A WOMAN WITHOUT A PAST

As desired, Gebb looked at the gaily decked figure in the chair, and
tried to find out what Mrs. Presk meant.

“Well, I’m looking,” he said at length, “but I’m blest if I can see
anything.”

“Of course you can’t!” cried the landlady, hysterically triumphant,
“’cause they ain’t there!”

“What aren’t there?”

“The diamonds!”

“Diamonds!” repeated Gebb, with a start, as he noted that the dead
woman wore no jewellery. “Had she diamonds?”

“I should think she had!” said Mrs. Presk, sitting down again. “Stars
for her hair, rings, bracelets, and the loveliest necklace you ever
saw–just like dewdrops with the sun on them. She wore her jewellery
every night, and all to eat her chop. I saw them diamonds on her afore
I went to the lecture.”

“And when you came back they were gone.”

“Every one of them,” replied Mrs. Presk, defiantly, “and when I
noticed it–for, to own up, Mr. Gebb, I didn’t notice they were gone
till I was here with you talking about her dress–but when I did
notice, I ran out of the room ’cause I was a-feared you might say
‘Tilda and I stole ’em.”

“Nonsense! Why should I say that?”

“Oh, there ain’t no tellings,” said Mrs. Presk, with a toss of her
head.

“Was that why you made all that howling?”

“Yes, it was, sir; and I ran out to the kitchen to ask ‘Tilda if she
had noticed if the diamonds were gone when we came in first; for I was
that flurried I didn’t look for ’em.”

“And does ‘Tilda say the diamonds were gone?”

“Yes! I dessay the murdering villain who killed the poor dear stole
’em. I wish I had the hanging of him.”

“Oh, you may assist me to put the rope round his neck,” said Gebb.
“Well, Mrs. Presk, I’ll come and see you to-morrow, and you must tell
me all you know about this woman. In the mean time, I think I hear the
doctor coming.”

The detective’s ears had not deceived him, for the approaching
footsteps were those of the doctor. Escorted by the policeman who had
met Mrs. Presk, he entered in no very good humour at being knocked up
at so late an hour. However, the looks of the corpse, and the
appearance of the room both astonished and interested him; and he made
his examination. It took only a few minutes for him to decide that the
death had taken place shortly before or after ten o’clock, and must
have been almost instantaneous. When the examination was concluded,
Gebb and the inspector left the house in charge of the policeman, and
returned to the station to make their report. While the prosaic
Lackland set down the bare details of the case for the information of
the authorities, Gebb mused over the events of the night, and pondered
what was best to be done under the circumstances.

As yet he had gained no information from Mrs. Presk about her lodger,
but intended to examine her on the morrow when she was somewhat
recovered from the strain of the late events. In the mean time, Gebb
fancied that the strange room, designed and furnished by the dead
woman, might turn out a more important factor in the matter than at
present appeared. Even if Mrs. Presk did prove to be ignorant of Miss
Ligram’s past–which was extremely unlikely–the strongly marked and
eccentric taste of the lodger, as exemplified in illumination,
colouring, and furnishing, might provide a sufficiently stable basis
for operations. In a word, Gebb considered that the most promising
clue to the mystery was the predominance of the colour yellow in the
sitting-room. Criminal problems, as he knew, had been solved by
slighter means.

As Lackland surmised, Gebb, being high in favour with the authorities
as a detective of no ordinary capabilities, had little difficulty in
gaining their consent to taking charge of the case. The inspector made
his report, Gebb his application, and after the due formalities had
been complied with, the detective found that the responsibility of
tracing Miss Ligram’s assassin lay solely on his own shoulders,
which–as he comfortably assured himself–were quite capable of
bearing the burden. He was the more pleased with his employment,
as the Grangebury murder case promised to be one of those mysteries
which he loved. A dead woman: a strangely furnished room: a pack of
cards: these were the elements of the case, and, so far as Gebb could
see at present, there was no clue–save the lavish use of the colour
yellow–to the past of the victim, or the identity of the assassin. In
Mrs. Presk lay his sole hope of gaining intelligence likely to lead to
some practical result; so at eleven o’clock next morning Gebb, in an
anxious frame of mind, was once mere on the scene of the murder, and
in the presence of his principal witness.

In the searching light of day Mrs. Presk was more uncomely than ever.
Tall, gaunt, angular, and dressed in the worst possible taste, she
presented few of the alluring graces of her sex. To have woo’d, and
won, and lived with this strident Amazon, the late Mr. Presk must have
been a suitor of no ordinary courage. However, she made an excellent
witness, as her brain was clear, her courage high, and she had not a
morsel of imagination. Moreover, her hysteria of the previous night
had disappeared.

She answered Gebb’s leading questions in a cut-and-dried fashion,
without discursive rambling after her own private opinions: but with
all this, the examination, and the details obtainable therefrom,
proved to be anything but satisfactory. Considering the business-like
instincts of detective and widow, a more meagre result can scarcely be
conceived.

“For how long has Miss Ligram been lodging with you?” was Gebb’s first
question, put in a form which appeared to assume that the victim was
still in existence.

“For three months,” replied Mrs. Presk, referring to a dingy little
book with which she had furnished herself, in anticipation of the
ordeal. “She came to me on the first of May last; she left here–for
heaven, I hope–on the twenty-fourth day of July; so, as you can
see for yourself, Mr. Gebb, she has been with me two months and
twenty-four days, neither more nor less; and there ain’t no Court of
Law as I’d swear different in.”

“She came in answer to an advertisement, I suppose?”

“No, she didn’t,” contradicted the widow. “I don’t advertise: it’s
low. I put a card in the window, and it was that card which made Miss
Ligram apply here for board and lodging. She applied,” continued Mrs.
Presk, consulting her book, “on the twenty-ninth of April, and I
agreed to take her on the thirtieth; so that she entered my house on
the first of May.”

“Why two days’ delay?”

“Because I couldn’t make up my mind about taking her in.”

“She offered you too little?”

“On the contrary, Mr. Gebb, she offered me too much.”

“No wonder you thought her eccentric,” said the detective, with irony;
“but kindly explain the position more fully.”

“I asked her three pound a week for parlour, bedroom, fire, and
light, which is little enough, I’m sure, as everything in my house is
of the best To my surprise. Miss Ligram offered to pay me six–just
double–on condition that I allowed her to dismantle the front room,
and refurnish it herself.”

“Did she give any reason for this singular request?”

“She said she liked her own goods and chattels about her,” replied
Mrs. Presk; “and though at first I did not fancy the idea of clearing
out the parlour–which was most handsomely furnished–yet, on thinking
over the matter, I decided that double the money I asked was not to be
despised. I therefore agreed to Miss Ligram’s terms, and on the last
day of April I dismantled the parlour. On the first of May Miss Ligram
came in a van and—-”

“Came in a van?” interrupted Gebb, profoundly astonished.

“Yes! she rode beside the driver, and he assisted her to set out the
parlour in the style you saw. It was all done in a day by the pair,
for Miss Ligram would not let me help.”

“Perhaps she was afraid of your asking the driver questions as to
where she came from?” suggested Gebb, shrewdly.

“She might have saved herself the trouble,” said Mrs. Presk, grimly.
“I did speak to the driver, and asked that very question, only to find
that he was deaf and dumb.”

“Queer!” murmured the detective, rubbing his nose. “She took good care
to hide her past I wonder why?”

“I don’t,” snapped the landlady with feminine malevolence; “it’s my
opinion that Miss Ligram’s past was not respectable.”

“H’m! I must say it looks like it. What was the name on the van?”

“There was no name, Mr. Gebb. The van–painted yellow, with one grey
horse and a red-headed driver, deaf and dumb–was the private property
of Miss Ligram. It was not the first time she had moved that yellow
room about,” and the widow nodded significantly.

“Why are you doubtful of Miss Ligram’s past?”

“Well!” said Mrs. Presk, taking time to answer this question, “you can
only judge a person’s past by a person’s present, and Miss Ligram knew
too many shady people for my taste.”

“Shady people!” echoed Gebb, pricking up his ears at this hint of a
clue; “what sort of people?”

“Fortune-tellers, conjurors, spiritualists, and such-like, sir.”

“Ah!” Gebb recalled the spread-out pack of cards, “so she was rather
superstitious.”

“Superstitious!” cried Mrs. Presk, casting up her eyes. “She was a
very pagan for omens, and talismans, and consultation of cards. There
wasn’t a fortune-teller in London she hadn’t down here at one time or
another to read her hand, or question the stars, or look into the
crystal ball, or spread out the cards. She was a perfect gold mine to
those swindlers, believing all their lies, like the poor benighted
heathen she was.”

“What did she particularly seek to know?”

“The future!” was the landlady’s curt reply.

“No doubt,” returned Gebb, dryly; “and her own future at that. But was
there any particular aim in her questioning?”

“Yes!” said Mrs. Presk, with a burst of confidence, “there was. I
found it out from one of her fortune-telling visitors. She wanted to
know if she would die by violence.”

“So!” said Gebb, drawling out the word reflectively in the German
fashion. “And was a violent death predicted?”

“It was–by the fortune-teller I asked, Mr. Gebb; and sure enough the
prediction came true, though, as a rule, I don’t believe in such
rubbish; still it was queer she should die with the ace of spades in
her lap.”

“A fortune-teller was with her on the night she was killed,” said
Gebb, after a pause.

“How do you know, sir?” questioned Mrs. Presk, eagerly.

“Because the cards were laid out, and the death-card was in the lap of
the corpse. Now I believe that this man—- By the way,” said Gebb,
breaking away from his original speech, “did Miss Ligram smoke?”

“Not to my knowledge,” rejoined Mrs. Presk, promptly. “She was a lady
in her habits. Some of ’em was queer, but they were all genteel;
indeed they were.”

“It’s not out of keeping with well-bred habits for a lady to smoke,”
corrected the detective, mildly. “Many ladies do nowadays. But
as–according to you–Miss Ligram did not smoke herself, it is
probable that her visitor was a man. I found the stump of a cigarette
near the chair. When he got behind it to strangle her—-”

“To strangle her!” repeated Mrs. Presk, horrified “Do you think this
fortune-teller killed her?”

“Yes, I do. I believe firmly that, attracted by her diamonds, he
verified his own prediction, and murdered her in the most cold-blooded
fashion.”

“Impossible, Mr. Gebb. He was a friend of hers!”

“Ah! you know the man!” cried Gebb, pouncing down on this admission.

“No, I don’t!” cried the landlady, in rather a nervous manner for one
of her iron composure, “but I know she had a visitor on that night.
She told me she had a friend coming, but she didn’t say if it was a
lady or a gentleman. It was because Miss Ligram expected this person
that she sent ‘Tilda and me to the lecture.”

“Sent you to the lecture!” said Gebb, emphasizing the first word.

“Well, she didn’t exactly send us,” explained Mrs. Presk, reluctantly,
“but she gave me two tickets and suggested that we should go. Knowing
her habits, and always willing to oblige, I went, and took ‘Tilda.”

“What do you mean?” asked Gebb, staring at the landlady.

Mrs. Presk explained herself more clearly.

“On occasions Miss Ligram was ashamed of her superstitions, I think,
sir, for three or four times she got me and ‘Tilda out of the house
while she consulted her swindlers. Once,” said Mrs. Presk, consulting
her book, “it was the Crystal Palace; again, two seats at the Adelphi;
Earl’s Court Exhibition three weeks ago, and the local lecture last
night. But we came back always to find her in bed, until this last
time,” concluded Mr. Presk, with a shudder.

“A strange woman,” commented Gebb, thoughtfully. “So you never found
out where she came from?”

“No, sir, she was as close as wax. I called her the Lady from
Nowhere.”

“You know nothing of her past?”

“Nothing! She might have come from the moon for all I know of her.”

“You saw no letters, photographs—-”

“Nothing!” interrupted the landlady, emphatically. “I saw nothing.”

“Then,” said Gebb, rising briskly, “I must stick to the clue of the
Yellow Room.”

The journalist is the true Asmodeus of the day, and is quite as fond
as that meddlesome demon of interfering with what does not concern
him. He invades the privacy of our lives, unroofs our houses, reveals
our secrets, and trumpets forth things best left untold to the four
quarters of the globe.

Gebb had an especial abhorrence of this magpie habit of the Press; as
he averred, with much reason, that the excessively minute details of
criminal cases set forth in the newspapers put the ill-doers on their
guard, and warned them of coming dangers, with the result that they
were easily able to evade the futile clutches of the hands of Justice.
Yet in the instance of the Grangebury murder, the publication of
details had a singular result: no less than the assisting of right
against wrong.

As soon as the circumstances of the crime became known, the reporters
of every newspaper in the metropolis flocked to Paradise Row with
expansive notebooks, eager eyes, and inquiring minds. They surveyed
the house, questioned the police, interviewed Mrs. Presk, and gave
outline portraits of the landlady and her servant. The Yellow Boudoir
especially attracted their attention, and stirred their imagination to
descriptions of Eastern splendour. It was hinted that its magnificence
was on more than a kingly scale; it was compared to the celebrated
room in one of Balzac’s romances, and its furnishing and appointments
were minutely detailed in glowing descriptions, exhausting the most
superlative adjectives in the English tongue. Also the unknown history
and strange death of its occupant were commented upon; guesses were
made as to her identity; and reasons were given for her secretive
life, for her strange belief in, and consultation of, charlatans and
fortune-tellers and all those cunning gipsies who live by the
gullibility of the public. Appeals were made in these articles to the
deaf and dumb driver to appear and declare the mystery of the yellow
van, the yellow room, and their queer owner. In short, as the journals
were in want of a sensation, they made the most of this material
supplied by chance, and England from one end to the other rang with
the tidings of Miss Ligram’s death, Miss Ligram’s boudoir, and Miss
Ligram’s mysterious life. And all this trumpeting and noise, Gebb, the
enemy of the Press, heard with singular complacency, indeed, with
pleasure and satisfaction.

“As a rule, I hate these revelations,” said he to one who knew his
views and wondered at his equanimity, “as in nine cases out of ten
they do more harm than good by placing the criminal on his guard; but
this is the tenth case, where it is advisable to make the details of
the crime as public as possible. I rely on these descriptions of the
Yellow Boudoir to trace Miss Ligram’s past life.”

“In what way?” demanded the inquirer.

“In the way of the yellow van,” replied Gebb, promptly. “As Mrs. Presk
truly observed, the hard fact of that van shows that Miss Ligram was
in the habit of moving from place to place with her tent, and setting
it up after the fashion of an Arab, in whatever spot took her fancy.
Now, when those other people who have had the Yellow Boudoir set out
in its tawdry splendour under their roofs read of Miss Ligram’s death,
and recognize the description of her strange room, they will come
forward, and detail their experiences of the lady. So, in one way and
another, we may be enabled to trace Miss Ligram’s past life back to a
starting-point It is the only chance I can see of gaining any
knowledge.”

Within the week events of a strange nature justified the judicious
belief entertained by the astute detective. Letters in female
caligraphy were received at Scotland Yard, stating that the writers
could give certain information to the police concerning the murdered
woman. Also, a few days later, decayed females of the landlady genus
presented themselves in person to detail their experiences of Miss
Ligram and her eccentricities. From all these personal and written
statements it appeared that for four years, more or less, Miss Ligram
had been moving from one part of London to another. In no one place
she had remained longer than six months, and in each her conduct and
mode of life had been the same. She arrived regularly in the yellow
van, and, having obtained permission from the various landladies at
the cost of paying double the rent demanded, as regularly set up and
furnished her Yellow Boudoir. As in the latest instance of the
Grangebury episode, she consulted fortune-tellers, spiritualists, and
shady people of a like nature, departing at the end of each tenancy
without a word as to her destination. It would seem from this evidence
that the woman was consistent in her eccentricities, and conducted her
strangely secretive life on the most methodical principles.

One thing which seemed of a piece with the dead woman’s desire for
concealment, was that in every place she–so to speak–camped in, she
gave a different name; each appellation being stranger than the last,
and all apparently of her own manufacture. She figured at Hampstead
under the name of Margil; in Richmond she was known as Miss Ramlig;
when housed in St. John’s Wood she called herself Milgar; and at
Shepherd’s Bush–but for the sake of clearness it will be advisable to
let the several landladies speak for themselves–five persons, five
pieces of information more or less similar, and five obviously made-up
names. So much for the past of Miss Ligram.

Mrs. Brown, of West Kensington, stated that she knew the deceased
under the name of Miss Limrag. She arrived at Mrs. Brown’s in the
month of May, ’95, and after a six months’ tenancy departed in the
month of October in the same year. Mrs. Brown was ignorant as to where
she come from, and equally at a loss to declare whither she went. Both
in coming and going Miss Limrag used as a means of transport the
yellow van, and during her residence she inhabited the Yellow Room of
her own furnishing for the consulting therein of the fortune-telling
fraternity.

Mrs. Kane testified that a lady who called herself Miss Milgar arrived
in Shelley Road, St. John’s Wood, on the first day of November, ’95,
and left the district in the last days of April, ’96. Her conduct
during her six months’ stay was similar to that described by Mrs.
Presk and Mrs. Brown. On the evidence of such conduct, and the facts
of the van and boudoir (both yellow in colour), Mrs. Kane had no
hesitation in declaring that the murdered Miss Ligram, of Grangebury,
was her eccentric lodger, Miss Milgar.

The information given by Miss Bain, of Crescent Villa, Hampstead,
showed that the name assumed there by the wandering lady was Margil,
and that she took possession of her lodgings there in the month of
November, ’93–having arrived, according to her custom, in the yellow
van. While the lodger of Miss Bain, she gave herself up to the study
of dream-books, and the interpretation of visions. During her
occupancy of Crescent Villa, the landlady, in spite of all efforts,
could find out nothing about her past or discover where she came from;
and the so-called Miss Margil departed with her furniture towards the
end of April, 1894. She left no address.

Miss Lamb, resident at Richmond, entertained the unknown from
November, 1894, to April, 1895. She knew her by the strange name of
Ramlig, and always thought her weak in her mind, owing to her queer
mode of life, and belief in omens. When Miss Ramlig made any boastful
speech reflecting on her worldly prosperity, she would touch wood to
avert the omen. “Absit omen”; “Umberufen”; “In a good hour be it
spoken “; “N’importe.” These words and phrases were continually on her
tongue; and she was a slave to all forms of superstition. She would
not walk under a ladder; if she spilt salt she threw a pinch over
her shoulder; an unexpected meeting with a magpie, a hunchback, a
cross-eyed person, or with a piebald horse, either made her rejoice in
the most extravagant fashion, or threw her into a fever of
apprehension. She was not communicative, and resisted all Miss Lamb’s
attempts at social intercourse. During the whole period of her stay,
no words were spoken, and no event occurred, likely to throw light on
her past; nor, when she departed, did Miss Lamb discover whither she
intended to go. In coming, in staying, in going, Miss Ramlig was a
mystery.

The owner of Myrtle Bank, Shepherd’s Bush, a bird-like spinster called
Cass, informed Gebb that a certain Miss Migral lodged with her from
the first of May to the end of October, 1894. She arrived in the van
spoken of by the other witnesses; she paid double rent for the
privilege of dismantling a room, and therein set up her tent-like
habitation of yellow satin, furnished with cane chairs and tables,
illuminated with candles, and perfumed with incense. She was, said
Miss Cass, superstitious beyond all belief, actually divining by
teacups, and believing in the future as foretold by the position of
the tea-leaves, after the fashion of illiterate servant-girls. Miss
Migral never went to church, she had–so far as Miss Cass knew, no
Bible in her possession; but read books dealing with fortune-telling
and necromancy. One of her favourite volumes was “The Book of Fate,”
another “The Book of Dreams,” and she appeared to have an insatiable
desire to know the future; but for what reason, Miss Cass–in spite of
all efforts–was unable to discover. This strange creature departed
with all her worldly goods for some unknown destination during the
last days of October, 1894.

Mrs. Presk was the last landlady who received this mysterious woman,
and knew her as Miss Ligram. She arrived at Paradise Row at the
beginning of May, 1896, and met with a violent death three months
later. Mrs. Presk was as ignorant of the woman’s past as the other
landladies had been. She arrived from nowhere, and, no doubt, would
have departed six months later in an equally mysterious fashion. But
in the middle of her Grangebury tenancy, a violent death put an end to
her further wanderings.

Gebb heard all this evidence, which was monotonous from its sameness,
with much satisfaction and great attention. By means of the details
afforded by the five landladies and Mrs. Presk, he traced back the
wanderings of the dead woman to the month of November, 1893, but
further back he was unable to go, for lack of information. In spite of
all publicity given to the case, notwithstanding advertisements, and
his own private efforts, no other witnesses came forward to give
evidence as to the past of Miss Ligram; so, finding he was at a
dead stop, the detective resolved to stand–at all events for the
present–on the information he had already acquired. For his own
private information and guidance he tabulated an account of Miss
Ligram’s names, addresses, and former landladies, together with the
dates of her various rests, as follows:–

Miss Bain, Hampstead Margil, Nov., 1893, to April, 1894

Miss Cass, Shepherd’s Bush Migral, May to Oct.,1894

Miss Lamb, Richmond Ramlig, Nov., 1894, to April, 1895

Mrs. Brown, West Kensington Limrag, May to Oct. 1895

Mrs. Kane, St. John’s Wool Milgar, Nov., 1895, to April, 1896

Mrs. Presk, Grangebury Ligram, April to July, 1896

And at the foot of this table he noted the fact that on the night of
the 24th July, 1896–according to medical evidence at ten o’clock–the
so-called Miss Ligram met with a violent death at the hands of some
unknown person.

So far so good; but here Gebb’s information came to an end, and beyond
a few years’ knowledge of Miss Ligram’s past, he had no evidence to
show him why she had taken to this mode of life, or why her eccentric
manner of living should have been cut short by violence. Ready as he
was in resource, the detective did not know how to act, or in which
direction to turn for information. While thus perplexed he received a
hasty note scribbled on a half-sheet of dirty paper. It ran as
follows:–

“48, Guy Street, Pimlico.

“Come and see me at once, about the Grangebury case. I have solved the
mystery, and can hang the criminal.–Yours,

“Simon Parge.”

You may also like