On our way to town Ernest broached his plans for spending the next year or two. I wanted him to try and get more into society again, but he brushed this aside at once as the very last thing he had a fancy for. For society indeed of all sorts, except of course that of a few intimate friends, he had an unconquerable aversion. "I always did hate those people," he said, "and they always have hated and always will hate me. I am an Ishmael by instinct as much as by accident of circumstances, but if I keep out of society I shall be less vulnerable than Ishmaels generally are. The moment a man goes into society, he becomes vulnerable all round."
I was very sorry to hear him talk in this way; for whatever strength a man may have he should surely be able to make more of it if he act in concert than alone. I said this.
"I don't care," he answered, "whether I make the most of my strength or not; I don't know whether I have any strength, but if I have I dare say it will find some way of exerting itself. I will live as I like living, not as other people would like me to live; thanks to my aunt and you I can afford the luxury of a quiet unobtrusive life of self-indulgence," said he laughing, "and I mean to have it. You know I like writing," he added after a pause of some minutes, "I have been a scribbler for years. If I am to come to the fore at all it must be by writing."
I had already long since come to that conclusion myself.
"Well," he continued, "there are a lot of things that want saying which no one dares to say, a lot of shams which want attacking, and yet no one attacks them. It seems to me that I can say things which not another man in England except myself will venture to say, and yet which are crying to be said."
I said: "But who will listen? If you say things which nobody else would dare to say is not this much the same as saying what everyone except yourself knows to be better left unsaid just now?"
"Perhaps," said he, "but I don't know it; I am bursting with these things, and it is my fate to say them."
I knew there would be no stopping him, so I gave in and asked what question he felt a special desire to burn his fingers with in the first instance.
"Marriage," he rejoined promptly, "and the power of disposing of his property after a man is dead. The question of Christianity is virtually settled, or if not settled there is no lack of those engaged in settling it. The question of the day now is marriage and the family system."
"That," said I drily, "is a hornet's nest indeed."
"Yes," said he no less drily, "but hornet's nests are exactly what I happen to like. Before, however, I begin to stir up this particular one I propose to travel for a few years, with the especial object of finding out what nations now existing are the best, comeliest and most lovable, and also what nations have been so in times past. I want to find out how these people live, and have lived, and what their customs are.
"I have very vague notions upon the subject as yet, but the general impression I have formed is that, putting ourselves on one side, the most vigorous and amiable of known nations are the modern Italians, the old Greeks and Romans, and the South Sea Islanders. I believe that these nice peoples have not as a general rule been purists, but I want to see those of them who can yet be seen; they are the practical authorities on the question—What is best for man? and I should like to see them and find out what they do. Let us settle the fact first and fight about the moral tendencies afterwards."
"In fact," said I laughingly, "you mean to have high old times."
"Neither higher nor lower," was the answer, "than those people whom I can find to have been the best in all ages. But let us change the subject." He put his hand into his pocket and brought out a letter. "My father," he said, "gave me this letter this morning with the seal already broken." He passed it over to me, and I found it to be the one which Christina had written before the birth of her last child, and which I have given in an earlier chapter.
"And you do not find this letter," said I, "affect the conclusion which you have just told me you have come to concerning your present plans?"
He smiled, and answered: "No. But if you do what you have sometimes talked about and turn the adventures of my unworthy self into a novel, mind you print this letter."
"Why so?" said I, feeling as though such a letter as this should have been held sacred from the public gaze.
"Because my mother would have wished it published; if she had known you were writing about me and had this letter in your possession, she would above all things have desired that you should publish it. Therefore publish it if you write at all."
This is why I have done so.
Within a month Ernest carried his intention into effect, and having made all the arrangements necessary for his children's welfare left England before Christmas.
I heard from him now and again and learnt that he was visiting almost all parts of the world, but only staying in those places where he found the inhabitants unusually good-looking and agreeable. He said he had filled an immense quantity of note-books, and I have no doubt he had. At last in the spring of 1867 he returned, his luggage stained with the variation of each hotel advertisement 'twixt here and Japan. He looked very brown and strong, and so well favoured that it almost seemed as if he must have caught some good looks from the people among whom he had been living. He came back to his old rooms in the Temple, and settled down as easily as if he had never been away a day.
One of the first things we did was to go and see the children; we took the train to Gravesend, and walked thence for a few miles along the riverside till we came to the solitary house where the good people lived with whom Ernest had placed them. It was a lovely April morning, but with a fresh air blowing from off the sea; the tide was high, and the river was alive with shipping coming up with wind and tide. Sea-gulls wheeled around us overhead, sea-weed clung everywhere to the banks which the advancing tide had not yet covered, everything was of the sea sea-ey, and the fine bracing air which blew over the water made me feel more hungry than I had done for many a day; I did not see how children could live in a better physical atmosphere than this, and applauded the selection which Ernest had made on behalf of his youngsters.
While we were still a quarter of a mile off we heard shouts and children's laughter, and could see a lot of boys and girls romping together and running after one another. We could not distinguish our own two, but when we got near they were soon made out, for the other children were blue-eyed, flaxen-pated little folks, whereas ours were dark and straight-haired.
We had written to say that we were coming, but had desired that nothing should be said to the children, so these paid no more attention to us than they would have done to any other stranger, who happened to visit a spot so unfrequented except by sea-faring folk, which we plainly were not. The interest, however, in us was much quickened when it was discovered that we had got our pockets full of oranges and sweeties, to an extent greater than it had entered into their small imaginations to conceive as possible. At first we had great difficulty in making them come near us. They were like a lot of wild young colts, very inquisitive, but very coy and not to be cajoled easily. The children were nine in all—five boys and two girls belonging to Mr and Mrs Rollings, and two to Ernest. I never saw a finer lot of children than the young Rollings, the boys were hardy, robust, fearless little fellows with eyes as clear as hawks; the elder girl was exquisitely pretty, but the younger one was a mere baby. I felt as I looked at them, that if I had had children of my own I could have wished no better home for them, nor better companions.
Georgie and Alice, Ernest's two children, were evidently quite as one family with the others, and called Mr and Mrs Rollings uncle and aunt. They had been so young when they were first brought to the house that they had been looked upon in the light of new babies who had been born into the family. They knew nothing about Mr and Mrs Rollings being paid so much a week to look after them. Ernest asked them all what they wanted to be. They had only one idea; one and all, Georgie among the rest, wanted to be bargemen. Young ducks could hardly have a more evident hankering after the water.
"And what do you want, Alice?" said Ernest.
"Oh," she said, "I'm going to marry Jack here, and be a bargeman's wife."
Jack was the eldest boy, now nearly twelve, a sturdy little fellow, the image of what Mr Rollings must have been at his age. As we looked at him, so straight and well grown and well done all round, I could see it was in Ernest's mind as much as in mine that she could hardly do much better.
"Come here, Jack, my boy," said Ernest, "here's a shilling for you." The boy blushed and could hardly be got to come in spite of our previous blandishments; he had had pennies given him before, but shillings never. His father caught him good-naturedly by the ear and lugged him to us.
"He's a good boy, Jack is," said Ernest to Mr Rollings, "I'm sure of that."
"Yes," said Mr Rollings, "he's a werry good boy, only that I can't get him to learn his reading and writing. He don't like going to school, that's the only complaint I have against him. I don't know what's the matter with all my children, and yours, Mr Pontifex, is just as bad, but they none of 'em likes book learning, though they learn anything else fast enough. Why, as for Jack here, he's almost as good a bargeman as I am." And he looked fondly and patronisingly towards his offspring.
"I think," said Ernest to Mr Rollings, "if he wants to marry Alice when he gets older he had better do so, and he shall have as many barges as he likes. In the meantime, Mr Rollings, say in what way money can be of use to you, and whatever you can make useful is at your disposal."
I need hardly say that Ernest made matters easy for this good couple; one stipulation, however, he insisted on, namely, there was to be no more smuggling, and that the young people were to be kept out of this; for a little bird had told Ernest that smuggling in a quiet way was one of the resources of the Rollings family. Mr Rollings was not sorry to assent to this, and I believe it is now many years since the coastguard people have suspected any of the Rollings family as offenders against the revenue law.
"Why should I take them from where they are," said Ernest to me in the train as we went home, "to send them to schools where they will not be one half so happy, and where their illegitimacy will very likely be a worry to them? Georgie wants to be a bargeman, let him begin as one, the sooner the better; he may as well begin with this as with anything else; then if he shows developments I can be on the look-out to encourage them and make things easy for him; while if he shows no desire to go ahead, what on earth is the good of trying to shove him forward?"
Ernest, I believe, went on with a homily upon education generally, and upon the way in which young people should go through the embryonic stages with their money as much as with their limbs, beginning life in a much lower social position than that in which their parents were, and a lot more, which he has since published; but I was getting on in years, and the walk and the bracing air had made me sleepy, so ere we had got past Greenhithe Station on our return journey I had sunk into a refreshing sleep.