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Still Knitting

Page history last edited by Michael J 13 years ago

Madame Defarge and monsieur her husband returned amicably to the bosom

of Saint Antoine, while a speck in a blue cap toiled through the

darkness, and through the dust, and down the weary miles of avenue by

the wayside, slowly tending towards that point of the compass where the

chateau of Monsieur the Marquis, now in his grave, listened to the

whispering trees. Such ample leisure had the stone faces, now, for

listening to the trees and to the fountain, that the few village

scarecrows who, in their quest for herbs to eat and fragments of dead

stick to burn, strayed within sight of the great stone courtyard and

terrace staircase, had it borne in upon their starved fancy that the

expression of the faces was altered. A rumour just lived in the

village--had a faint and bare existence there, as its people had--that

when the knife struck home, the faces changed, from faces of pride to

faces of anger and pain; also, that when that dangling figure was

hauled up forty feet above the fountain, they changed again, and bore

a cruel look of being avenged, which they would henceforth bear

for ever. In the stone face over the great window of the bed-chamber

where the murder was done, two fine dints were pointed out in the

sculptured nose, which everybody recognised, and which nobody had

seen of old; and on the scarce occasions when two or three ragged

peasants emerged from the crowd to take a hurried peep at Monsieur

the Marquis petrified, a skinny finger would not have pointed to it

for a minute, before they all started away among the moss and leaves,

like the more fortunate hares who could find a living there.

 

Chateau and hut, stone face and dangling figure, the red stain on the

stone floor, and the pure water in the village well--thousands of acres

of land--a whole province of France--all France itself--lay under the

night sky, concentrated into a faint hair-breadth line. So does a

whole world, with all its greatnesses and littlenesses, lie in a

twinkling star. And as mere human knowledge can split a ray of light

and analyse the manner of its composition, so, sublimer intelligences

may read in the feeble shining of this earth of ours, every thought

and act, every vice and virtue, of every responsible creature on it.

 

The Defarges, husband and wife, came lumbering under the starlight,

in their public vehicle, to that gate of Paris whereunto their journey

naturally tended. There was the usual stoppage at the barrier

guardhouse, and the usual lanterns came glancing forth for the usual

examination and inquiry. Monsieur Defarge alighted; knowing one or

two of the soldiery there, and one of the police. The latter he was

intimate with, and affectionately embraced.

 

When Saint Antoine had again enfolded the Defarges in his dusky wings,

and they, having finally alighted near the Saint's boundaries, were

picking their way on foot through the black mud and offal of his streets,

Madame Defarge spoke to her husband:

 

"Say then, my friend; what did Jacques of the police tell thee?"

 

"Very little to-night, but all he knows. There is another spy

commissioned for our quarter. There may be many more, for all that

he can say, but he knows of one."

 

"Eh well!" said Madame Defarge, raising her eyebrows with a cool

business air. "It is necessary to register him. How do they

call that man?"

 

"He is English."

 

"So much the better. His name?"

 

"Barsad," said Defarge, making it French by pronunciation. But,

he had been so careful to get it accurately, that he then spelt

it with perfect correctness.

 

"Barsad," repeated madame. "Good. Christian name?"

 

"John."

 

"John Barsad," repeated madame, after murmuring it once to herself.

"Good. His appearance; is it known?"

 

"Age, about forty years; height, about five feet nine; black hair;

complexion dark; generally, rather handsome visage; eyes dark, face thin,

long, and sallow; nose aquiline, but not straight, having a peculiar

inclination towards the left cheek; expression, therefore, sinister."

 

"Eh my faith. It is a portrait!" said madame, laughing. "He shall

be registered to-morrow."

 

They turned into the wine-shop, which was closed (for it was midnight),

and where Madame Defarge immediately took her post at her desk,

counted the small moneys that had been taken during her absence,

examined the stock, went through the entries in the book, made other

entries of her own, checked the serving man in every possible way,

and finally dismissed him to bed. Then she turned out the contents

of the bowl of money for the second time, and began knotting them up

in her handkerchief, in a chain of separate knots, for safe keeping

through the night. All this while, Defarge, with his pipe in his mouth,

walked up and down, complacently admiring, but never interfering;

in which condition, indeed, as to the business and his domestic affairs,

he walked up and down through life.

 

The night was hot, and the shop, close shut and surrounded by so foul

a neighbourhood, was ill-smelling. Monsieur Defarge's olfactory

sense was by no means delicate, but the stock of wine smelt much

stronger than it ever tasted, and so did the stock of rum and brandy

and aniseed. He whiffed the compound of scents away, as he put down

his smoked-out pipe.

 

"You are fatigued," said madame, raising her glance as she knotted

the money. "There are only the usual odours."

 

"I am a little tired," her husband acknowledged.

 

"You are a little depressed, too," said madame, whose quick eyes had

never been so intent on the accounts, but they had had a ray or two

for him. "Oh, the men, the men!"

 

"But my dear!" began Defarge.

 

"But my dear!" repeated madame, nodding firmly; "but my dear!

You are faint of heart to-night, my dear!"

 

"Well, then," said Defarge, as if a thought were wrung out of his breast,

"it _is_ a long time."

 

"It is a long time," repeated his wife; "and when is it not a long time?

Vengeance and retribution require a long time; it is the rule."

 

"It does not take a long time to strike a man with Lightning,"

said Defarge.

 

"How long," demanded madame, composedly, "does it take to make and

store the lightning? Tell me."

 

Defarge raised his head thoughtfully, as if there were something

in that too.

 

"It does not take a long time," said madame, "for an earthquake to swallow

a town. Eh well! Tell me how long it takes to prepare the earthquake?"

 

"A long time, I suppose," said Defarge.

 

"But when it is ready, it takes place, and grinds to pieces everything

before it. In the meantime, it is always preparing, though it is not

seen or heard. That is your consolation. Keep it."

 

She tied a knot with flashing eyes, as if it throttled a foe.

 

"I tell thee," said madame, extending her right hand, for emphasis,

"that although it is a long time on the road, it is on the road and

coming. I tell thee it never retreats, and never stops. I tell thee

it is always advancing. Look around and consider the lives of all the

world that we know, consider the faces of all the world that we know,

consider the rage and discontent to which the Jacquerie addresses itself

with more and more of certainty every hour. Can such things last?

Bah! I mock you."

 

"My brave wife," returned Defarge, standing before her with his head

a little bent, and his hands clasped at his back, like a docile and

attentive pupil before his catechist, "I do not question all this.

But it has lasted a long time, and it is possible--you know well,

my wife, it is possible--that it may not come, during our lives."

 

"Eh well! How then?" demanded madame, tying another knot, as if

there were another enemy strangled.

 

"Well!" said Defarge, with a half complaining and half apologetic shrug.

"We shall not see the triumph."

 

"We shall have helped it," returned madame, with her extended hand in

strong action. "Nothing that we do, is done in vain. I believe, with

all my soul, that we shall see the triumph. But even if not, even if

I knew certainly not, show me the neck of an aristocrat and tyrant,

and still I would--"

 

Then madame, with her teeth set, tied a very terrible knot indeed.

 

"Hold!" cried Defarge, reddening a little as if he felt charged with

cowardice; "I too, my dear, will stop at nothing."

 

"Yes! But it is your weakness that you sometimes need to see your

victim and your opportunity, to sustain you. Sustain yourself without

that. When the time comes, let loose a tiger and a devil; but wait

for the time with the tiger and the devil chained--not shown--yet

always ready."

 

Madame enforced the conclusion of this piece of advice by striking

her little counter with her chain of money as if she knocked its brains

out, and then gathering the heavy handkerchief under her arm in a

serene manner, and observing that it was time to go to bed.

 

Next noontide saw the admirable woman in her usual place in the

wine-shop, knitting away assiduously. A rose lay beside her, and

if she now and then glanced at the flower, it was with no infraction

of her usual preoccupied air. There were a few customers, drinking

or not drinking, standing or seated, sprinkled about. The day was

very hot, and heaps of flies, who were extending their inquisitive

and adventurous perquisitions into all the glutinous little glasses

near madame, fell dead at the bottom. Their decease made no impression

on the other flies out promenading, who looked at them in the coolest

manner (as if they themselves were elephants, or something as far

removed), until they met the same fate. Curious to consider how heedless

flies are!--perhaps they thought as much at Court that sunny summer day.

 

A figure entering at the door threw a shadow on Madame Defarge which

she felt to be a new one. She laid down her knitting, and began to

pin her rose in her head-dress, before she looked at the figure.

 

It was curious. The moment Madame Defarge took up the rose, the

customers ceased talking, and began gradually to drop out of the

wine-shop.

 

"Good day, madame," said the new-comer.

 

"Good day, monsieur."

 

She said it aloud, but added to herself, as she resumed her knitting:

"Hah! Good day, age about forty, height about five feet nine, black

hair, generally rather handsome visage, complexion dark, eyes dark,

thin, long and sallow face, aquiline nose but not straight, having a

peculiar inclination towards the left cheek which imparts a sinister

expression! Good day, one and all!"

 

"Have the goodness to give me a little glass of old cognac, and a

mouthful of cool fresh water, madame."

 

Madame complied with a polite air.

 

"Marvellous cognac this, madame!"

 

It was the first time it had ever been so complemented, and Madame

Defarge knew enough of its antecedents to know better. She said,

however, that the cognac was flattered, and took up her knitting.

The visitor watched her fingers for a few moments, and took the

opportunity of observing the place in general.

 

"You knit with great skill, madame."

 

"I am accustomed to it."

 

"A pretty pattern too!"

 

"_You_ think so?" said madame, looking at him with a smile.

 

"Decidedly. May one ask what it is for?"

 

"Pastime," said madame, still looking at him with a smile while her

fingers moved nimbly.

 

"Not for use?"

 

"That depends. I may find a use for it one day. If I do--Well,"

said madame, drawing a breath and nodding her head with a stern kind

of coquetry, "I'll use it!"

 

It was remarkable; but, the taste of Saint Antoine seemed to be

decidedly opposed to a rose on the head-dress of Madame Defarge.

Two men had entered separately, and had been about to order drink, when,

catching sight of that novelty, they faltered, made a pretence of

looking about as if for some friend who was not there, and went away.

Nor, of those who had been there when this visitor entered, was there one

left. They had all dropped off. The spy had kept his eyes open, but had

been able to detect no sign. They had lounged away in a poverty-stricken,

purposeless, accidental manner, quite natural and unimpeachable.

 

"_John_," thought madame, checking off her work as her fingers knitted,

and her eyes looked at the stranger. "Stay long enough, and I shall

knit `BARSAD' before you go."

 

"You have a husband, madame?"

 

"I have."

 

"Children?"

 

"No children."

 

"Business seems bad?"

 

"Business is very bad; the people are so poor."

 

"Ah, the unfortunate, miserable people! So oppressed, too--as you say."

 

"As _you_ say," madame retorted, correcting him, and deftly knitting

an extra something into his name that boded him no good.

 

"Pardon me; certainly it was I who said so, but you naturally think so.

Of course."

 

"_I_ think?" returned madame, in a high voice. "I and my husband

have enough to do to keep this wine-shop open, without thinking. All

we think, here, is how to live. That is the subject _we_ think of,

and it gives us, from morning to night, enough to think about, without

embarrassing our heads concerning others. _I_ think for others? No, no."

 

The spy, who was there to pick up any crumbs he could find or make, did

not allow his baffled state to express itself in his sinister face; but,

stood with an air of gossiping gallantry, leaning his elbow on Madame

Defarge's little counter, and occasionally sipping his cognac.

 

"A bad business this, madame, of Gaspard's execution. Ah! the poor

Gaspard!" With a sigh of great compassion.

 

"My faith!" returned madame, coolly and lightly, "if people use knives

for such purposes, they have to pay for it. He knew beforehand what

the price of his luxury was; he has paid the price."

 

"I believe," said the spy, dropping his soft voice to a tone that

invited confidence, and expressing an injured revolutionary

susceptibility in every muscle of his wicked face: "I believe there

is much compassion and anger in this neighbourhood, touching the

poor fellow? Between ourselves."

 

"Is there?" asked madame, vacantly.

 

"Is there not?"

 

"--Here is my husband!" said Madame Defarge.

 

As the keeper of the wine-shop entered at the door, the spy saluted

him by touching his hat, and saying, with an engaging smile, "Good

day, Jacques!" Defarge stopped short, and stared at him.

 

"Good day, Jacques!" the spy repeated; with not quite so much

confidence, or quite so easy a smile under the stare.

 

"You deceive yourself, monsieur," returned the keeper of the

wine-shop. "You mistake me for another. That is not my name.

I am Ernest Defarge."

 

"It is all the same," said the spy, airily, but discomfited too:

"good day!"

 

"Good day!" answered Defarge, drily.

 

"I was saying to madame, with whom I had the pleasure of chatting when

you entered, that they tell me there is--and no wonder!--much sympathy

and anger in Saint Antoine, touching the unhappy fate of poor Gaspard."

 

"No one has told me so," said Defarge, shaking his head. "I know

nothing of it."

 

Having said it, he passed behind the little counter, and stood with

his hand on the back of his wife's chair, looking over that barrier

at the person to whom they were both opposed, and whom either of them

would have shot with the greatest satisfaction.

 

The spy, well used to his business, did not change his unconscious

attitude, but drained his little glass of cognac, took a sip of fresh

water, and asked for another glass of cognac. Madame Defarge poured it

out for him, took to her knitting again, and hummed a little song over it.

 

"You seem to know this quarter well; that is to say, better than I do?"

observed Defarge.

 

"Not at all, but I hope to know it better. I am so profoundly interested

in its miserable inhabitants."

 

"Hah!" muttered Defarge.

 

"The pleasure of conversing with you, Monsieur Defarge, recalls to me,"

pursued the spy, "that I have the honour of cherishing some interesting

associations with your name."

 

"Indeed!" said Defarge, with much indifference.

 

"Yes, indeed. When Doctor Manette was released, you, his old domestic,

had the charge of him, I know. He was delivered to you. You see I am

informed of the circumstances?"

 

"Such is the fact, certainly," said Defarge. He had had it conveyed

to him, in an accidental touch of his wife's elbow as she knitted and

warbled, that he would do best to answer, but always with brevity.

 

"It was to you," said the spy, "that his daughter came; and it was

from your care that his daughter took him, accompanied by a neat brown

monsieur; how is he called?--in a little wig--Lorry--of the bank of

Tellson and Company--over to England."

 

"Such is the fact," repeated Defarge.

 

"Very interesting remembrances!" said the spy. "I have known Doctor

Manette and his daughter, in England."

 

"Yes?" said Defarge.

 

"You don't hear much about them now?" said the spy.

 

"No," said Defarge.

 

"In effect," madame struck in, looking up from her work and her little

song, "we never hear about them. We received the news of their safe

arrival, and perhaps another letter, or perhaps two; but, since then,

they have gradually taken their road in life--we, ours--and we have

held no correspondence."

 

"Perfectly so, madame," replied the spy. "She is going to be married."

 

"Going?" echoed madame. "She was pretty enough to have been married

long ago. You English are cold, it seems to me."

 

"Oh! You know I am English."

 

"I perceive your tongue is," returned madame; "and what the tongue is,

I suppose the man is."

 

He did not take the identification as a compliment; but he made the

best of it, and turned it off with a laugh. After sipping his

cognac to the end, he added:

 

"Yes, Miss Manette is going to be married. But not to an Englishman;

to one who, like herself, is French by birth. And speaking of Gaspard

(ah, poor Gaspard! It was cruel, cruel!), it is a curious thing that

she is going to marry the nephew of Monsieur the Marquis, for whom

Gaspard was exalted to that height of so many feet; in other words,

the present Marquis. But he lives unknown in England, he is no

Marquis there; he is Mr. Charles Darnay. D'Aulnais is the name

of his mother's family."

 

Madame Defarge knitted steadily, but the intelligence had a palpable

effect upon her husband. Do what he would, behind the little counter,

as to the striking of a light and the lighting of his pipe, he was

troubled, and his hand was not trustworthy. The spy would have been

no spy if he had failed to see it, or to record it in his mind.

 

Having made, at least, this one hit, whatever it might prove to be worth,

and no customers coming in to help him to any other, Mr. Barsad paid

for what he had drunk, and took his leave: taking occasion to say, in a

genteel manner, before he departed, that he looked forward to the pleasure

of seeing Monsieur and Madame Defarge again. For some minutes after he

had emerged into the outer presence of Saint Antoine, the husband and

wife remained exactly as he had left them, lest he should come back.

 

"Can it be true," said Defarge, in a low voice, looking down at his

wife as he stood smoking with his hand on the back of her chair: "what

he has said of Ma'amselle Manette?"

 

"As he has said it," returned madame, lifting her eyebrows a little,

"it is probably false. But it may be true."

 

"If it is--" Defarge began, and stopped.

 

"If it is?" repeated his wife.

 

"--And if it does come, while we live to see it triumph--I hope, for

her sake, Destiny will keep her husband out of France."

 

"Her husband's destiny," said Madame Defarge, with her usual composure,

"will take him where he is to go, and will lead him to the end that is

to end him. That is all I know."

 

"But it is very strange--now, at least, is it not very strange"--said

Defarge, rather pleading with his wife to induce her to admit it,

"that, after all our sympathy for Monsieur her father, and herself,

her husband's name should be proscribed under your hand at this moment,

by the side of that infernal dog's who has just left us?"

 

"Stranger things than that will happen when it does come," answered

madame. "I have them both here, of a certainty; and they are both

here for their merits; that is enough."

 

She rolled up her knitting when she had said those words, and presently

took the rose out of the handkerchief that was wound about her head.

Either Saint Antoine had an instinctive sense that the objectionable

decoration was gone, or Saint Antoine was on the watch for its

disappearance; howbeit, the Saint took courage to lounge in, very

shortly afterwards, and the wine-shop recovered its habitual aspect.

 

In the evening, at which season of all others Saint Antoine turned

himself inside out, and sat on door-steps and window-ledges, and

came to the corners of vile streets and courts, for a breath of air,

Madame Defarge with her work in her hand was accustomed to pass from

place to place and from group to group: a Missionary--there were

many like her--such as the world will do well never to breed again.

All the women knitted. They knitted worthless things; but, the

mechanical work was a mechanical substitute for eating and drinking;

the hands moved for the jaws and the digestive apparatus: if the bony

fingers had been still, the stomachs would have been more famine-pinched.

 

But, as the fingers went, the eyes went, and the thoughts. And as

Madame Defarge moved on from group to group, all three went quicker

and fiercer among every little knot of women that she had spoken with,

and left behind.

 

Her husband smoked at his door, looking after her with admiration.

"A great woman," said he, "a strong woman, a grand woman, a frightfully

grand woman!"

 

Darkness closed around, and then came the ringing of church bells and

the distant beating of the military drums in the Palace Courtyard, as

the women sat knitting, knitting. Darkness encompassed them. Another

darkness was closing in as surely, when the church bells, then ringing

pleasantly in many an airy steeple over France, should be melted into

thundering cannon; when the military drums should be beating to drown

a wretched voice, that night all potent as the voice of Power and

Plenty, Freedom and Life. So much was closing in about the women

who sat knitting, knitting, that they their very selves were closing

in around a structure yet unbuilt, where they were to sit knitting,

knitting, counting dropping heads.

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