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Charles Dickens > Dombey And Son > Chapter 25

Dombey And Son

Chapter 25

Strange News of Uncle Sol

Captain Cuttle, though no sluggard, did not turn out so early on
the morning after he had seen Sol Gills, through the shop-window,
writing in the parlour, with the Midshipman upon the counter, and Rob
the Grinder making up his bed below it, but that the clocks struck six
as he raised himself on his elbow, and took a survey of his little
chamber. The Captain's eyes must have done severe duty, if he usually
opened them as wide on awaking as he did that morning; and were but
roughly rewarded for their vigilance, if he generally rubbed them half
as hard. But the occasion was no common one, for Rob the Grinder had
certainly never stood in the doorway of Captain Cuttle's room before,
and in it he stood then, panting at the Captain, with a flushed and
touzled air of Bed about him, that greatly heightened both his colour
and expression.

'Holloa!' roared the Captain. 'What's the matter?'

Before Rob could stammer a word in answer, Captain Cuttle turned
out, all in a heap, and covered the boy's mouth with his hand.

'Steady, my lad,' said the Captain, 'don't ye speak a word to me as

The Captain, looking at his visitor in great consternation, gently
shouldered him into the next room, after laying this injunction upon
him; and disappearing for a few moments, forthwith returned in the
blue suit. Holding up his hand in token of the injunction not yet
being taken off, Captain Cuttle walked up to the cupboard, and poured
himself out a dram; a counterpart of which he handed to the messenger.
The Captain then stood himself up in a corner, against the wall, as if
to forestall the possibility of being knocked backwards by the
communication that was to be made to him; and having swallowed his
liquor, with his eyes fixed on the messenger, and his face as pale as
his face could be, requested him to 'heave ahead.'

'Do you mean, tell you, Captain?' asked Rob, who had been greatly
impressed by these precautions

'Ay!' said the Captain.

'Well, Sir,' said Rob, 'I ain't got much to tell. But look here!'

Rob produced a bundle of keys. The Captain surveyed them, remained
in his corner, and surveyed the messenger.

'And look here!' pursued Rob.

The boy produced a sealed packet, which Captain Cuttle stared at as
he had stared at the keys.

'When I woke this morning, Captain,' said Rob, 'which was about a
quarter after five, I found these on my pillow. The shop-door was
unbolted and unlocked, and Mr Gills gone.'

'Gone!' roared the Captain.

'Flowed, Sir,' returned Rob.

The Captain's voice was so tremendous, and he came out of his
corner with such way on him, that Rob retreated before him into
another corner: holding out the keys and packet, to prevent himself
from being run down.

'"For Captain Cuttle," Sir,' cried Rob, 'is on the keys, and on the
packet too. Upon my word and honour, Captain Cuttle, I don't know
anything more about it. I wish I may die if I do! Here's a sitiwation
for a lad that's just got a sitiwation,' cried the unfortunate
Grinder, screwing his cuff into his face: 'his master bolted with his
place, and him blamed for it!'

These lamentations had reference to Captain Cuttle's gaze, or
rather glare, which was full of vague suspicions, threatenings, and
denunciations. Taking the proffered packet from his hand, the Captain
opened it and read as follows:-

'My dear Ned Cuttle. Enclosed is my will!' The Captain turned it
over, with a doubtful look - 'and Testament - Where's the Testament?'
said the Captain, instantly impeaching the ill-fated Grinder. 'What
have you done with that, my lad?'

'I never see it,' whimpered Rob. 'Don't keep on suspecting an
innocent lad, Captain. I never touched the Testament.'

Captain Cuttle shook his head, implying that somebody must be made
answerable for it; and gravely proceeded:

'Which don't break open for a year, or until you have decisive
intelligence of my dear Walter, who is dear to you, Ned, too, I am
sure.' The Captain paused and shook his head in some emotion; then, as
a re-establishment of his dignity in this trying position, looked with
exceeding sternness at the Grinder. 'If you should never hear of me,
or see me more, Ned, remember an old friend as he will remember you to
the last - kindly; and at least until the period I have mentioned has
expired, keep a home in the old place for Walter. There are no debts,
the loan from Dombey's House is paid off and all my keys I send with
this. Keep this quiet, and make no inquiry for me; it is useless. So
no more, dear Ned, from your true friend, Solomon Gills.' The Captain
took a long breath, and then read these words written below: '"The boy
Rob, well recommended, as I told you, from Dombey's House. If all else
should come to the hammer, take care, Ned, of the little Midshipman."'

To convey to posterity any idea of the manner in which the Captain,
after turning this letter over and over, and reading it a score of
times, sat down in his chair, and held a court-martial on the subject
in his own mind, would require the united genius of all the great men,
who, discarding their own untoward days, have determined to go down to
posterity, and have never got there. At first the Captain was too much
confounded and distressed to think of anything but the letter itself;
and even when his thoughts began to glance upon the various attendant
facts, they might, perhaps, as well have occupied themselves with
their former theme, for any light they reflected on them. In this
state of mind, Captain Cuttle having the Grinder before the court, and
no one else, found it a great relief to decide, generally, that he was
an object of suspicion: which the Captain so clearly expressed in his
visage, that Rob remonstrated.

'Oh, don't, Captain!' cried the Grinder. 'I wonder how you can!
what have I done to be looked at, like that?'

'My lad,' said Captain Cuttle, 'don't you sing out afore you're
hurt. And don't you commit yourself, whatever you do.'

'I haven't been and committed nothing, Captain!' answered Rob.

'Keep her free, then,' said the Captain, impressively, 'and ride

With a deep sense of the responsibility imposed upon him' and the
necessity of thoroughly fathoming this mysterious affair as became a
man in his relations with the parties, Captain Cuttle resolved to go
down and examine the premises, and to keep the Grinder with him.
Considering that youth as under arrest at present, the Captain was in
some doubt whether it might not be expedient to handcuff him, or tie
his ankles together, or attach a weight to his legs; but not being
clear as to the legality of such formalities, the Captain decided
merely to hold him by the shoulder all the way, and knock him down if
he made any objection.

However, he made none, and consequently got to the
Instrument-maker's house without being placed under any more stringent
restraint. As the shutters were not yet taken down, the Captain's
first care was to have the shop opened; and when the daylight was
freely admitted, he proceeded, with its aid, to further investigation.

The Captain's first care was to establish himself in a chair in the
shop, as President of the solemn tribunal that was sitting within him;
and to require Rob to lie down in his bed under the counter, show
exactly where he discovered the keys and packet when he awoke, how he
found the door when he went to try it, how he started off to Brig
Place - cautiously preventing the latter imitation from being carried
farther than the threshold - and so on to the end of the chapter. When
all this had been done several times, the Captain shook his head and
seemed to think the matter had a bad look.

Next, the Captain, with some indistinct idea of finding a body,
instituted a strict search over the whole house; groping in the
cellars with a lighted candle, thrusting his hook behind doors,
bringing his head into violent contact with beams, and covering
himself with cobwebs. Mounting up to the old man's bed-room, they
found that he had not been in bed on the previous night, but had
merely lain down on the coverlet, as was evident from the impression
yet remaining there.

'And I think, Captain,' said Rob, looking round the room, 'that
when Mr Gills was going in and out so often, these last few days, he
was taking little things away, piecemeal, not to attract attention.'

'Ay!' said the Captain, mysteriously. 'Why so, my lad?'

'Why,' returned Rob, looking about, 'I don't see his shaving
tackle. Nor his brushes, Captain. Nor no shirts. Nor yet his shoes.'

As each of these articles was mentioned, Captain Cuttle took
particular notice of the corresponding department of the Grinder, lest
he should appear to have been in recent use, or should prove to be in
present possession thereof. But Rob had no occasion to shave, was not
brushed, and wore the clothes he had on for a long time past, beyond
all possibility of a mistake.

'And what should you say,' said the Captain - 'not committing
yourself - about his time of sheering off? Hey?'

'Why, I think, Captain,' returned Rob, 'that he must have gone
pretty soon after I began to snore.'

'What o'clock was that?' said the Captain, prepared to be very
particular about the exact time.

'How can I tell, Captain!' answered Rob. 'I only know that I'm a
heavy sleeper at first, and a light one towards morning; and if Mr
Gills had come through the shop near daybreak, though ever so much on
tiptoe, I'm pretty sure I should have heard him shut the door at all

On mature consideration of this evidence, Captain Cuttle began to
think that the Instrument-maker must have vanished of his own accord;
to which logical conclusion he was assisted by the letter addressed to
himself, which, as being undeniably in the old man's handwriting,
would seem, with no great forcing, to bear the construction, that he
arranged of his own will to go, and so went. The Captain had next to
consider where and why? and as there was no way whatsoever that he saw
to the solution of the first difficulty, he confined his meditations
to the second.

Remembering the old man's curious manner, and the farewell he had
taken of him; unaccountably fervent at the time, but quite
intelligible now: a terrible apprehension strengthened on the Captain,
that, overpowered by his anxieties and regrets for Walter, he had been
driven to commit suicide. Unequal to the wear and tear of daily life,
as he had often professed himself to be, and shaken as he no doubt was
by the uncertainty and deferred hope he had undergone, it seemed no
violently strained misgiving, but only too probable. Free from debt,
and with no fear for his personal liberty, or the seizure of his
goods, what else but such a state of madness could have hurried him
away alone and secretly? As to his carrying some apparel with him, if
he had really done so - and they were not even sure of that - he might
have done so, the Captain argued, to prevent inquiry, to distract
attention from his probable fate, or to ease the very mind that was
now revolving all these possibilities. Such, reduced into plain
language, and condensed within a small compass, was the final result
and substance of Captain Cuttle's deliberations: which took a long
time to arrive at this pass, and were, like some more public
deliberations, very discursive and disorderly.

Dejected and despondent in the extreme, Captain Cuttle felt it just
to release Rob from the arrest in which he had placed him, and to
enlarge him, subject to a kind of honourable inspection which he still
resolved to exercise; and having hired a man, from Brogley the Broker,
to sit in the shop during their absence, the Captain, taking Rob with
him, issued forth upon a dismal quest after the mortal remains of
Solomon Gills.

Not a station-house, or bone-house, or work-house in the metropolis
escaped a visitation from the hard glazed hat. Along the wharves,
among the shipping on the bank-side, up the river, down the river,
here, there, everywhere, it went gleaming where men were thickest,
like the hero's helmet in an epic battle. For a whole week the Captain
read of all the found and missing people in all the newspapers and
handbills, and went forth on expeditions at all hours of the day to
identify Solomon Gills, in poor little ship-boys who had fallen
overboard, and in tall foreigners with dark beards who had taken
poison - 'to make sure,' Captain Cuttle said, 'that it wam't him.' It
is a sure thing that it never was, and that the good Captain had no
other satisfaction.

Captain Cuttle at last abandoned these attempts as hopeless, and
set himself to consider what was to be done next. After several new
perusals of his poor friend's letter, he considered that the
maintenance of' a home in the old place for Walter' was the primary
duty imposed upon him. Therefore, the Captain's decision was, that he
would keep house on the premises of Solomon Gills himself, and would
go into the instrument-business, and see what came of it.

But as this step involved the relinquishment of his apartments at
Mrs MacStinger's, and he knew that resolute woman would never hear of
his deserting them, the Captain took the desperate determination of
running away.

'Now, look ye here, my lad,' said the Captain to Rob, when he had
matured this notable scheme, 'to-morrow, I shan't be found in this
here roadstead till night - not till arter midnight p'rhaps. But you
keep watch till you hear me knock, and the moment you do, turn-to, and
open the door.'

'Very good, Captain,' said Rob.

'You'll continue to be rated on these here books,' pursued the
Captain condescendingly, 'and I don't say but what you may get
promotion, if you and me should pull together with a will. But the
moment you hear me knock to-morrow night, whatever time it is, turn-to
and show yourself smart with the door.'

'I'll be sure to do it, Captain,' replied Rob.

'Because you understand,' resumed the Captain, coming back again to
enforce this charge upon his mind, 'there may be, for anything I can
say, a chase; and I might be took while I was waiting, if you didn't
show yourself smart with the door.'

Rob again assured the Captain that he would be prompt and wakeful;
and the Captain having made this prudent arrangement, went home to Mrs
MacStinger's for the last time.

The sense the Captain had of its being the last time, and of the
awful purpose hidden beneath his blue waistcoat, inspired him with
such a mortal dread of Mrs MacStinger, that the sound of that lady's
foot downstairs at any time of the day, was sufficient to throw him
into a fit of trembling. It fell out, too, that Mrs MacStinger was in
a charming temper - mild and placid as a house- lamb; and Captain
Cuttle's conscience suffered terrible twinges, when she came up to
inquire if she could cook him nothing for his dinner.

'A nice small kidney-pudding now, Cap'en Cuttle,' said his
landlady: 'or a sheep's heart. Don't mind my trouble.'

'No thank'ee, Ma'am,' returned the Captain.

'Have a roast fowl,' said Mrs MacStinger, 'with a bit of weal
stuffing and some egg sauce. Come, Cap'en Cuttle! Give yourself a
little treat!'

'No thank'ee, Ma'am,' returned the Captain very humbly.

'I'm sure you're out of sorts, and want to be stimulated,' said Mrs
MacStinger. 'Why not have, for once in a way, a bottle of sherry

'Well, Ma'am,' rejoined the Captain, 'if you'd be so good as take a
glass or two, I think I would try that. Would you do me the favour,
Ma'am,' said the Captain, torn to pieces by his conscience, 'to accept
a quarter's rent ahead?'

'And why so, Cap'en Cuttle?' retorted Mrs MacStinger - sharply, as
the Captain thought.

The Captain was frightened to dead 'If you would Ma'am,' he said
with submission, 'it would oblige me. I can't keep my money very well.
It pays itself out. I should take it kind if you'd comply.'

'Well, Cap'en Cuttle,' said the unconscious MacStinger, rubbing her
hands, 'you can do as you please. It's not for me, with my family, to
refuse, no more than it is to ask'

'And would you, Ma'am,' said the Captain, taking down the tin
canister in which he kept his cash' from the top shelf of the
cupboard, 'be so good as offer eighteen-pence a-piece to the little
family all round? If you could make it convenient, Ma'am, to pass the
word presently for them children to come for'ard, in a body, I should
be glad to see 'em'

These innocent MacStingers were so many daggers to the Captain's
breast, when they appeared in a swarm, and tore at him with the
confiding trustfulness he so little deserved. The eye of Alexander
MacStinger, who had been his favourite, was insupportable to the
Captain; the voice of Juliana MacStinger, who was the picture of her
mother, made a coward of him.

Captain Cuttle kept up appearances, nevertheless, tolerably well,
and for an hour or two was very hardly used and roughly handled by the
young MacStingers: who in their childish frolics, did a little damage
also to the glazed hat, by sitting in it, two at a time, as in a nest,
and drumming on the inside of the crown with their shoes. At length
the Captain sorrowfully dismissed them: taking leave of these cherubs
with the poignant remorse and grief of a man who was going to

In the silence of night, the Captain packed up his heavier property
in a chest, which he locked, intending to leave it there, in all
probability for ever, but on the forlorn chance of one day finding a
man sufficiently bold and desperate to come and ask for it. Of his
lighter necessaries, the Captain made a bundle; and disposed his plate
about his person, ready for flight. At the hour of midnight, when Brig
Place was buried in slumber, and Mrs MacStinger was lulled in sweet
oblivion, with her infants around her, the guilty Captain, stealing
down on tiptoe, in the dark, opened the door, closed it softly after
him, and took to his heels

Pursued by the image of Mrs MacStinger springing out of bed, and,
regardless of costume, following and bringing him back; pursued also
by a consciousness of his enormous crime; Captain Cuttle held on at a
great pace, and allowed no grass to grow under his feet, between Brig
Place and the Instrument-maker's door. It opened when he knocked - for
Rob was on the watch - and when it was bolted and locked behind him,
Captain Cuttle felt comparatively safe.

'Whew!' cried the Captain, looking round him. 'It's a breather!'

'Nothing the matter, is there, Captain?' cried the gaping Rob.

'No, no!' said Captain Cuttle, after changing colour, and listening
to a passing footstep in the street. 'But mind ye, my lad; if any
lady, except either of them two as you see t'other day, ever comes and
asks for Cap'en Cuttle, be sure to report no person of that name
known, nor never heard of here; observe them orders, will you?'

'I'll take care, Captain,' returned Rob.

'You might say - if you liked,' hesitated the Captain, 'that you'd
read in the paper that a Cap'en of that name was gone to Australia,
emigrating, along with a whole ship's complement of people as had all
swore never to come back no more.

Rob nodded his understanding of these instructions; and Captain
Cuttle promising to make a man of him, if he obeyed orders, dismissed
him, yawning, to his bed under the counter, and went aloft to the
chamber of Solomon Gills.

What the Captain suffered next day, whenever a bonnet passed, or
how often he darted out of the shop to elude imaginary MacStingers,
and sought safety in the attic, cannot be told. But to avoid the
fatigues attendant on this means of self-preservation, the Captain
curtained the glass door of communication between the shop and
parlour, on the inside; fitted a key to it from the bunch that had
been sent to him; and cut a small hole of espial in the wall. The
advantage of this fortification is obvious. On a bonnet appearing, the
Captain instantly slipped into his garrison, locked himself up, and
took a secret observation of the enemy. Finding it a false alarm, the
Captain instantly slipped out again. And the bonnets in the street
were so very numerous, and alarms were so inseparable from their
appearance, that the Captain was almost incessantly slipping in and
out all day long.

Captain Cuttle found time, however, in the midst of this fatiguing
service to inspect the stock; in connexion with which he had the
general idea (very laborious to Rob) that too much friction could not
be bestowed upon it, and that it could not be made too bright. He also
ticketed a few attractive-looking articles at a venture, at prices
ranging from ten shillings to fifty pounds, and exposed them in the
window to the great astonishment of the public.

After effecting these improvements, Captain Cuttle, surrounded by
the instruments, began to feel scientific: and looked up at the stars
at night, through the skylight, when he was smoking his pipe in the
little back parlour before going to bed, as if he had established a
kind of property in them. As a tradesman in the City, too, he began to
have an interest in the Lord Mayor, and the Sheriffs, and in Public
Companies; and felt bound to read the quotations of the Funds every
day, though he was unable to make out, on any principle of navigation,
what the figures meant, and could have very well dispensed with the
fractions. Florence, the Captain waited on, with his strange news of
Uncle Sol, immediately after taking possession of the Midshipman; but
she was away from home. So the Captain sat himself down in his altered
station of life, with no company but Rob the Grinder; and losing count
of time, as men do when great changes come upon them, thought musingly
of Walter, and of Solomon Gills, and even of Mrs MacStinger herself,
as among the things that had been.

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