09 January 2019

Chapter One: Five Years Later: A Tale of Two Cities with Women

For background on the project and to see all the chapters at once, go to the tag A Tale of Two Cities Project.

Book Two: The Golden Thread
Chapter One: Five Years Later

Tellson’s Bank by Temple Bar was an old-fashioned place, even in the year one thousand seven hundred and eighty. It was very small, very dark, very ugly, very incommodious. It was an old-fashioned place, moreover, in the moral attribute that the partners in the House were proud of its smallness, proud of its darkness, proud of its ugliness, proud of its incommodiousness. They were even boastful of its eminence in those particulars, and were fired by an express conviction that, if it were less objectionable, it would be less respectable. This was no passive belief, but an active weapon which they flashed at more convenient places of business. Tellson’s (they said) wanted no elbow-room, Tellson’s wanted no light, Tellson’s wanted no embellishment. Noakes and Co.’s might, or Snooks Partners might; but Tellson’s, thank Heaven--!

Any one of these partners would have disinherited his or her children on the question of rebuilding Tellson’s. In this respect the House was much on a par with the Country; which did very often disinherit its children for suggesting improvements in laws and customs that had long been highly objectionable, but were only the more respectable.

Thus it had come to pass, that Tellson’s was the triumphant perfection of inconvenience. After bursting open a door of idiotic obstinacy with a weak rattle in its throat, you fell into Tellson’s down two steps, and came to your senses in a miserable little shop, with two little counters, where the oldest of persons made your cheque shake as if the wind rustled it, while they examined the signature by the dingiest of windows, which were always under a shower-bath of mud from Fleet-street, and which were made the dingier by their own iron bars proper, and the heavy shadow of Temple Bar. If your business necessitated your seeing “the House,” you were put into a species of Condemned Hold at the back, where you meditated on a misspent life, until the House came with its hands in its pockets, and you could hardly blink at it in the dismal twilight. Your money came out of, or went into, wormy old wooden drawers, particles of which flew up your nose and down your throat when they were opened and shut. Your bank-notes had a musty odour, as if they were fast decomposing into rags again. Your plate was stowed away among the neighbouring cesspools, and evil communications corrupted its good polish in a day or two. Your deeds got into extemporised strong-rooms made of kitchens and sculleries, and fretted all the fat out of their parchments into the banking-house air. Your lighter boxes of family papers went up-stairs into a Barmecide room, that always had a great dining-table in it and never had a dinner, and where, even in the year one thousand seven hundred and eighty, the first letters written to you by your old love, or by your little children, were but newly released from the horror of being ogled through the windows, by the heads exposed on Temple Bar with an insensate brutality and ferocity worthy of Abyssinia or Ashantee.

But indeed, at that time, putting to death was a recipe much in vogue with all trades and professions, and not least of all with Tellson’s. Death is Nature’s remedy for all things, and why not Legislation’s? Accordingly, the forger was put to Death; the utterer of a bad note was put to Death; the unlawful opener of a letter was put to Death; the purloiner of forty shillings and sixpence was put to Death; the holder of a horse at Tellson’s door, who made off with it, was put to Death; the coiner of a bad shilling was put to Death; the sounders of three-fourths of the notes in the whole gamut of Crime, were put to Death. Not that it did the least good in the way of prevention -- it might almost have been worth remarking that the fact was exactly the reverse -- but, it cleared off (as to this world) the trouble of each particular case, and left nothing else connected with it to be looked after. Thus, Tellson’s, in its day, like greater places of business, its contemporaries, had taken so many lives, that, if the heads laid low before it had been ranged on Temple Bar instead of being privately disposed of, they would probably have excluded what little light the ground floor had, in a rather significant manner.

Cramped in all kinds of dim cupboards and hutches at Tellson’s, the oldest of women carried on the business gravely. When they took a young woman into Tellson’s London house, they hid her somewhere till she was old. They kept her in a dark place, like a cheese, until she had the full Tellson flavour and blue-mould upon her. Then only was she permitted to be seen, spectacularly poring over large books, and casting her breeches and gaiters into the general weight of the establishment. 

Outside Tellson’s -- never by any means in it, unless called in -- was an odd-job-woman, an occasional porter and messenger, who served as the live sign of the house. She was never absent during business hours, unless upon an errand, and then she was represented by her daughter: a grisly urchin of twelve, who was her express image. People understood that Tellson’s, in a stately way, tolerated the odd-job-woman. The house had always tolerated some person in that capacity, and time and tide had drifted this person to the post. Her surname was Cruncher, and on the youthful occasion of her renouncing by proxy the works of darkness, in the easterly parish church of Hounsditch, she had received the added appellation of Jenny.

The scene was Mrs. Cruncher’s private lodging in Hanging-sword-alley, Whitefriars: the time, half-past seven of the clock on a windy March morning, Anno Domini seventeen hundred and eighty. (Mrs. Cruncher herself always spoke of the year of our Lord as Andy Dominoes: apparently under the impression that the Christian era dated from the invention of a popular game, by a man who had bestowed his name upon it.)

Mrs. Cruncher’s apartments were not in a savoury neighbourhood, and were but two in number, even if a closet with a single pane of glass in it might be counted as one. But they were very decently kept. Early as it was, on the windy March morning, the room in which she lay abed was already scrubbed throughout; and between the cups and saucers arranged for breakfast, and the lumbering deal table, a very clean white cloth was spread.

Mrs. Cruncher reposed under a patchwork counterpane, like a Harlequin at home. At first, she slept heavily, but, by degrees, began to roll and surge in bed, until she rose above the surface, with her spiky hair looking as if it must tear the sheets to ribbons. At which juncture, she exclaimed, in a voice of dire exasperation:

“Bust me, if he ain’t at it agin!”

A man of orderly and industrious appearance rose from his knees in a corner, with sufficient haste and trepidation to show that he was the person referred to.

“What!” said Mrs. Cruncher, looking out of bed for a boot. “You’re at it agin, are you?”

After hailing the morn with this second salutation, she threw a boot at the man as a third. It was a very muddy boot, and may introduce the odd circumstance connected with Mrs. Cruncher’s domestic economy, that, whereas she often came home after banking hours with clean boots, she often got up next morning to find the same boots covered with clay.

“What,” said Mrs. Cruncher, varying her apostrophe after missing her mark -- “what are you up to, Aggerawayter?”

“I was only saying my prayers.”

“Saying your prayers! You’re a nice man! What do you mean by flopping yourself down and praying agin me?”

“I was not praying against you; I was praying for you.”

“You weren’t. And if you were, I won’t be took the liberty with. Here! your father’s a nice man, young Jenny, going a praying agin your mother’s prosperity. You’ve got a dutiful father, you have, my girl. You’ve got a religious father, you have, my girl: going and flopping himself down, and praying that the bread-and-butter may be snatched out of the mouth of his only child.”

Miss Cruncher (who was in her shirt) took this very ill, and, turning to her father, strongly deprecated any praying away of her personal board.

“And what do you suppose, you conceited man,” said Mrs. Cruncher, with unconscious inconsistency, “that the worth of your prayers may be? Name the price that you put your prayers at!”

“They only come from the heart, Jenny. They are worth no more than that.”

“Worth no more than that,” repeated Mrs. Cruncher. “They ain’t worth much, then. Whether or no, I won’t be prayed agin, I tell you. I can’t afford it. I’m not a going to be made unlucky by your sneaking. If you must go flopping yourself down, flop in favour of your wife and child, and not in opposition to ‘em. If I had had any but a unnat’ral husband, and this poor girl had had any but a unnat’ral father, I might have made some money last week instead of being counter-prayed and countermined and religiously circumwented into the worst of luck. B-u-u-ust me!” said Mrs. Cruncher, who all this time had been putting on her clothes, “if I ain’t, what with piety and one blowed thing and another, been choused this last week into as bad luck as ever a poor devil of a honest tradesperson met with! Young Jenny, dress yourself, my girl, and while I clean my boots keep a eye upon your father now and then, and if you see any signs of more flopping, give me a call. For, I tell you,” here she addressed her husband once more, “I won’t be gone agin, in this manner. I am as rickety as a hackney-coach, I’m as sleepy as laudanum, my lines is strained to that degree that I shouldn’t know, if it wasn’t for the pain in ‘em, which was me and which somebody else, yet I’m none the better for it in pocket; and it’s my suspicion that you’ve been at it from morning to night to prevent me from being the better for it in pocket, and I won’t put up with it, Aggerawayter, and what do you say now!”

Growling, in addition, such phrases as “Ah! yes! You’re religious, too. You wouldn’t put yourself in opposition to the interests of your wife and child, would you? Not you!” and throwing off other sarcastic sparks from the whirling grindstone of her indignation, Mrs. Cruncher betook herself to her boot-cleaning and her general preparation for business. In the meantime, her daughter, whose head was garnished with tenderer spikes, and whose young eyes stood close by one another, as her mother’s did, kept the required watch upon her father. She greatly disturbed that poor man at intervals, by darting out of her sleeping closet, where she made her toilet, with a suppressed cry of “You are going to flop, father. --Halloa, mother!” and, after raising this fictitious alarm, darting in again with an undutiful grin.

Mrs. Cruncher’s temper was not at all improved when she came to her breakfast. She resented Mr. Cruncher’s saying grace with particular animosity.

“Now, Aggerawayter! What are you up to? At it again?”

Her husband explained that he had merely “asked a blessing.”

“Don’t do it!” said Mrs. Cruncher looking about, as if she rather expected to see the loaf disappear under the efficacy of her husband’s petitions. “I ain’t a going to be blest out of house and home. I won’t have my wittles blest off my table. Keep still!”

Exceedingly red-eyed and grim, as if she had been up all night at a party which had taken anything but a convivial turn, Jenny Cruncher worried her breakfast rather than ate it, growling over it like any four-footed inmate of a menagerie. Towards nine o’clock she smoothed her ruffled aspect, and, presenting as respectable and business-like an exterior as she could overlay her natural self with, issued forth to the occupation of the day.

It could scarcely be called a trade, in spite of her favourite description of herself as “a honest tradeswoman.” Her stock consisted of a wooden stool, made out of a broken-backed chair cut down, which stool, young Jenny, walking at her mother’s side, carried every morning to beneath the banking-house window that was nearest Temple Bar: where, with the addition of the first handful of straw that could be gleaned from any passing vehicle to keep the cold and wet from the odd-job-woman’s feet, it formed the encampment for the day. On this post of hers, Mrs. Cruncher was as well known to Fleet-street and the Temple, as the Bar itself, -- and was almost as in-looking.

Encamped at a quarter before nine, in good time to touch her three-cornered hat to the oldest of women as they passed in to Tellson’s, Jenny took up her station on this windy March morning, with young Jenny standing by her, when not engaged in making forays through the Bar, to inflict bodily and mental injuries of an acute description on passing girls who were small enough for her amiable purpose. Mother and daughter, extremely like each other, looking silently on at the morning traffic in Fleet-street, with their two heads as near to one another as the two eyes of each were, bore a considerable resemblance to a pair of monkeys. The resemblance was not lessened by the accidental circumstance, that the mature Jenny bit and spat out straw, while the twinkling eyes of the youthful Jenny were as restlessly watchful of her as of everything else in Fleet-street.

The head of one of the regular indoor messengers attached to Tellson’s establishment was put through the door, and the word was given:

“Porter wanted!”

“Hooray, mother! Here’s an early job to begin with!”

Having thus given her parent God speed, young Jenny seated herself on the stool, entered on her reversionary interest in the straw her mother had been chewing, and cogitated.

“Al-ways rusty! Her fingers is al-ways rusty!” muttered young Jenny. “Where does my mother get all that iron rust from? She don’t get no iron rust here!”

Please consider supporting my work by clicking on the "Buy me a coffee" button. Fifty percent of the proceeds made through a Tale of Two Cities post will go toward Project Gutenberg. The rest will go toward the coffee and wine that I drink while blogging. Thank you! 
  Buy me a coffeeBuy me a coffee

No comments: