remained with Dericka after all.

‘But we’ll divide it,’ said the girl, when Sir Hannibal was again free and restored to the good graces of his fellow-townsmen. —‘You, papa, will take thirty thousand a year and marry Anne. Oswald and myself will take the rest, and —’

‘And become husband and wife,’ said Forde kissing her; ‘but what about Mrs. Krent, my dear?’

‘I’ll give Mrs. Krent and Jenny what they want — two thousand a year.’

‘Quite right, Dericka,’ said Sir Hannibal, with a trace of his old pompous manner; ‘you will give one thousand and I a similar amount.’

Great was the joy of poor Mrs. Krent and Jenny when they heard this. They were by the burning of the Grange homeless, and by the death of Bowring and Morgan friendless.

‘But it’s just as well, Miss,’ said the housekeeper, when everything was settled and she came to take leave of her benefactress; ‘we would have had to put poor Morgan in an asylum sooner or later, and then the poor creature would have died. I was fond of him.’

‘And so was I,’ said Jenny, who had been weeping. ‘If Morgan hadn’t been worried by his father and Mr. Polwin he would never have been so wicked.’

‘He’ll be judged differently to a sane person,’ said Dericka gently.

‘I’m sure I hope so,’ said Mrs. Krent; ‘however, he’s gone, and we haven’t even the satisfaction of burying him, seeing he’s in that dreadful mine. Oh, deary me, how awful it all has been.’

‘You have much to be thankful for, Mrs. Krent.’

‘Mrs. Ward, my dear; and that’s what I’m mainly thankful for. To think that such a terrible man will never bother me again is enough to send me crazy with joy. Jenny and me with our two thousand, thanks to you, dear Miss Trevick, will go to South Africa, and I dare say Jenny will marry again.’

‘Perhaps you will also, Mrs. Krent — I mean Mrs. Ward.’

‘Never, my dear; never,’ said the stout woman firmly. ‘I’ve had enough of men to last me for the rest of my life,’ and apparently she held to this, for although Jenny did marry, Mrs. Ward, formerly Mrs. Krent, continued to live single for the rest of her life. And that life, after all the storms Polwin had caused, was singularly peaceful.

Miss Warry was exposed for her lying prophecy, and might have been punished for knowing that Polwin intended to kill Bowring but that she fled to South America and changed her name.

Dericka always wondered how so meek a woman could have behaved so badly. But, then, it was the same with Miss Warry as it was with Mrs. Carney: both of them were women scorned, and all the world knows what Congreve said on that subject.

Later on Sir Hannibal married Anne Stretton, and he set about rebuilding the Grange. Dericka did not marry Forde for some months, as she wanted to see her father settled with Lady Trevick before leaving him. The trouble had done Sir Hannibal good, and he was sincerely repentant for all his shady doings in Africa. Needless to say, Anne made him a splendid wife, and even Miss Quinton was induced to change her opinion of the lady.

‘Yet, after all,’ said the new Lady Trevick, when she and Dericka were out watching the building of the new Grange, ‘I was an adventuress, you know, my dear.’

‘You are the best woman in the world,’ said Dericka, kissing here. ‘Few women would have done for my poor father what you have done.’

‘He saved my life, my dear.’

‘In order to gain the best wife in the world. By the way, Anne, what about Mr. Penrith?’

Lady Trevick coloured.

‘I think I treated him rather badly, my dear Dericka,’ she said in a low tone; ‘he has gone to America, and I hear that he is about to marry an heiress.’

‘In that case, when he consoles himself so quickly, I don’t think you need blame yourself very much,’ said Dericka dryly, ‘but here come papa and Oswald.’

Sir Hannibal, now looking quite his old self, came forward and greeted his wife with a smile. Then he carried her off to see about a new staircase upon which he wanted her opinion.

Left alone with Dericka, Oswald suddenly spoke.

‘Come down to the Tregeagle mine, Dericka.’

She drew back. ‘Why do you want to go to that horrid place?’

‘I’ll tell you when we get there.’

Dericka looked at him doubtfully, then curiosity got the better of her and she took his arm. They went down the high road and down the stony watercourse which led to the grey tower. It was a fine spring day, and Dericka enjoyed the walk. But she changed colour when she saw the scene of their misadventure, and drew back from the cliffs.

‘Oh, Oswald, to think that we might have been drowned had we not escaped by that easy shaft.’

‘As it was, your father and his wife were nearly drowned,’ said the barrister cheerfully; ‘come down, my dear.’

Still wondering, Dericka descended carefully. They looked into both shafts and found them pools of salt sea water. Then Oswald made Dericka sit down and went poking industriously amongst the rocks and grass. Finally he gave a cry of satisfaction, and came to Dericka bearing what looked like a red ball.

‘Oh,’ she said, turning pale and starting to her feet, ‘the Death’s Head! Where did you find it?’

‘In the herbage yonder, that is why I brought you down. I fancied that Morgan might have brought it down here when he left Mrs. Carney’s hut. I have searched several times, but without success. You have brought me good luck, dearest.’

‘And now?’ asked Dericka, eyeing the uncanny object with repulsion.

‘Now we’ll drop it into the mine,’ suiting the action to the word.

‘But why did you seek it at all?’ asked the girl, when the horrible scarlet, silver-crowned skull disappeared into the shaft.

‘We are to be married next week, my dear,’ he said seriously, ‘and I want every vestige of this terrible affair buried out of sight along with the bodies of those who worked so much ill.’

‘And then we’ll never speak of it any more,’ said Dericka hurriedly.

‘No.’ He pointed to the water in the shaft which had so nearly engulfed Sir Hannibal and Anne Stretton: ‘There is the last of the Death’s Head. We’ll never speak of it or talk of it again. But, after all, Dericka,’ he added, slipping his hand into hers, ‘it did bring us a certain amount of luck. We have thirty thousand a year, remember.’

‘We have each other,’ said Miss Trevick fondly, ‘but come away, Oswald; let us climb the cliff and leave the past behind us.’

They set their faces towards the future and climbed into the gay sunshine which was henceforth to gild their lives.

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