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Dombey and Son.
Dombey sat in the corner of the darkened room in the great arm-chair by the bedside, and Son lay tucked up warm in a little basket bedstead, carefully disposed on a low settee immediately in front of the fire and close to it, as if his constitution were analogous to that of a muffin, and it was essential to toast him brown while he was very new.
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 though (of course) an undeniably fine infant, somewhat crushed and spotty in his general effect, as yet. On the brow of Dombey, Time and his brother Care had set some marks, as on a tree that was to come down in good time—remorseless twins they are for striding through their human forests, notching as they go—while the countenance of Son was crossed and recrossed with a thousand little creases, which the same deceitful Time would take delight in smoothing out and wearing away with the flat part of his scythe, as a preparation of the surface for his deeper operations.
Dombey, exulting in the long-looked-for event, jingled and jingled the heavy gold watch-chain that depended from below his trim blue coat, whereof the buttons sparkled phosphorescently in the feeble rays of the distant fire. Son, with his little fists curled up and clenched, seemed, in his feeble way, to be squaring at existence for having come upon him so unexpectedly.
“The house will once again, Mrs. Dombey,” said Mr. Dombey, “be not only in name but in fact Dombey and Son; Dom-bey and Son!”
The words had such a softening influence, that he appended a term of endearment to Mrs. Dombey’s name (though not without some hesitation, as being a man but little used to that form of address): and said, “Mrs. Dombey, my—my dear.”
A transient flush of faint surprise overspread the sick lady’s face as she raised her eyes towards him.
“He will be christened Paul, my—Mrs. Dombey—of course.”
She feebly echoed, “Of course,” or rather expressed it by the motion of her lips, 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 “Dom-bey and Son,” in exactly the same tone as before.
Those three words conveyed the one 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. Rivers and seas were formed to float their ships; rainbows gave them promise of fair weather; winds blew for or against their enterprises; stars and planets circled in their orbits, to preserve inviolate a system of which they were the centre. Common abbreviations took new meanings in his eyes, and had sole reference to them: A. D. had no concern with anno Domini, but stood for anno Dombei—and Son.
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; whose happiness was in the past, and who was content to bind her broken spirit to the dutiful and meek endurance of the present. Such idle talk was little likely to reach the ears of Mr. Dombey, whom it nearly concerned; and probably no one in the world would have received it with such utter incredulity as he, if it had reached him. Dombey and Son had often dealt in hides, but never in hearts. They left that fancy ware to boys and girls, and boarding-schools and books. 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 common sense. That the hope of giving birth to a new partner in such a house, could not fail to awaken a glorious and stirring ambition in the breast of the least ambitious of her sex. That Mrs. Dombey had entered on that social contract of matrimony: almost necessarily part of a genteel and wealthy station, even without reference to the perpetuation of family firms: with her eyes fully open to these advantages. That Mrs. Dombey had had daily practical knowledge of his position in society. That Mrs. Dombey had always sat at the head of his table, and done the honours of his house in a remarkably lady-like and becoming manner. That Mrs. Dombey must have been happy. That she couldn’t help it.
Or, at all events, with one drawback. Yes. That he would have allowed. With only one; but that one certainly involving much. They had been married ten years, and until this present day on which Mr. Dombey sat jingling and jingling his heavy gold watch-chain in the great arm-chair by the side of the bed, had had no issue.
—To speak of; none worth mentioning. There had been a girl some six years before, and the child, who had stolen into the chamber unobserved, was now crouching timidly, in a corner whence she could see her mother’s face. But what was a girl to Dombey and Son! In the capital of the House’s name and dignity, such a child was merely a piece of base coin that couldn’t be invested—a bad Boy—nothing more.
Mr. Dombey’s cup of satisfaction was so full at this moment, however, that he felt he could afford a drop or two of its contents, even to sprinkle on the dust in the by-path of his little daughter.
So he said, “Florence, you may go and look at your pretty brother, if you like, I dare say. Don’t touch him!”
The child glanced keenly at the blue coat and stiff white cravat, which, with a pair of creaking boots and a very loud ticking watch, embodied her idea of a father; but her eyes returned to her mother’s face immediately, and she neither moved nor answered.
Next moment, the lady had opened her eyes and seen the child; and the child had run towards her; and, standing on tiptoe, the better to hide her face in her embrace, had clung about her with a desperate affection very much at variance with her years.
“Oh Lord bless me!” said Mr. Dombey, rising testily. “A very ill-advised and feverish proceeding this, I am sure. I had better ask Doctor Peps if he’ll have the goodness to step up stairs again perhaps. I’ll go down. I’ll go down. I needn’t beg you,” he added, pausing for a moment at the settee before the fire, “to take particular care of this young gentleman, Mrs.—”
“Blockitt, Sir?” suggested the nurse, a simpering piece of faded gentility, who did not presume to state her name as a fact, but merely offered it as a mild suggestion.
“Of this young gentleman, Mrs. Blockitt.”
“No, Sir, indeed. I remember when Miss Florence was born—”
“Ay, ay, ay,” said Mr. Dombey, bending over the basket bedstead, and slightly bending his brows at the same time. “Miss Florence was all very well, but this is another matter. This young gentleman has to accomplish a destiny. A destiny, little fellow!” As he thus apostrophised the infant he raised one of his hands to his lips, and kissed it; then, seeming to fear that the action involved some compromise of his dignity, went, awkwardly enough, away.
Doctor Parker Peps, one of the Court Physicians, and a man of immense reputation for assisting at the increase of great families, was walking up and down the drawing-room with his hands behind him, to the unspeakable admiration of the family Surgeon, who had regularly puffed the case for the last six weeks, among all his patients, friends, and acquaintances, as one to which he was in hourly expectation day and night of being summoned, in conjunction with Doctor Parker Peps.
“Well, Sir,” said Doctor Parker Peps in a round, deep, sonorous voice, muffled for the occasion, like the knocker; “do you find that your dear lady is at all roused by your visit?”
“Stimulated as it were?” said the family practitioner faintly: bowing at the same time to the Doctor, as much as to say, “Excuse my putting in a word, but this is a valuable connexion.”
Mr. Dombey was quite discomfited by the question. He had thought so little of the patient, that he was not in a condition to answer it. He said that it would be a satisfaction to him, if Doctor Parker Peps would walk up stairs again.
“Good! We must not disguise from you, Sir,” said Doctor Parker Peps, “that there is a want of power in Her Grace the Duchess—I beg your pardon; I confound names; I should say, in your amiable lady. That there is a certain degree of languor, and a general absence of elasticity, which we would rather—not—”
“See,” interposed the family practitioner with another inclination of the head.
“Quite so,” said Doctor Parker Peps, “which we would rather not see. It would appear that the system of Lady Cankaby—excuse me: I should say of Mrs. Dombey: I confuse the names of cases—”
“So very numerous,” murmured the family practitioner—“can’t be expected I’m sure—quite wonderful if otherwise—Doctor Parker Peps’s West End practice—”
“Thank you,” said the Doctor, “quite so. It would appear, I was observing, that the system of our patient has sustained a shock, from which it can only hope to rally by a great and strong—”
“And vigorous,” murmured the family practitioner.
“Quite so,” assented the Doctor—“and vigorous effort. Mr. Pilkins here, who from his position of medical adviser in this family—no one better qualified to fill that position, I am sure.”
“Oh!” murmured the family practitioner. “ ‘Praise from Sir Hubert Stanley!’ ”
“You are good enough,” returned Doctor Parker Peps, “to say so. Mr. Pilkins who, from his position, is best acquainted with the patient’s constitution in its normal state (an acquaintance very valuable to us in forming our opinions on these occasions), is of opinion, with me, that Nature must be called upon to make a vigorous effort in this instance; and that if our interesting friend the Countess of Dombey—I beg your pardon; Mrs. Dombey—should not be—”
“Able,” said the family practitioner.
“To make that effort successfully,” said Doctor Parker Peps, “then a crisis might arise, which we should both sincerely deplore.”
With that, they stood for a few seconds looking at the ground. Then, on the motion—made in dumb show—of Doctor Parker Peps, they went up stairs; the family practitioner opening the room door for that distinguished professional, and following him out, with most obsequious politeness.
To record of Mr. Dombey that he was not in his way affected by this intelligence, would be to do him an injustice. He was not a man of whom it could properly be said that he was ever startled or shocked; but he certainly had a sense within him, that if his wife should sicken and decay, he would be very sorry, and that he would find a something gone from among his plate and furniture, and other household possessions, which was well worth the having, and could not be lost without sincere regret. Though it would be a cool, business-like, gentlemanly, self-possessed regret, no doubt.
His meditations on the subject were soon interrupted, first by the rustling of garments on the staircase, and then by the sudden whisking into the room of a lady rather past the middle age than otherwise, but dressed in a very juvenile manner, particularly as to the tightness of her boddice, who, running up to him with a kind of screw in her face and carriage, expressive of suppressed emotion, flung her arms round his neck, and said in a choking voice,
“My dear Paul! He’s quite a Dombey!”
“Well, well!” returned her brother—for Mr. Dombey was her brother—“I think he is like the family. Don’t agitate yourself, Louisa.”
“It’s very foolish of me,” said Louisa, sitting down, and taking out her pocket-handkerchief, “but he’s—he’s such a perfect Dombey! I never saw anything like it in my life!”
“But what is this about Fanny, herself?” said Mr. Dombey. “How is Fanny?”
“My dear Paul,” returned Louisa, “it’s nothing whatever. Take my word, it’s nothing whatever. There is exhaustion, certainly, but nothing like what I underwent myself, either with George or Frederick. An effort is necessary. That’s all. If dear Fanny were a Dombey!—But I dare say she’ll make it; I have no doubt she’ll make it. Knowing it to be required of her, as a duty, of course she’ll make it. My dear Paul, it’s very weak and silly of me, I know, to be so trembly and shaky from head to foot; but I am so very queer that I must ask you for a glass of wine and a morsel of that cake. I thought I should have fallen out of the staircase window as I came down from seeing dear Fanny, and that tiddy ickle sing.” These last words originated in a sudden vivid reminiscence of the baby.
They were succeeded by a gentle tap at the door.
“Mrs. Chick,” said a very bland female voice outside, “how are you now, my dear friend?”
“My dear Paul,” said Louisa in a low voice, as she rose from her seat, “it’s Miss Tox. The kindest creature! I never could have got here without her! Miss Tox, my brother Mr. Dombey. Paul, my dear, my very particular friend Miss Tox.”
The lady thus specially presented, was a long lean figure, wearing such a faded air that she seemed not to have been made in what linen-drapers call “fast colours” originally, and to have, by little and little, washed out. But for this she might have been described as the very pink of general propitiation and politeness. From a long habit of listening admirably to everything that was said in her presence, and looking at the speakers as if she were mentally engaged in taking off impressions of their images upon her soul, never to part with the same but with life, her head had quite settled on one side. Her hands had contracted a spasmodic habit of raising themselves of their own accord as in involuntary admiration. Her eyes were liable to a similar affection. She had the softest voice that ever was heard; and her nose, stupendously aquiline, had a little knob in the very centre or key-stone of the bridge, whence it tended downwards towards her face, as in an invincible determination never to turn up at anything.
Dombey and Son, Charles Dickens’s story of a powerful man whose callous neglect of his family triggers his professional and personal downfall, showcases the author’s gift for vivid characterization and unfailingly realistic description. As Jonathan Lethem contends in his Introduction, Dickens’s “genius . . . is at one with the genius of the form of the novel itself: Dickens willed into existence the most capacious and elastic and versatile kind of novel that could be, one big enough for his vast sentimental yearnings and for every impulse and fear and hesitation in him that countervailed those yearnings too. Never parsimonious and frequently contradictory, he always gives us everything he can, everything he’s planned to give, and then more.” This Modern Library Paperback Classic was set from the 1867 “Charles Dickens” edition.
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