The SUSPICIONS of MR. WHICHER A Shocking Murder and the Undoing of a Great Victorian Detective
By KATE SUMMERSCALE
WALKER & COMPANY Copyright © 2008 Kate Summerscale
All right reserved. ISBN: 978-0-8027-1742-9
Chapter One TO SEE WHAT WE HAVE GOT TO SEE
In the early hours of Friday, 29 June 1860 Samuel and Mary Kent were asleep on the first floor of their detached three-storey Georgian house above the village of Road, five miles from Trowbridge. They lay in a four-poster bed carved from Spanish mahogany in a bedroom decked out with crimson damask. He was fifty-nine; she was forty, and eight months pregnant. Their eldest daughter, the five-year-old Mary Amelia, shared their room. Through the door to the nursery, a few feet away, were Elizabeth Gough, twenty-two, the nursemaid, in a painted French bed, and her two youngest charges, Saville (three) and Eveline (one), in cane cots.
Two other live-in servants slept on the second floor of Road Hill House - Sarah Cox (twenty-two), the housemaid, and Sarah Kerslake (twenty-three), the cook - and so did Samuel's four children from his previous marriage: Mary Ann (twenty-nine), Elizabeth (twenty-eight), Constance (sixteen) and William (fourteen). Cox and Kerslake shared a bed in one room. Mary Ann and Elizabeth shared a bed in another. Constance and William had a room each.
The nursemaid, Elizabeth Gough, rose at 5.30 that morning to open the back door to a chimney sweep from Trowbridge. With his 'machine' of interlocking rods and brushes he cleaned the kitchen and nursery chimneys and the hotplate flue. At 7.30, the nursemaid paid him 4s.6d. and saw him out. Gough, a baker's daughter, was a well-mannered, good-looking young woman. She was thin, with fair skin, dark eyes, a long nose and a missing front tooth. When the sweep had gone she applied herself to cleaning the nursery of soot. Kerslake - the cook - sluiced down the kitchen. One other stranger called at the house that Friday, a knife-grinder, to whom Cox - the maid - answered the door.
In the grounds of Road Hill House, James Holcombe, the gardener, groom and coachman to the family, was cutting the lawn with a scythe - the Kents had a mowing machine, but a scythe was more effective when the grass was damp. That June had been the wettest and coldest on record in England, and it had again rained overnight. Having cut the grass, he hung the tool in a tree to dry.
Holcombe, who was forty-nine and crippled in one leg, had two helpers in the grounds that day: John Alloway, eighteen, 'a stupid-looking lad', according to one local newspaper, and Daniel Oliver, forty-nine. Both lived in the neighbouring village of Beckington. A week earlier Samuel Kent had turned down Alloway's request for a pay rise, and the young man had given his notice. On this, his penultimate afternoon in the Kents' employ, he was sent by the cook to see whether James Fricker, a plumber and glazier in the village, had finished fitting Mr Kent's square candle-lantern with a new pane of glass. Alloway had already called for it four times that week, but it had not been ready. This time he was successful: he brought the lamp back and put it on the kitchen dresser. A local girl of fourteen, Emily Doel, was also at work in the house. She helped Gough, the nursemaid, with the children from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. each day.
Samuel Kent was in the library, drafting his report on a two-day tour of local wool mills from which he had returned the previous night. He had been employed as a government sub-inspector of factories for twenty-five years, and had recently applied for a full inspectorship, in support of which he had gathered signatures from two hundred West Country worthies - Members of Parliament, magistrates, clergymen. A wide-browed, scowling man, Kent was unpopular in the village, particularly with the inhabitants of the 'cottage corner', a slummy clutch of houses just across the lane from Road Hill House. He had banned the villagers from fishing the river near his house, and prosecuted one for taking apples from his orchard.
Saville, Samuel's three-year-old son, came into the library to play while the nursemaid cleaned the nursery. The child doodled on the government report - he made an 'S' -shaped pothook and a blot - and his father teased that he was a 'naughty boy'. At this Saville clambered onto Samuel's knee for a 'romp'. He was a strong, well-built child with pale yellow curls.
That Friday afternoon Saville also played with his half-sister, Constance. She and her other brother, William, had been home from their boarding schools for nearly a fortnight. Constance took after their father - muscular and plump, with squinty eyes in a broad face - while William resembled their mother, the first Mrs Kent, who had died eight years earlier: he had lively eyes and a delicate build. The boy was said to be timid, the girl sulky and wild.
The same afternoon Constance walked over to Beckington, a mile and a half away, to pay a bill. She met William there, and the two came home together.
In the early evening Hester Holley, a washerwoman who lived in the cottages next to the house, called to return the Kents' clothes and linen, which she had laundered each week since they moved to Road five years earlier. The older Misses Kent - Mary Ann and Elizabeth - took the clothes from the baskets and sorted them out for distribution to the bedrooms and cupboards.
At 7 p.m. the three gardeners and Emily Doel, the assistant nursemaid, left Road Hill House for their own homes. Holcombe locked the garden door from the outside as he went, and returned to his cottage across the lane. Samuel Kent locked the garden gate once all the live-out servants had gone. Twelve people were left in the house for the night.
Half an hour later Gough carried Eveline up to the nursery, and put her in the cot next to her own bed, opposite the door. Both the children's cots were made of thick cane backed with fabric, and set on wheels. Gough then went downstairs to give Saville a laxative, under Mrs Kent's supervision. The boy was recovering from a mild illness and the family doctor, Joshua Parsons, had sent a messenger to Road Hill House with an 'aperient' - the term was derived from the Latin for 'uncover' or 'open' - which took effect after six to ten hours. The pill 'consisted of one grain of blue pill and three grains of rhubarb', said Parsons, who had prepared it himself.
Saville was 'well and happy' that evening, said the nursemaid. At 8 p.m. she put him in his cot, in the right-hand corner of the nursery. The five-year-old Mary Amelia was put to bed in the room that she shared with her parents, across the landing. The doors to both bedrooms were left ajar, so that the nursemaid could hear if the older girl woke, and the mother could look in on her drowsing infants.
Once the children were asleep Gough tidied the nursery, restoring a stool to its place under her bed, returning stray objects to the dressing room. She lit a candle and sat down in the dressing room to eat her supper - that night she had only bread, butter and water. Then she joined the rest of the household downstairs for evening prayers, led by Samuel Kent. She also took a cup of tea with Kerslake in the kitchen. 'I don't usually have any tea at all,' Gough said afterwards, 'but I did that day take a cup from the general family teapot.'
When she went back up to the nursery, she said, Saville was lying 'as he usually did, with his face to the wall, with his arm under his head'. He was wearing a nightdress and a 'little flannel shirt'. He was 'a very heavy sleeper, and had not been to bed in the daytime that day, and so slept all the sounder'. She had been busy cleaning the room in the afternoon, when he usually had his nap. The nursery, as Gough described it, was a place of softness, hushed and muffled with fabric: 'The room is carpeted all over. The door opens very noiselessly, it is bound round with list to make it do so, that I might not wake the children.' Mrs Kent agreed that the door opened and closed quietly, if pushed and pulled with care, though the handle squeaked a little when turned. Later visitors to the house detected the rattle of a metal ring on the door, and the creak of the latch.
Mrs Kent came in to kiss Saville and Eveline goodnight, and then went upstairs to look out for the comet that was passing through the skies that week. In The Times, the newspaper her husband took, sightings were being reported each day. She called Gough to join her. When the nursemaid appeared Mrs Kent remarked on how sweetly Saville was sleeping. The mother and the nursemaid stood together at a window and watched the sky.
At 10 p.m. Mr Kent opened the yard door and unchained his black Newfoundland guard dog, a big, sweet-tempered creature that had been with the family for more than two years.
At about 10.30 William and Constance made their way up to bed, carrying their candles. Half an hour later Mary Ann and Elizabeth followed. Before going to sleep Elizabeth left her room to check that Constance and William had put out their lights. On seeing that their rooms were dark, she stopped at a window to watch for the comet. When she retired for the night her sister locked their bedroom door from within.
Two floors below, at about 10.45 p.m., Cox fastened the windows in the dining room, the hall, the drawing room and the library, and locked and bolted the front door and the doors to the library and the drawing room. The drawing-room shutters 'fasten with iron bars', she said later, 'and each has two brass bolts besides; that was all made secure'. The drawing-room door 'has a bolt and a lock, and I bolted it and turned the key of the lock'. Kerslake locked the kitchen, laundry and back doors. She and Cox went up to bed by the back stairs, a spiral staircase used mainly by the servants.
In the nursery at eleven, Gough tucked the bedclothes around Saville, lit a nightlight and then closed, barred and bolted the nursery windows before climbing into bed herself. She slept deeply that night, she said, exhausted by cleaning up after the sweep.
When Mrs Kent went to bed a little later, leaving her husband downstairs in the dining room, she pushed the nursery door gently shut.
Samuel Kent went out to the yard to feed the dog. By 11.30, he said, he had checked that every door and window on the ground floor was locked and bolted against intruders, as he did each evening. As usual, he left the key in the drawing-room door.
By midnight, everyone in the house was in bed, the knot of the new family on the first floor, the stepchildren and servants on the second.
Shortly before I a.m. on Saturday, 30 June, a man named Joe Moon, a tilemaker who lived alone on Road Common, was laying a net out to dry in a field near Road Hill House - he had probably been fishing by night to elude Samuel Kent - when he heard a dog bark. At the same time Alfred Urch, a police constable, was walking home after his shift when he heard the dog give about six yelps. He thought little of it, he said: the Kents' dog was known to bark at the slightest thing. James Holcombe heard nothing that night, even though there had been occasions in the past when he had been woken by the Newfoundland ('it kicked up a terrible noise') and had gone back to the courtyard to hush it. The heavily pregnant Mrs Kent was not disturbed by barking that night either, though she said she slept lightly: 'I awoke frequently.' She heard nothing out of the ordinary, she said, apart from 'a noise as of the drawing-room shutters opening' in the early morning, soon after dawn had broken - she imagined that the servants had started work downstairs.
The sun rose two or three minutes before 4 a.m. that Saturday. An hour later Holcombe let himself into the grounds of Road Hill House - 'I found the door safe as usual.' He chained up the Newfoundland and went to the stable.
At the same time Elizabeth Gough woke and saw that Eveline's bedclothes had slipped off. She raised herself on her knees to pull them back over the girl, whose cot was drawn up to the bed. She noticed, she said, that Saville was not in his cot across the room. 'The impression of the child was there as if he had been softly taken out,' Gough said. 'The clothes were smoothly put back as if his mother or myself had taken him out.' She assumed, she said, that Mrs Kent had heard her son crying and taken him to her own room across the hall.
Sarah Kerslake said she also woke briefly at 5 a.m., then went back to sleep. Just before six she woke again and roused Cox. The two rose, dressed and headed down to start work - Cox took the front stairs and Kerslake the back. When Cox went to unlock the drawing-room door, she was surprised to find it already open. 'I found the door a little way open, the shutters unfastened, and the window a little way up.' This was the middle of three floor-to-ceiling windows in the semi-circular bay at the back of the house. The bottom sash was raised by six inches or so. Cox said she supposed that someone had opened it to air the room. She closed it.
John Alloway walked over from his home in Beckington and at 6 a.m. found Holcombe in the Road Hill House stable, tending to the Kents' chestnut mare. Daniel Oliver arrived fifteen minutes later. Holcombe sent Alloway to water the plants in the greenhouse. The boy then fetched a basket of dirty knives - including two carving knives - from the kitchen, where Kerslake was at work, and two pairs of dirty boots from the passage. He took them to a shed in the yard known as the 'shoe-house' or the 'knife-house', turned the knives out onto a bench and started cleaning the boots - one pair belonged to Samuel Kent, one to William. 'There was nothing unusual about the boots that morning,' he said. Ordinarily he cleaned the knives as well, but today Holcombe took over the task so that the boy could be ready sooner: 'I want you in the garden,' he told him, 'to help me about some manure. I will clean the knives if you will clean the boots.' Holcombe used a knife-cleaning machine in the shed. As far as he could tell, he reported later, none of the knives was missing or bloodied. He took the clean cutlery to the kitchen at about 6.30. With Alloway, he then spread the mare's manure.
Soon after 6 a.m., Elizabeth Gough said, she rose, dressed, read a chapter of the Bible and said her prayers. The nightlight had burnt out, as usual, after six hours' use. Saville's cot was still empty. At 6.45 - she noticed the time on the clock that sat on the nursery mantelpiece - she tried Mr and Mrs Kent's room. 'I knocked twice at the door, but obtained no answer.' She claimed that she didn't persist because she was reluctant to wake Mrs Kent, whose pregnancy made it difficult for her to sleep. Gough returned to the nursery to dress Eveline. In the meantime Emily Doel had turned up for work. She entered the nursery carrying the children's bath shortly before 7 a.m., and took it to the adjoining dressing room. As she brought in buckets of hot and cold water with which to fill the tub she noticed Gough making her bed. They didn't say anything to one another.
Gough again knocked on Mr and Mrs Kent's bedroom door. This time it was opened - Mary Kent had got out of bed and put on her dressing gown, having just checked her husband's watch: it was 7.15. A confused conversation ensued, in which each woman seemed to assume Saville was with the other.
'Are the children awake?' Gough asked her mistress, as if she took for granted that Saville was in his parents' bedroom.
'What do you mean by children?' asked Mrs Kent. 'There is only one child.' She was referring to Mary Amelia, the five-year-old, who shared her parents' room.
'Master Saville!' said Gough. 'Isn't he with you?'
'With me!' returned Mrs Kent. 'Certainly not.'
'He is not in the nursery, ma'am.'
Mrs Kent went to the nursery to see for herself, and asked Gough if she had left a chair against the crib, by means of which Saville might have climbed out. The nursemaid said not. Mrs Kent asked when she had first noticed that he was gone. At five o'clock, Gough told her. Mrs Kent asked why she had not been roused immediately. Gough replied that she thought Mrs Kent must have heard the child crying in the night, and taken him to her room.
'How dare you say so?' said the mother. 'You know I could not do it.' The day before, she reminded Gough, she had mentioned that she could no longer carry Saville, he being a 'heavy, strong boy' of nearly four, and she being eight months pregnant.
Mrs Kent sent the nursemaid upstairs to ask her stepchildren if they knew where Saville was, then told her husband: 'Saville is missing.'
'You had better see where he is,' replied Samuel, who had, he said, been woken by Gough's knock. Mrs Kent left the room. When she returned with news that Saville had not been found, her husband got up, dressed, and headed downstairs.
Excerpted from The SUSPICIONS of MR. WHICHER by KATE SUMMERSCALE Copyright © 2008 by Kate Summerscale. Excerpted by permission.
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