During the year 1873 James Gilmour devoted much thought to the natural and all-important question of marriage. Uncommon as he was, in so many ways, it was, perhaps, to be expected that in this great undertaking he would depart from ordinary methods. The Rev. S. E. Meech had married, in 1872, Miss Prankard, of London. After the return of Mr. Edkins to England, in May 1873, Mr. Gilmour went to board with Mr. and Mrs. Meech. There he saw the portrait of Mrs. Meech's sister, and often heard her referred to in conversation. Towards the close of 1873 he took Mrs. Meech into his confidence, and asked permission to enter into correspondence with her sister. The following most characteristic letters show the course of subsequent events:
"Peking, January 14, 1874.
MY DEAR PARENTS, — I have written and proposed to a girl in England. It is true I have never seen her and I know very little about her; but what I do know is good. She is the sister of Mrs. Meech, and is with her mother in London. Her mother supports herself and daughter by keeping a school. One of the hindrances will be perhaps that the mother will not be willing to part with her daughter, as she is, no doubt, the life of the school. I don't know, so I have written and made the offer, and leave them to decide. If she cannot come, then there is no harm done. If she can arrange to come, then my hope is fulfilled. If the young lady says 'Yes,' she or her friends will no doubt write you, as I have asked them to do... You may think I am rash in writing to a girl I have never seen. If you say so, I may just say that I have something of the same feeling; but what am I to do? In addition, I am very easy-minded over it all, because I have exercised the best of my thoughts on the subject, and put the whole matter into the hands of God, asking Him, if it be best to bring her, if it be not best to keep her away, and He can manage the whole thing well."
By some mischance this letter was delayed, and Mr. Gilmour's relatives were startled, one March day in 1874, by receiving from an entirely unknown lady in London a letter, containing the unlooked for statement : 'Your son, Mr. Gilmour, of Peking, has asked my daughter to write to you, telling you of her decision to join him as his wife. She has wished me to write to you for her, and will be pleased to hear from you when you feel inclined to write."
The friendly intercourse that followed soon convinced Mr. Gilmour's family, as any knowledge of Emily Prankard herself soon convinced all who made her acquaintance, that, however unusual it might appear, this was indeed one of the marriages made in heaven. By both parties God's blessing and guidance were invoked, upon both His benediction rested, and, after a brief separation in this world, they are now both enriched with the fuller knowledge and the perfect joy of the life beyond.
No time was lost in the arrangements for Miss Prankard's departure to China. In a letter to his mother dated October 2, 1874, Mr. Gilmour writes:
"You have seen Miss Prankard, but you have not told me what you think of her. She was delighted with her visit to Scotland and with you all. You will be glad to hear that I have had some delightful letters from her. I wrote her, and she has written me in the most unrestrained way concerning her spiritual hopes and condition, and though we have never seen each other, yet we know more of each other's inmost life and soul, than, I am quite certain, most lovers know of each other even after long personal courtship. It is quite delightful to think that even now we can talk by letter with perfect unreserve, and I tell you this because I know you will be glad to hear it. I knew she was a pious girl, else I would not have asked her to come out to be a missionary's wife, but she turns out better even than I thought, and I am not much afraid as to how we shall get on together."
In the course of the autumn of 1874 Miss Prankard sailed, and in a letter to the writer, December 13, 1874, Gilmour thus refers to the close of his unusual but satisfactory courtship :
"I was married last week, Tuesday, December 8!
"Mrs. Meech's sister is Mrs. Gilmour. We never saw each other till a week before we were married, and my friends here drew long faces and howled at me for being rash and inconsiderate. What if you don't like each other? How then? It is for life! As if I did not know all this long ago. Well, the time came, the vessel was due at Shanghai, but would not come. Mr. Meech and I went down to Tientsin and waited there a fortnight, but no tidings. At last on the evening of Sabbath, November 29, a steamer's whistle was heard miles away down the river. It was Mr. Meech's turn to preach. After sermon he and I walked away down the riverside to see what we could see. After a while a light hove round the last bend, then a green light, then the red light, then came the three lights of the steamer! We listened. It was the high pressure engine of the steam launch which is used to lighten the deep-sea steamers before coming up the narrow river. Fifteen minutes more and she was at the landing-stage. A friend went on board. Miss Prankard was on board the Taku, which was still outside the bar, waiting for water to bring her over and up to the settlement. The lighter was going to unload and start down the river at five a.m., and Meech and I went in her. About eight a.m. we met the steamer coming up, and when she came abreast we saw Miss Prankard on board, but could not get from our vessel to hers. The tide was favourable for running up, and they were afraid to lose a minute, so would not stop the steamer; we did not get on board till we reached the bund at Tientsin about eleven a.m. We started for Peking next day, got there on Thursday, and were married following Tuesday.
"Our honeymoon is now almost over. I am to have only a week of it. I hope to start with Meech on a mission trip to the country on Tuesday next."
Miss Prankard's first view of her future husband was hardly what she might have expected. Mr. Meech has also sketched that scene on the river.
"The morning was cold, and Gilmour was clad in an old overcoat which had seen much service in Siberia, and had a woollen comforter round his neck, having more regard to warmth than to appearance. We had to follow back to Tientsin, Gilmour being thought by those on board the steamer to be the engineer!"
Two letters may be quoted in this connection. The first was to one of his most intimate Scotch friends.
"LONDON MISSION, PEKING,
"January 31, 1875
My Dear——, Your kind, long, and much looked for letter dated May 12, 1873, and August 21, 1874, reached me on January 9, 1875. Many thanks for it, but I think it would be quite as well in future to send me half the quantity in half the time, if you really find you cannot write me oftener. As I was married on December 8, 1874, to Mrs. Meech's sister, that lady, Mrs Gilmour, had the great pleasure of reading your earnest, long, and reiterated warning to me not to have her. Your warning came too late. Had you posted your letter on May 12, 1873, it might have been in time, as the first letter that opened our acquaintance was written in January 1874. If nothing else will have effect with you, perhaps the thought that you might have saved me from the fate of having an English wife may have some effect in moving you to post your letters early, even though they should not be so long and full.
"About my wife: as I want you to know her, I introduce you to her. She is a jolly girl, as much, perhaps more, of a Christian and a Christian missionary than I am. I don't know whether I told you how it came about. I proposed first to a Scotch girl but found I was too late; I then put myself and the direction of this affair — I mean the finding of a wife — into God's hands, asking Him to look me out one, a good one too, and very soon I found myself in a position to propose to Miss Prankard with all reasonable evidence that she was the right sort of girl, and with some hope that she would not disdain the offer. We had never seen each other, and had never corresponded, but she had heard much about me from people in England who knew me, and I had heard a good deal of her and seen her letters written to her sister and to her sister's husband. The first letter I wrote her was to propose, and the first letter she wrote me was to accept — romantic enough!
"I proposed in January, went up to Mongolia in spring, rode about on my camels till July, and came down to Kalgan to find that I was an accepted man! I went to Tientsin to meet her; we arrived here on Thursday and were married on Tuesday morning. We had a quiet week, then I went to the country on a nine days' tour, and came back two days before Christmas. We have been at home ever since. Such is the romance of a matter-of-fact man.
"You will see that the whole thing was gone about simply on the faith principle, and from its success I am inclined to think more and more highly of the plan. Without any gammon, I am much more happy than ever even in my day-dreams I ventured to imagine I might be. It is not only me that my wife pleases, but she has gained golden opinions from most of the people who have met her among my friends and acquaintances in Scotland and China. My parents were scared one day last year by receiving a letter from a lady in England, a lady whose name even they had not known before, stating that her daughter had decided to become my wife. Didn't it stir up the old people! They had never heard a word about it! My letter to them, posted at the same time with the proposal, had been delayed in London. The young lady went to Scotland, and was with them two weeks, and came away having made such an impression on them that they wrote me from home to say that 'though I had searched the country for a couple of years I could not have made a better choice.'
"Perhaps I am tiring you, but I want to let you know all about it, and to assure you that you need not be the least shy of me or of my English wife. She is a good lassie, any quantity better than me, and just as handy as a Scotch lass would have been. It was great fun for her to read your tirade about English wives and your warning about her. She is a jolly kind of body, and does not take offence, but I guess if she comes across you she will wake you up a bit."
The other letter was to Miss Bremner, and referred to the part Gilmour was to take in her marriage in 1883 to his brother Alexander:
"Now as to your affair, a much more serious matter. Alex has said something about my part. I want to take part, but only such a small part as will make it true to say, 'assisted by the brother of the bridegroom.' It is for you and Dr. Macfadyen to say what that small part shall be; all I have to say about it, the smaller the better.
"My experiences of the ceremonies of social Christianity have been mixed a little. In England I baptized a child by a wrong name, and had actually to do it again. In China on a similar occasion I began by saying, 'Friends, God has given you this child,' when the seeming father stopped me, and explained that God had not given them this child, but he himself had picked it up in a field where it had been exposed.
"I think I married only one Chinese couple, and to this day I doubt if either the one or the other uttered a syllable where they should have said, 'I do.' In my own case I think I must have said 'I will ' in a feeble voice, for my wife when her turn came sung out 'I will' in a voice that startled herself and me, and made it ominous how much will she was going to have in the matter. Wishing you all blessings, — Believe me yours truly, —"James Gilmour."
From James Gilmour of Mongolia by Richard Lovett. London: Religious Tract Society, [n.d.]. Chapter 5.
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