The Crowned Skull, by Fergus Hume

Chapter 3

Queer Evidence

The violent death of John Bowring caused, as was natural, an immense sensation in the district. Not only because crime was comparatively rare in those sparsely-inhabited parts, but also on account of the position and great wealth of the victim. The news ran like wildfire through the countryside, and the local reporters gathered like vultures round the famous corpse. But the evidence they picked up was scanty, as the police, ignorant themselves of many things, were reticent. No one knew why Bowring had been murdered, but there was a grim determination about the crime which revealed very clearly that the assassin had made up his mind that the millionaire should not escape. Failing with the granite rock, he had made certain with the revolver, and therefore must have had some extremely strong motive to induce him to place, so to speak, his neck twice in the hangman’s noose.

Then came out the fact of the sealed letter. Anne Stretton might have chattered, or some of the quarrymen to whom she read the single prophetic line might have told the story, or Miss Sophia Warry, proud of her powers, might have boasted of her achievement. No one knew exactly how the rumour got about, but certainly within four-and-twenty hours there were few people who had not heard of the strangely-fulfilled prophecy, and this introduction of a psychic element gave the case a weird interest, which removed it from the category of commonplace crime.

The body was taken by the quarrymen to Trevick Grange, which stood a couple of miles from the scene of death, amongst the wild Cornish moors. It was a rambling, two-storey house of rough grey stone, roofed with bluish slates, and covered with ivy and lichen, as though it were indeed natural to the soil. The mansion amidst its circle of wind-clipt trees, and fronting the changeful waters of the Atlantic, looked picturesque, but uncommonly grim; as autochthonic as the early British dwellings further up the moorlands. For centuries the Trevicks had dwelt there, and not always in the most reputable way; but pecuniary necessities had forced the present baronet to let the family seat to John Bowring, and retire to the more cheerful Dower House at St. Ewalds. So the body of the millionaire, who in life had lorded it under the ancient roof, was placed in the guest chamber, and the house was given over to a mourning atmosphere, which suited its sinister looks.

Of course, Sir Hannibal was greatly shocked. He and the dead man had not been very good friends, although they had passed through many adventures in the waste lands of South Africa. All the same, it was terrible to think that a man full of life and health and ambitious schemes should so suddenly be removed from the physical sphere, and in so horrible a manner. Also, Sir Hannibal recognised that he had lost a good tenant. No one would pay him so excellent a rent; and, moreover, the solitary situation of Trevick Grange rendered it somewhat difficult to let, even at a moderate price. Sir Hannibal, being intensely selfish, was sorry for John Bowring, but he was more sorry for himself, and grumbled greatly as he drove out to the inquest with Dericka and Miss Warry. The last-named lady had come by particular request, as the coroner wished to know how she has so accurately foretold the death of the millionaire; and Dericka accompanied her old governess to support her in the ordeal. Not that Miss Warry anticipated trouble when being examined, for she was rather glad to display her cleverness; but she felt that Dericka would be a comfort to her at so proud a moment.

And along the road beside them streamed carts and carriages and motor-cars and bicycles of all kinds. Everybody seemed to be going to the old Grange, being drawn there mostly by morbid curiosity. The place where the death had happened was like a fair, as sightseers were exploring every inch of the ground, and some enterprising individuals had erected tents for the sale of refreshments. The granite rock itself had been blasted to atoms as it impeded the traffic, but the place whence it had fallen could be seen in the jagged rent overhead and the raw earth, which gaped through the heather. Some wiseacres insisted that the mass had fallen of its own accord, as wind and rain and sunshine had undermined its foundations; but others pointed out that the stone must have been purposely pushed over the cliff, whereon it had been balanced, since the herbage around was trampled and broken. And from the position of the rock, as it was remembered, a powerful man with an iron lever could easily have overturned the same to crash down on the highway below.

‘Who the dickens can have done it?’ mused Sir Hannibal, as with his party he drove through the chattering crowd.

‘We cannot tell until the inquest is over,’ said Dericka.

‘And perhaps not even then,’ piped Miss Warry, casting a side glance at the baronet, whom she greatly admired. ‘No one was about the road at the time.’

‘The quarry is near at hand,’ suggested Miss Trevick; ‘perhaps the men working there may have seen someone.’

‘So far as that goes,’ remarked Sir Hannibal, judiciously, ‘Donalds, the chauffeur, saw the murderer, though he did not recognise him. In the twilight recognition would certainly be difficult, let alone the confused state in which the man’s brain must have been.’

‘Had Mr. Bowring any enemies?’ asked Miss Warry artlessly.

‘Any amount,’ replied the baronet grimly. ‘Every successful man has, you know. But I don’t see what anyone had to gain from killing him. I presume Bowring’s wealth goes to his son?’

‘To that half-witted creature?’ exclaimed Dericka quickly.

‘Yes; and he is not so mad as people make him out to be.’

‘Certainly too mad for me to marry,’ she retorted.

‘Oh, that is all ended with Bowring’s death,’ said Sir Hannibal a trifle uneasily. ‘He certainly did propose something of that sort.’

‘And it made you angry,’ said Miss Warry with apparent innocence.

The baronet turned on her sharply:

‘Why do you say that?’

‘I went into the house while you were closeted with Mr. Bowring in the library, and I heard your voice raised in anger.’

‘Quite so. And my anger was on account of what Dericka has said. It was impertinent of Bowring to propose that his son should marry my daughter. Apart from the fact that Morgan is what the Scotch call “a daftie”, neither his birth nor his position are fitted to make him my son-inlaw.’

‘But he will be rich now,’ protested Miss Warry, casting down her grey-green eyes.

‘If he had a million I would not marry him,’ cried Dericka.

‘And he has a million,’ murmured the governess.

Sir Hannibal looked at her uneasily, and after clearing his throat and considering for a moment or so, he gave a perfectly unnecessary explanation:

‘Bowring and myself were not very good friends,’ he said slowly, ‘as he treated me very badly in Africa. Still, he was a good tenant, and his death’— he cast a sidelong glance at the governess, such as she had earlier cast at him —‘his death,’ he added emphatically, ‘will be very harmful to me.’

‘I am sure it will,’ murmured the governess meekly.

And still Sir Hannibal did not look satisfied.

‘See that place?’— he pointed with his whip towards the picturesque grey mass of the Grange, which was now only a short distance away —‘it isn’t everybody’s money, and Bowring paid me a splendid rent.’

‘Why?’ asked Miss Warry quickly.

‘Because liked the house,’ retorted Sir Hannibal sharply; ‘but, as I was about to say when you interrupted me —’

‘I am so sorry, Sir Hannibal.’

‘As I was about to say, no one else will pay the same rent, or pay it so regularly. Mr. Bowring’s death is a great — a very great blow to me, Miss Warry. I am sure you agree with me, Dericka?’

‘Certainly,’ replied his daughter, rather surprised that Trevick should take all this trouble to explain what seemed to her to be a perfectly obvious fact. ‘However, Morgan may stay on here, with Mrs. Krent, the housekeeper, to look after him.’

‘I don’t like Mrs. Krent,’ said the baronet, frowning. ‘She is a scheming, meddlesome woman, who came with Bowring from Africa. I expect she has been trying to get Morgan to marry her daughter Jenny.’

‘I am sorry for Jenny, if that is the case,’ replied Dericka calmly. ‘She is too pretty a girl to be thrown away on that half-mad oaf.’

‘Morgan is rich,’ said Sir Hannibal as the carriage passed up the avenue of his ancestral seat, ‘and Jenny hasn’t a penny. It would be a good match for her.’

‘It would be a sin,’ cried Miss Trevick emphatically.

Sir Hannibal shrugged his aristocratic shoulders.

‘I don’t see that, my dear. Morgan is sickly, and may not live long; his widow will be able to make a most advantageous second marriage. I almost wish,’ he added with an attempt at jocularity, ‘that you had married the creature, Dericka. Then, when he was laid beside Bowring you would be able to keep your poor father in his old age and renew the splendours of the Trevick family.’

Miss Warry raised her little eyes as Sir Hannibal made this speech, and gave him a piercing glance.

‘The marriage can take place still, can it not, Sir Hannibal?’

‘If Dericka consents,’ laughed the baronet, but still uneasily.

Indignation had hitherto kept Dericka silent.

‘I would rather die,’ she burst out at last, when the carriage stopped before the porch of the Grange. ‘Morgan is mad and dangerous.’

‘No! no!’ protested Sir Hannibal, ‘very harmless. Bowring assured me.’

‘Mr. Bowring made the best of what could not be helped,’ retorted his daughter. ‘I say that Morgan is dangerous, and falls into wild beast rages. Your jest is a poor one, father.’

‘Perhaps it was not a jest,’ tittered Miss Warry, meaningly.

‘Oh, yes, it was,’ said the baronet quickly; ‘merely a jest, though perhaps not in the best possible taste.’

‘I agree with you there,’ said Dericka coldly; ‘especially as I am really engaged to Oswald.’

‘I have not given my consent to that, Dericka.’

‘But you will,’ she replied. ‘I marry for love, father, not for money.’

‘Yet you should know the value of money,’ groaned Trevick, entering the house.

Dericka’s blue eyes flashed with sapphire lights, and but for the publicity of the place she might have made some retort. Sir Hannibal hitherto had always been ready to approve of Forde’s wooing, penniless barrister though he was; but since Bowring’s visit and proposal of marriage on behalf of his idiot son, he had wavered considerably. Dericka almost thought that Sir Hannibal wished her to marry the semi-lunatic for the sake of the money. And Miss Warry deepened this impression.

‘Your father is sorry that the money should be lost,’ she whispered as they walked towards the room in which the inquest was to be held. ‘Why not marry Morgan Bowring, and when he dies be a rich widow and become Mr. Forde’s beloved wife?’

‘Marry that?’ said Dericka in a fierce whisper, and pointed with her pretty, scornful chin towards a weak-looking man who sat next to a stout elderly woman and beside a pretty doll-like girl. ‘Are you out of your senses, Sophia?’

Miss Warry, as she always did when at a loss for a reply, tittered in a nervous manner, and meekly subsided into a chair between Sir Hannibal and his daughter.

Morgan Bowring’s wandering eyes rested on the newcomers. He passed over Sir Hannibal and the faded governess with indifference, but he looked with passionate eagerness at Dericka’s beautiful face. There was something almost savage in his fixed regard. But Dericka was, as has been said, a girl of unusually strong character, and she was not going to be outstared by one whom she regarded as a lunatic. Her blue eyes met his grey eyes with a hard dominating look, and a quiver passed over the animal countenance of Morgan. The light died out of his face, and with a kind of a whimper he suddenly grasped the hand of the stout, elderly woman, who undoubtedly was Mrs. Krent, the housekeeper. At once she turned to soothe him, and flashed an angry glance on Dericka. But that young lady having achieved her object in letting Morgan know that she was stronger than he, looked indolently round the room, and began to take an interest in the proceedings.

‘As we have inspected the body,’ said the coroner, a lean man with a mild, sheeplike face, and no very great intelligence in his dull eyes, ‘we will now hear the evidence. Inspector Quill.’

The inspector related how the body had been found, and how Bowring had come by his death. He detailed what he had discovered concerning the fall of the stone, which amounted to nothing. Quill insisted that the stone had been forcibly overturned, but although, as he admitted, he had examined the quarrymen, he could not learn who had cast down the rock. Nor, as the inspector again stated, had the quarrymen seen any suspicious person haunting the neighbourhood. He proposed to call several witnesses, and first named Donalds, the chauffeur, who alone had caught a glimpse of the criminal.

Donalds, who still looked ill from his shaking, had very little to say. He had been pitched down the bank when the car rushed against the stone, and on struggling up again, half dazed with the shock, he had dimly seen a man leap down the cliff whence the stone had fallen and blow out the brains of his staggering master. But Donalds could not say whether the man was short or tall, fair or dark, lean or stout. He caught but a glimpse of the crime and the criminal, and then had fainted. He had, as he said, never noticed the granite rock particularly when it had swung overhead in its accustomed place.

The doctor then appeared, a local practitioner who had been summoned to examine the body when it had been taken to the Grange. The deceased, he stated, had been shaken by the shock of the car smashing against the granite rock, but apparently, from the absence of marks, and the condition of the body, had been very little hurt. He would undoubtedly have been himself in a couple of days, as he would have merely suffered from shock. And even at the age of the deceased the shock would not have caused death. The revolver wound was different. The weapon had been placed so close to the dead man’s head that the hair had been scorched. The brains had been blown out, and death must have been instantaneous. As the bullet had gone right through the head and had spent its force whistling across the moor, it could not be found, so it was impossible to gain any clue in that direction.

Mrs. Krent’s evidence amounted to the fact that she had come with Mr. Bowring from Africa as she had been, and still was, the nurse of his son, who could not be left to himself. So far as she knew the deceased had no enemies, and had no fear of meeting with a violent death. He had left the Grange in very good spirits to go to Trevick’s fete, and she (the witness) had been more astonished than anyone else when the body was brought home.

Sir Hannibal Trevick gave evidence that he had known Bowring in Africa. He disagreed with Mrs. Krent, as Bowring undoubtedly had many enemies, although witness knew of none who would have gone so far as murder. The deceased had been quite cheerful at the fete, and had gone away in good spirits, intending to call the next day on witness. So far as Sir Hannibal knew, the deceased had no expectation of meeting with a violent death, and Sir Hannibal protested that he could throw no light on the subject. After a few final remarks as to the loss he had sustained by the death of a good tenant, witness stepped down.

So far nothing had been educed likely to reveal why Bowring had been murdered, and there was not, in all the evidence procurable, a single clue to the identity of the brutal assassin. The onlookers became slightly bored as they heard the many prosaic facts set forth, but everyone woke up and looked alert when Miss Warry was called. It was to hear the truth of the governess’s strange prophecy that the majority of the listeners had come.

Miss Warry stated that the deceased had entered the tent an avowed sceptic, and had challenged her to give some proof that her psychic information was absolutely true. She read his hand, and looked into the crystal. In a way which Miss Warry declined to explain, as it would not be understood by the uninitiated, she had discovered that Bowring would die before he reached home. This prophecy, as she called it, she had written down and had placed it in an envelope. On the death occurring the letter had been opened by Miss Stretton, who was present, and the truth of her art became apparent. To all this the coroner listened sceptically, and many of the jury with profound awe. They were prepared to accept Miss Warry as a second Deborah in those superstitious parts.

‘Come now,’ said the coroner testily, ‘you don’t expect us to believe this hocus-pocus.’

‘I expect you to believe nothing,’ said Miss Warry coolly.

‘Did anything occur which might make you think that Mr. Bowring anticipated meeting with an accident?’

Miss Warry meditated.

‘There was certainly the Death’s Head,’ she said thoughtfully. ‘He assuredly was afraid of the Death’s Head.’

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