The Crowned Skull, by Fergus Hume

Chapter 8

An Amateur Detective

Miss Lavinia Quinton was the sister of Dericka’s mother, a wealthy spinster, who disliked Sir Hannibal as much as she loved his daughter. She also liked Oswald Forde, and was disposed to forward his suit, both on account of his good looks and because the baronet did not approve of him as Dericka’s suitor. There must have been some Irish blood in Miss Lavinia, for she was always in the opposition, and would never cease to argue while she had breath left in her spare body. Dericka was very fond of her, and Aunt Lavinia approved of Dericka, saying that all the sense in the girl came from her mother, which remark was a side slap at Sir Hannibal.

The house of this odd personage was in a quiet Kensington square, where the rents were high and the dwellers in the various mansions well-to-do. Everything in that square went by clockwork, and the Judgment Day would have found the inhabitants dressed in their best bibs and tuckers ready to listen to the last trump. Miss Quinton herself was one of the precise old ladies in the place — tall, slender and aristocratic-looking. Her silvery hair was worn in the fashion of Marie Antoinette, and suited her wrinkled, oval face with its arched nose and thin lips. She always dressed in grey, like a demure nun, and like a nun she was given to religious works, mostly concerned with an extremely high church round the corner. Walking very erect, with her nose held aloft as though disdaining meaner clay, Miss Lavinia passed for being proud and cold. Proud she certainly was, but not cold, as many a poor person knew how warm hearted she could be when there was charitable work to be done. But she assuredly possessed sharp eyes and a sharp tongue, and could make herself eminently disagreeable on occasions. She chose to do so when Sir Hannibal and Dericka arrived from Cornwall.

‘H’m!’ said Miss Lavinia, kissing Dericka warmly, and greeting her brother-inlaw coldly; ‘so you are here. Why?’

‘I thought that I would come and see you, Aunt,’ said Dericka, who knew that Miss Lavinia was pleased.

‘H’m! Your father has been making himself disagreeable again?’

‘I never make myself disagreeable unless there is a cause,’ said the baronet, coldly.

‘You usually find cause,’ snapped the old lady. ‘Dericka looks pale, I notice. H’m! Is Oswald Forde the cause of that, or —’ Miss Lavinia’s eye sought the tired face of her brother-inlaw.

‘I’ve got nothing to do with it,’ said Sir Hannibal hastily.

‘Papa is all right, Aunty,’ whispered Dericka quickly; ‘don’t be hard on him, he is very worried.’

‘On account of that Bowring murder? H’m.’

‘What do you know of that, Lavinia?’

‘All that I read in the papers. Well, the man’s gone, so there is no use in saying anything, but I never liked him.’

‘I did not know that you knew him well, Lavinia?’

‘I knew him much better than you think, Hannibal. You told me about him when you came from Africa, and I made it my business to have a few conversations with him when he came to town.’

‘Why, in Heaven’s name?’ asked the baronet, puzzled.

‘For the sake of your good name, Hannibal.’

‘My — good — name?’

‘Certainly. You more than hinted that this Bowring had done some shady business in South Africa, and as you were mixed up with him I wanted to know what that business was, so that I might help you should occasion arise.’

‘There was no need,’ said Sir Hannibal testily. ‘Bowring and I did do business together in Cape Town, and he did not treat me well. All the same, I was quite able to manage him. But if you are going to make yourself disagreeable, Lavinia, I shall go to an hotel.’

‘And waste your money. Nonsense.’

‘Money doesn’t matter to me now, Lavinia. I am rich.’

‘Indeed! And how did you make money?’

‘I didn’t make it. Bowring has left me sixty thousand a year.’

Miss Lavinia, who was seated bolt upright in her chair, fell back with a gasp of astonishment when she heard the news.

‘In Heaven’s name why did he do that, seeing that he has a son?’

‘An insane son,’ put in Dericka sharply.

‘Well,’ said Sir Hannibal, revolving what Mrs. Krent had said to him and anxious to set the rumour of an engagement going, ‘the money was left to me, in a way — on account of Dericka and Morgan.’

‘The son? Well?’

‘Bowring wanted Dericka to marry Morgan, and I was, so to speak, to hold the money in trust. The will did not put that in so many words, but the hint is enough for me.’

‘Hint! Hint!’ cried Miss Lavinia with rising anger. ‘Good heavens, do you mean to say that you want Dericka to marry a lunatic?’

‘There is no chance of that,’ said Dericka angrily. ‘Papa, you really cannot mean what you are saying. You would not like me to marry that fearful creature?’

‘There is no chance of your marrying him, my dear; but it will be as well to let everyone think that I am willing you should become Morgan’s wife so that some reason may be assigned for this money being left to me.’

Miss Lavinia looked at Dericka, and Dericka looked at Miss Lavinia. It was the latter lady who spoke first.

‘I don’t understand.’

‘Then I can’t explain just now,’ retorted Sir Hannibal, wearily, and resting his head on his hand; ‘but if you will wait until Forde comes I’ll make everything clear.’

‘Oh, indeed, Hannibal. And pray, have you asked Mr. Forde to come to my house and without requesting my permission?’

‘No! No!’ interposed Dericka hastily, to prevent an angry reply on the part of the incensed lady; ‘I took that liberty.’

Miss Lavinia rubbed her aristocratic nose.

‘It is a liberty, my dear — that is, it would be if anyone but yourself took it. I shall be glad to see Mr. Forde to dinner. Does he know —’

‘I sent a wire from the station asking him to come here at seven.’

‘And if you object to his coming here, Lavinia, I will send another telegram and invite him to the Guelph Hotel, where I propose to stay.’

Miss Lavinia was sharp, and not over fond of Sir Hannibal, whom she regarded as a weakling. All the same, she was hospitable and saw that her despised brother-inlaw looked worried.

‘My dear Hannibal, I should not think of your going to an hotel,’ she said cordially; ‘you must stop here. Your cab is there,’— she glanced out of the window on to the quiet square —‘and your luggage also? I will send —’

Her hand was on the button of the bell.

‘I have no luggage, Lavinia.’

The maiden lady’s hand dropped. ‘No — luggage?’

‘No. I left St. Ewald’s in a hurry. For Heaven’s sake wait until Forde comes. I’ll tell my story once, but not twice.’

The spinster looked again at Dericka, but that young lady shook her head.

‘I can give no explanation, Aunty. Father refuses to enlighten me until he sees Oswald.’

‘In that case we may as well drop the subject. But you did not tell me, Hannibal, how you came up?’

‘We came by the night train, Lavinia, and stopped at the Guelph Hotel.’

‘Why did you not come here?’ asked Miss Lavinia, putting up a lorgnette and speaking severely. ‘It is now three o’clock in the afternoon.’

‘Aunty’— it was Dericka who explained —‘I wanted to come to you, and had I been travelling by myself I should have come on, however late the hour. But father joined me at Gwynne Station, and said that we had better stop at the Guelph Hotel instead of troubling you. We were shopping this morning, and —’

‘You should have come here.’

‘I didn’t want to,’ said Dericka quickly. ‘I sent a wire, as I said, from the station when we arrived asking Oswald to come here this evening, and did not wish to come until the afternoon.’

‘Why?’ asked Miss Lavinia, snappishly.

‘It was my fault,’ interposed Sir Hannibal. ‘I had to see a doctor.’

‘Oh, then the shopping excuse is a lie?’

‘No. We did do some shopping, Aunty.’

‘H’m! And why, Hannibal, did you see a doctor?’

‘I have had a shock.’

‘What sort of a shock?’

‘Oh!’ Sir Hannibal rose and shook himself. ‘Do stop asking questions, Lavinia. The shock has to do with what I have to tell you in the presence of Forde. As to the shopping, since I came away without baggage I have had to get a few things.’

‘Which are in the cab?’

‘Yes.’

‘Then, when you said that you had no luggage you told a —

‘Damn!’ cried the baronet, goaded beyond endurance.

Far from being angry, Miss Lavinia seemed amused.

‘I apologise,’ she said with very good grace; ‘I fear my questions worry you.’

‘They do. And I apologise in my turn for bad language.’

‘I accept.’ Miss Lavinia smiled grimly and shook out her grey skirts in a gracious manner. ‘Well, then, I’ll send Augustus’— this was the butler —‘to get your — your — purchases.’ Miss Lavinia was determined not to say ‘luggage’—‘and you can amuse yourself here while I take Dericka to her room.’

Sir Hannibal nodded and sat down again — he had risen in his anger.

Miss Lavinia gave her instructions, and escorted her niece to a very pretty bedroom next to her own. When the two were alone, and the door was closed, the spinster turned on Dericka with a look which spoke volumes. ‘Marriage,’ said Miss Lavinia.

‘Whose marriage?’ inquired Dericka, smiling rosily.

‘Not yours, my dear. Hannibal’s.’

The rosy flush died out of the girl’s face.

‘My father? Oh, you must be mistaken.’

‘I am very seldom mistaken,’ said the spinster frigidly. ‘Hannibal is one of those well-preserved old beaux who are the easy prey of any adventuress who comes along.’

‘Oh!’ Dericka remembered that this was her term for Miss Stretton. ‘Do you mean —’

‘Anne. Of course I mean Anne. She is well-born, and not bad-looking, even though she is older than she admits. She came to me some months ago saying that she wanted to go to St. Ewalds to join that art school there, and asked me to give her a letter of introduction or two. I think myself she is an adventuress, but I had a regard for her poor father. I therefore introduced her to you, my dear. But it never struck me that she would make love to your father.’

‘She has done so, however,’ said Dericka swiftly, ‘and I rather think that father admires her.’ And she related the conduct of Miss Stretton at the fete. ‘I believe father will marry her,’ ended Dericka.

‘So do I,’ said Miss Lavinia, who had listened grimly; ‘and foolish I was to send her to you, my dear. Of course, I knew that your father was poor and that Anne wanted to marry money, so, even if such a thought had crossed my mind, I should not have considered your father to be in any danger. However, the mischief is done. What your father wants to explain to Mr. Forde is that he is willing you should become his wife provided you are willing to receive Anne as a step-mother.’

‘But I don’t like her, Aunty.’

‘Neither do I. All the same, I have nothing to say against her. She is decent enough, although her career has been a somewhat Bohemian one. Now that your father has this money she’ll marry him. It would have been better had your father remained poor and free. However, my dear Dericka, there is nothing to be said. You marry Oswald, and out of this Bowring money your father can well afford to give you a magnificent income.’

‘But father’s talk about my marriage with Morgan?’

‘H’m!’ said the maiden lady; ‘I don’t understand that.’

They discussed the matter at length, but could come to no conclusion, since they were in the dark as regards Sir Hannibal’s conversation with the housekeeper. Dericka was also in the dark on that particular point, although she knew that Sir Hannibal had been driven by a popular demonstration from St. Ewalds. It was this, she guessed, that her father intended to speak about to Forde, and her heart leaped as she thought that Sir Hannibal intended to ask for Forde’s assistance.

That would only be given on condition that Sir Hannibal sanctioned the engagement, so Dericka thought that her course of true love would run smoothly after all. She was on the point of explaining this to her aunt, when she remembered how she had protested that her father had not enlightened her as to the reason of his coming to London. If she admitted what had been told her in the train, Miss Lavinia would probably accuse her of deceit, and there would be trouble.

She therefore judged it best to pretend ignorance and to let Sir Hannibal tell his story to Forde and the spinster in his own way. Dericka had not intended to wilfully deceive her aunt, but Miss Lavinia was so very difficult to handle — a prickly thorn, in fact — that she had been hurried into a denial without thinking.

However, things went on very smoothly until Forde arrived. Miss Lavinia gave father and daughter afternoon tea in the most fragile of china, and refrained from hinting at her suspicions regarding Miss Anne Stretton. She made herself so agreeable, in fact, that the baronet, not thinking what lay behind the smooth, bland mask, thought it would be easy to announce his intended marriage, particularly as on that hung the future of Dericka with Forde.

Forgetting nearly how he had been driven from his home — Sir Hannibal had a wonderfully forgetful temper — he expanded in the amiable atmosphere of the spinster’s house until Miss Lavinia said to herself privately that her despised brother-inlaw was really a fascinating man. Dericka also was pleased to see the wrinkles of vexation vanish from her father’s brow; and when the barrister arrived, the party of three were all merry and genial.

Oswald looked slim and dark and handsome in his dress clothes, and he greeted Dericka with great fervour. Sir Hannibal also was in evening dress, as he had managed to get a suit from somewhere — from his tailor, in fact.

That tradesman had made clothes for his customer, but, not having been paid, he had retained them. Sir Hannibal, however, had announced his succession to a fortune and had paid the bill with money received from Mr. Gratton, so the tailor had handed over the new and fashionably-made suit.

Sir Hannibal never said anything about this, and Miss Lavinia wondered how he had procured dress clothes which fitted him so well. However, she refrained from making further comment on his want of luggage, and mentally observed that London did not contain any finer specimens of young and old men than Sir Hannibal and the barrister.

After the first greetings were over Forde asked what happy chance had brought Dericka and her father to London.

Sir Hannibal would then and there have related all, but Miss Lavinia insisted that dinner should not be upset by any fevered discussion. Only when dinner was over — and a very good dinner it was — and the quartette were gathered in the drawing-room sipping coffee, did the maiden lady nod in the direction of her brother-inlaw.

‘Now, then, Hannibal,’ said she, sitting up alertly, ‘you can tell us what brought you to London.’

‘I have been driven from St. Ewalds,’ said the baronet bluntly.

‘Driven from St. Ewalds?’ cried the spinster, and Forde echoed her.

‘Yes.’ Sir Hannibal gave a detailed description of all that had taken place, and how Miss Stretton had driven him to the Gwynne railway station to escape the fury of the quarrymen. Miss Lavinia nodded her approval.

‘Anne has a head on her shoulders,’ said she; ‘you might do worse.’

‘What do you mean?’ asked Sir Hannibal colouring.

‘I have eyes in my head, and I know Anne very well,’ retorted Miss Lavinia. ‘She doesn’t do any thing without expecting payment.’

‘You wrong her, Lavinia; you wrong her. She is as simple as a child.’

‘You are, you mean, Hannibal. However, we can discuss that later. What is to be done? Your position is really very disagreeable.’

‘Lavinia, you don’t accuse me of murder?’

‘If I did you wouldn’t be sitting in my drawing-room,’ said the old lady sharply. ‘No. You are foolish in many ways, and why my poor sister married you I can’t tell. However, we must get you out of this difficulty, that is certain. Oswald?’

‘I am at Sir Hannibal’s service,’ said the barrister. ‘The position, as you say, Miss Quinton, is difficult.’

‘I said disagreeable.’

‘Well, then both disagreeable and difficult,’ broke in Dericka impatiently. ‘What is to be done?’

‘Only one thing can be done,’ said Forde very decisively. ‘I must learn who killed Bowring, and prove the innocence of your father.’

‘That will not be easy,’ said Sir Hannibal.

‘Perhaps not; but things can be made plainer if you will tell me all you know about Bowring.’

‘There is very little to tell. I did business with him in Africa.’

‘What sort of business?’

‘It was connected with diamonds,’ muttered the baronet reluctantly.

‘And Bowring treated you badly?’ remarked Miss Lavinia keenly; ‘at least you said so to me several times.’

‘Bowring was a scoundrel,’ cried Sir Hannibal much agitated, ‘but he has made amends by leaving me his money.’

‘On condition that I marry Morgan?’ said Dericka.

‘No. You heard the will read yourself, Dericka. That was only a suggestion on the part of Bowring.’

‘And one you wish to carry out,’ snapped Miss Lavinia, tartly.

‘What?’ cried Forde, turning red and looking from Miss Lavinia to the baronet in an anxious manner.

‘Permit me to explain,’ said Sir Hannibal hastily, and detailed the conversation with Mrs. Krent.

Dericka was much surprised. Nevertheless, she objected to be made a catspaw for Sir Hannibal’s safety, even though the position was perilous.

‘Besides,’ she added, after raising some objections, ‘I don’t see, father, how any such announcement would help you.’

‘It would show that the money was left to me in trust for you and Morgan, my dear.’

‘You would have to make over the money to him, then?’

‘No. Because Mrs. Krent would come forward and tell of the marriage with her daughter.’

Miss Lavinia sniffed.

‘It seems a very roundabout way,’ she observed. ‘I think the best thing to be done, Hannibal, will be for Mr. Forde, here, to take up the case and clear your character.’

‘I am willing — on conditions,’ said Forde, and looked at Dericka.

Sir Hannibal bit his lip. He was not very anxious to make Forde his son-inlaw, as, now that he was rich, he wanted Dericka to strengthen the Trevick family by making a titled alliance. However, he was in such a difficult position that he had to consent; and he did so the more willingly as he wanted someone in the family to delve into his past rather than a stranger. With this in mind he nodded.

‘I am willing that you should marry Dericka as soon as my character is cleared,’ he said reluctantly.

Forde rose with a joyful exclamation and, clasping Dericka in his arms, kissed her fondly.

‘Your character will be cleared in a month, Sir Hannibal,’ he said determinedly.

‘H’m!’ murmured Miss Lavinia.

She was watching the baronet’s face, and did not approve of the nervous, agitated look thereon.

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