Reclaiming the Jackal
The story of Sydney Carton's self-sacrifice for the sake of a woman he loved has become famous in our times, and rightfully so. Carton's act was brave and compassionate, and deserves to be remembered throughout time. But very few people know the full truth of the matter--nay, the real story. The tale we know, for all its deserved greatness, is for the most part a lie; not intentionally so--those who first told it thought it to be true--but nonetheless, a lie. This erroneous story has become known as a Tale of Two Cities; the real story is more a tale of two men, their friendship, and their ingenuity which allowed each to aid the other in more ways than one.
Times were tumultuous then; the winds of change were whispering in the ears of a restless people; history itself was in the process of alteration at the hands of a few common men; but not here. Paris little heeded the fact that while her people either feasted and danced in great banquet halls or starved in the streets, a document was being drawn up that would change the face of France, by influence if not by direct action. The echoes of revolution that sounded so clear in the British colonies of North America were not heard in this France, not now; and it would be another thirteen years before those slow-moving sound waves would penetrate her borders and resound through the streets of Paris herself.
The only things in the streets of Paris now were the oppressive heat and weary noises typical to the month of July in this year of our Lord seventeen hundred and seventy-six, and the inevitable throngs of people.
People of all kinds filled the streets: beggar-women huddled on the sides in front of shops, chilled even in the heat by their perpetual sickness; students walked up and down the streets restlessly, looking either for a good and inexpensive eating-house or luck on their next examination (neither of which were easy to find); fine noblemen drove past in gilt carriages, heedless of the crowds ahead of the wheels, and not looking to either the right or the left; shopkeepers sweeping the dust around in front of their doors, making attempts to banish the beggars from lighting on his part of the street, only to be defied once he disappeared inside by a new crowd of beggars gathering where the old crowd used to be. It would have been a good melting-pot of social classes, had it not been for the remarkable fact that though these disparaging groups mingled in the same place, they never mixed. Even in the crowded streets, invisible barriers seemed to be set up between them all, blocking them from each others' notice; and this was most clearly seen in the spectacle of a passing carriage that would not even slow down to allow a peasant to get out of its way. It was the peasant's business to clear himself from the path of the nobleman's vehicle, not the nobleman's.
However, one such carriage, passing through the Rue de Richelieu this particular July morning, attracted a measure of curious attention from the very observant. As usual, the occupant of the carriage never turned his head to look at the masses of people lining the streets; but in this instance, this could be attributed to wandering thoughts, perhaps, and not callous indifference. The young man--quite young, no more than sixteen--wore an anxious and preoccupied look on his face. One could only guess where his thoughts might be--obviously, they were not in a carriage passing through the Rue de Richelieu. He was so preoccupied with his thoughts that he did not even notice the gradual slowing of the carriage, nor the limping of the horse that pulled it.
All at once, with a great neigh and rear, the horse pulled up short and the carriage stopped altogether. The horse, tired and in pain, was quite agitated, and continued to neigh and paw at a man in the middle of the street, who was trying vainly to calm it. The carriage's occupant got out and got hold of the horse's bridle--the driver, for his part, was scared out of his wits--and, remarkably, soon calmed the horse. He then turned to the unfortunate man who had tried to help.
To appreciate the very strange picture this conversation made, it is necessary to describe the appearance of the two men thus thrown together on a Parisian street. The occupant of the carriage was, quite obviously, a nobleman. His clothes were of the very latest fashion, and not a fold of fine cloth was out of place. He was quite tall, and his face wore an Anglo-Saxon look, very different from the French faces surrounding them. He wore his fair hair carefully brushed and lightly powdered, after the fashion of the times, and his skin was almost femininely white. Only one flaw did this obviously British aristocrat possess; the lids of his clear blue eyes drooped slightly, as if pulled down by iron weights.
The other man was slovenly dressed, almost as if he cared not whether his clothes were on him or not. The clothes so carelessly adorning his body were of plain black cloth, nearly threadbare, but clean; the mark of a student. He was of average height, and was forced to look up at the young man which he faced, even though he was obviously some years older than the nobleman. His hair was dark, almost black, and hung about his face in a haphazard manner; of course, it was not powdered, as the powder was too expensive. His complexion was dark, and a bit reddened by the sun; his eyes, as dark as his hair. But his face, too, bore the signs of the Anglo-Saxon race.
"I am sorry," the aristocrat was saying, "that my horse has caused you such trouble. I'm afraid I did not see what happened--could you enlighten me?"
"I think, sir, that I scared your horse," the other replied. "She was going lame, and I crossed the street here in front of your carriage, knowing that she had not the speed to run me over. It obviously startled her, and I apologize for it. May I help you, sir, in ascertaining what has caused your horse to pull up lame?"
"Yes, if you would. I didn't even notice it."
"She was limping in the front left leg," he said as he began to gingerly lift the indicated hoof. The student's mannerisms matched his appearance, nearly insolent in his carelessness, but he was gentle as a mother with the horse. The nobleman, who seemed to have such a charm with the horse, kept it calm while the student urged the leg to bend so that he could have a look at its shoe. Once the underside of the hoof was visible, the cause of the poor animal's pain was clear--a large stone was wedged in the hoof, digging into the horse's soft flesh every time it took a step. Careful not to startle the horse or cause it any more pain, the student slowly extracted the stone and tossed it to the side of the street, setting the horse's leg back down on the cobblestones.
"She ought to be fine now, I think," the student said. "If you don't want to go too fast, sir, I think she'll be all right until you get her somewhere where she can rest."
"Thank you." The nobleman looked hard at the student's face, trying to see something there. "You are English, aren't you?"
"Yes, sir, I am; a student of law from England. If I'm not mistaken, you are English as well."
"Yes, I am; though I have not seen England for many years."
"Strange that two men of England should meet by chance on a crowded Parisian street."
Still scrutinizing the student's face, the man replied, "I was just thinking that. Stranger still, that these English men would both speak French fluently. I have lived for many years in Paris, and I learned French almost at the same time I learned English; but you, also, speak French like a native, and yet you are simply a student here."
"Yes, sir, I have been in Paris four years. It seems I did not find it hard to pick up the French language, I suppose."
The nobleman seemed to be thinking about something for a very long time. The two men stood looking at one another in the middle of the street, attracting much attention from passers by, for several minutes. Finally the nobleman said, "I suppose so. Well, thank you again for your aid. I hope to meet you again."
"It is highly unlikely, sir," the student replied, "but I thank you for your kind wishes. Goodbye, sir."
They bowed to each other before leaving, the aristocrat in the most approved fashion and with consummate grace, the student a little awkwardly but without embarrassment; and then, they had parted ways. The nobleman entered his carriage once more, and it slowly began to move down the street. Hardly had it gone fifty feet when he realized he had forgotten to ask the student his name. He looked back, but the man had disappeared. Settling back against the seat, Percy Blakeney found he had something to occupy his thoughts besides his afflicted mother for a change.
"What a strange man," he thought. "He seemed to be hiding something that he didn't want me to see. He seemed to care for nothing, not even himself, and yet he treated the horse with the utmost kindness. . . . What could he be like, underneath his careless exterior? How curious . . ."
The student, once he had blended with the crowd, turned back to watch the carriage drive away. He saw the young nobleman look out of the window and back at the people; this last glimpse of the man ignited his brain into thought concerning him.
"He's not like the rest of the high-born crowd I've seen," he mused. "So young, and yet he seemed so sorrowful. It was like a great sadness hung over him. And why was he looking so hard at me? Was he trying to see through to my thoughts? Odd . . . I wonder what he thought he saw in me . . ."
"Carton!" The cry came from behind him, and quickly the student turned around to see a man some few years older than he, and yet still studying for the law, hurrying towards him.
"Carton, where did you disappear to, man?" he said jokingly. "Haven't seen you all day . . . not since yesterday's class, anyway. What mischief have you been making?"
Sydney Carton laughed, leaving thoughts of the aristocrat and his carriage--for the moment, at least--behind. "Stryver, I'm not sure I see what business that is of yours," he said. "Had an incident with a carriage just now, and that happens to be the only interesting part of my day."
"An interesting incident with a carriage, you say? I'll warrant that carriage contained some pretty lady to pique your interest!" Stryver laughed as the two students, one nearly too old to be a student but still one anyway, walked off in the direction of the university, mindful that with the morning's delay they just might be late.