A Tale of Two Cities, by Charles Dickens

5. The Jackal

Those were drinking days, and most men drank hard. So very great is the improvement Time has brought about in such habits, that a moderate statement of the quantity of wine and punch which one man would swallow in the course of a night, without any detriment to his reputation as a perfect gentleman, would seem, in these days, a ridiculous exaggeration. The learned profession of the law was certainly not behind any other learned profession in its Bacchanalian propensities; neither was Mr. Stryver, already fast shouldering his way to a large and lucrative practice, behind his compeers in this particular, any more than in the drier parts of the legal race.

A favourite at the Old Bailey, and eke at the Sessions, Mr. Stryver had begun cautiously to hew away the lower staves of the ladder on which he mounted. Sessions and Old Bailey had now to summon their favourite, specially, to their longing arms; and shouldering itself towards the visage of the Lord Chief Justice in the Court of King’s Bench, the florid countenance of Mr. Stryver might be daily seen, bursting out of the bed of wigs, like a great sunflower pushing its way at the sun from among a rank garden-full of flaring companions.

It had once been noted at the Bar, that while Mr. Stryver was a glib man, and an unscrupulous, and a ready, and a bold, he had not that faculty of extracting the essence from a heap of statements, which is among the most striking and necessary of the advocate’s accomplishments. But, a remarkable improvement came upon him as to this. The more business he got, the greater his power seemed to grow of getting at its pith and marrow; and however late at night he sat carousing with Sydney Carton, he always had his points at his fingers’ ends in the morning.

Sydney Carton, idlest and most unpromising of men, was Stryver’s great ally. What the two drank together, between Hilary Term and Michaelmas, might have floated a king’s ship. Stryver never had a case in hand, anywhere, but Carton was there, with his hands in his pockets, staring at the ceiling of the court; they went the same Circuit, and even there they prolonged their usual orgies late into the night, and Carton was rumoured to be seen at broad day, going home stealthily and unsteadily to his lodgings, like a dissipated cat. At last, it began to get about, among such as were interested in the matter, that although Sydney Carton would never be a lion, he was an amazingly good jackal, and that he rendered suit and service to Stryver in that humble capacity.

“Ten o’clock, sir,” said the man at the tavern, whom he had charged to wake him —“ten o’clock, sir.”

“WHAT’S the matter?”

“Ten o’clock, sir.”

“What do you mean? Ten o’clock at night?”

“Yes, sir. Your honour told me to call you.”

“Oh! I remember. Very well, very well.”

After a few dull efforts to get to sleep again, which the man dexterously combated by stirring the fire continuously for five minutes, he got up, tossed his hat on, and walked out. He turned into the Temple, and, having revived himself by twice pacing the pavements of King’s Bench-walk and Paper-buildings, turned into the Stryver chambers.

The Stryver clerk, who never assisted at these conferences, had gone home, and the Stryver principal opened the door. He had his slippers on, and a loose bed-gown, and his throat was bare for his greater ease. He had that rather wild, strained, seared marking about the eyes, which may be observed in all free livers of his class, from the portrait of Jeffries downward, and which can be traced, under various disguises of Art, through the portraits of every Drinking Age.

“You are a little late, Memory,” said Stryver.

“About the usual time; it may be a quarter of an hour later.”

They went into a dingy room lined with books and littered with papers, where there was a blazing fire. A kettle steamed upon the hob, and in the midst of the wreck of papers a table shone, with plenty of wine upon it, and brandy, and rum, and sugar, and lemons.

“You have had your bottle, I perceive, Sydney.”

“Two to-night, I think. I have been dining with the day’s client; or seeing him dine — it’s all one!”

“That was a rare point, Sydney, that you brought to bear upon the identification. How did you come by it? When did it strike you?”

“I thought he was rather a handsome fellow, and I thought I should have been much the same sort of fellow, if I had had any luck.”

Mr. Stryver laughed till he shook his precocious paunch.

“You and your luck, Sydney! Get to work, get to work.”

Sullenly enough, the jackal loosened his dress, went into an adjoining room, and came back with a large jug of cold water, a basin, and a towel or two. Steeping the towels in the water, and partially wringing them out, he folded them on his head in a manner hideous to behold, sat down at the table, and said, “Now I am ready!”

“Not much boiling down to be done to-night, Memory,” said Mr. Stryver, gaily, as he looked among his papers.

“How much?”

“Only two sets of them.”

“Give me the worst first.”

“There they are, Sydney. Fire away!”

The lion then composed himself on his back on a sofa on one side of the drinking-table, while the jackal sat at his own paper-bestrewn table proper, on the other side of it, with the bottles and glasses ready to his hand. Both resorted to the drinking-table without stint, but each in a different way; the lion for the most part reclining with his hands in his waistband, looking at the fire, or occasionally flirting with some lighter document; the jackal, with knitted brows and intent face, so deep in his task, that his eyes did not even follow the hand he stretched out for his glass — which often groped about, for a minute or more, before it found the glass for his lips. Two or three times, the matter in hand became so knotty, that the jackal found it imperative on him to get up, and steep his towels anew. From these pilgrimages to the jug and basin, he returned with such eccentricities of damp headgear as no words can describe; which were made the more ludicrous by his anxious gravity.

At length the jackal had got together a compact repast for the lion, and proceeded to offer it to him. The lion took it with care and caution, made his selections from it, and his remarks upon it, and the jackal assisted both. When the repast was fully discussed, the lion put his hands in his waistband again, and lay down to mediate. The jackal then invigorated himself with a bum for his throttle, and a fresh application to his head, and applied himself to the collection of a second meal; this was administered to the lion in the same manner, and was not disposed of until the clocks struck three in the morning.

“And now we have done, Sydney, fill a bumper of punch,” said Mr. Stryver.

The jackal removed the towels from his head, which had been steaming again, shook himself, yawned, shivered, and complied.

“You were very sound, Sydney, in the matter of those crown witnesses to-day. Every question told.”

“I always am sound; am I not?”

“I don’t gainsay it. What has roughened your temper? Put some punch to it and smooth it again.”

With a deprecatory grunt, the jackal again complied.

“The old Sydney Carton of old Shrewsbury School,” said Stryver, nodding his head over him as he reviewed him in the present and the past, “the old seesaw Sydney. Up one minute and down the next; now in spirits and now in despondency!”

“Ah!” returned the other, sighing: “yes! The same Sydney, with the same luck. Even then, I did exercises for other boys, and seldom did my own.

“And why not?”

“God knows. It was my way, I suppose.”

He sat, with his hands in his pockets and his legs stretched out before him, looking at the fire.

“Carton,” said his friend, squaring himself at him with a bullying air, as if the fire-grate had been the furnace in which sustained endeavour was forged, and the one delicate thing to be done for the old Sydney Carton of old Shrewsbury School was to shoulder him into it, “your way is, and always was, a lame way. You summon no energy and purpose. Look at me.”

“Oh, botheration!” returned Sydney, with a lighter and more good-humoured laugh, “don’t YOU be moral!”

“How have I done what I have done?” said Stryver; “how do I do what I do?”

“Partly through paying me to help you, I suppose. But it’s not worth your while to apostrophise me, or the air, about it; what you want to do, you do. You were always in the front rank, and I was always behind.”

“I had to get into the front rank; I was not born there, was I?”

“I was not present at the ceremony; but my opinion is you were,” said Carton. At this, he laughed again, and they both laughed.

“Before Shrewsbury, and at Shrewsbury, and ever since Shrewsbury,” pursued Carton, “you have fallen into your rank, and I have fallen into mine. Even when we were fellow-students in the Student–Quarter of Paris, picking up French, and French law, and other French crumbs that we didn’t get much good of, you were always somewhere, and I was always nowhere.”

“And whose fault was that?”

“Upon my soul, I am not sure that it was not yours. You were always driving and riving and shouldering and passing, to that restless degree that I had no chance for my life but in rust and repose. It’s a gloomy thing, however, to talk about one’s own past, with the day breaking. Turn me in some other direction before I go.”

“Well then! Pledge me to the pretty witness,” said Stryver, holding up his glass. “Are you turned in a pleasant direction?”

Apparently not, for he became gloomy again.

“Pretty witness,” he muttered, looking down into his glass. “I have had enough of witnesses to-day and to-night; who’s your pretty witness?”

“The picturesque doctor’s daughter, Miss Manette.”

“SHE pretty?”

“Is she not?”

“No.”

“Why, man alive, she was the admiration of the whole Court!”

“Rot the admiration of the whole Court! Who made the Old Bailey a judge of beauty? She was a golden-haired doll!”

“Do you know, Sydney,” said Mr. Stryver, looking at him with sharp eyes, and slowly drawing a hand across his florid face: “do you know, I rather thought, at the time, that you sympathised with the golden-haired doll, and were quick to see what happened to the golden-haired doll?”

“Quick to see what happened! If a girl, doll or no doll, swoons within a yard or two of a man’s nose, he can see it without a perspective-glass. I pledge you, but I deny the beauty. And now I’ll have no more drink; I’ll get to bed.”

When his host followed him out on the staircase with a candle, to light him down the stairs, the day was coldly looking in through its grimy windows. When he got out of the house, the air was cold and sad, the dull sky overcast, the river dark and dim, the whole scene like a lifeless desert. And wreaths of dust were spinning round and round before the morning blast, as if the desert-sand had risen far away, and the first spray of it in its advance had begun to overwhelm the city.

Waste forces within him, and a desert all around, this man stood still on his way across a silent terrace, and saw for a moment, lying in the wilderness before him, a mirage of honourable ambition, self-denial, and perseverance. In the fair city of this vision, there were airy galleries from which the loves and graces looked upon him, gardens in which the fruits of life hung ripening, waters of Hope that sparkled in his sight. A moment, and it was gone. Climbing to a high chamber in a well of houses, he threw himself down in his clothes on a neglected bed, and its pillow was wet with wasted tears.

Sadly, sadly, the sun rose; it rose upon no sadder sight than the man of good abilities and good emotions, incapable of their directed exercise, incapable of his own help and his own happiness, sensible of the blight on him, and resigning himself to let it eat him away.

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Last updated Friday, July 4, 2014 at 15:33