The very beginning of this affair, which involved me, before I was aware of it, in as much villainy and wickedness as ever man heard of, was, of course, that spring evening, now ten years ago, whereon I looked out of my mother’s front parlour window in the main street of Berwick-upon-Tweed and saw, standing right before the house, a man who had a black patch over his left eye, an old plaid thrown loosely round his shoulders, and in his right hand a stout stick and an old-fashioned carpet-bag. He caught sight of me as I caught sight of him, and he stirred, and made at once for our door. If I had possessed the power of seeing more than the obvious, I should have seen robbery, and murder, and the very devil himself coming in close attendance upon him as he crossed the pavement. But as it was, I saw nothing but a stranger, and I threw open the window and asked the man what he might be wanting.
“Lodgings!” he answered, jerking a thickly made thumb at a paper which my mother had that day set in the transom above the door. “Lodgings! You’ve lodgings to let for a single gentleman. I’m a single gentleman, and I want lodgings. For a month—maybe more. Money no object. Thorough respectability—on my part. Few needs and modest requirements. Not likely to give trouble. Open the door!”
I went into the passage and opened the door to him. He strode in without as much as a word, and, not waiting for my invitation, lurched heavily—he was a big, heavy-moving fellow—into the parlour, where he set down his bag, his plaid, and his stick, and dropping into an easy chair, gave a sort of groan as he looked at me.
“And what’s your name?” he demanded, as if he had all the right in the world to walk into folks’ houses and ask his questions. “Whatever it is, you’re a likely-looking youngster!”
“My name’s Hugh Moneylaws,” I answered, thinking it no harm to humour him. “If you want to know about lodgings you must wait till my mother comes in. Just now she’s away up the street—she’ll be back presently.”
“No hurry, my lad,” he replied. “None whatever. This is a comfortable anchorage. Quiet. Your mother’ll be a widow woman, now?”
“Yes,” said I shortly.
“Any more of you—brothers and sisters?” he asked. “Any—aye, of course!—any young children in the house? Because young children is what I cannot abide—except at a distance.”
“There’s nobody but me and my mother, and a servant lass,” I said. “This is a quiet enough house, if that’s what you mean.”
“Quiet is the word,” said he. “Nice, quiet, respectable lodgings. In this town of Berwick. For a month. If not more. As I say, a comfortable anchorage. And time, too!—when you’ve seen as many queer places as I have in my day, young fellow, you’ll know that peace and quiet is meat and drink to an ageing man.”