The String of Pearls/Chapter 23
XXIII The New Cook of Mrs. Lovett Gets Tired of His SituationEdit
From what we have already had occasion to record about Mrs Lovett's new cook, who ate so voraciously in the cellar, our readers will no doubt be induced to believe that he was a gentleman likely enough soon to tire of his situation.
To a starving man, and one who seemed completely abandoned even by hope, Lovett's bake-house, with an unlimited leave to eat as much as possible, must of course present itself in the most desirable and lively colours; and no wonder, therefore, that banishing all scruple, a man so pleased, would take the situation with very little enquiry.
But people will tire of good things; and it is a remarkably well-authenticated fact that human nature is prone to be discontented.
And those persons who are well acquainted with the human mind, and who know well how little value people soon set upon things which they possess, while those which they are pursuing, and which seem to be beyond their reach, assume the liveliest colours imaginable, adopt various means of turning this to account.
Napoleon took good care that the meanest of his soldiers should see in perspective the possibility of grasping a marshal's baton.
Confectioners at the present day, when they take a new apprentice, tell him to eat as much as he likes of those tempting tarts and sweetmeats, one or two of which before had been a most delicious treat.
The soldier goes on fighting away, and never gets the marshal's baton. The confectioner's boy crams himself with Banbury cakes, gets dreadfully sick, and never touches one afterwards.
And now, to revert to our friend in Mrs Lovett's bake-house.
At first everything was delightful, and, by the aid of the machinery, he found that it was no difficult matter to keep up the supply of pies by really a very small amount of manual labour. And that labour was such a labour of love, for the pies were delicious; there could be no mistake about that. He tasted them half cooked, he tasted them wholly cooked, and he tasted them overdone; hot and cold, pork and veal with seasoning, and without seasoning, until at last he had had them in every possible way and shape; and when the fourth day came after his arrival in the cellar, he might have been seen sitting in rather a contemplative attitude with a pie before him.
It was twelve o'clock: he heard that sound come from the shop. Yes, it was twelve o'clock, and he had eaten nothing yet; but he kept his eyes fixed upon the pie that lay untouched before him.
'The pies are all very well,' he said, 'in fact of course they are capital pies; and now that I see how they are made, and know that there is nothing wrong in them, I of course relish them more than ever, but one can't live always upon pies; it's quite impossible one can subsist upon pies from one end of the year to the other, if they were the finest pies the world ever saw, or ever will see. I don't say anything against the pies - I know they are made of the finest flour, the best possible butter, and that the meat, which comes from God knows where, is the most delicate-looking and tender I ever ate in my life.'
He stretched out his hand and broke a small portion of the crust from the pie that was before him, and he tried to eat it.
He certainly did succeed, but it was a great effort; and when he had done, he shook his head, saying, 'No, no! damn it, I cannot eat it, and that's the fact - one cannot be continually eating pie; it is out of the question, quite out of the question, and all I have to remark is, damn the pies! I really don't think I shall be able to let another one pass my lips.'
He rose and paced with rapid strides the place in which he was, and then suddenly he heard a noise, and, looking up, he saw a trapdoor in the roof open, and a sack of flour begin gradually to come down.
'Hilloa, hilloa!' he cried, 'Mrs Lovett, Mrs Lovett!'
Down came the flour, and the trapdoor was closed.
'Oh, I can't stand this sort of thing,' he exclaimed. 'I cannot be made into a mere machine for the manufacture of pies. I cannot, and will not endure it - it is past all bearing.'
For the first time almost since his incarceration, for such it really was, he began to think that he would take an accurate survey of the place where this tempting manufacture was carried on.
The fact was, his mind had been so intensively occupied during the time he had been there in providing merely for his physical wants, that he had scarcely had time to think or reason upon the probabilities of a uncomfortable termination of his career; but now, when he had become quite surfeited with the pies, and tired of the darkness and gloom of the place, many unknown fears began to creep across him, and he really trembled, as he asked himself what was to be the end of all.
It was with such a feeling as this that he now set about taking a careful and accurate survey of the place, and, taking a little lamp in his hand, he resolved to peer into every corner of it, with a hope that surely he should find some means by which he should effect an escape from what otherwise threatened to be an intolerable imprisonment.
The vault in which the ovens were situated was the largest; and although a number of smaller ones communicated with it, containing the different mechanical contrivances for the pie-making, he could not from any one of them discover an outlet.
But it was to the vault where the meat was deposited upon stone shelves, that he paid the greatest share of attention, for to that vault he felt convinced there must be some hidden and secret means of ingress, and therefore of egress likewise, or else how came the shelves always so well stocked with meat as they were?
This vault was larger than any of the other subsidiary ones, and the roof was very high, and, come into it when he would, it always happened that he found meat enough upon the shelves, cut into large lumps and sometimes into slices, to make a batch of pies with.
When it got there was not so much a mystery to him as how it got there; for of course, as he must sleep sometimes, he concluded, naturally enough, that it was brought in by some means during the period that he devoted to repose.
He stood in the centre of this vault with the lamp in his hand, and he turned slowly round, surveying the walls and the ceiling with the most critical and marked attention, but not the smallest appearance of an outlet was observable.
In fact, the walls were so entirely filled up with the stone shelves, that there was no space left for a door; and, as for the ceiling, it seemed to be perfectly entire.
Then the floor was of earth; so that the idea of a trapdoor opening in it was out of the question, because there was no one on his side of it to place the earth again over it, and give it its compact and usual appearance.
'This is most mysterious,' he said; 'and if ever I could have been brought to believe that anyone had the assistance of the devil himself in conducting human affairs, I should say that by some means Mrs Lovett had made it worth the while of that elderly individual to assist her; for, unless the meat gets here by some supernatural agency, I really cannot see how it can get here at all. And yet here it is, so fresh, and pure, and white-looking, although I never could tell the pork from the veal myself, for they seemed to me both alike.'
He now made a still narrower examination of this vault, but he gained nothing by that. He found that the walls at the backs of the shelves were composed of flat pieces of stone, which, no doubt, were necessary for the support of the shelves themselves; but beyond that he made no further discovery, and he was about leaving the place, when he fancied he saw some writing on the inner side of the door.
A closer inspection convinced him that there were a number of lines written with lead pencil, and after some difficulty he deciphered them as follows:
'Whatever unhappy wretch reads these lines may bid adieu to the world and all hope, for he is a doomed man! He will never emerge from these vaults with life, for there is a hideous secret connected with them so awful and so hideous, that to write it makes one's blood curdle, and the flesh to creep upon my bones. That secret is this - and you may be assured, whoever is reading these lines, that I write the truth, and that it is as impossible to make that awful truth worse by any exaggeration, as it would be by a candle at midday to attempt to add lustre to the sunbeams.
Here, most unfortunately, the writing broke off, and our friend, who, up to this point, had perused the lines with the most intense interest, felt great bitterness of disappointment, from the fact that enough should have been written to stimulate his curiosity to the highest possible point, but not enough to gratify it.
'This is, indeed, most provoking,' he exclaimed; 'what can this most dreadful secret be, which it is impossible to exaggerate? I cannot, for a moment, divine to what it can allude.'
In vain he searched over the door for some more writing - there was none to be found, and from the long straggling pencil mark which followed the last word, it seemed as if he who had been then writing had been interrupted, and possibly met the fate that he had predicted, and was about to explain the reason of.
'This is worse than no information. I had better have remained in ignorance than have so indistinct a warning; but they shall not find me an easy victim, and, besides, what power on earth can force me to make pies unless I like, I should wish to know.'
As he stepped out of the place in which the meat was kept into the large vault where the ovens were, he trod upon a piece of paper that was lying upon the ground, and which he was quite certain he had not observed before. It was fresh and white, and clean too, so that it could not have been long there, and he picked it up with some curiosity.
That curiosity was, however, soon turned to dismay when he saw what was written upon it, which was to the following effect, and well calculated to produce a considerable amount of alarm in the breast of anyone situated as he was, so entirely friendless and so entirely hopeless of any extraneous aid in those dismal vaults, which he began, with a shudder, to suspect would be his tomb:
You are getting dissatisfied, and therefore it becomes necessary to explain to you your real position, which is simply this: you are a prisoner, and were such from the first moment that you set foot where you now are; and you will find that, unless you are resolved upon sacrificing your life, your best plan will be to quietly give in to the circumstances in which you find yourself placed. Without going into any argument or details upon the subject, it is sufficient to inform you that so long as you continue to make the pies, you will be safe; but if you refuse, then the first time you are caught sleeping your throat will be cut.
This document was so much to the purpose, and really had so little of verbosity about it, that it was extremely difficult to doubt its sincerity.
It dropped from the half-paralysed hands of that man who, in the depth of his distress, and urged on by great necessity, had accepted a situation that he would have given worlds to escape from, had he been possessed of them.
'Gracious Heavens!' he exclaimed, 'and am I then indeed condemned to such a slavery? Is it possible that even in the very heart of London I am a prisoner, and without the means of resisting the most frightful threats that are uttered against me? Surely, surely, this must all be a dream! It is too terrific to be true!'
He sat down upon that low stool where his predecessor had sat before, receiving his death wound from the assassin who had glided in behind him, and dealt him that terrific crashing blow, whose only mercy was that it at once deprived the victim of existence.
He could have wept bitterly, wept as he there sat, for he thought over days long passed away, of opportunities let go by with the heedless laugh of youth; he thought over all the chances and misfortunes of his life, and now to find himself the miserable inhabitant of a cellar, condemned to a mean and troublesome employment, without even the liberty of leaving that to starve if he chose, upon pain of death - a frightful death which had been threatened him - was indeed torment!
No wonder that at times he felt himself unnerved, and that a child might have conquered him, while at other moments such a feeling of despair would come across him, that he called aloud to his enemies to make their appearance, and give him at least the chance of a struggle for his life.
'If I am to die,' he cried, 'let me die with some weapon in my hand, as a brave man ought, and I will not complain, for there is little indeed in life now which should induce me to cling to it; but I will not be murdered in the dark.'
He sprang to his feet, and running up to the door, which opened from the house into the vaults, he made a violent and desperate effort to shake it.
But such a contingency as this had surely been looked forward to and provided against, for the door was of amazing strength, and most effectually resisted all his efforts, so that the result of his endeavours was but to exhaust himself, and he staggered back, panting and despairing, to the seat he had so recently left.
Then he heard a voice, and upon looking up he saw that the small square opening in the upper part of the door, through which he had been before addressed, was open, and a face there appeared, but it was not the face of Mrs Lovett.
On the contrary, it was a large and hideous male physiognomy, and the voice that came from it was croaking and harsh, sounding most unmusically upon the ears of the unfortunate man, who was then made a victim to Mrs Lovett's pies' popularity.
'Continue at your work,' said the voice, 'or death will be your portion as soon as sleep overcomes you, and you sink exhausted to that repose which you will never awaken from, except to feel the pangs of death, and to be conscious that you are weltering in your blood.
'Continue at your work and you will escape all this - neglect it, and your doom is sealed.'
'What have I done that I should be made such a victim of? Let me go, and I will swear never to divulge the fact that I have been in these vaults, so I cannot disclose any of their secrets, even if I knew them.'
'Make pies,' said the voice, 'eat them and be happy. How many a man would envy your position - withdrawn from all the struggles of existence, amply provided with board and lodging, and engaged in a pleasant and delightful occupation. It is astonishing how you can be dissatisfied!'
Bang! went the little square orifice at the top of the door, and the voice was heard no more. The jeering mockery of those tones, however, still lingered upon the ear of the unhappy prisoner, and he clasped his head in his hands with a fearful impression upon his brain that he surely must be going mad.
'He will drive me to insanity,' he cried; 'already I feel a sort of slumber stealing over me for want of exercise, and the confined air of these vaults hinders me from taking regular repose; but now, if I close an eye, I shall expect to find the assassin's knife at my throat.'
He sat for some time longer, and not even the dread he had of sleep could prevent a drowsiness creeping over his faculties, and this weariness would not be shaken off by any ordinary means, until at length he sprang to his feet, and shaking himself roughly like one I' determined to be wide awake, he said to himself mournfully,-
'I must do their bidding or die; hope may be a delusion here, but I cannot altogether abandon it, and not until its faintest image has departed from my breast can I lie down to sleep and say - Let death come in any shape it may, it is welcome.'
With a desperate and despairing energy he set about replenishing the furnaces of the oven, and when he had got them all in a good state he commenced manufacturing a batch of one hundred pies, which, when he had finished and placed upon the tray and set the machine in motion which conducted them up to the shop, he considered to be a sort of price paid for his continued existence, and flinging himself upon the ground, he fell into a deep slumber.