I think I might be the first person on earth to do a chapter review.
I might be wrong there. If I am, please don’t burst my bubble. I’m feeling good about this. Tonight, I am going to take you through the greatest chapter in the history of great chapters, and great books.
The book is A Tale of Two Cities, by the almighty Charles Dickens. The chapter is “A Hand At Cards”. If you haven’t read it yet, be warned. Spoilers abound.
Let’s lay down the context first. There’s a bunch of British people in Paris, during the Reign of Terror. They just saved their aristocratic friend Darnay from bloodthirsty peasants. “A Hand At Cards” opens just after Darnay has been arrested again.
“Happily unconscious of the new calamity at home, Miss Pross threaded her way through the narrow streets…”
Dickens is giving us a breath of air. We’ve just been knocked off our seats by the arrest of Darnay, and suddenly we’re somewhere else with a minor character. She’s shopping for wine in the “raw evening, and the misty river”.
Why is this important? Darnay’s in trouble! But we trust Dickens by now; this is 3/4 into the book, and he hasn’t disappointed us yet. We keep reading.
“As their wine was measuring out, a man parted from another man in a corner, and rose to depart. In going, he had to face Miss Pross. No sooner did he face her, than Miss Pross uttered a scream, and clapped her hands.”
Who is this man? We devour the imagery: Pross laughing, and calling the man her long-lost brother. It’s exciting enough, but the man’s responses begin to make us wonder…
“‘Don’t call me Solomon. Do you want to be the death of me?'”
He’s evading her. He tells her mysterious, menacing things; every sentence bursts with intrigue. What’s he got to hide? Jerry Cruncher, another character, steps in at this point and announces that Solomon had another name “over the water”. As Jerry interrogates him, someone else comes out of the shadows. Someone who shocks Jerry, Miss Pross, and most certainly Solomon.
“‘Barsad’, said another voice, striking in.
‘That’s the name for a thousand pound!’ cried Jerry.
The speaker who had struck in was Sydney Carton. He had his hands behind him under the skirts of his riding-coat, and he stood at Mr. Cruncher’s elbow as negliently as he might have stood at the Old Bailey itself.”
Even if we hadn’t met Sydney before, that’s an unforgettable establishment of character. Carton was a drunk lawyer’s assistant in England. He knows Darnay and his friends, and it is clear now that he has followed them to France. Without blinking, he calls Solomon (or Barsad, as we now must call him) a “Sheep of the Prisons”. Back then, that was a spy.
In short order, Barsad agrees to talk with Sydney at the office of Tellson’s Bank. Jerry and his employer Mr. Lorry witness the conversation. Now we see Sydney shine.
“‘In short,’ said Sydney, ‘this is a desperate time, when desperate games are played for desperate stakes. Let the Doctor play the winning game; I will play the losing one. No man’s life here is worth purchase…. Now the stake I have resolved to play for, in case of the worst, is a friend in the Conciergerie. And the friend I propose myself to win, is Mr. Barsad.’
‘You need have good cards, sir,’ said the spy.
‘I’ll run them over. I’ll see what I hold- Mr. Lorry, you know what a brute I am; I wish you’d give me a little brandy.'”
I read this passage years ago, and I still grin with glee every time I read it. Carton is a master. Not only that; he’s a master with style. He’s bullying Barsad into a corner. In the next several pages, he forces Barsad to admit all of the double-crossing he’s done in the last several years. There’s a whole lot of details, and Dickens unveils each one like a magician waving his wand.
You can’t help being hooked. Especially when Jerry Cruncher casts a “goblin shadow” and exposes another one of Barsad’s lies. And that in turn sets off something else in the next chapter, but we won’t get into that here.
There’s a lot I won’t get into here. It’s not that I’m being lazy. It’s because there’s seriously that much detail. I could write a small book about all of the different elements running through this chapter, and the way that Dickens makes them flow like a river. It makes want to laugh with joy.
Until I reach the end of the chapter, where Sydney says some ambiguous, scary things to Barsad…
“(Barsad) ‘… Now what do you want with me?’
‘Not very much. You are a turnkey at the Conciergerie?’
‘I tell you once for all, there is no such thing as an escape possible,’ said the spy, firmly.
‘Why need you tell me what I have not asked? You are a turnkey at the Concerigerie?’
‘I am sometimes.’
‘You can be when you choose?’
‘I can pass in and out when I choose.’
Sydney Carton filled another glass with brandy, poured it slowly out upon the hearth, and watched it as it dropped. it being all spent, he said, rising:
‘So far, we have spoken before these two, because it was as well that the merits of the cards should not rest solely between you and me. Come into the dark room here, and let us have one final word alone.'”
Don’t you want to know what happens next? Ladies and gentlemen, you have just caught a glimpse of the greatest chapter written in any novel, anywhere. I defy you to top this.
Did I mention that you can get this book on Amazon for free?