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A Tale of Two Cities

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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 Brothers’ might; but Tellson’s, thank Heaven!— Tellson’s Bank near Temple Bar was an old-fashioned place, even back in 1780. It was very small, very dark, very ugly, and very uncomfortable. The partners who ran the bank were old-fashioned too. They were proud of its smallness, darkness, ugliness, and discomfort. They even boasted that their bank was all these things, and they believed that it if hadn’t been so unpleasant, it wouldn’t have been so well respected. The bankers liked to brag about this to their competitors. Tellson’s Bank, they would say, didn’t need elbow room or bright light or fancy decorations. Maybe Noakes and Co. or Snooks Brothers needed these things, but not Tellson’s Bank!
Any one of these partners would have disinherited his son 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 sons for suggesting improvements in laws and customs that had long been highly objectionable, but were only the more respectable. Any one these partners would have disinherited his own son for suggesting they refurbish Tellson’s. In this way, Tellson’s was like England, which did often punish its citizens for trying to improve laws and customs. But the fact that people had objected to these laws and customs for so long made them more respected.
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 men 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 bands 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. In this way, Tellson’s Bank had become the ideal of inconvenience. You entered by struggling to push open the creaky old front door, then tripping down two steps to find yourself in the depressing little place. There were two little counters where extremely old men would take your check in their shaky hands and read your signature by the light coming through the dirty windows. These windows were always covered in the mud from Fleet Street and were made even darker by their iron bars and the shadow of Temple Bar. If you needed to see the head of the bank, you were sent to something like a holding cell, where you could think about your wasted life until the head of the bank came in with his hands in his pockets. He took your money out of, or put it into, rotten old dusty wooden drawers. Your money smelled old and stale, as if the bills were rotting. Your silverware was stored among this filth, and the putrid environment would quickly ruin its polish. Property deeds were stored in old kitchens and washrooms that had been turned into vaults, and all their moisture evaporated into the banking-house air. Boxes of family documents were stored upstairs in a room with a giant dining table, on which dinner was never served. Here, even back in 1780, old love letters and letters from your children would just have been spared the horror of being stared at by the severed heads placed on top of Temple Bar, the kind of barbarous act you would expect to see in ancient Abyssinia or Ashanti.

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