The Crowned Skull, by Fergus Hume

Chapter 12


Anak appeared as much taken aback as Forde at the unexpected sight of the woman who had foiled the attack on the Dower House. But for one moment did he look at her beautiful face, then rushed forward with dilated nostrils and upraised fist.

‘You let him get away,’ he growled, remembering the occasion when she had aided Sir Hannibal to escape.

Forde caught the giant back, and for his pains Anak turned on him in mighty wrath. But the young barrister, although by no means the equal in strength of this Goliath, yet knew something of which Anak was ignorant: that is, Forde had taken lessons in ju-jitsu. Before Anak, vain of his muscles, knew what had happened he was lying on his back, tripped up skilfully in the most unexpected manner. When he sat up again his face of stupid wonder was something to behold.

Forde burst out laughing, as did Anne Stretton, and with a savage growl Anak rose to renew the attack. Swinging his mighty arms, he lunged forward with all his strength. Forde stood still until the big man was nearly on top of him then dropped on his back, shot up a foot, and swung Anak, as on a pivot, over his head to crash amongst the wet herbage. It was all so lightly and neatly done that Anne, who admired physical dexterity, clapped her hands.

Forde laughed, and went towards the prostrate giant. His head had struck against a stone and he was stunned for the moment. The barrister cast a casual glance at him, and seeing that he would recover soon, strolled back to Anne.

‘That’s all right,’ he said easily; ‘in ten minutes he’ll be sensible again, Miss Stretton.’

‘You haven’t killed him, Mr. Forde?’

‘I have stunned him; he’ll be right again soon.’

‘Won’t you do something for him?’ asked Anne, marvelling at the coolness of this slight young gentleman.

‘Certainly not. He’ll only make trouble when he recovers his senses, and I wish to talk with you and with Mrs. Carney.’

Before Anne could express her sentiments regarding this calm behaviour — which, by the way, she secretly admired — she was pushed aside and a lean, blear-eyed old crone tottered forth on crutches. She was dressed in faded rags of once brilliant garments, and her white hair flew in wisps about her head, unrestrained in any way. A pair of brilliant black eyes showed that she had all her wits about her, and that her spirit was keen if her figure was a wreck. Her face was a mass of wrinkles, and she had a true nutcracker chin. Mrs. Carney certainly would have been burnt in the middle ages as a witch of the worst.

Seeing the recumbent form of her big son, she tottered forward with wrath in her eyes, and looked spitefully at Forde. Could she have blighted him at that moment she certainly would have done so. And yet in her regard there was something of fear that so slim a young man should have overcome such a giant as her son. It was David and Goliath over again.

‘I heard all,’ said Mrs. Carney, and Forde noted that she spoke in quite a refined way. ‘What do you mean by killing my son?’

‘I have merely stunned him,’ said Forde airily, ‘and now he has had a lesson, perhaps he will leave Miss Stretton alone.’

Mrs. Carney looked up from the head of Anak, which she had taken on her lap, and glanced at Anne.

‘What’s that?’ she asked shrilly.

‘Anak would have struck me,’ explained Anne, ‘but for Mr. Forde.’

‘Why should he have struck you?’

‘Because I thwarted him when he led the quarrymen to the Dower House.’

‘He’s a fool,’ said Mrs. Carney vigorously; ‘he’ll leave you alone when he comes to himself, I’ll go bail. Not that I think much of you, Miss, for having stopped him getting Sir Hannibal and ducking him in the horse pond.’

‘We discussed all that before,’ said Miss Stretton quietly. ‘Mr. Forde, may I ask why you have come here?’

‘To have my fortune told.’

‘To have Sir Hannibal’s fortune told, you mean?’

‘Well yes. I congratulate you on your discernment, Miss Stretton.’

‘Why did you not bring Sir Hannibal with you?’ she asked.

‘For the very simple reason that he has disappeared.’

Anne started, and an expression of extreme surprise overspread her dark face.

‘Disappeared! What do you mean?’

‘Exactly what I say. It seems that the police got out a warrant to arrest Sir Hannibal in London. Someone gave him warning I suppose, for when they went to get him he had gone away.’

‘Very wise of him, Mr. Forde. He will get no justice while the feeling against him is so strong. Does Miss Trevick know where her father is, may I ask?’

‘No; she is as perplexed as I am. I came here to question Anak, as he declares that he saw Sir Hannibal near the spot on the day of the murder.’

‘That is why I came also,’ said Anne very frankly. ‘I wish to help Sir Hannibal out of these difficulties.’

‘Why, Miss Stretton?’ asked Forde gravely.

‘I’ll tell you that later. As it is growing somewhat dark and I have to walk back to St. Ewalds perhaps you will accompany me.’

‘I have a trap waiting near the quarry,’ said Forde quickly, ‘and I shall be glad to take you back to St. Ewalds. But I thought that you were stopping with Mrs. Penrith.’

‘I have not been stopping there for some time,’ replied Miss Stretton, ‘there has been a quarrel between Mr. Penrith and myself.’

‘I understood that you were engaged to him.’

‘No. I could have been had I wished, but there are reasons —’

‘Connected with Sir Hannibal Trevick?’

Anne flung back her head and smiled evasively.

‘Perhaps,’ she said quietly; ‘but see, Mr. Forde, Anak is coming to his senses.’

‘And small blame to that young gentleman that he is not dead,’ said Mrs. Carney in a shrill and angry voice.

Anak sat up and put his hand to his head in a bewildered fashion, groaning heavily. He shook his head with both huge hands, and then rose in a lumpish fashion. He and his withered mother looked like Caliban and Sycorax, and seemed to be fond of one another in an uncouth way. What perplexed Forde was that although the pair seemed to be like animals yet they both spoke such good English — that is, comparatively, in contrast to the usual talk of the class they belonged to. He and Anne watched the two in silence.

‘All right, mother, all right,’ said Anak, in a strangely tender tone as he rose heavily; ‘it’s but a bit of a knock. I’ll be my own man soon.’

‘Come inside, lovey, and let me put some healing herb to your poor head. I’ll make you right and well in a few hours.’

‘Wait a bit,’ said Anak, as his mother hobbled towards the miserable hut, and then lurched towards his late antagonist.

Forde, thinking that the giant was about to renew the attack, held himself in readiness, but it appeared that Anak’s intentions were friendly. He extended a mighty hand with a slow smile.

‘Put it there, young sir,’ he grumbled; ‘I never thought to see the day as anyone could knock me over like a nine-pin.’

‘It’s a new way of fighting,’ laughed Forde, and shook hands.

‘A very queer way,’ said Anak, puzzled. ‘You never put out your strength in any sort of fashion, and yet over I went. Well, I know when I’m beaten, so let’s be friends.’

‘What!’ shrieked Mrs. Carney from the doorway, in which she appeared with a pot of ointment. ‘Are you going to let that jackanapes knock you down, Anak, and not have his heart’s blood?’

‘You try him, mother,’ grinned the giant; ‘even your nails won’t reach his handsome face. He’s got some trick.’

‘Lucky for me that I have,’ said Oswald, good humouredly; ‘if it was a question of strength I shouldn’t give much chance against you.’

This compliment to Anak’s size rather soothed Mrs. Carney. She made her gigantic son sit down on a bench near the door, and applied the ointment to the ragged cut in his head, whence the blood was oozing. ‘And you two gentlefolk can go away,’ she grumbled.

‘I’m quite ready,’ said Anne cheerfully. ‘Mr. Forde will drive me back to St. Ewalds; I’ll come and see you again, Mrs. Carney, and bring some clothes for you.’

‘Wait a bit,’ interrupted Anak, looking at Forde. ‘I promised to tell this young gentleman why I hate Sir Hannibal. As him and me is friends now I’ll keep that promise. There you are, sir,’ he pointed to the old witch, ‘mother’s the cause.’

‘Mrs. Carney? In what way?’

The old woman rose herself to explain, and her black eyes flashed fire.

‘In what way?’ she cried savagely, ‘in this way. Sir Hannibal promised to marry me when I was a gal, and he left me to break my heart. When I married Carney, who left me, and a bad egg he was — I brought up my son to hate Sir Hannibal in the same way as I hate him. Hugh,’ she pointed to the giant, ‘hates Trevick as much as I do. He sucked that hatred in with his mother’s milk, and if he can kill him or hang him, so much the better.’

‘But, surely, after all these years you do not bear malice against Sir Hannibal?’ cried Anne, appalled by the malignant expression of the old dame.

‘I hate him, no more than I did on the day he went away and left me, to marry Miss Dericka’s mother. She was a lady, I was only a poor and pretty girl. I hate him — I hate him.’ She shook a lean fist in the air, and spat with rage. ‘For years I’ve waited for the chance to bring him to the ground. Now I have the chance; he shall swing for killing John Bowring.’

‘In spite of his innocence?’ asked Forde quickly.

‘In spite of everything,’ glared Mrs. Carney. ‘I’ll teach gentlemen to break a poor girl’s heart. He shall be hanged.’

‘Mother!’ Anak was looking at her intently. ‘From what you say, I begin to believe that Sir Hannibal is innocent.’

‘He isn’t. You saw him yourself near the spot.’

‘Well, so I did,’ said Anak quickly; ‘but I didn’t see him heave the rock, and —’

‘Hold your tongue, you great baby,’ said Mrs. Carney fiercely; ‘don’t dare to say a word in his favour. If you don’t hang him, or kill him, or hurt him in some way, I’ll curse you.’

‘No! no!’ said the big man, shrinking, and he really did seem to dread his mother’s curse. And no wonder, for her face was a study fit for one of the Furies as she spoke.

Forde shrugged his shoulders. He was now certain that Sir Hannibal was innocent and that Anak was only trying to injure him to satisfy the vengeance of his mother. At the same time he wanted to be certain of the truth of Anak’s statement that Trevick had been on the moor about the time of the murder. But there was no chance of getting at the truth while Mrs. Carney glared at her son, so Forde held out his hand in a friendly fashion.

‘Come and see me at the “King’s Arms” one day,’ he said good-naturedly; ‘we can then talk. Mrs. Carney’— he threw half a sovereign to her —‘this may be of service.’

The old woman uttered a howl of delight and flung herself grovelling on the gold. Anne, drawing aside her skirts with a gesture of repulsion, for Mrs. Carney’s action was not pretty, passed down the narrow path along with Forde. The two walked downward in silence, for the path was somewhat difficult. Not until they reached the level and within sound of the quarry workings did Anne speak.

‘I am coming to see Miss Trevick,’ she said calmly.

‘I shouldn’t if I were you,’ objected Forde, recalling what Dericka had said of the woman beside him.

Anne laughed. ‘Oh, I know well what Miss Trevick thinks of me,’ said she with a somewhat sad gesture, ‘that I am an adventuress: that I wish to marry her father.’

‘Is that not true?’ enquired the barrister delicately.

‘Not exactly. Sir Hannibal wishes to marry me. He proposed in a letter, which I have in my pocket.’

‘Why not at the fete on that day when Dericka and myself came upon you, Miss Stretton?’

‘There was no time, seeing that you interrupted us,’ said Anne in a calm manner. ‘Miss Trevick put a stop to Sir Hannibal’s speeches, although a declaration was on his lips. If she had not done so,’ added the lady meaningly, ‘Sir Hannibal would never have been in this great trouble.’

‘I don’t quite follow you, Miss Stretton,’ said Forde stiffly.

‘I can explain, but there is no necessity to do so now.’

A silence followed, and the two gained the road where the trap was waiting in charge of the patient driver. Forde walked towards it, but was detained before he had taken a couple of steps.

‘Mr. Forde,’ said his companion, ‘I want to talk freely to you, and cannot do so with that man driving. Wait here and let me speak.’

‘I am quite at your service,’ said Oswald, somewhat stiffly and wondering what she was about to say.

‘You know Miss Quinton?’ said Anne suddenly.

‘Yes. She is now at the Dower House.’

‘Oh, indeed!’ Anne looked startled. ‘All the more reason that I should call there. Well, then, Miss Quinton knew my father, and has known me for many years — since I was a tiny girl, in fact. It was she who gave me a letter of introduction to Sir Hannibal and his daughter when I came to St. Ewalds to study art. Miss Quinton, who is a lady of the old school, for whom I have profound respect, considers me an adventuress because I act as a bachelor woman of the present day usually acts. Dericka — you see I am familiar, Mr. Forde — Dericka thinks that I am an adventuress also. Well, that may be, if an adventuress is one who battles with bad luck, and who wants to get married to a rich man. You see I am frank, Mr. Forde.’

‘Very frank,’ assented Oswald, puzzled; ‘but why?’

‘I am coming to my reason. I want to marry Sir Hannibal because he is now rich and is easily managed. I do not love him in any romantic way, but I think I should make him a very good wife.’

‘I don’t deny that, Miss Stretton.’

‘As you know,’ she pursued quietly, ‘I saved him from a very unpleasant quarter of an hour by helping him to escape from the quarrymen. Even although Dericka doesn’t like me she must admit that I have been good to her father in that way.’

‘I think she admits that, and if you call she will thank you.’

‘In the way in which one woman thanks another that she hates,’ said Miss Stretton, with her chin very much in the air. ‘Well, then, Mr. Forde, I can do much more for Sir Hannibal — if,’ she added meaningly, ‘I hold my tongue.’

‘What’s that?’ he asked, facing her quickly.

Anne pointed to the bank overhead a little distance away, where could be seen the raw earth from which had been wrenched the mass of granite to stop the motor.

‘Mr. Penrith drove me past that on the day Mr. Bowring was murdered,’ she said.

‘I am aware of that. You and he heard the shot and came back.’

‘Quite so. Well, then, as we drove past the mass of granite was not on the road but still poised overhead. Mr. Penrith was busy with his horse, and I looked up. I can’t tell you why I should have done so, but I did look up, and I saw —’

‘Well, what did you see?’ asked Forde anxiously.

‘I saw Sir Hannibal Trevick on the top of the stone.’

‘You must be mistaken,’ gasped the barrister.

Anne shook her head. ‘No. Sir Hannibal has a way of holding himself which cannot be mistaken — a military erectness. It was twilight and there was a slight mist drifting down the moor’— here Forde remembered that Anak had said the same thing —‘but I caught a glimpse of Sir Hannibal on the granite rock quite plainly. I uttered an exclamation of surprise, and Mr. Penrith asked me what was the matter. I made some vague excuse, as he was jealous, and I did not want him to see Sir Hannibal.’

‘Well, and what did you do?’

‘I made an excuse, as I said, and did not look back. Then, some distance further on we heard the shot and came back. The rest you know.’

‘And do you think Sir Hannibal killed Bowring?’

Anne shrugged her finely moulded shoulders. ‘I have formed no opinion,’ she said. ‘All I know, you know; what is your conclusion?’

Forde did not give it, but instead asked a leading question:

‘Would you marry Sir Hannibal if you had the chance?’

‘I have the chance, and when he comes back again I’ll marry him. But if Miss Trevick wants me to let him go I will do so and hold my tongue for five thousand pounds.’

‘Miss Stretton, I don’t like to make a bargain like that.’

‘Take some time to think over it and tell Dericka what I say. In the meantime, let us drive back to St. Ewalds. I refuse to say another word about the matter until you bring me my answer.’

And she kept to her determination. As they drove back to the little town Anne chatted of many things, but did not refer to Sir Hannibal or his doings all the way. Nor did Forde, for the driver was close to them, and would have overheard all. In the market place Anne jumped down, thanked Forde for the drive, and vanished. He ordered the man to drive up to the Dower House, anxious to tell Dericka what Anne Stretton had said.

He found Dericka in the sitting-room with Miss Lavinia. Both of them seemed to be excited over a legal-looking document, and Miss Trevick rushed at her lover as soon as he entered.

‘Oswald,’ she said, waving a letter, ‘here is a letter from papa enclosed in one from Mr. Gratton. Papa says that he is not coming back, and he has made over the sixty thousand pounds income to me by Deed of Gift. What does that mean?’

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:55