'Perhaps so; I never thought of that.'
Solomon looked a little graver as he finished his dinner, and glanced from time to time at the boy's bright face. When dinner was done, and the cloth was cleared away (the entertainment had been brought from a neighbouring eating-house), he lighted a candle, and went down below into a little cellar, while his nephew, standing on the mouldy staircase, dutifully held the light. After a moment's groping here and there, he presently returned with a very ancient-looking bottle, covered with dust and dirt.
'Why, Uncle Sol!' said the boy, 'what are you about? that's the wonderful Madeira! - there's only one more bottle!'
Uncle Sol nodded his head, implying that he knew very well what he was about; and having drawn the cork in solemn silence, filled two glasses and set the bottle and a third clean glass on the table.
'You shall drink the other bottle, Wally,' he said, 'when you come to good fortune; when you are a thriving, respected, happy man; when the start in life you have made to-day shall have brought you, as I pray Heaven it may! - to a smooth part of the course you have to run, my child. My love to you!'
Some of the fog that hung about old Sol seemed to have got into his throat; for he spoke huskily. His hand shook too, as he clinked his glass against his nephew's. But having once got the wine to his lips, he tossed it off like a man, and smacked them afterwards.
'Dear Uncle,' said the boy, affecting to make light of it, while the tears stood in his eyes, 'for the honour you have done me, et cetera, et cetera. I shall now beg to propose Mr Solomon Gills with three times three and one cheer more. Hurrah! and you'll return thanks, Uncle, when we drink the last bottle together; won't you?'
They clinked their glasses again; and Walter, who was hoarding his wine, took a sip of it, and held the glass up to his eye with as critical an air as he could possibly assume.
His Uncle sat looking at him for some time in silence. When their eyes at last met, he began at once to pursue the theme that had occupied his thoughts, aloud, as if he had been speaking all the time.
'You see, Walter,' he said, 'in truth this business is merely a habit with me. I am so accustomed to the habit that I could hardly live if I relinquished it: but there's nothing doing, nothing doing. When that uniform was worn,' pointing out towards the little Midshipman, 'then indeed, fortunes were to be made, and were made. But competition, competition - new invention, new invention - alteration, alteration - the world's gone past me. I hardly know where I am myself, much less where my customers are.
'Never mind 'em, Uncle!'
'Since you came home from weekly boarding-school at Peckham, for instance - and that's ten days,' said Solomon, 'I don't remember more than one person that has come into the shop.'
'Two, Uncle, don't you recollect? There was the man who came to ask for change for a sovereign - '
'That's the one,' said Solomon.
'Why Uncle! don't you call the woman anybody, who came to ask the way to Mile-End Turnpike?'
'Oh! it's true,' said Solomon, 'I forgot her. Two persons.'
'To be sure, they didn't buy anything,' cried the boy.
'No. They didn't buy anything,' said Solomon, quietly.
'Nor want anything,' cried the boy.
'No. If they had, they'd gone to another shop,' said Solomon, in the same tone.
'But there were two of 'em, Uncle,' cried the boy, as if that were a great triumph. 'You said only one.'
'Well, Wally,' resumed the old man, after a short pause: 'not being like the Savages who came on Robinson Crusoe's Island, we can't live on a man who asks for change for a sovereign, and a woman who inquires the way to Mile-End Turnpike. As I said just now, the world has gone past me. I don't blame it; but I no longer understand it. Tradesmen are not the same as they used to be, apprentices are not the same, business is not the same, business commodities are not the same. Seven-eighths of my stock is old-fashioned. I am an old-fashioned man in an old-fashioned shop, in a street that is not the same as I remember it.