Part 1, Chapters 1-4 Summary
Gaffer Hexam and his daughter, Lizzie, row across the surface of the Thames River in London, looking for corpses. On finding one, Lizzie stops the boat while Gaffer digs first through the pockets, finding several coins, before tying it to the stern. Lizzie does not want to be close to the body, but her father harshly admonishes her for hating the river, which gives her money enough for food and provisions. They are interrupted by another boater, who identifies himself as Gaffer's "pardner," but Gaffer denies this. The "pardner" then hints that Gaffer hastens the deaths of the people whose bodies he retrieves. Done for the night, a relieved Lizzie rows them back to shore, pulling the corpse behind.
Mr. and Mrs. Veneering are newlyweds who are newly rich. Their home is new, as are their friends. Twemlow is their oldest acquaintance and regularly appears at all their dinner parties, though he is often confused and overwhelmed by all the new people. At one dinner, a Lady Tippin flirts with all the gentlemen. Another guest, Mortimer Lightwood, tells the party the story of the Man from Somewhere, who was the son of the rich Dust contractor named Harmon. Mr. Harmon, Senior, had disowned his daughter because she failed to marry the man he had selected for her, marrying instead “Another.” The daughter soon died, as did Another. The son, who was at school in Brussels, was thus the sole heir of the fortune, but only if he married the woman whom Mr. Harmon had selected for him. If he did not, the Harmon fortune would go to an old servant. Mr. Harmon died recently, and the son was returning to claim his inheritance. A message arrives just as Mortimer finishes the story, stating that this son had drowned.
Mortimer, along with Eugene Wrayburn, leaves the dinner party and follows the messenger, who is Charley Hexam, the son of Gaffer. Their intention is to examine the body that has been identified by the steward of the ship on which it arrived as John Harmon. A stranger also arrives to see the body, but he is horrified at the sight and cannot. He gives his name as Julius Hanford. Charley goes home to his sister, Lizzie, and they imagine pictures of their past in the coals of the fire. At the inquest, it is determined that the decayed and disfigured body is that of John Harmon, the victim of murder.
Bella Wilfer is the woman whom Mr. Harmon had ordered his son to marry, and she now resents that she must wear mourning clothes for a man she never met. A new lodger arrives, signing his name as John Rokesmith, though he refuses to give references. Bella does not trust him from the start. It is mentioned that John Rokesmith could have been Julius Hanford’s twin.