The Crowned Skull, by Fergus Hume

Chapter 6

Mrs. Krent’s Diplomacy

‘Money does not bring happiness!’

Sir Hannibal found speedily that this proverb was certainly true in his case. Hitherto, since he had arrived from Africa to settle in St. Ewalds his life had been fairly smooth, in spite of everlasting money troubles; but now that the very things that used to worry him were eliminated he found himself in stormy waters. Gossip, as Miss Warry had predicted, had magnified the unsubstantiated accusation of the housekeeper, and there was a growing feeling that Sir Hannibal in some way was concerned in the murder.

Of course, no one was bold enough, or brave enough, to come forward and accuse him in so many words. If that had been the case the baronet might have been able to put a stop to the scandal by a direct denial.

But everywhere people were talking about the very opportune death of the millionaire, which had placed a pauper gentleman in receipt of a surprisingly good income. Round the tea-tables of spinsters, in the drawing-rooms of married ladies, in public-houses, and at the corners of streets Sir Hannibal’s character and actions and appearance and past were amply discussed. No one could exactly make out how he was concerned in the crime, as assuredly he had been present in his own grounds about the time the murder had been committed. All the same, it was hinted that if not the actual perpetrator, he was at least an accomplice, and had hired a man to place the block of granite in the path of the motor. More, to make sure, he had instructed his accomplice to shoot Bowring should the first attempt on the man’s life fail, as it had done. The motive for the commission of the crime was to be found in the inheritance. Sir Hannibal was notoriously in want of money and had murdered Bowring in an indirect manner to obtain it.

‘It is all nonsense,’ said Miss Stretton, who was one of those who defended the baronet. ‘Sir Hannibal is incapable of committing such a wicked deed.’

She said this to Mr. Penrith, who was not exactly the person to whom such a remark should have been made seeing that he was jealous of the too fascinating baronet.

‘I don’t see why he shouldn’t,’ growled Penrith sulkily; ‘anyone would do anything for money.’

‘You would,’ said Miss Stretton with a glance of disdain.

‘And so would Trevick. Everyone knew that he was desperately hard up. Of course you defend him. You want to marry him.’

‘He wants to marry me,’ she rejoined with a gratified laugh, ‘but I am not quite sure that I will accept him.’

‘Anne, when you know that I love you.’

‘My dear Ralph, you are very nice on occasions, and you are not bad-looking. All the same you have very little money, and your mother is not inclined to surrender her position as mistress of your house.’

‘She will if you marry me,’ urged the love-lorn squire.

Miss Stretton shook her head.

‘Your mother is not fond of me,’ was her reply, ‘and seemed pleased when I left the house. I am only a poor artist, and she doesn’t think me good enough to marry a Penrith.’

‘I think you good enough. Anne, you must marry me.’

‘No. That is — I can’t say definitely at present.’

Penrith was white with rage.

‘That is because you want to marry the old man.’

‘Oh, he’s not so very old, and he is wonderfully well-preserved. Also, my dear Ralph, he has sixty thousand a year, remember.’

‘Gained by murder.’

‘You have no right to say that,’ she said sharply.

‘I’ll say what I like, and do what I like.’

‘You brute; a nice husband you would make.’

‘No, no!’ Penrith saw that he had gone too far. ‘You can guide me in any way you like, Anne. Chuck this old duffer and marry me. We’ll be jolly happy together.’

‘H’m, I have my doubts of that,’ she replied. Then, so as not to lose him, for Miss Stretton was a lady who liked to have two strings to her bow, she added, ‘I can’t give you an answer yet.’

‘I see,’ snarled Penrith, his healthy red face growing scarlet, ‘you will marry me if Sir Hannibal refuses you.’

‘What do you mean by that?’ she asked in a spirited manner. ‘Let me tell you, Mr. Penrith, that I am not a woman to be refused. Sir Hannibal wants to marry me. I have reason to know that,’ and her hand slipped into the pocket of her dress.

Penrith’s eyes followed.

‘He had written, asking you?’

‘Perhaps,’ she answered significantly. ‘At all events, I have not made up my mind to accept him. Perhaps,’ she cast a cajoling look at her cross lover, ‘I may become Mrs. Penrith after all — on conditions.’

‘Conditions!’ Penrith stared with open mouth.

Anne laid a slender hand on his arm.

‘My dear Ralph,’ said she in a grave voice, ‘there is a lot of gossip about Sir Hannibal which I firmly believe to be false. I heard that you have said things about him also. Now, if we are to be friends, you must hold your tongue.’

‘That is the condition, is it?’ said Penrith, his face turning pale with anger. ‘Well then, I’ll tell the truth about Sir Hannibal, and to the police. Then he’ll hang, and you’ll marry me.’

‘Then you have been saying something against him?’

‘Yes; because I know that you want to marry him, and I have made up my mind that you shan’t. Sir Hannibal is guilty.’

Anne gasped.

‘How can you be sure? What do you know?’

‘I know from a chap called Polwin —’

‘That’s Sir Hannibal’s steward!’

‘Yes. Josiah Polwin says that immediately after we — you and I— left the fete on that day that Sir Hannibal came after us on a motor-bicycle.’

‘Ridiculous! You drove slowly. He would soon have caught us up: yet we did not even see him.’

‘No, because he went another road.’

‘Then he could not have come after us,’ said Anne Stretton, crisply.

‘Polwin says that he did. At all events, he certainly left the Dower House on his motor-bike, and took the direction of the quarries. They are near the spot of the accident’— Penrith sneered as he pronounced the word —‘and I believe that Sir Hannibal went there and murdered Bowring; then he remounted his bike and got back to the fete before it was over. He could easily do the whole business in an hour and a half — if not in less time.’

‘I don’t believe it,’ said Miss Stretton, ‘and I shall ask Sir Hannibal myself, Mr. Penrith. He is my friend, and I won’t let him be traduced.’

The young man sneered.

‘The future Lady Trevick doesn’t want her husband to be hanged.’

‘There is no danger of his being hanged.’

‘Yes, there is; and in any case he’ll have to leave St. Ewalds. Feeling is running high against him, and he’ll be mobbed if he stops.’

This was undeniably the case, as Anne knew. She wondered if, after all, Sir Hannibal had murdered Bowring. On a quick motor-bicycle — and she knew that he was a good rider — he could have rapidly reached the spot near the quarries where the death had taken place. There was another road by which he could have come, and so have avoided her and Ralph driving in the dog-cart. Long before Bowring could arrive in his car he would be on the high bank, able, with the aid of a lever, to topple the granite mass on to the road. And after shooting the man he could easily have clambered up the bank again to run across the moor to the other road, where his bicycle was probably waiting. In twenty minutes after the commission of the crime he could be back in the Dower House grounds exhibiting himself to his guests, and so be ready with an alibi. Things looked assuredly very black against the baronet.

Miss Stretton was a lady who made up her mind promptly. She was, as Dericka surmised, an adventuress, and was not scrupulous as to ways so long as she attained her ends. In this instance she was rather pleased to hear of Sir Hannibal’s peril, as it enabled her to pose as his friend — to rescue him, as it were — and thus gain his eternal gratitude. He was quite willing to marry her, she knew, and even if he had committed the murder she cared very little so long as she became mistress of sixty thousand a year. Penrith was pretty well off and very deeply in love with her, but his mother was not friendly, and her position would be uncomfortable. Besides, Penrith might kick over the traces after the marriage, and had the makings of a brute in him. Sir Hannibal was a gentleman, a baronet, a wealthy man, and had an easy temper. He was the man she wished to marry; therefore, after the conversation with Penrith, Anne determined to interview the baronet and place him on his guard by telling the tale which Polwin had related to Penrith. Then she would get Sir Hannibal to retreat to London and there marry her. They could go abroad for a few years until the scandal of the crime had blown over, and all would be well.

Having thus arranged her plans, Miss Stretton prepared to carry them out. Seizing an opportunity when she knew that Dericka would be absent, for she did not wish to meet that very sharp young lady, Miss Stretton called at the Dower House.

‘Is Sir Hannibal at home?’ she asked when the door was opened.

‘Yes, Miss,’ replied the servant, ‘but he is engaged just now.’

‘I wish to see him. Will he be long?’

‘I cannot say, Miss. Mrs. Krent is with him.’

‘Oh,’ said Anne, wondering what Mrs. Krent was saying to the baronet; ‘well, then, I’ll wait. I am going to London, and wish to see Sir Hannibal before I leave St. Ewalds.’

The servant, knowing that she was a great friend of his master’s, admitted her at once, and conducted her to the drawing-room. It was a small apartment, like all the rooms in the Dower House, and had two French windows opening on to a small terrace. Approaching the window to admire the view of the beach and bay, Anne heard the murmur of two voices close at hand. Then she recollected that the library was next to the drawing-room, and likewise had windows opening on to the terrace. A peep round the corner showed her that one of these had been left open, and the clearness of the voices assured her that the speakers were very injudiciously near the window. Anne could hear comparatively plainly what was being said, and, taking her chance, sat down cautiously to listen. One of the speakers was Sir Hannibal, as she recognised his refined and pleasant voice. The other, from the coarse, female tones, she presumed was that of Mrs. Krent. Not thinking that they had a listener in the next room, the host and his visitor spoke tolerably loud. Anne listened with all her ears.

If she could have seen through the wall she would have beheld Mrs. Krent seated near the desk, which was close by the open window. That good lady was arrayed in the deepest black, but apparently not liking so sombre a garb, she had smartened herself by adding a yellow shawl and a quantity of silver ornaments. Also, she carried a red leather bag and a green parasol, which contrasted oddly with the crape on her dress. Her face was redder than ever, and she frequently wiped it with a mauve handkerchief. Sir Hannibal, refined and well-bred, resented the presence of this common-looking woman in his library. But there was no help for it as Mrs. Krent had come on business and was determined to have her say. At the point of the conversation when the voices first struck on Miss Stretton’s ear Mrs. Krent was volubly urging her claims for money.

‘I’ve been with Bowring for twenty years,’ she declared in her rough voice, ‘and he always promised to look after me.’

‘He left you a hundred a year,’ said the baronet smoothly.

‘That’s nothing. I look to you to give me one thousand.’

‘What! Mrs. Krent, and after accusing me —’

‘Sir’— Mrs. Krent rose and folded her podgy hands. ‘I ask your pardon for saying what I did. I was not myself when I spoke. I am quite sure that you had nothing to do with the matter.’

‘Good! Then perhaps, Mrs. Krent, you will spread that story and help me to regain the popularity which I seem to have lost.’

‘I’m sure I’ve heard nothing against you, sir.’

‘That is not true,’ replied Sir Hannibal quietly. ‘Everyone seems to be under the impression that I murdered Bowring, and that impression, Mrs. Krent, must be put down to your wild accusation.’

‘I’m sure I’m very sorry,’ faltered Mrs. Krent, who seemed to be anxious to propitiate the baronet. ‘I only spoke wildlike; although, sir,’ she added with emphasis, ‘and I wouldn’t say this to everyone, Bowring was afraid that you would kill him.’

Trevick, who was trimming his nails, did not look up.

‘Bowring had no reason to think such a thing,’ he said slowly. ‘It is true that we did business in Africa together, and that he did not treat me over well. But he has made amends by leaving the money to me.’

‘And folk think you killed him for the money, sir.’

‘They are wrong; I never left this place. Your story, Mrs. Krent —’

‘I’m sorry I said anything,’ she interrupted hastily; ‘folks should not have taken me at my word. I’ll tell every one that you have nothing to do with the murder.’

‘Do you know who has, Mrs. Krent?’

‘No, sir; no more than a baby unborn. But if you want to stop folks’ mouths, sir, you can do it.’

‘In what way, Mrs. Krent?’

‘By marrying your daughter to Morgan. Then the money will come to the rightful heir and you’ll be praised.’

‘I would be blamed, if I allowed my child to marry a lunatic.’

‘Oh, no, oh, no,’ protested the housekeeper, fanning herself with her handkerchief. ‘Morgan ain’t so very bad. He’s easily guided, though I don’t deny that he has his bad times. Me and Jenny are fond of him in a way. What are you going to do about him, Sir Hannibal?’

‘I haven’t thought about the matter yet,’ said the baronet fretfully, and looking weary. ‘I am very much troubled over all these rumours which accuse me of the crime. But I cannot adopt the course you suggest. Dericka cannot possibly marry Morgan.’

‘Well, sir’— Mrs. Krent spoke in a musing tone, but her little red eyes glanced furtively at Trevick’s face —‘suppose you give out that Miss — Miss — I mean you daughter, sir — will marry Morgan, folk would then shut up. I’ll do my best to stop the scandal.’

‘My daughter cannot marry Morgan,’ said the baronet again.

‘You can say that she will,’ urged Mrs. Krent; ‘only to stop folks talking, sir.’

‘What do you mean?’ asked Trevick, and the question was mentally asked also by the unseen listener.

Neither Sir Hannibal nor Miss Stretton could understand this mysterious conversation of the housekeeper, who seemed to have, as the saying is, something up her sleeve. She smiled significantly at Trevick’s question.

‘If you’ll make it right for me, sir, I’ll make it right for you.’

‘Again I must ask your meaning, Mrs. Krent.’

‘See here, sir.’ Mrs. Krent spread out her podgy hands. ‘I’m a plain woman, who ain’t been well treated. If you’ll swear on this,’ she pulled out a small Bible, ‘that you’ll let me have one thousand a year I’ll put things right for you.’

‘Do you mean to say that you know who killed Bowring?’ asked Trevick, pushing back his chair violently.

‘No, I don’t,’ retorted Mrs. Krent tartly; ‘but if you’ll swear to give me the one thousand a year and then announce that your daughter is to marry Morgan you’ll get back your reputation.

‘I don’t see how —’

‘And you won’t, sir, until you swear.’

She held out the book.

Anxious to know what she meant, and really in a dilemma as to how to reinstate himself in the eyes of St. Ewalds, the baronet hastily snatched at the Bible. ‘I’ll give you one thousand a year if you put things straight,’ said he, then added a solemn oath and kissed the book.

‘Now, then,’ said Mrs. Krent, taking it back again with a smiling face, ‘you can say that Miss Trevick’s to marry Morgan, and folk will never believe that you killed his father.’

‘My daughter must not marry Morgan,’ said Sir Hannibal for the third time.

‘She can’t,’ cried Mrs. Krent, triumphantly, ‘for Morgan’s married already, and to my daughter Jenny.

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