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A Tale of Two Cities

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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. England didn’t have much law and order to brag about, either. Even in London, armed bandits broke into people’s houses and travelers were robbed on the highways every night. Families were warned to lock their furniture away in storehouses before leaving town. The man who was a highway robber at night was a businessman during the day, and when the man he robbed recognized and confronted him, the robber shot him in the head and rode away. Seven robbers once attacked a mail coach, and a policeman shot three of them dead. But he was then shot by the other four when his weapon failed to go off. After that, the robbers were able to rob the coach without being disturbed. Even our fearless leader, the mayor of London, was attacked in front of his whole entourage by a single highway robber. In the London jails, prisoners fought with their guards, and the guards opened fire on the prisoners. Thieves stole necklaces with diamond crosses off the necks of lords at court. Soldiers entered the St. Giles house looking for stolen goods, and the mob opened fire on them, so they fired back, and no one thought any of these events the least bit unusual. During all of this, the executioner was in constant demand, despite being terrible at his job. He would hang a burglar on a Saturday who had only been arrested that Tuesday. He would brand dozens of people’s hands at Newgate and then burn controversial pamphlets in front of Westminster Hall. One day he might execute a terrible murderer, and the next day he would execute a poor thief who had stolen a few pennies from a farmer’s son.
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. All of these events, and a thousand others like them, happened in and around the year 1775. In this atmosphere, with Death and Fate working quietly, those stern-looking kings and plain and beautiful queens of England and France carried on confidently, ruling by their divine right with a high hand. Through it all, Fate and Death worked without impediment. And so, in 1775, these two royal couples, and many of their citizens whose stories are told in this book, headed toward their destinies.

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