Near the end of my fourteenth year I was apprenticed to Valentine, King & Co., cotton importers, Liverpool, as a "pair of legs." My father had died suddenly, leaving me and his property in the possession of my stepmother and my guardian. It was in deference to their urgent advice that I left my home in London (with little reluctance, since my life there had never been happy) to study the art of money-making. On arriving at the scene of my expected triumphs I was assigned to the somewhat humble position of errand boy. In common with other boys who performed a like service for the firm I was known as "a pair of legs." Lodgings of a rather modest character had been secured for me in the western outskirts of the city near the banks of the Mersey. I was slow to make friends, and my evenings were spent in the perusal of some story books, which I had brought with me from London. One night, not long after the beginning of my new life in Liverpool, I was lying in bed listening to the wind and rain beating over the housetops and driving against the windows, when suddenly there came a loud rap at my door.
"Who's there?" I demanded, starting out of bed.
As I heard no answer, I repeated my inquiry and stood a moment listening. I could hear nothing, however, but the wind and rain. Lighting a candle and dressing myself with all haste, I opened the door. I could just discern the figure of a bent old man standing in the hallway, when a gust of wind suddenly put out the candle. The door leading to the street was open, and the old man was probably a straggler come to importune me for shelter or for something to eat. As I relit the candle, he entered my room and stood facing me, but he did not speak. His clothes were dripping and he was blinking at me with strange, gleaming eyes. His hair was snow-white, and as I looked into his face the deathly pallor of it frightened me. His general appearance was more than startling; it was uncanny.
"What can I do for you?" I asked.
Greatly to my surprise he made no reply, but with a look of pain and great anxiety sank into a chair. Then he withdrew from his pocket a letter which he extended to me. The envelope was wet and dirty. It was directed to Kendric Lane, Esq., No. Old Broad street, London, England. The address was crossed and "22 Kirkland street, Liverpool," written under it in the familiar hand of my guardian. A strange proceeding! thought I. Was the letter intended for my father, who was long dead, and who had removed from that address more than ten years ago? The old man began to grin and nod as I examined the superscription. I broke the seal on the envelope and found the following letter, undated, and with no indication of the place from which it was sent:
"Dear Brother—I need your help. Come to me at once if you can. Consequences of vast importance to me and to mankind depend upon your prompt compliance. I cannot tell you where I am. The bearer will bring you to me. Follow him and ask no questions. Moreover, be silent, like him, regarding the subject of this letter....