From the palaces and Alps, the Mole, the blue Mediterranean, the humming lanes and the bright theatres of Genoa, he fell - and he was sharply conscious of the fall - to the dim skies and the foul ways of Manchester. England he found on his return 'a horrid place,' and there is no doubt the family found it a dear one. The story of the Jenkin finances is not easy to follow. The family, I am told, did not practice frugality, only lamented that it should be needful; and Mrs. Jenkin, who was always complaining of 'those dreadful bills,' was 'always a good deal dressed.' But at this time of the return to England, things must have gone further. A holiday tour of a fortnight, Fleeming feared would be beyond what he could afford, and he only projected it 'to have a castle in the air.' And there were actual pinches. Fresh from a warmer sun, he was obliged to go without a greatcoat, and learned on railway journeys to supply the place of one with wrappings of old newspaper.

From half-past eight till six, he must 'file and chip vigorously in a moleskin suit and infernally dirty.' The work was not new to him, for he had already passed some time in a Genoese shop; and to Fleeming no work was without interest. Whatever a man can do or know, he longed to know and do also. 'I never learned anything,' he wrote, 'not even standing on my head, but I found a use for it.' In the spare hours of his first telegraph voyage, to give an instance of his greed of knowledge, he meant 'to learn the whole art of navigation, every rope in the ship and how to handle her on any occasion'; and once when he was shown a young lady's holiday collection of seaweeds, he must cry out, 'It showed me my eyes had been idle.' Nor was his the case of the mere literary smatterer, content if he but learn the names of things. In him, to do and to do well, was even a dearer ambition than to know. Anything done well, any craft, despatch, or finish, delighted and inspired him. I remember him with a twopenny Japanese box of three drawers, so exactly fitted that, when one was driven home, the others started from their places; the whole spirit of Japan, he told me, was pictured in that box; that plain piece of carpentry was as much inspired by the spirit of perfection as the happiest drawing or the finest bronze; and he who could not enjoy it in the one was not fully able to enjoy it in the others. Thus, too, he found in Leonardo's engineering and anatomical drawings a perpetual feast; and of the former he spoke even with emotion. Nothing indeed annoyed Fleeming more than the attempt to separate the fine arts from the arts of handicraft; any definition or theory that failed to bring these two together, according to him, had missed the point; and the essence of the pleasure received lay in seeing things well done. Other qualities must be added; he was the last to deny that; but this, of perfect craft, was at the bottom of all. And on the other hand, a nail ill-driven, a joint ill-fitted, a tracing clumsily done, anything to which a man had set his hand and not set it aptly, moved him to shame and anger. With such a character, he would feel but little drudgery at Fairbairn's. There would be something daily to be done, slovenliness to be avoided, and a higher mark of skill to be attained; he would chip and file, as he had practiced scales, impatient of his own imperfection, but resolute to learn.

And there was another spring of delight. For he was now moving daily among those strange creations of man's brain, to some so abhorrent, to him of an interest so inexhaustible: in which iron, water, and fire are made to serve as slaves, now with a tread more powerful than an elephant's, and now with a touch more precise and dainty than a pianist's. The taste for machinery was one that I could never share with him, and he had a certain bitter pity for my weakness. Once when I had proved, for the hundredth time, the depth of this defect, he looked at me askance. 'And the best of the joke,' said he, 'is that he thinks himself quite a poet.' For to him the struggle of the engineer against brute forces and with inert allies, was nobly poetic.

Memoir of Fleeming Jenkin Page 21

Robert Louis Stevenson

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Robert Louis Stevenson
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