The Crowned Skull, by Fergus Hume

Chapter 5


Mrs. Krent was beside herself with anger as she hurled her very direct accusation at Sir Hannibal. At any time the stout elderly woman, with her little pig’s eyes and red face and dyed yellow hair, would not have been considered beautiful: but at the present moment, with her features distorted with rage, she looked like a virago of the Revolution. It is no exaggeration to say that Mrs. Krent, had she possessed the power, would have there and then murdered the lucky baronet. Indeed, she half flung herself forward to scratch his face, and only the frightened clutch of her daughter prevented her from doing so. If ever a woman saw red and went baresark, Mrs. Krent was that woman. She was as one possessed by a devil.

Sir Hannibal never quailed: his courage was too high for that. Without rising he stuck his glass in his eye and calmly surveyed the infuriated creature. If he was a trifle paler than usual no one saw it, save Miss Warry, who kept a vigilant eye on his every movement. Why she should do so was not quite clear: but she certainly watched her employer rather than Mrs. Krent. Everyone else in the room, alarmed at the savagery of the housekeeper, looked at one another in consternation.

‘You murdered my master,’ bellowed Mrs. Krent, clenching her fat hands and quivering with passion.

Sir Hannibal never moved a muscle.

‘Such an accusation is not worth rebutting,’ said he with easy assurance. ‘My late friend —’

‘Friend!’ scoffed the housekeeper. ‘Why you and him quarrelled cat and doglike when you met.’

‘As you were never, to my recollection, present at any of our interviews, Mrs. Krent,’ retorted the other dryly, ‘I scarcely see how you can substantiate that statement.’

‘I know! I know!’ muttered the woman cowering a trifle. ‘Bowring never liked you. Him and you in Africa — oh, yes, you may wriggle, sir; all the same, you daren’t tell of your doings.’

‘Mr. Gratton’— Sir Hannibal, still cool and unshaken, and addressing himself to the lawyer —‘I apologise for this interruption to your reading of the will. I am the more annoyed,’ he added, fixing a cold eye on Mrs. Krent, who was calming down rapidly, ‘that it should have taken place in my house.’

‘Your house!’ screamed the housekeeper, angered again.

‘By inheritance from my own ancestors, Mrs. Krent, and now by legacy.’

‘I think,’ said the smart young lawyer, speaking to Mrs. Krent, ‘that you had better sit down. I have not finished reading the will.’

‘Yes, yes, mother,’ urged Jenny, pulling her parent’s skirts. ‘You are frightening Morgan.’

The disinherited son did indeed look frightened. His usually pale face was grey with fear, his large eyes looked furtively here and there as if to seek a refuge, and he licked his scarlet lips — they were unhealthily red — in a nervous manner. Dericka, who had sat unmoved throughout the scene, stared at the creature curiously, and wondered that Bowring should have dared to ask her to marry such a person. She wondered more that her father should have even thought of consenting to the match. But now there was no need that she should be sacrificed like another Iphigenia, since the desired money had come to Sir Hannibal on no conditions. At the same time Dericka wondered why John Bowring had made such a will. Meanwhile Mr. Gratton resumed his interrupted reading. Then it became apparent that there was some sort of condition, although its fulfilment depended upon Sir Hannibal’s personal view of the matter.

‘I should like,’ read the lawyer, rustling the important-looking document, ‘that my old friend Trevick should marry his daughter to my son Morgan for reasons he knows of, and —’

‘Pardon me,’ interrupted Sir Hannibal, raising one white hand. ‘I know of no reason why such a marriage should take place. If the legacy is contingent on such a match I decline to accept it.’

‘It is not contingent,’ answered Mr. Gratton, calmly. ‘In any case you inherit the property. But my late client suggests that Miss Trevick should marry young Mr. Bowring,’ and he glanced at Morgan, who was looking with sudden eager interest at Dericka.

That young lady sat cool and composed, as though the discussion did not concern her.

‘And if Miss Trevick refuses to marry Morgan?’ asked Mrs. Krent.

‘As she does refuse,’ put in Dericka in a clear, hard voice.

Gratton shrugged his shoulders. ‘Things remain as they are,’ he replied. ‘In any case, Sir Hannibal inherits.’

‘Am I a pauper?’ demanded Morgan, speaking for the first time, in a thick, heavy, hesitating voice.

‘Oh, no. Sir Hannibal by the will is instructed to allow you two hundred a year, and any further sums he may think fit.’

‘Then my poor boy will not get one penny,’ wailed Mrs. Krent, wiping her red little eyes. ‘Oh, gentlemen, excuse me calling Morgan so, but I have nursed him for years, in Africa as in this place. He is like my own flesh and blood, and to think that he should be cast upon a cold world with his poor brain is cruel, wicked, horrible, and —’

Before Mrs. Krent could come out with her final adjective the baronet interposed.

‘You exaggerate,’ he said sharply. ‘Morgan will receive the two hundred a year and such further sums as may be necessary to make him comfortable.’

‘Out of sixty thousand a year,’ flashed out the woman in cold fury. ‘Oh, thank you for nothing, Sir Hannibal. I call it a wicked will.’

‘I certainly think,’ remarked Gratton, addressing the baronet, ‘that it will be as well for you, sir, to carry out the suggestion of the testator and marry Miss Trevick to —’

‘Marry that?’ interrupted Dericka, rising suddenly. ‘Are you out of your mind, Mr. Gratton? The man is not fit to marry.’

The answer came, not from the lawyer, but from Morgan himself:

‘But if I love you?’ he stammered thickly. And then, before he could speak further he was pulled back into his seat by Mrs. Krent.

Dericka turned pale. There was something terrible in the animal gaze which the half-mad creature cast upon her. The wild look in his eyes, the tremulous movement of his hands, the repulsive appearance of his white face with its scarlet lips and weak chin, repelled her as though a snake had crossed her path.

Strong-minded as she was, the timidity of the female came to the surface as Morgan glared at her in a leering manner. Biting her lips to keep down the climbing hysteria, she fairly ran out of the room and was followed by gaunt Miss Warry immediately. Sir Hannibal kept his composure.

‘My daughter cannot marry you, Mr. Bowring,’ he said coldly, ‘as she is already engaged.’

‘But you cannot take my money if she doesn’t,’ growled Morgan.

‘The money is not yours, but mine,’ corrected Sir Hannibal, eyeing the disinherited man as though he were a dog, ‘and you may be sure that you will be well looked after.’

‘I don’t want to be looked after,’ mumbled Morgan, and there came into his eyes the anger of a dog about to snap. ‘I’m a free man. I won’t be shut up!’

‘Hush! Hush, lovey,’ whispered Mrs. Krent, and drew him down beside her. ‘You won’t be shut up, but live always with your Martha.’

‘That entirely depends upon how you behave, Mrs. Krent,’ said Sir Hannibal tartly. ‘If I am forced to take measures to put away Mr. —’

A snarl from Morgan made him stop and retreat a step. Mrs. Krent fondled the man and cast a warning look in Sir Hannibal’s direction.

‘If you rouse him I won’t be answerable,’ she said sharply, ‘and as to sending me away, I won’t go; that is, until Morgan marries your daughter.’

‘And I will,’ growled the man heavily.

Sir Hannibal felt a qualm. The speech and look of the creature were too horrible for words, and he quailed at the idea of Dericka being handed over to such a husband. However, a timely thought that he was not compelled to gain the money by such a sacrifice restored his courage, and with a contemptuous look he again spoke to Mr. Gratton.

‘Have you finished?’ he asked in icy tones.

‘Nearly,’ replied the young man hurriedly, and went on to read out various instructions as to the estate, and also some details about Mrs. Krent, who was, it appeared, to be allowed a legacy of one hundred a year, and to be sent away, or retained, as Morgan’s guardian, at the discretion of Sir Hannibal.

‘Two pounds a week,’ wailed Mrs. Krent when in possession of these facts. ‘Oh, what a cruel will! And I saved John Bowring thousands.’

‘I shall see that you have justice,’ said the baronet, grandly.

Mrs. Krent glared, and again looked as though she could have struck the lucky inheritor of the Bowring property. However, her attention was taken off by the complaints of various persons who had expected to receive money but had been disappointed. One and all resented the fact that Sir Hannibal, connected by no ties of blood with Bowring, should have inherited, and one and all turned on the baronet. Some even hinted in loud tones that Mrs. Krent’s accusation might be true. Sir Hannibal winced, for the sound of the angered voices was unpleasant. He raised his hand.

‘There is no need for me to be placed on my defence,’ said Sir Hannibal calmly. ‘Everyone knows that at the time of the death I was attending to my guests in the grounds of the Dower House. Moreover, I had no reason to murder my lamented friend.’

‘You did it to get the money,’ snapped Mrs. Krent viciously.

‘If you say that again,’ retorted the baronet smoothly, ‘I will send you away with your one hundred a year.’

‘And part me from Morgan?’ she panted. ‘You can’t!’

‘You have heard the will, and know that I have unlimited power,’ said Sir Hannibal, sharply; ‘and as there is no further need to prolong this scene I shall bid you all good-day. Mr. Gratton, you can come to see me at St. Ewalds to consult about the business. Mrs. Krent, Mr. Bowring, you can remain here until such time as I make up my mind what is to be done. Good-day all.’ And with a polite bow Sir Hannibal stalked grandly from the room, leaving the disappointed people to comfort one another. One and all, under the stress of such disappointment, were certain that Sir Hannibal had murdered Bowring.

The drive home was a silent one. The baronet, mindful that the groom was at his back, handled the reins in complacent silence and dreamed of what he would do with the thousands of Bowring’s. Dericka was still suffering from the revulsion of feeling which Morgan’s unexpected wooing had brought about, and Miss Warry, gaunt and grim as usual, stared straight in front of her, occasionally watching her employer’s face. When Sir Hannibal smiled at his own thoughts Miss Warry smiled also. Perhaps she was thinking of her successful prophecy as Sir Hannibal was thinking of his good fortune. But, whatever might be the cause, Miss Warry smiled very often in the course of the drive.

On reaching the Dower House, Dericka would have retired at once to her own room, but that Sir Hannibal requested her presence in his library.

She followed him there in a languid manner, but the first speech he made strung her up to a fighting humour.

‘My child,’ said the baronet blandly, ‘by the dispensation of Providence’— he rolled the phrase on his tongue —‘my difficulties have been unexpectedly ended. With this money we can now take our proper place in the county. It is my intention to refurnish the Grange and reinhabit the home of my ancestors. I shall do my share, Dericka, and I would point out that you must do yours by making a better match that that you contemplate.’

Dericka looked directly at her father, whose eyes were averted, and her colour rose.

‘You said that I was engaged an hour or so ago?’

‘Merely to satisfy that maniac, my dear. I do not wish you to marry him. But with your beauty and my money —’

‘Mr. Bowring’s money,’ interposed Dericka cruelly.

‘Mine now,’ said the baronet with emphasis. ‘With my money, my dear, I think you should marry a title.’

‘One would think you lived at Bayswater to hear you talk so respectfully about titles. I am not of that way of thinking myself; I intend to marry Oswald.’

‘No. He is not a good match for you.’

‘I intend,’ repeated Dericka, rising slowly and speaking slowly, ‘to marry Oswald Forde. Your opposition will only make me marry him the sooner.’

‘Dericka, would you leave your old father?’

The pathetic speech failed of its effect.

‘I think you can console yourself very well,’ said Miss Trevick, coldly.

Sir Hannibal changed colour.

‘I don’t understand —’

‘I think you do, father,’ she answered, going to the door, ‘and now I will lie down for an hour! There will be no need for us to resume this discussion later. My mind is made up.’

‘Dericka, I forbid,’ began the outraged father, but spoke to the empty air. The door opened and closed and he was alone, fuming with anger at this behaviour of his daughter. He knew well that he could not coerce her into obeying him, as for years she had, in spite of her youth, exercised rule over the household. That was all very well, Sir Hannibal considered, when they were poor, as Dericka’s clever head kept things smooth — but now that ample funds were in hand the baronet wished to assert himself. Consequently he was annoyed that his first exercise of a long-surrendered authority should be quietly ignored.

‘She shall not marry Forde,’ he assured himself, pacing the library, ‘or if she does it will be against my express wish. Not one penny will she get of the money. As for myself’— he cast a complacent look in a near mirror —‘I am still young enough to marry and beget an heir. Then let Dericka look to herself, and —’

Here a sharp knock at the door made him start. Since the death of Bowring his nerves were not well under control.

‘Come in,’ he cried with a violent start. Then, when the door opened slowly, ‘Oh, it’s you, Miss Warry. I am engaged.’

‘I’m very sorry,’ said the gaunt governess, clasping her thin hands and speaking in a mincing manner, ‘but I go to town tomorrow, and I have not much time to speak.’

‘I really do not see what there is to speak about,’ said Sir Hannibal coldly. ‘You have arranged to go, and did so arrange at a time when it was inconvenient. Now, however, this unexpected inheritance makes things easier for me. You will receive your full salary for the year tomorrow, Miss Warry, and then we can say goodbye for ever.’

‘Oh, no — not for ever,’ said Miss Warry, and fishing in a little velvet bag which dangled from her wrist she brought out a handkerchief. ‘I cannot bear to lose sight of you.’

‘Well, well, you can come and see Dericka.’

‘I spoke of you, dear Sir Hannibal,’ moaned the spinster.

‘I am very much obliged to you, Miss Warry, but I think you will survive the loss of my company.’

‘Never! Never!’ And Miss Warry raised her cold eyes to the ceiling. ‘At this time my place should be by your side — so old a friend!’

Sir Hannibal shivered, although the room was perfectly warm and free from draughts.

‘What do you mean?’ he asked quickly.

‘The accusation of that horrid woman.’

‘Pooh! Rubbish! She can prove nothing.’

‘Is there anything to prove?’ questioned the governess smartly, dropping the handkerchief.

‘No — no; of course not,’ stammered the baronet, annoyed by the shrewd glance of her grey eyes.

‘People are so censorious,’ continued Miss Warry, throwing up her mittened hands, ‘they will add to the accusation of Mrs. Krent, and —’

‘They can add nothing,’ interrupted Sir Hannibal quickly. ‘I was, as I explained, here at the fete about the time the murder took place so many miles away. There is nothing to connect me with it; and I scarcely think, Miss Warry, that I am the man to kill a fellow creature in cold blood.’

‘People rarely murder in cold blood,’ murmured Miss Warry significantly; ‘a sharp word or two, a blow, and all is over.’

‘In this case it happens to be a pistol shot,’ said the baronet dryly. ‘Come, Miss Warry, you have not asked for this interview to accuse me of committing the crime?’

Miss Warry threw up her hands with a scream.

‘Oh, no no,’ she minced, waving the handkerchief; ‘dear Sir Hannibal, how can you think that I would dream of such a thing? But people are censorious, you know, and it may be they will say things.’

‘Let them say things.’

‘It may be unpleasant.’

‘Pooh! Sixty thousand a year will soon close their mouths.’

‘Well,’ said Miss Warry, replacing the handkerchief in the velvet bag and drawing the strings, ‘if you want me I’ll give you my address. I may be able to help you.’

‘In what way?’

‘I may be able to help you,’ she repeated, and moved towards the door in a stately manner.

Sir Hannibal placed himself in her path.

‘Do you know something likely to elucidate the mystery of this crime, Miss Warry?’

‘I don’t say that. But I may be able to help you.’

‘That skull affair is peculiar?’ said Sir Hannibal, inquiringly.

‘Very. And you think it is peculiar? Oh’— Miss Warry flung up her hands again with a little laugh —‘you can depend upon me, Sir Hannibal,’ and with a curtsey she swept from the room, leaving Sir Hannibal nervous and upset by her mysterious hints.

‘What does she know about that Death’s Head?’ he asked himself uneasily. But Miss Warry was not there to answer.

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