The Crowned Skull, by Fergus Hume

Chapter 18

A Discovery

Miss Trevick, still holding on to Forde, stretched out her hand to the baronet, who, grasping it firmly, drew her and the barrister round a curve in the gallery and led them some distance further on. Then he stepped off the trolley-lines, and, setting down the light on a deal box, illuminated three or four other candles, until there was quite a blaze of light. The visitors found themselves in a kind of niche which had been hollowed out of the live rock by former workers in the mine. The floor of this niche was slightly above the level of the gallery, and therefore was comparatively dry.

By the light of the candles Dericka saw a pile of dried bracken and grass in one corner, which, as she guessed, served her unfortunate father for a bed. There was also a box containing provisions, and a wood fire smouldered on the verge of the niche, where the smoke could ascend through the gallery. There were no seats, naturally, and the trio had to sit on the rocky ground, which, fortunately, was dry.

Having taken in these details of this cave of Adullam, Dericka looked at her father, and was surprised to see what a change there was in his appearance. Formerly he had been a well-preserved, elderly gentleman, handsome and haughty. Now he was worn and pale, white-haired, and unshaven. His shoulders were bowed, and his waxen face was wrinkled, while his eyes appeared dull and unintelligent.

Dericka was terribly shocked to see what a wreck the poor man had become, and gasped as she looked. Her emotions were too deep to find vent in mere words. Sir Hannibal guessed what she felt, and also he caught sight of the pained expression in Forde’s eyes.

‘Yes,’ said Trevick bitterly, ‘you may well look startled, both of you. This is a change from the Dower House.’

‘A change that will not last long,’ said Forde with a brisk confidence he was far from feeling, ‘you will soon be back again, sir.’

‘Ah, that depends,’ said Trevick significantly.

‘Father!’ Dericka caught his hand convulsively; ‘you will never make me believe that you killed Mr. Bowring.’

‘No, dear; no.’ The baronet patted her hand and seemed pleased to hear her speak in this manner. ‘I am, of course, perfectly innocent, but I have enemies who will use all means to ruin me.’

‘But why, father?’

‘Ah!’ Sir Hannibal heaved a weary sigh; ‘that is a long story.’

‘And probably,’ remarked Forde quickly, ‘the very story we have come to hear, Sir Hannibal.’

The hunted man looked up quickly in his turn.

‘What’s that?’

‘Since you left Gwynne Station for London,’ went on the barrister, ‘we — that is, Dericka and myself — have heard strange things.’

‘About me?’ Trevick’s breath came quickly.

Forde nodded. ‘Yes; and about Polwin.’

‘Polwin — my steward?’

‘Yes,’ said Dericka pointedly; ‘about your steward, Samuel Krent.’

The baronet started, and squeezed his daughter’s hand so severely that she winced.

‘How do you know that Polwin’s name is Krent?’

‘Ah,’ said Dericka, mimicking her father’s former speech, ‘that is a long story.’

‘I don’t understand your tone, my child,’ said Sir Hannibal, trying to suppress his agitation.

‘We don’t understand one another,’ remarked Forde with a shrug. ‘It will be best that you should tell us everything.’

‘About what?’ asked the baronet, persistently obstinate.

‘About the Death’s Head, for one thing.’

‘I know nothing about that, Forde.’

‘What, not about Moolu and his —’

‘Who told you that?’ interrupted Trevick imperiously, and much agitated by the significant tone of the barrister.

‘Mrs. Bowring.’

‘Who is she? Bowring’s wife died years ago.’

‘I mean young Mrs. Bowring — Morgan’s wife.’

‘You know about that secret marriage, then,’ stammered Trevick.

Forde looked at him steadily.

‘You seem to have forgotten a great deal, Sir Hannibal,’ said he dryly; ‘of course we know. Do you remember some time ago, we —’

‘Yes, yes,’ Sir Hannibal interrupted again; ‘of course. The rumour was to be put about that I agreed to Dericka marrying Morgan, and then Mrs. Krent was to announce the former marriage. I know — I know; but, what with trouble and nervous fears, I forget much.’

‘Poor father,’ said Miss Trevick softly; ‘but we have not much time to remain here, father. Tell us all quickly, and we will see how you can come back to the Dower House.’

‘I cannot do that, Dericka. Things are too black against me.’

‘You must come, father; you must meet your accusers.’

‘Dericka, I dare not face that warrant. I was absent from the fete when Bowring was killed, but how can I prove that?’

‘Polwin can prove it,’ said Forde quickly.

‘Polwin won’t,’ said Sir Hannibal bitterly. ‘The man is a villain, and wants to ruin me. Why, I can’t say, seeing that he has received nothing but kindness at my hands.’

‘Many people resent kindness,’ said Forde, with a shrug, ‘and try to harm the person who has benefited them. But the position is this, Sir Hannibal; Polwin declares that after Miss Stretton left the fete with Mr. Penrith you went out on your motor-bicycle by the second road, which runs behind the hill. He — Polwin, that is — met you somewhere on the moors, and you asked him if he had seen Miss Stretton. He had not, as they had driven by the other road. Had you gone by that one, you would have caught them up. As it was, you gave the bicycle to Polwin and sent him on to Penrith Manor with a letter for Miss Stretton. Then you —’

‘Then I returned to St. Ewalds,’ continued Trevick quickly, ‘but not to the fete. Listen, Forde, and you, Dericka. I love Miss Stretton, I want to marry her. On the day of the fete had you not appeared I should have asked her to be my wife. But there was no time, and she went away with Penrith, who I knew was in love with her. I thought he might propose before I did and that I would lose Anne. I therefore wrote a hasty letter asking her to be my wife, and took my motor-bicycle, intending to catch her up and give her the letter.’

‘Was there any need of such a letter?’ asked Dericka pointedly. ‘You could have caught up Miss Stretton and proposed.’

‘What, when Penrith was there? How ridiculous you are, Dericka. I intended to slip the letter into her hand on some excuse and then return. Unfortunately I took the second road, whereas Penrith had driven home by the first road.’

‘Where the murder took place?’

‘Precisely. When I was on the second road, about opposite to this mine, I met Polwin coming across the hill from the quarries. I was tired, and asked him to take the motor-bicycle and follow up Miss Stretton. He consented. Then I walked home and strolled on the beach below the Manor House until dinner time.’

‘Why did you not return to the fete?’ asked Dericka.

The baronet’s pale cheek reddened.

‘I was in love, you see, Dericka, as I am now, and wished to think of the woman I loved. But you see I cannot prove an alibi, as no one to my knowledge saw me on the beach. Consequently, as Bowring, with whom I had quarrelled, was murdered at the time, I am in a dangerous position.’

‘Miss Stretton saw you on the bank near the granite mass which was afterwards heaved on to the road to smash Bowring’s motor.’

‘Forde!’ said the baronet, starting violently when the barrister made this speech. ‘Miss Stretton is my friend: she would not say that.’

‘Is it true, father?’

‘No, Dericka; on my soul it is not true. I acted as I said, and when Polwin went off on the motor I walked back to wander on the beach.’

Dericka looked at Forde, and he at her.

‘Strange!’ said the barrister, much puzzled. ‘I wonder, Sir Hannibal, if anyone was masquerading as you? Miss Stretton declares that she saw you.’

‘I don’t know who can or who did masquerade as me,’ said Trevick calmly, ‘but I assuredly was not near the scene of the murder at that time. But you had better tell me all you know, and then we may see light.’

‘I’ll tell you everything,’ said Forde, after a pause; ‘but in return you must be absolutely frank.’

‘I promise that. Go on.’

The barrister was obliged to be content with this curt promise, and therefore related all that had taken place since his arrival in St. Ewalds. He related the interview with Polwin, the visit of Morgan with the letter dropped by Miss Stretton in Anak’s hut, and finally detailed the strange story about Polwin, alias Krent, related by young Mrs. Bowring.

Trevick listened quietly, with his hand in that of his daughter, and did not interrupt until nearly the end of the story. Then his frequent interruptions showed how indignant he was. Finally, when Oswald had nearly, but not quite, concluded, his indignation took the form of words.

‘You have told quite enough,’ he said angrily; ‘Krent is my enemy.’

‘Oh,’ cried Dericka, ‘do you think that he killed Mr. Bowring?’

‘No,’ said Sir Hannibal sharply; ‘he and Bowring were hand in glove to ruin me. There is considerable truth in what Mrs. Krent says, and some truth in her husband’s story. Polwin, or Krent, or whatever he chooses to call himself, is a villain. He was in partnership with myself and Bowring in Africa, but we had to kick him out since he behaved so badly. He was always getting us into trouble with the natives.’

‘Is it true about the forged bills?’ asked Forde.

‘Perfectly true. But I never held them in terror over Bowring. I simply kept them so that he should not do me any harm. I don’t say that all the business I did over diamonds in Africa was altogether straight, but I was no worse than anyone else. Bowring knew everything, and frequently threatened to make use of his knowledge in St. Ewalds to ruin me. But I said that if he did I would prosecute him for forging the bills. The bills,’ repeated Sir Hannibal bitterly; ‘yes, Bowring forged them in an evil hour, and I obtained possession of them through Krent. Bowring was making all the money and had no need to forge; but he did it in order to bring off a big deal. I could not get the money from him, and consequently he became the millionaire, while I remained poor.’

‘But with the bills you could have got the money,’ suggested Forde.

‘No,’ said Trevick quietly. ‘I did not care about blackmail. I have done many wrong things, but not that, Forde.’

‘But if the money coming from sale of the diamonds was partly yours, Sir Hannibal, you should have received it.’

‘Quite so. When I was in Cape Town, and Bowring up in the Rand, he used my name by these forged bills to get money, and bought a lot of diamonds, intending to bolt. Through Krent, however —’

‘Call him Polwin, father; we will understand better.’

Sir Hannibal nodded and amended his statement.

‘Through Polwin I got hold of the bills and swore to prosecute Bowring should he try to clear out with the diamonds, half of which were rightfully mine. He agreed and stopped on. Then came the episode of the Death’s Head, and that to some extent placed me in his power.’

‘Father!’ cried Dericka, alarmed, ‘did you kill Moolu’s son?’

‘No. It was Bowring; but he and Polwin for their own ends put the blame on to me, and as the diamond which Moolu’s son possessed, and for which Bowring killed him, was in my possession, things looked black against me. Bowring gave me the diamond, and refused to take it back.’

‘Why did you not throw it away?’ asked Forde quickly.

‘My dear boy, the diamond was worth five thousand pounds and, moreover, my throwing it away would not have proved me innocent. Bowring fastened his own guilt on me, and Polwin was prepared to swear that I killed the Zulu. I left Africa almost as poor as I went out there, and settled in St. Ewalds. The rest of my life, Dericka, you know from personal observation.’

‘But surely Bowring gave you some money?’ said Forde, puzzled.

‘A little. I was in his power, as I tell you, as he was in mine. He could prove me guilty of murdering the Zulu, and I could prosecute him with the bills. And then’— Sir Hannibal hesitated —‘I may as well make a clean breast of it, Dericka. I sold Moolu’s diamond to keep things going here, so you see the chances were that had Bowring told his story I should have been proved guilty.’

‘How rash!’ sighed the girl, much disturbed by these unpleasant revelations; ‘but how did Mr. Bowring come to the Grange?’

‘I made him,’ said Trevick quickly and sharply; ‘things were at a deadlock, so I agreed to wait until Bowring’s death before getting back the money which should rightfully have been mine. In fact, to make him pay for what he had done, I insisted that he should leave me his whole fortune. He did so on the condition that Dericka should marry Morgan, but that condition was not embodied in the will. I made Bowring take the Grange so as to keep him under my own eye, and then Krent came home under the name of Polwin, and as he knew so much I had to engage him as my steward.’

‘But see here,’ said Forde, espying a flaw in the story, ‘Moolu believed that Bowring had killed his son.’

‘And Moolu was right,’ said Trevick bitterly; ‘he was cleverer than the white men, who believed me guilty. Oh, you need not look so surprised, Dericka,’ he added quickly; ‘there were certain suspicions against me, but with Bowring and Polwin people could prove nothing. But things were sufficiently unpleasant to make me leave Africa.’

There was a long pause, then Forde spoke.

‘The whole thing is very involved, Sir Hannibal, and although you are not free from blame, yet I for one believe you to be innocent. But this Death’s Head?’

‘I never knew that Polwin had it,’ said the baronet quickly, ‘and I quite believe that he would try to frighten Bowring with it. Moolu did tell Bowring that when he saw it three times he would die, and in Africa, to my knowledge, he saw it twice.’

‘Then it appears to me,’ said Forde slowly, ‘that as Polwin was the sole person who knew of the significance of the Death’s Head, and was the man who used it to prophecy Bowring’s death, that Polwin is the guilty party.’

Dericka shook her head.

‘No,’ she said, with great decision; ‘Polwin seemed puzzled as any of us over Mr. Bowring’s death according to what Jenny overheard. He might have used the Death’s Head to frighten Mr. Bowring, but I don’t see how he could have killed him.’

‘What do you think, Sir Hannibal?’ asked Forde, after reflection.

‘I agree with Dericka,’ said Trevick promptly. ‘Polwin had more use for Bowring alive than dead. While Bowring lived Polwin could, and did — as I happen to know — get money out of him.’

‘Can you suggest anyone who killed him?’

‘No; no more than I can suggest who masqueraded as myself.’

‘True,’ said Forde dryly, and rising, ‘for if you knew the masquerader you would know, as we should, who is the assassin. Well, Sir Hannibal, after hearing your story I agree with you that it will be best for you to remain here until such time as we can establish your innocence.’

‘But how is that to be done?’ asked Dericka, rising also.

‘Polwin is the person who can clear things up,’ said Forde, ‘and I intend to speak to him. Perhaps, Sir Hannibal, you can help us to force Polwin’s hand?’

The baronet shook his head.

‘No. I can say nothing against Polwin but what he can say something against me.’

‘See here,’ asked Forde sharply; ‘have you told us everything?’

‘Yes,’ said the baronet unhesitatingly. ‘I have been foolish, and perhaps even reckless, but I am not a criminal. Go away and think over things, then return and tell me what is best to be done. I am all right here; and, Dericka, bring me a bottle of port wine when you come again.’

With a heavy heart Dericka promised to do this, and the lovers took their way along the shaft and up the ladder again to the upper world.

‘Well?’ she asked Forde, when they were again descending the hill.

The young man shook his head. ‘I can make nothing of it at present,’ he declared, ‘and talk will only confuse us both further. Let us agree to leave the matter alone for a few days, Dericka, and then things may straighten themselves out.’

‘But my father?’

‘He will be all right where he is,’ said Forde, and no more was said for the time being.

And indeed next day they heard something which introduced a new element into the already mysterious case. The information came from no less a person than Mrs. Krent.

That good lady appeared at the Dower House late in the afternoon in a great state of perturbation, and asked to see Miss Trevick.

As luck would have it, Forde also was on the spot, paying his usual visit, and Mrs. Krent was ushered into the library, wherein the two lovers sat. Miss Quinton, feeling that two was company and three none, had gone out to pay a round of visits, so the lovers were quite alone. Dericka glanced nervously at Forde when she beheld the bulky form of Mrs. Krent.

‘I hope,’ said the housekeeper, throwing back her bonnet strings, and looking redder than ever, ‘that you, sir, and your young lady believe me when I say that I care nothing for money.’

‘Yes,’ said Forde signing that Dericka should be silent; ‘I think that is so, seeing how moderate your demands for money have been.’

‘Well, then,’ said Mrs. Krent, producing a blue envelope, ‘you could have knocked me down with a feather when I came across this,’ and she handed the document to Forde.

‘What is it?’ asked Dericka, while Forde opened the envelope.

‘My dear young lady, it’s a second will leaving everything to Morgan Bowring. Your father takes nothing, Morgan gets all.’

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