The Crowned Skull, by Fergus Hume

Chapter 22

The Red Skull

It will be remembered that the trap of which Forde spoke really belonged to Mrs. Krent. But the Grange having been burnt down, the driver was quite willing to return to St. Ewalds with Forde on the promise of a small sum. He should have obeyed no orders but those of his mistress, but the fire had demoralised all the domestics of the destroyed house. The man was waiting patiently enough when Forde, with Anne Stretton on his arm, made his appearance through the big gates, which were surmounted by the Penrith crest.

Oswald drew Anne back as she was about to mount the trap.

‘Wait a bit,’ he called to the driver. ‘Miss Stretton,’ he added in a lower tone, ‘will you go by yourself to St. Ewalds?’

‘Yes. I know this boy who drives, and I am not afraid. But I thought that you were coming.’

‘No.’ He brought his mouth close to her ear: ‘Remember what our friend within threatened about Trevick? The mine will be searched tomorrow; I must go up and get him away to-night.’

‘Yes, yes. You are wise. But cannot I come also?’

‘No. You must think of yourself. Go back with the boy. I’ll return to St. Ewalds and see you tomorrow, when all is safe. Meanwhile you can tell everything to Miss Trevick.’

‘I’ll do so in the morning.’ She paused, reflected, then whispered, ‘Take Sir Hannibal to Tregeagle shaft, near the sea. He knows where it is, as we explored it one day when I was out sketching. It is rather a dangerous mine, as there is every chance that the ocean may break in because the crust is so thin. But he will be safe there. Ralph will not think of looking for him in such a place.’

‘But if it is dangerous,’ said Forde hesitating.

‘All the more reason for Sir Hannibal to go. No one, Ralph Penrith least of all, will think that he is hidden there. Besides, the sea has not broken in yet, and he will be safe enough there for a few days until we can get him out of the country.’

‘All right,’ assented the barrister, ‘but tell me, Miss Stretton, did Penrith really propose this infamous blackmail?’

‘Yes,’ she said earnestly; ‘I assure you that he is desperately hard up. He has made a fool of himself with wasting money, and is breaking his mother’s heart with his behaviour. He will have to sell the Manor, which is already mortgaged. He knew that the money was left to Sir Hannibal and thought to get it by the threat he made me use. And you can understand that I consented, since it was the only chance of saving Sir Hannibal.’

‘I understand. But why did you let me have so bad an opinion of you when by telling the truth —’

‘How could I tell the truth when you did not believe in me and were influenced by Miss Trevick in thinking that I was an adventuress, Mr. Forde? Now that she is willing that I should marry her father I feel that I must right myself in your eyes. I don’t wonder you thought badly of me. Ralph’s suggestion was infamous, but, as I say, I adopted it to prevent the worst coming to pass.’

‘Well, then, we’ll beat Mr. Penrith,’ said Forde grimly; ‘he’ll search the Pengelly mine tomorrow with the police only to find that his bird has flown. And I can’t say, Miss Stretton, how much I respect and admire you for the noble way in which you are behaving.’

‘Ah, I am in love with Sir Hannibal, remember,’ said Anne smiling faintly as Forde stooped in the gloom and kissed her hand; ‘and now, good-bye, I am quite worn out.’

‘No wonder,’ said Forde, helping her into the trap. Then he gave the boy a sovereign. ‘Take care of Miss Stretton, William,’ he said significantly. ‘Have you a carriage rug? — ah, yes’— he wrapped it round Anne carefully. ‘Now, good-bye, Miss Stretton, and remember to tell Miss Trevick what I told you.’

‘Yes,’ said Anne in a tired voice, and then the trap drove slowly away into the darkness, leaving Forde wondering how he was to find a path over the dark moors, and on a desperately wet night, to the Adullam Cave of the poor fugitive, Sir Hannibal Trevick.

However, he thought it unwise to linger round the gate of Penrith Manor, as at any moment the squire, urged by the devil of unrest, might appear to see if Miss Stretton had really driven into St. Ewalds. But Oswald thought after some reflection that probably Penrith, to drown his disappointment and showing up, would indulge in deep drinking. Nevertheless he walked briskly away from the gate and up the ascending road which led on to the highway running to St. Ewalds. On coming out with Mrs. Krent he had taken the precaution of putting on a heavy overcoat, and not having changed for the evening, was in breeches and gaiters. Therefore he was fairly well prepared to face a midnight scramble amongst the streaming moors. And it was now quite twelve o’clock, since the fire had taken so long. He remembered that he had left the Dower House somewhere about five, and as he had not eaten anything since afternoon tea he felt most uncommonly hungry. However, it would not do to trouble about that when his future father-inlaw’s liberty was at stake. So Forde, lighting his pipe to assuage the pangs of hunger, took his lonesome journey up amongst the dark hills. It was quite an adventure.

It was lucky for Forde that he was not a superstitious man, for when the rain stopped falling and a rising wind swept the sky sufficiently for a haggard moon to peer out, the scene around him was weird in the extreme. He had taken the way he knew best, which was the path by which he and Dericka had ascended to visit the mine.

It was a narrow sheep-walk winding deviously amongst the ferns and grass and bracken. The cold glimmer of the moon revealed monstrous forms crouched around in the soaking herbage. Forde knew that they were but stones, yet they looked misshapen and uncanny enough to be gnomes and kobolds and pixies watching angrily the human being who dared to invade their domain. A poet would have found much food for reflection in the half-seen, and perhaps would have been more than a trifle scared. But Oswald, not being poetical by nature, smoked on steadily and climbed the steep path without stopping. There is some use in being unimaginative after all.

Shortly — at least, Forde thought so as he took no count of time — the young man arrived at the cromlech, and saw, dark against the glimmering sky, the tall, slender column of the chimney. This was the landmark over the mine, and he knew that he had not far to go. Stumbling and groping his way — for a cloud was hiding the moon — he reached the ruins of the houses built above the mouth of the mine. Then he stood on the brink of that dark pit and prepared to descend. It was not a very pleasant thing to do, and required some courage, for Sir Hannibal, as he had been advised by Dericka, possessed a revolver with which to protect himself, and would not scruple to use it. However, for Dericka’s sake the venture had to be made, so the young man placed his feet on the wet rungs of the ladder and slowly dropped into the velvet darkness. To make sure that he would be recognised, and knowing that no stranger could possibly be within earshot in such a locality, Forde began to sing, very much out of tune, but with the best intentions, ‘Home, Sweet Home’, and wished that he was there with all his might. Indeed, when he reached the first level, where Sir Hannibal was lodged, he stopped to laugh quietly at the irony of the tune, for that struck him afresh. Then remembering a possible shock on coming upon a newly-awakened and terrified man, he began to sing loudly, and the baritone voice boomed heavily along the rabbit burrow which was called a gallery.

The signal was successful, for shortly he saw the usual star which showed that Sir Hannibal had rounded the curve with a candle. It gleamed like a yellow diamond in the gloom, and Forde shouted as loudly as did Achilles over the trench to scare the Trojans.

‘It is I, Forde,’ he cried at the top of his voice; ‘don’t be afraid,’ and then he went stumbling forward towards the gleam, barking his shins against projections from the walls and knocking his head against the low, rocky roof. Shortly he stumbled fair on Trevick.

‘Good heavens!’ gasped Sir Hannibal, whose face was grey with fear; ‘I have been frightened to death.’

‘Yet you might have guessed that I was a friend from the singing.’

‘Someone might have got hold of the signal,’ said Trevick, recovering his nerve somewhat, and leading the way to his den, ‘what are you doing here at this time of the night?’

‘I have much to tell you,’ said Forde, squatting on the grass bed from which Sir Hannibal had just risen, ‘but first give me some food, Trevick; I am starved to death.’

‘Here’s some bread and cheese and a flask of whisky.’

‘That will do. Hurrah! I haven’t had a bite for hours,’ and Forde fell to with an excellent appetite. ‘I’m fagged to death scrambling over those moors,’ he added with his mouth full, ‘and we have a long journey before us yet.’

Trevick had lighted a very excellent cigar, but it dropped from his nerveless fingers as his face paled. ‘What’s up now?’

‘Oh, it’s all right; don’t alarm yourself,’ said Forde soothingly; ‘but you’ll have to clear out of this place and take refuge in another mine. Penrith knows where you are, he followed Miss Stretton here, and threatens to give the show away tomorrow.’

‘Ah! He is my rival, I knew that he would harm me if he could,’ said Sir Hannibal, recovering his cigar, ‘but I don’t quite understand.’

‘You will shortly. Give me a match, I want to light my pipe. Oh, I have heaps and heaps of news for you. The Grange is burnt down.’

‘What!’ Trevick again started and stared. ‘Impossible!’

‘Not at all. It seems that Morgan Bowring was playing with fire and threw some matches about — at least, that is Polwin’s story. However, the old house is gone: nothing is left standing but four walls.’

‘Will my misfortunes never end?’ said Trevick desperately.

‘Yes, and soon. The darkest hour is before dawn, remember. And, after all, Trevick, you have won the love of a really good, clever woman.’

‘Are you speaking of Miss Stretton?’

‘I am. But I’d better tell you from the beginning,’ and then the young man related the visit of Mrs. Krent about the new will, detailed how he had come to be present at the fire, and finished with an account of the interview in Penrith’s library.

‘What do you think, Trevick?’ he asked when he had finished.

Sir Hannibal put his hands to his aching head. ‘I am quite bewildered, Forde. I don’t know what to say. But one thing is clear; I must get away.’

‘To the Tregeagle mine, near the shore. Miss Stretton advises that place,’ said Oswald rapidly.

Trevick drew back with a gasp. ‘It’s dangerous — the sea —’

‘Yes, yes!’ interrupted the other impatiently; ‘all the safer so far as your liberty is concerned. No one will think you are such a fool as to hide in so dangerous a place. We must get away before dawn. In the meantime, with your permission, I’ll take a short nap. Wake me about six o’clock and we’ll journey to the Land of Goshen.’

Sir Hannibal nodded, and the barrister, who was dropping with fatigue, threw himself full length on that grassy bed and closed his eyes. In less than five minutes his snores proclaimed that he was enjoying a thorough rest.

Trevick still smoked and sat by the smouldering fire upon which he had placed some fresh fuel. He thought of the whole miserable business in which he was involved, and after thinking everything well over he had to confess that his troubles were of his own making. Had he behaved well in South Africa he would not have got into Bowring’s clutches and thus have become the prey of the rascally Krent, alias Polwin. Certainly the money had come to him, but now even that was gone. ‘But I can’t believe that the second will is genuine,’ said Sir Hannibal half aloud, as he watched the dying embers; ‘it might be, though. Bowring was just the man to sell me in that way.’

He said something like this to Forde when, some few hours later, the two, climbing the shaft with bundles on their backs, stole across the moors in the reddening flush of dawn. The morning was clear, the sun shining after the rain, and the breaking light revealed the beauty and mystery of the wide moorlands. Overhead was a steel-hued sky flecked with still clouds, and eastward broke the glorious dawn like a freshly budding rose. But the two men had little time to watch the silent workings of Nature, as they wished to reach the Tregeagle mine by the shore before it grew much later. The quarrymen rose early to their work, and since they were inspired by Anak to believe Sir Hannibal guilty, he assuredly would meet with a short shrift from anyone he might chance upon. The two wayfarers therefore put their best legs foremost and hurried down to where the ocean gleamed rosy with the dawn-lights.

‘About that will,’ said Trevick, as their feet brushed away the heavy dew and they dropped steadily shoreward, ‘do you think it is genuine?’

‘No,’ said Forde briskly, for he felt much better after the rest and food. ‘In the first place Polwin has been dodging about the Grange and might have hidden it: in the second, the two witnesses are discharged servants who defended him last night, and therefore must be his instruments; and thirdly, Polwin knows that if Mrs. Krent is made the trustee for the money he can get what he wants out of her. If she hadn’t been made the trustee I might have thought the will genuine, but a clever man like Bowring would scarcely have chosen an illiterate woman for such a post. Polwin by appointing Mrs. Krent, his dearly beloved wife, has shown his hand rather too plainly.’

‘Still,’ said Trevick doubtfully, ‘it is just the sort of trick Bowring would have loved to play me.’

‘I dare say, and for all I know there may have been a genuine second will in the house. If so, it is destroyed, and this one will not stand water. I’ll show it to Gratton and take his opinion. You will have the money after all, Sir Hannibal.’

‘Dericka has it; I have given it to Dericka.’

‘Nonsense. Neither I nor Dericka need so much. When you are cleared of this charge you can come back and marry Miss Stretton and use the money to re-establish the family.’

‘I don’t deserve such good fortune,’ sighed the baronet penitently.

‘There,’ said Forde, somewhat mercilessly, ‘I quite agree with you. But I think, Trevick, that you have been punished for your follies, so I shall say no more. You may depend upon my doing my best to clear your character in every way. It is my opinion that everything lies with Polwin.’

‘I think so also,’ assented the baronet; ‘if you could bring Polwin to the Tregeagle mine I might make a bargain with him.’

Forde turned suddenly, with an approving look on his dark face.

‘That isn’t a bad idea,’ he said musingly; ‘I’ll see what I can do.’

‘Only don’t let Polwin give me away.’

‘He’ll have to give himself away first,’ said the young man grimly; ‘here we are at the seashore, Trevick. You take the lead and show me where the mine is.’

Sir Hannibal nodded and went carefully down the slippery slope to where the black rocks frowned over the clear waters. On the verge he pointed to a square tower built of rubble, standing about thirty feet above sea-level.

‘Behind that is the mouth of the mine,’ he said.

Forde drew back. ‘I don’t wonder it is dangerous. Good heavens, it is on the very verge of the ocean!’

‘It is under the ocean itself,’ said Trevick dryly; ‘a rich mine, Forde, which had to be abandoned on account of the danger of working it. However, it will afford me a refuge for a time. Give me that other bundle and I’ll climb down.’

‘Shall I not come?’ asked Forde, unslinging the bundle of food and giving it to his companion.

‘No; you had better get back before there is a chance of anyone meeting you, so that no suspicion may be aroused. Good-bye!’ And without further words Trevick began to descend towards the grey tower. Forde watched him for a few minutes, then remembering that precious time was passing, he briskly turned on his heel and made for the uplands with all haste. Now that Sir Hannibal was safe and off his hands, at the worst he could say that he had come out for a morning walk to explain his presence on the moors.

He had intended to walk straight to St. Ewalds in order to advise Dericka of her father’s safety. But when he passed the quarries he heard a shout, and shortly Morgan came dancing towards him. The idiot had apparently been out all night also, as his clothes were damp and covered with bits of grass and bracken. He was not his usual merry self, for his eyes gleamed with anger, and he flourished his arms in a threatening manner. Forde placed himself on his guard when he saw this maniac rushing towards him, but Morgan’s intentions were quite pacific. He came up with a run, and eyed Oswald earnestly.

‘Why aren’t you at the Manor House?’ asked the barrister.

‘He would lock me up,’ babbled the idiot fiercely; ‘yes, I heard it last night. He would part me from Jenny: he would lock me up. But I know what to do. I have it — I have it — I have it.’

‘Have what?’ asked Forde wonderingly.

‘Come and see — in Mother Witch’s hut.’ And Morgan swarmed like a monkey up the steep path which led to Mrs. Carney’s abode.

Oswald followed, as he thought that from Morgan’s babblings he might learn something.

‘Who will lock you up?’ he asked the poor creature, ‘not Jenny?’

‘No, no! But that wicked man mother hates. Polwin — oh, yes, Polwin.’

‘I thought that you liked him, Morgan?’

‘I did. He was kind to Morgan: he gave Morgan toys, and gave him drink — when — when —’ He stopped, and an expression of cunning overspread his pale face. Then he began to scramble upward again. ‘But by it I can curse him, and Mother Witch can’t do ghostly things while Anak is with her. But today we will curse Polwin, and then he won’t lock me up. No! No! No!’

More convinced than ever that he was on the verge of discovering something, Forde climbed briskly after the insane man. In a short space of time he arrived at the small plateau before the humble hut of Mrs. Carney. The door was open, and into the house Morgan rushed, gibbering like a baboon. Forde, not knowing what he was about to do, waited outside. There was a sound of angry, shrill cries within, and then the idiot rushed out, followed by Anak’s mother, terribly angry and using extremely bad language.

‘With this we will curse him,’ cried the idiot, tossing a red object like a ball into the air, ‘his bones will waste — his brain will boil. He’ll be struck with evil things, and Morgan will dance and dance over his grave.’ He stopped and turned pompously towards the barrister. ‘I am Herodias’s daughter, and this is the head of John the Baptist,’ he said; ‘see how I dance,’ and he began to throw himself about in a mincing way. Quickening his steps, he grew excited and tossed about rapidly the red round object which looked like a football. This terrible performance was ended by the red ball rolling to Forde’s feet. Then the young man uttered a cry of amazement.

He saw before him the scarlet-hued, silver-crowned Death’s Head of Moolu’s son.

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