The String of Pearls/Chapter 11
XI The Stranger at Lovett'sEdit
TOWARDS THE DUSK of the evening in that day, after the last batch of pies at Lovett's had been disposed of, there walked into the shop a man most miserably clad, and who stood for a few moments staring with weakness and hunger at the counter before he spoke.
Mrs Lovett was there, but she had no smile for him, and instead of its usual bland expression, her countenance wore an aspect of anger, as she forestalled what the man had to say, by exclaiming,-
'Go away, we never give to beggars.'
There came a flash of colour, for a moment, across the features of the stranger, and then he replied,-
'Mistress Lovett, I do not come to ask alms of you, but to know if you can recommend me to any employment?'
'Recommend you! recommend a ragged wretch like you!'
'I am a ragged wretch, and, moreover, quite destitute. In better times I have sat at your counter, and paid cheerfully for what I have wanted, and then one of your softest smiles has been ever at my disposal. I do not say this as a reproach to you, because the cause of your smile was well-known to be a self-interested one, and when that cause has passed away, I can no longer expect it; but I am so situated that I am willing to do anything for a mere subsistence.'
'Oh, yes, and then when you have got into a better case again, I have no doubt but you have quite sufficient insolence to make you unbearable; besides, what employment can we have but pie-making, and we have a man already who suits us very well with the exception that he, as you would do if you were to exchange with him, has grown insolent, and fancies himself master of the place.'
'Well, well,' said the stranger, 'of course there is always sufficient argument against the poor and destitute to keep them so. If you will assert that my conduct would be of the nature you describe it, it is quite impossible for me to prove the contrary.'
He turned and was about to leave the shop, when Mrs Lovett called after him, saying - 'Come in again in two hours.'
He paused a moment or two, and then, turning his emaciated countenance upon her, said, 'I will if my strength permits me -water from the pumps in the streets is but a poor thing for a man to subsist upon for twenty-four hours.'
'You may take one pie.'
The half-famished, miserable-looking man seized upon a pie, and devoured it in an instant.
'My name,' he said, 'is Jarvis Williams: I'll be here, never fear, Mrs Lovett, in two hours; and notwithstanding all you have said, you shall find no change in my behaviour because I may be well-kept and better clothed; but if I should feel dissatisfied with my situation, I will leave it and no harm done.'
So saying, he walked from the shop, and after he was gone, a strange expression came across the countenance of Mrs Lovett, and she said in a low tone to herself. - 'He might suit for a few months, like the rest, and it is clear we must get rid of the one we have; I must think of it.'
There is a cellar of vast extent, and of dim and sepulchral aspect - some rough red tiles are laid upon the floor, and pieces of flint and large jagged stones have been hammered into the earthen walls to strengthen them; while here and there rough huge pillars made by beams of timber rise perpendicularly from the floor, and prop large flat pieces of wood against the ceiling, to support it.
Here and there gleaming lights seem to be peeping out from furnaces, and there is a strange, hissing, simmering sound going on, while the whole air is impregnated with a rich and savoury vapour.
This is Lovett's pie manufactory beneath the pavement of Bell-yard, and at this time a night-batch of some thousands is being made for the purpose of being sent by carts the first thing in the morning all over the suburbs of London.
By the earliest dawn of the day a crowd of itinerant hawkers of pies would make their appearance, carrying off a large quantity to regular customers who had them daily, and no more thought of being without them than of forbidding the milkman or the baker to call at their residences.
It will be seen and understood, therefore, that the retail part of Mrs Lovett's business, which took place principally between the hours of twelve and one, was by no means the most important or profitable portion of a concern which was really of immense magnitude, and which brought in a large yearly income.
To stand in the cellar when this immense manufacture of what, at first sight, would appear such a trivial article was carried on, and to look about as far as the eye could reach, was by no means to have a sufficient idea of the extent of the place; for there were as many doors in different directions, and singular low-arched entrances to different vaults, which all appeared as black as midnight, that one might almost suppose the inhabitants of all the surrounding neighbourhood had, by common consent, given up their cellars to Lovett's pie factory.
There is but one miserable light, except the occasional fitful glare that comes from the ovens where the pies are stewing, hissing, and spluttering in their own luscious gravy.
There is but one man, too, throughout all the place, and he is sitting on a low three-legged stool in one corner, with his head resting upon his hands, and gently rocking to and fro, as he utters scarcely audible moans.
He is but lightly clad; in fact, he seems to have but little on him except a shirt and a pair of loose canvas trousers. The sleeves of the former are turned up beyond his elbows, and on his head he has a white night-cap.
It seems astonishing that such a man, even with the assistance of Mrs Lovett, could make so many pies as are required in a day; but the system does wonders, and in those cellars there are various mechanical contrivances for kneading the dough, chopping up the meat, &c., which greatly reduce the labour.
But what a miserable object is this man - what a sad and soul-stricken wretch he looks! His face is pale and haggard, his eyes deeply sunken; and, as he removes his hands from before his visage, and looks about him, a more perfect picture of horror could not have been found.
'I must leave to-night,' he said, in coarse accents - 'I must leave to-night. I know too much - my brain is full of horrors. I have not slept now for five nights, nor dare I eat anything but the raw flour. I will leave tonight if they do not watch me too closely. Oh! if I could but get into the streets - if I could but once again breathe the fresh air! Hush! what's that? I thought I heard a noise.
He rose, and stood trembling and listening; but all was still, save the simmering and hissing of the pies, and then he resumed his seat with a deep sigh.
'All the doors fastened upon me,' he said, 'what can it mean? It's very horrible, and my heart dies within me. Six weeks only have I been here - only six weeks. I was starving before I came. Alas, alas! how much better to have starved! I should have been dead before now, and spared all this agony!'
'Skinner!' cried a voice, and it was a female one - 'Skinner, how long will the ovens be?'
'A quarter of an hour,' he replied, 'a quarter of an hour, Mrs Lovett. God help me!'
'What is that you say?'
'I said, God help me! surely a man may say that without offence.'
A door slammed shut, and the miserable man was alone again.
'How strangely,' he said, 'on this night my thoughts go back to early days, and to what I once was. The pleasant scenes of my youth recur to me. I see again the ivy-mantled porch, and the pleasant green. I hear again the merry ringing laughter of my playmates, and there, in my mind's eye, appears to me, the bubbling stream, and the ancient mill, the old mansion-house, with its tall turrets, and its air of silent grandeur. I hear the music of the birds, and the winds making rough melody among the trees. 'Tis very strange that all these sights and sounds should come back to me at such a time as this, as if just to remind me what a wretch I am.'
He was silent for a few moments, during which he trembled with emotion; then he spoke again, saying,-
'Thus the forms of those whom I once knew, and many of whom have gone already to the silent tomb, appear to come thronging round me. They bend their eyes momentarily upon me, and, with settled expressions, show acutely the sympathy they feel for me.
'I see her, too, who first, in my bosom, lit up the flame of soft affection. I see her gliding past me like the dim vision of a dream, indistinct, but beautiful; no more than a shadow - and yet to me most palpable. What am I now - what am I now?'
He resumed his former position, with his head resting upon his hands; he rocked himself slowly to and fro, uttering those moans of a tortured spirit, which we have before noticed.
But see, one of the small arch doors opens, in the gloom of those vaults, and a man, in a stooping posture, creeps in - a half-mask is upon his face, and he wears a cloak; but both his hands are at liberty. In one of them he carries a double-headed hammer, with a powerful handle, of about ten inches in length.
He has probably come out of a darker place than the one into which he now so cautiously creeps, for he shades the light from his eyes, as if it was suddenly rather too much for him, and then he looks cautiously round the vault, until he sees the crouched-up figure of the man whose duty it is to attend to the ovens.
From that moment he looks at nothing else; but advances towards him, steadily and cautiously. It is evident that great secrecy is his object, for he is walking on his stocking soles only; and it is impossible to hear the slightest sound of his footsteps. Nearer and nearer he comes, so slowly, and yet so surely towards him, who still keeps up the low moaning sound, indicative of mental anguish. Now he is close to him, and he bends over him for a moment, with a look of fiendish malice. It is a look which, despite his mask, glances full from his eyes, and then, grasping the hammer tightly in both hands, he raises it slowly above his head, and gives it a swinging motion through the air.
There is no knowing what induced the man that was crouching upon the stool to rise at that moment; but he did so, and paced about with great quickness.
A sudden shriek burst from his lips, as he beheld so terrific an apparition before him; but, before he could repeat the word, the hammer descended, crushing into his skull, and he fell lifeless without a moan.
'And so Mr Jarvis Williams, you have kept your word,' said Mrs Lovett to the emaciated, careworn stranger, who had solicited employment of her, 'and so Mr Jarvis Williams, you have kept your word, and come for employment.'
'I have, madam, and hope that you can give it to me: I frankly tell you that I would seek for something better, and more congenial to my disposition if I could; but who would employ one presenting such a wretched appearance as I do? You see that I am all in rags, and I have told you that I have been half starved, and therefore it is only some common and ordinary employment that I can hope to get, and that made me come to you.
'Well, I don't see why we should not make a trial of you, at all events, so if you like to go down into the bakehouse, I will follow you, and show you what you have to do. You remember that you have to live entirely upon the pies, unless you like to purchase for yourself anything else, which you may do if you can get the money. We give none, and you must likewise agree never to leave the bakehouse.'
'Never to leave it?'
'Never, unless you leave it for good, and for all; if upon those conditions you choose to accept the situation, you may, and if not you can go about your business at once, and leave it alone.'
'Alas, madam, I have no resource; but you spoke of having a man already.'
'Yes; but he has gone to some of his very oldest friends, who will be quite glad to see him, so now say the word:- Are you willing or are you not, to take the situation?'
'My poverty and my destitution consent, if my will be adverse, Mrs Lovett; but, of course, I quite understand that I leave when I please.'
'Oh, of course, we never think of keeping anybody many hours after they begin to feel uncomfortable. If you are ready, follow me.'
'I am quite ready, and thankful for a shelter. All the brightest visions of my early life have long since faded away, and it matters little or, indeed, nothing what now becomes of me; I will follow you, madam, freely upon the condition you have mentioned.'
Mrs Lovett lifted up a portion of the counter which permitted him to pass behind it, and then he followed her into a small room, which was at the back of the shop. She then took a key from her pocket, and opened an old door which was in the wainscoting, and immediately behind which was a flight of stairs.
These she descended, and Jarvis Williams followed her, to a considerable depth, after which she took an iron bar from behind another door, and flung it open, showing to her new assistant the interior of that vault which we have already very briefly described.
'These,' she said, 'are the ovens, and I will proceed to show you how you can manufacture the pies, feed the furnaces, and make yourself generally useful. Flour will be always let down through a trapdoor from the upper shop, as well as everything required for making the pies but the meat, and that you will always find ranged upon shelves either in lumps or steaks, in a small room through this door, but it is only at particular times you will find the door open; and whenever you do so, you had better always take out what meat you think you will require for the next batch.'
'I understand all that, madam,' said Williams, 'but how does it get there?'
'That's no business of yours; so long as you are supplied with it, that is sufficient for you; and now I will go through the process of making one pie, so that you may know how to proceed, and you will find with what amazing quickness they can be manufactured if you set about them in the proper manner.'
She then showed how a piece of meat thrown into a machine became finely minced up, by merely turning a handle; and then how flour and water and lard were mixed up together, to make the crusts of the pies, by another machine, which threw out the paste, thus manufactured, in small pieces, each just large enough for a pie.
Lastly, she showed him how a tray, which just held a hundred, could be filled, and, by turning a windlass, sent up to the shop, through a square trapdoor, which went right up to the very counter.
'And now,' she said, 'I must leave you. As long as you are industrious, you will get on very well, but as soon as you begin to be idle, and neglect the orders that are sent to you by me, you will get a piece of information which will be useful, and which, if you are a prudent man, will enable you to know what you are about.'
'What is that? you may as well give it to me now.'
'No; we but seldom find there is occasion for it at first, but, after a time, when you get well fed, you are pretty sure to want it.'
So saying, she left the place, and he heard the door, by which he had entered, carefully barred after her. Suddenly then he heard her voice again, and so clearly and distinctly, too, that he thought she must have come back again; but, upon looking up at the door, he found that that arose from the fact of her speaking through a small grating at the upper part of it, to which her mouth was closely placed.
'Remember your duty,' she said, 'and I warn you that any attempt to leave here will be as futile as it will be dangerous.'
'Except with your consent, when I relinquish the situation.'
'Oh, certainly - certainly, you are quite right there, everybody who relinquishes the situation, goes to his old friends, whom he has not seen for many years, perhaps.'
'What a strange manner of talking she has!' said Jarvis Williams to himself, when he found he was alone. 'There seems to be some singular and hidden meaning in every word she utters. What can she mean by a communication being made to me, if I neglect my duty! It is very strange, and what a singular-looking place this is! I think it would be quite unbearable if it were not for the delicious odour of the pies, and they are indeed delicious - perhaps more delicious to me, who has been famished so long, and has gone through so much wretchedness; there is no one here but myself, and I am hungry now - frightfully hungry, and whether the pies are done or not, I'll have half a dozen of them at any rate, so here goes.'
He opened one of the ovens, and the fragrant steam that came out was perfectly delicious, and he sniffed it up with a satisfaction such as he had never felt before, as regarded anything that was eatable.
'Is it possible,' he said, 'that I shall be able to make such delicious pies? at all events one can't starve here, and if it is a kind of imprisonment, it's a pleasant one. Upon my soul, they are nice, even half-cooked - delicious! I'll have another half-dozen, there are lots of them - delightful! I can't keep the gravy from running out of the corners of my mouth. Upon my soul, Mrs Lovett, I don't know where you get your meat, but it's all as tender as young chickens, and the fat actually melts away in one's mouth. Ah, these are pies, something like pies! - they are positively fit for the gods!'
Mrs Lovett' s new man ate twelve threepenny pies, and then he thought of leaving off. It was a little drawback not to have anything to wash them down with but cold water, but he reconciled himself to this. 'For,' as he said, 'after all it would be a pity to take the flavour of such pies out of one's mouth - indeed, it would be a thousand pities, so I won't think of it, but just put up with what I have got and not complain. I might have gone further and fared worse with a vengeance, and I cannot help looking upon it as a singular piece of good fortune that made me think of coming here in my deep distress to try and get something to do. I have no friends, and no money; she whom I loved is faithless, and here I am, master of as many pies as I like, and to all appearance monarch of all I survey; for there really seems to be no one to dispute my supremacy.
'To be sure, my kingdom is rather a gloomy one; but then I can abdicate it when I like, and when I am tired of those delicious pies, if such a thing be possible, which I really very much doubt, I can give up my situation and think of something else.
'If I do that I will leave England for ever; it's no place for me after the many disappointments I have had. No friend left me, my girl false, not a relation but who would turn his back upon me! I will go somewhere where I am unknown and can form new connections, and perhaps make new friendships of a more permanent and stable character than the old ones, which have all proved so false to me; and, in the meantime, I'll make and eat pies as fast as I can.'