The Crowned Skull, by Fergus Hume

Chapter 4

The Will

When Miss Warry, with the air of an accomplished actress, pronounced those strange words —‘He assuredly was afraid of the Death’s Head’— an eloquent silence followed. What she meant no one knew; the coroner least of all.

But Dericka started and looked up suddenly as a memory crossed her mind. Sir Hannibal, who sat beside her, had been looking down while Miss Warry gave her evidence, but, while not starting as his daughter had done, he raised his eyes slowly and directed a long, piercing glance at the governess.

Strangely enough, she was gazing in his direction, and their eyes met. Trevick’s were the first to fall. And all this comedy was noticed by Mrs. Krent, who, since Dericka had attracted the attention of Morgan, had kept her eyes fixed venomously on father and daughter.

‘What do you mean by that speech?’ asked the coroner, puzzled.

‘Oh, it is easily explained.’ Miss Warry tossed her head as she spoke. For the first time in her tame life she found herself on the stage of life, so to speak, and an object of interest to an admiring crowd, who regarded her as a sibyl. In the midst of a dead silence she explained herself. ‘The skull in the tent, you know,’ said Miss Warry.

‘I am still in the dark. I must ask you to be more explicit.’

‘At the fete,’ said the witness, ‘I occupied a tent in order to tell fortunes. It was hung with red cloth, and there was a small round table covered with a black silk shawl. On the table were a pack of cards and a crystal; also a magnifying glass to read more clearly the lines of the hands of those who desired to know the future. All this,’ added Miss Warry, with a glance of supreme contempt at the obtuse coroner, ‘doubtless strikes you as what you call hocus-pocus.’

‘It strikes me as fraudulent,’ said the coroner dryly. ‘No one can foretell the future.’

‘I abide by what I wrote in the sealed envelope, sir.’

‘Ah. That is the point at which we wish to arrive. You must have had information to enable you to say that Mr. Bowring would not live longer than the evening?’

‘Oh,’ cried Miss Warry indignantly, ‘do you mean to say that I am an accomplice before the fact?’

‘Not exactly; but you saw something in the deceased’s demeanour, or he said something which enabled you to guess that he anticipated meeting with a violent death? You gambled, so to speak, on the chance?’

‘Nothing of the sort. I read in his hand, with the cards, and by the crystal, that he would die before he reached home.’

‘Yet you said that he was frightened by the death’s head?’

‘So he was. When he entered the tent he saw it on the table, and at once grew perfectly white. I thought he would have fallen, and perhaps he would have, had I not caught his arm. He murmured something about “The third time —”’

‘What?’ asked the coroner eagerly.

Miss Warry grew tart.

‘How can I talk, sir, when you interrupt me? Mr. Bowring, I repeat, said something about “The third time.”’

‘The third time of seeing the skull?’

‘I suppose so. At least his eyes were fixed on it when he made the remark. What it meant I don’t know.’

‘Did you not ask him?’

‘As I am a woman, and possess my fair share of curiosity, I did,’ admitted the witness, ‘but he refused to tell me why the sight of the death’s head caused him such emotion.’

‘What did he say in reply?’

‘Merely that the heat of the day had overcome him, and that he was not superstitious, and that he only wanted to get something for the guinea he gave me as he didn’t believe in fortune-telling.’

‘Did you say that he would die before he got home?’

‘No. I merely read his character, and he said that I read it all wrong. Which,’ said Miss Warry, drawing herself up, ‘was a story, as I am quite sure that I read him correctly; and he wasn’t at all a nice man either,’ she ended spitefully.

The coroner passed this very feminine speech over.

‘Then you did not say that he was within a short distance of meeting a violent death?’

‘No; and, what is more, I didn’t know that Mr. Bowring would meet with a violent death. I saw by the card and in his hand, and in the crystal, that he would die — no more. I wrote down the words so that after his death the truth of what I said should become apparent.’

‘I see.’ The coroner looked more puzzled than ever. He was too physical to believe in the psychic, and yet all that Miss Warry had said was true. The sealed letter with its fulfilled prophecy was a stern fact which could not be proved false. And on the face of it the meek little governess could have had nothing to do with the millionaire’s death.

‘Why did the death’s head excite the fears of the deceased?’ asked the coroner, wondering in what way he could best pursue the examination.

‘I told you before that Mr. Bowring refused to explain.’

‘Where is the skull?’

‘I don’t know.’

There was a movement of surprise in the room.

‘You don’t know?’ repeated the coroner. ‘Yet I presume you placed the skull on the table yourself so as to add to the effect of your fortune-telling?’

‘I did nothing of the sort,’ said Miss Warry angrily. ‘When I returned to the tent I found the skull on the table. I thought Sir Hannibal had placed it there.’

‘I?’ cried the baronet, starting to his feet and looking very white. ‘No, I never saw any skull.’

‘Then I don’t know who brought it,’ said Miss Warry. ‘Miss Trevick did not, because I asked her. I went into the house to get something, when Mr. Bowring was with Sir Hannibal in the library, and when I returned to the tent the skull was on the table. I saw Mr. Bowring immediately afterwards. When I gave him the sealed paper, and he went away, I came out before the tent, and remained chatting for a few minutes. When I re-entered the skull was gone.’

‘Then someone must have placed the skull there while you were in the house, and while you chatted before the tent after Mr. Bowring’s departure someone must have removed the skull?’

‘Yes,’ said Miss Warry. ‘I thought it odd, and spoke to Miss Trevick; but she knew nothing about the matter.’

‘This is true,’ said Dericka calmly, while all eyes were fastened eagerly on her face.

‘And I also could have nothing to do with it,’ said Sir Hannibal with a forced laugh, ‘since I was talking with Mr. Bowring in the library at the time when, according to Miss Warry, the skull must have been placed in the tent.’

‘Was there a skull in the house, Sir Hannibal?’

‘Not to my knowledge.’

‘What kind of a skull was it?’ said the coroner, addressing Miss Warry. And the governess shuddered.

‘A horrible thing,’ she said in a faltering voice. ‘Quite like a nightmare. It was not very large, but it was coloured scarlet, and round the forehead to the back was a broad band of silver, like a crown.’

Everyone was interested in this strange description.

‘I wonder you did not take charge of such a queer thing, Miss Warry.’

‘I would have done so, but it vanished.’

‘But how did it vanish?’

‘I really cannot say,’ snapped the witness, who was growing weary of this cross-questioning. ‘It was in the tent when I went in to tell Mr. Bowring’s fortune, and vanished when I returned after he went away.’

‘Did anyone else besides yourself and Mr. Bowring see it?’

‘Not to my knowledge. Have you quite done with me?’

‘Yes,’ said the coroner mechanically. And Miss Warry, looking very tired, stepped down.

Her evidence was so strange that he hesitated whether to believe it or not. Such a person might very well, as he thought, be the victim of an hallucination. Or again, the tale of this red skull might be a made-up story to advertise herself. On the other hand, the sealed letter was a fact.

‘That is all the evidence, gentlemen,’ said the coroner after a pause.

There was some chatter, and then the coroner made a speech in which he recapitulated all that had been discovered, and dwelt on the extraordinary evidence of the governess. But all his explanations could not throw any light on the mystery which undoubtedly environed the death of the millionaire. It did not take the jury long to consider their verdict, for the evidence left them completely in the dark. All that could be discovered was that Bowring had been shot by an unknown person who had failed to murder him by upsetting the motor-car.

A verdict of wilful murder against some person or persons unknown was brought in, and the inquest was at an end.

Then the reporters who had been taking voluminous notes rushed away to build up the odd tale of Miss Warry into sensational articles. Everyone agreed that the case was more mysterious than ever, and Sir Hannibal was quite annoyed when he heard for the first time of the scarlet skull.

‘You should have told me of this,’ he said angrily.

Miss Warry, who was the person spoken to — and the conversation took place in the Dower House drawing-room, after dinner — looked down meekly.

‘I never thought it would interest you,’ she said. ‘I certainly mentioned it to Dericka.’

‘Why didn’t you speak?’ asked Sir Hannibal, turning on his daughter, who was writing a letter to Forde detailing all that had happened at the inquest, for the young barrister had returned to London.

‘There was no necessity,’ she answered, raising her eyes for a moment. ‘I thought someone at the fete might have placed the skull in the tent as a joke. Certainly, had I known at the time that it frightened Mr. Bowring, or that he was to die, I should have made enquiries. But it will be impossible now to find out who placed it in the tent, or for what reason.’

‘It was placed there to frighten Bowring,’ said Trevick angrily, ‘so the person must have known that he was to have his fortune told, and also must have known something of Bowring’s past life.’

‘You know much,’ said Miss Warry meaningly.

‘Yes,’ assented Sir Hannibal; ‘much that is bad, and much that is good, for Bowring was a strange mixture of good and evil. But I can safely say that I know nothing about a Death’s Head, coloured scarlet. It is extremely strange. I shall ask Mrs. Krent what she knows likely to throw light on the matter when I go over to hear the will read at the Grange.’

Dericka looked up suddenly.

‘Do you go to hear the will read?’ she asked quickly.

‘Certainly. Gratton, the lawyer, has come down from London to attend the funeral and look into things. He wrote saying that I was to attend the reading of the will, so I am going. Perhaps Bowring has remembered me for a trifle; or it may be that he wishes me to be the guardian of Morgan.’

‘Or, perhaps,’ said Miss Warry, with a titter, and her eyes fixed on the baronet, ‘poor Mr. Bowring has left his property to Dericka, on condition that she marries his son.’

‘That is extremely unlikely,’ said Dericka coolly.

‘I don’t know so much about that, since Mr. Bowring had the marriage in his mind on the very day of his death,’ snapped Miss Warry.

‘You talk nonsense,’ said Dericka, with great calmness, and rising with the letter to Forde in her hand. ‘And now, Sophia, you may as well tell my father that you intend to leave us.’

‘What?’ cried Sir Hannibal, wheeling round from the window at which he was smoking a particularly fine cigar. ‘You, Miss Warry — who have been with us since Dericka was a baby — leave us?’

‘Yes,’ said Miss Warry bashfully. ‘I must make provision for my old age, and the emoluments here,’— with a viperish glance at Sir Hannibal —‘are not regularly paid.’

‘I cannot make money out of nothing,’ said the baronet colouring slightly, for Miss Warry’s speech touched his pride; ‘but I’ll pay up before you go, although I think you are unwise to leave us. How the dickens can you make your living?’

Miss Warry coloured in her turn, and with anger:

‘Oh, I am not quite so helpless as all that, Sir Hannibal,’ she said shrilly. ‘This truth I told about poor Mr. Bowring’s death has made my fame. I am going to London to set up as a fortune teller.’

‘You’ll get into the hands of the police.’

‘No, I won’t. I’ll have powerful influence at my back. Everyone will come to me, for my prophecy about this death has made a great sensation. I’ll make a lot of money, and retire in a few years.’

‘But that prophecy was all rubbish,’ said Sir Hannibal angrily.

‘It was nothing of the sort. It was true, sir.’

‘Did you really read all that in Bowring’s hand?’

Miss Warry gave him an odd glance.

‘I really did,’ she said in a solemn tone. ‘You are a sceptic, but for once you and other jesters have been compelled to acknowledge the truth.’ And with this Parthian shot the governess left the room, with less meekness than she usually showed, and certainly with less veneration for the idol of her fancy, as Trevick had been.

‘She has altered altogether,’ said Dericka, looking at her father. ‘The success of this prophecy has sent her mad. She used to be quiet, and now is noisy, and really has been quite rude to me. I am glad she is going.’

‘So am I,’ said Trevick with a gloomy air, ‘only it looks as though the rats were leaving a sinking ship. Without Bowring’s assistance I really don’t know what to do for ready money.’

‘Wait till you hear the will read,’ said Dericka slipping her arm within that of Sir Hannibal in a caressing manner. ‘The poor man may have remembered you.’

‘Humph! It’s very unlike Bowring if he has. However, you must come over and listen with me.’

‘Why? — it is not necessary?’

‘Yes, it is. I cannot face that gloomy house and that scowling housekeeper alone. Of course, if you are afraid of Morgan —’

‘I am afraid of nothing,’ interrupted Dericka with a quiet smile, and spoke truly, for she had no fear. ‘I’ll come with you, father, and perhaps we may hear of something to our advantage, as the papers put it.’

She ended with a laugh which passed into a sigh. It was very hard on the girl to grub amongst sordid cares when she wished to be free and happy. But a sense of duty left her no option. Sir Hannibal was like a large child, and unless she guided him he would get into trouble. Dericka longed for the day when he would marry a second time, and select a capable, managing woman who would look after him. Then she could become Oswald’s wife and have at least a few years of happiness.

Thus it came about that Sir Hannibal drove his daughter over to the Grange after the funeral. The body of John Bowring was laid to rest in the St. Ewalds churchyard. Mrs. Krent, prompted by ambition for the fame of her dead master, had suggested the family vault of the Trevicks, in the little village church near the Grange. But Sir Hannibal refused, and so the millionaire was laid to rest in a less aristocratic grave. All the population of St. Ewalds turned out to follow the mourning coaches — not because Bowring had been popular, but simply on account of the notoriety of his death.

Mrs. Krent was there with Morgan, who, dressed in a new black suit, looked more uncouth and ungainly than ever. And when the service was ended those immediately concerned with Bowring went to the Grange to hear how the dead man had disposed of his worldly goods.

The listeners to the will were gathered in the great drawing-room, a sombre-looking apartment, which looked out on to the terrace of grim grey stone. Mr. Gratton, the London lawyer, a smart-looking young fellow, read the will.

Mrs. Krent, as usual, placed Morgan between herself and her pretty, doll-like daughter, and Sir Hannibal sat near the window with Dericka by his side. There were many people present who had done business with Mr. Bowring, and also a crowd of servants at the door. No one anticipated any surprise from hearing the will read — Mrs. Krent, least of all. It was thought that without doubt Bowring would leave all the property to Morgan, who was his only son, with perhaps an indication as to guardianship. And Mrs. Krent hoped and prayed that she would be appointed to look after the weak-minded heir. There would be some fine pickings out of so wealthy an estate. Therefore Mrs. Krent was uneasy on seeing Sir Hannibal present. She thought that Bowring, in spite of his unconcealed enmity to the baronet, might have made him Morgan’s guardian, in which case she would be turned out of house and home.

But Mrs. Krent never expected to hear what she did hear; nor did anyone else.

After various legacies to servants and friends, it was found that the whole of the property was left to Sir Hannibal Trevick.

Morgan was disinherited, and the baronet was the heir. Mrs. Krent rose with fire in her eyes, and screamed with rage.

‘You,’ she foamed, shaking her fist; ‘you killed Bowring for this.’

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