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Chapter 84
“ON our way to town Ernest broached his plans for spending the next year or two. I wanted him to try to 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 daresay 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 hornets’ nest indeed.”

“Yes,” said he no less drily, “but hornets’ 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, “affects 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 the............
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