XVI. OAKLEY VILLAS, BIRCHESPOOL, 4th November, 1884

Stark Munro Letters

I face my study window as I write, Bertie. Slate-coloured clouds with ragged fringes are drifting slowly overhead. Between them one has a glimpse of higher clouds of a lighter gray. I can hear the gentle swish of the rain striking a clearer note on the gravel path and a duller among the leaves. Sometimes it falls straight and heavy, till the air is full of the delicate gray shading, and for half a foot above the ground there is a haze from the rebound of a million tiny globules. Then without any change in the clouds it cases off again. Pools line my walk, and lie thick upon the roadway, their surface pocked by the falling drops. As I sit I can smell the heavy perfume of the wet earth, and the laurel bushes gleam where the light strikes sideways upon them. The gate outside shines above as though it were new varnished, and along the lower edge of the upper bar there hangs a fringe of great clear drops.

Stark Munro Letters
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That is the best that November can do for us in our dripping little island. You, I suppose, sitting among the dying glories of an American fall, think that this must needs be depressing. Don’t make any mistake about that, my dear boy. You may take the States, from Detroit to the Gulf, and you won’t find a happier man than this one. What do you suppose I’ve got att his{sic— at this} moment in my consulting room? A bureau? A bookcase? No, I know you’ve guessed my secret already. She is sitting in my big armchair; and she is the best, the kindest, the sweetest little woman in England.

Yes, I’ve been married six months now—the almanack says months, though I should have thought weeks. I should, of course, have sent cake and cards, but had an idea that you were not home from the Islands yet. It is a good year since I wrote to you; but when you give an amorphous address of that sort, what can you expect? I’ve thought of you, and talked of you often enough.

Well, I daresay, with the acumen of an old married man, you have guessed who the lady is as well. We surely know by some nameless instinct more about our futures than we think we know. I can remember, for example, that years ago the name of Bradfield used to strike with a causeless familiarity upon my ear; and since then, as you know, the course of my life has flowed through it. And so when I first saw Winnie La Force in the railway carriage, before I had spoken to her or knew her name, I felt an inexplicable sympathy for and interest in her. Have you had no experience of the sort in your life? Or was it merely that she was obviously gentle and retiring, and so made a silent claim upon all that was helpful and manly in me? At any rate, I was conscious of it; and again and again every time that I met her. How good is that saying of some Russian writer that he who loves one woman knows more of the whole sex than he who has had passing relations with a thousand! I thought I knew something of women. I suppose every medical student does. But now I can see that I really knew nothing. My knowledge was all external. I did not know the woman soul, that crowning gift of Providence to man, which, if we do not ourselves degrade it, will set an edge to all that is good in us. I did not know how the love of a woman will tinge a man’s whole life and every action with unselfishness. I did not know how easy it is to be noble when some one else takes it for granted that one will be so; or how wide and interesting life becomes when viewed by four eyes instead of two. I had much to learn, you see; but I think I have learned it.

It was natural that the death of poor Fred La Force should make me intimate with the family. It was really that cold hand which I grasped that morning as I sat by his bed which drew me towards my happiness. I visited them frequently, and we often went little excursions together. Then my dear mother came down to stay with me for a spell, and turned Miss Williams gray by looking for dust in all sorts of improbable corners; or advancing with a terrible silence, a broom in one hand and a shovel in the other, to the attack of a spider’s web which she had marked down in the beer cellar. Her presence enabled me to return some of the hospitality which I had received from the La Forces, and brought us still nearer together.

I had never yet reminded them of our previous meeting. One evening, however, the talk turned upon clairvoyance, and Mrs. La Force was expressing the utmost disbelief in it. I borrowed her ring, and holding it to my forehead, I pretended to be peering into her past.

“I see you in a railway carriage,” said I. “You are wearing a red feather in your bonnet. Miss La Force is dressed in something dark. There is a young man there. He is rude enough to address your daughter as Winnie before he has ever been——”

“Oh, mother,” she cried, “of course it is he! The face haunted me, and I could not think where we had met it.”

Well, there are some things that we don’t talk about to another man, even when we know each other as well as I know you. Why should we, when that which is most engrossing to us consists in those gradual shades of advance from friendship to intimacy, and from intimacy to something more sacred still, which can scarcely be written at all, far less made interesting to another? The time came at last when they were to leave Birchespool, and my mother and I went round the night before to say goodbye. Winnie and I were thrown together for an instant.

“When will you come back to Birchespool?” I asked.

“Mother does not know.”

“Will you come soon, and be my wife?”

I had been turning over in my head all the evening how prettily I could lead up to it, and how neatly I could say it—and behold the melancholy result! Well, perhaps the feeling of my heart managed to make itself clear even through those bald words. There was but one to judge, and she was of that opinion.

I was so lost in my own thoughts that I walked as far as Oakley Villa with my mother before I opened my mouth. “Mam,” said I at last, “I have proposed to Winnie La Force, and she has accepted me.”

“My boy,” said she, “you are a true Packenham.” And so I knew that my mother’s approval had reached the point of enthusiasm. It was not for days—not until I expressed a preference for dust under the bookcase with quiet, against purity and ructions—that the dear old lady perceived traces of the Munros.

The time originally fixed for the wedding was six months after this; but we gradually whittled it down to five and to four. My income had risen to about two hundred and seventy pounds at the time; and Winnie had agreed, with a somewhat enigmatical smile, that we could manage very well on that—the more so as marriage sends a doctor’s income up. The reason of her smile became more apparent when a few weeks before that date I received a most portentous blue document in which “We, Brown & Woodhouse, the solicitors for the herein and hereafter mentioned Winifred La Force, do hereby”—state a surprising number of things, and use some remarkably bad English. The meaning of it, when all the “whereas’s and aforesaids” were picked out, was, that Winnie had about a hundred a year of her own. It could not make me love her a shade better than I did; but at the same time I won’t be so absurd as to say that I was not glad, or to deny that it made our marriage much easier than it would otherwise have been.

Poor Whitehall came in on the morning of the ceremony. He was staggering under the weight of a fine Japanese cabinet which he had carried round from his lodgings. I had asked him to come to the church, and the old gentleman was resplendent in a white waistcoat and a silk tie. Between ourselves, I had been just a little uneasy lest his excitement should upset him, as in the case of the dinner; but nothing could be more exemplary than his conduct and appearance. I had introduced him to Winnie some days before.

“You’ll forgive me for saying, Dr. Munro, sir, that you are a —— lucky fellow,” said he. “You’ve put your hand in the bag, sir, and taken out the eel first time, as any one with half an eye can see. Now, I’ve had three dips, and landed a snake every dip. If I’d had a good woman at my side, Dr. Munro, sir, I might not be the broken half-pay skipper of an armed transport to-day.”

“I thought you had been twice married, captain.”

“Three times, sir. I buried two. The other lives at Brussels. Well, I’ll be at the church, Dr. Munro, sir; and you may lay that there is no one there who wishes you better than I do.”

And yet there were many there who wished me well. My patients had all got wind of it; and they assembled by the pew-full, looking distressingly healthy. My neighbour, Dr. Porter, was there also to lend me his support, and old General Wainwright gave Winnie away. My mother, Mrs. La Force, and Miss Williams were all in the front pew; and away at the back of the church I caught a glimpse of the forked beard and crinkly face of Whitehall, and beside him the wounded lieutenant, the man who ran away with the cook, and quite a line of the strange Bohemians who followed his fortunes. Then when the words were said, and man’s form had tried to sanctify that which was already divine, we walked amid the pealings of the “Wedding March” into the vestry, where my dear mother relieved the tension of the situation by signing the register in the wrong place, so that to all appearance it was she who had just married the clergyman. And then amid congratulations and kindly faces, we were together, her hand on my forearm, upon the steps of the church, and saw the familiar road stretching before us. But it was not that road which lay before my eyes, but rather the path of our lives;—that broader path on which our feet were now planted, so pleasant to tread, and yet with its course so shrouded in the mist. Was it long, or was it short? Was it uphill, or was it down? For her, at least, it should be smooth, if a man’s love could make it so.

We were away for several weeks in the Isle of Man, and then came back to Oakley Villa, where Miss Williams was awaiting us in a house in which even my mother could have found no dust, and with a series of cheering legends as to the crowds of patients who had blocked the street in my absence. There really was a marked increase in my practice; and for the last six months or so, without being actually busy, I have always had enough to occupy me. My people are poor, and I have to work hard for a small fee; but I still study and attend the local hospital, and keep my knowledge up-to-date, so as to be ready for my opening when it comes. There are times when I chafe that I may not play a part upon some larger stage than this; but my happiness is complete, and if fate has no further use for me, I am content now from my heart to live and to die where I am.

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