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The Beloved Stranger
America's Best-Loved Storyteller
By Grace Livingston Hill
Barbour Publishing, Inc. Copyright © 2012 Grace Livingston Hill
All rights reserved.
1930s Eastern America
Sherrill stood before the long mirror and surveyed herself critically in her bridal array.
Rich creamy satin shimmering, sheathing her slender self, drifting down in luscious waves across the old Chinese blue of the priceless rug on which she stood! Misty white veil like a cloud about her shoulders, caught by the frosty cap of rare lace about her sweet forehead, clasped by the wreath of orange blossoms in their thick green and white perfection, flowers born to nestle in soft mists of tulle and deepen the whiteness, the only flower utterly at home with rich old lace.
Sherrill stooped to the marble shelf beneath the tall mirror and picked up a hand mirror, turning herself this way and that to get a glimpse of every side. There seemed to be no possible fault to be found anywhere. The whole outfit was a work of art.
"It's lovely, isn't it, Gemmie?" she said brightly to the elderly woman who had served her aunt for thirty years as maid. "Now, hand me the bouquet. I want to see how it all looks together. It isn't fair not to be able to get the effect of one's self after taking all this trouble to make it a pleasant sight for other people."
The old servant smiled.
"What quaint things you do say, Miss Sherry!" she said as she untied the box containing the bridal bouquet. "But don't you think maybe you should leave the flowers in the box till you get to the church? They might get a bit crushed."
"No, Gemmie, I'll be very careful. I want to see how pretty they look with the dress and everything. Aren't they lovely?"
She took the great sheaf of roses gracefully on one arm and posed, laughing brightly into the mirror, the tip of one silver shoe advancing beneath the ivory satin, her eyes like two stars, her lips in the curves of a lovely mischievous child; then, advancing the other silver-shod foot, she hummed a bar of the wedding march.
"Now, am I quite all right, Gemmie?" she asked again.
"You are the prettiest bride I ever set eyes on," said the woman, looking at the sweet, fair girl wistfully. "Ef I'd had a daughter, I could have asked no better for her than that she should look like you in her wedding dress," and Gemmie wiped a furtive tear from one corner of her eye over the thought of the daughter she never had had.
"There, there, Gemmie, don't go to getting sentimental!" cried Sherrill with a quick little catch in her own breath, and a sudden wistful longing in her breast for the mother she never had known. "Now, I'm quite all right, Gemmie, and you're to run right down and get Stanley to take you over to the church. I want you to be sure and get the seat I picked out for you, where you can see everything every minute. I'm depending on you, you know, to tell me every detail afterward—and Gemmie, don't forget the funny things, too. I wouldn't want to miss them, you know. Be sure to describe how Miss Hollister looks in her funny old bonnet with the ostrich plume."
"Oh now, Miss Sherrill, I couldn't be looking after things like that when you was getting married," rebuked the woman.
"Oh yes, you could, Gemmie, you've got the loveliest sense of humor! And I want to know everything! Nobody else will understand, but you do, so now run away quick!"
"But I couldn't be leaving you alone," protested the woman with distress in her voice. "It'll be plenty of time for me to be going after you have left. Your aunt Pat said for me to stay by you."
"You have, Gemmie; you've stayed as long as I had need of you, and just everything is done. You couldn't put another touch to me anywhere, and I'd rather know you are on your way to that nice seat I asked the tall, dark usher to put you in. So please go, Gemmie, right away!
The fact is, Gemmie, I'd really like just a few minutes alone all by myself before I go. I've been so busy I couldn't get calm, and I need to look into my own eyes and say good-bye to myself before I stop being a girl and become a married woman. It really is a kind of scary thing, you know, Gemmie, now that I'm this close to it. I don't know how I ever had the courage to promise I'd do it!" and she laughed a bright little trill full of joyous anticipation.
"You poor lamb!" said the older woman with sudden yearning in her voice; the old, anticipating and pitying the trials of the young. "I do hope he'll be good to you."
"Be good to me!" exclaimed Sherrill happily. "Who? Carter? Why, of course, Gemmie. He's wonderful to me. He's almost ridiculous he's so careful of me. I'm just wondering how it's going to be to have someone always fussing over me when I've been on my own for so many years. Why, you know, Gemmie, these last six months I've been with Aunt Pat are the first time I've had anybody who really cared where I went or what I did since my mother died when I was ten years old. So you don't need to worry about me. There, now, you've spread that train out just as smooth as can be; please go at once. I'm getting very nervous about you, really, Gemmie!"
"But I'll be needed, Miss Sherry, to help you down to the car when it comes for you."
"No, you won't, Gemmie. Just send that little new maid up to the door to knock when the car is ready. I can catch up my own train and carry it perfectly well. I don't want to be preened and spread out like a peacock. It'll be bad enough when I get to the church and have to be in a parade. Truly, Gemmie, I want to be alone now."
The woman reluctantly went away at last, and Sherrill locked her door and went back to her mirror, watching herself as she advanced slowly, silver step after silver step, in time to the softly hummed wedding march. But when she was near to the glass, Sherrill's eyes looked straight into their own depths long and earnestly.
"Am I really glad," she thought to herself, "that I'm going out of myself into a grown- up married person? Am I perfectly sure that I'm not just a bit frightened at it all? Of course Carter McArthur is the handsomest man I ever met, the most brilliant talker, the most courteous gentleman, and I've been crazy about him ever since I first met him. Of course he treats me just like a queen, and I trust him absolutely. I know he'll always be just the same graceful lover all my life. And yet, somehow, I feel all of a sudden just the least bit scared. Does any girl ever know any man perfectly?"
She looked deep into her own eyes and wondered. If she only had a mother to talk to these last few minutes!
Of course there was Aunt Pat. But Aunt Pat had never been married. How could Aunt Pat know how a girl felt the last few minutes before the ceremony? And Aunt Pat was on her way to the church now. She was all crippled up with rheumatism and wanted to get there in a leisurely way and not have to get out of the car before a gaping crowd. She had planned to slip in the side door and wait in the vestry room till almost time for the ceremony and then have one of her numerous nephews, summoned to the old house for the occasion to be ushers, bring her in. Aunt Pat wouldn't have understood anyhow. She was a good sport with a great sense of humor, but she wouldn't have understood this queer feeling Sherrill was experiencing.
When one stopped to think of it, right on the brink of doing it, it was a rather awful thing to just give your life up to the keeping of another! She hadn't known Carter but six short months. Of course he was wonderful. Everybody said he was wonderful, and he had always been so to her. Her heart thrilled even now at the thought of him, the way he called her "Beautiful!" bending down and just touching her forehead with his lips, as though she were almost too sacred to touch lightly. The way his hair waved above his forehead. The slow way he smiled, and the light that came in his hazel eyes when he looked at her. They thrilled her tremendously. Oh, there wasn't any doubt in her mind whatsever that she was deeply in love with him. She didn't question that for an instant. It was just the thought of merging her life into his and always being a part of him. No, it wasn't that either, for that thrilled her, too, with an exquisite kind of joy, to think of never having to be separated from him anymore. What was it that sent a quiver of fear through her heart just at this last minute alone? She couldn't tell.
She had tried to talk to Gemmie about it once the day before, and Gemmie had said all girls felt "queer" at the thought of being married. All nice girls, that is. Sherrill couldn't see why that had anything to do with the matter. It wasn't a matter of nicety. Gemmie was talking about a shrinking shyness probably, and it wasn't that at all. It was a great awesomeness at the thought of the miracle of two lives wrought into one, two souls putting aside all others and becoming one perfect life.
It made Sherrill feel suddenly so unworthy to have been chosen, so childish and immature for such a wonder. One must be so perfect to have a right to be a part of such a great union. And Carter was so wonderful! Such a super-man!
Suddenly she dropped upon one silken knee and bowed her lovely mist-veiled head.
"Dear God," she prayed softly, long lashes lying on velvet cheeks, gold tendrils of hair glinting out from under lacy cap, "oh, dear God, make me good enough for him!" and then, hesitantly in a quick little frightened breath, "Keep me from making any awful mistakes!"
Then, having shriven her ignorant young soul, she buried her face softly, gently, in the baby roses of her bouquet and drew a long happy breath, feeling her fright and burden roll away, her happy heart spring up to meet the great new change that was about to come upon her life.
She came softly to her feet, the great bouquet still in her clasp, and glanced hurriedly at the little turquoise enamel clock on her dressing table. There was plenty of time. She had promised to show herself to Mary, the cook, after she was dressed. Mary had broken her kneecap the week before and was confined to her bed. She had mourned distressedly that she could not see Miss Sherrill in her wedding dress. So Sherrill had promised her. It had been one of the reasons why she had gotten rid of Gemmie. She knew Gemmie would protest at her going about in her wedding veil for a mere servant!
But there was no reason in the world why she couldn't do it. Most of the people of the house were gone to the church. The bridesmaids left just before Gemmie, and Aunt Pat before them. Sherrill herself had watched the ushers leave while Gemmie was fixing her veil. Of course they had to be there ages before anyone else.
The bridesmaids and maid of honor had the two rooms next to her own, with only her deep closet between, and there were doors opening from room to room so that all the rooms were connected around the circle and back to Aunt Pat's room, which was across the hall from her own. It had been one of the idiosyncrasies of the old lady that in case of burglars it would be nice to be able to go from room to room without going into the hall.
So the rooms were arranged in a wide horseshoe with the back hall behind the top of the loop, the middle room being a sitting room or library, with three bedrooms on either side. Nothing would be easier than for her to go swiftly, lightly, through the two rooms beyond her own, and through the door at the farther end of the second room into the back hall that led to the servants' quarters. That would save her going through the front hall and being seen by any prying servants set to keep track of her till she reached the church. It was a beautiful idea to let old Mary see how she looked, and why shouldn't she do it?
Stepping quickly over to the door that separated her room from the next, she slid the bolt back and turned the knob cautiously, listening; then she swung the door noiselessly open.
Yes, it was as she supposed; the girls were gone. The room was dimly lit by the two wall sconces over the dressing table. She could see Linda's street shoes with the tan stockings stuffed into them standing across the room near the bureau. She knew them by the curious cross straps of the sandal-like fastening. Linda's hat was on the bed, with the jacket of her silk ensemble half covering it. Linda was always careless, and of course the maids were too busy to have been in here yet to clean up. The closet door was open, and she saw Cassie's suitcase yawning wide open on the floor where Cassie had left it in her haste. The white initials C.A.B. cried out a greeting as she crept stealthily by. Cassie had been late in arriving. She always was. And there was Carol's lovely imported fitted bag open on the dressing table, all speaking of the haste of their owners.
Betty and Doris and Jane had been put in the second room, with Rena, the maid of honor whom Aunt Pat had wanted her to ask because she was the daughter of an old friend. It was rather funny having a maid of honor whom one hadn't met, for she hadn't arrived yet when Sherrill had gone to her room to dress, but assurance had come over the telephone that she was on her way in spite of a flat tire, so there had been nothing to worry about. Who or what Rena was like did not matter. She would be wholly engaged in eyeing her dear bridegroom's face. What did it matter who maid-of-honored her, so long as Aunt Pat was pleased?
Sherrill paused as she stepped into this second room. It was absolutely dark, but strangely enough the door to the left, opening into the middle room, had been left open. That was curious. Hadn't Carter been put in there to dress? Surely that was the arrangement, to save him coming garbed all the way from the city! But of course he was gone long ago! She had heard him arrange to be early at the church to meet the best man, who had been making some last arrangements about their stateroom on the ship. That was it! Carter had gone, and the girls, probably not even knowing that he occupied that room, had gone out that way through the other door into the hall.
So Sherrill, her soft train swung lightly over her arm, the mist of lace gathered into the billow that Gemmie had arranged for her convenience in going down stairs, and the great sheaf of roses and valley-lilies held gracefully over her other arm, stepped confidently into the room. She looked furtively toward the open door, where a brilliant overhead light was burning, sure that the room was empty, unless some servant was hovering about watching for her to appear.
She hesitated, stepping lightly, the soft satin making no sound of going more than if she had been a bit of thistle down. Then suddenly she stopped short and held her breath, for she had come in full sight of the great gilt-framed pier glass that was set between the two windows at the back of the room, and in it was mirrored the full-length figure of her bridegroom arranging his tie with impatient fingers and staring critically into the glass, just as she had been doing but a moment before.
A great wave of tenderness swept over her for him, a kind of guilty joy that she could have this last vision of him as himself before their lives merged, a picture that she felt would live with her throughout the long years of life.
How dear he looked! How shining his dark hair, the wave over his forehead! There wasn't any man, not any man, anywhere as handsome—and good, she breathed softly to herself—as Carter, her man!
She held herself back into the shadow, held her very breath lest he should turn and see her there, for—wasn't there a tradition that it was bad luck for the bride to show herself in her wedding garments to the groom before he saw her first in the church? Softly she withdrew one foot and swayed a little farther away from the patch of light in the doorway. He would be gone in just a minute, of course, and then she could go on and give Mary her glimpse and hurry back without being seen by anyone. She dared not retreat further lest he should hear her step and find out that she had been watching him. It was fun to be here and see him when he didn't know. But sometime, oh sometime in the dear future that was ahead of them, she would tell him how she had watched him, and loved him, and how all the little fright that had clutched her heart a few minutes before had been melted away by this dear glimpse of him.
Excerpted from The Beloved Stranger by Grace Livingston Hill. Copyright © 2012 Grace Livingston Hill. Excerpted by permission of Barbour Publishing, Inc..
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