The String of Pearls/Chapter 18
XVIII Tobias's Adventures During the Absence of Sweeney ToddEdit
Tobias guessed, and guessed rightly, too, that when Sweeney Todd said he would be away half an hour, he only mentioned that short period of time, in order to keep the lad's vigilance on the alert, and to prevent him from taking advantage of a more protracted absence.
The very style and manner in which he had gone out precluded the likelihood of it being for so short a period of time; and that circumstance set Tobias seriously thinking over a situation which was becoming more intolerable every day.
The lad had the sense to feel that he could not go on much longer as he was going on, and that in a short time such a life would destroy him.
'It is beyond endurance,' he said, 'and I know not what to do; and since Sweeney Todd has told me that the boy he had before went out of his senses, and is now in the cell of a madhouse, I feel that such will be my fate, and that I, too, shall come to that dreadful end, and then no one will believe a word I utter, hut consider everything to be mere raving.'
After a time, as the darkness increased, he lit the lamp which hung in the shop, and which, until it was closed for the night, usually shed a dim ray from the window. Then he sat down to think again, and he said to himself,-
'If I could but summon courage to ask my mother about this robbery which Sweeney Todd imputes to her, she might assure me it was false, and that she never did such a deed; but then it is dreadful for me to ask her such a question, because it may be true; and then how shocking it would be for her to be forced to confess to me, her own son, such a circumstance.'
These were the honourable feelings which prevented Tobias from questioning his mother as regarded Todd's accusation of her - an accusation too dreadful to believe implicitly, and yet sufficiently probable for him to have a strong suspicion that it might be true after all.
It is to be deeply regretted that Tobias's philosophy did not carry him a little further, and make him see, the moment the charge was made, that he ought unquestionably to investigate it to the very utmost.
But, still, we could hardly expect from a mere boy that acute reasoning and power of action, which depends so much on the knowledge of the world, and an extensive practice in the usages of society.
It was sufficient if he felt correctly - we could scarcely expect him to reason so. But upon this occasion above all other, he seemed completely overcome by the circumstances which surrounded him; and from his excited manner, one might almost have imagined that the insanity he himself predicted at the close of his career was really not far off.
He wrung his hands, and he wept, every now and then, in sad speech, bitterly bemoaning his situation, until at length, with a sudden resolution, he sprang to his feet, exclaiming,-
'This night shall end it. I can endure it no more. I will fly from this place, and seek my fortune elsewhere. Any amount of distress, danger, or death itself even, is preferable to the dreadful life I lead.'
He walked some paces towards the door, and then he paused, as he said to himself in a low tone, 'Todd will surely not be home yet for awhile, and why should I then neglect the only opportunity I may ever have of searching this house to satisfy my mind as regards any of the mysteries it contains.'
He paused over this thought, and considered well its danger, for dangerous indeed it was to no small extent, but he was desperate; and with a resolution that scarcely could have been expected from him, he determined upon taking that first step above all others, which Todd was almost certain to punish with death.
He closed the shop-door, and bolted it upon the inside, so that he could not be suddenly interrupted, and then he looked round him carefully for some weapon by the aid of which he should be able to break his way into the parlour, which the barber always kept closed and locked in his absence. A weapon that would answer the purpose of breaking any lock, if Tobias chose to proceed so roughly to work, was close at hand in the iron bar, which, when the place was closed at night, secured a shutter.
Wrought up as he was to almost frenzy, Tobias seized this bar, and advancing towards the parlour-door, he with one blow smashed the lock to atoms, and the door soon yielded.
The moment it did so, there was a crash of glass, and when Tobias entered the room he saw that upon its threshold lay a wineglass shattered to atoms, and he felt certain it had been placed in some artful position by Sweeney Todd as a detector, when he should return, of any attempt that had been made upon the door of the parlour.
And now Tobias felt that he was so far committed that he might as well go on with his work, and accordingly he lit a candle, which he found upon the parlour table, and then proceeded to make what discoveries he could.
Several of the cupboards in the room yielded at once to his hands, and in them he found nothing remarkable, but there was one that he could not open; so, without a moment's hesitation, he had recourse to the bar of iron again, and broke its lock, when the door swung open, and to his astonishment there tumbled out of this cupboard such a volley of hats of all sorts and descriptions, some looped with silver, some three-cornered, and some square, that they formed quite a museum of that article of attire, and excited the greatest surprise in the mind of Tobias, at the same time that they tended very greatly to confirm some other thoughts and feelings which he had concerning Sweeney Todd.
This was the only cupboard which was fast, although there was another door which looked as if it opened into one; but when Tobias broke that down with the bar of iron, he found it was the door which led to the staircase conducting to the upper part of the house, that upper part which Sweeney Todd with all his avarice would never let, and of which the shutters were kept continually closed, so that the opposite neighbours never caught a glimpse into any of the apartments.
With cautious and slow steps, which he adopted instantaneously, although he knew that there was no one in the house but himself, Tobias ascended the staircase.
'I will go to the very top rooms first,' he said to himself, 'and so examine them all as I come down, and then if Todd should return suddenly, I shall have a better chance of hearing him than if I began below and went upwards.'
Acting upon this prudent scheme, he went up to the attics, all the doors of which were swinging open, and there was nothing in any one of them whatever.
He descended to the second floor with the like result, and a feeling of great disappointment began to creep over him at the thought that, after all, the barber's house might not repay the trouble of examination.
But when he reached the first floor he soon found abundant reason to alter his opinion. The doors were fast, and he had to burst them open; and, when he got in, he found that those rooms were partially furnished, and that they contained a great quantity of miscellaneous property of all kinds and descriptions.
In one corner was an enormous quantity of walking-sticks, some of which were of a very costly and expensive character, with gold and silver chased tops to them, and in another corner was a great number of umbrellas - in fact at least a hundred of them.
Then there were boots and shoes, lying upon the floor, partially covered up, as if to keep them from dirt; there were thirty or forty swords of different styles and patterns, many of them appearing to be very firm blades, and in one or two cases the scabbards were richly ornamented.
At one end of the front and larger of the two rooms was an old-fashioned-looking bureau of great size, and with as much woodwork in it as seemed required to make at least a couple of such articles of furniture.
This was very securely locked, and presented more difficulties in the way of opening it, than any of the doors had done, for the lock was of great strength and apparent durability. Moreover it was not so easily got at, but at length by using the bar as a sort of lever, instead of as a mere machine to strike with, Tobias succeeded in forcing this bureau open, and then his eyes were perfectly dazzled with the amount of jewellery and trinkets of all kinds and descriptions that were exhibited to his gaze.
There was a great number of watches, gold chains, silver and gold snuff-boxes, and a large assortment of rings, shoe-buckles, and brooches.
These articles must have been of great value, and Tobias could not help exclaiming aloud,-
'How could Sweeney Todd come by these articles, except by the murder of their owners?'
This, indeed, seemed but too probable a supposition, and the more especially so, as in a further part of this bureau a great quantity of apparel was found by Tobias. He stood with a candle in his hand, looking upon these various objects for more than a quarter of an hour, and then as a sudden and a natural thought came across him of how completely a few of them even would satisfy his wants and his mother's for a long time to come, he stretched forth his hand towards the glittering mass, but he drew it back again with a shudder, saying,-
'No, no, these things are the plunder of the dead. Let Sweeney Todd keep them to himself, and look upon them if he can with the eyes of enjoyment. I will have none of them: they would bring misfortune along with every guinea that they might be turned into.'
As he spoke, he heard St Dunstan's clock strike nine, and he started at the sound, for it let him know that already Sweeney Todd had been away an hour beyond the time he said he would be absent, so that there was a probability of his quick return now, and it would scarcely be safe to linger longer in his home.
'I must be gone, I must be gone, I should like to look upon my mother's face once more before I leave London for ever perhaps. I may tell her of the danger she is in from Todd's knowledge of her secret; no, no, I cannot speak to her of that, I must go, and leave her to those chances which I hope and trust will work favourably for her.'
It was a strange and sudden whim that took him, rather than a matter of reflection, that induced him instead of his own hat to take one of those which were lying so indiscriminately at his feet; and he did so.
By mere accident it turned out to be an exceedingly handsome hat, of rich workmanship and material, and then Tobias, feeling terrified lest Sweeney Todd should return before he could leave the place, paid no attention to anything, but turned from the shop, merely
pulling the door after him, and then darting over the road towards the Temple like a hunted hare; for his great wish was to see his mother, and then he had an undefined notion that his best plan for escaping the clutches of Sweeney Todd would be to go to sea.
In common with all boys of his age, who know nothing whatever of the life of a sailor, it presented itself in the most fascinating colours. A sailor ashore and a sailor afloat are about as two different things as the world can present; but, to the imagination of Tobias Ragg, a sailor was somebody who was always dancing hornpipes, spending money, and telling wonderful stories. No wonder, then, that the profession presented itself under such fascinating colours to all such persons as Tobias; and, as it seemed, and seems still, to be a sort of general understanding that the real condition of a sailor should be mystified in every possible way and shape both by novelist and dramatist, it is no wonder that it requires actual experience to enable those parties who are in the habit of being carried away by just what they hear, to come to a correct conclusion.
'I will go to sea!' ejaculated Tobias. 'Yes, I will go to sea!'
As he spoke those words, he passed out of the gate of the Temple, leading into Whitefriars, in which ancient vicinity his mother dwelt, endeavouring to eke out a living as best she might.
She was very much surprised (for she happened to be at home) at the unexpected visit of her son Tobias, and uttered a faint scream as she let fall a flat-iron very nearly upon his toe.
'Mother,' he said, 'I cannot stay with Sweeney Todd any longer, so do not ask me.'
'Not stay with a respectable man?'
'A respectable man, mother! Alas, alas, how little you know of him! But what am I saying? I dare not speak! Oh, that fatal, fatal candlestick!'
'But how are you to live, and what do you mean by a fatal candlestick?'
'Forgive me - I did not mean to say that! Farewell, mother! I am going to sea.'
'To see what, my dear?' said Mrs Ragg, who was much more difficult to talk to than even Hamlet's grave-digger. 'You don't know how much I am obliged to Sweeney Todd.'
'Yes, I do. And that's what drives me mad to think of. Farewell, mother, perhaps for ever! If I can, of course, I will communicate with you, but now I dare not stay.'
'Oh! what have you done, Tobias - what have you done?'
'Nothing - nothing! but Sweeney Todd is -'
'What - what?'
'No matter - no matter! Nothing - nothing! And yet at this last moment I am almost tempted to ask you concerning a candlestick.'
'Don't mention that,' said Mrs Ragg; 'I don't want to hear anything said about it.'
'It is true, then?'
'Yes; but did Mr Todd tell you?'
'He did - he did. I have now asked the question I never thought could have passed my lips. Farewell, mother, for ever farewell!'
Tobias rushed out of the place, leaving old Mrs Ragg astonished at his bearing, and with a strong suspicion that some accession of insanity had come over him.
'The Lord have mercy upon us,' she said, 'what shall I do? I am astonished at Mr Todd telling him about the candlestick; it's true enough, though, for all that. I recollect it as well as if it were yesterday; it was a very hard winter, and I was minding a set of chambers, when Todd came to shave the gentleman, and I saw him with my own eyes put a silver candlestick in his pocket. Then I went over to his shop and reasoned with him about it, and he gave it me back, and I brought it to the chambers, and laid it down exactly on the spot where he took it from.
'To be sure,' said Mrs Ragg, after a pause of a few moment, 'to be sure he has been a very good friend to me ever since, but that I suppose is for fear I should tell, and get him hung or transported. But, however, we must take the good with the bad, and when Tobias comes to think of it, he will go back again to his work, I dare say, for, after all, it's a very foolish thing for him to trouble his head whether Mr Todd stole a silver candlestick or not.