Bell was still, like the corrector of Italian consuls, 'a great child in everything but information.' At the house of Colonel Cleather, he might be seen with a family of children; and with these, there was no word of the Greek orders; with these Fleeming was only an uproarious boy and an entertaining draughtsman; so that his coming was the signal for the young people to troop into the playroom, where sometimes the roof rang with romping, and sometimes they gathered quietly about him as he amused them with his pencil.

In another Manchester family, whose name will be familiar to my readers - that of the Gaskells, Fleeming was a frequent visitor. To Mrs. Gaskell, he would often bring his new ideas, a process that many of his later friends will understand and, in their own cases, remember. With the girls, he had 'constant fierce wrangles,' forcing them to reason out their thoughts and to explain their prepossessions; and I hear from Miss Gaskell that they used to wonder how he could throw all the ardour of his character into the smallest matters, and to admire his unselfish devotion to his parents. Of one of these wrangles, I have found a record most characteristic of the man. Fleeming had been laying down his doctrine that the end justifies the means, and that it is quite right 'to boast of your six men-servants to a burglar or to steal a knife to prevent a murder'; and the Miss Gaskells, with girlish loyalty to what is current, had rejected the heresy with indignation. From such passages-at-arms, many retire mortified and ruffled; but Fleeming had no sooner left the house than he fell into delighted admiration of the spirit of his adversaries. From that it was but a step to ask himself 'what truth was sticking in their heads'; for even the falsest form of words (in Fleeming's life-long opinion) reposed upon some truth, just as he could 'not even allow that people admire ugly things, they admire what is pretty in the ugly thing.' And before he sat down to write his letter, he thought he had hit upon the explanation. 'I fancy the true idea,' he wrote, 'is that you must never do yourself or anyone else a moral injury - make any man a thief or a liar - for any end'; quite a different thing, as he would have loved to point out, from never stealing or lying. But this perfervid disputant was not always out of key with his audience. One whom he met in the same house announced that she would never again be happy. 'What does that signify?' cried Fleeming. 'We are not here to be happy, but to be good.' And the words (as his hearer writes to me) became to her a sort of motto during life.

From Fairbairn's and Manchester, Fleeming passed to a railway survey in Switzerland, and thence again to Mr. Penn's at Greenwich, where he was engaged as draughtsman. There in 1856, we find him in 'a terribly busy state, finishing up engines for innumerable gun- boats and steam frigates for the ensuing campaign.' From half-past eight in the morning till nine or ten at night, he worked in a crowded office among uncongenial comrades, 'saluted by chaff, generally low personal and not witty,' pelted with oranges and apples, regaled with dirty stories, and seeking to suit himself with his surroundings or (as he writes it) trying to be as little like himself as possible. His lodgings were hard by, 'across a dirty green and through some half-built streets of two-storied houses'; he had Carlyle and the poets, engineering and mathematics, to study by himself in such spare time as remained to him; and there were several ladies, young and not so young, with whom he liked to correspond. But not all of these could compensate for the absence of that mother, who had made herself so large a figure in his life, for sorry surroundings, unsuitable society, and work that leaned to the mechanical. 'Sunday,' says he, 'I generally visit some friends in town and seem to swim in clearer water, but the dirty green seems all the dirtier when I get back. Luckily I am fond of my profession, or I could not stand this life.' It is a question in my mind, if he could have long continued to stand it without loss.

Memoir of Fleeming Jenkin Page 23

Robert Louis Stevenson

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Robert Louis Stevenson
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