In London there was once a business house known as Dombey and Son. It had borne that name for generations, though at the time this story begins Mr. Dombey, the head of the house, had no son. He was a merchant, hard, cold and selfish, who thought the world was made only for his firm to trade in. He had one little daughter, Florence, but never since her birth had he loved or petted her because of his disappointment that she was not a boy.
When at last a son was born to him it wakened something at the bottom of his cold and heavy heart that he had never known before. He scarcely grieved for his wife, who died when the baby was born, but gave all his thought to the child. He named him Paul, and began at once to long for the time when he should become old enough to be a real member of the firm in which all his own interest centered—Dombey and Son. He hired the best nurse he could find, and, when he was not at his office, would sit and watch the baby Paul hour after hour, laying plans for his future. So[Pg 184] selfishly was the father's soul wrapped up in this that he scarcely ever noticed poor, lonely little Florence, whose warm heart was starving for affection.
Little Paul's nurse was very fond of him, and of his sister, too; but she had children of her own also, and one day, instead of walking up and down with Florence and the baby near the Dombey house, she took the children to another part of the city to visit her own home.
This was a wrong thing to do, and resulted in a very unhappy adventure for Florence. On their way home a mad bull broke away from his keepers and charged through the crowded street. There was great screaming and confusion and people ran in every direction, Florence among the rest. She ran for a long way, and when she stopped, her nurse was nowhere to be seen. Terrified to find herself lost in the great city, she began to cry.
The next thing she knew, an ugly old woman, with red-rimmed eyes and a mouth that mumbled all the while, grasped her by the wrist and dragged her through the shabby doorway of a dirty house into a back room heaped with rags.
"I want that pretty frock," said she, "and that little bonnet and your petticoat. Come! Take them off!"
Florence, dreadfully frightened, obeyed. The old woman took away her shoes, too, and made her put on some filthy ragged clothing from the[Pg 185] heaps on the floor. Then she let her go, first making her promise she would not ask any one to show her the way home.
The poor child could think of nothing else but to find her father's office at Dombey and Son's, and for two hours she walked, asking the way of everybody she met. She might not have found it at all, but at a wharf where she wandered, there happened to be a young clerk of Dombey and Son's, and the minute he was pointed out to her she felt such trust in his bright and open face that she caught his hand and sobbed out all her story.
This lad's name was Walter Gay. He lived with his uncle, honest old Solomon Gills, a maker of ship's instruments, who kept a little shop with the wooden figure of a midshipman set outside. Very few customers ever came into the shop, and, indeed, hardly any one else, for Old Sol, as the neighbors called him, had only one intimate friend.
This friend was a retired seaman named Captain Cuttle, who always dressed in blue, as if he were a bird and those were his feathers. He had a hook instead of a hand attached to his right wrist, a shirt collar so large that it looked like a small sail, and wherever he went he carried in his left hand a thick stick that was covered all over (like his nose) with knobs.
Captain Cuttle used to talk on land just as if he were at sea. He would say "Steady!" and "Belay, there!" and called Old Sol "Shipmate," as though[Pg 186] the little shop, in which he spent his evenings, was a ship. He had a deep, rumbling voice, in which he would sing Lovely Peg, the only song he knew, and which he never but once got through to the last line. But in spite of his queer ways and talk, Captain Cuttle had the softest, kindest heart in the world. He thought old Solomon Gills the greatest man alive, and was as fond as possible of "Wal'r," as he called the nephew. And, indeed, Walter was a handsome boy, and as good as he was handsome.
Walter soothed Florence's tears and took her, ragged clothes and all, straight home to Solomon Gills's shop, where his uncle gave her a warm supper, while Walter ran to the Dombey house with the news that she was found, and to bring back a dress for her to wear.
So Florence's adventure turned out very well in one way, since through it she first met Walter Gay; but it turned out badly in another way, for Mr. Dombey was angry that any one should have seen a daughter of his in such a plight, and, unjustly enough, treasured this anger against Walter. Florence, however, never forgot her rescuer after that day, and as for Walter, he fell quite in love with her.
Florence loved her little brother very dearly, but Paul, in the constant companionship of his father, grew up without boys or play. His face was old and wistful, and he had an old-fashioned way of[Pg 187] sitting, brooding in his little arm-chair beside his father, looking into the fire. He used to ask strange, wise questions, and the only time he seemed childlike at all was when he was with Florence. He was never strong and well, like her, but he grew tired easily, and used to say that his bones ached.
Mr. Dombey at length grew anxious about Paul's health and sent him with Florence to Brighton, a town on the sea-coast, to the house of a Mrs. Pipchin, a stooped old lady with a mottled face, a hooked nose and a hard gray eye.
Mrs. Pipchin took little children to board, and her idea of "managing" them was to give them everything they didn't like and nothing they did like. She lived in a gloomy house, so windy that it always sounded to any one in it like a great shell which one had to hold to his ear whether he liked it or not. The children there stayed most of the time in a bare room they called "the dungeon," with a big ragged fireplace in it. They, had only bread and butter and rice to eat, while Mrs. Pipchin had tea and mutton chops and buttered toast and other nice things.
Little Paul's father did not know what a dreary place this was for a child, or doubtless he would not have sent him there. Mr. Dombey knew so little about children that it seemed as if he had never been a child himself. Paul was not happy—except when he was out on the beach with Florence, who[Pg 188] used to draw him in a little carriage and sing to him and tell him stories. Once a week Mr. Dombey came to Brighton and then she and little Paul would go to his hotel to take tea with him.
Paul seemed to find a curious fascination in Mrs. Pipchin. He would sit by the hour before the fire looking steadily at her, where she sat with her old black cat beside her, till his gaze quite disturbed her. He did not care to play with other children—only with Florence, whom he called "Floy." Often, as they sat together on the beach, he would ask her what it was the sea was always saying, and would rise up on his couch to listen to something he seemed to hear, far, far away.
Walter Gay, meanwhile, in London, was working away and thinking often of Florence. He was greatly worried about his Uncle Solomon, for the business of the old instrument maker was in a bad way, and Old Sol himself was melancholy.
One day Walter came home from his work at Dombey and Son's to find that an officer had taken possession of the shop and all that was in it for debt. His old Uncle Sol was sobbing like a child, and not knowing what else to do, he went post-haste for Captain Cuttle.
He found the captain with his hat on, peeling potatoes with a knife screwed into the wooden socket in his wrist instead of the hook. When he told him what had happened, Captain Cuttle jumped up, put all the money he had, his silver[Pg 189] watch, some spoons and a pair of sugar-tongs into his pocket and went back at once with him to the shop.
But the debt, he found, was far too big to be thus paid, and Captain Cuttle advised Walter to go to Mr. Dombey and ask him to help them, or else everything in the shop would have to be sold, and that would kill old Solomon Gills.
It was Saturday, and Mr. Dombey had gone to see little Paul, so Walter and Captain Cuttle took the next coach for Brighton.
They found him with the children at breakfast, and Walter, discouraged by his cold look, faltered lamely through his story, while Captain Cuttle laid on the table the money, the watch, the spoons and the sugar-tongs, offering them to help pay the debt. Mr. Dombey was astonished at his strange appearance and indignant at being annoyed by such an errand, so that Florence, seeing his mood and Walter's trouble, began to sob. Little Paul, however, stood looking from Walter to his father so intently and wisely that the latter, telling him he was one day to be a part of Dombey and Son, asked him if he would like to loan Walter the money.
Paul joyfully said yes, and Mr. Dombey, telling Walter that it was to be considered a loan from the boy, gave him a note which would at once release his uncle from his difficulty. So Walter and Captain Cuttle went gladly back to London.
Soon after this, when Paul was six years old, his[Pg 190] father thought he should be studying, so he put him in a school next door to Mrs. Pipchin's.
The master was Doctor Blimber, a portly gentleman in knee-breeches, with a bald head and a double chin. He made all the boys there study much too hard; even those only six years old had to learn Greek and history. Poor little Paul did the best he could, but such difficult tasks made him giddy and dull. It was only the Saturdays he enjoyed; these he spent with Florence on the seashore or in Mrs. Pipchin's bare room.
Paul would have broken down sooner under Doctor Blimber's system but that Florence bought all the books he studied and studied them herself, so as to help him on Saturdays. People called him "old-fashioned," and that troubled him a great deal, but he tried to love even the old watch-dog at Doctor Blimber's, and before the holidays came everybody in the school liked him.
But before the term ended little Paul fell sick. He seemed not to be ill of any particular disease, but only weak; so weak he had to sit propped up with pillows at the entertainment Doctor Blimber gave on the final evening. After that everything was hazy until he found himself, somehow, at home in bed, with Florence beside him.
He lay there day after day, watching and dreaming. He dreamed often of a swift, silent river that flowed on and on, and he wanted to stop it with his hands.[Pg 191]
"Why will it never stop, Floy?" he would ask her. "It is bearing me away, I think."
There were many shadowy figures that came and went. One came often and sat long, but never spoke. One day he saw it was his father, and he called out to it: "Don't be so sorry for me, dear papa. Indeed, I am quite happy."
Once he roused himself, and there were many about the bed: Florence, his father, his old nurse and Walter Gay, and he called each by name and waved his hand to them.
Florence took him in her arms and he heard the swift river flowing.
"How fast it runs, Floy! It is taking me with it. There is a shore before me now. Who is standing on the bank?"
He put his hands together behind her neck, as he had been used to do at his prayers.
"Mama is like you, Floy," he said. "I know her by her face. The light about the head is shining upon me as I go."
So little Paul died.
Thank you for reading!