The Crowned Skull, by Fergus Hume

Chapter 7

Retreat

‘Morgan married already; and to your daughter Jenny?’ repeated Sir Hannibal wonderingly, then his face cleared. ‘That will certainly make matters easier.’

‘Of course, sir. Miss Trevick can’t marry the poor boy, seeing he’s my daughter’s husband. So you see, sir, if you appear willing to let Morgan, who is the rightful heir, have the money by marrying your daughter people will say that you are innocent.’

‘I don’t quite follow you there,’ responded the baronet dryly. ‘However, people will certainly see that I wish to do what is right if I announce a possible marriage. Nevertheless, if such could take place I should refuse to make such an announcement.’

‘It can never take place,’ cried Mrs. Krent eagerly, ‘seeing that Morgan is my son-inlaw. Give me and him and Mrs. Bowring, my daughter Jenny, one thousand a year and the Grange to live in and I’ll soon put it about that you, sir, are as innocent as an unborn babe.’

‘The Grange? Mrs. Krent, you are adding to your bargain.’

Like all ill-bred women, Mrs. Krent easily lost her temper. Now that she had secured so much she appeared to think that she could do what she pleased with the easy-going baronet, and rose in a fine rage. ‘I’m sure it’s little enough I ask,’ she cried harshly. ‘Morgan is the son of Bowring, and should have the whole sixty thousand a year. Why he should have left it to you, sir, I don’t know, but Bowring always was a scoundrel. But if you don’t give in to my fair demands I’ll make it my business to bring home the murder to you.’

‘Nonsense; that is quite impossible.’

‘Nothing is impossible to one who is wronged,’ said Mrs. Krent, doggedly, ‘and I wasn’t born yesterday, let me tell you, sir. Be my friend, and it will be better for you; get my back up, and —’ Here Mrs. Krent gasped, clenched her podgy fist, and looked volumes.

Sir Hannibal thought it best to temporise. Certainly the fact that Morgan was already married would help him greatly, as then he could announce that Dericka was to become Morgan’s wife. By this statement it would appear that the money had been left on such a condition by the dead man, and so any possible motive for Sir Hannibal committing the crime would be removed. All he had to do was to announce the possible marriage, and then Mrs. Krent would appear to state that it was too late. Afterwards Sir Hannibal reflected that he would play the patron to the extent of one thousand a year; but he was not very anxious to give up the Grange as he wished to live there himself.

‘One thing at a time, Mrs. Krent,’ he said judiciously. ‘You shall have the money, and meanwhile can live at the Grange until I make up my mind what course to pursue.’

Mrs. Krent nodded, and prepared to take her leave.

‘And if I were you, sir, I should go away to London at once,’ she said seriously.

‘Why should I do that, Mrs. Krent?’

‘It’s market day,’ said the housekeeper, ‘and folks is talking of you having had a finger in this murder. If you went through the town you would be mobbed; and I shouldn’t be surprised,’ added Mrs. Krent judiciously, ‘if the market folk came up to this very house. The quarrymen were fond of Mr. Bowring, who paid them well, and they’d not make much ado about ducking you in the sea, sir.’

Sir Hannibal gasped.

‘How utterly preposterous,’ he said indignantly. ‘If I were guilty, if there were any feasible evidence against me, the police would assuredly have arrested me long since. That I am free and respected should show these misguided men that I have had nothing to do with the lamented death of my friend.’

‘Free, yes,’ sniffed Mrs. Krent, ‘seeing as you are rich and titled, there being one law for the rich and another for the poor. But respected, sir? — just you go down to St. Ewalds and see. However, it’s none of my business. I go now, sir.’

‘One moment, Mrs. Krent. Where did this marriage take place?’

‘Ah, no you don’t, sir. Until I get that money I hold my tongue. You can’t prove anything without me, and in spite of your oath, I don’t trust you over-much. I believe that you do know something about this murder, but for Jenny’s sake I don’t give you up. She wants money as Mrs. Bowring, and you shall supply it, sir.’

Sir Hannibal gasped again with indignation, but Mrs. Krent swiftly removed herself from the room. The baronet was minded to follow her and insist that she should prove her accusation, but on second thoughts he reflected that such a course would be undignified, and remained where he was, thinking deeply.

His thoughts were not pleasant. He was well aware that if an inquiry were made into his past, and all his doings in Africa with Bowring were made public, that people would be more than ever certain that he had committed the crime. He shuddered to think of the publicity of the whole affair, and wondered if what Mrs. Krent proposed would really close the mouths of the people. Ever since he had inherited the property he had been aware of the sullen looks which greeted him when he went down the town, but it had never struck him that the people would proceed to violence. Yet, when he reflected on the rough characters of the Cornish folk, and their quick tempers, he saw well that it would be best to refrain from going into St. Ewalds, or on to the moors where the quarrymen lived. The fortnight which had elapsed since the reading of the will had changed his life. Formerly he had been poor, but respected; now he was rich, and suspected. Even as he thought of these things he heard in the distance a sullen roar, which seemed to come from the direction of the town. At once starting to his feet, he wondered if what Mrs. Krent had said was true, and whether the quarrymen would come to assault him in his own house, so as to be revenged for the death of their kind landlord. But the idea was too absurd, and he brushed it aside with a rather quavering laugh. All the same, he wished that Dericka were at hand to assist him with her common sense.

It was then that Providence, as the baronet afterwards believed, sent him assistance. It came in the shape of Miss Stretton, who stole round by the terrace and presented herself at the window. She also had heard the distant roar, repeated more than once, and from rumours she had heard was not at all sure but what the prophecy of Mrs. Krent would be realised very speedily. It was all the better for her plans, as she could rescue Sir Hannibal and thereby gain his eternal gratitude.

‘Miss Stretton — Anne,’ said Sir Hannibal, hurrying towards the window, where she stood with one finger pressed to her lips. ‘What good fairy sent you here?’

‘My love for you brought me,’ said Anne, and stepping into the room she closed the window to shut out another distant roar like the sound of surf on a rocky shore.

‘Love?’ In spite of his perplexities Sir Hannibal opened his arms. ‘Oh, my dear, then you will marry me?’

Miss Stretton brought out of her pocket a letter — the very same she had carried when Penrith’s jealous eyes had wandered to where it was hidden.

‘You really mean this for a proposal?’ she asked.

‘Is it not plain enough?’

‘Oh, yes. You ask me to be your wife, but you don’t say when.’

‘At this very moment, my darling — as soon as you can marry me. We can go to the church this day, if you like.’

‘In St. Ewalds?’

‘Why not?’

Anne seated herself and, checking the caress with which Sir Hannibal would have enveloped her, she raised a finger.

‘I was in the next room while you were speaking with Mrs. Krent,’ she said gravely. ‘I did not intend to listen, but by chance I did overhear a few words!’ This was a guarded way by which she hinted that she had overheard the whole conversation.

‘I do not mind,’ cried the baronet impetuously, ‘there will be no secrets between us. You, then, know that Mrs. Krent accuses me?’

‘Yes; but I don’t believe it.’

‘Believe it!’ echoed Sir Hannibal in a white fury; ‘of course not. I never had anything to do with the death. I was here all the time; that is, I walked on the beach after you departed on that day, so as to think of your sweet face, my own love.’

Miss Stretton had half a mind to mention about Polwin’s tale of the motor-bicycle, but on second thoughts she refrained. Explanations could come later. Meanwhile she was anxious to get Sir Hannibal away as soon as possible in case the quarrymen should come up to the house, as a still continued roar told her they would.

Sir Hannibal, taken up with admiring her face, and never dreaming of peril, paid no attention to the ominous sounds.

‘Of course I know that you are innocent,’ she said quickly; ‘all the same, people think that you are guilty, and the quarrymen openly say that they will assault this house.’

‘Nonsense, my dear.’ Sir Hannibal looked sceptical. ‘England is a country of law and order. In the wilds such a thing might take place, but here —’ He shrugged his handsome shoulders.

Anne threw open the window, and now the sound of angry voices could easily be distinguished.

‘Hearken,’ she said, ‘they are in the avenue.’

‘But the police — the police?’

‘The police can do very little against an angry mob of quarrymen.’

‘I’ll have the rascals locked up,’ said the baronet fiercely.

He was not at all afraid as his courage was too high to be daunted by a riot.

‘It is ridiculous that I should be accused of being concerned in Bowring’s murder. I shall address them,’ and he moved towards the open window as several large men emerged from the belt of trees encircling the lawns of the mansion.

Anne drew him back and quickly closed the window.

‘No,’ she said sharply; ‘it would be useless to argue with men inflamed with drink. Sir Hannibal, listen. It is just as well that I came up. Mr. Penrith lent me his dog-cart for the day; I’ll go down and get it and drive round the back road which runs past this house. Slip out and join me, and I’ll drive you to the Gwynne Station. There you can board the London express.’

‘But by that I’ll admit myself guilty,’ cried the baronet in dismay.

‘It’s better to admit that than to be killed,’ retorted Anne; ‘and the quarrymen are in no humour to listen to excuses.’

‘The police will arrest me.’

‘All the better; you will be safe in gaol. Come, Sir Hannibal,’ she added impatiently; ‘it is either London or prison. Will you come?’

The baronet thought for a few moments, and his decision was assisted by a stone which smashed one of the windows.

‘I’ll come,’ he said hurriedly; ‘where am I to meet you?’

‘In the back road in five minutes,’ she said quickly. ‘Don’t wait to write to your daughter; I’ll come back and explain. Get away to the back at once; I’ll meet the people.’

Sir Hannibal saw that discretion was the better part of valour, and although it went sorely against his grain to fly he deemed it was best to do so until he could explain his innocence under the shield of the law. He therefore snatched a hasty kiss from Anne, and, putting on an overcoat and a soft hat, went into the back parts of the house, where palefaced servants were congregated. A word or two pacified these, and then their master slipped out to the back road, where he waited uneasily for the dog-cart. Every moment he expected to hear the sounds of his house being smashed, or to see and infuriated mob of labourers pouring round the corner to kill him. It was a very uncomfortable quarter of an hour.

But Anne Stretton proved to be quite equal to the occasion. She stepped boldly out on to the terrace through the broken window and faced the crowd of angry-looking men. These looked surprised when they saw her, and many voices demanded that Sir Hannibal should show himself.

‘Sir Hannibal is not here,’ said Anne coolly, for she knew that she was quite safe; ‘he has gone to the Grange.’

‘We’ve just come from that direction, Miss,’ said a rough voice.

‘He went by the other road, to see Mr. Morgan Bowring.’

The crowd paused. It might be true, and if this was the case it would not be worth while to risk gaol by breaking into an empty house. But one big man, quite a giant in stature — the same who had already spoken — came forward.

‘You know Sir Hannibal, Miss,’ he said hoarsely; ‘tell us if he killed the master.’

‘Certainly not,’ replied Anne, holding her head very high and speaking with the utmost assurance; ‘but how do you know that I am acquainted with Sir Hannibal?’

‘You come out of the house, Miss,’ said the giant with a grin, ‘and I know you well, Miss. Don’t you remember how I found the sketchbook you had lost on the moors?’

Anne looked attentively at the big man.

‘Anak?’ she said with a flash of memory. ‘Yes, I remember you. We talked about Sir Hannibal; you are the foreman of the quarry labourers he employs?’

‘Mr. Bowring employs us, Miss,’ said Anak heavily; ‘Sir Hannibal let us and the quarry to Mr. Bowring.’

‘I remember. And you speak better than your fellows, because you have been to school, and to —’

Here her speech was interrupted by a growl from the mob, who were weary of waiting. Anak was their leader, so Anne, seeing that no time was to be lost if Sir Hannibal’s house was to be saved from destruction, spoke hastily. ‘Take these men away, Anak.’

‘They want Sir Hannibal, Miss.’

‘You will find him at the Grange.’

Anak looked at her hard, and appeared to believe her. With a loutish gesture he turned away and addressed his fellow-labourers. In a few words he pointed out to them that the police would shortly be on the spot, and that Sir Hannibal was at his ancestral residence on the moors. The speech had a good effect, for in a few moments the mob of big, uncouth men were running down the avenue again, leaving the Dower House untouched save for the one broken window. Anne followed and found Penrith’s dog-cart at the gate in charge of the groom.

‘You can tell Mr. Penrith that I will bring back the cart in two hours to the hotel,’ she said.

‘Don’t you want me to come, Miss?’ asked the groom, hesitating.

Anne whipped up the horse. ‘There is no necessity. I am going for a drive and will return in two hours.’ She was wise enough not to mention her destination in case it should be suspected that she had aided the retreat of Sir Hannibal.

Shortly she found the baronet, with his hat well pulled over his eyes and muffled up in his long coat. No words passed between them, but Sir Hannibal swung himself on to the trap at once. In another minute they were driving along the almost deserted road which led to Gwynne, a local station some six miles distant from St. Ewalds. Only when they were clear of the town did the baronet speak.

‘I cannot thank you sufficiently for your help,’ he said gratefully.

‘I am only too glad,’ responded Miss Stretton, looking at him with her bold, black eyes in a rather quizzical manner; ‘but you must think me very forward to come and overhear your private conversation.’

‘As I said, my dear girl, there need be no secrets between us,’ replied Sir Hannibal eagerly, and would have possessed himself of her hand but that she was holding the reins. ‘Now that the ice is broken between us, and you know that I love you, there is nothing you will not know. And our marriage?’

‘I have not thought of that yet,’ said Anne thoughtfully. The fact being that she did not intend to finally commit herself until she could be quite sure that Sir Hannibal had the money. She had no idea of marrying a pauper, however easy-going and well-preserved he might be.

‘Why cannot we get married while I am in town?’

‘What about your daughter?’ questioned Anne in her turn.

‘Dericka?’ Sir Hannibal waved his hand vaguely. ‘Oh, she will be quite pleased. She likes you, my dear Anne.’

‘I don’t think she does,’ responded the lady dryly. ‘However, she cannot prevent our marriage.’

‘Certainly not; I am my own master.’

‘Where is she now?’

‘She went out to see a friend and said that she would not be back until late.’

‘I fear she will be surprised to find that you have gone.’

Sir Hannibal shrugged his shoulders.

‘It cannot be helped, and I daresay she will soon learn that the cause of my flight — for that it is — is due to the feeling against me in St. Ewalds. By the way, have those rascally quarrymen sacked the house?’

‘Oh, no. I told them that you were at the Grange, and they have gone there to look for you.’

‘How clever you are. My dear girl, you are one in a thousand. I have always admired and loved you.’

Further compliments of this sort passed between them as they drove to Gwynne Station. Anne was certain that she now had Sir Hannibal fast, and looked forward to becoming the mistress of sixty thousand a year. She had some qualms of conscience regarding Penrith, whom she had led to believe would be her husband; but she dismissed these when she thought of the brilliant future before her. On the whole, Anne Stretton was thankful that matters had turned out as they had done, as in this way she had been enabled to capture Sir Hannibal. Not that he was a very shy bird, but it was necessary, as she had frequently found in her career, to make absolutely certain. Many a time had she proved the truth of the proverb, ‘There’s many a slip betwixt cup and lip.’

But she would not have been so easy in her mind had she known that Sir Hannibal, on stumbling into a first-class carriage, found that his travelling companion was none other than Dericka. There she was, comfortably ensconced in the corner, with a large bag packed away on the shelf overhead.

‘Dericka?’ cried her father in amazement; ‘what are you doing here?’

‘I am going to London,’ she replied, equally astonished. ‘And you, father, why are you going to town?’

Sir Hannibal explained, whereat Dericka was suitably angered that her father should be suspected of such a vile crime. All the same, when he had ended she significantly remarked:

‘It is just as well that I am going to London to see Oswald.’

‘Is that your reason for this secret journey?’

‘Yes. I knew if I asked you to let me go you would not consent. And I know, also, that Oswald is the sole man who can help you to find out who killed Mr. Bowring. I am going to stop with Aunt Lavinia, and then will call on Oswald at the Temple and explain everything.’

‘You should have told me, Dericka,’ fumed the baronet.

‘I think not,’ she answered calmly; ‘you would only have argued. It has been in my mind for several days to go up and see Oswald, as I have been aware of the feeling against you. But I did not expect that it would take the form of a demonstration such as you tell me about. You cannot return to St. Ewalds, father, until your character is cleared.’

‘And who will clear it, if it does need clearing?’

‘Oswald will clear it — at a price.’

‘Oh, indeed! And the price, Dericka?’

‘My hand,’ she answered, and Sir Hannibal grunted. He recognised that he was in a hole, and needed all the friends he could muster. All the same, he was by no means pleased at the prospect of having a penniless barrister as his son-inlaw.

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