Reclaiming the Jackal
Things were different for Sydney Carton; and yet, not completely different. Surprisingly, although the two men came from vastly different backgrounds, there were several parallels and similarities between their childhood experiences.
Sydney was born the son of a lawyer in rural England--the county of Shropshire, to be exact--in the spring of 1754. The Carton family's lodgings were modest, to say the least; squalid, to say the most; to say the truth, they were poor. In rural areas like the town of Wimberton, there wasn't much call for legal counsel, John Carton's only trade. Neighbors usually settled their differences with either fists or friendly compromise (usually the former), and had no need or means to pay a lawyer to do that for them. The only ones in the whole county affluent enough to pay the fee of even a country lawyer were the local noblemen, and nobody ever thought of crossing them. It was a poor, quiet county; and John Carton saw little to no business.
Things looked worse and worse for the Cartons--they felt certain that in a few months' time they would go to debtors' prison--when a new, promising opportunity came in the form of war. With the promise of a regular income beckoning, John joined the British regular army and sailed off to fight the French in the North American colonies, leaving behind a three-year-old son and a weeping wife.
They waved to the ship as it left Bristol, Sarah holding her little son's arm aloft and aiding him in his farewell. The ship was too far from shore already, and they could not see whether or not John waved back; but Sarah believed that he did, and she whispered "Goodbye" to him as the ship disappeared beyond the horizon. It is unfortunate that in the English language there is only one word that means "Goodbye"; it sometimes does not sufficiently communicate the full meaning behind our partings. Had Sarah known anything of the language of France, she might have chosen a more specific word; while other women around her were bidding their loves "au revoir", she would have murmured "adieu" to her husband, because she felt certain that he was not coming back.
Sydney was blissfully unconscious of the finality of this departure; and soon after he had waved to the departing ship, he grew tired of watching it sail away. He ran off to play with the butterflies and wildflowers, wondering only vaguely when his father would come back.
John Carton served his country well, fighting in many hard battles on the North American continent, among them the Battles of Fort William Henry, Fort Frontenac, and Fort Duquesne. Only once was he injured; a musket ball grazed his right leg at William Henry, and although the wound was not serious and would heal in the course of a few weeks, it left him with a distinct limp. The leg was very painful to walk on, but Carton bore it; when it became too much to walk, he would hop until he got where he needed to be. He never let his leg keep him from fighting as hard as the rest of his division, and many times he placed himself in the very front. Some began to jokingly call him "The Courageous Cripple", or "The Ludicrous Limper", depending upon their disposition towards him.
Carton received his soldiers' pay monthly, and sent almost all of it directly home to Sarah, taking only what he needed from it. He often sent along notes, indicating what it should be used for; "Buy new shoes," "Pay the rent out of this," "Use this for winter coats." November's salary he would send home with the following notice: "Get a good Christmas goose for you and for Sydney, and with whatever is left over help others to buy their Christmas dinner. Pray, dear, for a quick end to this war and a Christmas spent together." Sarah would spend very little of the money. After living so long off of such little income, the regular salary was far more than the family of two needed; Sarah would spend what she had to, and save the rest. At Christmas, she would obey her husband's wishes and buy a goose for dinner; but only the smallest one she could find in the market. She gave the rest to the poor; enough to buy dinner for five entire families.
In August of 1759, Carton sent home the monthly salary with the following note: "Set what you can of this aside for Sydney's education."
Early in the morning of September 13, 1759, General Wolfe led 5,000 British soldiers up the cliffs at Anse au Foulon, up to the Plains of Abraham where sat the city of Quebec. John Carton marched with the first of the columns; they were ordered not to fire as the French attacked them.
The French firing was heavy. Men fell all around, and still the British soldiers marched forward, holding their fire. The standard-bearer fell, the soldier carrying the British flag that they all looked to with pride and confidence; some French bullet had gotten lucky, and pierced his chest. The flag began to fall--a few more seconds and it would be trampled underfoot--but it never reached the ground. Another pair of hands had caught it, and even now held it high. It was John Carton.
Carton carried the flag of the British Empire proudly and firmly, never letting it droop to the ground, all through the attack. It took just fifteen minutes, once the British troops were ordered to fire, for the French army to be forced into retreat; their ammunition had been wasted early, and they had nothing to fire back at the British with now. When the attack was over and they found that the French were running, John Carton handed the British flag to a nearby fellow soldier; then he collapsed to the ground, unconscious. Startled, some of the men dropped to his side to find out what was wrong. Once they had turned Carton over, the cause was clear; there were at least twenty, if not more, bullet holes in his chest, each one leaking his life's blood onto the ground. He, like so many others lying senseless on the field, died within the hour.
They were alone, those wounded of the battle; each lying oblivious to his death-mates, unable to hear the morning winds, to smell the stench of the fight still lingering over the ground, to feel the pain. Perhaps it was best all around that they could not feel death overtake them. They lay in many and varied positions, some in contortions that spoke of pain and wounds, others in the perfectly natural poses of peaceful sleep. A sleep from which they would never wake, and hopefully be better for it.
Two figures alone knew the solitude, the sorrow of the battlefield after the battle. John Carton, briefly awakened from his blissful, if only temporary, unconsciousness, and a young man in officers' uniform kneeling by his side. They spoke in whispers, though nobody around them would ever overhear.
"Please, sir, do not waste your time at my side. Surely the general needs your attention--" Carton's voice came out in gasps and wheezes, testifying to the very large amount of blood gathered in his lungs; every now and then he would cough helplessly for minutes at a time. He surely would not live long now.
"John, the time for formalities is long past," the officer said softly. "Please, call me Timothy, and nothing more. And as for the general, he died fifteen minutes ago, God rest his soul. I came to you as soon as I heard what had happened."
"Nothing happened out of the ordinary, Timothy--" he paused to cough before continuing; "--it was a good battle. I only wish I could have helped more."
"Helped more? John, you helped more than anyone else did today, carrying the flag for us. Had it not been for you, the King's flag would have been trampled underfoot and the regiments scattered. The wounds you suffered while carrying it are enough to qualify you for the Medal of Honor--but they won't give it to you, damn them. I know those imbeciles in London far too well for that. You'll get passed over, I'm afraid, because you came from common blood." Timothy snorted disdainfully. "What does that prove, I ask you."
"Timothy, you yourself are of noble blood. Don't insult them, please, sir; they do what they think is right. And I don't want any decoration; I just want my family to be cared for."
"I'll take care of that, John, don't worry. They'll be provided for; they'll get the compensation due you for your services and bravery, if I have to give it them out of my own pocket." Carton started coughing again, and Timothy waited patiently until the fit was over. "Calm yourself, John. Relax."
"Thank you, Lieutenant--"
"I told you, it's Timothy, and nothing more."
"Timothy. You've been a friend to me, and I thank you for it. Please, watch over my Sarah; see that little Sydney grows up well provided for; please, Timothy, I beg you." His voice became faint, so much so that Timothy could hardly hear it. "They don't know what's become of me. Tell them . . . I don't want them to wait months and months before finally assuming the worst, or to hear it from a cold-hearted official notice . . . please tell them . . ." His eyes wandered all around the sky, searching for something but never finding it. "Oh, Sarah . . ."
Lieutenant Timothy Wakefield closed John Carton's eyes gently and left him in peace, but not without shedding a single tear of grief over the friend he had known but for a few months.
He kept his word. From that day forward he sent the amount that John Carton would have sent back to Sarah every month, and nothing would have been out of the ordinary--if it hadn't been for the missing notes. Sarah wondered why the notes never came anymore, but continued to obey her husband's wishes, the last one she heard from him and the request he made every November. Every Christmas she bought a goose and gave alms to the poor; the rest of the extra money she set aside for Sydney and his education. The boy was growing rapidly. By the spring of 1763, he was nine years old and restless. He was always looking for something or other to do; nothing satisfied him. He was as active as the birds that nested in the thatched roof of their cottage, and as curious as the stray cats that nosed about. So when a fancy carriage drew up in front of the house and a fine footman opened the door to let out a gentleman, he decided that here was some excitement at last. The gentleman, who wore fine, elegant clothes and stood up straight, knocked on the door of the cottage and bowed to his mother respectfully. In some shock at this display of courtesy to a poor woman and also some embarrassment at the poor lodgings, she invited him in, and they talked for a very long time. Sydney listened through the walls, curious.
They spoke in soft voices. Sydney could distinctly hear his mother's sobs, but not much else. A few of the gentleman's words slipped through to his waiting ears; ". . . died at Quebec . . . four years ago . . . bravely . . . hero . . . deserves a decoration . . . asked me to provide for you." Then he heard one sentence, very distinctly: "Your husband will never receive the honor he deserves, and it saddens me to know that his actions will never be rewarded."
His actions will never be rewarded. The thought would not go away, no matter how many nights Sydney lay awake in his bed banishing it. He could never forget what the gentleman said, that his father did something great, and would never be repaid for it. His actions will never be rewarded.
The mind of a boy is supple and easily impressed upon. It also tends to generalize the things he hears. Soon, the phrase he had heard and could never forget--his actions will never be rewarded--soon, that phrase inevitably became shortened to a simple philosophy. Actions will never be rewarded. And as he would never forget the phrase, he likewise would never forget that child's philosophy he had unconsciously developed. Actions will never be rewarded. Well, he reasoned, if actions are not rewarded, there is no reason to do them. Such is the reasoning of a young boy. He adopted this simplistic philosophy without even realizing it from then on. He refused to do work at all. His mother, still absorbed in sorrow, perhaps did not realize this at first; at any rate, she never acknowledged the change, and so it was never halted as it should have been. Sydney became a thorough slacker, careless about his appearance and lazy in his ways, and by the time his mother finally noticed it, the time in which the change might have been stopped and turned around was long past. There was nothing she could do.
Timothy Wakefield soon became, on the death of his aging father, Lord Wakefield, and he never forgot to send Sarah Carton a sum of money every month--this time, it was many times greater a sum than the soldier's salary they had been receiving. It was enough money for them to move to the city and live in a fine house; but Sarah was set in her frugal ways. No matter how much money came, she used the least amount possible, and set the rest aside--always for Sydney's education, as John had willed in that last note. She treated that last note as his final will and testament. Whatever money was left over after the necessary expenses had been paid was saved, for Sydney's education. Eventually, two things happened at once; Sydney turned twelve, and Sarah realized that the amount she had saved was enough to send him to school for many years. She chose a prim, strict school near London for his education; in the autumn season of 1766, Sydney moved into a small room at Shrewsbury Boarding School, and behaved there the same way he had acted at home.
He didn't do his work. He received many beatings, blows, and various other punishments for it, but he never wavered in this. Even when he began to learn that there was some merit to work, some benefits reaped, he still did not do the work he was assigned. But somehow, he began to feel the need for some sort of redemption because of it; perhaps he felt his father's generous and brave instincts tugging on him, or perhaps he felt guilty, but in either case he started to do others' work for them. Nobody could tell why; the one friend he had picked up in the school, an older student by the name of Richard Stryver who was a full five years older than Sydney, attributed it to boredom, and nothing more. The truth was, even at the age of thirteen Sydney felt himself ingrained in the habit of slovenliness so deeply that he couldn't get out. He had dug a hole for himself, in a way, so deep that he couldn't climb the sides anymore; perhaps it was a grave. Some said so, but whether it was his mother's grave or his own that he was digging was left undecided.
Richard Stryver was somewhat more of a parasite to Sydney than a true friend, and in some ways the reverse was also true. They used each other to get where they wanted to go, and in this were mutually joined together. Stryver aspired to the legal profession, but lacked the intelligence to pass the necessary examinations; Sydney had the intelligence, but lacked the aspiration. So while Sydney helped Stryver pass his classes and examinations, Stryver helped Sydney by mapping out his life for him. As long as he would stay behind Stryver, he wouldn't have to worry about deciding what to do and how to make his living. Faced with this proposition of such a mutually beneficial life, Sydney began doing the necessary work to pass his classes--which he did with ease and hardly any work at all--and they both gained admittance to the Law School at the University of Paris in 1772. But law school would have to wait for a few months.
Soon after Sarah sent her son off to Shrewsbury School, an unexpected tragedy unsettled her life. Lord Wakefield died suddenly in a horse racing accident, and the money stopped coming. His heir had no interest in continuing to support a poor family he didn't even know. When Sarah realized what had happened, and that there would be no more money coming every month, she did what she thought was the only sensible thing. She refused to touch the money in savings, but immediately went into Wimberton and found work as a seamstress--practically the only honest work for a single woman.
The town center was three miles from the cottage. Sarah had no horse, and wouldn't have known how to ride it if she did. She walked the distance every day--once in the early dawn and again at dusk, in every kind of weather. In this way, she made enough money to live on, and not much more. Sydney, once at school, never left it to visit her--she hadn't expected him to, with the way he had changed--and she refused to let him know of her predicament in her letters. She lived in this poverty, never even considering using the money she had saved up, for five years, and in the harsh winter of 1772 she fell ill with a terrible cough. The cough deepened, and soon it was apparent that she had contracted pneumonia. She tried desperately to hide it from her employer, smothering her coughs and never slowing in her work, but soon it became apparent to everyone that she was terribly sick. As soon as the foreman discovered the illness, he did the only right thing--he fired her. He couldn't have the whole lot of his seamstresses falling ill and dying.
At least she didn't have to walk in the snow anymore. But without work, she had no income, and no way to buy the food she needed; which was all the same, anyway, since she hadn't the strength anymore to leave the house very much. In the springtime, she sent off a short note to Sydney at school, praying that it would reach him in time:
I am dying.
It took all her strength to post the letter, and the effort nearly killed her. But she managed it, as she had managed most everything else.
By the time Sydney had received the note and reached his mother's bedside, it was too late to do anything. She wouldn't send for the doctor in the early stages of the disease, claiming that it was too expensive and an unnecessary expense; now that Sydney could force her to send for him, there was nothing he could do. Sarah spent the last week of her life with her son at her side, and died as peacefully as she might.
Whatever hope Sydney had of getting out of the hole he had dug for himself was buried with his mother. Her death drove him deep into the despair of negligence, deeper than he ever could have by himself. From then on, he considered himself hopeless. He followed Stryver to university and through the forms of law school, until they were both called to the bar--Stryver in great triumph, Carton in great indifference--in 1777. They returned to London, forever partnered in the business, and started up their practice in the halls of the Old Bailey. Whatever case they undertook, they won; whatever case they won, Stryver took the credit for. But it was Carton who did the majority--nearly all--of the work. In a strange sort of paradox, he expected no recognition according to his nearly-forgotten--but still followed--philosophy, and because he expected no recognition, he wanted none. If he had received recognition for the work he did, he would have most likely become angry. But he never did, and so he lived his dreary life in relative contentment for some few years.
And then, in the year 1783, Stryver and Carton took charge of a case involving a property dispute--a most important and influential case, as the client in question was both influential and outrageously wealthy. Stryver was always the kind to look for opportunities for himself and snatch them up, so it was he who procured the case for them--but, oddly, it was not to be he who benefitted the most from it. This time, it was Carton who would find himself improved by the status of their client--the most important client they had counseled ever before, one Sir Percy Blakeney.