Chapter I

A Terrible Discovery

On Thursday morning, the 27th of May, 1857, five women entered the Police Station at Hammersmith and asked to see the inspector. On the latter presenting himself they said that for two days nothing had been seen of their neighbour, a Mrs. Rennett, who lived by herself in a little cottage in Water Lane, a somewhat unfrequented thoroughfare about ten minutes’ walk from the river. They had knocked several times, but could obtain no response. The windows were fastened, and the blinds closely drawn, so that it was impossible to obtain even a glimpse of the interior. The silence had at last alarmed them; and, fearing a crime, or, at least, an accident, they had determined to come to the station to ask that a policeman might be sent to force the door. Now, Hammersmith is​—​or was twenty years ago​—​one of the quietest suburbs of the Metropolis, and, beyond an occasional robbery, the police rarely had much to occupy their attention. The inspector at first snubbed the women, and evidently treated their story with contempt, and it was only after they had persevered that he acceded to their demand. He accordingly sent a sergeant and two men with the necessary tools for forcing the lock.

Water Lane was not more than a quarter of an hour’s walk from the police station, and the little party, with the sergeant at their head, soon arrived at Ivy Cottage, not a very aristocratic mansion, but such a house as one might suppose a fairly well-to-do tradesman retired from business might choose for his residence. It stood within a tolerably large piece of ground, well stocked with flowers and vegetables, and was protected by a high brick wall, which enclosed the whole of the garden, the entrance to the latter being through a light wooden gate.

“This is the house,” said the foremost of the women.

The sergeant stopped. During their progress the little crowd had become considerably augmented, and now there were at least twenty or thirty curious spectators, all eager to solve the mystery which had brought the police to Ivy Cottage.

“Ryan,” said Sergeant Scott to one of the men, “stop here, and let no one enter the garden”; and then, pushing open the little garden gate, he walked up the narrow path, followed by the other policeman, and knocked loudly at the door. After each stroke he placed his ear to the panel of the door and listened, but there was not a sound, and after a while he bade a policeman break open the door. The latter had just begun the process of forcing the lock when a commotion arose in the little crowd outside the gate.

“The key,” cried someone, “here’s the key”; and, in fact, a boy twelve years or so had, in kicking his feet among the grass and weeds that grew on the edge of a ditch at the side of the path, stumbled across a large key, which he now held up in triumph.

“Hand it over, boy,” said P.C. Ryan.

The key was tried. It fitted the keyhole exactly, and, on being turned, opened the door easily. The sergeant and his man exchanged a meaning glance.

“Looks bad, sir,” said the latter.

As they entered the house the crowd could no longer restrain their impatience, but stretched their necks over the gate, pushed each other to and fro, and two or three, greatly to the indignation of the policeman, contrived to climb the wall and perch themselves on the top.

On going into the room at the right hand side of the passage the officers saw at once that those who suspected a crime had been committed were, unhappily, not deceived. Everything in the room announced, with ghastly eloquence, the presence of a murder. The light, dim and gloomy as it was, shewed the apartment in a state of disorder, a cheffioneer in one corner having evidently been broken open, and various articles strewn about the floor. At the extreme end of the room was a door leading to a second apartment evidently used as a bedroom, and here the disorder was even greater. Indeed, had anyone taken the whole of the contents and thrown them indiscriminately about, it could not have been worse. The two men had not to look for the missing woman, for there, in the outer room, near the fireplace, her face in the ashes, was stretched the corpse of Mrs. Rennett. She was but half dressed, and her hair on one side, where the hot cinders had fallen upon it, was slightly burnt; and, indeed, so near had she fallen to the fire, that it was a miracle her clothes had not caught.

“Hang it!” growled the sergeant, “the scoundrels, if they did want to rob the poor woman they might have spared her life.”

He stooped over the body, and began to examine it.

“Where has she been struck?” asked the policeman; “I don’t see no blood about nowhere.”

“Just here, behind the shoulders,” replied the sergeant, pointing to a horribly significant red spot just above the bodice. “One stroke and it was all over. I don’t suppose she should have had time even to scream. Bled internally I expect. They’re always the worst wounds.”

As he spoke he knelt down by the corpse, and placed his hand on the shoulder. The flesh was icy cold.

“She wasn’t stabbed yesterday, I’ll swear. Been dead at least thirty-six hours,” he said, as he took out his notebook and pencil. His memorandum was made, and, having left two policemen in charge of the house, he returned with the startling intelligence to the station, and the necessary information was conveyed to the coroner for the holding of an inquest.

“Who was Mrs. Rennett? Where did she come from? How did she live? What were her habits? Had she any relations, friends, acquaintances? Was she a miser? Was she believed to be rich? To what end was the inquiry to be directed?”

The witnesses were certainly numerous enough, but when all the evidence which could be scraped together was taken it did not amount to very much. The testimony of the neighbours was incomplete, incoherent, and wide of the mark. Nobody really knew anything of the murdered woman, for she was a stranger to the neighbourhood. Out of the multitude of persons who came forward, anxious to give some kind of what they believed to be evidence of vital importance, only two, a jobbing gardener who had been in the habit of working for her​—​for the deceased had a passion for flowers​—​and a milk-woman who supplied her with milk morning and evening, gave anything like precise information. After some hours of tedious questioning, after reconciling all the contradictory statements, after sifting every absurd conjecture, all that could be definitely settled was the following:​—​Two years before, in the beginning of the year ’55, Mrs. Rennett called upon a house agent in the neighbourhood, and after going over several houses he had to let, finally fixed upon Ivy Cottage. She appeared to have plenty of money, did not scruple about the rent, and even paid a quarter in advance. Her furniture was brought by an ordinary greengrocer’s van, and though not costly or modern, was good of its kind. As she did not appear to have told anyone where she came from, no information was forthcoming on this point. Her age was apparently about 54 or 55. She was well preserved, strong, and in good health. No one could throw any light upon her choosing as a place of residence the neighbourhood of Hammersmith, where she had not absolutely a single acquaintance. Her dresses, though plain, were well made, and to a certain extent she followed the fashion, wore gay ribbons in her bonnets, and was occasionally seen with jewellery. She was of a cheerful disposition, and, excepting that she said little about herself, was always ready for conversation. The only point noticeable​—​and this was marked by several witnesses​—​was that she was fond of talking about ships and the sea, and the inference was that if she was not a native of some town on the sea coast, she had, at all events, lived near it at some period of her life. About her family she did not care much to talk, and of her husband, who had been lost, she had been heard to say, in a storm at sea, she very rarely spoke. Once only she had said to the milkman, “There never was a more unlucky woman than I in marriage;” and on another occasion, “It’s all very well, but my husband only loved me a year.” She was thought by the tradespeople to be rich, or, at least, in easy circumstances. She had subscribed liberally to the building of a new church, and had assisted privately one or two people who were distressed, and always purchased coal and bread tickets in the winter. She liked to live well, and was fond of company; and when someone insinuated that she was well off, she did not directly give a contradiction. Indeed, she had been heard to say, “I’m not exactly a millionaire, but I have as much as I want; if I wanted more I could get it.” But in all she had never been betrayed in any allusion to her past history, her native place, or her family. She had seen something of the world, and easily baffled any attempt made to pry into her personal affairs. She rarely went out in the evening, and generally slept awhile after dinner. Seldom had strangers been seen in Ivy Cottage​—​four or five times a lady and a young man, and on one occasion an elderly aristocratic gentleman, the latter riding in an elegantly-appointed chariot. She usually kept a servant, but at the time the murder was committed was without one.

This meagre collection of facts was all that the inquest was able to establish; the rest remained to be discovered by the police. We shall see how they failed or succeeded in their task.