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by Charles Dickens
The original, squashed down to read in about 25 minutes
In this novel, whose full title is 'Dealings with the Firm of Dombey and Son: Wholesale, Retail and for Exportation', Dickens takes on the callousness or the rising Imperial mercantile classes. It was written in part in Switzerland and France.
For more works by Dickens, see The Index
Dombey sat in the corner of the darkened room in the great armchair by the bedside, and Son lay tucked up warm in a little basket-bedstead. Dombey was about eight-and-forty years of age; Son about eight-and-forty minutes. Dombey was rather bald, rather red, and though a handsome, well-made man, too stern and pompous in appearance to be prepossessing. Son was very bald, and very red, and somewhat crushed and spotted in his general effect, as yet.
"The house will once again, Mrs. Dombey," said Mr. Dombey, "be not only in name, but in fact, Dombey and Son; Dombey and Son! He will be christened Paul, Mrs. Dombey, of course!"
The sick lady feebly echoed, "Of course," and closed her eyes again.
"His father's name, Mrs. Dombey, and his grandfather's! I wish his grandfather were alive this day." And again he said "Dombey and Son" in exactly the same tone as before, and then went downstairs to learn what that fashionable physician, Dr. Parker Peps, had to say, for Mrs. Dombey lay very weak and still.
"Dombey and Son"--those three words conveyed the idea of Mr. Dombey's life. The earth was made for Dombey and Son to trade in, and the sun and moon were made to give them light.
He had risen, as his father had before him, in the course of life and death, from Son to Dombey, and for nearly twenty years had been the sole representative of the firm. Of those years he had been married ten--married, as some said, to a lady with no heart to give him. But such idle talk never reached the ears of Mr. Dombey. Dombey and Son often dealt in hides, never in hearts. Mr. Dombey would have reasoned that a matrimonial alliance with himself must, in the nature of things, be gratifying and honourable to any woman of commonsense.
One drawback only could be admitted. Until the present day there had been no issue--to speak of. There had been a girl some six years before, a child who now crouched by her mother's bed, unobserved. But what was that girl to Dombey and Son?
"Nature must be called upon to make a vigorous effort in this instance!" said Doctor Parker Peps, referring to Mrs. Dombey.
Mrs. Chick, Mr. Dombey's married sister, emphasised this opinion.
"Now my dear Paul," said Mrs. Chick, "you may rest assured that there is nothing wanting but an effort on Fanny's part."
They returned to the sick-room and its stillness. In vain Mrs. Chick exhorted her sister-in-law to make an effort; no sound came in answer but the loud ticking of Mr. Dombey's watch and Dr. Parker Pep's watch, which seemed in the silence to be running a race.
"Fanny!" said Mrs. Chick, "Only look at me. Only open your eyes to show me that you hear and understand me."
Still no answer. Mrs. Dombey lay motionless, clasping her little daughter to her breast.
"Mamma!" cried the child, sobbing aloud. "Oh, dear mamma!"
Thus clinging fast to that slight spar within her arms, the mother drifted out upon the dark and unknown sea that rolls round all the world.
Mr. Dombey, in the days to come, could not forget that closing scene-that he had had no part in it; that he had stood a mere spectator while those two figures lay clasped in each other's arms. His previous feelings of indifference towards his little daughter Florence changed into an uneasiness of an extraordinary kind. He had never conceived an aversion to her; it had not been worth his while or in his humour. But now he was ill at ease about her. He read nothing in her glance, when he saw her later in the solemn house, of the passionate desire to run clinging to him, and the dread of a repulse; the pitiable need in which she stood of some assurance and encouragement. He saw nothing of this.
In spite of his early promise, all the vigilance and care bestowed upon him could not make little Paul a thriving boy. There was something wan and wistful in his look, and he had a strange, old-fashioned, thoughtful way of sitting brooding in his miniature armchair.
The medical practitioner recommended sea-air, and Mrs. Pipchin, who conducted an infantile boarding house of a very select description at Brighton, and whose scale of charges was high, was entrusted with the care of Paul's health when he was little more than five years old.
Mrs. Pipchin was a marvellous ill-favoured, ill-conditioned old lady, with a mottled face like bad marble, a hook nose, and a hard grey eye.
It was generally said that Mrs. Pipchin was a woman of system with children, and no doubt she was. Certainly the wild ones went home tame enough, after sojourning for a few months beneath her hospitable roof.
At this exemplary old lady Paul would sit staring in his little armchair by the fire for any length of time. He was not fond of her, he was not afraid of her.
Once she asked him, when they were alone, what he was thinking about.
"You," said Paul, without the least reserve. "I'm thinking how old you must be."
"You mustn't say such things as that, young gentleman," returned the dame.
"Why not?" asked Paul.
"Because it's not polite!" said Mrs. Pipchin, snappishly.
"Not polite?" said Paul.
"No! And remember the story of the little boy that was gored to death by a mad bull for asking questions!"
"If the bull was mad," said Paul, "how did he know that the boy had asked questions? Nobody can go and whisper secrets to a mad bull. I don't believe that story."
"You don't believe it, sir?"
"No," said Paul.
"Not if it should happen to have been a tame bull, you little infidel?" said Mrs. Pipchin.
As Paul had not considered the subject in that light, he allowed himself to be put down for the present.
Mr. Dombey came down to Brighton every Sunday, and Florence was her brother's constant companion.
At first, Paul got no stronger, and a little carriage was procured for him, in which he could lie at his ease and be wheeled down to the sea-side; there he would sit or lie for hours together; never so distressed as by the company of children--Florence alone excepted, always.
"Go away, if you please," he would say to any child who came up to him.
"Thank you, but I don't want you. I think you had better go and play, if you please."
His favourite spot was quite a lonely one, far away from most loungers; and, with Florence sitting by his side, and the wind blowing on his face, and the water near the wheels of his bed, he wanted nothing more.
"I want to know what it says," he said once, looking steadily in her face. "The sea, Floy, what is it that it keeps on saying?"
She told him that it was only the noise of the rolling waves.
"Yes, yes," he said. "But I know that they are always saying something.
Always the same thing. What place is over there?" He rose up, looking eagerly at the horizon.
She told him that there was another country opposite, but he said he didn't mean that; he meant farther away--farther away!
Very often afterwards, in the midst of their talk, he would break off, to try to understand what it was that the waves were always saying, and would rise up on his couch to look at that invisible region far away.
At the end of twelve months at Mrs. Pipchin's, Paul had grown strong enough to dispense with his little carriage, though he still looked thin and delicate.
Mr. Dombey therefore decided to remove him, not from Brighton, but to Doctor Blimber's educational establishment. "I fear," said Mr. Dombey, addressing Mrs. Pipchin, "that my son in his studies is behind many children of his age. Now instead of being behind his peers, my son ought to be before them--far before them. There is an eminence ready for him to mount upon. The education of my son must not be delayed. It must not be left imperfect."
Doctor Blimber only undertook the charge of ten young gentlemen, and his establishment was a great hot-house, in which there was a forcing apparatus incessantly at work.
Florence would remain at Mrs. Pipchin's, and for the first six months Paul would return there for the Sunday.
"Now, Paul," said Mr. Dombey exultingly, when they stood on the doctor's doorsteps, "This is the way, indeed, to be Dombey and Son, and have money. You are almost a man already."
"Almost," returned the child.
The Doctor was a portly gentleman in a suit of black, with strings at his knees, and stockings below them. He had a bald head, highly polished, a deep voice, and a chin so very double that it was a wonder how he ever managed to shave into the creases.
Mrs. Blimber was not learned herself, but she pretended to be, and that did quite as well.
As to Miss Blimber, there was no light nonsense about her. She was dry and sandy with working in the graves of dead languages.
Mr. Feeder, B.A., Dr. Blimber's assistant, was a kind of human barrelorgan, with a list of tunes at which he was continually working, over and over again, without any variation.
Under the forcing system at Dr. Blimber's a young gentleman usually took leave of his spirits in three weeks; he had all the cares of the world on his head in three months, and he conceived bitter sentiments against his parents or guardians in four.
The doctor was sitting in his study when Mr. Dombey and Paul arrived.
"And how do you do, sir?" he said to Mr. Dombey. "And how is my little friend?" It seemed to Paul as if the great clock in the hall took this up, and went on saying, "how, is, my, lit-tle friend? how, is, my, lit-tle friend?" over and over again.
Paul was handed over to Miss Blimber at once to be "brought on."
"Cornelia," said the doctor. "Dombey will be your charge at first. Bring him on, Cornelia, bring him on."
It was hard work, for no sooner had Paul mastered subject A than he was immediately provided with subject B, from which we passed to C, and even D. Often he felt giddy and confused, and drowsy and dull.
But there were always the Saturdays when Florence came at noon to fetch him, and never would she, in any weather, stay away. Florence brought the school-books he was studying, and every Saturday night would patiently assist him through so much as they could anticipate together of his next week's work. And this saved him, possibly, from sinking underneath the burden which the fair Cornelia Blimber piled upon his back.
It was not that Miss Blimber meant to be too hard upon him, or that Dr.
Blimber meant to bear too heavily on the young gentlemen in general. But when Dr. Blimber said that Paul made great progress, and was naturally clever, Mr. Dombey was more bent than ever on his being forced and crammed.
Such spirits as he had at the outset Paul soon lost, of course. But he retained all that was strange, and odd, and thoughtful in his character; and Mrs. Blimber thought him "odd," and whispered that he was "old fashioned," and that was all.
Between little Paul Dombey the youngest, and Mr. Toots, the oldest of Dr. Blimber's young gentlemen, a strong attachment existed. Toots had "gone through" so much, that he had left off growing, and was free to pursue his own course of study, which was chiefly to write long letters to himself from persons of distinction, addressed "P. Toots, Esquire, Brighton," to preserve them in his desk with great care.
"How are you?" Toots would say to Paul, fifty times a day.
"Quite well, sir, thank you," Paul would answer.
"Shake hands," would be Toot's next advance. Which Paul, of course, would immediately do.
"I say!" cried Toots one evening, finding Paul looking out of the window. "I say, what do you think about?"
"Oh, I think about a great many things," replied Paul.
"Do you, though?" said Toots, appearing to consider that fact in itself surprising.
"If you had to die," said Paul, "don't you think you would rather die on a moonlight night, when the sky is quite clear, and the wind blowing, as it did last night?"
Mr. Toots, looking doubtfully at Paul, said he didn't know about that.
"It was a beautiful night," said Paul. "There was a boat over there, in the full light of the moon, a boat with a sail."
Mr. Toots, feeling called upon to say something, suggested "Smugglers," and then added, "or Preventive."
"A boat with a sail," repeated Paul. "It went away into the distance, and what do you think it seemed to do as it moved with the waves?"
"Pitch!" said Mr. Toots.
"It seemed to beckon," said the child; "to beckon me to come."
Certainly people found him an "old-fashioned" child. At the end of the term Dr. and Mrs. Blimber gave an early party to their pupils and their parents and guardians, and it was a day or two before this event when Paul was taken ill. This illness released him from his books, and made him think the more of Florence.
They all loved "Dombey's sister" at that party, and Paul, sitting in a cushioned corner, heard her praises constantly. There was a half-intelligible sentiment, too, diffused around, referring to Florence and himself, and breathing sympathy for both, that soothed and touched him. He did not know why, but it seemed to have something to do with his "old-fashioned" reputation.
The time arrived for taking leave.
"Good-bye, Doctor Blimber," said Paul, stretching out his hand.
"Good-bye, my little friend," returned the doctor. "Dombey, Dombey, you have always been my favourite pupil."
"God bless you!" said Cornelia, taking both Paul's hands in hers. And it showed, Paul thought, how easily one might do injustice to a person; for Miss Blimber meant it--though she was a Forcer--and felt it.
There was a general move after Paul and Florence down the staircase, in which the whole Blimber family were included. Such a circumstance, Mr.
Feeder said aloud, as has never happened in the case of any former young gentleman within his experience. The servants, with the butler--a stern man--at their head, had all an interest in seeing little Dombey go; while the young gentlemen pressed to shake hands with him, crying individually "Dombey, don't forget me!"
Once for a last look, Paul turned and gazed upon the faces addressed to him, and from that time whenever he thought of Dr. Blimber's it came back as he had seen it in this last view; and it never seemed to be a real place, but always a dream, full of faces.
From the night they brought him home from Dr. Blimber's Paul had never risen from his little bed. He lay there, listening to the noises in the street, quite tranquilly; not caring much how the time went, but watching it, and watching everywhere about him with observing eyes.
When the sunbeams struck into his room through the rustling blinds, and quivered on the opposite wall like golden water, he knew that evening was coming on.
By little and little he got tired of the bustle of the day, the noise of the carriages and carts, and people passing and repassing; and would fall asleep or be troubled with a restless and uneasy sense of a rushing river. "Why will it never stop, Floy?" he would sometimes ask her. "It is bearing me away, I think!"
But Floy could always soothe him.
He was visited by as many as three grave doctors, and the room was so quiet, and Paul was so observant of them, that he even knew the difference in the sound of their watches. But his interest centred in Sir Parker Peps; for Paul had heard them say long ago that that gentleman had been with his mamma when she clasped Florence in her arms and died. And he could not forget it now. He liked him for it. He was not afraid.
The people in the room were always changing, and in the night-time Paul began to wonder languidly who the figure was, with its head upon its hand, that returned so often and remained so long.
"Floy," he said, "what is that--there at the bottom of the bed?"
"There's nothing there except papa."
The figure lifted up its head and rose, and said, "My own boy! Don't you know me?"
Paul looked it in the face, and thought, was that his father? The next time he observed the figure at the bottom of the bed, he called to it.
"Don't be sorry for me, dear papa. Indeed, I am quite happy."
That was the beginning of his always saying in the morning that he was a great deal better, and that they were to tell his father so.
How many times the golden water danced upon the wall, how many nights the dark, dark river rolled towards the sea, Paul never counted, never sought to know.
One night he had been thinking of his mother, and her picture in the drawing-room downstairs.
"Floy, did I ever see mamma?"
The river was running very fast now, and confusing his mind. Paul fell asleep, and when he awoke the sun was high.
"Floy, come close to me, and let me see you."
Sister and brother wound their arms around each other, and the golden light came streaming in, and fell upon them locked together.
"How fast the river runs between its green banks and the rushes, Floy! But it's very near the sea. I hear the waves. They always said so."
Presently he told her that the motion of the boat upon the stream was lulling him to rest, now the boat was out at sea but gliding smoothly on. And now there was a shore before him. Who stood on the bank?
He put his hands together, as he had been used to do at his prayers. He did not remove his arms to do it, but they saw him fold them so behind her neck.
"Mamma is like you, Floy. I know her by the face! The light about her head is shining on me as I go."
The golden ripple on the wall came back again, and nothing else stirred in the room. The old, old fashion! The fashion that came in with our first parents, and will last unchanged until our race has run its course, and the wide firmament is rolled up like a scroll. The old, old fashion--Death!
The stonemason to whom Mr. Dombey gave his order for a tablet in the church, in memory of little Paul, called his attention to the inscription "Beloved and only child," and said, "It should be 'son,' I think, sir?"
"You are right, of course. Make the correction."
And there came a time when it was to Florence, and Florence only, that Mr. Dombey turned. For the great house of Dombey and Son fell, and in the crash its proud head became a ruined man, ruined beyond recovery.
Bankrupt in purse, his personal pride was yet further humbled. For Mr.
Dombey had married again, a loveless match, and his wife deserted him.
In the hour when he discovered that desertion he had driven his daughter Florence from the house.
He was fallen now never to be raised up any more. For the night of his worldly ruin there was no to-morrow's sun, for the stain of his domestic shame there was no purification.
In his pride--for he was proud yet--he let the world go from him freely.
As it fell away, he shook it off. He knew, now, what it was to be rejected and deserted. Dombey and Son was no more--his children no more.
His daughter Florence had married--married a young sailor once a boy in the office of Dombey and Son--and thinking of her, Dombey, in the solitude of his dismantled home, remembered that she had never changed to him through all those years; and the mist through which he had seen her, cleared, and showed him her true self.
He wandered through the rooms, and thought of suicide; a guilty hand was grasping what was in his breast.
It was arrested by a cry--a wild, loud, loving, rapturous cry, and he saw his daughter.
"Papa! Dearest papa!"
Unchanged still. Of all the world unchanged.
He tottered to his chair. He felt her draw his arms about her neck. He felt her kisses on his face, he felt--oh, how deeply!--all that he had done.
She laid his face, now covered with his hands, against the heart that he had almost broken, and said, sobbing, "Papa, love, I am a mother. Papa, dear, oh, say God bless me and my little child!"
His head, now grey, was encircled by her arm, and he groaned to think that never, never had it rested so before.
"My little child was born at sea, papa. I prayed to God to spare me that I might come. The moment I could land I came to you. Never let us be parted any more, papa!"
He kissed her on the lips, and lifting up his eyes, said, "Oh, my God, forgive me, for I need it very much!"
● Copyright © 2014 Glyn Hughes.
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