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."
It struck me as I looked at him that he was just the sort of man that you would expect to hear of as having been in queer places—a sort of gnarled and stubbly man, with a wealth of seams and wrinkles about his face and what could be seen of his neck, and much grizzled hair, and an eye—only one being visible—that looked as if it had been on the watch ever since he was born. He was a fellow of evident great strength and stout muscle, and his hands, which he had clasped in front of him as he sat talking to me, were big enough to go round another man's throat, or to fell a bullock. And as for the rest of his appearance, he had gold rings in his ears, and he wore a great, heavy gold chain across his waistcoat, and was dressed in a new suit of blue serge, somewhat large for him, that he had evidently purchased at a ready-made-clothing shop, not so long before.
My mother came quietly in upon us before I could reply to the stranger's last remark, and I saw at once that he was a man of some politeness and manners, for he got himself up out of his chair and made her a sort of bow, in an old-fashioned way. And without waiting for me, he let his tongue loose on her.
"Servant, ma'am," said he. "You'll be the lady of the house—Mrs. Moneylaws. I'm seeking lodgings, Mrs. Moneylaws, and seeing your paper at the door-light, and your son's face at the window, I came in. Nice, quiet lodgings for a few weeks is what I'm wanting—a bit of plain cooking—no fal-lals. And as for money—no object! Charge me what you like, and I'll pay beforehand, any hand, whatever's convenient."
My mother, a shrewd little woman, who had had a good deal to do since my father died, smiled at the corners of her mouth as she looked the would-be lodger up and down.
"Why, sir," said she. "I like to know who I'm taking in. You're a stranger in the place, I'm thinking."
"Fifty years since I last clapped eyes on it, ma'am," he answered. "And I was then a youngster of no more than twelve years or so. But as to who and what I am—name of James Gilverthwaite. Late master of as good a ship as ever a man sailed. A quiet, respectable man. No swearer. No drinker—saving in reason and sobriety. And as I say—money no object, and cash down whenever it's wanted. Look here!"
He plunged one of the big hands into a trousers' pocket, and pulled it out again running over with gold. And opening his fingers he extended the gold-laden palm towards us. We were poor folk at that time, and it was a strange sight to us, all that money lying in the man's hand, and he apparently thinking no more of it than if it had been a heap of six-penny pieces.
"Help yourself to whatever'll pay you for a month," he exclaimed. "And don't be afraid—there's a lot more where that came from."
But my mother laughed, and motioned him to put up his money.
"Nay, nay, sir!" said she. "There's no need. And all I'm asking at you is just to know who it is I'm taking in. You'll be having business in the town for a while?"
"Not business in the ordinary sense, ma'am," he answered. "But there's kin of mine lying in more than one graveyard just by, and it's a fancy of my own to take a look at their resting-places, d'ye see, and to wander round the old quarters where they lived. And while I'm doing that, it's a quiet, and respectable, and a comfortable lodging I'm wanting."
I could see that the sentiment in his speech touched my mother, who was fond of visiting graveyards herself, and she turned to Mr. James Gilverthwaite with a nod of acquiescence.
"Well, now, what might you be wanting in the way of accommodation?" she asked, and she began to tell him that he could have that parlour in which they were talking, and the bedchamber immediately above it. I left them arranging their affairs, and went into another room to attend to some of my own, and after a while my mother came there to me. "I've let him the rooms, Hugh," she said, with a note of satisfaction in her voice which told me that the big man was going to pay well for them. "He's a great bear of a man to look at," she went on, "but he seems quiet and civil-spoken. And here's a ticket for a chest of his that he's left up at the railway station, and as he's tired, maybe you'll get somebody yourself to fetch it down for him?"
I went out to a man who lived close by and had a light cart, and sent him up to the station with the ticket for the chest; he was back with it before long, and I had to help him carry it up to Mr. Gilverthwaite's room. And never had I felt or seen a chest like that before, nor had the man who had fetched it, either. It was made of some very hard and dark wood, and clamped at all the corners with brass, and underneath it there were a couple of bars of iron, and though it was no more than two and a half feet square, it took us all our time to lift it. And when, under Mr. Gilverthwaite's orders, we set it down on a stout stand at the side of his bed, there it remained until—but to say until when would be anticipating.
Now that he was established in our house, the new lodger proved himself all that he had said. He was a quiet, respectable, sober sort of man, giving no trouble and paying down his money without question or murmur every Saturday morning at his breakfast-time. All his days were passed in pretty much the same fashion. After breakfast he would go out—you might see him on the pier, or on the old town walls, or taking a walk across the Border Bridge; now and then we heard of his longer excursions into the country, one side or other of the Tweed. He took his dinner in the evenings, having made a special arrangement with my mother to that effect, and a very hearty eater he was, and fond of good things, which he provided generously for himself; and when that episode of the day's events was over, he would spend an hour or two over the newspapers, of which he was a great reader, in company with his cigar and his glass. And I'll say for him that from first to last he never put anything out, and was always civil and polite, and there was never a Saturday that he did not give the servant-maid a half-crown to buy herself a present.
All the same—we said it to ourselves afterwards, though not at the time—there was an atmosphere of mystery about Mr. Gilverthwaite. He made no acquaintance in the town. He was never seen in even brief conversation with any of the men that hung about the pier, on the walls, or by the shipping. He never visited the inns, nor brought anybody in to drink and smoke with him. And until the last days of his lodging with us he never received a letter.
A letter and the end of things came all at once. His stay had lengthened beyond the month he had first spoken of. It was in the seventh week of his coming that he came home to his dinner one June evening, complaining to my mother of having got a great wetting in a sudden storm that had come on that afternoon while he was away out in the country, and next morning he was in bed with a bad pain in his chest, and not over well able to talk. My mother kept him in his bed and began to doctor him; that day, about noon, came for him the first and only letter he ever had while he was with us—a letter that came in a registered envelope. The servant-maid took it up to him when it was delivered, and she said later that he started a bit when he saw it. But he said nothing about it to my mother during that afternoon, nor indeed to me, specifically, when, later on, he sent for me to go up to his room. All the same, having heard of what he had got, I felt sure that it was because of it that, when I went in to him, he beckoned me first to close the door on us and then to come close to his side as he lay propped on his pillow.
"Private, my lad!" he whispered hoarsely. "There's a word I have for you in private!"