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A Few days later Mary was surprised to receive a little note from Mr. Dryland:
"MY DEAR MISS CLIBBORN,
With some trepidation I take up my pen to address you on a matter which, to me at least, is of the very greatest importance. We have so many sympathies in common that my meaning will hardly escape you. I daresay you will find my diffidence ridiculous, but, under the circumstances, I think it is not unpardonable. It will be no news to you when I confess that I am an exceptionally shy man, and that must be my excuse in sending you this letter. In short, I wish to ask you to grant me a brief interview; we have so few opportunities of seeing one another in private that I can find no occasion of saying to you what I wish. Indeed, for a long period my duty has made it necessary for me to crush my inclination. Now, however, that things have taken a different turn, I venture, as I said, to ask you to give me a few minutes' conversation.--I am, my dear Miss Clibborn, your very sincere,
"P.S.--I open this letter to say that I have just met your father on the Green, who tells me that he and Mrs. Clibborn are going into Tunbridge Wells this afternoon. Unless, therefore, I hear from you to the contrary, I shall (D.V.) present myself at your house at 3 P.M."
"What can he want to see me about?" exclaimed Mary, the truth occurring to her only to be chased away as a piece of egregious vanity. It was more reasonable to suppose that Mr. Dryland had on hand some charitable scheme in which he desired her to take part.
"Anyhow," she thought philosophically, "I suppose I shall know when he comes."
At one and the same moment the church clock struck three, and Mr. Dryland rang the Clibborns' bell.
He came into the dining-room in his best coat, his honest red face shining with soap, and with a consciousness that he was about to perform an heroic deed.
"This is kind of you, Miss Clibborn! Do you know, I feared the servant was going to say you were 'not at home.'"
"Oh, I never let her say that when I'm in. Mamma doesn't think it wrong, but one can't deny that it's an untruth."
"What a beautiful character you have!" cried the curate, with enthusiasm.
"I'm afraid I haven't really; but I like to be truthful."
"Were you surprised to receive my letter?"
"I'm afraid I didn't understand it."
"I was under the impression that I expressed myself with considerable perspicacity," remarked the curate, with a genial smile.
"I don't pretend to be clever."
"Oh, but you are, Miss Clibborn. There's no denying it."
"I wish I thought so."
"You're so modest. I have always thought that your mental powers were very considerable indeed. I can assure you it has been a great blessing to me to find someone here who was capable of taking an intelligent interest in Art and Literature. In these little country places one misses intellectual society so much."
"I'm not ashamed to say that I've learnt a lot from you, Mr. Dryland."
"No, that is impossible. All I lay claim to is that I was fortunate enough to be able to lend you the works of Ruskin and Marie Corelli."
"That reminds me that I must return you the 'Master Christian.'"
"Please don't hurry over it. I think it's a book worth pondering over; quite unlike the average trashy novel."
"I haven't had much time for reading lately."
"Ah, Miss Clibborn, I understand! I'm afraid you've been very much upset. I wanted to tell you how sorry I was; but I felt it would be perhaps indelicate."
"It is very kind of you to think of me."
"Besides, I must confess that I cannot bring myself to be very sorry. It's an ill wind that blows nobody good."
"I'm afraid I don't understand what you mean, Mr. Dryland."
"Miss Clibborn, I have come here to-day to converse with you on a matter which I venture to think of some importance. At least, it is to me. I will not beat about the bush. In these matters it is always best, I believe, to come straight to the point." The curate cleared his throat, and assumed his best clerical manner. "Miss Clibborn, I have the honour to solemnly ask you for your hand."
Mary blushed scarlet, and her heart went pit-a-pat in the most alarming fashion.
"I think I should tell you that I am thirty-three years of age. I have some private means, small, but sufficient, with my income and economy, to support a wife. My father was for over a quarter of a century vicar of Easterham."
Mary by this time had recovered herself.
"I feel very much honoured by your proposal, Mr. Dryland. And no one can be more convinced than I of my unworthiness. But I'm afraid I must refuse."
"I don't press for an immediate answer, Miss Clibborn. I know at first blush it must surprise you that I should come forward with an offer so soon after the rupture of your engagement with Captain Parsons. But if you examine the matter closely, you will see that it is less surprising than it seems. While you were engaged to Captain Parsons it was my duty to stifle my feelings; but now I cannot. Indeed, I have not the right to conceal from you that for a long time they have been of the tenderest description."
"I feel very much flattered."
"Not at all," reassuringly answered Mr. Dryland. "I can honestly say that you are deserving of the very highest--er--admiration and esteem. Miss Clibborn, I have loved you in secret almost ever since I came to the parish. The moment I saw you I felt an affinity between us. Our tastes are so similar; we both understand Art and Literature. When you played to me the divine melodies of Mendelssohn, when I read to you the melodious verses of Lord Tennyson, I felt that my happiness in life would be a union with you."
"I'm afraid I can never be unfaithful to my old love."
"Perhaps I'm a little previous?"
"No; time can make no possible difference. I'm very grateful to you."
"You have no need to be. I have always tried to do my duty, and while you were engaged to another, I allowed not even a sigh to escape my lips. But now I venture to think that the circumstances are altered. I know I am not a gallant officer, I have done no doughty deeds, and the Victoria Cross does not adorn my bosom. I am comparatively poor; but I can offer an honest heart and a very sincere and respectful love. Oh, Miss Clibborn, cannot you give me hope that as time wears on you will be able to look upon my suit with favour?"
"I'm afraid my answer must be final."
"I hope to be soon appointed to a living, and I looked forward ardently to the life of usefulness and of Christian fellowship which we might have lived together. You are an angel of mercy, Miss Clibborn. I cannot help thinking that you are eminently suitable for the position which I make so bold as to offer you."
"I won't deny that nothing could attract me more than to be the wife of a clergyman. One has such influence for good, such power of improving one's fellow-men. But I love Captain Parsons. Even if he has ceased to care for me, I could never look upon him with other feelings."
"Even though it touches me to the quick, Miss. Clibborn," said the curate, earnestly, "I respect and admire you for your sentiments. You are wonderful. I wonder if you'd allow me to make a little confession?" The curate hesitated and reddened. "The fact is, I have written a few verses comparing you to Penelope, which, if you will allow me, I should very much like to send you."
"I should like to see them very much," said Mary, blushing a little and smiling.
"Of course, I'm not a poet, I'm too busy for that; but they are the outpouring of an honest, loving heart."
"I'm sure," said Mary, encouragingly, "that it's better to be sincere and upright than to be the greatest poet in the world."
"It's very kind of you to say so. I should like to ask one question, Miss Clibborn. Have you any objection to me personally?"
"Oh, no!" cried Mary. "How can you suggest such a thing? I have the highest respect and esteem for you, Mr. Dryland. I can never forget the great compliment you have paid me. I shall always think of you as the best friend I have."
"Can you say nothing more to me than that?" asked the curate, despondently.
Mary stretched out her hand. "I will be a sister to you."
"Oh, Miss Clibborn, how sad it is to think that your affections should be unrequited. Why am I not Captain Parsons? Miss Clibborn, can you give me no hope?"
"I should not be acting rightly towards you if I did not tell you at once that so long as Captain Parsons lives, my love for him can never alter."
"I wish I were a soldier!" murmured Mr. Dryland.
"Oh, it's not that. I think there's nothing so noble as a clergyman. If it is any consolation to you, I may confess that if I had never known Captain Parsons, things might have gone differently."
"Well, I suppose I had better go away now. I must try to bear my disappointment."
Mary gave him her hand, and, bending down with the utmost gallantry, the curate kissed it; then, taking up his low, clerical hat, hurriedly left her.
* * * * * * *
Mrs. Jackson was a woman of singular penetration, so that it was not strange if she quickly discovered what had happened. Mr. Dryland was taking tea at the Vicarage, whither, with characteristic manliness, he had gone to face his disappointment. Not for him was the solitary moping, nor the privacy of a bedchamber; his robust courage sent him rather into the field of battle, or what was under the circumstances the only equivalent, Mrs. Jackson's drawing-room.
But even he could not conceal the torments of unsuccessful love. He stirred his tea moodily, and his usual appetite for plum-cake had quite deserted him.
"What's the matter with you, Mr. Dryland?" asked the Vicar's wife, with those sharp eyes which could see into the best hidden family secret.
Mr. Dryland started at the question. "Nothing!"
"You're very funny this afternoon."
"I've had a great disappointment."
"Oh!" replied Mrs. Jackson, in a tone which half-a-dozen marks of interrogation could inadequately express.
"It's nothing. Life is not all beer and skittles. Ha! ha!"
"Did you say you'd been calling on Mary Clibborn this afternoon?"
Mr. Dryland blushed, and to cover his confusion filled his mouth with a large piece of cake.
"Yes," he said, as soon as he could. "I paid her a little call."
"Mr. Dryland, you can't deceive me. You've proposed to Mary Clibborn."
He swallowed his food with a gulp. "It's quite true."
"And she's refused you?"
"Mr. Dryland, it was a noble thing to do. I must tell Archibald."
"Oh, please don't, Mrs. Jackson! I don't want it to get about."
"Oh, but I shall. We can't let you hide your light under a bushel. Fancy you proposing to that poor, dear girl! But it's just what I should have expected of you. That's what I always say. The clergy are constantly doing the most beautiful actions that no one hears anything about. You ought to receive a moral Victoria Cross. I'm sure you deserve it far more than that wicked and misguided young man."
"I don't think I ought to take any credit for what I've done," modestly remonstrated the curate.
"It was a beautiful action. You don't know how much it means to that poor, jilted girl."
"It's true my indignation was aroused at the heartless conduct of Captain Parsons; but I have long loved her, Mrs. Jackson."
"I knew it; I knew it! When I saw you together I said to Archibald: 'What a good pair they'd make!' I'm sure you deserve her far more than that worthless creature."
"I wish she thought so."
"I'll go and speak to her myself. I think she ought to accept you. You've behaved like a knight-errant, Mr. Dryland. You're a true Christian saint."
"Oh, Mrs. Jackson, you embarrass me!"
The news spread like wild-fire, and with it the opinion that the curate had vastly distinguished himself. Neither pagan hero nor Christian martyr could have acted more becomingly. The consideration which had once been Jamie's was bodily transferred to Mr. Dryland. He was the man of the hour, and the contemplation of his gallant deed made everyone feel nobler, purer. The curate accepted with quiet satisfaction the homage that was laid at his feet, modestly denying that he had done anything out of the way. With James, all unconscious of what had happened, he was mildly patronising; with Mary, tender, respectful, subdued. If he had been an archbishop, he could not have behaved with greater delicacy, manliness, and decorum.
"I don't care what anyone says," cried Mrs. Jackson, "I think he's worth ten Captain Parsons! He's so modest and gentlemanly. Why, Captain Parsons simply used to look bored when one told him he was brave."
"He's a conceited creature!"
But in Primpton House the proposal was met with consternation.
"Suppose she accepted him?" said Colonel Parsons, anxiously.
"She'd never do that."
Major Forsyth suggested that James should be told, in the belief that his jealousy would be excited.
"I'll tell him," said Mrs. Parsons.
She waited till she was alone with her son, and then, without stopping her needlework, said suddenly:
"James, have you heard that Mr. Dryland has proposed to Mary?"
He looked up nonchalantly. "Has she accepted him?"
"James!" cried his mother, indignantly, "how can you ask such a question? Have you no respect for her? You must know that for nothing in the world would she be faithless to you."
"I should like her to marry the curate. I think it would be a very suitable match."
"You need not insult her, James."
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