It is not morning in America.
Within the last year, the Treasury Department has bailed out AIG, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac and forced Bank of America to acquire Merrill Lynch while promising that Treasury would take care of Merrill’s losses on its mortgaged-backed securities. The Federal Reserve, a government-sponsored private bank, has provided hundreds of billions in credit support to faltering or insolvent banks. Details not provided. With letters from voters to Congress running hundreds to 1 against, Congress approved $700 billion in TARP funds for the Treasury Department to purchase banks’ toxic assets. It now turns out that no one can say, or is willing to say, how the first $350 billion or so of those funds were used or to whom they were paid.
To deal with the toxic assets it is purchasing in order to save the banks, the Treasury Department created a program under which companies can form public-private enterprises (PPEs) to buy pools of these assets from the Treasury and resell them. The Treasury or other government agency set up for this business will put up 7%, the private company will put up 7% and the PPE can obtain 86% government financing to purchase these toxic assets at a discounted price determined by the FDIC. The financing is nonrecourse, so if the PPE does not make enough money to repay the loan, the private company is not liable for the deficiency, and the losses are absorbed by the taxpayers. The result is that, after the taxpayers absorb the initial losses in value on the toxic assets in an amount determined by the FDIC, for 7% of the discounted value down, the private company in the PPE gets the chance to make a profit reselling the same toxic assets that it or its comrades in finance helped create in the first instance. Is this a great country or what?
The Administration forced a cram down of General Motor’s creditors and, with 67% of the American people opposing the plan, acquired a substantial ownership interest in GM and bailed it out. The federal government is now in the car as well as banking businesses.
With only about 37% of the American people supporting it and 43% opposing it, Congress passed a $787 billion spending spree bill to caffeinate the zombie economy. It’s money we don’t have. By its own estimates, the federal government is going to run a deficit this year of about 1.6 trillion dollars, and projects a ten-year estimated budget deficit in excess of $9 trillion. That’s on top of our existing national debt, and doesn’t include the interest costs the government is going to incur to pay on the bonds it issues to obtain that money.
Despite blowout deficits as far as the eye can see, despite the fact that the country is in a deep recession and possibly at the beginning of a long-term depression, the Obama Administration escalates the war in Afghanistan, continues the war in Iraq, effects no retrenchment in our empire of military bases or our commitments abroad, and proposes to increase spending on the military.
With respect to civil liberties, the Obama Administration continues the Bush Administration’s policies on indefinite detainment, rendition, electronic surveillance, trials by military tribunals and disregard of habeas corpus. While these gross violations continue, Attorney General Eric “Nation of Cowards” Holder has just announced that DOJ will be commissioning a preliminary investigation of CIA underlings who acted outside of the four corners of the Bush Administration’s guidelines on “enhanced interrogation” of terror suspects. By targeting, as its first priority, those who acted outside the guidelines, the DOJ diverts attention from the far more glaring problem of the legality of the guidelines themselves, which authorized practices that clearly constitute illegal torture. While the DOJ apparently plans to demonstrate our commitment to the “rule of law” by making examples of some low-level foot soldiers in the War on Terror, the architects of the program at the Department of Justice, like John Yoo, and in the Bush Administration, like Dick Cheney and George Bush, remain uninvestigated, uncharged, and free. It’s a pretty conclusive demonstration that the President and his administration are now above the law in this country.
According to statistics in a recent New York Times article, in the 30-year period, 1977—2007, median family income rose less than 1% per year, after adjustment for inflation, while the share of income of the top 1% of Americans rose from about 9% to 24%. In the last 3 decades, the wealthiest Americans succeeded in capturing the economic benefits of nearly all of the productivity gains and income growth. The rest of us were left to finance our lifestyles and children’s’ college educations with credit, indenturing ourselves to banks and credit card companies for decades.
One in nine Americans is now on food stamps. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the nationwide unemployment rate is 9.4%, but that’s a carefully crafted measurement largely recognized to understate the true state of affairs. The head of the Atlanta Federal Reserve has just publicly stated that, when you factor in the people who have stopped looking for jobs and those who want to work full-time but have only part-time jobs, the unemployment rate is currently 16%. He also delivered the news that manufacturing jobs are not coming back to the US.
According to a Financial Times article the other day, we have entered “a new stage in the foreclosure crisis that may not be easily addressed by government loan modification programmes”: mounting joblessness is now fueling the US housing crisis. As of the end of June, more than one in eight homeowners was either behind in mortgage payments or in the process of foreclosure. Meanwhile, jobs continue to be lost each month, and the Administration and financial press do victory dances simply because the rate of losses is declining. What world do these people live in?
It is hardly surprising that more and more Americans, who have rediscovered the reality of what it means to try to live within their means, are wondering what it will take to get “their” Congress and President to, first, recognize, and then, act in accord with, reality. Instead, they are treated to Congress’ and the Obama Administration’s efforts to reform the nation’s health care system, a new set of new programs and social insurance mandates that are estimated to cost another $1 to $1.6 trillion over the next ten years, will impose additional taxes on people earning in excess of $250,000 per year, and penalties on certain small businesses or penalties if they do not provide health insurance coverage to their employees.
And so, after a year in which the members of Congress have continually disregarded the voters’ wishes and committed them to trillions in debt to save the rich, the members of Congress, on return from the capital to the provinces this summer, have been caught unawares, completely surprised at the vitriol that has been directed at them in this summer’s town hall meetings. Some of the voters are calling them socialists or fascists, and waving the swastika at them! Some of the voters are spluttering with rage, are incoherent, or saying contradictory and stupid things, like telling their representatives that they don’t want government involved in health care, but don’t take away our Medicare! The folks at Comedy Central are having some fun with that. Look at these morons rage! Ah oui, c’est très amusante, cela!
Not everyone sees this as a source of hilarity or, like some pundits, a reason to bemoan the sad, infantile state of political “discourse” in this country. Trends forecaster Gerald Celente, citing the anger at this summer’s town hall meetings, says that we are in the early stages of “The Second American Revolution.” Whether it is true remains to be seen, but the prediction certainly echoes a vibrant chord of dissension running through the tenor of the times.
Celente’s name for the developing conflict is potentially misleading, in that it suggests, by implicit reference to the mythology of our first revolution, that the eventual outcome may be more freedom, not less. But as Bertrand de Jouvenel pointed out in his examination of the growth of power, historically, revolutions have always resulted in greater centralization of power, greater control over society’s resources by the state and greater tyranny, as some strong man or group found a way to harness and ride the rage to a new position of command.
What road are we on? Is the anger we see in town hall meetings limited to Congress’ attempt to reform our health care system? Are some of these people mad just because Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity have whipped them into a frenzy about socialism? Yeah, it’s possible, but then again, why were they able to do that? Some commentators have noted that the anger is being fueled by people’s anxiety and uncertainty over their jobs and what’s going to happen to them. No doubt that there’s something to that, but I suspect that it has a lot more to do with something they are not uncertain of at all, some fundamental truth that’s just been really rammed home, namely, that whatever happens, they’re the ones who pay. They’re the ones who must not only bear their own losses but recompense the losses of the architects of the disaster. They’re the ones who must adjust and whose income and lives must diminish, so that those who are too big to fail continue to receive their due, and can continue to live in the style to which they’ve become accustomed. They’re the ones who are supposed to be consoled by President Obama’s assurances that “our best days are ahead,” apparently coming right after they’ve finished paying a few trillion dollars to assure that our financiers’ best days continue to be right now.
Those who want to ponder the possibility of the things that can’t happen here may want to spend some time looking to literature and history in their reflection on current events, for a little additional perspective and illumination. At times during the last year I could not help but recall Charles Dickens’ famous description of the behavior of the ruling class and wealthy in the days preceding the French Revolution. It is an accomplishment of the best of our times that the times Dickens describes no longer seem so very different from our own, some horrific state of affairs that existed once, long ago, but which, mercifully, could never happen under so resplendent a democracy as ours, founded as it is on respect for the rights of man. I am referring, of course, to A Tale of Two Cities (1859), and particularly to Dickens’ portrayal of French society in Book II, Chapter 7, “Monseigneur in Town.”
For those who aren’t familiar with it, the story is a romance. One of the lovers, the man, is a decent enough fellow but, unfortunately for him, a member of a hated aristocratic family. He, his lover and her father must escape France and the fury of the mob. A not uncommon predicament at that time, apparently, as it is estimated that about 160,000 fled France during the Revolution, most of them aristocrats and clergy. As a novelist, Dickens was not trying to provide an analytical or historical explanation of the causes of the French Revolution. His task was simply to provide sufficient context so that his readers would understand the long pent-up rage breaking forth, sweeping the Ancien Régime away in a tsunami of blood and destruction, and his readers would feel the lovers’ great peril.
I have reprinted the chapter below. There is much that could be said about Dickens’ portrait of French society in the days before the Revolution, but the reader will enjoy mulling it over for himself. I think it worthwhile to draw attention to a few notable aspects.
First, while Dickens certainly alludes to, and occasionally describes, the extremes of wealth and poverty of that time, it is not this great discrepancy, but the behavior and attitudes of the upper classes that are the focal points of his description of pre-revolutionary French society. It is a great example of the subtlety of Dickens’ social and political observation. He tacitly recognizes that it is not the poverty of the masses, or the great wealth of the upper classes per se, but the way the upper classes behave and the way they treat the masses, that fuels the coming violence.
His portrait of this behavior is scathing. The preoccupations and diversions of their own class are their greatest care, and the basis for their administration of the state:
“Monseigneur was out at a little supper most nights, with fascinating company. So polite and so impressible was Monseigneur, that the Comedy and the Grand Opera had far more influence with him in the tiresome articles of state affairs and state secrets, than the needs of all France. . . . Monseigneur had one truly noble idea of general public business, which was, to let everything go on in its own way; of particular public business, Monseigneur had the other truly noble idea that it must all go his way — tend to his own power and pocket.”
The bubble world they have constructed for themselves, that they travel and live in, is so artificial, so isolated and shielded from the realities of everyday life and the conditions of human life that their own lives have become “unconnected with anything that [is] real.” or any “true earthly end.” While a few exceptional people among them have begun to have “some vague misgiving . . . that things in general were going rather wrong,” their focus and activities remain fixed on their own well-being. Their efforts to address this unease are of a “spiritual” nature, completely inward and self-absorbed:
“Besides these Dervishes, were other three who had rushed into another sect, which mended matters with a jargon about u2018the Centre of Truth:’ holding that Man had got out the Centre of Truth — which did not need much demonstration — but had not out of the Circumference, and that he was to be kept from flying out of the Circumference, and was even to be shoved back into the Centre, by fasting and seeing of spirits.”
Not for one instant does it occur to them to question, address or alter the actual way in which they live their lives, the conditions of their fellow man, or the fundamental structure of their society.
Certainly the upper classes don’t feel any kinship with the people, or feel that they, with them, are a part of some overall common society. Expecting that degree of feeling would be completely utopian. No, the French upper classes don’t recognize that they have anything to do with the people. The people are a completely different, and lower, order of being. They are not even human. When describing the aristocratic perspective, Dickens refers to the people as “dogs,” and “rats.”
And yet this indifference to and disassociation with their fellow man, this elevating conceit of the upper classes really is remarkable, and a fatal flaw, because the reality is that their wealth in fact comes from the people, from their labor and production, and the fate of the upper classes ultimately depends upon, and is completely bound up in, the condition of the people.
While our own ruling class may not have reached the extreme of behavior described by Dickens, we can see some degree of semblance of this indifference and disregard in the business practices of the last few decades. For example, over the last three decades, American companies eliminated manufacturing jobs here and had their goods made abroad, thereby lowering production costs, lowering prices and increasing sales and profits. What happened to the American skilled laborers who lost their jobs? Not the companies’ problem. Dickens’ description of consequences visited upon the common people by the actions of the upper classes is as accurate for America as it was for pre-revolutionary France: “In this matter, as in all others, the common wretches were left to get out of their difficulties as they could.” (Don’t think that, unlike then, the “safety net” provided by our welfare state makes some kind of difference. That prevents people from starving, at least as long as enough people still have jobs to pay the taxes that fund the programs. It does not create new productive enterprises that replace the lost ones.)
While moving manufacturing to low-cost venues abroad seemed a really good idea for the individual company, the reality was that this was not just the bright idea of one company, it fast became the bright idea of many manufacturers. So while the strategy promised increased profits, if enough Americans ceased making anything that people, somewhere in the world, wanted to buy, if enough Americans suffered this type of fate, who in America was going to buy all these goods, even at reduced prices?
Judging by the results, it would appear that factoring the long-term social and macroeconomic consequences of one’s business strategies into the formulation of those strategies is not a key lesson of the curriculum at America’s premier business schools or Fortune 500 internship, mentoring and manager training programs. Yet, if they’re not taken into account, if they’re always someone else’s problem, at some point the common wretches’ problems will become the companies’ problems, possibly at the point that they overwhelm everything else. If your business strategy is based on playing the timing game of get while the getting is good and the rest be damned, at some point time runs out, and the heap of money that you’ve made before that date may not really be enough to weather the storm, and may vanish in an instant. See, e.g., current events.
The final aspect of Dickens’ portrait that I wish to highlight is the blindness of the upper classes to the coming bloodbath, and the apparent unshakable security of their position almost right up to the day it breaks. They have no sense that they are pushing people closer and closer to the brink, and never have the slightest doubt but that they are secure in the power that their position and wealth confers, and their insulation from the conditions of the rest of their society. As Dickens portrays it, even at the edge of the precipice, there is still no sign of their danger or impending doom, and it seems that things will just go on the same way forever.
We see this in the second part of the chapter, where a Marquis’ carriage runs over a small child in the streets of Paris, and the carriage stops to secure the horses. A crowd forms around the Marquis’s carriage, but Dickens notes that “[t]here was nothing revealed by the many eyes that looked at him but watchfulness and eagerness; there was no visible menacing or anger.” The Marquis is imperial and speaks to people in the crowd, but does not doubt for one instant the security of his position. Nor would he have any cause to do so for, as Dickens notes, “[s]o cowed was their condition, and so long and hard their experience of what such a man could do to them, within the law and beyond it, that not a voice, or a hand, or even an eye was raised.” It seems such people could never rise up to overthrow anything. The people have been brought so low, so reined in that they have no option but to continue paying, carrying and kowtowing to this predatory and useless class. But the reader knows, as the Marquis does not, that this is an illusion, that the pressure is growing, that the tighter the controls, the worse they are treated, the harder they are squeezed, the greater the coming explosion will be. The reader knows, as the Marquis does not, the dam will soon break and these people, silent and cowed today, will be part of a bloodthirsty mob tomorrow.
The facts that there are no rumblings of revolt, no outbreaks of hostility, no displays of anger, that the people are as subdued and tractable, as fully under thumb as ever, are absolutely no indication that all is well, that matters are not coming to a head. This, of course, is what makes the disconnectedness and self-absorbed, self-regard of the upper classes all the more dangerous and, ultimately, fatal.
Dickens sees that, for those living at that time, the French Revolution was not a gradual, unfolding series of events, each more clearly foretelling the horror to come, but a sudden, complete rupture of the social order, cataclysmic, like an earthquake. The ground is solid, permanent, fixed and unmoving; nothing is more stable or certain. Yet underneath the pressure is building until one day it reaches a point where the plates suddenly slip. The earth moves, a chasm may open beneath one’s feet, and the landscape is forever altered.
It is because Dickens shows life shortly before the Revolution proceeding the same as ever, that the concluding words of his chapter are so powerful: “all things ran their course.” The aristocrats are attending their Fancy Ball and “the rats,” meaning the people, “are sleeping in their dark holes.” Nothing has changed. There are no new developments that give cause for concern. Life is proceeding in the same way, everything is as it should be, all’s right with the world and it’s bright and wonderful and marvelous. Yet, as readers with the hindsight of history, we know where this course leads, and how it ends.
“MONSEIGNEUR, one of the great lords in power at the Court, held his fortnightly reception in his grand hotel in Paris. Monseigneur was in his inner room, his sanctuary of sanctuaries, the Holiest of Holiests to the crowd of worshippers in the suite of rooms without. Monseigneur was about to take his chocolate. Monseigneur could swallow a great many things with ease, and was by some few sullen minds supposed to be rather rapidly swallowing France; but, his morning’s chocolate could not so much as get into the throat of Monseigneur, without the aid of four strong men besides the Cook.
Yes. It took four men, all four ablaze with gorgeous decoration, and the Chief of them unable to exist with fewer than two gold watches in his pocket, emulative of the noble and chaste fashion set by Monseigneur, to conduct the happy chocolate to Monseigneur’s lips. One lacquey carried the chocolate-pot into the sacred presence; a second, milled and frothed the chocolate with the little instrument he bore for that function; a third, presented the favoured napkin; a fourth (he of the two gold watches), poured the chocolate out. It was impossible for Monseigneur to dispense with one of these attendants on the chocolate and hold his high place under the admiring Heavens. Deep would have been the blot upon his escutcheon if his chocolate had been ignobly waited on by only three men; he must have died of two.
Monseigneur had been out at a little supper last night, where the Comedy and the Grand Opera were charmingly represented. Monseigneur was out at a little supper most nights, with fascinating company. So polite and so impressible was Monseigneur, that the Comedy and the Grand Opera had far more influence with him in the tiresome articles of state affairs and state secrets, than the needs of all France. A happy circumstance for France, as the like always is for all countries similarly favoured! — always was for England (by way of example), in the regretted days of the merry Stuart who sold it.
Monseigneur had one truly noble idea of general public business, which was, to let everything go on in its own way; of particular public business, Monseigneur had the other truly noble idea that it must all go his way — tend to his own power and pocket. Of his pleasures, general and particular, Monseigneur had the other truly noble idea, that the world was made for them. The text of his order (altered from the original by only a pronoun, which is not much) ran: “The earth and the fullness thereof are mine, saith Monseigneur.”
Yet, Monseigneur had slowly found that vulgar embarrassments crept into his affairs, both private and public; and he had, as to both classes of affairs, allied himself perforce with a Farmer-General. As to finances public, because Monseigneur could not make anything at all of them, and must consequently let them out to somebody who could; as to finances private, because Farmer-Generals were rich, and Monseigneur, after generations of great luxury and expense, was growing poor. Hence Monseigneur had taken his sister from a convent, while there was yet time to ward off the impending veil, the cheapest garment she could wear, and had bestowed her as a prize upon a very rich Farmer-General, poor in family. Which Farmer-General, carrying an appropriate cane with a golden apple on the top of it, was now among the company in the outer rooms, much prostrated before by mankind — always excepting superior mankind of the blood of Monseigneur, who, his own wife included, looked down upon him with the loftiest contempt.
A sumptuous man was the Farmer-General. Thirty horses stood in his stables, twenty-four male domestics sat in his halls, six body-women waited on his wife. As one who pretended to do nothing but plunder and forage where he could, the Farmer-General — howsoever his matrimonial relations conduced to social morality — was at least the greatest reality among the personages who attended at the hotel of Monseigneur that day.
For, the rooms, though a beautiful scene to look at, and adorned with every device of decoration that the taste and skill of the time could achieve, were, in truth, not a sound business; considered with any reference to the scarecrows in the rags and nightcaps elsewhere (and not so far off, either, but that the watching towers of Notre Dame, almost equidistant from the two extremes, could see them both), they would have been an exceedingly uncomfortable business — if that could have been anybody’s business, at the house of Monseigneur. Military officers destitute of military knowledge; naval officers with no idea of a ship; civil officers without a notion of affairs; brazen ecclesiastics, of the worst world worldly, with sensual eyes, loose tongues, and looser lives; all totally unfit for their several callings, all lying horribly in pretending to belong to them, but all nearly or remotely of the order of Monseigneur, and therefore foisted on all public employments from which anything was to be got; these were to be told off by the score and the score. People not immediately connected with Monseigneur or the State, yet equally unconnected with anything that was real, or with lives passed in travelling by any straight road to any true earthly end, were no less abundant. Doctors who made great fortunes out of dainty remedies for imaginary disorders that never existed, smiled upon their courtly patients in the ante-chambers of Monseigneur. Projectors who had discovered every kind of remedy for the little evils with which the State was touched, except the remedy of setting to work in earnest to root out a single sin, poured their distracting babble into any ears they could lay hold of, at the reception of Monseigneur. Unbelieving Philosophers who were remodelling the world with words, and making card-towers of Babel to scale the skies with, talked with Unbelieving Chemists who had an eye on the transmutation of metals, at this wonderful gathering accumulated by Monseigneur. Exquisite gentlemen of the finest breeding, which was at that remarkable time — and has been since — to be known by its fruits of indifference to every natural subject of human interest, were in the most exemplary state of exhaustion, at the hotel of Monseigneur. Such homes had these various notabilities left behind them in the fine world of Paris, that the spies among the assembled devotees of Monseigneur — forming a goodly half of the polite company — would have found it hard to discover among the angels of that sphere one solitary wife, who, in her manners and appearance, owned to being a Mother. Indeed, except for the mere act of bringing a troublesome creature into this world — which does not go far towards the realisation of the name of mother — there was no such thing known to the fashion. Peasant women kept the unfashionable babies close, and brought them up, and charming, grandmammas of sixty dressed and supped as at twenty.
The leprosy of unreality disfigured every human creature in attendance upon Monseigneur. In the outermost room were half a dozen exceptional people who had had, for a few years, some vague misgiving in them that things in general were going rather wrong. As a promising way of setting them right, half of the half-dozen had become members of a fantastic sect of Convulsionists, and were even then considering within themselves whether they should foam, rage, roar, and turn cataleptic on the spot — thereby setting up a highly intelligible finger-post to the Future, for Monseigneur’s guidance. Besides these Dervishes, were other three who had rushed into another sect, which mended matters with a jargon about “the Centre of Truth:” holding that Man had got out of the Centre of Truth — which did not need much demonstration — but had not got out of the Circumference, and that he was to be kept from flying out of the Circumference, and was even to be shoved back into the Centre, by fasting and seeing of spirits. Among these, accordingly, much discoursing with spirits went on — and it did a world of good which never became manifest.
But, the comfort was, that all the company at the grand hotel of Monseigneur were perfectly dressed. If the Day of Judgment had only been ascertained to be a dress day, everybody there would have been eternally correct. Such frizzling and powdering and sticking up of hair, such delicate complexions artificially preserved and mended, such gallant swords to look at, and such delicate honour to the sense of smell, would surely keep anything going, for ever and ever. The exquisite gentlemen of the finest breeding wore little pendent trinkets that chinked as they languidly moved; these golden fetters rang like precious little bells; and what with that ringing, and with the rustle of silk and brocade and fine linen, there was a flutter in the air that fanned Saint Antoine and his devouring hunger far away.
Dress was the one unfailing talisman and charm used for keeping all things in their places. Everybody was dressed for a Fancy Ball that was never to leave off. From the Palace of the Tuileries, through Monseigneur and the whole Court, through the Chambers, the Tribunals of Justice, and all society (except the scarecrows), the Fancy Ball descended to the Common Executioner: who, in pursuance of the charm, was required to officiate “frizzled, powdered, in a gold-laced coat, pumps, and white silk stockings.” At the gallows and the wheel — the axe was a rarity — Monsieur Paris, as it was the episcopal mode among his brother Professors of the provinces, Monsieur Orleans, and the rest, to call him, presided in this dainty dress. And who among the company at Monseigneur’s reception in that seventeen hundred and eightieth year of our Lord, could possibly doubt, that a system rooted in a frizzled hangman, powdered, gold-laced, pumped, and white-silk stockinged, would see the very stars out!
Monseigneur having eased his four men of their burdens and taken his chocolate, caused the doors of the Holiest of Holiests to be thrown open, and issued forth. Then, what submission, what cringing and fawning, what servility, what abject humiliation! As to bowing down in body and spirit, nothing in that way was left for Heaven — which may have been one among other reasons why the worshippers of Monseigneur never troubled it.
Bestowing a word of promise here and a smile there, a whisper on one happy slave and a wave of the hand on another, Monseigneur affably passed through his rooms to the remote region of the Circumference of Truth. There, Monseigneur turned, and came back again, and so in due course of time got himself shut up in his sanctuary by the chocolate sprites, and was seen no more.
The show being over, the flutter in the air became quite a little storm, and the precious little bells went ringing down-stairs. There was soon but one person left of all the crowd, and he, with his hat under his arm and his snuff-box in his hand, slowly passed among the mirrors on his way out.
“I devote you,” said this person, stopping at the last door on his way, and turning in the direction of the sanctuary, “to the Devil!”
With that, he shook the snuff from his fingers as if he had shaken the dust from his feet, and quietly walked down-stairs.
He was a man of about sixty, handsomely dressed, haughty in manner, and with a face like a fine mask. A face of a transparent paleness; every feature in it clearly defined; one set expression on it. The nose, beautifully formed otherwise, was very slightly pinched at the top of each nostril. In those two compressions, or dints, the only little change that the face ever showed, resided. They persisted in changing colour sometimes, and they would be occasionally dilated and contracted by something like a faint pulsation; then, they gave a look of treachery, and cruelty, to the whole countenance. Examined with attention, its capacity of helping such a look was to be found in the line of the mouth, and the lines of the orbits of the eyes, being much too horizontal and thin; still, in the effect of the face made, it was a handsome face, and a remarkable one.
Its owner went down-stairs into the courtyard, got into his carriage, and drove away. Not many people had talked with him at the reception; he had stood in a little space apart, and Monseigneur might have been warmer in his manner. It appeared, under the circumstances, rather agreeable to him to see the common people dispersed before his horses, and often barely escaping from being run down. His man drove as if he were charging an enemy, and the furious recklessness of the man brought no check into the face, or to the lips, of the master. The complaint had sometimes made itself audible, even in that deaf city and dumb age, that, in the narrow streets without footways, the fierce patrician custom of hard driving endangered and maimed the mere vulgar in a barbarous manner. But, few cared enough for that to think of it a second time, and, in this matter, as in all others, the common wretches were left to get out of their difficulties as they could.
With a wild rattle and clatter, and an inhuman abandonment of consideration not easy to be understood in these days, the carriage dashed through streets and swept round corners, with women screaming before it, and men clutching each other and clutching children out of its way. At last, swooping at a street corner by a fountain, one of its wheels came to a sickening little jolt, and there was a loud cry from a number of voices, and the horses reared and plunged.
But for the latter inconvenience, the carriage probably would not have stopped; carriages were often known to drive on, and leave their wounded behind, and why not? But the frightened valet had got down in a hurry, and there were twenty hands at the horses’ bridles.
“What has gone wrong?” said Monsieur, calmly looking out.
A tall man in a nightcap had caught up a bundle from among the feet of the horses, and had laid it on the basement of the fountain, and was down in the mud and wet, howling over it like a wild animal.
“Pardon, Monsieur the Marquis!” said a ragged and submissive man, “it is a child.”
“Why does he make that abominable noise? Is it his child?”
“Excuse me, Monsieur the Marquis — it is a pity — yes.”
The fountain was a little removed; for the street opened, where it was, into a space some ten or twelve yards square. As the tall man suddenly got up from the ground, and came running at the carriage, Monsieur the Marquis clapped his hand for an instant on his sword-hilt.
“Killed!” shrieked the man, in wild desperation, extending both arms at their length above his head, and staring at him. “Dead!”
The people closed round, and looked at Monsieur the Marquis. There was nothing revealed by the many eyes that looked at him but watchfulness and eagerness; there was no visible menacing or anger. Neither did the people say anything; after the first cry, they had been silent, and they remained so. The voice of the submissive man who had spoken, was flat and tame in its extreme submission. Monsieur the Marquis ran his eyes over them all, as if they had been mere rats come out of their holes.
He took out his purse.
“It is extraordinary to me,” said he, “that you people cannot take care of yourselves and your children. One or the other of you is for ever in the, way. How do I know what injury you have done my horses. See! Give him that.”
He threw out a gold coin for the valet to pick up, and all the heads craned forward that all the eyes might look down at it as it fell. The tall man called out again with a most unearthly cry, “Dead!”
He was arrested by the quick arrival of another man, for whom the rest made way. On seeing him, the miserable creature fell upon his shoulder, sobbing and crying, and pointing to the fountain, where some women were stooping over the motionless bundle, and moving gently about it. They were as silent, however, as the men.
“I know all, I know all,” said the last comer. “Be a brave man, my Gaspard! It is better for the poor little plaything to die so, than to live. It has died in a moment without pain. Could it have lived an hour as happily?”
“You are a philosopher, you there,” said the, Marquis, smiling. “How do they call you?”
“They call me Defarge.”
“Of what trade?”
“Monsieur the Marquis, vendor of wine.”
“Pick up that, philosopher and vendor of wine,” said the Marquis, throwing him another gold coin, “and spend it as you will. The horses there; are they right?”
Without deigning to look at the assemblage a second time, Monsieur the Marquis leaned back in his seat, and was just being driven away with the air of a gentleman who had accidentally broke some common thing, and had paid for it, and could afford to pay for it; when his ease was suddenly disturbed by a coin flying into his carriage, and ringing on its floor.
“Hold!” said Monsieur the Marquis. “Hold the horses! Who threw that?”
He looked to the spot where Defarge the vendor of wine had stood, a moment before; but the wretched father was grovelling on his face on the pavement in that spot, and the figure that stood beside him was the figure of a dark stout woman, knitting.
“You dogs!” said the Marquis, but smoothly, and with an unchanged front, except as to the spots on his nose: “I would ride over any of you very willingly, and exterminate you from the earth. If I knew which rascal threw at the carriage, and if that brigand were sufficiently near it, he should be crushed under the wheels.”
So cowed was their condition, and so long and hard their experience of what such a man could do to them, within the law and beyond it, that not a voice, or a hand, or even an eye was raised. Among the men, not one. But the woman who stood knitting looked up steadily, and looked the Marquis in the face. It was not for his dignity to notice it; his contemptuous eyes passed over her, and over all the other rats; and he leaned back in his seat again, and gave the word “Go on!”
He was driven on, and other carriages came whirling by in quick succession; the Minister, the State-Projector, the Farmer-General, the Doctor, the Lawyer, the Ecclesiastic, the Grand Opera, the Comedy, the whole Fancy Ball in a bright continuous flow, came whirling by. The rats had crept out of their holes to look on, and they remained looking on for hours; soldiers and police often passing between them and the spectacle, and making a barrier behind which they slunk, and through which they peeped. The father had long ago taken up his bundle and bidden himself away with it, when the women who had tended the bundle while it lay on the base of the fountain, sat there watching the running of the water and the rolling of the Fancy Ball — when the one woman who had stood conspicuous, knitting, still knitted on with the steadfastness of Fate. The water of the fountain ran, the swift river ran, the day ran into evening, so much life in the city ran into death according to rule, time and tide waited for no man, the rats were sleeping close together in their dark holes again, the Fancy Ball was lighted up at supper, all things ran their course.”
Jeff Snyder [send him mail] is an attorney who works in Manhattan. He is the author of Nation of Cowards — Essays on the Ethics of Gun Control, which examines the American character as revealed by the gun control debate. He occasionally blogs at The Shining Wire. Read this interview with him.