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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesMary Marston: A Novel - Chapter 20. The Wedding-Dress
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Mary Marston: A Novel - Chapter 20. The Wedding-Dress Post by :kmike Category :Long Stories Author :George Macdonald Date :May 2012 Read :535

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Mary Marston: A Novel - Chapter 20. The Wedding-Dress


For all her troubles, however, Mary had her pleasures, even in the shop. It was a delight to receive the friendly greetings of such as had known and honored her father. She had the pleasure, as real as it was simple, of pure service, reaping the fruit of the earth in the joy of the work that was given her to do; there is no true work that does not carry its reward though there are few that do not drop it and lose it. She gathered also the pleasure of seeing and talking with people whose manners and speech were of finer grain and tone than those about her. When Hesper Mortimer entered the shop, she brought with her delight; her carriage was like the gait of an ode; her motions were rhythm; and her speech was music. Her smile was light, and her whole presence an enchantment to Mary. The reading aloud which Wardour had led her to practice had taught her much, not only in respect of the delicacies of speech and utterance, but in the deeper matters of motion, relation, and harmony. Hesper's clear- cut but not too sharply defined consonants; her soft but full- bodied vowels; above all, her slow cadences that hovered on the verge of song, as her walk on the verge of a slow aerial dance; the carriage of her head, the movements of her lips, her arms, her hands; the self-possession that seemed the very embodiment of law--these formed together a whole of inexpressible delight, inextricably for Mary associated with music and verse: she would hasten to serve her as if she had been an angel come to do a little earthly shopping, and return with the next heavenward tide. Hesper, in response all but unconscious, would be waited on by no other than Mary; and always between them passed some sweet, gentle nothings, which afforded Hesper more pleasure than she could have accounted for.

Her wedding-day was now for the third time fixed, when one morning she entered the shop to make some purchases. Not happy in the prospect before her, she was yet inclined to make the best of it so far as clothes were concerned--the more so, perhaps, that she had seldom yet been dressed to her satisfaction: she was now brooding over a certain idea for her wedding-dress, which she had altogether failed in the attempt to convey to her London _couturiere_; and it had come into her head to try whether Mary might not grasp her idea, and help her to make it intelligible. Mary listened and thought, questioned, and desired explanations--at length, begged she would allow her to ponder the thing a little: she could hardly at once venture to say anything. Hesper laughed, and said she was taking a small matter too seriously--concluding from Mary's hesitation that she had but perplexed her, and that she could be of no use to her in the difficulty.

"A small matter? Your wedding-dress!" exclaimed Mary, in a tone of expostulation.

Hesper did not laugh again, but gave a little sigh instead, which struck sadly on Mary's sympathetic heart. She cast a quick look in her face. Hesper caught the look, and understood it. For one passing moment she felt as if, amid the poor pleasure of adorning herself for a hated marriage, she had found a precious thing of which she had once or twice dreamed, never thought as a possible existence--a friend, namely, to love her: the next, she saw the absurdity of imagining a friend in a shop-girl.

"But I must make up my mind so soon!" she answered. "Madame Crepine gave me her idea, in answer to mine, but nothing like it, two days ago; and, as I have not written again, I fear she may be taking her own way with the thing. I am certain to hate it."

"I will talk to you about it as early as you please to-morrow, if that will do," returned Mary.

She knew nothing about dressmaking beyond what came of a true taste, and the experience gained in cutting out and making her own garments, which she had never yet found a dressmaker to do to her mind; and, indeed, Hesper had been led to ask her advice mainly from observing how neat the design of her dresses was, and how faithfully they fitted her. Dress is a sort of freemasonry between girls.

"But I can not have the horses to-morrow," said Hesper.

"I might," pondered Mary aloud, after a moment's silence, "walk out to Durnmelling this evening after the shop is shut. By that time I shall have been able to think; I find it impossible, with you before me."

Hesper acknowledged the compliment with a very pleasant smile. If it be true, as I may not doubt, that women, in dressing, have the fear of women and not of men before their eyes, then a compliment from some women must be more acceptable to some than a compliment from any man but the specially favored.

"Thank you a thousand times," she drawled, sweetly. "Then I shall expect you. Ask for my maid. She will take you to my room. Good- by for the present."

As soon as she was gone, Mary, her mind's eye full of her figure, her look, her style, her motion, gave herself to the important question of the dress conceived by Hesper; and during her dinner- hour contrived to cut out and fit to her own person the pattern of a garment such as she supposed intended in the not very lucid description she had given her. When she was free, she set out with it for Durnmelling.

It was rather a long walk, the earlier part of it full of sad reminders of the pleasure with which, greater than ever accompanied her to church, she went to pay her Sunday visit at Thornwick; but the latter part, although the places were so near, almost new to her: she had never been within the gate of Durnmelling, and felt curious to see the house of which she had so often heard.

The butler opened the door to her--an elderly man, of conscious dignity rather than pride, who received the "young person" graciously, and, leaving her in the entrance-hall, went to find "Miss Mortimer's maid," he said, though there was but one lady's- maid in the establishment.

The few moments she had to wait far more than repaid her for the trouble she had taken: through a side-door she looked into the great roofless hall, the one grand thing about the house. Its majesty laid hold upon her, and the shopkeeper's daughter felt the power of the ancient dignity and ineffaceable beauty far more than any of the family to which it had for centuries belonged.

She was standing lost in delight, when a rude voice called to her from half-way up a stair:

"You're to come this way, miss."

With a start, she turned and went. It was a large room to which she was led. There was no one in it, and she walked to an open window, which had a wide outlook across the fields. A little to the right, over some trees, were the chimneys of Thornwick. She almost started to see them--so near, and yet so far--like the memory of a sweet, sad story.

"Do you like my prospect?" asked the voice of Hesper behind her. "It is flat."

"I like it much, Miss Mortimer," answered Mary, turning quickly with a bright face. "Flatness has its own beauty. I sometimes feel as if room was all I wanted; and of that there is so much there! You see over the tree-tops, too, and that is good-- sometimes--don't you think?"

Miss Mortimer gave no other reply than a gentle stare, which expressed no curiosity, although she had a vague feeling that Mary's words meant something. Most girls of her class would hardly have got so far.

The summer was backward, but the day had been fine and warm, and the evening was dewy and soft, and full of evasive odor. The window looked westward, and the setting sun threw long shadows toward the house. A gentle wind was moving in the tree-tops. The spirit of the evening had laid hold of Mary. The peace of faithfulness filled the air. The day's business vanished, molten in the rest of the coming night. Even Hesper's wedding-dress was gone from her thoughts. She was in her own world, and ready, for very, quietness of spirit, to go to sleep. But she had not forgotten the delight of Hesper's presence; it was only that all relation between them was gone except such as was purely human.

"This reminds me so of some beautiful verses of Henry Vaughan!" she said, half dreamily.

"What do they say?" drawled Hesper.

Mary repeated as follows:

"'The frosts are past, the storms are gone,
And backward life at last comes on.
And here in dust and dirt, O here,
The Lilies of His love appear!'"

"Whose did you say the lines were?" asked Hesper, with merest automatic response.

"Henry Vaughan's," answered Mary, with a little spiritual shiver as of one who had dropped a pearl in the miry way.

"I never heard of him," rejoined Hesper, with entire indifference.

For anything she knew, he might be an occasional writer in "The Belgrave Magazine," or "The Fireside Herald." Ignorance is one of the many things of which a lady of position is never ashamed; wherein she is, it may be, more right than most of my readers will be inclined to allow; for ignorance is not the thing to be ashamed of, but neglect of knowledge. That a young person in Mary's position should know a certain thing, was, on the other hand, a reason why a lady in Hesper's position should not know it! Was it possible a shop-girl should know anything that Hesper ought to know and did not? It was foolish of Mary, perhaps, but she had vaguely felt that a beautiful lady like Miss Mortimer, and with such a name as Hesper, must know all the lovely things she knew, and many more besides.

"He lived in the time of the Charleses," she said, with a tremble in her voice, for she was ashamed to show her knowledge against the other's ignorance.

"Ah!" drawled Hesper, with a confused feeling that people who kept shops read stupid old books that lay about, because they could not subscribe to a circulating library.--"Are you fond of poetry?" she added; for the slight, shadowy shyness, into which her venture had thrown Mary, drew her heart a little, though she hardly knew it, and inclined her to say something.

"Yes," answered Mary, who felt like a child questioned by a stranger in the road; "--when it is good," she added, hesitatingly.

"What do you mean by good?" asked Hesper--out of her knowledge, Mary thought, but it was not even out of her ignorance, only out of her indifference. People must say something, lest life should stop.

"That is a question difficult to answer," replied Mary. "I have often asked it of myself, but never got any plain answer."

"I do not see why you should find any difficulty in it," returned Hesper, with a shadow of interest. "You know what you mean when you say to yourself you like this, or you do not like that."

"How clever she is, too!" thought Mary; but she answered: "I don't think I ever say anything to myself about the poetry I read--not at the time, I mean. If I like it, it drowns me; and, if I don't like it, it is as the Dead Sea to me, in which you know you can't sink, if you try ever so."

Hesper saw nothing in the words, and began to fear that Mary was so stupid as to imagine herself clever; whereupon the fancy she had taken to her began to sink like water in sand. The two were still on their feet, near the window--Mary, in her bonnet, with her back to it, and Hesper, in evening attire, with her face to the sunset, so that the one was like a darkling worshiper, the other like the radiant goddess. But the truth was, that Hesper was a mere earthly woman, and Mary a heavenly messenger to her. Neither of them knew it, but so it was; for the angels are essentially humble, and Hesper would have condescended to any angel out of her own class.

"I think I know good poetry by what it does to me," resumed Mary, thoughtfully, just as Hesper was about to pass to the business of the hour.

"Indeed!" rejoined Hesper, not less puzzled than before, if the word should be used where there was no effort to understand. Poetry had never done anything to her, and Mary's words conveyed no shadow of an idea.

The tone of her _indeed checked Mary. She hesitated a moment, but went on.

"Sometimes," she said, "it makes me feel as if my heart were too big for my body; sometimes as if all the grand things in heaven and earth were trying to get into me at once; sometimes as if I had discovered something nobody else knew; sometimes as if--no, not _as if_, for then I _must go and pray to God. But I am trying to tell you what I don't know how to tell. I am not talking nonsense, I hope, only ashamed of myself that I can't talk sense.--I will show you what I have been doing about your dress."

Far more to Hesper's surprise and admiration than any of her half-foiled attempts at the utterance of her thoughts, Mary, taking from her pocket the shape she had prepared, put it on herself, and, slowly revolving before Hesper, revealed what in her eyes was a masterpiece.

"But how clever of you!" she cried.--Her own fingers had not been quite innocent of the labor of the needle, for money had long been scarce at Durnmelling, and in the paper shape she recognized the hand of an artist.--"Why," she continued, "you are nothing less than an accomplished dressmaker!"

"That I dare not think myself," returned Mary, "seeing I never had a lesson."

"I wish you would make my wedding-dress," said Hesper.

"I could not venture, even if I had the time," answered Mary. "The moment I began to cut into the stuff, I should be terrified, and lose my self-possession. I never made a dress for anybody but myself."

"You are a little witch!" said Hesper; while Mary, who had roughly prepared a larger shape, proceeded to fit it to her person.

She was busy pinning and unpinning, shifting and pinning again, when suddenly Hesper said:

"I suppose you know I am going to marry money?"

"Oh! don't say that. It's too dreadful!" cried Mary, stopping her work, and looking up in Hesper's face.

"What! you supposed I was going to marry a man like Mr. Redmain for love?" rejoined Hesper, with a hard laugh.

"I can not bear to think of it!" said Mary. "But you do not really mean it! You are only--making fun of me! Do say you are."

"Indeed, I am not. I wish I could say I was! It is very horrid, I know, but where's the good of mincing matters? If I did not call the thing by its name, the thing would be just the same. You know, people in our world have to do as they must; they can't pick and choose like you happy creatures. I dare say, now, you are engaged to a young man you love with all your heart, one you would rather marry than any other in the whole universe."

"Oh, dear, no!" returned Mary, with a smile most plainly fancy- free. "I am not engaged, nor in the least likely to be."

"And not in love either?" said Hesper--with such coolness that Mary looked up in her face to know if she had really said so.

"No," she replied.

"No more am I," echoed Hesper; "that is the one good thing in the business: I sha'n't break my heart, as some girls do. At least, so they say--I don't believe it: how could a girl be so indecent? It is bad enough to marry a man: that one can't avoid; but to die of a broken heart is to be a traitor to your sex. As if women couldn't live without men!"

Mary smiled and was silent. She had read a good deal, and thought she understood such things better than Miss Mortimer. But she caught herself smiling, and she felt as if she had sinned. For that a young woman should speak of love and marriage as Miss Mortimer did, was too horrible to be understood--and she had smiled! She would have been less shocked with Hesper, however, had she known that she forced an indifference she could not feel --her last poor rampart of sand against the sea of horror rising around her. But from her heart she pitied her, almost as one of the lost.

"Don't fix your eyes like that," said Hesper, angrily, "or I shall cry. Look the other way, and listen.--I am marrying money, I tell you--and for money; therefore, I ought to get the good of it. Mr. Mortimer will be father enough to see to that! So I shall be able to do what I please. I have fallen in love with you; and why shouldn't I have you for my--"

She paused, hesitating: what was it she was about to propose to the little lady standing before her? She had been going to say _maid_: what was it that checked her? The feeling was to herself shapeless and nameless; but, however some of my readers may smile at the notion of a girl who served behind a counter being a lady, and however ready Hesper Mortimer would have been to join them, it was yet a vague sense of the fact that was now embarrassing her, for she was not half lady enough to deal with it. In very truth, Mary Marston was already immeasurably more of a lady than Hesper Mortimer was ever likely to be in this world. What was the stateliness and pride of the one compared to the fact that the other would have died in the workhouse or the street rather than let a man she did not love embrace her--yes, if all her ancestors in hell had required the sacrifice! To be a martyr to a lie is but false ladyhood. She only is a lady who witnesses to the truth, come of it what may.

"--For my--my companion, or something of the sort," concluded Hesper; "and then I should be sure of being always dressed to my mind."

"That _would be nice!" responded Mary, thinking only of the kindness in the speech.

"Would you really like it?" asked Hesper, in her turn pleased.

"I should like it very much," replied Mary, not imagining the proposal had in it a shadow of seriousness. "I wish it were possible."

"Why not, then? Why shouldn't it be possible? I don't suppose you would mind using your needle a little?"

"Not in the least," answered Mary, amused. "Only what would they do in the shop without me?"

"They could get somebody else, couldn't they?"

"Hardly, to take my place. My father was Mr. Turnbull's partner."

"Oh!" said Hesper, not much instructed. "I thought you had only to give warning."

There the matter dropped, and Mary thought no more about it.

"You will let me keep this pattern?" said Hesper.

"It was made for you," answered Mary.

While Hesper was lazily thinking whether that meant she was to pay for it, Mary made her a pretty obeisance, and bade her good night. Hesper returned her adieu kindly, but neither shook hands with her nor rang the bell to have her shown out Mary found her own way, however, and presently was breathing the fresh air of the twilight fields on her way home to her piano and her books.

For some time after she was gone, Hesper was entirely occupied with the excogitation of certain harmonies of the toilet that must minister effect to the dress she had now so plainly before her mind's eye; but by and by the dress began to melt away, and like a dissolving view disappeared, leaving in its place the form of "that singular shop-girl." There was nothing striking about her; she made no such sharp impression on the mind as compelled one to think of her again; yet always, when one had been long enough in her company to feel the charm of her individuality, the very quiet of any quiet moment was enough to bring back the sweetness of Mary's twilight presence. For this girl, who spent her days behind a counter, was one of the spiritual forces at work for the conservation and recovery of the universe.

Not only had Hesper Mortimer never had a friend worthy of the name, but no idea of pure friendship had as yet been generated in her. Sepia was the nearest to her intimacy: how far friendship could have place between two such I need not inquire; but in her fits of misery Hesper had no other to go to. Those fits, alas! grew less and less frequent; for Hesper was on the downward incline; but, when the next came, after this interview, she found herself haunted, at a little distance, as it were, by a strange sense of dumb, invisible tending. It did not once come close to her; it did not once offer her the smallest positive consolation; the thing was only this, that the essence of Mary's being was so purely ministration, that her form could not recur to any memory without bringing with it a dreamy sense of help. Most powerful of all powers in its holy insinuation is _being_. _To be is more powerful than even _to do_. Action _may be hypocrisy, but being is the thing itself, and is the parent of action. Had anything that Mary said recurred to Hesper, she would have thought of it only as the poor sentimentality of a low education.

But Hesper did not think of Mary's position as low; that would have been to measure it; and it did not once suggest itself as having any relation to any life in which she was interested. She saw no difference of level between Mary and the lawyer who came about her marriage settlements: they were together beyond her social horizon. In like manner, moral differences--and that in her own class--were almost equally beyond recognition. If by neglect of its wings, an eagle should sink to a dodo, it would then recognize only the laws of dodo life. For the dodos of humanity, did not one believe in a consuming fire and an outer darkness, what would be left us but an ever-renewed _alas_! It is truth and not imperturbability that a man's nature requires of him; it is help, not the leaving of cards at doors, that will be recognized as the test; it is love, and no amount of flattery that will prosper; differences wide as that between a gentleman and a cad will contract to a hair's breadth in that day; the customs of the trade and the picking of pockets will go together, with the greater excuse for the greater need and the less knowledge; liars the most gentleman-like and the most rowdy will go as liars; the first shall be last, and the last first.

Hesper's day drew on. She had many things to think about--things very different from any that concerned Mary Marston. She was married; found life in London somewhat absorbing; and forgot Mary.

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