The Crowned Skull, by Fergus Hume

Chapter 9

The Steward’s Story

Oswald Forde was not displeased at the chance which had turned him into an amateur detective, since he was a briefless barrister who found time hang rather heavily on his hands. He was extremely clever, and possessed a small income, so he waited patiently hoping that clients would in due course come to his door.

As yet, few had made their appearance, so Forde wanted some occupation upon which to break his active mind. To solve a mystery was pleasant, especially as its solution meant the gaining of a beautiful wife with a substantial dowry. Forde was romantic, but also he was modern enough to appreciate the advantages of money being joined by love. He therefore readily assumed the position assigned to him, and prepared to start for St. Ewalds the day after that momentous conversation.

Then, to his surprise, Miss Quinton declared that she would come also so as to chaperone Dericka. The girl wished to return to St. Ewalds, if only to show that she despised the feeling which had driven her father from the town.

To do Sir Hannibal justice, he was also willing to return, but Forde strongly advised him to remain in town until the mystery was solved. The quarrymen were not capable of receiving truths unless these were made extremely plain to their somewhat dull minds, and would probably make another assault on the Dower House. When the true murderer of John Bowring was discovered then the maligned baronet could go back and pose as a martyr.

Dericka, however, insisted upon returning, and Miss Quinton, for obvious reasons, insisted upon coming also.

‘It won’t do for you and Mr. Forde to travel alone,’ said Miss Quinton; ‘you know how people gossip, Dericka!’

‘I despise gossip,’ exclaimed Dericka indignantly.

‘So do I. All the same, one can’t ignore it if one wants life to be pleasant. It was gossip which drove Sir Hannibal from St. Ewalds.’

Dericka assented. ‘Though I can’t understand anyone so silly as to believe that papa had anything to do with the matter. He was at the fete about the time the crime occurred.’

‘You can’t be sure of that, my dear.’

‘Aunty! You don’t believe —’

‘My dear, I believe nothing against your father. Whatever Hannibal may be, he certainly is too good-natured a man to commit a crime. But you know from what he said last night that he left the grounds after Miss Stretton and Mr. Penrith drove away and went down to the beach. No one saw him there as the place was deserted, so he cannot prove an alibi. When did you see him again on that day?’

‘Not until dinner, Aunty. I was looking for him at the time Mr. Bowring started for the Grange as I wanted to confront him with Mr. Bowring about this proposed marriage with Morgan. I could not find papa, however —’

‘Of course not; he was walking on the beach.’

‘Then he must have walked there for some hours, for he did not appear until dinner was on the table.’

‘Did you ask him where he had been?’

‘No. Papa dislikes being questioned; and then during the dinner came the news of that terrible death, and I never thought of asking questions. Why should I have thought,’ demanded Dericka indignantly, ‘seeing that I never doubted my own father’s innocence?’

‘No one doubts it now, dear,’ said Miss Lavinia, soothingly. ‘It is only that horrid Mrs. Krent who started the rumour, and no doubt she is sorry now.’

‘I don’t see any reason why she need be sorry.’

‘I do,’ replied the old lady tartly, ‘if she cannot discredit her own story. Hannibal certainly will not pay her the income he promised.’

‘Yes, he will,’ contradicted Miss Trevick, quickly. ‘Oswald thinks it will be as well to say that I am to marry Morgan, so that people may think Mr. Bowring left the money to him in trust for both of us, and so do away with any possible motive for the commission of the crime by papa. And unless Mrs. Krent is paid the one thousand a year she will refuse to state where her daughter was married to Morgan, and, then, oh —’ Dericka shuddered.

‘The question is whether such a marriage did take place. However, Mr. Forde can see Mrs. Krent.’

‘He intends to see everyone, and will begin with Polwin.’

‘That is Hannibal’s steward?’

‘Yes. He came from Africa, where papa knew him very well.’

‘Your father seems to have known many people in Africa,’ observed Miss Lavinia, dryly, ‘and not reputable people, either.’

‘Oh, Polwin is reputable enough,’ said Dericka cheerfully; ‘a quiet and timid man. He superintended the preparations for the fete, and Oswald wishes to learn if he knows anything of that death’s head.’

‘I should think Miss Warry would know of that.’

‘Oh, dear me, no, Aunty. She saw the skull, and fancied papa had placed it there, which he did not. Who placed it there, and why it should have been brought to the tent, is as strange as the fact that Mr. Bowring was afraid of it.’

Miss Lavinia applied herself to her smelling-bottle.

‘It is all very strange and very unpleasant,’ she said with a shrug; ‘however, the only thing I can do I am doing, and that is to support you at the Dower House during the enforced absence of your father.’

This conversation took place in the railway carriage, while the Cornish express rushed westward. Forde had gone to the smoking compartment for twenty minutes, so Dericka and her aunt had an opportunity of talking; but the discussion, as can be seen, had ended in a somewhat futile manner. However, one thing was clear to the girl, that Miss Quinton would stand by her in the very trying position in which she was placed. It was not very nice to return home as the daughter of a suspected murderer.

Forde took up his quarters at the ‘King’s Arms’, an excellent hotel in the heart of the town He could have gone to a more fashionable place on the brow of the hill, which overlooked St. Ewalds, but purposely remained near the market-place — where the ‘King’s Arms’ was situated — so that he might hear any gossip, and be on the spot to contradict it should it touch on the supposed guilt of Sir Hannibal Trevick. The hotel was comfortable, and Forde being a pleasant young man soon made himself a favourite with the chattering landlady. But that important personage was too discreet to repeat tittle-tattle, even although Forde had known her for five years, from the time he had first come to St. Ewalds. Aware of her long tongue, without doors if not inside, he judged that she would be the best person to spread the news of a possible marriage between Dericka and Morgan Bowring.

‘I suppose you have heard the news, Mrs. Tregar?’ said the artful barrister, when the landlady came to his sitting-room to see if he was perfectly comfortable.

‘No, sir. What is it, if I may make so bold as to ask?’

‘The late Mr. Bowring left all his money to Sir Hannibal Trevick —’

‘Oh, I know that, sir.’

‘In trust,’ went on Forde impressively, ‘for Miss Dericka and Morgan Bowring, when they marry.’

Mrs. Tregar threw up her hands. ‘Lord, sir, you do astonish me. I thought you were to be the happy man.’

‘So did I,’ replied Forde, heaving an ostentatious sigh. ‘Miss Trevick and myself are very much in love with one another, but by a family arrangement she is to marry Morgan; that is why Sir Hannibal got the money — in trust, remember.’

‘Oh, indeed, sir. I thought — I thought — well, you see, sir, everyone, knowing that Sir Hannibal is hard up, thought that he had murdered Mr. Bowring to get the money.’

‘What nonsense. Why, even if Sir Hannibal had committed such a crime — which, mind you, Mrs. Tregar, is not at all probable — he would not have got the money.’

‘But it is said, sir, that Mr. Bowring told Sir Hannibal at the fete that he had made a will in his favour, and then Sir Hannibal killed —’

Forde did not allow her to finish, but burst into a hearty laugh.

‘I never heard such rubbish,’ said he with a shrug; ‘why, Mrs. Tregar, where are your brains and those of the people hereabouts? Sir Hannibal did not leave the fete, and was in his own house when the crime was committed. Besides, an old man like that could scarcely get to such an out-of-the-way place quicker than a powerful motor-car.’

‘Begging your pardon, sir,’ contradicted Mrs. Tregar, swelling with importance, ‘but they do say that Sir Hannibal left the fete long before Mr. Bowring did, and went by a different route to the place on his motor-bike. And we know,’ she added with emphasis, ‘that Sir Hannibal does ride a motor-bike.’

This story was new to Forde.

‘Who says that?’ he asked sharply, and wondering if the tale was true.

‘Mr. Polwin, for one, sir.’

‘Sir Hannibal’s steward?’

‘Yes, sir. Mr. Josiah Polwin; and, being the preacher also at Gwynne Chapel, he wouldn’t tell a lie.’

‘How does Mr. Polwin substantiate his statement? — no, stop! I won’t have the story second-hand. Send a note to Mr. Polwin and say that he is to come here and see me. I have a message for him from Sir Hannibal.’

‘Did you see him in London, sir?’ asked the landlady eagerly.

‘Yes. He is very indignant at the way in which he has been treated.’

‘Ah, sir, he’s not so indignant as the quarrymen, seeing that Miss Stretton sent them on a fool’s errand to the Grange. They went there, and nearly scared Mrs. Krent out of her wits when they found Sir Hannibal wasn’t there, as Miss Stretton said. She has had to keep quiet, as the quarrymen are so angry.’

‘Do you mean to say that they would attack her for saving the property of Sir Hannibal from an unprovoked assault?’

‘They are angry, sir,’ said Mrs. Tregar, evasively.

‘Where are the police?’

‘Oh, the police are looking after the matter, sir, and questioned Miss Stretton. She told how she had driven to Gwynne Station with Sir Hannibal, and the police are now watching the house she is staying at, so that she may be safe.’

‘Mrs. Tregar, all this is simply ridiculous. Miss Stretton has more brains in her head than all your people. Were Sir Hannibal guilty in any way, did the evidence point ever so slightly towards him as the author of the crime, he would have been arrested by the police. He is absolutely innocent, and has gone to town to complain about the quarrymen to the proper authorities. There will be some trouble over this riot, as it may be called.’

‘I’m sure I know very little about it, sir,’ said Mrs. Tregar, rather scared, and promptly disclaiming having anything to do with the matter. ‘I never did believe, myself, that Sir Hannibal had anything to do with killing the poor gentleman, in spite of Mr. Polwin’s talk.’

‘I am glad to hear that,’ said Forde dryly, ‘since it is Sir Hannibal’s intention on his return to sift this matter to the bottom and to punish those people who have maligned his character. Also, he will have the leader of the rioters arrested.’

‘That’s Anak,’ said Mrs. Tregar, decisively.

‘Who is Anak?’

‘Well, sir, it’s not rightly known. His mother is an old witch.’

‘What rubbish, Mrs. Tregar.’

‘It’s truth, sir. Anak is called so because he is so big; but his mother, Mrs. Carney, was deserted years ago by her husband, and now she lives near the quarry and gets her living by telling fortunes. Anak works in the quarries, and he led the men to the Dower House.’

‘In that case he will go to gaol, Mrs. Tregar. People cannot do these things without suffering for them. and you can take it from me, Mrs. Tregar, and you can tell everyone that Sir Hannibal Trevick is perfectly innocent, since he was at the fete when the crime was committed, and also had no motive for killing Mr. Bowring, seeing that the money has only been left to him in trust for the marriage.’

‘Well, it might be so, sir,’ said the landlady doubtfully.

‘It is so, and you had better tell everyone.’

‘I will, sir; and I’m sure you are a very kind young gentleman to speak so of Sir Hannibal, when he is parting you from Miss Dericka.’

‘We are not parted yet,’ said Forde dryly. ‘Sir Hannibal wishes the marriage with young Bowring to take place, but Miss Dericka objects.’

‘And quite right, too, sir, seeing what a handsome young gentleman you are. To think that she should marry that mad creature Morgan Bowring,’ cried Mrs. Tregar, raising her hands, ‘is too awful.’

‘You would like to see Miss Dericka married to me?’

‘Of course, sir, seeing how I have known you for years and years, and Miss Dericka is a kind, good young lady.’

‘Then, Mrs. Tregar, you can do me a good turn by telling everyone that Sir Hannibal is innocent on the grounds I have set forth. He will then know that I have defended him, and perhaps will let me marry Miss Dericka. Do you see?’

‘Yes, sir; but will he give back the money?’

‘Oh, a compromise of some sort will be arrived at,’ said Forde easily, and not wishing to say too much; ‘but help me and Miss Dericka if you can, Mrs. Tregar. You know the way.’

The landlady nodded vigorously and withdrew to send a message to Polwin and to spread the new gossip. Forde leaned back in his chair and sipped his coffee, certain that he had done the best that could be done. Once people began to believe that Sir Hannibal might possibly be innocent, and once they heard that he intended to defend his good name, the probability was that the scandal would die a natural death. The truth of Sir Hannibal’s innocence would soon filter down to the quarrymen, and then the baronet would be able to come back and settle matters in his own way. On the whole, the train had been fairly fired, and the consequent explosion would undoubtedly blow Sir Hannibal back into the niche he had occupied before the crime had taken place.

Mr. Polwin did not hesitate to obey the summons. Within half an hour he made his appearance in Forde’s sitting-room, a timid, short, broad man, with pale eyes, and a blank white face like a full moon. He was badly dressed in ill-fitting black clothes, and appeared wonderfully harmless. A sheep would have shown more spirit. Mr. Forde thought it strange that Sir Hannibal should employ so obviously foolish a man. On the face of it, Josiah Polwin appeared incapable of managing any property, however small. Standing first on one leg and then on the other, he faced the keen-eyed young barrister, twisting a cloth cap in his hands and waiting to be addressed.

‘Well, Mr. Polwin,’ said Oswald briskly, and straddling his legs before the fire with his hands under his coat-tails, ‘and what is this tale you have been telling about your employer?’

‘What tale, sir?’ asked the other in a low, but not unpleasant voice.

‘Why, that Sir Hannibal left the Dower House on a motor-bicycle on the day, and about the time, Mr. Bowring was killed.’

‘Pardon me, sir,’ replied Polwin meekly. ‘I did not spread such a report, nor did I accuse Sir Hannibal of having anything to do with the matter. He certainly did go out that day, and on his motor-bicycle: I met him on the road.’

‘On the road where the murder was committed?’

‘No, sir. On the other road, which runs behind the hill.’

‘Then, to get to the spot where the granite fell Sir Hannibal would have to scramble over the hill from the other road?’

‘I never suggested such a thing, sir.’

‘Why did you speak of the matter at all?’

Polwin went on balancing himself, first on one leg and then on the other, hesitating in his reply.

‘It was this way, sir. I was coming along the second road as I had been to see Mrs. Carney —’

‘She is Anak’s mother?’

Polwin looked up swiftly, and then again dropped his eyes.

‘Yes, sir. She is a poor woman, to whom I go occasionally to carry a word of comfort. Her son Anak is employed in the quarries, which Sir Hannibal let to Mr. Bowring. I had been to see Mrs. Carney and was returning. Just outside the town on the second road, I met Sir Hannibal on his motor-bicycle. He asked me if I had seen Mr. Penrith driving Miss Stretton, as they had left the fete and he had come after them to give a letter to Miss Stretton. I said that I had not.’

‘I quite understand,’ said Forde. ‘They went by the first road, where the murder took place, and drove back when they heard the shot. Well?’

‘Sir Hannibal then said that he wanted a letter given to Miss Stretton, and asked me to take it, since he was wanted at the fete. I took the letter and went along the second road on the motor —’

‘How did Sir Hannibal return?’

‘On foot. He went back to the fete; at least, he said that he would.’

‘Did you catch up with Miss Stretton and Mr. Penrith?’

‘No, sir, because I was on the wrong road. They did go by the first road, as you know. I travelled along on the motor-bicycle as far as Mr. Penrith’s place, where Miss Stretton was staying, and there I left the letter. Then I came back again.’

‘By the same road?’

‘Yes, sir — by the second road. I returned to the Dower House, and some of the servants expressed surprise that I was riding Sir Hannibal’s bicycle, as he was so particular. I explained how the matter came about.’

‘Humph! The story is clear enough, and quite exonerates Sir Hannibal.’

‘I beg your pardon sir, but Anak —’

‘Yes; what about him?’

‘He declared to me that he saw Sir Hannibal near the quarries, where the murder was committed.’

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/h/hume/fergus/h93cr/chapter9.html

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