A Tale of Two Cities, by Charles Dickens

XIV
The Honest Tradesman

To the eyes of Mr. Jeremiah Cruncher, sitting on his stool in Fleet-street with his grisly urchin beside him, a vast number and variety of objects in movement were every day presented. Who could sit upon anything in Fleet-street during the busy hours of the day, and not be dazed and deafened by two immense processions, one ever tending westward with the sun, the other ever tending eastward from the sun, both ever tending to the plains beyond the range of red and purple where the sun goes down!

With his straw in his mouth, Mr. Cruncher sat watching the two streams, like the heathen rustic who has for several centuries been on duty watching one stream — saving that Jerry had no expectation of their ever running dry. Nor would it have been an expectation of a hopeful kind, since a small part of his income was derived from the pilotage of timid women (mostly of a full habit and past the middle term of life) from Tellson’s side of the tides to the opposite shore. Brief as such companionship was in every separate instance, Mr. Cruncher never failed to become so interested in the lady as to express a strong desire to have the honour of drinking her very good health. And it was from the gifts bestowed upon him towards the execution of this benevolent purpose, that he recruited his finances, as just now observed.

Time was, when a poet sat upon a stool in a public place, and mused in the sight of men. Mr. Cruncher, sitting on a stool in a public place, but not being a poet, mused as little as possible, and looked about him.

It fell out that he was thus engaged in a season when crowds were few, and belated women few, and when his affairs in general were so unprosperous as to awaken a strong suspicion in his breast that Mrs. Cruncher must have been “flopping” in some pointed manner, when an unusual concourse pouring down Fleet-street westward, attracted his attention. Looking that way, Mr. Cruncher made out that some kind of funeral was coming along, and that there was popular objection to this funeral, which engendered uproar.

“Young Jerry,” said Mr. Cruncher, turning to his offspring, “it’s a buryin’.”

“Hooroar, father!” cried Young Jerry.

The young gentleman uttered this exultant sound with mysterious significance. The elder gentleman took the cry so ill, that he watched his opportunity, and smote the young gentleman on the ear.

“What d’ye mean? What are you hooroaring at? What do you want to conwey to your own father, you young Rip? This boy is a getting too many for ME!” said Mr. Cruncher, surveying him. “Him and his hooroars! Don’t let me hear no more of you, or you shall feel some more of me. D’ye hear?”

“I warn’t doing no harm,” Young Jerry protested, rubbing his cheek.

“Drop it then,” said Mr. Cruncher; “I won’t have none of YOUR no harms. Get a top of that there seat, and look at the crowd.”

His son obeyed, and the crowd approached; they were bawling and hissing round a dingy hearse and dingy mourning coach, in which mourning coach there was only one mourner, dressed in the dingy trappings that were considered essential to the dignity of the position. The position appeared by no means to please him, however, with an increasing rabble surrounding the coach, deriding him, making grimaces at him, and incessantly groaning and calling out: “Yah! Spies! Tst! Yaha! Spies!” with many compliments too numerous and forcible to repeat.

Funerals had at all times a remarkable attraction for Mr. Cruncher; he always pricked up his senses, and became excited, when a funeral passed Tellson’s. Naturally, therefore, a funeral with this uncommon attendance excited him greatly, and he asked of the first man who ran against him:

“What is it, brother? What’s it about?”

I don’t know,” said the man. “Spies! Yaha! Tst! Spies!”

He asked another man. “Who is it?”

I don’t know,” returned the man, clapping his hands to his mouth nevertheless, and vociferating in a surprising heat and with the greatest ardour, “Spies! Yaha! Tst, tst! Spi — ies!”

At length, a person better informed on the merits of the case, tumbled against him, and from this person he learned that the funeral was the funeral of one Roger Cly.

“Was He a spy?” asked Mr. Cruncher.

“Old Bailey spy,” returned his informant. “Yaha! Tst! Yah! Old Bailey Spi — i — ies!”

“Why, to be sure!” exclaimed Jerry, recalling the Trial at which he had assisted. “I’ve seen him. Dead, is he?”

“Dead as mutton,” returned the other, “and can’t be too dead. Have ’em out, there! Spies! Pull ’em out, there! Spies!”

The idea was so acceptable in the prevalent absence of any idea, that the crowd caught it up with eagerness, and loudly repeating the suggestion to have ’em out, and to pull ’em out, mobbed the two vehicles so closely that they came to a stop. On the crowd’s opening the coach doors, the one mourner scuffled out of himself and was in their hands for a moment; but he was so alert, and made such good use of his time, that in another moment he was scouring away up a bye-street, after shedding his cloak, hat, long hatband, white pocket-handkerchief, and other symbolical tears.

These, the people tore to pieces and scattered far and wide with great enjoyment, while the tradesmen hurriedly shut up their shops; for a crowd in those times stopped at nothing, and was a monster much dreaded. They had already got the length of opening the hearse to take the coffin out, when some brighter genius proposed instead, its being escorted to its destination amidst general rejoicing. Practical suggestions being much needed, this suggestion, too, was received with acclamation, and the coach was immediately filled with eight inside and a dozen out, while as many people got on the roof of the hearse as could by any exercise of ingenuity stick upon it. Among the first of these volunteers was Jerry Cruncher himself, who modestly concealed his spiky head from the observation of Tellson’s, in the further corner of the mourning coach.

The officiating undertakers made some protest against these changes in the ceremonies; but, the river being alarmingly near, and several voices remarking on the efficacy of cold immersion in bringing refractory members of the profession to reason, the protest was faint and brief. The remodelled procession started, with a chimney-sweep driving the hearse — advised by the regular driver, who was perched beside him, under close inspection, for the purpose — and with a pieman, also attended by his cabinet minister, driving the mourning coach. A bear-leader, a popular street character of the time, was impressed as an additional ornament, before the cavalcade had gone far down the Strand; and his bear, who was black and very mangy, gave quite an Undertaking air to that part of the procession in which he walked.

Thus, with beer-drinking, pipe-smoking, song-roaring, and infinite caricaturing of woe, the disorderly procession went its way, recruiting at every step, and all the shops shutting up before it. Its destination was the old church of Saint Pancras, far off in the fields. It got there in course of time; insisted on pouring into the burial-ground; finally, accomplished the interment of the deceased Roger Cly in its own way, and highly to its own satisfaction.

The dead man disposed of, and the crowd being under the necessity of providing some other entertainment for itself, another brighter genius (or perhaps the same) conceived the humour of impeaching casual passers-by, as Old Bailey spies, and wreaking vengeance on them. Chase was given to some scores of inoffensive persons who had never been near the Old Bailey in their lives, in the realisation of this fancy, and they were roughly hustled and maltreated. The transition to the sport of window-breaking, and thence to the plundering of public-houses, was easy and natural. At last, after several hours, when sundry summer-houses had been pulled down, and some area-railings had been torn up, to arm the more belligerent spirits, a rumour got about that the Guards were coming. Before this rumour, the crowd gradually melted away, and perhaps the Guards came, and perhaps they never came, and this was the usual progress of a mob.

Mr. Cruncher did not assist at the closing sports, but had remained behind in the churchyard, to confer and condole with the undertakers. The place had a soothing influence on him. He procured a pipe from a neighbouring public-house, and smoked it, looking in at the railings and maturely considering the spot.

“Jerry,” said Mr. Cruncher, apostrophising himself in his usual way, “you see that there Cly that day, and you see with your own eyes that he was a young ’un and a straight made ’un.”

Having smoked his pipe out, and ruminated a little longer, he turned himself about, that he might appear, before the hour of closing, on his station at Tellson’s. Whether his meditations on mortality had touched his liver, or whether his general health had been previously at all amiss, or whether he desired to show a little attention to an eminent man, is not so much to the purpose, as that he made a short call upon his medical adviser — a distinguished surgeon — on his way back.

Young Jerry relieved his father with dutiful interest, and reported No job in his absence. The bank closed, the ancient clerks came out, the usual watch was set, and Mr. Cruncher and his son went home to tea.

“Now, I tell you where it is!” said Mr. Cruncher to his wife, on entering. “If, as a honest tradesman, my wenturs goes wrong to-night, I shall make sure that you’ve been praying again me, and I shall work you for it just the same as if I seen you do it.”

The dejected Mrs. Cruncher shook her head.

“Why, you’re at it afore my face!” said Mr. Cruncher, with signs of angry apprehension.

“I am saying nothing.”

“Well, then; don’t meditate nothing. You might as well flop as meditate. You may as well go again me one way as another. Drop it altogether.”

“Yes, Jerry.”

“Yes, Jerry,” repeated Mr. Cruncher sitting down to tea. “Ah! It IS yes, Jerry. That’s about it. You may say yes, Jerry.”

Mr. Cruncher had no particular meaning in these sulky corroborations, but made use of them, as people not unfrequently do, to express general ironical dissatisfaction.

“You and your yes, Jerry,” said Mr. Cruncher, taking a bite out of his bread-and-butter, and seeming to help it down with a large invisible oyster out of his saucer. “Ah! I think so. I believe you.”

“You are going out to-night?” asked his decent wife, when he took another bite.

“Yes, I am.”

“May I go with you, father?” asked his son, briskly.

“No, you mayn’t. I’m a going — as your mother knows — a fishing. That’s where I’m going to. Going a fishing.”

“Your fishing-rod gets rayther rusty; don’t it, father?”

“Never you mind.”

“Shall you bring any fish home, father?”

“If I don’t, you’ll have short commons, to-morrow,” returned that gentleman, shaking his head; “that’s questions enough for you; I ain’t a going out, till you’ve been long abed.”

He devoted himself during the remainder of the evening to keeping a most vigilant watch on Mrs. Cruncher, and sullenly holding her in conversation that she might be prevented from meditating any petitions to his disadvantage. With this view, he urged his son to hold her in conversation also, and led the unfortunate woman a hard life by dwelling on any causes of complaint he could bring against her, rather than he would leave her for a moment to her own reflections. The devoutest person could have rendered no greater homage to the efficacy of an honest prayer than he did in this distrust of his wife. It was as if a professed unbeliever in ghosts should be frightened by a ghost story.

“And mind you!” said Mr. Cruncher. “No games to-morrow! If I, as a honest tradesman, succeed in providing a jinte of meat or two, none of your not touching of it, and sticking to bread. If I, as a honest tradesman, am able to provide a little beer, none of your declaring on water. When you go to Rome, do as Rome does. Rome will be a ugly customer to you, if you don’t. I‘m your Rome, you know.”

Then he began grumbling again:

“With your flying into the face of your own wittles and drink! I don’t know how scarce you mayn’t make the wittles and drink here, by your flopping tricks and your unfeeling conduct. Look at your boy: he IS your’n, ain’t he? He’s as thin as a lath. Do you call yourself a mother, and not know that a mother’s first duty is to blow her boy out?”

This touched Young Jerry on a tender place; who adjured his mother to perform her first duty, and, whatever else she did or neglected, above all things to lay especial stress on the discharge of that maternal function so affectingly and delicately indicated by his other parent.

Thus the evening wore away with the Cruncher family, until Young Jerry was ordered to bed, and his mother, laid under similar injunctions, obeyed them. Mr. Cruncher beguiled the earlier watches of the night with solitary pipes, and did not start upon his excursion until nearly one o’clock. Towards that small and ghostly hour, he rose up from his chair, took a key out of his pocket, opened a locked cupboard, and brought forth a sack, a crowbar of convenient size, a rope and chain, and other fishing tackle of that nature. Disposing these articles about him in skilful manner, he bestowed a parting defiance on Mrs. Cruncher, extinguished the light, and went out.

Young Jerry, who had only made a feint of undressing when he went to bed, was not long after his father. Under cover of the darkness he followed out of the room, followed down the stairs, followed down the court, followed out into the streets. He was in no uneasiness concerning his getting into the house again, for it was full of lodgers, and the door stood ajar all night.

Impelled by a laudable ambition to study the art and mystery of his father’s honest calling, Young Jerry, keeping as close to house fronts, walls, and doorways, as his eyes were close to one another, held his honoured parent in view. The honoured parent steering Northward, had not gone far, when he was joined by another disciple of Izaak Walton, and the two trudged on together.

Within half an hour from the first starting, they were beyond the winking lamps, and the more than winking watchmen, and were out upon a lonely road. Another fisherman was picked up here — and that so silently, that if Young Jerry had been superstitious, he might have supposed the second follower of the gentle craft to have, all of a sudden, split himself into two.

The three went on, and Young Jerry went on, until the three stopped under a bank overhanging the road. Upon the top of the bank was a low brick wall, surmounted by an iron railing. In the shadow of bank and wall the three turned out of the road, and up a blind lane, of which the wall — there, risen to some eight or ten feet high — formed one side. Crouching down in a corner, peeping up the lane, the next object that Young Jerry saw, was the form of his honoured parent, pretty well defined against a watery and clouded moon, nimbly scaling an iron gate. He was soon over, and then the second fisherman got over, and then the third. They all dropped softly on the ground within the gate, and lay there a little — listening perhaps. Then, they moved away on their hands and knees.

It was now Young Jerry’s turn to approach the gate: which he did, holding his breath. Crouching down again in a corner there, and looking in, he made out the three fishermen creeping through some rank grass! and all the gravestones in the churchyard — it was a large churchyard that they were in — looking on like ghosts in white, while the church tower itself looked on like the ghost of a monstrous giant. They did not creep far, before they stopped and stood upright. And then they began to fish.

They fished with a spade, at first. Presently the honoured parent appeared to be adjusting some instrument like a great corkscrew. Whatever tools they worked with, they worked hard, until the awful striking of the church clock so terrified Young Jerry, that he made off, with his hair as stiff as his father’s.

But, his long-cherished desire to know more about these matters, not only stopped him in his running away, but lured him back again. They were still fishing perseveringly, when he peeped in at the gate for the second time; but, now they seemed to have got a bite. There was a screwing and complaining sound down below, and their bent figures were strained, as if by a weight. By slow degrees the weight broke away the earth upon it, and came to the surface. Young Jerry very well knew what it would be; but, when he saw it, and saw his honoured parent about to wrench it open, he was so frightened, being new to the sight, that he made off again, and never stopped until he had run a mile or more.

He would not have stopped then, for anything less necessary than breath, it being a spectral sort of race that he ran, and one highly desirable to get to the end of. He had a strong idea that the coffin he had seen was running after him; and, pictured as hopping on behind him, bolt upright, upon its narrow end, always on the point of overtaking him and hopping on at his side — perhaps taking his arm — it was a pursuer to shun. It was an inconsistent and ubiquitous fiend too, for, while it was making the whole night behind him dreadful, he darted out into the roadway to avoid dark alleys, fearful of its coming hopping out of them like a dropsical boy’s–Kite without tail and wings. It hid in doorways too, rubbing its horrible shoulders against doors, and drawing them up to its ears, as if it were laughing. It got into shadows on the road, and lay cunningly on its back to trip him up. All this time it was incessantly hopping on behind and gaining on him, so that when the boy got to his own door he had reason for being half dead. And even then it would not leave him, but followed him upstairs with a bump on every stair, scrambled into bed with him, and bumped down, dead and heavy, on his breast when he fell asleep.

From his oppressed slumber, Young Jerry in his closet was awakened after daybreak and before sunrise, by the presence of his father in the family room. Something had gone wrong with him; at least, so Young Jerry inferred, from the circumstance of his holding Mrs. Cruncher by the ears, and knocking the back of her head against the head-board of the bed.

“I told you I would,” said Mr. Cruncher, “and I did.”

“Jerry, Jerry, Jerry!” his wife implored.

“You oppose yourself to the profit of the business,” said Jerry, “and me and my partners suffer. You was to honour and obey; why the devil don’t you?”

“I try to be a good wife, Jerry,” the poor woman protested, with tears.

“Is it being a good wife to oppose your husband’s business? Is it honouring your husband to dishonour his business? Is it obeying your husband to disobey him on the wital subject of his business?”

“You hadn’t taken to the dreadful business then, Jerry.”

“It’s enough for you,” retorted Mr. Cruncher, “to be the wife of a honest tradesman, and not to occupy your female mind with calculations when he took to his trade or when he didn’t. A honouring and obeying wife would let his trade alone altogether. Call yourself a religious woman? If you’re a religious woman, give me a irreligious one! You have no more nat’ral sense of duty than the bed of this here Thames river has of a pile, and similarly it must be knocked into you.”

The altercation was conducted in a low tone of voice, and terminated in the honest tradesman’s kicking off his clay-soiled boots, and lying down at his length on the floor. After taking a timid peep at him lying on his back, with his rusty hands under his head for a pillow, his son lay down too, and fell asleep again.

There was no fish for breakfast, and not much of anything else. Mr. Cruncher was out of spirits, and out of temper, and kept an iron pot-lid by him as a projectile for the correction of Mrs. Cruncher, in case he should observe any symptoms of her saying Grace. He was brushed and washed at the usual hour, and set off with his son to pursue his ostensible calling.

Young Jerry, walking with the stool under his arm at his father’s side along sunny and crowded Fleet-street, was a very different Young Jerry from him of the previous night, running home through darkness and solitude from his grim pursuer. His cunning was fresh with the day, and his qualms were gone with the night — in which particulars it is not improbable that he had compeers in Fleet-street and the City of London, that fine morning.

“Father,” said Young Jerry, as they walked along: taking care to keep at arm’s length and to have the stool well between them: “what’s a Resurrection–Man?”

Mr. Cruncher came to a stop on the pavement before he answered, “How should I know?”

“I thought you knowed everything, father,” said the artless boy.

“Hem! Well,” returned Mr. Cruncher, going on again, and lifting off his hat to give his spikes free play, “he’s a tradesman.”

“What’s his goods, father?” asked the brisk Young Jerry.

“His goods,” said Mr. Cruncher, after turning it over in his mind, “is a branch of Scientific goods.”

“Persons’ bodies, ain’t it, father?” asked the lively boy.

“I believe it is something of that sort,” said Mr. Cruncher.

“Oh, father, I should so like to be a Resurrection–Man when I’m quite growed up!”

Mr. Cruncher was soothed, but shook his head in a dubious and moral way. “It depends upon how you dewelop your talents. Be careful to dewelop your talents, and never to say no more than you can help to nobody, and there’s no telling at the present time what you may not come to be fit for.” As Young Jerry, thus encouraged, went on a few yards in advance, to plant the stool in the shadow of the Bar, Mr. Cruncher added to himself: “Jerry, you honest tradesman, there’s hopes wot that boy will yet be a blessing to you, and a recompense to you for his mother!”

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Last updated Friday, March 7, 2014 at 15:30