Shirley was glad that he was familiar enough with the road from Potsdam to Saranac Lake to not have to watch it too closely as he bumped along in his second-hand automobile on one late September afternoon. All along the roadside the trees were resplendent in their autumn colors. Proud maples flaunted their crimson and scarlet draperies, cheerful beeches displayed their tan and brown leaves, the stately sumacs were aglow with orange, and delicate birches gently waved their yellow flags. The air was crisp and clean, and all nature seemed to be putting on a show. Even on an errand that made him nervous as a child awaiting punishment (something that had been rare for him, protected as he'd always been by Susan), Shirley couldn't help but have his spirits lifted by the glory of the day.
The morning after graduation, the family had just returned from church when the 'phone rang. It was Paul Irving for Shirley, and his news was, thankfully, good. Cecily had been pronounced well enough to receive visitors, and she was allowed to make small day trips now. The next day, after the family left, Shirley spent some of his hard-earned money on a used auto and drove up to the Trudeau Institute. Thereafter, for the rest of the summer, he would hop in his auto after he finished work on Saturday, drive to Saranac, stay the night and go to church in Lake Placid with the Irvings, spend all day Sunday with Cecily, and come home late Sunday night so that he could start work again on Monday. It was exhausting, but seeing Cecily's hollow, white cheeks fill out again and flush with health, watching her eyes brighten back to their starry gleam from the dullness they'd had, hearing her weak, thin voice become rich and full again, made it all worth it.
He'd nearly cried when he'd first seen her. Could this wasted woman possibly be the same girl he'd fallen in love with? He'd known in his head what tuberculosis did to a person, but he'd never seen it so clearly before. Still, the spirit inside the worn-out body was the same, and that, truly, was what Shirley loved. In fact, as he spent more time with her, he was able to see what the years of pain and suffering had done for her. The innocence of the young girl's soul was gone, replaced by a woman's character, deepened and made even more beautiful and strong. The devastation to her body only made her strength and purity shine through all the brighter. After the first few visits, Shirley found himself more in love than ever.
They never spoke of love, however. He believed she loved him—thought he could see it in her eyes, hear it in her voice—but he didn't want to bring any pressure on her or do anything to damage their beautiful friendship, so he kept quiet, doing his wooing only with his eyes. Last week, however, the doctors told Paul and Rachel that Cecily was well enough to be discharged soon—although they recommended that she remain in the Adirondacks for a few years still, just until she regained all her strength. Shirley no longer had any excuse to keep silent.
Cecily waited on the front porch of the Trudeau Institute. It was Sunday afternoon, and she was expecting to see Shirley drive up in his disreputable old auto, grinning quietly, ready to take her off for another day's adventure. All summer he had come up in the same way, to take her for a drive around Lake Flower, or to have a picnic on the banks of Mirror Lake, or to explore the tiny village of Lake Placid, so famous for all its winter sports, or to just drive to some beautiful spot and sit, sometimes talking, sometimes not. This summer had been the most magical one she'd ever known. She wished it could go on forever, but she knew, deep down, that it couldn't. Already the leaves were turning and the seasons changing. She knew that her time in the Trudeau Institute was almost at an end, and she somehow instinctively knew as well that things would change between her and Shirley as well, once she was outside the protective walls of the sanitarium. She believed that Shirley still loved her, but he hadn't said anything about it all summer. This suited her, as she was content just to be with him, strengthened by his very presence. Still, as she did grow stronger, the desire to move on with their relationship grew as well. She was ready to tell him that she loved him, and hoped that maybe, today would be the day she gained the courage to say those words to his face.
Her reverie was interrupted by the familiar rumble and backfiring of Shirley's car. He pulled up the long drive and hopped out, waving a lean brown hand.
"Good day, sunshine," he called out teasingly.
Cecily, in a short yellow skirt and white top, with a yellow band encircling her short chestnut curls, blushed. "What is our plan for today, sir knight?" she answered in kind.
Shirley motioned grandiloquently at the panorama around them. "Mother Nature is decked out in her finest, and I thought we'd take full advantage of it. What say you to a hike up Mt. Van Hovenburg?"
Cecily bit her lip. "Oh Shirley, it sounds beautiful…but can we? I mean, the doctors still say I shouldn't overexert myself."
"Don't worry," said Shirley, suddenly serious. "It's one of the lowest peaks in the area, and it's only a little over two miles. But the view is breathtaking, and there's something up there I want you to see. If you start getting too tired I'll carry you."
Cecily flushed at the idea of being carried by Shirley. Fortunately, he didn't seem to notice her bright cheeks, so she managed to agree without appearing too embarrassed. "What is it you want to show me?" she asked as he helped her into the auto.
He merely smiled.
As they drove, they discussed many things: the weather, the birth of Nan's and Rilla's sons, the new Premier of P.E.I, and the first flight of the U.S.S. Shenandoah, the United States' first airship. Cecily was beginning to think she'd never have a chance to discuss matters of the heart with Shirley. She was glad he considered her enough of an equal to be willing to discuss every topic he was interested in with her, but she did wish that they could leave the world and other people alone for a few moments and talk about them.
They started on their hike, going very slowly for Cecily's sake, and all talk ceased. Although she did find herself needing several breaks and chances to rest, Cecily was very glad they'd come. The pine and sumac stands all around the trail made for a beautiful picture, with the dark green of the pines contrasting sharply with the flaming leaves of the sumac.
"Oh," she sighed, during one of their breaks, "I'm so glad we came. Even if we don't make it to the top, this is still simply lovely."
"We'll make it," said Shirley, his brown eyes fixed intently on her. "We're nearly there now."
Sure enough, it wasn't too much longer before they broke free of the trees and stood upon the summit. Shirley took her arm and gently guided her toward the edge. "Look you there," he said, waving an arm at the view.
Cecily caught her breath as she took in the surrounding high peaks and the glimmer of blue from Mirror Lake. The sun shone down on the forests around, almost making it look as though the mountains themselves were on fire. She tilted her head up and took in the deep, cloudless blue of the sky. For a moment, her eyes closed, and she almost believed she could feel health and life stirring in her veins.
"Oh," she breathed deeply. "It's so easy to believe in God up here. I almost feel like we're on the very tip of heaven." She turned around to look at Shirley, who had moved back from the edge and was watching her intently again. "Was this what you wanted to show me?"
"Well, I did want you to see this, but that wasn't all," he replied mysteriously, his eyes never leaving her face.
"What was it, then?" she asked, starting to feel embarrassed by his piercing gaze. She looked around a little, hoping to catch a glimpse of whatever it was, and turned her eyes back to him questioningly.
She was startled beyond belief when he moved closer to her, took one of her hands in his, and dropped to one knee.
"Cecily Irving," he said seriously, as she started to realize what he was doing. Tears filled her blue eyes as he continued. "You are the most wonderful woman I have ever met, and I love you more than I ever thought possible. It would be the greatest joy of my life if you would consent to be my wife." He reached into his coat pocket and pulled out a small band of white gold, set with one tiny diamond. "Will you marry me?"
Cecily pulled her hand away and put them both over her face. Joy like she'd never known broke over her in waves. For a moment she almost felt that she couldn't marry him; he was so strong, and so good, and she was so weak and unworthy, but then she knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that this was meant to be. No matter what the future might bring, she and Shirley were meant to be together. She opened her eyes, sparkling with unshed tears, and looked at him with her heart in her eyes.
"Yes," she whispered.
Shirley swept her into her arms, and there atop the mountain, in the glory of the September day, their lips met for the first time, and they knew that God had brought them together.
Author's Note: Yes, I am a hopeless romantic: my husband proposed to me in September, on top of Mt. Van Hovenburg, and I couldn't resist using the setting for Shirley and Cecily. Of course, they won't go to Mr. Mike's for dinner afterwards and be so wrapped up in the fact that they are engaged that they forget to leave a tip for the waitress! (We still feel guilty over that) All seems smooth sailing for these two, but the story's not over yet. Three more chapters to go! As always, thank you so much everyone who reviews, you are all so kind and gracious, and your reviews always make my day.