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A TALE OF TWO CITIES - 1 - 1

A TALE OF TWO CITIES

A STORY OF THE FRENCH REVOLUTION

By Charles Dickens

Recalled to Life

(1)

The Period

It was the best of times,

it was the worst of times,

it was the age of wisdom,

it was the age of foolishness,

it was the epoch of belief,

it was the epoch of incredulity,

it was the season of Light,

it was the season of Darkness,

it was the spring of hope,

it was the winter of despair,

we had everything before us,

we had nothing before us,

we were all going direct to Heaven,

we were all going direct the other way--

in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of

its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for

evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.

There were a king with a large jaw and a queen with a plain face, on the

throne of England; there were a king with a large jaw and a queen with

a fair face, on the throne of France. In both countries it was clearer

than crystal to the lords of the State preserves of loaves and fishes,

that things in general were settled for ever.

It was the year of Our Lord one thousand seven hundred and seventy-five.

Spiritual revelations were conceded to England at that favoured period,

as at this. Mrs. Southcott had recently attained her five-and-twentieth

blessed birthday, of whom a prophetic private in the Life Guards had

heralded the sublime appearance by announcing that arrangements were

made for the swallowing up of London and Westminster. Even the Cock-lane

ghost had been laid only a round dozen of years, after rapping out its

messages, as the spirits of this very year last past (supernaturally

deficient in originality) rapped out theirs. Mere messages in the

earthly order of events had lately come to the English Crown and People,

from a congress of British subjects in America: which, strange

to relate, have proved more important to the human race than any

communications yet received through any of the chickens of the Cock-lane

brood.

France, less favoured on the whole as to matters spiritual than her

sister of the shield and trident, rolled with exceeding smoothness down

hill, making paper money and spending it. Under the guidance of her

Christian pastors, she entertained herself, besides, with such humane

achievements as sentencing a youth to have his hands cut off, his tongue

torn out with pincers, and his body burned alive, because he had not

kneeled down in the rain to do honour to a dirty procession of monks

which passed within his view, at a distance of some fifty or sixty

yards. It is likely enough that, rooted in the woods of France and

Norway, there were growing trees, when that sufferer was put to death,

already marked by the Woodman, Fate, to come down and be sawn into

boards, to make a certain movable framework with a sack and a knife in

it, terrible in history. It is likely enough that in the rough outhouses

of some tillers of the heavy lands adjacent to Paris, there were

sheltered from the weather that very day, rude carts, bespattered with

rustic mire, snuffed about by pigs, and roosted in by poultry, which

the Farmer, Death, had already set apart to be his tumbrils of

the Revolution. But that Woodman and that Farmer, though they work

unceasingly, work silently, and no one heard them as they went about

with muffled tread: the rather, forasmuch as to entertain any suspicion

that they were awake, was to be atheistical and traitorous.

In England, there was scarcely an amount of order and protection to

justify much national boasting. Daring burglaries by armed men, and

highway robberies, took place in the capital itself every night;

families were publicly cautioned not to go out of town without removing

their furniture to upholsterers' warehouses for security; the highwayman

in the dark was a City tradesman in the light, and, being recognised and

challenged by his fellow-tradesman whom he stopped in his character of

“the Captain,” gallantly shot him through the head and rode away; the

mail was waylaid by seven robbers, and the guard shot three dead, and

then got shot dead himself by the other four, “in consequence of the

failure of his ammunition:” after which the mail was robbed in peace;

that magnificent potentate, the Lord Mayor of London, was made to stand

and deliver on Turnham Green, by one highwayman, who despoiled the

illustrious creature in sight of all his retinue; prisoners in London

gaols fought battles with their turnkeys, and the majesty of the law

fired blunderbusses in among them, loaded with rounds of shot and ball;

thieves snipped off diamond crosses from the necks of noble lords at

Court drawing-rooms; musketeers went into St. Giles's, to search

for contraband goods, and the mob fired on the musketeers, and the

musketeers fired on the mob, and nobody thought any of these occurrences

much out of the common way. In the midst of them, the hangman, ever busy

and ever worse than useless, was in constant requisition; now, stringing

up long rows of miscellaneous criminals; now, hanging a housebreaker on

Saturday who had been taken on Tuesday; now, burning people in the

hand at Newgate by the dozen, and now burning pamphlets at the door of

Westminster Hall; to-day, taking the life of an atrocious murderer,

and to-morrow of a wretched pilferer who had robbed a farmer's boy of

sixpence.

All these things, and a thousand like them, came to pass in and close

upon the dear old year one thousand seven hundred and seventy-five.

Environed by them, while the Woodman and the Farmer worked unheeded,

those two of the large jaws, and those other two of the plain and the

fair faces, trod with stir enough, and carried their divine rights

with a high hand. Thus did the year one thousand seven hundred

and seventy-five conduct their Greatnesses, and myriads of small

creatures--the creatures of this chronicle among the rest--along the

roads that lay before them.

*****