The Crowned Skull, by Fergus Hume

Chapter 21

Anne’s Defence

After that amazing accusation there ensued a silence. The few people who remained stood open-mouthed, looking from Miss Stretton to Penrith and from him to Anak, the accuser. Forde did not know how much to believe, and could gather no intelligence at all from the set expression of Miss Stretton’s face.

Penrith growled and cursed and swore under his breath, but he seemed to be somewhat cowed. And in the silence that was deep could be heard the spluttering of the dying fire and the murmuring drench of the steady rain.

But the situation had to ended somehow, and Forde rose to the occasion since no one else seemed to take the initiative.

‘We can’t stop here,’ he said sharply, offering his arm to the lady; ‘Miss Stretton, you come with me, and we will go to the Manor; Mr. Penrith can follow, and Carney.’

‘What do you want me for?’ asked Anak sulkily, and, as it seemed to Forde, looked round for a supporter, probably Polwin.

‘You must give your reasons for bringing this accusation. And you people,’ Forde turned to the gaping few, ‘can go home. Think nothing of what Carney says; it may not be true.’

‘It is true,’ roared the giant, clenching his fist.

‘It is a lie,’ growled Penrith again, ‘and,’ he also turned to the knot of watchers, ‘if I hear a single word against Miss Stretton or myself I’ll bring the scandal-monger into court. Come along, Forde, we’ll thrash this matter out.’

Those who remained shook their heads, and, despite Penrith’s threat, went to their several homes to discuss the matter. With Anne, the barrister took the path to Penrith Manor, and the young squire followed, with Anak slouching some yards behind him. For some time they walked on in silence, Anne clutching at Forde’s arm with the grip of a woman who is deeply moved. Presently, and strangely enough in so usually self-possessed a woman, her lips began to move, and she murmured to herself.

Forde, wishing to get to the bottom of things, had no compunction in listening.

‘I knew it would come to this,’ murmured Miss Stretton almost voicelessly, but Forde, keen-eared and observant, overheard.

‘Are you talking about the accusation?’ he asked softly.

Anne started.

‘What did I say?’ she asked. Then, when he told her, she nodded. ‘Yes. It’s just as well that things have come to this pass. I can now speak out.’

‘Then there is some truth in what Anak says?’

‘Yes and no. He saw — well, I will leave Mr. Penrith to explain.’

‘What has he got to do with it?’

‘Much, and yet nothing.’

‘You speak paradoxically.’

‘Everything connected with this murder case in paradoxical and mysterious, Mr. Forde.’ She paused and walked on more rapidly, almost dragging her companion after her, then spoke again. ‘I tell you one thing, Mr. Forde, when a man is in love he loses all sense of honour.’

‘Are you speaking of Penrith?’

‘Of whom else? The man worships me, and I— I can’t return his love, unfortunately for him, and for myself, too, perhaps. However, if I have been weak, I am now strong, and you will know all soon.’

‘I don’t think you have been weak seeing how you helped Sir Hannibal,’ said Forde quietly; ‘I presume I am right in saying that you warned him of the warrant and aided him to escape.’

‘Yes. I heard in St. Ewalds that Sir Hannibal was likely to be arrested, and knowing that he was innocent I wired to him that there was danger, and I advised him to meet me at Gwynne Station. He came, and then I took him to the Pengelly mine. He must leave that place of refuge now; there is a chance of his being found there.’

‘Who knows about it?’

Anne cast a glance over her shoulder. ‘Mr. Penrith.’

‘How did he find out?’

‘He followed me one day when I went to take food to Sir Hannibal.’

Forde turned this matter over in his own mind.

‘Miss Stretton,’ said he at length, ‘will you answer me one question?’

‘Yes, a dozen if you like. What is it?’

‘You believe Sir Hannibal to be innocent?’

‘I do.’

‘Yet you declared to me that you saw him on the bank and —’

‘And asked money in order to hold my tongue,’ she finished rapidly. ‘Quite so, and a nice opinion you must have had of me for, so to speak, attempting blackmail. But as you will learn shortly, Mr. Forde, I am, like the devil, not quite as black as I have painted myself.’

The lawyer heaved a weary sigh. ‘I don’t understand.’

Miss Stretton shrugged her shoulders as they halted before the porch of Penrith Manor. ‘I can explain briefly, Mr. Forde. I love Sir Hannibal with all my heart, and I am sticking at nothing to save him.’

‘Yet you practically accused him —’

‘To you, Mr. Forde, remember — to no one else, and it was necessary for me to do so for reasons which you will soon learn.’

At this moment Penrith, who was jealous of their prolonged conversation, came up behind them and walked into the porch. When the door was opened he addressed a few words to the servant, then turned to his three companions. ‘Come into the library,’ he said softly, ‘we shall be undisturbed there. No need to let my mother know of what this man says,’ he indicated Anak with his chin.

Forde obeyed in silence, but released his hold of Anne. She walked into the study through the door held open by her lover and sank into a chair near the fire, loosening her cloak with an air of weariness. Anak came in after Forde, heavy-footed, and sullen, taking off his cap with a degree of breeding scarcely to be expected from so lowly-born a man. Then Penrith closed the door and faced the quarryman with a dogged look in his eyes and with his bulldog jaw protruding dangerously.

‘Now, then, Carney,’ he said in his heavy voice, which sounded like that of a bear with a cold, ‘you can explain what you mean by bringing such an accusation against me and Miss Stretton.’

‘Oh, I’m only too glad,’ retorted Anak, leaning his huge form against the wall, and looking a fine animal, if somewhat bovine.

‘One moment before you begin,’ said Forde, looking up from his seat; ‘did not Polwin put you up to this?’

Anak started and looked quite taken aback. ‘I don’t see why you should say that, sir,’ he grumbled.

‘I believe that Polwin overheard what Miss Stretton was saying to me, Carney, and to get her into trouble made you accuse her at so very inopportune a moment.’

‘Why should Mr. Polwin wish to get the lady into trouble?’

‘Because Mr. Polwin, as you call him, is mixed up in this matter of the murder, and Miss Stretton — as Polwin thought from the few words he caught — knows more about him than he thinks safe. Polwin, to put it plainly, wishes to be first in the field with an accusation in case he should be accused himself.’

‘Do you say, then, Forde, that Polwin killed Mr. Bowring?’ asked Penrith.

‘I say nothing,’ rejoined the barrister swiftly, ‘because I am practically in the dark. Let Anak speak. Then Miss Stretton can explain.’

‘There is nothing for Miss Stretton to explain,’ snarled the squire, and stared at her steadily.

Anne looked up, her fine face white and drawn. ‘I shall tell everything I know, Ralph,’ she said quietly.

‘You know what will happen if you do?’ he warned her.

She bowed her head and turned to Anak. ‘Go on,’ she said steadily.

The big quarryman looked sheepish, and his eyes fell before those of the beautiful woman he threatened. Standing on one leg and then on the other, he twisted his cap in his hands, turning over a blade of grass in his mouth, as though he did not quite know how to begin. At length he burst out unexpectedly:

‘Well, then, it was Mr. Polwin who asked me to speak out,’ he declared defiantly. ‘I told Mr. Polwin what I saw, and he told me to hold my tongue till the time came to be free with my speech. While I was working at the fire he pointed out the lady and the squire, saying that now the two were together it would be the best time to say what they had been doing.’

‘Well,’ said Forde coldly, ‘and what have they been doing; murdering John Bowring?’

‘Oh, no, I can’t say that,’ said Anak gruffly; ‘I only saw them about the place just before the motor-car arrived.’

‘Perhaps you will explain more fully,’ said Forde icily. He felt sure that the big man was but the mouthpiece of Polwin, who was the arch-demon of the whole terrible business.

Anak gave his blade of grass another turn. ‘I was working at the quarry on that day,’ he said heavily, ‘and had to go to mother’s place to get some dynamite I’d left behind. I was coming down the path, and a mist was dropping over the moor. Just a stone-throw from the bank where the granite mass was I heard a crash —’

‘The mass falling?’ said Penrith, sarcastically.

‘Yes, though I didn’t know it at the time. You can leave it to an old quarryman like me to tell the sound of falling rocks. But I heard the crash and didn’t pay much attention to it, thinking it had to do with the quarry.’

‘The place of the fallen mass being in quite the contrary direction, my good man,’ said Anne coolly.

‘Well, Miss, it was misty, and sound does play some queer tricks on the moors, you know. I mistook the direction of the sound. Then I saw you, Miss, on the path: you brushed past me, and nearly touched me. You looked frightened.’

‘Did you see me also?’ asked Penrith scoffingly.

‘No, I didn’t — on the bank, I mean. But I followed the young lady, wondering what she was doing in the mist, and saw you running up to the cart on the road. Then she got in with you and you drove away. But you came back when you heard the shot.’

‘Ah!’ said Anne, suddenly looking up, ‘take a note of that, Mr. Forde. He declares that I upset the granite mass, but apparently does not think that I fired the shot which really killed Mr. Bowring.’

‘I don’t say you upset the granite,’ said Anak gruffly, ‘but the squire, here, did.’

‘You admitted that I was in the trap,’ said Penrith smartly.

‘No, I didn’t,’ rejoined the big man quickly; ‘I said that you were running up to the cart. You had run down, I take it, just before the young lady. I believe you did the business.’

Penrith shrugged his shoulder and turned to Forde.

‘Well, and what do you think of this?’ he asked politely.

‘I’ll wait to hear what Miss Stretton has to say before giving an opinion,’ said Oswald equally politely.

‘Miss Stretton has nothing to say,’ said Penrith masterfully.

‘Oh, yes, I have,’ said Anne sharply, ‘and the time has come to say it, Ralph. Please be silent,’ she added, waving her hand as he opened his mouth to speak again. ‘First I will dispose of this accusation of Carney’s.’ She turned to the quarryman, who was watching her intently. ‘You are both right and wrong,’ she said quietly. ‘Mr. Penrith was driving me to this place to stop the night with his mother; when we rounded the curve beyond where the murder took place I made him stop the dog-cart as I wished to climb the path and see your mother. I left Mr. Penrith in the dog-cart and went up alone. However, the mists came on, and I feared to lose the path, which is not very clear when you get right on the moor. I therefore changed my mind and came down. I did so the more willingly as I also heard the crash and thought that they were blasting at the quarry and that I might get hurt. I did not see you when I ran down the path, but I quite believe you when you say that I looked frightened. I was frightened because of what I took for the blasting, but which, as you say, was the granite mass being upset to smash up the car.’

‘Let me go on,’ said Penrith when she stopped for breath. ‘I let Miss Stretton go alone to Mrs. Carney’s as she wished to. But after a time, seeing the mist was coming on, I thought she might miss her way or grow afraid. I therefore tied the horse to a tree and went up the path. I saw her coming down, and ran back to the cart. We then got in after she had explained, and drove on. We heard the shot not many minutes later, and came back. Your accusation is all rubbish, Carney. Both Miss Stretton and myself are innocent; we had no reason to kill Bowring.’

‘Did you hear the crash of granite?’ asked Forde, while Anak looked more sheepish than ever at this clear explanation.

‘Yes,’ said Penrith, readily enough, ‘but I also thought it might be some blasting operations. I have often heard similar sounds when I drove past the quarries. But probably Carney is right. The motor-car of Bowring must have been seen coming up, since it was not so far behind us. Then the assassin upset the granite rock in time to smash up Bowring. Failing that, he pistolled him; and you will observe, Forde,’ added Penrith sneeringly, ‘that Mr. Carney, here, quite exonerates me from the shooting.’

Forde bowed and accepted the explanation, which was perfectly logical and to the point. Then he turned to the quarryman: ‘Well?’

Carney slouched towards the door. ‘I have nothing more to say, sir,’ he said sulkily; ‘I saw what I saw, and they’ve explained.’

‘Well, then, you can now explain to your friend, Mr. Polwin,’ said Forde sharply, ‘and, hark you, Carney, if you really believed Miss Stretton and Mr. Penrith guilty why did you lead the mob to storm the Dower House?’

‘I thought Mr. Penrith upset the granite,’ said Anak readily, ‘but that Sir Hannibal had fired the shot.’

‘You have no grounds for such belief,’ said the barrister coldly; ‘and now you can go. It will be better if you contradict this accusation to those people at the fire who overheard, else you will get into trouble.’

Anak nodded and hung his head. ‘I’ve made a fool of myself,’ he grunted.

‘Oh, no; Mr. Polwin has made a fool of you.’

The quarryman looked oddly at Forde as though about to say something, but finally changed his mind and tramped heavily out of the room.

Not until they heard the front door clang behind him did Penrith speak, and then addressed himself to Anne solicitously.

‘Will you not go to my mother now?’ he asked with the air of a protecting lover.

Anne rose and turned her back on him. ‘Mr. Forde,’ she said, very distinctly, ‘you have a trap here?’

‘Yes; I told it to come down to the Manor. It is at the gate.’

‘Will you drive me back to St. Ewalds?’

‘Willingly — but —’ Forde glanced at Penrith much puzzled.

That young man looked white and anxious.

‘Anne, what are you going to say?’ he demanded.

‘I am going to tell Mr. Forde what a gallant gentleman you are. And when I do, I shall leave this house for ever.’

Penrith advanced fiercely. ‘You hold your tongue,’ he said hoarsely.

‘Pardon, Mr. Penrith,’ said Forde, edging between them, ‘you are hustling Miss Stretton. Please stand back.’

‘In my own house?’

‘In your own house,’ said Oswald, bland but watchful, ‘where you should be more polite than in any other place.’

‘Anne!’ Penrith turned again to Miss Stretton, and his voice took on an imploring tone; ‘say nothing. I was mad at the time I spoke.’

‘At the time you threatened me,’ she said fiercely.

‘And I threaten you now,’ he cried savagely; ‘remember, I know who is in the Pengelly mine.’

‘Ah,’ cried Forde rapidly, ‘then hold your tongue.’

‘If she holds hers.’ He pointed to Anne.

‘I’ll speak out at all cost,’ cried the woman desperately; ‘I am weary of all this underhanded business, and I must right myself in Mr. Forde’s eyes. Listen!’

‘Go on, then,’ cried Penrith, flinging himself into a seat and gnawing his moustache; ‘but remember that your lover Sir Hannibal will be in gaol tomorrow for this.’

‘Better in gaol than at the mercy of such a cur as you,’ said Anne gathering her cloak round her fine figure. ‘Look at him, Mr. Forde; this gallant gentleman says that he loves me.’

‘And I do, I do.’

‘He loves me so greatly,’ she resumed with scorn, ‘that he jealously followed me to the Pengelly mine and learned, from listening, that Sir Hannibal was hidden there. When I returned here this gallant gentleman declared that if I did not state to you, who had charge of the case, that I had seen Sir Hannibal on the bank, and demand money to hold my tongue, that he would denounce his rival.’

‘Is this true?’ asked Forde, turning to the squire.

‘Yes,’ admitted Penrith, sulkily. ‘I am hard up. I want money and I want Anne, there. I could get both by frightening you about Trevick having been seen on the bank.’

‘And it is not true?’

‘No more true,’ said Miss Stretton steadily, ‘than it is that I wanted money to hold my tongue about a thing which I had never seen.’

‘Then what you said to Carney is true?’ asked Forde rejoicing.

‘Quite true. I did all that I stated to him, and Mr. Penrith, as you may have observed, endorsed my story to save his own skin. But neither he nor I saw Sir Hannibal. He made me say that under a threat of denouncing Sir Hannibal in order to get money.’

Forde looked at Penrith, who still gnawed his moustache, beaten, silent, and angry. Then he offered his arm to Miss Stretton.

‘Allow me to conduct you to the trap,’ he said ceremoniously.

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