The String of Pearls/Chapter 4

IV The Pie-Shop in Bell YardEdit

      Hark! Twelve o'clock at midday is cheerily proclaimed by St Dunstan's church, and scarcely have the sounds done echoing throughout the neighbourhood, and scarcely has the clock of Lincoln's-inn done chiming in with its announcement of the same hour, when Bell-yard, Temple-bar, becomes a scene of commotion. What a scampering of feet is there, what a laughing and talking, what a jostling to be first; and what an immense number of manoeuvres are resorted to by some of the throng to distance others!
      And mostly from Lincoln's-inn do these persons, young and old, but most certainly a majority of the former, come bustling and striving, although from the neighbouring legal establishments likewise there come not a few; the Temple contributes its numbers, and from the more distant Gray's-inn there come a goodly lot.
      Now Bell-yard is almost choked up, and a stranger would wonder what could be the matter, and most probably stand in some doorway until the commotion was over.
      Is it a fire? is it a fight? or anything else sufficiently alarming and extraordinary to excite the junior members of the legal profession to such a species of madness? No, it is none of these, nor is there a fat cause to be run for, which, in the hands of some clever practitioner, might become quite a vested interest. No, the enjoyment is purely one of a physical character, and all the pacing and racing - all this turmoil and trouble - all this pushing, jostling, laughing, and shouting, is to see who will get first to Lovett's pie-shop.
      Yes, on the left-hand side of Bell-yard, going down from Carey-street, was, at the time we write of, one of the most celebrated shops for the sale of veal and pork pies that London ever produced. High and low, rich and poor, resorted to it; its fame had spread far and wide; and it was because the first batch of those pies came up at twelve o'clock that there was such a rush of the legal profession to obtain them.
      Their fame had spread even to great distances, and many persons carried them to the suburbs of the city as quite a treat to friends and relations there residing. And well did they deserve their reputation, those delicious pies; there was about them a flavour never surpassed, and rarely equalled; the paste was of the most delicate construction, and impregnated with the aroma of a delicious gravy that defies description. Then the small portions of meat which they contained were so tender, and the fat and the lean so artistically mixed up, that to eat one of Lovett's pies was such a provocative to eat another, that many persons who came to lunch stayed to dine, wasting more than an hour, perhaps, of precious time, and endangering - who knows to the contrary? - the success of some lawsuit thereby.
      The counter in Lovett's pie-shop was in the shape of a horseshoe, and it was the custom of the young bloods from the Temple and Lincoln's-inn to sit in a row upon its edge while they partook of the delicious pies, and chatted gaily about one concern and another.
      Many an appointment was made at Lovett's pie-shop, and many a piece of gossiping scandal was there first circulated. The din of tongues was prodigious. The ringing laugh of the boy who looked upon the quarter of an hour he spent at Lovett's as the brightest of the whole twenty-four, mingled gaily with the more boisterous mirth of his seniors; and oh! with what rapidity the pies disappeared!
      They were brought up on large trays, each of which contained about a hundred, and from these trays they were so speedily transferred to the mouths of Mrs Lovett's customers that it looked like a work of magic.
      And now we have let out some portion of the secret. There was a Mistress Lovett; but possibly our readers guessed as much, for what but a female hand, and that female buxom, young and good-looking, could have ventured upon the production of those pies. Yes, Mrs Lovett was all that; and every enamoured young scion of the law, as he devoured his pie, pleased himself with the idea that the charming Mrs Lovett had made that pie especially for him, and that fate or predestination had placed it in his hands.
      And it was astonishing to see with what impartiality and with tact the fair pastry-cook bestowed her smiles upon her admirers, so that none could say he was neglected, while it was extremely difficult for anyone to say he was preferred.
      This was pleasant, but at the same time it was provoking to all except Mrs Lovett, in whose favour it got up a sort of excitement that paid extraordinarily well, because some of the young fellows thought, and thought it with wisdom too, that he who consumed the most pies would be in the most likely way to receive the greatest number of smiles from the lady.
      Acting upon this supposition, some of her more enthusiastic admirers went on consuming the pies until they were almost ready to burst. But there were others again, of a more philosophic turn of mind, who went for the pies only, and did not care one jot for Mrs Lovett. These declared that her smile was cold and uncomfortable - that it was upon her lips, but had no place in her heart - that it was the set smile of a ballet-dancer, which is about one of the most unmirthful things in existence.
      Then there were some who went even beyond this, and, while they admitted the excellence of the pies, and went every day to partake of them, swore that Mrs Lovett had quite a sinister aspect, and that they could see what a merely superficial affair her blandishments were, and that there was 'a lurking devil in her eye' that, if once roused, would be capable of achieving some serious things, and might not be so easily quelled again. By five minutes past twelve Mrs Lovett's counter was full, and the savoury steam of the hot pies went out in fragrant clouds into Bell-yard, being sniffed up by many a poor wretch passing by who lacked the means of making one in the throng that were devouring the dainty morsels within.
      'Why, Tobias Ragg,' said a young man, with his mouth full of pie, 'where have you been since you left Mr Snow's in Paper-buildings? I have not seen you for some days.'
      'No,' said Tobias, 'I have gone into another line: instead of being a lawyer, and helping to shave the clients, I am going to shave the lawyers now. A twopenny pork, if you please, Mrs Lovett. Ah! who would be an emperor, if he couldn't get pies like these - eh, Master Clift?'
      'Well, they are good; of course we know that, Tobias; but do you mean to say you are going to be a barber?'
      'Yes, I am with Sweeney Todd, the barber of Fleet Street, close to St Dunstan's.' 'The deuce you are! well, I am going to a party tonight, and I'll drop in and get dressed and shaved, and patronise your master.'
      Tobias put his mouth close to the ear of the young lawyer, and in a fearful sort of whisper said the one word - 'Don't.'
      'Don't? what for?'
      Tobias made no answer; and throwing down his twopence, scampered out of the shop as fast as he could. He had only been sent a message by Sweeney Todd in the neighbourhood; but, as he heard the clock strike twelve, and two penny-pieces were lying at the bottom of his pocket, it was not in human nature to resist running into Lovett's and converting them into a pork pie.
      'What an odd thing!' thought the young lawyer. 'I'll just drop in at Sweeney Todd's now on purpose, and ask Tobias what he means. I quite forgot, too, while he was here, to ask him what all that riot was about a dog at Todd's door.'
      'A veal!' said a young man, rushing in; 'a twopenny veal, Mrs Lovett.' When he got it he consumed it with voracity, and then, noticing an acquaintance in the shop, he whispered to him, 'I can't stand it any more. I have cut the spectacle-maker - Johanna is faithless, and I know not what to do.'
      'Have another pie.'
      'But what's a pie to Johanna Oakley? You know, Dilki, that I only went there to be near the charmer. Damn the shutters and curse the spectacles! She loves another and I am a desperate individual! I should like to do some horrible and desperate act. Oh, Johanna, Johanna! you have driven me to the verge of what do you call it - I'll take another veal, if you please, Mrs Lovett.'
      'Well, I was wondering how you got on,' said his friend Dilki, 'and thinking of calling upon you.
      'Oh! it was all right - it was all right at first: she smiled upon me.'
      'You are quite sure she didn't laugh at you?'
      'Sir! Mr Dilki!'
      'I say, are you sure that instead of smiling upon you she was not laughing at you?'
      'Am I sure? Do you wish to insult me, Mr Dilki? I look upon you as a puppy, sir - a horrid puppy.'
      'Very good; now I am convinced that the girl has been having a bit of fun at your expense. Are you not aware, Sam, that your nose turns up so much that it's enough to pitch you head over heels? How do you suppose that any girl under forty-five would waste a word upon you? Mind, I don't say this to offend you in any way, but just quietly, by way of asking a question.'
      Sam looked daggers, and probably he might have attempted some desperate act in the pie-shop, if at the moment he had not caught the eye of Mrs Lovett, and he saw by the expression on that lady's face that anything in the shape of a riot would be speedily suppressed, so he darted out of the place at once to carry his sorrows and his bitterness elsewhere.
      It was only between twelve and one o'clock that such a tremendous rush and influx of visitors came to the pie-shop, for, although there was a good custom the whole day, and the concern was a money-making one from morning till night, it was at that hour principally that the great consumption of pies took place.
      Tobias knew from experience that Sweeney Todd was a skilful calculator of the time it ought to take to go to different places, and accordingly, since he had occupied some portion of that most valuable of all commodities at Mrs Lovett's, he arrived quite breathless at his master's shop.
      There sat the mysterious dog with the hat, and Tobias lingered for a moment to speak to the animal. Dogs are great physiognomists; and as the creature looked into Tobias's face he seemed to draw a favourable conclusion regarding him, for he submitted to a caress.
      'Poor fellow!' said Tobias. 'I wish I knew what had become of your master, but it made me shake like a leaf to wake up last night and ask myself the question. You shan't starve, though, if I can help it. I haven't much for myself, but you shall have some of it.'
      As he spoke, Tobias took from his pocket some not very tempting cold meat, which was intended for his own dinner, and which he had wrapped up in not the cleanest of cloths. He gave a piece to the dog, who took it with a dejected air, and then crouched down at Sweeney Todd's door again.
      Just then, as Tobias was about to enter the shop, he thought he heard from within a strange shrieking sort of sound. On the impulse of the moment he recoiled a step or two, and then, from some other impulse, he dashed forward at once, and entered the shop.
      The first object that presented itself to his attention, lying upon a side table, was a hat with a handsome gold-headed walking-cane lying across it.
      The armchair in which customers usually sat to be shaved, was vacant, and Sweeney Todd's face was just projected into the shop from the back parlour, and wearing a most singular and hideous expression.
      'Well, Tobias,' he said, as he advanced, rubbing his great hands together, 'well, Tobias! so you could not resist the pie-shop?'
      'How does he know?' thought Tobias. 'Yes, sir, I have been to the pie-shop, but I didn't stay a minute.'
      'Hark ye, Tobias! the only thing I can excuse in the way of delay upon an errand is for you to get one of Mrs Lovett's pies: that I can look over, so think no more about it. Are they not delicious, Tobias?'
      'Yes, sir, they are; but some gentleman seems to have left his hat and stick.'
      'Yes,' said Sweeney Todd, 'he has'; and lifting the stick he struck Tobias a blow with it that felled him to the ground. 'Lesson the second to Tobias Ragg, which teaches him to make no remarks about what does not concern him. You may think what you like, Tobias Ragg, but you shall say only what I like.'
      'I won't endure it,' cried the boy; 'I won't be knocked about in this way, I tell you, Sweeney Todd, I won't.'
      'You won't! have you forgotten your mother?'
      'You say you have a power over my mother; but I don't know what it is, and I cannot and will not believe it; I'll leave you, and, come of it what may, I'll go to sea or anywhere rather than stay in such a place as this.'
      'Oh, you will, will you? then, Tobias, you and I must come to some explanation. I'll tell you what power I have over your mother, and then perhaps you will be satisfied. Last winter, when the frost had continued eighteen weeks, and you and your mother were starving, she was employed to clean out the chambers of a Mr King, in the Temple, a cold-hearted, severe man, who never forgave anything in all his life and never will.'
      'I remember,' said Tobias: 'we were starving and owed a whole guinea for rent; but mother borrowed it and paid it, and after that got a situation where she now is.'
      'Ah, you think so. The rent was paid; but, Tobias, my boy, a word in your ear - she took a silver candlestick from Mr King's chambers to pay it. I know it. I can prove it. Think of that, Tobias, and be discreet.'
      'Have mercy upon us,' said the boy: 'they would take her life!'
      'Her life!' screamed Sweeney Todd; 'ay, to be sure they would: they would hang her - hang her, I say; and now mind, if you force me, by any conduct of your own, to mention this thing, you are your mother's executioner. I had better go and be deputy hangman at once, and turn her off.'
      'Horrible! horrible!'
      'Oh, you don't like that? indeed, that don't suit you, Master Tobias? Be discreet then, and you have nothing to fear. Do not force me to show a power which will be as complete as it is terrible.'
      'I will say nothing - I will think nothing.'
      'Tis well; now go and put that hat and stick in yonder cupboard. I shall be absent for a short time; and if anyone comes, tell them I am called out, and shall not return for an hour or perhaps longer, and mind you take good care of the shop.'
      Sweeney Todd took off his apron, and put on an immense coat with huge lapels, and then, clapping a three-cornered hat on his head, and casting a strange withering kind of look at Tobias, he sallied forth into the street.