In Ardevora, a fishing-town on the Cornish coast not far from the Land’s End, lived a merchant whom everybody called ‘Elder’ Penno, or ‘The Elder’–not because he had any right, or laid any claim, to that title. His father and grandfather had worn it as office-bearers in a local religious sect known as the Advent Saints; and it had survived the extinction of that sect and passed on to William John Penno, an orthodox Wesleyan, as a family sobriquet.
He was sixty-three years old, a widower, and childless. His fellow-townsmen supposed him to be rich because he had so many irons in the fire and employed, in one way and another, a great deal of labour. He held a number of shares in coasting vessels, and passed as owner of half a dozen–all of them too heavily in debt to pay dividends. He managed (ostensibly as proprietor, but actually in dependence on the local bank) a shipbuilding-yard to which the fishermen came for their boats. He had an interest in the profit of most of these boats when they were launched, as also in a salt-store, a coal-store, a company for the curing of pilchards, and an agency for buying and packing of fish for the London market. He kept a retail shop and sold almost everything the town needed, from guernseys and hardware to tea, bacon, and tallow candles. He advanced money, at varying rates of interest, on anything from a ship to a frying-pan; and by this means had made himself accurately acquainted with his neighbours’ varying degrees of poverty. But he was not rich, although generally reputed so: for Ardevora’s population was not one out of which any man could make his fortune, and of poor folk who borrow or obtain goods on credit quite a large number do not seriously mean to pay– a fact often overlooked, and always by the borrowers themselves.
Still, and despite an occasional difficulty in keeping so many balls in the air at one time, Elder Penno was–as a widower, a childless man, and in comparison with his neighbours–well-to-do. Also he filled many small public offices–district councillor, harbour commissioner, member of the School Board, and the like. They had come to him–he could not quite tell how. He took pride in them and discharged them conscientiously. He knew that envious tongues accused him of using them to feather his nest, but he also knew that they accused him falsely. He was thick-skinned, and they might go to the devil. In person he was stout of habit, brusque of bearing, with a healthy, sanguine complexion, a double chin, shrewd grey eyes, and cropped hair which stood up straight as the bristles on a brush. He lived abstemiously, rose at six, went to bed at nine, and might be found, during most of the intervening hours, hard at work at his desk in the little office behind his shop. The office had a round window, and the window overlooked the quay, the small harbour (dry at low water), and the curve of a sandy bay beyond.
One morning Elder Penno looked up from his desk and saw, beyond the masts of the fishing-boats lying aslant as the tide had left them, a small figure–a speck, almost–on the sandy beach, about three furlongs away.
He was engaged at the moment in adding up a column of figures. Having entered the total, he looked up again, laid down his pen, frowned with annoyance, and picked up an old pair of field-glasses that stood ready to hand on the sill of his desk beside the ink-well. He glanced at the clock on his chimney-piece before throwing up the window-sash.
The hour was eleven–five minutes after eleven, to be exact; the month April; the day sunny, with a humming northerly wind; the tide drawing far out towards low-ebb, and the air so clear that the small figure standing on the edge of the waves could not be mistaken.