“After midnight—the spectre comes knocking.” The eyes of the tale bearer grew large. “Perchance a greedy person open the door and look the phantom in the eye, which is decidedly not an eye but a solid gold coin, the finely clothed skeleton drags its victim into the dark, where it strips its prey of flesh to dress its cold white bones—the Debt Collector.”

“And he’ll come for you first,” burst out his friend, “who owes every soul in Prescott a dollar.”

Raucous laughter filled the dining room.

“As lean as a whip and as cruel,” sighed the tailored young man across from his two sparring companions. “Miserly. Suspicious. Not a friend on either side of the St. Lawrence.”

The young man, his top hat and gloves propped on the table beside his frothy mug, had chilled his companion’s warm chatter.

“You knew the usurer?” asked the storyteller, swallowing a generous fork of the Daniels* pot pie.

“After his dogs I knew his foot best.”

His companions laid their forks aside. Knew his foot? Their friend was a respected merchant, treating them to a hearty meal behind steamy windows in the best dining room in town.

“I was his bondservant to pay my mother’s debt. A loan, for a roof over our heads—He laid his hands on his waistcoat and mimed a swelling belly—and porridge in my pot.”

“Unthinkable!” cried his friends in unison.

“I scraped his plates, stoked his coal iron, collected his usury, and made my bed in a closet for fear of his dogs. Six months his servant, I discovered he furnished my plate with the same fare as his four-footed sentries—pork rinds and turnip.

“On collection runs I visited my mother—an answer to her prayers she said—and upon returning was paid for my tardiness with boxed ears. Later, I fell ill with fever. He threw me out. Stumbling home, I fainted. A gentleman plucked me up, set me in his carriage and rushed me to the Asylum. A nurse recognized me and located my mother. Months later, my health restored, I pleaded with my mother that I might return to pay off our debt. She relented on condition that I return home every third night. ‘Tell him he’ll save money on board,’ she said. I trudged the long road back.

“The heavy brass knocker squelched when I lifted it, so little had it been used. Not a snarl or bark assaulted the locked door, so I opened the delivery panel. I shouted a halloo into the gloom, expecting a rack of snarling teeth. Not a growl rippled the silence. I called again before I wormed my way inside. I did not at first comprehend what my eyes beheld. Something glinted from a heap at the foot of the stairs.”

The young merchant lifted his pint and drew a long draught.

“I ran for the constable.”

“That’s it?” blurted his two friends at once.

“Apparently, the old moneylender had contracted pneumonia—putrid bowls lingered by his bedside. The Sergeant said he had likely fainted and tumbled down the stairs. If the miser hadn’t starved his dogs, he might have fared better. He paid his debt in flesh till his bones shone white in the gloom. After their gaunt master was bankrupt, the hellhounds attacked each other… But I’ve put you from your meal.”

“So it’s true,” said the chronicler of the Debt Collector. “What of your dear mother?”

“The miser had ferreted his money under his bed. When the magistrate heard our story he awarded it to my mother. ‘For payment due,’ he said.”

“And the coin?” asked the storyteller. “In place of the phantom’s eye?”

The young man paused. He stood and snugged his tall hat over his brow.

“My mother said it best: ‘A cruel life begs a cruel end.’ Perhaps he had it clutched in his gnarled fingers when he fell. Wedged in one eye socket was a gleaming gold coin.”