Of the walk from his lodgings to the works, I find a graphic sketch in one of his letters: 'Out over the railway bridge, along a wide road raised to the level of a ground floor above the land, which, not being built upon, harbours puddles, ponds, pigs, and Irish hovels; - so to the dock warehouses, four huge piles of building with no windows, surrounded by a wall about twelve feet high - in through the large gates, round which hang twenty or thirty rusty Irish, playing pitch and toss and waiting for employment; - on along the railway, which came in at the same gates and which branches down between each vast block - past a pilot-engine butting refractory trucks into their places - on to the last block, [and] down the branch, sniffing the guano-scented air and detecting the old bones. The hartshorn flavour of the guano becomes very strong, as I near the docks where, across the ELBA'S decks, a huge vessel is discharging her cargo of the brown dust, and where huge vessels have been discharging that same cargo for the last five months.' This was the walk he took his young wife on the morrow of his return. She had been used to the society of lawyers and civil servants, moving in that circle which seems to itself the pivot of the nation and is in truth only a clique like another; and Fleeming was to her the nameless assistant of a nameless firm of engineers, doing his inglorious business, as she now saw for herself, among unsavoury surroundings. But when their walk brought them within view of the river, she beheld a sight to her of the most novel beauty: four great, sea-going ships dressed out with flags. 'How lovely!' she cried. 'What is it for?' - 'For you,' said Fleeming. Her surprise was only equalled by her pleasure. But perhaps, for what we may call private fame, there is no life like that of the engineer; who is a great man in out-of- the-way places, by the dockside or on the desert island or in populous ships, and remains quite unheard of in the coteries of London. And Fleeming had already made his mark among the few who had an opportunity of knowing him.

His marriage was the one decisive incident of his career; from that moment until the day of his death, he had one thought to which all the rest were tributary, the thought of his wife. No one could know him even slightly, and not remark the absorbing greatness of that sentiment; nor can any picture of the man be drawn that does not in proportion dwell upon it. This is a delicate task; but if we are to leave behind us (as we wish) some presentment of the friend we have lost, it is a task that must be undertaken.

For all his play of mind and fancy, for all his indulgence - and, as time went on, he grew indulgent - Fleeming had views of duty that were even stern. He was too shrewd a student of his fellow- men to remain long content with rigid formulae of conduct. Iron- bound, impersonal ethics, the procrustean bed of rules, he soon saw at their true value as the deification of averages. 'As to Miss (I declare I forget her name) being bad,' I find him writing, 'people only mean that she has broken the Decalogue - which is not at all the same thing. People who have kept in the high-road of Life really have less opportunity for taking a comprehensive view of it than those who have leaped over the hedges and strayed up the hills; not but what the hedges are very necessary, and our stray travellers often have a weary time of it. So, you may say, have those in the dusty roads.' Yet he was himself a very stern respecter of the hedgerows; sought safety and found dignity in the obvious path of conduct; and would palter with no simple and recognised duty of his epoch. Of marriage in particular, of the bond so formed, of the obligations incurred, of the debt men owe to their children, he conceived in a truly antique spirit: not to blame others, but to constrain himself. It was not to blame, I repeat, that he held these views; for others, he could make a large allowance; and yet he tacitly expected of his friends and his wife a high standard of behaviour.

Memoir of Fleeming Jenkin Page 29

Robert Louis Stevenson

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Robert Louis Stevenson
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