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The Strange Proposal
By Grace Livingston Hill
Barbour Publishing, Inc.Copyright © 2014 Grace Livingston Hill
All rights reserved.
John Saxon saw Mary Elizabeth for the first time as she walked up the church aisle with stately tread at Jeffrey Wainwright's wedding. John was best man and stood at the head of the aisle with the bridegroom, where he could see everything.
First came the ushers stealing on the picture with earnest intent to get the business over, then the four bridesmaids in pale green crisp gowns—and then Mary Elizabeth! She was wearing something soft and delicately rosy, like the first flush of dawn in the sky, and bearing her armful of maidenhair fern and delicate blossoms like a sheaf of some lovely spring harvest. She preceded the bride, Camilla (on the arm of her father's old friend Judge Barron), as if she delighted to introduce her to the waiting world.
But John Saxon had no eyes for the lovely bride, for they had halted at Mary Elizabeth and held there all the way up the aisle.
Mary Elizabeth had eyes that were wide and starry, fringed with long, dark lashes under fine level brows. There was a hint of a smile on her lovely unpainted mouth, a little highborn lifting of her chin, a keen interest and delight apparent in her whole attitude that distinguished her from the rest of the bridal party. To her it was all a beautiful game they were playing, and she was enjoying every minute of it. There was none of that intent determination to get each step measured just right, each move made with the practiced precision that characterized the procession of the bridesmaids. Mary Elizabeth moved along in absolute rhythm, as naturally as clouds move or butterflies hover.
The wide brim of the transparent hat she wore seemed to John Saxon almost like the dim shadow of a halo as she lifted her head and gave him a friendly, impersonal glance before she moved to her place at the left of the aisle.
The bridesmaids wore thin white hats also, but they were not halos; they were only hats.
John suddenly remembered the bride, whom he had not sighted as yet except as background, and lest he seem to stare at Mary Elizabeth, he turned and looked down the aisle to Camilla. Camilla, in her mother's lovely embroidered organdy wedding dress of long ago; Camilla, wearing the ancestral Wainwright wedding veil of costly hand-wrought lace and John Saxon's orange blossoms from his own Florida grove; Camilla, carrying Jeff's white orchids and looking heavenly happy as she smiled up to answer her bridegroom's welcoming smile.
Yes, she was a very lovely bride, with her gold hair shining beneath the frostwork of lace and waxen blossoms! How splendid they were going to look together, Jeff and Camilla! How glad he was for Jeff that he had found a girl like that!
Then he stepped one pace to the right and front and took his place in the semicircle as had been planned, with the old minister standing before them against the background of palms and flowers that the old hometown people had arranged for Camilla's wedding.
He raised his eyes again to find Mary Elizabeth, wondering if she might not have vanished, if she could possibly be there in the flesh and not be a figment of his imagination. He met her eyes again and found her broadcasting that keen delight in what they were doing, found himself responding to that glint in her eyes, that bit of a smile at the corner of her lovely mouth. It was as if they had known each other for a long time. It couldn't be true that he had only just now seen her and for the first time felt that start of his heart at the vision of her! It couldn't be true that he had never been introduced to her!
John had arrived but the day before the wedding and spent the most of his time since in acquiring the necessary details of dress in which to appear as best man.
Quite casually he had asked when Jeff met him at the train and as he pocketed the directions Jeff had given him to find the right tailor and haberdashery shops: "And who is this person, this maid of honor I'm supposed to take on as we go back up the aisle after the ceremony? Some flat tire I suppose, since you've picked the one and only out of all the women of the earth." He gave Jeff a loving slap on the shoulder.
"Why, she's quite all right, I guess. I haven't seen her yet, but she's an old schoolmate of Camilla's. She's on her way here from California just to attend the wedding. Camilla says she's a great Christian worker and interested in Bible study, so I guess you'll hit it off. Anyway, I hope she won't be too much of a bore. She's expected to arrive tomorrow afternoon sometime. Somebody will fill in for her tonight at the rehearsal I believe, so she won't be around long enough to matter anyway. Her name is ... Foster—I think that's it. Yes, Helen Foster."
Nobody had told John about a washout on the road halfway across the continent, a wreck ahead of Helen Foster's train, and a delay of twenty-four hours. He had not heard that, in spite of frantic attempts to reach an airport from the isolated place of the wreck in time to arrive for the ceremony, the maid of honor had telegraphed only two hours before the wedding that she could not possibly get there. He had spent most of the day in shops, perplexing his mind over the respective values of this and that article of evening wear, and arrived at the hotel only in time to get into his new garments and arrive at the church at the hour appointed. He was there just a few minutes before Jeff. And so he had escaped the excitement and anxiety that resulted from the news of the missing maid of honor. He did not know how hurriedly and anxiously the troublesome question of whether or how to supply her place at this last minute had been discussed and rediscussed, nor how impossible at this last minute it had seemed to get even a close friend to come in and act in a formal wedding without the necessary maid of honor outfit.
Excitement had run high, and Camilla had just escaped tears as the thought of the Warren Wainwrights, and the Seawells of Boston, and the Blackburns and Starrs of Chicago and New York, all new, unknown, to-be relations. She went down the list of all the girls she knew who would be at all eligible for the position of maid of honor and shook her head in despair. There wouldn't be one who could take the place at a moment's notice and fit right in, and even if there were one, what would she do for a dress?
Dresses could be bought of course, even as late as that, but no ordinary dress would be able to enter the simple yet lovely scheme of the wedding without seeming to introduce a wrong note in an otherwise perfect harmony. Oh, of course it might be bought in New York if one had the time to shop around, but the hometown wasn't New York, and no one had the time. Camilla stood in the sitting room of the hotel suite she and her mother were occupying together and drew her brows together in perplexity, trying to think of some dress she had herself that would do, that she could lend to someone, no matter who, so that the wedding procession should not be lacking a maid of honor. She was resigning herself to doing without a maid of honor when Jeffrey Wainwright walked in and wanted to know why Camilla's eyes didn't light at his coming as they had lighted all day whenever he had appeared on the scene.
Camilla told him anxiously what was the matter, and he met her worry with a smile.
"That's all right," he said gaily when he had listened to the tale and stood looking at the telegram over Camilla's shoulder. "Get Mary Beth! That is, if you don't mind having one of my cousins instead of one of your own friends. Mary Beth always has oodles of clothes along with her of every kind. She'll find something that will do. She's just arrived, and she'll love to do it. You haven't met Mary Beth yet, have you? She's my very best cousin and just got back from abroad. Shall I go get her? She's only down the hall a little way. Just show her what you want and she'll manage it somehow; she always can."
And so Mary Elizabeth had come, smiling at Jeff's summons. She had kissed Camilla and her mother, had looked over the bridal array, including the bridesmaids' crisp pale gowns, and then had departed with a confident smile and a lift of her happy chin as she said, "Leave it to me! I'll love to do it. I've got just the right thing—a pale rose chiffon I picked up in Paris—a little confection and just as simple as a baby!"
And when Camilla saw her an hour later as Mary Beth slipped in for inspection, she forgot her worries, knowing that the simple little dress from the exclusive Paris shop knew how to keep its distinguished lines in their place and would never stand out as being too fine for its associates.
And so quite unexpectedly, Camilla came to know and love Mary Elizabeth. But of this John Saxon knew nothing at all.
And now, though John was sorely tempted to study the face across from him to the exclusion of everything else, he was a dependable person, and he knew his responsibility as a best man. He had a ring to deliver at just the right moment, and he was not a man to forget his duty. So he held his eyes and his thoughts in leash until the ring was safely given to Jeff and Jeff had placed it on Camilla's finger, and then his glance lifted and met the glance of Mary Elizabeth, and both of them smiled with their eyes. Though their lips were perfectly decorous, each of them knew that they had been enjoying that little ceremony of the ring together. Mary Elizabeth was now holding the great bouquet of orchids, along with her own green and white and blush-rose sheaf. Sweet, fine Mary Elizabeth! John thought how sweet and unspoiled she looked, and stood there watching her with his eyes alight, thinking quick eager thoughts, his mind leaping ahead. In a few minutes now, or it might be even seconds, it would be his duty to turn and march down that aisle by her side, and he could actually speak to her. They had not been introduced, but that was a mere formality. They were set in this wedding picture to march together, and they could not go like dummies because they had not been introduced. He thrilled at the thought of speaking to her.
The prayer was over, the solemn final sentences said that made Camilla Chrystie and Jeffrey Wainwright man and wife, the tender consummating kiss given. Mary Elizabeth handed Camilla her lovely white orchids and adjusted the veil and the quaint, old-fashioned train, and Jeffrey and Camilla started down the way of life together. Then Mary Elizabeth adjusted her own flowers and turned, smiling, to greet the best man who stood there breathless above her.
John laid her hand on his arm as if it were something breakable. The thrill of it gave his face a radiance even through the Florida bronze. He looked down at her eagerly, as though they were long-lost friends who had by some miracle come together again.
"I've been looking for you for a long time!" he said as they wheeled into step. Mary Elizabeth looked up and saw something arresting and almost disturbing in his glance.
"Yes?" she said brightly. "I have been running around a good deal today. I guess I was hard to find."
"Oh, not just today!" said John, conscious that the next measure was the one they should start on to follow the bride and groom. "A long time! Years! In fact, I guess I always knew there would be you sometime! But will you mind if I'm abrupt? We've only got from here to the door to talk and then the mob will snatch us apart, and I've got to leave on the midnight train!"
"Oh!" breathed Mary Elizabeth, looking up wonderingly into his eyes, a sparkle in her own.
They were off in perfect time with the stately old march now, quite unconscious of the eager audience watching them with keen eyes, not realizing that they were the next most interesting pair in the whole show, after the bride and groom, who had now passed out of sight of all except a few who deliberately turned around and stared at John and Mary Elizabeth's backs.
"Who is she?" whispered Sallie Lane to Mrs. Sampson.
"Some relative of the groom, I heard."
"But I thought it was to be Helen Foster!"
"Oh, hadn't you heard? There was an accident and Helen's train was late. They had to get somebody at the last minute. Don't you see her dress is different? It isn't the same stuff, doesn't stand out so stiff and crisp, and it's terribly plain. Too bad! I heard the bridal party all had their dresses made off the same pattern."
"I like it. It kind of fits her. Say, don't they look wonderful together? I shouldn't wonder if they're engaged or something. Look at the way he looks at her! They certainly know each other well."
"I love you," John was saying in a low, thrilling voice, a voice that was almost like a prayer.
And Mary Elizabeth, quite conscious now of the many eyes upon her, kept that radiant smile upon her lips and the sparkle in her eyes as she looked up to catch the low words from his lips.
"But you couldn't, of course, all at once like that!" she said, smiling as if it were a good joke. "Is this supposed to be the newest thing in proposals of marriage? I've never had one going down a wedding aisle, though I've been maid of honor several times before."
She looked up at him archly with her sparkling smile to cover the trembling of her lips, the strange thrilling of her heart over this stranger's words.
"Is there any reason why it shouldn't be that?" he breathed as they neared the door and the wedding party began to mull about them in the vestibule. It seemed to him they had fairly galloped down that aisle.
"If my gloves had been off, I suppose you might have thought there was," said Mary Elizabeth with a sudden memory in her eyes.
"Your gloves?" said John, looking down at the little scrap of a hand that lay there like a white leaf on his arm.
Then suddenly he laid his other hand upon hers with a quick investigating pressure, and looked at her aghast.
"Then—you mean—that I am too late?" he asked, caring not that they were now in the midst of the giggling bridesmaids whispering what mistakes they had made, and how this one and that one had looked.
"Oh, not necessarily!" said Mary Elizabeth, now with a wicked twinkle in her eyes. "It was only an experiment, wearing it tonight. It came in the mail a few days ago with a very persistent letter, and I thought I might try it out. But there's nothing final about it!"
And Mary Elizabeth gave him a ravishing childlike smile that left him bewildered and utterly routed. He didn't know whether she was trying to be flippant or merely making talk to cover any possible embarrassment, for they were right in the thick of the crowd now, with someone outside directing traffic loudly, and suddenly John realized that he was still best man and had duties about putting the bride and groom in the right car. He fled headlong into the street.
He was the fool, of course, he told himself. He had gone off on a whim, and no girl in her senses would take sudden words spoken like that seriously. Oh, he had probably messed the whole thing up now. She wouldn't even recognize him when she got to the hotel, or would call a lot of her friends to protect her. What a fool! What a fool he had been! He hadn't thought that he could ever be impulsive like that!
But when he had slammed the door on Jeff and his bride and turned about with his miserable eyes to see what he could see, and whether she was still in sight, someone caught him and whirled him into a car.
"Here, Saxon," the unknown voice said, "get in quick! Jeff wants you there as soon as he is!" The car whirled away before he was fairly seated. In fact, he almost sat down on someone who was already there in the dark, sitting in the far corner.
He turned to apologize, and she laughed, a soft little silvery laugh.
"I bribed the valet to give us a whole car to ourselves," she said gaily, "so that you could finish what you had to say."
He caught his breath and his heart leaped up.
"Do you mean that you are going to forgive me for being so—so—so presumptuous?" he asked.
"Do you mean you didn't mean what you said?" rippled out Mary Elizabeth's laughing voice, the kind of a laugh that sometimes covers tears.
Excerpted from The Strange Proposal by Grace Livingston Hill. Copyright © 2014 Grace Livingston Hill. Excerpted by permission of Barbour Publishing, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
I would have to rate this book by Grace Livingston Hill in the t op 10 books that she has written. Not only does she incorporate the values of Christian romance, but also touches on family values and impacts of them on youth growing up in the 20's-30's.