A TALE OF TWO CITIES
A STORY OF THE FRENCH REVOLUTION
By Charles Dickens
The Golden Thread
There was a change on the village where the fountain fell, and where
the mender of roads went forth daily to hammer out of the stones on the
highway such morsels of bread as might serve for patches to hold his
poor ignorant soul and his poor reduced body together. The prison on the
crag was not so dominant as of yore; there were soldiers to guard it,
but not many; there were officers to guard the soldiers, but not one of
them knew what his men would do--beyond this: that it would probably not
be what he was ordered.
Far and wide lay a ruined country, yielding nothing but desolation.
Every green leaf, every blade of grass and blade of grain, was as
shrivelled and poor as the miserable people. Everything was bowed down,
dejected, oppressed, and broken. Habitations, fences, domesticated
animals, men, women, children, and the soil that bore them--all worn
Monseigneur (often a most worthy individual gentleman) was a national
blessing, gave a chivalrous tone to things, was a polite example of
luxurious and shining life, and a great deal more to equal purpose;
nevertheless, Monseigneur as a class had, somehow or other, brought
things to this. Strange that Creation, designed expressly for
Monseigneur, should be so soon wrung dry and squeezed out! There must
be something short-sighted in the eternal arrangements, surely! Thus it
was, however; and the last drop of blood having been extracted from the
flints, and the last screw of the rack having been turned so often that
its purchase crumbled, and it now turned and turned with nothing
to bite, Monseigneur began to run away from a phenomenon so low and
But, this was not the change on the village, and on many a village like
it. For scores of years gone by, Monseigneur had squeezed it and wrung
it, and had seldom graced it with his presence except for the pleasures
of the chase--now, found in hunting the people; now, found in hunting
the beasts, for whose preservation Monseigneur made edifying spaces
of barbarous and barren wilderness. No. The change consisted in
the appearance of strange faces of low caste, rather than in the
disappearance of the high caste, chiselled, and otherwise beautified and
beautifying features of Monseigneur.
For, in these times, as the mender of roads worked, solitary, in the
dust, not often troubling himself to reflect that dust he was and
to dust he must return, being for the most part too much occupied in
thinking how little he had for supper and how much more he would eat if
he had it--in these times, as he raised his eyes from his lonely labour,
and viewed the prospect, he would see some rough figure approaching on
foot, the like of which was once a rarity in those parts, but was now
a frequent presence. As it advanced, the mender of roads would discern
without surprise, that it was a shaggy-haired man, of almost barbarian
aspect, tall, in wooden shoes that were clumsy even to the eyes of a
mender of roads, grim, rough, swart, steeped in the mud and dust of many
highways, dank with the marshy moisture of many low grounds, sprinkled
with the thorns and leaves and moss of many byways through woods.
Such a man came upon him, like a ghost, at noon in the July weather,
as he sat on his heap of stones under a bank, taking such shelter as he
could get from a shower of hail.
The man looked at him, looked at the village in the hollow, at the mill,
and at the prison on the crag. When he had identified these objects
in what benighted mind he had, he said, in a dialect that was just
“How goes it, Jacques?”
“All well, Jacques.”
They joined hands, and the man sat down on the heap of stones.
“Nothing but supper now,” said the mender of roads, with a hungry face.
“It is the fashion,” growled the man. “I meet no dinner anywhere.”
He took out a blackened pipe, filled it, lighted it with flint and
steel, pulled at it until it was in a bright glow: then, suddenly held
it from him and dropped something into it from between his finger and
thumb, that blazed and went out in a puff of smoke.
“Touch then.” It was the turn of the mender of roads to say it this
time, after observing these operations. They again joined hands.
“To-night?” said the mender of roads.
“To-night,” said the man, putting the pipe in his mouth.
He and the mender of roads sat on the heap of stones looking silently at
one another, with the hail driving in between them like a pigmy charge
of bayonets, until the sky began to clear over the village.
“Show me!” said the traveller then, moving to the brow of the hill.
“See!” returned the mender of roads, with extended finger. “You go down
here, and straight through the street, and past the fountain--”
“To the Devil with all that!” interrupted the other, rolling his eye
over the landscape. “_I_ go through no streets and past no fountains.
“Well! About two leagues beyond the summit of that hill above the
“Good. When do you cease to work?”
“Will you wake me, before departing? I have walked two nights without
resting. Let me finish my pipe, and I shall sleep like a child. Will you
The wayfarer smoked his pipe out, put it in his breast, slipped off his
great wooden shoes, and lay down on his back on the heap of stones. He
was fast asleep directly.
As the road-mender plied his dusty labour, and the hail-clouds, rolling
away, revealed bright bars and streaks of sky which were responded to
by silver gleams upon the landscape, the little man (who wore a red cap
now, in place of his blue one) seemed fascinated by the figure on the
heap of stones. His eyes were so often turned towards it, that he used
his tools mechanically, and, one would have said, to very poor account.
The bronze face, the shaggy black hair and beard, the coarse woollen
red cap, the rough medley dress of home-spun stuff and hairy skins of
beasts, the powerful frame attenuated by spare living, and the sullen
and desperate compression of the lips in sleep, inspired the mender
of roads with awe. The traveller had travelled far, and his feet were
footsore, and his ankles chafed and bleeding; his great shoes, stuffed
with leaves and grass, had been heavy to drag over the many long
leagues, and his clothes were chafed into holes, as he himself was into
sores. Stooping down beside him, the road-mender tried to get a peep at
secret weapons in his breast or where not; but, in vain, for he slept
with his arms crossed upon him, and set as resolutely as his lips.
Fortified towns with their stockades, guard-houses, gates, trenches, and
drawbridges, seemed to the mender of roads, to be so much air as against
this figure. And when he lifted his eyes from it to the horizon and
looked around, he saw in his small fancy similar figures, stopped by no
obstacle, tending to centres all over France.
The man slept on, indifferent to showers of hail and intervals of
brightness, to sunshine on his face and shadow, to the paltering lumps
of dull ice on his body and the diamonds into which the sun changed
them, until the sun was low in the west, and the sky was glowing. Then,
the mender of roads having got his tools together and all things ready
to go down into the village, roused him.
“Good!” said the sleeper, rising on his elbow. “Two leagues beyond the
summit of the hill?”
The mender of roads went home, with the dust going on before him
according to the set of the wind, and was soon at the fountain,
squeezing himself in among the lean kine brought there to drink, and
appearing even to whisper to them in his whispering to all the village.
When the village had taken its poor supper, it did not creep to bed,
as it usually did, but came out of doors again, and remained there. A
curious contagion of whispering was upon it, and also, when it gathered
together at the fountain in the dark, another curious contagion of
looking expectantly at the sky in one direction only. Monsieur Gabelle,
chief functionary of the place, became uneasy; went out on his house-top
alone, and looked in that direction too; glanced down from behind his
chimneys at the darkening faces by the fountain below, and sent word to
the sacristan who kept the keys of the church, that there might be need
to ring the tocsin by-and-bye.
The night deepened. The trees environing the old chateau, keeping its
solitary state apart, moved in a rising wind, as though they threatened
the pile of building massive and dark in the gloom. Up the two terrace
flights of steps the rain ran wildly, and beat at the great door, like a
swift messenger rousing those within; uneasy rushes of wind went through
the hall, among the old spears and knives, and passed lamenting up the
stairs, and shook the curtains of the bed where the last Marquis
had slept. East, West, North, and South, through the woods, four
heavy-treading, unkempt figures crushed the high grass and cracked the
branches, striding on cautiously to come together in the courtyard. Four
lights broke out there, and moved away in different directions, and all
was black again.
But, not for long. Presently, the chateau began to make itself strangely
visible by some light of its own, as though it were growing luminous.
Then, a flickering streak played behind the architecture of the front,
picking out transparent places, and showing where balustrades, arches,
and windows were. Then it soared higher, and grew broader and brighter.
Soon, from a score of the great windows, flames burst forth, and the
stone faces awakened, stared out of fire.
A faint murmur arose about the house from the few people who were left
there, and there was a saddling of a horse and riding away. There was
spurring and splashing through the darkness, and bridle was drawn in the
space by the village fountain, and the horse in a foam stood at Monsieur
Gabelle's door. “Help, Gabelle! Help, every one!” The tocsin rang
impatiently, but other help (if that were any) there was none. The
mender of roads, and two hundred and fifty particular friends, stood
with folded arms at the fountain, looking at the pillar of fire in the
sky. “It must be forty feet high,” said they, grimly; and never moved.
The rider from the chateau, and the horse in a foam, clattered away
through the village, and galloped up the stony steep, to the prison on
the crag. At the gate, a group of officers were looking at the fire;
removed from them, a group of soldiers. “Help, gentlemen--officers! The
chateau is on fire; valuable objects may be saved from the flames by
timely aid! Help, help!” The officers looked towards the soldiers who
looked at the fire; gave no orders; and answered, with shrugs and biting
of lips, “It must burn.”
As the rider rattled down the hill again and through the street, the
village was illuminating. The mender of roads, and the two hundred and
fifty particular friends, inspired as one man and woman by the idea of
lighting up, had darted into their houses, and were putting candles in
every dull little pane of glass. The general scarcity of everything,
occasioned candles to be borrowed in a rather peremptory manner of
Monsieur Gabelle; and in a moment of reluctance and hesitation on
that functionary's part, the mender of roads, once so submissive to
authority, had remarked that carriages were good to make bonfires with,
and that post-horses would roast.
The chateau was left to itself to flame and burn. In the roaring and
raging of the conflagration, a red-hot wind, driving straight from the
infernal regions, seemed to be blowing the edifice away. With the rising
and falling of the blaze, the stone faces showed as if they were in
torment. When great masses of stone and timber fell, the face with the
two dints in the nose became obscured: anon struggled out of the smoke
again, as if it were the face of the cruel Marquis, burning at the stake
and contending with the fire.
The chateau burned; the nearest trees, laid hold of by the fire,
scorched and shrivelled; trees at a distance, fired by the four fierce
figures, begirt the blazing edifice with a new forest of smoke. Molten
lead and iron boiled in the marble basin of the fountain; the water ran
dry; the extinguisher tops of the towers vanished like ice before the
heat, and trickled down into four rugged wells of flame. Great rents and
splits branched out in the solid walls, like crystallisation; stupefied
birds wheeled about and dropped into the furnace; four fierce figures
trudged away, East, West, North, and South, along the night-enshrouded
roads, guided by the beacon they had lighted, towards their next
destination. The illuminated village had seized hold of the tocsin, and,
abolishing the lawful ringer, rang for joy.
Not only that; but the village, light-headed with famine, fire, and
bell-ringing, and bethinking itself that Monsieur Gabelle had to do with
the collection of rent and taxes--though it was but a small instalment
of taxes, and no rent at all, that Gabelle had got in those latter
days--became impatient for an interview with him, and, surrounding his
house, summoned him to come forth for personal conference. Whereupon,
Monsieur Gabelle did heavily bar his door, and retire to hold counsel
with himself. The result of that conference was, that Gabelle again
withdrew himself to his housetop behind his stack of chimneys; this time
resolved, if his door were broken in (he was a small Southern man
of retaliative temperament), to pitch himself head foremost over the
parapet, and crush a man or two below.
Probably, Monsieur Gabelle passed a long night up there, with the
distant chateau for fire and candle, and the beating at his door,
combined with the joy-ringing, for music; not to mention his having an
ill-omened lamp slung across the road before his posting-house gate,
which the village showed a lively inclination to displace in his favour.
A trying suspense, to be passing a whole summer night on the brink of
the black ocean, ready to take that plunge into it upon which Monsieur
Gabelle had resolved! But, the friendly dawn appearing at last, and the
rush-candles of the village guttering out, the people happily dispersed,
and Monsieur Gabelle came down bringing his life with him for that
Within a hundred miles, and in the light of other fires, there were
other functionaries less fortunate, that night and other nights, whom
the rising sun found hanging across once-peaceful streets, where they
had been born and bred; also, there were other villagers and townspeople
less fortunate than the mender of roads and his fellows, upon whom the
functionaries and soldiery turned with success, and whom they strung up
in their turn. But, the fierce figures were steadily wending East, West,
North, and South, be that as it would; and whosoever hung, fire burned.
The altitude of the gallows that would turn to water and quench it,
no functionary, by any stretch of mathematics, was able to calculate