I was getting ready to go out when I heard raised voices in the narrow alley outside the house (trust psychoanalysis to give me the right associations with dark alleys and narrowness). The woman of the house, my landlady (or concierge), was quarrelling with somebody else, a young man by the sound of it. They were talking too fast for me to make out much of the conversation, but it seemed to concern the right time to come calling.
I thought little of it. Many people come to this quarter looking for rooms, but after a brief interval, I heard a knock on my door and some whining words from the servant (an oppressed looking black who cringes instinctively every time he looks at you). I gathered that I had a visitor, and that they were just checking I was fit to receive guests.
Hastily tidying away my accumulation of papers, I signified assent to the invasion, and the procession of man of the house, woman of the house, and young robed and booted visitor began to sidle in.
I motioned to them to sit down, which they did, and then clapped my hands and ordered refreshments from the wretched servant. As he bustled off to fill a tray with dusty pastries and half-stewed coffee, we began to exchange small-talk about the weather (hot), the conditions for trade (bad), and the prospects of amelioration for either (small).
All through this rigmarole I was sizing up my guest, who was dressed as if for desert travel, with a full headdress wrapped around the face. His part in the conversation was confined mainly to assent with my landlord’s views, but I could see his eyes – large, lustrous, brown – were fixed on me as if sizing me up. Haunting eyes, really, but then so many of them are when framed with the dark blue of the burnoose.
When the coffee came, and the ritual exchanges were completed, my landlord began to offer hints that it might be time to come to the object of this visit, and our guest began to speak with an absence of circumlocution attributable (I fear) only to his youth.
“You wish to travel to the north, I hear.”
“I can guide you there. My home is in the mountains.”
“Really? You know that I wish to go quite far?”
“I do not care how far.”
“What payment would you require?”
I had little faith in the negotiations; they seemed to me like many I had been through before. Soon would come the “but” – the demand that we go in