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A Tale of Two Cities

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A large cask of wine had been dropped and broken, in the street. The accident had happened in getting it out of a cart; the cask had tumbled out with a run, the hoops had burst, and it lay on the stones just outside the door of the wine-shop, shattered like a walnut-shell. A large wine cask had been dropped and lay broken in the street. The accident happened while people were taking it out of a cart. The cask had rolled out quickly, its hoops burst, and it now lay on the stones just outside the door of the wine-shop, shattered like a walnut-shell.
All the people within reach had suspended their business, or their idleness, to run to the spot and drink the wine. The rough, irregular stones of the street, pointing every way, and designed, one might have thought, expressly to lame all living creatures that approached them, had dammed it into little pools; these were surrounded, each by its own jostling group or crowd, according to its size. Some men kneeled down, made scoops of their two hands joined, and sipped, or tried to help women, who bent over their shoulders, to sip, before the wine had all run out between their fingers. Others, men and women, dipped in the puddles with little mugs of mutilated earthenware, or even with handkerchiefs from women’s heads, which were squeezed dry into infants’ mouths; others made small mud-embankments, to stem the wine as it ran; others, directed by lookers-on up at high windows, darted here and there, to cut off little streams of wine that started away in new directions; others devoted themselves to the sodden and lee-dyed pieces of the cask, licking, and even champing the moister wine-rotted fragments with eager relish. There was no drainage to carry off the wine, and not only did it all get taken up, but so much mud got taken up along with it, that there might have been a scavenger in the street, if anybody acquainted with it could have believed in such a miraculous presence. Everyone nearby had stopped what they were doing and ran to drink the spilled wine. The street’s cobblestones were oddly shaped and stuck out in all directions, as if they were made just to injure those who walked on them. The stones divided the spilled wine into little puddles, and a crowd proportional to each puddle’s size surrounded each one. Some men kneeled down and made scoops with their hands, and sipped. Or they tried to give sips to the women bending over them before the wine ran out between their fingers. Other men and women dipped old clay mugs into the puddles, or even soaked the wine up with women’s headscarves then squeezed it into their babies’ mouths. Others piled up mounds of mud to stop the flow of wine. Others, directed by people watching from the windows above, ran around trying to stop the little streams. Others concentrated on the red pieces of the cask, licking or chewing the wine-soaked wood eagerly. There was no drainage system to carry away the wine, and not only did the people drink all the wine, but so much mud was cleared away with it that people might have thought a street cleaner had come by, if any of them believed a street cleaner would actually come to such a poor neighborhood.
A shrill sound of laughter and of amused voices—voices of men, women, and children—resounded in the street while this wine game lasted. There was little roughness in the sport, and much playfulness. There was a special companionship in it, an observable inclination on the part of every one to join some other one, which led, especially among the luckier or lighter-hearted, to frolicsome embraces, drinking of healths, shaking of hands, and even joining of hands and dancing, a dozen together. When the wine was gone, and the places where it had been most abundant were raked into a gridiron-pattern by fingers, these demonstrations ceased, as suddenly as they had broken out. The man who had left his saw sticking in the firewood he was cutting, set it in motion again; the women who had left on a door-step the little pot of hot ashes, at which she had been trying to soften the pain in her own starved fingers and toes, or in those of her child, returned to it; men with bare arms, matted locks, and cadaverous faces, who had emerged into the winter light from cellars, moved away, to descend again; and a gloom gathered on the scene that appeared more natural to it than sunshine. The sounds of laughter and amused voices, coming from men, women, and children, sounded in the street while the people drank up the wine. There was a little roughness to the event, and a lot of playfulness. There was a special camaraderie in it, an urge in everyone to join in with someone else. This led, especially among the light-hearted ones, to playful hugs, toasts, and handshakes, and even to as many as a dozen people joining hands and dancing. When the wine was gone, and one could see the patterns in the mud where people had scratched it to get wine, the festivities abruptly ended. The man who had left his saw stuck in the firewood he was cutting went back to work. The women returned to their door-steps where they had left little pots of hot ashes, in which they tried to ease the pain in their own hungry fingers and toes or in those of their children. Sleeveless men with dirty, matted hair and thin faces who had crept out of cellars into the daylight went back inside. The mood on the street returned to its natural gloom.

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