The String of Pearls/Chapter 33
XXXIII Discoveries in the Vaults of St. Dunstan'sEdit
'Well, Sir Richard,' remarked the beadle of St Dunstan's to the magistrate, after the ponderous stone was raised in the centre of the church, upon which the workmen had been busy, 'don't you smell nothink now?'
The magistrate, churchwardens, and, indeed, everyone present, shrank back from the horrible stench that saluted them, now that the stone was fairly removed.
'Why, good God!' exclaimed the senior churchwarden; 'have we been sitting and hearing sermons with such a charnel-house under? I always understood that none of the vaults exactly underneath the church had been used for many years past.'
'Hush!' said the magistrate. 'The enquiry we are upon is, perhaps, a more important one than you imagine, sir.'
'More important! How can that be? Didn't the bishop smell it when he came to confirm the people, and didn't he say in the vestry that he could not confirm anybody while such a smell was in the church, and didn't we tell him that it would be a sad thing if he didn't? and then he did confirm the people in such a twinkling, that they didn't know what they were confirmed in at all.'
'Hush! my good sir, hush, and hear me. Will you, now that you have got up this great stone, and opened, as I see, the top of a stone staircase, by so doing, send away the workmen, and, indeed, all persons but yourself and me?'
'Well, but - but you don't mean us to go down, sir, do you?'
'I mean to go, you may depend. Send away the men at once, if you please. I have ample warrant for all I am about to do, I assure you. I suspect I shall be well able to free St Dunstan's church from the horrible stench that has been infesting it for some time past.'
'You think so, sir? Bless you, then, I'll do just whatever you like.'
The workmen were not sorry to be dismissed from the uncomfortable employment, but the beadle who was holding his nose, and who having overheard what Sir Richard had said, was extremely anxious upon the subject, put in his claim to stay, on the ground of being one of the officials of the church; and he was accordingly permitted to stay.
'This seems to lead to the vaults,' remarked Sir Richard, as he looked down the chasm, which the removal of the stone had left.
'Yes,' replied the churchwarden, 'it does, and they have, as I say, been unused for a long time; but how that dreadful smell can come from bodies that have been forty or fifty years there, I can't think.'
'We must be careful of the foul air,' remarked the magistrate. 'Get a torch, Mr Beadle, if you please, and we will lower it into the vault. If that lives, we can: and if you please go first to the door of the church, and take this silk handkerchief with you, and hold it up in your hand; and upon that signal, four persons will come to you. They are officers of mine, and you will bring them to me.'
'Oh, dear, yes, certainly,' said the beadle, who was quite happy at the thoughts of such a reinforcement. 'I'll do it, sir, and as for a torch, there is some famous links in the vestry cupboard, as I'll get in a minute. Well, I do think the smell is a little better already; don't you, sir? I'm a going. Don't be impatient, sir. I'm going like a shot, I am.'
To give the beadle his due, he certainly executed his orders quickly. The four officers, sure enough, obeyed the signal of the handkerchief, and in a few minutes more, a torchlight was lowered by a rope down the gloomy aperture. All watched the light with great interest as it descended; but, although it certainly burnt dimmer than before, yet it showed no signs of going out, and the magistrate said, 'We may safely descend. The air that will support flame will likewise support animal life; therefore we need be under no sort of apprehension. Follow me.'
He commenced a careful descent of the stone steps, and was promptly followed by his four men, and much more slowly by the beadle and the churchwarden, neither of whom seemed much to relish the adventure, although their curiosity prompted them to COntinue it.
The stone steps consisted of about twenty, and when the bottom was gained, it was found to be covered with flagstones of considerable size, upon which sawdust was strewn, but not sufficiently thickly to cover them in all places completely.
There was a death-like stillness in the place, and the few crumbling coffins which were in niches in the walls were, with their tenants, evidently too old to give forth that frightful odour of animal decomposition which pervaded the place.
'You will see, Sir Richard,' said the churchwarden, producing a piece of paper, 'that, according to the plans of the vault I have here, this one opens into a passage that runs halfway round the church, and from that passage opens a number of vaults, not one of which has been used for years past.'
'I see the door is open.'
'Yes, it is as you say. That's odd, Sir Richard, ain't it? Oh! gracious! - just put your head out into the passage, and won't you smell it then!'
They all tried the experiment, and found, indeed, that the smell was horrible. Sir Richard took a torch from one of the constables, and advanced into the passage. He could see nothing but the doors of some of the vaults open: he crossed the threshold of one of them, and was away about a minute; after which he came back, saying, 'I think we will all retire now: we have seen enough to convince us all about it.'
'All about it, sir!' said the churchwarden, 'what about it?'
'Exactly, that will do - follow me, my men.
The officers, without the slightest questions or remarks, followed Sir Richard, and he began rapidly, with them at his heels, to ascend the stone staircase into the church again.
'Hilloa!' cried the beadle - 'I say, stop. O lord! don't let me be lost - Oh, don't! I shall think something horrible is coming up after me, and going to lay hold of my heels: don't let me be lost! oh dear!'
'You can't be lost,' said one of the officers; 'you know if anything is going to lay hold of your heels. Take it easy; it's only a ghost at the most, you know.'
By the time the beadle got fairly into the church, he was in that state of perspiration and fright, that he was obliged to sit down upon a tomb to recover himself; and the magistrate took that opportunity of whispering to the churchwarden, 'I want to speak to you alone; come out with me - order the church to be locked up, as if we meditated no further search in the vaults.'
'Yes, oh, yes! I knew there was some secret.'
'There is a horrible one! - such a one as all London will ring with in twenty-four hours more - such a secret as will never be forgotten in connection with old St Dunstan's church, while it is in existence.'
There was a solemnity about the manner in which the magistrate spoke, which quite alarmed the churchwarden, and he turned rather pale as they stood upon the church threshold.
'Do you know one Sweeney Todd?' asked the magistrate.
'Oh, yes - a barber.'
'Good. Incline your ear to me while we walk down to Downing-street. I am going to call upon the Secretary of State for the Home Department, and before we get there, I shall be able to tell you why and what sort of assistance I want of you.'
The churchwarden did incline his ear most eagerly, but before they had got half way down the Strand, he was compelled to go into a public-house to get some brandy, such an overpowering effect had the horrible communication of the magistrate upon him. What that communication was we shall very soon discover; but it is necessary that we follow Mr Todd a little in his proceedings after he left Johanna in charge of his shop.
Todd walked briskly on, till he came nearly to Pickett-street, in the Strand, and then he went into a chemist's shop that was there, in which only a lad was serving.
'You recollect,' said Todd, 'serving me with some rat poison?'
'Oh, yes, yes - Mr Todd, I believe.'
'The same. I want some more; for the fact is, that owing to the ointments I have in my shop for the hair, the vermin are attracted, and I have now as many as ever. It was only last night I awakened, and saw one actually lapping up hair-oil, and another drinking some rose-water that they had upset, and broken a bottle of; so I will thank you to give me some liquid poison, if you please, as they seem so fond of drink.'
'Exactly, sir, exactly,' said the lad, as he took down a bottle, and made up a potion; 'exactly, sir. If you put a few drops only of this in half a pint of liquid, it will do.'
'A couple of drops? This must be powerful.'
'It is - a dozen drops, or about half a teaspoonful, would kill a man to a certainty, so you will be careful of it, Mr Todd. Of course, we don't sell such things to strangers, you know, but you being a neighbour alters the case.'
'True enough. Thank you. Good-day. I think we shall have rain shortly, do you know.'
Todd walked away with the poison in his pocket, and when he had got a few yards from the chemist's door, he gave such a hideous chuckle that an old gentleman, who was close before him, ran like a lamp-lighter in his fright, and put himself quite out of breath!
'This will do,' muttered Todd; 'I must smooth the path to my retirement from business. I know well that if I were to hint at such a thing in a certain quarter, it would be considered a certain proof that I had made enough to be worth dividing, and that is a process I don't intend exactly to go through. No, no, Mrs Lovett, no, no.'
Todd marched slowly towards his own house, but when he got to the corner of Bell-yard, and heard St Dunstan's strike twelve, he paused a moment, and then muttered, 'I'll call and see her - yes, I'll call, and see her. The evening will answer better my present purpose.
He then walked up Bell Yard, until he came to the fascinating Mrs Lovett's pie-shop. He paused a moment at the window, and leered in at two lawyer's clerks who were eating some of yesterday's pies. The warm day batch had not yet come up. 'Happy youths!' he chuckled, and walked into the shop.
Mrs Lovett received him graciously as an acquaintance, and invited him into the parlour, while the two limbs of the law continued eating and praising the pies.
'Delicious, ain't they?' said one.
'Oh, I believe you,' replied the other; 'and such jolly lots of gravy, too, ain't there? I wonder how she does make 'em. Lor' bless you, I almost live upon 'em. You know, I used to take all my meals with my fat old uncle, Marsh, but since he disappeared one day, I live on Lovett's pies, instead of the old buffer.'