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MR. LISMORE AND THE WIDOW

from Stories By English Authors: England





Late in the autumn, not many years since, a public meeting was held
at the Mansion House, London, under the direction of the Lord Mayor.

The list of gentlemen invited to address the audience had been
chosen with two objects in view. Speakers of celebrity, who would
rouse public enthusiasm, were supported by speakers connected with
commerce, who would be practically useful in explaining the purpose
for which the meeting was convened. Money wisely spent in advertising
had produced the customary result: every seat was occupied before
the proceedings began.

Among the late arrivals, who had no choice but to stand or to leave
the hall, were two ladies. One of them at once decided on leaving
the hall.

"I shall go back to the carriage," she said, "and wait for you at
the door."

Her friend answered, "I sha'n't keep you long. He is advertised
to support the second resolution; I want to see him, and that is
all."

An elderly gentleman, seated at the end of a bench, rose and
offered his place to the lady who remained. She hesitated to take
advantage of his kindness, until he reminded her that he had heard
what she said to her friend. Before the third resolution was proposed
his seat would be at his own disposal again. She thanked him, and
without further ceremony took his place. He was provided with an
opera-glass, which he more than once offered to her when famous
orators appeared on the platform. She made no use of it until
a speaker, known in the City as a ship-owner, stepped forward to
support the second resolution.

His name (announced in the advertisements) was Ernest Lismore.

The moment he rose the lady asked for the opera-glass. She kept
it to her eyes for such a length of time, and with such evident
interest in Mr. Lismore, that the curiosity of her neighbours
was aroused. Had he anything to say in which a lady (evidently a
stranger to him) was personally interested? There was nothing in
the address that he delivered which appealed to the enthusiasm of
women. He was undoubtedly a handsome man, whose appearance proclaimed
him to be in the prime of life, midway, perhaps, between thirty
and forty years of age. But why a lady should persist in keeping
an opera-glass fixed on him all through his speech was a question
which found the general ingenuity at a loss for a reply.

Having returned the glass with an apology, the lady ventured on
putting a question next. "Did it strike you, sir, that Mr. Lismore
seemed to be out of spirits?" she asked.

"I can't say it did, ma'am."

"Perhaps you noticed that he left the platform the moment he had
done?"

This betrayal of interest in the speaker did not escape the notice
of a lady seated on the bench in front. Before the old gentleman
could answer she volunteered an explanation.

"I am afraid Mr. Lismore is troubled by anxieties connected with
his business," she said. "My husband heard it reported in the City
yesterday that he was seriously embarrassed by the failure---"

A loud burst of applause made the end of the sentence inaudible.
A famous member of Parliament had risen to propose the third
resolution. The polite old man took his seat, and the lady left
the hall to join her friend.

"Well, Mrs. Callender, has Mr. Lismore disappointed you?"

"Far from it! But I have heard a report about him which has alarmed
me: he is said to be seriously troubled about money matters. How
can I find out his address in the City?"

"We can stop at the first stationer's shop we pass, and ask to look
at the directory. Are you going to pay Mr. Lismore a visit?"

"I am going to think about it."

The next day a clerk entered Mr. Lismore's private room at the office,
and presented a visiting-card. Mrs. Callender had reflected, and
had arrived at a decision. Underneath her name she had written
these explanatory words: "An important business."

"Does she look as if she wanted money?" Mr. Lismore inquired.

"Oh dear, no! She comes in her carriage."

"Is she young or old?"

"Old, sir."

To Mr. Lismore, conscious of the disastrous influence occasionally
exercised over busy men by youth and beauty, this was a recommendation
in itself. He said, "Show her in."

Observing the lady as she approached him with the momentary
curiosity of a stranger, he noticed that she still preserved the
remains of beauty. She had also escaped the misfortune, common
to persons at her time of life, of becoming too fat. Even to a
man's eye, her dressmaker appeared to have made the most of that
favourable circumstance. Her figure had its defects concealed,
and its remaining merits set off to advantage. At the same time she
evidently held herself above the common deceptions by which some
women seek to conceal their age. She wore her own gray hair, and
her complexion bore the test of daylight. On entering the room, she
made her apologies with some embarrassment. Being the embarrassment
of a stranger (and not of a youthful stranger) it failed to impress
Mr. Lismore favourably.

"I am afraid I have chosen an inconvenient time for my visit," she
began.

"I am at your service," he answered, a little stiffly, "especially
if you will be so kind as to mention your business with me in few
words."

She was a woman of some spirit, and that reply roused her.

"I will mention it in one word," she said, smartly." My business
is--gratitude."

He was completely at a loss to understand what she meant, and he
said so plainly. Instead of explaining herself she put a question.

"Do you remember the night of the 11th of March, between five and
six years since?"

He considered for a moment.

"No," he said, "I don't remember it. Excuse me Mrs. Callender, I
have affairs of my own to attend to which cause me some anxiety---"

"Let me assist your memory, Mr. Lismore, and I will leave you to
your affairs. On the date that I have referred to you were on your
way to the railway-station at Bexmore, to catch the night express
from the north to London."


As a hint that his time was valuable the ship-owner had hitherto
remained standing. 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 recognise 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 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. Calender 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 were 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?"

"None."

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?"

"No."

"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.

It had been truly reported that he was in a position of pecuniary
embarrassment, owing to the failure of a mercantile house with
which he had been intimately connected. Whispers affecting his own
solvency had followed on the bankruptcy of the firm. He had already
endeavoured to obtain advances of money on the usual conditions,
and had been met by excuses for delay. His friend had now arrived
with a letter of introduction to a capitalist, well known in
commercial circles for his daring speculations and for his great
wealth.

Looking at the letter, Ernest observed that the envelope was sealed.
In spite of that ominous innovation on established usage in cases
of personal introduction, he presented the letter. On this occasion
he was not put off with excuses. The capitalist flatly declined to
discount Mr. Lismore's bills unless they were backed by responsible
names.

Ernest made a last effort.

He applied for help to two mercantile men whom he had assisted in
_their_ difficulties, and whose names would have satisfied the
money-lender. They were most sincerely sorry, but they too refused.

The one security that he could offer was open, it must be owned,
to serious objections on the score of risk. He wanted an advance
of twenty thousand pounds, secured on a homeward-bound ship and
cargo. But the vessel was not insured, and at that stormy season
she was already more than a month overdue. Could grateful colleagues
be blamed if they forgot their obligations when they were asked
to offer pecuniary help to a merchant in this situation? Ernest
returned to his office without money and without credit.

A man threatened by ruin is in no state of mind to keep an engagement
at a lady's tea-table. Ernest sent a letter of apology to Mrs.
Callender, alleging extreme pressure of business as the excuse for
breaking his engagement.

"Am I to wait for an answer, sir?" the messenger asked.

"No; you are merely to leave the letter."

In an hour's time, to Ernest's astonishment, the messenger returned
with a reply.

"The lady was just going out, sir, when I rang at the door," he
explained, "and she took the letter from me herself. She didn't
appear to know your handwriting, and she asked me who I came from.
When I mentioned your name I was ordered to wait."

Ernest opened the letter.

"DEAR MR. LISMORE: One of us must speak out, and your letter of
apology forces me to be that one. If you are really so proud and
so distrustful as you seem to be, I shall offend you; if not, I
shall prove myself to be your friend.

"Your excuse is 'pressure of business'; the truth (as I have good
reason to believe) is 'want of money.' I heard a stranger at that
public meeting say that you were seriously embarrassed by some
failure in the City.

"Let me tell you what my own pecuniary position is in two words:
I am the childless widow of a rich man--"

Ernest paused. His anticipated discovery of Mrs. Callender's
"charming daughter" was in his mind for the moment. "That little
romance must return to the world of dreams," he thought, and went
on with the letter.

"After what I owe to you, I don't regard it as repaying an
obligation; I consider myself as merely performing a duty when I
offer to assist you by a loan of money.

"Wait a little before you throw my letter into the waste-paper
basket.

"Circumstances (which it is impossible for me to mention before
we meet) put it out of my power to help you--unless I attach to my
most sincere offer of service a very unusual and very embarrassing
condition. If you are on the brink of ruin that misfortune will
plead my excuse--and your excuse too, if you accept the loan on my
terms. In any case, I rely on the sympathy and forbearance of the
man to whom I owe my life.

"After what I have now written, there is only one thing to add: I
beg to decline accepting your excuses, and I shall expect to see
you to-morrow evening, as we arranged. I am an obstinate old woman,
but I am also your faithful friend and servant,





Next: "MARY CALLENDER."

Previous: THERE IS NO FUN UNTILL I CUM.



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