He now took his customary seat, and began to listen with some interest. Mrs. Callender had produced her effect on him already.
"It was absolutely necessary," she proceeded, "that you should be on board your ship in the London Docks at nine o'clock the next morning. If you had lost the express, the vessel would have sailed without you."
The expression of his face began to change to surprise. "Who told you that?" he asked.
"You shall hear directly. On your way into the town, your carriage was stopped by an obstruction on the highroad. The people of Bexmore were looking at a house on fire."
He started to his feet.
"Good heavens! are you the lady?"
She held up her hand in satirical protest.
"Gently, sir! You suspected me just now of wasting your valuable time. Don't rashly conclude that I am the lady, until you find that I am acquainted with the circumstances."
"Is there no excuse for my failing to recognize you?" Mr. Lismore asked. "We were on the dark side of the burning house; you were fainting, and I--"
"And you," she interposed, "after saving me at the risk of your own life, turned a deaf ear to my poor husband's entreaties, when he asked you to wait till I had recovered my senses."
"Your poor husband? Surely, Mrs. Callender, he received no serious injury from the fire?"
"The firemen rescued him under circumstances of peril," she answered, "and at his great age he sank under the shock. I have lost the kindest and best of men. Do you remember how you parted from him--burned and bruised in saving me? He liked to talk of it in his last illness. 'At least' (he said to you), 'tell me the name of the man who has preserved my wife from a dreadful death.' You threw your card to him out of the carriage window, and away you went at a gallop to catch your train! In all the years that have passed I have kept that card, and have vainly inquired for my brave sea-captain. Yesterday I saw your name on the list of speakers at the Mansion House. Need I say that I attended the meeting? Need I tell you now why I come here and interrupt you in business hours?"
She held out her hand. Mr. Lismore took it in silence, and pressed it warmly.
"You have not done with me yet," she resumed with a smile. "Do you remember what I said of my errand, when I first came in?"
"You said it was an errand of gratitude."
"Something more than the gratitude which only says 'Thank you,' " she added. "Before I explain myself, however, I want to know what you have been doing, and how it was that my inquiries failed to trace you after that terrible night."
The appearance of depression which Mrs. Callender had noticed at the public meeting showed itself again in Mr. Lismore's face. He sighed as he answered her.
"My story has one merit," he said; "it is soon told. I cannot wonder that you failed to discover me. In the first place, I was not captain of my ship at that time; I was only mate. In the second place, I inherited some money, and ceased to lead a sailor's life, in less than a year from the night of the fire. You will now understand what obstacles were in the way of your tracing me. With my little capital I started successfully in business as a ship-owner. At the time, I naturally congratulated myself on my own good fortune. We little know, Mrs. Callender, what the future has in store for us."
He stopped. His handsome features hardened--as if he was suffering (and concealing) pain. Before it was possible to speak to him, there was a knock at the door. Another visitor, without an appointment, had called; the clerk appeared again, with a card and a message.
"The gentleman begs you will see him, sir. He has something to tell you which is too important to be delayed."
Hearing the message, Mrs. Callender rose immediately.
"It is enough for to-day that we understand each other," she said. "Have you any engagement to-morrow, after the hours of business?"
She pointed to her card on the writing-table. "Will you come to me to-morrow evening at that address? I am like the gentleman who has just called; I, too, have my reason for wishing to see you."
He gladly accepted the invitation. Mrs. Callender stopped him as he opened the door for her.
"Shall I offend you," she said, "if I ask a strange question before I go? I have a better motive, mind, than mere curiosity. Are you married?"
"Forgive me again," she resumed. "At my age, you cannot possibly misunderstand me; and yet--"
She hesitated. Mr. Lismore tried to give her confidence. "Pray don't stand on ceremony, Mrs. Callender. Nothing that you can ask me need be prefaced by an apology."
Thus encouraged, she ventured to proceed.
"You may be engaged to be married?" she suggested. "Or you may be in love?"
He found it impossible to conceal his surprise. But he answered without hesitation.
"There is no such bright prospect in my life," he said. "I am not even in love."
She left him with a little sigh. It sounded like a sigh of relief.
Ernest Lismore was thoroughly puzzled. What could be the old lady's object in ascertaining that he was still free from a matrimonial engagement? If the idea had occurred to him in time, he might have alluded to her domestic life, and might have asked if she had children? With a little tact he might have discovered more than this. She had described her feeling toward him as passing the ordinary limits of gratitude; and she was evidently rich enough to be above the imputation of a mercenary motive. Did she propose to brighten those dreary prospects to which he had alluded in speaking of his own life? When he presented himself at her house the next evening, would she introduce him to a charming daughter?
He smiled as the idea occurred to him. "An appropriate time to be thinking of my chances of marriage!" he said to himself. "In another month I may be a ruined man."
THE gentleman who had so urgently requested an interview was a devoted friend--who had obtained a means of helping Ernest at a serious crisis in his affairs.