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A Tale of Two Cities

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But indeed, at that time, putting to death was a recipe much in vogue with all trades and professions, and not least of all with Tellson’s. Death is Nature’s remedy for all things, and why not Legislation’s? Accordingly, the forger was put to Death; the utterer of a bad note was put to Death; the unlawful opener of a letter was put to Death; the purloiner of forty shillings and sixpence was put to Death; the holder of a horse at Tellson’s door, who made off with it, was put to Death; the coiner of a bad shilling was put to Death; the sounders of three-fourths of the notes in the whole gamut of Crime, were put to Death. Not that it did the least good in the way of prevention—it might almost have been worth remarking that the fact was exactly the reverse—but, it cleared off (as to this world) the trouble of each particular case, and left nothing else connected with it to be looked after. Thus, Tellson’s, in its day, like greater places of business, its contemporaries, had taken so many lives, that, if the heads laid low before it had been ranged on Temple Bar instead of being privately disposed of, they would probably have excluded what little light the ground floor bad, in a rather significant manner. But at that time, putting things to death was fashionable in every profession, especially at Tellson’s Bank. Death is nature’s cure for everything, including legal matters. Anyone who forged documents, wrote bad checks, or opened someone else’s mail was put to death. Anyone who stole as little as forty shillings and sixpence was sentenced to death. Anyone who stole a horse from the front of Tellson’s Bank or who made fake money was sentenced to death. The people who handled three-quarters of all the money used in crime were put to death. Not that it did any good in preventing new crimes. In fact, it probably had the opposite effect. But it simplified each case and tied up any loose ends in each matter. So Tellson’s Bank, in its heyday, had been responsible for the deaths of so many people that if you had placed all of their heads on top of Temple Bar instead of disposing of them privately, they would have blocked out the sunlight from the bank’s ground floor entirely.
Cramped in all kinds of dun cupboards and hutches at Tellson’s, the oldest of men carried on the business gravely. When they took a young man into Tellson’s London house, they hid him somewhere till he was old. They kept him in a dark place, like a cheese, until he had the full Tellson flavour and blue-mould upon him. Then only was he permitted to be seen, spectacularly poring over large books, and casting his breeches and gaiters into the general weight of the establishment. The old men who worked in the cramped quarters of Tellson’s Bank took their work seriously. When the bank hired a young man, they hid him away until he was old. When they hired a young man at Tellson’s London office, they kept him in a dark place and aged him, like a cheese, until he had the Tellson-flavor and mold grew on him. Only then was he allowed to be seen there, studying large books and strutting around with an air of self-importance.
Outside Tellson’s—never by any means in it, unless called in—was an odd-job-man, an occasional porter and messenger, who served as the live sign of the house. He was never absent during business hours, unless upon an errand, and then he was represented by his son: a grisly urchin of twelve, who was his express image. People understood that Tellson’s, in a stately way, tolerated the odd-job-man. The house had always tolerated some person in that capacity, and time and tide had drifted this person to the post. His surname was Cruncher, and on the youthful occasion of his renouncing by proxy the works of darkness, in the easterly parish church of Hounsditch, he had received the added appellation of Jerry. Outside of the bank was a man who did odd jobs and sometimes acted as a porter or messenger. He never came inside, unless he was called in for a particular purpose. This man was like a living shop sign for the bank. He was always there during business hours unless he was out on an errand. If he was away, his son, a dirty twelve-year-old scamp who looked just like his father, took his place. People knew that the bank put up with this man. The bank always had someone working in this position, and through time and fate, this man had ended up with the job. His last name was Cruncher, and when he was baptized in the easterly parish church of Houndsditch, he had been given the first name of Jerry.
The scene was Mr. Cruncher’s private lodging in Hanging-sword-alley, Whitefriars: the time, half-past seven of the clock on a windy March morning, Anno Domini seventeen hundred and eighty. (Mr. Cruncher himself always spoke of the year of our Lord as Anna Dominoes: apparently under the impression that the Christian era dated from the invention of a popular game, by a lady who had bestowed her name upon it.) It was seven-thirty on a windy March morning in Mr. Cruncher’s apartment in Hanging Sword Alley, Whitefriars. The year was

Anno Domini

The Year of Our Lord

Anno Domini
1780. (Mr. Cruncher always called it “Anna Dominoes.” Apparently he thought the year of our Lord started the year the game of dominoes was invented by a woman named Anna.)

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