The Crowned Skull, by Fergus Hume

Chapter 24

A Thorough Rascal

With the sound of Mrs. Carney’s cries and curses in his ears Forde ran up the path after the fugitive, choosing at a venture the direction he had taken. In one moment he was swallowed up by the wet, clinging mist, which seemed to grow thicker and thicker as he stumbled upwards. It was imperative that he should catch Polwin, as he had a very shrewd idea that in Polwin he would find the assassin of Mr. Bowring. But if this was so, the thought struck him that Mrs. Carney would certainly have denounced the man she hated so, and from the few words which she had let drop Forde was certain that the old witch knew the truth. Then, again, he remembered that only this moment had Mrs. Carney learned that Polwin was her long-lost husband. Therefore, as she had plainly said to Morgan, there would have been no need to hang a man against whom she had no grudge.

Up and up climbed the barrister, keeping his ears alert for the slightest sound by which to trace the man. He rejoiced that the chance of bringing Polwin to book had thus come to pass, and hoped that by forcing the man to confess he would be enabled to save Sir Hannibal’s character and life. And he was certain that Polwin by this time was in deadly fear of his life, for not only was Forde on his track, but also Mrs. Carney would do her best to hound on Morgan to kill him, especially since Morgan already hated the steward. And Morgan Bowring, mad though he was, could be dangerous on account of that very madness.

The mist lay very densely on the hillside, and Forde could not see an inch before him. He was like an insect exploring a ball of cotton wool. The young man stumbled and fell and scratched his hand with brambles, and knocked his head against rocks, and mired his clothes by falling into marshy ground. And all the time, in spite of his vigilance, he could hear nothing of the man he was hunting. He was about to abandon the chase in despair when a miracle occurred.

The mist, it seemed, lay in swaths across the hills and the moors, and when he had reached a sufficient height he suddenly emerged into sunshine, with the blue sky overhead. Below lay the white sea of the fog hiding the valley, but up here, on the hilltop, everything was clear and calm and bright and warm. The hill, covered with heather and gorse and broom, bracken and ferns, mixed with long, wiry grasses, thrust itself upward from the milky mists. It was an island in the surrounding sea of vapour, and Forde felt even in his excitement that here he was quite isolated from the world. Then in the yellow radiance of the sun, which was shining strongly behind a lawny veil far down on the horizon, he saw a dark figure swiftly making for the cromlech on the hilltop, where, no doubt, there was a hiding-place. Without saying a word Forde put his will into his muscles and climbed up with wonderful rapidity.

Polwin saw him coming, and with a shout leaped deer-like from stone to stone, nearing his place of refuge with great speed. But Forde was at his heels, and when the cromlech was a stone-throw away he nearly touched him.

Polwin sprang up to the great Druidical monument, past it, and Forde followed, almost spent, but determined, even if he broke a blood vessel — which was not at all unlikely — to lay hold of the little villain. He raced past the cromlech and saw Polwin simply falling down the hillside, so out of breath he was, apparently making again for the friendly veil of the mist. Then all at once Polwin sat down — deliberately.

When the barrister came up with him he was pumped and purple in the face, yet nevertheless tried to appear cool. Puffing and blowing, the barrister stood over him.

‘Why — do — you — hunt — me?’ asked Polwin, panting heavily.

‘Because — I— want — to — get — at — the — truth,’ gasped Forde, and sat down plump beside his captive, as Polwin truly was. ‘Shut — up. I— want — to — get — my — breath,’ and again Forde puffed like a grampus.

For some minutes the two men sat side by side on the sunny hillside, trying to reduce the fevered beating of their several pulses.

Below, the mist slept like a lake surrounding the island of the hill, but in the blue sky they could hear, if not see, a lark pouring out his song of greeting to the sun, which was now emerging royally from the veiling fogs of the valley. Neither Morgan nor Mrs. Carney appeared to break the stillness with cries or curses, and the two men by tacit consent common to both waited in silence for a few minutes.

Polwin was the first to get his breath.

‘Why do you hunt me?’ he asked again, and breathing more easily.

‘That’s a long story,’ said Forde, more comfortable; ‘will you tell it to me or to your wife?’

‘Wife! What do you mean? I have no wife.’

‘Indeed! You have two, Mr. Polwin, alias Mr. Krent, alias Mr. Carney, and devil knows what alias besides.’

The little man did not even change colour — perhaps he could not, as his cheeks were already ruddy with the running. But he looked more meek than ever as he replied:

‘How can you prove that?’

‘Mrs. Krent can prove it, Mrs. Carney can prove it, Sir Hannibal Trevick can prove it.’

‘I don’t very well see how you can get at the last witness,’ said Polwin spitefully.

‘I dare say you don’t,’ said Forde, watchful of the man’s every action, for he guessed that Polwin was treacherous enough to knife him; ‘but Sir Hannibal is in these parts and you’re coming with me to see him.’

‘Trevick here!’ Polwin’s mean face lighted up with malignant joy; ‘ah, so much the better for the police.’

‘Oh, no, Mr. Polwin–Krent-Carney. It is you who will be arrested.’

‘And for what?’ inquired Polwin in a silky voice.

‘For the murder of John Bowring.’

‘You can’t prove that,’ and Polwin chuckled.

‘Yes, I can,’ said Forde, bluffing, ‘and I can prove also that you induced Morgan Bowring to set the Grange on fire. Also a charge of bigamy can be brought against you. Oh, there are plenty of reasons why you should be lodged in gaol.’

‘And suppose I decline to let myself be captured,’ said the man, who was beginning to lose his temper.

‘You are captured,’ said Forde swiftly, and before Polwin could see what was coming he flung himself forward. The next moment the two were rolling down the hillside and disappeared into the mist.

Then began an uncanny struggle. In the blinding white vapour they fought silently and viciously. Polwin scratched and bit like a woman, but Forde, making use of his ju-jitsu knowledge, managed to get the better of him, and avoided getting hurt. At last with an effort Polwin flung the young man aside, much in the same way as he had released himself from his wife, and made an attempt to run. Forde caught him by the ankle, and this time Polwin tumbled with a snarl, and with a long glittering knife in his hand. Forde struck at him between the eyes and grasped the wrist which held the weapon, but the blow missed, and Polwin got him down on his back. Silent, and savagely smiling, the steward made a jab at the prone man. Forde managed to swerve aside, and the knife came down flashing into the ground. As it did so Forde struck aside Polwin’s grip and felt the handle of the knife slip warmly into his own fingers. The steward with a snarl placed his left hand flat on the ground to tear himself away, and before he could take it up again Forde rolled over and pinned the hand to the ground. A scream of agony from the wounded man announced that the knife had gone clean through the back of the hand. Then Forde, disregarding Polwin’s whimpering, slipped from under him, and, still holding the knife, looked at his antagonist. By reason of that terrible knife Polwin could not struggle, and writhed there like a pinned cockchafer.

‘Take it out — take it out,’ he moaned, ‘I’ll tell you everything.’

‘No, you treacherous dog,’ panted Forde, glaring at him, ‘you’ll try this game on again with some other weapon.’

‘I have nothing — nothing else on me.’

Forde rose slowly and placed his foot on Polwin’s wrist, then carefully went through his pockets, while the steward cursed him like a prophet. Finding a revolver, he took charge of it, and then, pulling up the knife, he flung Polwin aside and sat down, pointing the weapon at his head, the knife, having done its useful work, being under him.

But there was no more fight in the steward. He bound up his wounded hand with his handkerchief and sullenly groaned with the pain. Below, in the mist, they heard the whimper of a human voice, and both men guessed that Morgan was hunting like a sleuth-hound for his enemy. Polwin for the first time turned craven.

‘Morgan Bowring! Don’t let him —’

In a flash Forde saw how the land lay. Polwin feared the madman, and the barrister took advantage of this to get him down to the Tregeagle mine to face Sir Hannibal.

‘Morgan,’ he said deliberately, ‘will kill you as soon as he sets eyes on you, and I dare say Mrs. Carney has armed him with a pistol or a knife. It is just the sort of thing she would do. In your condition, Mr. Polwin’— Forde glanced at the bleeding hand which the man was nursing in agony —‘I don’t think you’ll be able to fight a madman as you fought me.’

‘Don’t! Don’t!’ pleaded the steward, all his nerve gone; ‘I’m afraid of Morgan. He’s mad, and lunatics have such strength. Besides, you would not let him touch me, would you, Mr. Forde?’

‘Nothing would give me greater pleasure than to see Morgan sticking or shooting you,’ said Oswald grimly, ‘for you are at the bottom of all this trouble.’

‘No, no!’

‘I say yes, yes! You killed Bowring, you put it about that Trevick was guilty, you fired the Grange, indirectly, of course; and you are the gentleman who forged that second will.’

‘It’s a lie.’

‘I can prove otherwise. However, I’ll give you your choice: Either you can stay here and I’ll send Morgan along to deal with you as he wants to —’

‘Oh!’ Polwin uttered a low cry, like a tormented animal. ‘No, not that.’

‘Or else,’ went on the barrister pitilessly, ‘you must come with me to the Tregeagle mine to explain your doings to Sir Hannibal.’

‘He’s there, is he?’ muttered the steward, getting on to his feet; ‘if I’d known that —’

‘You’d have put the police on his track?’

‘Why not? Bowring left him the money, which is rightfully mine.’

‘You liar! As if I hadn’t heard the truth from Mrs. Krent —’

‘My wife doesn’t know the truth.’

‘Mrs. Krent is not your wife, and Krent is not your name. You are Hugh Carney, who has committed bigamy, arson, murder and forgery. A pretty catalogue of crime to place before a jury, sir!’

‘I can defend myself,’ whimpered Polwin, and again below they heard the low, animal-like cries of the madman hunting for his prey.

‘I’ll give you a chance of defending yourself to Sir Hannibal. Get on!’ And driving Polwin before him like a sheep, Forde went down the hill. He did not know where he was, but deemed that by walking downward in any direction he would certainly strike the high road. And once there, he could get into the path for the Tregeagle mine. Another cry near at hand sent Polwin away with his captor readily enough. It was strange that so bold and dangerous a man should be so afraid of an idiot, whom he knew so well. But Morgan was more than an idiot now. He was a homicidal maniac, and Polwin’s threat that he should be locked up had made him determined to kill Polwin. All the same, Forde wondered at the abject fear displayed by the villain. The sweat was pouring off the man’s forehead and cheeks as they dropped downwards in the mists, Forde holding Polwin’s arm in case he should escape.

Down and down they went amongst the briars and bracken and wet herbage, sometimes stumbling against a fence, or dropping into a ditch, or crashing against a huge granite stone. Finally, after half an hour, the mists grew thinner, and they came upon the high road. Across this the barrister guided his captive, and made him enter the stony track which led down to the grey tower of the Tregeagle mine. The air was quite clear here, but the band of mist still stretched between the sun and the earth. Above was fine weather, and below everything could be clearly seen, but the bank of mist stretched along the moors like a white cloud. And in that mist probably Morgan Bowring, hounded on by Mrs. Carney as one of the furies, was hunting.

Just as they dipped into the watercourse which did duty for a road to the mine a man came running up quickly in a lumbering way. He was Anak, who had emerged as they crossed the road from the quarries, which were close at hand.

‘What’s all this?’ shouted the big man.

Polwin’s eyes glittered, and he gave a wrench, as if to get away. But the next instant a revolver was at his ear and the barrister was speaking softly and rapidly:

‘Make Anak go with us to the mine, you dog,’ said Oswald savagely, ‘or I’ll blow your brains out.’

‘All right,’ muttered Polwin, ‘only don’t say that I’m his father.’

‘Doesn’t he know?’

‘No. He might kill me else. His devil of a mother has made him hate me. See, here he comes running up.’

‘What are you doing with Mr. Polwin?’ asked Anak threatening; ‘he is a friend of mine.’

‘He is more than a friend, he is your father,’ said Forde quickly.

Polwin gave a cry and tried to get away, but the barrister held fast to his shoulder, and he winced with the pain of his wounded hand.

‘What!’ cried Anak fiercely, ‘are you my father, who deserted —’

‘Shut up,’ interrupted Forde sternly, ‘and come with me to the Tregeagle mine, Carney. This man has to render an account of his actions.

‘To me,’ cried Anak; ‘I’ll kill him.’

‘There has been too much killing,’ said Forde, forcing the steward down the watercourse, ‘he has to explain himself to Trevick.’

‘To Sir Hannibal? Is he in the Tregeagle —’

‘Hold your tongue, Carney,’ cried the barrister imperiously, ‘and come with me. You have cherished wrong feelings against Sir Hannibal, as you will learn. All will be explained.’

‘Yes,’ said Polwin with a significant look at his son; ‘all will be explained.’

The big man changed colour and seemed to be somewhat dazed over the sudden discovery which the barrister had thrust upon him. They were still near the high road, and Polwin would have begun to argue in the hope of escaping. At that moment down the bank and out of the mist came Morgan in full cry. He carried an axe in his hand and leaped across the road with a bellow of rage when he saw the steward.

‘Stop him!’ cried Polwin, with a scream like that of a woman, and went tearing down the road to the mine dragging Forde after him at top speed. He was terrified for his life, and no wonder. Morgan, with his glittering eyes and disordered raiment and axe, looked anything but a safe man to tackle.

But Anak, although he could not guess what all this was about, opened his mighty arms, and into them ran the madman, blind with rage. Leaving the two to struggle together, Polwin and Forde raced on and came to the slippery black rocks over the grey rubble tower. Down went the steward, scrambling like a cat. Oswald allowed him to go by himself, as he saw that the man, crazy with terror, certainly would seek shelter in the mine as the lesser of two evils.

Forde, holding on to the tough grass, went over the black rocks also, and in a wonderfully short space of time the pair were standing under the shadow of the tower.

‘I know the mine! Come along!’ gasped the steward, hurrying round the corner amongst the fallen stones; ‘follow, follow!’

Forde did so, when unexpectedly the steward rolled on to the rocks and would have slipped over to certain death but that the barrister caught him back in time. Polwin was gnashing his teeth with pain and weakness, for with his wounded hand and loss of blood and mad haste scrambling down the cliffs he was about spent.

‘Here!’ he said, setting his teeth and stripping off his coat, ‘tie your handkerchief tightly round my arm or I’ll lose too much blood.’

The barrister saw the necessity of this, since the man’s bandaged hand was covered with blood. He bound his handkerchief tightly as a ligature round Polwin’s left arm above the elbow, and then assisted him to put on his coat. All the time Polwin, still terror-struck, kept glancing at the cliffs, expecting every moment to see Morgan with the axe.

‘Let’s get down,’ he muttered, running towards a gaping hole. ‘This is one way, and the most difficult, into the mine. The other slopes upward — the gallery, I mean — to within ten feet of the perpendicular shaft; this is straight all the way down. Look!’

‘No,’ said Forde, suspecting that the treacherous little man would push him over; ‘you go first.’

Polwin, with a look of baffled hate, did so, and considering his almost useless left hand, and pain and a certain amount of weakness, he went downward at a perfectly miraculous rate of speed. The thought of Morgan lent fictitious strength to his muscles, for no ordinary man in such a condition could have reached the bottom of that dangerous shaft without being smashed. As Forde himself followed he wondered how it would be possible to get up again.

The ladder had vanished, and the two went down holding on by decayed beams and projecting stones and obtaining precarious foothold where the crumbling of the sides had left niches. Silent and determined, they dropped down and down, until the blue sky was but a radiant speck at the end of a long tube.

Finally they alighted, so to speak, on the earth of the first level, which ran directly towards and under the ocean. Polwin, strangely enough, seemed to know the way well, and plunged forward unhesitatingly. But he did not get ahead of the barrister, who thought that it was time to put a check on this too great freedom. Seizing the man’s arm, he readjusted the useful revolver to his ear.

‘You know what you’ll get if you try to escape?’ he breathed hurriedly.

‘That’s all right,’ snapped Polwin, dragging forward; ‘I’m going in here only to willingly.’

‘To escape Morgan Bowring?’ sneered Oswald contemptuously.

‘And to settle accounts with Trevick,’ retorted the other.

There was evidently some devilment in the man’s mind, but not seeing what mischief he could do with a revolver at his ear, Forde permitted him, under restraint, to lead the way.

On and on they crawled in those nightmare regions, the steward apparently seeing in the dark like a cat. At all events, he never mistook the way or stumbled, and Forde, by holding on, got forward fairly well. Then he bethought himself of the signal and sang ‘Home, Sweet Home’.

Hardly had he got through a couple of lines when he heard a shout. A light appeared, then another, then a third, and the two men hurried towards this unexpected illumination.

‘Here — over here, Forde,’ cried Sir Hannibal loudly.

Still gripping his prisoner, the barrister stumbled onward, and when he came within the circle of triple lights, found himself facing not only Trevick, but Dericka and Miss Anne Stretton.

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